Authors: Neal Asher
Again thanks to everyone involved in bringing this book to the shelves, including as always my wife Caroline and my parents Bill and Hazel. Special thanks to Keith Starkey for his 'overview' rather than critique of the specific and to Peter Lavery for never letting up despite a million of my words passing under his pencil! Also included must be those others working at Macmillan and elsewhere: Rebecca Saunders, Emma Giacon, Steve Rawlings, Liz Cowen, Jon Mitchell, Liz Johnson, Chantal Noel, Neil Lang, Stephen Dumughn, and many others besides.
8 July 1927 to 15 February 2007
I wish you could have seen this.
Brumal and Sudoria only come into conjunction every three Sudorian years, so during the War the time between conjunctions was used by both sides to rebuild their destroyed infrastructures: to stock up on food and medical supplies; to manufacture new ships, weapons and munitions; and to train new recruits. The cyclic nature of the War was thus sustained for a hundred years and it could be argued that, without the arrival of the Worm, the fighting might have continued for centuries more—and there are those who say it could have continued until the sun went out. Fleet claim that they were beginning to make some headway against the Brumallians, but such claims had been made before and come to nothing. The prospect of what could have happened appals me. The symbolism of a space-borne Worm bringing a war to an end, breaking the cycle, breaking the ring that was our own self-inflicted Ouroboros—a worm eating its own tail forever—brings me as close to superstitious awe as I have ever ventured. However, styling myself a rational being, I step back from that simply because I know that stranger coincidences do occur.
Tigger—during the War
Orbital mechanics had made the war in the Sudorian system almost a seasonal thing, and now the conflict was stuttering to its usual halt as the two contending worlds drew further apart. Since neither side possessed underspace drives or adequate concealment technology, the logistics of sustained conflict over the growing distances involved became increasingly difficult. Tigger—a four-ton drone fashioned in the shape of a chrome tiger embracing a large sphere, like some baroque bonnet ornament from an ancient ground car—observed the attempts to prolong the fighting by the deployment of supply stations and the launching of swarms of rail-gun accelerated missiles. But these last attempts were doomed to failure, hence the reason this war had dragged on for so long. The drone turned away, still easily managing to remain unnoticed through the use of advanced chameleonware. As he headed towards the planet Sudoria, he observed vicious space battles between Sudorian hilldiggers and teardrop-shaped Brumallian ships—the latter the product of biotechnology—and registered how once again these contests were reaching a stalemate.
But maybe things were due to change. And finally receiving permission to take a look at the possible reason why, Tigger headed towards Corisanthe Main.
This station lay isolated in space unlike any of the other Sudorian stations, and was heavily defended under an energy-shield umbrella. The Polity—the vast AI-run dominion spreading out from Earth and which put the likes of Tigger at the forefront of that expansion—possessed similar energy shields. But they were an offshoot of the U-space tech, which the Sudorians did not possess, so for the Tigger it had been frustrating and annoying that his boss had been so uninterested in investigating this anomalous technology.
Closing on his target, with chameleonware concealing him from prying eyes or inferior scanners, Tigger soon observed the station revealed in all its glory: a vast complex like a floating city, the four Ozark Cylinders projecting at each quadrant, so viewed either from above or below it bore the shape of a cross. Sitting in orbit above the mighty station, Tigger studied it visually—wary of putting himself in the way of any of the rare coded laser transmissions from that place—but over the last year of such 'observation only' his patience had been wearing thin.
“Hey, Geronimo—nothing happening here,” he sent via U-space. “But if I try anything more active they might detect me. Security is a bit tight here.”
“Call me that again and I'll see about having you recycled as hull plating,” the AI Geronamid replied.
“Sorry, chief, I have terrible trouble remembering names.”
Obviously not amused by this, the AI continued, “Your present remit is to obtain further information about that particular station—”
“At last,” Tigger muttered.
“Can't learn much more here just in the visual band.” Tigger really wanted permission to do something a bit more active, but he didn't hold out much hope of that.
“Then learn about the station elsewhere, and do not communicate with me again until you have something worthwhile to report.”
After briefly considering his options, Tigger planed down to a remote area of the planet Sudoria, using fusion burners sparingly to prevent him causing ionisation that his chameleonware could not conceal, and ultimately to prevent himself causing a crater when he hit the surface. Then he grav-planed over desert to the nearest population centre and, still keeping concealed, accessed information sources there. He began with a library containing books, films, holoflicks, games and interactives all stored on a primitive disk medium. The keepers of that place were subsequently shocked to one day find a hole in the roof and the entire contents of the library gone. Shock did not sufficiently describe their reaction upon finding the entire contents of the library returned, only a few days later. After that Tigger listened to all the broadcast channels of the media; personal, military and government coms; he created search engines, catchers and diverters to locate any mention of Corisanthe Main. It did not take him long to realise he would soon be speaking to Geronamid again.
“No one knows precisely what they're doing in there,” Tigger informed the sector AI. “But everyone knows what they've got inside there...within limits.”
“Within limits,” Geronamid grumbled. “Just like my patience.”
“Okey-dokey...The station remains open to visual inspection by a hilldigger matching its orbit, ready to destroy the entire station should the necessity arise. This is their most important project, and their most dangerous one. As you know, exterior transmission occurs every ten hours, by laser, and only select Fleet scientists and officers are allowed to view the contents of that transmission. From a secondary source I've managed to intercept and decode some of it.”
“Send it to me,” Geronamid interrupted.
“Hold fire—you're gonna have to let me have my moment of glory.”
“Oh get on with it, Tigger.”
“Each of the four Ozark Cylinders holds a combined magnetic and electrostatic containment canister—apparently invented by some dude called Al-amarad Ozark, believe it or not.” Geronamid made a dismissive harrumphing sound, so Tigger continued hurriedly, “Each of those canisters in turn contains a twenty-foot-long segment of what has come to be known simply as 'the Worm'. It appeared just a few years before I arrived, threading across the Sudorian system: a thin glowing...well, worm-like object fifteen miles long. Thinking it an enemy weapon, perhaps a superstring somehow under Brumallian control. Fleet attacked it using high-intensity lasers. They broke it into four pieces which in turn contracted down into those segments, each of them six feet in diameter. Ever since, their scientists have been carefully studying those segments.”
“What is it, then?” Geronamid asked.
Tigger paused, slightly puzzled at the blandness of this query from the big AI, then in reply sent the transmission he had managed to intercept and record. After a pause the AI said, “Exotic-matter nanotechnologies.”
“So it would seem. They've been systematically peeling away at it every day and so far have barely grazed the surface layers. But that's where they got the know-how to build their energy shields, and I reckon it's what's going to eventually bring this war to an end. It's just a short step for them now to gravtech, or maybe even underspace technology. It seems the Worm itself is either an alien artefact, or something alive.”
“You yourself, Tigger, are an artefact. You are also alive.”
“Yeah, but you know what I mean.”
“I know a meaningless statement when I hear one.”
“Okay, sorry—been listening to too many of their media channels.”
“Very well, Tigger, keep watching. The time approaches for these people to be made aware of the Polity, but it is not yet. Making contact during a war will only lead to more...complications.”
As the communication link closed, Tigger again felt frustrated. Something like this Worm just sitting here all canned up in a space station, and Geronamid was more interested in arguing semantics about the meanings of 'alive' and 'artificial'? The drone rather suspected he still wasn't being told something crucial.
The Worm had been weird enough, but years later Tigger observed strange events. Finally given permission by Geronamid, the drone managed to penetrate military communications and gradually, tick-like, eased himself deeper into the information flow around Corisanthe Main. He observed personnel come and go, the human dramas in the huge isolated population, the exciting discoveries, the boredom and the tragedies. Elsever Strone was a top-flight physicist who had conceived during an information fumarole breach in Ozark One—this was known because she'd had her womb standard-monitored for conception. She had actually been present in Ozark One during conception, which seemed quite odd considering the stringent security around those cylinders. After pregnancy and the early-induced birth of quads, she proclaimed herself to be absolutely elated by the event—before cracking the safeties on an airlock and stepping outside. Tigger watched her die, knowing he would not be able to reach her any quicker than a retrieval squad, and would then be in danger of revealing himself. The squad was still a hundred yards away from her when the bomb she carried strapped against her torso exploded, sending bits of her smoking off through vacuum.
Why had she done that? Stepping outside an airlock was pretty final in itself, so why the need for the explosive too?
Tigger watched the development of the four infants in a creche aboard Corisanthe Main then still kept an eye on them, literally, when they were dispatched down to the surface. He sent mobile 'ware concealed sensors to watch them, for most certainly something strange had occurred. Cared for by Elsever's mother, Utrain, the four children grew up fast, and were soon displaying an unnerving brilliance. Yishna, Harald, Rhodane and Orduval, they were named, two of who—twenty-five years after their birth and after the War was over—began moving easily into the higher echelons of Sudorian society.
—Retroact 1 Ends—
I tumbled through vacuum clinging inside a ten-foot-wide drop-sphere. The transport had dropped this object, with me inside, fifty astronomical units from Sudoria's sun—at that distance a point of light indistinguishable from the other stars. However, where that sun lay was of little interest to me at that moment for, despite childhood surgical alterations to my temporal bones and inner ear, I was having trouble hanging on to my dinner. I was also spooked. Space had never seemed so dark to me as it did at that moment. Lonely emptiness stretched endlessly in every direction, yet, unfathomably, I kept getting the creepy feeling that someone was nearby, whispering something horrifying just on the edge of audibility, and I kept having to check over my shoulder to make sure no one was there.
Inside the sphere, which was constructed of octagonal chainglass sheets bound together geodesically in a ceramal frame, I wore the low-tech spacesuit Fleet had conceded me—one of their own, and one I had needed to open out at all its expansion points to fit me. The people here were severely paranoid, but then they were only twenty years on the right side of a particularly vicious system war, and the near-genocide that concluded it.
During the ensuing five hours in the sphere, with these mutterings just at the edge of my perception, I began to feel some sympathy with the paranoia of the people I had come to meet. But I fought what I considered to be irrational feelings, concluding that some design flaw in the spacesuit was subjecting me to infra-sound, which can cause such effects. Maybe, even, it was a deliberately incorporated flaw.
Towards the end of that time, I began to think that maybe there would be no pick-up. The sphere contained a transponder set in its frame, cued to scramble its own nano-circuitry the moment another vessel took the sphere aboard, thus erasing technology that Fleet had proscribed. If the sphere wasn't picked up within eight hours—one hour inside the limit of my oxygen supply—the transponder would yell for help and the transport would return for me. Thereafter would begin another round of lengthy negotiations over U-space communicator between the Sudorian parliament and Geronamid, who was the artificial intelligence in charge of the sector of the Polity nearest to here. However, just then the halo flash of manoeuvring jets threw an approaching vessel into silhouette. I ramped up my light sensitivity (no Polity technology allowed, but nothing specified about how that same technology could alter the human body) and studied this craft closely.
At first all I could see was something shaped like a pumpkin seed, but as the vessel turned and dipped towards me, its full, disconcerting appearance became more visible. With manipulator arms spread wide, on either side of what appeared to be a cargo door, and a Bridge above with port lights gleaming like spider eyes, it looked insectile and dangerous. It bore down on me fast, then jets fired again to slow it, and the door opened—an iris much like those of Polity manufacture. With the ship's arms moving tentatively on either side of it before finally growing still, the sphere slid into a cavernous hold-space. This seemed to muffle the subliminal muttering I was experiencing, and inside this smaller space I felt less of a need to keep checking over my shoulder. Grav slowly engaged, and I righted myself inside the sphere as it settled to a grated floor. I sat down, legs crossed, and waited. Eventually, bar lights came on down either side of the cylindrical hold. I knocked down the light sensitivity of my eyes and studied my surroundings as if for the first time.