Story Excerpts

Moral Biology

by Neal Asher

As Perrault entered the room he quickly closed the anosmic receptors running in lines across his face like tribal markings, retaining the use only of those within his nose. The air was laden with pheromones, and he really had no need for further input on Gleeson’s readiness for sex with Arbeck. Just walking through the door had been enough. Gleeson sat with her rump against her desk while Arbeck, his camo shirt hanging open to reveal the tight musculature of his chest, sat in one of the chairs facing her, his legs akimbo. Their conversation ceased and she looked up at Perrault, quickly snatching her hand away from fondling with her hair, doubtless aware of everything he could read. He glanced at them, taking in their dynamic and almost breaking into laughter at Arbeck’s pose, then focused on other aspects of the room as he headed for the other chair. He blinked through the spectrum, seeing the so recognizable heat patterns on Gleeson’s skin, listened in on the EMR chatter of the ship, then shut it out as irrelevant, measured shapes in conjunction throughout the space that hinted at shadow languages and esoteric meaning, and then shut that down too.

“Do we have further data?” he asked mildly.

Gleeson reluctantly pushed herself away from the desk and walked round it to pause with her hand on the back of her seat. She then showed a flash of irritation and sat down. Perrault read into the actions her hormonal wish to bring the chair round to sit nearer to Arbeck, overcome by her need to maintain her illusory power dynamic, being as they were meeting in her rooms, all in turn influenced by her awareness of his own abilities. He studied the surface of her desk as she sat down. Very little lay there beyond a paper notepad and pen. These were a hobby related to her interest in history and one of her specialisms in human archaeology. This display told him she used the items as a gambit to switch conversation to her interest, which also told him a little bit more about her self-absorption.

“Arbeck was telling me about the satellites,” she said. “They are the product of advanced organic technology, as we first thought.”

Via her aug she threw an image up on the screen behind her showing one of the satellites in high orbit about the world below them. The thing looked like a pearl hanging in vacuum and of course related to what had been scanned on the planet’s surface: the nacre-lined tunnels worming through the ground, and the structures similar to termite mounds utterly riddled with them. Instead of commenting on this, he thought about her use of “organic technology.” Like “biotech” it was a term that continued to survive despite very vague definition now. He also sensed her reluctant interest in active alien technology—her doubts about whether it fell under the remit of another of her specialisms, which was xenoarchaeology.

“Grown they might have been,” said Arbeck, “but they can still pack a hell of a punch. They can fire masers and grazers, and a few of them can transmit some form of U-space disruption. I would love to get inside one for a look around.”

“Do we have any more on their true purpose?” asked Perrault.

“Orbital defenses,” said Gleeson. “Surely that’s obvious?”

Perrault shook his head and turned to Arbeck.

“Not only that,” said the soldier, whereupon Perrault noted a distinct cooling in the atmosphere. Gleeson did not like to be contradicted. “Those outward facing weapons have a long range, but they only respond close in to the planet. We managed to put an armored drone through. They ceased firing when it was in atmosphere, then opened up again when it tried to leave. It didn’t make it.”

“The drone was sub-AI I hope,” said Perrault.

“Yup.”

“That still doesn’t discount orbital defenses,” said Gleeson.

Arbeck shook his head. “The format is all wrong. Heavy grazers point out, lighter maser weapons point down toward the world, while the U-space stuff hasn’t even done anything.”

“So it seems the system activates when something tries to land yet, this ship, which is in range of those grazers you mention, has not been fired upon. A threat and an option pointed outward and coverage to prevent anything landing or leaving,” suggested Perrault.

“Internal coverage could be to keep a population under control—some heavily authoritarian regime. We’ve seen that before,” said Gleeson, grudgingly.

“But they did not fire at the drone when it reached the surface,” he replied. “In fact, as I understand it, the masers do not have the penetration to reach the surface.”

“That’s true,” Arbeck agreed, further destroying his chances with Gleeson, had that been his inclination.

“So what’s your assessment, Translator?” asked Gleeson.

He noted her acerbic use of the title and discounted it. Despite her temporary power dynamic here, they were all in command of their own specialisms on the ground. Arbeck would nominally be in command because, as leader of the military contingent, his concern would be their safety. But in the end he, and they, answered to the forensic AI, Mobius Clean, who had only temporarily left the ground mission in human hands. The usual reason for this was that on first contact it was best not to display the full extent of your capabilities. If the life-form below turned out to be dangerously hostile, it would think it only had bumbling humans to contend with. Or the AI had done this because humans, in some esoteric manner, would render the data it required.

“I have studied the same data as Arbeck and come to some conclusions, yes.”

Gleeson grimaced. “This would be because of your facility with pattern recognition, logic and . . . what was it? Oh yes: psycho-semantic math?”

He nodded agreeably, acknowledging three of the hundreds of disciplines he had learned, but said, “The system prevents anything landing or leaving, but ignores this ship, which could be a larger threat. So we must assume its purpose is precisely the aforesaid. It doesn’t look like a defense against major attack, rather more like a border fence.”

“Really?” said Arbeck. “A territorial thing?”

Perrault shrugged. “Or a prison or . . .” He searched for the appropriate word. “. . . or quarantine.”

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Calm Face of the Storm

by Ramona Louise Wheeler

The biggest bug Bret had ever seen flew past with a flash and a scintillating scent, and it was in his nature to snatch bugs in flight, an instinct to fling himself after in pursuit. The air smelled of evening, with a chill wind blowing in from sunset, and he only saw the bug thing clearly once it flew out of the shadows into the light of the upper air. It was small enough to be confused with some delectable beetle or moth. Bret was a flying bug-eater, but he was a civilized man from a civilized world; he was capable of reactions beyond instinct. He was still too angry to be hungry, otherwise he might have had it half swallowed before he knew what he was eating, but now he forgot the argument that had driven him so far from familiar skies and concentrated instead on flying closer to the thing.

It was not a bug. It was not edible either, but it was worth a fortune, worth more than any other wild creature on his planet. It was a lizard of some new kind, impossibly winged, shimmering, gray-scaled like old silver, with black spikes at forehead, knuckles, and knees. The like of it had been seen before only in tantalizing fossil shapes in the oldest rock layers uncovered, a previously unknown type of prehistoric creature. This one was not a prehistoric fossil. This one was alive. It beat its wings with deliberate, reptilian calm, flying steadily into the horizon of brilliant colors where the second sun was setting.

Bret was determined to keep pace with that impossible creature, to find some way to fulfill its incredible promise. The sky was turning toward the unreal darkness that comes with Two Suns season. True night was coming, with stars blazing up in a wild black sky above a world where daylight laws did not hold.

Bret had begun his mad flight at the edge of City Central where his family hometree stood, half a continent away to the northeast. Now the broken, harsh landscape below him was giving way to a weathered, time-weary look, the deep shoreline of the southern coast, where constant storms from the southwest drove the wild ocean up onto the land, grinding everything in its path as if with giant teeth. What meager life hung on here was brief and furious, surging upward toward the light during the calm between tides. Here and there were tall columns of solid stone, standing because all else around them had washed away. Wind trees grew on their tops, twisted and coiled into thorny crowns. Myriad forms of life clung there when the storms swept through.

Bret hoped that his swiftly flying prey was returning to one of these wind-tree nests. It would be easy to mark, then return to later with others. He was blazing now with the eagerness and determination to have this amazing find, to be the one who brought to civilization. He began to imagine the News interviews, the celebrity gatherings. He would be a hero, an explorer. He would be forgiven.

The light was growing too faint for eyes. Bret did not dare lose sight of that flickering lizard-thing, and by now could only just make it out in the darkening sky ahead. He could hear its wings snapping as it flew, so he clung to the direction of the sound, managing, grimly, to keep pace with it.

The landscape below had been ground to sand and pebbles, draped with drying kelp. The lizard soared upward again, turning into the darker darkness of the shadow of the mountain slopes of the Great Divide standing dark against the evening stars. Only then did Bret feel the sea-wind rising. The moan of it scraped against the stony shore. Storm erosion had worn even the massive stone of the Divide where it fell down into the sea, with the upper horizon so low that the dancing feet of the constellation of the Lovers Entwined In Darkness seemed to walk along the mountain top together, as if in this wild place they were real, not just a pattern of stars in the Galaxy’s spirals. True night is dangerous. Daylight laws do not hold.

The wind’s moan was louder now as he flew closer to the mountain range, loud enough to be a mist of noise, sound fog obscuring his sonar view of the world around him in the darkness. Bret could hear the mountain ahead, hear its hard, reflective stone, but the details were blown away by the wind song. The wind shaped itself along the vast rise of the Divide, revealing and concealing with dizzying complexity. Toward this stone miasma, the lizard thing led him. Evidently it was not guided by sonar. Clearly, it was not blinded by it, either. Bret had to decide if he would pursue it into the darkness and wind-dazzle, or give up here, to try again during the season of Suns One by One. If the lizard were truly flying toward its lair, Bret would, at least, have its territory marked. He risked an upward glance to note the positions of lighthouse beacons on the upper horizon of the Divide.

Bret acknowledged that he had to power up his flight harness in spite of his desire for privacy. He needed to pinpoint his location. In his anger he had turned off his flight monitor. In his wonder at the flying lizard, he had forgotten what he had done. The eyepatch screen of the satcom receiver showed the numbers of his position, but warning flashes in red ringed the attend icon. He whistled a “save data” code to the computer pickup in the throat piece of his flight harness, deciding to follow the lizard only to see where it disappeared in the wind-song along the Divide.

A low-end booming of wind and waves growing in depth rose out of the oceanic darkness of the coastline at his left. Bret had never flown this close to the wild water of the Great Ocean. Few ever did. It was not just the land that was chewed and beaten by the grinding seas. He was shocked to realize, abruptly, how far to the south and west he had flown. Anger, frustration, horror, shame—he had been driven by furies of his own making. Distance and time had no meaning as he had raged through the skies.

That winged lizard had drawn him out of a meditation of rage, but not before he had hurled himself into a world of darkness and storms. He rechecked the readout on the satcom screen, switching to a visual graph to show him where he was. He was nearly at the End of the World, not a dozen leagues from the No Man’s Land where the Divide falls down into the ocean of the southern coast. No one lived in this place. No one traveled here. No one hunted here. Bret had stormed far from the skies of his own home and arrived here at one of those rare moments between a day of two Suns and the fall of true night, when the sky pauses to inhale before blowing a huge and tempestuous blast of ocean-wet air against the land.

Bret whistled up a more complete weather report on the satcom screen, then shuddered horribly at the answer. Moments. He had only moments before the weight of the storm fell upon him. His wings would be shredded from his finger bones if he were caught in such a storm. The marvelous winged lizard-thing had vanished into the night, Bret’s quest for it overflown by a very real fear for his life. He aimed for the nearest lighthouse beacon atop the Divide high above and flew like mad, thrusting himself up into the cooling air of true night. Darkness fell in chill layers. The storm front raced after him, an ominous red swirl on the satcom screen, and a terrible howling that grew louder at his dangling heels.

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