Neal Asher was born in Billericay, Essex, and still lives nearby. His interest in the strange was sparked when he heard The Hobbit as a child, and when he reached the age of sixteen he started to write SF and Fantasy himself. Some years later he began to produce more professional short stories, which were subsequently published in many small press magazines. His novellas Mindgames: Fool's Mate, The Parasite, and collections The Engineer, Runcible Tales and Mason's Rats earned him critical respect and set him on the road to the SF big leagues. His most recent novels for Macmillan and Pan have been the massively successful Gridlinked and The Skinner.
The inside of the escape pod was cold and condensation dewed its hard metal surfaces. He did not want to admit the truth, and damned Jayne's stubbornness. He should have forced her to have one of the doctor mycelia implanted, since her refusal of such invasive measures was illogical. The insentient version would have sufficed. She did not need the kind that spoke. Damn her, damn her...Only when she was cold and stiff in his arms did he finally admit to himself that she was dead. The huge surge of inductance during the attack had turned the hard wiring inside her head red hot. As he lay there holding her corpse he realised that even a doctor mycelium could not have saved her. It might have kept her body alive, but there was no mind left to speak of. Crying didn't work, he found, and the unfocused rage that had been the driving force of his genius, focused, and became something frigid.
Dis remembered, just the same as him, but then Dis was there as well.
They think you mad and in their way they treasure you. You are their relic.
Then everything is as it should be.
Yes: mad Bailey and his dead wife.
Bailey allowed himself a bitter grin as he gazed out through the bridge window.
The ship had once been a carrier for the fragrant mineral oil pumped from the understrata of Nineva. It retained its name, The Amoco, but not its purpose or much of its original appearance. The accommodation was now all curved glass and pastel metals, the deck golden with photovoltaic cells, and the bridge had been moved forward to make room for a landing pad. The hull remained the same, but was partially obscured by floating hotels attached either side of this kilometre-long behemoth. These glinted with a myriad of windows and from their lower walls folded out jetties for the mooring of small craft and easy access to the sea. From his padded leather seat Bailey observed the activity on the jetties. The concessions he had sold there were doing well, as were all the businesses in the public sections of the ship. When he was gone - something he expected to happen within the next ten years - a corporation he had personally funded would take over maintenance of The Amoco and more of the private sections would be opened out. He did not want this to happen yet. He did not want people too close to him for what was to come.
The aircar was a small private carrier with the bland look of officialdom. Bailey watched it land and wondered, for the nth time, if this was it.
Give me x50.
There was something like an internal nod from Dis and Bailey felt the muscles contract round his eyes. Now he could focus on who got out of the car. The woman was certainly no tourist and he had her down as ECS immediately.
She is Earth Central Security. She asks to speak with you - a request just came through the Foraster marine AI. Low level.
It would be low level. They wouldn't want it getting about. I'll meet her in the mausoleum
She was determinedly hiding her nervousness by closely studying Jayne's body in its armoured cryopod. As he walked into the dim chamber Bailey noted the pause while she gathered together her resolve. He also noted how when she turned to face him, her determination slipped a little.
They expect you to look like a madman.
'What can I do for you?' he asked pleasantly.
The woman stepped forward and smiled. Her clothing consisted of a monofilament coverall and desert boots. Round her waist she wore a utility belt at which was holstered her pulse gun. There was an augmentation behind her ear, partially concealed by her straight brown hair. Her face was not pretty in the classical sense, but there was a strength there.
'Linda Forlam, ECS. Pleased to meet you Mr Bailey,' she said.
He shook her hand, found it warm and damp. The palm of his hand twitched in response, but he reined Dis in - not allowing any invasion. A spasm of disappointment not his own washed through him.
After an embarrassed pause Linda went on, 'The Boletus has been found.'
Bailey did not allow anything to show in his expression. He remembered the wrenching crash of the hit and the pain as his aug turned white hot behind his ear. He remembered Jayne just dropping bonelessly to the deck of the starship, and how even then he had known, but had refused to admit to himself, that she was unrecoverably dead. There had been the scramble for the lifepods, the crash as those pods where ejected, a momentary tilted vision of the Boletus hanging in space while a ship like a wedge of midnight moved in on it, then the blinking distortion as what remained of the ship's AI dropped the Boletus into underspace.
'Where?' he asked.
'Out-Polity, about as far out-Polity as you can get. The AI was dead, but it had managed to put a fifty year delay on realspace entry.'
'And the cargo?'
'By the time an ECS ship got there the Boletus had been cut open and the cargo snatched. I think there is little question of who now possesses it,' she said.
Bailey turned from her to study the flash-frozen corpse of his wife. People felt it was a tragedy how he sought ways to rebuild her mind, how he sought to resurrect his love. They understood so little, because they had not been allowed to understand.
'Thank you for telling me this,' he said, 'but it was not necessary for you to come.'
'I've come to take you into protective custody.'
Bailey smiled and nodded to himself. 'And why should you want to do that?'
'Isn't it obvious. If they manage to utilise that cargo they'll stop Polity expansion in its tracks. Can you imagine what a terrorist could do with those things? They'll want you, and if they get hold of you...'
Bailey felt a momentary frisson at the thought, and quickly suppressed it.
He glanced back to this woman from ECS. 'I neither want nor need your protection.'
She stared at him for a moment before speaking. 'I'm afraid it's not that easy,' she said, and of course drew her pulse gun.
'Does ECS kidnap its citizens now?' he asked, taking a step closer to her.
Dis, dispersion through the floor.
As you will.
Bailey stood with his legs braced. He felt the tightness in his feet as the mycelium punctured the soles of his boots and rooted into the ceramal floor
'It is usually the Separatist excuse. But this is for the greater good. Please come along with me,' she said.
'I think not,' said Bailey.
Linda glanced to Jayne's corpse. 'We'll bring her, of course.'
Bailey shook his head. 'You fail to understand. Really, I don't need ECS protection.'
'Then I'm sorry,' said the woman.
Her pulse-gun flared once. The energy burst hit him in the chest and would have knocked him to the floor had not Dis made his body as of stone. Small lightnings laced his skin and wisps of smoke rose from his clothing. The energy bled away into the floor.
'You see,' said Bailey.
Perhaps she did see, for the setting of her gun was higher for the next shot, probably remote adjusted from her aug. Bailey stumbled back and fell against the cryopod. His chest felt as if it had been hit with a spade and black encroached at the edges of his vision. Looking down he saw the burn where the pulse of ionized gas had burnt into his chest. He allowed himself to go limp and slid down.
I am ready.
The woman walked over to him and squatted next to him, replacing the charge cartridge in her weapon as she did so. Bailey reached out and grabbed her wrist. The cartridge clattering away, she gaped at him in blank shock.
'These were your orders?' he asked, air driven up from his right lung to operate his vocal cords. She tried to pull away.
The woman winced and with a puzzled expression stared at his hand. An abrupt widening of her eyes signified that she knew what was happening. She tried to pull away, took one gasping breath, then convulsed before dropping unconscious to the floor.
They would risk killing me because of what I know.
This surprises you? asked Dis, his doctor mycelium, as it extracted itself from the woman's body.
They were quick. He gave them that. But then he suspected they had arrived on The Amoco not long before or after the ECS agent. Of course, laden as he was with the armoured cryopod containing his dead wife, he left an easy enough trail to follow. The man wore a long coat with a hood up over his head, and Bailey had no doubts as to what that hood concealed. He brought his own car down before the Hilton and unloaded Jayne with an AG trolley. Observing the man climbing out of a taxi not far behind him, he noted how little effort there was of concealment. He supposed they were confident of snatching him before anyone could intervene. After taking the drop-shaft to his prebooked room, he settled the cryopod on the thick carpet before settling himself on the sofa. Only moments later the door slid aside again and the man stepped through.
The man stopped at the threshold for a moment as the door closed behind him. He pushed his hood back to reveal a shaven pate to which clung an augmentation like a huge crystal slug. His eyes were blank metal spheres.
'Well you're the mouth and the mind. Where's the muscle?' Bailey spat.
Seconds after, the window exploded into the room, and in drifted the martial half of this partnership of machine and men. This one had a human face and torso, but that was all. Below its waist (it not being evident if it was male or female) was a transparent sphere, so it appeared as if this cyborg floated on a large soap bubble. At the centre of this bubble, hanging like genitalia, was a cluster of unidentifiable hardware. From its left shoulder sprouted a heavy manipulator arm ending in a grab. From its right shoulder sprouted a smaller arm ending in a complex hand. Below this arm sprouted yet another, smaller, more complex arm and hand. Attached to the back of its head was a box twice the size of that head, supported by metal struts running down through its back to the sphere, so it looked as if the flesh part of this cyborg was bait threaded onto a hook.
'Do I have to guess what you want?' asked Bailey.
'You have no need to guess,' said the one with the metal eyes, and gestured to the floating half of the partnership. Bailey turned and saw mechanisms twist and reconfigure in the bubble. A holographic targeting grid snapped into existence between the floating cyborg and the cryopod containing Bailey's wife.
'No, no that won't be necessary,' he said quickly.
A point of light ignited before the floating cyborg's head. Something whispered and, to one side of the pod, a coffee table exploded into a disk of splinters. This disk then shrank to a point and disappeared with a sound so brief and intense Bailey felt it more than heard it.
He dropped to his knees. 'No!'
'For your information,' said the cyborg with the iron eyes, 'I am Fetch and my partner is Thanos. You will come with us. Your wife will come with us. When you have done what we wish of you, we shall allow you to return.'
Bailey nodded agreement, unable to take his eyes off Thanos.
They distance themselves from humanity and forget how to read humanity.
They are dangerous.
Yes, and stupid.
The ancient Japanese man walked like a young man. In the gloom of the mausoleum he spotted the prone figure of Linda, lying by an oblong area clear of dust. He studied her for a long moment, his expression unfathomable, then moved over and squatted beside her, reaching out to press a gnarled hand against her face. When he withdrew his hand she opened her eyes and sat upright with a gasp. In a moment she had her breathing under control.
She glared at the old man. 'He could have killed me, and who would have blamed him? I apparently tried to kill him.'
The old man nodded.
'Then tell me why. Why was that necessary?' she asked. 'Couldn't we have slipped it into his morning coffee?'
'His doctor monitors most closely those points where his body ends and the world begins. It watches in his gut, his lungs, and at his skin. We could not have put it in his coffee,' replied Horace Blegg - agent Prime Cause of Earth.
'They would detect it.'
'Why not a long shot then? Was it necessary for me to risk my life.'
'He believed your intention was to capture him.'
Linda stooped and picked up her pulse gun, then the cartridge. 'A distance shot would have been for a kill.'
'Precisely,' said Blegg. 'He knows that we have some idea of his capabilities, and now believes that we merely underestimated them. The ruse worked.'
She grimaced at him.
After that first exchange the twinned cyborgs quickly got to work. Using its heavy arm in a casual demonstration of power, Thanos loaded the cryopod into an AGC transporter set on hover outside the hotel window.
As it did this, Fetch questioned Bailey. 'Why is this cryopod so heavily armoured?'
'I value her higher than anything. You know that. Have you forgotten what it is to be human?'
Fetch did not reply for some time.
'Acceptable,' he said, eventually, then gestured for Bailey to enter the transporter before him.
Once they were all inside, the vehicle shot straight up into the sky. The acceleration slammed Bailey to the floor. As it eased he pulled himself to the hull and rested his back against it. He listened to the sounds of seals closing all around him and knew they were just about to go extraplanetary.
'I take it you have the cargo of the Boletus?' he said.
'We have,' said Fetch.
'And you want me to show you how to use it?'
Fetch said nothing for a moment, then he turned his head as if looking at Bailey like someone with real eyes. 'You will show us how to use it. You will open the canister for us, give us all the necessary programming tools, and any other assistance we might require.'
'You're very confident of that,' said Bailey.
'You will do this willingly. If you do not I will destroy your wife's cryopod then put you in a cell with her body while it decays. I will then mind-ream the information out of you before killing you.'
Nothing if not direct.
They will want to mind-ream and kill you anyway.
You state the obvious.
Acceleration dropped off and Bailey felt his weight leaving him. He grabbed a duct running inside the hull and held himself in position. Fetch and Thanos did not move at all; Fetch probably wearing stickboots, and Thanos no-doubt holding position, hovering in the middle of the transporter bay, with micro air jets. They remained thus for an hour. Bailey felt a touch of space sickness that was immediately negated by Dis. More manoeuvring, gentle this time, then the sound of docking clamps. Seals cracked and the door opened. Thanos revolved in the air and fixed Bailey with bloodshot eyes. Bailey stood and walked from the transporter with the two cyborgs close behind him.
'You have the cargo here?' he asked.
'We have not,' said Fetch.
The ship bay was wide and circular. Bailey wondered if this was the ship that had attacked Boletus. It was possible, though he knew that the Cyberiad possessed many such ships. They also had a station somewhere - he was very sure of that. Stopping to look around, unsure of where he was supposed to go, he nearly overreacted when steel claws clamped his biceps, something snaked around his ribcage, and sharp fingers clamped his head solidly.
'Do not resist,' said Fetch.
With no attempt at care, a needle was driven into his hip. He flinched and gritted his teeth, but Dis was on the pain in a second.
Can you handle them?
There is nothing to handle. They merely collect information.
I don't recollect arrogance as being one of your programmed traits.
You gave me sentience. You must expect that I come to know myself.
Fetch moved round in front of Bailey. The crystal aug on the side of his head sparkled with internal light. 'You have a mycelium.'
'It's only a doctor mycelium. Nothing for you to worry about,' said Bailey.
There was a long pause. The lights in Fetch's aug glowed brighter. 'Confirmed.'
Thanos released its hold on Bailey.
The craft, Trapdoor, was small and packed with equipment. It was small because no matter how advanced stealth technology became, mass was something difficult to conceal. She sat in a control chair with consoles and monitors jammed close all around her. The wide front screen was a simple plastiglass/LCD sandwich. The craft had no need of armour or displaced viewing. If it was detected by an enemy, only speed might work - otherwise she was dead.
'How close are we?' she asked.
Trapdoor, ship and AI, was quick to reply. 'Not close enough, and we have a problem.'
On the screen, small lights blinked into existence. Each light was numbered. Every now and again one of these lights would shift, very quickly, to a new position.
'Micromines,' said Linda. 'How's our vector?'
'Our vector is fine for their present position, but as you just observed, they are randomly shifting,' said Trapdoor.
'There's no such thing as random.'
'The limitations of human language are not my fault,' said the AI, a note of distraction in its voice. It was the distraction that reassured Linda. The AI would not have diverted processing power to alter its voice like that if it was facing grave problems. Trapdoor would sort it. AIs were almost as good at this sort of thing as they were at sarcasm. After a long pause it spoke again, distraction still in its voice.
'There will be an explosion. Do not concern yourself.'
Immediately the screen blacked out, there was a hiss of static and the rushing drone of coolers as the ship lurched to one side. The temperature inside very quickly rose a few degrees. In a moment the screen lost its opacity and Linda was able to watch flecks of red hot matter drifting with the ship, and cooling.
'An explanation would be nice,' she said.
'Pattern prediction did not work. The mine that closed on us I detonated at a safe distance with a kilogram of asteroidal rock I carried for just such a purpose. Hence the debris you see. I also used the cover of the explosion to alter our course somewhat. If you look up and to the right...'
Linda jerked her head up, but for a moment could see nothing. Eventually she realised that where she was looking there were no stars. She soon resolved the shape of the Cyberiad ship.
'Big,' was all she said.
'But primitive,' said Trapdoor. 'You'll be glad to know that we now have a signal from the beacon you so delicately implanted in Ian Bailey's chest.'
'His doctor mycelium didn't find it then,' she said.
'Nor his enemies,' Trapdoor added.
'How long will it take us to reach it?' Linda asked.
'At this speed it will take ten minutes to reach the hull.'
'Any sign of engine start?'
'Their ion drive is heating up. This is what we want, as it will give us cover for deceleration.'
'The shock absorbers would have taken it...just,' said Trapdoor.
Linda grimaced to herself. She was aware that this craft could take a lot more punishment than its passenger. She didn't pursue the matter.
The cabin they put him was luxurious. It had spa area, panoramic window, automated bar and kitchen, and a huge bed. The bar, kitchen, and spa did not work, and the huge bed's last occupant was still there - a dried-out husk curled foetal under the rotten blankets.
Seems they neglect their passengers.
I do not understand the purpose of this.
Nothing much to understand really. They just don't care. Aesthetics are irrelevant to them, as is a sense of smell. They don't expend energy on what they would consider a pointless task. Clearing this cabin would be such, as would be making any of the utilities work.
Why have such a cabin at all?
I would guess it was cut from another ship. Maybe for me, more likely for him.
For a moment Bailey stared at the corpse on the bed, then he moved to the panoramic window.
You know, Dis, people were confined to wheeled chairs and other machines because their severed nerves would not heal. Scar tissue got in the way. Now people who interface with machines have the gene, that forms scar tissue, turned off. Scar tissue fouls that interface, blocks the connections, cripples them.
I knew there was a purpose. Now I fathom it.
Yes, I knew you would. You are very much like your twin in all but function.
Human viruses need human cells to procreate.
Yes, yes they do.
Won't they be suspicious?
What, of mad Bailey and his dead wife?
Bailey smiled to himself then turned when the door behind him ground open. Fetch walked in and Thanos hovered in the doorway. Fetch stepped to one side and Bailey found himself blinded by intense green light. He felt his face tingling. That tingling spread down his body.
Nanocytes active again. Also some kind of active scan. Your DNA is being damaged. I am repairing it. Not yet critical.
The tingling ceased and the green light went out.
Nanocytes going quiescent. Active scan ceased. I am still repairing damage.
'Where are your weapons?' asked Fetch.
'I have no weapons,' said Bailey.
Fetch turned his head to one side. Lights flickered in his aug. Perhaps he was receiving instructions.
He said, 'You hate us. You consider us responsible for the death of your wife. You should want us dead. Did you expect us to give you direct and unsupervised access to the cargo canister?'
Bailey shook his head.
'No, I never expected that. But I do have an agenda, my friend.'
'What is this agenda?'
'It's quite simple really. My wife is dead and all the Polity technology will not resurrect her. You, with your advanced cyber technology, could resurrect her. Do this, and I'll open that canister for you and give you that military mycelium with all the programming tools you'll need. I'll release Orcus into your hands and damn the Polity. They did nothing but get Jayne killed.'
There was a long pause and much flickering of lights.
'We will consider your proposal,' said Fetch, eventually. Thanos backed out of the way to let Fetch out, then came back to fix Bailey with its bloodshot eyes while the door ground shut.
They'll swallow that?
They will. They'll use every lever at their disposal. I'm their only way into that canister.
The little composite craft hit against the pitted hull of the Cyberiad vessel. Shock absorbers took the impact and claws bit into the black metal to hold the craft there like a tick. After a couple of minutes Linda allowed herself to relax a little. If they had been detected she would have perhaps known about it for the microsecond prior to them being turned into a spreading cloud of debris.
'Now we wait,' she said.
'Not for long,' replied Trapdoor. 'The ion engines have started.'
'How long for this hulk to get up to UE?' she asked.
'Twenty minutes on ion drive, another twenty on ramjets, then underspace engines will engage. This is supposing they use maximum all down the line.'
'You'll bet they will for this little operation,' said Linda, then lay back and closed her eyes. Jesu, there was so much riding on this. You didn't get a personal encounter with Agent Prime Cause for an operation unless it was critical, and by critical she meant obliteration of planets critical. That conversation on the asteroid...all very cryptic at the time, but now beginning to make sense...
The star field shot overhead like a speckled belt, as the life bubble was directly adjacent to the axis of rotation. If you looked at it for too long you started to get nauseous. It was best to concentrate on either the floor or the rockscape beyond the transparent walls.
'Sometimes there are useful tools in Pandora's box. We have to take them out, use them for a while, then put them back. This will be the place. Earth Central called it Elba, which doesn't bode well for us closing the lid. You'll bring him here.'
It was only when she asked Trapdoor did she find out who Pandora was and what Elba was. The conversation that ensued hadn't made much sense until they got onto mycelia and what Bailey had been working on in his ship, the Boletus. She worked out herself then what she might be dealing with, which, of course, was how Blegg wanted it - he wanted his agents to think.
All the evil in the world.
Mycelium: the filamentous body of a fungus. The thing you saw on the surface of the ground was only the fruit. The plant itself spreading its filament body underground. Bailey's Mycelia lived inside human beings, mostly, and bore strange fruit indeed. They could be defined as artificial intelligences, complex nanomachines, life, even. Doctor mycelia could keep a human alive and practically immortal in very bad circumstances. Military mycelia where enough to give nightmares to the most hardened pessimist. As Blegg inferred: some things should go back in he box.
Linda opened her eyes for a moment as the red haze of ramfields opened across hundreds of kilometres of space.
'Wake me when we're there,' she said, and closed her eyes again.
Bailey finished eating the dry block that these cyborgs called food. It was all taste with its vitamins and proteins and fats, but it was the taste of marmite and oranges and something else that had gone putrid. He washed his meal down with one of the cartons of tepid water they had also provided. The window had gone from underspace grey to starlit black with a hint of light to one side from the ion drive. There had to be something here yet Bailey had yet to see it. The ship would not be on ion drive if there were still any distance to travel. He crunched up the carton and cast it onto the bed with the rest of the empties, then studied the touchpads on the sill of the window.
There were pictographs on the pads, but none he really recognised. He touched one and the stars took on a hint of violet.
UV I guess.
He tried more until he got what he wanted: a gravity map, a picture that required no light. Now he saw that they were heading towards a dark orb. Out from behind that orb a coin-shaped station was coming into view. He clicked the view back to normal and now saw lights glinting on the station.
Interesting that they should be in orbit round a dead sun.
Because it means they probably have a fusion generator on board.
I still do not see the interest.
Let us say it would be of more interest to your brother.
The door began its laborious grinding and Bailey turned as Fetch and Thanos entered the room.
Bailey stayed by the window. 'Do we have an agreement?'
'We do,' said Fetch. 'We will resurrect your wife. As you requested we will even do it before you open the canister for us. Be sure to do what you must do.'
'Oh I will. I will,' said Bailey.
He gazed out at the station they were rapidly approaching. It wore a circlet of the wedge-shaped ships like a crown, so most of the Cyberiad was here for the party.
And that makes both of us liars.
They will try this?
They will, and it will be the obscenity that will start their downfall.
The ship drew closer to the station. Unnoticed by Bailey or the Cyberiad, a small stealth craft detached from the ship's hull and drifted away. The ship docked in its place and completed the circlet over the station. Bailey walked, ahead of Thanos and behind Fetch, down a ramp into the vast interior. Here thousands of cyborgs sped about their duties. Many were like Thanos and Fetch, but there were also more esoteric designs and others that had lost any trace of humanity - what scraps of it they contained being sealed in metal and crystal. Bailey saw a cyborg that was, in appearance, a human head on a platter. It zipped by to one side of him, while on his other side a thing like a giant beetle lumbered past. When this second object turned he saw it had a human face set in the front of it. The face seemed to be screaming while the beetle mechanism got on with its work, which in this case was to unload Jayne's cryopod. Bailey moved towards her, but a steel claw closed on his arm and halted him.
'When she is ready she will be brought to us,' said Fetch.
Bailey reluctantly followed Fetch.
The inside of the station bore little resemblance to a normal human artefact, there being a dearth of the usual elements of human construction like walls and ceilings. There were a few walkways for the likes of Fetch, but otherwise the interior contained open areas for flying cyborgs, and cramped masses of equipment.
It was to one of the cramped areas that Fetch and Thanos eventually brought Bailey. Through a chaos of tight construction, of beams and plates and tangles of optic cables, they led him eventually to a small chamber. At the edge of this stood a pedestal-mounted touch console of the kind he was accustomed to. In front of the console, a free-standing plastiglass window revealed grid floor beyond, on which rested a chrome cube, thirty centimetres at the side.
'I need to see my wife first,' said Bailey.
'Your wife will be here soon,' said Fetch. 'We do not delay on these things. You must begin.'
Bailey walked over to the console and studied the logic screens above it. Someone had been trying for a long time to break the sequence. He snorted then placed his hand on a bioreader. A section of his genetic code was displayed on the logic screens. He flicked through it to a certain point and made one or two alterations. He then called up something from the huge databank and hit the splicing sequences. It was an amusing conceit: his genetic code spliced with that of a poisonous mushroom. When the splicing completed he hit send and gazed through the plastiglass window. The cube developed a black line, then slid open on polished rods to expose a white sphere.
'There that opens the outer casing,' said Bailey. He turned to Fetch and said no more for a moment. Standing beside the cyborg Jayne looked warm and alive. They'd put a bodysuit on her.
'Jayne...oh my God,' said Bailey.
Jayne smiled at him. He stumbled towards her then halted when a targeting grid snapped into existence in front of him.
'You must let me go to her,' he said to Fetch.
'We can easily undo the work we have done,' said Fetch.
'I know, just let me touch her, just let me know she is no longer cold.'
The grid snapped out of existence and Bailey went to his wife and took her in his arms.
'Darling,' she said.
He pulled her close then kissed her. His mouth tingled. She was warm and soft - an environment easily invaded by mycelia.
What's her status, Dis?
The virus is multiplying exponentially and has been since they thawed her. She has been spreading it in the air for at least twenty minutes.
What did they do?
They removed what was left of her brain and put in a simple cyber mechanism.
Bailey released his wife and stepped back. He watched Thanos and Fetch.
'Now you will open the inner...inner...casing,' said Fetch.
Thanos, who until then had remained in position as if pinned in the air, suddenly dropped a few centimetres before returning to position.
How long now?
With the weapons they possess, a minute can be a long time.
The virus acts quickly to turn on those sections of the DNA controlling the production of scar tissue, but it takes a little time for that tissue to form and begin to affect the interfaces.
Bailey nodded to himself and walked slowly over to the console. When he glanced back he saw that the walking corpse that had once been his wife was swaying as if to some internal music.
Massive viral production is destroying the corpse.
Bailey began working at the console, pulling up gene-based coding sequences, giving every impression that he was doing what had been asked of him. He pretended not to see when his wife's corpse abruptly fell over. He glanced round when Thanos' targeting grid snapped on then drifted up and aside. He moved carefully to put the console between himself and the cyborgs. Lights were incandescing like fireworks in Fetch's crystal aug. The face that had born no expression was now puzzled. That expression remained as Fetch took a pace forwards, then fell sideways on the gridded floor. He lay there mouthing like a beached fish until he eventually got out the words he wanted.
'Reply...reply...reply,' he said.
Thanos had no reply. The cyborg drifted towards Bailey, passed over his head, bumped gently against the window then slid down it to the floor. Bailey walked over to this half human and watched as its skin turned blue and fluids started to seep out at the junctures between flesh and metal.
'Just too many joins,' he said out loud, then peered at Fetch. 'He could be saved. If anyone wanted to save him.' He stepped over the body of his wife and walked to the side of the window. What had happened to her here was justice. She had initiated death, but her death he had accepted a quarter of a century ago.
'I'm getting some strange signals from the station,' said Trapdoor.
'What kind of strange?' asked Linda, gazing up at the representation of ship and dead sun displayed by the LCD sandwich of her screen.
'The kind you get from extremely logical beings trying not to panic,' said the AI.
'Then it's started. How long will it take?'
'Minutes only...oh shit,' said the AI.
Linda sat up straighter. The AIs voice had gone flat. Trouble. 'Automated defence system activated. Missiles coming our way.'
On the last word the little ship lurched as it accelerated under huge G for which the internal gravity could not wholly compensate.
The ship lurched again and Linda caught something silvery flashing past the screen. Intense light hit the screen and it blacked. Linda frantically checked controls as acceleration pressed her into her seat. Was there anything she could do to help Trapdoor?
She checked their position. 'Defence system. How old?'
'Archaic. Many missiles, though,' replied Trapdoor.
'Take us to the sun's surface. Their motors won't pull your G,' said Linda.
There was another lurch. The screen came back on and Linda got a view of silvery missiles in a geometric swarm. A low humming came from Trapdoor's motors as the ship wound up its power. The missiles dropped to one side of the screen then out of sight until a secondary screen popped on to show their tail view. On the screen now was a lightless orb picked out by graphics.
'So, we have the whole pack of them after us,' said Linda.
With intonation returning to his voice Trapdoor replied, 'Yes, they are like guard dogs. The intention is to drive prowlers from Cyberiad property. If we jumped now we could easily escape.'
'We don't want to do that. How long until we can lose them?'
'A lot can happen in a minute,' Linda said.
Bailey walked to the edge of the window and stepped round it.
The illusion of security.
I do not understand.
They didn't need to seal the canister away. They just needed enough of a screen to prevent me from rushing to get my hands on it. After all, Thanos was here and how could I possibly get away from...it?
Once behind the window he walked across gridded floor and squatted by the canister. The two halves of the chrome cube he pulled apart. The half without the rods he turned on its side, then picking up the sphere to drop back into this.
The canister itself is palm-keyed to me. I've no doubt they'd have taken my hand off at the wrist to use it, rather than risk me opening it for them.
There was no reply from Dis, and Bailey smiled to himself. Of course, the doctor mycelium was nervous as this was an important moment for it. He reached down and rested his spread hand on the surface of the sphere. When he took his hand away a circle appeared in that surface, and the section it enclosed sank into the sphere then slid to one side. Inside there was movement - something nacreous shifted and expressed rainbow light.
'Dis, let me introduce you to your brother Orcus,' said Bailey, and plunged his hand into the sphere.
For a moment his hand felt merely cold, then something grabbed it and held on. He heard Dis let go something that was like a scream, or a sigh. It receded, merged into a growing mechanistic roar. Cold cracked up Bailey's arm. Something wrenched at his elbow, his shoulder, his back, then was soothed. He closed his eyes and listened to the roar inside him. Dis he felt as a cobwebby presence in his muscles and in his bones. This other thing felt like a steel hawser hanging in his flesh, secured by razor hooks that did not hurt, but were on the edge of tearing him apart. He opened his eyes and glanced back to the window, through which he saw Fetch pulling himself upright, blind, drool running from the corner of his mouth.
'Like you and Thanos, are Dis and Orcus: two halves, a partnership. Dis is the healer and Orcus...Orcus is like Thanos: he provides the muscle, the firepower. Now they are one.'
Fetch tilted his head and Bailey wondered if he had heard a word.
Are you there now? Are you ready?
WE ARE ORCUS. WE ARE READY.
Bailey withdrew his hand from the sphere and placed it on the gridwork deck.
Orcus, you know the situation because Dis knows it and in me you are one inside me. But it is your nature that you must be ordered. Orcus, I order you to destroy this station, all its occupants, and as many of the docked ships as you can reach. The cryopod in which I brought my wife here I want you to leave intact, as myself. It is your return point.
Around Bailey's hand the grey gridwork turned glittery and crystalline. This effect spread in a slow star, then one arm of this star sped toward Fetch. The cyborg jerked upright and screamed, rainbow light filling his mouth, then he imploded. Where he stood, where a sheet gore and metal fell out of the air, now stood a rainbow tree. This tree sank back into the deck, next to it the window crazed and broke into finger-sized shards. That arm sped on, and other arms sped in other directions. Metal broke and plastic shattered. By the time Bailey was on his feet he could hear screams and explosions, and smell burning flesh.
Your brother is most efficient.
It is how you made him? Must he return to us?
I'm afraid so. He cannot be left loose.
I prefer to be myself.
I know. I'm sorry.
Bailey walked through the shards of broken window. Thanos was now nothing but a spreading pool of gore in which a few unidentifiable components lay. As the chaos rapidly spread, Bailey walked out the way he had come in. Flying cyborgs were dragged out of the air by cast webs of filaments. He saw the beetle cyborg split in half and ooze circuitry like lava from a volcanic vent. He walked towards it and saw that the human face no longer seemed to be screaming, but grinning insanely. The head on a plate he saw hovering high out of reach while a rainbow cone grew below it. He did not wait to see the result of that encounter. The cryopod lay next to the broken beetle, as they had not thought to put it anywhere safe, or yet to dispose of it. They did not think like that. Bailey opened it with a touch and climbed inside.
Wake me in a thousand years, Dis.
A joke, old friend.
I am all out of humour, Bailey.
Silver specks dropped towards the sun and were just gone. Linda felt a tugging even with internal gravity at maximum compensation.
'I hope AG isn't faulty, Trapdoor,' she said.
'If it was faulty you wouldn't be asking that question,' replied the AI, all its sarcasm back.
'What am I feeling then?'
'Tidal forces. That dead sun still has quite a spin to it.'
'Oh,' said Linda, feeling stupid.
The sun shifted to the side of the screen. Now there was an ominous hollow note in the drone of the engines. Linda ignored the stress indicators and all the other shrieking displays. The craft would handle it or not. There would be no in-between point.
'We are at perihelion. Beginning break away in thirty seconds,' said Trapdoor.
'Is this to make me feel like I'm involved, said Linda.
Thirty seconds passed. The droning sound changed and the sun slipped farther sideways. The drone ceased and slowly but surely the station swung back into view.
'Jesu! Look at that!'
'I am looking,' Trapdoor replied, nought but a grim tone to its voice.
The station was falling apart. Explosions were blowing out panels and scattering debris around it in a glittering orbital cloud. Internal fires burned behind blackened and distorted beams. Rainbow light flared here and there.
'A ship is leaving,' said Trapdoor.
'Now that's not so good. Any get away and you can forget containment.'
One of the wedge ships lifted from the station on a flare of blue and began to peel away. Something like a streak of rainbow lightning flickered up at it then went out. A white light flared near its engines and then the ship burned like a sculpture made of fuse paper.
'Catalytic fire, interesting,' Trapdoor noted.
No more ships managed to detach, but Linda observed a cone of rainbow light snap out from the station - the merest speck of matter propelled at its tip. Then the cone retracted into that speck drawing, in an instant, all signs of that rainbow glow from the massive station.
Suddenly the screen blacked out protectively. When vision returned it was to show a spreading cloud of debris and nebulous flame - all that remained of the station.
'Fusion generator,' Trapdoor explained.
A blinking light appeared on the screen and expanded into a square. It tracked the expansion of the debris cloud as it focused on one small piece.
'I think it would be incredible if he were alive,' said Linda, as she manually steered the craft towards that dot.
'He was vengeful, not suicidal,' said Trapdoor, bringing the system controlling the towing grapple online.
Bailey opened his eyes to a starfield that shot overhead like a speckled belt. There was a muted roar inside him and he felt too full and too dangerous. He sat upright and gazed around. He was in a life-bubble on a small asteroid. There was little inside the bubble, and a no-doubt limited supply of oxygen.
Exactly how I would have done it.
WE CAN ATTACK.
There's nothing to attack, Orcus.
Bailey glanced at the canister on the floor. It was spherical, white, and open in readiness, and it rested in one half of an armoured box the twin of that on the Cyberiad station. He got out of the cryopod and observed the spacesuit that lay next to it. It was probably made to measure.
'Can anyone hear me?' he asked.
'Yes,' replied a woman's voice.
'Do I know you?' he asked.
'We met. I shot you and your mycelium stung me. It was a brief affair.'
Bailey smiled and walked over to the sphere. He put his hand inside.
Orcus, I order you to get inside this vessel, and, when I have removed my hand, I order you to seal yourself in.
OPENING CODE REQUIRED.
My DNA and hand print, as before.
Bailey closed his eyes and felt the hooks pull free inside him. It was not gentle, but the Dis half was there to mend things. His spine crackled. There were thumps at his shoulder and elbow, like shocks from a welder. He opened his eyes as cold flowed from his hand.
He is gone.
Bailey nodded then removed his hand from the sphere. The little hatch slid across, pushed out into position and sealed. The sphere became perfect. He tipped the half box, containing this, up to its other half, and pushed the rods into their sockets. Stepping back he watched the two halves of the box draw together - sealing the sphere away. He turned to the spacesuit.
Should I bother to put it on?
Why do you ask this?
In their position I would throw away the key.
Perhaps they are more forgiving.
Bailey shrugged to himself then set about donning the suit. When it was sealed he walked out through the airlock of the bubble and that temporary building collapsed behind him. Under the belt of stars he waited to be picked up. Or not.
(C) Neal Asher 2002
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.