The Line of Polity
extracts from the novel
With the small blond child balanced on her knee the woman managed the awkward task of one-handedly turning a page of the picture book, and ran her finger down the border between text and picture, to set the superb illustration moving -- the long legs striding through the reeds, and the sharp beak snapping in silhouette against a bruised sky.
She continued, "For the brother who had built his house out of flute grass there came misfortune indeed; that very night a heroyne came to stand over his house ... and what did it do?"
The child reached and stabbed down with one stubby finger, leaving a jammy imprint on something that bore only a passing resemblance to a wading bird. "Heroyne," he said, blue eyes wide at his own cleverness.
"Yes, but what did it do?"
"It huffed and it puffed, and it puffed and it huffed," said the boy.
"And it blew his house down," the woman completed. Then, "Now, do you remember what the brother said when his house was gone?"
The boy frowned in concentration, but after a moment grinned with delight, knowing the best bit was coming. "Don't eat me!" he said.
"And what did the heroyne do?"
"It gobbled him up! It gobbled him up!" the boy replied, bouncing up and down with the excitement of it all.
Eldene felt weak and light-headed for the second time that morning and wondered if her scole was preparing to drop a litter of leaves. Running her thumb down the stick-seam of her shirt, she opened the garment to inspect this constant companion of hers that oxygenated her blood in exchange for a share of it. The scole clung to her chest, between and below her breasts, like a great flat aphid coloured in shades of dark brown and purple; however, it was a relatively small creature, as she was still a young woman. Observing a reddish flushing in the crevices between its many segments, as it rippled against her body, confirmed for her that it was drawing blood, and such frequent feeding in the course of one day indeed meant it was preparing to litter. She closed her shirt and gazed across the frothy swirling of the square-banked ponds to where shift foreman Ulat was speaking to Proctor Volus -- the latter easily identifiable by his white uniform -- and decided now was not the time to ask for a lighter work assignment. Gritting her teeth, she hoisted up her cone basket and moved on.
The squerms remained somnolent under the aubergine predawn skies, but that would change as soon as she started casting in the dried pig-meat flakes that were their favoured food. As she walked, Eldene observed her fellow workers scattered between the ponds that chequered the land to a horizon above which the gas giant Calypse ascended ahead of the sun. These ponds reflected the red, gold and opalescent green of the giant, and her fellows were sooty silhouettes against this reflection, weighed down by their huge cone baskets as they tramped along the banked-up paths for the morning feeding. Every now and again one of those ponds lost its reflectivity as squerms fed voraciously, disturbing the turgid and slimy water. Eldene supposed the scene might be considered a beautiful one, but well understood that beauty was something you required energy to appreciate.
After propping her pole-grab and net against a nearby flood-post, Eldene lowered her basket to the ground, took up the scoop from the dried flakes it contained, and gazed down into the water. The squerms in this pond were each over a metre long and the thickness of her arm. Their brassy segmented shells gave the impression of something manufactured -- perhaps items of jewellery for some giant -- rather than of living creatures. The tail of each squerm tapered into a long ovipositor that Eldene knew, from experience, was capable of penetrating both flesh and bone. The head of each creature was a slightly thicker hand's-length segment that extruded a bouquet of glassy hooks to pull in food to be ground up by whirling disks deep in the creature's throat. Those hooks were not so lethal as the ovipositors, but they could still strip the skin off a worker's hand for a moment's inattention.
She tossed some meat-flakes upon the pond, and the water foamed as the squerms writhed and fed, their bodies gleaming in the lurid morning, feeding hooks flashing in and out of their mouths. A second scoop caused further frenetic activity, till some of the squerms were surging half their body-length out of the water. The third and final scoop quietened this activity a little.
Only one deader in this particular pond, Eldene was glad to see, and that one a fresh, so therefore unbroken, squerm. Stepping back, she retrieved her pole-grab to see if she could reach it from the bank, but it was too far out. She sighed, pulled on her armoured gauntlets, and waded in, treading down the mat of silkweed and algae rumpled up at the pond's edge, whilst the hooks and ovipositors of the squerms grated against her armoured waders. With the deader positioned in the jaws of the grab, she almost dropped the pole when a live squerm rose out of the water beside her, flashing out its glassy hooks only a metre from her face. She backhanded the creature, slapping it down into the water, before pressing the trigger of her pole to close its jaws round the deader, then she quickly backed out of the pond, hauling it behind her. Once back on the bank, amongst the wild rhubarb and clumped flute grass, she paused to swallow bile -- feeling sick with fear and the weakness caused by the constant drain on her by her scole. After dropping the dead squerm on a mossy patch next to the path, she took up her feed basket again and moved on to the next pond. She'd collect the deader on her way back, along with any others, once she'd emptied this load of meat-flakes into the twenty ponds that made up her round.
As Eldene trudged towards the next pond, she gazed up at the satellites glittering in the sky, and tried to believe that beyond them lay wonders, and those seemingly magical worlds that had been described to her -- but it was difficult to see anything beyond this orbiting metal that might just as well have formed the bars of a prison.
Hot darkness swamped the blue twilight, however, through his intensifier it seemed almost daylight to Cormac, but with an odd lack of shadows. In this weird gloaming, the perimeter of the autolaser tower soon became evident. Thinking of other perimeters he had known, Cormac involuntarily glanced over at the dracoman. Scar was obviously fascinated by a curving line of hollowed-by-fire corpses of calloraptors. It was fast becoming apparent to Cormac where the dracoman's interests lay.
Beyond the tower, three geodesic domes had been erected amongst a scattering of low barrack-like buildings, and beyond these the other perimeter towers were just visible. At the centre of this encampment stood a complicated scaffold. It held something canted above the ground so it was possible to see it was a huge flattened spiral of reddish metal, wavering behind distortions like heat haze. The frame cast up by the intensifier had narrowed and centred on one of the domes. Cormac signalled a halt and pointed to the centre of the encampment.
"That thing in the scaffold has to be your target. Skellor is in the dome on the far left," he explained, before squatting down and turning on his suit's comlink. "Tomalon, do you still have a position on us?" he asked.
"I do," came the reply. "You're about two hundred metres in from the edge of the 'ware effect. By my scanning, all that lies beyond you is empty saltpan."
"Scar," said Cormac, nodding to the dracoman, "is going send his multigun code to you, then range-spot an autolaser tower. On my signal I want you to take it out."
"Understood," replied Tomalon.
"Is the shuttle in position?" Cormac asked.
"In position, yes. It can be with you in five minutes."
"Well, you'll have to wait until we lose that 'ware. There's no telling what else they have in there. Even these autolaser towers are pretty sophisticated, and they're only for the local wildlife. Also, I want Skellor secured before things get ... frantic."
"I do know what I'm doing," growled Tomalon.
Cormac supposed he must: you didn't get to be the Captain of a ship like the Occam Razor without having some grasp of combat realities. He glanced at his two companions.
Both Gant and Scar gave him affirmative nods.
"Well, let's get in there then," Cormac said.
Scar raised his multigun and aimed at the tower. He did not fire, but merely held the laser sight on-target and transmitted the required information from his gun up to the ship.
"Acquired," Tomalon told them.
"Hit it," said Cormac.
As painful seconds dragged out, Cormac hunkered down, realising because of the delay that Tomalon must have fired a kinetic missile rather than one of the Occam's beam weapons. He was proved right when fire stabbed down through the tower and it lifted up on a blast. The air-rending sound of the explosion rolled out to them as the tower came apart on the expanding surface of a ball of fire -- and disappeared. Globules of molten metal pattered on the ground fifty metres ahead of them, and a dust cloud rolled past them as they rose and ran towards the encampment.
Gant and Scar immediately outdistanced Cormac, as they sped towards the strange object in the centre of the encampment. Now, people were coming out of one of the barracks buildings. Two explosions followed -- grenades tossed by Gant -- and a man was running and screaming, with most of his suit ripped away. Someone else was turning and pointing a weapon. Observing the shock-absorbing side cylinders and the cable leading down to a belt-mounted power supply, Cormac realised they were using rail-guns here too, though of primitive design. He fired once and that same someone went over on his back, with vapour jetting from his head. Then Cormac was at the wall of the dome. Not far away he could hear the stuttering fire of Separatist weapons, and the sonic cracking of Gant and Scar's weapons in reply. Over com he could hear Scar growling with enjoyment. To his right; three people running towards him. Something was punching a line of cavities from the plascrete wall of the dome. He drew Shuriken and hurled it. The throwing star shot away, with its chainglass blades opening out in bloody welcome -- through one attacker then another, both of them keeling over, a limb hitting the ground here, blood jetting and vaporising; then, on its return, the third man losing his head before even knowing his companions were dead. From its holster Cormac sent new instructions: a program he had keyed in earlier. Shuriken swooped away from its three dead victims then hit the wall of the dome with a circular-saw scream. While it was providing this distraction, Cormac used a smart key on the airlock. As he entered, it was to the welcoming light of the explosion that toppled the 'ware device from its supporting scaffold. And Gant's, "All yours, Tomalon," coming over com.
A moment's pause as the lock cycled. When the inner door opened Cormac went through, keeping low, and dived to one side, rolled and came up in a crouch, with his thin-gun aimed and ready. To his right, two men and a woman were struggling into environment suits, to the sound of Shuriken's cutting.
"On the floor!"
One of the men started groping for something at his belt, before toppling over with a hole burned in through the bridge of his nose and out through the back of his head. The woman's eyes flicked towards something on Cormac's left. Turn. Someone on a gantry positioned round a silo, aiming a rifle at him. Four shots slam the marksman back against the silo, then he follows the rifle to the ground.
"I said on the floor!"
The remaining man and the woman obeyed, and Cormac hit the recall on his shuriken holster. The screaming noise stopped and suddenly Shuriken was hovering above him. From behind it came a thin whistling of pressure differential, through the slot it had cut. Checking a readout at the lower edge of his vision, Cormac saw that the atmospheric pressure here was higher than that outside, so there would be no danger just yet of cyanide poisoning for anyone going unsuited in this dome. He keyed another program from the holster menu, and Shuriken advanced to hang threateningly over the prostrate man and woman.
"If you try to get up, you die," he said, coldly.
The two of them stared up at Shuriken, and showed no inclination to move from where they lay. Meanwhile Cormac scanned around to pick up Skellor's trace just beyond the silo. He ran to the edge of the silo and peered past one of the pipes running down the side of it. A plascrete wall cut across in front of him. Inset in this was a wide observation window, and what appeared to be another airlock. Judging by the equipment he could see through the window, the room beyond was a laboratory, so the lock was probably a clean-lock. Checking to either side as he passed the silo, Cormac slammed into the plascrete wall before peering round through the window again. The room was bright and aseptic. Esoteric equipment cluttered workbenches. Cormac identified a nanoscope, a huge surgical robot, cryostasis vessels, and a surgical table holding what appeared to be the corpse of a calloraptor. Cormac slapped a contact charge against the window and stepped away. The charge blew, and its metal disk went clattering across the floor. The glass remained intact until the decoder molecule began unravelling the tough chain molecules of the glass. After a minute the entire window collapsed into powder, and Cormac leapt through.
Cormac hesitated before moving beyond the corpse, as now he saw that he had been mistaken in thinking it a calloraptor. He had never seen anything quite like it: greyish veins seemed raised up from the inside, and had a slightly metallic hue; the face was also distorted -- much more flattened than a calloraptor's and of a simian appearance -- and the forearms were bigger, the claws more like hands. It had also, obviously, been able to walk more upright, and in its ocular hollows gleamed a line of pinhead eyes. He recognised that there was much of calloraptor in this corpse and also something of human being, and surmised that this creature must be the result of some experiment of Skellor's. He moved on and scanned his surroundings further.
Skellor stepped out from behind the insectile chrome nightmare of the surgical robot. The hologram Cormac had studied earlier had not shown a particularly distinguished-looking individual: he was short, muscular, with brown hair and brown eyes. Fanatical as Skellor was about his work, he had apparently never bothered with cosmetic alteration, nor any form of augmentation. The latter situation, Cormac now saw, had changed: a crystalline aug curved from the man's right temple, down behind his right ear, and terminated in three crystalline rods that entered the base of his neck. Recognising just what this device was, Cormac felt inclined to put numerous holes in him right there and then. He restrained himself.
"Cormac, ECS. I've come to get you out," he said, going for the less confrontational option.
Skellor snorted a laugh, then shook his head. "You're outside your jurisdiction here," he said.
"You're a Polity citizen and you were kidnapped. That puts anywhere you are found, inside Polity jurisdiction," Cormac replied.
"Wrong, agent, I am here of my own free will, and you are over the Line. But I don't suppose that'll make any difference to your actions. The arrogance of ECS has always been unassailable -- hence their insistence on hindering my work."
"If I recall the file correctly, the hindrance was regarding your choice of experimental subjects, not of the work itself. The Polity does not prevent research into anything so long as it doesn't impinge upon another individual's rights."
Skellor gestured to a nearby bench, upon which rested a completely sealed chainglass cylinder supported in a ceramal framework that seemed excessive for the task. Inside the cylinder lay a scattering of pinkish coralline objects.
"Perhaps you should ask your superiors about research into items such as those," Skellor said, "should you survive."
As Skellor turned away, something slammed into Cormac's back and bore him to the floor. Cormac shifted as he went down and fired three shots from under his armpit into the assailant behind him. The only response was a grating hiss -- then he was hurtling through the air to crash down onto the equipment lying on one of the benches. The creature from the surgical table. After rolling from the bench, Cormac put three shots into the sharp double keel of its chest. The creature opened its three-cornered mouth and hissed again, as something pinkish welled up to fill the holes the shots had made -- and it just kept advancing. This time Cormac shot it in the head, putting out some of those pinhead eyes, which paused it for all of a second or two before it caught hold of the bench, and hurled it to one side. Just then, there came a low sucking boom, and a wind suddenly dragged across the laboratory, towing pieces of cellophane and paper. Dome breach -- a large one this time. Cormac leapt over the next bench, turned and concentrated his fire on one of the creature's leg joints. Four shots should have blown away enough of its knees to sever its lower leg, yet the limb clung on as rapidly expanding strands of the pinkish substance filled the gaping wounds.
"Right, point taken," muttered Cormac, slapping the recall on his shuriken holster. Shuriken arrived as Cormac was backed up against the wall of the dome, emptying the last of his thin-gun's charge. It took the creature's head off on the first pass, hesitated when it just remained standing, then -- with two hatchetting thumps -- cut its torso in half at chest level, then curved back through to take away its legs.
As Shuriken hovered and bobbed, whirring with irritation above the dismembered body, Cormac advanced for a closer look. There was no blood, just pink strands creeping across the floor between body parts, before freezing and fading to a bone white. He prodded at one of these strands with the toe of his boot, and it curled up briefly before shattering into glassy fragments.
"Gant, where are you?"
"Heading your way," came the immediate reply. "The shuttle's down and the unit's clearing up the stragglers."
"There's two inside the dome here. I had Shuriken guarding them, but then I ran into a little trouble."
Cormac hit recall again, and held up his arm. Shuriken returned reluctantly to its holster, retracting its chainglass blades at the last moment before snicking itself away. Cormac stepped over his recently demised enemy and trotted over to where he had last seen Skellor. Beyond the surgical robot there was a hole in the wall of the dome, out of which gyred all the loose rubbish sucked from the laboratory. Cormac stepped through it and saw the shuttle -- a U-shaped lander twenty metres long -- resting at the edge of the encampment to the side where the autolaser tower had stood. A pulse-gun was firing intermittently from one of the shuttle's turrets, bringing down calloraptors that were coming in to see what all the excitement was about. Cormac walked on until the frame in his intensifier closed to a line, and then he peered at the ground. Lying in the dust was the small black button of a memplant -- Skellor's implant, the one from which issued the tracer signal. Cormac could only suppose it had been removed some time earlier, and only now -- because Skellor had realised what danger it represented -- had it been discarded. He picked the object up, then surveyed his surroundings. It seemed to be all over. The Sparkind were herding prisoners out into the open -- those of them that had hotsuits -- and Cormac could hear no more shooting.
"What happened in there?" Gant asked, coming up behind him.
Cormac glanced round at him -- and at Scar, who was following closely behind.
"It would seem that friend Skellor is going to be more of a problem than we thought."
"Well, from what I can gather, he is interfaced with a quartz-matrix AI," said Cormac.
"Shit, that's bad," said Gant.
"Is it?" said Cormac, slipping the memplant into one of his belt pouches. "Would it be as bad as him having got his sticky little fingers on Jain technology too?"
"Double shit," muttered Gant.
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