Back | Next


Paul J. McAuley

Born in Oxford, England, in 1955, Paul J. McAuley now makes his home in London. He is considered 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, wide-screen Space Opera sometimes referred to as “radical hard science fiction,” and is a frequent contributor to Interzone, as well as to markets such as Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science, When the Music’s Over, and elsewhere. His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick award. His other books include the novels Of The Fall, Eternal Light, and Pasquale’s Angel; two collections of his short works, The King of the Hill and Other Stories and The Invisible Country; and an original anthology coedited with Kim Newman, In Dreams. His acclaimed novel, Fairyland won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 1996. His most recent books are Child of the River, Ancient of Days, and Shrine of Stars, which comprise a major new trilogy of ambitious scope and scale; and Confluence, set ten million years in the future. In the lushly inventive story that follows, he shows us that sometimes the aftermath of war can be every bit as deadly as the conflict itself . . .


Baker was in the pilots’ canteen, talking about the price of trace elements with a couple of factors, when someone started making trouble at the servitor. A tall skinny redhead in baggy flight pants and a tight jumper with the sleeves torn off had hooked her left arm around one of the servitor’s staples and was kicking the hell out it with her bare feet, bouncing hard each time and coming back, shouting at the machine, “You want how much for this shit?” and kicking it again.

Obviously, she hadn’t been on Phoebe very long, or she would have known that for all their girder-up-the-ass morals, the Redeemers were gougers of the worst kind. It was Baker’s nature to try and like everybody, but even he had a hard time being charitable about them. His collective could afford only basic environmental amenities when visiting other habitats, and on Phoebe those were very basic indeed—tank food and a coffin not much bigger than the lifesystem on the scow. If you wanted a shower you paid for two minutes and a hundred liters of gray water; beer or any other luxury goods were available only at premium rates. It was take it or leave it, and everyone had to take it because Phoebe’s orbit and the Redeemers’ expertise in cargo-handling and routing made it the prime resupply, rendezvous, and transfer site in all of the Saturn system.

Baker could have stayed on board his scow, of course, but even he needed to get out and about occasionally. At least here you could raise your arms over your head, and sculling about the public areas cost nothing. And besides, he liked talking to people. He had a lot of friends. He had friends everywhere he went in the system. It was the way he’d been rebuilt.

People all around the canteen started to cheer every kick the woman gave the servitor, happy to get some free entertainment, to see someone vent the frustration they all felt. “That feisty little old thing could come and work me over anytime,” one of the factors at Baker’s table said; her partner, a scarred and wrinkled woman about a hundred years old, cracked a grin and told her that it would be like setting a Titan tiger against an air cow.

At the same moment. Baker got a tingle of recognition. Like most of the public areas of the Phoebe habitat, the canteen was a basic microgravity architectural sphere, and Baker was tethered to a table upside-down above the woman, like a bat hung from the ceiling, but there was something familiar about her . . .

“I have called for help,” the servitor said in a monotonal foghorn voice. “Please desist. I have called for help.”

The woman grabbed a black cable studded with lenses which had snaked out to peer at her, said “Fuck you,” and got a round of applause when she broke it off. People, mostly men, started to shout advice to her, but then everyone fell silent, because one of the supervisors had swum into the canteen.

The creepy thing about the Redeemers wasn’t that they all had been chopped to look alike, or that you couldn’t tell which had once been male and which female, or even that they all had gray skin the colour of the thermal paint that goes over a hull before its final finish, but that they provided no cues at all as to what they might be feeling.

This one was as long and skinny as the rest, in a one-piece suit that looked as if it was made out of bandages. It moved swiftly, flowing through the air straight at the redheaded woman, who recoiled and said loudly, “This fucking machine sucked the credit out of my chip and won’t give it up.”

Everyone was looking at her as she hung with one arm casually locked around the one of the staples in the servitor’s fascia, her head turned up now to glare at the Redeemer, who kept his place in midair with minute swimming motions of one long, spidery hand, like a reef barracuda wondering whether to attack or pass by, and Baker undipped his tether because now he knew that he knew her.

Jackson. Vera Flamillion Jackson. Colonel Jackson.

Don’t do anything dumb, his sidekick said, and when Baker told it that she was an old friend, it added, Everyone’s your friend, but it isn’t good to get involved.

The woman was talking fast and low now, stopping when the Redeemer said something, shaking her head and talking again, her words lost in the hum of the fans which were pushing warm stale air about and the chatter of the people all around. Baker kicked out from the table, turning neatly in midair so he landed right-side-up by the woman, hooking an arm through the same staple from which she hung and seeing her turn and grin, recognizing him at once, as if the past thirty years had never happened.

They exchanged life stories over a couple of bulbs of cold beer. Baker’s treat because Jackson had no credit on her. It pretty much wiped out the small amount he’d set aside to spend here; against the advice of his sidekick he’d also paid the fine the Redeemer had insisted on levying. He’d have to check out of the coffin hotel and go sleep on the scow, but he didn’t mind. Jackson was an old friend, and if he remembered her, then once upon a time she must have been important to him.

They’d been teenagers in the war and although Jackson was pushing 50 now, she still looked good. Maybe a little gaunt, and with lines cross-hatching her fine-grained milk-white skin, but she still had a flirtatious way of looking at him from beneath the floating fringe of her red hair. Baker didn’t remember too much about his life before the accident, but he remembered that look, and seeing it now made him feel strange. There were black tattoos on her neck and upper arms, crude knotted swirls lacking animation, and she was missing her little finger on her right hand, but, yes, she looked good. She’d been married, he learned, her way of joining a collective that had built a habitat inside a hollowed-out asteroid. That hadn’t worked out, she wasn’t exactly clear why, and now she was here.

Once or twice their fingers brushed together and he got a tingle as her net tried to access his, but his sidekick blocked the attempts easily. Her net hadn’t been modified, it said, and just as well, because she’s dangerous.

She’s an old friend, Baker insisted, irritated by the side-kick’s paranoia. I’m not going to do anything crazy. Just talk about old times, about who I used to be.

What’s the point of that? the sidekick said. She’s trouble, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

“I got bored with it,” Jackson was saying, meaning the collective she’d left. “Spending most of the time worrying about stabilizing the ecology. Might as well have settled down on a rock.”

“Instead of in one,” Baker said, and laughed at his own joke.

“In, out, same thing. Too many people to deal with, too much routine. I mean, have you ever tried to grow plants?” Before he could answer, she leaned at the rail of the promenade and added, “You ever get claustrophobic in a place like this?”

They were on one of the upper levels of the Shaft. It had been bored two kilometres into Phoebe’s icy mantle with a singleshot fusion laser and was capped with a diamond dome; you could look up through webs and cables and floating islands of plants and see Saturn’s small crescent tipped in the black sky. Each level was ringed around with terraced gardens glowing green under sunlamps, neatly planted out with luxury crops, even flowers, level after level of gardens ringing the well of the Shaft. Parts of the upper levels were open to visitors, but most was exclusive Redeemer territory, unknown and unknowable.

Baker said, “I used to help in the farms, but I like what I do now better.”

He was married into a collective, but he didn’t think he needed to tell her that. It was a business thing; he hardly saw any of his wives or co-husbands from one year to the next and he certainly couldn’t fuck anyone in the marriage—or vice versa—without permission from one of the elders. There’d been a sweet honeymoon week with the youngest of the collective’s wives, but that had pretty much been it.

That isn’t what counts, his sidekick said, and Baker brushed at his ear in annoyance.

Jackson said, “In the war we could go anywhere. That’s what I miss.”

“Well, we went where we were told.”

“Yeah, but we did it our way. We fucked the enemy up pretty good, too. You still see any of the guys?”

“No, not really.”

“Me either. Remember Goodluck Crowe? He must surely be dead the way he was going.”

Baker shrugged and smiled.

“That time he came in with his bird’s venturis fucked, spinning eccentrically? Crashed into one of the ports and the last of his fuel went up and bounced the remains of his ship straight back out? And then he’s found down in one of the cargo bays in his p-suit, lost in pitch darkness because his suit light got smashed. The explosion shot him out and he was so dazed he didn’t know where he was? He banged up his knee I recall, floating about in there, but that was all.”

“Well,” Baker said, still smiling, “I guess he went back to Earth.”

“How many missions did you fly?”

“I think six.” He knew exactly because he’d once paid a data miner to look up his combat record.

She said, “Do you still do that counting thing?”

“Counting thing?”

“You know, with potatoes. One potato, two potato. To count seconds. Three potato, four. You don’t remember?”

He had done it out loud, she said, while suppressing the clock functions of his net, claiming that it helped him concentrate on the essential moment. They’d timed him once; over ten minutes, he’d deviated by less than a second.

“You don’t remember?”

Her gaze was steady, and Baker felt a touch of embarrassment and looked away. She clearly remembered more about him than he did; it was like suddenly finding yourself naked. He said, “It sounds stupid to me. What’s the point of trying to do something better than a brainless machine?”

She said, “It’s funny. You were listed missing in action, one of the few casualties on our side. But here you are, and you don’t seem much like the man I used to know.”

He told her the story. He’d told it so many times now that it was polished smooth and bright. He’d told it so many times that he believed that he remembered what had happened, even though it was a reconstruction. He’d been so badly injured that he had no memory of the accident which had nearly killed him, and only patchy memories of the times before.

Like all combat pilots in the Quiet War, he had been a teenager, picked for his quick reflexes, multi-tasking skills and coolness under pressure. He’d been zipped into a singleship, its lifesystem an integral pressure suit that fed and cleaned him and maintained his muscle tone with patterned electrical stimuli while he flew the ship and its accompanying flock of deadly little remote control drones. Each singleship took a different orbit, swooping through Saturn’s rings in complex multiple encounter orbits, attacking flyby targets with the drones when the timelag in the feedback was less than a second, never using the same tactic twice. Like all the combat pilots, Baker had been essentially a telepresence operator infiltrated into the enemy’s territory, spending most of his time in Russian sleep with the singleship’s systems powered down, waking an hour before the brief high-velocity encounters between drones and target, making a hundred decisions in the crucial few seconds and then vanishing into the rings again. It had been just one front of the Quiet War between the Outer System colonists and the Three Powers Alliance of Earth, less important than the damage done by spies, the economic blitz, and the propaganda campaign.

Saturn’s rings were a good place to hide, but they were dangerous, the biggest concentration of rubble and dust in the Solar System, shepherded by tiny moons and tidal resonances into orbits 100,000 kilometres wide and only fifteen deep. Baker’s singleship passed and repassed through the rings more than a hundred times, and then a single pinhead-sized bit of rock killed him. It smashed through the thick mantle of airfoam that coated the singleship’s hull and punched a neat hole in the hull, breaking up into more than a dozen particles that had all penetrated the six layers of Baker’s lifesystem and the gel which cased his sleeping body. Some shattered the artificial-reality visor of his facemask and left charred tracks through his skull and brain; others smashed through the singleship’s computer; one ruptured a fuel line.

He’d died without knowing it, but the singleship’s computer had saved him. Nanotech in the lifesystem gel sealed ruptured blood vessels; the lifesystem drained his blood and replaced it with an artificial plasma rich in glycoproteins, lowered his body temperature to two degrees. Although the singleship’s automatic systems were only partially functional, they powered up its motor, ready to expend its fuel in a last burn to accelerate it into a long-period orbit where it might be retrieved. But most of the fuel had already leaked away and the burn terminated after only a few seconds, leaving the singleship tumbling in a chaotic orbit.

The Quiet War ended a few days later; in the aftermath, there was only a cursory search for the missing singleship. Fifteen years passed before it was spotted by a long-range survey. A collective retrieved it a year later, looking for scrap value and finding Baker. They revived him and used foetal cells to regrow the damaged parts of his brain, upgraded the neural net through which he had interfaced with the singleship and the drones. He had worked for the collective for two years, paying off the debt, and then they had let him marry into their extended family.

At the end of the story, Jackson said, “Well, I guess that outdoes Goodluck Crowe. So now you’re working for them?”

“I’m a partner.”

“Yeah, right. Funny, isn’t it? We helped win the Quiet War, our own governments encouraged us to settle here, and then we were shafted. What do you pilot?”

“A scow. I do freight runs.”

“That’s just what I mean,” Jackson said. “Most of the freight in this system is rail-gunned. You used to be a hot-shot pilot and now you’re working the edge, picking up part-cargoes, trading margins on luxury items. I bet they’d use a chip instead of you if they could.”

“I choose my own routes. I do business on the Bourse.”

“Puttering around, making half a cent a kilo on the marginal price difference of vitamins between Daphoene and Rhea. Hardly the same as combat, is it?”

“I don’t remember too much from before my accident,” Baker said amiably. “Are you still a pilot?”

“Well, I guess I’m sort of freelance.”

Baker felt a twinge of alarm. His sidekick said, If she asks for credit, you will not give it. I think that she was in the prison farms—the tattoos suggest that. I told you that this was a bad idea.

Something must have shown on his face, because Jackson said, “I have credit. Plenty of it—I’m staying in the Hilton. But, see, it’s all room credit.”

Baker didn’t understand.

Be careful, his sidekick said. Here it comes.

“See,” Jackson said, her bright blue eyes fixed on his, “I thought I’d walk about for a while. Stretch muscles. Then I wanted a beer, and the fucking machine sucked all the credit from my chip and wouldn’t give anything up. Tell me about your ship.”

“Hamilton Towmaster, prewar but reconditioned. Daeyo motors, 80,000 kilos thrust. She’s a good old flamebucket. She’ll probably outlast me.”

“You get where you’re going?”

“Pretty much anywhere in the system.”

Although mostly it was runs back and forth between Titan and Phoebe. The collective was one of the contractors on the Titan project. Titan was lousy with organic, but it was presently one vast storm and would be for another century, until the terraforming began to stabilize, so fixed carbon and other biomass for the construction crews had to be imported from Phoebe’s vacuum farms, and that was what Baker mostly hauled.

Jackson sucked on the last of her beer; the thin plastic of the bulb made a crinkling sound as it contracted. She said, “It’s a pretty sorry state. Here we are, both of us on the winning side of the war, and the tweaks have got us fucked.”

Baker looked around, but luckily none of the incredibly tall, stick-thin people ambling about the promenade with the slow shuffle required by sticky shoes seemed to have heard her. Calling an Outer System colonist a tweak was like calling one of Baker’s ancestors a nigger. The original colonists had undergone extensive engineering to adapt them to microgravity; incomers like Baker made do with widgets in their blood and bones to maintain calcium balance and the like, and in most places in the Outer System medical liability laws ensured that they weren’t allowed to have children.

Jackson said, “Ordinary people like us have to stick together. That way we can show the tweaks what real humans can do. The way I see it, the war is still going on.”

Baker said, “What is it you do now?”

Jackson crumpled the empty bulb and dropped it over the rail; it fell away slowly towards one of the nets. She said, “Come see where I live these days.”


The hotel was two levels down, a terrace landscaped as rolling parkland, with lawns and colorful flowerbeds, and clumps of trees grown into puffy clouds of leaves the way they did in microgravity. Little carts ambled here and there between the cabins. Baker had been to Phoebe 50 or 60 times but he had never before been here. This was where vips from Earth stayed, along with novo abastado industrialists and miners who rendezvoused here to make deals because the Redeemers were scrupulous about commercial confidentiality.

Jackson had to sign Baker in. Blinking on the flash of the retinal print camera, he sat next to her on a cart which took them deep into the level. A sky projection hid the rocky ceiling high above; in the middle air, a couple of people were trolling about on gossamer wings. The guests could hunt here, too, Jackson said, although the meat remained the property of the Redeemers.

“You buy a license to go out and shoot one of the little cows or mammoths they have here, and then you pay all over again if you want a steak.”

Baker said, “You ever done it?”

“I’ve other fish to fry,” she said.

He was very aware of her warmth, next to him on the bench seal of the cart, hips and shoulders touching. He was also aware of his sidekick’s unhappiness; it hadn’t stopped complaining since he’d accepted Jackson’s invitation. She’s an old friend, Baker told it, and it said, Yes, but everyone is your friend and that’s why I give you advice you’d do best to listen to.

But Jackson was an old friend, a very special friend. A war comrade, maybe even a lover. Although Baker didn’t remember anything specific, sitting next to her he definitely felt that they had once had something special, and she certainly seemed to think so. For all the edge she tried to put into her voice and body language, her trust was quite wonderfully naïve.

The cart rolled over neatly trimmed green grass at a leisurely walking pace and circled around a big stand of bamboos and yellow-flowered mimosa, and there was one of the cabins, a dome turfed over with grass, little round windows like rabbit holes glinting here and there. A door dilated as the cart approached, and then they were inside a big room with carpet all over the walls and pits for places to sit or sleep. When Baker remarked on the size of the place, Jackson said that it didn’t matter how big a cell it was, it was still a cell.

“I thought this was cool at first,” she said, “but I’d just upgraded is all. I’m still stuck here, but I think now I know a way out.”

The sidekick had started to complain again. Baker winced and, something he hardly ever did, switched it to stand-by mode. The silence was a relief; he gave Jackson a goofy smile which obviously puzzled her.

She said, “You’ll see who I work for, then you’ll get an idea of what I mean.”

They put on sticky shoes and shuffled down a long curved ramp into a lower level, coming out in a room that was all white tiles and bright light, with a circular pool of polystyrene balls rippling back and forth, something big and pink half-buried in them. Some kind of animal Baker thought, and then it spoke and he realized that it was a man, the fattest man he’d ever seen, masked with artificial-reality goggles and twiddling his hands this way and that.

“Time to wake up,” Jackson said loudly. “I’m back, Berry, and I’ve brought a friend.”

The fat man cut the air with a hand; his goggles unfilmed. “Where have you been?” he said, his voice childish and petulant.

“I was out on an errand,” Jackson said, her voice echoing off the tiles, “but I’m back now. Do you need anything?”

“Didn’t know where you were,” the man said.

“Well, here I am now. You been lying there all this time? You’ll lose the use of your legs.”

“Help me to the surface if you want,” the man said, “but not right now. I’m deep in the Ten Thousand Flower Rift. I think I might get through to the Beasts’ chateau this time.”

He rose and fell with the big, slow waves that rolled from one side of the pool of polystyrene balls to the other and back again. There was a little machine floating in the air close by his head, holding a bulb of thick white liquid, and he lifted his face now and sucked at a straw noisily.

Jackson said quietly to Baker, “So now you see who I work for.”

“He’s got to be the fattest man I’ve ever seen. Massing, golly, it must be 200 kilos at least.”

“One hundred sixty. He tends to spread out a bit lying down.”

“What does he do?”

“Mostly he just lies right there and runs these antique 200-year-old sagas and drinks, or lies around on grass and runs his sagas and drinks. That’s margarita mix he’s working on there, he gets through a couple of liters of that a day. And he uses other stuff, too. He does his drugs, lying buck naked there or out on the grass under the sunlamps. They have some UV in their spectrum, so I have to rub cream on him to stop him burning. He can get about if he has to, but it hurts him even in microgravity, so he mostly stays on his back. There’re air jets under the balls, helping him stay afloat.”

“I mean, who is he? How can he afford all this?”

“Berry Malachite Hong-Owen; his mother is Sri Hong-Owen. That doesn’t mean anything to you? She invented one of the two important vacuum organism photosynthetic systems, made her rich as all hell. Berry is her son by her first and only marriage, a reject with a trust fund, doesn’t have to do anything but let the money roll in.” Jackson raised her voice and said, “You all right there, Berry? I got a bit of business with my friend here. You shout if you want anything.”

Back up in the dome, Baker and Jackson sipped bulbs of a smoky brandy. Jackson lit a marijuana cigarette—Berry could afford the tax, she said.

Baker said, “How did you get the job? It looks like fun.”

Jackson didn’t answer for a moment, holding a volume of smoke before blowing it out and saying in a small, tight voice, “Fun? The one other thing Berry likes to do is fuck. He can manage it in microgravity, just about, although it takes some care.” She fixed Baker with her bright blue eyes, daring him to say something. When he didn’t, she took another drag and said through the smoke, “That’s part of what I was doing before I met him—the fucking Redeemers sell you a prostitute’s license and you pay tax on every bit of business. I may be old, but some of the tweaks do like the exotic. The rest of the time I was part of the gardening crew, moving bushes and trees here and there, replanting flower beds. I didn’t have much choice—I lost my ticket off through a piece of foolishness. I got to hear of Berry and did some research, and made myself indispensable to him. He likes older women—I think he misses his mother. But the fucker’s crafty. His trust fund pays for room and service, but he doesn’t have anything much in the way of transferable credit. Doesn’t need it, he says, because he never leaves the hotel.”

“Doesn’t he pay you?”

“He did at first, but then I was living here and I told him to save his credit. It wasn’t that much anyway, not enough to parlay up for any kind of good ticket and I don’t fancy leaving here as a corpsicle in steerage.”

Baker began to see where this was going, and felt a twinge of pleasurable excitement. He had been right to think that there might be something in this, and it could well fall within the very wide parameters which allowed him to operate without consulting the collective. He said cautiously, “The thing is, the ship isn’t exactly mine.”

“I’m not looking for a lift,” Jackson said leaning forward through her cloud of smoke. “I’m looking for a partner in a deal so sweet it could rot your teeth just thinking about it. Let me tell you about Berry.”

Berry’s mother, Sri Hong-Owen, was a gene wizard with a shadowy, mysterious history. The system of artificial photosynthesis she had invented had made her as rich and famous as her rival, Avernus, but she had also done a lot of covert work before and after the Quiet War. Before the war, she was rumoured to have set up an illegal experiment in accelerated evolution of vacuum organisms somewhere in the Kuiper Belt for the Democratic Union of China; during the war, she had helped design the biowar organisms which had taken Europa, and she was said to have been involved in a covert program of human engineering. And after the war, she had announced that she was retiring (which no one believed), and had taken advantage of the resettlement scheme to take up residence at the edge of the ring system of Saturn.

“Potato One and Two,” Jackson said. “Remember?”

“Sure, but they’re just a couple of rocks, something to do with the military, I think. Anyway, no one lives there.”

“That’s what they want everyone to think,” Jackson said.

Potato One and Two were the nicknames of a pair of co-orbital satellites, tiny chunks of rock which had probably been shattered off a larger body by some ancient impact. Their orbits were within 50 kilometres of each other, beyond the edge of the F Ring. Sri Hong-Owen lived in absolute seclusion on the larger moon, Janus; she had registered the smaller, Epimetheus, as an experimental area. Berry had left—or had been thrown out—ten years ago; the other son by her failed marriage, Alder Topaz Hong-Owen, was working somewhere on Earth, perhaps as liaison with whichever government or corporado was sponsoring his mother’s current work. She had good and influential connections in the Three Powers Occupation Force; Jackson said that it was likely she was working on some covert military engineering program. The two moons were off-limits, protected by fierce automatic defense systems, but Berry had the right to return there.

Jackson told Baker, “Berry misses her badly. He talks about her a lot, but there’s something which stops him returning. I think he was kinked, given some sort of conditioning. He has the codes which will get us through her defense system, and I know what they are—it didn’t take anything more than withholding his margarita ration for a couple of days. We can say that he paid us to bring him back, ask for money to take him away again. It’s like kidnapping, but in reverse.”

“Suppose she doesn’t pay up?”

Baker didn’t need the prompting of his sidekick to know that Jackson wasn’t telling him the whole story, not that it really mattered if his own scheme worked out, but he found that he liked the illicit thrill of becoming involved in her shady plot. Perhaps this was the way he had felt in the brief moments of combat, all those years ago before the accident had changed his life forever.

Jackson shrugged. “She doesn’t pay, then we say we’ll kill him, or we’ll think of doing some damage to her experiments. But really, why wouldn’t she pay? Who’d want Berry around all the time?”


Baker and Jackson got Berry out of the pool of polystyrene balls and helped him totter on shaky legs up the ramp to the outside. He flopped down on the grass like a pink barrage balloon and demanded that Jackson rub cream into his skin. That took a while, Berry grunting and sometimes giggling as Jackson rubbed coconut-scented cream into the hectares of his pink flesh. Baker was pretty sure it would end in some kind of sex and wandered off, taking big floating steps, and found some shade under a stand of umbrella trees. A herd of miniature red-haired mammoths was grazing off in the distance, moving in tentative tip-toe slow motion. A vine twisted around one of the umbrella trees and Baker picked at its grapes, each a slightly different flavour bursting on his tongue, wondering if he should reactivate his sidekick. The truth was he didn’t want to hear what it would say; it wasn’t programmed to take risks. He used his net to dial into Phoebe’s infoweb, and did a little research of his own. At last Jackson floated down beside him and told him that Berry was asleep.

“So,” she said, “will you do it?”

“Remind me of the percentages again.”

“Twenty per cent goes to you, less any costs. But that’s still a lot of credit.”

“Sure. I mean, yes, count me in.”

He realized that he’d been thinking about it while seeming not to think about anything at all. His net was very sophisticated. It was risky, but the potential—not the silly scheme of Jackson’s—was huge.

Jackson leaned over and kissed him; he kissed her back.

“He’s sleeping now,” she said, after a while. “All that drinking and floating and floating and drinking does tire him out.”

“He hasn’t asked why I’m here?”

“I said you were my brother. He accepted that. Berry doesn’t like to think too hard about things. He’s like a kid. When he wakes up he’ll want a drink, and I’ll put something in it that’ll keep him quiet so we can get him aboard.”

“We have to take him?”

“I don’t like it either. But it’s the only way we can file a flight plan, and we’ll need to prove that we really do have him when we get there.”


Once they were aboard the scow and had everything squared away, Jackson stripped off her jumper and trousers and they fucked. Baker couldn’t think of it as making love; it was as much a business transaction as his wedding night with the youngest wife of the collective. Jackson wanted to interface systems during sex, the way they used to, or so she claimed, but Baker held back. She fell straight asleep afterwards, and Baker thought about it all over again, looking for loose threads and unexpected angles.

They had gone aboard late at night. Jackson had slipped a tranquilizer into Berry’s nightcap and he had fallen asleep almost immediately. They had used a luggage cart to get him to the docks, no problem there; the Redeemers didn’t care what was loaded onto ships as long as they got their tax. That was another reason why Phoebe was so successful.

There hadn’t been a problem stowing Berry away, either; Jackson had already thought of that.

As for the rest, the run itself was fairly simple, and Baker had already filed a flight plan, getting clearance with Berry’s identity code just as Jackson had said he would. If Sri Hong-Owen had an agent in the intelligence network of the pan-Saturn flight control system, she’d already know someone was on the way; she might already be taking countermeasures. Baker would have to think of what she might do, and how to get around it.

He was scared but also elated. After going over everything in his head, he could at last fall asleep.

But when he woke up, things had gone badly wrong.


He woke up because Jackson was slapping him, slapping his face, slapping him hard in a back-and-forth rhythm with the same angry intensity with which she had attacked the servitor, saying over and over, “You fucker. Come on out of it, you fucker. Come on. Don’t die on me.”

He tried to get away but he was trussed like a food animal in the web hammock in the centre of the scow’s compact lifesystem. Jackson’s left hand gripped his right wrist tightly. His head hurt badly and behind the pain there was a terrible absence. Stuff hung in front of Jackson’s angry, intent, face—columns, indices, a couple of thumbnails. She had jacked her net into his, broken into it using some kind of Trojan horse, and was using it to run the ship. Hand-holding, the pilots had called it, a kind of piggy-backing that had been used in training.

The soundscape of the scow had changed. Beneath the usual whir of fans, the steady chug of the humidifier and the nearly subliminal hum of the lights were the intermittent thump of attitude thrusters and a chorus of pings and popping noises.

Barker jerked his head back so that Jackson’s next blow missed; she swung halfway around with the momentum. “What,” he said, so full of fear that he thought for a moment he would start to cry. He swallowed something salty and said, “What have you done?”

“You work it out,” she said, and let go of his wrist and turned her back on him.

It took him less than a second to call up the data. The scow was in orbit around Phoebe, docked with its chain of cargo pods and slowly rotating in barbecue mode.

A thumbnail picture showed the patchwork of the little moon’s tightly curving globe. Only 200 kilometres in diameter, it was a captured unmodified primitive object, mostly carbonaceous material mixed with water ice, almost entirely grown over with vacuum organisms which used the energy of sunlight to turn methane ice and carbonaceous tars formed five billion years ago, when the Solar System had first condensed, into useful carbon compounds. The patches were of all shapes but only four muted colours; orange-brown, reddish-brown, sooty black, mottled gray. Phoebe was like a dented and battered patchwork ball or a gigantic version of the four-colour map problem, curving away sharply in every direction.

Another thumbnail showed Berry floating in faint red light, half-filling the scow’s water tank. An air mask was clamped over his face. Baker had objected to Jackson’s idea on hygiene grounds, but she had pointed out that the water was recycled anyway, and the filter system could easily be rerouted to clean the water coming out of the tank as well as that going in. Berry seemed to be asleep, curled up like a huge late-term embryo, the umbilical cord of airline and nutrient feed connected to his face rather than his belly, hands clasped piously under his chins, a continuous chain of bubbles trickling from the vent of his air mask.

Baker clicked everything off. Jackson was hunched up at the far end of the cramped lifesystem, an arm’s length away. She had livid marks on her throat and deep scratches on her arms were still oozing blood into the air. She said, “You almost died. Your net shut down your vagus reflexes when I hacked it. And when I tried to revive you, you tried to kill me. Don’t you know what they did to you?”

“You shouldn’t have messed with it,” Baker said.

“I did it to free you!”

Jackson’s face was pinched white, harsh and old-looking; only her bright blue eyes seemed alive. She shuddered all over and said more quietly, “They made you into a slave. A thing.”

They had both had military neural nets installed when they had been inducted, but Baker’s net had been considerably upgraded after his accident; it was now more like a symbiont than a machine enhancement of his nervous system. When Jackson had jacked into it, she had been able to access only a few of its functions. She had got the ship up into orbit, and docked manually with the train of cargo pods, but she hadn’t been able to activate the flight plan he’d filed. And when she had tried to hack into its root directory, his net had easily repelled her efforts and had triggered a number of defense routines.

Baker said, “Why are you doing this? Aren’t we friends?”

“Because I’m tired of giving blow-jobs to Berry. Because I can’t bear to see an old comrade turned into a zombie so dumb he doesn’t even know what he is. Because I was in prison in Angola for ten years and I’d sooner die than go back.”

Half of the Redeemers’ business was running the port. The other half was running the correctional facilities for the Saturn system—the vacuum farms. Angola was the worst of them; eight out of ten prisoners died before completing their sentence.

Baker said, “Well, I did wonder about the tattoos. What were you in for?”

“Just load and run the flight plan,” Jackson said, and smiled bloodlessly. “Okay, maybe I got greedy and fucked up. I need you, and I won’t let you back out.”

Baker said, “I wasn’t your first choice of pilot, was I? You had an agreement with someone else, and I bet that’s why you were in the pilots’ canteen. But then you saw me, and thought you could make a better deal.”

“I still rescued you,” she said.

“How much were you going to get? From the first deal.”

“It was the same as the one we made, except I was to get the 20-percent cut. But that’s blown away. We’re in this together or we’re both dead, and Berry. too. Your call.”

It might be a bluff, but Jackson didn’t look like the kind of person who would start something she couldn’t finish. Baker pulled down the flight plan, checked it over out of habit, and activated it.

The rumble of the scow’s motor filled the lifesystem. Acceleration gripped Baker; he drifted gently onto the padding at the rear of the cabin. Jackson hooked an arm around a staple and stared at him from what was now definitely the ceiling. And in the tank, Berry woke up amidst clashing pressure waves which distorted the red light into clashing lines and sheets and plaintively asked what was going on.


Neither Baker nor Jackson slept during the 65 hours of the flight. Their military nets could keep them awake for more than a week, switching consciousness back and forth between the right and left hemispheres of their brains. Sometimes Baker would feel a little sluggish and his saliva would taste strange, but there were no other side effects.

Jackson didn’t stay mad at him, but she remained wary. It wasn’t his fault that she had activated the defense routines. They were there to protect the collective’s investment. He told her this, and that he was happy and liked the life he had been given, but it only provoked a torrent of abuse. He wished that he had his sidekick to explain things, to help sort out the muddle, but Jackson had suppressed it—he had the horrible feeling that she had in fact erased it. When he asked her about this, she said that it was time that he started thinking for himself. He could never be the man he’d been when she had known him, but he could be his own man now.

She did unbend enough to tell him a little of her life. While he had been drifting in the crippled singleship, neither alive nor dead, she had used her sign-off pay to start up a haulage company. When that had failed, outcompeted by rail guns, she had joined a collective long enough to know that it wasn’t for her, and then had become a smuggler, intercepting packages of forbidden technologies in the rings while on apparently innocent cargo runs. An industrial spy had broken up the cartel she had mostly worked for, and someone in the cartel had given her up to protect himself, and that was how she had ended up in the vacuum farms of Phoebe.

She was still bitter about it. During the Quiet War, the Outer System colonists, split into more than a dozen rival enclaves, had hardly been able to fight back at all. In only three months, their infrastructures had been so devastated that they had been forced to surrender their hegemony. But what had happened since made you wonder who had really won after all, Jackson said. The tweaks had the upper hand in the Outer System, even if their various assemblies, moots, councils, conclaves and congresses were now in principle subservient to the Three Powers Occupying Force. Despite incentives and tax breaks, the various emigration schemes sponsored by the victors of the Quiet War had mostly failed; new settlers couldn’t compete with established cooperatives and collectives, and unless they signed away their right to return to Earth in exchange for engineering, they were not allowed to have children and tended to die young of problems associated with living in microgravity. Meanwhile, the central administration of the Outer System was falling apart as adapted colonists began to spread through the thousands of dirty snowballs and rocks of the Kuiper Belt. There was talk of another war, one in which Jackson wouldn’t be able to fight. She was too old and slow for combat now; she had been sidelined by history.

Baker listened patiently to her rants. He tried to talk with Berry, too, but Jackson had set up a feed of lemon-flavored alcohol and the man was only partly coherent. In one of his more lucid moments, he said, “You shouldn’t go near my mother. She’s dangerous. All of her are dangerous.”

“You mean she has other children?”

“You could call them that,” Berry said. “They’re crazy bad.” His voice, muffled by the airmask, sounded as if it was coming from the bottom of a well.

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

“It isn’t like that. Alder would know, I guess . . . They look after me, always have, so maybe they’re not so bad. Not to me. They saved me other times . . .”

Baker felt a faint stirring, as if his sidekick was about to waken. He wished it would, if only to say that it told him so. When nothing happened, he said, “Other times? What happened, Berry?”

Berry was silent for a while. Then he said, “I should get out of here now. My skin is all puffy.”

Baker tried to imagine what the lifesystem would be like with 160 kilos of dripping wet Berry crammed into it. He said, “You hang in there. Play your sagas.”

“It isn’t the same,” Berry said. “The emulation in this system is horrible. When can you get me back to the hotel?”

“Well, I’m not sure. Soon.”

“I’d like margarita. That always goes down smooth.”

“Maybe you should stop drinking.”

“What’s the point of stopping? Get me some margarita and I might help you out.”

Jackson was amused by Baker’s attempts to talk with Berry. She said that you couldn’t get any sense out of the man. His brain had been fried in alcohol, most of the switches jammed open or jammed closed, whole areas dead and blasted. Like a low-grade robot, he could follow his routines, but had trouble with anything outside them.

“You want to know anything, you ask me,” she said.

Baker thought that he had already learnt something useful from Berry. He said, “What will happen after we insert into orbit?”

“I’ll tell you on a need-to-know basis, just like the old times.”

But the old times were gone forever. His original self must have loved her fiercely for a residue of that love to have survived death, and Baker, who was vicariously fascinated by other peoples’ lives, and watched a lot of the old psychodramas when he wasn’t working, thought wistfully that once upon a time they must have been like Romeo and Juliet. But whatever they’d once been, that was then and this was now.


The scow accelerated for more than 40 hours. The idea was to come in on a fast, short trajectory, decelerating hard at the last moment. Baker spent much of that time watching the view, a thumbnail of the lifesystem in one corner to let him keep an eye on Jackson—he was worried that she might suddenly try something stupid.

Phoebe’s orbit was not only retrograde, but inclined to the equatorial plane of Saturn. As the scow drove inwards, the entire system was spread out ahead and below, nine major moons and more than a hundred smaller bodies, Saturn a pale half-disc at the centre, circled by his rings like an exquisite bit of jewelry.

Baker never tired of this privileged view. He spent a lot of time watching it while working through his options. He wasn’t as brain-damaged as Jackson thought, and the enhancements to his net gave him a lot of computational power. He worked up several scenarios and played the simulations over and over, finally choosing the simplest one with a sense of doors closing irrecoverably behind him. He wondered if Jackson had inserted a parasitic eavesdropper into his net; if she had, she gave no sign that she knew what he was planning.

As Saturn grew closer, the ring system began to resolve details in the sunlit arc that swept out beyond the planet; two unequal halves separated by the gap of the Cassini division, each half further divided into fine parallel bands, with dark irregular spokes in the bright B ring that could be seen to rotate if watched long enough.

Then the motor cut out and they were in freefall again. There were only a couple of hours in turnover. Jackson spent much of them supervising the decoupling of the scow from the cargo train. Normally, it would recouple on the other end of the train, thrusters pointing ahead for deceleration. But Jackson’s manual link closed down halfway through the maneuver and the scow fired off several orientation bursts, turned end-for-end and immediately lit its main engines in a brief burn. At the same time, the thrusters of the cargo train started to fire.

Berry started complaining over the link; Jackson snarled at him to shut up and was suddenly right in Baker’s face, swarming down the lifesystem cabin against the pull of the thrust and grabbing his right wrist. A Trojan horse smashed its way into his net, spilling voracious subroutines. For a panicky minute, he was deaf and dumb and blind—it was like being raped from the inside out.

Light and sound came back. Baker discovered that he was in freefall again. Jackson had shoved away from him and was studying him intently, her blue eyes cold behind the tendrils of red hair that drifted loose over her face.

Baker closed up all the indices and files she’d pulled open and said shakily, “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Christ, they really did a number on you, Baker. You’re not a man any more. You’re a bundle of routines. You’re a lapdog. This is your chance to get free of the leash, and you’re fucking it up.”

Baker’s net was suppressing adrenalin production; otherwise he would have been trembling with flight reaction and stinking up the lifesystem with sweat. He said. “We’re in this together. I’ve accepted that. I thought it would be a good idea to dump the cargo in a high orbit. Makes us more maneuverable and saves reaction mass. We’ll get there earlier than the flight plan allows, so we can surprise Berry’s mother.”

It was the best lie he had been able to come up with. He sipped at a bulb of orange-flavored glucose solution and watched her work it through. At last, she said. “I know you’re trying to fuck me over, but I can’t figure out how, not yet. But I will, and then I’ll know what to do with you. Meanwhile, climb into your pressure suit. There’s a chance that Berry’s mother might have changed her defense systems since he left.”

“I thought you got the codes from him. And she knows we’re bringing him here.”

“The codes are 20 years old, and she might not believe us. We’ve got 15 minutes before the main burn, so get moving.”


They only just made it.

The scow, decelerating, fell behind the cargo train. The string of half-silvered beads dwindled against the sweep of the rings, vanishing into the planet’s shadow as the scow swung in around the nightside. Vast lightning storms illuminated sluggish bands of storm systems that could have swallowed Earth without a ripple. Then the rings appeared, a silver arc ahead of the dawning diamond point of the sun. The scow’s motor rumbled continuously, decelerating at just over one gravity. Baker was heavier than he had been for years. Lying flat on the padding of the lifesystem, he tried to find a comfortable position within his pressure suit to wait it out, but there always seemed to be some seam or wrinkle digging into him. Jackson lay beside him, her ungloved right hand holding his ungloved left so that she could access the ship through his net. They lay there like spent lovers.

“Seems hard to remember how we stood this on Earth,” Baker said at one point. “I almost envy Berry, floating in that tank.”

“Just keep quiet,” Jackson said. “I’m watching everything. If something goes wrong, you’re toast.”

She didn’t say it with much conviction, Baker thought. For the first time, he fell that he might have a chance to win back from this. It was clear that she hadn’t been able to work out what he’d done. He felt pity for her—she was out-of-date, left behind by the accelerating changes that were sweeping through the Outer System. She should have returned to Earth; out here, the aggression which had helped win the Quiet War was not a survival trait. Individualism counted for nothing in the Outer System. To survive, you had to commit yourself to helping others, who in turn would help you.

Baker said, “What’s wrong? You said you remembered how good I was. I’m even better now.”

“I remember you always thought you were a hotshot, but didn’t have much to back it up. You were a company man, Baker, even when you were in the service. You were always happiest following orders. You had no initiative. That’s one thing about you that hasn’t changed.”

“Nothing you say can hurt me more than what you tried to do to me,” Baker said, with a fair imitation of wounded pride, thinking that her initiative had got her into prison, and now into this. He pulled down the view to shut her out.

The rings spanned the curve of the planet in a thousand shades of gray and brown and white, casting a shadow across the bulge of its equator. The scow was coming in at a narrow angle above the plane of the rings, and they spread to port like a highway a million lanes wide. Zooming in with the scow’s telescope, Baker could see the seemingly solid plane break apart in lanes of flecks that grew into rocks and bergs flashing in the sunlight as they tumbled, a storm of motes forever falling around the planet.

The scow plunged stern-first towards the gap beyond the outer edge of the narrow F ring. Jackson started a looped broadcast of the code she had dug out of Berry. Their target was still around the curve of the planet, coming towards them out of night; they’d rendezvous with it just at its dawn. Baker wanted to look for the cargo train, but wasn’t sure that he could do it without Jackson catching on.

“I was wondering,” he said, after a while, “what you’ll do if this works out.”

“That’s none of your fucking business.”

“We might not survive it.”

“I intend to. You could have set yourself free, Baker.”

“Things have changed.”

“This is the frontier, Baker. It’s far from the antfarms of Earth. It’s where people can walk tall and make their fortunes if they have the intelligence and the backbone.”

“Or end in the vacuum farms.”

“I had some bad luck. I’m going to turn that around. You might be content to give up your free will to a bunch of farmers who sit inside rocks like bugs in a bad apple. Well, I’m not.”

She said more, but Baker tuned it out. The scow was just about to begin its final course correction. He patched telescope scans into a 360-degree perspective. The rings stretched away ahead and behind, flattened into a narrow line that bisected the sky. A single speck was bracketed ahead: their target.


Janus was roughly the same size as Phoebe, an irregular body like the profile of a fist. It was pockmarked with craters, most eroded by billions of years of micrometeorite sleet and further softened by patches of vacuum organism growth. One small circular crater had been tented over, and shone greenly with internal lights. There was a ring of silver around it. The scow spotted one of the defense drones a hundred kilometres out and presented Baker with a grainy image of the tiny, deadly thing: a slim body less than two metres long, with a flat radar dish at one end and the swollen bowl of an oversized motor at the other. No radar probed the scow; nothing moved to intercept it. The broadcast code must be working.

The scow shuddered, spinning this way and that, making a series of short burns before finally shutting down its motor. Now it was falling in the same orbit as the little moon, barely 20 kilometres away.

Jackson started what seemed to be a one-sided conversation—she had made contact with someone on Janus, it seemed, but she wouldn’t allow Baker to switch into the channel.

“I have him right here,” she said, “just like I told you. You must know he’s aboard—that’s why I could shut down your defense drones. Don’t try and target me manually, the ship will blow up if radar locks on it. Because he asked me to, don’t let’s go into all that again. Well, I expect that he misses you all. Yes, I can bring evidence, but it might be easier if you came up here, or I landed the ship. Well, okay, that’s fine by me too. Creepy little fucker,” she added, turning to Baker.

“Can you really blow up the ship?”

“Only if it’s absolutely necessary.”

“That was Berry’s mother you were talking with?”

“Some kind of agent, I think. It wants me to go down there with evidence I brought Berry back.”

Jackson sealed up her pressure suit but did not go out through the airlock; instead, she opened an internal access hatch and plunged into the water tank. Berry was supine. She had added a relaxant to his alcohol mix. Baker watched as she snipped off the little finger from Berry’s right hand and came back out.

“It has to be fresh,” she said, grinning at Baker through her helmet’s visor. She was pumped up with excitement. “That way she’ll know we’re not kidding. You’re not going to give me any trouble, are you?”

“Maybe you had better tell me what you’ve thought of.”

“We’re going down together. And if I see any sign that the ship is moving out of orbit, I’ll blow it.”

“I should stay here with Berry.”

“And have you swing the ship around and torch me?”

“I wouldn’t do that. I’m in this with you.”

“You’d better be, because you’re going to be my backup. They’re expecting one person. You’ll be a surprise. They won’t know who you are or what you’ll be doing while I walk in there.”

They used a little jet unit to pull them across, touching down two kilometres from the tented crater, which was somewhere beyond the close, sharply curved horizon. Except for his annual safety certification exercises, Baker had hardly ever done any vacuum work. His P-suit was intelligent and responsive, but a residual stiffness blunted his reflexes; he let go a moment too soon and tumbled end for end when he touched down on the little moon’s surface.

He tumbled a fair way—in Janus’s microgravity, he could bounce a couple of hundred metres off the surface with the gentlest of kicks. At last the suit fired a grapple and he slowed to a halt with a cloud of dust raining straight down all around. He was at the edge of a dense field of tall black blades that sloped away to the close horizon. Some reached up to four metres; all grew from thick rhizomes that snaked half-buried through the dusty regolith; all had turned the flat surfaces of their blades towards the sun’s yellow spark.

Jackson threw a camo cloth over the jet unit and crept towards Baker on her belly, supple as a snake in her yellow P-suit. She checked him over and began to assemble a hollow tube and a scaffold cradle from components she had strapped to her backpack.

“What are you doing?”

“It’s amazing what you can get in the way of surplus weaponry, if you have the credit. This is a missile launcher. The Europans made them to shoot down drones like the ones we operated, only they didn’t have time to deploy them before the hydrogen bomb broke open the crust. I paid for this through Berry’s room service. It fires up to ten smart micromissiles, but I only need two. One is aimed at the scow, the other at the dome over the horizon.

“Ah. I thought you were joking about blowing up the ship.”

Jackson said flatly, “I don’t joke about business.”

She started to adjust the angle of the tube by minute increments, finally sitting back in a squat. “It’s running, ready to go in three hours. Try and move it now and the charge will explode. Try and rip out the chip that controls it—same thing. The only way to stop it is to use a code. You think I’m a fuck-up, but I know what I’m doing here.”

Baker couldn’t see Jackson’s face because the sun was reflecting off the gold-tinted visor of her helmet, but he could imagine her tigerish grin. He said, “I don’t doubt it.”

“You stay right there. I’ll be telling them that you’ll fire the mortar at any sign of trouble, so don’t stray. And remember that I’m linked to the ship just like you. Try anything—especially try and close down my link—and I’ll blow her. Sit tight. Enjoy the view. I’ll be back soon.”


Baker sat tight, watching Saturn’s crescent slowly wax above the sharp, irregular edge of the horizon. Like almost all of Saturn’s moons, Janus was tidally locked, and kept one face permanently turned toward its primary. Sri Hong-Owen had sited her home at the edge of sub-Saturnian hemisphere; Saturn stood permanently at the horizon, his rings arching beyond his banded crescent like the string of a drawn bow—he dominated half the sky, shedding a bilious light over the pockmarked slope. Janus was so small that wherever you looked the ground appeared to slope away—Baker felt that he was hugging the top of a hill that was plunging towards Saturn’s storms, a hill studded with half-buried boulders of all sizes which cast multicolored shadows. In the other direction, the outer ring system scratched a thin arch across the width of the sky, with several of the moons bright against a dusting of stars. There was Dione, which had its own satellite trailing at 60 degrees of arc in the same orbital path; there was the tiny crescent of Titan, lit not only by the Sun but by the terraforming fusion lamps hung in equatorial orbit. Baker wondered what it would be like when Janus was overtaken by its co-orbital moon, Epimetheus. Passing only 50 kilometres away, Epimetheus would eclipse Saturn and exchange a fraction of its momentum with Janus; the two moons would swap orbits and Janus would slowly accelerate away in the lower orbit. The orbital exchange happened every four years, and was not a stable configuration; in slightly under ten million years the two moons would collide, and it was thought that the fragments would eventually coalesce into a single body.

He thought his plan through again. With the insurance of the cargo train, he was pretty sure that he could get out of this alive. The rest was as imponderable as ever, but he was confident that he could make some friends here. That was what he was good at, after all. Of course, he’d underestimated Jackson, and it was only pure dumb luck that she hadn’t upgraded her net—otherwise he was pretty sure that she would have disposed of him as soon as she had control of the scow. But Jackson wasn’t the problem now. He was pretty sure that she would be killed as soon as she walked into the habitat. Although it certainly increased his chance of survival, part of him—the fragmented bits of his old self—wished that he’d warned her.

The P-suit’s lifesystem made comforting hums and soft hisses; it was like being inside a tent exactly his size.

Baker broke radio silence to try and talk with Berry, but the man was gurgling inside his mask, drunk or asleep, and wouldn’t answer.

He tried that counting trick: one potato, two potato, three potato, four. Tested it against the system clock of his net, tried different intonations, couldn’t get it to come out right. Maybe it was just a story Jackson had spun to draw him in. It didn’t matter. He didn’t need dumb tricks like that, not any more.

Time passed. Baker had always been calm in the squeeze of danger—to his way of thinking, there was no sense in getting caught up in useless speculation, it was best to face any situation with an uncluttered mind. In any case, there was nothing he could do until either Jackson came back or Berry’s mother came for him. He set up a couple of alarms on his P-suit’s system and fell asleep.

And woke an hour later to find four pressure-suited figures kneeling by him, visors blankly reflecting the gray-brown moonscape. They were as small as children. A fifth figure was examining Jackson’s missile launcher.

Baker tried to sit up, and discovered that his suit was bound by a thousand tough, tightly wrapped fibres. He squashed the first tremors of alarm and said as calmly as he could, “There’s a couple of things you should know.”


The ring of silver around the tented crater was a plantation of things like flowers, tough wiry stalks five metres tall rising straight out of dusty ice, each bearing a single big white dish-shaped bloom with a black cylinder protruding from its centre. The dishes were all turned in one direction, toward the setting sun. It was pitch black beneath the packed dishes, but Baker’s captors carried him at the same fast-gliding gait with which they’d crossed the open ground.

Just as he was carried out of the far side of the plantation, Baker thought he saw a flash at the horizon, and wondered if that had been the missile launcher. Then he and his captors plunged down a sleep terraced slope, following a path sketched in dabs of green fox-fire. Baker didn’t ask where they were taking him. He was just grateful that so far he had not been killed.

The slope became a tunnel, hung from floor to ceiling with a thousand stiff black curtains that must have formed a pressure lock, because the tunnel suddenly opened up at the lip of a huge bowl of greenery under a thousand brilliant lamps, with flocks of what looked like birds floating lazily at different layers in the air, Saturn a blank-faced giant peering in at the construction diamond tent which capped the vast space.

Baker’s pressure-suited captors dropped him at the edge of the bowl and threw themselves over the drop, bouncing like balls from terrace to terrace and finally vanishing into a stand of tree ferns. Baker’s bonds slowly dissolved, snapping apart like brittle elastic as he picked himself up.

A woman was moving toward him through the air above the green gulf, sitting on a throne borne up by what looked like cherubs. She was not Sri Hong-Owen but one of her daughters. She was young, golden-skinned and unselfconsciously naked. She had a tweak’s etiolated build, her long arms and legs skinny but supple, her breasts no more than enlarged nipples on her prominent rib cage. A cloud of black hair floated around her narrow face.

When Baker asked her name, she smiled and said that no names were needed here, where all were one mind, one flesh. He asked then where her mother was, and the golden-skinned woman told him that she had moved on, which at first Baker took to mean died.

“Alder descended to the Earth to continue our mother’s work there,” the woman said, “and Berry went his own way. He is only our half-brother, and is weak-minded, but we love him anyway. Our mother would have killed him, we think, but she no longer needs to make small decisions like that, and we decided to show mercy.”

“How many are you?”

Baker had unlatched the helmet of his P-suit and stood with it tucked under his arm, like an old-fashioned knight in front of his enthroned queen. The cherubs had flown away—they had little patience, the woman had said when they left, being full of the joy of life lived moment to moment.

“There are more than enough of us to deal with you or anyone else who tries to invade our kingdom,” she told Baker now. “We have killed many in the last 20 years—spies, pirates, adventurers, the merely curious. But you are the first to think of kidnapping Berry, and you are the first to threaten our mother. How did you know?”

“Luck, I guess,” Baker said, wondering what he was supposed to have guessed.

The woman leaned forward, gazing intently at him through her floating tangle of black hair. “Berry is not dead.”

Her gaze compelled. Baker said, “No. No, not when I left him.”

“Then you are luckier than you know,” the woman said.

“What about Jackson?”

“Was that her name?”

“You killed her, didn’t you? You should know she aimed a missile at this place.”

“We dealt with it.”

“Ah. I thought I saw an explosion.”

“The one who tried to disarm it was killed.”

“So you killed Jackson in return.”

“No, we killed the woman because she threatened us. Any of us would sacrifice our lives for the good of the clade, but all of us would die to save our mother. We love her more than life itself. You should know that we are tracking the cargo train and have calculated its trajectory.”

When Baker had briefly wrested control of the scow from Jackson, he had sent the cargo train on a trajectory that would end in a collision with Epimetheus after three orbits of Saturn, less than 20 hours from now. He said, “I was going to tell you about that. I don’t mean any harm by it. I want to be friends. The cargo train—it’s just insurance, that’s all.”

The woman made no gesture, but children appeared at various levels of the burgeoning greenery. No, not children: they were naked creatures the same size as his pressure-suited captors, so pale and skinny that they seemed partly transparent, like certain deep-sea creatures. They were quite sexless. Their heads were small and wedge-shaped, sloping straight back from skin-covered dimples where their eyes should have been; their ears flared out like bats’ wings; their hands had only three fingers, spaced like a crane’s grab. Four of them gripped the arms of Baker’s P-suit with implacable strength.

“We will kill you slowly for your presumption,” the woman said, “and our defense drones will destroy the cargo train.”

Baker said. “I don’t think you want to do that. If it’s destroyed, the debris will still hit and do just as much harm, but if you leave it be, I can change its orbit once we’ve made a deal.”

The woman shrugged. “It is unlikely that the impact will hurt our mother, for most of her is far underground. But it will damage her energy-gathering systems, and we cannot allow even that. You will change its orbit now.”

Baker said stubbornly, “We can make a deal. That’s why I’m here.”

“No,” the golden-skinned woman said serenely. “No bargains. Change the orbit of the cargo train and we may let you leave. Otherwise we will keep you here, alive and in great pain.”

“You didn’t kill me,” Baker said. “Of course you want to bargain. I want to set up a trading agreement between your clade and my collective. You must have plenty of biological novelties, for instance. In exchange, we can supply you with trace elements, or anything else you might need. I did a little research and I know you deal exclusively with the private citizens who bankrolled this experiment. I bet my collective can offer you better supply contracts. And we can guarantee confidentiality.”

“There will be no trade,” the woman said. “We need nothing. Our mother made this garden. It is all we need. You will do as we ask.”

“I have to be on the scow to do it,” Baker said, “so you’ll have to let me go anyway. There’s plenty of time. I can show you the figures on the trade my collective does with the Titan terraforming project. Think it over. I mean no harm to your mother. I didn’t know she was on Epimetheus. I thought she was here.”

“She is not on Epimetheus,” the woman said, “she is becoming Epimetheus. Think what you will do. I will return soon.”

Cherubs whirled down and lifted the chair and the woman into the air. As she dwindled away, the workers released Baker and vanished into the greenery with unnerving swift silence.


The golden-skinned woman did not return for many hours. Baker wasn’t worried; he was sure that she was discussing the offer with her mother, and the longer it took the more likely it was that he could hook them. He found the airlock, but the black sheets had stiffened and would not let him pass. A little way beyond, at the foot of a steep vine-covered cliff, a flash of bright yellow caught his attention. It was Jackson’s P-suit helmet. The visor was cracked around a burn hole; the padding inside was crusted with drying blood.

Baker cradled it, tears pricking at his eyes; although he had not loved her, he had loved the idea of remembering that he had once loved her, and what he was mourning now was that lost part of his life. She had not understood that when she had tried to manipulate him; she had not really understood much of what she had done. The only thing she had been right about was that ordinary humans had no place in the Outer System: here was the proof.

He dropped the helmet and turned back to explore the rim of the freefall jungle bowl. The lush green thickets were full of strange creatures: things like snakes, but with narrow human heads and pale human skin; little black-furred tarsiers with microcephalic human faces; white worms working like mobile fingers through the crumbling soil. The things Baker had thought were birds were more like black-furred bats, with leathery wings as wide as his outstretched arms; when he climbed out along the smooth limb of a tree above the bowl of the jungle a flock of them wheeled and dive-bombed him, spattering him with their dung.

Baker laughed and retreated, crashing unhandily through thick foliage in his P-suit. He was not afraid of anything here. He controlled the cargo train: he had the upper hand. He had thought to threaten Sri Hong-Owen with the destruction of her experimental sites, and although he didn’t understand what the woman had told him, he was certain that his bargaining position was even stronger than he had hoped. His sidekick had been wrong after all. Everything was going to work out. Except for Jackson, of course. It was a pity about Jackson, but after she tried to cut him out of the deal, he really had had no choice but to let her walk unknowingly to her own death.

At last, the golden-skinned woman returned, borne as before through the air on a chair sustained by cherubs. Workers stepped out of the greenery and stood on either side of her chair as the cherubs set her down and whirled away.

“I hope we can talk,” Baker said.

“We have agreed to tell you about us,” the woman said. “Listen.”


Sri Hong-Owen wanted to become truly immortal, the woman said. She had used cloning as a first step, although she knew that it would not be enough. Clones are exact genetic copies, but personality is determined by a combination of genes, environment and experience. A clone would have to have been subjected to every single one of her own experiences to become a perfect copy. Even so, she experimented with the effects of various types of memory downloads and artificial-reality scenarios on the personalities of female clones, and then she had created the clade and its habitat, and given it over to the charge of her daughter clones. The clade valued knowledge, not things. Its treasure store was in its self-regulating ecosystem and the genetic diversity it had fashioned from a genome library derived from a few plants and microorganisms and from Sri Hong-Owen herself; every animal in the habitat was derived from her by gengineering and forced evolution. Given the right conditions, the clade could persist forever.

Meanwhile, Sri Hong-Owen reshaped herself.

She developed vacuum organisms which turned sunlight into electrical energy with almost one-hundred-percent efficiency—the ring of dish flowers around the habitat were an early prototype. They were forming a blanket across the surface of Epimetheus, and Sri Hong-Owen’s modified body was growing through the moon’s icy crust like blue mould through cheese. It was already the largest organism in the Solar System, larger even than the mycelial mats which underlay Earth’s temperate forests, and which she now somewhat resembled. Copies of her original body were cached here and there in that mass, and there were more than a hundred copies of her brain, all sharing the same sensory inputs, the same thoughts. They were as alike as possible. Eventually the mycelium would completely embrace the moon. It would grow thrusters which would subtly alter the moon’s orbit, slingshotting it repeatedly through Saturn’s gravity well until it gained enough velocity to escape to the stars.

“Probably Vega,” the golden-skinned woman told Baker. “There’s a ring of debris around Vega twice the size of our Solar System, millions of comets and planetoids and asteroids. She will fill it with clades like ours, and then move on to other systems where planets failed to form. She is the first real transhuman, but there will be others—those who sponsored her work, to begin with.”

Baker smiled. He did not believe half of what he had been told. He said, “If she is truly immortal then she must value her life immensely.”

“What are you to her? She could fill the galaxy. In time, she could fill a million galaxies. Planets are unnecessary. We have evolved beyond planets. We have evolved beyond the human form. We can make ourselves over into a thousand kinds of organism, all fitter for life in space than mere humans. The tweaks are a first step, lungfish on the shore of space. We will go much further.”

“My collective has already made over a tented crater on Rhea, much as this one has been transformed. Other collectives are making homes in planetoids, mining comet heads . . . There are many different ways of making a living, and no need at all to depend on trade with anyone on Earth. Trade with us instead. If you had time to look at those figures—”

“All of you are still human,” the woman said. “We have evolved beyond that.”

“She’s right,” someone else said, and a second golden-skinned woman came into the clearing with an elegant motion that was half-walking, half-swimming. She held something between her small breasts with both hands.

“You’ve decided.” Baker said. “That’s good.”

“We’ve decided,” the woman said, and released what she held.

It flew straight at Baker on a blur of membranous wings, a tiny bat with a wasp’s long abdomen. He tried to knock it out of the air but it was too fast and his pressure suit slowed him. It dodged his clumsy blow and caught at his hair with claws. Something sank into his scalp, pushing between the sutures of his skull, and black pain swept the world away.


When it came back, the two golden-skinned women were looking down at him. Baker pushed up and gingerly touched the top of his head; hundreds of hair-thin wires with sticky-tagged ends came loose, slowly falling to the ground around him. He said, “What did you do?”

“Evolution is cruel,” the first woman said. “Those forms which are less successful will die. Perhaps we will keep some of you, out of sentiment. And Baker, while he lives, needs help, of course.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Baker said. He felt quite calm, as if he had entered an artificial reality and could leave any time he wanted. “I thought evolution was all about change, but you do not want to change.”

Suddenly, he felt his sidekick at his back and a warning twinge in his head like a cold needle in his core. Ordinarily, he would have welcomed its return, but there seemed to be something wrong with it; it was fierce and strong and silent.

He said, “You did something to me, didn’t you? Something with those wires, something to my net.”

The second woman said, “We are a new kind of evolution. The body changes at will, and the mind lives on.”

“Tell me what you did!”

“After a little while,” the first woman said, “you won’t ever worry about it.”

Baker said, “You want me to think like you? Is that it? Listen, you can’t last forever in isolation. People need other people.”

“That is why we will send you back,” the first woman said. “You can only think in the old way. Although we love him dearly, that was always Berry’s trouble.”

Then the sidekick seized Baker. He couldn’t move. His body felt bloated, unmanageable, fiery hot, a pupa melting and changing inside the carapace of the P-suit.

The wires had downloaded new programs into his net and reactivated his sidekick: now his sidekick was changing him. Part of his personality fell away, falling from his mind into darkness as icebergs calve from a glacier.

At last the work was done and the world came back to him. His sidekick was at his back, stronger than ever, his mentor and his friend.

They all gathered to watch him go, workers, cherubs, human-skinned snakes and crabs, naked monkey-things which tended the gardens, all one family, one flesh, one thought, one clade.

“You are one of us now,” they said. “A different flesh but one of us. Our faithful servant. You will divert the cargo train because you know that no harm must come to our mother. You will guard our brother now and forever.”

He did what they wanted.

He was one of them.


His collective finally found him on Dione. He and Berry were staying in the only hotel in a raw construction town, the first stage of an ambitious plan to tent the Latium Chasma, the fissure which cut a deep groove across the northern half of the sub-Saturnian hemisphere. The hotel could not supply the kind of luxury that Berry was used to; after only a few days he told Baker that he wanted to move on.

Baker was returning from the port. He always transacted business in person; even deeply encrypted phone lines were not to be trusted. He had arranged transport to one of the garden habitats that orbited Titan, a tourist place where people went to use telepresence to explore the storms which were resurfacing the giant moon. He was sure that Berry would like it: gardens reminded him of the happy days of his childhood, in the garden of his mother.

They jumped into Baker’s capsule just before it pulled out of the station, a young woman and an older man. The young woman wanted to know if he recognized her. “We slept together to seal the contract,” she said, her eyes searching his face. “You were always my favourite. You must remember.”

Baker tried to be polite. “I do not know you,” he lied. “I am sorry.”

The young woman touched the man’s arm.

“Ralf is a lawyer. We filed a bond here. If you need privacy to talk we can provide it. We know you logged a flight with two passengers. One was an old friend of yours. Vera Flamillion Jackson. We know where you went, but we don’t know what happened. Please tell me. Whatever happened to you can be reversed, I’m sure of it.”

“I don’t think so. You want your slave back. Don’t deny that you think of him as your property. Well, he isn’t. He is one of us, now.”

And so on, a tide of anger rolling over Baker, submerging him so completely that he no longer knew if he or the sidekick was speaking. He came to himself in the atrium of Berry’s hotel suite. The entry phone was flashing but he ignored it.

“Well, it’s time we moved anyway,” he said to the air, as he moved through the rooms to the private pool where Berry floated.

The sidekick was fading at his back, as beneficent as the warmth of the sun; before it vanished it told him with approval that he had done well. And then he saw Berry, floating pink and naked in steaming water amongst palmettoes and bamboos, a tray of food on his hairless chest, sucking on a drink bulb, and the unfortunate incident didn’t matter anymore.

Berry spat the straw from his mouth and said, “You’ve been away. I don’t like it when you’re away.”

“I’ve arranged a new place for us.”

“Oh, that. Good. Can’t stay in one place too long. That’s the secret.”

“Do you think she might need us one day? Do you think we might be allowed to return?”

Berry bent his head and sucked up the last of the margarita mix with a rattling noise. When he looked up, there were tears swelling in his eyes. He said, “We’re nothing to her now. We’re too human. You’re here to serve me. By serving me you serve the clade. That’s all you need to know. Now help me out. My skin’s wrinkling.”

“Of course,” Baker said, and went to get the oils and unguents, filled with boundless unqualified love for his master.

Back | Next