Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Affinity Trap by Martin Sketchley

One
A Satyr's Berceuse

The cold air was sharp in Delgado’s lungs as he walked up the slope, his hard, bony face passing through clouds of breath. The previous night’s frost had turned footprints formed in the mud the day before to small, hard-ridged craters. He looked towards a tree to his left; coated in a thin layer of ice by freezing rain, its branches creaked like leather in the breeze.

As he continued to climb, a black and white spaniel scampered past him. The animal looked at Delgado and chewed on the moss-covered stick it had discovered in the depths of a hedge. Delgado considered calling the dog, but knew there was little point: it would not allow him to take the stick, and if he did somehow manage to get hold of it, the animal would refuse to fetch it once thrown. Maybe it was time for a change. A retriever, perhaps. Or a collie. Something less independent, at any rate. He would check the options list next time.

Delgado reached the top of the slope and paused, looking across the fields of frosted grass in the valley before him. The sky was filled with grim cloud, fat plumes and extrusions at different altitudes. A band of early morning sunlight pene­trating a cleft in the cloud to the east gave some of the lowest layers a brilliant golden luminescence, while that at higher altitudes remained dark and foreboding, colours ranging from ash to slate. On a hill in the distance a church spire and a water tower were prominent geometric shapes that contrasted starkly with the chaos of the pregnant sky.

Alexander Delgado enjoyed such solitude, experiencing a time even he was too young to remember, when limitless open space and fresh air could be enjoyed by all; now, despite the scale of the gigantic habitat towers that spanned the North American and European continents, within which the the majority of Earth’s population enjoyed a pseudo-Utopian existence, the sense of genuine freedom gained from standing alone on a windswept plain, or feeling a desert’s heat, were enjoyed by few. More than that, for Delgado such environ­ments allowed him to escape from the difficulties of his life, however briefly.

But standing on the ridge also awakened ingrained combat instincts. He felt a strong urge to seek cover from the non-existent sniper, coupled with dizziness and disorientation as remnants of long-defunct nobics—the nano-organic boost in cerebrovascular capacity he had so often received for opera­tional purposes—responded to his reaction and sought synaptic bridges no longer present.

The abrupt sense of displacement passed after a few moments, but unsettled him nonetheless. In a hostile environ­ment nobics could be invaluable, enhancing physical capabilities, increasing perception, enabling a certain level of telepathic ability and providing many other useful functions, but they could never be completely removed from the human body, and the residue made it impossible to forget why they had been put there in the first place.

Not that Delgado would want to forget.

He had been with Stealth when he had received his first batch of nobics, his career at its peak; he was respected, valued. It was a time that preceded General Smythe’s downfall in the bloody coup that had led to the rise of General William Myson, powered by the huge wealth acquired by his family through selling technology to developing worlds. That Myson’s great grandfather had funded the building of the first habitat tower—Salvation—in the Nevada Desert was hardly a handicap: the in­credible edifice represented an affirmation of human achievement, and offered a chance to escape the pollution, social decay and violence faced outside; those who questioned whether this was possible were ignored by a global population dazzled by the promise of apparent nirvana.

After that, investment in research, exploration and trade had given way to whatever increased Myson’s personal wealth. And as this increased so did his power, with his position at the head of the military enabling him to manipulate political players through bribery and graft. Within a few years Earth’s unofficial role as interplanetary arbitrator had shifted to that of galactic bully and thief.

It was a change adopted eagerly by those who were greedy, or hungry for power. Their motives were understandable: Myson re­warded success well, and encouraged those within Structure’s increasingly complex bureaucracy to take advan­tage of any potentially lucrative opportunity. But he was also merciless with those who betrayed him, and even those who demonstrated passive resistance were sidelined, ridiculed or both.

As a result of his own quiet disapproval, Delgado had endured difficult times, assignments for which he would previously have been the obvious choice instead given to younger officers who toed the Myson line. He eventually found himself bored, ignored, spending most of his time on leave, taking courses to learn skills he would never need, or escaping, alone, into surroundings such as this.

So much for rewarding loyalty.

He became aware of the spaniel approaching to his right, but pretended not to notice. The dog moved nearer, becoming increasingly daring. When it seemed close enough, Delgado lunged for the stick—but the animal was too quick and scampered away, joyful in its achievement. Delgado sighed heavily: even a small dog could outwit him these days, it seemed.

He stood upright again and looked back towards the settlement in the distance. He frowned and shielded his eyes with his right hand, as if adopting some lax salute: a dark cigar-shaped object was travelling at high speed from east to west just below the lowest cloud, a thin line of vapour trailing behind it. When the dark object was directly in front of him it stopped abruptly. After a momentary pause it began to increase in size, elongating across the sky. The ice-coated branches stopped creaking as the breeze suddenly ceased; Delgado’s breath no longer condensed in front of his face, despite the cold. The spaniel was frozen, erect and alert, one paw off the ground, stick hanging in mid-air between its upper and lower jaws, its tail flickering like a faulty neon sign.

Delgado muttered profanities. He had specifically stated that under no circumstances was he to be disturbed. Lost leisure time would not be credited back to him, he knew that much.

The dark shape expanded until eventually he was standing in a black void—fields, frost, dog all gone. There was a slight pressure in his ears, as if a vacuum had momentarily existed, then Delgado experienced a sudden falling sensation as a new manifestation formed.

He found himself standing a few metres away from a reception desk. There was a smell of disinfectant. The ambient temperature was not high, but it was considerably warmer than his previous environment; his heavy coat had been replaced with a tunic and trousers. Feeling heat on the back of his stubbled head, Delgado looked upward, seeking its source. Broad bands of sunlight cut through the glass-panelled ceiling high above to form oblique patches of light on the marble floor beneath his feet.

Looking to his left he saw people walking across a spacious atrium, the roof above them supported by fluted stone columns. The people themselves were distant, indistinct, but their voices were bright and clear. The sound of their footfalls on the hard floor was like muted, unenthusiastic applause.

Delgado looked back to the reception desk. Behind it sat a woman whose shining black hair was set in tight coils; she was looking down at something Delgado was unable to see. He walked forward, rested his elbows on the desk, and looked down; she was studying an advertisement playing in a magazine of a girl applying eye makeup in a colourful, repeti­tive loop.

The woman looked up. She was young—only twenty-five or thirty—with skin as pale as milk. Her irises were set with brilliant glowing studs; colourful lipwires decorated the edges of her mouth like tiny glowing spines. Delgado could smell the bubble gum she chewed quite distinctly.

The lipwires sparked bright green as the woman cocked her head to one side and smiled. “Hello, sir,” she said in a warm, sensual voice that didn’t suit her. “My name’s Cindy. I’m sorry your escapist experience had to be interrupted, but you’ve received an urgent message.” She blew a bubble that popped to form a pink membrane across her chin; she pulled it back into her mouth with a swift lick. “Haven’t you got lovely blue eyes,” she said.

Delgado was unable to decide whether Cindy was real or not, whether returning her flirtation was worth the effort. “I asked not to be disturbed,” he said. It seemed impor­tant to mention this, even though Cindy’s manner and appearance had largely diffused his anger. Besides, no one was interested in anything he had to say these days.

Cindy adopted an expression that was simultaneously apologetic and sympathetic. “I really do apologise, sir,” she said, “but I’m afraid your privacy request was overridden.”

Yeah, that’d be about right. “So who’s the message from?”

She glanced at a small screen. “A Commander Osephius, interfacing via ppd frontdesk.”

“Oh, great,” mumbled Delgado, looking towards the atrium. “Public Protection Department on my back. Hassle from Myson’s henchmen—that’s all I need.”

“I’m sorry, sir? I didn’t quite catch that.” Cindy’s lipwires shimmered red; a slender finger coiled a ringlet of hair.

Delgado stood more upright: this could be being recorded, and there were those who wouldn’t hesitate to use anything they could get hold of to discredit him further. “I said that’s wonderful, thank you so much.” He smiled broadly; she didn’t get it.

“Are you ready to connect then, sir?” Her smile shifted to yellow as she batted long eyelashes.

“No, not really.”

“Very good, sir. Transferring you now.” Cindy’s eyes turned to vivid turquoise, her lips to shining copper. Again Delgado felt nausea and vertigo as she, her desk and the atrium all vanished.

He was standing outside the door to the suite occupied by Earth’s Commander Supreme, General William Myson. A Hostility Class cyborg stood either side of the door, towering over him. They stared stolidly ahead, mute sentinels skinned in graphite-grey atomex armour, bristling with advanced weaponry.

A half dozen or so vee-cams flitted around the corridor, continuously recording the lack of activity and assessing potential threats that would not arise within the sim; the faint sound of their tiny lift fans was like the buzz of insects’ wings. Occasionally one would fly close to Delgado, unfurl a long black proboscis from its snout and drag its tip across an area of exposed skin to check his DNA against the sample in the biocomputer. Each time the vee-cams would buzz quickly away, only to return to repeat the process a few moments later as the details of the manifestation cycled.

“Delgado.”

Delgado turned. Osephius’s manifestation had appeared behind him. He was as tall as Delgado but with a youthful slimness the older man’s regular InterCell makeovers were unable to maintain. His eyes were narrow, his nose long and sharp, his teeth uneven and discoloured.

“Osephius,” replied Delgado frostily. “It’s been a long time.”

Osephius didn’t smile. “I guess one of us has been lucky.”

Delgado let that ride. “Why am I here?”

“Your services are required.”

Delgado adopted a look of surprise. “What—an aging has-been like me? You sure you’ve got this right?”

Osephius sighed heavily and looked down. “You’re a sad case, Delgado. There was once a time when I wanted to be you—can you believe that? When you were in Stealth—one of the elite. But then, I was just a boy. Easily impressed.” Osephius shook his head. “Not any more.”

Delgado focused on the hovering vee-cams. “Just tell me what this is all about, OK?” he said quietly. “This is using paid-for leisure time.”

Osephius chuckled. “Yeah, it’s kind of how I knew where to find you. I’ve heard you spend more time in manifestations than in the real world these days. Certainly more time than you ever spent in briefings. What’s the matter? Can’t face the truth?”

Delgado fixed Osephius with a hard gaze. “If this is some sort of joke, then—”

Osephius held up a hand. “All right, calm down. Myson’s got a mission. And he wants you to do it.” Delgado uncon­sciously stood a little more upright. “He says he needs someone with experience and skill. Youth is apparently less important. Between you and me, he thinks you’re good, but expendable.”

Delgado shrugged. “So what’s the job? Save the world and get the girl?”

Osephius blinked and seemed momentarily unsettled. “You’re familiar with the situation with the Sinz and Seriatt, right?” he continued.

“Not really. I don’t mix in the same circles as you, Osephius. Not these days. They tell me I’m too old, spend too much time in manifestations.”

Osephius snorted but didn’t smile. “Yeah. OK. Well, basically we’ve managed to persuade some influential Seriatts that it would be wise for them to form a link with Earth, to ease the growing tensions. You’re aware of those, I hope?” Delgado pulled a face. “Well, that’s something anyway. As it’s got to be a strong political link, it’s felt that the best way to do this would be for Myson to father a child by the conosq dis fer’n’at, the assigned bearer to the Seriattic Royal Household. The conosq’s name is Vourniass Lycern.”

Osephius paused, and looked at Delgado like a doctor trying to decide whether a patient is capable of caring for himself.

“So,” he continued eventually, “Myson went to Seriatt, did what he had to do, and returned to Earth with an assurance that Lycern would follow as soon as it was safe—child well on the way and all that. Lycern, however, seems to have decided that she doesn’t share her counterparts’ enthusiasm for the idea, and has absconded. Now diplomacy’s failing, and the Seriatts are becoming increasingly irritated. So’s Myson. It’s all reaching critical mass.”

“There’s a chance of war?”

Osephius wrinkled his nose. “Maybe. Who knows?”

“I knew things were tense, but—”

“Always have been, always will be. But if something’s not done to sort this mess out soon, something big could kick off.”

“So Myson wants me to fetch the Seriatt, right?”

Osephius seemed to brighten. “By Christ, Delgado, I think there might be hope for you yet!”

Delgado’s mind was already racing. “Where’s the conosq now?”

“Enlightenment tracked her ship to Veshc, to the Affinity Group. Our understanding is that the Seriatts remain unaware of her location—so far. But we suspect that those Seriatts who were initially keen on all this are having second thoughts. Myson wants you to go and get her so things can be firmed up at this end before they discover her whereabouts and pull her—and the deal—themselves. Time’s a factor now. Think you can do it?”

“Of course I can do it.”

Osephius nodded slowly and looked Delgado up and down. “I voiced concerns when your name was proposed, Delgado, I’ll tell you that much. I’m not sure you can hack it any more. But for some reason Myson liked the idea of using you. Like I said: good but expendable. Me? I still reckon he needs someone younger.”

“I do have some experience of Seriatts, Osephius. Well, mourst at least. From the Buhatt Rebellion.”

“Ah, yes, of course. That was before I was born.” Osephius smiled thinly for a moment. “You’re right, that may be it,” he said with a shrug, glancing absently around him, “but not everyone with your level of experience is tied up or too far away to do this. There are those who would jump at the chance, as well.” He looked directly at Delgado again. “Still, I guess it’s Myson’s choice. He’s waiting to see you now.” Osephius indicated the door. “You ready?”

Delgado stood erect and brushed invisible specks of something from the front of his tunic. “I’m always ready.”

Osephius laughed again, and shook his head as he approached the retscan panel next to the door. He stated his name clearly. There was a click and a faint grinding sound, and both men stood to attention as the thick door began to slide slowly open.

The room beyond contained silhouettes and ghosts. Vortices danced from huge fans in the ceiling, coiling away to shadowy corners. Dark pillars of thinly veined marble dissected the room into wide portions. At the far end was a huge, domed window overlooking the brittle skyline of the decaying city—a stark contrast to the protective sheer black sides of the towering habitats.

Bright light flooded through the window, turning the scene within the room to monochrome. Bleached by the brilliance, a group of nymphs were playing a game of some kind in the window. They were always naked, always prepared, their bodies genetically engineered by the finest biotechs to meet Myson’s own perverse specifications, their appearance sus­tained by the latest nanotech evolutions. Bony, skeletal creatures wrapped in almost transparent flesh, they were like prepubescent children, burgeoning sexuality and innocent purity combined. Yet despite the truth and depravity of their existences, their huge absorbing eyes were full of love for the universe, and all it contained.

Beyond the window, on a platform extending from the side of the chamber, sat an expensive luxury flier. More cyborgs stood motionless around the sides of the room, partially obscured by the shadows cast by the pillars.

And at the centre of the room, a broad silhouette, sat General William Myson.

The door closed behind Delgado and Osephius as they approached. When they were a few metres from Myson, both men dropped to their right knee and bowed.

“Sire,” they said in unison.

“Come. Stand before me.” Myson hissed the words, as if he could manage nothing more than the exhalation of air.

They stood. Delgado hoped his shock at Myson’s appear­ance was not obvious. The Commander Supreme’s bulbous eyes were bloodshot, his skin pallid; he was sweating profusely and there was a certain vacancy to his expression, as if his eyes were unfocused. Delgado could just make out the dark, flea-like specks of robots swarming all over his body, cleaning him, unblocking pores, fighting the yeast infections that were so rife within his sweaty folds. There was something else about him, too. Delgado struggled to define it clearly, but it seemed related to grief.

“Thank you for coming, Commander Delgado,” said Myson slowly. Delgado blinked. Myson dabbed at his moist upper lip with a handkerchief; it seemed a considerable effort. “We have a slight problem,” the General continued. He paused, his eyes watering as he coughed again in a series of wheezing gasps. He looked at Delgado and Osephius for the first time, glancing between the two men. “I trust Commander Osephius has explained the situation to you?”

“He has, sire.”

“I have also prepared an infocram file to provide Commander Delgado with more in-depth briefing data, sire,” Osephius interjected. “He will have time to review this before he leaves.”

“Excellent, excellent. So, Delgado—can you do what I require? Can you bring this cursed Seriatt to me?” His skin seemed to redden as he spoke.

“Of course, sire.” For some reason Delgado felt a compulsion to look at Osephius, but resisted.

“Good, good.” Myson began coughing again. He raised an index finger in anticipation of his recovery. “It is imperative that she is not harmed in any way, Delgado,” he croaked eventually. “Do you understand me?”

“I do, sire. I hope to prove myself still worthy of being in your charge.” He bowed slightly, unsure why he was making such a statement: if he had heard such obsequiousness from anyone else he would have spat in disgust.

“Wonderful. I do appreciate that you have found the changes Planetary Guidance has seen since the departure of General Smythe difficult to bear, but perhaps this presents you with an opportunity to begin afresh.” Myson paused as if waiting for a response; none was forthcoming. “Well, then. Go now.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Too much time has already been wasted. A vessel has been arranged for your use, I believe. A shuttle?” He looked at Osephius, who nodded.

“It is less likely to attract attention, sire,” the Commander explained. “I have arranged for a competent pilot to drop Delgado’s craft from a larger vessel in high Veshc orbit, then return to pick him up when his objective has been achieved.”

“Very well. By the way, Osephius, what is the situation with the imps being produced for Dassilos? Our, shall we say, investment is performing badly.”

“My contact in Inventory informs me that the three squads you have specified will be ready by the agreed time, sire.”

“Excellent, excellent.” Myson nodded slowly and returned his gaze to Delgado, who felt that more would have been said, had he not been present. “Delgado,” said Myson eventually, “gather whatever effects you need and report to landing platform fourteen-west. Before you leave, Commander Osephius will ensure that you are imbued with the latest nobic evolution. I understand it remains experimental and occasion­ally temperamental, but its abilities may prove valuable. Go now. I am relying on you. Indeed, Earth is relying on you, Delgado.”

“Yes, sire.” As Delgado saluted crisply and turned to leave he caught a glimpse of Osephius’s face; the younger man’s expression was slightly unsettling.

The audience with Myson over, Delgado was dropped unceremoniously from the sim back into his quarters. The room was quiet, much cooler and darker than when he had entered the manifestation. The displacement chair supporting his arms and legs was now cold and unresponsive, no more than the sum of its components: it seemed his leisure time had either expired or simply been terminated.

He stood, tore the visuals visor from his face and walked across to the phone. He passed his right index finger through one of the holographic icons to update the display. Unusually, he had a message: although blank, it carried the infocram file from Osephius.

Mostly sourced from Enlightenment archives, the index indicated that the cram covered the basics of Seriattic culture, physiology, some recent history and miscellaneous other information. There were chapters dedicated to the three Seriattic sexes—conosq, vilume and mourst—but apparently an image of Lycern was not available. Typical.

Delgado looked at the details and curled his lip: a cram—particularly a hastily prepared one—was just the kind of bullshit that would screw around with the nobics when they were loaded. Osephius knew that. And none of the information was less than a decade old. Infocrap would be a more accurate description.

Delgado sighed, walked across to the window and slouched against the frame; outside, gusts of wind blew drops of rain that left greasy smears on the glass and swirled layers of grim, polluted cloud. It was chaotic, corrupt, nothing like the natural tranquillity of the winter landscape in which he had chosen to take his virtual walk. The vast, glossy black exteriors of Soliloquy and Zeitgeist habitats, and the curving transport tracks linking them, made brief appearances as gaps appeared in the cloud; but they existed only momentarily before being smothered again.

He glanced down towards the ground so far below, but the ruins of the city, now populated only by criminals expelled from the habitats or the descendants of those who, for whatever reason, were not fortunate enough to get inside at all, were completely obscured from view. He looked up again and refocused on the face reflected in the window; it bore a resemblance to someone he had once known, but with whom he had not made contact for many years. He was no longer certain he knew that person.

What he did know was that Osephius hadn’t told him the whole story. Maybe he was unaware of what Delgado already knew, but it was rumoured among the military’s higher ranks that as well as the dated hardware units and aging war vessels officially recorded, Myson was also selling advanced nobic technologies and research data to the Sinz for personal gain. Sinz ships slipped through the M-4 wormhole using whatever magic it was that enabled them to do so, then, deal done, they went back to wherever it was they came from.

The possibility that the additional technology could at some point compromise Earth’s security did not seem to concern Myson: his personal coffers were swollen by the additional trade. Inventory achieved its targets and official profits as reported to the auditors were great. Everyone was happy.

But the wormhole was only a few light-days from Seriatt, and Structure activity so nearby would be making them nervous. Reports from Enlightenment that the Seriatts were preparing to initiate stop-and-search incursions on any vessel entering a yet-to-be-defined exclusion zone around the wormhole now made sense. If tensions escalated into interplanetary conflict, billions could die, the fighting almost certain to spill over into neighbouring systems. This conosq—Lycern—was key to Myson’s plans. Where Dassilos fitted in he had no idea.

All in all, it stank. It stank like Osephius’s breath.

Delgado stood upright again. So, Myson thought they could start afresh, did he? Well, Alexander Delgado had always been one to rise to a challenge. Maybe he could give the Commander Supreme more than he expected, even more than the glittering prize he so desperately sought—show his younger counterparts a thing or two. Maybe he could return his own name to the status of notoriety it had once held. And given the right circumstances and a little luck, maybe he could even bring about a level of change that had, until now, seemed impossible.

Delgado turned abruptly and walked over to the phone. He activated another of the icons. “Hello? Yes. This is Commander Delgado. I’d like a courier to take me to landing platform fourteen-west. Right away.”

As he disconnected he considered that he might even download a copy of Osephius’s infocram to the nobics when they were installed. Just in case.

Two
Courting the Maenad

The engines failed just after the shuttle entered the atmos­phere, their bassy offbeat pulse replaced by the cool sound of rushing air. Delgado cursed Osephius as he opened diagnostic visuals. The information hung in his brain, an opaque sheet rippling gently. The results of the analysis were puzzling. There was no overspill, no ftm waste, nothing; it was as if the turbines had not functioned properly at all. His fierce blue eyes raged. He thought the diagnostics to secondary-peripheral and opened the main core page.

Warning and general status pages overlapped, updated, closed. The nobics made decisions on information priority, then optimised the map overlay in a stream of fluttering colour and shape until only the most essential sheets remained. The entire sequence was processed almost too quickly, and some promising pages were gone before he had time to assess their potential.

Delgado absorbed and compared as a succession of related secondary-peripheral overlays strobed across one another. Raw information surged into him, but it was of little use. He linked directly with the core subsystems, expecting this to make more options available, but no combination of routing sequences or override protocols would bring the power units back on line. In a final effort, Delgado allowed his nobic stream to connect with the shuttle’s core: it risked a surge, but he calculated that direct interface between mutually empa­thetic systems might prove more successful than the clumsy probings of a frustrated human. Besides, he always enjoyed a gamble.

Data packets exploded in his head as the shuttle’s core opened its heart to the nobics within him, releasing a prickling rash of new information. Analysis suggested that the turbines had simply died; the core could offer no explanation why and was unable to access information relating to the systems affected as they were isolated from the primary interface. All it could reveal with certainty was that a catastrophic failure of Broughton-Shelley ether displacement units one thru four had occurred. It apologised wholeheartedly for the lack of useful information, and was sorry it could do nothing more to help.

Delgado swore: it seemed that he was aboard a suicidal dinosaur and would just have to deal with it. The wisdom of using an old craft now looked singularly questionable. It was less likely to attract attention, true, but for some reason Delgado had assumed that he was to use a new craft made to look like an old one and given a new universal id code, not a genuinely old vessel. So much for assumptions.

As it was, instead of a ship whose performance gave him confidence, he was aboard a vessel with technologically dated processes, and a management system that was little use at the best of times. It was not even designed for humans, but the slight Courlow, and with the Courlow an average of one point five metres tall and Delgado a good two metres give or take a centimetre, his frame was compressed uncomfortably into the small cockpit. The lower edge of the panel immediately in front of him pressed hard against his shins; his head smashed against the panel above when the craft hit turbulence; his elbows dug into his ribs due to the narrowness of the seat and the proximity of the hull to the left and the central console to the right. Delgado looked forward to discussing the situation with Osephius upon his return to Earth.

He was unable to spend long considering his misfortune, however; for it soon became clear that the data management software was also corrupt. An increasing number of inactive or updated visuals clusters remained in view long after they should have faded, obscuring necessary information, blocking routes to other layers. With his visuals map increasingly chaotic, control-cycling eventually became impossible. He tore the shuttle’s integrated visuals strip from his face and tried to maintain a remote link directly through the nobics, but information transfer was erratic and slow. After a few seconds he gave up, disabled the ai core, and went to manual, cold-piloting the vessel through the seat of his pants. His only artificial aid was the scant information his own nobics could feed him, and he wasn’t sure he could rely on those.

The shuttle seemed determined to drop its nose and increase the speed of his entry into oblivion with every passing moment. As the atmosphere thickened and the curvature of the planet decreased, he estimated that although the craft was moving at high speed he might just survive if he could generate some drag and slow the vehicle down a little. The lights of the Affinity installation were visible past the tip of the huge delta wing to his right, the forest where the target was reportedly located a rough texture between the structure and the coast. If he was really careful he just might be able to make a relatively soft landing, repair the craft, complete his primary mission objectives and make the rendezvous with Beech in the slipspacer that had dropped him. It was a long shot, but he had learned long ago that positive thinking was important in times of adversity. Besides, what else was he going to do?

He extended flaps and landing skids, then dared a cautious turn.

He winced as the right wing became absurdly heavy and the shuttle banked far more than he had intended. The increased level of drag slowed the craft dramatically, and it lost so much altitude in a few brief moments that the horizon rose almost level with his line of sight. A multitude of visuals flashed through his brain as the vessel slipped sideways through the air. His seat seemed to rattle in its mountings. He heard a distant bang somewhere behind him.

Despite his low speed he managed to stabilise the craft, but distance was suddenly much more difficult to judge. With the shuttle’s antiquated core interface making control of the vehicle almost impossible, he knew his flying time was limited. Turbulence buffeted the craft, and it dropped suddenly; Delgado swore aloud as the top of his head hit the panel above him. He made a mental note: next time bring crash helmet.

Through the viewport immediately to his left he saw the forest speeding beneath him. The area immediately below the craft was bathed in orange light from its glowing underside, a shimmering swathe of flaming trees; he was too low, moving too fast. With automated and fly-by-wire systems all but useless, it took all his effort to keep the craft nose-high. An alarm began to shriek; he silenced it deftly. But the huge mental effort required to plough through the mass of data in his visuals maps was largely wasted, and a few moments later he heard a faint rushing sound as the vessel began to brush treetops. The nose dipped sharply. There were a few seconds of raging noise and vibration. Then all was silent.

The pale moonlight cast long shadows. Delgado leaned against a large boulder and dabbed absent-mindedly at his bleeding nose. He contemplated the wreckage, then looked back along the line of broken trees through which the shuttle had ploughed. Several were still on fire; the rest smouldered, an angry, throbbing wound in the forest. It had been a short but eventful trip. One he would remember for a long time to come, if given the opportunity.

He looked at the shuttle again. The craft lay with its back virtually broken, nose half buried in the ground, tail in the air. It was like a creature on heat, waiting to be serviced. The vessel was obviously irreparable: even if the engines could somehow be coaxed into life it was structurally unsound. This made the success of his mission uncertain to say the least. Failure of almost any system other than the engines would have enabled him to abort and return later, or make a softer landing and consider other options. But luck of that nature was not for Alexander Delgado. Hadn’t been for as long as he could remember.

Delgado closed his eyes and allowed his thoughtstream to flow freely, reassessing the mission directive and some of the briefing information in the nobics. The basic objectives were simple enough: find the Seriattic conosq named Vourniass Lycern and get her back to Myson with all speed. And, despite his unfortunate circumstances, this remained achievable. OK, so it might be a challenge, but he had to prove Osephius wrong. Some things were a matter of pride. So, that was it: he would try to complete his mission objectives regardless. In other circumstances, he might have found the irony of the whole situation darkly amusing.

He had been attempting to land the shuttle within three kilometres of the Affinity installation, so he knew he was already close to the target. However, while getting to the Seriatt was one thing, getting her off Veshc and to the rendezvous without the shuttle was quite another. Beech would not make any attempt to contact him because her orders were to wait on the far side of the Doghin system to avoid possible confrontation with the Affinity Group, the Sinz, the Seriatts themselves, or—given that Delgado was involved—all three at once. And with the shuttle powerless Delgado could not use its systems to contact her. If it had been any other system . . . but no. She would simply wait for the allotted period, then depart assuming him dead, ably managing to contain her grief for the duration of the journey, no doubt.

Delgado realised that his nose had stopped bleeding. He blew clots from his nostrils that made dark spots on the ground and looked at the wreckage of the shuttle for a moment longer. At the back of his mind he harboured a suspicion that his situation was not entirely accidental. Perhaps the whole mission was a sham. Or perhaps he was just ­paranoid. He wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter. He spat a glob of blood from his mouth and thought of Osephius, Myson and all their kind. Fuck them. Fuck the lot of them. He’d show them what he was capable of.

Delgado stood, checked his bearings, refreshed the geographic and Affinity Group data, then merged silently with the trees. If anyone had seen the shuttle come down, his time would be short indeed.

The trunks creaked gently as the trees flexed in the wind. They were tall and slender but quite closely packed, devoid of foliage until the very top, where thin circular leaves around a metre in diameter spread like organic parasols, filtering the early morning light. Large black birds circled just above the canopy crying loudly to each other; it was as if they predicted Delgado’s imminent demise among the bracken and the dead wood and were arguing about which of them was entitled to first sitting at his toothsome carcass.

He headed west to climb the hill that lay in that direction: if his calculations were correct it would provide a natural vantage point from which to meet the target. What he would do then he remained unsure: with the original smash-and-grab option no longer viable, finding and positively identifying the Seriatt was his primary objective for now. He would then have to play things by ear.

When he reached the top of the hill the ground dropped steeply away, the canopy of leaves spreading before him like a rich green sea. The installation emerged from it like a sinister island, a dark haven for the mysterious religious cult known as the Affinity Group. Delgado pulled the enhanced visuals strip from one of his tunic pockets and flattened it across his eyes; his nobics immediately linked into the strip’s core and flicked rapidly through display modes, activating stat visuals and passing processed information directly into his mind.

The home of the Affinity Group was a huge collection of architecturally disparate and contradictory buildings. It looked like the remains of a city from a technological dark-age growing organically across the rambling sprawl of a decaying but once glorious empire. Oddly shaped buildings of industrial heritage stood next to palaces with large baroque balconies, ornate spires and elegant crystal towers, many of which were linked by an intricate aerial web of narrow, curving walkways, wide causeways and threadlike monotracks. Thick, dark stains rose diagonally from clusters of great brick chimneys, and an assortment of transports darted from tower to platform to courtyard like parasitic insects searching for food in the mouth of a giant host. The sinister installation stretched almost to the glistering dark green sheet of the ocean, surrounded by a thick, armoured wall.

From the wall itself rose many brittle wooden towers, supporting small guard huts; Delgado could clearly see the people within them as they paced and smoked, chatting and joking with each other. They paid little attention to the weapons they were meant to be manning; the Affinity’s strength and reputation obviously bred complacency within. A clutch of tiny visuals appeared in his mind providing in­for­m­ation ranging from weapons type to the composition and effectiveness of the guards’ personal armour; neither was particularly impressive.

His consciousness suddenly expanded as his nobics linked to an unknown source. A moment later a voice cut through the quiet of the forest. It was faint, but quite close; a nonhuman male, fairly young yet confident. He was speaking in the warm, mellifluous Counian language.

Hiding behind a tree at the edge of the clearing, Delgado looked down the slope. A group of people riding bipedal creatures with short, curled horns, brown fur and wide, flat feet were climbing the incline towards him. The riders wore plain, thick cloth garments and elaborate face masks. The masks were decorated with wavy lines in red, white and gold, backed by a matte silver rectangle: the colourful banner of The Ultimate Union. This military pact was formed by three long-dead civilisations for the purposes of mutual protection, one of them had been based on Veshc, and its governmental palace now formed part of the Affinity Group installation. Basic weapons of a type indistinguishable even to his nobics were slung over the riders’ shoulders. They wore little or no armour. Nobics and visuals conferred, and a moment later Delgado knew physical details about all those he could see: two strong males he would have to be wary of, and the Seriatt, who seemed to be at the centre of the group. The rest—a variety of weak, immature and nervous individuals—posed little threat.

The animals were snorting loudly, obviously unhappy at being forced up such steep and unstable terrain. When the rocks became too much for the creatures to manage, the riders dismounted and led them. They split into two groups and spread out, fanning left and right, occasionally shouting to each other. Delgado ran to a nearby boulder and crouched behind it, waiting, listening; the sound of his breathing echoed back at him off the rock’s grey face. He peered around its coarse, gritty surface and saw one group disappear behind some fallen trees, while the rest struggled to circumnavigate a clutch of large boulders. He turned, leaned against the rock and closed his eyes, trying to extend his consciousness more precisely, attempting to gauge the hostiles’ emotions and moods; he recognised excitement, tension and anxiety among the normal traces—an odd combination for a group who were outwardly so relaxed.

A gunshot suddenly split the silence of the forest, the report rolling around the sky like a heavy song of discord. Another followed a few seconds later, a bitter harmony. Delgado looked up at a loud noise above him and saw one of the large black birds crashing through the canopy; it landed nearby with a dull thud, raising a cloud of pale brown dust. He heard some­one approaching and pressed himself flat against the boulder; a moment later a figure appeared, not far away from him but facing in the opposite direction.

The hunter was panting, grey mist forming on the inside of his visor as he looked for the bird he had killed. Delgado could tell by his movements and the way his cape hung on his body that he was not particularly muscular. New analysis visuals opened: the man was young, unfit, lacking strength of will.

Delgado smiled.

A surge of euphoria emanated from the other man as he spotted his kill. He strode over to it, placed his rifle on the ground and picked the dead bird up by one of its skinny, taloned feet. As he held it level with his face and examined it closely, Delgado assessed the man’s gun; it was an old and clumsy four-pulse repeater with short-blade bayonet. Delgado would have to pick his moment carefully if he was to ensure a quick and silent kill.

Delgado took a few tentative paces forwards. As he was about to attack, the hunter turned. Delgado found himself staring at his own image reflected in the other man’s visor. His appearance surprised him: there were too many wrinkles, too much tension for one so highly trained. Perhaps Osephius was right after all.

The hunter seemed paralysed, his body rigid. There was a momentary standoff that seemed to last an age. Then, as Delgado felt his opponent’s emotions shift from elation to a combination of panic and confusion, he instinctively lunged for the weapon lying in the dirt.

The hunter leaped for the rifle at the same moment, and they grabbed it simultaneously. They seesawed, each trying to wrest the gun from the other’s grip. The hunter attempted to twist away but lost his balance and fell. Delgado snatched the gun from the other man’s grip and brought the butt around in a smooth circular motion, cracking the hunter hard under the chin. He rolled and moaned, fingers clawing at his mask; blood began to seep through the locking seam at the chin. Delgado smashed him full in the face and the latch came undone; as the mask fell to the ground, the face revealed knew only fear.

Silence stretched the length of the moment as, for a few brief seconds, Delgado savoured his power, a sense almost lost to him, sapped by the conspirators of frustration, cynicism and the hierarchy of the new consolidated Structure. He circled the rifle again and stuck the bayonet through the man’s left eye.

Blood darkly stained the ground; dying fingers twitched.

Delgado heard the dead man’s companions calling for him. He threw down the rifle and rolled the body over so he could undo the wide metal clasps on the back of the corpse’s cape. He pulled the cloth from the body, removed his own tunic and threw the cape casually over his shoulders; the garment was heavy, coarse and smelled damp. Inside it were large pockets; he placed his sidearm into one of them hoping the gun’s bulk would not be noticed, then quickly grabbed the damaged mask. He wiped blood and saliva from its mandibles and arrangement of tubes, then put it on to his own head. The damaged clasp made it difficult to close, and its loose com­ponents were awkward to apply correctly, the sensory pads particularly hard to position against his face. When eventually closed, the inside of the mask smelled oddly metallic. Blood dripped from the fine breather filter mesh just above his nose; the liquid feeder pipe was warm and slimy against his cheek where it had been down the dead man’s throat. Fans just above his cheekbones whirred softly; perception drives clicked some­where near his ears; information was transposed on to the inside of the visor’s faceplate in alien text he was unable to read.

Delgado stooped, grasped the body by the ankles and dragged it into the undergrowth, then quickly snatched up the rifle and cleaned the bayonet on the dead man’s underclothes. As the hunter’s companions approached, Delgado sprinted back across the clearing and grabbed the dead bird. He was just in time.

“Ah, Byrbegch. You have a kill, I see.” It was the group’s leader, speaking from the edge of the clearing. His voice sounded thin, muted by his mask’s speakers.

Delgado nodded enthusiastically, and held the bird in the air.

“Excellent. Good shooting. We need hunt no longer, for that bird is surely large enough to feed twice this number.” The rest of the party were gradually emerging from the trees and removing their masks. Delgado looked quickly around them, searching for the Seriatt: identify, consolidate, act.

Vourniass Lycern was standing to his right. She had removed her mask, and was undoubtedly the most enigmatic, mysterious creature he had ever encountered. Strong and fit, her physical size was imposing. Yet her beauty was not an obvious, superficial one; quite the opposite. Her features were disproportionate enough to be disturbing; her mouth looked slightly askew, her chin was almost as broad as her cheekbones, heavy and intensely aggressive, and the distance between the septum of her nose and her upper lip was disconcertingly great. It was as if her facial components had been carelessly arranged by someone in a hurry. Yet there was also something deeply attractive about this grotesque Seriatt; confidence, definition—a greater depth he was unable to pinpoint. And so much more.

“We shall make camp here and eat,” the leader continued. “Byrbegch, choose someone to help you clear this site of rocks while the rest of us find water for the rutull and give them some food. They have worked hard to carry our lazy bodies up this hill.”

It was too good an opportunity to miss. Delgado looked at the Seriatt and beckoned to her.

Lycern walked over to him, her gait assured. “Why do you not remove your mask, Byrbegch?” she said, her voice warm and husky even through the mask. “Surely you are too hot.”

Delgado said nothing, but simply shrugged, glancing at the others as they disappeared down the slope with the animals.

Lycern frowned. Delgado sensed suspicion and mistrust growing within her. She looked at him intently. “You are not Byrbegch,” she said slowly. Her tone was calm and certain. “You are a little taller, a slightly different shape. Who are you? Where is Byrbegch?” She glanced around as if her dead colleague might emerge from the trees at any moment.

Delgado checked that none of the party were returning, then coolly released the latch and removed his mask.

“Byrbegch allowed me to take his place on this trip. I needed to escape the walls for a while and he helped me.” He studied her as he spoke, absorbing information concerning her appear­ance, mannerisms and behaviour.

She narrowed her eyes. “But I saw him with his rutull as we were passing through the gates. I would have noticed your different figure when we were riding, I am certain of it.”

Delgado leaned forward as if sharing a secret. “The eye often sees what it expects,” he said. “We changed places quickly so I wouldn’t be challenged. We have done it before and not been discovered.”

“I am not sure I believe you,” she said after a few moments. “Perhaps we should see what Ballassio has to say.”

“No, don’t tell Ballassio. I’m not supposed to be here. If he learns of this Byrbegch and I will both be punished—perhaps you too. We’ve got away with it so far, why report us now? We’ve done no harm.”

Lycern looked Delgado up and down. “I do not trust you,” she said. She glanced over her shoulder towards the others who were beginning to return.

Delgado quickly replaced and resealed his mask. “You must say nothing,” he repeated. “We could all be punished. Maybe even expelled from the group.”

Lycern looked at him for a long moment, then eventually nodded. “Very well, I will not tell him. But be warned: I will be watching you closely, stranger, and shall speak to Byrbegch when we return. Now, help me move some of these stones. We need to clear a space to pitch our tents.”

Delgado nodded and smiled to himself as he hefted rocks to one side: he was still Alexander Delgado after all.

The group sat informally around a large fire in the centre of the wide circle made by the tents. Delgado was relieved that most wore their masks.

The group drank water fetched from a nearby stream heated over the fire, and ate the cooked bird. The creature was surprisingly small when stripped of its dark feathers, and although Delgado’s stomach was more disturbed than satisfied by the pitiful offerings of singed meat it received, he slipped the tough slivers of flesh between his mask’s sharp-edged mandibles gratefully nonetheless; uncertain when he would next have the opportunity to eat.

He sat directly opposite Lycern. Embers rose from the fire that lay between them like burning fireflies, and even though her mask’s dark visor reflected glossy miniature flames, Delgado knew she was looking directly at him. Visuals swarmed in his mind, struggling to relate the odd composite of traces she projected. She was an enigma, and he was fascinated.

Anonymously they stared at each other, their respective masks in opposition as the group sat in silence, listening to Ballassio speak in the calm, quiet voice of someone glad to be sharing his knowledge, experience and wisdom with people who would not dare to question him. Delgado sensed the collective humility and respect of those around him quite clearly. He pitied them. He had once been subject to the restric­tions of such loyalty, only to have it cast back in his face.

“My children,” Ballassio said, the snapping and popping of burning logs in the fire adding sporadic punctuation to his words. “Some of you will undoubtedly become high priests, but even those of you who do not go through to the Completion Ceremony and embrace the full opportunities that would be offered to you in such circumstances will still play an important part in the future of the Affinity Group. You will carry the beliefs of Lissiam Junoch and the reputation of the group into the next millennium and beyond. I envy you, for that is not my path. Honour,” he continued, “will only come with the eradication of all non-Affinity thought and intention. Diversification is the way of the foolish. Only strength and focus can result in success.” He clenched his fist in dramatic emphasis. “At this very moment in our galaxy the effects of disparate thoughts are being felt. As I speak, the tensions that exist between Earth’s Structure and the Seriattic Government are heightening. The potential consequences for both sides and, for all the civilisations that may be impacted by their actions, are too terrible to comprehend.

“The irony of their situation is that the efforts they have made to avoid war simply seem to be compounding the situation through lack of communication. The leaders of these worlds are greedy, stubborn and unable to express their true feelings—the feelings which you, as trainees, are currently learning to unlock and utilise. Believe me, were these people Children of the Affinity, there would be no threat of violence between them now. No tension. Their doubts would not exist, and their conflicts would already have been fought—within them.”

Delgado listened and nodded when the others nodded. It was strange to be among members of this sinister, mysterious cult. More disturbing was the fact that Ballassio’s words sounded similar to ideas expounded within Structure since Myson’s rise to power. The slant was slightly different, true, geared more towards collective awareness, but the underlying theme was the same: capitalise on instability, exploit the misfortune of others.

Ballassio made no mention of what course of action the Affinity Group might take should war break out between Earth and Seriatt, but Delgado knew that if it formed the correct alliances the group could only benefit from such a conflict and the destabilising effect it would have on all nearby systems. Recent Enlightenment reports suggested that the group had entered a period of calm following extended industrial activity, intensive and expanded farming, as well as budgetary tightening; all would prove beneficial if the Affinity Group became isolated, besieged or affiliated with one side or the other in the event of a war, with their resources stretched as a result.

It was generally believed that this would not be their agenda, however; the group would more probably take advantage of the opportunities for “acquisition” that would likely arise as smaller, less advanced cultures suffered the consequences of the wider conflict, caught in crossfire as the fighting spread. Details were sketchy, but there were rumours that the group brainwashed its members into unquestioning obedience using specially adapted nobics, although Delgado harboured doubts about the likelihood of this due to the cost of such tech­nologies. Even administration of the most basic evolutions was limited to the more elite military personnel; mass usage was out of the question.

Ballassio began to speak of the rich rewards that could soon come their way, potential for a golden age of prosperity and growth as the Affinity Group benefited from trade oppor­tunities with worlds sidelined by Earth and Seriatt. As Ballassio spoke, Delgado could feel the group’s collective emotions swelling into a rich glow of expectation and desire. He noted with interest that Ballassio made no mention of the Sinz, and yet he had heard that within the last four standard months there had been three reports of Sinz vessels passing through the Veshc system. Their destination was unknown, but it was unusual for Sinz craft to stray so far from the M-4 wormhole—and unnecessary, given that Myson delivered their purchases direct—so where they were going, and what they were doing, was a mystery.

“It is time we settled ourselves to sleep now,” Ballassio was saying. “We have a long journey back in the morning. I hope you have all enjoyed this little escape from the confines of the Affinity Group and the strict limitations and disciplines that are occasionally imposed upon you there.” He smiled and looked around at them all. “When we get back I am sure we shall all be able to concentrate on our tasks and rituals much more effectively having spent some time outside those high walls.”

He paused. “One more thing before we retire,” he said. “I know some of you are soon to be inducted, mainly those of other faiths and planetary origins. Do not worry too much about the ceremony. If you were not to worry at all then you would be foolish, but believe me when I say that you will feel reborn, and able to carry out your duties with all of your souls committed to them. Go now and sleep, my children. We start back to the church at dawn.”

Delgado lay awake, considering his options.

If the shuttle had been flyable, or even repairable, then he would have risked snatching the Seriatt and escaping under cover of darkness. It would not have given him much of a start, but anything was better than none at all. But this was not an option—his skill as an aviator had seen to that. Mental note addendum: as well as crash helmet, apply for piloting refresher course.

Despite the dangers it posed, he now had little choice but to enter the Affinity Group installation: he had to find a way off the planet, with or without Vourniass Lycern, and only there would this be possible.

First he would rest. He had several courses open to him, but until he had successfully penetrated the Affinity Group he would not be able to implement any of them and for that he would need all his strength.

He allowed himself to relax, clearing his consciousness of all thoughts and visuals. As the fire outside rustled gently, smouldering logs collapsing, Delgado’s eyelids weighed heavy.

Delgado sat bolt upright and grabbed his gun, instantly alert. The surge of energy his nobics had stimulated caused him to tremble for a few moments, until his body stabilised. He was unsure how much time had passed since he fell asleep.

His nobics fed him strong traces of determination and anger emanating from a closing source. He peered out of the tent. A wind stirred the trees; the night air was chill and damp follow­ing an apparent rain shower. He saw a dark silhouette loping clumsily across the camp towards him, running between the other tents and the fading glow of the near-dead fire. It was the Seriatt. She was heading directly for his tent.

“Open this and let me in,” she said sternly, tugging impatiently at the small gap when she reached him.

Eyebrows raised, Delgado shrugged, calmly put down his gun and struggled to undo the tent’s wet, swollen laces. Cool air washed across his body as she slid through the opening. He caught her scent as she passed him; it was a thick, pervasive odour that stirred something within him. He appraised her form as she turned within the confines of the tent.

She knelt opposite him, her hands on her knees. “I cannot accept this,” she said, breathing heavily. “Who are you? Where is Byrbegch? I demand to know.” Her strange face was tight with resolution, her jutting chin resolute.

Delgado sat cross-legged and stared at her. “My name is Alexander Delgado,” he said coolly, “but I prefer Alex. I’m a member of the Brotherhood for Affinity Security.”

She looked him up and down, uncertain, wary. Her odd face shifted to an even stranger expression. “I have never heard of this unit,” she said. “I believe you are lying.”

He admired her spirit, respected her courage. “Believe what you like,” he said. “We’re a secret order. We maintain intelli­gence records on Affinity members to track their progress within the group in order to prevent possible infiltration by hostile outsiders. Occasionally we’re called upon to control undesirables already within the group. It’s an unpleasant task, but sometimes necessary.”

She paled visibly. “You have killed Byrbegch,” she said. “Am I correct?”

Delgado paused, reassessed: she already knew the answer. “I had to,” he said, nodding. “I had orders to follow. He was considered a threat.”

“These were orders from whom? A threat to what? Tell me.”

“Security—more than that I can’t tell you. I am . . .” He spread his hands and shrugged, momentarily breaking eye contact in a dramatic, theatrical manner “. . . shall we say I am not of the highest authority. You just have to accept that his death was necessary for the good of the group. As do I. You must reveal this to no one. Both of our lives will be in danger if you do: there are those more powerful than you could possibly imagine within that church.”

“You do not have to patronise me quite so heavily, human. I appreciate that I, as a lowly trainee priestess, may know little of the Affinity’s internal politics, but it is difficult to think of Byrbegch as any kind of threat. He was a weak and shallow creature—as are the males of most species.”

Delgado smiled again, more broadly this time—the expres­sion felt alien. “He was obviously good at some part of his evil and treacherous job if he was so convincing,” he continued. “He had to be killed, believe me; there was no choice. It was for the good of the group.” He was beginning to enjoy the story he had invented; perhaps he should have been an actor.

“I despise killing,” Lycern said, shaking her head and looking away from him. “I cannot understand the mentality of it. I am conosq, a species dedicated to giving life; to take it goes against everything I exist for. This Affinity claims much but offers little. It is a haven for criminals and thieves, not the religious sanctuary it pretends to be. That it is prepared to kill its own members demonstrates the contradiction of it all.”

She seemed deeply moved. Delgado studied the alien’s unattractive face, took a moment to explore the distress and grief rising within her. He absorbed her pain and searched for its true source. He was fascinated by it, transfixed by the purity of her emotion. Her skin held a lustrous sheen. He reached out and touched her cheek. “Don’t hate me for what I’ve done,” he said, frowning slightly. “I was just the instrument; someone else’s tool. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, believe me.”

She looked at him again, her expression cold and hard, and pulled her head away from his hand. “I understand something of your motivation,” she said, “but know this, Alexander Delgado: unless you have com tulies vievro—justification, as you say—you will have to atone for this act of murder. It is di-fio na’atu: the ultimate crime. Whether it was your wish or not, you took the life and you will have to pay. That is certain. Seriatts have a saying: ‘illios nim guar ehil moe’; it means ‘live to give life.’ Do you see?”

Delgado nodded and pretended to see. But he began to realise that there could be bonuses to this mission that he had not previously considered. If he followed the instincts he felt now, things would change to a greater extent than he could ever have considered possible.

He reached out and touched the lapel of her cape, moving his right hand slowly towards the split at the front. His fingertips barely touched the fabric, yet despite this slight contact the firm resistance of her body beneath was an over­whelming aphrodisiac.

Lycern did nothing for a few moments, then looked down at his hand and placed hers on top of it. “I will not mate with a killer,” she said, shaking her head and staring into his sharp blue eyes. “I cannot. I am conosq.”

Delgado moved up on to his knees, maintaining eye contact. “Is that right?” He slid his fingertips into the split at the front of her cape; her flesh was warm, soft and incredibly smooth. He began to move his hand towards one of her breasts, searching for the weight of that even softer flesh. As he did this he reached out with his other hand and touched her shoulder. She twisted slightly, resisting, but then closed her eyes and shuddered, a slight gasp escaping from her mouth, a faint ululation at the back of her throat.

Delgado gently massaged her with his left hand, pulling his right away from her chest and moving it up to her other shoulder. He caressed her. She tilted back her head, her mouth slightly open, and began to sway gently, her breath coming in short, excited gasps. Quietly she began to moan, the sound becoming louder as her arousal increased. Intrigued and excited, Delgado shifted up on to his knees and pressed his body against hers.

Lycern opened her eyes and looked at him. She was flushed, her eyes bright and clear. Their faces were merely centimetres apart. “Are you sure you want this, Alex Delgado?” she breathed. “Do you know the power of conosq? Can you deal with it?” She gripped his biceps tightly, as if angry or frustrated, and pushed him away from her. “Are you strong enough to give me all that I need?” Delgado nodded once, a curt flick of his head. He leaned forward again and began to kiss her neck. “Very well,” she said. She pushed him away again and cast her cape from her shoulders.

She wore nothing beneath the coarse cloth other than an ornate silver pendant that hung from a chain between her visibly swelling breasts. The thin line of glands down her sides and across her shoulders pulsed, glistening with tacky slime. The large cluster of glands at her crotch were secreting a thick white foam that spread down her inner thighs. The scent was rich, sickly sweet, an invidious aroma.

Delgado’s heart raced; his head began to spin. He was no longer aware of his nobics functioning. Lycern reached up and placed her hands on his shoulders, pushing him on to his back with a strength and ease that both surprised and aroused him. She quickly straddled his narrow hips and leaned forward to kiss him, her hair falling across his face, heavy pendant resting on his chest, warm flesh smothering him. Suddenly her former anger was lost in a new and passionate mask of pure sexual energy, and her demeanour changed dramatically as she released her true self.

She became increasingly impatient, kissing him with an aggressive, frenzied passion as sadistic as it was erotic. Bites to his neck and face drew blood and she gripped his hair tightly in her fists and clawed at his flesh with her nails, her body flung into wild muscular spasms.

Delgado was caught between euphoria and despair, uncertain where this was leading or how he had suddenly become the one controlled. But his concerns were swamped by a multitude of overpowering emotions. He placed his hands on Lycern’s hips as she searched for his heat; when the warm, slippery foam touched him he gasped at the shock waves that ripped through his body. Dull pain in every cell was both agonising and immeasurably sensual. He laughed aloud at the glorious torture; but which emotion engendered this he could not have said.

Lycern began to rock slowly when she had fully absorbed him. Her breasts brushed his ribcage in time with the move­ment, her form a voluptuous mass of flesh. Her motion was the absolute essence of sexual allure, a hypnotising rhythm. Yet to Delgado their coupling was different to any he had known: she was distant, taking from him, using him for her own grati­fication. And when he opened his eyes he felt a sense of repulsion that instantly countered his arousal, but did nothing to alleviate either it, or his ecstatic agony.

Lycern’s face was monstrous. Her lips were engorged with blood, hideous, purple and swollen; her eyes were closed tight, her brow furrowed, tense and moist with sweat. Spittle formed at the corners of her seething mouth as she hissed and moaned a range of surging, throaty sounds indicating an urgent need to slake a basal thirst. Delgado knew this was not right, that he wanted to escape her snare; but his head was in turmoil, his mind unable to focus, his body weak, immobilised. More than that, he found the strength of his own sexual desire for her full yet pliant form impossible to resist. He wanted her to use him, wanted her to abuse his body for her own ends in whatever way she chose—and his complete acceptance of that was the most alarming aspect of all.

Lycern’s swollen breasts hung before his face; as he pushed himself up to kiss them she twisted and rolled him on top of her. The air in the tent was choked with the stench of sex and desire as they became truly alive, Delgado as frantic and wild as she, an agonising need rushing through him in this new position of perceived power.

Then, abruptly, Lycern calmed.

Delgado felt her mood shift, as if increasing the distance between them still further. Yet while her face maintained its gargoyle-like appearance, she seemed to become almost serene, as if her former anguish had dissipated completely.

He became aware of a warm sensation around his sides and buttocks. It was accompanied by a smacking sound and an even richer scent, an odour so strong he could almost taste it. He managed to look down at their two joined bodies and saw a thin, opaque film of moist skin growing rapidly away from the glands around her body. It was a sheet of veined flesh, shiny and slick with mucus.

The membranous sac spread from her and began merging with his own skin as he watched; it was as though her whole body was opening to ingest him. He tried to speak, to exclaim, to question—but he could manage only a few anxious gasps.

She seemed to sense the tension in him and briefly rose from her trancelike state. “Do not be worried,” she said. “It is the assissius. It is natural.” And then, almost as quickly, she sank away from him again.

There was nothing he could do. Beneath him, Lycern remained distant, unmoved. She was in an erotic trance, drawing all she needed from him. Gradually the thin film reached up to his face, and spread slowly across his mouth and eyes until his body was entirely consumed by hers.

Delgado opened his eyes. The morning light filtering through the canvas filled the tent with soothing shades of green. He stared at the fabric above him as it billowed in the breeze. As ever, he was instantaneously alert, his mind reviewing his mission objectives, planning how to proceed, reassessing his situation; but there was also rampant nobic activity that he was unable to access let alone control; it was as if his own interneural systems were assessing their host.

The stench of their mating filled his nostrils still. He tried to remember what had happened, tried to picture it all and savour it again. He immediately became aroused by the images that filled his head. He had heard vague rumours about Seriattic conosq, their power, their abilities. The sac—the assissius as Lycern had called it—emerged from the sides of her body and had wrapped him like a moist cocoon within minutes. When inside it he had felt something akin to weightlessness, had been overwhelmed by a great peace and an immense sense of inner calm. He had needed to do nothing but allow himself to be carried along by the waves that had pulsed slowly through him, their cadence erotic and bizarre.

Yet this was not a physical sensation—Lycern had not manipulated muscles in order to draw him to the repeated and ever increasing plateaux of rapture he had enjoyed: the things he had experienced ­transcended the body. It was as if she had caressed a tender nerve with the most delicate touch. Never before had he experienced such a fusion, such a powerful merger between himself and another being.

It had been a revelation.

He touched his head: the mucus had dried to make his hair sticky and hard. He smiled. Lycern was powerful indeed, capable of changing the course of any number of futures at a whim if she so wanted. If any being could forge the links Myson desired between Earth and Seriatt, it was surely she. But she could be dangerous, too, he could see that.

There was a shout outside the tent: it was Ballassio.

“Listen everyone. We will be leaving shortly. Pack your tent and belongings quickly. I will not wait for the idlers among you.”

But what about impostors, thought Delgado as he pushed himself up. He wrapped the cape round him and fastened the clasp at his waist, then quickly checked his sidearm and put it back into the cape’s inner pocket before placing the mask over his head. He took a moment to adjust to the dry, metallic air it fed to him, then stooped and unlaced his tent.

The morning air was cold and clear, the sky a sharp ultra­marine cut by a few slender fissures of brilliant white cloud. The other members of the group were clustered around their tents, which were in various states of disassembly, or loading their already complaining rutull with panniers and baskets.

“Ah, Byrbegch,” called Ballassio, who was standing on the other side of the clearing. “I thought you dead, my son. Take a drink,” he indicated the fire, “then pack your tent. Quickly, now. We are about to leave.”

Delgado nodded and went towards the fire. Lycern was there, pour­ing steaming water into a tin mug. As he approached he felt somehow disoriented, light-headed and confused. He frowned, attempting to regain his poise, yet the disruption seemed insurmountable. The effects intensified when he glanced at Lycern, but she could not be responsible for such a weakening loss of control: Alexander Delgado was a controller—had an effect, rather than being affected.

He tried briefly to access his nobics for data on those around him as he walked towards the fire and Lycern, but only a few visuals opened, and these were subdued, offering little information of use. It seemed as if every one of his main utilities had in some way been infected by a virus. He felt naked, vulnerable, and knew that if his normal functionality did not quickly return, his life would be in danger.

Lycern turned and held the water out to him as he walked the final few metres. He took it from her silently and drank it in a single mouthful, its burning heat ignored. Their masks faced each other in defiance, the ancient, alien motifs on their visors hiding the true emotions behind their mute façades. Each knew the other had secrets, but what these might be, and how immense their gravity, neither could guess.

And at that moment, Alexander Delgado could not have known that the truth behind his situation, and all to which it would lead, would change his life forever.

The journey down to the plain and onward to the Affinity Group’s church was not easy. Delgado, who was unused to dealing with creatures as moronic as rutull, even if some of the grunts he had dealt with in his time had deserved such a description, found Byrbegch’s animal to be an unruly beast with a stubborn nature and awkward disposition. At first he tried to force the animal around fallen trees and larger boulders, digging his heels into the creature’s ribs and yanking at its reins. But whatever brutal methods of coercion he tried, the rutull would always decide it knew better and go in whichever direction it liked.

Eventually, and although it went against his every instinct, Delgado was forced to accept that he was just a passenger. He stopped trying to control the animal; held the reins limply in one hand; moved with the creature’s motion rather than resisting it. Even then, with the journey considerably easier with their battle over, he found staying in the saddle took all his concentration. Indeed, some of the moves the animal attempted were so alarming that Delgado wondered if it was actually trying to scare him. If so, it was failing; he would simply cut the creature’s throat if the opportunity presented itself.

Delgado’s punishment continued even when the slope was far behind them and they were making their way through the forest using hard, worn and—most importantly—level dirt paths. But as they approached the home of the Affinity Group, its mysterious church, his physical discomfort and underlying uncertainty about how he would get the Seriatt back to Earth were all temporarily forgotten.

The installation was almost completely hidden by the forest, and they came across it quite suddenly as they entered what at first ap­peared to be a clearing. Towering wooden gates were set in the middle of the relatively small section of wall that emerged from the solid banks of trees to either side; they were comprised of numerous huge timbers, each of which was warped with age and riddled with cracks and knots. The gates were topped by long black metal spikes, and reinforced by broad bands of black metal that stretched from the huge bolts and hinges that affixed them to the walls; each hinge was easily as tall as a man.

On top of the wall to either side of the gates rose wooden towers supporting two of the guard shelters Delgado had seen from the ridge. He shielded his eyes as he looked up: no sign of life. The wall itself consisted of large sandstone boulders honed almost square, fixed by thick layers of dried mud. The aging clay was pale and cracked, but irregular dark patches indicated the moisture that remained in recently repaired areas. The hideous carved gargoyles that sprouted from the wall at frequent intervals, defying attack with their bulging, slitted eyes, pointed ears and probing tongues, reminded Delgado of imps he’d struggled to control during the Buhatt campaign.

Ballassio stopped at the vast wooden gates and waited for the party to gather. By the time Delgado caught up with them the rest of the group had dismounted, and their rutull were chew­ing mouthfuls of foliage torn from the trackside. Apparently hungry, Delgado’s animal seemed as keen to eat as the rest of its herd, and kept jerking him sideways as it lowered its head to the ground, resisting his attempts to continue walking.

Lycern, who was standing by the track holding her rutull’s reins, watched Delgado’s ungainly approach with a level of amusement even her cape and mask could not hide. Now stubbornly refusing to walk, his rutull was focused on finding the tastiest greenery available. In frustration he yanked sharply at the creature’s reins several times in rapid succession; it stopped chewing and slowly raised its head to meet his gaze, as if prepared to rise to any challenge he might propose, then slowly lowered its head again and continued to eat. Staring fiercely at the animal’s neck, Delgado wondered where he might obtain a large, sharp blade.

“Are we all present, then?” Ballassio called, quickly counting the gathered number. “Excellent. We have made good time.” He turned and pulled a plain black metal staff from a holding vase, then reached out and smashed it against a large square of metal suspended within a wooden frame in the wall. Amplified by some means Delgado was unable to establish, the metal boomed, its reverberating chime deeply resonant. The rutull stopped chewing and abruptly raised their heads in prick-eared attention.

A series of faint clicks and knocks could be heard, and a male voice shouted. Then the gates slowly began to open.

The courtyard beyond was large, seething with life. Animals grazed at straw-filled cages or drank at metal troughs. Servants struggled with overflowing washing baskets while men and women of all ages relaxed in roughly constructed bars propped against the outer wall. Children scampered around sheds and wells fighting mock battles with broom-handle swords, their laughter bright and clear. Transports moved along gravel roadways carrying people, livestock or machinery. The air was thick with the combined smells of cooking, dung and vehicle fumes, and although the ground was covered in a heavy layer of dry brown dust, it reflected the sun’s heat like a sheet of beaten metal.

Delgado followed the rest of his party into the courtyard and towards a cluster of ramshackle sheds fashioned from cor­rugated metal sheeting. The walls were uneven and corroded, the roofs dislocated and riddled with holes. Clouds of dust rose from the ground as the indolent rutull dragged their feet, reluctant to return to the confines of their stables.

As the party neared the buildings, a farrier with a blackened apron, tanned leathery skin and a thick black beard came to meet them from the dark retreat of his workshop. He squinted heavily in the sunlight and silently took the reins of every animal in one large, rough-skinned hand. As he led the animals away he inspected the hooves of each for signs of damage caused by the inexperienced imbeciles who had handled them.

Ballassio turned to face them. “My children,” he said, “in a few weeks’ time you will take part in the Induction Ceremony, after which you will be full white priests and begin to learn your true roles within the group. It is a great transition, and a difficult, tiring time; for this reason I would advise you to take a few days’ rest. Drink a little, eat, perhaps even enjoy each others’ bodies.” He smiled and clasped his hands before him. “Whatever you choose, banish all stress from yourselves. My part in your training is almost finished, and I will not see you again until the ceremony is over. I wish you the luck of Lissiam, and thank you for making this trip a pleasant one.”

There was a brief ripple of applause, and the group frag­mented. As some of the party gathered around Ballassio, Delgado moved close to Lycern. He grasped her right elbow firmly and steered her away; she tensed slightly but did not resist. “I’ll be coming with you,” he hissed. “There are things we need to discuss.”

Delgado let Lycern lead him across the courtyard to a set of wrought-iron gates in one corner. A guard standing next to the gates watched them as they approached; Delgado noted the position of a large bush which could act as cover should he need it. There was also a wooden trough, which could either be used to hide a body, or yield a makeshift weapon if broken.

As it was, Lycern spoke softly to the guard when they reached the gates and they were allowed to enter without question. Delgado was almost disappointed. Even though this made his task much easier, he always seemed to operate more efficiently when the odds were stacked against him.

Beyond the gates it appeared that they had somehow been transported to another world, a temple of wealth, luxury and comfort that was an affluent and carefree contrast to the relative squalor he had already seen. Silence and tranquillity took the place of noise and confusion. He looked up as a flier passed overhead, and wondered about the possibility of gaining access to such transport. The Affinity Group’s security, its control systems and the level of armament with which the installation was equipped were all factors he had to consider.

They walked along a balcony fashioned in generously carved and deeply varnished wood on a colourful parquetry floor. The balcony constituted one side of a quad­rangle enclosing a lush green courtyard sunk some ten or fifteen metres lower. The courtyard contained bushes and shrubs cut into intricate patterns, the flowers blooming upon them creating a dazzling display of brilliant and vivid colour. Pink hexagonal slabs formed pathways around the gardens, and in the centre of the courtyard was a statue of a stalking bird. From the bird’s long and elegant bill spouted a sparkling line of water, which fragmented into jewels of dancing light as it arced through the air; across the bottom of the circular stone pool into which these liquid gems fell, there tripped a fragile web of slender golden veins.

They walked along the balcony for a little way, then stopped at a plain black door. Lycern pulled a key from her belt and swiped it through the lock. The latch clicked, and the door swung smoothly open.

The room within was cool, clean, spacious, decorated in the red, gold and white of The Ultimate Union. It was also ornamented with numerous exotic otherculture artefacts. Delgado thought he recognised some as fertility symbols, but gave them only a cursory glance. It was alien mystic nonsense—mumbo-jumbo for weak souls.

Lycern motioned for him to sit on the sofa, then disappeared through a door to the left.

“So what is it you wish to discuss with me, Delgado?” she called back to him.

Delgado glanced around the room, examining objects, searching for clues, looking for any information about the Seriatt that might make it easier to get her back to Myson. Within him many battles were taking place, not least the conflict he felt with regard to what he should do with Lycern. “I just need to make sure you’re not a risk,” he said casually. He scrutinised the small and extremely unusual terminal in the far corner of the room, but was unable to ascertain its type. “There are certain security procedures to be followed. If too many people learn of our existence our work will become difficult. We have to prevent that. We also need to be sure that you are not a risk to security. If you aren’t, are genuinely concerned about the welfare of the group and want to help maintain its internal strength, then it might be possible for you to join us.”

Delgado heard a noise and looked towards the door. Lycern was walking towards him carrying a tray set with wine-filled goblets and plates bearing small portions of food. She had changed her clothes, and was now wearing a startling gown of brilliant scarlet silk; the cut of the cloth accentuated the sexuality of her clumsy Seriattic figure.

Delgado became instantaneously aroused despite himself. He looked away, but could only avert his gaze for a few moments before she drew him back. This alien was unattractive, almost repulsive, but he wanted her more than he had desired anyone or anything in his life. The sudden, all-consuming strength of his need was shocking. It denied him the sense of control to which he was so used. And even then, despite the unfamiliarity of this feeling, something about it attracted him. Perhaps it was the fact that she challenged him, and the sense he had of his own authority.

Lycern placed the tray on the sofa next to him. “Please, you need nourishment after your ride aboard the rutull. Eat and drink.”

He watched as she sat on the floor in front of him, then began to pick at the food she had brought: pastry parcels filled with spicy meat, vegetables coated in succulent batter, cold meats, cheeses, hunks of crusty white bread. He found it difficult to detach himself from the situation and view events from an impartial perspective—something he was usually able to do unconsciously. His highly trained military persona was being eroded by the basic human male in him, the dynamism of his most fundamental drives taking control. These were weaknesses, things he had denied for so long—yet now everything seemed to be in question: what he was, who he was, his inner compulsions.

“So when will you tell me who you really are?” Lycern said. “I am prepared to believe that you are part of some security unit within the Affinity for the time being, but I do not think this is really true. I believe you are a spy of some sort—one of the infiltrators from whom you claim to protect the group, perhaps. Is this the case?”

Delgado forced a smile, but whether this was for her benefit or his own, he would not have been able to say. “You can think what you like,” he said, his manner cool, offhand. “If you don’t believe the security unit exists, then that pleases me. Secrecy is of the utmost importance if our unit’s effectiveness is to be maintained.”

Lycern returned his smile. “If you say this is so, Alex Delgado, then it will do for the time being. But understand that you will reveal the truth to me sooner or later. Of that there can be no doubt.”

Delgado was on a knife-edge: if this Seriatt reported his presence to anyone he would be arrested, probably killed. He had to minimise the risks. While killing her and aborting the mission was a tempting option, the potentially great rewards for succeeding despite his ­circumstances were also to be considered, as were the vague plans lurking at the back of his mind. He could still benefit if he conveyed her safely back to Myson, that was true. And despite his feelings for the man, he would be willing to accept any reward the Commander Supreme might wish to offer. But then, in that room so distant from his homeworld, he knew that of the several choices open to him, only one could give him the opportunity to set his life upon a new course.

As he considered this, Lycern suddenly set down her glass and moved towards him. Her pupils were wide; her breasts seemed to be swelling. She knelt before him and placed the palms of her hands on his thighs. “You can tell me about joining your Brotherhood later,” she whispered, leaning closer. “But to join with your soul is all I desire now.”

Her breath was a hot sensation, her lips irresistibly tempting. Delgado realised he was trembling as they kissed. He tried to fight it but this only seemed to worsen the tremors: it was involuntary, part of his natural physiology breaking free from the constraints imposed by his nobics and ingrained military training. He hesitated for a moment, fighting her, fighting himself. Yet he felt compelled to reach out, to caress her, to feel her flesh against his own.

He touched one breast with the fingertips of one hand, exploring the firm, smooth shape through the soft fabric, while running his other hand through her hair and down her neck to the glands at her shoulders. Bizarrely, he pictured Myson for a moment.

The soft tissues were already moist, tacky with viscous foam. When he touched them Lycern pulled away from him, apparently incredibly agitated even by this slight stimulation. To Delgado’s eyes, the expression she wore looked close to anger.

Her face stern, she maintained eye contact with him as she crouched and unbuckled his belt. He sat forward slightly; she opened his cloak in one easy movement and threw it from his shoulders. As she rapidly unlaced the front of her own gown, the pendant around her neck reflected a glint of light. With the smooth flesh of her swollen breasts exposed, the glands around her body secreting their thick white slime in a rich, slippery torrent, she reached out and pulled him to the floor.

The warmth of her body was smothering as he settled upon her, and an immense craving consumed him as he was again absorbed by her body. Their tongues became entwined in a frenzy of frightening strength, and as his body was gradually ingested by the slick opaque sac that spread from her, Delgado found an energy and urgency he previously thought only madmen possessed. His skin tingled as if layers had been burned away to expose the raw flesh beneath. And yet this pain seemed wholly natural, the conflict of resistance and acceptance perversely gratifying in a way he was unable to reconcile.

Far back in his confused, spinning mind, Delgado suspected that he was losing a part of himself to something he did not understand. But at that moment in time, had he been able to comprehend his true situation, he would not have cared.

Delgado touched the gun-arm tab on the weapon’s butt and waited for the nobics to kick in. A few seconds later a small cluster of visuals appeared in his head, giving information about the gun’s status. He thought the main visual forward and activated the operations tab in the top corner. Another visual appeared and the gun began to emit an almost inaudible hum. A further visual opened to indicate that the weapon was armed. A warm breeze made the curtains tremble. His heart beat faster. His mouth became dry. A ravenous desire welled.

He rolled gently on to his side, trying to ignore the need. He was doing what he knew was essential, what to him was just another aspect of his everyday existence. He was Alexander Delgado, Military Intelligence Officer. Such actions were nothing to him: they were what he lived for. Killing the Seriatt now would halve his problems; she was nothing. He would be rid of her and able to return to Earth. He would have failed his mission, yes—but it seemed a small price to pay.

As he lay there he could not escape the subtle scent of her hair, the beauty of her skin, the warmth radiating from her tranquil body. It was an intoxicating combination, such a potent life essence, and he was increasingly suffering its influences, the purity of his life tainted by the intensity of her own.

He knew he had no choice despite what he had briefly planned. He convinced himself he had no attachment, stirred the recognisable, callous Delgado of old. He needed him now, needed that man’s strength and leverage, his clarity of vision.

Slowly, silently, he drew up the weapon and placed the tip of its barrel against the base of the sleeping Seriatt’s skull. His heartbeat was a series of rapid explosions in his chest. The universe contracted to encompass only the few centimetres that lay between them on the bed. The tip of the gun began to quiver.

Many strong emotions spread through him. He felt sick and hot, cold and weak, utterly helpless and torn. As Delgado closed his eyes and tried to maintain his resolve, his decision was made.

And in that moment, his fate was set.

Delgado sat on a small stool in front of the terminal in Lycern’s suite, his knees almost touching his chin; he wondered if it was a piece of Courlow furniture. The antiquated unit in front of him was difficult to operate, largely because of Delgado’s difficulty in reading Counian. The fact that there was no link for his nobics did not help matters; instead he was forced to best-guess his way through the assortment of screens that presented themselves to him in the search for a communi­cations pool.

Any wrong move could expose him as an intruder if the group’s security systems were remotely in tune—he knew that. But he had little choice. If he was to succeed with any kind of objective—whether it was the one he was formulating in his own mind or the one he had officially been sent to achieve—he had to contact Beech in the slipspacer. She was his only chance now.

He looked back to the bed where Lycern lay. The decision not to kill her had been difficult, but what disturbed him most was the fact that, despite knowing that killing her almost guaranteed his own survival, he had still been unable to commit the act. Not unwilling: unable.

Yet now he felt an absurd calmness and relief. Choices remained, but nothing was certain. The nobics he had injected into her were supposed to keep her sedated indefinitely, but the vial had looked damaged when he had pulled it from the butt of his sidearm, and he was uncertain of the health of its contents. If he failed to get her offworld before she woke, his whole plan—such as it was—would be jeopardised. It was no wonder he had a headache.

Delgado looked back to the small screen, rubbing his eyes with his fingertips. He had successfully opened comms channels with what appeared to be a secure relay through local hardline systems. It seemed the only way he could power his transmission was to run the pulse through a substation gener­ator driving a small atmosphere purification unit. The purifier was operating on minimum, and had vast reserves available to draw on at peak periods, meaning that more than enough for his purposes remained.

He bypassed routers and redirected supply to the pulse energiser he had isolated and placed on standby. When the unit indicated it was ready, he input the Doghin coordinates and the relevant mi sequence operator code: if he was lucky, the mi ultrabeam would search for the slipspacer id, and channels would open automatically. If he was lucky.

A few moments after releasing the signal, a processing menu was briefly replaced by a direct communications list. He scanned its contents, and noted with some interest that there were at least two plots which, unless he was very much mistaken, were routed to a large relay in the vicinity of the M-4 wormhole. But he did not have time to explore the possibilities. He continued searching and selected a driver that seemed to meet his needs. The list immediately disappeared and a thin grey line stretched diagonally across the screen. It widened, skewed, vanished; words began to form.

secure tightline established : veshc—doghin || 7342

priority #4-09 confirmed

ultrabeam communications start

After a few moments the words disappeared, replaced by Beech’s familiar face. She looked red-eyed, and was frowning slightly as she squinted at the viewer.

“Sorry to wake you, Beech,” said Delgado, “but I need some assistance. Get your ass down here, will you? Breakneck.”

Beech pursed her lips. When she spoke, the tightline com­pression relays through which the signal was being driven distorted her voice, making it sound thin and nasal. “What have you done, Delgado?” Her words swirled and faded slightly; a momentary fracture in her voice made his name sound like a sex toy.

“The shuttle’s engines went down and I had to make a forced landing,” he said. “Unfortunately it wasn’t a very good one. You have to come and get me. I have the target with me now. If we can get her out of here soon the mission can still succeed.”

She shook her head. “I can’t do that, Delgado. You know I was specifically instructed not to risk confrontation with the Affinity Group. You’re putting a great deal at risk just by contacting me in this way. A skirmish with Seriattic forces has kicked off in the Dassilos system while you’ve been down there. Myson won’t want to waste unnecessary resources in case things get nasty. He already has five squadrons of xip fighters en route, with five more on standby.”

Delgado held up his hands. “Look, Beech, you’re not paid to think, consider or have opinions. Just do what I tell you. Get that goddamn ship down here and pick us up.”

“I should like to remind you, Commander Delgado,” Beech said slowly, “that we are of equal rank. I don’t take orders from you, I take them from General Myson, and if General Myson says I don’t go in, I don’t go in. I’m sure even a renegade like you can understand that.”

Delgado blinked, his jaw set. “Look, Beech,” he said softly, “this is all to do with the situation with Seriatt, right? Myson wants to establish some kind of direct link, so we need to get this conosq back to him. I appreciate your unwillingness to go against his orders, I really do, but we have to take the present situation into account and utilise contingency plans. It’s called being adaptable. The success of my mission is only possible if you come and get me. And this mission has got to be successful, Beech. Myson is depending on it, God bless his fat, disgusting soul. I’m sure he would reward your bravery and initiative well if I were to tell him you had been instrumental in averting war. You want a transfer to ppd, don’t you?” Beech licked her lips, but remained silent. “The other option of course is that you obey Myson’s orders without using any initiative what­soever, then return to him and explain why his precious conosq is dead, the war with Seriatt imminent, and his Sinz trade little more than a pleasant memory. It’s up to you.”

Beech’s image distorted and faded almost to nothing. Delgado cycled through menus. It seemed the purification unit had started to demand more power; soon there would not be enough to push the signal to Doghin.

Beech’s face separated into three sections as the signal weakened further; sound became little more than white noise. Delgado opened more menus and relayed power from the Affinity Group’s own comms systems and atc coding units; they were high risk sources, but he had no choice.

“Can you hear me, Beech? Visual is fading. Can you hear me?” He cocked his head, listening hard, but heard just a few weak fizzing sounds that may or may not have been a response. There was no way for him to be sure. He rerouted as much power as he dared to the energiser and linked his sidearm to the terminal. The connector—botched together using some wire and old sgn-type couplings cannibalised from the aircon automation unit in the Seriatt’s suite—was unstable to say the least; if it worked at all it would not do so for long.

“Beech, if you can hear me,” said Delgado, “I’m uploading precise coordinates and as much information about the landing zone to the slipspacer’s core as I could pack into the sidearm. By my reckoning you can land in the courtyard without sustaining too much damage and we’ll be out of here before anybody realises what’s going on. This is an order, Beech. Shit! Can you hear me, Beech? Beech?”

Sound and visuals faded completely.

“Tight-assed bitch,” he hissed.

There was nothing more he could do. He hoped his performance as a loyal Structure officer had been convincing. If Beech was going to come for him she would arrive within three or four hours at most. He would give her four and a half, then consider alternatives. If there were any.

Delgado woke to the sound of two or three people shouting and running along the walkway outside, then silence. He pushed himself up slightly and listened; he could hear little other than birdsong and the faint trickling of the fountain in the courtyard. He checked that Lycern was still unconscious, then lay back down and closed his eyes again.

A moment later he heard a whining drone—faint at first, but quickly growing louder. Delgado opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling, focusing nobics, trying to accumulate some information.

He got up, ran to the door, opened it slightly. For a few moments all seemed quiet. Then a stream of cannon fire appeared in the sky above him, a great swathe of destructive energy arcing into the distance towards the forest. A few seconds later another joined it, crossing from a different point; a third followed soon after. The noise became a deafening raucous wail as the weapons’ raw energy tore the very fabric of the sky apart. Delgado was puzzled by the fact that the three weapons seemed to be aiming at different targets, but had little time to consider the reasons.

He could tell from the general angle of fire that Beech was bringing the slipspacer in low, possibly even below treetop height. Despite their differences he admired her courage and was thankful that she was such a skilled pilot. Handling a slipspacer was difficult in an atmosphere, let alone at low speed and altitude; others would have brought the craft in high and fast then had difficulty finding the precise pickup point among the buildings, risking a strike at close range.

Delgado briefly glanced down at the courtyard where she was to land. For some reason it seemed smaller than he remembered, and despite his unwillingness to consider that he might have made an error in his calculations, he felt a twinge of doubt. Still, if Beech did crash, the fireworks would be magnificent.

Fire continued to rip through the sky as Delgado ran to Lycern. In other circumstances he would have performed basic checks on her condition, but he had no time for such niceties. Instead he simply hefted her up on to his shoulder and made his way towards the courtyard.

She was even heavier than her appearance suggested, as if her body was incredibly dense, and despite being immensely fit Delgado was red-faced and sweating before he had left the apartment.

He walked to the steps leading down into the courtyard and took them slowly, pausing when he reached the bottom. He had to wait patiently, remain in cover. The cannons were still firing and he could hear people close by, shouting and swear­ing. His nobics fed him traces of mood from those around him, and visuals opened giving information about the slipspacer. Beech was two miles away, closing rapidly; the craft had not yet suffered any serious damage despite the barrage. He could hear the vessel quite clearly now; its discordant wailing sounded remarkably like babies crying.

At that moment, the slipspacer appeared above the rooftops like a dark cloud, its odd, angular shape a bizarre contrast to the curvaceous elegance of the courtyard and surrounding buildings. As it hovered, the gunmen attacking the vessel seemed unable to train their weapons on it properly, and although they scored one or two hits that caused minor damage to unimportant areas, most of their fire was ineptly focused, passing too wide or high. Razors of return laser fire were occasionally released by the slipspacer’s automatic defence systems, but Delgado knew well that these were largely inaccurate at such close range and could not be relied upon as a source of protection. He would have to be quick. Very quick.

The shrubs beneath the slipspacer began to singe as the vessel sank slowly towards the ground; columns of steam spiralled upwards as the water in the fountain boiled. The cannon fire ceased as the vessel dropped below the gunmen’s line of sight, its engines screaming. Landing skids extended, one of which crushed the stalking bird. As waste gases were released through vents on the vessel’s underside, a thick ramp emerged from the hull with a disapproving rumble he could feel through the soles of his feet.

Delgado slipped from his hiding place. As he struggled to carry Lycern up the ramp he heard a volley of gunfire burst from two corners of the courtyard, faint pops and cracks indicating basic projectile weaponry. He swore, but had to keep running, and hope he was not carrying a corpse full of holes.

When he next looked up he saw Beech standing in the open hatchway, cradling an automatrix pulse rifle in her hands. She looked down at the weapon, flicked rapidly between modes, and began to return fire, streams of light drawing perfect near-silent lines in the air above the courtyard. The hostile gunfire lessened; Beech immediately turned her attention to another source.

“Welcome aboard, Commander,” she shouted as he climbed the ramp’s final few metres. A bullet ricocheted off the slip­spacer’s hull and passed between them. Beech changed the gun’s setting, then took careful aim and released a long burst of corplak tracer that sounded like a long swathe of fabric being torn; for a few moments all hostile firing ceased. “You look like you’re having difficulty,” she shouted. “Would you like a hand?”

“Thanks very much. Some lifting gear would be useful.” Delgado slumped forward and allowed Lycern to roll from his shoulders, her weight carrying her further into the craft. He grabbed a sidearm from the charge rack in the wall and hit the door override button with his fist to keep it open. Then he lay flat on the floor and aimed. “Just get this thing into the air and get us out of here.” He began firing at a fresh complement of guards without waiting for any kind of response.

“Well, if that’s all the thanks I’m going to get . . .”

“If you don’t upship now you’ll be getting a whole lot more than thanks.” Delgado released a few more rounds, followed by a prolonged burst. Beech shrugged, casually threw her rifle towards him, then sauntered back up to the flight deck, glancing only momentarily at the Seriatt lying on the floor.

More armed members of the Affinity Group began to fire at the slipspacer from another area of the courtyard; others appeared on a balcony to their right and a volley of shots crossed the space. Bullets ricocheted from the area around the hatch. One hit a panel behind Delgado, showering him with fragments of metal and plastic. The noise from the engines increased substantially and he felt the vessel rise. As the slipspacer left the vicinity of the courtyard Delgado heard the faint ping of bullets hitting the craft, a delicate music that somehow managed to penetrate the roar of the engines.

Beech tipped the craft slightly to give him more cover and flew across the complex, heading towards the coast. The disparate nature of the installation was underlined as Delgado peered past the edge of the open hatchway. Above the court­yard, incoming fire came once again from the guard towers; Delgado destroyed two with the automatrix rifle and was aiming at a third when Beech turned the craft and the tower was obscured from view. Cannon fire resumed briefly from other towers when they were forced to climb, but with the need for stealth required on her approach gone, Beech accelerated rapidly and they were soon out of the enemy weapons’ limited range.

With the temperature dropping rapidly, the wind raging around him and the floor at an angle of about forty degrees, Delgado had to pull himself up using part of the weapons’ charge rack in order to seal the hatch. He looked at the still unconscious Seriatt, who had rolled a short distance as the craft had climbed and was now resting against a bulkhead. Despite one or two moments of doubt, it seemed his plan might work after all.

All he had to do now was deal with Beech.

Beech cycled through a swarm of visuals as the slipspacer powered away from the planet. A small map was dedicated to scanner control in case the Affinity Group decided to give chase, while the remainder calculated the course they would take following their slide into slipspace.

“What have you done with her?” she asked, looking in Delgado’s direction with the blank, unseeing expression that indicated intense visuals activity.

“She’s in one of the passenger cabins,” said Delgado curtly; he was preoccupied, distracted.

“I take it you used the nobic solution?”

“Had to. She was extremely suspicious. If I hadn’t put her out the whole mission would’ve been in jeopardy.”

“Oh, and it wasn’t already? I can’t help thinking Myson’s still not going to be pleased despite getting his conosq. Structure’s relationship with the Affinity Group is almost as tense as it is with Seriatt. If this ship was positively identified as a Structure vessel the shit could hit the fan.”

Delgado glanced at the various instruments and displays that surrounded them. He frowned: damage to any one of the monitors or control panels would ramp up his problems. His nobics could help him fly the craft to a certain extent, but no more than on the stricken shuttle, and that had not proved too successful. He would have to think of another way. “Nothing’s going to happen,” he said. “You did the right thing in coming to get us, believe me. Rest assured that General Myson will be fully informed of both your skill in getting us out of there and your unwillingness to disobey orders. If he’s not happy about how things transpired I’ll carry the can, OK?”

“Depends what’s in the can, Commander. Just remember what you said about the ppd. I risked my ass coming in there after you and I expect to be rewarded in the appropriate manner. I want a transfer to Earth, a shaft-side habitat suite and a private flier. At the very least.”

“You really are a modern Structure operative, aren’t you, Beech? OK, if that’s how you want it. Myson asked me to send a confidential report as soon as possible, so if you leave the flight deck for a while I’ll contact him, inform him of the mission’s status and mention the crucial role you’ve played in its success.”

“We’re almost ready to slipspace, but still within range of Affinity ships; if we delay the slide we’re increasing the risk of being caught.”

“You know I can’t transmit from slipspace, Beech. Just give me a few minutes to send the message and we can make the transition. Or aren’t you as serious about getting into the ppd as you implied?”

An alarm began to sound, cutting off her answer, a lazy mono­tone that seemed to call for apathy rather than action. As she stared at the shielded viewport in front of her, Beech’s eyelids fluttered, a complex array of visuals maps suddenly opening in her mind. “Two Affinity wasps,” she said quietly, almost to herself. “Chasing hard. Weapons already armed. Still out of range. Closing but slowly. Wait—there’s something else.” She narrowed her eyes, analysing and absorbing inform­ation. “That’s odd,” she said after a moment. “It’s a Sinz ship.”

“Really? How very interesting.”

“One Affinity ship is breaking off to intercept the Sinz craft.”

“But the other one’s still on our tail, right?” Beech nodded. “Destroy it,” he said. Delgado began trying to link into the slipspacer’s nobic interface so he could see what was going on himself: without real-time visuals updates he felt half-blind.

Beech’s eyes became visible behind the purple visor she wore as she dropped the maps and looked directly at him. “It’s still out of range. Besides, I have to remind you, Commander Delgado, that orders from General Myson are to avoid con­frontation with the Affinity Group at all costs. We can make the slide to slipspace now and the enemy vessel won’t be able to catch us. You look like shit,” she said with a frown.

Delgado shook his head. “Thanks very much. No. Destroy it. As you said, if they realise we’re Structure things could get nasty. They might not have positively identified us yet, and the less chance there is of that happening, the better. Destroy it.”

Beech pursed her lips, as if trying to think of something to counter his argument, but the visor misted over again and she returned to her trancelike state apparently unable to do so. A bank of manual controls lit up to her right. “Weapons systems armed,” she said flatly.

Delgado found the ai core interface and his mind was suddenly packed with visuals. After a second spent filtering irrelevant information, his head was filled with much the same data as Beech’s. The Affinity ship was no longer closing on them, and would not get close enough to fire if they maintained their speed; similarly, they would be unable to destroy it because it was out of range.

“What’s happening with the Sinz ship?” said Delgado. “I can’t focus on it.”

Beech shifted through visuals. “Difficult to say.”

“I need to know.”

“The Affinity craft seems to be cruising rather than chasing. The Sinz vessel is within range but nothing’s happening. And unless I’m very much mistaken, the Sinz craft is an old Reactionary Forces sdv. It’s been re-coded and re-specified, but it is an sdv. D-type. Interesting.”

“I wouldn’t say interesting exactly.”

“What would you say?”

“I’d say it’s ironic. I’d also say we’d better despatch our friends here just in case we suddenly find ourselves out­numbered. Watch the other two craft and let me know what happens.” Delgado moved to vessel control cycles and opened combat interfaces. The Affinity craft was still some way behind them, its distance maintained. He reduced all four of the slipspacer’s propulsion units to idle and put the braking unit on an extremely narrow spread, focusing the energy tightly to ensure maximum speed degradation. The slipspacer slowed rapidly, its composite containment field envelope ebbing and flowing to negate the physical forces that would otherwise kill the passengers. Delgado felt a slight vibration through his seat as a service panel by his left foot fell open—it seemed that even the high specification generators used by the slipspacer found some manoeuvres taxing.

The vessel slowed incredibly quickly and the distance between the two craft diminished in seconds. This was some­thing for which the crew of the Affinity ship were apparently unprepared. They could neither alter weapons focus to target the slipspacer fast enough to take advantage of its new range, or slow their craft with equivalent speed.

Delgado, who had preset weapons focus to one quarter of the crafts’ previous separation, simply waited. As the Affinity craft closed on the slipspacer, emotional traces from its crew slipped sideways into his consciousness. He smiled: they were frantic, panicking. A moment later, when the craft was at half initial separation, Delgado calmly released three bolts of plasma. In the 0.2 standard seconds that followed, plasma charge and Affinity craft approached each other at immeasur­able speed. Then they met.

Hardware data flared momentarily, then vanished from Delgado’s visuals. The rippling confusion of emotional traces he had experienced just a moment earlier were also gone. He opened a real-time viewsheet and focused on the relevant area. There was nothing to be seen: no wreckage, no survival pods, no fireworks display. Destruction was total.

Delgado linked into Beech’s visuals. “What’s going on?” he said.

“Nothing. The Sinz sdv has plasma charged in all weapons clusters but has made no effort to move into attack position. For all we know they may have plasma charged as standard procedure.”

“And the Affinity craft is maintaining its distance?”

“Right.”

Delgado shook his head. “Nothing more’s going to happen there, Beech,” he said, closing all main visuals. “The Affinity craft is escorting the Sinz vessel out of the sector. They won’t bother with us now. For one thing we’ve just destroyed their companion craft and for another they’re too far away to catch us. So, now that little escapade is over, perhaps you’d like to go and check on our Seriattic friend while I contact General Myson. Then we can make the slide. She’s on b deck, cabin four. Go.”

“You really need to learn some respect for fellow officers, Commander, even those who are younger than you. I know you’ve been in the service a long time but—”

“Stop your whining and get your ass out of here, Beech. I need to send this transmission.”

“Well, do me a favour will you, Commander? Watch that monitor there,” she pointed, “—and if you see anything that looks like an ether fibrillation, open combat visuals and call me.” She pushed herself out of her seat and left the flight deck.

Delgado waited for five minutes, staring at the screen she had indicated. This was it: the turning point. He briefly reconsidered what he was about to do, but could see no other way of changing his position. If he was to be true to himself, he had no choice. The combat of the previous few moments had reminded him who he was, but somehow it had left a bitter taste in his mouth. He had gone too far now to be able to suppress his loathing for Structure and Myson, and to act on their behalf in whatever context went against the feelings that increasingly dominated him.

He allowed a few more minutes to pass, then got up and followed Beech to b deck.

When Delgado entered the cabin, Beech was bending over Lycern, examining the Seriatt’s face closely. She straightened and turned when she heard Delgado’s footsteps.

“Commander,” she said, “I take it your message is sent and I can now return to the flight deck?”

“My message is sent.” He avoided her eyes.

“And you mentioned my transfer to the ppd?”

“Trust me when I say that you need not worry about your transfer to the ppd, Beech.”

The officer smiled. “That’s good news,” she said. She walked towards him, her hands clasped behind her back. “It’s some­thing I’ve wanted for a very long time, a goal towards which I’ve been working. It’ll be satisfying to achieve it, however so.” They were standing barely a breath apart. “I hope we haven’t got off on the wrong foot, Commander Delgado. Perhaps you’d like to help me celebrate my future post,” she reached out and touched his chest with the fingertips of her right hand, “when we’ve entered slipspace. You’re an arrogant man. But your confidence is attractive.”

Delgado experienced a sudden dizziness and disorientation he was unable to rationalise. He found his nobics unrespon­sive, as if suppressed, and was unable to utilise them to stabilise his body. The room began to spin; his heart hammered in his chest. He felt as if he would vomit at any moment.

Beech was kissing him, her lips warm and soft against his. Yet he experienced the contact as if he was a third party, watching.

Delgado heard Beech telling him that they must make sure the Seriatt was securely fastened, and then return to the flight deck to recheck the calculations and monitor the slide. After that they would go to her cabin and celebrate her promotion in the only manner truly suitable. He saw her turn and walk towards the unconscious Seriatt, but did so in a hazy fug, as if inebriated, drugged or concussed. The dense rush of his own blood was the only recognisable sound, swelling dullness that seemed to emphasise the pressure in his head.

Delgado tried to concentrate, to clarify his thoughts and see his actions through. He followed Beech, watched her. The officer looked over her shoulder and asked him to do some­thing, to assist her in some way he could not decipher. He paused as some part of his mind made him consider what he was about to do, reminding him that this went against everything he had learned, everything he had stood for up to this point, however false and forced that standpoint might have been.

After moments which seemed like an aeon he managed to salvage a sense of his new purpose from the depths of his confusion. He drew his sidearm from its holster. Its weight and shape were somehow comforting, a reminder of other times; times he could not recall in detail. He raised his arm.

The first blow sent Beech to her knees, but she remained upright, as if praying. He moved around to one side of her and looked down at her face. She was staring, her expression one of slight confusion; her mouth was slightly open. The second blow left a wide, dark stripe across the side of her head, growing quickly, matting her hair as she fell to the floor. At the third blow Beech’s skull softened, and Delgado knew then that she posed no further threat.

On the flight deck, his head clearer, Delgado plotted a course projection to the only place within range he felt could offer some protection, some time in which to review, plan, and possibly negotiate. First he would need time to decide what exactly he was going to negotiate, however, for although he knew what it was he wanted, how it might realistically be achieved was less clear. He could be signing his own death warrant. In fact, he might effectively already be dead. But he knew the power of the Seriattic conosq named Vourniass Lycern, and recognised her importance to Myson. Delgado had to hope that the General needed her as badly as he claimed, since that was the only way Delgado would have any chance of achieving what had become an obsession: the downfall of Myson, the collapse of Structure.


The Affinity Trap © Martin Sketchley

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