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an extract from the novel

by Neal Asher

Gridlinked - by Neal Asher

Prologue (Solstan 2432)

Of course you can't understand it. You're used to thinking in a linear manner, that's evolution for you. Do you know what infinity and eternity are? That space is a curved sheet over nothing and that if you travel in a straight line for long enough you'll end up where you started? Even explained in its simplest terms it makes no sense: One dimension is line, two dimensions are area, three are space and four are space through time. Where we are. All these sit on top of the nullity, nil-space, or underspace as it has come to be called. There's no time there, no distance, nothing. From there all runcibles are in the same place and at the same time. Shove a human in and he doesn't cease to exist because there is no time for him to do so. Pull him out. Easy. How do the runcible AIs know when, who and where? The information is shoved in with the human. The AI doesn't have to know before because there is no time where the spoon is. Simple, isn't it...?

-- From How It Is by Gordon.

A blue snow was falling on the roof of the embarkation lounge, where it melted and snaked across the glass in inky rivulets. Freeman put his coffee on the table then slumped in the form chair. He winced at the sudden increased throbbing behind his eyes, then turned his watery gaze on the other travellers hurrying across the mosaic floor, their obedient hover-luggage at heel behind them, and with thoughts like grey slugs he tried to remember exactly what had happened last night. He distinctly remembered a half-catadapt woman undressing him in the middle of the dance floor, but beyond that everything was a blur. A deep feeling of guilty depression settled on him and he tried to distract himself by reading the brochure entry in his note screen. It took him two attempts to turn it on.

The Samarkand buffers are galactic upside, which means more energy comes in than is taken out. This is why the way-station runcible is here rather than on Minostra. Minostra is only capable of supporting a runcible for local transport; that is, under one hundred light-years. There, the heat pollution of a galactic runcible would have caused an ecological disaster, whereas on Samarkand the energy, as heat, is used as the impetus-

"This your first time?"

Freeman glanced across at the apprehensive individual who took a seat next to him. Typical well-hugger trying to look like a member of the runcible culture, he thought. The vogue slick-pants and corsair shirt told him all he needed to know. The Sensic augmentation behind the man's left ear told him things he did not want to know. Unlike those who lived for the thrill of new worlds and new experiences, this guy's dress was inappropriate and his augmentation a cheap copy likely to scramble his brains within a month. But then who was Freeman to judge? He managed to scramble his brains without mechanical aid.

"No, been through a few times." Freeman returned his attention to his note screen. Right at that moment he did not feel in a conversational mood. Vaguely he recalled sweaty nakedness, and wondered if he had screwed her there on the dance floor. Shit.

-for a terraforming project. It has been argued that this-

"Makes me nervous."

"What? Sorry?"

"Makes me nervous. Never understood Skaidon technology, even when I was plugged in."

Freeman tried to dispel the laughing face of the cat-woman from his mind.

"Well, Skaidon was a clever git even before he hooked up with the Craystein computer."

-cold world should be-

"We should be able to understand it, unaugmented."

Freeman took a couple of detox tablets from the half-used strip in his top pocket. You weren't supposed to take more than one at a time, but right then he needed them. The pills went down with a gulp of scalding coffee. He coughed, wiped tears from his eyes.

"No human understands Skaidon tech, even with augmentation. I work on the damned things, and half the time I don't know what I'm doing."

On reflection it was not the best thing to say to someone nervous of using a runcible.

The man just stared at him while Freeman finished his coffee and looked yearningly back at the dispensing machine. There might just be time for another one before his slot.

"It's my slot shortly. I'm off. Don't worry. It's perfectly safe. Runcibles hardly ever go wrong."

Shit - did it again.

As he moved off across the mosaic floor Freeman felt his head lightening as the black cloud of extreme hangover lifted. He regretted that he had not put that guy's fears to rest, but then nothing but a number of further trips through the gate would do that. With runcible transmissions of quince, ie mitter travellers, amounting to somewhere in the billions for every hour solstan, and only the minutest fraction of one per cent of them coming to harm in transit, it was more dangerous crossing this floor.

At the far end of the lounge were the gates to the runcibles, and near them was a vending machine. Freeman saw there were three people waiting before gate two: one catadapt and two human normals. The catadapt was using the coffee machine. He felt a horrible sinking sensation: half-catadapt. It was her; the orange and pink fur in a V down her back was very distinctive, as was the plait from her hair woven down the middle of it. Instead of going over to his gate, he halted by a pillar and studied the news-screen mounted there. The usual media pap, but at least he did not have to speak to it. From the corner of his eye he saw her drinking her coffee as if she really needed it, gulping it down. She then ran to the gate and through, discarding her cup on the floor. Was she suffering too? Wouldn't it be the limit if she had been going to Samarkand? The other two people also went through. They must have been heading for the same place, or else resetting would have taken longer. He headed over to the gate, pausing for only a moment as the black horseshoe-crab of a cleaning robot hummed past trailing the acrid odour of strong carpet cleaner. He had a flash of memory. There had definitely been a carpet. He felt a further lifting of the cloud. There had been no carpets on the dance floor.

By the departure gate Freeman pressed his hand to a plate on the log-on column. His identity, credit rating and destination appeared on a screen to the left of his hand. He pressed again to confirm. The door before him opened and he stepped through onto a moving walkway. This took him through a long corridor, ribbed like the gullet of some reptile, then to a door leading to the runcible chamber.

The chamber was a thirty-metre sphere of mirrored glass floored with black glass. The runcible itself stood at the centre of this, mounted on a stepped pedestal. It might have been the altar to some cybernetic god of technology. Nacreous ten-metre long incurving bull's horns jutted up from the pedestal. Between them shimmered the cusp of a Skaidon warp, or the 'spoon' as it was now called, hence the weird nomenclature Skaidon technology had acquired.

Five-dimensional singularity mechanics. Skaidon warp. Skaidon technology...

Much as he hated to admit it, Freeman preferred the runcible spoons and quince of Edward Lear's nonsense poem. He did not like the bit about quince being sliced, since that was the collective noun for those who travelled using the runcibles. Most people knew the ancient poem now, and Freeman wondered what Lear would think of this novel use of his words. He walked up to the pedestal, mounted the steps to the cusp, stepped through, and was gone.

Shoved into underspace, dragged between shadow stars, Freeman travelled. Thumbing his nose at relativity, in the cusp of a technology his unaugmented mind could not comprehend. Between runcibles he ceased to exist in the Einsteinian universe. He was beyond an event horizon, stretched to an infinite surface with no thickness, travelling between stars as billions of those called 'quince' had done before him.

Done, in that instant when time is divided by infinity and brought to a standstill.

Done, in the eternal moment.

Freeman passed by two hundred and fifty-three light-years. The second runcible caught him, dragged him back over the horizon, and channelled the vast build-up of energy he was carrying ... only ... only this time something went wrong. Freeman passed through the cusp, still holding his charge. The Einsteinian universe took hold of him and ruthlessly applied its laws, and in that immeasurable instant he appeared at his destination, travelling the smallest fraction possible below the speed of light.

On the planet Samarkand, in the Andellan system, Freeman supplied the energy for a thirty-megaton nuclear explosion; the atoms of his body yielding up much of their substance as energy. Eight thousand people died in the explosion. Another two thousand died of radiation sickness in the weeks that followed. A few hundred survived even this but, without the energy tap from the runcible buffers and with most installations knocked out, the cold returned to Samarkand and they froze to death. Two survived, but they were not human, and it was open to conjecture that they were even alive. His family and friends mourned Freeman when they discovered what had happened to him and sometimes, when she was in a good mood, a half-catadapt woman smiled at a memory, other times she winced.

© Neal Asher 2001.
Gridlinked was published in the UK by Macmillan in March 2001.


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