We are delighted to welcome Al Roberston back to the blog to share with us a carefully chosen extract from Crashing Heaven. Crashing Heaven is out in trade paperback. You can pre-order the eBook from all UK eTailers for just £1.99 until the 25th June.
Welcome to the world of Crashing Heaven. Earth is abandoned, and humanity resides on Station, an industrialised asteroid run by the sentient corporations of the Pantheon. Under their leadership a war has been raging against the Totality – ex-Pantheon AIs gone rogue. With the war over, Jack Forster and his sidekick Hugo Fist, a virtual ventriloquist’s dummy tied to Jack’s mind and created to destroy the Totality, have returned home. . .
Excerpt – Jack and Fist come back to Station
This is where everything begins. We join Jack and Fist as they return to Station, and we get to see it for the first time ourselves. We find out quite a lot about them and their relationship. We also learn a little about the Totality, the rogue AIs that have just fought the gods that rule Station to a standstill.
[Look out of the window, Fist,] said Jack, speaking inside his mind so only the little puppet could hear him. [Snowflakes.]
As their shuttle wheeled around, the sun snatched at the snowflakes’ great ice bodies and made them blaze, leaving even Hugo Fist with nothing to say. There were a dozen of them hanging in the cold, empty space before Station. The smaller ones sparkled with reflected light. Maybe five hundred metres across, they revolved in the void, bodies shimmering gently. The larger ones were majestic crystal shapes, dense with fractal complexity. They glowed partly with the sun’s fire, partly with their own inborn light. The abandoned Earth roiled behind them, its toxic cloudscapes an insult to their cold perfection.
[A Totality battle formation – here?] whispered Fist. [We really did lose the war, Jackie boy!]
[According to East they arrived a month ago. Supporting their peace negotiators.]
[You been onweave? Checking the newsfeeds? I thought you’d given up on that.]
[I wanted to see what we were coming back to.]
[I’m sure. You’ve been mailing Andrea again, haven’t you? Harry’s dead, she’s single, you’ve come all the way back from a Totality prison, and she still won’t reply?]
Jack said nothing. Andrea’s mails had sustained him through the last two years of prisoner-of-war life and helped him come to terms with his imminent death. He thought she’d be overjoyed to hear that he was returning home to Station. But she didn’t reply to the message he sent announcing his return, or any that followed it. He turned back to look out of the window.
The shuttle was nearing the snowflakes. They drifted in the darkness like so many frozen stars, policed by clusters of monitor drones. Station – Kingdom’s greatest achievement – hung behind them. Jack had spent seven years remembering his home. It was nine kilometres long and, at its widest, two and a half kilometres across. Every single centimetre suddenly seemed so ugly. The twin cylinders of Homelands and Docklands were corroded metal dustbins sprouting from opposite sides of the Wart, the hollowed-out asteroid wedged between them like a dirty secret.
Only the cargo jetties of Docklands held anything like beauty. They shimmered above the near tube’s round, open mouth in sparkling lines, reaching out from the Spine to score order on the void. The Spine was speckled with spinelights, their blazing light creating one more day on Station. It disappeared into Docklands, running all the way down Station’s central axis to the distant tip of Homelands. And of course, there was Heaven – a blue-green ring wrapped around the end of Homelands. Its perfect light was too cold to move Jack. He’d left any allegiance to the Pantheon gods far behind five years ago, when he refused to fight any more battles for them.
The shuttle altered course slightly and Docklands came into view, a curved clutter of factories, offices, housing estates and entertainment zones. It was as if some giant, half-broken machine had bled buildings on to the arched inner wall of a hollow cylinder, until something broadly like a city had clotted into being. It was too far away to make out much detail. Memory filled the gaps. Jack remembered the Docklands streets he’d grown up in, and then left so comprehensively behind. ‘The inside of the dustbin,’ he thought, then smiled sadly as he imagined Andrea scolding his cynicism. She’d helped him find their beauty again, in those few hidden months they’d had together. Then the rock hit the moon and everything changed. She’d brought so much into his life more recently, too. He winced at the thought of her absence. He’d missed her so much over the last few weeks.
Fist caught the movement but, with no access to Jack’s deep emotions, misunderstood it. [We don’t need to worry about snowflakes any more. The Totality like us now.]
Jack sighed. [They shouldn’t,] he replied. [You and I destroyed enough of them.]
[Before your little change of heart.]
The shuttle moved past one of the larger snowflakes. A cold shining arm loomed towards the window. Silver lights flickered within hard crystal ice, each shimmer a thought pulsing in one of a thousand virtual minds.
[Just think, Jack. I could have killed one of those. If you’d let me.]
‘No,’ said Jack, out loud. One of his guards heard and briefly stared at him, then at the empty seat next to him. Jack didn’t notice. He was looking out at Docklands again, tracing yesterday across its streets.
The shuttle docked at one of Station’s jetties. The guards escorted Jack down to a cell in Customs House. He hung his coat on the back of the door and nestled his little Totality-issued suitcase down beside the cell’s single chair. His new suit itched. Hours passed. There was water, but no food. Fist, bored, was sleeping. Little snores echoed in Jack’s mind. Memories of Andrea darted between them, trailing grief and loss. Familiar thoughts followed. Her silence was impossible to understand. Perhaps something had happened to her. Maybe she needed his help. He had to find her. After a while, more immediate needs distracted him. He banged on the door and shouted for something to eat. There was no response. He tried to sleep, and in a confused half-dream found himself falling through darkness towards nothing.
At last a new guard startled him awake. He walked Jack down a windowless corridor to a small, brightly lit room. There was a desk with two plastic chairs in one corner of the room. A balding, portly customs official sat behind it. He asked Jack to sit down.
[Don’t show off,] Jack told Fist as he stretched and yawned. [I don’t want him realising you’ve hacked your cage.]
The official had a strong Docklands accent. He was brisk and ostensibly courteous. He confirmed Jack’s identity, then asked which Pantheon god had been his patron. ‘No wonder you’re so fucked,’ he said when Jack replied ‘Grey’. Then, a return to formality and a barrage of questions.
‘When did Grey certify you as an accountant?’
‘On the day of my twenty-first birthday.’
‘When were you seconded to InSec?’
‘Three years later.’
‘What was your role?’
‘I was assigned to work under Inspector Harry Devlin as a forensic auditor. Investigating links between the Panther Czar nightclub and Bjorn Penderville’s murder.’
The official snorted.
‘Why didn’t they use an InSec specialist?’
‘It was Grey’s will. I didn’t question it.’
[That’s not what you told me,] said Fist.
‘When were you reassigned to outer-system duties?’
‘After the attack on the moon. It was decided that the Penderville case was low priority. I understand it was never resolved.’
[Not going to share your conspiracy theories, Jackie boy?]
[No. Now shut up.]
‘What was your specific Soft War posting?’
‘Aggressive on-going counter-mind actions.’
The official stared at a screen that was invisible to Jack. With every answer, his fingers moved through the air, taking notes on a virtual keyboard. Then there was a pause. He looked straight at Jack, challenging him.
‘When did you defect?’
‘I didn’t defect. I surrendered.’
‘I have the date of your defection here. Please confirm it.’
[Aren’t you taking this rather seriously, Jack?]
[The Pantheon betrayed me. I didn’t betray them. I just stopped doing their dirty work.]
‘I can’t proceed without your co-operation. And if I can’t complete this interview I can’t admit you to Station.’
‘Sandal’s watching, isn’t he? You’re not normally such sticklers.’
[Oh, come on Jack. We don’t want to go back to Callisto. Totality prisoner-of-war life is so boring.]
‘You’re a dangerous man, Forster, and you have an improper attitude to the Pantheon. I don’t need to be in their sight to do my duty. When did you defect?’
‘I did not defect.’
[Oh fucking hell, Jack, when I take your body I don’t want to be stuck in some out-system backwater. And what about Andrea? You’re going to let pride stop you from finding her?]
Fist’s words cut through Jack’s anger. But before he could reply, the room’s door slid open. The official turned towards it, surprised. ‘Forster’s right,’ announced the woman who came into the room.
She was short and broad and middle-aged, and she moved with the unfussy precision of machinery. Dark grey combat pants and a baggy black T-shirt hung off her stocky frame. Her face had the lived-in look of an old sleeping bag. There was a blue tinge to her skin. She’d dyed her hair to match it.
‘You people don’t normally care about this sort of thing. Anyone would think you were looking for an excuse not to admit him. Which would be illegal.’
The official turned pale. ‘Who are you?’ he snapped, not quite regaining his authority. ‘Where’s the guard?’
‘I dismissed him. And I’m an observer. Look.’
The official’s eyes refocused. Jack assumed that identity information was flickering a couple of feet in front of his face. ‘I see,’ he stammered. ‘An honour.’
‘Good,’ the woman said, enjoying the official’s discomfort. ‘Now, finish the questions. And – Forster’s reply is accurate. He did surrender.’ She turned to Jack. ‘Not that cowardice is really any better than treason, but still. Attention to detail.’
‘I’m not a coward,’ Jack snapped back without thinking.
[Fuck’s sake,] groaned Fist.
‘No, you just gave yourself up to the enemy,’ said the woman. ‘Without firing a shot. But we’ll skip over that.’