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Paul J. McAuley

Born in Stroud, England, in 1955, Paul J. McAuley now makes his home in London. A professional biologist for many years, he sold his first story in 1984, and has gone on to be a frequent contributor to Interzone, as well as to markets such as Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction, When the Music’s Over, and elsewhere. He is considered to be one of the best of the new breed of British writers (although a few Australian writers could be fit in under this heading as well) who are producing that sort of revamped, updated, widescreen space opera sometimes referred to as “radical hard science fiction.” His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Award, and his acclaimed novel, Fairyland, won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 1996. His other books include the novels Of the Fall, Eternal Light, and Pasquale’s Angel; two collections of his short work, The King of the Hill and Other Stories and The Invisible Country; and an original anthology coedited with Kim Newman, In Dreams. His most recent books are Child of the River and Ancients of Days, the first two volumes of a major new trilogy of ambitious scope and scale, Confluence, set ten million years in the future. Currently he is working on a new novel, Life on Mars.

Here he takes us to a haunted future London in which nearly every aspect of daily life has been transformed almost beyond recognition by biological science and genetic technologybut where many of the old, cold choices you need to make in order to survive remain unsettlingly familiar . . .


Cameron was discharged from the black clinic with nothing more than his incubation fee and a tab of painkiller so cut with chalk it might as well have been aspirin. Emptied of the totipotent marrow that had been growing there, the long bones of his thighs ached with fierce fire, and he blew twenty pounds on a pedicab that took him to the former department store on Oxford Street where he rented a cubicle.

The building’s pusher, a slender Bengali called Lost In Space, was lounging in his deckchair near the broken glass doors, and Cameron bought a hit of something called Epheridrin from him.

“Enkephalin-specific,” Lost In Space said, as Cameron dry-swallowed the red gelatin capsule. “Hits the part of the brain that makes you think you hurt. Good stuff, Doc. So new the bathtub merchants haven’t cracked it yet.” He folded up his fax of yesterday’s Financial Times—like most pushers, he liked to consider himself a player in the Exchange’s information flux—and smiled, tilting his head to look up at Cameron. There was a diamond set into one of his front teeth. “There is a messenger waiting for you all morning.”

“Komarnicki has a job for me? It’s been a long time.”

“You are too good to work for him, Doc. You know there is a place for you in our organization. There is always need for collectors, for gentlemen who have a persuasive air.”

“I don’t work for the Families, OK? I’m freelance, always will be.”

“Better surely, Doc, than renting your body. Those kinky cell lines can turn rogue so easily.”

“There are worse things.” Cameron remembered the glimpse he’d had of the surrogate ward, the young men naked on pallets, bulging bellies shining as if oiled and pulsing with the asynchronous beating of the hearts growing inside them. The drug was beginning to take hold, delicate caresses of ice fluttering through the pain in his legs. He looked around at the dozen or so transients camped out on the grimy marble floor and said loudly, “Where’s this messenger?”

A skinny boy, seven or eight years old, came over. All he wore were plastic sandals and tight-fitting shorts of fluorescent orange waterproofed cotton. Long greasy hair tangled around his face; his thin arms were ropey with homemade tattoos. A typical mudlark. Homeless, futureless, there had to be a million of them in London alone, feral as rats or pigeons, and as little moved. He handed Cameron a grubby strip of paper and started to whine that he hadn’t been paid.

“You’ve a lot to learn, streetmeat,” Cameron said, as he deciphered Komarnicki’s scrawled message. “Next time ask me before you hand over the message.” He started for the door, then turned and knocked the shiv from the boy’s hand by pure reflex.

The blade had been honed from the leaf of a car spring: when Cameron levered it into a crack in the marble floor it bent but would not snap. He tossed it aside and the boy swore at him, then dodged Cameron’s half-hearted cuff and darted through the broken doors into the crowded street. Another enemy. Well, he’d just have to take his turn with the rest.

Lost In Space called out, “Your soft heart will get you in trouble one day, Doc.”

“Fuck you. That blade was probably all that poor kid had in the world. Sell a working man a couple more of those capsules and save the opinions.”

Lost In Space smiled up lazily. “It is always a pleasure doing business with you, Doc. You are such a regular customer.” The diamond sparkled insincerely


Cameron checked his gun harness out of storage and hiked around Wreckers Heaps to Komarnicki’s office. The shantytown strung along the margin of the Heaps was more crowded than ever. When Cameron had lived there, his first days in the city after the farm, after Birmingham, there had still been trees, even a little grass. The last of Hyde Park. No more. Naked children chased each other between tents and shanty huts, dodging around piles of rubbish and little heaps of human shit that swarmed with flies. Smoke from innumerable cooking fires hazed the tops of the Exchange’s far-off riverfront ribbon of glittering towers, the thread of the skyhook beyond. Along the street, competing sound systems laid overlapping pulses of highlife, rai, garage dub, technoraga. Hawkers cried their wares by the edge of the slow-moving stream of bubblecars, flatbed trucks crowded with passengers, pedicabs, bicycles. Occasionally, a limo of some New Family or Exchange vip slid through the lesser vehicles like a sleek shark. And over all this, ad screens raised on rooftops or cantilevered gantries straddling the road or derelict sites glowed with heartbreakingly beautiful faces miming happiness or amazement or sexual ecstasy behind running slogans for products that no one on the street could possibly afford, or for cartels only the information brokers in the Exchange knew anything about.

A couple of mudlarks were stripping a corpse near the barricades at the southern corner of the Heaps. Riot cops guarding the gibbets where the bodies of a dozen felons hung watched impassively, eyes masked by the visors of their helmets, Uzis slung casually at their sides. They stirred the usual little frisson of adrenaline in Cameron’s blood, a reflex that was all that was left of his days on the run, a student revolutionary with an in absentia sentence of treason on his head. But he was beyond the law now. He was one of the uncountable citizens of the invisible country, for whom there were only the gangs and posses and the arbitrary justice of the New Families. Law was reserved for the rich, and fortress suburbia, and the prison camps where at least a quarter of the population was locked away, camps Cameron had avoided by the skin of his teeth.

Inside the barricades, things were cleaner, quieter. The plate-glass windows of Harrods displayed artful arrangements of electronics, biologics, the latest Beijing fashions. Japanese and Brazilian businessmen strolled the wide pavements, paced by tall men in sleeveless jackets cut to show off their fashionably shaped torsos—like a blunt, inverted triangle—and the grafted arm muscle and hypertrophied elbow and shoulder joints. Some had scaly spurs jutting from wrists or elbows. A league away from Cameron’s speed. He relied on his two meters and muscles shaped by weight-training, not surgery, to make a presence. Consequently, he got only the lesser members of visiting entourages, translators, bagmen, gofers: never the vips. As Lost In Space had said, he was getting old. And worse than old, out-of-date. Even though Komarnicki’s protection agency had never been anything but a marginal affair just one step ahead of the law, Cameron was hardly getting any work from it anymore.

Komarnicki’s office was in a Victorian yellow brick townhouse in the warren of streets behind the V&A, as near to Exchange as he could afford, three flights up stairs that wound around a defunct lift shaft at least a century old. Cameron swallowed another of the capsules and went in.

Komarnicki was drinking rice tea from a large porcelain cup, feet up on his steel and glass desk. A fat man with long white hair combed across a bald spot, his gaze shrewd behind old-fashioned square-lensed spectacles. “So you are here at last,” he said briskly. “Doc, Doc, you get so slow I wonder if you can anymore cut the mustard.”

“Next time try employing a real messenger.”

Komarnicki waved that away. “But you are here. I have a special job for you, one requiring your scientific training.”

“That was another life. Twenty years ago, for Christ’s sake.” In fact, Cameron had hardly started his thesis work when the army had been sent in to close down the universities, and besides, he had been loo involved with the resistance to do any research.

“Still, you are all I have in the way of a biologist, and the client is insistent. He wants muscle with a little learning, and who am I to deny his whim?” Komarnicki took his feet off the desk. Tea slopped over the rim of his cup as he leaned forward and said in a hoarse whisper, “All he wants is back up at a meeting. Nothing you haven’t done before and good money when the deal goes through. You get your usual cut, ten percent less agency fee. Plenty of money, Cameron. Maybe enough for me to pay for my heart.”

“Your body would probably reject a human heart,” Cameron said. It was well known that Komarnicki had the heart of a pig, a cheap but safe replacement for his own coronary-scarred pump, and was buying a surrogate human heart on an installment plan from the same black clinic which had rented space in Cameron’s bones. It was also well known that Komarnicki was an artist of the slightly funny deal, and this one seemed to have more spin on it than most. Running flack for a simple meeting was hardly worth the price of a human heart, and besides, what did biology have to do with it? Cameron was sure that he wasn’t being told everything, but smiled and agreed to Komarnicki’s terms. It wasn’t as if he had any choice.


The client was a slight young man with a bad complexion and arrogant blue eyes, and long hair the dirty blond color of split pine. You wouldn’t look at him twice in the street, wouldn’t notice the quality of his crumpled, dirty clothes. A loose linen jacket, baggy raw cotton trousers crisscrossed with loops and buckles, Swiss oxblood loafers, the kind of quality only a cartel salary could pay for, but rumpled and stained by a week or more of continuous wear. He was a defector, a renegade R&D biologist on the run from his employers with bootlegged inside information, the real stuff, not the crap printed in the Financial Times. The kind of stuff the New Families paid well for. Dangerous stuff. His name, he said, was David Holroyd. He kept brushing back his long blond hair as he walked beside Cameron along the street and explained what he wanted.

“There’s a meeting where I get paid in exchange for . . . what I have. Only I don’t really trust these people, you see?” Nervous sideways smile. His eyes were red-rimmed, and he held himself as though trying not to tremble. “It could be that I’m being followed, so maybe you should drive me around first. I have plenty of cash. What sort of biologist were you?”

“Molecular biology. Enzyme structure. That was all a long time ago.”

The young man grimaced. “I guess it will have to do.”

“I’d rather not know anything,” Cameron said. Holroyd’s nervousness was affecting him. There was something not quite right about the young man, hidden depths of duplicity. “It’s dangerous to know too much.”

Holroyd laughed.

The cash was in US dollars. It took a whole sheaf of wrinkled green notes to pay for half a day’s hire of a bubblecar. For a couple of hours, Cameron weaved in and out of crowded Piccadilly, looped around Soho. They weren’t being followed. He parked the bubblecar at a public recharger near the arcades of Covent Garden and tipped a mudlark to look after it.

They drank cappuccino in one of the open air cafes, and since his client was paying, Cameron devoured half a dozen ham and cheese sandwiches as well. He needed all the protein he could get; it was hard to keep up his muscle-bulk while living a knife-edge from the nirvana of total poverty.

Holroyd was beginning to sweat, even though he had left his jacket in the bubblecar. His cup chattered in its saucer each time he set it down, and his eyes darted here and there, taking in recycling stalls piled with everything from cutlery to crowbars, food stalls swarming with flies, big glass tanks where red-finned carp swam up and down, the ragged half-naked children running everywhere through the milling crowds. After a while he began to talk about kinship, the way organisms recognized siblings and mates. “We’ve this crocodile in the basement of our brains, know it? The limbic cortex. The archipallium. All the later mammalian improvements are jerry-rigged around it. It snarls and grumbles away beneath our consciousness, hating the new situations that the cortex keeps throwing up. It needs appeasing. That’s what social ritual is all about, trying to fool the paranoid crocodile that strangers are okay, they’re not a threat. When ritual breaks down you get murder, war. All this is old theory, right, but I see it all around me. Those kids running around. I mean, who looks after them.”

“The mudlarks? They have to look after themselves.”

“Yeah. The way I was brought up, I know all about that.” Holroyd’s coffee cup rattled in its saucer. “Ever hear about the Ik?”

Cameron had, but didn’t say so. He was there for whatever the client wanted. If the client wanted to fuck a donkey or direct his very own snuff video, Cameron was there to go fetch the boy or girl or whatever, to make sure he got an animal that was retrovirus free. And he would probably do it, too. He had given up making moral judgments long ago. In his line of business, they were an unaffordable luxury.

So while Holroyd talked about this African tribe whose ethical system had broken down entirely after they’d been displaced from their homeland and their way of life, children running wild, old people dying for want of care, Cameron faked attention and watched the crowds and thought of what he could do with the fee and now and then glanced at his watch. It was more than three hours since he and Holroyd had left Komarnicki’s office.

“I think I’ll have to arrange a new meet,” Holroyd said at last.

“If they were expecting only you, I might have queered the pitch.”

“You make me feel safe.”

They walked back through the crowds to the hired bubblecar. Halfway there, Cameron glimpsed a shabbily dressed man pawing at the vehicle, and he started forward just as the hatch swung up. Holroyd caught his arm and in that moment the man and the bubblecar vanished in a sheet of flame that blew across the crowded street.

“Mau-mau,” Holroyd said distinctly, and then his eyes rolled up and he fainted.


For three days after the assassination attempt, Cameron tended his dying client in a room that Komarnicki sometimes used for his less salubrious deals. It was in what had once been a hotel at the western edge of Wreckers Heaps, an area that Cameron knew all too well: the Meatrack. The building’s concrete panels were crumbling and stained with the rust of steel underpinnings; its cantilevered balconies hung at dangerous angles or had fallen away entirely; its rooms had been subdivided with cheap pressed-fiber panels. Their room was scarcely wide enough for the stained mattress on which Holroyd sweated passively in the fetid heat, but at least it had a window, and Cameron kept it open for any chance breeze. The cries and conversations of prostitutes and the muffled throb of the sound systems along the Bayswater Road drifted through it day and night, punctuated every hour by the subsonic rumble of a capsule rising into orbit along the skyhook. It was said you could buy anything anytime in the Meatrack, even love. It never slept.

Cameron had been through Holroyd’s pockets as a matter of course. Nothing but a bunch of useless credit chips, a fat roll of dollar currency notes, and a stack of canceled airline dockets, none more than a week old, that detailed a weird round-the-world itinerary. Bancock, Macao, Zanzibar, Cairo, Istanbul, Leningrad, Geneva, Manchester. No sign of any stolen data. Maybe it existed only inside Holroyd’s head.

The biologist grew weaker by the hour, feverish and unable to eat, sometimes vomiting thin green bile. Lack of complicated template proteins in his diet, a dependency to ensure his loyalty, had triggered an RNA virus lodged in his every cell.

There was no cure for it, he said, but Cameron needed him to stay alive, long enough at least to tell him what he had stolen. It was the dream ticket, the chance, the way out. Cameron had been without a chance for so long that he was determined not to let it go. He washed away Holroyd’s fever-sweat with expensive filtered water; helped him to the stinking toilet every other hour. He bought black-market antibiotics to counter secondary infection, antipyretics and a tailored strain of E. coli to ease the symptoms of general metabolic collapse, a sac of glucose and saline which he taped to the renegade biologist’s arm. Once it had settled its proboscis into a vein the thing pulsed slowly and sluggishly, counterpoint to the frantic flutter of Holroyd’s pulse in his throat, but it didn’t seem to do much good.

“I thought I might have lasted a little longer,” Holroyd said, with a wry smile. He looked very young, there on the bed. His blond hair, sticky with sweat, was spread around his white face like a dirty halo. “I’ve always had this tendency to overestimate what I can do. Part of my training.” Sold into service by his parents at the age of eight, he’d been brought up a company child, selected for research, running his own laboratory by age fifteen, his own project by twenty. That project was why he had run, because it had worked too well. Holroyd was vague on just what the project had been about, but Cameron gathered that it had been intended to produce some kind of indoctrination virus, a way of infecting workers with loyalty rather than crudely enforcing it. Holroyd had gone beyond that, though precisely what he had produced wasn’t clear.

“I tried it on rats first. It was a major operation keeping them in their colony afterwards, we had to sacrifice them in the end. That’s when I knew it wasn’t safe to let the company have it. I came up out of the streets. I remember what that was like. Having nothing to compete with, always dependent, always running scared. That’s the way it would be with everyone if I’d let the company keep it. It would be like a new species suddenly arising, a volk. Luckily, my bosses didn’t want it used on people until a kink had been put in it to limit its spread. The way they kinked my metabolism. So I took it out under their noses before it got near a bioreactor.”

“Tell me what it is,” Cameron said, leaning close to Holroyd. “Quit talking around it and just tell me straight.”

Holroyd was staring past him at the cracked ceiling. “What are you going to do, hurt me again?”

“No, man. That was a mistake. I’m sorry.” He was, too. He had begun to care for Holroyd, something beyond simply keeping him alive just long enough. Care for him in a way he hadn’t cared for anyone since the farm, since losing Maggie.

Looking down at his big, square hands, knuckles scarred and swollen, Cameron said, “I know you want me to understand what you did. And I want to know.”

“You’ll get it.” Holroyd’s smile was hardly there, a quiver. “You’re already getting it.”

Cameron bit down his frustration. He was pushing forty; maybe this was his last chance. This, or ending up in some alley with mudlarks ripping off his clothes before he had even finished dying. “If it’s made you so smart, how come you can’t figure out a way to cure yourself?”

“It doesn’t make you smarter. I thought I explained—” Holroyd broke off, racked by a rattling cough that turned into a spasm of vomiting. After a while, paler than ever, he said, “I knew they’d send the mau-maus after me, so I changed my pheromone pattern, kept a vial of my old scent signature. It was in the jacket. I broke it when we were driving around. I was pretty sure one of them would pick it up and follow it to its source. Let them think I’m dead . . .” Suddenly he was blinking back tears. “I suppose a lot of people were caught. In the explosion.”

“Half a dozen killed, twice that hurt. Mostly after the cops turned the whole thing into a riot, not in the explosion. There never was going to be a meeting, was there?”

“You’re catching on. Appropriate, really, the mau-maus. The virus that transforms their rinocephalum, the place in the brain which controls the sense of smell? Prototype of part of my thing. Use it on lobotomized criminals, replace the marrow in their long bones with TDX. They reach the locus of the scent . . . Well, you saw. Comes from an old colonial war, back in Africa last century. Guerrillas used to train dogs to eat under vehicles, then they’d send the dogs out into Army compounds, only with explosives on their backs, triggered by a length of bent wire . . .”

There was a measure of unbreakable will in Holroyd, like a steel wire running down his spine. Sometimes when he rambled feverishly he came close to explaining, but always he stopped himself. His blue eyes would focus and he would clamp his mouth. He would turn his head away. It was like a game he was playing, or some kind of test.

Of course, Cameron could have walked away. The thought returned whenever he went out to get something to eat at the food stalls, pushing his way through the prostitutes thronged up and down the Bayswater Road. Many had been so radically modified that you couldn’t tell what sex they were; a good proportion didn’t even look human. The brief clothing of others clung to graphically enlarged male or female genitals, sometimes both. One had an extra set of arms grafted to his rib cage; another sat in a kind of cart like a beached seal, leg stumps fused together, flipperlike arms crossed on his naked chest. Clients walked on the far side of the road, in the shadow of the Heaps, only a few looking openly at the sexual smorgasbord on display. Most of the business seemed to depend on a kind of mutual ESP. Occasionally, a black limo would be drawn up, a beefy bare-armed man or woman standing beside it and scanning the crowd for their employer’s choice.

This throng of human commerce brought Cameron back to himself after the confines of the room. He could think about what he had gotten himself into. The prize was unknown. Perhaps it would not even be worth anything. And the chance that Holroyd’s owners would find their hiding place increased asymptotically with every hour that passed. But something other than logic compelled him. Carrying his little package of noodles or vegetable stew, he would return to Holroyd with a measure of relief. He found himself caring about the dying man more and more, and he had not cared for anyone since the fall of Birmingham.

Holroyd had got him to talk about his past; in the long watches of the evening, the dying biologist lay as still as a wax figure while Cameron mumbled over memories of university and the barricades, the commune farm he’d helped set up afterwards in the hills of North Wales. There had been a price on his head, and rather than continue the fight he had dropped out, a luxury he had not regretted then. In place of futile bloody struggle there had been misty days of shepherding, learning karate. Always the rush of the stream at the bottom of the steep valley, the squeak of the handmade turbine fans which trickle-charged the batteries. A peaceful span of days in the midst of a civil war. Until the night the machines came, squat lumbering autonomic monsters grubbing up the byres and barn, knocking through drystone walling, flattening the wooden turbine-tower.

The next day, the commune had split what little they had saved and had gone their separate ways. Cameron had managed to get as far as Birmingham with Maggie, but then he had lost her in the riots, his last glimpse of her by the falling light of a flare, across a street crowded with refugees. The smell of burning or the rattle of gunfire always brought that memory back. Much later it occurred to Cameron that no one had known the commune was there, that the machines were simply carrying out some central plan of reforestation. All over the country, gene-melded pines were being planted to produce long-chain polymers for the plastics industry. But at the time it had seemed like a very personal apocalypse.

“I understand,” Holroyd said. “The way it is with the combines, most of the world is invisible, not worth thinking about. So we don’t. Now I’ve changed, I know. I begin to know.” Tears were leaking from his eyes as he stared fixedly at the ceiling. “I saw a way to break the cycle open, you see, and I grabbed it. Or maybe it grabbed me. Ideas have vectors, like diseases, ever think that? They lie dormant until the right conditions come along, and then they suddenly and violently express themselves, spread irresistibly. The rats . . . never could figure out whether they were trying to escape, or if they were driven from within by what I’d given them . . . Oh Christ. I didn’t realize that caring would hurt so much.”

Later that night, Holroyd didn’t so much wake as barely drift into consciousness. His voice was a weak unraveling whisper so that Cameron had to bend close to understand. His breath stank of ketones. “I’ve a culture. Dormant now, until it gets into the bloodstream. A gene-melded strain of E. coli, MIRV’d with half a dozen sorts of virus. Gets into lymphocytes, makes them cross the blood/brain barrier, then kicks the main viruses into reproductive gear. A day, two days, that’s it. Some bacteria remain in the blood, spore-forming vector. Breathed out, excreted. Any warm-blooded animal. Spread like wildfire.”

“And what does it do? You still haven’t told me.”

“At first I thought of bonding, pheromonal recognition. But bonding, the pack instinct, is the cause of the trouble. And the committee running the center was real enthusiastic about the idea, so I knew I had to take the opposite direction. You know about kinship?”

“The way animals recognize their relations. You talked about it.”

“Yeah. One of the viruses turns that into a global function. You recognize everyone as a brother or a sister. It makes you want to make other people happy, to care for them. It gets into the base of the brain, downloads information into cells of the hypothalamus. Subverts the old lizard instincts, the crocodile in the basement. Are you following this?”

“I think so.” Holroyd’s voice was very weak now; Cameron was kneeling over him to catch every precious word.

“Infected cells start to produce a variant of an old psychoactive drug, MDMA. What they used to call Ecstasy. A second virus gets into the neurons, makes them act as if they’ve had a close of growth hormone, forces them to grow new synapses. That and the MDMA analog kicks in a higher level of awareness, of connections. The way everything fits together, could fit together . . . You’ll see.” Holroyd clawed at Cameron’s arm. “I want you to take it now, before it’s too late.”

There was a false varicose vein in his leg. Cameron dug it out with his pocketknife, first sterilizing the blade in a candle-flame.


Later, Cameron went out to buy breakfast noodles, pushing past a shabby blank-eyed man on his way into the building in search of thrills. As always, Bayswater Road was busy with prostitutes and prospective clients. Every one of the gallery of grotesques dragged at Cameron’s attention, vibrant with implied history. Everyone an individual, every one human.

It was then Cameron knew what had happened to him—and at the same time flashed on the blank-eyed client. Mau-mau. Had to be. He turned just as the window of the room where he had left Holroyd blew out. A ball of greasy smoke rolled up the side of the building, and Cameron began to run, dodging through the crowds that thronged Bayswater Road.

Things were coming together in his head, slabs of intuition dovetailing as smoothly as the finest machine parts. If they had known where to find Holroyd, then they’d be after him, too. Or after the short soft length of tubing, bloated with spore suspension. He headed straight into Wreckers Heaps.


Ragged piles of scrap machinery threaded by a maze of paths always turning back on themselves. There was no center, no heart. Gene-melded termites had reared their castles everywhere, decorated with fragments of precious metals refined from junked machines: copper from wiring; selenium and germanium from circuits; even gold, from the lacquer-thin coatings of computer sockets. Glittering like the towers of the Exchange. Sharecroppers picked over the termite castles, turned in the fragments of refined metals for Family scrip. Mudlarks ran wild, hunting rats and pigeons. Nominally owned by the Wasps, the Heaps was a place where even the code of the streets had broken down. No man’s land, an ideal hiding place because no one would think of hiding there. It was too dangerous.

Cameron had a contact in the Heaps, a supervisor called Fat Tony. They’d done each other a few favors in the past, and Fat Tony was happy enough to let Cameron borrow part of his stretch in exchange for most of what was left of Holroyd’s roll of dollars. He waddled alongside Cameron as they walked down narrow aisles between heaps of rusted-out cars. Useless shit, Fat Tony said, cheap pressed steel not worth the trouble of reclaiming. His hair was slicked back, pulled into a tight ponytail; despite the heat, he wrapped a tattered full-length fur coat around his bulk.

“I need to talk with the Wasps,” Cameron said.

“What’s that to me?”

“This is their turf.”

“This is my goddamn turf, man. They might own it, I run it. This thing between you and me is strictly private because if the Wasps hear I’m renting, they’ll cut my fucking nose off. I won’t tell.”

“That’s good to know. Where is this place I’m renting?”

Fat Tony turned a corner, ducking awkwardly beneath the end of a bus that tilted on half a dozen mashed down Fords. “Right here, man. Right here.”

It was a circular space roughly a hundred meters across, floored with compacted ashes and scrap, one side cut by a long channel of oily water that reeked of long-chain organics. “Don’t fall in,” Fat Tony said, standing at the very edge, the metal toes of his knee-length biker boots over the rim. “They used to render down organics from the junkers here, tires, plastic trim. All round here we got the cars that were left stranded when the petrol run out, no place else to take them in the city, nothing to move them further. I’m like a fucking industrial archeologist, you know.” He spat towards the murky water, wiped his chin. “Hell’s own soup of bugs in there. Strip you to your bones in a second.”

Cameron watched a little kid walk by on the far side. A string of dead pigeons dangled down the boy’s smooth mud-streaked back, wings flopped open. “Listen, I really need to talk to the Family.”

Fat Tony turned away from the water. “Happens the Wasps want to talk with you too,” he said. “Seems all sorts of people are after your ass, Doc. What’s the score?”

Cameron pressed one of the man’s hands between both his own. “You’ll see soon enough. One more thing. I want to buy anything the kids catch in here.”

“You want food, I can arrange it. You needn’t eat rats.”

“Not to eat. Anything they bring me has to be alive.”


The contact for the Wasps was a smooth-skinned boy with only the faintest wisp of a mustache, no more than fifteen. He lounged in the back of the electric stretch with studied cool, looking at Cameron from under half-closed lids. He wore a white linen suit, white sneakers. No socks. He said, as the stretch pulled into the traffic, “I hear the Exchange is after you. A contract going all the way across the water. It’ll cost you real money to help you out.”

“I appreciate that. There’s enough for all of us. Are you interested?”

The kid held out a hand with a languid gesture, and the big bodyguard who was driving reached around and put a little glass tube into it. The kid sniffed at it, held it out, and it was taken back. The spurs on the bodyguard’s wrists were tipped with black polycarbon. The kid said, “From what I know of it, it’ll give us the clout to take over the other Families, maybe even put us into the Exchange. Of course I’m interested.”

“What you can do with it is down to you,” Cameron said. “I can set up a demonstration.”

“Real soon. Your ass is on fire, from where I stand.”

“Let me worry about that. But if I’m not left alone until the meeting you’ll never see what I have to sell.”

“For streetmeat, you have sass. I dig that.” The kid’s laugh was like fingernails drawn down sharp metal. “Okay, we’ll meet on your terms. Now, let’s deal.”

The stretch circled the perimeter of Wreckers Heaps half a dozen times while Cameron talked with the kid. When at last it stopped and Cameron climbed out, the outside air seemed to him like pure oxygen, for all the heat and stink of the street. The stretch had smelled of bad money and worse promises. As he watched it pull away, he knew at last what Holroyd had meant, about the pain of connections, and he mused on it all the way to the place where he had once lived.

Cameron knew better than to walk into the old department store, so he sent a mudlark around the corner to fetch Lost In Space. “Oh my man,” the pusher said, when he saw Cameron. “Doc, you are bad news all over town.”

“I just need to talk with the people who own your deckchair.”

“You’re dealing? That’s keen, Doc.” They stood in the doorway of a shop, Lost In Space shifting from one foot to the other, his tongue passing over his lips with a lizard’s flick. For an instant, Cameron saw clear to the roots of the man’s life. The filthy crowded room where he’d grown up in the constant smothering company of a dozen brothers and sisters and a despairing mother, childhood innocence withering in the fire of his pride, pride which had driven him to be different when he couldn’t begin to define what he really wanted, when all he had was pride, and his fragile armor of vanity and indifference . . .

“I’m dealing,” Cameron said. “Something big enough to promote you out of that deckchair, if you want to help me.”

There was a derelict huddled in a nest of rags in the far corner of the doorway, asleep or dead. Lost In Space spat in his direction, unsettled by Cameron’s tender gaze, and said, “It’ll take maybe an hour.”

Cameron thought of all he had to do before night fell. “It had better be quicker.”


Komarnicki wasn’t answering his office phone, but Cameron had already worked out where his former employer was likely to be. He got into the black clinic by offering to incubate more mutated marrow, slipped out of the confusion of reception and sprang door after door along a row of office cubicles until he found a white laboratory coat that didn’t fit too badly.

Komarnicki was in intensive care, a guard at the door and a screen flagging vital signs above his head. Cameron waited until the guard went to use the toilet and then walked straight in.

Komarnicki lay naked on the bed, his flabby chest a shield of vivid purple bruises, slashed by a raw, ridged scar. Gene-melded sawfly larvae lay along it, jaws clamping the incision closed, swollen white bodies glistening with anti-inflammatory secretions. Cameron sat down beside him, and presently he opened his eyes.

“You’re a ghost,” he said wearily. “Go away, Cameron.”

“I’m real enough. Want me to pull open your chest to prove it? What did they pay you, apart from a heart?”

“Nothing else. They explained about Holroyd. I wasn’t going to get his fee, so it seemed fair. I took a guess at where you were hiding him, and they got his scent from the couch in my waiting room. It was just business, you understand. I’ve always liked you, Doc.”

“I’ve got what they want. I can make a deal, cut you in too. Ten percent, for old time’s sake.”

“You don’t make deals with them. They don’t operate like the New Families. You’re streetmeat, Cameron. Even if you give it to them, they’ll take you. And don’t you tell me what it is, either. I don’t want to know. That kind of knowledge is dangerous—”

Cameron had caught Komarnicki’s hand, as it edged towards the buzzer on his bedframe. After a moment, Komarnicki relaxed. He had squeezed his eyes shut. Sweat glittered on his pink face. Cameron leaned close and said, “I’m not going to hurt you. Just tell them I’ll deal, OK? I’ll call you later.” Cameron set down Komarnicki’s limp hand and smiled at the guard on his way out, impervious in his white coat.


At Wreckers Heaps, the mudlarks had delivered all Cameron had asked for, and after he had paid them with the last of Holroyd’s dollars and set things up, there was nothing left for him to do but wait. He sat near the arm of scummy water, watching silver beads shuttle up and down the almost invisible thread of the skyhook beyond the shining towers of the Exchange, letting sunlight and the invisible flux of the Exchange’s trade fall through him, until it was time.

He had arranged to meet with both the Wasps and the Zion Warriors at sunset. With half an hour to go, he called up Komarnicki and told him where he was. And then he sat back and waited.

He did not have to wait long. Soon there was the rattle of gunfire in the south, and then a series of flares rose with eerie slowness against the darkening sky. All around him, stacks of junked vehicles began to groan and shiver, dribbling cascades of rust: someone was using a sonic caster. Cameron sat still in the middle of the clearing, in a bucket seat he’d taken from one of the cars, imagining the hired fighters of the Exchange and the war parties of the two Families clashing amongst the wreckage of the twentieth century. Exchange fighters outnumbered, Family members outgunned. Smoke billowed up from an explosion somewhere near the perimeter. Soon after, the gunfire stopped. One by one the sound systems that circled the perimeter of the dump started to broadcast their competing rhythms again. Cameron sighed, and allowed himself to relax.

The electric limo glided into the clearing twenty minutes later, its sleek white finish marred by the spattered stars of bullet holes. The teenage negotiator was ushered out by his massive bodyguard. “I know I’m a little late,” the boy said coolly, “but I nearly had an accident.”

“You’re later than you think,” Cameron said, looking past the boy at the junk heaps across the channel of stinking water, where he knew sharpshooters must be taking up positions.

“I got all the time in the world,” the boy said, his smile as luminous as his white suit, and motioned to the bodyguard.

The tall burly man crossed to where Cameron was sitting and without expression patted him down, pulled his pistol from his harness, showed it to the boy. “It’s empty,” Cameron said.

“Your mistake,” the boy said. “Let’s go.”

The bodyguard put his hands under Cameron’s armpits and effortlessly pulled him to his feet.

And then everything went up.

The pressure switch had been sprung when Cameron’s weight had been taken away. It closed the circuit which ignited the cartridge loads, shredding the mesh covering the watertank where Cameron had caged what the mudlarks had brought him. Pigeons rose into the dark air in a vortex of wings. The bodyguard’s attention flickered for a second and Cameron punched him in the solar plexus. The man staggered but didn’t let go of Cameron. For a moment they teetered at the edge of the water, and then Cameron found the point of leverage and threw the man from his hip. The bodyguard twisted awkwardly and fell the wrong way, flailing out. Cameron danced back (one of the man’s spurs drawing blood down his forearm) as the man hit the lip of the drop and rolled into the water, screaming hoarsely before disappearing beneath the oily surface.

Cameron sprang on the boy and whirled him around as a shield. “I’ll let you drive me out of here,” Cameron said, but the boy, limp with shock, was staring down at the red spot of a laser rifle-guide centered on the left lapel of his white jacket. Cameron wrestled him into the car in a clumsy two-step, slammed the door and slid behind the wheel as bullets rattled on the armor.

The boy pressed hard against the corner of the passenger seat as Cameron drove down the winding alleys that threaded the junk piles. At last he said, “Whatever it is you’re doing, I’m impressed, OK? But there’s still a chance to make your deal.”

“There never was going to be a deal. I just canceled things out, that’s all. The Exchange and the Families. Hang on now.”

The gate was ahead, armed men running towards it from both sides. Cameron floored the accelerator and swerved between two flatbed trucks, pedestrians scattering as the limo shot through the gate. Then it was weaving through dense traffic and the armed men were lost in the crowds. Cameron said, “I’m sorry for all the hurt I caused, especially your bodyguard. He was only doing his job, and I meant for him to land on dirt.”

“You stop now, I can help you,” the boy said.

Cameron laughed. “Oh no, it’s too late for that. Holroyd took it all round the world, but I want to play my part, too. I ran away one time. No more. When the universities were closed down, when knowledge was finally transformed into a commodity, I should have done more to try and stop it. I can remember when there was free exchange of ideas, and now most of the cartels’ energies are spent on security against piracy. But that won’t do them any good now, not against five billion data pirates.”

“You’re rapping like a crazy man. I bet you never even had the stuff.”

“I had it all right. You saw it go.” Cameron pulled the limo over and switched off its motor, leaned across the seat. The boy’s wide eyes looked up into his, centimeters away. “I turned pigeons and rats into vectors,” Cameron told him. “If you want what I had, you’ll have to catch them. Doves would have been more appropriate, but I had to make do.” And then he kissed the astonished boy on the lips and slid out of the limo and vanished into the crowds.


Afterwards, Cameron lived on the street, restless for change. The Exchange must have found out what had happened; suddenly there was a bounty on rats and pigeons. But it only served to spread the caring sickness through the mudlarks, and within a week it was irrelevant. The rats had gotten too organized to be caught by ordinary means, but suddenly there were weird devices all through Wreckers Heaps, eye-bending topological conundrums of rusty mesh that mesmerized rats and drew them into their involuted folds. Mobile traps like tiny robot shopping carts careened after rats and pigeons, multiplying like sex-crazed von Neumann machines. When they had run out of prey they started raiding the street markets for trinkets and bits of food, and then sleek machines armed with a rack of cutting tools starting hunting them. After that the sickness must have gotten into the water supply, for infection seemed to take off on an asymptotic curve. There was a sudden boom in ingenious, horrible murders—one night two dozen eviscerated riot cops were found dangling from the Knightsbridge gibbets—and then crime plummeted. Graffiti went the same way, and one by one the sound systems fell silent.

One day a young mudlark stopped Cameron in the street. After a moment Cameron recognized Komarnicki’s messenger. The little kid was clean now, wore a shirt several sizes too big for him and had a canvas pack slung on his shoulder. He was heading out he said, a lot of people had that idea. Divide up the conglomerate farms, grow food again.

“Out or up,” the boy said.

They were at the northern edge of Wreckers Heaps. Amongst abandoned shacks, people were working on what looked like a small air dirigible, a hectare of patched white fabric spread on the ground amid a tangle of tethering cables. The boy looked past them at the skyhook, still there beyond the irrelevant towers of the Exchange. Looking at the boy looking at the skyhook, at the door into orbit, Cameron thought about what Holroyd had said about vectors. Maybe humans were just the infection’s way of spreading beyond the Earth’s fragile cradle, the Galaxy like a slow-turning petri dish, ripe for inoculation. Maybe it was his thought, maybe the infection’s. It didn’t matter. It was all one now, no longer an infection but a symbiosis, as intimate and inextricable as that with the mitochondria in his every cell.

The boy was smiling at Cameron. “I heard you were around here. I just came to say thanks, for what you did back then. What are you going to do? You could come with us, you know.”

“Oh, I’ve already done that stuff, in another life. Who told you about me?”

“I heard from an ex-pusher who heard from some muscle who got it from the kid who was right there. Everyone knows, man. Luck, now.”

“Luck,” Cameron said, and the boy grinned and turned and headed on down the street, a small brave figure walking into a future that everyone owned now.

Cameron watched until the boy was out of sight. The dirigible was beginning to rise, its nose straining against the people who were hauling back on the anchor ropes. Cameron strolled over to give them a hand.

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