Read the second chapter of Elysium Fire

We are thrilled to share with you the second chapter from Alastair Reynolds’  Elysium Fire, today. Step into the futuristic world of Prefect Dreyfus for a fast paced new SF crime thriller. This is your new SF obsession.

One citizen died a fortnight ago. Two a week ago. Four died yesterday . . . and unless the cause can be found – and stopped – within the next four months, everyone will be dead. For the Prefects, the hunt for a silent, hidden killer is on . . . 

 

Chapter Two

Near the outer orbit of the Glitter Band, deep inside a small, pumpkin-shaped asteroid, lay a room reached through a pair of heavy bronze doors. Hung on massive hinges, each door was engraved with the symbol of a clenched, gauntleted fist. Beyond the deliberate anachronism of the doors was a windowless chamber, its curved walls clad in many spotless layers of varnished wood. The room’s lighting was subdued, with most of the illumination coming from the ever-changing tactical readouts on its long, oval-shaped table, as well as the soft glow of the Solid Orrery, ticking away to itself in a corner. The Orrery was an evolving, real-time, three-dimensional representation of the entire flow of worlds in the Glitter Band, as well as the planet they orbited.

The doors hinged shut behind Thalia. She breathed in, forcing calm upon herself. The air in the room – based on the few occasions she had been inside it – always seemed to lie heavy on her lungs, as if it carried some of the varnish with  it.

‘Take a seat, Ng. This needn’t take long.’

There were twenty seats around the table, of which a dozen were pres- ently occupied. There was Jane Aumonier, of course, and flanking her were a mixture of Senior Prefects, Internal Prefects, Field Prefects, and    a few supernumerary analysts with tactical security ratings. Thalia took the high-backed chair facing the Supreme Prefect. Aumonier’s face was under-lit by the readouts on the area of table before her and they cast colours and patterns across her chin and cheekbones.

After a silence, Thalia ventured to speak.

‘I haven’t had time to submit a field report, ma’am.’

‘There’ll be no need in this instance, Ng. Your conduct was entirely satisfactory. It was an unusual development and you reacted well.’

Thalia nodded once, her hands settled before her in her lap. She won- dered if the words ‘unusual development’ had ever been delivered with more dry understatement.

‘I’m sorry about the medical orderly. He was just trying to do his work.’

‘Don’t worry about him,’ said Senior Prefect Gaston Clearmountain, sitting to the right of Aumonier. ‘He was lucky to get away with just a broken ankle.’

‘Perhaps he’ll take it as a lesson,’ said Senior Prefect Lillian Baudry, who was sitting in her customary position to the left of Aumonier.

‘I hope we don’t have to teach too many of them,’ Field Prefect Sparver Bancal said. ‘Or it could get messy.’

‘It’s messy enough already,’ Aumonier said, nodding in sympathy with Sparver, who had taken his usual position between Baudry and one of the supernumerary analysts. His seat was slightly elevated compared to the others, bringing his eye level close to the other operatives’.

‘The Heavy Medicals attended him. Do we have an update on his condition?’

‘No lasting complications,’ said Internal Prefect Ingvar Tench, who was sitting on the extreme right of the oval table.

There was a silence.

‘And the other man?’ Thalia asked. Aumonier looked puzzled by the question. ‘Which other man?’

‘The man whose head you had me bring back,’ Thalia answered.

Aumonier’s voice remained level, her posture poised and still, hardly any part of her face moving except her lips. ‘The man’s condition was far beyond anything the local medics were equipped to treat.’

‘We didn’t even let them try.’

Sparver Bancal smiled, or rather produced the nearest thing to a smile that a hyperpig could. ‘It wasn’t about killing or saving him. It was about evidential preservation.’

‘It was just a seizure,’ she said, looking from face to face for a clue. ‘Something went wrong in his brain and he started having some sort of episode. Why is that any concern of ours?’

‘You did well,’ Aumonier said, as if they had just spooled back to the start of the conversation. ‘You may continue your work with the polling cores, according to the agreed schedule.’

‘Begging your pardon, ma’am,’ Thalia said. ‘But you were expecting it, weren’t you? That’s why that container was in my ship, just waiting to be used. You were expecting to have to cut someone’s head off.’

She watched the faces of the others, measuring their reactions. None  of them looked comfortable, but they were doing their best to make this seem like routine business.

‘Let me be blunt with you, Ng,’ Aumonier said. ‘Today you brushed against the periphery of something beyond your security clearance. I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting otherwise. You are correct in your assumption that certain operational provisions had already been made.’

‘Well,  ma’am—’ Thalia began.

‘Speaking,’ Aumonier said, softening the remark with the mildest hint of a smile. ‘You are trusted, Ng, and expected to execute your duties with due regard to matters of security and secrecy. I am confident you will do so. But just so there is no ambiguity, there will be no mention of this matter from the moment you leave this room. You will discuss it with no one, regardless of rank; you will not allude to it in the vaguest of terms; you will conduct no queries pertaining to this business in any regard whatsoever. You are entitled to your curiosity. I would think less of you  if you were not curious. For now, though, you will proceed as if nothing unusual had happened today. In time you will be privy to more informa- tion – but not now,  and not for the foreseeable  future.’

It’s something big, then, Thalia thought. Something they haven’t cleared up yet. Something they don’t know when they’ll clear up.  Another emergency, on the order of the last one . . .

‘If I could help, ma’am . .  .’

‘You can’t, Ng,’ Aumonier said. ‘Or rather, you can, by putting this entire matter out of your mind. Is that clear?’

Thalia felt the pressure of the other faces staring at her own. ‘It is, ma’am,’ she answered, forcing herself to meet their eyes, to show confi- dence rather than  cowedness.

‘Then that will be all, Ng,’ Aumonier said.

In the area of Panoply they still called the Sleep Lab, Doctor Demikhov’s face loomed behind a distorting surface of tinted glassware. He was ad- justing some valve or temperature regulator on the side of a cryogenic vessel. Inside the vessel, looking oddly shrunken, was the severed head.

Behind Sparver Bancal, their own reflections ghosting above his own, stood Senior Prefect Gaston Clearmountain and Supreme Prefect Jane Aumonier.

‘Well?’ Aumonier asked, after the silence had grown interminable. ‘What’s the verdict, Doctor? You’re the expert on heads, or so I’m told.’

Some flicker of amusement crossed Demikhov’s lantern-jawed face   as he straightened up from the vessel and the bench’s worth of medical systems surrounding it. ‘I generally prefer working with heads that have at least a fighting chance of revival.’

The head was upright, fixed into some sort of life-support collar, caged by columns of rising bubbles. It looked waxy and inert, more like a casting than something that had only recently belonged to a living individual.

‘How does it compare?’ Sparver asked.

‘The usual mush, Prefect Bancal. Just a little less cooked than the others.’

‘You have such a delicate way with words,’ Clearmountain muttered. ‘Nothing recoverable?’ Aumonier asked.

‘I haven’t cracked it open yet. But the scans tell me all I need to know. Neural patterns are scrambled beyond recognition and the implants are reduced to a few micrograms of metallic slag.’

‘This is our best chance to date,’ Aumonier said. ‘If there’s anything in this head, the tiniest clue, we need  it.’

‘I’ll go through the motions,’ Demikhov said resignedly.

‘One question,’ Sparver said. ‘Do we know anything about the  melter?’

He heard Clearmountain’s sniff of displeasure. Something tightened in Aumonier’s already taut features before she spoke. ‘The citizen was Antal Bronner. Eighty-two years old. Born and died in the Shiga-Mintz Spindle, spent less than a decade living in other habitats.’

‘Priors?’ Sparver asked.

‘He looks clean,’ Aumonier said. ‘A private trader in out-system goods, specialising in exo-art. No scandals, no major insolvencies – just the ups and downs of any small-time broker.’

‘Living associates?’ asked Sparver.

‘One wife – Ghiselin Bronner. She’s been told that her husband died in a sudden medical event. She’ll have questions, undoubtedly, but we won’t be able to offer her all the answers.’

‘We could sequester her as a warm witness,’ Clearmountain said.

Aunonier gave a sharp shake of her head. ‘No, tact is key for now. I’ll arrange a soft interview, on her territory. Just enough to see if she’s hiding anything.’

‘You  could always send Ng,’ Sparver offered.

‘After I made it clear she isn’t to speak a word of this to anyone?’ Au- monier asked.

‘You had to for security’s sake. But that’s only because she hasn’t been brought on board. If she understood the situation, she’d be just as keen   as the rest of us to keep this under wraps. If she was given a Pangolin shot she could be up to speed by tomorrow, another pair of eyes and ears we badly need . . .’

‘And another risk of a leak,’ Clearmountain said.

‘She’s no more likely to leak than you or I, Gaston,’ Sparver said. ‘Unless you still believe Jason Ng wasn’t totally absolved of wrongdoing?’

‘I never mentioned her father,’ Clearmountain  said.

‘You didn’t need to – you’ve made it as plain as can be that you’ll never let Thalia step out of his shadow.’

‘Gentlemen,’ Aumonier said softly. ‘Let’s not bicker. The fact of the matter, though, is that Gaston is correct: we’ve kept this watertight until now by confining it to the highest security rankings, including our good colleague Doctor Demikhov. Thalia may well be trustworthy – I don’t doubt that she is – but every additional operative brings the risk of an acci- dental slip. Need I remind you that our enemies – opportunists like Devon Garlin – are circling like sharks, waiting for just such an opportunity?’

‘I still say she could be an asset,’ Sparver said.

‘And in time she may well be,’ Aumonier allowed. ‘But for now, you must set aside your personal feelings of protectiveness towards Ng. It could have been any operational Field who had to bring back that head. Would you be so keen to bring one of the others into the investigation, if you hadn’t worked closely with them under Dreyfus?’

Sparver knew better than to lie. ‘Perhaps you’re right.’

‘She was required to execute a task in the line of duty,’ Clearmountain replied. ‘That’s where it ends for her. She’s a competent operative, but at the end of the day she’s just another Field. That won’t cause any difficulties will it, Prefect Bancal?’

‘None at all,’ Sparver said.

‘You acted without my authority,’ Aumonier said, without even a token attempt  at pleasantries.

Dreyfus faced her across the table. He had come directly from the docking bay, not even taking the time to step through a washwall.

‘Your authority wasn’t required,’ he answered. ‘When I go to the hos- pice to see Valery, I do so as a free citizen. This was no different.’

‘Don’t split legalistic hairs with me. Devon Garlin isn’t our concern. Don’t force us into a position where he becomes so.’

‘I think we’ve already passed that point.’

Aumonier studied him with a faint air of exasperation, of lofty expectations in grave danger of being undermined.

‘Garlin’s breakaway movement will lose steam. It’ll only take a small crisis, a minor economic downturn, to have those rogue habitats scuttling back into the fold.’

‘You wouldn’t have said that two years ago.’ ‘Things change.’

Dreyfus leaned forward. ‘Garlin isn’t just another flash-in-the-pan blowhard. Those eight habitats aren’t rushing to rejoin us. And there are at least twenty more on the verge of breaking away.’

‘These are small numbers.’

Dreyfus offered open palms, traces of yellowish dirt still lodged under his fingernails. ‘I wanted to see him for real, not just on compads and screens. To get a measure of the man.’

Aumonier sighed slowly, clearly aware she was being drawn into a conversation against her will.

‘And what gems of insight did you bring back?’

‘Mainly that I don’t like self-professed men of the people who keep quiet about being born into one of the richest families in Chasm City.’

‘It wasn’t all roses. He was only sixteen when Aliya died. Tough for  an only child, especially the way Marlon was fading, losing his grip on things. Yet Julius picked himself up, made his own way beyond the estate and Chasm City, and found a role for himself in  life.’

‘To wrack and ruin.’

Half a smile bent her lips. ‘I don’t have to like the man, or believe in his objectives, to see that he’s made something of himself beyond the umbrella of the Voi name.’

‘There’s something else going on here. I’d done nothing to draw atten- tion to myself, nothing to call out my presence. And yet he knew I was there.’

‘I know. I saw it on the public feeds. “Panoply sends spy to eavesdrop on public gathering.”’

‘He’d been aware of me all along. And yet I’d barely shown my face. I went to Stonehollow by civilian shuttle. No one gave me a second glance at any point in my  journey.’

‘What are you saying?’

‘He still picked up on my presence. He sensed there was someone at the gathering who didn’t belong.’

‘For all you know, he wasn’t aware of you until the moment you turned your back on him. Then he ran an identity query on you and realised you weren’t carrying implants. From there it’s only a small step to guessing you were a Panoply operative.’

‘And from there he guessed my name?’

‘Like it or not, the Aurora affair made you something of a public figure.’ Aumonier angled her head to one side, conveying at least a measure of sympathy. ‘Don’t make more of this than you need to. Let Garlin be my headache,  not yours.’

‘As if you didn’t have enough to be getting on with.’ ‘I take it you heard about Ng’s little mission?’

Dreyfus nodded, glad the matter of Garlin had been set aside for the time being. ‘I saw Sparver in the docking bay. He told me what happened.

Do you think it’s the break we’ve been hoping for?’

Aumonier looked equivocal. ‘Demikhov doesn’t seem very optimistic – even for Demikhov.’

‘There has to be a pattern, a causal factor. We just haven’t seen it yet.’ ‘In other words: more deaths would be helpful?’

Dreyfus leaned back, evaluating a risky idea before he put it into words. ‘Might I say something?’

‘You’re going to anyway.’

‘Assign the polling core upgrades to a DFP One, and put Thalia Ng onto a full-time investigation of the deaths. Give her a Pangolin boost, and assign a squad, if need be.’

‘I can’t risk it. I’ve already been over this with Clearmountain and Bancal. It’s not that I don’t trust Ng, but if so much as a word of this gets out, I’ll have a mass panic on my hands.’

‘You  already have witnesses.’

‘Civilians who aren’t sure what happened, and who aren’t aware of any larger pattern of incidents. That’s how it’ll stay, provided we maintain the present security arrangements.’

Dreyfus knew better than to argue. ‘I suppose there’s always a chance the dead will give us something.’

‘You do have a way with them,’ Aumonier said. ‘Vanessa Laur just notified me, by the way. Our sequestration order came through. We have Antal Bronner’s beta-level. See if you can get something useful from the poor man, will you?’

Dreyfus made to rise. ‘Have you ever had to tell someone that they’re dead?’

‘No,’ Aumonier said. ‘I prefer to leave that sort of thing to the experts.’

Sparver was eating alone at one of the corner tables. He seemed hunched over his tray, as if pressed down by the low, curving ceiling. Thalia set  her own tray down without begging an invitation. For a moment she       let her friend get on with his meal, using the special cutlery that had   been provided for hyperpigs. He ate fastidiously, taking small mouthfuls and chewing carefully. He had even tucked a napkin into his collar. His reading spectacles were set on the table before him, next to a compad.

‘I hear you’re doing well with the polling cores,’ he said. ‘Not exactly thrilling work, it’s got to be said. But they wouldn’t trust it to anyone but a safe pair of hands.’

‘How long was that thing in my cutter?’

Sparver’s cutlery clinked. ‘Dreyfus will keep you on it for a little while longer. But that’s only because he knows you’ll do a thorough job.’ He carried on eating, nodding between mouthfuls. ‘This is actually not too terrible. You should try it. Or maybe it wouldn’t suit a baseline palate, with your restricted range of taste receptors.’ He looked at her with vague sympathetic interest. ‘How do you live like that?’

‘It was pure luck that I was near that man, wasn’t it?’ She pressed closer, lowering her voice. ‘I’ve been thinking about that, and what Aumonier said.’

‘I should cook for you again one of these days, show you what food’s meant to taste like. Pork’s off the menu, obviously, but other than that—’ ‘So they must have hundreds of those boxes stashed aboard our ships,

just waiting for one of us to be in the right position.’

Sparver dabbed at his mouth with the napkin. ‘Did you hear the news about the boss man? Took it upon himself to pay a visit to Devon Garlin.’ He tapped his spectacles against the compad. ‘Lady Jane’s spitting nails.’

Thalia’s hands were now fists to either side of her tray. ‘You have seni- ority over me, I understand. There are things you can talk about, and things you can’t. Ordinarily I’d respect that. But not after you talked me through cutting a man’s head off while he was still alive.’

Sparver took another mouthful, chewing and swallowing before giving his answer.

‘He wasn’t still alive.’

‘He was moving.’ She leaned in closer still, her voice a hoarse whisper. ‘He was still alive. You made me kill a man who was still alive.’

‘Did you listen to a word Lady Jane said, about not saying anything more about this?’

‘She was talking about security leaks. You don’t count. Now tell me about  that man.’

Sparver set down his cutlery, dabbed at his chin, then looked at Thalia with his small, sad, all-too-human eyes. ‘By the time you got to him the entire medical resources of the Glitter Band and Chasm City couldn’t have made a difference. What mattered was getting some fragment of evidence back to Panoply.’

She was silent for a few moments. She leaned back, getting out of his face. The food on her tray was still untouched.

‘Are you just going to leave it at that?’

‘I’m sure you’ll get a proper briefing at some point. But I won’t be the one giving it. It’s not that I don’t trust you—’

‘Someone doesn’t,’ she said sharply. ‘I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised. They can say they’ve exonerated someone, but whether they really mean it, deep down . . .’

‘You think this is about your father?’ He glanced down at his meal, what remained of it, then reached for his spectacles and stood to leave. ‘It’s about seniority, that’s all. You were given a difficult duty to perform and you did it. Be content with that.’

They regarded each other for an uncomfortable moment. Deep down she knew she was being unreasonable, pressuring him into a disclosure he had no right to give. But he was not the one who had gone through that nightmare in the Shiga-Mintz Spindle.

She had done her duty, all right. Not disgraced herself. But Sparver wasn’t the one who had vomited up his guts as soon as he was back on the ship, nor woken himself screaming as soon as he managed to sleep after his shift.

‘He wasn’t the first, was he?’ she said, knowing there would be nei- ther confirmation nor denial from her friend. ‘Not by a long stretch. Not the first and I’m guessing he won’t be the last. Aumonier admitted I’d brushed against something outside my clearance, something big. What is it, Sparver? What are we dealing with?’

‘I can’t tell you.’

‘Just give me a word. A case codename. Something.’ Sparver said nothing.

Dreyfus’s shoes crunched on gravel. The sound was sufficient to break  the reverie of a lone man sitting on a park bench, staring into the grey distance. Irritation and confusion clouded his features, as if he had just realised that he had no recollection of arriving at the bench.

‘I—’ the man started.

Dreyfus raised a calming hand, softening his expression in a way that he hoped conveyed empathy and understanding.

‘It’s all right, Antal. You’re among friends and nothing bad will happen to you.’ Stopping before the man, he lowered down onto his haunches, bringing his eye line level with the seated figure.

‘Who are you?’

‘My name’s Dreyfus. I’m a prefect. Something happened and now you’re in the care of Panoply.’

‘How . . .’ the man began, frowning. ‘What do you mean, something happened?’

Dreyfus put on a solemn look. ‘You died.’ He paused, letting that sink in for a second or two. ‘It was violent and irrevocable, with no prospect of neural consolidation. But you had a beta-level instantiation shadowing you for many years. That beta-level has now been legally sequestered and brought to a responsive state within a simulated environment, executing inside Panoply.’

Dreyfus could have scripted the exchange that would  follow.

‘No, you’ve made an error. I’m definitely not dead. I’d know if I were dead.’

‘Do you remember walking to this bench? Do you even have an idea where we are now?’

‘A  habitat. Somewhere.’

‘You don’t remember because there was no transitional experience. Under the terms of the sequestration order you were placed in immediate executive quarantine. You are the only copy of Antal Bronner presently executing. You were re-initiated a few seconds before I arrived.’

‘No,’ the beta-level said flatly. ‘There’s been a mistake.’

‘I wish there had been, Antal. But look at it this way. The whole point of you was to shine now. To speak for Antal Bronner when Antal could not.’

Maybe some part of that got through. Though denial was a virtually universal reaction, the beta-levels varied starkly in the way they moved from denial to acceptance. The ease or otherwise of that shift was unavoidably correlated with their base-personality.

‘I don’t feel dead,’ the beta-level said, more flatly than before. He stared down at his own sleeve, as if some desolate truth lay evident in the fabric’s weave.

‘You didn’t feel dead when you were alive, so you won’t feel it now. The crucial thing is that you may be able to help  us.’

‘How can I possibly  help?’

‘We need to talk about how you died.’ ‘You said it was violent. Was I murdered?’

‘It was a medical event, and an extreme one.’ Dreyfus paused, his knees beginning to ache. He was squatting for real in the grey box of the im- mersion room, with plugs jammed into his ears and goggles chafing at his skin. ‘Whether it was deliberate or not, we can’t yet say.’

Antal Bronner looked around, taking in the tall hedges and the distant arc of patterned landscape rising overhead, towns and hamlets laid across it like arrangements of tiny gaming pieces.

‘Will I be able to leave?’

Dreyfus smiled tightly. ‘In good time.’

‘I want to speak to my wife. Ghiselin does know, doesn’t she?’

‘Your wife’s been informed of your death, and she has constables and counsellors to turn to. But I can’t allow any possibility of evidential con- tamination at this stage of the investigation.’

‘What evidence are we talking about?’

‘You,’ Dreyfus said bluntly. At last the effort of squatting had become too much. He beckoned to the seat and waited for a nod from Bronner, inviting him to sit down. Dreyfus settled his weight onto what he trusted would be a functionally equivalent surface, conjured out of quickmatter in the interview room. ‘For reasons presently unknown, something went wrong with your neural machinery. Your implants sent out debilitating signals, putting you into a grand mal seizure. Then they underwent a catastrophic  thermal overload.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘A heat pulse, which boiled the surrounding brain tissue.’

They were facing the same way now, staring out across the lawn, a silvery fog creeping its way down the distant curve of the habitat’s inner surface.

‘We got to you as quickly as we could,’ said Dreyfus. ‘Had we been there a little sooner, we might have been able to slow down the thermal event. I’m waiting for our medical examiner to see if you can teach us anything we didn’t already know. In the meantime, though, I’m count-  ing on there being something, some detail or circumstance, that might help.’

Bronner gave a hollow laugh. ‘There’s nothing. I’d remember if there was.’

‘Has anything ever gone wrong with your implants?’ ‘Nothing.’

‘And you’ve had them all your life?’

‘I don’t know exactly when they were put in. Allowed to grow, I should say. I was just a boy.’

‘But since then – no complications?’ ‘None. What happened to me, Prefect?’

Dreyfus kept his tone studiedly neutral. ‘Witnesses and public records place you walking through the park when you collapsed. There was no visible cause and no one else was affected. But something made it happen, and I’d like to know what. If there’s anything in your past that you think might have any bearing . . .’

Bronner turned to face him. ‘Like what, exactly?’

‘Some borderline procedure? Black market medicine. Illicit neural modification. Contact with Ultras, or Conjoiners – you name it. Be as frank as you like, Antal. The last thing I’m going to do is prosecute you.’

‘I’ve never gone in for anything like that. I’m not one for taking chances. I live in the Shiga-Mintz Spindle, for pity’s sake.’ ‘I have to ask.’

‘Why do you? I died. It’s a tragedy for me, that’s for sure. But it’s not the sort of thing I’d expect Panoply to  expend much energy on.

Aren’t you supposed to be making sure none of us commit voting fraud?’

‘There’s that,’ Dreyfus said, nodding slightly. ‘But it’s not the limit of our remit.’ With a grunt of effort he pushed himself up from the bench,  or rather its counterpart in the interview room. ‘If I’ve judged you right, Antal, you’ve told me the truth about yourself, to the limit of your knowledge.’

‘I can see I’ve been a disappointment.’

‘Not at all – we’re just getting started. This place, by the way – this simulation – we call it Necropolis.’

‘And that’s supposed to help me?’

Dreyfus gestured across the lawn, where the gravelled path cut through a slot in the manicured hedge. ‘Follow the path. Look for an ornamental garden, a big lake, some terraces and pavilions. Sooner or later you’ll bump into some other people. They all know each other by now,  and  they all know why they’re here.’

Some dark realisation shadowed Bronner’s eyes. ‘The same thing happened to them, didn’t it?’

The briefing was short, because Doctor Demikhov had already told them almost everything of significance. Sparver sat through it, toying with his spectacles as the neural scans and slices played across the tactical room’s walls, projected over dark varnished wood.

Bronner’s implants, what had been salvaged of them, resembled the mangled, blackened remains of space vehicles after a bad re-entry.

Dreyfus had not been present during the first conversation with the medical chief, but nothing Demikhov said seemed to surprise him. He just sat there, nodding sometimes, rarely bothering with a direct ques- tion. Gaston Clearmountain and Lillian Baudry listened stoically, offering the occasional clipped interjection.

Jane Aumonier said less than anyone, waiting until Demikhov was finished, out of the room and back to some other pressing business.

‘If I’m going to draw a crumb of encouragement out of this whole unpleasantness, it’s that the protocol worked. The whiphound performed flawlessly, as did the cryogenic vessel.’

‘The only weak link,’ Gaston Clearmountain said, ‘was the prefect. Why did Ng take so damned long to reach him? She was already in the habitat.’

‘She had to go back for the equipment,’ Dreyfus said, mumbling out the words like a man on the edge of sleep.

‘And whose bright idea was that?’ Clearmountain asked.

‘Yours,’ said the brittle, stiff-backed Lillian Baudry, with a surprising lack of rancour. ‘You didn’t want routine activities hampered by prefects carrying around surplus  equipment.’

Clearmountain gruffed out his disgruntlement. ‘She should still have been faster.’

‘Grown wings, you mean?’ Dreyfus speculated.

‘I was with her on the link the whole time,’ Sparver put in, before his boss inflamed an already tense discussion. ‘Ng was the best prefect we could have hoped to have on hand.’

‘Whatever we learn from this episode,’ Aumonier said, ‘we’re still left with essentially the same set of questions we had a couple of days ago. Tom: you’ve talked to the beta. Do you see any scope for progress?’

‘Same story as the rest,’ Dreyfus said after a moment’s reflection. ‘Surprised to be dead. Nothing in his declared background to explain the neural anomalies. I’ve already allowed him free interaction with the other betas.’

‘Wise, Dreyfus?’ asked Clearmountain.

‘They’re dead,’ Dreyfus said. ‘The least we can do is give them someone to talk to. Besides, we haven’t time to do things by the usual routine.’

Their collective gaze had shifted to the Solid Orrery. The ten thousand habitats were ten thousand tiny points of coloured light, glinting     in shades of ruby, gold, emerald or topaz, each accorded a brightness in relation to the size of structure or population load it represented.

Eight of the habitats had been enlarged and elevated above the true orbital plane of the Glitter Band, so that their true shapes were apparent. These were the eight breakaway states – technically no longer within Panoply’s purview, but still a matter for consideration as far as Aumonier was concerned.

Then there were the others.

Fifty-four additional habitats, raised even further from the plane than the breakaway states. This had nothing to do with their physical locations in the Glitter Band, but everything to do with their recent significance to Panoply. There was, as yet, no overlap between the two sets of habitats. Of these, however, the fifty-fourth bore the characteristic shape of the Shiga-Mintz Spindle.

‘Tom’s right,’ Aumonier said, her level tone drawing a line under any criticism of Dreyfus’s methods. ‘The betas have a vested interest in help- ing us explain their deaths. The more they interact, the greater the chance that some common factor will come to light. It’s a slim hope, but the best we have.’

‘Until the next death,’ Dreyfus said. ‘Case fifty-five.’

Aumonier gave a slow nod. ‘Fortunately – or not, depending on your point of view – I doubt we’ll have long to wait.’

They were walking side by side, following the trail that skirted the biggest lake in this part of Necropolis. The woman next to Dreyfus was small and wiry with an acrobat’s muscle tone. Her hair was trimmed to a functional crop, emphasising the elfin structure of her facial bones. She wore a grey outfit of trousers and tunic, stitched with an interlocking design of white trees.

‘It’s not that I don’t like your company,’ she was saying. ‘But I’m starting to feel as if we’ve already been over this a hundred times.’

‘We probably have,’ Dreyfus said, walking with his head down and his hands behind his  back.

‘Then the point of these little chats is . . .?’

‘Maybe all it will take is the hundred and first interview. You’ll let something slip, and that will give me the breakthrough.’

‘Let something slip,’ she repeated, mimicking his tone. ‘As if I’m deliberately  withholding something.’

‘I didn’t mean it that way.’

‘Let me get something straight in my mind. I’m a digital artefact: a pattern of algorithms, designed to emulate the responses of the living instantiation  of me.’

‘They don’t usually put it so bluntly, but yes – that’s about it.’

‘And you’ve got me sequestered. You’ve moved a copy of my digital code into your machines inside Panoply.’

‘Not just moved, but put a legal and binding embargo on the con- tinued execution of any remaining copies of you beyond Panoply. We only want to deal with one copy of you, and it’s simpler for you if there are no conflicts when we release you back into the world.’

‘Whatever works for you. But one thing’s clear enough to me. You already have the means to pick me apart, to examine my coding struc- ture – my decision-branch algorithms, my life-logs. You can see through my soul like it’s made of glass. So why the time-consuming charade of these interviews? Can’t you just know everything there is to know about me?’

‘Let me explain how that would work,’ Dreyfus said. ‘Only another artificial intelligence would be able to pick through your digital structure and hold all the details of your life-log in its memory. We have machines that can do that, it’s true. But any machine would still have to break everything down into a form that I could assimilate, and I’d still have to phrase my queries as natural language expressions. In which case I’d end up having a conversation much like this one, only with a whole unneces- sary layer of mediation between me and you.’

‘Mm.’ She made a face that told him she accepted his answer but still found something unsatisfactory in it. ‘And do my thoughts come into it?’ ‘You’re continuing to exist and can interact with other beta-levels. Isn’t

that better than being frozen in limbo?’

‘This isn’t living, Prefect Dreyfus – no matter what you might like to think.’

‘You’ll feel differently when we release you.’

‘Why should I? It’ll still be just another pale imitation of life.’

‘Only if you want it to be. Beta-levels can still serve a social function.’ ‘Serve a social function?’ she echoed. ‘How thrilling you make it seem.

The afterlife as public servitude. I could water some flowers, tend some grass, is that what you mean?’

‘I wish there was something I could say to make it seem better.’

She had been the first of the dead to come to Panoply’s attention, and her beta-level the first to be sequestered. Dozens more had followed in the ensuing months, but she would always be the first victim, emblematic of those to come. He still remembered the false optimism of the early days, the slowly waning hope that some common link would be found among the cases. Whatever it was, though, it had not come to light through routine interviewing. Even the Search Turbines, programmed to probe into the fine-grained details of a life, had found nothing of significance.

So why did he keep coming back to Cassandra Leng?

Because he liked her, he supposed. Her bluntness, her unsentimental acceptance of death. Some of the other betas wanted things from him: information, promises, changes to their terms of sequestration. Cassandra Leng seemed not to care about any of that. And in her directness he believed he was getting as close to a truthful account of her beliefs and opinions as with any of the other dead.

Something else, too – and with it a prickle of distant guilt. Her directness reminded him of his wife.

‘I’m not really buying this cynicism, Cassandra,’ Dreyfus said. ‘Your living instantiation must have believed there was some worth to a beta-level or you wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of having the emulation created.’

‘I did it for the living, not for myself – the way you make out a will so that people around you will be happier. To make them feel better, not for your own benefit.’

‘Is that really all there was to it?’

From the lake side they had a good view of the terrain as it swooped up beyond the gardens, rolling up into a tube. Lakes and hamlets glimmered in a haze of silvery distance. A small island rose from the lake, with a skeletal tower jutting into the fog.

‘We may as well face it, Dreyfus,’ she said, letting out a quiet sigh. ‘I’m dead and gone. I died after taking a reckless gamble with my own life.’

‘It wasn’t the risk-taking that killed you, it was just where you happened to be when the neural overload took place.’ The hundred-and-twelve-year- old Leng had perished during a high-risk sport, an elaborate and dangerous cross between firewalking and tag, played out in the bowels of the Colfax Orb, a habitat that made a living for itself by courting hedon- ists, thrill-seekers and the borderline suicidal. ‘But what were you hoping to get out of that place to begin  with?’

‘Shall I let you in on a dirty little secret, Dreyfus?’ ‘If you like.’

‘Utopia is stifling. What’s the point in longevity if every day is a grey duplicate of the one before?’

‘Life is still precious,’ Dreyfus said. ‘Still worth cherishing. No matter how it looks most of the time.’

‘I don’t disagree. But you either live on the limits, or you’re not living.

I knew that, and I accept the consequences.’ ‘You’d see yourself as a risk-taker, then.’

She glanced at him, rolling her eyes. ‘Oh, this old hobbyhorse of yours.

We’ve been over this, remember?’

‘I still think there’s something to it.’

‘You’re entitled to your theories, Prefect – and I’ll humour them, while I’m here. Ask around, share stories, trade memories – as I’ve been doing for months and months  already.’

They walked a little further. By some degrees the mist had lifted from the lake, and now the central island was more visible than it had been only a few moments earlier. The skeletal tower was actually a pylon, sup- porting the thin thread of a monorail line, swooping overhead and out across the lake.

‘There’s a new man, Antal Bronner. Have you spoken to him?’

‘He’s only just arrived, the poor confused soul. It would be a little cruel of me to inflict myself on him so soon after he came here, wouldn’t it?’

‘Not everyone shares your view of death.’

‘I’ll talk to him, for what it’s worth. But I wouldn’t get your hopes up. He looks boring to me. Not a risk-taker at all.’ She looked at him with something close to amusement. ‘I think it may be time to find a new theory, Dreyfus, if that’s the best you’ve got.’

‘It is,’ he said. ‘For now.’

 

*

Sparver knocked on the door, waited, knocked a second time. Half a minute passed, then Thalia opened the door just enough to show her face.  She was wearing off-duty clothes, her hair wet and glistening as if she had just stepped through a washwall.

‘What?’ she asked, caught between irritation and interest. ‘Come to give me a second dressing-down for overstepping the mark?’

‘Not exactly.’

He didn’t have to ask to be invited; they understood each other at least that well. Sparver waited until she had closed the door behind them, then moved to the low table in the middle of the room. He was about to conjure himself a chair when Thalia saved him the effort and produced one to his usual specifications, which she knew by heart.

‘You  want tea, I suppose?’

‘No, I’m not sure I have the stomach for it.’

Sparver took the chair and bid Thalia sit opposite him. She wore a black gown cinched at the waist, patterned with green-gold dragons.

‘Something on your conscience?’

‘Yes, as a matter of fact. I’ve been thinking everything over, especially in the light of our last conversation.’ The chair she had made for him was low, almost like something fashioned for a child, but there was no slight  in that. She knew his tastes perfectly well and he much preferred a chair that let him keep his feet on the floor, instead of having them swing in mid-air. ‘You were right, and I was wrong. You are involved in this, and you do deserve to know the fuller picture. But it’s difficult, and this won’t end well for me.’

‘Then you’d better say nothing.’ There wasn’t much charity in her tone. ‘No, I’ve made up my mind.’ He looked her in the face. ‘Something bad is happening, Thal, and you’ve only seen a tiny part of it. We don’t know what it is, or where it’s leading. Actually, that’s not quite true. We know it’s getting worse.’

‘All right,’ she said, cradling the tea she must have prepared for herself before he arrived. Sparver picked up the smell of ginger, Thalia taking her tea the way Dreyfus liked it. He wondered if she had adopted the habit out of preference, or because she wished to emulate or endear herself to Dreyfus. Whatever the explanation, he had no use for tea made that way. Ginger made him sneeze. ‘What is it?’

‘You asked about the case codename. It’s Wildfire. People are dying, and we don’t know why. That man you attended to, Antal Bronner. He’s just the latest Wildfire case and there’s no pattern that we can see. They’re going through their lives, and then suddenly something goes wrong with their heads. A malfunction of their neural implants, leading to a thermal overload and massive destruction to surrounding brain tissue. That’s why Demikhov wanted that head frozen as quickly as possible – so he had some chance of working out what’s going on, before the evidence cooked itself. But we weren’t quick enough.’

‘You mean I wasn’t.’

‘You did all you could. I’ve vouched for you in that regard.’ ‘Oh. I need vouching for, do I?’

‘They’re on edge, the senior prefects. You can’t blame them. This doesn’t fit any patterns. It’s not confined to one habitat. It’s dispersed, emerging unpredictably. An asymmetric threat.’

Thalia sipped at her ginger-scented tea. ‘I guessed that man wasn’t the first. You wouldn’t go to the trouble of preparing for something like that unless you’d already seen it before and were expecting new cases.’ She looked up from the tea, as if half fearful of the answer he was about to give.

‘Antal Bronner was the fifty-fourth that we’re aware of. There’s no clear link between them, or where they happen.’

‘How long has this been going on?’

Sparver got up from the conjured chair. ‘It’s around four hundred days since the first case. But that’s as much as you need to hear from my lips. The rest, you’d better hear from Lady Jane.’

‘Why should she tell me any of it?’

‘The damage has been done,’ Sparver said. ‘You know too much to go back to checking cores now. She’ll have two options: either wipe your memory, or put you to work doing something useful. I know which I’d choose.’

‘I hope you’re right,’ Thalia said. ‘For both our sakes.’

© Alastair Reynolds, Elysium Fire, 2018

 

If you missed the exclusive short story, Open and Shut, set in theworld of Prefect Dreyfus you can read it here.

If you missed the first chapter of Elysium Fire read it here.

 

Elysium Fire will be available in hardback, eBook and audio download on the 25th January 2017.

Pre-order from the UK 

Pre-order from the US 

 

 

 

Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds was born in Barry, South Wales, in 1966. He studied at Newcastle and St Andrews Universities and has a Ph.D. in astronomy. He gave up working as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency to become a full-time writer. REVELATION SPACE and PUSHING ICE were shortlisted for the ARTHUR C. CLARKE AWARD; REVELATION SPACE, ABSOLUTION GAP, DIAMOND DOGS and CENTURY RAIN were shortlisted for the BRITISH SCIENCE FICTION AWARD and CHASM CITY won the BRITISH SCIENCE FICTION AWARD.

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