A Second Chance at Eden

Peter F. Hamilton | 27 mins

Earth 2070

Sonnie’s Edge

It was daylight, so Battersea was in gridlock. The M500 motorway above the Thames had taken us right into the heart of London at a hundred and fifty kilometres an hour, then after we spiralled down an off ramp onto the Chelsea Bridge our top speed braked to a solid 1 k.p.h. Our venue was another three kilometres ahead of us.

We joined the queue of chrome-silver vehicles jamming the street, turning up the reflectivity of our own windscreen against the glare. Bikes slithered through the narrow gaps, their riders in slick-skinned kooler suits. Lighthorns flared and blared in fury as they cut through the two-way tailback, chasing after them like some kind of runway strobe effect. As if that wasn’t bad enough, every vehicle on the road was humming urgently, hub motors and air-conditioning vibrating the air at a frequency guaranteed to induce a migraine. Three hours of that.

I hate cities.

Midday, and we rolled into the derelict yard like an old-fashioned circus caravan come to town. I was driver’s mate to Jacob, sitting up in the ageing twenty-wheeler’s cab, feet up to squash the tideline of McWrappers littering the dash. Curious roadies from the arena were milling about on the fractured concrete, staring up at us. The other two vans in our team’s convoy turned in off the road. A big pair of dilapidated metal gates clanged shut behind us.

Jacob locked the wheels and turned off the power cell. I climbed down out of the cab. The silvered side of the lorry was grimy from the city’s airplaque, but my reflection was clear enough. Blonde bob hairstyle that needs attention; same goes for the clothes, I guess: sleeveless black T-shirt and olive-green Bermuda shorts I’ve had for over a year, feet crammed into fraying white plimsolls. I’m twenty-two, though I’ve got the kind of gaunt figure thirty-year-old women have when they work out and diet hard to make themselves look twenty-two again. My face isn’t too bad; Jacob rebuilt it to give me the prominent cheekbones I’d always wanted as a teenager. Maybe it wasn’t as expressive as it used to be, but the distorting curves of the lorry’s bodywork made it hard to tell.

Outside the cab’s insulation, London’s sounds hit me square on, along with its heat and smell. The three major waste products of eighteen million consumers determined to preserve their lifestyle by spending and burning their way through domestic goodies and energy at a rate only twenty-first century industry can supply. And even that struggles to keep up with demand.

I can plug straight into that beautiful hive of greed; their need for a byte of the action. I know what they want best of all, and we provide it for them.

Excitement, that’s how me and the rest of Sonnie’s Predators suckle our money. And we’ve brought a big unique chunk of it here to Battersea. Tonight, there’s gonna be a fight.

Beastie-baiting: the all-time blood sport; violent, spectacularly gory, and always lethal. It’s new and it’s happening; universes away from the sanitized crap of VR games consumers load into their taksuit processor each night. This is real, it ignites the old instincts, the strongest and most addictive of all. And Sonnie’s Predators are the hottest team to storm ashore in the two years since the contests started. Seventeen straight wins. We’ve got Baiter groupies howling for us all the way from the Orkney Islands down to Cornwall.

I was lucky, signing up at level one, when all the rage was modifying Rottweilers and Dobermanns with fang implants and razor claws. A concept I bet poor old Wing-Tsit Chong never thought of when he invented the affinity bond.

Karran and Jacob were the team’s nucleus, fresh out of Leicester University with their biotechnology degrees all hot and promising. They could have gone to any company in the world with those qualifications, plunged straight into the corporate universe of applied research and annual budget squabbles. It’s an exchange millions of graduates make each year, zest for security, and the big relief of knowing your student loans will be paid off. But that was about the time when the Pope started appeasing the Church’s right wing, and publicly questioned the morality of affinity and the way it was used to control animals. It didn’t take long for the mullahs to join the chorus. The whole biotechnology ethics problem became prime topic for newscable studios; not to mention justification for a dozen animal-rights activists to launch terminal action campaigns against biotechnology labs. Suddenly, establishment biotechnology wasn’t so enticing.

If they didn’t start paying off the student loan within six months of graduation, the bank would just assign them to a company (and take an agency fee from their salary). Baiting was the only financially viable alternative for their talent.

Ivrina was an ex-surgical nurse who had just started helping them with grafting techniques when I arrived. A drifter with little ambition, even less education, but just enough sense to realize this was different, something I could immerse myself in, maybe even make a go of. It was new for everybody, we were all beginners and learners. They took me on as a driver and general dogsbody.

Wes joined three months later. A hardware specialist, or nerd, depending on your prejudice. An essential addition to a sport whose sophistication was advancing on a near-daily basis. He maintained the clone vats, computer stacks, and Khanivore’s life-support units, plus a thousand other miscellaneous units.

We were doing all right, Jacob’s Banshees, as we were known back then, battling hard for cult status. A decent win ratio, pushing sixty per cent. Jacob and Karran were still massively in debt, but they were making the monthly interest payments. The purse money was enough to keep us independent while our contemporaries were scrambling for syndicate backing. Poor but proud, the oldest kick in the book. Waiting for the whole sport to earn cable interest and turn big time. It would happen, all the teams knew that.

Then I had my mishap, and acquired my killer edge.

The buzz from the hub motors on the other two vans faded away, and the rest of the team joined me among the weeds and cat pee of the yard’s concrete. According to a London Administration Council sign on the gates the yard had been designated as a site for one of the proposed Central-South Dome’s support pillars. Though God knows when construction would ever begin. Central-North Dome was visible above the razor wire trimming the yard’s wall. A geodesic of amber-tinted crystal, four kilometres in diameter, squatting over most of the Westminster district like some kind of display case for the ancient stone buildings underneath. The struts were tiny considering the size of it, a type of superstrong fibre grown in orbit, glinting prismatically in the achingly bright sun. Empty gridworks for the Chelsea and Islington domes were already splintering the sky on either side of it. One day all cities will be like this, sheltering from the hostile climate which their own thermal emission has created. London doesn’t have smog any more. Now it just has heat shimmer, the air wobbling in the exhaust vents of twenty-five million conditioning nozzles. The ten largest ones are sitting on the Central-North dome, like black barnacles spewing out the surplus therms in huge fountains of grey haze. London Administration Council won’t allow planes to fly over it for fear of what those giant lightless flames will do to airflow dynamics.

Karran came over to stand beside me, setting a wide panama hat over her ruff of Titian hair. Ivrina stood a few paces back, wearing just a halter top and sawn-off jeans; UV proofing treatment had turned her Arctic-princess skin a rich cinnamon. Wes snaked an arm protectively round her waist as she sniffed disapprovingly at the grungy air.

‘So how’s the vibes, Sonnie?’ Karran asked.

They all fell silent, even Jacob who was talking to the roadie boss. If a Baiting team’s fighter hasn’t got the right hype then you just pack up and go straight home. For all their ingenuity and technical back-up, the rest of the team play no part in the bout. It’s all down to me.

‘Vibes is good,’ I told them. ‘I’ll have it wrapped in five minutes.’

There was only one time when I’d ever doubted. A Newcastle venue that matched us against the King Panther team. It turned into a bitch of a scrap. Khanivore was cut up pretty bad. Even then, I’d won. The kind of bout from which Baiter legends are born.

Ivrina punched a fist into her palm. ‘Atta girl!’ She looked hotwired, spoiling for trouble. Anyone would think she was going to boost Khanivore herself. She certainly had the right fire for it; but as to whether she had the nerve to go for my special brand of killer edge I don’t know.

It turned out that Dicko, the arena’s owner, was a smooth organizer. Makes a change. Some bouts we’ve wondered if the place even existed, never mind having backstage gofers. Jacob marshalled the roadies, and got them to unload Khanivore’s life-support pod from the lorry. His beefy face was sweating heavily as the opaque cylinder was slowly lifted down along with its ancillary modules. I don’t know why he worries so much about a two-metre drop. He does most of the beastie’s body design work (Karran handles the nervous system and circulatory network) so more than anyone he knows how tough Khanivore’s hide is.

The arena had started life as a vast tubing warehouse before Dicko moved in and set up shop. He kept the corrugated panel shell, stripping out the auto-stack machinery so he could grow a polyp pit in the centre – circular, fifteen metres in diameter, and four metres deep. It was completely surrounded by seating tiers, simple concentric circles of wooden plank benches straddling a spiderwork of rusty scaffolding. The top was twenty metres above the concrete floor, nearly touching the condensation-slicked roof panels. Looking at the rickety lash-up made me glad I wasn’t a spectator.

Our green room was the warehouse supervisor’s old office. The roadies grunted Khanivore’s life support into place on a set of heavy wooden trestles. They creaked but held.

Ivrina and I started taping black polythene over the filthy windows. Wes mated the ancillary modules with the warehouse’s power supply. Karran slipped on her Ishades, and began running diagnostic checks through Khanivore’s nervous system.

Jacob came in smiling broadly. ‘The odds are nine to two in our favour. I put five grand on us. Reckon you can handle that, Sonnie?’

‘Count on it. The Urban Gorgons have just acquired themselves one dead beastie.’

‘My girl,’ Wes said proudly, slapping my shoulder.

He was lying, which cut deep. Wes and I had been an inseparable pair for eight months, right up until my mishap. Now he and Ivrina were rocking the camper van’s suspension every night. I didn’t hold it against him, not consciously anyway. But seeing them walking everywhere together, arms entwined, necking, laughing – that left me cold.

An hour before I’m on, Dicko shows up. Looking at him, you kind of wondered how come he wound up in this racket. A dignified old boy, all formal manners and courteous smile; tall and thin, with bushy silver hair too thick to be entirely natural, and a slightly stiff walk which forced him to use a silver-topped cane. His garb was strictly last century: light grey suit with slim lapels, a white shirt with small maroon bow tie.

There was a girl in tow, mid-teens and nicely proportioned, sweet-faced, too; a fluff-cloud of curly chestnut hair framing a composed demure expression. She wore a simple square-necked lemon-yellow dress with a long skirt. I felt sorry for her. But it’s an ancient story; I get to see it countless times at each bout. At least it told me all I needed to know about Dicko and his cultivated mannerisms. Mr Front.

One of the roadies closed the door behind him, cutting off the sounds of conversation from the main hall, a whistling PA. Dicko gave me and the other girls a shallow bow, then handed an envelope to Jacob. ‘Your appearance fee.’

The envelope disappeared into Jacob’s sleeveless leather jacket.

Delicate silver eyebrows lifted a millimetre. ‘You are not going to count it?’

‘Your reputation is good,’ Jacob told him. ‘You’re a pro, top notch. That’s the word.’

‘How very kind. And you, too, come well recommended.’

I listened to him and the rest of the team swapping nonsense. I didn’t like it, he was intruding. Some teams like to party pre-bout; some thrash and re-thrash tactics. Me, I like a bit of peace and quiet to Zen myself up. Friends who’ll talk if I want, who know when to keep quiet. I jittered about, wait-tension making my skin crawl. Every time I glanced at Dicko’s girl her eyes dropped. She was studying me.

‘I wonder if I might take a peek at Khanivore?’ Dicko asked. ‘One has heard so much . . .’

The others swivelled en masse to consult me.

‘Sure thing.’ After the old boy had seen it, maybe he’d scoot. You can’t really shunt someone out of their own turf.

We clustered round the life-support pod, except for the girl. Wes turned down the opacity, and Dicko’s face hardened into grim appreciation, a corpse grin. It chilled me down.

Khanivore is close on three metres tall, roughly hominoid in that it has two trunklike legs and a barrel torso, albeit encased in a black segmented exoskeleton. After that, things get a little out of kilter. The top of the torso sprouts five armoured tentacles, two of them ending in bone-blade pincers. They were all curled up to fit in the pod like a nest of sleeping boa constrictors. There was a thick twenty-centimetre prehensile neck supporting a nightmare head sculpted from bone that was polished down to a black-chrome gleam. The front was a shark-snout jaw with a double row of teeth, while the main dome was inset with deep creases and craters to protect sensor organs.

Dicko reached out and touched the surface of the pod. ‘Excellent,’ he whispered, then added casually: ‘I want you to take a dive.’

There was a moment of dark silence.

‘Do what?’ Karran squeaked.

Dicko beamed his dead smile straight at her. ‘A dive. You’ll be well paid, double the winning purse, ten thousand CUs. Plus whatever side bets you care to place. That should go a long way to easing the financial strain on an amateur team like yourselves. We can even discuss some future dates.’

‘Fuck off!’

‘And that’s from all of us,’ Jacob spat. ‘You screwed up, Dicko. We’re pros, man, real pros. We believe in beastie-baiting, it’s ours. We were there at the start, and we’re not letting shits like you fuck it over for a quick profit. Word gets out about rigged bouts and we all lose, even you.’

He was smooth, I’ll give him that, his cocoon of urbanity never flickering. ‘You’re not thinking, young man. To keep on Baiting you must have money. Especially in the future. Large commercial concerns are starting to notice this sport of yours, it will soon be turning professional with official leagues and governing bodies. With the right kind of support a team of your undeniable quality can last until you reach retirement age. Even a beast which never loses requires a complete rebuild every nine months, not to mention the continual refinements you have to stitch in. Baiting is an expensive business, and about to become more so. And business it now is, not some funfair ride. At the moment you are naive amateurs who happen to have hit a winning streak. Do not delude yourselves; one day you are going to lose. You need a secure income to tide you over the lean times while you design and test a new beast.

‘This is what I am offering you, the first step towards responsibility. Fighters and promoters feed each other. We always have done, right back to the days of the Roman gladiators. And we always will do. There is nothing dishonest in this. Tonight, the fans will see the tremendous fight they paid for, because Khanivore could never lose easily. Then they will return to watch you again, screaming for victory, ecstatic when you win again. Struggle, heartache, and triumph, that is what demands their attention, what keeps any sport alive. Believe me, I know crowds far better than you ever can; they have been my life’s study.’

‘So has money,’ Ivrina said quietly. She’d crossed her arms over her chest, staring at him contemptuously. ‘Don’t give us any more of this bullshit about doing us a favour. You run the book in this part of town, you and a few others. A tight, friendly little group who’ve got it all locked down. That’s the way it is, that’s the way it’s always been. I’ll tell you what’s really happened tonight. Every punter has laid down their wad on Sonnie’s Predators, the dead cert faves. So you and the boys did a few sums of your own, and worked out how you can profit most from that. Slip us the ten grand for a fall, and you’ll walk off with the mega-profit.’

‘Fifteen thousand,’ Dicko said, completely unperturbed. ‘Please accept the offer, I urge you as a friend. What I have said is quite true, no matter what motives you assign me. One day you will lose.’ He turned to look at me, his expression was almost entreating. ‘You are the team’s fighter, by nature the most practical. How much confidence do you have in your own ability? You are out there in the bouts, you have known moments of doubt when your opponent pulled a clever turn. Surely you do not have the arrogance to believe you are invincible?’

‘No, I’m not invincible. What I have is an edge. Didn’t it occur to you to wonder how come I always win?’

‘It has been the cause of some speculation.’

‘Simple enough; although nobody else could ever use it. You see, I won’t lose to the Urban Gorgons, not while they have Simon as their fighter.’

‘I don’t understand, every bout cannot be a grudge match.’

‘Oh but they are. Maybe if the Urban Gorgons team fronted a female fighter I’d think about taking your money. But I’m virtually unique; none of the other teams I know of use a female to boost their beastie.’

‘This is your advantage, your legendary edge, women fight better than men?’

‘Motivation is the key,’ I said. ‘That’s why we use affinity to control the beasts. These creatures we stitch together have no analogue in nature. For instance, you couldn’t take a brain out of a lion and splice it into Khanivore. For all its hunter-killer instinct a lion wouldn’t be able to make any sense of Khanivore’s sensorium, nor would it be able to utilize the limbs. That’s why we give beasties bioware processors instead of brains. But processors still don’t give us what we need. For their program a fight can never be anything more than a complex series of problems, a three-dimensional chess game. An attack would be broken up into segments for analysis and initiation of appropriate response moves. By which time any halfway sentient opposition has ripped them to shreds. No program can ever instil a sense of urgency, coupled to panic-enhanced instinct. Sheer savagery, if you like. Humans reign supreme when it comes to that. That’s why we use the affinity bond. Beastie-baiting is a physical extension of the human mind, our dark side in all its naked horror. That’s the appeal your punters have come to worship tonight, Dicko, pure bestiality. Without our proxy beasties us fighters would be out there in the pit ourselves. We’d kill each other, no two ways about it.’

‘And you are the most savage of them all?’ Dicko asked. He glanced round the team, their stony faces, hunting confirmation.

‘I am now,’ I said, and for the first time bled a trace of venom into my voice. I saw the girl stiffen slightly, her eyes round with interest.

‘A year or so back I got snatched by an estate gang. No reason for it, I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Know what they do to girls, Dicko?’ I was grinding the words out now, eyes never leaving his face. His mask was cracking, little fissures of emotion showing through.

‘Yes, you do know, don’t you. The gang bang wasn’t so bad, there was only two days of that. But when they finished they started on me with knives. It’s a branding thing, making sure everyone knows how fucking hard they are. So that is why, when the Urban Gorgons send their Turboraptor out in the pit tonight, I am going to shred that bastard to pieces so small there’s going to be nothing left but a fog of blood. Not because of the money, not even for the status; but because what I’m really doing is carving up that male shit Simon.’ I took a step towards Dicko, arm coming up to point threateningly. ‘And neither you nor anyone else is going to stop that happening. You got that, shitbrain?’

One of Khanivore’s tentacles began to uncoil, an indistinct motion beneath the murky surface of the life-support pod.

Dicko snatched a fast glance at the agitated beastie and gave another of his prissy bows. ‘I won’t press you any further, but I do ask you to think over what I proposed.’ He turned on a heel, snapping his fingers for the girl to follow. She scampered off through the door.

The team closed in on me with smiles and fierce hugs.

Time for the bout, they formed a praetorian guard to escort me out to the pit. The air around the arena was already way too hot, and becoming badly humid from the sweat and breath of the crowd. No conditioning. Naturally.

My ears filled with the chants rising from the seats, slow handclaps, whistles, hoots, catcalls. The noise rumbled sluggishly round the dark empty space behind the stand.

Under the scaffolding, reverberating with low-frequency harmonics. Then out into an unremitting downpour of harsh blue-white light and gullet-rattling noise. Cheering and jeering reached a crescendo. Every centimetre of wooden seating was taken.

I sat in my seat on the edge of the pit. Simon was sitting directly opposite me, naked from the waist up; lean, bald, and sable black. A stylistic ruby-red griffin tattoo fluoresced on his chest, intensity pulsing in time to his heartbeat. Big gold pirate earrings dangled from mauled lobes. He stood to give me the grand fuckittoyou gesture. Urban Gorgons fans roared their delight.

‘You OK, Sonnie?’ Ivrina whispered.

‘Sure.’ I locked eyes with Simon, and laughed derisively. Our side’s supporters whooped rapturously.

The ref bobbed to his feet halfway round the side of the pit. The PA came on with a screech, and he launched into his snappy intros. Standard soundbite fodder. Actually, he’s not so much a ref as a starter. There aren’t too many rules in beastie-baiting – your creature must be bipedal, no hardware or metal allowed in the design, no time limit, the one left alive is the winner. It does tend to cut out any confusion.

The ref was winding up, probably afraid of getting lynched by an impatient crowd. Simon closed his eyes, concentrating on his affinity link with Turboraptor.

An affinity bond is a unique and private link. Each pair of cloned neuron symbionts is attuned to its twin alone; there can be no interception, no listening in. One clump is embedded in the human brain, the other is incorporated in a bioware processor. It’s a perfect tool for Baiting.

I closed my eyes.

Khanivore was waiting behind the webwork of scaffolding. I went through a final systems check. Arteries, veins, muscles, tendons, fail-soft nerve-fibre network, multipleredundant heart-pump chambers. All on line and operating at a hundred per cent. I had the oxygenated blood reserves to fight for up to an hour.

There wasn’t anything else. Vital internal organs are literally that: vital. Too risky to bring into the pit. One puncture and the beastie could die. One! That’s hardly a fair fight. It’s also shoddy combat design. So Khanivore spends most of its time in a life-support pod, where the ancillary units substitute functions like the liver, kidneys, lungs, and all the other physiological crap not essential to keep it fighting.

I walked it forward.

And the crowd goes wild. Predictable as hell, but I love them for it. This is my moment, the only time I am truly alive.

Turboraptor was already descending into the pit, the makeshift wooden ramp sagging under its weight. First chance for a detailed examination.

The Urban Gorgons team had stitched together a small bruise-purple dinosaur, minus tail. Its body was pearshaped with short dumpy legs – difficult to topple. The arms were weird, two metres fifty long, five joints apiece – excellent articulation, have to watch that. One ended in a three-talon claw, the other had a solid bulb of bone. The idea was good, grip with the talon and punch with the bone fist. Given the arm’s reach, it could probably work up enough inertia to break through Khanivore’s exoskeleton. A pair of needle-pointed, fifty-centimetre horns jutted up from its head. Stupid. Horns and blade fins might make for good image, but they give your opponent something to grab; that’s why we made Khanivore ice-smooth.

Khanivore reached the pit floor, and the roadies hauled the wooden ramp away behind it. There was silence again as the ref stretched out his arm. A white silk handkerchief dangled from his fingers. He dropped it.

I let all five tentacles unroll halfway to the floor, snapping the pincers as they went. Sonnie’s Predators fans picked up the beat, stamping their feet, clapping.

Turboraptor and Khanivore circled each other, testing for speed and reflexes. I lashed a couple of tentacles, aiming to lasso Turboraptor’s legs. Impressed by how fast it dodged with those stumpy legs. In return its talon claw came dangerously close to the root of a tentacle. I didn’t think it could cut through, but I’d have to be vigilant.

The circling stopped. We began to sway the beasties from side to side, both tensing, waiting for either an opening or a charge. Simon broke first, sending Turboraptor at me in a heavy run, arm punching the bone fist forward. I pirouetted Khanivore on one foot, whipping the tentacles to add spin-momentum. Turboraptor sliced past, and I caught it across the back of the head with a tentacle, sending it slamming into the pit wall. Khanivore regained its footing, and followed. I wanted to keep Turboraptor pinned there, to hammer blows against it which it would be forced to absorb. But both of its arms came slashing backwards – the bastards were pivot hinged. One of my tentacle tips was caught in its talon claw. I brought more tentacles up to fend off the punch from the bone fist, simultaneously twisting the captured tentacle. Turboraptor’s punch slapped into a writhing coil of tentacle, muting the impact. We staggered apart.

The tip of my tentacle was lying on the pit floor, flexing like an electrocuted snake. There was no pain; Khanivore’s nerves weren’t structured for that. A little jet of scarlet blood squirted out of the severed end. It vanished as the bioware processors closed off the artery.

The crowd was on its feet, howling approval and demanding vengeance. Slashes of colour and waving arms; the roof panels vibrating. All distant.

Turboraptor sidestepped hurriedly, moving away from the danger of the pit wall. I let it go, watching intently. One of its pincer talons seemed misaligned; when the other two closed it didn’t budge.

We clashed again, colliding in the centre of the pit. It was a kick and shove match this time. Arms and tentacles could only beat ineffectually on armoured flanks while we were pressed together. Then I managed to bend Khanivore’s head low enough for its jaws to clamp around Turboraptor’s shoulder. Arrow-head teeth bit into purple scales. Blood began to seep out of the puncture marks.

Turboraptor’s talon claw started to scrape at Khanivore’s head. Simon was using the dead talon like a can opener, gouging away at the sensor cavities. I lost a couple of retinas and an ear before I decided I was on a hiding to nothing. Khanivore’s mouth had done as much damage as possible, it wouldn’t close any further. I let go, and we fell apart cleanly.

Turboraptor took two paces back, and charged at me again. I wasn’t quick enough. That pile-driver bone fist struck Khanivore’s torso full on. I backpedalled furiously to keep balance, and thudded into the pit wall.

Bioware processors flashed status graphics into my mind, red and orange cobwebs superimposed over my vision, detailing the damage. Turboraptor’s fist had weakened the exoskeleton’s midsection. Khanivore could probably take another couple of punches like that, definitely no more than three.

I slashed out with a couple of tentacles. One twined round Turboraptor’s bone fist. The second snared the uppermost segment of the same arm. An inescapable manacle. No way could Simon manoeuvre another punch out of that.

I shot an order into the relevant control processors to maintain the hold. Controlling five upper limbs at once isn’t possible for a human brain. We don’t have the neurological programming for it, that’s why most beasties are straight hominoids. All I could ever do with Khanivore was manipulate two tentacles; but for something simple like sustaining a grip the processors can take over while I switch to another pair of tentacles.

Turboraptor’s talon claw bent round to try and snip the tentacles grasping its arm. I sent another two tentacles to bind it, which left me the fifth free to win the war.

I’d just started to bring it forwards, figuring on using it to try and snap Turboraptor’s neck, when Simon pulled a fast one. The top half of the talon claw arm started to pull back. I thought Khanivore’s optical nerves had gone haywire. My tentacles’ grip on the arm was rock solid, it couldn’t possibly be moving.

There was a wet tearing sound, a small plume of blood. The tentacles were left wrapped round the last three segments of the arm, while the lower section, the one which had separated, was a sheath for a fifty-centimetre sword of solid bone.

Simon stabbed it straight at Khanivore’s torso, where the exoskeleton was already weakened. Fear burned me then, a stimulant harder than any adrenalin or amphetamine, accelerating my thoughts to lightspeed. Self-preservation superseded reticence, and I swiped the fifth tentacle downwards, knowing it would get butchered and not caring. Anything to deflect that killer strike.

The tentacle hit the top of the blade, an impact which nearly severed it in two. A fountain of blood spewed out, splattering over Turboraptor’s chest like a scarlet graffiti bomb. But the blade was deflected, slicing downwards to shatter a hole in the exoskeleton of Khanivore’s right leg. It slid in deep enough for the display graphics to tell me the tip was touching the other side. Simon levered it round, decimating the flesh inside the exoskeleton. More cobweb graphics flowered, reporting severed nerve fibres, cut tendons, artery valves closing. The leg was more or less useless.

I was already throwing away the useless section of Turboraptor’s trick arm. One of the freed tentacles wove around the sword hilt, contracting the loop as tight as it would go, preventing the blade from moving. It was still inside me, but prevented from causing any more havoc. Our bodies were locked together. None of Turboraptor’s squirming and shaking could separate us.

With a care that verged on the tender, I slowly wound my last tentacle clockwise round Turboraptor’s head, avoiding its snapping jaw. I finished with a tight knot around the base of a horn.

Simon must have realized what I was going to do. Turboraptor’s legs scrabbled against the bloody floor, frantically trying to unbalance the pair of us.

I began pulling with the tentacle, reeling it in. Turboraptor’s head turned. It fought me every centimetre of the way, straining cords of muscle rippling under the scales. No good. The rotation was inexorable.

Ninety degrees, and ominous popping sounds emerged from the stumpy neck. A hundred degrees and the purple scales were no longer overlapping. A hundred and ten degrees and the skin started to tear. A hundred and twenty, and the spine snapped with a gunshot crack.

My tentacle wrenched the head off, flinging it triumphantly into the air. It landed in a puddle of my blood, and skidded across the polyp until it bumped into the wall below Simon. He was doubled up on the edge of his chair, hugging his chest, shaking violently. His tattoo blazed cleanly, as if it was burning into his skin. Team-mates were swooping towards him.

That was when I opened my own eyes, just in time to see Turboraptor’s decapitated body tumble to the ground. The crowd was up and dancing, rocking the stand, and crying my name. Mine! Minute flecks of damp rust from the roof panels were snowing over the whole arena.

I stood up, raising both my arms, collecting and acknowledging my due of adulation. The team’s kisses stung my cheeks. Eighteen. Eighteen straight victories.

There was just one motionless figure among the carnival frenzy. Dicko, sitting in the front row, chin resting on his cane’s silver pommel, staring glumly at the wreckage of flesh lying at Khanivore’s feet.

Three hours later, and the rap is still tearing apart Turboraptor’s trick arm. Was it bending the rules? Should we do something similar? What tactics were best against it?

I sipped my Ruddles from a long-stemmed glass, letting the vocals eddy round me. We’d wound up in a pub called the Latchmere, local it spot, with some kind of art theatre upstairs where the cosmically strange punters kept vanishing. God knows what was playing. From where I was slumped I could see about fifteen people dancing listlessly at the far end of the bar, the juke playing some weird acoustic Indian metal track.

Our table was court to six Baiter fans, eyes atwinkle from the proximity to their idols. If it hadn’t been for the victory high, I might have been embarrassed. Beer and seafood kept piling up, courtesy of a local merchant who’d been at the pit side, and was now designer-slumming at the bar with his pouty mistress.

The girl in the yellow dress came in. She was alone. I watched her and a waitress put their heads together, swapping a few furtive words as her haunted eyes cast about. Then she wandered over to the juke.

She was still staring blankly at the selection screen a minute later when I joined her.

‘Did he hit you?’ I asked.

She turned, flinching. Her eyes were red-rimmed. ‘No,’ she said in a tiny voice.

‘Will he hit you?’

She shook her head mutely, staring at the floor.

Jennifer. That was her name. She told me as we walked out into the sweltering night. Lecherous grins and Karran’s thumbs-up at our backs.

It was drizzling, the minute droplets evaporating almost as soon as they hit the pavement. Warm mist sparkled in the hologram adverts which formed rainbow arches over the road. A team of servitor chimps were out cleaning the street, glossy gold pelts darkened by the drizzle.

I walked Jennifer down to the riverfront where we’d parked our vehicles. The arena roadies had been cool after the bout, but none of us were gonna risk staying in Dicko’s yard overnight.

Jennifer wiped her hands along her bare arms. I draped my leather jacket over her shoulders, and she clutched it gratefully across her chest.

‘I’d say keep it,’ I told her. ‘Except I don’t think he’d approve.’ The studs said Sonnie’s Predators bold across the back.

Her lips ghosted a smile. ‘Yes. He buys my clothes. He doesn’t like me in anything which isn’t feminine.’

‘Thought of leaving him?’

‘Sometimes. All the time. But it would only be the face which changed. I am what I am. He’s not too bad. Except tonight, and he’ll be over that by morning.’

‘You could come with us.’ And I could just see me squaring that with the others.

She stopped walking and looked wistfully out over the black river. The M500 stood high above it, a curving ribbon of steel resting on a line of slender buttressed pedestals that sprouted from the centre of the muddy bed. Headlights and brakelights from the traffic formed a permanent pink corona across it, a slipstream of light that blew straight out of the city.

‘I’m not like you,’ Jennifer said. ‘I envy you, respect you. I’m even a little frightened of you. But I’ll never be like you.’ She smiled slowly. The first real one I’d seen on that face. ‘Tonight will be enough.’

I understood. It hadn’t been an accident her turning up at the pub. A single act of defiance. One he would never know about. But that didn’t make it any less valid.

I opened the small door at the rear of the twenty-wheeler, and led her inside. Khanivore’s life-support pod glowed a moonlight silver in the gloom, ancillary modules making soft gurgling sounds. All the cabinets and machinery clusters were monochrome as we threaded our way past. The tiny office on the other side was quieter. Standby LEDs on the computer terminals shone weakly, illuminating the fold-out sofa opposite the desks.

Jennifer stood in the middle of the aisle, and slipped the jacket off her shoulders. Her hands traced a gentle questing line up my ribcage, over my breasts, onto my neck, rising further. She had cool fingertips, long fuchsia nails. Her palms came to rest on my cheeks, fingers splayed between earlobes and forehead.

‘You made Dicko so very angry,’ she murmured huskily.

Her breath was warm and soft on my lips.

Pain exploded into my skull.

*

My military-grade retinas flicked to low-light mode, banishing shadows as we trooped past the beast’s life-support pod in the back of the lorry. The world became a sketch of blue and grey, outlines sharp. I was in a technophile’s chapel, floor laced with kilometres of wire and tubing, walls of machinery with little LEDs glowing. Sonnie’s breath was quickening when we reached the small compartment at the far end. Randy bitch. Probably where she brought all her one-nighters.

I chucked the jacket and reached for her. She looked like she was on the first night of her honeymoon.

Hands in place, tensed against her temples, and I said: ‘You made Dicko so very angry.’ Then I let her have it. Every fingertip sprouted a five-centimetre spike of titanium, punched out by a magpulse. They skewered straight through her skull to penetrate the brain inside.

Sonnie convulsed, tongue protruding, features briefly animated with horrified incomprehension. I jerked my hands away, the metal sliding out cleanly. She slumped to the floor, making a dull thud as she hit. Her whole body quaked for a few seconds then stilled. Dead.

Her head was left propped up at an odd angle against the base of the sofa she was going to screw me on. Eyes open. Eight puncture wounds dribbling a fair quantity of blood.

‘Now do you think it was worth it?’ I asked faintly. It needed asking. Her face retained a vestige of that last confused expression, all sad and innocent. ‘Stupid, dumb pride. And look where it got you. One dive, that’s all we wanted. Why don’t you people ever learn?’

I shook my hands, wincing, as the spikes slowly telescoped back into their sheaths. They stung like hell, the fingertip skin all torn and bleeding. It would take a week for the rips to heal over, it always did. Price of invisible implants.

‘Neat trick,’ Sonnie said. The syllables were mangled, but the words were quite distinct. ‘I’d never have guessed you as a spetsnaz. Too pretty by far.’

One eyeball swivelled to focus on me; the other lolled lifelessly, its white flecked with blood from burst capillaries.

I let out a muted scream. Threat-response training fired an electric charge along my nerves. And I was crouching, leaning forward to throw my weight down, fist forming. Aiming.

Punch.

My right arm pistoned out so fast it was a smear. I caught her perfectly, pulping the fat tissue of the tit, smashing the ribs beneath. Splintered bone fragments were driven inwards, crushing the heart. Her body arched up as if I’d pumped her with a defibrillator charge.

‘Not good enough, my cute little spetsnaz.’ A bead of blood seeped out of the corner of her mouth, rolling down her chin.

‘No.’ I rasped it out, not believing what I saw.

‘You should have realized,’ the corpse/zombie said. Its speech had decayed to a gurgling whisper, words formed by sucking down small gulps of air and expelling them gradually. ‘You of all people should know that hate isn’t enough to give me the edge. You should have worked it out.’

‘What the sweet shit are you?’

‘A beastie-baiter, the best there’s ever been.’

‘Tells me nothing.’

Sonnie laughed. It was fucking hideous.

‘It should do,’ she burbled. ‘Think on it. Hate is easy enough to acquire; if all it took was hate then we’d all be winners. Dicko believed that was my edge because he wanted to. Male mentality. Couldn’t you smell his hormones fizzing when I told him I’d been raped? That made sense to him. But you’ve gotta have more than blind hate, spetsnaz girl, much more. You’ve gotta have fear. Real fear. That’s what my team gave me: the ability to fear. I didn’t get snatched by no gang. I crashed our van. A dumb drifter kid who celebrated a bout win with too much booze. Crunched myself up pretty bad. Jacob and Karran had to shove me in our life-support pod while they patched me up. That’s when we figured it out. The edge.’ Her voice was going, fading out like a night-time radio station.

I bent down, studying her placid face. Her one working eye stared back at me. The blood had stopped dripping from her puncture wounds.

‘You’re not in there,’ I said wonderingly.

‘No. Not my brain. Just a couple of bioware processors spliced into the top of my spinal column. My brain is elsewhere. Where it can feel hundred-proof fear. Enough fear to make me fight like a berserk demon when I’m threatened. You want to know where my brain is, spetsnaz girl? Do you? Look behind you.’

A metallic clunk.

I’m twisting fast. Nerves still hyped. Locking into a karate stance, ready for anything. No use. No fucking use at all.

Khanivore is climbing out of its life-support pod.