Twenty-third century Earth, ravaged by climate change, looks backwards to the holy ideal of a pre-industrial Eden. Political power has been grabbed by a few powerful families and their green saints. Millions of people are imprisoned in teeming cities; millions more labour on Pharaonic projects to rebuild ruined ecosystems. On the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, the Outers, descendants of refugees from Earth's repressive regimes, have constructed a wild variety of self-sufficient cities and settlements: scientific utopias crammed with exuberant creations of the genetic arts; the last outposts of every kind of democratic tradition.
The fragile detente between the Outer cities and the dynasties of Earth is threatened by the ambitions of the rising generation of Outers, who want to break free of their cosy, inward-looking pocket paradises, colonise the rest of the Solar System, and drive human evolution in a hundred new directions. On Earth, many demand pre-emptive action against the Outers before it's too late; others want to exploit the talents of their scientists and gene wizards. Amid campaigns for peace and reconciliation, political machinations, crude displays of military might, and espionage by cunningly wrought agents, the two branches of humanity edge towards war . . .
“Shortlisted for this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award, this sweeping interplanetary adventure is also a thoughtful examination of human nature... McAuley…moves deftly among five well-drawn characters in the thick of the action: a cloned spy, a hotshot pilot, a ruthless scientist, a bluntly independent biological engineer and an unscrupulous diplomat. They all, in different ways, must choose between the familiar and the new, struggling to reconcile conflicting desires. This compelling tale opens vast panoramas while confronting believable people with significant choices,” according to a Publishers Weekly Starred review.
Locus says that The Quiet War “combines the damn-the-torpedoes, full speed ahead narrative impetus of a Peter F. Hamilton, with the detailed, even meticulous attention to world-building and character development that distinguished Kim Stanley Robinson's classic Mars sequence. McAuley has always been a stylish writer, but he outdoes himself here. The Quiet War marks Paul McAuley's triumphant return to full-bore space opera.”
Read an excerpt from the book here:
The Quiet War
Every day the boys woke when the lights came on at 0600. They showered and dressed, made their beds and policed the dormitory, endured inspection by one of their lectors. Breakfast was a dollop of maize gruel and a thimble of green tea. They ate quickly, each boy facing one of his brothers across the long table, no sound but the scrape of plastic spoons on plastic bowls. There were fourteen of them, tall and pale and slender as skinned saplings. Blue-eyed. Their naked scalps shone in the cold light as they bent over their scant repast. At two thousand six hundred days old they were fully grown but with traces of adolescent awkwardness yet remaining. They wore grey paper shirts and trousers, plastic sandals. Red numbers were printed on their shirts, front and back. The numbers were not sequential because more than half their original complement had been culled during the early stages of the programme.
After breakfast, the boys stood to attention in front of the big screen, flanked by their lectors and the avatars of their instructors. A flag filled the screen edge to edge and top to bottom, a real flag videoed somewhere on Earth, gently rippling as if caught in a draught. Its green light washed over their faces and set sparks in their eyes as they stood straightbacked in two rows, right hands starfished on their chests as they recited the Pledge of Allegiance.'I thought you already had all that stuff. I mean, you're the economist. Don't you need it to do your work?''Believe me, we would prefer not to ask you to do this,' Fox-face said. 'But it is the only way forward. It may be the only way to save the project.'
The same rituals every morning. The same video. The same flag rippling in exactly the same way. The same scrap of blue visible for half a second in the upper left-hand corner, the blue sky of Earth.
One of the boys, Dave #8, looked for that little flash of blue every day. Sometimes he wondered if his brothers looked for it as well, wondered if they too felt a yearning tug for the world they had been created to defend yet could never visit. He never talked about it, not even to his best friend, Dave #27. Things like that, feelings that made you think you might be different from your brothers, you kept to yourself. Difference was a weakness, and every kind of weakness must be suppressed. Even so, at the beginning of every day Dave #8 anticipated the fugitive glimpse of that scrap of Earth's sky, and every time he saw it he felt a flutter of longing in his heart.
One of the boys, Dave #8, looked for that little flash of blue every day. Sometimes he wondered if his brothers looked for it as well, wondered if they too felt a yearning tug for the world they had been created to defend yet could never visit. He never talked about it, not even to his best friend, Dave #27. Things like that, feelings that made you think you might be different from your brothers, you kept to yourself. Difference was a weakness, and every kind of weakness must be suppressed. Even so, at the beginning of every day Dave #8 anticipated the fugitive glimpse of that scrap of Earth's sky, and every time he saw it he felt a flutter of longing in his heart.
Their lectors and instructors recited the Pledge of Allegiance, too. Fathers Aldos, Clarke, Ramez and Solomon in their white, rope-girdled habits; the instructors' faces floating in the visors of the man-sized, man-shaped plastic shells of their avatars. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was instructors for ecosystem management, engineering, and sociology; the rest of the week it was theory of war, psychology, economics, and Hindi, Japanese, Mandarin, and Russian -- the boys were already fluent in English, the lingua franca of the enemy, but some enemy communities still used the languages of the homelands of their ancestors, and so the boys had to learn those, too.
The instructors taught theoretical classes in the morning and the lectors taught practical classes in the afternoon and evening. Maintenance and repair of pressure suits, construction and deployment of demons and data miners, vehicle and flight simulators, immersion scenarios that acquainted the boys with every aspect of everyday life in the cities of the enemy. They practised martial arts, bomb-making, and sabotage, and trained with staffs, swords, knives, and every other kind of blunt and bladed weapon. The practise versions were weighted so that they would find the real thing easier to handle. They learned to strip down, repair, and use firearms in all kinds of conditions. In the dark; in a centrifuge that buffeted them in every direction; in extremes of heat and cold and combinations of rain, snow, and high winds in the weather chamber. Sealed in their pressure suits. Underwater.
Every tenth day they were led in single file down a long umbilical passage to the cargo bay of a shuttle that took them into orbit. Floating weightless in the padded, windowless tube, where each move had to spring from the body's centre of mass and every blow caused an equal and opposite reaction, they had to learn hand-to-hand combat and use of weapons all over again.
The lectors punished every mistake. Father Solomon, who supervised the classes in martial arts, was quickest with the shock stick. Dave #8 and his brothers exhausted themselves in bruising bouts of boxing, capoeira and karate to win his approval, but most of them suffered at least one shock in each and every session.
Sometimes the practical classes were visited by an avatar that wore a woman's face. The lectors treated her with a deference they showed no one else and were quick to answer her questions. Usually she said nothing at all, watching the boys work for a few minutes or an hour before her face vanished from the avatar's visor and it marched out of the gymnasium and returned to its rack. The woman's name was Sri Hong-Owen. The boys had long ago concluded that she must be their mother.
It didn't matter that she looked nothing like them. After all, they'd been cut to resemble the enemy, treated with the same gene therapies, given the same metabolic tweaks, the same so-called enhancements. But the enemy had been human before they had perverted themselves, so the boys must have started out as human beings, too. And because they were clones, which was why they had numbers and why they were all called Dave (a casual joke by one of the instructors which the boys had incorporated into their private mythology), they must all have the same mother . . .
Although they had no proof that the woman was their mother, they had faith that she was. And faith was stronger than any mere proof because it came from God rather than the minds of men. She did not visit them often. Once every fifty days or so. The boys felt blessed by her presence, and worked harder and were more cheerful for days afterwards. Otherwise their routine was unvaried, dedicated to the serious business of learning how to kill and destroy. Learning how to make war.
In the evenings, after Mass, supper, and the struggle sessions in which the boys took turns to confess their sins and suffer the criticism of their brothers, it was politics. Videos crammed with motion and bright colours and swelling music told stories of courage and sacrifice from the history of Greater Brazil, showed how the enemy had betrayed humanity by sheltering on the Moon during the Overturn, how they had refused to return to Earth and help in its reconstruction but had instead run away to Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, how a group of Martians had later tried to attack Earth by nudging one of the Trojan asteroids, whose elliptical orbits around the sun crossed the orbit of Earth, into a collision course. The plot had failed, and a suicide mission of righteous heroes had exploded hydrogen bombs over the Martian settlements at Ares Valles and Hellas Planitia, and deflected the trajectory of a comet falling sunwards. The comet had been broken up by more hydrogen bombs and its fragments had stitched a string of huge craters around Mars's equator and wiped every trace of human life from the face of the red planet. But the enemy were plotting still in their nests and lairs on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn; were actively engaged in elaborating the greatest crime in the history of mankind by the anti-evolutionary engineering of their genomes.
The boys always knew which type of video would be shown because of the meal before it. Their favourite foods, sweet and swimming with fats, before history and heroes; gruel and plain boiled vegetables before crimes against humanity.
In snatched moments, they discussed the heroes they most admired and the battles they would have most liked to have fought in, and speculated about where they might go and what they might do after they had finished their training. Although war had not yet been declared, it was obvious that they were being trained to fight the enemy. Dave #27, who took extra instruction from Father Aldos on aspects of faith and the nature of Gaia, believed that if they were especially heroic they would be remade into ordinary human beings. Dave #8 wasn't so sure. Lately he'd been troubled by a simple paradox: if he and his brothers had been created by technology that was evil, how then could they ever do good? He brooded on this for a long time, and at last confided his thoughts to Dave #27, who told him that every kind of goodness can spring from evil, just as the most beautiful flowers may be rooted in filth. Wasn't that the story of the human race? Everyone was Fallen. Everyone who had ever lived was tainted by original sin. Yet anyone could achieve Heaven if they atoned for their sins by cultivating their faith, praising God, and tending His creation. Even the enemy had the potential to be redeemed, but they refused God because they wanted to be little gods themselves, ruling little heavens of their own making. Heavens that were heaven in name only, and were doomed to become hells to spite their creators' hubris because they lacked the grace that flowed only from God.
'We are sinful in origin and aspect, but not in deed,' Dave #27 said. 'We do not use our talents to rebel against God, but to serve Him. We might even be a little closer to angels than other men, because we are wholly dedicated to serving the Trinity. Because we are holy warriors who will gladly and eagerly lay down their lives for God, Gaia, and Greater Brazil.'
Dave #8, alarmed by the shine in Dave #27's eyes, warned his brother that he was committing the mortal sin of pride. 'Our lives may be dedicated to the defence of God and Gaia and Greater Brazil, but that doesn't mean we're in any way like the heroes of the great stories.'
'What are we, then?'
'Soldiers,' Dave #8 said. 'No more, no less.'
He did not want to be special. It helped that he did not excel or outshine his brothers in any aspect of training or instruction, that he lacked Dave #27's love of discourse and argument, Dave #11's limber athleticism, Dave #19's skill in electronic warfare. He wanted to believe that lack of any kind of singular talent was a virtue, for differing in any way from the ordinary might foster pride that would lead him astray and make him fail in his duty.
One day Father Solomon caught him trying to examine his reflection. This was in the gymnasium. There were cases of weapons down one long wall -- short spears and javelins, stabbing swords and long swords, fencing foils and bouquets of knives, staffs, maces, bludgeons, truncheons, halberds, and pikes, longbows and crossbows and their arrows and quarrels, as well as the grinding stones and bottles of mineral oil and diamond-dust polish and files used to keep edges sharp and metal clean. There were projectile and energy weapons, too. Machine-pistols, target pistols, and sniper rifles; glasers whose beam could cook a man from the inside out; tasers that fired clouds of charged tags; pulse rifles that fired plasma needles hot as the surface of the sun. Ranged along the far wall of the cavernous room were racks of armour, pressure suits, and scuba suits with integral airpacks. That was where Dave #8 sat cross-legged with his brothers, the components of the pressure suits they had dismantled during a routine maintenance exercise laid out in front of them.
Dave #8 was holding the chest-plate of his pressure suit at arm's-length, turning it this way and that. Its polished black curve gave back only distorted fragments, but there were no mirrors anywhere in the warren of chambers the boys called home and this was the best he could do. He was trying to see if there was something different in his face. If there was, then he would know that his suspicion that he thought differently was true.
He did not notice Father Solomon creeping up behind him on rubber-soled sandals, thumbing back the snap that fastened his shock stick to his belt.
When Dave #8 came round, with an all-over cramp and blood in his mouth, Father Solomon was standing over him and lecturing the other boys about vanity. Dave #8 knew that he was in trouble so deep that the exercise Father Solomon gave them after his lecture, assembling their pressure suits in a howling snowstorm in the weather chamber, would not be enough to atone for it.
In the struggle session that evening, each of his brothers stood up in turn and denounced him ringingly, as he had denounced them in other sessions after they had committed sins of omission or commission. He could not explain that he had been trying to catch sight of hidden faults in the reflection of his face. It was forbidden to attempt to excuse or explain any sins, and he was conditioned to believe that every punishment was just. He was being punished because he deserved it.
The theme of Father Clarke's sermon at Mass took as its text Ecclesiastes, chapter one, verse two. Vanity of vanities, said the preacher; vanity of vanities and everything is vanity. It was a favourite of the lectors, but that evening Dave #8 knew that it was directed straight at him, a righteous X-ray laser shrivelling his soul.
Burning with misery and shame and self-loathing, he sat through a video that documented in gruesome detail the brute lawlessness and cannibalism that had swept over the great North American cities during the Overturn. He was certain that he had failed especially badly. That he was a candidate for disappearance. For although the last disappearance had occurred when the boys had been very much younger, over one and a half thousand days ago, it had been drilled into them that their survival was forever provisional and they must struggle to attain perfection every hour of every day.
The disappearances had always happened at night. The boys would wake to find one of their number gone, his bed stripped bare, his footlocker open and empty. No explanation had ever been given; none was needed. Their brother had disappeared because he had failed, and failure was not tolerated.
In bed after the lights had been switched off, Dave #8 struggled to stay awake, but his conditioning soon won out over his fear. He slept. And in the morning was surprised to discover himself still in his narrow bed, with the bustle of his brothers rising and dressing all around him. It was as if he had been reborn. Nothing had changed, yet everything was charged with significance.
Full of joy, he stood with his brothers in front of the rippling flag on the big screen and with his right hand over his heart recited the familiar words with renewed ardour.
I pledge allegiance to the flag of Greater Brazil and to the undertaking for which it stands, one Earth under Gaia, indivisible, restored, replenished, and purged of all human sin.
Cash Baker was just twenty-six, with eight years' service in the Greater Brazilian Air Defence Force, when he was selected for the J-2 singleship test programme. From inauspiciously ordinary origins in a hardscrabble city in the badlands of East Texas he'd risen through the ranks with astonishing speed. Luckily, he'd received as good an education as anyone in his neck of the woods could reasonably expect, and one of his teachers had spotted his preternatural mathematical ability and given him extra tutoring and steered him towards the Air Defence Force. He scraped into the top percentile in the induction tests, was streamed straight into basic pilot-training at the academy in Monterrey, and a year later, on a hot, thundery day in August, marched at the head of the graduation parade for the class of 2210. He started out flying fat-bellied Tapir-L4s on supply missions to remote camps of the Wreckers Corps east of the Great Lakes, was quickly promoted to the combat wing of the 114th Squadron, flying fast, deadly little Raptors, and distinguished himself in a string of air-support missions during the campaign fought by General Arvam Peixoto's Third Division, clearing bandit settlements in and around the ruins of Chicago. The bandits were organised and highly disciplined, but for the most part poorly armed, although one time someone fired a reconditioned smart missile at Cash's bird and he had a hairy couple of minutes flying all over the sky before his battle AI broke the encryption of the missile's fierce little mind and it incontinently exploded.
Then he was transferred to the big base outside Santiago and flew long-range intercept patrols out across the Pacific during the Cold War between Greater Brazil and the Pacific Community, when for a little while it looked as if war might break out over possession of Hawaii. After the Cold War cooled down, he was selected for test-pilot school, and worked on a new generation ground-to-orbit fighter, the Jaguar Ghost. A dream to handle in orbit, but a pig during re-entry. After three of the eight prototypes crashed and burned when their engines flamed on erratically or not at all while planing back into the atmosphere, and two more burnt up because of flaws in their lightweight diamond-paint heat shields, the programme was cancelled. But Cash had a lot of fun in the six months he spent testing the craft, loved the way the horizon flexed beneath him and the sky darkened until the stars came out as he arrowed out of the atmosphere, loved the serene oceanic feeling of seeming to float above the Earth while travelling at several thousand klicks a second. Up there, the terrible wounds left by the industrial age and anthropogenic climate change and the Overturn were mostly invisible. The dead zones in the oceans, the flooding along the shorelines of every continent, the deforested deserts of the Amazonian basin and Africa, the vast and tumbled deserts of North America, the ruined cities . . . All was lost in the shining vastness of the beautiful blue planet. Cash wasn't especially religious, but in orbit he understood for the first time what the green saints meant when they said that the Earth was a living organism whole and entire.
After the Jaguar fiasco Cash was returned to combat status, but by now he had a bad jones for test flying, and for space. He was chasing down rumours of a new kind of space plane when General Arvam Peixoto's office reached out to him. The general remembered Cash from the Chicago campaign, and Cash volunteered for the test programme as soon as he was asked if he wanted to come aboard.
So he went to the Moon, and the Earth seemed lovelier than ever, a lonely blue-white pearl floating in the black sky above the lunar wastelands. A hundred and fifty years ago some of Earth's richest, brightest, and most powerful people had underwritten the construction costs of a tented city, Athena, east of Archimedes Crater on the edge of the Imbrium Basin, moving there to escape the devastation and disorder caused by climate change and dozens of brush-fire wars fought over dwindling resources. Strip mines had processed lunar regolith for helium-3, and there was a sprawling site where sunshade mirrors had been manufactured and slung into orbit at the L1 point between the Earth and Moon. The helium-3 had been used in fusion reactors; the swarm of mirrors had cut down insolation and helped to stabilise the Earth's climate during the wild years of the Overturn, when runaway global warming driven by vast surges of methane released from Antarctic clathrates had threatened to cause mass extinction on a global scale. The mirrors were in orbit still, maintained by international crews. It would be at least another century before the effects of the Overturn and global warming were entirely ameliorated.
When it had become clear that the new supranational states that had emerged after the Overturn were determined to take control of the strip mines and shut down everything else on the Moon, the construction workers and the science crews, along with their families and many of the private citizens and their families and employees, had lit out for Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Greater Brazil had claimed the city they had abandoned in place, and it had been refurbished by members of the Peixoto family, its most enthusiastic proselytisers for an expansion of the space programme. They had built a small fleet of long-range ships, had recently established links and trade routes with cities and settlements in the Jupiter and Saturn systems, and their skunk works had developed all kind of technological miracles, including a new kind of combat space plane.
Directly after disembarking from the shuttle from Earth, Cash and the other volunteers for the test programme were taken to a briefing room where General Arvam Peixoto walked them through the specs of the prototype of the new plane, the J-2 singleship. It was a hot bird, all right. A self-guided missile equipped with a new kind of fusion motor that used antiprotons to drive a fission/fusion chain reaction in microdroplets of deuterium and tritium, and was far more powerful than any currently in operation. There was a pressure-suit-sized life system at the J-2's sharp end, it had cut-back wings for atmospheric sorties, and it was armed with a pumped-pulse X-ray laser, a drum of single-shot gamma-ray lasers, a rail mini-gun that fired depleted-uranium flechettes, a variety of conventional missiles, and manoeuvrable proxies that after being fired from a fat cannon could do all kinds of imaginative damage when they caught up with their targets. Its flight guidance system, using long-range and sideways radars, and GPS and contour maps accurate to within ten centimetres, could fly it completely around the Moon at an average altitude of a hundred metres, and then do it all over again, with exactly the same flight profile. And it was so agile and so fast, General Peixoto explained, that in combat situations it demanded superhuman qualities from its pilots.
The general was a powerfully built man with shoulder-length white hair brushed back from his craggy face. He talked with an easy informal style, as if to members of his own family, making eye contact with everyone in the room. When his glance fell on Cash for a moment, the young pilot felt his heart swell with pride and passion.
'You are already the most able pilots in Air Defence,' General Peixoto said. 'There are none better than you anywhere on Earth or the Moon. But it is possible to make you even better. I'm not familiar with all the techniques involved, and I think it only fair that you should understand completely what we are asking of you. So I'm going to hand you over for a few minutes to Professor Doctor Sri Hong-Owen, who will walk you through what the procedure entails.'
Later, one of the pilots, Luiz Schwarcz, whose family had a background in medical science, told the others that Sri Hong-Owen was a stone-cold genius who had risen to the top of her field under the sponsorship of the Peixoto family's green saint, that she'd designed a radical new photosynthetic system, created all kinds of vacuum organisms, developed many of the techniques that family members used to extend their lives, and much else. But at the time, during the briefing, Cash Baker didn't think much of her. Severe and awkward, dressed in the same blue coveralls everyone wore around the base, she was a plain woman of indeterminate age with a shaved, gleaming scalp and the palest skin he'd ever seen. She talked too fast, addressed the checklists, diagrams, and videos she conjured in the memo space rather than her audience, and answered questions with a brisk, take-no-prisoners manner, as if she thought the pilots were goddamned fools who'd failed to grasp the simplest of facts about the procedure.
Which was, when all the jargon and doubletalk was boiled away, some kind of rewiring or augmentation of their nervous systems that would allow them not only to plug directly into the plane's control systems, but also to briefly boost their neural-processing speeds. When Sri Hong-Owen was done, General Peixoto addressed the pilots again, telling them that it was an extremely radical procedure, that there was no guarantee that it would work in every case, or that everyone would survive it. If any of them wished to walk away and return to normal duties, there would be no dishonour in doing so, no shame, and no mention of it on their service record, he said, and asked those who wished to volunteer to raise their hands.
Cash stuck his arm straight up. So did everyone else. Someone down at the front was waving both his hands above his head. Because, hell, who didn't want to be a better pilot?
The first operation was performed under general anaesthetic and laid an artificial neural network around Cash's spine. The process of bedding in, as the network interfaced with his peripheral nervous system, was tedious and sometimes agonising, and during the seemingly endless rounds of tests that followed he found it weirdly unsettling to watch his right or left arm move by itself and his hands dance through a memo space with robotic swiftness and precision, solving spatial and kinetic problems without any conscious intervention on his part.
There was worse to come. He had to stay awake throughout the second operation, when the interfaces of the network were laced into his motor and sensory cortices, because the surgical team had to check that not only were his new talents in place and functioning, but also that nothing else, from his spinal reflexes to his memory, was damaged during the procedure that inserted them. So although he was given a nerve block and felt no pain, Cash had to endure the vibration and smell of burnt blood and bone as the bone saw cut open his skull, felt the sucking lift as the cap of his skull was lifted away, heard the mosquito whine of the bush robot that worked on his brain with manipulators that divided and divided a thousand times into clouds of cutting and recording tips nanometres in length, not much bigger than the neurons on which they operated. And although the brain has no pain receptors, he felt waves of phantom pain burn through his limbs as the bush robot tested each and every connection, was overwhelmed by discordant symphonies of emotion and taste and sound and hallucinatory shapes of every colour. Afterwards, he was knocked out for two days while final tests were made, and then he and the rest of the pilots on the wing began their long convalescence.
They had to learn to use their bodies all over again, but they were young and fit and determined. They made rapid progress and turned everything into a contest. Laying bets on who would be the first to walk from bed to jakes unaided, who threw up the most (at first they all suffered from balance and inner-ear problems), who could deliver the greatest volume of piss when the doctors asked for a sample. Later on, when they were allowed to use the gym, they competed to see who could do the most press-ups or sit-ups, who could cycle or run the furthest on the machines, who could bench-press the heaviest weights.
Aldo Ruiz started to get into arguments with an invisible presence, hectoring the air in front of his face with passionate anger. He was taken away after he started to punch and slap himself, and the rest of the wing never saw him again.
The next week the tests started in earnest.
Complete physicals to begin with, more intensive than any they'd endured during induction. Then psychological testing, answering all kinds of questions about hypothetical situations and having to complete puzzles while wearing caps that monitored their brain activity. They also wore the caps while carrying out basic exercises on simulations of the J-2. Two of them were weeded out at this stage, for reasons never explained. The rest went forward into the testing and training programme.
No one bothered to tell Cash what would happen the first time his new abilities were activated. He was lying on a couch, surrounded by the usual gaggle of doctors and medical technicians, and then everything around him slowed. His hearing faded, leaving only a faint rumble; it felt as if he was sinking deep in tar; his field of vision dopplered down to red and narrowed to a patch about the size of his thumbnail held at arm's length. He couldn't turn or raise his head but could slowly track his eyes, moving that tiny patch of acuity like a spotlight to study a tech's ponderous blink (one eye squashing shut just before the other), watch another make a laborious mark on a slate. And then, just as suddenly, the world came back to normal. He was hot and horribly breathless, as if he'd just run twenty kilometres in full gear. His chest heaved as he tried to suck down air and his heart was slamming against his ribs and then the taste of metal flooded his mouth and he briefly fainted.
The doctors and techs wouldn't tell Cash if he'd passed or failed, wouldn't explain exactly what had happened to him, wouldn't tell him that it had been okay to faint. So he didn't know if he'd scratched out until he was returned to the ward, and found that everyone else had fainted when they'd been accelerated into what the techs called hyper-reflexive mode for the first time. In the night, Eudóxia Vitória and Bris Lispector both threw full-blown epileptic fits and the doctors took them away and the rest of the wing never saw them again. After the second day of testing Chiquinho Brown didn't come back, and Luiz Schwarcz claimed that he'd overheard one tech telling another that Chiquinho had died of a heart attack.
Those were the last casualties. Five weeks later, the survivors were passed as fit and fully integrated. They had each logged over a hundred hours on simulations, both with normal HUD controls and with their neural systems wired directly into control and guidance systems. Because they might be zipped into their birds for weeks at a time in a war situation, they'd all had their teeth extracted and replaced by contoured plastic ridges. Their appendices had been removed, too. Now they were let loose on the J-2 prototypes, flying with only HUD controls at first, basic point-to-point flights and simple combat simulations. After two weeks of these bedding-in trials, Cash Baker was selected to be the first pilot to fly in fully-wired mode.
It was a live-round discriminatory target exercise. He flew west -- the bird was basically flying itself, but Cash was extended into every corner of its airframe -- out across the dark plain where more than three and a half billion years ago lava had flooded the raw impact crater of the Imbrium Basin. When the target area in the slumped rim mountains at the far edge of the basin came around the horizon, the transition from being merely wired in to flying by wire was fantastically smooth: the J-2's trim altered by less than point zero one arc of a minute. It wasn't like flying the plane. It was like being the plane. Like having sex with it, Luiz said later, although as far as Cash was concerned, that first time, he couldn't remember when he'd ever had sex that good.
He'd been taught to visualise the trigger for his hyper-reflexes as a big red button in the centre of his head. He pressed that button now, and everything went dream-slow. He felt each individual jolt as the rail mini-gun loosed a hail of depleted-uranium flechettes that shredded a simulated pressure dome, located the two rolligons with friendly markings moving across the plain amongst six others tagged as enemy, and targeted those six and crisped their control systems with precise gamma-ray laser shots within a second, and used missiles to take out a series of pop-up targets. Then the target area was behind him, and he gave up command and control to the J-2's battle AI and pushed the imaginary red button again. He'd learned how to stay conscious during the switch-over by now, and was able to acknowledge the range officer's confirmation of his kills.
That evening there was an official celebration of the programme's success. The pilots hung in a tight group and sipped water and fruit juice while senior officers and scientists and techs tossed down shots of pulque and rum and tequila and grew loud and animated. General Peixoto made a short speech, was videoed shaking the hands of the pilots, and disappeared. Officers and the science crew toasted the pilots and each other with grand and florid eloquence, shattered empty glasses on the floor. The pilots left when one of the suit techs was persuaded to take off her shirt and the party started to get serious -- they had medical tests the next morning just like every other morning, 0530 - 0630, and then an hour in the gym before the daily briefing over breakfast before they started work.
Everyone in the Air Defence Force believed that there was going to be another war with the Outers. The so-called peace and reconciliation initiatives would never amount to anything other than a colossal waste of time; the Outers had to be brought under control before they threw another comet at Earth, or developed some weird posthuman tweak that made them invincible. There was going to be war, and Cash Baker, raised on stories of the heroic deeds of his forefathers, couldn't wait. Meanwhile, he and the other pilots continued to work on the J-2. They flew solo missions and flew in formation. They flew over every type of lunar landscape, practised intercept missions in orbit around the Moon and Earth, tested their birds at every level of Earth's atmosphere. When they weren't flying in real time, they honed specific skills in simulations, attended seminars on redesign and improvements of their craft, and updates in combat theory, endured endless suit fittings, medical tests, psychological evaluations . . .
One day, about six months after Cash's maiden flight, the intelligence officer delivering the usual briefing session after breakfast gave way to the colonel in charge of the J-2 programme, who said without preamble that Maximilian Peixoto, the husband of the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Greater Brazilian Air Defence Force, had died late last night. He told the pilots that there would be no test or training flights until after the funeral, which would take place in ten days' time, and said that he had been instructed to choose four pilots who would fly their J-2s over the cathedral in Brasília at the end of the funeral service to honour the man who had been their commander. He named Cash Baker and Luiz Schwarcz and two others, and announced that there would be a special Mass in one hour.
Afterwards, Luiz told Cash that this changed everything.
'Maximilian Peixoto wasn't just our Commander-in-Chief. He was also chair of the Committee for Reconciliation, one of the champions of making peace with the Outers. He set up the first embassies out there thirty years ago. He'd been working steadily ever since to establish trade links. And he naturally had the ear of the President. Now he's dead, his friends will have much less influence.'
'This means what?'
'You really are an ignorant son of a bitch,' Luiz said.
'Maybe I am,' Cash said. 'Or maybe I don't much care for politics.'
'Well, you should. There are many people in the government who think it is pointless and dangerous to try to make friendly overtures to the Outers. They are not yet in the majority, but now they will be able to argue openly against peace and reconciliation. And General Arvam Peixoto is one who has always opposed reconciliation very strongly. You watch out. Pretty soon I believe that he will get the green light to put the J-2 into production.'
'So we're finally going head to head against the Outers.'
'Not quite yet, but we're a step closer.'
'Well it's about time,' Cash said.
It was the most important funeral to have been held in Brasília for more than twenty years. The avenues around the Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida were clogged with limousines and flitters. Drivers and security details eyed each other with professional interest. Drones wove amongst treetops. Helicopters beat wide circles under the hot blue sky. Wolves prowled the long park, Eixo Monumental, and half the city was paralysed by interlocking rings of security.
Inside the cathedral the harmonies of the Agnus Dei laced the air, soaring above solemn strings and the earth-shaking reverberation of the organ whose ranked pipes rose like a pleated steel curtain behind choir and orchestra. In front of the pure white block of the limestone altar, a tulipwood coffin rested on a bank of sweetly odorous lilies and orchids. Here lay Maximilian Pietro Solomon Cristagau Flores Peixoto, husband of the President of Greater Brazil, Commander-in-Chief of the Greater Brazilian Air Defence Force, Grand Wizard of the Order of the Knights of Viridis, Steward of the Northern Territories, Chair of the Committee for Reconciliation, Rector of the Universities of Montevideo, Caracas, Mexico City and Denver, and so on and so forth, a great power in the world who had died from systemic organ failure at the age of one hundred and seventy-two. The dead man's dark face peeped still and solemn above the linen sheet that wrapped his body. His famous moustache waxed to sharp points. His eyes closed by gold coins salvaged from the wreck of a Spanish galleon.
His coffin was elevated above the sleeve of water that cut across the equator of the cathedral's circular nave. The water was as black as oil, disturbed here and there by spreading ringlets as fish tasted the underside of its skin. On the far side, the congregation in funeral finery packed three broad tiers of seats like a parliament of rooks. Almost every member of the Peixoto family was present, occupying forty rows of the middle tier, ranked by consanguinity. The widowed President sat on a canopied chair at the centre of the first row, resplendent in fuliginous robes, now and then reaching under the veil that covered her face to capture a tear in a tiny vase of cultured diamond. Behind the family rose solemn phalanxes of senators, senior officers of the armed forces glittering in ceremonial uniform, ambassadors and politicians from every country on Earth, and the representative from Rainbow Bridge, Callisto. On the flanking tiers were members of the other great families, ministers, governors, senior civil servants, and the servants of the Great House: an audience of two thousand people, with millions more watching pictures relayed from static cameras.
Professor Doctor Sri Hong-Owen didn't have a single drop of Peixoto family blood in her veins, yet she and her fifteen-year-old son, Alder Topaz, were sitting with the family nonetheless, on the far left-hand side of the fortieth row of the central tier. They were attending the funeral in place of one of the senior members of the family, Sri's sponsor and mentor, the green saint Oscar Finnegan Ramos, who these days never stirred from his hermitage in Baja California, even for an occasion as grand and important as this.
The long service was crammed with intricate ritual. Mass, a sermon celebrating the dead man's life, the service for the commitment of the dead, and now the requiem. No doubt the music was glorious, but Sri was tone-deaf and quite unable to appreciate it. As was her habit when forced to endure some tedious ceremony or committee meeting to which she had nothing to contribute but her presence, she retreated into her head, meditating on the latest tests of a promising new refinement of the standard gerontological treatment. Alder, thoroughly engaged with the occasion, nudged her when choir and orchestra and organ achieved an ecstatic climax. The archbishop, dressed in green and gold mitre and robes, glided towards the bier and asperged the corpse with holy water and with his thumb printed its brow with oil. Then he stepped backward and made the sign of the cross and loop, and the coffin soundlessly tilted above its bed of flowers and the body shot out feet first, shedding its linen shroud and knifing into black water that boiled up in a fierce flurry as hungry fish began to feed, returning Maximilian Peixoto's store of carbon and other elements to Gaia.
A moment later, the whistling roar of a wing of J-2 singleships flying low above the city in 'missing man' formation shook the entire cathedral, and the choir and organ launched into the In Paradisum.
Sri's honorary position meant that she was among the first to leave the cathedral at the end of the service, but her lowly rank meant that she had to wait a long time for her ride. People streamed past and climbed into limousines that pulled away as others nosed forward. Flitters descended and ascended like bees at a hive.
Rothco Yang, the representative from Rainbow Bridge, Callisto, stepped out of the crowd and greeted Sri and Alder and told them that he had been most impressed by the solemn and splendid occasion. 'One thing puzzled me,' he said. 'The fish.'
'The fish in the pool or moat or whatever it is called.' Rothco Yang, dressed in black silk pyjamas and a black broad-brimmed hat, was fastened inside the cage of the exoskeleton that supported him against the pull of Earth's gravity. 'I was wondering what happens to them afterward. After they are . . . finished.'
'I really don't know,' Sri said, 'but I could look it up.'
Alder said, 'Nothing happens to the fish. They are holy, I think.'
'Blessed by the archbishop,' Alder said.
Rothco Yang's smile gleamed under the brim of his hat. His head was propped by a padded neck-brace. 'And is this how all people are, what is the phrase, returned to Gaia?'
'Only the most important,' Alder said.
'And the rest?'
'People who can afford it are buried in green cemeteries. Woods, wildflower meadows. Everyone else is directly recycled.'
'I see. Another example of the stratification caused by personal wealth. Are you waiting for someone, by the way?'
'Our limousine appears to be stuck in the queue,' Sri said.
'If you are going to the reception I can give you a lift in my flitter.'
'I have too much work to do,' Sri said. She had not been invited to the reception at the Palácio da Alvorado, but she wasn't about to admit that to Rothco Yang.
'Of course. In three weeks you leave all this behind.'
'Three weeks if all goes to plan.'
'This changes nothing in the short term. As for the long term, we must work harder to convince the waverers and naysayers.'
'Of course,' Sri said, but she knew that Rothco Yang knew that it would not be so simple.
Maximilian Peixoto had been at the forefront of the movement to build and strengthen diplomatic and economic connections between Earth and the Outer communities. He'd overseen the establishment of missions in every major city of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, sponsored academic and artistic exchange programmes, won a sizeable budget for the development and construction of a new generation of interplanetary ships. And when the legendary gene wizard Avernus and Sri's mentor, Oscar Finnegan Ramos, had conceived the plan to gift the city of Rainbow Bridge, Callisto with a biome as a symbol of the new spirit of reconciliation, it had been Maximilian Peixoto who had steered the bill authorising funding for construction of its ecosystem through the reefs and snags of Greater Brazil's Senate, whipping up a scant majority by calling upon every favour he was owed and shamelessly using his privileged position as consort of the President. He'd hosted a grand reception for the construction crew just ten weeks ago, on the eve of their departure for Callisto. And now he was dead. The biome project would go ahead -- the construction crew would reach Callisto in a few days, and in any case it was too late to cancel it without massive loss of prestige -- but Maximilian Peixoto's death had thrown the alliance for peace and reconciliation into disarray. Sri's advisers had gamed the consequences, and most of the outcomes were grim.
Tiny motors in the joints of Rothco Yang's exoskeleton hummed as he leaned closer to Sri and her son. 'I'll tell you a little secret. Although I'm no believer, I offered up a prayer for the success of our venture. In the spirit of Pascal's wager. If there's no God, what harm can my little prayer do? And if there is, then what better place and time to ask for His intercession? This is a fine and wonderful thing you and I are involved in. We must do all we can to see it through, and build on its success. Are you looking forward to seeing Callisto, young Alder?'
'Very much, sir,' Alder said. 'And Europa, too.'
Rothco Yang mentioned several people in Rainbow Bridge who Sri and Alder simply had to meet, and tick-tocked away towards his flitter. People continued to stream out of the cathedral. Few spared Sri and Alder so much as a glance. Sri called her secretary and he apologised and told her that it would be at least ten minutes before her limo could reach her. She was thirsty and tired and irritable. Tropical sunlight burned across the plaza, flared from the shells of limousines and flitters. A helicopter circled incessantly above the crown of the cathedral. Sri retreated into her thoughts until the limousine arrived and she could at last sink into its cool upholstery and sip a glass of chill water and use the encrypted uplink to deal with the messages that had piled up, while Alder recounted details of the funeral service to her secretary.
The limousine moved slowly down the avenue, passing through roadblock after roadblock. Stopping and starting and stopping again. Then someone was rapping on the tinted window beside Sri. She looked up, startled. The man, an Air Defence Force officer, rapped again, made a brisk, impatient gesture. Jackknifed on the jump seat, Sri's secretary, Yamil Cho, spoke the word that lowered the window and asked the officer what he wanted.
'The general wishes to speak with you,' the officer said, looking straight at Sri.
He stepped back smartly as she climbed out into hot dry air, led her past armoured vehicles that squatted toadlike under a line of royal palms. Soldiers stood in small alert groups, pulse rifles slung across their chests. Faces masked with black visors. The officer opened the rear hatch of an armoured personnel carrier and Sri climbed into a kind of cockpit lined on either side with screens and panels of robust switches and pinlights and joystick controls.
General Arvam Peixoto sprawled in one of the low seats. Sri sat opposite him and said, 'This is a ridiculously public place to meet.'
'Not at all. As I'm in charge of security, I can assure you that there will be no record of this.'
'Ah. That is why you weren't at the service.'
'I thought it would be best if someone in the family supervised the cordon sanitaire. But I did allow myself a quiet moment of contemplation when the body was committed to the hungry little fishes.'
The general was dressed in crisp green fatigues, combat boots laced high up his shins. His white hair, vivid against his dark brown skin, was pulled back in a ponytail that coiled over the five stars on his shoulder tab.
'By the by,' he said, 'what did your good friend Rothco Yang have to say to you?'
'He offered his condolences,' Sri said.
'Is that all?'
'Didn't your security drones pick it up?'
'I prefer to get my information firsthand wherever possible. Indulge me.'
Arvam Peixoto put his head to one side as Sri gave an account of the brief conversation. A habitual gesture that invariably reminded her of a praying mantis. A cold insectile calculation about where to take the first bite. Where to slide in the sting.
'Hard work,' he said, when she had finished. 'Does he really think that hard work will rescue the peace initiative? Do you?'
'The peace initiative hasn't failed yet,' Sri said. 'So unless you know something I don't, I'm still going to Callisto.'
'Your business is the future,' Arvam Peixoto said. 'You dream up new technologies that you hope will give it shape and direction. What direction do you think it will take now? Will it be vertical or horizontal?'
'You do know something.'
'You see the future as a rising curve. Always improving. Always something new. But other people, they see the future as a plane. Horizontal. Spreading out. A process of consolidation. That's what this is all about. The horizontal versus the vertical. True humans versus dangerous fanatics who are creating monsters out of their children.'
'Or overheated propaganda versus clear, rational thinking.'
'One day, if you are not careful, that flippancy of yours will get you into serious trouble with the wrong people. What do I know? Let me tell you what I know. Let's get down to why you're here. This isn't just about poor Maximilian's death, although it has of course changed everything. I thought you might like to know that in a few months, the Air Defence Force will begin joint manoeuvres in cislunar space with the air force of the European Union. Why? Because we will be leasing the new fusion motor to the Europeans, part of a new trade agreement.' Arvam Peixoto studied Sri and said, 'You didn't know this.'
'I knew that negotiations were taking place. I was not of course privy to the details.'
'The negotiations are more or less over. A few snags and wrinkles have to be dealt with, nothing serious. As soon as the President comes out of mourning there will be a signing ceremony in Munich. What does this have to do with you? It is quite simple. The Europeans withdrew from the biome project and the rest of the hearts-and-minds nonsense because hardliners won control of their government. And now, after the unfortunate death of the Consort, after supporters of reconciliation with the Outers lost their most powerful voice, our own hardliners will be pushing for an end to the biome project too. I know that you feel a sentimental loyalty to our green saint because he discovered you and nurtured you. But he's an old man, and he's isolated himself in that beach hut of his. He's out of touch. More or less out of the loop.'
The general's tone was teasing, but his steady, slightly cross-eyed stare showed no spark of amusement. The screens behind him displayed different views of the cathedral and the lawns and treetops of the Eixo Monumental and the avenues on either side. People were still coming down the cathedral steps, climbing into limousines and people movers. Household servants, civil servants. People like Sri.
She said, 'Is this why you took the enormous risk of talking to me here? Something we have already discussed exhaustively? Let me say this again. Whatever happens, I am loyal to the family. To the family, and to Greater Brazil.'
'The family appreciates all you have done in its service,' Arvam Peixoto said. 'Unfortunately, the family is not in agreement about what to do about the Outers. There are two sides. At least two sides. Yes, we have talked about this many times. But this is no longer a theoretical matter. This is real, Professor Doctor. It is what it is. And you're in the middle of it, and you're going to have to choose which side you are on. Sooner rather than later. And should you make the wrong choice, then I'm afraid that the fruits of your work and your reputation will not exempt you from the consequences.'
'I see. Is that all?'
There was a faint singing in Sri's ears and her palms, pressed together in her lap, were unpleasantly damp, but otherwise she felt lucidly calm.
'I have a gift for you,' the general said, and lifted a flat wooden box from one of the panels behind his chair and handed it to Sri.
Inside, glasses with thick black plastic frames lay on a pair of meshback gloves.
'They are spex,' Arvam Peixoto said. 'What the Outers use instead of phones. The lenses use virtual light to project pictures and text and whatnot directly onto your retinas. The gloves are tipset gloves, you can use them to type on a virtual keyboard, move virtual objects around . . . Well, I am sure you will soon master them. Before you thank me, there's a little more to it. One of my tech teams added a camera, and a memory chip with a very high capacity and quantum encryption. You can download a small AI onto it, all kinds of things. And should you see something interesting, or attend an especially useful meeting, perhaps you could record it for me. I'm sure you'll know the kind of thing I might be interested in.'
Sri understood at once. The Peixoto family was sending a team of negotiators to Rainbow Bridge, but because Arvam Peixoto was not part of the faction promoting peace and reconciliation with the Outers, he was out of the loop. So he was asking her to be his spy, gathering information for his analysts and strategists. Firsthand information, the kind he liked.
Arvam Peixoto said, 'You'll have plenty of time to think everything through on your voyage to Callisto. When you return, I hope to have an answer, one way or the other. Oh, and bon voyage, as the Europeans would say.'
Back in the limousine, Alder asked if she was in trouble.
'Not yet,' Sri said and told her secretary to tell the driver to get a move on. 'I have work to do.'
Much later, Macy Minnot would come to believe that Emmanuel Vargo had been the first casualty of the war. But when she first heard about the ecosystem engineer's death she thought that it was nothing more sinister than bad luck. A freak medical mishap. An accident.
Like Macy and the rest of the construction crew, Emmanuel Vargo spent the twelve-week voyage from Earth to Jupiter in the deep sleep of artificial hibernation, drugged and chilled and consuming a minimal amount of oxygen and water while the Brazilian cargo ship fell through eight hundred million kilometres of sunlit black vacuum. He was still asleep when the ship went into orbit around Callisto, the outermost of Jupiter's four large Galilean moons, and first-class passengers and hibernation coffins and cargo pods were offloaded onto a tug that descended to the port, a cluttered slab cantilevered above a dusty plain west of the city of Rainbow Bridge. The tug touched down on a scorched landing apron with the lumbering delicacy of a hippopotamus attempting ballet. A mobile crane unlatched from the tug's cargo frame the truck-sized pod that contained the hibernation coffins and transported it to a pressurised hangar where the coffins were extracted one by one and loaded onto flatbed carts that trundled through subsurface tunnels to the medical facility at the edge of the port. That was where Emmanuel Vargo began to wake, and that was where he died.
Usually, revival from hibernation was routine. Most people woke with nothing worse than a shrivelled stomach, concrete bowels, and an existential hangover. But like every medical procedure, revival had its risks -- signature syndromes, systemic organ failures, metabolic storms. After his core temperature had been gently raised to 37.5° Centigrade, his blood chemistry had been adjusted, and he'd been injected with a cocktail of GABA receptor stimulants, Emmanuel Vargo suffered an episode of chaotic neurological decoupling. Instead of quickly and spontaneously developing the usual pattern of dynamic multi-locus activity, as in waking from ordinary sleep, his neurons began to fire at high rates without any kind of synchrony, disrupting consciousness and coordination of respiration, heartbeat, and blood pressure.
Most victims of CND survived with varying degrees of memory loss and aphasia, but Emmanuel Vargo's episode was exceptionally severe. The electrochemical activity of his brain writhed like a bag of worms. A crash team tried and failed to induce synchrony with microtonic pulsed magnetic fields. His blood pressure collapsed and his heart stopped and did not respond to defibrillation, injection of norepinephrine, or direct massage. While he was being hooked up to a heart-lung bypass, he suffered a major clonic seizure. Two more seizures followed in quick succession. After the third, brain stem activity ceased. Thirty minutes later he was declared brain-dead, and life-support was disconnected.
Emmanuel Vargo had been one of the prime movers of the project to construct a biome at the city of Rainbow Bridge, Callisto, a symbol of cooperation and reconciliation between Earth and the Outer System, and a major step in the long campaign to defuse tension between Earth's radical green conservatism and the smorgasbord of radical doctrines and utopian philosophies of the Outer System's city-states and settlements. Avernus, the Outer System's most notorious gene wizard, had drawn on her prodigious stores of karma to sponsor the biome's construction, and Maximilian Peixoto and the green saint Oscar Finnegan Ramos had persuaded the Brazilian government to underwrite the cost of designing and quickening of its ecosystem. Although the green saint's great-great-grandson, Euclides Peixoto, had been appointed titular head of the construction crew, Emmanuel Vargo had been responsible for every aspect of the planning and organisation of Greater Brazil's contribution. He'd collaborated with Oscar Finnegan Ramos's protégée, Sri Hong-Owen, in the design of the ecosystem, liaised with the Callistan crew during the construction of the biome's tent, and would have been responsible for supervising the elaboration and quickening of the ecosystem from start to finish.
Euclides Peixoto said all this and more two days after Emmanuel Vargo's death, in a short speech at the ceremony that marked the official beginning of the construction crew's work. This was on the broad lawn at the northern tip of the biome's main island. Euclides Peixoto stood at a podium with the empty lake bed stretching behind him under the gigantic tent of diamond and polymer panes and fullerene struts, and his audience seated in front of him on a crescent of folding chairs: the Brazilian ambassador and his retinue of aides, members of the Peixoto family's trade mission, a colourful medley of representatives from the Callistan congress and the city council of Rainbow Bridge, the men and women of the construction crew. A little shoal of drones hung at different levels in the air, transmitting the ceremony to citizens of Rainbow Bridge and other cities and settlements on Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa, and to the mining camps on tiny, distant Himalia and Elara.
Sitting amongst the rest of the construction crew, Macy Minnot had to admit that Euclides Peixoto definitely looked the part. Handsome in a two-piece suit whose chlorophyll hue matched the coveralls of the construction crew, a black armband fastened around his left sleeve, he spoke in a sonorous but engaging tone. Eulogising Emmanuel Vargo's contribution to the project, recounting a couple of well-judged anecdotes, winding up by saying that despite their grievous loss everyone in the crew was determined to work as well as they could to bring to life a beautiful and robust biome, and honour the memory of an extraordinarily talented ecosystem engineer, someone he was proud to have considered a friend.
Hard to believe this was the same man who just two days ago had badly botched the announcement of Emmanuel Vargo's death. The crew had assembled for what they'd believed would be an ordinary briefing, and without any preamble Euclides Peixoto had told them that Maximilian Peixoto, the husband of the President of Greater Brazil, had died while they'd been in hibernation during the voyage from Earth to Callisto. And before they'd had a chance to absorb that bombshell, he'd blurted out that Emmanuel Vargo had died too, during the revival process. Before he could say anything else, Ursula Freye had spoken up from the back of the room. Ursula and Emmanuel Vargo had become lovers soon after she'd been recruited to the construction crew. Trembling and grimly pale, she'd said that it was obvious that Manny had been murdered by enemies of the project, and demanded an immediate investigation. Speller Twain, the crew's security chief, had tried to hustle her away and there'd been an undignified struggle. Shouts, jeers, shrieks. The meeting had erupted into chaos, and Euclides Peixoto had fled without explaining how the project would proceed after the death of its engineer.
Now, as the applause at the end of his speech pattered into silence, Euclides Peixoto invited the young girl who had won the lottery to step forward. Eight years old, tall and slender in a simple white dress, the child took the remote control from him and without ceremony pressed its red button. At dozens of points along the eastern and western shores of the lake, gouts of water burst roaring from fat pipes and crashed down to the lake floor. Vast clouds of spray billowed up, softening the glare of the chandelier lights strung along the high ridge of the tent and filling the cool air with a fresh, steely odour. Above another wave of applause, Euclides Peixoto declared in ringing tones that the quickening of the biome had begun.
Macy Minnot had never had much time for Euclides Peixoto. The man was not only a political appointee who'd been given his job because of an accident of birth, he was also a strutting fool who couldn't draw a trophic web, resurrect dead mud or even plant out a flowerpot, much less a forest or marsh, to save his life. But she'd liked and respected Emmanuel Vargo, who'd risen from humble beginnings to become one of the best ecological engineers on Earth, and had shown her many small kindnesses and courtesies after he'd selected her to be part of his crew.
That had been a little over a year ago, when Macy, recently promoted to gang leader, had been working with Reclamation and Reconstruction Crew #553 at Lake Champlain, on the northern border of newly conquered territory gifted to the Fontaine family. Guerrillas, wildsiders and tribes of squatters had been pushed out of the region after a decade of fierce fighting, and R&R #553 had moved in to undo a couple of centuries of ecological damage. Before the crew began its work, nothing much had lived in the lake but blooms of blue-green algae, mitten crabs, snake-fish, and a pernicious variety of tweaked water hyacinth, fast-growing and hardy, that had been introduced to many freshwater bodies in the middle of the twenty-first century during early but misguided attempts at remediation. And thanks to the oil-burning culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a characteristic layer of sediment, polluted with fossil-fuel residues and heavy metals, covered the bottom of the lake: anaerobic, stinking, tarry-black, and completely lifeless. Macy Minnot was in charge of the gang that had the job of transforming this oleanthropocene sludge into honest-to-goodness mud. They used big pumps to suck up sediment and pump it, through baffles impregnated with polymers and plastizymes that removed heavy metals and other highly toxic substances, into a series of fermentation tanks where cocktails of tweaked microbes digested organic material; at the end of the process, the pristine mud was mixed with a balanced microbial population and pumped back onto the lake bed. It had taken three months to work down from the northern end of the lake to Malletts Bay. The crew had been hit by a couple of big storms and harassed by wildsiders and bandits -- in the middle of one raid Macy had seen a smart RPG miss a pumping platform by no more than a metre, the thing making a long, lazy turn in midair and beginning to shark back in when its motor ran out of gas and it plunged into the lake and blew about a gazillion litres of water all over the crew barge. Mostly, though, the work was gravy. Hard and dirty, for sure, but tremendously worthwhile.
After its sediment and water had been processed and cleansed, the lake would be stocked with phytoplankton and waterweed, invertebrates and fish: an entire trophic web built from scratch and set running. Macy gave only lip service to worship of Gaia, but as far as she was concerned the restoration of a ruined, near-dead lake to something close to its pristine state was pretty much a religious experience. She loved her work and woke up every morning happy and grateful, eager to get going.
R&R #553 was commanded by Roxy Parrish, an experienced, sharp-minded woman in her fifties who took no bullshit from anyone, asked from her people only competence, hard work and loyalty, and in return provided them with unstinting support and protection from the worst whims and fancies of family bureaucrats. Every week or so she stopped by Macy's floating complex of barges, pumping platforms and coffer dams to check progress, discuss snags, and exchange gossip about the other R&R crews working the region. One summer evening, Roxy and Macy were up on the flying bridge of the crew barge, drinking beer and watching the sunset burnish the wide sweep of calm water that stretched out to low hills clad in ragged patches of newly planted forest at the eastern shore. A skein of geese laboured northwards across the dark blue sky, calling each to each. Macy, as happy as she had ever been, took a sip of beer and thought that next year those geese would find a good home here, if they wanted to stop awhile. She said something to that effect to her boss, and Roxy asked her what she thought she would be doing this time next year.
'When this project is finished? I guess it depends where we're sent,' Macy said. She was tilted back in her canvas chair, auburn hair loose about the shoulders of her denim shirt, roughened hands cradling her beer bottle against the waist snap of her jeans, work boots cocked on the rail of the flying bridge.
'This is a pretty good crew, so I can understand why you'd want to stick with us. But you're young, you have some talent, and you need all the experience you can get. I think you ought to take a look at this,' Roxy said, pulling her slate from her sling bag.
That was when Macy first learned that the green saint Oscar Finnegan Ramos and the infamous gene wizard Avernus were sponsoring construction of a biome in the city of Rainbow Bridge on Callisto, Jupiter's second-largest moon, and the Peixoto family were assembling a crew that would engineer its ecosystem from scratch.
'Why me?' Macy said. 'This is landscaping. It's a big job and it's in a weird place, but that's all there is to it.'
'Read the specs,' Roxy said. 'Most of the park will be a freshwater lake. They need people who'll be able to quicken it, and one of those people will be responsible for the microbial ecology. It's interesting work and it will stretch you in all kinds of interesting ways. The engineer slated to lead the crew, Emmanuel Vargo, is at the top of his game, and I bet you could learn all kinds of new wrinkles from the Outers. They'd been developing and maintaining closed-cycle ecosystems for more than a hundred years. And then there's the chance to meet and maybe work with Avernus, who's about as famous as Darwin or Einstein or any other scientist you care to mention.'
'I appreciate the hard sell,' Macy said. 'But it's an awful long way to go, and there must be a hundred people more qualified to work on this thing than me. A thousand.'
'I wouldn't be too sure. You're one of the best microbial jockeys I know. You have a frank manner that sometimes causes friction with other gang leaders, but you're a hard worker, and you're young and smart and ambitious. And this kind of opportunity comes but once in a lifetime, Macy. You might not see that now, but you will.'
'I'm beginning to get the feeling that I don't have much choice about volunteering.'
'There's that frank manner I mentioned,' Roxy said. 'I'll be just as frank. I was hoping you'd go for this straight away. Not just because it would make my job easier, but also because I really do believe that this is a great opportunity for you, and of all my people you're the best candidate. So if you don't volunteer, then yes, I'll have to put your name forward, and you won't get to have any say in the matter. We aren't the Army or the Air Defence Force, but we do have a chain of command. And you're somewhere near the bottom of it.'
Macy thought about that for a little while. Staring off at the V of geese dwindling away towards the darkening rim of the world, saying at last, 'Can I at least ask you who asked you to ask me?'
'As a matter of fact it was the governor of this region.'
'The same. Apparently he's still paying attention to your career.'
'The governor doesn't owe me anything any more,' Macy said. 'And even if he did, I'm not sure if I'd kindly thank him for this.'
Four years ago Macy had been working as an R&R labourer in Chicago, helping to remove the last traces of buildings and roads from the lake shore. It was one of the biggest reclamation projects in the Fontaine family territory. The downtown skyscrapers had been cleared years ago, but work on the suburbs and exurbs seemed never-ending. A runaway without any qualifications or patronage, Macy would have been working as a labourer still if Fela Fontaine, high on three different tailored pyschotropic drugs, hadn't crashed her stolen flitter.
The little aircraft had skimmed low and flat above hectares of tree stumps and rubble, sending people running in every direction, and had made a wide turn and had come back for a second pass, which was when it had clipped the rusted skeleton of an electricity pylon and lost its tail rotor. Spinning like a sycamore seed, it had augered into the lake a couple of hundred metres offshore, and Macy had jumped into a boat and raced to where it was sinking amidst a spreading pool of burning fuel, suffering third-degree burns to her hands and arms when she'd pulled the unconscious girl from the wreckage.
Fela Fontaine's father was the governor of the Northeast Region. He'd visited Macy in hospital, paid for her medical treatment, and arranged a scholarship that put her through college, but she'd had no further contact with him or the rest of the family. Six months later, she learned that Fela Fontaine had committed suicide. As far as she was concerned that was the end of the matter. Sure, she'd been given an opportunity to better herself, but four years down the line she felt that she had proven her own worth. She'd graduated at the top of her class and worked hard at her first posting, the city-sized treatment plant out on Lake Michigan, where she'd solved a knotty washout problem in the remediation reactors and had earned promotion to gang leader. She'd always be grateful for the push she'd been given, but she wanted to put that behind her, wanted to be defined by what she could do, wanted to make her own way in the world without any help or patronage.
So she felt a spark of anger and resentment at the way the governor had casually reached out and interfered with her life; when Roxy Parrish tried to convince her that it really was a good opportunity, she said, 'What does this have to do with him anyway? The biome is the Peixoto family's thing, not the Fontaine's.'
'You really should start paying attention to politics. Otherwise your pristine ignorance will get you into serious trouble one of these days.'
'I know about the Outers. We had a war with them a hundred years ago. Some people want to make up to them. Some other people want to go to war with them again, because they're barely human any more. Some might call that politics,' Macy said. 'I call it foolishness. We got enough to do right here without trying to stamp on a bunch of people who don't happen to live the way we want them to.'
'That's exactly the position of the Fontaines,' Roxy said. 'That's why we've been supporting the Peixoto family's attempts to reach some kind of reconciliation with the Outers, and that's why we support this biome project. Most of the other families opposed it, but the Fontaines and a few others stood shoulder to shoulder with the Peixotos when the bill went through the Senate. And because the Peixotos needed our votes, there'll be a couple of places for our people when they get to picking the crew. As for that, you're not the only microbial jockey being put forward. There are people from every region, but I think you have a good shot at this. I think you might just make it. You're young, but you're good. There's that work you did at Lake Michigan, and the way you make dead mud come back to life is a sweet thing to behold. Your reversion rate is so low it barely registers.'
'Like you always say, it's easier to get it right the first time than do it over.'
'It's easier, but it also takes a lot of skill.'
'If I do get picked, it better be because of what I can do,' Macy said.
'I don't think that Emmanuel Vargo is going to pay any attention to anything else.'
'Well all right then. I guess you can tell them I volunteered.'
Roxy took a sip from her bottle of beer. 'Just this morning, a couple of my labourers stumbled on the remains of a wildsider shrine in the basement of some big old ruin -- automobile parts, bones, a pyramid of more than a hundred human skulls. Some of them are small, children's skulls . . . The world is badly fouled up, kid. It's going to take a long time and a lot of work to fix it. If you do go up and out, I can promise you that there'll be plenty to do when you get back.'
Macy tried not to think much more about it. She told herself that she had little chance of getting a place on the crew, that if it did happen she'd deal with it then, and meanwhile she had plenty of work to do. So she was surprised that she felt a keen pang of disappointment when, two weeks later, she heard that she hadn't made the first cut. She threw herself back into her work. The Lake Champlain project was winding down when Roxy called and told her that Emmanuel Vargo wanted to talk to her.
The engineer arrived in a tilt-rotor plane that stooped low over the treetops and touched down neatly in a meadow at the edge of the lake. He was a tall, square-shouldered man, dark-skinned and bald as a bullet, dressed in blue jeans and an expensive but rumpled yellow silk jacket with a coffee stain on one lapel. He shook Macy's hand with a hardbarked grip, studied her with a keen, searching gaze.
'Let's go for a walk in the woods,' he said.
It was a beautiful crisp day in the middle of October. They rambled under trees laden with glorious reds and golds. Soldiers armed with pulse rifles moved ahead of them and behind them.
Emmanuel Vargo asked perceptive questions about Macy's work before coming to the point and telling her that the person originally appointed to construct the microbial ecology of the Rainbow Bridge biome had resigned from the project.
'He's from the European Union, the Couperin family. Ten days ago the head of the Couperins died, and his successor cleaves to the hard line against the Outers. One of the first things he did was withdraw the three people his family had put up for the crew. Bad luck for them, good luck for us, because now we can appoint three Brazilians as replacements. That is why I am here, Miz Minnot. To ask you to consider joining the crew.'
They were standing in a little clearing. The leaves of a clump of maple saplings glowed red as fresh blood in the low afternoon sunlight. There was a chill edge to the clean air.
Macy said, 'Can I ask you a question, Mr Vargo?'
Emmanuel Vargo's smile showed crooked brown teeth and his eyes shone with fine good humour. 'Anything you like.'
'Are you here because someone high up in the Fontaine family recommended me?'
'I'm here because you're the best of all the microbial ecologists who were put forward. Unfortunately, political nonsense meant that I had to select someone else in the first instance. Fortunately, that same political nonsense gives me a chance to remedy the situation. You don't have much experience, but neither do most of the other candidates -- the other families have been reluctant to volunteer senior personnel. It doesn't matter. In this case, where we are working in a new and unknown arena, ability counts for more than experience. And I believe that you are more than capable of doing the work. That's why I came out here to personally ask you to do me the honour of joining my crew.'
Macy wasn't the kind of woman most men would look at twice, but when she smiled, her face lost its habitually guarded expression and was as utterly transformed as a shuttered room suddenly flooded with sunlight. She smiled now, saying, 'Haven't I already volunteered? When do you need me?'
'How quickly can you pack?'
Macy flew out with Manny Vargo an hour later. The next day she started training with the rest of his crew. And now she was on Callisto. Now she had to prove her worth all over again.
It was going to be difficult. Not just because of Emmanuel Vargo's death, although that was bad enough, but also because Euclides Peixoto had taken over the day-to-day running of the construction crew. And although he was good at making speeches and flattering diplomats and representatives of Callisto's government, Euclides Peixoto knew nothing about ecosystem engineering and had never shown any interest in the design of the biome or in the training of the crew. That hadn't prevented him from telling Emmanuel Vargo how to do his job on more than one occasion. His ignorance about ecosystem engineering was perfectly matched by his lack of talent in people management, and like many men born into privilege and protected by that same privilege from the consequences of failure, he had no time for the advice of people he believed to be his inferiors.
Professor Doctor Sri Hong-Owen, who had helped Manny Vargo design the biome's ecosystem, would arrive at Rainbow Bridge in four weeks' time, riding a freighter fitted with the new fusion motor. In the interim, the project would have a better chance of success if the Peixoto family agreed to allow one of the local engineers to take over. Someone who knew what they were doing. Someone who could work alongside the crew and listen to their opinions. But that was not only politically unpalatable, it also involved a point of pride. And so the crew was stuck with Euclides Peixoto and his unpredictable whim of iron. Although he could draw on the advice of Sri Hong-Owen and a team of experts, it was entirely possible that he might take it into his head that he knew better than they did because he was on the spot and they were almost billion kilometres away. Or if he was confronted with some problem that needed solving right away, no time to consult with anyone back on Earth, he might either freeze up or make a bad decision and out of pride refuse to back down. And of course, most of the crew couldn't gainsay him. The Peixoto family was far more conservative than the Fontaines, and even under the Fontaines it wasn't prudent to talk back to anyone with the smallest degree of consanguinity, although you could at least bitch about the bosses behind their backs. Even that was too much of a risk under the Peixotos. Anyone caught criticising the people who owned their hides could be accused of treason, there were spies and snitches everywhere, and the punishments for disloyalty were severe, so everyone owned by the Peixotos kept their opinions to themselves. Macy was pretty sure that not even Ernest Galpa, now the most senior member of the crew, a decent old fellow who had worked with Emmanuel Vargo for twenty years, who had openly wept at the news of Manny's death, would dare challenge Euclides Peixoto if he decided on some course of action that threatened the success of the project.
Theoretically, crew members from other families could stand up to him with a degree of impunity. But Cristine Quarrick and Patrick Alan Allard came from the Nabuco family, which was even more old-school than the Peixotos, everyone knew that César Puntareñas was no more than a spy who reported directly to the Fonseca family council, and although Ursula Freye had a thirty-second degree of consanguinity within the Fontaine family, being the daughter of a second cousin of their only green saint, she was consumed by paranoid fantasies of a conspiracy that had murdered her lover. Macy could only hope that when Euclides Peixoto screwed the pooch -- and she reckoned that when was much more likely than if -- it wouldn't have anything to do with her sphere of responsibility. Because if he ordered her to do something idiotic, she'd probably be stupid enough to refuse, and then he'd cut her off at the knees, blacken her name, and send her back to Earth with a reputation as a wrecker. After that, she'd be lucky if she could get a job breaking rocks.
Fortunately, she didn't have much time to worry about the different ways the man could crash the project. She had plenty of work to do, and she had to do it quickly.
To begin with, the biome's microbial ecosystem -- the combined metabolic repertoire of trillions of microscopic workers that underpinned the cycles of carbon fixation, nutrient recycling, and organic decomposition -- had to be up and running before the lake could be planted out and stocked with fish and invertebrates. Macy needed to grow up starter cultures to seed the reed beds and stromatolite reefs that would filter the lake water and recycle nutrients, and she also had to liaise with the plankton team to produce a mixed culture of bacteria, blue-green algae and diatoms that would clarify the lake water by attaching to suspended fines and elaborating mucopolysaccharide threads to form fluffy accretions heavy enough to sink out of the water column. This process of flocculation, which would not only allow photosynthesis to take place at all depths of the lake, but would also produce an organic-rich layer of mud, would be initiated by injection of large volumes of the mixed culture into every sector of the lake during the formal opening ceremony. That was due to take place in thirty-two days, after Sri Hong-Owen had arrived and the lake had reached its final level. It was an inflexible deadline. But as soon as they started work, Macy and the plankton team ran into a serious problem: the diatom they planned to use, a tweaked strain of Skeletonema costatum, wasn't growing as fast as it should when cultured in the melt water that was filling the lake. If they couldn't get the doubling rate up to where it should be, they'd not only be short several hundred kilograms of diatom biomass, they'd also have to adjust the growth rates of all the other microorganisms.
It was the kind of problem that Macy enjoyed solving. Biome engineering was more of an art than a science, an intricate game or puzzle in which everything affected everything else, its complexity increasing exponentially with the addition of each new species. Plants competed for the nutrients and light; animals grazed on plants or preyed on other animals; microorganisms broke down dead organic material and recycled nitrogen and phosphorus and sulphur into forms that other organisms could use. If a single species was removed from or added to this web, the relationships between every other species were changed in large and small ways that could not always be predicted. Macy had the useful knack of being able to hold models of nutrient and energy flow in her head and examine them from every angle, visualising their interlocking checks and balances, predicting how changes in one parameter would propagate through the system. She wasn't as good at it as Manny Vargo, who'd been able to conduct the equivalent of two or three symphonies at once, with choirs and bells and thundering organs. But she was competent, she was used to hard work and impossible deadlines, and the city had given her two good assistants and sole use of a well-equipped facility on the west bank of the lake. She had every confidence that she would succeed.
The facility was set in and around the footing of one of the big arched struts that, elaborated from spun threads of fullerene, supported the biome's tent. At its base, the strut flared into a gourd-shaped structure ten storeys high, hollowed out with terraced apartments and rising above a plaza beside the empty black bowl of what would be a shallow bay when the lake was filled. Macy's laboratory was on the ground floor of the hollow strut, and the bioreactors where she and her two assistants were growing pure and mixed cultures of microorganisms had been set up in the plaza. That was where she was working when the crew's security chief, Speller Twain, and the youngest and newest member of the Brazilian diplomatic team, Loc Ifrahim, came for her.
It was eleven days after the lake had started to fill. Macy and her two assistants, Argyll Hall and Loris Sher Yanagita, were in the middle of a discussion about the problematical diatom culture when the two men walked in.
'We need to talk to Miz Minnot,' Speller Twain told Macy's assistants. He was a burly man with a blond crew cut and a pinched, sour glare. The sleeves of his coveralls had been ripped off, displaying muscular arms covered with military tattoos. 'It's crew business, so take off, why don't you?'
'They have work to do,' Macy said. Although she'd been expecting something like this, she was suddenly dry-mouthed and her heart was beating quickly and lightly. 'Plus, you might want to get out of range of the cameras in here -- believe it or not, there are citizens who have nothing better to do than watch me work. If you want to talk privately, we'd best do it outside.'
The two men looked at each other and the diplomat shrugged and said, 'Why not?'
Macy led them past the bioreactors to the jetty that stretched out into bay's dry bowl. She headed straight for the end, ankling along in the heel-and-toe shuffle that was the best way of walking in Callisto's light gravity, putting some distance between herself and the two men. She needed a little time to compose herself and to let go of the anger and dismay kicked up by their presumption.
When she turned, she saw that Speller Twain had stopped halfway along the jetty, leaning against the rail like a casual sightseer as Loc Ifrahim shuffled towards Macy. 'Why don't you tell me exactly what's troubling you?' she said to the diplomat. 'Then I can tell you why I can't do anything about it and get back to my work.'
Loc Ifrahim smiled. 'They told me you spoke plainly.'
He was only a few years older than Macy, his narrow, clever face framed by black hair twisted into dozens of tight braids that brushed the shoulders of his white silk suit. Officially, he was part of the trade delegation, but everyone knew that he was a government spy.
'I won't apologise for my way of speaking, Mr Ifrahim,' Macy said. 'I wasn't raised with your advantages.'
'Actually, my childhood had precious few of what you might call advantages,' Loc Ifrahim said. 'But I was lucky enough not be raised in the bosom of some strange sect that believes universal truth can be found by playing mathematical games with pi. I'm curious -- do you still believe in that, Miz Minnot?'
Macy was used to taunts about her odd upbringing. She'd had to put up with them ever since she'd signed up to become an R&R labourer. 'I've outgrown my childhood, Mr Ifrahim. How about you?'
'I acquired all kinds of old-fashioned virtues which I still try to apply to the way I conduct my life,' Loc Ifrahim said. 'Loyalty to one's family and friends, for instance. How about you, Miz Minnot? I know you have no loyalty to your family because you ran away from them. But are you loyal to your friends? Do you feel any loyalty to Ursula Freye, for instance?'
There it was, just as she'd thought.
'I'm not sure that she'd want me to call her a friend,' she said. 'We're from the same territory, but that's about all we have in common. Plus, Ursula has consanguinity, and she's a stickler for protocol. She made that pretty clear during training.'
'She likes to pull rank on you. Even so, I'm sure you'd help her if she was in trouble.'
'What kind of trouble?'
'How does Miz Freye seem to you?' Loc Ifrahim said.
'I don't know. Tired and a trifle manic, I suppose. Like all of us.'
'Manic, mmm,' Loc Ifrahim said, seeming to like the taste of the word on his tongue. 'Has she told you what she's been up to?'
'You seem to have a problem with coming to the point, Mr Ifrahim. Since it isn't exactly a secret, let me speak plainly and get it out of the way. Ursula thinks that Emmanuel Vargo's death was no accident. She thinks he was murdered. She's been running around looking for clues, and now I would guess that it has caused you some kind of trouble. How am I doing?'
Loc Ifrahim's glossy black braids were strung with beads, different sizes, different colours. They rattled and clicked as he turned from Macy and gripped the rail at the end of the jetty with both hands and looked out, or pretended to look out, across the little bay. His cinnamon skin was flawless. He wore rings on every one of his fingers, and he had the neatest fingernails Macy had ever seen (her own, even though she kept them trimmed short, were ragged and broken, and the nail of her right thumb was bruised black from where she had jammed it in the sampling lock of one of the bioreactors). His perfume hung in the cold air between them, a sharp odour like orange peel and burnt sugar.
At last he turned back to look at Macy, and said, 'Do you think that Mr Vargo was murdered?'
'If you're working your way around to asking me to help you find out what Ursula's been doing, you should know that I'm no snitch, Mr Ifrahim.'
'I don't want you to help me. I want you to help her,' Loc Ifrahim said.
'Do you have consanguinity, Mr Ifrahim?'
Loc Ifrahim's smile didn't alter, but something changed behind his eyes. 'No one in the diplomatic service has any degree of consanguinity. It ensures that we are entirely impartial.'
'I don't have any either. But Ursula Freye, she has a thirty-second degree of consanguinity in the Fontaine family. And the Fontaine family own my ass. So if you want someone to persuade her to stop looking into the circumstances of Manny Vargo's death, I'm not the person to do it. If for whatever reason you don't want to talk to her, maybe you should ask Mr Peixoto to deal with this. He's full-blood family, and he's supposed to be in charge of this crew.'
'Oh, this isn't the kind of thing I want to concern him with.
''I don't think it concerns me, either.'
'You're wrong, Miz Minnot. There are many people in Rainbow Bridge who are not at all sympathetic to this project, or to Greater Brazil. By pursuing her inquiries, Miz Freye may play into their hands and damage us all.'
'So keep her in the biome. Have Mr Twain put her under house arrest.'
Loc Ifrahim said, 'We could try to silence her, but Mr Twain thinks it would cause more trouble than it's worth. And I have to say that I agree with him. We would have to explain to Miz Freye's immediate family why we had to do it. And we can't stop Outers coming into the biome, of course, and we can't tell them why they shouldn't talk to Miz Freye. No, it really would be best for all concerned if you had a quiet word with your compatriot. If you told her that we know what's she doing, that we understand her grief, and that we want to help her in any way we can.'
Macy said, 'Is that an order, or are you asking me a favour?'
'I could ask Mr Twain to persuade you to do it,' Loc Ifrahim said. 'But I would prefer you to volunteer out of friendship and loyalty. Friendship to your compatriot, and loyalty to the crew and their mission. Because if Ursula Freye doesn't stop her silly little crusade, she'll cause trouble for the rest of the crew, she could well damage a lot more than this little project, and she'll most certainly damage the reputation of the Fontaine family. And even though you have no consanguinity, that will also damage your reputation, Miz Minnot. People will say that you should have done something about it. They will say that you were implicated in Miz Freye's crazy and completely unfounded imaginings. And I very much doubt that the Fontaine family will be pleased to hear that you stood by and did nothing to help.'
'Dress it up any way you like, you want me to do your dirty work.'
'Talk to Miz Freye. I have persuaded Mr Twain to allow you two days' grace. After that, he will want a report on your progress. For your sake, I suggest you have something positive to tell him,' Loc Ifrahim said, and sketched a quick bow and shuffled away down the jetty towards Speller Twain, who pushed from the rail and touched the corner of one eye with his forefinger and then aimed it at Macy like a gun. Telling her, I'll be watching you.
After she'd run away from the sect, Macy had spent a couple of years on the streets of Pittsburgh. She knew all about good-cop/bad-cop routines. It would be funny, really, if she hadn't seen how Speller Twain operated. Like at the progress meeting two days ago, when Delmy March, the man in charge of the fish and mammal crew, had corrected Euclides Peixoto on some point about the timetable of the quickening. Euclides Peixoto had taken offence and told Delmy he wouldn't tolerate that kind of mealy-mouthed wrecking talk, and Speller Twain had detached himself from the wall where he'd been leaning and crossed the room in two lithe bounds and grabbed Delmy in an armlock and stuck the black spike of a jammer behind Delmy's ear, putting him into convulsions so bad he'd pretty near bitten off his tongue.
So instead of walking past the two men, who no doubt wanted to give her the benefit of some parting advice, Macy vaulted the jetty's rail and floated down four metres and strode away across the floor of the bay. Her thoughts were snarled up and some kind of physical activity was usually a good way of freeing them, but most of all, right there and then, she wanted to get away from everything, and as she came out of the bay's wide mouth she broke into a run, long fluid strides that quickly ate up distance, passing a low sandy promontory planted with young cabbage palms and yuccas, running on under the clear white light of the chandeliers and the irregular quilting of the tent towards the long oval of water that occupied the deepest part of the lake. A little to the south was the low black wall of the coffer dam that circled the site where an archipelago of tiny islands was being constructed, a last-minute change in the landscaping specifications, and beyond that was the terraced shape of the main island. The lake floor was constructed from the same material as the coffer dam, a thin skin of light and incredibly strong fullerene composite, black and finely striated like muscle, laid over an insulating substructure several metres deep that anchored it to the adamantine ice, shaped and contoured with shallows and slopes, trenches and raised table reefs. It was like running in an enormous, half-full bathtub.
Macy was beginning to sweat now. She pulled off her cap and ran on with her hair streaming behind her like the tail of a rusty comet. Running was much easier than walking in Callisto's low gravity, but changing direction was difficult because you still had the same mass but far less traction; you had to think ahead, make wide arcs around obstacles, and slow down gradually, because attempting a sudden stop was liable to make you tumble head over heels. Bill Highbridge had bruised a couple of ribs when he'd slammed into one of the boulders planted on the ridge of the main island, and Pilgrim Greeley had broken a wrist in a bad fall, but Macy had been running out on the lake bed every morning before breakfast, letting her thoughts settle out, getting ready to tackle whatever problems the day would throw at her, and she swung south easily and smoothly, moving parallel to the edge of the water that each day rose a little higher.
The water filling the lake bed from the centre outwards was now about half a kilometre across at its widest point. In another week it would be lapping at either shore, and Macy would have to take her morning constitutional along the rim road. It was already an impressive sight: a broad channel of tawny water agitated by dozens of fast streams feeding it from the infall pipes along either shore, waves running back and forth, clashing in white riffles. There was no shortage of water on Callisto of course -- the moon was entirely covered in water ice, a frozen world ocean wrapped around a core of silicate rock -- but at around -170° Centigrade the ice was hard as granite. To create the lake, it had to be mined and melted, processed to remove sulphur compounds and drive off excess carbon dioxide and add oxygen, and then pumped through kilometres of heated pipes into the biome's chamber. The outfall of one of those pipes jutted from the embankment a few hundred metres away, water steaming as it spewed out in a flurry of foam, the wild smell of it electrifying Macy's blood. The ice had been frozen for billions of years, but all it needed was a little free energy to weaken hydrogen-to-hydrogen bonding and effect a phase change from solid to liquid. Like bringing a fossil back to life.
The three huge machines that mined, processed, and melted the ice, the huge tent that housed the biome, and the biome itself, represented a enormous outlay of engineering, energy, and human work and imagination. Macy was determined to honour the Outers' grandiose plans with her own contribution, but although her skills hummed in her brain and trembled in her fingertips, although she'd spent several hundred hours planning every last detail with the plankton crew and poor Manny Vargo back in Greater Brazil, back on Earth, she'd been having sleepless nights ever since she'd arrived. The dreaminess of the low gravity and the strange taste of the air, the odd noises echoing in the high-ceilinged space in the hollow base of the strut (she had taken to sleeping in the lab), all contributed to her insomnia, but it was mostly due to nagging anxieties about everything and anything that could go wrong. She was ready and willing and able to do the work she had to do, but felt as if she was surfing a standing wave of exultation and apprehension. She was here. She had made it. Yet a single misstep might wipe her out.
And now, on top of everything else, she had to deal with this little job gifted her by Speller Twain and Loc Ifrahim, that smooth-talking smiler. The problem was, Manny Vargo's death might have broken Ursula Freye's heart and made her desperate and more than a little crazy, but the woman was also a crashing snob, stubborn and aloof. No matter how distressed and lonely she might be, she wasn't about to take advice from someone as low-born as Macy, and Macy couldn't think of anyone else in the crew who might help out. Most of them belonged to the Peixoto family, and despite all the exercises designed to unify them during training they'd quickly split into like-minded factions, little groups of three or four that crossed sexes and specialities and excluded outsiders. As for the rest, Cristine Quarrick and Patrick Alan Allard, from the Nabucu family, were married and inhabited a cosy little world of their own making with no time for anyone except themselves, and César Puntareñas was an unsympathetic character who enjoyed playing up to his reputation as a rogue agent.
Macy ran alongside the edge of the lapping water until she reached one of the streams that frothed down a moulded channel a couple of metres wide. She jumped the channel with ease but landed awkwardly and tumbled headlong, a long sprawling slide that knocked the wind from her lungs. Sitting up, flexing her arms and legs, discovering nothing worse than a scraped palm and what was going to be a spectacular bruise on her behind, she saw one of the little camera drones that infested the biome hanging above the edge of the lake, a fat blimp about a metre long, its underslung camera pointing in her direction. She laughed and gave it the finger, wondering just how many citizens had watched her little pratfall, and then was struck with a notion of how best to reach out to Ursula Freye.
When she got back to the lab, she told her two assistants that she believed that they might be able to help her deal with a little personal business. She put a finger to her lips when they began to question her, led them out of the lab and along the jetty, and said that what she was about to tell them was confidential, they had to swear they wouldn't tell anyone else about it.
The assistants exchanged glances. They were both in their forties but looked about Macy's age, slim and fine-boned, looming over her like a pair of friendly giraffes. Argyll Hall with his paper-white complexion and cockatoo's crest of bright red hair; Loris Sher Yanagita with her bright green eyes, pupils slitted like a cat's. Macy liked both of them. She didn't doubt that they were reporting on her every move, but they were hard-working, competent, and, in their different ways, enthusiastic. Loris was quiet, someone who liked to listen rather than talk, and talked only when she felt that she had something worth saying, but she had an intense, slow-burning ardour for her work; she reminded Macy of the way wildsiders carried fire from camp to camp, smouldering punk caught inside a fold of clay. Argyll was a more vivid character, quick-minded and impulsive, brimming with half-formed ideas, talkative and endlessly curious about how things were done on Earth, and Macy's reactions to the way things were done here. Although Macy tried to appear unshockable, she was shocked, more than a little, by the tweaks Outers made to their bodies. Argyll had spotted this at once, and made a point of letting Macy know all about his little differences from the human norm. Physiological adaptations to microgravity, cellular mechanisms that enhanced repair to radiation damage, speedier reflexes and a ballet dancer's sense of balance, changes in his corpus callosum that enabled him to survive on catnaps for months at a time or enter a sleep as profound as hibernation, and a dozen lesser tweaks, from the reflective membrane at the back of his eyes that increased his night vision to perfect pitch. When Macy had given it back to him, asking why Outers didn't go all the way and grow hands at the ends of their legs instead of feet, Argyll had shrugged and smiled and said that maybe one day they would, and Loris had said, 'Have you ever tried walking on your hands all the time? Even in our gravity, it's hard. They just aren't built for it.'
'How about tails?' Macy had said, trying to be provocative.
Loris had thought about this for a moment, calm and serious and imperturbable. 'I think they tried that in Camelot, Mimas. Of course, the gravity is lower there . . .'
Which had made Macy laugh. She liked Loris. Loris was a lot like her.
Now, before Macy started to explain why she was about to ask them for a very big favour, Argyll jumped right in and said, 'I bet this is about Mr Vargo's murder.'
Macy felt a twinge of unease. 'Were you eavesdropping, just now? Can people listen to us out here?'
Loris shook her head.
'We guessed,' Argyll said. 'I mean, it's pretty obvious. What else would that diplomat and the security chief want to talk to you about? So, do they think they know who did it?'
'They don't think it was murder, and neither do I.' Macy paused, struck by an uncomfortable thought, then added, 'Do people in the city think he was murdered?'
'I think the latest poll has it that around sixty per cent believe Mr Vargo was killed,' Argyll said.
'There are polls on this?'
'There are polls on this?'
'Anyone can run a poll on anything,' Argyll said. 'How else can you find out what people are thinking?'
Loris said, 'I don't think he was murdered, but Argyll does. You should ask him what they're saying on the thread about Mr Vargo. The conspiracy nuts are having a great time.'
Macy said, 'I shouldn't tell you what I'm about to tell you, but I need your help. So promise you won't mention this to anyone, on this conspiracy-theory thread or anywhere else. Okay?'
Argyll drew an infinity sign on his chest with his forefinger and said, 'Hope to die before I do.'
'It means he won't,' Loris said. 'And neither will I.'
'We want to help,' Argyll said.
'Let's see if you can,' Macy said. 'It seems that one of my colleagues has been going out and about in the city. I need to know where she goes, if she's meeting anyone. Don't tell me you can't do it. I know that there are cameras all over the city. And they all feed into the city's net.'
She'd decided that the first thing she needed to do was find out if Loc Ifrahim had been telling the truth, find out if Ursula really had gotten herself involved in some kind of clandestine chicanery. If the woman's visits to the city were innocent, if there was nothing to Loc Ifrahim's story but devilment, then Macy could tell him to leave her the hell alone and let her get on with her work. But if she had hard evidence that Ursula was involved with malcontents or hardliners, she could use it as leverage when she confronted the poor woman and tried her damnedest to convince her that they didn't have her best interests at heart.
Argyll looked disappointed, saying, 'Is that all?'
Loris said, 'Who is she?'
'Ursula Freye,' Macy said. 'And before you start asking me questions I can't possibly answer, this isn't anything to do with Mr Vargo's death. It's all about helping a colleague of mine who's gone a little crazy with grief.'
Two days later Macy rode a tram to the free zone at the northern edge of Rainbow Bridge. She'd visited the city twice before, but each time it had been to attend official functions -- a kind of reception where she and the rest of the crew had been exhibited like exotic animals, and a theatre piece involving musicians, dancers, tableaux and projections in what had been billed as an interpretation of universal creation myths. Macy had recognised a couple of fragments from Genesis, but the symbolism of most of the performance had been impenetrable, the music had sounded like a train-wreck, and she'd had a hard time staying awake. So despite her forebodings about the enterprise, she felt an exhilarating mix of anticipation and liberation as she rode through the city on her own.
Rainbow Bridge occupied a froth of pressurised tents and geodesic domes, different sizes. Inside them, low-rise apartment blocks much like those Macy had helped to demolish in the ruins of Chicago were strung along streets radiating out from a central park, scattered at random across parkland, or, in the oldest parts of the city, crammed side by side, their roof gardens connected to each other by slender bridges. There were a few blocks of workshops for small-scale industries and crafts, but most of the city's factories were located in smaller domes outside the city's cluster, amongst vacuum-organism farms and refineries. The tram carried Macy through woods and meadows, down the centres of wide tree-lined streets. She got off at the last stop and put on the spex that the city had given her after she'd been woken from hibernation. Argyll had shown her how to use the navigation function, and its virtual display set a series of fat red arrows floating in the air that winked out one by one as, trailed by two drones, she followed them along a white gravel path between two- and three-storey apartment blocks with narrow gardens on set-back terraces and balconies hung with flowering vines or shaggy waterfalls of mosses and ferns. It was late in the evening. The panes of the dome polarised black, paths lit by tiny biolamps like green stars and a few dim street lights, and not many people about, for which Macy was thankful. She was dressed in a costume borrowed from Loris, baggy shorts and a pale blue T-shirt that hung to her knees, but most passers-by seemed to recognise her as she ankled along, and several stopped her to ask her how she liked their city, or simply to say hello.
The last of the red arrows winked out as she stepped onto the escalator that carried her down into the city's free zone. One of the drones that had followed her across the city angled away; the other, no doubt run by Speller Twain, parked itself in the air at the head of the escalator, vanishing from sight as Macy descended.
Everyone knew everyone else's business in the city. It was a small, crowded place, and as in all the city-states and settlements of the Outer System, which preserved democratic traditions long vanished on Earth, there was a custom of public candour and open access to surveillance systems and every kind of stored information. At least half the population posted unflinching details of their everyday lives on the net; everyone expressed opinions about anything and everything; anyone could attempt to gain any public position by participating in popularity contests, and the winners of those contests had to facilitate decisions arrived at through a combination of public debate and expert advice, and took part in regular question-and-answer sessions about their work. This tradition of open exchange of information was giving the construction crew all kinds of problems. Hundreds of people visited the biome every day. They picnicked on the main island, flew kites, watched the water level in the lake rise centimetre by centimetre, wandered in and out of labs and worksuites and pestered the crew with pointless questions about Earth and their work. Yesterday, while taking a short stroll along the rim road before supper, Macy had been accosted by an earnest young man who'd had plenty of ideas about what she was doing wrong. She'd only just been able to keep her temper while she countered his points one by one. Others were having a harder time dealing with the inexhaustible curiosity of the Outers; Cristine Quarrick had lashed out with considerable verbal inventiveness at a little girl who'd come up to her and asked her why she was so ugly, the girl had burst into tears, and everything had been caught by a passing drone and had nearly caused a diplomatic incident.
The city's free zone was the only place where its citizens had any privacy. There were no cameras in the free zone; nothing that accessed or fed into the net. All the city's ordinances, apart from those covering basic human rights, were suspended. After putting a data miner to work in the records of the city's camera system, Argyll had discovered that Ursula Freye visited the zone each and every day. Usually she spent an hour or two there before returning to the biome, although sometimes she came out only a few minutes after she'd gone in, and once she'd stayed the night. No wonder Loc Ifrahim had been so vague when Macy had asked him who Ursula had been talking to; no wonder he and Speller Twain were so anxious to put a stop to it. Ursula had found the one place where no one could spy on her. Where the citizens would respect her privacy. Where Macy would have to go if she wanted to find out what the woman was up to, who she met with, what she talked about.
Macy had escaped from the Church of the Divine Regression and survived the gangs and cops in the slums of Pittsburgh, as well as numerous encounters with wildsiders and bandits in the borderlands: she was pretty sure that she could play this situation and come out in front. Even so, she felt a flutter of apprehension as she rode the escalator down into the free zone. She really hoped that this didn't have anything to do with Ursula Freye's determination to root out the truth about Manny Vargos's death, that Ursula was visiting the zone because she was looking for something clean and simple like sex or drugs, some release from her unreasoning grief.
It was always night, down there in the zone. A broad avenue followed the curve of the tent's coping wall, intermittently illuminated by multicoloured holos and neon. There were people wearing body-enveloping cloaks and masks, people wearing nothing but morph paint, patterns and images drifting across their bare skins like clouds, but most were dressed in the colourful tatterdemalion clothing that passed for everyday wear in the city. Short backless jackets like yokes, jackets with rubber spikes or armoured plates, jackets patched from feathers or fur, ruched and intricately pleated shirts and cut-off kimonos that shimmered like water or mercury, kilts, baggy shorts, tights with ridiculous codpieces, plain shifts . . .
Some of them, recognising Macy and surprised to see her there, broke protocol and stared openly. She stared right back. She didn't feel in the least bit intimidated. Compared to the brawling streets of Pittsburgh, the zone seemed as artificial and safe as a children's playground. She passed body-mod shops, wireshops, smokehouses, meat markets where citizens bought or sold or gave away all kinds of sex. Even on the main drag, at least half the places were no more than recessed doors that gave away nothing about what went on inside. Others stood under gaudy and elaborate signs. The Gilded Palace of Sin. Fight Club. Lies, Inc. There were vanilla bars and restaurants, too. Macy hit those first, found Ursula Freye in the third place she checked out, a bar that called itself Jack Frost.
The name glowed red inside a holo of a melting block of ice hung above a narrow doorway. Macy followed two men into a passage hung with fur coats. They had to be artificial, cultured or machine-made, but the sight of them hanging in dense rows gave Macy a little shock. She had to swallow her queasiness before she could emulate the men she'd followed and pull on one of the soft, heavy furs and push through the rest into a dimly-lit cave.
It was freezing cold, covered in ice. A floor of rough black ice, booths and tables carved from ice dyed different shades of red, ribbed ice walls and a low ceiling supported by columns of fused giant icicles in which scattered lights shone like dim, frozen stars. Tinkling music hung in the air, delicate as smoke. Robots shaped like squashed crabs crawled over the ceiling and around and about the icicles, taking orders, scurrying off, returning to lower with whiplike tentacles drinks and tiny plates of food to table tops. The decor and dim lighting confused the transition between the interior and video windows displaying views of the moonscape outside the city.
It was only the second time that Macy had seen the surface of Callisto. She stepped towards one of the windows and its view of a cratered plain stretched to a horizon curved sharp and clean against a black sky where Jupiter's banded disc hung like a marvellously detailed brooch, didn't notice Ursula Freye until the woman walked towards her through the cone of light cast by the old-fashioned lamp post (exactly like one Macy had once seen in the preserved section of Pittsburgh) that stood in a continuous flurry of snow at the centre of the bar.
'It was Mr Twain, wasn't it?' Ursula Freye said.
Macy nodded. She had decided to be as candid as possible, hoping that Ursula would be candid in return. 'Him and Loc Ifrahim.'
'Yup. He did the talking and Speller Twain hung around in the background, flexing his muscles.'
Ursula Freye thought about this for a moment. She and Macy were sitting on the fur-covered bench of a booth now. Two of Ursula's companions had left without speaking a word. The third sat next to Ursula, robed in a hooded floor-length white fur coat and, like the two who'd left, wearing a mask, this one in the form of a fox's sharp-snouted features.
At last Ursula said, 'When he asked you to talk to me . . . Did you get the impression that it was government business, or something else?'
'That's what I've been wondering,' Macy said. 'He seemed to imply that it wasn't exactly official. That he wanted to do you a favour. To talk to you, tell you -- '
'I know what he wants to tell me. What did he tell you?'
'Only that you were meeting with people who could cause trouble.' Macy looked across the table at the robed, fox-faced person who sat beside Ursula. 'No offence. He said that, not me.'
Fox-face didn't reply, but for a chilling moment the mask's amber gaze seemed to swallow Macy whole. It was uncannily realistic, every hair on the muzzle (white on the underjaw, auburn above) in place, every whisker. Its black lips were slightly parted, revealing a hint of sharp white teeth.
Ursula said, 'Mr Ifrahim told you that I was meeting with people. Did he tell you anything else?'
'He said that it could compromise the project.'
'Do you believe him?'
'I don't trust him.'
'You realise that you can be arrested for intruding on my privacy,' Ursula said. 'That's one of the few things that is against the law down here. I could cause all kinds of trouble for you, Miz Minnot. And if I did, I expect Mr Ifrahim and Mr Twain would let you take the fall.'
'That would only be fair,' Macy said, feeling a warmth growing on her forehead and cheeks despite the chilly air, 'because it was my idea to come here, not theirs. I thought we could talk freely here. But if all you want to do is threaten me, then fine, I'll go.'
'And what will you tell your friends?'
'They're not my friends. I'll tell them that you didn't want to talk to me about whatever it is you're doing down here. That if they want to find out they'll have to come talk to you themselves.'
'Do you think they will be satisfied with that?'
'I doubt it. But if they ask me to do anything else, I'll tell them that maybe I need to talk to Mr Peixoto about it first. Get it all out in the open.'
'And is that a threat?'
Sitting straightbacked in a black fur coat, shining blonde hair combed and neatly parted into wings that slanted either side of her face, Ursula Freye didn't looked in any way touched by grief or craziness. She looked cool, utterly self-possessed. She was more than twice Macy's age, but her skin was unlined and porcelain-perfect apart from tender pouches under her eyes, and her sharp blue gaze was lively and acute. Back on Earth, she could have had Macy flogged or jailed for insubordination. Or flogged and jailed, for that matter. But this wasn't Earth, they were sitting at the heart of a zone where ordinary rules had been suspended, and Macy felt emboldened.
'Whatever you're doing here is your business,' she said. 'And as long as it stays here I'd have no reason to tell Mr Peixoto or anyone else about it. But if it affects the project, then it affects all of us.'
'Have you ever been in love, Miz Minnot?'
Macy hesitated for only a moment. She had decided to be candid, and as long as she could keep Ursula talking she might learn something. 'There was a boy once. We thought we were in love for a little while.'
'I wanted to do better than scuffling a living in the streets, looked into joining the R&R Corps. Jax said no way he was going to leave Pittsburgh. It was where he grew up. It was all he knew. So . . . '
'You went your way, and left him behind.'
Macy shrugged. 'Something like that.'
She remembered how she and Jax had argued about it for most of that summer. Finally, Jax had told her to do what she wanted, just as long as they didn't have to talk about it any more. She'd signed up the next day. By the time she shipped out for basic training, two weeks later, she and Jax had broken up. And then she'd been so busy, learning Corps discipline, how to use a gun and a pickaxe, that she hadn't had time to think of him that much, although she had wondered now and then, in the brief quiet time between lights-off and sleep, if he ever thought of her.
Ursula Freye said, 'If you loved him, you would have stayed with him.'
'We were both pretty young.'
Ursula looked somewhere else for a few seconds, then pressed the button set in the centre of the table and told the robot that responded to the call that she wanted two brandies. Looking at her silent, fox-faced companion, saying, 'Unless you want one too.'
The figure shook its head once, right to left.
'One thing I know,' Ursula said to Macy. 'You don't choose to fall in love. It's something that happens to you, like a wonderful accident. I didn't plan to fall in love with Manny or anyone else on the crew. But it happened the first time we saw each other, right at the beginning of talks between our family and the Peixotos. It caused a political problem and it caused me all kinds of personal problems too. But it happened. People I thought were close to me, my friends, tried to get me to resign from the project or promise to stop seeing Manny. But I wasn't going to give him up, there was no one else of my rank remotely qualified to join the crew, and I was able to persuade the people who mattered that I was still loyal to the family, and that my relationship with Manny would help forge a closer alliance with the Peixotos. It caused Manny a fair amount of grief, too. Although he had already done most of the design work on the biome there were people in the Peixoto family who wanted to throw him off the project. But Oscar Finnegan Ramos had the final word on that, and he said let it be. So it worked out. We stayed together, and we came here. But if Manny had been forced to quit, I would have quit too. It wouldn't have been easy, because I would have had to go against the wishes of my family, but I would have done it. And now I wish that he had been forced to quit . . . '
There was a scratching noise overhead as the robot returned. It lowered two balloon glasses with swift precision, retracted its tentacles, scuttled away. Ursula Freye cupped her glass in both hands and raised it to her face and breathed in the fumes of the little puddle of amber liquid before drinking. After a moment, Macy took the smallest possible sip from her own glass. It was good stuff, a whole universe away from the jackleg liquor that R&R crews brewed from sugar and wild apples or cherries. Smoothly coating her tongue with a biting sweetness, burning a hot wire to her stomach.
'I'm going to tell you something that you can pass on to Mr Twain and Mr Ifrahim,' Ursula said, sounding like a boss for the first time since she'd surprised Macy, decisive and definite. 'They already know about it, but they didn't trouble to tell you. So if you tell them about it, they'll know that you really did talk to me. You understand?'
'Before we go any further, maybe you can tell me who your friend is.'
'I can't do that. And really, you should know better than to ask. It's not just horribly rude down here; it's also illegal. What I want you to do now is listen carefully. Because I'm going to tell you why I know that Manny was killed.'
'After I was told that Manny had died, I asked to see his body. And that's when I found out that something was wrong. I found out,' Ursula said, looking straight at Macy, 'that his slate had gone missing. And I knew right away that someone had killed him. They killed him, and they took his slate.'
Macy waited, hunched in her heavy fur coat, cradling her balloon glass of brandy, feeling the cold of the ice table on the backs of her hands, the heat of her own blood on her face. Feeling that she had stepped over the edge of something.
'There are at least three different ways he could have been killed,' Ursula said. 'Someone could have sabotaged his hibernation coffin, or spiked him with drugs, or with a failed form of neuronal therapy that causes damage very similar to CND . . . Well, the details don't matter right now. All that matters is that Manny was murdered, and his slate was stolen.'
'Do Mr Ifrahim and Mr Twain know that it's missing?'
Ursula nodded. 'And if you tell them that I told you about it, they'll know that you talked to me. That you did what they asked you to do.'
'I guess I should ask you what you're planning to do about it.'
'Would you tell your two friends about it if I did?'
'If you tell me, sure. Why not? You're telling me what you want them to hear, aren't you?'
Ursula studied Macy for a moment, a smile touching her lips, gone. 'I believe they may have underestimated you.'
'I'm counting on it.'
'Perhaps you think that I am crazy. That I have constructed a paranoid fantasy because I can't accept that Manny's death was a tragic accident. Oh, I wouldn't blame you if you did. I admit that I wasn't especially rational back then, and I can't have made a good impression when I burst into that meeting and vented my frustration. But I am rational now. I am utterly calm. And I know what I know. Part of what I do, a large part of it, is to locate and define places where emergent phenomena might arise from the interaction of two or more ecological parameters. In other words, I'm very good at spotting patterns before they have fully formed. So if you think that I'm seeing a conspiracy where none exists, let me assure you that it's as real as this glass,' Ursula said, finishing off her brandy in a quick swallow and setting the glass down on the slab of black ice and sitting back, fixing Macy with a bright, starry gaze. 'Maximilian Peixoto did so much to make sure that this project would be a success, and he died a few days before we arrived here. Our chief supporter in the European Union, Val-Jean Couperin, also died. And now Manny . . . They could have killed all of us, of course. Blown up the ship that brought us here, say, or the shuttle that took us up to the ship. But that would have been too obvious. Mass murder. There would have been a massive investigation, and it might have uncovered their identity. And at the moment, the enemies of the alliance between Greater Brazil and the Outer Colonies very much want to work under cover. They are not ready to reveal themselves because it would be a declaration of war. And they do not yet have the means to go to war.'
A deep, purring voice said, 'There will be no war.'
Macy started. It was the fur-robed, fox-faced figure who had spoken. She realised that the person wearing the mask must be subvocalising through a throat patch that disguised his or her voice, but the effect was uncanny nonetheless.
'There will be no war if we can help it,' Ursula said.
A silence stretched, and when it became clear that fox-face was not going to say anything else Ursula took up the thread of her argument again.
'When I was told that Manny had died during revival, I thought at once that it could have been murder. Because if they hoped to damage the project by killing one of us, Manny was the obvious target. He was the ecosystem engineer. He oversaw the design of every detail of the biome's ecosystem. He was responsible for recruiting and training the crew. And it was his will and personality that welded us into a single unit. But I couldn't be sure that he had been murdered until I found out that his slate was missing. Then I knew. I knew that they had killed him, not just because of who he was but because his slate contained something that his killers wished to keep hidden. Not the plans of the ecosystem. There are plenty of copies of those. I have a full set, fully annotated. So does Euclides. And people here in the city also have copies. No, they killed him because, even though he didn't know it, he was close to finding something they wanted to remain hidden.'
'You don't know what it could be,' Macy said. 'This hidden thing.'
'I have several ideas, of course. But no evidence pointing towards one or another.'
'And you don't know who . . . '
'There are plenty of candidates. It could be someone in the Peixoto family who wants to diminish the considerable power of Oscar Finnegan Ramos. It could be a pro-war anti-Outer faction in one of the other Brazilian families, or the families of the Pacific Community or the European Union. Not to mention the numerous factions in the city states of the Outer Colonies that want nothing at all to do with Earth . . . At this point, it doesn't matter who did it. It only matters why they did it. And that's where you can help me, Miz Minnot. I won't ask if you are loyal to our family. I know very well that most of the people in our territory aren't. But are you loyal to this crew, to what Manny was trying to build? Do you want it to succeed?'
'That's why I'm here. For the crew. The project.' Macy was having a hard time meeting Ursula Freye's starry gaze. She knew what was coming and she dreaded it and she didn't know how to stop it.
'I have made friends here,' Ursula said. 'You and I want this project and all it stands for to succeed. So do they. I want to help them. And you can help them too.'
'I'm here because I was told that you might be putting the project at risk,' Macy said.
'And you can see that it's quite otherwise.'
'I see no such thing. I'm sorry, but I don't. All I see is someone chasing after something that might not exist -- '
'It exists. You will help me prove that it exists.'
'You know something?' Macy said. 'You're just like them. Like Loc Ifrahim and Speller Twain. They want to use me to get at you. You want to use me to get at them.'
'I understand that I am putting you in a delicate position -- '
'I don't think you understand it at all,' Macy said, so loudly that the group of Outers at the next table, bulked like seals in their fur coats, turned to look at her. She hardly noticed, transported by a sudden rush of anger. 'People like you, you don't see how it is for people like me. You float above it all. As far as you're concerned, life is effortless. But people like me, we're down in the muck. When things go wrong, we're the ones who suffer. We're the ones who get hurt. You have a whim: we pay for it.'
She felt her pulse beat in her head, felt a giddiness that was nothing to do with the exiguous gravity. She didn't care, at that moment, what Ursula Freye did to her. This was the free zone, wasn't it? Well, she'd spoken freely.
Ursula surprised her. She laughed, a delicate, girlish chime, and said, 'You really don't have any idea, do you? You think that I'm free to do what I want? My whole life has been shaped by service to the family. The same family that protects you, makes sure that you have a job, food, shelter . . . All my life, I've done what I was told; what was best for the family. All my life, until I met Manny, and fell in love. We fell in love. We weren't supposed to, but we did,' Ursula said, looking down at Macy from the remote height of her desolation.
After a moment, the fox-faced person spoke. 'We will get to the bottom of it, Ursula.'
'And that's another thing,' Macy said. 'Why should I consider for even a second helping out someone who won't even show their face?'
'This isn't about you and it isn't about me,' Ursula told her. 'It's about the project. It's about Manny. I know you respected him. I know you know that he was the heart and soul of this project. If there's even a remote chance that he was murdered, don't you think it's worth following through?'
'Believe me, we would prefer not to ask you to do this,' Fox-face said. 'But it is the only way forward. It may be the only way to save the project.'
Macy's first impulse was to get up and walk away. But she was in enemy territory, she didn't know how many people in the bar, the free zone, the whole strange, low-rise city, were involved in this. She had been given privileged information and there was no telling what might happen if she didn't agree to help. So she took a deep breath, and said, 'All right. I guess I'm fucked if I do and fucked if I don't, so tell me what you want and I'll see what I can do. For the sake of the project. Nothing else.'
'It isn't anything,' Ursula said. 'Really it isn't. All I need are copies of the records and logs of everything that has been done since the crew started work on the biome. I can use them to run a dynamic reconstruction and integrate it. Look for emergent patterns, conjunctions -- anything that might hint at potential sabotage.'
'I have been locked out of the crew's database by Mr Twain. If I need anything, I have to go through him. He's watching me, Macy. He downloaded a spy into my slate -- for my own protection, he said. And he follows me everywhere. Everywhere but here. But you can do it, and besides, it really isn't anything. All you have to do is access the database and make a copy of the work logs and pass them to me. That won't be so hard, will it?'
Paul McAuley's first novel won the Philip K. Dick Award and he has gone on to win almost all of the major awards in the field. For many years a research biologist, he now writes full-time. He lives in London. Visit Paul McAuley online at http://unlikelyworlds.blogspot.com/