Read The Third Claw of God Online
Authors: Adam-Troy Castro
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Fantasy, #Mystery
For the Ellison Nine,
who had an adventure of their very own
aboard another elevator entirely
Copyright © 2009 by Adam-Troy Castro.
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover art by Chris McGrath
Microsoft Reader January 2009
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Not all of these people appear onstage in the pages that follow; in fact, many of them don’t. But all are mentioned at least once. They are all given equal status here to avoid giving away the identities of any who might make unexpected entrances. To further inhibit spoilage, one is a fraud with no relevance to anything that happens in this novel, even in passing. You may assume that this personage was off somewhere, minding his or her own business or solving some other crime among the idle rich, while Andrea did her thing.
ARTIS BRINGEN: Andrea Cort’s long-time Dip Corps superior, no longer her boss but still a handy information source; back home at the wheelworld New London.
ANDREA CORT: Infamous child war criminal, now all grown up; Prosecutor-at-Large for the Diplomatic Corps of the Hom.Sap Confederacy, and secret defector to the alliance of software intelligences known as the AIsource, now honored guest of Hans Bettelhine. BERNARD CORT: Andrea’s father. (Deceased.)
VERONICA CORT: Andrea’s mother. (Deceased.)
OSCIN PORRINYARD: Andrea’s bodyguard and lover, the male half of a cylinked pair, sharing the same enhanced mind and personality.
SKYE PORRINYARD: Andrea’s bodyguard and lover, the female half; like Oscin, is not to be considered a separate person but rather a separate avatar of the same composite intelligence.
AISOURCE: Conglomeration of software intelligences, originating from several ancient civilizations predating the dawn of Mankind; secret employers of Andrea Cort and her companions, Oscin and Skye Porrinyard; tired of their immortal existence, they’re seeking their own mass extinction, and have hired Andrea Cort to help them tie the noose.
UNSEEN DEMONS: Otherwise known as the rogue intelligences; the minority faction among the AIsource collective that wants to live, and is willing to commit any number of crimes to avoid the march to extinction; responsible, in some as-yet unspecified manner, for the outbreak of madness on the planet Bocai that led to the deaths of Andrea Cort’s family.
CAROLE (BETTELHINE): Estranged wife of Philip Bettelhine.
CONRAD (BETTELHINE): Younger brother of Kurt Bettelhine. (Deceased.) HANS BETTELHINE: Current patriarch of the Bettelhine Munitions Corporation. JASON BETTELHINE: Son of Hans Bettelhine; full brother to Jelaine, half brother to Philip. JELAINE BETTELHINE: Daughter of Hans Bettelhine; full sister to Jason, half sister to Philip. KURT BETTELHINE: Father of Hans Bettelhine. (Deceased.)
LILLIAN JANE BETTELHINE: Sister of Hans Bettelhine. (Deceased.)
MAGNUS BETTELHINE: Younger brother of Hans Bettelhine.
MELINDA BETTELHINE: Bettelhine cousin. (Unknown lineage and current status.) PHILIP BETTELHINE: Son of Hans Bettelhine; half brother to Jason and Jelaine.
MONDAY BROWN: Personal aide to Hans Bettelhine.
ERIK DESCANSEN: Bettelhine employee; fiancé to Colette Wilson.
JOY (LAST NAME UNKNOWN): Bettelhine employee; “best friend.”
DINA PEARLMAN: Bettelhine employee; wife to Farley.
FARLEY PEARLMAN: Bettelhine employee; husband to Dina.
ANTREC PESCZIUWICZ: Security Chief of Layabout, the orbital terminal of Xana’s space elevator. VERNON WETHERS: Personal aide to Philip Bettelhine.
LOYAL JECK: Steward aboard the Bettelhine Royal Carriage.
ARTURO MENDEZ: Chief Steward aboard the Bettelhine Royal Carriage.
PAAKTH-DOY: Human woman raised by alien race, the Riirgaans; currently temporary steward aboard the Bettelhine Royal Carriage.
COLETTE WILSON: Bartender aboard the Bettelhine Royal Carriage.
PETER MAGRISON: “The Beast Magrison,” infamous terrorist, wanted for crimes against humanity. VEYS NAAIAA: Bocaian assassin.
KARL NIMMITZ: Retired thief; current husband of Dejah Shapiro.
SHAARPAS THARR: Bocaian assassin.
ERNST VOSSOFF: Multiple convictions; ex-husband of Dejah Shapiro.
BARD DAIKEN: Debt Arbitration Specialist, Dip Corps, missing in action. JANE ELLERY: Determined amateur.
HARILLE (last name unknown): Homeless runaway.
THE KHAAJIIR: Bocaian scholar; personal guest of Hans Bettelhine.
NEKI ROM: Bursteeni tourist.
DEJAH SHAPIRO: Long-time enemy of the Bettelhines; tycoon with vast fortune based on sound investments and habitat construction; personal guest of Hans Bettelhine; wife to Karl Nimmitz.
Later, much later, after I died, I tried to remember why.
There was all the death and pain I’d come from: neighbors turned to savages, tearing their one-time friends to pieces with bare hands and bared teeth. I’d seen my mother murdered, seen my friends torn apart; seen my own hands red and glistening from the lifeblood of a sentient I’d loved as much as my own father. I’d been eight then, but however many years I placed between myself and those horrors, however many steps I took toward a redemption I was not sure I deserved, that long night had always remained with me, and was always an eloquent argument in favor of the worst anybody could ever decide to do to me.
But that was not why I’d died.
It was cold where I was. My throat burned, but not with thirst. It felt raw, like I’d swallowed fire. It was agony, but I welcomed it, because it was the only part of me that felt anything except the vague impression that I deserved much worse. I’d done so many bad things. I’d killed in anger. I’d sold my loyalty to forces inimical to humanity. I’d shown my true face to the only person since my parents who had ever cared for me, revealing before one of my love’s two beautiful faces a potential for cruelty that had transformed everything s/he felt for me to pity and revulsion.
But even that was not why I’d died. It was why I’d deserved to die. I remembered a corpse stewing in blood and worse, a monster even more terrible than myself telling me she’d seen in me a kindred spirit, another mind so damaged by the forces that had twisted it beyond recognition that it was left with no other choice but murder.
But even those were not the reasons I’d died. Those were just the things I’d seen in the hours before death.
How had I died?
I remembered drifting in airless space, high above a beautiful blue-green world. I was in a space suit, but my heart was pounding and my breath was arriving in ragged gasps. I’d seen several people die tonight, but they were behind me; now I was alone but for the hundreds of guns leveled against me on all sides, and a course that could either carry me deeper into the vacuum or down into the fiery embrace of reentry. I’d screamed and received no answer; begged and received no pity. There was no possibility of rescue. Orders had been given, and they were orders that could not be questioned or defied.
A stabbing pain in my chest, followed by another and another, and my air exploded outward. My blood crystallized and boiled, even as I watched, drifting away like scarlet, smoky confetti. My throat and my lungs burned. I tried to scream but there was no air to scream with, nobody to scream for. That’s how and where and when I died.
But I could not remember why…
Hans Bettelhine may have been an infamous merchant of death, whose munitions empire was even now fueling slaughter on a hundred human worlds, but I had to be fair: it was for precisely that reason that I wouldn’t blame him for today’s attempt on my life.
Bettelhine would not have invited me all the way to his home system just to have a couple of incompetent assassins ambush me in his spaceport. Had he wanted me dead all that badly he knew my address, and could have nuked it on a whim or, given the preference for a more surgical strike, sent semi-intelligent flechette drones into New London to hunt me down and vivisect me in my sleep. Juje alone knew that he was supposed to have done stuff like that before.
Still, there was no denying that his headquarters world, Xana, set an entirely new record for the shortest interval between my arrival at a place I’ve never been and the very first attempt on my life there. I’m talking about minutes. Minutes.
It happened before I took my first step onto its planetary soil, even before Bettelhine should have known that my transport had arrived at its main orbital terminal, Layabout. The Porrinyards and I were walking through the concourse off Layabout’s main docking facilities, an array of liquor stores, restaurants, boutiques, gift shops, and even brothel booths where bored execs waiting for their passages offworld could spend a few minutes being brought to multiple orgasms by pulsed sonics. Strolling to the elevator dock, where we’d been assured a berth on the private car normally reserved for Bettelhine use, I counted four sentient species, not counting human beings, among the travelers waiting for their ride to the planetary surface or for their transports to other systems. There was at least one I didn’t recognize, who to my eyes looked a little like a terrestrial donkey—after that donkey had been burned with a blowtorch and then explosively decompressed. All of this would have provided more than enough distraction, after all those weeks in Intersleep, were I not also arguing politics with the Porrinyards, an exercise that amounts to being outnumbered even when only one of them is talking.
A pair of striking physical paragons, one male and one female, each with wise eyes, kind smiles, and stubbly silvery hair, Oscin and Skye Porrinyard have one supersized composite mind between them and often champion ridiculous points just to twist me into rhetorical knots. The first of the assassins stood up the second that Oscin and I came into view at the far end of the concourse, but there was still no reason to believe that his aimless stroll away from the seats and into the area of greatest foot traffic was intended to end with me bleeding my life out onto the cold permaplastic of the terminal floor. He was even easy to mistake as human. Bocaians made many of the same evolutionary choices as human beings. You wouldn’t ever mistake a member of one race for the other on close examination, but their basic outlines are almost identical, the most prominent difference when clothed being the bumpy Bocaian ear and the oversized Bocaian eyes. Any Bocaian dedicated to killing me, as most Bocaians are, can therefore get well within striking distance before being recognized for what he is.