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Author: Neal Asher
Publisher: Tor, 2004
Macmillan UK, 2001
Series: Agent Cormac Series: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
Space Opera
Avg Member Rating:
(53 reads / 24 ratings)


Gridlinked is a science fiction adventure in the classic, fast-paced, action-packed tradition of Harry Harrison and Poul Anderson, with a dash of cyberpunk and a splash of Ian Fleming added to spice the mix.

Cormac is a legendary Earth Central Security agent, the James Bond of a wealthy future where "runcibles" (matter transmitters controlled by AIs) allow interstellar travel in an eye blink throughout the settled worlds of the Polity. Unfortunately Cormac is nearly burnt out, "gridlinked" to the AI net so long that his humanity has begun to drain away. He has to take the cold-turkey cure and shake his addiction to having his brain on the net.

Now he must do without just as he’s sent to investigate the unique runcible disaster that's wiped out the entire human colony on planet Samarkand in a thirty-megaton explosion. With the runcible out, Cormac must get there by ship, but he has incurred the wrath of a vicious psychopath called Arian Pelter, who now follows him across the galaxy with a terrifying psychotic killer android in tow. And deep beneath Samarkand's surface there are buried mysteries, fiercely guarded.

This is fast-moving, edge-of-the-seat entertainment, and a great introduction to the work of one of the most exciting new SF talents in years.



Of course you can't understand it. You're used to thinking in a linear manner, that's evolution for you. Do you know what infinity and eternity are? That space is a curved sheet over nothing and that if you travel in a straight line for long enough you'll end up where you started? Even explained in its simplest terms it makes no sense: one dimension is line, two dimensions are area, three are space and four are space through time. Where we are. All these sit on top of the nullity, nil-space, or underspace as it has come to be called. There's no time there, no distance, nothing. From there all runcibles are in the same place and at the same time. Shove a human in and he doesn't cease to exist because there is no time for him to do so. Pull him out. Easy. How do the runcible AIs know when, who and where? The information is shoved in with the human. The AI doesn't have to know before because there is no time where the spoon is. Simple, isn't it...?

From How It Is by Gordon

Angelina Pelter gazed out across a seascape as colour-drained as a charcoal drawing and felt her purpose harden: this was her home, this was the place she must defend against the silicon autocrat Earth Central and all its agents. She looked up at the sky with its scud of oily clouds. It had the appearance of a soot-smeared sheet, pulled taut from the horizon. The sun was a hazy disc imbedded there. She lowered her gaze to where waves the colour of iron lapped against the plascrete slabs on the side of the sea wall. The day reflected her mood.

'Doesn't it get to you?' she asked him.

He looked at her blankly. Probably searching his databank for a suitable response, she thought. He was playing the part of a man romantically involved; in love. She wondered just how difficult it had been for him last night, when he had been inside her - if he had felt anything. She shuddered and pushed her hand deeper into her pocket, clasped the comforting warm metal there. How had she been fooled? He was handsome, yes; his hair short-cropped and a sort of silver colour, his skin that bland olive of the bulk of extraterrestrial humanity, his features sharp, striking - so much so that they belied the dead flatness of his grey eyes. But he was not so handsome, so perfect, as to give away what he was. He had faults, scars, the habit of picking his toenails in bed, a tendency not to suffer fools. All emulation, wasn't it?

'the dark otters are swarming,' he stated.

It was a concise observation. He probably knew their number and deviation from standard size. Angelina felt slightly sick and hardly heard his next words.

'An interesting sight...This is what we have come here to see?'

Not good enough.

Arian had been right from the start: he was a plant. She had to do it. She had to do it now. But it was difficult - so very hard to kill someone she had actually allowed through her defences, allowed to make love to her...have sex with her...emulate the actions of mating.

He stepped away from her, nearer to the edge, and looked down. The sea roiled, as viscid as oil against the sea wall. Below the surface, dark otters were shooting back and forth as they hunted adapted whitebait introduced two centuries before, still to learn that Earth flesh tasted foul and gave no nutrition. Angelina pulled out the weapon it had cost them so much to obtain. Money, and more than one life.

'sometimes I think,' he said, turning to her with his face twisted in a parody of understanding, 'that the--'

He saw the weapon.

'You made love like a machine,' Angelina said as she levelled the gun at him. The gun was matt black, and had the shape of an old projectile gun, but with LCD displays on its side and a barrel that was an open cube with a polished interior. It was what some called an antiphoton weapon, yet what it projected was not antiphotons, merely field-accelerated protons. It had been a necessary lie, once. Separatists had developed it, and now a Separatist would use it. Angelina had never seen one before, let alone used one. Necessary again. She watched him for a reaction. For a moment he appeared to be listening to something distant, then he slumped in defeat.

'How long have you known?' he asked, turning his shoulder to her and looking inland to the floodplain and neat fields of adapted papyrus.

Angelina lied. 'We had you figured out shortly after you arrived. Our scans showed you were human, but we know about chameleonware. You fooled us for a short while with your devil's advocate bit, but you screwed up by knowing too much. You're a fucking emulation. I made love to an android.'

'So last night meant nothing to you?' he asked.

'Nothing,' she replied. She would have to do it now, before the tears spilled.

'Hence the proscribed weapon,' he said, his face blank. He was talking to stay alive.

'There'll be nothing left of you, you bastard!'

'Yes, I can see you--'

He moved, and the movement was almost too swift for Angelina to follow. She saw something glittery shooting towards her face. He was gone. Her finger closed on the touch-plate. She was knocked backwards. There was a brief pain. Blackness.

* * *

Cormac hit the ground as the air shrieked. The shot cut past him with a violet flash, and then splashed to the ground as Angelina fell. Damp soil exploded. Violet fire flared for a moment and was extinguished. He rolled to his feet as the shuriken came in for its second strike, its chainglass blades extending as it whirred. He hit the recall on its holster and it halted in midair. It returned to him with a vicious reluctance, shaking away blood and pieces of bone. Its auxiliary blades retracted. He watched a runnel the shape of a question mark, which her weapon had cut into the ground, as it glowed a laval red that slowly faded. He held out his arm like a falconer awaiting the return of his bird. After the shuriken had snicked itself away in its metal holster on his forearm, he squatted down by Angelina. There was a lot of blood. Her head was attached by only skin and muscle the width of his finger. He reached out and grasped her hand, as if giving comfort, while final nervous reactions shivered and flexed the body that had clung to him the night before. In a moment the shivering and jerking ceased.

The AI had, superfluously, told him he was permitted to use maximum sanction. That had always been a favourite AI euphemism for murder. That permission had been implicit the moment she had drawn the weapon. Coldly, Cormac considered his options. The AI had already instructed him that the part he was playing here must be closed down immediately. Well, this effectively did just that. He could not see the rest of the cell welcoming him back after killing their leader's sister.

Angelina dead. Instructions?

The delay was not so long this time. He reckoned the moon had moved above the horizon and he was now in line of direct contact.

* * *

Destroy weapon and any pertinent evidence. When you have done this you must return to the runcible. You will receive further instructions while in transit.

Runcible AI, why so fast?

You have your instructions, Ian Cormac.

Cormac reached down and pulled the gun from Angelina's knotted fingers. He weighed it in his hand and wondered who was supplying the Cheyne III Separatists with such items. Before this emergency recall it had been his intention to find out. No chance now. As he studied the weapon he felt a momentary flush of annoyance. He had blown it. The recall had come at an opportune moment. What the hell had he been thinking? He stared at the weapon introspectively and it took him a moment to register that all its displays had dropped to zero. It started to vibrate and emit a high-voltage whine. He shook his head. Bad enough that they were obtaining weapons with this destructive potential, but weapons that were keyed as well? From where he was kneeling, he tossed the proton gun out to sea. The whine it was emitting passed out of audio range, and it hit the water like a piece of hot iron. He watched its glow sink into the depths and disappear. Shortly after, there was a brief copper-green flash, and bubbles of steam foamed to the surface as the weapon dumped its load. Cormac watched as the bodies of whitebait floated to the surface.

* * *


* * *

Cormac gazed beyond to where waves were breaking over a just-submerged reef, then he slowly stood. The breeze from the sea was cold and quickly penetrated his legs. Glancing down he saw that he had been kneeling in Angelina's blood.

* * *

Cormac? I've had an energy spike from your location.

* * *

Beyond the reef something large was cutting through the waves. A fluke the size of a man turned in the air, throwing up spray, and a wide black body submerged. Cormac gave a nod and looked down at the body of the woman he had made love to.

Weapon was palm-keyed to Angelina. It self-destructed.

Are you injured?

All systems are functional.

I asked if you were injured.

Cormac inspected himself. 'I am unhurt,' he said, out loud.

* * *

A sea breeze was carrying with it a burnt-wood smell. On the landward side of the sea wall the papyrus was all papery whispering and seed heads nodding knowingly. Here, blue herons hunted for whitebait and flounders in the straight channels between the rows of plants, and juvenile dark otters hunted the blue herons. Those otters that caught a heron only did so once; the adapted meat of this Earth-originated bird was poison to a native of Cheyne III. Cormac stared at a heron as it pulled from the grey water a flounder seemingly too large for it to swallow. With an instruction that was almost without language, he accessed wildlife information and statistics. In one corner of his visual cortex he fast-forwarded pictures of the changes terraforming had wrought here. He speed-read and downloaded a file on the introduction of the blue heron, while a commentary mumbled subliminally in the background.

The heron, oblivious to this attention to it, flipped and turned its prey into position, and eventually gulped it down. The flounder struggled in its baggy neck as the bird moved on after other prey, dark shadows following close behind it. Cormac blinked and shook his head. He dispelled the mumbles and the access he couldn't quite remember requesting. His arms were burning with the weight he carried. He looked down, then, after a further pause, he placed Angelina's headless body in the passenger seat of his open-topped antigravity car. Then he turned round and went back for her head.

I should feel something.

What was there to feel? She had been a terrorist, and it was his duty to protect the citizens of the Polity from her like. To his knowledge she had been personally and directly responsible for three deaths. Indirectly, with her brother Arian, she had been involved with Separatist outrages that had left hundreds of Polity citizens dead or maimed. Cormac knew all about them; the statistics scrolled at the edge of his vision as he stopped by Angelina's head, then stooped and picked it up by its long blonde hair.

Angelina's face was without expression, utterly relaxed in death. A shudder went through him. He felt something almost like a cringe of embarrassment. Holding her head like some grotesque handbag, he returned to the car. He opened the driver's door and reached across to put the head in the body's lap before he got in. Once he was in, he secured her belt before his own. He did not want her falling across the control console; she was making enough mess as it was. He had considered leaving her, but it would be better if she disappeared completely, and he knew how to achieve that; it had been one of the first things he had learnt from the Cheyne III Separatists. Cormac grimaced to himself, then pulled up on the joystick. The car rose ten metres and halted. He turned it out towards the sea and shoved the stick as far forward as it would go. This detour, to where the ocean-going dark otters swam, wouldn't take long. It never did.

Three minutes and he was out over water as black as oil. He looked for a sign, and soon saw a huge swirl 100 metres from him; it was an egg-carrier, and a big one. Once above it, he opened the passenger door, unclipped Angelina's belt, and shoved her out. The carrier turned on her. A toothless mouth, as of a huge carp's, opened and closed with a foaming splash, then the dark otter dived, its wide sleek back like a glimpse of the turning of some immense tyre.

Cormac shook his head. Something was tense and clenched round his insides. He blinked as if in the expectation of tears. And then he surprised himself by feeling regret. He regretted that her sodium-salt-filled body might poison the dark otter. Grudgingly he acknowledged to himself that it was precisely this lack of involvement that had betrayed him. He closed the passenger door and frowned at the pool of blood on the seat. The rental company would not be happy, he thought, with a kind of tart indifference. He turned the AGC and headed at full speed for Gordonstone.

* * *

The system of papyrus fields, protective breakwaters, sluices and tidal channels occupied a band four kilometres wide and 140 kilometres long. Cormac glanced down as the AGC sped above a robot harvester. The machine had the appearance of a giant chrome scorpion devoid of tail and legs, and driven along by riverboat wheels. He watched it feeding papyrus into its grinding maw with its five-metre mandibles, and noted the cubic turds of compressed papyrus it left behind. He accessed and quickly learnt that the harvester was a Ferguson Multiprocessor F230 and was about twenty solstan years old. The ultra-fine fibres from the gene-spliced plant the machine harvested made a much sought-after kind of silk. It was Cheyne Ill's only large export and source of foreign wealth. Of course, sources of wealth were the reason the Separatists had managed to recruit so well here.

The seas of Cheyne III swarmed with dark otters. They were thriving despite centuries of human colonization of the land, as well as colonization of the sea by the adapted Earth lifeforms. Many colonists felt that they occupied space that could be utilized for highly commercial industrialized sea farming. It had been suggested that perhaps there could be a few less dark otters. A customized virus would do the trick. But the Polity had come down hard on that: it was against conservation strictures agreed to when Cheyne III had first been colonized. If any such virus was released, the entire population of Cheyne III would be subject to a fine which in turn would be used to fund a repopulation project. The Polity had samples of all known dark otter genes. This lack of understanding of the hardships faced by the citizens of Cheyne III had caused much resentment.

Cormac looked beyond the papyrus fields to forested areas thinly scattered with villas and repromansions. It was the people who lived here who had been most resentful. They had stood to make an awful lot of money from the exploitation of the seas. The people of Gordonstone, which reared from the haze like a tiara of silver monoliths, had been resentful only when told, by those who lived in mansions and villas, what they were losing out on. The whole farrago offended Cormac deeply. He could not forgive avoidable ignorance.

At city limits Cormac applied for computer guidance, received it, then punched in his destination on the control console. As soon as the city AI took over, he released the stick and leant back. The AGC climbed half a kilometre and accelerated past its manual governor. At this speed the city rapidly drew close, and he soon saw sprawling ground-level arcologies below the plascrete towers. These shining buildings cloaked the ground like the etchings of an integrated circuit. From this height only a green blur could be seen between the buildings, but Cormac knew that there lay endless beautiful gardens and parks, greenhouses and warm lakes, playing fields and orchards. The towers that punched up from this Eden at regular intervals rose for hundreds of storeys into the sky and contained apartments for those who preferred a less bucolic lifestyle. Every tower was an object of beauty, with its projecting balconies and conservatories and its distinctive Al-designed architecture. Strangely enough, by Earth standards, this city was not particularly well-to-do. Even so, its citizens enjoyed a lifestyle that in another age would have been viewed as nothing short of numinous.

* * *

Under city control the AGC decelerated as the Trust House Tower came in sight. Here was the kind of building common to Earth. It stood half a kilometre high and was in effect a self-contained city. The city AI put Cormac's craft in a stacking pattern with all the others that were spiralling down to the fifty hectares of rooftop landing pads. It did not take long for the AI to bring him to the pad above one of the hotel complexes. The AGC was dropped neatly in a row of five similar vehicles enclosed by a privet box hedge. Cormac climbed out and sauntered easily to the nearby drop-shaft. Chipped amethyst crunched underfoot, and somewhere a thrush was singing its heart out.

Cormac smiled at the first person he saw: a woman in a cat-suit and spring heels. He smiled because this should have been expected; it was a lovely day. People smile on lovely days. The woman studied him dubiously with slitted cat's eyes. Must be back in, he thought irrelevantly, and considered, then rejected, accessing information on the latest fashions. It was only as he drew abreast of the woman that he noticed she was looking at the front of his shirt. He returned her gaze levelly, and once past her he glanced down.


The blood spattered there was not exactly a fashion accessory. He hurried to the cowled entrance of the drop-shaft, quickly hit his floor-level plate, and stepped out into open air. The irised anti-gravity field closed around him and controlled his descent. As floor after floor sped by him he removed his shirt and rolled it up. He had it tucked under his arm as he slowed to a halt at his own floor, and stepped out onto the sea-fibre carpeting. In moments he reached the door to his room and hit the palm-lock. It was with chagrin that he noted the bloody smear he left there as he entered. Before closing the door he wiped the smear away with his shirt.

'Messages,' he said, tossing his shirt on the floor and kicking off his shoes.

'Arian Pelter commed you at 20:17, but left no message,' the sexy voice of the Trust House AI told him. He grimaced to himself as he stripped off his trousers. It was now 20:35. Of course he did not need to see the clock to find this out. He always knew the time, to the second.

'Did he leave any provisos with his message?' Cormac asked.

'Only that he be informed when you return,' the AI replied.

'Oh good,' said Cormac.

'There is a problem?' the AI asked him.

'None at all,' said Cormac as he rolled up his discarded clothes and took them to the disposal chute in the kitchen area. He tossed the clothing in, cycled it, and quickly headed for his bathroom. The shower he turned on full and as hot as he could stand. He had the strongest soap on the list mixed into the water and the sonic cleaner going as well. It had always been his experience that blood was a complete bastard to remove.

'Ian Cormac, please respond?' the Trust House AI urged. Cormac supposed it must have been its second or third request for his attention. He shook soap from his ears and clicked the control of the shower to pure cold water. When he had taken as much of that as he could stand, he stepped from the stall and took up his towel. He did not have time to luxuriate in the warm air blast.

'Yes, I'm here.'

'John Stanton and Arian Pelter wish to see you. They are verified. Shall I allow them access?'

'No. I do not wish to see them.'

'Will there be any further message?'

'No further message.'

Cormac quickly pulled on Earth army trousers, desert boots, a hardwearing monofilament shirt and sleeveless utility jacket. This clothing was more to his liking than his dress of the last few months. He looked around and took in the comfortable form chairs and thick carpeting. That wonderful shower, a Jacuzzi bath, and a bed that he had thought might be intent on eating him when he first lay on it. He suspected he would not be enjoying such comforts again for a little while. He considered the belongings he had installed here: the designer clothing dispenser, the brandy collection, the antique weapons. They were all cover; aimed to present him as a weapons merchant prepared to sell to terrorists. There was nothing much here he really wanted. From his grip he removed a small toylike gun, which he tucked into one pocket of his jacket, and a chip card, which he tucked into the other.

'Ian Cormac, my apology for this interruption, but Mr Pelter is most insistent. He informs me that he wishes to see you on a matter of great importance and urgency,' said the House AI.

'I bet he does,' said Cormac. Of course Angelina's brother wanted to have words with him. He had not expected him ever to return. 'tell me, where is he at the moment?'

'He is at the inner-street level of this complex. Do you have any messages for him?'

'Yes, tell him I'll come down to him shortly.'

'message relayed,' the AI replied, but by then Cormac was through the door.

Cormac hit the pad for the floor immediately below the roofport and stepped into the drop-shaft. As he ascended he looked down. Pelter was supposedly twenty floors below him, but Cormac had never put much faith in what low-level AIs told him; they were too easily fooled. He stepped out into the penthouse area of the House. Here the apartments were spread out like bungalows, with glass-roofed gardens in between. He knew that the roofport was directly above him, and supposed that light was refracted in from the side of the building to the gardens. It produced an interesting effect, but not one he wanted to ponder for too long. He quickly headed to the nearest stairwell to the roof, pulled out his thin-gun, and ascended very quietly.

John Stanton was a bruiser with a surprising intellect. He appeared a complete thug, with his boosted musculature, reinforced skeleton and red-fuzzed neckless dome of a head. However, apart from the man's mercenary approach to life, Cormac liked him. He also found it easy to recognize him from behind, and John was unfortunate in choosing the top of that particular stairwell for cover.

Cormac kept his gun zeroed on the red dome of Stanton's head as he climbed the stairs with utter control, and in utter silence. Stanton did not react until Cormac was only a pace away from him. Then he turned, saw Cormac and, because he had no weapon immediately to hand, launched a heel-of-the-hand strike. Cormac pulled back, looped his own arms round Stanton's arm, his gun hand above and his other arm below, twisted his body and scissored his arms. The bones of Stanton's arm broke with a loud crack. He had no time to yell as, off-balance, he slammed headfirst into the side of the stairwell. Stanton went down, tried to rise. Cormac smashed the heel of his left hand down and Stanton went down again and stayed down, his breathing laboured. Cormac stepped back and pointed his weapon at Stanton's head. He thought about Angelina, then turned the gun aside. The Separatist movement could recruit the likes of Stanton whenever they wanted. He convinced himself he let the man live for purely logical reasons.

From the vantage point of the stairwell there was no sign of any suspicious characters, though there were plenty of people wandering to and from the many AGCs ranged along the roof. Cormac turned back to Stanton and pulled open his coat. He raised an eyebrow at the nasty-looking pulse-gun concealed there. It was large for such a weapon, and had been moulded in the shape of a Luger. He took it out and removed its charge: double canister. This was the kind of weapon that fired pulses of ionized aluminium dust. Good for close work. He tossed both the charge and gun itself down the stairwell before searching the man again. The comunit he had expected to find was half the size of a chip card. It was also DNA locked. Cormac swore quietly and tossed it to one side, and then he looked back out towards the roofport. Still no sign of Pelter. Cormac moved out of cover and walked casually over to the nearest AGC.

'That's about as far as you go, Agent.'

Cormac threw himself forward, firing off one shot towards the voice as he hit the ground. A double flash exploded amethyst chips just fractionally behind him. He came up in a crouch and fired at a ducking figure, then dived behind a Ford Macrojet. Another flash and the vehicle's boot blew open. Cormac realized he'd backed himself into a corner, and immediately jumped onto the roof of the Ford, then over the adjacent hedge. More flashes - and the smell of burning wood.

'What did you do with her, fucker?'


He zeroed on the voice with a speed-accessed auditory program. Pelter was crouching behind a D-Bird four cars along that same row. Cormac stood up, aimed his thin-gun and just walked towards the car itself. When Pelter stood up too, he was surprised to see Cormac out in the open, and had no time to aim the pulse-rifle he held. Three sharp cracks and Pelter spun, his rifle bouncing off the cowling of the D-Bird. Cormac rounded the vehicle and looked down at him. Pelter was still alive, though those three impacts on his armour vest had probably cracked a few ribs. He glared back at Cormac with complete hatred. Cormac studied him appraisingly: so like his sister with his long blond hair, perfect features and startling violet eyes. In fact he was almost too much like her, as if he'd arranged deliberate alteration. In a purely superficial way, he was beautiful. But his vanity was a standing joke amongst the members of the Separatist cell here on Cheyne III, though not a joke they would dare to share with him

'What have you done with her? Where is she?'

'Probably just starting to work her way through an egg-carrier's digestive tract,' Cormac replied as he stepped in close and aimed the thin-gun straight at Pelter's forehead. He watched the man's expression as a look of loss, which wasn't quite grief, battled with fear for predominance. Cormac thought about all the things this man had done and did not feel the same restraint he had felt with Stanton. He saw Pelter recognize this reaction in him, and saw fear winning the battle.

'Please no,' Pelter begged, then winced as Cormac adjusted his aim slightly. 'No ... don't kill me.' Pelter's voice had a whining edge to it that Cormac had never heard before. He made up his mind.

A squeeze of the trigger brought an entirely unexpected result, when one of the turbines of the D-Bird flashed purple and blew with a numbing detonation. Cormac hit the ground hard and did not have much chance to roll out of the fall. He staggered upright as an AGC roared into view. A quick glance to one side showed him that Pelter was gone. Shit. Cormac ran for the nearest roofless AGC as the one directly above screamed into a steep turn. He dived into it just as the air shrieked, and plascrete erupted in a purple flash behind him. He slammed his chip card into its slot in the onboard computer and an emergency message lit the screen: Manual governors offline. City control offline. Do not proceed. Do not-- The computer moaned to itself and a wisp of smoke rose out of the console. Cormac yanked up on the stick just as purple fire flared off metal to his right. The car shot up into the sky like a dustbin lid off a stick of dynamite.

Up and running. Am pursued by hostile. Request laser strike.

The acceleration thrust him back into his seat. He slammed the stick over to avoid another AGC coming in to land. The one he occupied slid sideways past it, and he caught a glimpse of the driver mouthing something uncomplimentary. Cormac eased the stick down and pushed it forward. The turbines whined, then screamed, as he shot out across the roofports, then over the city.

* * *

Request denied. Cannot initiate strike over city.

Cormac swore to himself, and then started weaving his car from side to side, as the other car shot up behind and above him and tried to match his course.

Request strike when I reach city limits.

The air took on a purplish tinge to his left and he jerked the stick to the right.

* * *

I will do what I can, Ian.

Cormac pulled his gun and snapped a couple of shots at his pursuers. The gun made no audible sound over the roar of turbines, but actinic flashes surrounded his pursuer's car and he saw pieces falling from it. He had time only to grin to himself before the seat beside him burst into flame. He jerked the stick back and the car decelerated fast. His head struck the console as the other car shot above him. As it turned, he yanked an extinguisher from under the console and directed a spray of cold-foam at the burning seat. Then he rammed the stick forward again. The two cars passed each other separated by only a few metres. Cormac's ears crackled as he was nearly dragged from his seat, but he was soon able to regain control.

Runcible AI, I am in an extremely life-threatening situation. How much longer on this course will take me past city limits?

There was a long delay as if the AI was chewing over the question. Cormac saw his pursuers coming up behind and above him again. Behind their car he saw a bladelike flame blink out. They had boosters so he had no chance of escaping them. He began to weave again.

* * *

On a straight course you will reach city limits in one minute. I cannot initiate strike until four minutes after that.

'What!'Cormac yelled.

* * *

The situation is serious?

'Too fucking right it is!'

Another purple flash burnt the paint off the rear of his AGC, and set the rear seats smoking.

* * *

It is good that you have retained the ability for at least some emotional response.

'What the hell are you talking about?'

Cormac took another couple of snap shots at his pursuers. Missed completely.

* * *


The pursuing car glowed red, became an expanding cloud of smoke and debris cut through with a bar of light. The Shockwave hit a moment later. Cormac turned aside to avoid flying debris, then throttled down.

'What the hell are you playing at?'

* * *

I was instructed by Earth Central to test you. This will be discussed further after you arrive.

Cormac closed his eyes and took a slow breath. It annoyed him that he had lapsed into verbalization.

I wish to discuss this now.

There was no reply from the runcible AI.

* * *

The two analgesic patches slapped directly onto his carotid were enough to make the pain bearable, but Arian Pelter did not yet feel able to walk. He had been reluctant to use the patches, as the pain was clean, and it helped shut out his self-disgust. He'd, no, he'd only begged to give himself time. Yeah, that was it. With his legs against the parapet wall he felt his right eye fill with tears. Nothing in his left eye - he didn't like to think about that. He shook his head, and then regretted it as fluid ran down over his face and neck. He lifted a hand to wipe the fluid away, then desisted. It was bad. He dared not touch it. Perhaps this was what he deserved for such weakness. He closed his working eye and thought about his sister. It was easier to be angry at her, to have that anger displace any other emotions. Why the fuck had he let her persuade him? Why had he so seriously underestimated this dealer character? He looked at the comunit he'd placed on the low wall. It was fizzing, as it had done since those last fateful words.

'We got him Arian! We're gonna take him down!'

The flash...that flash in the sky the moment the comunit had beeped and started fizzing. It had to have been a satellite laser. OK, fine, that made the bastard ECS, but what kind of ECS Monitor had the pull to order a satellite strike? Pelter heard somebody approaching behind him. He locked his jaw against the pain, picked his pulse-rifle off the wall and turned with it held out one-handed. It was only Stanton, cradling his arm.

'I thought you were boosted, John,' said Pelter, his pulse-rifle still pointed at Stanton's gut.

'I'm sorry, Arian. He just went through me. He got away?'

Pelter saw the momentary expression of horror on Stanton's face, though it was quickly shielded. He went on. 'We know he wasn't boosted, John. We scanned him. He had a little cerebral wiring left over from on old aug fitting, that was all.'

Stanton shook his head. He appeared tired and frightened, and he could not take his eyes from Pelter's face. 'He just went through me, Arian. He had to be ECS. Had to be.'

Arian though about how easily he had been taken. The fucker had just walked right over like he was out for a casual stroll. He lowered his rifle to his side, clamped his mouth against the rising sickness inside him and pushed himself away from the wall. He was still unsteady, but he could stand.

'We need to go, Arian. Police'll be here soon. No way they can ignore this. We have to get you to Dr Carl,' said Stanton, then added, after glancing round, 'Where are the boys?"

'They didn't make it. He pulled a laser strike down on the car.'

Pelter closed his eye. Shit, the pain was coming back already.

Stanton stared at Pelter for a long moment. How the hell was he even standing? Pelter's left eye was gone, just melted out. The area around it was as badly burned, and Stanton could see his cheekbone. They had to get out of here fast. He glanced around, then walked over to the nearest AGC. Christ, his arm hurt. He carefully manoeuvred it so he could put the hand of that same arm into his pocket, to give it some support, then he pulled his pulse-gun. Now for the tricky bit. He put his gun between his teeth, groped around in his pocket for the charge it had just taken him vital minutes to find in the stairwell, and pushed it into place. Are we dangerous or what? he thought, before he blew out the AGC's lock.

'We got a car now, Arian. Best we get out of here,' he said.

Arian took a long slow breath and began to walk over. Stanton considered helping him, but rejected the idea. He knew Arian Pelter well: like this he was dangerous, a cornered rat.

'Hey! What the hell you!... oh.'

The man was an ophidapt with an augmented physique, so perhaps he'd thought he could handle a couple of AGC boosters. He stood two metres tall, his skin was finely scaled, and fangs overhung his narrow bottom lip. He blinked snake eyes and halted when Pelter turned to him, pointing the pulse-rifle. Stanton glanced at the ophidapt, then at Pelter. His remaining violet eye seemed almost to be glowing.

'Come on, we have to go,' said Stanton. But it was a desultory attempt to forestall what was certain now. He got into the driver's seat of the car.

The ophidapt held up his hands and started backing away.

'This the hell I,' said Pelter, and shot him in the stomach. The ophidapt went down, clutching at his smoking torso, but in panic he struggled back onto one knee as Pelter, stiff-legged and appearing ready to collapse himself, walked over to him.

'see what it's like? See?' said Pelter, stabbing the barrel of his weapon in the ophidapt's face. The man nodded, tears in his snake eyes.

'Arian, we haven't got time for this,'a said Stanton. He deliberately paid no attention to what was going on. Instead, he took out a chip card very like Cormac's and shoved it into the slot of the onboard computer. Often, the likes of Pelter did not bother to continue once they were without an audience, he had found.

Pelter lowered his weapon, and turned to walk back toward the AGC. The ophidapt already looked relieved. But that look of relief lasted only so long as it took Pelter to turn and shoot him in the throat. The ophidapt went over backward, hissing like the creature he had adapted to.

'The bastard,' Pelter said.

Stanton knew he was not referring to the ophidapt.

Copyright © 2001 by Neal Asher



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