Blue Remembered Earth- Chapter Two

‘Not clever, brother. It’s a long way down.’

Geoffrey steadied himself and stepped away from the roof ’s edge. He’d been craning his neck, following a bright point of light as it tracked overhead. A Balinese orbital manufactory, according to the aug.

For a moment, it had exerted a hypnotic draw on his gaze and he’d begun to topple.

Sunday was right: the old building lacked the safety features it was so easy to take for granted these days. No barrier around the roof, and no hidden devices waiting to spring into action to intercept his fall.

He caught his breath. ‘I didn’t hear you come up.’

‘Lost in your own little world.’ She took the wine glass out of his hand.

‘I thought you were feeling sick.’

‘Sick of playing my part, more like. Did you hear what Lucas said to me?’

‘Have a heart. I had my own conversation to handle.’

‘I bet it wasn’t as dull as mine.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Hector can give Lucas a run for his money when it comes to boring the crap out of people.’

The stars were out, the western horizon still glowing the deep shim- mering pink of a plasma tube. After leaving the dinner, he had stepped over the glass skylights and made his way to the unprotected edge. Looking up, he’d studied the riverine ooze of the Near-Earth com- munities. The aug identified the stations and platforms by name and affiliation, painting flags and corporate symbols on the heavens. Beau- tiful, if you stopped to think about what it actually all meant, what it signified in terms of brute human achievement, generations of blood and sweat. Peaceful communities in orbit, cities on the Moon and Mars and further afield, and all of it theoretically within his grasp, his for the taking.

In 2030, when Eunice had been born, there’d been nothing like this. Rockets that used chemistry to get into space. A couple of mouldering space stations, bolted together from tin cans. Footprints on the Moon, undisturbed for sixty years. Some clunking, puppyish robots bumbling around on Mars, a few more further afield. Space probes the size of dustbin lids, falling into the outer darkness.

A night sky that was a black, swallowing ocean.

‘Lucas asked me what I want to do with my life,’ Geoffrey said. ‘I said I’m taking care of it myself, thank you. Then he asked me why I’m not making a name for myself. I said my name was taken care of at birth.’

‘Bet that went down well.’

‘Having the keys to the kingdom is all very well, Lucas told me, but apparently you still need to know which doors to open.’

‘Lucas is a prick. He may be blood, but I can still say it.’ Sunday knelt down, placing Geoffrey’s glass to one side. She lowered her legs over the side of the building, assuming a position that struck Geoffrey as being only slightly less precarious than standing right on the edge. ‘He’s had an empathy shunt installed. It’s legal, surprisingly enough. When he needs to become more detached and businesslike, he can turn off specific brain circuitry related to empathy. Become a sociopath for the day.’

‘Even Hector hasn’t gone that far.’

‘Give him time – if having a conscience comes between him and a profit margin, he’ll march straight down to the nearest neuropractor and have his own shunt put in.’

‘I’m glad I’m not like them.’

‘That doesn’t change the fact that you and I are always going to be a crushing disappointment to the rest of the family.’

‘If Father was here, he’d back me up.’

‘Don’t be so sure. He may not have quite as low an opinion of us as our cousins, but he still thinks you’re only pretending to have an occupation.’

Above the household, glowering down on Africa, the full Moon gave every impression of having been attacked by an exuberant child with a big box of poster paints. The Chinese, Indian and African sectors were coloured red, green and yellow. Blue swatches, squeezed between the major geopolitical subdivisions, indicated claims staked by smaller nation states and transnational entities. Arrows and text labels picked out the major settlements, as well as orbiting bodies and vehicles in cislunar space.

Geoffrey voked away the layer. The naked Moon was silver-yellow, flattened-looking. Any other time of the month, cities and industries would have spangled in lacy chains and arcs in the shadowed regions of the disc, strung out along transit lines, political demarcations and the ancient natural features of the Lunar surface. Rivers of fiery lava, seeping through a black crust. But the fully lit face, too bright for any signs of habitation to stand out, could not have looked so different to Geoffrey’s moonstruck hominid ancestors.

He still found it difficult to accept that Sunday wasn’t sitting right next to him, but was up there, on that bright nickel coin hammered into the sky.

‘Did you see that strange little girl at the scattering?’ he asked her.


‘And ?’

‘I was going to ask if you knew who she was. I tried resolving her bind, but—’

‘It didn’t go anywhere.’ Geoffrey nodded. ‘That’s weird, isn’t it? You’re not meant to be able to do that.’

‘Doesn’t mean there aren’t some people capable of doing so.’

‘Like your friends?’

‘Ah, right. I see where this is going. You think she has something to do with the Descrutinised Zone. Well, sorry, but I don’t think she does. Plexus are monitoring Earth–Lunar traffic and they didn’t pick up anything that looked like an unresolved ching bind. Not that they’re infallible, of course, but my guess is that she wasn’t chinging in from Lunar space. Somewhere closer, maybe.’

‘Still doesn’t tell us who she is.’

‘No, but if I allowed myself to get sucked into every little mystery surrounding this family . . .’

Sunday left the remark unfinished. ‘Someone must know her, and that’s all that matters to me. What other possibility is there? Someone showed up at our scattering without an invitation?’

‘Maybe everyone just assumes she was invited.’

‘Good luck to her, in that case. No secrets were revealed, and if anyone wanted to eavesdrop, there were a million public eyes they could have used. Sorry, but I’ve got other things on my mind right now. Deadlines. Bills. Rent to pay. That kind of stuff.’

Sunday was right, of course – and given Geoffrey’s shaky grasp of the internal politics of his own family, it was entirely possible that the girl was some relative he’d forgotten about.

‘I can’t even point to the DZ,’ he said, grasping in a single remorseful instant how little he knew about her life.

‘It would be a bit weird if you could, brother – it’s on the other side of the Moon, so it’s never actually visible from here.’ She paused. ‘You know, the offer’s always there. You can get a tourist visa easily enough, spend a few days with us. Jitendra and I would love to show you around.

There’s something else I’m dying to show you, too. That thing I did with Eunice’s face . . .’ Sunday hesitated. ‘There’s a bit more to it, it’s kind of a long-term project of mine. But you’d have to come and see it in person.’

Geoffrey delved into his box of delaying tactics. ‘I need to get a couple of papers out before I can take any time off. Then there’s an article I need to peer review for Mind.’

‘What you always say, brother. I’m not criticising, though. You love your work, I can see that.’
‘I’m flying out tomorrow. Want to come and see the herd ?’

‘I . . . need to report back, about this body,’ Sunday said. ‘Sorry. Like you say: maybe next time.’
Geoffrey smiled in the darkness. ‘We’re as bad each other, aren’t we?’

‘Very probably,’ his sister answered, from wherever on the far side of the Moon her flesh-and-blood body presently resided. ‘Me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

He had hoped Sunday might change her mind – there was so much of his work he would have gladly shared with her – but when Geoffrey flew out in the morning it was on his own. The waterhole, he observed, was smaller than it had been at the start of the short dry season that accompanied the turning of the year. Patches of once-marshy ground were now hardened and barren of vegetation, forcing animals to crowd closer as they sought sustenance. Rather than the intense vivid green of the rainy season, the grass was now sun-bleached brown, sparse and lacking nourishment. Trees had been stripped of anything edible and within reach of trunks. Many decades had passed since the last prolonged drought in this part of Africa, and a real drought would never be per- mitted now, but it was still a testing time.

Soon he spotted a huddle of elephants near a grove of candelabra trees, and another about a kilometre further away, with a mother and calf trailing the group. Squinting as the sun flashed off what little water remained, he made out a lone bull picking its way through a stand of acacia and cabbage trees. The elephants were battleship grey, with only a few olive-green patches testifying that they had, against the odds, located some cool mud.

By the shape of his body, the relative length and curvature of his tusks and a certain sauntering quality to his gait, the lone adult male was almost certainly Odin, a generally bad-tempered bull with a range that encompassed most of the basin. Odin had his trunk curled nonchalantly over his left tusk and was making progress in the direction of the nearest grouping, the O-family into which he had been born some thirty years ago.

Geoffrey voked an aug layer, the aug dropping an arrow and data box onto the bull, confirming that it was indeed Odin.

The Cessna continued its turn. Geoffrey spotted another group of elephants, even further from the waterhole than the second. It was the M-family, his main study group. They had moved a long way since yesterday. ‘Turn north-west,’ he told the Cessna, ‘and take us down to about two hundred metres.’

The aircraft obeyed. Geoffrey counted the elephants by eye as best he could, but that was hard enough from a fixed position. He overflew the group once, had the Cessna make a loop and return, and got different numbers: eleven on the first pass, ten on the second. Giving in, he allowed the aug to label and identify the party. He was right about the M-family identification and the aug found only the expected ten elephants. He must have double-counted one of the rambunctious calves.

He had the Cessna overfly the M-family one more time, lower still, and watched elephants lift their heads to follow him, one of the older members even saluting him with her trunk. ‘Give me manual,’ he told the plane.

He selected a ribbon of land and came down three hundred metres from the M-family. The aug detected no other elephants – and certainly no bulls – within three kilometres. An adequate margin of error, and he would be alerted if the situation changed.

He told the Cessna that he would return within two hours, grabbed his shoulder bag from behind the pilot’s seat and then set off in the direction of the herd. Leaving nothing to chance, Geoffrey hefted a dead branch from the ground and used it to beat the earth as he walked, occasionally raising his voice to announce his arrival. The last thing he wanted to do was startle a dozing elephant that had somehow managed not to pick up on his approach.

‘It’s me, Geoffrey.’

He pushed through the trees, and at last the elephants were in sight. Ten, as the aug had confirmed – grazing peacefully, snuffling and rooting through dried-up grass. The matriarch, Matilda, was already aware of his presence. She was a big elephant with a broad face, missing a tusk on the right side and possessed of a distinctive Africa-shaped notch in the side of her left ear.

Geoffrey discarded the stick. ‘Hello, big girl.’

Matilda snorted and threw back her head, then returned to the business of foraging. Geoffrey surveyed the rest of the party, alert for signs of illness, injury or belligerent mood. One of the younger calves – Morgan – still had the same limp Geoffrey had noted the day before, so he voked a specific biomedical summary. Bloodstream analysis showed normal white cell and stress hormone counts, suggesting that there was no infection or skeletal injury, only a moderately debilitating muscle sprain that would clear up with time. Babies were resilient.

As for the rest of the M-family, they were relaxed and peaceable, even Marsha, the daughter who had recently mock-charged Geoffrey. She appeared sheepishly absorbed in her foraging, as if trusting that the incident was something they could both put behind them.

He paused in his approach, framed the view with his fingers like a budding auteur and blinked still frames. Sometimes he even took a small folding chair from the Cessna and sat down with a sketchbook and sharpened 2B pencil, trying to capture the ponderous majesty of these wise and solemn creatures.

‘So, old lady,’ he said quietly as he came nearer to the matriarch, ‘how are things today?’

Matilda eyed him with only mild curiosity, as if he would suffice until something more interesting came along. She continued to probe the ground with her trunk while one of the calves – Meredith’s boy, Mit- chell – nosed around her hindquarters, flicking flies away with his tail.

Geoffrey voked the link with Matilda. A graphic of her brain appeared in the upper-left corner of his visual field, sliced through and colour- coded for electrical and chemical activity, all squirming blues and pinks, intricately annotated.

Geoffrey placed his bag on the ground and walked up to Matilda, all the while maintaining an unthreatening posture and letting her see that his hands were empty. She allowed him to touch her. He ran his palm along the wrinkled, leathery skin at the top of her foreleg. He felt the slow in-and-out of her breathing, like a house-sized bellows.

‘Is this the day?’ he asked.

After six months’ careful negotiation he had flown to a clinic in Luanda, on the Angolan coast, and completed the necessary paperwork. The changes to his own aug protocols were all legal and covered by watertight non-disclosure statutes. The new taps had been injected pain- lessly, migrating to their chosen brain regions without complication. Establishing the neural connections with his own brain tissue took several weeks, as the taps not only bonded with his mind but carried out diagnostic tests on their own functioning.

In the late summer of the previous year he’d had strange machine-like dreams, his head filled with luminous gridlike patterns and insanely complex tapestries of pulsing neon. He’d been warned. Then the taps bedded down, his dreams returned to normal and he felt exactly as he had done before.

Except now there was a bridge in his head, and on the other side of that bridge lay a fabulous, barely charted alien kingdom.

All he had to do was summon the nerve to cross into it.

Geoffrey walked around Matilda once, maintaining hand-to-skin contact so that she always knew where he was. He felt the other elephants studying him, most of them adult enough to know that if Matilda did not consider him a threat, nor should they.

Geoffrey voked his own real-time brain image into position next to Matilda’s. Mild ongoing activity showed in the visual and auditory centres, as she watched him and at the same time kept vigil over the rest of her family. He, on the other hand, was showing the classic neuro- logical indicators of stress and anxiety.

Not that he needed the scan to tell him that: it was there in his throat, in his chest and belly.
‘Show some backbone,’ Geoffrey whispered to himself.

He voked the aug to initiate the transition. A sliding scale showed the degree of linkage, beginning at zero per cent and rising smoothly. At ten per cent there was no detectable change in his mental state. On the very first occasion, six months ago now, he’d reached fifteen and then spooked himself out of the link, convinced that his mind was being slowly infiltrated by tendrils of unaccountable dread. The second time, he’d convinced himself that the dread was entirely of his own making and nothing to do with the overlaying of Matilda’s state of mind. But at twenty per cent he had felt it coming in again, spreading like a terror- black inkblot, and he had killed the link once more. On the five sub- sequent occasions, he had never taken the link beyond thirty-five per cent.

He thought he could do better this time. There had been sufficient opportunity to chide himself for his earlier failures, to reflect on the family’s quiet disappointment in his endeavours.

As the scale slid past twenty per cent, he felt superhumanly attuned to his surroundings, as if his visual and auditory centres were beginning to approach Matilda’s normal state of activity. Each blade of glass, each midday shadow, appeared imbued with vast potentiality. He wondered how any creature could be that alert and still have room for anything resembling a non-essential thought.

Perhaps the relative amplification levels needed tweaking. What might feel like hyper-alertness to him might be carefree normality to Matilda.

He exceeded twenty-five per cent. His self-image was beginning to lose coherence: it was as if his nerve-endings were pushing through his skin, filling out a volume much larger than that defined by his body. He was still looking at Matilda, but now Matilda was starting to shrink. The visual cues were unchanged – he was still seeing the world through his own eyes – but the part of his brain that dealt in spatial relationships was being swamped by data from Matilda.

This was how he felt to her: like a doll, something easily broken. Thirty per cent. The spatial adjustment was unsettling, but he could cope with the oddness of it all. It was weird, and it would leave him with the curious appreciation that his entire sense of self was a kind of crude, clunking clockwork open to sabotage and manipulation, but there was no emotional component.

Thirty-five per cent, and the terror hadn’t begun to come in yet. He was nearly four-tenths of the way to thinking like an elephant, and yet he still felt fully in command of his own mental processes. The emotions were the same as those he’d been experiencing when he initiated the link. If Matilda was sending him anything, it wasn’t enough to suppress his own brain activity.

He felt a shiver of exhilaration as the link passed forty per cent. This time, just possibly, he could go all the way. Even to reach the halfway point would be a landmark. Once he had got that far, there would be no doubt in his mind that he could take the link to its limit. Not today, though. Today he’d willingly settle for fifty-five, sixty per cent.

Something happened. His heart rate quickened, adrenalin flooding his system. Geoffrey felt panicked, but the panic was sharper and more focused than the creeping terror he had experienced on the previous occasions.
The matriarch had noticed something. The aug hadn’t detected any large predators in the area, and Odin was still much too far away to be a problem. Maasai, perhaps . . . but the aug should have alerted him. Matilda let out a threat rumble, but by then some of the other elephants in the family had begun to turn uneasily, the older ones shepherding the younger individuals to safety.

His sense of scale still out of kilter, Geoffrey’s eyes swept the bush for danger. Matilda rumbled again, flapping her ears and heeling the ground with her front foot.
One of the youngsters trumpeted.

Geoffrey broke the link. For a moment Matilda lingered in his head, his sense of scale still awry. Then the panic ebbed and he felt his normal body image assert itself. He was in danger, no question of it. The elephants might not mean him harm but their instinct for survival would easily override any protectiveness they felt towards him. He started to back away, at the same time wondering what exactly was approaching. He made to reach for his bag.

A dark-garbed and bony-framed man stepped out of the bush. He flicked twigs and dust from his suit trousers, apparently oblivious to the elephant family he had just scared to the brink of stampede.

Geoffrey blinked and frowned, his heart still racing. The elephants were calming now – they recognised Memphis from his occasional visits and understood that he was not a threat.
‘I thought we had an agreement,’ Geoffrey said.

‘Unless,’ Memphis said reasonably, ‘the circumstances were excep- tional. That was also the understanding.’

‘You still didn’t have to come here in person.’

‘On the contrary, I had to do exactly that. You set your aug preferences such that you are not otherwise contactable.’

‘You could have sent a proxy,’ Geoffrey said peevishly.

‘The elephants have no liking for robots, from what I remember. The absence of smell is worse than the wrong smell. You once told me that they can differentiate Maasai from non-Maasai solely on the basis of bodily odour. Is this not the case?’

Geoffrey smiled, unable to stay angry at Memphis for long. ‘So you were paying attention after all.’
‘I wouldn’t have come if there was any alternative. Lucas and Hector were most insistent.’

‘What do they want with me?’

‘You’d best come and find out. They’re waiting.’

‘At the household ?’

‘At the airpod. They were keen to walk the rest of the way, but I indicated that it might be better if they kept back.’

‘You were right,’ Geoffrey said, bristling. ‘Anything they’ve got to say to me, they had their chance last night, when we were all one big happy family.’

‘Perhaps they have decided to give you more funding.’

‘Yeah,’ Geoffrey said, stooping to collect his bag. ‘I can really see that


Lucas and Hector were standing on the ground next to the metallic- green airpod. They wore lightweight pastel business suits, with wide- brimmed hats.

‘I trust we did not disturb you,’ Lucas said.

‘Of course we disturbed him,’ Hector said, smiling. ‘What else are we to Geoffrey but an irksome interruption? He has work to do.’

‘I conveyed the urgency of your request,’ Memphis said.

‘Your cooperation is appreciated,’ Lucas said, ‘but there’s no further requirement for your presence. Return to the household with the airpod and send it back here on autopilot.’

Geoffrey folded his arms. ‘If there’s anything you need to tell me, Memphis can hear it.’

Hector beckoned the housekeeper to climb into the airpod. ‘Please, Memphis.’

The old man met Geoffrey’s eyes and nodded once. ‘There are matters I need to attend to. I shall send the airpod back directly.’

‘When you’re done,’ Hector said, ‘take the rest of the day off. You worked hard enough as it is yesterday.’
‘Thank you, Hector,’ Memphis said. ‘That is most generous.’

Memphis hauled his bony frame into the airpod and strapped in. The electric duct fans spun up to speed, whining quickly into ultrasound, and the airpod hauled itself aloft as if drawn by an invisible wire. When it had cleared the tops of the trees, it turned its blunt nose to face the household and sped away.

‘That was awkward,’ Hector said.

Lucas flicked an insect from the pale-green sleeve of his suit. ‘Under the circumstances, there was no alternative.’

Geoffrey planted his hands on his hips. ‘I suppose a lot of things look that way when you’ve had an empathy shunt put in. Have you got it turned on or off right now?’

‘Memphis understood,’ Hector said, while Lucas glowered. ‘He’s been good to the family, but he knows where his responsibilities end.’

‘You didn’t need him to bring you out here.’

Lucas shook his broad, handsome head. ‘At least the elephants know him slightly. They don’t know us at all.’

‘Your fault for never coming out here.’

‘Let’s not get off on the wrong foot here, Geoffrey.’ Hector’s suit was of similar cut to his brother’s, but a subtle flamingo pink in colour. Close enough in appearance to be easily mistaken for each other, they were actually neither twins nor clones. ‘It’s not as if we’ve come with bad news,’ Hector went on. ‘We’ve got a proposition that we think you’ll find interesting.’

‘If it’s to do with taking up my burden of family obligations, you know where you can shove it.’

‘Closer involvement in Akinya core strategic affairs would be viewed positively,’ Lucas said.

‘You make it sound like I’m shirking hard work.’

‘It’s clear to us that these animals mean an enormous amount to you,’

Hector said. ‘That’s nothing you need be ashamed of.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Nonetheless,’ Lucas said, ‘an opportunity for a reciprocal business transaction has arisen. In return for the execution of a relatively simple task, one that would involve neither personal risk nor an investment of more than a few days of your time, we would be willing to liberate additional discretionary funds—’

‘Substantial funds,’ Hector said, before Geoffrey had a chance to speak.

‘As much over the next year as the family has donated over the past three. That would make quite a difference to your work, wouldn’t it?’ He cast a brim-shadowed eye in the direction of the Cessna. ‘I’m no expert on the economics of this kind of operation, but I imagine it would make the hiring of one or two assistants perfectly feasible, with enough left over for new equipment and resources. And this wouldn’t be a one-off increase, either. Subject to the usual checks and balances, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be extended going forward, year after year.’

‘Or even increased,’ Lucas said, ‘if a suitably persuasive case were to be tabled.’

Geoffrey couldn’t dismiss an offer of increased funding out of hand, no matter what strings came attached. Pride be damned, he owed it to the herd.

‘What do you want?’

‘A matter has arisen, a matter of interest only to the family, and which necessitates a suitably tactful response,’ Lucas said. ‘You would need to go into space.’

He’d already guessed it had to be something to do with Eunice. ‘To the Winter Palace?’

‘Actually,’ Lucas said, ‘the Lunar surface.’

‘Why can’t you go?’

Hector shared a smile with his brother. ‘In a time of transition, it’s important to convey the impression of normality. Neither Lucas nor I have plausible business on the Moon.’

‘Hire an outsider, then.’

‘Third-party involvement would present unacceptable risks,’ Lucas said, pausing to tug at his shirt collar where it was sticking to his skin. Like Hector he was both muscular and comfortably taller than Geoffrey.

‘I hardly need add that you are an Akinya.’

‘What my brother means,’ Hector said, ‘is that you’re blood, and you have blood ties on the Moon, especially in the African-administered sector. If you can’t be trusted, who can?’

Geoffrey thought for a few seconds, striving to give away as little as possible. Let the two manipulators stew for a while, wondering if he was going to take the bait.

‘This matter on the Moon – what are we talking about?’

‘A loose end,’ Hector said.

‘What kind ? I’m not agreeing to anything until I know what’s involved.’

‘Despite the complexity of Eunice’s estate and affairs,’ Lucas said, ‘the execution of our due-diligence audit has proceeded without com- plication. The sweeps have turned up nothing of concern, and certainly nothing that need raise questions beyond the immediate family.’

‘There is, however, a box,’ Hector said.

Geoffrey raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun. ‘What kind ?’

‘A safe-deposit box,’ Lucas said. ‘Is the concept familiar to you?’

‘You’ll have to explain it to me. Being but a lowly scientist, anything to do with money or banking is completely outside my comprehension. Yes, of course I know what a safe-deposit box is. Where is it?’

‘In a bank on the Moon,’ Hector said, ‘the name and location of which we’ll disclose once you’re under way.’

‘You’re worried about skeletons.’

The corner of Lucas’s mouth twitched. Geoffrey wondered if the empathy shunt was making him unusually prone to literal-mindedness, unable to see past a metaphor.

‘We need to know what’s in that box,’ he said.

‘It’s a simple request,’ Hector said. ‘Go to the Moon, on our expense account. Open the box. Ascertain its contents. Report back to the house- hold. You can leave tomorrow – there’s a slot on the Libreville elevator. You’ll be on the Moon inside three days, your work done inside four. And then you’re free to do whatever you like. Play tourist. Visit Sunday. Broaden your—’

‘Horizons. Yes.’

Hector’s expression clouded over at Geoffrey’s tone. ‘Something I said ?’

‘Never mind.’ Geoffrey paused. ‘I have to admire the two of you, you know. Year after year, I’ve come crawling on my hands and knees asking for more funding. I’ve begged and borrowed, pleading my case against a wall of indifference, not just from my mother and father but from the two of you. At best I’ve got a token increase, just enough to shut me up until next time. Meanwhile, the family pisses a fortune into repairing the blowpipe without me even being told about it, and when you do need a favour, you suddenly find all this money you can throw at my feet. Have you any idea how insignificant that makes me feel ?’

‘If you’d rather the incentives were downscaled,’ Lucas said, ‘that can be arranged.’

‘I’m taking you for every yuan. You want this done badly enough, I doubt you’d open with your highest offer.’

‘Don’t overstep the mark,’ Hector said. ‘We could just as easily approach Sunday and make the same request of her.’

‘But you won’t, because you think Sunday’s a borderline anarchist who’s secretly plotting the downfall of the entire system-wide economy. No, I’m your last best hope, or you wouldn’t have come.’ Geoffrey steeled himself. ‘So let’s talk terms. I want a fivefold increase in research funding, inflation-linked and guaranteed for the next decade. None of that’s negotiable: we either agree to it here and now, or I walk away.’

‘To decline an offer now,’ Lucas said, ‘could prove disadvantageous when the next funding round arrives.’

‘No,’ Hector said gently. ‘He has made his point, and he is right to expect assurances. In his shoes, would we behave any differently?’

Lucas looked queasy, as if the idea of being in Geoffrey’s shoes made him faintly nauseous. It was the first human emotion that had managed to squeeze past the empathy shunt, Geoffrey thought.

‘You’re probably right,’ Lucas allowed.

‘He’s an Akinya – he still has the bargaining instinct. Are we agreed that Geoffrey’s terms are acceptable?’

Lucas’s nod was as grudging as possible.

‘We have all committed this conversation to memory?’ Hector asked.

‘Every second,’ Geoffrey said.

‘Then let it be binding.’ Hector offered his hand, which Geoffrey took after a moment’s hesitation, followed by Lucas’s. Geoffrey blinked the image of them shaking.

‘Don’t look on it as a chore,’ Hector said. ‘Look on it as a break from the routine. You’ll enjoy it, I know. And it will be good for you to look in on your sister.’

‘We would, of course, request that you refrain from any discussion of this matter with your sister,’ Lucas said.

Geoffrey said nothing, nor made any visible acknowledgement of what Lucas said. He just turned and walked off, leaving the cousins standing there.

Matilda was still keeping watch over her charges. She regarded him, emitted a low vocalisation, not precisely a threat rumble but registering mild elephantine disgruntlement, then returned to the examination of the patch of ground before her, scudding dirt and stones aside with her trunk in the desultory, half-hearted manner of someone who had forgotten quite why they had commenced a fundamentally pointless task in the first place.

‘Sorry, Matilda. I didn’t ask them to come out here.’

She didn’t understand him, of course. But he was sure she was irritated with the coming and going of the odd-smelling strangers and their annoying, high-whining machine.

He halted before her and considered activating the link again, pushing it higher than before, to see what was really going on in her head. But he was too disorientated for that, too unsure of his own feelings.

‘I think I might have made a mistake,’ Geoffrey said. ‘But if I did, I did it for the right reasons. For you, and the other elephants.’

Matilda rumbled softly and bent her trunk around to scratch under her left ear.

‘I’ll be gone for a little while,’ Geoffrey went on. ‘Probably not more than a week, all told. Ten days at most. I have to go up to the Moon, and . . . well, I’ll be back as quickly as I can. You’ll manage without me, won’t you?’

Matilda began poking around again. She wouldn’t just manage without him, Geoffrey thought. She’d barely notice his absence.

‘If anything comes up, I’ll send Memphis.’

Oblivious to his reassurance, she continued her foraging.