1 Thorvald Spear I woke in crisp white cotton sheets to the sound of skylarks, with the sun beaming through a window somewhere nearby. I gazed up at a lighting panel inset in the pale blue ceiling and smelled comforting lavender with a slight acrid undertone of antiseptic. I could also detect the distant promise of coffee. I felt really good and, after a deep, relaxing breath, sat up to look around. The arched window at one end of the room gave a view of mown lawns scattered with perfect springtime trees. Gentle puffy clouds neatly decorated the sky, with just the stark lines of a single-cargo grav-barge crossing it for contrast. Within the room stood a chair, and side table with a mirror above it. The small touch panel in a bottom corner indicated that it also served as a screen. Next to the bed my clothes lay neatly folded on another wooden chair: including my favourite jeans, ersatz rock-climbing boots and enviro-shirt. I whipped the sheet back and got out of bed. Nothing ached, nothing hurt and I felt fit. It then occurred to me to wonder, vaguely, why I might have expected otherwise. I headed over to an open side door into the en-suite, glanced at the toilet but felt no need to use it, then went over to the sink and peered at myself in the cabinet mirror above. No stubble, but then I’d had permanent depilation years ago. I opened the cabinet and took out a small brushbot, inserted it into my mouth and waited while it traversed round my teeth, cleaning them perfectly. Took it out and dropped it into its sanitizer, then went back into my room to dress. Vera, as her name-tag declared, arrived just as I was closing the stick-seam on my shirt. ‘Oh, you’re awake,’ she said, placing a tray on the side table. I walked over, the pungent smells of coffee and toast eliciting something close to euphoria. I picked up the coffee and sipped, finding it as good as it smelled, and studied Vera. She was beautiful, her complexion flawless and the balance of her features perfect. She wore a nurse’s uniform of white and navy blue, a silver crab pendant at her throat, and sensible shoes. Crab. My mind keyed onto that and I rose to a slightly higher level of consciousness, where I found I wasn’t quite so comfortable. ‘He’ll be waiting for you on the veranda when you’re ready,’ she said, then turned to go. ‘Wait,’ I said. She turned back and gazed at me expectantly, but I couldn’t find the words to express my unease. ‘It’s nothing,’ I finished. She departed. The toast with its butter and marmalade was, like the coffee, the best I’ve ever had. I finished both with relish, then headed for the door. I turned left into a carpeted corridor, then right into a clean decorously appointed sitting room – seemingly translated from centuries in the past. A glass sculpture on a nearby bookcase caught my eye; something insectile squatted there, with hints of light in its depths. It made me as uneasy as that crab pendant and my awareness rose to yet another level. I pushed open paned glass doors and stepped onto a wooden veranda, replaying the moments I had experienced from waking, wondering at their perfection. Then, as I saw the figure sitting at an ornate iron table on the veranda, the confines of my mind began to expand. Sylac . . . Of course everything was perfect; too perfect. I had no doubt I was Thorvald Spear and that if I concentrated I could remember much of my past. But it bothered me that my recent past wasn’t clear and that I felt no inclination to remember it. I walked over to Dr Sylac, pulled out one of the heavy chairs and sat down, and studied him for a second. He was dressed in an old-time safari suit, a thin, shaven-headed man with an acerbic twist to his mouth and black eyes. This was completely wrong, because at that moment I had a clear recollection of how he’d looked last time I saw him. The extra cybernetic arm with its surgical tool-head no longer protruded from below his right, human, arm. His skull was now unblemished – not laced with scars and the nubs of data interfaces, all ready to plug into a half-helmet augmentation. ‘Interesting scenario,’ I said, waving a hand at our surroundings. ‘I wondered how quickly you would notice,’ he replied. ‘You were always the brightest of my . . . associates.’ ‘All too perfect,’ I added, ‘until now.’ ‘Standard resurrection package,’ he said dismissively. ‘They create a virtuality to ease one back into existence with the minimum of trauma.’ ‘So why are you here, then?’ I asked. ‘They took me out of storage. A reduction in my sentence was promised if I worked on you.’ He shrugged. ‘It seemed like a good deal – I get to return to corporeal form and I’ve been moved up the Soulbank queue.’ ‘Soulbank queue?’ ‘Oh yes, after your time.’ Sylac paused for a second then continued, ‘It’s where the dead are stored, either awaiting their chance of resurrection in a new body or leapfrogging through the ages. Some criminals are kept here too . . .’ So Sylac’s dodgy games with human augmentation had finally caught up with him. It quite surprised me that the AIs had bothered to store his mind. Some of the things he had done should have resulted in a permanent death sentence. ‘But it’s noticeable,’ he continued, ‘how you haven’t asked how and why you’re here.’ I stared at him, first realizing that he was part of the process of easing me back into existence, then understanding that his words were a key made to unlock my memories. The war, I remembered. After many years of working in adaptogenics, nanotech and multiple biological disciplines, I’d formed a partnership with Sylac. This was during the first years of the prador/human war – when humans and our AI overlords discovered we weren’t alone in the universe. And our nearest neighbours were vicious alien killers. Upon realizing that Sylac was leading me into experimental and illegal territory, I’d said my goodbyes and joined up. My extensive knowledge and skillset were highly regarded by the AIs, the artificial intelligences running the war. In fact, I’d been very highly regarded by them before the war, as they’d wanted to know how my brain worked. Intelligence was something that could be measured and, in some forms, perfectly copied into artificial minds . . . up to a point. But for some, IQ ceased to be measurable and genius blurred into madness. They called me a genius, but I didn’t like that. I always felt that what they’d seen in me was just another immeasurable facet of human mentality – will power. After both real-time and uploaded combat training, I went into bio-weapons and bio-espionage. The AIs tried to keep me away from the front, but I went there anyway. I remembered the desperate fighting, my first encounter with the prador, first attempts at interrogating the creatures and the increasing sophistication of our techniques thereafter. Then things became vague again. ‘Are we still losing?’ I asked. ‘The war ended over a century ago,’ he replied. So, a moment of deliberate shock to shake things free in my mind. Even though I recognized it as such, I still felt panic and confusion. ‘It ended about twenty years after you died,’ he added. I closed my eyes and tried to recall more, but the detail remained hazy and I just couldn’t nail anything down. This was frustrating because clarity of thought had never been a problem for me before. I tried to figure it out, wondering if whatever had been done to enable me to handle revival shock was also interfering with my thinking. ‘My implant,’ I finally realized, opening my eyes. I’d died, and someone with my background couldn’t fail to understand what that meant. Sylac had implanted a certain piece of hardware in my skull, and the ‘me’ who was drawing these conclusions was a recording of my original self. ‘They call them memplants or memcrystals now,’ he said conversationally. ‘Yours was the first of many I developed. I sometimes think they’re why I’m still alive. The AIs must have weighed my research on the scales of life and death, and my augmentations resulted in more lives saved than lost. Or maybe it’s that sticky area concerning the definitions of murder and manslaughter, especially when the supposed victim is a willing participant. The AIs would have us believe that if you kill a sentient being, a true death sentence – the utter erasure of you from existence – is automatic. I know otherwise, because there are many like me in storage. And there are many kept there who have committed murder.’ He gazed musingly at the parkland beyond the veranda. ‘Of course it’s much easier to sentence someone to true death when they’re not useful . . .’ ‘We won?’ I asked, still trying to get my thoughts in order. ‘Debatable,’ he replied. ‘We were winning, but the prador king was usurped. The new king, apparently not so xenocidal, decided that fighting us was no longer a good idea. They retreated but we didn’t have the resources to go after them and finish the job.’ ‘My memplant,’ I asked, ‘where was it found?’ He glanced at me. ‘Someone who knew my work recognized it. It was set in a brooch in a jeweller’s window, which was an interesting outcome.’ He paused, studying me, then reached out to tap my skull. ‘It’ll be back in place when they truly resurrect you, as there are difficulties involved in copying that technology across to something more modern.’ Truly resurrect . . . I filed that away for later and made another attempt to think clearly. The memplant Sylac had fitted inside my skull was a ruby. It was a decent size too, being as long as two joints of my little finger. So it being used for jewellery seemed surreal but made sense, although this particular ruby was rather more than it seemed. The quantum computing lattice interlaced throughout its crystal structure gave it that bit extra that allowed me to live. ‘They couldn’t trace its source beyond the shop in which it was found, though there was speculation that it was picked up by salvagers out in the Graveyard—’ ‘Graveyard?’ I interrupted, feeling like an idiot. ‘A no-man’s-land between our Polity and the Prador Kingdom.’ ‘Ah.’ ‘The Polity, that human and AI dominion spanning thousands of star systems, had been shocked out of its complacency upon first encountering the prador. The alien monsters that resembled giant fiddler crabs had been unremittingly hostile and genocidal. ‘Your memplant had been damaged before it was recognized for what it was, and the forensic AI that first studied it only made basic repairs. Otherwise, it could have lost the data it contained.’ He lifted his hand from the table and stabbed that bony finger at me again. ‘That data being you.’ ‘So they got some expert advice,’ I suggested. ‘Absolutely.’ He nodded. ‘It also seems that they felt,’ he sneered at the word, ‘that you were owed a life for your service during the war.’ ‘So what now?’ I asked. ‘A body awaits you, tank-grown from a sample of your own DNA, stored by wartime Polity medical.’ ‘Then it’s time for me to start my life again.’ ‘I envy you, but I don’t envy you trying to incorporate your memories. You don’t have full access at the moment.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I can tell they’re not clear – as I said, the memplant was damaged, almost certainly by the intrusion of search fibres from a prador spider thrall. Not even the AIs can work out how you died. But they, and I, uncovered enough to know that it’s all very ugly.’ He turned to gaze at me again. ‘You can, if you wish, decide to edit those memories out.’ My immediate reaction was distaste. They’d started using memory editing during the war and, even though it turned battle-stressed and highly traumatized people back into useful soldiers, I hadn’t liked it. It was a cop-out, reneging on responsibility, going through life with blinkers on. ‘I want all my memories,’ I said, which was enough to trigger what had been hidden until now. A chaotic montage of horror returned, delivered through a tsunami of fire. The War: Panarchia The reality of the war was scribing itself across the sky of Panarchia in brighter text every night. In the beginning it had competition from the accretion disc of Layden’s Sink, a bright oval lighting up half the sky. Perhaps a century hence this black hole would suck down this whole planetary system. Yet now, even that formed a dull backdrop against which Polity and prador forces tore each other apart. ‘Close your visor, soldier,’ said Captain Gideon. I touched a control on my combat suit’s helmet, and its visor slid silently closed. I needed the light amplification now, anyway. And, during the night here, given the hostile local wildlife, you maintained suit integrity or you stayed in your tent. General Berners said the octupals, or the ‘fucking molluscs’ as he described them, were an alien import. Yet it struck me that they had burgeoned very nicely thank you, in an environment supposedly not their own. As Gideon settled beside me, I scanned the emplacements around us, uncomfortable with our exposed position, then dropped my gaze to the sheet of solidified lava beneath our feet. This was dotted with small pools where large gas bubbles had burst and looked like a slice of cherry chocolate cake in the twilight. Already some octupals were crawling from those pools, ready to set off on their nightly hunt for prey and for mates – though sometimes they made little distinction between the two. And already I’d heard swearing from some of Gideon’s troops who, like me, had forgotten to close their visors. ‘You ever seen a real octopus?’ asked Gideon. ‘Yes,’ I replied, returning my attention to the body of the captured prador first-child – one of the vicious children of our enemy. It was sprawled before me beside the foxhole it had made in the rock here. Its legs, manipulator arms and claws were stacked in a pile a few paces away, behind our big autogun. I now had its carapace open, hinged aside on gristle like the lid of a waste bin. I continued sorting through the offal inside, pulling aside various glutinous items to finally expose its main ganglion, or brain. This sat inside a ring-shaped chalky case. Picking up my surgical hammer, I hit hard, cracking open the case. The first-child hissed and bubbled and I felt the stubs where we had cut off its mandibles knocking pathetically against my leg. Still, even knowing what a creature like this would do to me were it mobile, I hated what I was doing. ‘Where?’ asked Gideon. ‘Where what?’ ‘Where did you see an octopus?’ ‘In an aquarium on Earth.’ ‘Never been there,’ he said dismissively. ‘Never wanted to go there.’ I guessed he was trying to distract himself and, with anyone else, I would have assumed he didn’t want to think too much about what I was doing. However, he and the rest of his men had been fighting the prador for a long time and had ceased to have any squeamishness about bio-espionage. When the enemy’s inclination was to both kill and eat you, you tended to toss away any human rules of engagement. I wished I could. Finally having broken away enough of the ganglion casing, I selected an interrogation implant from my steadily dwindling supply – a chunk of hardware that looked like a steel door wedge – and stabbed it into the required spot. The prador jerked under me, hissed and bubbled some more and squirted green blood from its leg sockets. I turned away, feeling small impacts on my suit, and noted a nearby octupal shooting poisonous darts at me. It had decided it wanted to either eat or fuck me. Light stabbed through the twilight and the octupal exploded like a microwaved egg. One of our mosquito guns moved on, its camouskin rippling. ‘They don’t look much different,’ I said. ‘What?’ I gestured to the steaming octupal remains nearby. ‘These look just like terran octopuses, though the ones on Earth live in water and some varieties grow larger.’ ‘Do they shoot poisonous darts?’ Gideon asked. I shook my head. ‘They don’t have tri-helical DNA and three eyes either.’ Gideon snorted then turned back to look at the prador. ‘How long before you can get some answers?’ ‘A few minutes, but I’m not hopeful.’ Gideon looked back the way we had come, towards the mountains, which were now silhouetted against the furthest rim of Layden’s Sink. The eight thousand or so remaining men of Berners’ division were encamped there and fortifying. If the prador already on this world moved against us, there was no doubt that we would be screwed, and fast. But the hundred thousand or more prador surrounding us had just spread out and dug in and were simply waiting. Berners reckoned they were awaiting the result of the space battle raging above. This sometimes turned the night to day, or shook the ground when some leviathan piece of wreckage came down. It was also close enough that passing Polity attack ships could help us out, sending down ceramic shrapnel daisy-cutters to shred the dispersed prador forces. Berners further pronounced that whichever side ended up controlling near space, owned this world and could quickly dispose of the opposing forces on the ground from orbit. But I didn’t agree. The prador had already been bombed by Polity ships, yet Berners’ division, whose location the prador certainly knew, had not been touched in retaliation. I suspected a complicated game of strategy. Maybe the prador were keeping us alive in the hope that the Polity would make a rash rescue attempt, putting the AIs at a tactical disadvantage. It was, I felt, a strange strategy to use when you were fighting Polity battle AIs, but seemed to be the only explanation that fitted. I was now hoping for confirmation from this first-child, or at least some explanation. ‘It’s not right,’ said Gideon. I turned to him, thinking he was having similar thoughts. Instead, he was staring up at the accretion disc. ‘What’s not right?’ ‘Y’know,’ he continued, ‘in another life I was an astrophysicist.’ ‘What?’ Now I was getting confused. He pointed up at the accretion disc. ‘It’s been described as a Kerr black hole because of the massive spin and other readings that indicate a Kerr ring, but there are irregularities.’ He lowered his hand and looked at me. ‘Its electrical charge is just too massive – thought impossible in something naturally formed.’ ‘But evidently not impossible.’ An icon blinked up in my visor as the interrogation implant made its connections: a small cartoon crab with a speech bubble issuing from its mandibles. We had more pressing matters in hand than out-there theoretical physics. It was my contention that to appreciate the wonder of the universe, one must first remain alive. ‘We’re in,’ I said. Then, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Floost,’ the prador replied. Of course the creature was not replying to me directly. I’d flooded its brain with a network of nanoscopic tendrils, and these were similar in design to the connection routine of a standard human cerebral augmentation. That device had broken the barriers between the fleshy human brain and computing, but this one had a coercive element that standard augs lacked. And the data-feed routed back through a translation program. The upshot was that Floost couldn’t refuse to answer. However, the prador could give perfectly true but misleading replies. ‘Why have you not attacked the human forces on this world?’ I asked. ‘Because Father ordered us not to.’ ‘Why did your father order you not to attack us?’ ‘Because you would be destroyed.’ ‘Why does your father not want us to be destroyed?’ ‘Because he was ordered not to destroy you.’ I realized then that this first-child had been coached in how to respond should it be captured and interrogated in this manner. This was going to get a bit laborious. ‘Why was he ordered not to destroy us?’ ‘Because of the tactical advantages.’ ‘We’ve got movement,’ said Gideon, gazing out towards our emplacements. I glanced over and saw the big autogun swinging its barrel across, then beginning to heave its weight off the ground on lizard-like metal legs. ‘Twenty-four targets closing,’ someone stated over com. ‘One first-child and the rest seconds – two of them implant tanks.’ Implant tanks, great. As if the prador children weren’t sufficiently bad in their natural form, their fathers transplanted their brains into heavily armed and armoured war machines. ‘Fuckit,’ said Gideon. ‘Get your data, Thorvald.’ ‘Why would not destroying us be a tactical advantage?’ I asked. ‘Accruing assets is advantageous.’ ‘How are we assets?’ I managed to ask just before Gatling cannons started thundering. Our force-fields took the strain, their powerful hardfields appearing in the darkness, gleaming periodically like torch beams falling on glass. Tank shells next ignited the night, followed by a particle cannon beam in royal blue. A shock wave picked me up and deposited me on my back and, as I fell, I glimpsed the burning wreckage of a hardfield generator and projector tumbling past, leaving a trail of glowing molten metal on the stone. ‘Covered retreat to the canyon,’ said Gideon calmly. ‘Tic mines all the way.’ I only just heard the prador’s reply over this, and it simply didn’t make any sense, then. ‘You will serve us,’ it had said. ‘We’ve gotta go,’ said Gideon, tossing a tic mine into the opened-up first-child even as I struggled to my feet. I grabbed up my equipment and threw it into my backpack. I didn’t bother with the interrogation implant because the things were single use. The rockscape was now constantly lit by pulse-rifle fire, the glaring stabs of beam weapons and the dance of glowing hard force-fields. Our mosquito guns were spitting fire, while our big gun was steadily backing away. Our remaining hardfield generators were now up off the ground and retreating on grav, their cooling fins already cherry red. About a mile beyond their defensive perimeter the prador were advancing behind their own layered hardfields. I could make out a big first-child firing a Gatling cannon. This was attached to one claw and it had a particle cannon attached to the other. Second-children half its size were firing the prador equivalent of our pulse-guns, or staggered along under the load of hardfield generators. The two implant tanks rolled along on treads with side turrets firing shrapnel rounds, while their top turrets coloured the night green with high-intensity lasers. I watched the troops pulling back behind, firing occasionally and dropping tic mines in selected pools. These last devices behaved just like the insects they were named for. Upon detecting nearby enemy movement, they leapt from concealment and attached themselves. They then detonated their copper-head planar load, to punch through armour. As I retreated after Gideon, I saw one of our troops just fragment into a cloud – seemingly composed of nothing but scraps of camo-cloth. ‘Move it!’ Gideon bellowed. ‘We can’t hold this!’ The troops broke into a run and within minutes we reached the edge of the canyon and began scrambling down to the riverbed. As we reached it, all our autoguns and shield generators entrenched themselves above to cover our retreat. ‘Full assist,’ Gideon ordered. I hit the control on my wrist panel and felt my movements become easier, smoother. Soon I was running android-fast with the others, back towards the mountains. Behind us the battle continued. I heard a massive detonation and, glancing back, saw that our big autogun was gone. ‘Damp down assist,’ said Gideon, sounding puzzled. ‘They’re not following.’ That, I felt, must have something to do with us being ‘assets’ or ‘resources’ but it still made no sense to me. As I cut down on suit assist, splashing through the shallow pools that were all that remained of the river’s flow, I realized that the sky was lighter. Now that Layden’s Sink was out of sight behind the mountains, I could see that the night was nearly over. ‘Hey, looks like we’ve got visitors!’ someone commented. We all paused and gazed up above the peaks. High above Berners’ division, a Polity destroyer hung in the pale sky. I felt something relaxing inside me. Every other visit by a Polity vessel had been a quick in-and-out job, sowing destruction amidst the enemy behind us. Maybe now the fleet was making a concerted effort to get us out. ‘Why a destroyer and not a transport?’ asked Gideon. ‘Maybe just cover until they can get something bigger down,’ I suggested. ‘If they’re moving something in to get us out, they know the prador down here will react.’ Then a particle beam stabbed down from the destroyer, blue coherent lightning reaching down here and there in the mountains, giant flashbulbs going off where it touched. The symphony of destruction reached us shortly afterwards, complemented by the shuddering of the ground. ‘What the fuck?’ I wasn’t sure whether it was me or someone else who said that. But even as the beam winked out, I knew that our division’s outlying guard posts had just been annihilated. Did I actually see what happened next or did imagination fill in the details for me? Black objects hurtled down from the destroyer – one of them visible only half a mile or so ahead. Then the ship peeled away, igniting a fusion drive to hurl itself back upwards. Bright light flashed, and my visor went protectively opaque for a few seconds. As vision returned I saw, in nightmare slow motion, mountains heaving and crumbling, their broken stone turning to black silhouettes that dissolved in a torrent of fire. ‘They’ve killed us,’ said Gideon. The fire rolled down and swept us away. The War: A Belated Prelude The miners of Talus push a runcible transfer gate, enmeshed in hardfields, into the giant planet’s core. Here, they prompt thousands of tons of nickel-iron to squirt through underspace, via the gate, to a distant location. Meanwhile, a hundred light years away, the autodozers on planetoid HD43 shove mounds of ore into mobile furnaces. These metals are rare on some worlds, but here on Talus they are easily field-filtered, refined and transmitted. HD43’s orbit is perturbed by a strip-mined loss of mass, which runs a mile deep all around the planetoid as it is gradually peeled like an onion. Silica sand billows into a runcible gate on the planet Fracan, where a desert is being vacuumed away to bedrock. Old Jupiter swirls with new storms as its resources too are stripped, but by gas miners feeding like whales. In the Asteroid Belt combined crusher and smelting plants select asteroids, as if choosing the best candidates from a vast chocolate box. Materials gate through nowhere from numerous locations, becoming non-existent, and arrive. And these invisible transit routes converge at a point on the edge of chaos: factory station Room 101. Resembling a giant harmonica, discarded by a leviathan eater of worlds, Room 101 sits on the edge of a binary star system. The station is eighty miles long, thirty miles wide and fifteen deep. The square holes running along either side of it are exits from enormous final-fitting bays. One of these is spewing attack ships like a glittering shoal of herring, which eddy up into a holding formation. Drives then ignite upon orders received, and they shoot away. At a slower pace, another exit is birthing the huge lozenge of an interface dreadnought. Another seems to be producing smoke, which only under magnification reveals itself to be swarms of insectile war drones. Some of these head over to piggyback on the attack ships, while others gather on the hull of the dreadnought. Still others, those of a more vicious format, head off on lone missions of destruction. Inside the station, the sarcophagus-shaped framework of a nascent destroyer shifts a hundred feet down a construction tunnel eight miles long. Into the space it occupied, white-hot ceramal stress girders now stab like converging energy beams. Then these are twisted and deformed over hardfields which glitter like naphtha crystals. The skeleton of another destroyer takes shape and is moved on after its fellow, cooling to red in sections as directed gas flows temper it. From the tunnel walls, structures like telescopic skyscrapers extend and engage in hexagonal gaps in the ship’s structure. A third such device moves up the massive lump of a three-throat fusion engine, hinges it up into place, then extends constructor tentacles like steel tubeworms. These commence welding, bolting and riveting at frenetic speed. Fuel pipes and tanks, skeins of superconductor, optics and all the apparatus of the ship’s system come next – some of it preprepared to unpack itself. The constructor tentacles are now ready to proceed inside, rapidly filling out the destroyer’s guts. A main railgun slides up like an arriving train as the tentacles withdraw. The skinless vessel is turned and the railgun inserted like a skewer piercing the mouth of a fish. The conglomerate chunks of solid-state lasers are riveted in all around. The loading carousel of the railgun clicks round, as its mechanism is tested, then racking is woven behind it. This is filled with both inert missiles and CTDs – contra-terrene devices – because nothing says ‘gigadeath’ quite so effectively as those flasks of anti-matter. A particle cannon arrives like a gatecrasher and is inserted just before the destroyer is shifted on, two more rising skyscrapers coming up to pin the next bug in this procession. Next, another lump of hardware arrives: two torpedo-like cylinders linked by optics. These are trailing s-con cables and sprouting brackets and heat vanes like fins, a distortion around them causing weird lensing effects as they’re inserted into the ship. Constructor tentacles bolt them into place and now small maintenance robots unpack themselves, moving in to connect other hardware. A fusion reactor fires, powering up computers, which in turn run diagnostics that feed back to the constructors. A solid-state laser is removed and sent tumbling away – to be snatched up by scavenger bots crawling across the walls like car-sized brass cockroaches. Then another is inserted. Next come the tubes of dropshafts and large blocky objects, whose only identifiers are the airlocks and shaft connections on their outsides. They are inserted and connected throughout the ship, like a bubble-metal lymphatic system. And it’s time for furnishings, suites, supplies and the other paraphernalia of human existence to be installed inside. Diamond-shaped scales of composite armour begin to arrive, as impact foam expands to fill the remaining inner cavities. Constructors lay down the heat-patterned ceramal, which they weld and polish to a gleaming mirror finish. Space doors are installed over an empty shuttle bay. Inside a last remaining cavity, two objects like old petrol engine valves part slightly in readiness. The all-important crystal arrives as the final hull plates are being welded in place. It sits inside a shock-absorbing package a yard square, but this prize already hides faults due to hurried manufacture. The crystal is a gleaming chunk two feet long, a foot wide and half that deep – laminated diamond and nanotubes form its quantum-entangled processing interfaces. Even its microscopic structures possess a complexity which is beyond that of the rest of the ship. A constructor arm like a tumorous snake strips it of its packaging, revealing its gleam through an enclosing grey support frame like a dragon’s claw, and inserts it. Lastly, as the valve ends close down to clamp it in place, the last hull plates are welded shut and polished. And the fractured mind of a destroyer wakes. You are the war-mind Clovis, trapped in a mile-wide scale of wreckage falling into the chromosphere of a green sun. In the remaining sealed corridors around you, the humans are charred bones and oily smoke. Your Golem androids have seized up and your escape tube is blocked by the wreckage of a prador second-child kamikaze. When the salvage crab-robot snatches you from the fire you are indifferent, because you accepted the inevitability of oblivion long ago . . . You are the assassin drone named Sharp’s Committee, Sharpy for short. Your limbs are all edged weapons honed at the atomic level, your wing cases giant scalpel blades and your sting can punch even through laminar armour to inject any of the large collection of agonizing poisons you have created. You have sliced away the limbs of a prador first-child – one of the adolescents of that vicious race – and it screams and bubbles as nano-machines eat its mind and upload a symphony of data to you. You love your job of creating terror, because it satisfies your utter hatred of your victims . . . You are dreadnought AI Vishnu 12, so numbered because that is a name chosen by many of your kind. In the five-mile-long lozenge that is your body, you contain weapons capable of destroying the world below. But you are mathematically precise in their use because of the higher purpose you serve, the knowledge of those aims and your adherence to duty. But the world is now fully occupied by the prador enemy and the fate of the humans trapped below is foregone. Your railguns punch anti-matter warheads down into the planet’s core, while you set out to accomplish your next task. So you travel ahead of a growing cloud of white-hot gas, laced with a cooler web of magma . . . You are not fully tested and may not even be viable. You are version 707: composed from the parts of wartime survivors. The crystal you reside in has its fault, the quantum processes of your mind cannot, by their nature, be predicted, and time is short. You are newborn from the furnace and about to enter Hell. And in time you will, for reasons others will find obscure, name yourself Penny Royal . . .