|The Naked God|
|Peter F. Hamilton|
|excerpt courtesy of Time Warner Trade Publishing|
Jay Hilton was sound asleep when every electrophorescent strip in the paediatric ward sprang up to full intensity. The simple dream of her mother broke apart like a stained glass statue shattered by a powerful gust of sharp white light; colourful splinters tumbling off into the glare.
Jay blinked heavily against the rush of light, raising her head in confusion. The familiar scenery of the ward hardened around her. She felt so tired. It certainly wasn't morning yet. A huge yawn forced her mouth open. All around her the other children were waking up in bleary-eyed mystification. Holomorph stickers began reacting to the light, translucent cartoon images rising up to perform their mischievous antics. Animatic dolls cooed sympathetically as children clutched at them for reassurance. Then the doors at the far end of the ward slid open, and the nurses came hurrying in.
One look at the brittle smiles on their faces was all Jay needed. Something was badly wrong. Her heart shivered. Surely not the possessed? Not here?
The nurses began ushering children out of their beds, and along the central aisle towards the doors. Complaints and questions were firmly ignored.
"It's a fire drill," the senior staff nurse called out. "Come along, quickly, now. I want you out of here and into the lifts. Pronto. Pronto." He clapped his hands loudly.
Jay shoved the thin duvet back, and scuttled down off the bed. Her long cotton nightie was tangled round her knees, which took a moment to straighten. She was about to join the others charging along the aisle when she caught the flickers of motion and light outside the window. Every morning since she'd arrived, Jay had sat in front of that window, gazing solemnly out at Mirchusko and its giddy green cloudscape. She'd never seen speckles of light swarming out there before.
The silent mental word was spoken so quickly Jay almost didn't catch it. Though the feel of Haile was unmistakable. She looked round, expecting to see the Kiint ambling down the aisle towards her. But there was only the rank of flustered nurses propelling children along.
Knowing full well she wasn't doing what she was supposed to, Jay padded over to the big window, and pressed her nose against it. A slim band of tiny blue-white stars had looped itself round Tranquillity. They were all moving, contracting around the habitat. She could see now that they weren't really stars, they were lengthening. Flames. Brilliant, tiny flames. Hundreds of them.
My friend. My friend. Lifeloss anguish.
Now that was definitely Haile, and intimating plenty of distress. Jay took a step back from the window, seeing misty grey swirls where her face and hands had pressed against it. "What's the matter?" she asked the empty air. A cascade of new flames burst into existence outside the habitat. Expanding knots blossoming seemingly at random across space. Jay gasped at the sight. There were thousands of them, interlacing and expanding. It was so pretty.
Evacuation procedure initiated.
Jay frowned. The second mental voice came as a faint echo. She thought it was one of the adult Kiint, possibly Lieria. Jay had only encountered Haile's parents a few times. They were awfully intimidating, though they'd been nice enough to her.
No. The adult responded forcefully. Forbidden.
You may not, child. Sorrow felt for all human suffering. But obedience required.
No. Friend. My friend. Designation. Two. Confirmed.
Jay had never felt Haile so determined before. It was kind of scary. "Please?" she asked nervously. "What's happening?"
A torrent of light burst through the window. It was if a sun had risen over Mirchusko's horizon. All of space was alive with brilliant efflorescences.
The adult Kiint said: Evacuation enacted.
Jay felt a wash of guilty triumph rushing out from her friend. She wanted to reach out and comfort Haile, who she knew from the adult's reaction was in Big Trouble over something. Instead, she concentrated on forming a beaming smile at the heart of her own mind, hoping Haile would pick it up. Then the air around her was crawling as if she was caught in a breeze.
"Jay!" one of the nurses called. "Come along sweetie, you . . ."
The light around Jay was fading fast, along with the sounds of the ward. She could just hear the nurse's gasp of astonishment. The breeze abruptly turned into a small gale, whipping her nightie around and making her bristly hair stand on end. Some kind of grey fog was forming around her, a perfectly spherical bubble of the stuff, with her at the centre. Except she couldn't feel any dampness in the air. It darkened rapidly, reducing the ward to weak spectral outlines. Then the boundary expanded at a speed so frightening that Jay screamed. The boundary vanished, and with it any sign of the ward. She was alone in space devoid of stars. And falling.
Jay put her hands to her head and screamed again, as hard as she possibly could. It didn't put a stop to any of the horror. She paused to suck down a huge breath. That was when the boundary reappeared out on the edge of nowhere. Hurtling towards her so fast from every direction that she knew the impact would squash her flat. She jammed her eyes shut. "MUMMY!"
Something like a stiff feather tickled the soles of her feet, and she was abruptly standing on solid ground. Jay windmilled her arms for balance, pitching forward. She landed hard on some kind of cool floor, her eyes still tight shut. The air she gulped down was warmer than it had been in the ward, and a lot more humid. Funny smell. Rosy light was playing over her eyelids.
Still crouched on all fours, Jay risked a quick peep as she gathered herself to scream again. The sight which greeted her was so incredible that the breath stalled in her throat. "Oh gosh," was all she eventually managed to squeak.
Joshua initiated the ZTT jump with little enthusiasm. His downcast mood was one which he shared with all the Lady Mac's crew and passengersat least, those who weren't in zero-tau. To have achieved so much, only to have their final triumph snatched away.
Except . . . Once the initial shock of discovering that Tranquillity had vanished from its orbit had subsided, he wasn't frightened. Not for Ione, or his child. Tranquillity hadn't been destroyed, there was at least that comfort. Which logically meant the habitat had been possessed and snatched out of the universe.
He didn't believe it.
But his intuition was hardly infallible. Perhaps he simply didn't want to believe it. Tranquillity was home. The emotional investment he had in the habitat and its precious contents was enormous. Tell anyone that everything they ever treasured has been erased, and the reaction is always the same. Whatever. His vacillation made him as miserable as the rest of the ship, just for a different reason.
"Jump confirmed," he said. "Samuel, you're on."
Lady Mac had jumped into one of Trafalgar's designated emergence zones, a hundred thousand kilometres above Avon. Her transponder was already blaring out her flight authority codes. Somehow Joshua didn't think that would quite be enough. Not when you barged in unexpected on the Confederation's primary military base in the middle of a crisis like this one.
"I've got distortion fields focusing on us," Dahybi said drolly. "Five of them, I think."
The flight computer alerted Joshua that targeting radars were locking on to the hull. When he accessed the sensors rising out of their recesses, he found three voidhawks and two frigates on interception courses. Trafalgar's strategic defence command was directing a barrage of questions at him. He glanced over at the Edenist as he started to datavise a response. Samuel was lying prone on his acceleration couch, eyes closed as he conversed with other Edenists in the asteroid.
Sarha grinned round phlegmatically. "How many medals do you think they'll give us apiece?"
"Uh oh," Liol grunted. "However many it is, we might be getting them posthumously. I think one of the frigates has just realised our antimatter drive is ever so slightly highly radioactive."
"Great," she grumbled.
Monica Foulkes didn't like the sound of that; as far as the Confederation Navy was aware, it was only Organization ships who were using antimatter. She hadn't wanted to take Mzu back to Tranquillity, and she certainly hadn't wanted to wind up at Trafalgar. But in the discussion which followed their discovery of Tranquillity's disappearance, she didn't exactly have the casting vote. The original agreement between herself and Samuel had just about disintegrated when they rendezvoused with the Beezling.
Then Calvert had insisted on the First Admiral being the final arbitrator of what was to be done with Mzu, Adul, and himself. Samuel had agreed. And she couldn't produce any rational argument against it. Silently, she acknowledged that maybe the only true defence against more Alchemists being built was a unified embargo covenant between the major powers. After all, such an agreement almost worked for antimatter.
Not that such angst counted for much right now. Like ninety per cent of her mission to date, the critical deciding factor was outside her control. All she could do was stick close to Mzu, and make sure the prime requirement of technology transfer wasn't violated. Though by allowing it to be deployed against the Organization, she'd probably screwed that up too. Her debrief was shaping up to be a bitch.
Monica frowned over at Samuel, who was still silent, his brow creased up in concentration. She added a little prayer of her own to all the unheard babble of communication whirling around Lady Mac for the Navy to exercise some enlightenment and tolerance.
Trafalgar's strategic defence command told Joshua to hold his attitude, but refused to grant any approach vector until his status was established. The Navy's emergence zone patrol ships approached to within a cautious hundred kilometres, and took up a three-dimensional diamond observation formation. Targeting radars remained locked on.
Admiral Lalwani herself talked to Samuel, unable to restrain her incredulity as he explained what had happened. Given that the Lady Macbeth contained not only Mzu and others who understood the Alchemist's principals, but a quantity of antimatter as well, the final decision on allowing the ship to dock belonged to the First Admiral himself. It took twenty minutes to arrive, but Joshua eventually received a flight vector from strategic defence command. They were allocated a docking bay in the asteroid's northern spaceport.
"And Joshua," Samuel said earnestly. "Don't deviate from it. Please."
Joshua winked, knowing it was being seen by the hundreds of Edenists who were borrowing the agent's eyes to monitor Lady Mac's bridge. "What, Lagrange Calvert, fly off line?"
The flight to Trafalgar took eighty minutes. The number of antimatter technology specialists waiting for them in the docking bay was almost as great as the number of marines. On top of that were a large complement of uniformed CNIS officers.
They weren't stormed, exactly. No personal weapons were actually taken out of their holsters. Though once the airlock tube was sealed and pressurized, Lady Mac's crew had little to do except hand over the powerdown codes to a Navy maintenance team. Zero-tau pods were opened, and the various bewildered occupants Joshua had accumulated during his pursuit of the Alchemist were ushered off the ship. After a very thorough body scan, the polite, steel-faced CNIS officers escorted everyone to a secure barracks deep inside the asteroid. Joshua wound up in a suite that would have done a four star hotel credit. Ashly and Liol were sharing it with him.
"Well now," Liol said as the door closed behind them. "Guilty of carrying antimatter, flung in prison by secret police who've never heard of civil rights, and after we're dead, Al Capone is going to invite us to have a quiet word." He opened the cherrywood cocktail bar and smiled at the impressive selection of bottles inside. "It can't get any worse."
"You forgot Tranquillity being vanquished," Ashly chided. Liol waved a bottle in apology.
Joshua slumped down into a soft black leather chair in the middle of the lounge. "It might not get worse for you. Just remember, I know what the Alchemist does, and how. They can't afford to let me go."
"You might know what it does," Ashly said. "But with respect, Captain, I don't think you would be much help to anyone seeking the technical details necessary to construct another."
"One hint is all it takes," Joshua muttered. "One careless comment that'll point researchers in the right direction."
"Stop worrying, Josh. The Confederation passed that point a long time ago. Besides, the Navy owes us big-time, and the Edenists, and the Kulu Kingdom. We pulled their arses out of the fire. You'll fly Lady Mac again."
"Know what I'd do if I was the First Admiral? Put me into a zero-tau pod for the rest of time."
"I won't let them do that to my little brother."
Joshua put his hands behind his head, and smiled up at Liol. "The second thing I'd do, would be to put you in the pod next to mine."
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