The Nano Flower (Greg Mandel Series #3)

The Nano Flower (Greg Mandel Series #3)

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Julia Evans, billionairess owner of Event Horizon, has for 15 years been the power behind England's economic renaissance — but now she's in trouble. With her husband missing, and rival companies suddenly claiming to have acquired a technology impossibly superior to anything on Earth, she has no time to take notice of a single flower delivered anonymously. But this flower possesses genes millions of years in advance of any terrestrial DNA. Is it a cryptic alien message, or a poignant farewell token from her husband?

One man might discover its origin — but Greg Mandel will not be alone in his desperate search. And, as they both now discover, simply being first in the race isn't nearly good enough when the Nano Flower begins to bloom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781531842550
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication date: 07/26/2016
Series: Greg Mandel Series , #3
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Suzi crapped the Frankenstein cockroach into the toilet bowl, then pushed the chrome handle halfway down for a short flush.

She concentrated on the neural icon which seemed to hover at the periphery of her consciousness, and marshaled her thoughts into a distinct instruction sequence.

Activate Sense Linkage and Directional Control, she ordered her bioware processor implant.

When she closed her eyes the ghostly image from the cockroach's infrared-sensitive retinas intensified to its full resolution. There was a moment of disorientation as she interpreted the picture being fed along the optical fiber plugged into her coccyx ganglion splice. It was a hazy jumble of Möbius topology, shaded red, pink, and black, a convolution through which green moons fell. The cockroach was clinging to the bottom of the sewer pipe directly underneath a shower of droplets from the toilet downpipe. Directional graphics superimposed themselves across the picture, resembling an aircraft pilot's command display.

Suzi guided the cockroach up the side of the sewer pipe until it was out of the water channel, then set it walking. Optical fiber began to unspool behind it, thinner than a cobweb.

Perspective was tricky. She allowed herself to believe she was walking through some baroque netherworld cathedral. The fluted walls had a black-mirror sheen, carved with a fabulous abstract glyph. Above her, the curving roof was punctured by elliptical ebony holes, all of them spitting phosphene-green globules. A small river slithered down the concave floor, bearing away unidentifiable lumps of pale fibrous matter. She was suddenly very glad Jools the Tool hadn't stitched any olfactory receptors into the Frankenstein cockroach when he was putting it together for her.

Pressure-sensitive cell clusters detected the rush of air, warning her of the approaching flush. She scuttled the cockroach right up to the roof of the sewer. The burst of water churned past underneath her. A turd the size of a cargo ship rode the wavefront, trailing ribbons of disintegrating paper.

She waited until the surge had gone, then brought the cockroach back down the curving pipe and carried on forwards. Fungal growths were blooming out of cracks in the concrete, moonscape mattresses of slime. The cockroach clambered over the humps without even slowing, all the while spinning out its gossamer thread.

Up ahead, where the pipe contracted to a black vanishing point, she thought she saw something move.

• • •

In a way, Suzi considered the Morrell deal as a vindication of the way she had lived the last twelve years. There was no violence involved, not even a hint of it. Violence had launched her into the tekmerc game after she got out of prison. Organized violence, deliberately and precisely applied. It was her trade, all she knew.

Her teens and early twenties had been spent in the Trinities, an anti-PSP gang operating out of the Mucklands Wood estate in Peterborough during the years when the People's Socialism Party controlled the country, a long dark decade of near-Maoist dictatorship just after the Greenhouse Effect ran riot.

She had joined up the day after a squad of PSP Card Carriers ransacked her parents' hotel, stripping out the fittings, stealing the booze. Her father had been pistol whipped, a beating which left him partially paralyzed down his right side. Her mother had been gang-raped, a trauma she never recovered from. They were middle-aged middle-class suburbanite innocents, well-to-dos who couldn't believe what was happening to their green and pleasant England, and didn't know how to stop it.

The only reason Suzi had been there when it happened was because the PSP had shut down Welbeck College, the British Army's officer cadet boarding school. A military career was all she had wanted for as long as she could remember. An ambition subtly reinforced by her slightly disreputable maternal grandfather who spun enticing stories of glory and honor back in the days when he'd served in the Falklands and the Gulf. Gaining one of the fiercely contested places at Welbeck, despite her physical stature, had been the zenith of her young life.

She had wanted to fight that afternoon when the Party militia came, young struts with their red armbands and bright new cards that had President Armstrong's signature bold along the bottom to say whatever they did was official. Fresh from her four terms of unarmed combat classes and rifle shooting and square bashing she considered herself invincible. But her father, bigger and stronger, had forced her into a storeroom and locked her in. Suzi hammered on the door in rage and humiliation until sounds of the looting penetrated, the crash of breaking glass merging with anguished screams. Then she shrank into a corner, hugging herself in the dark, and praying nobody smashed down the door to find her.

The police discovered her the next morning, all cried out. As she saw the wreckage that was once her home and her parents, rage turned to demonic hatred. She could have prevented it, she knew. If she'd just been given the chance, been given the weapons hardware to complement her determination and amplify her size.

The Trinities were led by an ex-British Army sergeant, Teddy La Croix, called Father by the kids under his command. He put her to work as a runner.

Peterborough in those days had a raw frontier-town edge to it. Over fifty thousand people had descended on the city, one step ahead of the rising sea that was slowly devouring the Fens, and more were on the way. The polar melt and thermally expanded oceans eventually sent the muddy water to lap at the city's eastern suburbs, turning the lush Nene valley into an estuary. This on top of an indigenous population still struggling to adapt to the year-round heat, the imminent collapse of public gas, electricity, and water grids, food rationing, and austerity economics.

Suzi flittered about the congested streets, soaking up the buzz of grim determination everyone seemed to possess. She watched the old temperate vegetation die in the steambath atmosphere exhaled by the Fens quagmire, only to be replaced by the newer more vigorous tropical plants with their exotic blooms. She walked entranced along the rows of stalls which sprang up along each road as the traffic faded away, stealing often, eating well, and fighting with the barrow boys.

Nobody noticed her, one more kid running wild in a city teeming with thousands of her kind. She thrived in her environment, but all the while she moved with purpose, keeping tabs on Party members, watching who went in and out of the town hall, acting as a sentry for raids on Party offices. At nights she would be there in the riots organized by the Trinities, an incongruously small skinny figure compared to the rest of her platoon, which aimed for muscle bulk and favored combat fatigues and leathers.

She learned tradecraft from Greg Mandel, another ex-Army man working with Father to overthrow PSP oppression; how to make Molotovs that didn't go out when they were thrown, how a platoon should deploy to jump a police snatch squad, what to use against assault dogs, the correct way to break riot shields, a long interesting list of tactics and weapons no one had ever mentioned at Welbeck.

She killed her first man at sixteen; a People's Constable who was lured out of a warm pub onto a dark building site by a halter top, a miniskirt, and a smile that promised. The rest of her platoon were waiting for him with clubs and a Smith and Wesson. They were all blooded that night.

Suzi threw up afterwards, with Greg holding her until the shudders subsided.

"You can go home now," he said. "You've had your revenge."

But she glanced at the broken body, and answered, "No, this is just the hand, not the head. They've all got to go, or what we're doing will be pointless."

Greg had looked terribly sad, but then he always did when anyone talked about vengeance, or let their grief show. It wasn't until years later she found out why he always seemed to be hurt so much by other people's pain.

The next morning she cut her hair, spiked it, and dyed it purple. Standard procedure; a lot of people in the pub would have given her description to the Constables.

The Trinities taught her discipline and self-confidence, as well as a hell of a lot about weapons, filling in all the technical gaps Welbeck had left. She was young enough to be good at it, and smart enough to use her anger as inspiration rather than let it rule her.

There were gangs like the Trinities in every town in the country, battling to overthrow the PSP. Suzi considered herself to be part of a crusade, making everything she did right.

Then they won. President Armstrong was killed, the PSP was routed, the Second Restoration returned the royal family to the throne, the first elections gave the New Conservatives a huge majority, and everything suddenly became complicated. The PSP relics, their Constables and apparatchiks, banded together as the Blackshirts, went underground, and turned to ineffectual civil disobedience that petered out after a few years. The Trinities fought them, naturally. But it wasn't appreciated anymore. They were too crude, too visible; people were looking to cut free from the past.

It ended as it had run on for ten years, in bloodshed. A two-day firefight between the Trinities and the Blackshirts that left Mucklands Wood and Walton in ruins. The government had to call out the army to put a halt to it.

Suzi survived to be picked up by the army. Her barrister was the best available, paid for by sympathizers of the anti-PSP cause, of which there were plenty. She got a twenty-five-year sentence, because the New Conservative government wanted to demonstrate it was showing no favoritism. On appeal, held quietly and unpublicized by a cooperative press, it was reduced to five. She served eighteen months, fifteen in an open prison that allowed weekend leave.

• • •

The closed universe of the sewer was familiar enough now for any abnormality to register; Suzi had almost forgotten the limp reality which lay outside. And there was definitely something else in the pipe with her. A cool pulse of excitement slipped along the optical fiber as the cockroach hurried onwards.

In front of her the bloated hump which was blocking a quarter of the pipe glowed a rich crimson, flecked by weaker claret smears. It was a rat, gnawing at some fetid titbit clasped between its forepaws. Huge glass-smooth hemispherical eyes turned to look at Suzi, the nose twitched.

She remembered all those fantasy quest novels she used to read as a child, princess sorcerers and fell beasties. Grinning wryly, none of them had ever gone up against dragon-sized rodents.

Initiate Defense Mode.

A pair of flexible antennae deployed on either side of the cockroach's head, swinging forward, long black rods curved like calipers. The rat hadn't moved, staring seemingly in surprise at the intruder in its domain. Suzi halted twenty centimeters away, antennae quivering at the ready.

It came at her with a fast fluid grace, mouth widening to reveal serrated tombstone teeth, forepaw reaching out to pin her down, black talons extended. The descending paw brushed against the cockroach's erect antenna tips. Suzi's vision was wiped out in an explosion of sparkling white light as the electroplaque cells below the cockroach's carapace discharged through the antennae.

When the purple mist cleared she could just see the rat's beefy hindquarters pumping furiously, tail held high, whipping from side to side.

A quick systems check showed she had enough charge left in the electroplaque cells to fend off two more assaults. Guidance graphics told her there was another twelve meters to go before she reached the junction she wanted.

Suzi moved forwards. This underworld was no different to her own, she thought, except it was more honest. Down here you either ate or got eaten, and everything knew where it stood in relation to everything else, the knowledge sequenced into its DNA. In her world nothing was so simple, everybody wore a chameleon coat these days, status unknown.

After prison she had picked up work on the hardline side of tekmerc deals, the combat missions which were launched when covert penetrations and clandestine data snatches had failed.

At first it had been as part of a team, then as word got around about her competence and reliability she commanded her own. She began to add dark specialists to her catalog—hotrods, 'ware spivs, pilots, Frankenstein surgeons, sac psychics. Companies with problems sought her out to organize the whole deal for them. She was the interface between corporate legitimacy and the misbegotten, the cutoff point.

She had picked up the Morrell deal four months ago. It was straightforward enough, a simple data snatch. Morrell was a small but ambitious microgee equipment company in Newcastle, a subcontractor supplying components to the giant kombinates for their space operations.

Space was in vogue now, the new boom industry; ever since the Event Horizon corporation had captured a nickel-iron asteroid and maneuvered it into orbit forty-five thousand kilometers above the Earth.

Because Event Horizon was registered in England, the rock came under the jurisdiction of the English parliament, who named it New London and established a Crown Colony in the hollowed-out core. New London ushered in an era of ultracheap raw materials, which were eagerly consumed by the necklace of microgee factories in low orbit above the equator, doubling their profitability virtually overnight. Mining chunks of rock from New London was easy enough, but refining metals and minerals out of the ore in a freefall environment presented difficulties, that was where the real money lay.

It was a problem which had led Suzi to a second-floor bistro in Peterborough's New Eastfield district on a muggy day in January. She was thankful for the bistro's smoked-glass windows and air conditioning; the building opposite was buffed white stone, inlaid by balconies with mock-Victorian ironwork. It gleamed like burnished silver from the low sun. The street below was a flux of people, men in spruce shirts and shorts, salon-groomed women in light dresses, most of them with wide-brimmed hats, all of them with sunglasses. Silent cars glided down the rain-slicked road, bumper to bumper Mercs, Jags, and Rollers. New Eastfield had been ascendant even in the PSP years, but since Event Horizon cracked gigaconductor technology and reindustrialization went into overdrive the district had become a beacon for the smart money and the brittle, propitious lifestyle which went with it.

"Morrell have developed a cold-fusion solution to ionic streaming," said the man sitting opposite her. He was in his late thirties, with a gym-installed muscle-tone to compliment his salon manicure. An image as tabloid as his power-player attitude. The name he gave her was Taylor Faulkner.

Suzi's tame hotrod, Maurice Picklyn, had run a tracer on him for her, and that actually was his name. Working for Johal HF in their orbital refinery division, executive rather than technical.

"Cold fusion?" Suzi asked.

"Pie in the sky," Faulkner sighed. "Too good to be true. But somehow they've done it, boosted efficiency and lowered power consumption at the same time. Old story; small companies have to innovate, they don't have the research budget that shaves off a percentage point each year."

She sipped at her orange juice. "And you want to know what they've got?"

"Yes. They've finished the data simulation, now they're starting to assemble a prototype. Once that's been demonstrated, they'll be given access to kombinate-level credit facilities by the banks and finance houses. They've already asked for proposals from several broker cartels; which is how we found out what they're working on."

"Humm." Suzi used her processor implant to review the data profile Maurice Picklyn had assembled on Johal HF; a fifth of their cashflow came from refining New London's rock. "What's my budget?"

"Four hundred K, New Sterling."

"No, seven hundred. The license alone would cost you that, even if Morrell grant you one, and then you'd be paying them royalties straight out of your profits."

"Very well."

She took a week to review Morrell's security layout. The company had taken a commercial unit on a landfill site that used to be one of the Tyne's shipyards. Its research labs and prototype assembly shop were physically isolated, a cuboid composite building sitting at the center of a quadrangle formed by offices and cybernetics halls. And there was a lot of weapons hardware in the gap. The only way into the research section was through the outer structure, then over a small bridge, clearing five security checks on the way. A team of psychic nulls working in relay prevented any espersense intrusion. The research division mainframe wasn't plugged into any datanet, so no hotrod could burn in. She had to admit it was a good setup. The only way to breach it physically would be an airborne assault. That lacked both finesse and an acceptable probability of success.

She started to review personnel, which led to the discovery of the company's blind spot. Because it was impossible to physically carry data out of the research building, Morrell security only vetted the workers once a year, a full data and espersense scan.

Maurice Picklyn found her three possibles from the ionic streaming project's research team, and she selected Chris Brimley, a programmer specializing in simulating vacuum exposure stresses: unmarried, twenty-nine, unadventurous, a Round Tabler whose main interest was fishing. He lived by himself in Jesmond, renting a flat in a converted terrace house. A perfect pawn.

Suzi did a deal with Josh Laren, a local small-time hood who owned a nightclub, L'Amici, which had a gambling license. She set up Col Charnwood, a native Geordie and one of her regular team, with a stash of narcotics any pusher would envy. Paid Jools the Tool to stitch together the cockroach. Then to complete the operation, she called Amanda Dunkley up to Newcastle. Amanda Dunkley had a body specifically rebuilt for sin, with a small rechargeable sac at the base of her brain which fed themed neurohormones into her synaptic clefts. The psychic trait which the neurohormones stimulated was a very weak ESP, giving her an uncanny degree of empathy. Maurice Picklyn manufactured a fresh identity for her, and Suzi got her a secretarial job at the city council building.

Three days after Chris Brimley bumped into Amanda in his local pub, his old girlfriend had been dumped. Two days after that Amanda had moved into his flat. In the house on the other side of the street, which Suzi had leased as a command post, she and the rest of her team settled down in front of the flatscreens and enjoyed themselves watching the blue and gray photon-amp images of Chris Brimley's bedroom. It took Amanda a week and a half to corrupt his body with her peerless sexual talent. After long nights during which his whole body seemed to be singing hosannas he told her he wanted them to be together forever, to get married, to live happily in a picturesque cottage in a rural village, for her to have ten babies with him. Corrupting his mind took a little longer.

Chris Brimley slowly came to the realization that his life didn't offer much in the way of interest to his newfound soul mate. They began to venture out at the weekends, then it was two or three nights a week. They discovered L'Amici, which Amanda loved, which made him happy. Col Charnwood introduced himself, so delighted to be their friend he gave them a gift. Nibbana, one of the most expensive designer drugs on the market, though Chris Brimley didn't know that.

He tried a few chips on the table, egged on by an excited Amanda. It was fun. The manager was surprisingly relaxed about credit.

After two months Chris Brimley had a nibbana habit that needed three regular scores a day to satisfy, and a fifty-thousand-pound New Sterling debt with L'Amici. They couldn't afford to go out anymore, and now Amanda cried a lot in the evening, showering him with concern. Chris Brimley had actually slapped her once when she found him searching her bag for money.

Josh Laren's office was a dry dusty room above L'Amici, the only furniture his teak desk, three wooden chairs, and an antique metal filing cabinet. Ten cases of malt whiskey, smuggled over the Scottish border, were stacked against one wall.

Col Charnwood spent an hour going over the room with a sensor pad, sweeping for bugs. It wasn't that Suzi mistrusted Josh Laren; in his position she would have wired it up.

The trembling Chris Brimley who walked into that office was unrecognizable as the clean-cut lad of two months previously. Suzi even felt a stab of guilt at his condition.

"I thought—" Chris Brimley began in confusion.

"Sit," Suzi told him.

Chris Brimley lowered himself into the seat on the other side of the desk from her.

"You came here to discuss your debt, right?" she asked.

"Yes. But with Josh."

"Shut the fuck up. For a welsh this size Josh has come to me."


Suzi split her lip in a winter grin. "You really wanna know?"

"No," he whispered.

"Good, maybe you're beginning to realize how deep you're in, boy. Let me lay it out for you, we're gonna get that money back, every penny. My people had a lot of practice at that, never failed yet. Why we get called in. Two ways, hard and soft. Hard: first we clean you out, flat, furniture, bank, the same with that little slut you hang out with, then we start working down your family tree. We see that Morrell gets to know, they fire you, you're instant unemployable."

"Oh, Jesus." Chris Brimley covered his face with his hands, rocking back and forth in the chair.

"Think maybe I'd better tell you the soft before you piss yourself," Suzi said.

• • •

Suzi halted the cockroach below a toilet downpipe. Her implant's time function told her it was eleven thirty-eight. Ninety seconds behind schedule, not bad at all.

Climbing up the downpipe was slow going. She had to concentrate hard, picking ridges for a secure foothold. Two meters. There was a rim where the concrete pipe slotted into a stainless-steel one.

She stood the cockroach on its back legs, pressing it against the smooth vertical wall of stainless steel. Her perspective made it seem at least a kilometer high. Three snail-skirt buds on the cockroach's underbelly flared out and stuck to the silvery metal. It began to slide up the featureless cliff face.

• • •

"Pull the ionic streaming data from Morrell's research mainframe and squirt it into your cybofax," Suzi told an aghast Chris Brimley.

"What? I can't do that!"

"Why? Codes too tough?"

"No. You don't understand. I can't take a cybofax into the research block. Hell, we're not even allowed to wear our own clothes inside; security makes us change into company overalls before we enter. We're scanned in and out."

"Yeah, Morrell security's got a real fetish about isolation. But you've got the use of a cybofax in the research building, aintcha?"

"A company one," Chris Brimley answered.

"Good. And you can pull the data from the terminals no sweat?" Suzi persisted.

"Yes, my access codes are grade three. My work is applicable to every component of the refiner. Loading it into a cybofax would be unusual, but nobody would question it. But I can't bring it out."

"Not asking you to. Point is, you can move that data around anywhere you like within the research building."

• • •

Without the directional graphics providing constant guidance updates, Suzi would never have made it round the U-bend. The water confused the cockroach's infrared vision, and there were too many curves.

It was eleven forty when the cockroach rose out of the water, clinging to the side of the stainless-steel toilet bowl. She wondered what it must look like to Chris Brimley, a demon insect sliding up silently to bite his arse.

The infrared cut out, leaving her at the bottom of a giant silver crater; a uniform sky of pink-white biolum light shone overhead. She saw something moving above her, dark and oblong, expanding rapidly. Brimley's cybofax. There was a flash of red laser light way down on the borderline of visibility. An answering pulse from the Frankenstein cockroach.

Loading Data, her implant reported; its memory clusters began to fill up.

Suzi knew Chris Brimley was saying something, the cockroach's pressure-sensitive cells were picking up a pattern of rapid air compression. But there was no way of telling what the words were, not without proper discrimination programs. She just hoped there was no one in the next cubicle.

Loading Complete.

She slackened the snail skirts' grip on the stainless steel. There was a blurred swirl of silver and pink-white streaks as the cockroach fell back down to the bottom of the bowl. Chris Brimley pressed the flush, and the world vibrated into black.

Initiate Internecine Procedure.

The electroplaque cells discharged straight into the body of the Frankenstein cockroach, roasting it in a millisecond.

Disengage Optical Lead.

Suzi's coccyx interface sealed. The end of the optical fiber dropped into her toilet bowl. She pressed the chrome handle for a full flush, then tugged her panties and skirt back up.

The elapsed time was seven minutes, her bioware implant told her as she left the toilets. Outside she was Karren Naughton again, one of eight hopeful candidates for a job on Morrell's main reception desk.

She rejoined the other girls sitting in the personnel department waiting-room. It was in the outer ring of buildings, a low-security area where visitors came and went all day.

It was still the tea break. Earlier on the candidates had been given assessment tests, now it was the separate interviews. Suzi wanted to skip them, plead a queasy stomach and leg it out onto the street. The stolen data seemed to gleam like a sun-lanced diamond in her brain. Everyone would be able to see it. She held her place, discipline was something Father had drilled into her all those years ago. Unless you are about to be blown, don't ever break cover. Chris Brimley didn't know it was her on the other end of the optical fiber, didn't know where the Frankenstein had been infiltrated into the sewer system.

Karren Naughton was third to be called. She sat in a glass-walled office being sincere to a woman whose big lapel badge said her name was Joanna.

Twenty minutes later, after being told she was first-rate material Suzi walked out of the sliding glass doors and into the wall of humidity rolling off the Tyne.

Col Charnwood picked her up, driving a navy-blue low-slung Lada Sokol with one-way glass.

"Well, pet?" he asked after the gull-wing door hinged down.

Suzi allowed herself a smile, breath coming out of her in a rush. "In the bag."

"All right!" Col Charnwood flicked the throttle and accelerated into the thick stream of traffic along the base of the river's embankment. The huge slope was covered by the thick heart-shaped leaves of delicosa plants that had twined around the rocks.

"I'll squirt it down to Maurice, let him give it a once-over first," Suzi said.

"Ya think he'll know if it's kosher?"

"Maybe not, but he'll know if it's connected with ionic streaming. I'm no 'ware genius. Brimley could've palmed us off with the data construct of a steam engine for all I know."

There was a serpent of red taillights growing in front. Col Charnwood swore at them as he slowed. The road was contraflowed ahead, long rows of cones stretched across the thermo-hardened cellulose surface. Suzi could see heavy yellow-painted contractors' machinery moving slowly along the embankment. They were stripping the shell of rock and vegetation from the mound, exposing the dark blue-gray coal slag underneath.

"Canna leave anything alone," Col Charnwood muttered.

Suzi didn't say anything. She knew Col had been one of the thousands who had built the embankment over a quarter of a century ago. A third of Newcastle's population had signed on with the city council's labor crews as the West Antarctic ice sheet went into slush-down, and most of the rest had contributed at some time or another. Men, women, and children using JCBs, wheelbarrows, spades, picks, sacks, anything they could lay their hands on to haul the slag out of the barges, dumping it on the fifteen-meter-high mounds along the Tyne's banks. They rolled the rocks into place on top of the slag with ropes and pulleys, a protective crust against wave erosion. Working round the clock for a solid nine months to save their city from the rising sea level.

"Never been anything like it," Col Charnwood had told Suzi and the team late one night when they had tired of Amanda's gymnastic antics. "Like something out of the Third World, it was. Bloody thousands of us, there were. Swarming like flies over the muck. Didna matter who you were, not then. We all worked ten-hour shifts. The money was the same as you'd get paid by the benefit office for being on the dole. But it was our city we were protecting. That meant something in them days, ya know?"

Now the embankment was being refurbished, centimeter by centimeter. Tracked machinery that crunched up the rock, heated it, spun it into fibers, then laid it down over the slag mounds which had been reprofiled for improved hydrodynamic efficiency, a glassy lava flow that would hold back the Tyne for a century.

"Cutting our heart out of it," Col said sadly.

Suzi looked closely at the machinery as they passed, seeing the small Event Horizon logo on each of the lumbering rock smelters, a blue concave triangle sliced with a jet-black flying V.

"We unplugging from the deal, pet?" Col asked.

Suzi visualized Chris Brimley, shorn of all dignity, helpless eyes pleading with her. A victim of deliberately applied psychological violence. "Not straightaway, no. I want Amanda to put Brimley back together again first. The money from this will pay his debts to L'Amici. She can get him to break his habit. After that I'll pull her out. He'll have a chance at life again."

Col shot her an uncertain glance.

"Where's your sense of style, Col?" she asked, smiling. "We make a soft exit. This way Morrell doesn't find out for at least another five months. Maybe never. People have a way of forgetting the worst, glossing over the nightmares. Morrell's security psychics might not spot his guilt next time they vet him. Be nice to think."

"Well, you're paying, pet."

"Yeah, I'm paying." An expensive treatment to wipe the memory of that broken man with the bowed head in Josh Laren's dim echoing office. Buying off her own guilt.

• • •

This time it was a pub in Longthorpe, a long wood-paneled, glass-fronted room originally built to serve the Thorpe Wood golf course as a clubhouse. Now it looked out over the Ferry Meadows estuary where the golf course used to be. Taylor Faulkner had taken a window table, staring across the gray-chocolate mudflats which the outgoing tide had uncovered. He was dressed in an expensive white tropical-weave suit, toying with a tall half-pint glass of lager.

Suzi slid onto the bench opposite him. The barman had glanced at her when she came in, drawn by her size, about to object to a schoolgirl waltzing in, then he met her gaze.

"We hadn't heard," Taylor Faulkner said. "It's been very quiet in Newcastle."

"You want combat, find yourself a general."

"No offense."

"For seven hundred K, offend away."

Taylor Faulkner looked pained. He held up a platinum Zürich card, and showed it to the Amex which Suzi produced, using his thumb to authorize the transfer. She watched the Amex's gray digits rise, and smiled tightly.

"May I see what I've bought?" he asked.

"Sure." She scaled a palm-sized cybofax wafer across the table to him. "The code is: Goldpan. No hyphen. Anything else will crash wipe, OK?"

"Yes." He pocketed the cybofax.

"Nice knowing you, Mr. Faulkner."

He turned to the window and the gulls scratching away at the mud.

Suzi rose and made for the door. The sight of the figure in black cotton Levi's standing at the bar drinking German beer from a bottle made her stop. Leol Reiger, another tekmerc commander. They'd worked together on a couple of deals, hadn't got on. Not at all. Leol fancied himself as very big-time. He was into running spoilers on kombinates, burning Japanese banks. Rumor said he'd even snatched data from Event Horizon. Suzi knew that wasn't true; he was still alive. And he hadn't been there when she came in.

She sat on a stool next to him, feet half a meter off the floor, putting their heads at almost the same level. Ordinarily she didn't mind having to look up at people. But not Leol Reiger.

"Slumming, Leol?"

Leol Reiger lowered his bottle, amber eyes set in a pale face stared at her. He had designer stubble and a receding hairline, oiled and slicked back. "Never learn, do you, Suzi. Four months for a soft penetration, that's four months' worth of exposure risk."

"Bollocks. What the fuck do you know about it?" she asked, feeling a kick of dismay. How the hell did Leol Rieger know about her deal with Johal HF? He would never work for a company like Morrell, they were too small, too insignificant.

"Know you checked the wrong people. You were looking down, Suzi. Then, down is where you come from. Once a Trinity, always a Trinity. Nothing more. You don't have what it takes to make tekmerc, you never did."

"Lifted my data, and the target doesn't even know it's gone. Not like you. Your deals, all that's left is smoking craters in the ground and bodies. Your catalog's getting pretty thin these days, Leol, right? Word's around, not so many troops want in on your deals."

"That so?" Leol Reiger gestured with the beer bottle.

Two men were sitting with Taylor Faulkner. Both of them hardline troops, Suzi could tell.

Leol Reiger took another sip. "You should've looked up, Suzi. A real tekmerc would've looked up. A real tekmerc would've seen how much that ionic streaming trick is really worth to Johal HF."

She looked at Taylor Faulkner again, seeing how relaxed he was, smiling wanly out of the window. With sick certainty she knew she'd been switchbacked, the knowledge was like bile.

"You were real careful looking down," Leol Reiger was saying. "Went through all Morrell's personnel. But you should've been looking up, maybe got your hotrod to crack a few Johal HF files open. Done that, you'd have found our Faulkner here. Not a perfect specimen of humanity, our Faulkner." Leol Reiger finished his bottle, putting it on the bar.

Suzi had to look up at him.

"Five million New Sterling, Suzi. That's what me and my partner are going to get from Johal HF this afternoon when we deliver the ionic streaming data. I paid you out of petty cash." He turned to the barman. "Get the little lady a drink, whatever she wants. My treat."

She watched Leol Reiger walk over to Taylor Faulkner, clap him on the shoulder. The two of them laughed. Fury and helplessness rooted her to the bar stool. That shit Leon Reiger had been right, that was the real source of the pain, not the money. She should've checked, should've ripped Taylor Faulkner a-fucking-part, built a proper profile, not just a poxy indent check.

"What'll it be?" the barman asked.

Suzi picked up Leol Reiger's empty beer bottle and hurled it at the row of optics.

Copyright &169; 1995 by Peter F. Hamilton

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