It's the 21st century, and global warming is here to stay, so forget the way your country used to look. And get used to the free market, too – the companies possess all the best hardware, and they're calling the shots now. In a world like this, a man open to any offers can make out just fine.
A man like Greg Mandel for instance, who's psi-boosted, wired into the latest sensory equipment, carrying state-of-the-art weaponry – and late of the English Army's Mindstar Battalion. As the cartels battle for control of a revolutionary new power source, and corporate greed outstrips national security, tension is mounting to boiling point – and Greg Mandel is about to face the ultimate test.
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Meteorites fell through the night sky like a gentle sleet of icefire, their sharp scintillations slashing ebony overload streaks across the image Greg Mandel's photon amp was feeding into his optic nerves.
He was hanging below a Westland ghost wing, five hundred meters above the Purser's Hills, due west of Kettering. Spiraling down. Wind strummed the membrane, producing near-subliminal bass harmonics.
Ground zero was a small crofter's cottage: walls of badly laid raw stone swamped with some olive green creeper, big scarlet flowers. It had a thatched roof, reeds rotting and congealing, caked in tidemark ripples of blue-green fungal growths. A two-meter-square solar-cell strip had been pinned on top.
Greg landed a hundred meters downslope from the cottage, propeller spinning furiously to kill his forward speed. He stopped inside three meters. The Westland was one of the best military microlights ever built-lightweight, highly maneuverable, silent, with a low radar-visibility profile. Greg had flown them on fifteen missions in Turkey, and their reliability had been 100 percent. All British Army covert tactical squads had been equipped with them. He'd hate to use anything else. They'd gone out of production when the People's Socialism Party came to power, twelve years previously. A victim of the demilitarization realignment program, the Credit Crash, the Warming, nationalization, industrial collapse. This one was fifteen years old, and still functioned like a dream.
A time display flashed in the bottom right corner of the photon amp image, spectral yellow digits: 21:17:08. Greg twisted the Westland's retraction catch, and the translucent wing folded with a graceful rustle. He anchored it with a skewer harpoon. There'd be no danger of it blowing away now. The hills suffered frequent twister-gusts, and this was March, England's rainy season: squalls abounded. Gabriel hadn't cautioned him about the wing in her briefing, but Greg always followed routine, ingrained by sergeant majors and way too much experience.
He studied the terrain, the amp image gray and blue, smoky. There were no surprises; the Earth-resource satellite pictures Royan had pirated for him were three months old, but nothing had changed. The area was isolated, grazing land, marginally viable. Nobody spent money on barns and roads up here. It was perfect for someone who wanted to drop out of sight, a nonentity wasteland.
Greg heard a bell tinkling from the direction of the cottage, high-pitched and faint. He keyed the amp to infrared and upped the magnification. A big rosy blob resolved into a goat with a broad collar dangling a bell below its neck.
He began to walk toward the cottage. The meteorites had gone, sweeping away to the east. Not proper shooting stars after all, then. Some space station's waste dump, or an old rocket stage, dragged down from its previously stable discard-orbit by Earth's hot expanded atmosphere.
"At twenty-one nineteen GMT the dog will start its run toward you," Gabriel had said when she briefed him. "You will see it first when it comes around the end of the wall on the left of the cottage."
Greg looked at the wall; the ablative decay that ruled the rest of the croft had encroached here as well, reducing it to a low moss-covered ridge ringing a small muddy yard.
A yellow blink: 21:19:00.
The dog was a Rottweiler, heavily modified for police riot-assault duty, which was expensive. A crofter with a herd of twenty-five llamas couldn't afford one, and certainly had no right owning one. Its front teeth had been replaced by mono-lattice silicon fangs, eight centimeters long; the jaw had been reprofiled to a blunt hammerhead to accommodate them; both eyes were implants, retinas beefed up for night sight. One aspect Gabriel hadn't mentioned was the speed of the bloody thing.
Greg brought his Walther eight-shot up, the sighting laser glaring like a rigid lightning bolt in the photon amp's image. He got off two fast shots, maser pulses that drilled the Rottweiler's brain. The steely pumping legs collapsed, sending it tumbling, momentum skidding it across the nettle-clumped grass. In death it snarled at him, jaws open, eyes wide, crying blood.
He walked past, uncaring. The Walther's condensers whined away on the threshold of audibility, recharging.
"At twenty-one twenty and thirteen seconds GMT, the cottage door will open. Edwards will look both ways before coming out. He will be carrying a pump-action shotgun-only three cartridges, though."
Greg flattened himself against the cottage wall, feeling the leathery creeper leaves compress against his back. The scarlet flowers had a scent similar to honeysuckle, strong sugar.
The weather-bleached wooden door creaked.
Greg's espersense perceived Edwards hovering indecisively on the step, his mind a weak ruby glow, thought currents flowing slowly, concern and suspicion rising.
"He'll turn right, away from you."
Edwards's boot squelched in the mud of the yard, two steps. The shotgun was held out in front, his finger pressed lightly on the trigger.
Greg came away from the wall, flicking the Walther to longburn, lining it up. Edwards was a bulky figure dressed in filthy denim trousers and a laddered chunky-knit sweater, neck craning forward, peering through the moonlit gloom. He'd aimed the shotgun at the ramshackle stone shed at the bottom of the yard.
The goat bleated, tugging at its leash.
Edwards was somehow aware of the presence behind him. His back stiffened, mind betraying a hot burst of alarm and fear to Greg's espersense. He tightened his grip on the shotgun, ready to spin round and blast away wildly.
"Drop it," Greg said softly.
Edwards sighed, his shoulders relaxing. He bent to put the shot-gun down, resting its barrel on a stone, saving it from the mud. A man who knew weapons.
"Okay, you can turn now."
His face was thin, bearded, hazel eyes yellowed. He looked at Greg, taking in the matte black combat leathers, slim metallic-silver band bisecting his face, unwavering Walther. Edwards knew he was going to die, but the terrified acceptance was flecked with puzzlement. "Why?" he asked.
He didn't get it; they never did. His death was a duty, ordered by guilt.
Greg had learned all about duty from the Army, relying on his squad mates, their equal dependence on him. It was a bond closer than family, overriding everythinglaws, conventions, morals. Civvies like Edwards never understood. When all other human values had gone, shattered by violence, there was still duty. The implicit trust of life. And Greg had failed Royan. Miserably.
Greg fired. Edwards's mouth gaped as the maser beam struck his temple, his eyes rolling up as he fell forward. He splashed into the thin layer of mud. Dead before he hit.
Greg holstered the Walther, breath hissing out between clenched teeth. He walked back down the hill to the Westland without giving the body another glance. Behind him, the goat's bell began to clang.
• • •
He refused to think about the kill while the Westland cruised over the countryside, his mind an extension of the guido, iced silicon, confirming landmarks, telling his body when to shift balance. It would've been too easy to brood in the ghost wing's isolated segment of the universe, guilt and depression inevitable.
Rutland Water was in front of him, a Y-shaped reservoir six and a half kilometers long nestling in the snug dark valleys of the county's turbulent rolling landscape. A pale oyster flame of jejune moonlight shone across the surface. Greg came in over the broad grass-slope dam at the western end. He kept low, skimming the water. Straight ahead was the floating village: thirty-odd log rafts, each supporting a plain wooden cabin, like something out of a Western frontier settlement. They were lashed together by a spiderweb of cables, forming a loose circle around the old limnological tower, a thick concrete shaft built before the reservoir was filled.
He angled toward the biggest cabin, compensating for the light gusts with automatic skill. At five meters out he flared the wing sharply. Surging air plucked at his combat leathers; his feet touched the coarse overlapping planks that made up the roof, legs running, carrying him up toward the apex as the propeller blurred. He stopped with a meter to spare. The tart, scrumpylike odor of drying water-fruit permeated the air, reassuring in its familiarity.
The Westland's membrane folded.
He watched Nicole's bald head rise above the gable end. "Here." He shrugged out of the harness.
She came up the ladder on to the roof, a black ex-Navy marine-adept dressed in a functional mauve diving bikini. He couldn't remember her ever wearing anything else. Even in the moonlight her water-resilient skin glistened from head to toe; she looked tubby, but not overweight, her shape dictated by an all-over insulating layer of subcutaneous fat, protecting her from the cold of deep water.
"How did it go?"
"All sorted, no messing," he replied curtly.
Two more marine-adepts swarmed briskly up the ladder and took charge of the Westland. Greg appreciated that, no fuss, no chatter. Most of the floating village's marine-adepts were ex-Navy; they understood.
They'd colonized the reservoir around the time Greg moved into his chalet on the shore, seeding and harvesting their gene-tailored water-fruit. Their only concession to the convulsions of the PSP years was to store Greg's military gear for him and, very occasionally, provide sanctuary for an activist on the run from the People's Constables.
"I'll be back tomorrow," Greg told Nicole as he climbed into his ancient rowing boat. When the neurohormone hangover had gone, when the memory of Edwards had faded, when he felt human again.
She untied the pannier and tossed it into the boat after him. "Sure, Greg. Take care."
• • •
Back on land he headed for the pub to forget the kill. The Army had taught him how to handle that as well. How to suspend human feelings in combat, to refuse the blame for all the deaths, the pain, suffering, horror. Greg had never woken screaming like others in the regiment had.
He knew what he needed: the release that came from drink and women, gluttoning out, sluicing away the memory of Edwards in a wash of basement-level normality.
He had a good feeling as he walked into the Wheatsheaf at Edith Weston. Esper intuition or old-fashioned instinct, it didn't matter which, the result was the same. Static-charged anticipation. He opened the taproom door grinning.
The Wheatsheaf's landlord, Angus, had come up trumps; his new barmaid was a tall, strapping lass, twenty years old with a heart-shaped face, wearing her thick red hair combed back from her forehead. She was dressed in a long navy blue skirt and purple cap-sleeve T-shirt. A deep scoop neck showed off the heavily freckled slope of her large breasts to perfection.
Eleanor Broady. Greg stored the name as she pulled him a pint of Ruddles County, topping it with a shot of Angus's homemade whiskey. It lasted longer that way; he couldn't afford to knock back pints all night.
Greg sat back and admired her in the guttering light of the oil lamps. The Wheatsheaf was a run-of-the-mill rural pub, which reverted true to the 1900s ideal with the demise of the big brewery conglomerates. Flash trash fittings melting away surprisingly fast once mains electricity ended and beer had to be hand-drawn from kegs again. Either relaxing or monumentally dull, according to individual sensibilities. Greg liked it. There were no demands on him in the Wheatsheaf.
He was wedged in between a group of local farm workers and some of the lads from the timber mill, billeted in the village's old RAF base. The resident pair of warden dodgers were doing their nightly round, hawking a clutch of dripping rainbow trout they'd lifted from the reservoir.
Eleanor was a prize draw for male attention. Slightly timid from first-night nerves but coping with the banter well enough.
Greg weighed up her personality, figuring how to make his play. Confidence gave him a warm buzz. He was seventeen years older, but with the edge his espersense gave him that shouldn't be a problem. What amused her, topics to steer clear of, he could see them a mile off. She'd believe they were soul twins before the night was out.
Her father came in at eleven-thirty. The conversation chopped off dead. He was in dungarees, a big stained crucifix stitched crudely on the front. People stared; kibbutzniks didn't come into pubs, not ever.
Eleanor paled behind the bar but stood her ground. Her father walked over to her, ignoring everybody, flickering yellow light catching the planes of his gaunt, angular face.
"You'll come home with me," he said quietly, determined. "We'll make no fuss."
Eleanor shook her head, mute.
Angus came up beside her. "The lady doesn't want to go." His voice was weary but calm. No pub argument was beyond Angus; he knew them all, how to deal with each. Disposal expert.
"You belong with us," said her father. "You share our bread. We taught you better."
"Listen" Angus began, sweet reason.
"No. She comes with me. Or perhaps you will recompense us for her schooling? Grade four in animal husbandry, she is. Did she not tell you? Can you afford that?"
"I worked for it," Eleanor said. "Every day I worked for it. Never ending."
Greg sensed how near to tears she was. Part of him was fascinated with the scene: it was surreal, or maybe Shakespearian, Victorian. Logic and lust urged him up.
Angus saw him closing on the bar and winced.
Greg gave him a wan reassuring smileno violence, promise.
His imagination pictured his gland, a slippery black lens of muscle nestled at the center of his brain, flexing rhythmically, squirting out milky liquid. Actually, it was nothing like that, but the psychosis was mild enough, harmless. Some Mindstar Brigade veterans had much weirder hallucinations.
The neurohormones started to percolate through his synapses, altering and enhancing their natural functions. His perception of the taproom began to alter, the physical abandoning him, leaving only people. They were their thoughts, tightly woven streamers of ideas, memories, emotions, interacting, fusing, and budding. Coldly beautiful.
"Go home," he told Eleanor's father.
The man was a furnace of anger and righteousness. Indignation blooming at the nonbeliever's impudence. "This is not your concern," he told Greg.
"Nor is she yours, not anymore," Greg replied. "No longer your little girl. She makes her own choices now."
It would've been so easy to thump the arrogant bastard. A deluge of mayhem strobed through Greg's mind, the whole unarmed combat manual on some crazy mnemonic recall, immensely tempting. He concentrated hard on the intransigent mind before him. Domination really wasn't his suit, too difficult and painful.
"Go home." He pushed the order, clenching his jaw at the effort.
The man's thoughts shrank from his meddling insistence, cohesion broken. Faith-suppressed reactions, the animal urge to lash out, fists pounding, feet kicking, boiled dangerously close to the surface.
Greg thrust them back into the subconscious, knowing his nails would be biting into his palms at the exertion.
The father flung a last imploring glance to a daughter who was genuinely loved in a remote, filtered manner. Rejection triggered the final humiliation, and he fled, his soul keening, eternal hatred sworn. Greg sensed his own face reflected in the agitated thoughts, distorted to demonic preconceptions. Then he was gone.
The taproom slowly rematerialized. The gland's neurohormones were punishing his brain. He steadied himself on the bar.
There were knowing grins, which he fended off with a sheepish smile. Forced. A low grumble of conversation returned, cut with snickers. An entire generation's legend born, this night would live forever.
Eleanor was trembling in reaction, Angus's arm around her shoulder, strictly paternal. She insisted she was all right, wanted to carry on, please.
Greg was shown her wide sunny smile for the first time, an endearing combination of gratitude and shyness. He didn't have to buy another drink all night.
• • •
"Kibbutzes always seemed a bit of a contradiction in terms to me," Greg said. "Christian Marxists. A religious philosophy of dignified individuality, twinned with state oppression. Not your obvious partnership." He and Eleanor were walking down the dirt track to his chalet in Berrybut Spinney, a couple of kilometers along the shore from Edith Weston. The old time-share estate's nightly bonfire glimmered through the black trees ahead, shooting firefly sparks high into the cloudless night. A midnight zephyr was rucking the surface of Rutland Water, wavelets lapping on the mud shallows. He could hear the smothered-waterfall sound from the discharge pipes as the reservoir was filled by the pumping stations on the Welland and Nene, siphoning off the March floodwater. The water level had been low this Christmas, parched farmland placing a massive demand for irrigation. Thousands of square meters of grass and weeds around the shore that'd grown up behind the water's summer retreat were slowly drowning under its return. As the rotting vegetation fermented it gave off a gas that smelled of rancid eggs and cow shit. It lasted for six weeks each year.
"Not much of either in a kibbutz," Eleanor said. "Just work. God, it was squalid, medieval. We were treated like people-machines; everything had to be done by hand. Their idea of advanced machinery was the plow that the shire horses pulled. God's will. Like hell!"
Greg nodded sympathetically; he'd seen the inside of a kibbutz. She was chattering now, a little nervous. The restrictive doctrine that'd dominated her childhood had stunted the usual pattern of social behavior, leaving her slightly unsure, and slightly turned on by newfound freedom.
Greg felt himself getting high on expectation. He was growing impatient to reach the chalet and bed with that fantastic-looking body. Edwards's face was already indistinct, monochrome, falling away. Even the neurohormone hangover had evaporated.
The tall ash and oak trees of Berrybut Spinney had died years ago, unable to survive the Warming. They'd been turned into gigantic gazebos for the cobaea vines Greg and the other estate residents had planted around their broad buttress roots, dangling huge cascades of purple and white trumpet-flowers from stark skeletal boughs.
He'd spent long hours renovating the estate for the first three years after he moved in, putting in new plantsangel trumpets, figs, ficus, palms, lilies, silk oaks, cedars, even a small orange grove at the rear: a hurried harlequin quilt thrown over the brown fungal rot of decay. The first two years after the temperature peaked were the worst. Grass survived, of course, and some evergreen trees, but the sudden year-round heat wiped out entire ecological systems right across the country. Arable land suffered the least; farms, and the new kibbutzes, adapted readily enough, switching to new varieties of crops and livestock. But that still left vast tracts of native countryside and forests and city parks and village greens looking like battlefields scoured by some apocalyptic chemical weapon.
Repairs were uncoordinated, a patchwork of gross contrasts. It made traveling interesting, though.
Greg and Eleanor emerged from the spinney into a rectangular clearing that sloped down to the water. The dying bonfire illuminated a semicircle of twenty small chalets and a big stone building at the crest.
"You live here?" Eleanor asked in a very neutral tone.
"Yes," he agreed cautiously. The chalets had been built by an ambitious time-share company in conjunction with a golf course running along the back of the spinney and a grandiose clubhouse-hotel perched between the two. But the whole enterprise was suddenly bumped out of business thanks to the PSP's one-home law. The chalets were commandeered, the golf course returned to arable land, and the hotel transformed into thirty accommodation modules.
Greg always thought the country had been bloody lucky the PSP never got round to a one-room law. The situation had become pretty drastic as the oceans started to rise. The polar melt plateaued eventually, but not before it displaced two million people in England alone.
"I never asked," she said. "What is it you do?"
He chuckled. "Greg Mandel's Investigative Services, at your service."
"Investigative services? You mean, like a private detective? Angus told me you had a gland."
"That's right. Of course, it was nothing formal in the PSP decade. I didn't go legit until after the Second Restoration."
"Public ordinance number five seven five nine, oblique stroke nine two. By order of the president: no person implanted with a psi-enhancement gland may utilize their psi ability for financial gain. Not that many people could afford a private eye anyway. Not with Leopold Armstrong's nineteenth-century ideology screwing up the economy. Bastard. I was also disbarred from working in any state enterprise, and social security was a joke: the PSP apparatchiks had taken it over, head to toe, by the time I was demobbed. Tell you, they didn't like servicemen, and Mindstar veterans were an absolute no-go zone. The Party was running scared of us. As well they might."
"How did you manage?"
"I had my Army pension for a couple of years after demob." He shrugged. "The PSP canceled that soon enough. Fifth Austerity Act, if I recall rightly. I got by. Rutland's always had an agriculture-based economy. There's plenty of casual work to pick up on the farms, and the citrus groves were a boon; that and a few cash-only cases each year. It was enough."
Her face was solemn. "I never even saw any money until I was thirteen."
He put his arm round her shoulder, giving a little reassuring shake. "All over now."
She smiled with haunted eyes, wanting to believe. His arm remained.
"Here we are," he said, "number six," and blipped the lock.
The chalet's design paid fleeting homage to the ideal of some ancient Alpine hunting lodge, an overhanging roof all along the front creating a tiny veranda-cum-porch. But its structure lacked genuine Alpine ruggedness: prefab sections that looked like stout red-bark logs from the outside were now rotting badly, the windows had warped under the relentless assault of the new climate's heat and humidity, there was no air-conditioning, and the slates molted at an alarming rate in high winds. The sole source of electricity was a solar-cell strip that Greg had pasted to the roof. However, the main frame was sound; four-by-four hardwood timber, properly seasoned. He could never understand why that should beperhaps the building inspectors had chosen that day to put in an appearance.
The biolum strip came on, revealing a lounge area with a sturdy oak-top bar separating it from a minute kitchen alcove at the rear. Its built-in furniture was compact, all light pine. Wearing thin, Greg acknowledged, following Eleanor's questing gaze. Entropy digging its claws in.
The corners of her lips tugged up. "Nice. At Egleton, there'd be five of us sharing a room this size. You live here alone?"
"Yeah. The British Legion found it for me. Good people; volunteers. At least they cared, did what they could. And it's all paid for, even if it is falling down around me."
"They were bad times, weren't they, Greg? I never really saw much of it. But there were the rumors, even in a kibbutz."
"We rode it out, though. This country always does, somehow. That's our strength, in the genes; no matter how far down we fall, we're never out."
"And you don't mind?"
"Me. I was in a kibbutz; that made me a card carrier."
His arms went round her, hands resting lightly on her buttocks. Faces centimeters apart. Her nose was petite and pointed. "Only by default. Nobody chooses their parents, and I'd say you unchose yours pretty convincingly tonight." His nose touched hers, rubbing gently.
She grinned, shy again.
The bedroom was on his right, behind a sliding door. A tiny pine-paneled room that was nearly filled by a huge double bed: there was a half-meter gap between the mattress and the walls.
Eleanor flicked him a quick appraising look, and her grin became slyer, lips twitching. Greg leaned forward and kissed her.
He cheated with her, just as he'd done with all the others. His espersense was alert for exactly the right moment. When it came, a minute into the kiss, his hands found the hem of her T-shirt and pulled it off over her head, muffling her giggles. She undid the skirt catch herself, allowing him to slide it down her legs; the silky panties followed.
Her figure was just as spectacular as his imagination had painted it for him. Eleanor's years at the kibbutz had toughened her, more so than most of the girls he'd had. He found that erotic; her flat, slightly muscular belly, wide hips, broad, powerful shoulders, all loaded with athletic promise.
Greg's own clothes came off in a fast heated tussle, and they moved onto the bed.
It lasted for an age, building slowly. With his eyes he watched the blue and black shadows flow across her smooth damp skin as she stretched and twisted below his hands. With his mind he sensed cold shooting stars igniting along the glistening trail left by the tip of his tongue, then fire along her nerves into her brain, adding to the glow of arousal. He saw what excited her, the words she wanted to hear, then exploited the discoveries, whispering secret fantasies into her ear, guiding her into the permutations she'd never dared ask from a partner before.
After the initial astonishment of making love to someone who not only shared her desires but actually relished them, Eleanor shook loose any lingering restraint. Greg laughed in delight as she let her enthusiasm run riot, and told her how she could repay him.
When he asked, she rose up in the way he loved, poised above him, light from the slumbering bonfire licking at her flesh, deepening her mystique. His hands finally found her breasts. She grinned, seeing his weakness, and played on it, drawing out the poignancy before she twined her legs around him and pulled herself down. Her mind became almost dazzlingly bright as she used him to bring herself to orgasm, all coherency overwhelmed by animal instinct.
Greg let go of Edwards and duty and guilt, and concentrated solely on inflaming Eleanor still further.
Copyright © 1993 by Peter F. Hamilton