Authors: Peter F. Hamilton


8.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub












An AOL Time Warner Company
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.



Copyright © 2002 by Peter F. Hamilton All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.


Cover design by Don Puckey

Cover illustration by Jim Burns

Aspect® name and logo are registered trademarks of Warner Books, Inc.

Warner Books, Inc.

1271 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Visit our Web site at www. twbookmark. com An AOL Time Warner Company Printed in the United States of America Originally published in hardcover by Warner Books. First Paperback Printing: March 2003









For Kate, who said yes





Time was when the bar would have welcomed a man from
Zantiu-Braun's strategic security division, given him his first beer on the house and listened with keen admiration to his stories of life as it was lived oh so differently out among the new colony planets. But then that could be said of anywhere on Earth halfway through the twenty-fourth century. In the public conscience, the glamour of interstellar expansion was fading like the enchantment of an aging actress.

As with most things in the universe, it was all the fault of money.

The bar lacked money. Lawrence Newton could see that as soon as he walked in. It hadn't been refurbished in decades. A long wooden room with thick rafters holding up the corrugated carbon-sheet roof, a counter running its length, dull neon adverts for extinct brands of beers and ice creams on the wall behind. Big rotary fans that had survived a couple of centuries past their warranty date turned above him, primitive electric motors buzzing as they stirred the muggy air.

This was the way of things in Kuranda. Sitting high in the rocky tablelands above Cairns, it had enjoyed long profitable years as one of Queensland's top tourist-trap towns. Sweat
ng, sunburned Europeans and Japanese had made their way up over the rain forest on the skycable, marveling at the lush vegetation before traipsing round the curio shops and restaurant bars that made up the main street Then they'd take the ancient railway down along Barron Valley Gorge to marvel once again, this time at the jagged rock cliffs and white foaming waterfalls along the route.

Although tourists did still come to admire northern Queensland's natural beauty, they were mostly corporate families that Z-B had rotated to its sprawling spaceport base that now dominated Cairns physically and economically. They didn't have much spare cash for authentic Aboriginal print T-shirts and didgeridoos and hand-carved charms representing the spirit of the land, so the shops along Kuranda's main street declined until only the hardiest and cheapest were left—themselves a strong disincentive to visit and stay awhile. Nowadays people got off the skycable terminus and walked straight across to the pretty 1920s-era train station a couple of hundred meters away, ignoring the town altogether.

It left the surviving bars free for the local men to use. They were good at that. There was nothing else for them. Z-B brought in its own technicians to run the base, skilled overseas staff with degrees and spaceware engineering experience. Statutory local employment initiatives were for the crappiest manual jobs. No Kuranda man would sign up. Wrong culture.

That made the bar just about perfect for Lawrence. He paused in the doorway to scan its interior as a formation of TVL88 tactical support helicopters thundered overhead on their way to the Port Douglas practice range away in the north. A dozen or so blokes were inside, sheltering from the evil midday sun. Big fellas, all of them, with fleshy faces red from the first round of the day's beers. A couple were playing pool, one solitary, dedicated drinker up at the bar, the rest huddled in small groups at tables along the rear wall. His brain in full tactical mode, Lawrence immediately picked out potential exit points.

The men watched silently as he walked over to the counter and took off his straw hat with its ridiculously wide brim. He ordered a tin of beer from the middle-aged barmaid. Even though he was in civilian clothes, a pair of blue knee-length shorts and a baggy Great Barrier Reef T-shirt, his straight back and rigid crew-cut marked him out as a Z-B squaddie. They knew it; he knew they knew.

He paid for the weak beer in cash, slapping the dirty Pacific Dollar notes down on the wood. If the barmaid noticed his right hand and forearm were larger than they should be, she kept quiet about it. He mumbled at her to keep the change.

The man Lawrence wanted was sitting by himself, only one table away from the back door. His hat, crumpled on the table next to his beer, had a rim as broad as Lawrence's.

"Couldn't you have chosen somewhere more out of the way?" Staff Lieutenant Colin Schmidt asked. The guttural Germanic tone made several of the local men look around, eyes narrowing with instinctive suspicion.

"This place suits," Lawrence told him. He'd known Colin for all of the full twenty years he'd spent in Z-B's strategic security division. The two of them had been in basic training together back in Toulouse. Green nineteen-year-old kids jumping the fence at nights to get to the town with its clubs and girls. Colin had applied for officer training several years later, after the Quation campaign: a careerist move that had never really worked out. He didn't have the kind of drive the company wanted, nor the level of share ownership that most other young officers had to put them ahead. In fifteen years he'd moved steadily sideward until he wound up in Strategic Planning, a glorified errand boy for artificial sentience programs running resource-allocation software.

"What the hell did you want to ask me you couldn't say it down at the base?"

"I want an assignment for my platoon," Lawrence said. "You can get it for me."

"What kind of assignment?"

"One on Thallspring."

Colin swigged from his beer tin. When he spoke his voice was low, guilty. "Who said anything about Thallspring?"

"It's where we're going for our next asset realization." On cue, another flight of TVL88s swept low over the town; with their rotors running out of stealth mode the noise was enough to rattle the corrugated roof. All eyes flicked upward as they drowned conversation. "Come on, Colin, you're not going to pull the bullshit need-to-know routine on me, are you? Who the hell can warn the poor bastards we're invading them? They're twenty-three light-years away. Everybody on the base knows where we're going—most of Cairns, too."

"Okay, okay. What do you want?"

"A posting to the Memu Bay task force."

"Never heard of it."

"Not surprised. Crappy little marine and bioindustry zone, about four and a half thousand kilometers from the capital. I was stationed there last time."

"Ah." Colin relaxed his grip on the beer tin as he started to work out angles. "What's there?"

"Z-B will take the biochemicals and engineering products; that's all that's on the asset list. Anything else... well, it leaves scope for some private realization. If you're an enterprising kind of guy."

"Shit, Lawrence, I thought you were a straighter arrow than me. What happened to getting a big enough stake to qualify for starship officer?"

"Nearly twenty years, and I've made sergeant. I got that because Ntoko never made it back from Santa Chico."

"Christ, Santa fucking Chico. I forgot you were on that one." Colin shook his head at the memory. Modern historians were comparing Santa Chico to Napoleon's invasion of Russia. "Okay, I get you posted to Memu Bay. What do I see?"

"Ten percent."

"A good figure. Of what?"

"Of whatever's there."

"Don't tell me you've found the final episode of
Fleas on the Horizon?

Flight: Horizon.
But no; no such luck." Lawrence's face remained impassive.

"I got to trust you, huh?"

"You got to trust me."

"I think I can manage that."

"There's more. I need you at Durrell, the capital, in the Logistics Division. You'll have to arrange secure transport for us afterward, probably a medevac—but I'll leave that to you. Find a pilot who won't ask questions about lifting our cargo into orbit."

"Find one who would." Colin grinned. "Bent bastards."

"He has to be on the level with me. I will not be ripped off. Understand? Not with this."

Colin's humor faded as he saw how much dark anger there was in his old friend's expression. "Sure, Lawrence, you can rely on me. What sort of mass are we talking about?"

"I don't know for certain. But if I'm right, about a backpack per man. It'll be enough to buy a management stake for each of us."

"Hot damn! Easy meat."

They touched the rims of their tins and drank to that. Lawrence saw three of the locals nod in agreement, and stand up.

"You got a car?" he asked Colin.

"Sure: you said not to use the train."

"Get to it. Get clear. I'll take care of this."

Colin looked at the approaching men, making the calculation. He wasn't frontline, hadn't been for years. "See you on Thallspring." He jammed on his stupid hat and took the three steps to the back door.

Lawrence stood up and faced the men, sighing heavily. It was the wrong day for them to go around pissing on trees to mark their territory. This bar had been carefully chosen so the meeting would go unnoticed by anyone at Z-B. And Thallspring was going to be the last shot he'd ever get at any kind of a decent future. That didn't leave him with a lot of choice.

The one at the front, the biggest, naturally, had the tight smile of a man who knew he was about to score the winning goal. His two compadres were sidling up behind, one barely out of his teens, swigging from a tin, the other in a slim denim waistcoat that showed off glowmote tattoos distorted by old knife scars. An invincible trio.

It would start with one of them making some comment:
Thought you company people were too good to drink with us.
Not that it mattered what was actually said. The act of speaking was a way of ego pumping until one of them was hot enough to throw the first punch. Same dumb-ass ritual in every low-life bar on every human planet.

"Don't," Lawrence said flatly, before they got started. "Just shut up and go sit down. I'm leaving, okay."

The big fella gave his friends a knowing I-told-you-he-was-chickenshit grin and snorted contempt for Lawrence's bravado. "You ain't going nowhere, company boy." He drew his huge fist back.

Lawrence tilted from the waist, automatic and fast. His leg kicked out, boot heel smashing into the big fella's knee. The one in the denim waistcoat picked up a chair and swung it at Lawrence's head. Lawrence's thick right arm came up to block the unwieldy club. One leg of the chair hit full on, just above his elbow, and stopped dead. Its impact didn't even make Lawrence blink, let alone grunt in pain. The man stag
ered back as his balance was slung all to hell. It was like he'd hit solid stone. He stared at Lawrence's arm, eyes widening as realization hammered through the drink.

8.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters
50 Shades of Kink by Tristan Taormino
The Things I Want Most by Richard Miniter
Roc And A Hard Place by Anthony, Piers
The Merchant's War by Frederik Pohl
Digging Out by Katherine Leiner
Broken Crescent by Swann, S. Andrew
Books of a Feather by Kate Carlisle