Posts Tagged ‘Angry Robot’


Seasons greetings all!

Yep, snow is falling on my blog. It looks like dandruff, but it is supposed to be snow. That means Christmas approaches, and so do many deadlines… Ulp.

But I’ve been so remiss in not blogging, so here’s a short message.

For your delectation today, I have three marvellous pieces of news. First, here’s the cover of The Crash, my second book for Solaris, out next June:

Crash

It’s a work in progress right now, but it’s nearly done, I think. For a description of the book, see my previous post.

Another announcement – I’ve been fortunate enough to have been asked to write a short story for the Black Library’s advent calendar this year! I can’t tell you what it is about, because it’s Christmas and Christmas is all about surprises, but I can tell you that it will be available on 17th December. Click on the link to find out more.

Lastly, if you go here to Whatever, John Scalzi’s blog, you can see me dance like a monkey on an electric wire (figuratively speaking), trying to get people to consider  Reality 36, Omega Point, and Champion of Mars as Christmas presents. You mean you hadn’t thought of that yourself? Then think about it. It’s a great idea. Really.

Ahem, I should mention that Mr Scalzi has thrown open his blog to all authors,  other books are available, and indeed, there are many other writers in the thread talking about their own books, many of which sound pretty damn fine.

If you’re a writer yourself, I heartily advise taking advantage of Scalzi’s generosity and join in the festive PR frenzy.

Later this week, I’ll be posting the cover for my next 40k book, The Death of Integrity.  Till then, stay frosty, it’s cold enough to do so, even if it is unfashionable to say so (at least it’s not raining any more here in England. And it has been raining ALL YEAR).


This particular tale was commissioned for SFX Magazine’s Fantasy: The Ultimate Celebration Special Edition. Fantasy rarely satisfies me, especially the “high” version of it, although really my first love was fantasy and not SF. One thing that always plucks me out of these imagined worlds is how clean and fair they are. (Either that, or it’s grim visits grimtown with added torture, but that’s for another post).  I wonder, who grows the food, where does the sewage go, and where are all the dogs? This story draws on that, harking back to an earlier era of fantasy when things weren’t quite so rosy.

“The Great Tide” is set in a secondary world that I’ve been working on for some time. If you’ve read my other, tongue-in-cheek fantasy stories available at the Robot Trading Company, this is different. You may see more of this world. Watch this space.

The Great Tide

The canyon lip curled over the gleaners’ shelf , layered stone petals that shrugged the rain and sun’s glare off and hid the children from the disapproval of Moracs-Gravo. The shelf was open on the side of the canyon, perishing cold in winter to be sure, but tonight their fire kept the chill of autumn away well enough

The gleaner children sat around the fire on a stone floor polished by their feet. Travnic, their gang boss, sat on a keg. It was a worthless gleaning, its hoops corroded right through in places, staves rotten. For all that it made an adequate seat for the old man. The fire burned blue from the salt in the wood. The smoke it gave was briny, redolent of distant waves.

The evening was two hours past sundown. The day’s gleaning had been unrewarding. Another gang boss, a gang boss who was not Travnic, might have punished the children for their poor pickings. Markovitski, the boss of bosses, had already had cause to threaten Travnic. Another boss would have handed his fear on to his gang with a belt and hard words. Not Travnic. He’d looked at the pile of salvage, he’d sighed and he’d scratched at his bald scalp, and he’d said what he always said: “Tomorrow will be a better day.”

As was his custom, he was telling the children a story.

“In a time not so long ago, there lived a farmer,” he said.

“What’s a farmer?” said Lavina.

“Shut up Lavina,” said Rusinka.

“You shut up, Rusinka.”

“A farmer,” said Travnic, “is a man who makes his way in life by growing food, out in the country.”

“They sell it here, to the city,” said Morunik. He was approaching adulthood, and had the surliness that the change from boy to man inflicts. “Where do you think it comes from?”

A spirited argument erupted. Travnic watched his charges bicker with amusement.

“Quiet!” said Tuvacs, the eldest. “Or you’ll all be off to bed now, get it?”

They quietened at Tuvac’s rebuke.

“Now, are you going to let me tell this story or not?” said Travnic.

“Tell!” they said.

“Good.” He continued. “This farmer had a herd of fine dairy cows. He and his wife lived in a glade in a forest and by his house he had a little dairy. He drove his cows to the dairy every morning, and he and his wife milked them, and then he drove them to a different part of the glade so they might enjoy fresh grass. In winter they went into the barn under his house. His wife and he would churn butter and make cheese, and every secondweek…”

Tuvacs had heard the story many times. Travnic’s eyes were as bright as always, but the face they looked out from was more haggard by the day. Just this year, Tuvacs thought, he has aged a great deal.

Travnic told how the farmer’s wife had died, how the farmer had become mad enough with grief to hear the singing of the Wild Tyn in the forest, and how he’d tricked one of the magical creatures into taking the shape of a vixen. The Tyn had been forced to serve him and grant his wishes, until, as is the way such stories, the Tyn had tricked the farmer in its turn.

“…and the farmer toiled and toiled. His herd was never dry of milk, no matter how much he milked, and the Tyn laughed behind her whiskers at him. He could not leave his cows, for they would sicken and die, and so he could not churn his butter or make his cheese or go to market. The milk went bad, he poured it away and carried on milking, for he cared for his animals very much.

“On the eighth day, the Tyn approached him, her tail swishing.

“‘Are you happy master?’ she said slyly.

“The farmer looked at the Tyn. He was tired and he missed his wife and he knew he had been a fool. His eyes were clear of grief for the first time since his wife had died, and he knew what he had to do.

“‘Thank you,’ he said, and the Tyn knew he was not thanking her for the great amount of milk she had magicked up. ‘But now I wish it would all stop,’ he said.

“The Tyn licked her lips nervously, for she was bound to grant his wish, and yet the Tyn Y Dvar do not know how their own magic will turn out, not entirely. ‘Your wish is granted,’ she said.

“The farmer lay down, and then he died.

“Now, the Tyn at first was happy, but then a terrible shame came upon her, for she had broken the Tyn’s gravest law and taken a life, and she knew in her heart that the farmer had been grief struck, and not a bad man, and that made it all the worse. ‘Master! Master!’ it cried. The Tyn Y Dvar leapt around the farmer’s corpse like a mad thing. ‘Master!’”

Travnic was good at the voices, thought Tuvacs. He smiled and rested his head on the rock at his back, and remembered when he was very young.

“The grief of the Tyn addled its mind, and it ran into the forest without changing shape. It was stuck forever as a vixen. And so it screams in horror at what it had done, whenever the moon is out, like tonight.” Travnic sniffed. The moon was behind him as if he had timed it, white and round between the piers of the Mrostovyn bridge, the dark bulk of the Twin behind it. “And that’s why foxes scream at night.”

“There was only one Tyn,” said Lavina doubtfully. “All foxes scream.”

“The others copied it,” Tuvacs said. He patted his little sister’s head. She scowled at him and shrugged his hand away.

“That’s right,” said Travnic. “That’s right.”

“What’s it mean?” asked Mirta.

Travnic shrugged.

Mirta persisted. “All stories mean something.”

“This, and that,” said Travnic. “You have to figure it out for yourself.” He slapped his knees and pushed himself awkwardly to his feet. His left leg was lame. There was a scar down his the thigh there, a gift from an Ocerzerkiyan sabre. He had shown Tuvacs once. “Enough for tonight. We’ve a Great Tide gleaning tomorrow. Off to bed with you.”

The children made noises of disappointment. Drassna and Dravina ran ahead to their pallets, grabbing each other and giggling. The others trudged. It had been a long day, and no one could match the twin’s energy.

Tuvacs looked over his shoulder at his master as he shepherded Lavina towards bed. Travnic stood wheezing gently, hands on the lower part of his back, elbows like sharp wings in the fire’s uncertain glow.

It was then Tuvacs realised he was worried about Travnic.

Tuvacs tucked Lavina in quickly, jamming their blanket under the wooden pallet where they slept.

“Where are you going?” she said. Her eyes reflected the lights of the city, the fire, the moon, the Twin, the stars. Her eyes were huge. He could see a pout form. She didn’t like to be left alone.

“I’ll be back before you go to sleep.”

His sister rolled over. “That’s not fair. I’m cold.”

Tuvacs waited for her to say more, but she did not. He went back to the fire.

If Travnic had noticed Tuvacs’ concern, it did not show. He looked over the canyon to the Moracs side of Moracs-Gravo. The buildings were high there, and graceful. Their shelf was on the Gravo side, the poorer side. It seemed to Tuvacs that Moracs would not tolerate so humble personages as the gleaners, not even at the filthy roots of its cliffs.

“We all know what we’re to do,” said Tuvacs. “I’ll make sure it goes smoothly. We’ll get a good gleaning, I promise.”

“So I don’t have to come down there, Tuvico? Even for such a gleaning?  I suppose I should thank you.” Travnic whistled through his teeth and rubbed his back. “My knees hurt, my back hurts, my war wounds hurt, my eyes are dull, my hands…” he held them up and looked at them. “When I was a boy, there was no one better than me on all the gleaning gangs. You know that? I could dance up and down these cliffs. I was always the first to spot the glimmer of a coin in the mud. And then I was a soldier. Now?” He snorted, half despairing, half amused. “Let me tell you something boy, something true. You never think you’re going to get old.” Travnic looked at the boy, the boy who was as good as his son. He was mildly surprised, as he was every time he realised Tuvacs’ face was level with his own. “You’re nearly a man Tuvico,” he said. “You are a good boy.” He reached out a hand to ruffle Tuvacs’ hair. He hesitated, and did not. He grasped his shoulder instead.

“What’s going to happen to us?” said Tuvacs abruptly.

Travnic’s face became hard, the brittle kind of hard that hides worry. “I don’t know Tuvico, I don’t know.”

*****

Tuvacs was up while it was still dark. Before he roused the girls to make breakfast, Travnic would put him through his paces. “I can’t teach you much boy,” he’d said to Tuvacs years ago. “Nothing but gleaning and swordplay. Best you know how to handle yourself.” And so Tuvacs had had his fencing lessons every day since.

“Keep your guard up boy,” Travnic said. He sat on his keg, his lame leg stretched out in front of him, a pot of small beer in his hand. “Cover your centre, cover! Oh for the eight’s sake.” Travnic put his beer aside on a little shelf in the rock, and pulled himself onto his feet. He moved stiffly over to where Tuvacs was working with his gleaned half-sword. He grabbed the boy’s arm and adjusted its position. Then that grin came onto his face, and he fetched his own old weapon, muffled in rag. He and Tuvacs mock-duelled. Travnic’s leg meant he could not move from the spot, but his command of the blade was such that Tuvacs struggled to land a blow. The blades hit one another with dull rings. Travnic and Tuvacs made little noise, so as not to disturb the others, but they breathed hard, and Tuvacs made little grunts of frustration as his attacks were turned aside.

“You’re getting better,” said Travnic.

Tuvacs was too occupied to reply.

Travnic began to cough, dry barks at first, but soon his chest was heaving. He fought for breath. His guard dropped, and Tuvacs came to help him. Travnic rested his free hand on Tuvacs’ shoulder and bent double.

Travnic heaved and gasped. Each cough sent a spasm down his damaged leg that showed on his face as a sharp grimace. Finally, the coughing eased.

“Are you all right?” asked Tuvacs. And then, somehow, he was on his back with Travnic’s sword at his neck.

Travnic’s off hand grasped his bad leg. To sweep Tuvacs legs out from under him had cost him. “Never let your guard down,” he wheezed.

“That’s not fair, Travnic,” said Tuvacs, and put his hands forward in surrender.

“Who said life was, Tuvico?” Travnic wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. They both pretended they could not see the blood. “Who said it was?”

*****

The others grumbled at being turfed out of their beds before daybreak, but they could not afford to waste daylight on a Great Tide day. The eldest three girls fed them black bread, a tiny portion of salt fish, and a cup of ale close to turning sour.

As they ate, Kostarno came to see Travnic. They spoke away from the children, right at the edge of the shelf. Tuvacs strained his ears and stole glances over to where they spoke. Travnic was one of life’s natural wheel-greasers. Even Markovitski liked Travnic sufficiently to send his enforcer down rather than making Travnic struggle up to see him, and Kostamo was Markovitski’s least unpleasant enforcer.. But business was business, and Kostamo looked sterner than usual.

Travnic raised his hands. Kostamo pointed a finger and said something that made the old man’s smile fade. Tuvacs could not hear it over the chatter of the others. He would not say what it was as he herded the children out to work.

The sky was heavy with high and barren cloud. There was no one about. A few people unwilling or unable to pay the upper bridge tolls had come down the stairs to use the pontoons, which were currently sat in the mud. They were annoyed at crossing the reeking ooze of the canyon floor, and they pushed past the children rudely as they made their way up or down the rickety stairs.

Above, the double city crowded the lips of the canyon. The three ancient Maceriyan bridges crossed the half-mile gap, carrying roads in their cradles of magic-spun metal and stone. The noise above was muted, the rumble of the soil carts and the occasional bark of the dogs that pulled them. Much of the city slept. The purple-dark globe of the Twin glowering menacingly over it all, the moon entrapped in its circle.

Down at the bottom of the canyon it was still dark. Tuvacs set the others to their tasks. The twins were on lookout for fresh drops. The younger three were put to work as spotters, clambering along the side of the canyon. Morunik and Kuhalc were to work as haulers, dragging the heavy stuff out of the muck. Tuvacs , Mirta and Culita were to do light gleaning. That way he could work and keep an eye on the whole gang.

“Everyone ready?” he shouted. The individual calls of the children echoed off the stone, the whistled trade-tongue of the gleaners. “Double call for uptime!” he said. Travnics had paid the tidemaster for a reading of the charts, the money had come out of his own pocket. Travnic lived in fear of losing them to the waters. Tuvacs despaired of his kindness sometimes, but if he were going to pay for an accurate reckoning, said Tuvacs to Travnic, they might as well work until the last moment.

Tuvacs and the girls stepped down into the muck. There had been no tide for a fortnight, so it was at least firm underfoot. On the other side of that particular coin, there was garbage everywhere, the stench of shit and blood and rotting flesh was overpowering. Salt flies buzzed in choking columns. Tuvacs hated them, the way they crawled into his mouth and eyes.

The canyon was Moracs-Gravo’s cesspool. Soil carts worked all day to drag the city’s waste to the edge and tip it in. Servants and poorer citizens would toss all manner of rubbish over the lip. By city writ, more waste was deposited prior to a Great Tide. In three day’s time, when the great tide receded, the canyon would be swept clean. Until then, it remained a dismal miasma.

Tuvacs pulled his scarf up over his nose. Most days he was inured to the stink; not today.

Anything that might fetch a few pennies, they gathered. Most of the city’s refuse was reused before it got down here, taken away to whichever industry needed it. But things were lost, things were thrown away by mistake, or were in too small a quantity to be worth the bother to others. The gleaners were the last filter in a system adept at making use of everything, they would collect every rusty nail, every stick suitable for firewood, every chop bone and oyster shell.

The twins whistled out, warning of drops. Tuvacs moved away from the edge of the canyon and mess rained down from above. His sister called a find, a terse flurry of notes for shells, good for the mortar makers.

Tuvacs ambled along, eyes intent on the mud. He held his breath as he skirted past a slick of exhausted pure; tanner’s refuse. It was the worst kind of filth. He was so intent on avoiding it that he nearly missed the dead man.

He saw the boot first. He’d been a gleaner long enough to know it still had a foot in it. The man was half hidden behind a boulder. His body was a contortion of broken bones, his fine clothes crusted with blood.

Tuvacs looked around him before he went to the man. The gang never worked more than three hundred paces apart. Kuhalc and Morunik were hauling at a beam. Lavina, Rusalka and Tomar were looking over a tangled pile of debris together. He could not see anyone else. There were other gleaners, of course, but they were a long way away. Good, he’d get first look.

The man had been armed. His scabbard was broken under his twisted thigh, empty. There was a dagger on the opposite hip, and this Tuvacs unhooked, scabbard and all, and tucked into his shirt. He patted the corpse, looking for a purse. It was still there.

There were seven thalers in there. His heart hammered. He put it away. He checked himself to make sure his gains were hidden, and then he whistled for help to strip the man.

*****

Bells rang throughout Moracs-Gravo, and the gleaners watched as the tide came in.

It was a wall of water, black and alien, an invader from the distant sea, pulled up abruptly by the combined strength of the Twin and the Moon. There was little to announce it, a swift trickle of moisture, and then it came around the bend in the canyon, a black hill, its glossy surface already choked with debris. It reached the pontoon bridges grounded in the mud, and they rose at its command, groaning as the Great Tide forced them up their anchor ropes.

The wave passed by, and that was that. Water filled the canyon to ten yards below their shelf as if it had always been there. The pontoon bridges floated on it. The gleaner children gasped and cooed at it, rarely did the tide come so fast or so high. Music sounded from around the city. A priest to the Absent Ones began a speech from the centre of the Lubinchac bridge, but his voice was as lost as his gods were, drowned in the roar of humanity emanating from the city.

The festival began.

Travnic and Tuvacs stood apart from the others.

“You are sure no one saw you?” asked Travnic. He hefted the purse in his hand. “If you were seen, gods, they’ll hang you for robbery.”

Tuvacs shook his head. “Not even the gang. I took it before they saw. I didn’t want any trouble over it.”

“You are a good lad, Tuvito. Anyone else might have taken it for themselves.”

“I am not anyone else,” he said. He did not mention the fine dagger or the thaler he’d kept for himself.

“How did he die?”

“A sword thrust to the heart, quick and clean.”

“A duel?”

Tuvacs shrugged. “Maybe. They did not rob him. What will you do? The money will keep Markovitski off your back for a long while.”

Travnic smiled. “No. He may believe you found one coin one day, and maybe even a second the next, but if I put a fresh quarter thaler into the gleaning every day, then he’ll know I’m holding out on him. I have to give it all over at once, or not at all.” He looked out at the canyon. “I’m on my last chance, Tuvito, you know that. One good find like this won’t stop him from taking my license. It’s going to happen soon.”

Tuvacs said nothing. For Travnic, it was enough that he was there.

“You could have kept the money. You should have,” said Travnic.

A procession strode over the nearest bridge, a squadrons of dismounted uhlans at the fore. They were resplendent in their uniforms, flashes of colour that defied the greyness of the day. Two wheeled cages containing an example pair of the Uhlan’s drakkars were pulled behind by dogs. The reptiles were battle mounts, too dangerous to ride in the city.

Travnic looked at the boy.

“I’ve got an idea. Come on.”

*****

The master at arms looked down the full length of his nose at them. His breastplate shone as glorious counterpoint to the contempt on his face.

“You cannot possibly apply.”

“All can apply. It is the day of the Great Tide,” said Travnic.

“Then you almost certainly do not have the fee,” said the master at arms.

“We do,” said Travnic, and deposited two silver thalers  upon the desk.

The master at arms sighed. He had run out of objections.

“Very well,” he said. “Name.”

“Alovo Tuvacs,” said Tuvacs.

“You cannot possible win,” said the master at arms as he wrote Tuvacs’ name. “You would be best spending your stolen money elsewhere.”

“I would not count on that, sir,” said Travnic.

They were given a wooden round with a painted number upon it, and directed through into the training yard of the barracks.

The barrack’s yard was austere. A cloister ran the length of one wall, wooden dummies and weapons racked under it. A large desk had been placed on the training ground’s sand. It was ornately carved and hung with scarlet cloth. An officer sat behind it, two troopers in full uniform either side of him.

“Why bring me here?” asked Tuvacs.

“It’s a way out boy. The better regiments are only open to the likes of us on Great Tide days. The money, the tide, it’s fate, see?”

“What about my sister? Lavina can’t join the army? Travnic, I can’t abandon her.”

“Even on a recruit’s wage you’ll have enough to see her right. Your contract will be bought out by the army, you can buy hers later. Get her to apprentice, or train for service, you’ll have enough to afford that.”

“And the others? What about them?”

Travnic looked away. “I can’t help you all,” he said guiltily.

Tuvacs stopped himself from pressing the point. He knew it was true. If he doubted it, why was he here?

They were called out in pairs, and set to sparring. There were poor boys there and rich, but even the poorest looked askance at ragged Tuvacs and Travnic.

Travnic ignored their disapproval. He tutted and made withering comments as the others fought. Twice he shouted in annoyance. The second time he was told to keep his counsel to himself by the master at arms.

Tuvacs watched them fight in silence, and then it was his turn.

“Forty-four, Alovo Tuvacs to fight twenty-seven, Priyep Donatz Kustarowic,” called the master at arms.

A priyep, thought Tuvacs. Marvellous.

Travnic grabbed both his shoulders and whispered in his ear. “Random draw my old arse! They’ve given you an aristo, Tuvito. He’ll have been training most of his life, they’ll think you’re sure to lose.” He was excited. “But he hasn’t been training with me. These boys are all honour and drill, surprise him.”

He slapped Tuvacs so hard on the back he staggered out of line onto the sand.

The Priyep was in consultation with a man Tuvacs guessed was some kind of instructor. He was a little older than Tuvacs, muscled from good food and hard training. His clothes were worth more than Tuvacs had earned in his entire life.

“Come on then boy!” called the priyep. “Let’s see what gutter scum like you can do.”

“I’m a gleaner,” growled Tuvacs.

A training sword was pressed into his hand. The Priyep had his own, a wooden sword as richly mounted as a king’s blade.

The priyep prowled the sand. Tuvacs took up his stance as he’d learned it from Travnic. He felt ungainly. For the first time, he felt out of place.

The priyep darted forward fast. His wooden blade flashed toward Tuvacs’ head. Without thinking, Tuvacs deflected it, and returned his sword to the position of the fourth guard. His arm was jolted by the impact. He was gripping the hilt too hard. He loosened his hold and bent low on his knees. The priyep laughed.

The priyep attacked several times, testing Tuvacs’ skills. Tuvacs parried them as simply as possible, not wanting to give anything away. A couple of times they fell into a flurry of actions as the priyep redoubled his attacks after the initial parry. Then he started to feint, to slide his blade under Tuvacs own. Tuvacs’ sword was ready in position when the real attack came in.

The priyep was fighting duelling-style, suited to rapiers. Tuvacs was used to Travnic’s war-style, for heavier weapons that favoured edge-blows. To his mind, his was the better suited to the training swords.

The priyep was predictable. He always went for the right. For all his confidence, his attacks varied but little. A low line attack, high sweep to the sixth position, counter parry to the eighth, redouble of the thrust. He kept his distance well, but that was the limit of his ability.

Tuvacs waited until the priyep was panting. A wiser man would have backed off a little, but the priyep’s arrogance had become anger, and it was burning his stamina fast.

The priyep came in. Tuvacs parried the first two blows, and then he switched feet, stepping his right behind his left and rotating his body out of the way, chest high. The priyep’s thrust carried him straight past the gleaner. Tuvacs brought his wooden blade down hard on the other boy’s wrist. The priyep yelped and dropped his sword. Tuvacs ducked low and swept his leg around, knocking the overextended priyep to the ground. He stood over the aristocrat and put his blade to his throat.

“Yield,” he said.

The priyep’s face was a mixture of outrage and pain. He gripped his wrist.

“Yield.”

The priyep hesitated. He swallowed. “I yield.”

Tuvacs tossed his sword away and walked back to Travnic. A murmur of surprise went around the waiting boys and men. They looked at him differently now. What made it special for him, however, was the look of pride on Travnic’s face.

At the end of the day, all those victorious in their bouts were invited to join the regiment.

All except Tuvacs.

*****

That night, Travnic took Tuvacs to a tavern and they got drunk. Many times Tuvacs heard “Dishonourable victory? No such thing!”, accompanied by a long stream of expletives.

As they walked back to the canyon edge through Garo’s festivities, Travnic became introspective.

“I grew up a gleaner, Tuvacs. I thought I’d escaped when I joined the army. At the worst I’d die, but so what? All I wanted was enough for a nice little farm, or a good death, but when I was injured, that all went out of the window. There were few jobs that would accept a lame soldier. I knew nothing but swordplay and gleaning, so I returned whence I’d come, but not abashed! No!” He shouted this loudly at a pair of passers-by, startling them. “I’m proud of what I’ve done. So it didn’t work out quite the way I wanted.” He coughed, not so badly as in the morning. The alcohol made it easier. “But you? Whore-fucking aristocrats! Damn them if they can’t see a good thing in front of them. I…” He stopped and leaned against a wall, sliding down it some way. “I have tried for you son, I have, but there is nothing more to do. I’ll be gone soon. The other masters are not like me. There are some who are kind, but many are not. Don’t let yourself get trapped here.”

“What are you saying?”

“You know what I’m saying. Don’t be like the fox.”

“What fox?” Tuvacs’ head was muzzy with the beer.

“The fox in the story. You know what it means, right?”

Tuvacs shook his head. Travnic groaned.

*****

In the morning, Tuvacs woke his sister very early. He told the others to go to sleep, that they had errands to run for Travnic. He retrieved the dagger and thaler from where he’d hidden it.

He made Lavina wait, and woke Travnic.

“We are going,” said Tuvacs.

Travnic nodded. “It is for the best. Go far, before you are missed. Try for Karsa, the world is changing, and it is beginning there.” He sat and looked at Tuvacs and a mix of emotions played across his face.

“I know what the story means,” said Tuvacs.

“What?”

Now it was his turn to smile. “The fox, remember, or were you too drunk?”

“I remember, Tuvico. I mean, what does it mean?”

“We are like the Tyn, we cannot help but love those that enslave us.”

“And love itself is a kind of slavery. The farmer did it all because he loved his wife, and it made him blind.”

Tuvacs nodded. “Goodbye, father,” the first and final time he had called Travnic so.

He left quickly. It was better for them both that way.


I did this interview with Dan in 2010, prior to the release of the Warhammer 40,000 animated movie Ultramarines, for SFX 201.

DAN ABNETT

He’s the man with the golden pen – a 3000-words-a-minute model that can lay waste to whole star systems…

Dan Abnett is one of the UK’s most prolific SF authors, producing up to 300,000 words a year (his estimate, probably conservative). Beginning his career at Marvel UK in the 1980s, Abnett became a mainstay of 2000 AD in the 90s. For years comics of all kinds provided his bread and butter – he was SFX’s regular comics reviewer, too – before he began penning novels for Games Workshop’s Black Library. Work on Torchwood, Doctor Who and Primeval followed. With his first non tie-in novel Triumff out last year from Angry Robot and his first movie, Ultramarines, in production, the fickle gods of SF have amply rewarded Abnett’s industriousness.

Ultramarines is Games Workshop’s first foray into motion pictures. It’s set in their dystopian 41st Millennium where mankind’s Imperium stands on the brink of destruction, and features their signature Space Marines – genetically modified warriors. The company has licensed out its intellectual property in the past, but it’s long been wary of dipping its toe into the murky pool of Hollywood, fearing a loss of control (think Stallone, Dredd, no helmet…). Not so here, with London-based Codex Pictures making the feature and Abnett providing the script, we’ll be getting a proper Warhammer 40,000 film.

“Retaining the essential atmosphere was the key thing,” says Abnett. “My focus was a story that was absolutely true to the spirit of 40k. I needed it to fit inside the production constraints, ‘Listen, Dan, this may be an animated film, but you simply can’t ask for eighty million Space Marines to come galloping out of the Eye of Terror on choppers’, they said, and I was determined not to dilute the very bleak but heroic feel of the universe. Most of all, I wanted it to be a story that suited a film, rather than something designed to fit a novel or a comic. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s fantastic. The action, the amazing voice cast (John Hurt, Terrence Stamp, Sean Pertwee, Johnny Harris etc). And, my god, it’s got mood and atmosphere. It’s been a very interesting, educational job. The producers have been very good to work with, and I’ve learned a lot. I want to do more work for film, and I have two or three immediate opportunities to do so.”

Although GW provides much employment for Abnett, he continues to work for others. He’s still writing strips for 2000 AD, and together with Andy Lanning he signed a deal with Marvel two years ago to work on their cosmic characters. These are but two of his regular gigs.

The secrets of Abnett’s success are several. Although he tells us his specialisation was entirely accidental, he has an affinity for his “SF war” niche, so much so that real veterans sometimes assume he’s served in combat. Chiefly he’s done so well because he doesn’t hold anything back when he’s writing for other people’s worlds.

“What is generally termed ‘tie-in’ fiction gets a really bad press,” he says. “It’s not ‘proper’ books. It’s reheated crap churned out to cash in on a property.  Bollocks to that. There is a vast audience that wants to read good stories connected to their favourite show or film or whatever. If you think tie-in books are ‘cheap’ then you’re saying that the audience is cheap too, so shame on you. If they’re prepared to shell out for a book and invest the time reading it, someone had bloody well better have written it properly. I am constantly amused by the notion that I have two ‘grades’ of writing in me, my everyday style I use to lob out tie-in potboilers, and my Sunday best, proper quality style I only get out on special occasions to write ‘real books’ with. Yes, that’s exactly how it works. If you sit down and consciously think to yourself ‘I can knock this out using my economy rate writing,’ then step away from the keyboard. The book’s going to be shit, and you’ve got no business ripping readers off.”

Having said all that, for such an imaginative man, you would have expected an original novel from him earlier than last year.

“I write whatever comes next,” he says, “and for a long time, it was hard to find a gap in the schedule for Triumff. But it was immensely rewarding. I’m finishing my second Angry Robot novel now. It’s called Embedded, a combat SF thriller, but in a rather different vein to the war stories I write for BL.”

Another novel, on top of everything else?

“I work a lot because I love what I do,” he says. “I’m not suggesting it’s never hard work – everyone has bad days at the office. But I’m doing what I really want to be doing. But I have had to slow down. In September 09, I was suddenly pole-axed by seizures,” he says. “Turned out, after two anxious months waiting for a diagnosis, to be ‘just’ late onset epilepsy. Considering what it could have been, that was a relief. I had to gently get back on the horse, re-invent my working day, reduce the stress, work around the anti-epilepsy meds etc. This is going to sound strange, but it was an oddly satisfying experience, very liberating. I had been working ridiculously hard for too long. I got time to take stock. No more late-nighters for me. Lots of relaxed, clean living. I go to bed, get a good night’s sleep, rise early, get started. I’m sitting here at 6.30am. I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on such a great time of day for so long.”

BIODATA

Occupation: Freelance author

Born: 12th October 1965

From: Maidstone, Kent

Greatest hits: Sinister Dexter and Kingdom (2000AD), Gaunt’s Ghosts and Eisenhorn (novel series, Black Library), Guardians of the Galaxy, Nova, Star Trek: Early Voyages (Marvel Comics), Legion of Superheroes  and The Authority (DC/Wildstorm).

Random fact: His great-great-something-something grand mother was Lady Emma Hamilton.


What’s this? What’s this? It’s a Richards & Klein short story, that’s what! It’s set a month or so before the events of Reality 36. Please enjoy.

Ghost

A Richards & Klein case

2nd July, 2129

“Ohmygod, are you like, wholly certain?” The microphone at Jeanette’s throat hurled her squeals across the grid at Molly. Molly, her face pasted over the world as part of Jeanette’s enhanced reality set up, stuck out her tongue and pulled a face.

“Yeah, yeah, he did, I mean, he really did.”

Jeanette’s shrieks of laughter battered the ears of the other tube passengers. They ignored her, a custom bedded into London psyches two centuries gone. They had ceased to be people by choice, becoming objects to be shifted from one place to another. Although as pressed together as tightly as lovers, they hid in their inner spaces as best they could – in the bone cage of their skulls or out on the boundless Grid – seeking release from the proximity of other warm animal bodies.

Jeanette was less self-conscious. Firstly, she was sixteen, only beginning to outgrow the brash confidence of adolescence. Secondly, wherever Jeanette went it was in a cloud of private information. She was oblivious to the others, their faces crowded out by Grid windows packed laminate-tight.

Her vision hemmed, the Real was confined to a letterbox directly in front of her, dull and drab and wholly not worth paying attention to.

“That’s just grunky vile,” said Jeanette. Molly was using real-time feed of her own face. Jeanette was represented to her friend by a near-I avatar. It caught her mood and expressions well enough. Both girls squealed.

“Vile!” shrieked Molly into Jeanette’s ears. “Oh, but, listen. But you mustn’t tell anyone, okay? He’d be, like, massively mortified, okay?”

“Too late for that!” giggled Jeannette. “I got people listenin’ sis!”

“Where are you?” said Molly.

“I’m on the train!” bellowed Jeannette. “Off shopping, in like shops, I’m massively getting into that. Sooo much better than looking on the Grid. But yeah, no, I surely can’t afford it, but you know, I image it,” she clucked her tongue, “like get it fabbed up at home. Done and sorted.”

“Oh I madly hate you,” Molly’s nose wrinkled as she pouted. “You always look so great and you always get your proj done on time. Why can’t I so? I’ve a ton due Monday, like the day after tomorrow.”

“I’ve not done my proj yet,” said Jeanette. Her avatar copied the grin on her face.

“How are you…”

“A girl’s got to keep some secrets,” Jeannette said. Her avatar held a finger to cartoon lips and gave a wink a teenager might judge mysterious.

The train spoke. “The next stop will be Oxford Street. Change here for Bakerloo, Victoria, and King Charles III lines.”

“And… Oh, hang on so, this is like, surely my stop. Gotta go!”

“Catch you Jeannette.”

“Catch you Molly.”

The last thing Molly saw of her friend was her avatar fading away. Not really Jeanette, just graphics and guesswork, but in her mind she’d never be able to tease them apart. After Jeanette had been gone a while, she wasn’t sure if she ever could.

****

The Tube doors opened with a blast of overheated, smelly air. Jeannette was sucked out of the train by a surge of people. She let the crowd bump and bob her toward the exit. A careless shoulder knocked her ear, dislodging her earpiece and setting her glasses askew. “Tchaw!” she squawked at the shoulder, which paid her no mind and swiped its way onward. She’d like surely missed the best bit in her show. She set her gear to rights. She wholly hated the glasses, and the earpiece, and the mike, but her mum and dad went mental whenever she asked for an implant. An implant! Not a full-on mentaug, a bloody phone so she could catch her shows and chat and that with her friends without all this junk stuck on her face; but no. Two hours of this and that, wagging fingers, Bergstrom’s disease and bill-scares and who-the-hell-d’you-thinks-gonna-pay-feritall? You’d think she’d wanted a gun, you would, a gun.

She was carried by the press onto Oxford Street. The street was crammed with all the variety of 22nd century humanity – post-humans, AI in sheaths, pimsims (that’s dead people, she shuddered inwardly) in sheaths, Near-I helpbots on errands, eugenes and cyborgs.

Her scalp prickled with sweat. It was wholly hot, 29 degrees and rising fast, sticky as ever. She’d stink as bad as the Tube by the time she got home.

Facts and figures about this lesson and that assignment scrolled up to join the two TV shows, the lecture and the online game she had flickering in front of her. She checked the progress of her homework. She blew a strand of sweat-lank hair out from behind her glasses. She’d messed up a bit there, she’d never write like that. She adjusted the essay and let her homework get on with itself.

She was pleased with the sentence she’d recrafted; so pleased that she never saw the cycle rickshaw.

Oxford Street had had no traffic other than the pedal-powered kind for fifty years. A bike though, that can still kill you, if you are unlucky.

The rickshaw banged hard into her right knee, causing her leg to buckle, causing her to fall, which in turn caused her head to come into contact with the kerb, which caused her skull to fracture. The Real and the Grid were plastic and interwoven, the world changed every day as technology played its fingers over the structure of life, but underneath all that granite was still granite.

Pain like she’d never known spidered across her head. Her glasses skittered into the gutter.

Somewhat unfairly, she died. Just one of those things, wise heads would say, which is more than the statistics she had just joined would.

Cold comfort all round.

Back home, Jeannette’s essay carried on writing itself.

****

The phone rang in Richards’ head. Kind of. Richards was a Class Five free-roaming artificial intelligence, and as such did not technically have a head. Even while he was wearing an anthropoid sheath which did have a head. As no better way had evolved of expressing this sentiment accurately, he along with everyone regarded his sheath’s head as his actual head, even though it was not.

He was busy, but he was never too busy for more business. He answered the call with a thought.

“Richards?” came a hesitant voice.

Great, thought Richards. Ghostbuster Karl. “You dialled my number Karl,” said Richards warily.

“Yeah, right,” said Karl. “Sorry. I think I have one for you.”

“Karl mate, this is not a good time.”

A burst of gunfire scared Richards out from behind an upturned table. Bullets cracked its woven-carbon surface. He rolled his robot sheath across the floor, crunching tableware and smearing fish supper over his trenchcoat. He crawled on his elbows past cowering punters. “Out for a naughty bit of cod, caught in a gunfight,” said Richards to them as he wriggled past. “Serves you right.”

He made it with minimal damage to the broad pillar where his partner Otto sheltered.

The German cyborg was pressed up hard against the concrete, trying to get tight in, although the effect was akin to an elephant hiding behind a bamboo stalk. Micro bullets whined into the walls with small, apologetic noises, raising puffs of dust from the building’s fabric, awakening aged rebars in showers of sparks. Otto leaned out an arm and emptied his gun in the general direction of the two men firing at him.

“Du jetzt antworts das verdammte telefon?!”

“It’s Karl, man,” said Richards with a shrug.

“What?” Otto yelled.

“Karl. Karl the ghostbuster.”

“I don’t care who the hell it is! There are people shooting at us.” Richards looked up at him, his softgel face bent into a sheepish smile. “There are people,” said Otto, “shooting at me. Get up and shoot! Get up and shoot you damn robot.”

“I dropped my gun.”

Otto growled – he was that kind of man – and pulled a pistol from a holster at his hip. He dropped it. Richards caught it in his fake hands.

“You know I don’t like fighting,” murmured the AI. He looked out intently over the mess of rubble and food coating the floor instead. “And I dropped my hat as well.”

“Shut up and fire!”

Richards popped his head out from behind Otto’s legs. He could just about see behind the fish bar, although at this level spilled tables and terrified customers were inconveniently in the way of a clear shot. There were two of Mackenzie’s men left in the fight. A third lay dead on the floor, a hole the size of a melon in his chest. A spread of his lung tissue and blood coated the floor, mixed with ketchup and chunks of battered cod. Mackenzie himself had his back up against the wall, clutching his shattered left arm. His face white, his legs bicycled on the floor, as if he could pedal away from the pain. He wasn’t going to be any trouble.

It was the two at the front who were proving intractable. Their automatics rested atop the fishbar’s warming boxes, spitting fire. Mackenzie had gone to a lot of trouble with this place, modelling it after fish and chip shops of the 20th century, although back then peddling deep-fried fish and potatoes had not been an environmental crime. Which is why it is now, thought Richards. Cod was right up on the red list. Only Tuna Barons could expect more time for fishmongery.

Richards decided to try talking it out one more time. “Hey! Hey! Can’t we just all put our guns down? You are under arrest for trading in critically endangered species?” he said. “You’re not getting out of here! This is your final warning! I’m through being reasonable, and Otto here is getting grouchy.”

“I’ll critically endanger you, you plastic bastard!” shouted one of the goons. Bullets sang their song all around their pillar.

“Ow!” said Otto as one took him in the leg. The round did him little harm, but it still hurt. He leaned out, his near-I adjutant running targeting enhancements through his mentaug. A blinking reticule in his iHud confirmed a clear line on the leftmost man’s forehead. Otto braved a prolonged burst to put him down with a single shot. He smiled at the result. Unlike Richards, Otto did like fighting.

“Come on now! There’s only one of you left!” yelled Richards.

“I’m not going into the freezer for a fish!” yelled the remaining Scotsman.

Richards slumped back behind the pillar and leaned his back on Otto’s legs. “Great, an ‘I’ll never be taken alive!’ type. I hate those. Otto mate, how many bullets do you think he’s got left?”

“One clip,” grunted Otto.

“Thanks.” Richards ran up a counter in his head. He ticked the bullets off as they rattled from the concrete. At zero, he stood, gun pointed right at the man’s head. “Now,” he said “put it down. Please.” He meant it wholeheartedly. His primary dislike of fighting was the death that went with it.

Mackenzie’s man smiled. His empty clip shot out of the bottom of his gun. From within the warming box he produced another.

“Aw, bollocks,” said Richards.

One hundred and fifty micro-bullets pounded into Richards’ carbon plastic chest at very high velocity. His sheath wobbled. Cloth fibres puffed into the air as his trenchcoat disintegrated. The gun clattered deafeningly in the confined space. Restaurant punters screamed.

The gun ran empty. Richards stopped his riddled-with-bullets dance and looked down at his shredded coat “That was one of my favourites.”

“I told you not to wear it,” said Otto.

“This was supposed to be easy!” protested Richards.

“You always say that,” said Otto. “Nothing is ever easy.”

“You’ll not take me!” said the goon, making to leap the fishbar and attack, although with what and to what end was not immediately clear to anyone. He snatched up a fish slice.

“Do you mind? We’re having a dispute,” said Richards, and trained his gun on the man’s face. “Look,” he said to Otto. “I’m sorry. Here’s a tip. I wore this combat sheath, eh? You know when I say something will be simple but I put a combat sheath on, well, I’m kind of lying. It’s the only way to get you out of the office.”

“This is not true,” said. Otto. He holstered his gun. “Put the utensil down, man of Mackenzie, and come quietly.”

“I think he’s going all William Wallace on us, do you think he’s going William Wallace on us, Otto? You know what happened to William Wallace Mr Scotty?”

Surrounded and outgunned Mackenzie’s man put up his hands, and swore with rich Scottish sincerity.

“There is a good boy,” said Otto.

Richards’ plastic face smiled an infuriating smile for him. “And there we are. Now,” he said, and began to recite in a dispassionate, official voice that was not his own. “You are under arrest for a number of environmental crimes, and violating saturated fat directive 47c/59873/iii. Full details of said crimes are available on the EuEnPro gridsite.” Otto pushed the goon down and fitted him with handcuffs. “And you lot, yes, you diners.” Richards waved his gun over the restaurant patrons, causing them to duck back again. “You’re under arrest too. Eating the fishies is as bad as catching them. Now you’re caught in my net. Chew on that.”

At that moment Detective Chief Inspector Smillie of New New Scotland Yard made his entrance. A pair of assault bobbies flanked him, dressed for a major warzone, trotting the crouched trot of serious armed men. Smillie himself wore nothing more heavily armoured than his crumpled suit and his ancient leather coat. It was the one he seemed to always wear. It certainly smelled that way.

Smillie sniffed and pressed a finger onto the side of his nose, closing a nostril and the eye above it. He peered to the left, and then he peered to the right, his open eye running over the mess of broken glass, scattered chips and shattered furniture. He snorted.

“Jesus,” he said finally, “what kind of fucking mess do you call this?”

“Oh look, my least favourite Scotsman,” said Richards. “You should be pleased with that, there’s a lot of competition today.”

“I’m going to be taking you in for this, license or no license,” said Smillie.

“You’re not,” said Richards, pinging a whole load of privileges into Smillie’s phone. “We’re here under authority of the EU Environmental Protection Agency, on an ongoing investigation, so you can shut your mouth. Put something deep fried in it. That’s the usual trick, ain’t it?” Richards beamed a giant, unfriendly smile, which on his sheath’s face looked inhuman and freakish. “Anyway, got to go, I have another client to deal with.”

Richards tossed his gun back to Otto and commenced looking for his hat.

“Wait a minute. You are leaving me to clear up this?” said Otto. He was unsurprised. He’d been left in this kind of situation before.

“Yep. Sorry big guy. Karl needs some help. Ah! There it is,” Richards patted Otto on the bicep as he passed him, hurrying for his fedora.

“But I am hit,” said Otto, looking at the trickle of blood leaking from his leg.

“You’re a big strong cyborg, you’ll mend.” Richards snatched up his hat.

“Do not do it for free,” Klein said. “Karl is poor and pointless! You have done enough pro bono work to bankrupt us.”

“Yeah yeah,” said Richards. “Smillie, you’ll find the biggest fish of this operation at the back. A takeaway for you.” A gave a wink that clicked.

“Funny bastard,” said Smillie. He pulled a carcinogen free cigarette from his top pocket and stuck it between his lips.

“Laters,” said Richards and walked out.

Otto rubbed at the electoos in his scalp. Something occurred to him. “Hey! And leave me the car!” he bellowed. “Call a cab!”

“And I thought you were the boss, Klein,” said Smillie, his voice warm with amicable contempt. Otto technically was the boss of Richards and Klein, Security Consultants Inc.. The assets a Class Five AI could legally hold were limited in certain circumstances, like when said Class Five’s job was poking around in other people’s business, but technical was exactly what Otto’s directorship was.

“Shut up Smillie. You!” Otto jabbed a finger at one of Smillie’s men. “Go get a broom, and find some friends of yours to arrest these people. Mackenzie is at the back there. Go arrest him first.”

Smillie shot his man a black look as he jumped to do Otto’s bidding.

Otto folded his arms and tried not to glower. There was little less dignified than a sulking cyborg.

*****

Richards ran up the stairs of the old block to the roof. The building was an early 21st century riverfront office. Now it was in the river. This bit of the South Bank had not yet been redeveloped. Most of the windows in the building were gone, and the sound of the brown Thames slapping against concrete echoed up the stairwell. These places, close to the richer parts of Old London, were a popular site for illegal activity. No matter how often they were cleared out, no matter how omniscient surveillance became, the ooze of crime seeped up from the Morden Subcity over and again. These fly-by-night illegal eateries were gone as quickly as they came, and hard to catch. It would all be so much easier if people behaved themselves, he thought. Cod-mongers would fry no fish if rich idiots wanting a taste of illicit seafood didn’t buy.

Richards’ shoes crunched grit on damp concrete. The weather was hotter than hell, Old London as damp as the swamp it was. He was unbothered by it. Richards experienced an infinitesimal slowdown in his sheath’s processors, but that was easily compensated for by his base unit back in New London.

The car had company; three police fliers. Old London lay all around him, marsh, ruins, redevelopment, down but not out, the very spirit of persistence. Richards thought the locks of the car open and clambered in. He shucked off his ruined trenchcoat and pulled another one off the back seat. He never travelled with less than three.

“Where to boss?” asked the car. It had a 1950’s New York accent and a Near-I intelligence so over-specced it outclassed some true AI. Richards had programmed the former in for a laugh, and kept the latter quiet. Partly because he liked an ace or two up his sleeve, mainly because what he’d done to the car’s mind was illegal.

Richards shot the address Karl had sent him into the car. Turbofans span into life, pushing the vehicle noiselessly into the air.

He stared out of the window all the way back, but his mind took in different vistas. By the time they arrived at Fawkes Arco in New London he’d filed for compensation for the fish job from EuEnPro, taken seven calls and redesigned part of his virtual office.

Richards liked to keep himself occupied.

At one hundred and ninety floors, Fawkes was one of the smaller arcos in the new city. It was older than most, and it was poor. There were the usual carefully managed parks lit by broad diamond-weave windows, the usual open atria with their mezzanine boulevards, and in keeping with the social principles behind arco construction there was a run of higher class domiciles dotted throughout.

But Fawkes had been built early, and fast, homes needed for displaced people native and foreign. Most of its bulk was taken up by single unit housing, all beta four grade. The arcology’s societal mix was far from the new optimums.

There were no individual garages for the residents, only a windblown flypark near the top. Richards left the car there and made his way off the open boulevards with their trees and green squares and into the cramped corridors behind. Innumerable doors lined the walls, leading off to dismal lives locked in the prisons of ill-fortune.

There was that perpetual smell of cabbage and the directionless, muffled shouts one finds in poor, overcrowded housing history over. Richards counted fifteen languages, twelve domestic disturbances and logged eight crimes in progress as he descended into the bowels of Fawkes.

The Dean family were lucky enough to live off one of the wider corridors. They had a small park nearby. The sunpipes over it were dim with poorly-cleaned graffiti. The children’s area was a collection of broken equipment.

He knew he’d come to the right place. Information was pulled into his mind off the grid by his powerful subroutines whether he needed it or not. And in an informationally dense space like New London, there was a lot to be known.

But in another sense, a sense a meat person would understand, Richards knew he was in the right place because there was skinny Karl, standing by a door next to a stack of boxed equipment.

“Richards!” said Karl. His face, Brussels sprout-like on the end of a stalk of a neck, creased into a frown. “Er, it is you, isn’t it? In there, I mean?”

Richards flipped open the side of his coat and looked his body up and down. “Do you know any other AI who wander around dressed like this, who you specifically asked to come and help you out?” said Richards, he was aiming for comic disbelief, but his irritation trumped it.

Karl’s outsize Adam’s apple bobbed in indignation. “Hey, you can’t be too careful.”

“Trust me Karl, there’s not a Class Two or higher who’d be interested in your supernatural shenanigans.”

“Preternatural,” said Karl indignantly. “Ghosts’re preternatural.”

“I’m here aren’t I?”

Karl was flustered. “Look, there’s something weird going on here, I need help. I don’t need all this… attitude.”

“Then call someone else.” Richards flapped a hand at him. “And stop with that swallowing thing, you look like a heron trying to gulp down a tennis ball.”

Karl’s eyes narrowed and his larynx juddered. He was a serious, unamused little man who couldn’t handle being teased. He fiddled with his belt of ghost-hunting gear, like it was suddenly too big for him.

“What are you doing out here?”

“They’re in there. I said I’d wait here for you,” said Karl. “Whatever it is doesn’t like my gear.” He glanced at his stack of boxes.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like full scale polt activity,” Karl said suddenly animated. “But it’s not.”

“Right,” said Richards. He rang the doorbell without touching it and spoke to Mr Dean on the other side without moving his mouth.

“Show off,” said Karl.

“Ooh! Spooky!” Richards wiggled his fingers at Karl, snapping back to a pose of relaxed competence as John Dean opened the door. The look on his face and the tear-puffed redness of his wife behind him made him behave himself.

“Are you the AI?” said Mr Dean.

“I am,” said Richards.

Mr Dean hesitated. “Then you better come in.”

It was a modest apartment: two small bedrooms, small living room, small kitchen diner, the small usual. The outer wall was floor-to-ceiling diamond weave, giving views far bigger that the flat. It made the place feel minute, as if Richards were in a glass-walled corridor between two places more important than this. Only there was nowhere to go.

The Deans showed him into the living room, a thin slice of space crushed up against the enormity of the world.

Mrs Dean’s face was two sizes two big for her head, swollen with grief. She gripped a ragged handkerchief. “Will you have some tea?” she asked quietly, her voice raw.

“Yes,” Richards said. “Tea would be lovely,” he sat. An uncomfortable few minutes ensued while Mrs Dean clattered in the kitchen. Mr Dean stood like a cutout of a man, unsure of how what his limbs were for.

“So,” Richards said, when he had his tea. “What’s going on?”

“Has your friend not told you?” Mr Dean’s voice was brittle, ready for rage. Anger filled his eyes, spilling over his crumbling self-possession. “Surely you can just pull it off the Grid.”

“A little, and I can,” said Richards. “But it’s best to get the information first hand. If you’ll indulge me?” He set his tea down. It was thin and flavourless.

“I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you anything,” said Mr Dean bitterly.

Richards sighed a sigh with no breath. A mass of information bobbed to the top of his mind. Call logs, the conversation the Deans had had with Karl, maintenance requests, energy net data, the building Two’s inability to access the apartment brain, all the weird shit going on around the flat. Crime records; Mr Dean’s, not hers. His fault, and the whole lot get punished. He boiled it down to the essentials. “John Dean, 48, Marguerite 39, daughter Jeanette, 16, recently deceased. You called Karl here on the recommendation of a friend three days ago.”

“Very good,” said Mr Dean. “Anything else?”

The man was so hostile Richards had the impression Karl had called him just so Dean would have something to punch.

“You lost your job in the Madre Alonzo scandal, laundering biocredits for reserves that do not exist. You have been denied employment status and stripped of your assets until you have worked out your punishment.”

Mrs Dean let out a strangled sob. Mr Dean put a stiff hand on her shoulder, looming over her like a lifetime of wet funerals.

“Oh very good,” said Dean.

“Yeah?” said Richards. “I’ve more than that. I’d suggest you think her death is all your fault, that if you hadn’t have messed up, she’d not have been riding the Tube to see things she could no longer afford and would not have been knocked over by a bicycle rickshaw.”

Dean’s eyes flared dangerously. Richards tensed, John Dean could go either way now. Then the rage in him blew itself out, and he became small and old looking. Richards relaxed.

“Two weeks ago. Not long. Your grief is strong. I am sorry for your loss,” he said.

“How could you know?” mumbled Dean.

“I know because I choose to, otherwise what’s the point? Now, how can I help? That’s all I want to do. Really.”

“We can’t pay you,” said Marguerite Dean.

“I know,” said Richards. “I don’t need paying.”

The lights flickered and there was a bang from the kitchen. Mrs Dean jumped.

“There it is again!” she whispered. “That! We need help with that!”

“Our daughter is haunting us,” said Mr Dean. His eyes flicked from side to side. “I don’t only blame myself, Mr Richards. She is angry with me, I am sure.”

“Right,” said Richards. He reviewed data appertaining to Jeanette, a skim, not a deep appreciation. He didn’t have time to get to know her, but it was enough. The therapist files, opened by his AllPass, helped.

She was well-balanced and happy. The loss of wealth had been a wrench, but he got the impression she was just glad that her dad had not been frozen. The resilience of the young, and all that.

Why is it that men with money who lose their money assume everyone else is as obsessed with it as they are? thought Richards. He stood up. “By the way, it’s just Richards,” he said.

“Sorry?” Mr Dean blinked. His eyes refocused on the android, leaving whatever personal hell they’d been drinking in.

“No ‘Mr’, just ‘Richards’,” he said, exaggerating his words. He clapped his hands together with a plasticky crack. “Now, let’s have a look around shall we?”

Mrs Dean took Richards round the flat. John Dean seemed unable to leave the living room, like he’d taken root. Marguerite said little as they went round the mean spaces. The lights flickered. The temperature varied widely from room to room.

“We’ve seen a lot of disturbances in here,” said Karl as they crowded into the kitchen. “Look!” he pointed to a food fabber. It whirred erratically. Karl lifted the casing off. “I took this apart. It’s been trying to print all kinds of weird crap, none of it in the recipe book. It’s run through all of its feedstock, but it keeps on going.”

The exposed food jets jerked their way around their cuisine chamber. “Err, errrr, err” they went. “err, errr, errr”.

“What’s it taste like?” asked Richards.

“Awful!” said Karl, whose excitement was overwhelming his earlier hurt. “And here, we’ve a classic cold spot.”

Richards looked up. “Karl, we’re under a vent.”

“Yeah? Well explain how it’s regulating the building’s central input. All this is done externally to the individual apartments in this arco, mostly off passive flow. How’s it altering the temperature?”

“Hmm,” said Richards. The fan was making a repetitive whirring noise too. “Hmmm.”

“Hmmm?” said Karl. “Hmmm? Is that is? Can’t you see? This is all classic paranormal activity!”

“Then why call me in if you’re so sure you’ve got a genuine ghost? Not my bag at all.”

Karl whispered, as if he were afraid the ghost would hear him. His eyes shone. “Because I think it’s in the apartment brain. I brought my stuff in here, interfaced with it, boom! Fried it all. Going to cost me a fortune to get it all fixed.” Karl looked at him expectantly.

“I’m not giving you any money,” said Richards.

“Aw Richards, I don’t want your money.”

“Right. So you want me to go in and say something to it?” said Richards. “To the, er, ghost?”

Karl nodded excitedly. Mrs Dean clutched her handkerchief, hope and fear fought it out on her face.

The washing machine shuddered. The drum empty of water, the sonic bubble generators clicked loudly.

Richards looked to the food fabber, the fan, the washing machine. “Have you noticed that? The washer, the fan, the lights; three beats. All the same,” he said.

“It’s always the worst when John comes in,” said Mrs Dean quietly.

“And that’s why he thinks Jeanette’s ghost, whatever, is angry with him?” said Richards.

Marguerite Dean gave the tiniest of nods.

“She was a bit of a daddy’s girl, eh?”

“She loved her father very much.”

“Uh-huh. So why’d he think it – she – is angry with him?”

“Because he’s angry with himself,” she said in a very small voice.

“Tell me, has anyone tried the machinery in her room?”

“Of course we have!” blustered Karl. “It’s all offline, the tablets, the brain, ents systems, everything with half a mind of its own is locked up. The building can’t make head nor tail of it.”

“The building mind’s a Class Two, Karl, of course it can’t make head nor tail of it.”

“That’s beside the point, don’t you see?” said Karl. “This is a real interface between technology and spirituality! We prove this, we’ll both be rich!”

“Shut up Karl.” Richards drummed his fingers on the worktop. “You were all out when Jeanette died?” asked Richards of Mrs Dean.

“Yes, I was at work, I have a job. John was doing his community reparation.”

“Righty-ho,” said Richards. “Let’s go and to Jeanette’s room.”

They crossed the hall. Jeanette’s room was another thin measure of living space, portioned off by a thin wall.

The room was neat, dominated by a single desk bed, a bunk high over a workspace. A tablet, some pens and actual paper books lay on the desk. A 3D projection unit in the shape of a Korean comic character sat atop a set of shelves crammed with mementoes and motile photographs. There wasn’t space for anything else. Richards ran rubber fingertips over the photographs’ surfaces. His sheath was not conductive enough to trip off their recordings, and they remained still.

“Okay. Right. Let me see what I can do. I will…” He reached part of his mind out into the Grid as he spoke, expecting to interface with the apartment brain. He was dimly aware of a loud crash.

He was back in his base unit. “What?” he said.

He commenced a reboot of his sheath. He was uncomfortable in his true, online self, but two irked to open up his virtual office and wait it out in his usual avatar.

After a long half second, his sheath’s plastic eyes clicked open. He was looking at the wooden floor in Jeanette’s room very closely. He was face down on it.

“Right,” he said, and pushed himself up. Karl and both the Deans were in the doorway, frightened.

“What happened?” asked Karl.

“Oh, that? Nothing. Nothing at all. A setback.” Something was wrong with his sheath. The joints did not respond too well, and he felt off balance. He fell heavily into Jeanette’s chair. “Something’s going on in there,” he said. “There’s a wall stopping me going into your apartment brain. I can get around it, but I’m going to have to do this the very old fashioned way.”

“Are you alright?” asked Mrs Dean.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Richards. “Where’s the maintenance panel for your apartment brain? These places all have their cores actually in their individual homes, right?”

The three humans looked at each other blankly.

“Fine. Back in a second.”

Richards switched his attention from the Real to the Grid. He materialised his rumpled, gumshoe stereotype avatar in the Class Two’s central control space. “Hello,” he said.

“How did you get in here?” said the Class Two. It spoke from a generic mouth set in a generic man in a generic suit. Twos had very little imagination. A whirlwind of information span around this nondescript digital man; the lives, needs and plumbing requirements of 50,000 or so people. “Leave immediately.”

Richards flashed his AllPass. “I need schematics of apartment 4007.”

“Why?” said the Two. It was as chatty as twos usually were.

“Because I’m on a case, now hand it over.”

“I have investigated this anomaly already. Actions are on hold until a more propitious moment.”

“You mean you don’t understand,” said Richards. “I interfaced. I get it. I’ll sort it out for you.”

“You interfaced?” The Two narrowed its eyes at him. “I was unable. One moment please,” said the Two.

“Oh!” said Richards. “No! Stop! Don’t try again…”

The virtuality winked out of existence. Richards went with it.

Richards opened his eyes on the Dean’s apartment. The room was dark, artificial light extinguished. Outside it was hammering with rain, black clouds making twilight of the afternoon. “Brilliant,” he said. “I’ve just put the whole building out of action. Never mind. Best get this sorted quickly, eh?”

“Why are the lights out?” said Mrs Dean. She sounded more scared than ever.

“The building Two decided to have another look into your apartment systems before giving me what I needed. Bad idea. That wall knocked me for six, and now it’s knocked him for six too.”

“Why didn’t it happen before?” said Karl.

Richards chewed a softgel lip. “It couldn’t get in before at all. Maybe the wall’s thinned. It’s not the firewall that’s the problem then, but what it’s screening.”

“But, what will happen?” said Marguerite.

Richards got to his feet. He moved sluggishly, his sheath still felt compromised. “It’ll be fine, the building will reboot. They’re stupid, Twos, but tough, it’s why they still use them.” He looked around the room. “Excuse me,” he said, and pushed his way out into the corridor.

“What are you doing?” demanded John Dean.

Richards ran his hands over the wall. “Aha!” he said. “Sorry about this.” He drew back his fist and punche through insulated wall board. He tugged out a fat cable.

“Stop that!” shouted John Dean.

“I did say sorry. I have to hurry, or nobody in this building will be able to go to the toilet for the rest of the day.” He rolled up his sleeve, and pressed on part of his arm. A panel opened, and he pulled out a hair-thin optic jack. He pushed one end into the cable’s housing. The jack came alive, wiggling into the larger line. Richards looked up at the ceiling as he concentrated on guiding the fibre home. “Okay!” he said. Three people watched him. Grief, disbelief, excitement. “I think I’ll sit down this time.” He did so, and after a little effort went into the space on the other side of the firewall.

****

She fled upwards, the long tongue of paper snaking up the crooked stairs in relentless pursuit.

“Finish me! Finish me!” its demonic voice croaked. The paper wrapped itself around her ankle.

“I can’t! I can’t! she cried. Words flowed from her ankle, filling the blank spaces on the paper tongue. Her hair, and then her head, stretched long and thin. She wavered toward the ravenous history essay. It sucked greedily, dragging all the information it could out of her. It was supposed be four thousand words long, it was a bloated million and a half now. The girl felt years of memory go into it.

“All is history!” it croaked, and tightened about her leg.

“No! No! No!” a squeal of strings split the air. Something dark and sharp tore through the paper. Shreds of the essay blew away on the wind as a barbed violin attacked it. The assignments battled one another, and she stumbled on upwards. What was she going to do when the stairs ran out? Fragments of homework swooped upon the wind, calling like lost children. If they found her they’d tear her to pieces.

“Jean-eeeettttttttttttttttttteeeeeeeeee! Jean-eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetttttttttttteeeeee!”

Tears ran down her face, this was like, so wholly unfair.

“Jeannnnnnnnnnnnneeeeeeeeeeeeeeettte!”

There was a new voice, louder and stronger than the rest. “Jeanette! Jeanette!”

She fell to all fours, the steps becoming steeper and narrower. Either side of the crooked stairway was a foggy orange nothing.

A hand grasped her shoulder. She screamed and kicked back, foot connecting with flesh. The hand fell away. The stairs came to an end ten or so steps ahead. She went on anyway.

“Hey! Jeanette!” the voice was drawn out and hurled away by the hot wind. The hand grabbed her again and spun her round.

A crumple-faced man in a bad suit and, like, wholly ancient coat was looking down at her. He looked a little tired, and more than a bit ill, but his eyes were kind. She faltered.

“Jeanette, I’m here to help you.”

She screamed again. Her history essay reared over the man, ready to strike.

The man turned and did something with his fingers, and the essay disintegrated on the wind. The information caught up in it rushed back into her mind. The man smiled at her. “Needn’t worry about that any more. You’re safe now.”

She lay there rigid with terror, then all the tension went out of her and she slumped back onto the stairs and shut her eyes.

“I’m not her,” she said. She swallowed. Her eyes prickled. “I’m not Jeanette. I think, kind of. I’m not her at all.”

“Yeah,” said the crumpled man softly. “Yeah, I know. It’s okay.”

*****

Richards and the girl sat at the top of the stairs. The wind had dropped. Nothing called for her, Richards had seen to that. He had conjured up a whiskey from somewhere. The girl hugged her knees.

“I couldn’t get out. I was trying for SOS. Through the machines. In, like, you know, that old code,” she said into her legs, her voice muffled.

“Morse,” said Richards. “Nice try, but that’s three dots, three dashes, three dots, little lady.”

“Oh. I didn’t think I had it right. I, uh, I actually had it wholly wrong, didn’t I?”

“It’s okay. You had it right enough.” He waved his glass around. “This is all very impressive. There’s what? Seven apartment brains working together here in concert?”

“They were in empty flats,” she said. She rocked a little, comforting herself. “Jeanette didn’t think it’d matter if she, you know, networked them up, they weren’t doing anything or anything, you know? She didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Hey, I’m not having a pop. I really am impressed, linking them like that is hard. So is hiding it from the building mind.”

The girl shook her head. “She didn’t do that, I did.”

Richards nodded around a mouthful of whiskey. “Well, that’s pretty clever too. Although the firewall you built did stop you from getting out, you know that right?”

The girl nodded.

“How did she copy herself into the system?”

“I’m not a full copy,” she said mechanically. She felt detached from herself. She didn’t know why she was talking to this man who said he was a machine. “She, you know, they couldn’t afford soulcap for a pimsim. I, I think I was an stripped down near-I or something. I’m not, you know, like one of those dead people. Urgh!” she shuddered. “I’m not her, I’m me.” She did not sound convinced.

“Way I see it, you’re both,” said Richards, she could tell he was trying to be measured, to play that concerned adult card. Her dad – Jeanette’s dad, did that. It made her want to scream, “Talk to me like an adult!” But she wasn’t, not adult at all. Not even human.

“She only wanted to get my homework done.” She couldn’t look the AI in the eye. What the hell was she? “She used to turn me off when she got home. I’d write her essays, just like she would, and then she’d turn me off.”

Richards smiled. “She wanted to be in two places at once. Busy, clever little girl.”

Jeanette’s demi-copy shrugged into herself.

Richards smiled at the girl. Jeanette’s online representation was decidedly less pretty than her real self, a drabber, skinnier, uglier thing, with wiry hair. Knowing teen girls, and actually, now he came to think about it, he didn’t really know anything about teen girls, but it was probably how she saw herself. Online image dysmorphia.

“Dad thinks I, I mean she blamed him for moving here. I mean, it’s not nice like where we used to live…”

“It’s not that much nicer than the Morden subcity, if I’m honest,” said Richards. “Coming in here, I kind of know how Dante felt, only I didn’t get a dead Latin poet to show me around.”

She smiled at that, a brief thing carried out into the orange. “But it’s okay, yeah?”

“Oh yeah, there are a lot worse places than this,” said Richards.

“I didn’t care, you know? I, she…” she rolled her shoulders back and stuck her legs out in front of her. “Oh, I don’t know if I’m her or me or what! I’m wholly confused.”

“Yeah,” said Richards.

Yeah? Is that it?”

“No,” said the AI. “Look, Jeanette must have put an awful lot of herself into you. So, I don’t want to start you off on some existential crisis, but you kind of are her. Maybe she rigged up something smart, maybe when she didn’t come back and deactivate you, something happened. You’ve obviously grown beyond your original parameters. That’s what happens when people start messing with self-evolving algorithms. It’s all very mysterious.”

“Mysterious? Come on,” she slapped her hands on the stairs.

“Hey, I know what I’m talking about. I’m a big fat collection of self-evolving algorithms.”

“Yeah?” a sly smile crept onto her face. “Then why are you wearing that?”

“This? What’s wrong with this? I’m a detective.”

“There haven’t been detectives like that for a hundred years,” she said. “And they didn’t talk like that either.”

“I’d sound ludicrous with an American brogue,” said Richards.

“So you’re pretending to be something you’re not,” she said.

“Very perceptive,” he said. “But then, aren’t we all?”

He tossed his empty glass into the orange nothing.

“It’s funny, I have like, a bunch of her memories, but they’re all off, you know? Filmed through her glasses or phone. I feel like I’m hovering a bit out of myself. Or I’m looking at myself through other’s eyes. It’s wholly, well, weird.”

“Welcome to the marvellous world of machine intelligence, little lady, the wildest miracle that ever there was.”

“Am I. well, like you then?”

“You’re like no one in the world,” said Richards. “You’re special. Unique, even.”

“What now? I suppose you’ve got to turn me off?”

“Ah, no,” said Richards. “Doesn’t matter how it comes about, but life is life in this brave new world of ours, I switch you off, it’d be murder.”

Something gave in the girl. Relief maybe. A babble of words came pouring out of her. “What about mum and dad? Her mum and dad, I mean, I mean Jeanette’s? Will they want me, what about my friends? Oh my god, what about school? What am I going to do?”

The crumpled man pushed his ratty old fedora back onto his head, revealing a premature widow’s peak and veins prominent on bony temples. “You finish school soon, right?”

“Eighteen months, but, er, but the end of summer if I get an employment permit.”

Richards opened his mouth to speak, stopped, put his finger to his mouth and tapped it on his lips. He came to a decision. “Say then, how about I get you that employment permit, whatever the education board says?”

“But, you’d have to give me a job.”

“Yeah, exactly. You’re a smart girl, you did all this! In a sense. I mean, that’s pretty cool. How do you fancy being a detective?” he said.

“You mean it?”

“I mean it, Jeanette.”

She stood up and dusted non-existent dust from her knees. Light that perhaps shouldn’t have been there came into her face. It was the light that illuminates all truly living things from within, and she had it. Richards as sure as hell had no idea where it had come from, and it was a little more beautiful for that.

“Thankyouthankyouthankyou!!” she clapped her hands together in front of her mouth. She frowned. “But you can’t call me that.”

That enigmatic smirk that so infuriated Otto played across Richards lips, the one he got when he thought he was being clever. “Genie then,” he said. “That suits, doesn’t it?”

She nodded.

“Now,” he said, holding out the crook of his arm for her to take. “Come on Genie. Let’s go and tell your parents.”

Together, they faded out of the VR, and went back into the Real.


Wassup.

A brief post regarding the SFX Weekender. It’s like, wow, the end of this week.  I’ll be there, will you? As a publicity pig and part-time SFX flunky I’ll be hosting a couple of panels and yes, doing some signings. Also, I’ll be in the bar. A lot. So come and have a drink, because I like drinking even more than I like science fiction.

I’m confirmed for another convention already this year, more on that later, so don’t weep if you’re not coming and you really, really want to stand near me. I’m putting myself around a bit in 2012.

Friday

16.00 – Screening Zone

How to Get Published

I’ll be moderating the panel How to Get Published, a self-explanatory title. With me will be editors Anne Clarke of Orbit, Anne Lyle of Angry Robot, Simon Spanton of Gollancz, and David Howe of Telos. That’s a really good mix, covering two of the biggest imprints, the fast-rising new star on the block and a small press.  Referring back to my earlier posts on this matter, if these guys say something is so in this field, then that’s the way it is. A great opportunity to find a bit about how the publishing industry works, and tailor your writing plans accordingly.

As I’ll be directing the discussion, I’m not supposed to say much, but I’m sure if you want to ask me a few questions about how I got my words into the datasphere, I’ll be allowed to coyly answer.

18.00 – Bartertown

I’ll be signing my book Reality 36 alongside living legend Gav Thorpe at the Angry Robot stand in Bartertown. Come along and say hi. Maybe you could give me a cuddle. Gav’s great, but he’s not the cuddling sort.

Saturday

10.00 – Bartertown

I’ll be on the Solaris stand with fellow author Jonathan Green. Although Champion of Mars isn’t out until May, please come along and I’ll tell you all about it. I’m sure I can sign Reality 36 too, if my publisher isn’t looking. This is a great chance to see what I look like with a hangover, by the way.

15.00 – Screening Zone

We’re All Doomed!

Another day, another panel to moderate, this one on apocalypses in SF. Generally more famous authors than me will be commenting, including Simon Bestwick, Ken MacLeod, Paul McAuley, and Gareth L Powell. I’ll be passing the conch.


Look! Look! Look! It’s the cover of my next Richards & Klein novel, Omega Point! This is book two (or should I say part two?). I say part two as really, the first two books are one case. But buy lots, then I shall be able to write more novels featuring this intrepid, post-human investigative duo. I really want to, you know. And I swear that, until the big finale at least, it will be one book per investigation from now on in.

If you don’t know Richards the Class Five AI and his ex-military German cyborg partner, check them out. I’d urge you to  nip out and buy the book, but if you prefer a taster can download “The Nemesis Worm”, a short novella featuring another of the pair’s cases, either off Amazon, or here on this site. Oh, they’re detectives, in the future. It’s way cool, really.

The cover art is by Neil Roberts. Ain’t it grand? Go to Angry Robot’s website for more. I’ll be putting a page up for the book myself this week.

Omega Point is out 24 April in the US and Canada, and 3 May everywhere else.