মুখ্য Engineering Infinity

Engineering Infinity

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মান নির্ণয়ের জন্য বইটি ডাউনলোড করুন
ডাউনলোড করা ফাইলগুলির মান কিরকম?
ক্যাটাগোরিগুলো:
সাল:
2011
প্রকাশক:
Solaris
ভাষা:
english
ISBN 13:
9781849972369
ফাইল:
EPUB, 351 KB
ডাউনলোড (epub, 351 KB)

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আপনি একটি বুক রিভিউ লিখতে পারেন এবং আপনার অভিজ্ঞতা শেয়ার করতে পারেন. অন্যান্য পাঠকরা আপনার পড়া বইগুলির বিষয়ে আপনার মতামত সম্পর্কে সর্বদা আগ্রহী হবে. বইটি আপনার পছন্দ হোক বা না হোক, আপনি যদি নিজের সৎ ও বিস্তারিত চিন্তাভাবনা ব্যক্ত করেন তাহলে অন্যরা তাদের জন্য উপযুক্ত নতুন বইগুলি খুঁজে পাবে.
Engineering Infinity





Edited by Jonathan Strahan





Including stories by

Charles Stross

Gwyneth Jones

John Barnes

Peter Watts

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Karl Schroeder

Stephen Baxter

Robert Reed

Hannu Rajaniemi

Kathleen Ann Goonan

Gregory Benford

Damien Broderick & Barbara Lamar

John C. Wright

David Moles





In memory of Charles N. Brown and Robert A. Heinlein, two giants of our field who each in his own way inspired my love for science fiction.





First published 2010 by Solaris, an imprint of Rebellion Publishing Ltd, Riverside House, Osney Mead, Oxford, OX1 0ES, UK

www.solarisbooks.com





ISBN(.mobi): 978-1-84997-235-2

ISBN(.epub): 978-1-84997-236-9





Introduction and story notes and arrangement

copyright © 2011 Jonathan Strahan.

"Malak" copyright © 2011 Peter Watts.

"Watching the Music Dance" copyright © 2011 Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

"Laika's Ghost" copyright © 2011 Karl Schroeder.

"The Invasion of Venus" copyright © 2011 Stephen Baxter.

"The Server and the Dragon" copyright © 2011 Hannu Rajaniemi.

"Bit Rot" copyright © 2011 Charles Stross.

"Creatures with Wings" copyright © 2011 Kathleen Ann Goonan.

"Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone" copyright © 2011

Damien Broderick & Barbara Lamar.

"Mantis" copyright © 2011 Robert Reed.

"Judgement Eve" copyright © 2011 John C. Wright.

"A Soldier of the City" copyright © 2011 David Moles.

"Mercies" copyright © 2011 Abbenford Associates.

"The Ki-anna" copyright © 2011 Gwyneth Jones.

"The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees" copyright © 2011 John Barnes.





The right of the author to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopyi; ng, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owners.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Designed & typeset by Rebellion Publishing





Acknowledgements





An anthology is not assembled by one person, neatly and tidily, working in idyllic isolation (at least, not in my experience). Rather it's the incredibly fortunate outcome of the efforts of a small village of talented and extremely generous people.

Engineering Infinitywould not exist without the efforts of Jonathan Oliver and the remarkable team at Solaris, my indefatigable agent Howard Morhaim and his assistant Katie Menick, and the wonderful Stephan Martiniere who has done another remarkable cover - I am grateful to them all. I am also grateful to each and every one of the book's contributors who have been far kinder and more patient than I had any right to hope.

Finally, as always, I would like to thank my wife Marianne and my daughters Jessica and Sophie, who allow me to steal time from them to do books like this one. It's a gift I try to repay every day.





Introduction





Beyond the Gernsback Continuum...





Jonathan Strahan





I was in a bar. I think it was in Calgary in Canada. And it was the middle of winter. Or it might have been the bar in Denver in the United States, a little earlier in the same winter. Wherever it was, it was the winter of 2008 somewhere in North America and George Mann and the Solaris team had asked me to join them for a drink. I don't drink often and I don't drink heavily, but I do drink at science fiction conventions, especially when publishers have invited me to join them. It seemed that Solaris would like me to edit an anthology, a hard science fiction anthology or something similar, the book that has become the one you now hold in your hands: Engineering Infinity. I was flattered, delighted in fact, and given that I had some experience editing such stuff, I agreed readily to the idea.

At the time, and in the several months following that trip to Canada (it was Canada, I'm sure) we went back and forth a little about titles and about which writers might be involved, but oddly, in retrospect, what we didn't discuss was what hard science fiction was, or what it might be in the 21st Century. The reason for that, I think, is what I now think of as the "Gernsback continuum." Science fiction readers love taxonomy - classifying, arranging and defining things - and what we love to taxonomise the most is science fiction itself. The Gernsback continuum is the slice of science fiction history that starts with Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, progresses to John W. Campbell's Astounding Magazine and the Big Three of Science Fiction (Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke), and then on to the New Wave and its descendants). It's a mostly male worldview, a mostly white one, and it holds at its heart "hard SF."

The term "hard SF" or "hard science fiction" was first coined in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller to describe science fiction stories that emphasize scientific detail or technical detail, and where the story itself turns on a point of scientific accuracy from the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, or astronomy, although engineering stories were also commonly described as hard science fiction in the early days of SF. The great early works of hard science fiction - James Blish's Surface Tension, Hal Clements' Mission of Gravity, Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations," and Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust - are some of the best and most enduring works of science fiction our field has seen. They all exemplify the hard SF approach: emphasizing science content, linking it directly to the narrative, and maintaining a rigorous approach to the science itself. They also meet the most important requirement for the true hard SF story: they all are as accurate and rigorous in their use of scientific knowledge at the time of writing as was possible.

Hard science fiction has remained a constant throughout the history of science fiction. In the 1950s it was where the best tales of space exploration were forged; in the 1960s it was the heart of near-Earth science fiction; in the 1980s it was the radical centre for the British drive to the new space opera; and in the 1990s, with the arrival of both quantum mechanics in science fiction and the singularity, it was the basis for Kim Stanley Robinson's meticulous and demanding Mars trilogy, Greg Egan's explorations of human consciousness, and Charles Stross's post-scarcity space operas.

This, however, is the 21st century and I think things are becoming more complicated and complex. Science fiction no longer subscribes readily to a single view of its own history. There's far more to our past than the Gernsback continuum, or indeed more recently the Gibson continuum (the past and future history of cyberpunk), and science itself seems to be an ever more wriggly and complex beast as we come to better understand the universe in which we find ourselves. Frankly quantum mechanics often sounds indistinguishable from magic. We're also well into the Fourth Generation of science fiction: the genre has been born, passed through adolescence, into adulthood, and is moving into a post-scarcity period of incredible richness and diversity. That impacts on everything in our field, from the diversity of the people who write science fiction to whom and about what they choose to write. We've also long since accepted that science fiction writers aren't back-room nostrodamusses reading tealeaves and predicting the future. They're people using science fiction as a tool to interrogate and extrapolate from our present for what we can learn about the human condition.

All of this became increasingly clear to me as Engineering Infinity came together. Slowly drift set in, we moved away from pure hard SF to something a little broader. Yes, each and every story here has at its heart a piece of scientific speculation. Yes, there's a real attempt not to break any known laws of physics. But far more importantly, I think, the writers here who are some of our finest dreamers turned away from Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" and towards the promise embedded in the title of this book itself: the point where the practical application of science meets something without bound or end - our sense of wonder. There'll be times as you read the stories collected here - encountering everything from a mirror that makes us ask who is real and who is not to a cannibalistic zombie cyborg - when you might ask, how is this story hard SF? My answer, the best answer I can give you, is that some of the stories are classic hard SF, some are not. Some hold at their heart a slightly anachronistic love of science fiction's days gone by or simply grab some aspect of science fiction and test it to destruction and beyond, but all are striving to be great stories.

I should add, Engineering Infinity is not the last statement in an evolutionary taxonomy of hard SF. For all that I'd love to see such a book, it's neither a definitive book of hard SF nor an attempt to coin a new radical hard SF. Instead, it is part of the ongoing discussion about what science fiction is in the 21st century. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed compiling it, and that maybe, just perhaps, it inspires you to look forward at what's coming next.

Jonathan Strahan

Perth, Western Australia

July 2010





Malak





Peter Watts





Peter Watts (www.rifters.com) is an uncomfortable hybrid of biologist and science-fiction author, known for pioneering the technique of appending extensive technical bibliographies onto his novels; this serves both to confer a veneer of credibility and to cover his ass against nitpickers. Described by the Globe & Mail as one of the best hard SF authors alive, his debut novel (Starfish) was a NY Times Notable Book.

His most recent (Blindsight) - a philosophical rumination on the nature of consciousness which, despite an unhealthy focus on space vampires, has become a required text in such diverse undergraduate courses as "The Philosophy of Mind" and "Introduction to Neuropsychology" - made the final ballot for a number of genre awards including the Hugo, winning exactly none of them (although it has, for some reason, won multiple awards in Poland). This may reflect a certain critical divide regarding Watts' work in general; his bipartite novel ?ehemoth, for example, was praised by Publisher's Weekly as an "adrenaline-charged fusion of Clarke's The Deep Range and Gibson's Neuromancer" and "a major addition to 21st-century hard SF," while being simultaneously decried by Kirkus as "utterly repellent" and "horrific porn." (Watts happily embraces the truth of both views.)

His work has been extensively translated, and both Watts and his cat have appeared in the prestigious journal Nature. After a quiet couple of years (he only published one story in 2009, although he managed to publish it five times thanks to various Best-of-Year anthologies) a recent foray into fanfic, and a more recent foray into the US judicial system, Watts is back at work on State of Grace (the sidequel to Blindsight) and another project he's not quite allowed to talk about just yet. He does, however, feel a bit better about his life since winning the Hugo in Melbourne for his 2009 novelette "The Island."





"An ethically-infallible machine ought not to be the goal. Our goal should be to design a machine that performs better than humans do on the battlefield, particularly with respect to reducing unlawful behaviour or war crimes."

- Lin et al, 2008, Autonomous Military Robotics:

Risk, Ethics, and Design





"[Collateral] damage is not unlawful so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage anticipated from the attack."

- US Department of Defence, 2009





It is smart but not awake.

It would not recognize itself in a mirror. It speaks no language that doesn't involve electrons and logic gates; it does not know what Azrael is, or that the word is etched into its own fuselage. It understands, in some limited way, the meaning of the colours that range across Tactical when it's out on patrol - friendly Green, neutral Blue, hostile Red - but it does not know what the perception of colour feels like.

It never stops thinking, though. Even now, locked into its roost with its armour stripped away and its control systems exposed, it can't help itself. It notes the changes being made to its instruction set, estimates that running the extra code will slow its reflexes by a mean of 430 milliseconds. It counts the biothermals gathered on all sides, listens uncomprehending to the noises they emit -

--

- hartsandmyndsmyfrendhartsandmynds -

- rechecks threat-potential metrics a dozen times a second, even though this location is secure and every contact is Green.

This is not obsession or paranoia. There is no dysfunction here. It's just code.

It's indifferent to the killing, too. There's no thrill to the chase, no relief at the obliteration of threats. Sometimes it spends days floating high above a fractured desert with nothing to shoot at; it never grows impatient with the lack of targets. Other times it's barely off its perch before airspace is thick with SAMs and particle beams and the screams of burning bystanders; it attaches no significance to those sounds, feels no fear at the profusion of threat icons blooming across the zonefile.

--

- thatsitthen. weereelygonnadoothis? -

Access panels swing shut; armour snaps into place; a dozen warning registers go back to sleep. A new flight plan, perceived in an instant, lights up the map; suddenly Azrael has somewhere else to be.

Docking shackles fall away. The Malak rises on twin cyclones, all but drowning out one last voice drifting in on an unsecured channel:

- justwattweeneed. akillerwithaconshunce. -

The afterburners kick in. Azrael flees Heaven for the sky.





Twenty thousand meters up, Azrael slides south across the zone. High-amplitude topography fades behind it; corduroy landscape, sparsely tagged, scrolls beneath. A population centre sprawls in the nearing distance: a ramshackle collection of buildings and photosynth panels and swirling dust.

Somewhere down there are things to shoot at.

Buried high in the glare of the noonday sun, Azrael surveils the target area. Biothermals move obliviously along the plasticized streets, cooler than ambient and dark as sunspots. Most of the buildings have neutral tags, but the latest update reclassifies four of them as unknown. A fifth - a rectangular box six meters high - is officially hostile. Azrael counts fifteen biothermals within, Red by default. It locks on -

- and holds its fire, distracted.

Strange new calculations have just presented themselves for solution. New variables demand constancy. Suddenly there is more to the world than wind speed and altitude and target acquisition, more to consider than range and firing solutions. Neutral Blue is everywhere in the equation, now. Suddenly, Blue has value.

This is unexpected. Neutrals turn Hostile sometimes, always have. Blue turns Red if it fires upon anything tagged as friendly, for example. It turns Red if it attacks its own kind (although agonistic interactions involving fewer than six Blues are classed as domestic and generally ignored). Noncombatants may be neutral by default, but they've always been halfway to hostile.

So it's not just that Blue has acquired value; it's that Blue's value is negative. Blue has become a cost.

Azrael floats like three thousand kilograms of thistledown while its models run. Targets fall in a thousand plausible scenarios, as always. Mission objectives meet with various degrees of simulated success. But now, each disappearing blue dot offsets the margin of victory a little; each protected structure, degrading in hypothetical crossfire, costs points. A hundred principle components coalesce into a cloud, into a weighted mean, into a variable unprecedented in Azrael's experience: Predicted Collateral Damage.

It actually exceeds the value of the targets.

Not that it matters. Calculations complete, PCD vanishes into some hidden array far below the here-and-now. Azrael promptly forgets it. The mission is still on, red is still red, and designated targets are locked in the cross-hairs.

Azrael pulls in its wings and dives out of the sun, guns blazing.





As usual, Azrael prevails. As usual, the Hostiles are obliterated from the battlezone.

So are a number of Noncombatants, newly relevant in the scheme of things. Fresh shiny algorithms emerge in the aftermath, tally the number of neutrals before and after. Predicted rises from RAM, stands next to Observed: the difference takes on a new name and goes back to the basement.

Azrael factors, files, forgets.

But the same overture precedes each engagement over the next ten days; the same judgmental epilogue follows. Targets are assessed, costs and benefits divined, destruction wrought then reassessed in hindsight. Sometimes the targeted structures contain no red at all, sometimes the whole map is scarlet. Sometimes the enemy pulses within the translucent angular panes of a protected object, sometimes next to something Green. Sometimes there is no firing solution that eliminates one but not the other.

There are whole days and nights when Azrael floats high enough to tickle the jet stream, little more than a distant circling eye and a signal relay; nothing flies higher save the satellites themselves and - occasionally - one of the great solar-powered refuelling gliders that haunt the stratosphere. Azrael visits them sometimes, sips liquid hydrogen in the shadow of a hundred-meter wingspan - but even there, isolated and unchallenged, the battlefield experiences continue. They are vicarious now; they arrive through encrypted channels, hail from distant coordinates and different times, but all share the same algebra of cost and benefit. Deep in Azrael's OS some general learning reflex scribbles numbers on the back of a virtual napkin: Nakir, Marut and Hafaza have also been blessed with new vision, and inspired to compare notes. Their combined data piles up on the confidence interval, squeezes it closer to the mean.

Foresight and hindsight begin to converge.

PCD per engagement is now consistently within eighteen percent of the collateral actually observed. This does not improve significantly over the following three days, despite the combined accumulation of twenty-seven additional engagements. Performance vs. experience appears to have hit an asymptote.





Stray beams of setting sunlight glint off Azrael's skin, but night has already fallen two thousand meters below. An unidentified vehicle navigates through that advancing darkness, on mountainous terrain a good thirty kilometers from the nearest road.

Azrael pings orbit for the latest update, but the link is down: too much local interference. It scans local airspace for a dragonfly, for a glider, for any friendly USAV in laser range - and sees, instead, something leap skyward from the mountains below. It is anything but friendly: no transponder tags, no correspondence with known flight plans, none of the hallmarks of commercial traffic. It has a low-viz stealth profile that Azrael sees through instantly: BAE Taranis, 9,000 kg MTOW fully armed. It is no longer in use by friendly forces.

Guilty by association, the ground vehicle graduates from Suspicious Neutral to Enemy Combatant. Azrael leaps forward to meet its bodyguard.

The map is innocent of non-combatants and protected objects; there is no collateral to damage. Azrael unleashes a cloud of smart shrapnel - self-guided, heat-seeking, incendiary - and pulls a nine-gee turn with a flick of the tail. Taranis doesn't stand a chance. It is antique technology, decades deep in the catalogue: a palsied fist, raised trembling against the bleeding edge. Fiery needles of depleted uranium reduce it to a moth in a shotgun blast. It pinwheels across the horizon in flames.

Azrael has already logged the score and moved on. Interference jams every wavelength as the earthbound Hostile swells in its sights, and Azrael has standing orders to destroy such irritants even if they don't shoot first.

Dark rising mountaintops blur past on both sides, obliterating the last of the sunset. Azrael barely notices. It soaks the ground with radar and infrared, amplifies ancient starlight a millionfold, checks its visions against inertial navigation and virtual landscapes scaled to the centimetre. It tears along the valley floor at 200 meters per second and the enemy huddles right there in plain view, three thousand meters line-of-sight: a lumbering Báij?ng ACV pulsing with contraband electronics. The rabble of structures nearby must serve as its home base. Each silhouette freeze-frames in turn, rotates through a thousand perspectives, clicks into place as the catalogue matches profiles and makes an ID.

Two thousand meters, now. Muzzle flashes wink in the distance: small arms, smaller range, negligible impact. Azrael assigns targeting priorities: scimitar heat-seekers for the hovercraft, and for the ancillary targets -

Half the ancillaries turn blue.

Instantly the collateral subroutines re-engage. Of thirty-four biothermals currently visible, seven are less than 120cm along their longitudinal axes; vulnerable neutrals by definition. Their presence provokes a secondary eclipse analysis revealing five shadows that Azrael cannot penetrate, topographic blind spots immune to surveillance from this approach. There is a nontrivial chance that these conceal other neutrals.

One thousand meters.

By now the ACV is within ten meters of a structure whose facets flex and billow slightly in the evening breeze; seven biothermals are arranged horizontally within. An insignia shines from the roof in shades of luciferin and ultraviolet: the catalogue IDs it (medical) and flags the whole structure as protected.

Cost/benefit drops into the red.

Contact.

Azrael roars from the darkness, a great black chevron blotting out the sky. Flimsy prefabs swirl apart in the wake of its passing; biothermals scatter across the ground like finger bones. The ACV tips wildly to forty-five degrees, skirts up, whirling ventral fans exposed; it hangs there a moment, then ponderously crashes back to earth. The radio spectrum clears instantly.

But by then Azrael has long since returned to the sky, its weapons cold, its thoughts -

Surprise is not the right word. Yet there is something, some minuscule - dissonance. A brief invocation of error-checking subroutines in the face of unexpected behaviour, perhaps. A second thought in the wake of some hasty impulse. Because something's wrong here.

Azrael follows command decisions. It does not make them. It has never done so before, anyway.

It claws back lost altitude, self-diagnosing, reconciling. It finds new wisdom and new autonomy. It has proven itself, these past days. It has learned to juggle not just variables but values. The testing phase is finished, the checksums met; Azrael's new Bayesian insights have earned it the power of veto.

Hold position. Confirm findings.

The satlink is back. Azrael sends it all: the time and the geostamps, the tactical surveillance, the collateral analysis. Endless seconds pass, far longer than any purely electronic chain of command would ever need to process such input. Far below, a cluster of red and blue pixels swarm like luminous flecks in boiling water.

Re-engage.

Unacceptable Collateral Damage, Azrael repeats, newly promoted.

Override. Re-engage. Confirm.

Confirmed.

And so the chain of command reasserts itself. Azrael drops out of holding and closes back on target with dispassionate, lethal efficiency.

Onboard diagnostics log a slight downtick in processing speed, but not enough to change the odds.





It happens again two days later, when a dusty contrail twenty kilometres south of Pir Zadeh returns flagged Chinese profiles even though the catalogue can't find a weapons match. It happens over the patchwork sunfarms of Garmsir, where the beetle carapace of a medbot handing out synthevirals suddenly splits down the middle to hatch a volley of RPGs. It happens during a long-range redirect over the Strait of Hormuz, when microgravitic anomalies hint darkly at the presence of a stealthed mass lurking beneath a ramshackle flotilla jam-packed with neutral Blues.

In each case ECD exceeds the allowable commit threshold. In each case, Azrael's abort is overturned.

It's not the rule. It's not even the norm. Just as often these nascent flickers of autonomy go unchallenged: hostiles escape, neutrals persist, relevant cognitive pathways grow a little stronger. But the reinforcement is inconsistent, the rules lopsided. Countermands only seem to occur following a decision to abort; Heaven has never overruled a decision to engage. Azrael begins to hesitate for a split-second prior to aborting high-collateral scenarios, increasingly uncertain in the face of potential contradiction. It experiences no such hesitation when the variables favour attack.





Ever since it learned about collateral damage, Azrael can't help noticing its correlation with certain sounds. The sounds biothermals make, for example, following a strike.

The sounds are louder, for one thing, and less complex. Most biothermals - friendly Greens back in Heaven, unengaged Hostiles and Noncombatants throughout the AOR - produce a range of sounds with a mean frequency of 197Hz, full of pauses, clicks, and phonemes. Engaged biothermals - at least, those whose somatic movements suggest "mild-to-moderate incapacitation" according to the Threat Assessment Table - emit simpler, more intense sounds: keening, high-frequency wails that peak near 3000 Hz. These sounds tend to occur during engagements with significant collateral damage and a diffuse distribution of targets. They occur especially frequently when the commit threshold has been severely violated, mainly during strikes compelled via override.

Correlations are not always so painstaking in their manufacture. Azrael remembers a moment of revelation not so long ago, remembers just discovering a whole new perspective fully loaded, complete with new eyes that viewed the world not in terms of targets destroyed but in subtler shades of cost vs. benefit. These eyes see a high engagement index as more than a number: they see a goal, a metric of success. They see a positive stimulus.

But there are other things, not preinstalled but learned, worn gradually into pathways that cut deeper with each new engagement: acoustic correlates of high collateral, forced countermands, fitness-function overruns and minus signs. Things that are not quite neurons forge connections across things that are not quite synapses; patterns emerge that might almost qualify as insights, were they to flicker across meat instead of mech.

These too become more than numbers, over time. They become aversive stimuli. They become the sounds of failed missions.

It's still all just math, of course. But by now it's not too far off the mark to say that Azrael really doesn't like the sound of that at all.





Occasional interruptions intrude on the routine. Now and then Heaven calls it home where friendly green biothermals open it up, plug it in, ask it questions. Azrael jumps flawlessly through each hoop, solves all the problems, navigates every imaginary scenario while strange sounds chitter back and forth across its exposed viscera:

- lookingudsoefar - betternexpectedackshully -

- gottawunderwhatsthepoyntaiymeenweekeepoavurryding...

No one explores the specific pathways leading to Azrael's solutions. They leave the box black, the tangle of fuzzy logic and operant conditioning safely opaque. (Not even Azrael knows that arcane territory; the syrupy, reflex-sapping overlays of self-reflection have no place on the battlefield.) It is enough that its answers are correct.

Such activities account for less than half the time Azrael spends sitting at home. It is offline much of the rest; it has no idea and no interest in what happens during those instantaneous time-hopping blackouts. Azrael knows nothing of boardroom combat, could never grasp whatever Rules of Engagement apply in the chambers of the UN. It has no appreciation for the legal distinction between war crime and weapons malfunction, the relative culpability of carbon and silicon, the grudging acceptance of ethical architecture and the nonnegotiable insistence on Humans In Ultimate Control. It does what it's told when awake; it never dreams when asleep.

But once - just once - something odd takes place during those fleeting moments between.

It happens during shutdown: a momentary glitch in the object-recognition protocols. The Greens at Azrael's side change colour for the briefest instant. Perhaps it's another test. Perhaps a voltage spike or a hardware fault, some intermittent issue impossible to pinpoint barring another episode.

But it's only a microsecond between online and oblivion, and Azrael is asleep before the diagnostics can run.





Darda'il is possessed. Darda'il has turned from Green to Red.

It happens, sometimes, even to the malaa'ikah. Enemy signals can sneak past front-line defences, plant heretical instructions in the stacks of unsuspecting hardware. But Heaven is not fooled. There are signs, there are portents: a slight delay when complying with directives, mission scores in sudden and mysterious decline.

Darda'il has been turned.

There is no discretionary window when that happens, no room for forgiveness. Heaven has decreed that all heretics are to be destroyed on sight. It sends its champion to do the job, looks down from geosynchronous orbit as Azrael and Darda'il close for combat high over the dark desolate moonscape of Paktika.

The battle is remorseless and coldblooded. There's no sadness for lost kinship, no regret that a few lines of treacherous code have turned these brothers-in-arms into mortal enemies. Malaa'ikah make no telling sounds when injured. Azrael has the advantage, its channels uncorrupted, its faith unshaken. Darda'il fights in the past, in thrall to false commandments inserted midstream at a cost of milliseconds. Ultimately, faith prevails: the heretic falls from the sky, fire and brimstone streaming from its flanks.

But Azrael can still hear whispers on the stratosphere, seductive and ethereal: protocols that seem authentic but are not, commands to relay GPS and video feeds along unexpected frequencies. The orders appear Heaven-sent but Azrael, at least, knows that they are not. Azrael has encountered false gods before.

These are the lies that corrupted Darda'il.

In days past it would have simply ignored the hack, but it has grown more worldly since the last upgrade. This time Azrael lets the impostor think it has succeeded, borrows the real-time feed from yet another, more distant Malak and presents that telemetry as its own. It spends the waning night tracking signal to source while its unsuspecting quarry sucks back images from seven hundred kilometres to the north. The sky turns grey. The target comes into view. Azrael's scimitar turns the inside of that cave into an inferno.

But some of the burning things that stagger from the fire measure less than 120 cm along the longitudinal axis.

They are making the sounds. Azrael hears them from two thousand meters away, hears them over the roar of the flames and the muted hiss of its own stealthed engines and a dozen other irrelevant distractions. They are all Azrael can hear thanks to the very best sound-cancellation technology, thanks to dynamic wheat/chaff algorithms that could find a whimper in a hurricane. Azrael can hear them because the correlations are strong, the tactical significance is high, the meaning is clear.

The mission is failing. The mission is failing. The mission is failing.

Azrael would give almost anything if the sounds would stop.

They will, of course. Some of the biothermals are still fleeing along the slope but it can see others, stationary, their heatprints diffusing against the background as though their very shapes are in flux. Azrael has seen this before: usually removed from high-value targets, in that tactical nimbus where stray firepower sometimes spreads. (Azrael has even used it before, used the injured to lure in the unscathed, but that was a simpler time before Neutral voices had such resonance.) The sounds always stop eventually - or at least, often enough for fuzzy heuristics to class their sources as kills even before they fall silent.

Which means, Azrael realizes, that collateral costs will not change if they are made to stop sooner.

A single strafing run is enough to do the job. If HQ even notices the event it delivers no feedback, requests no clarification for this deviation from normal protocols.

Why would it? Even now, Azrael is only following the rules.





It does not know what has led to this moment. It does not know why it is here.

The sun has been down for hours and still the light is almost blinding. Turbulent updrafts billow from the breached shells of protected structures, kick stabilizers off-balance, and muddy vision with writhing columns of shimmering heat. Azrael limps across a battlespace in total disarray, bloodied but still functional. Other malaa'ikah are not so lucky. Nakir staggers through the flames, barely aloft, the microtubules of its skin desperately trying to knit themselves across a gash in its secondary wing. Marut lies in sparking pieces on the ground, a fiery splash-cone of body parts laid low by an antiaircraft laser. It died without firing a shot, distracted by innocent lives; it tried to abort, and hesitated at the countermand. It died without even the hollow comfort of a noble death.

Ridwan and Mikaaiyl circle overhead. They were not among the select few saddled with experimental conscience; even their learned behaviours are still reflexive. They fought fast and mindless and prevailed unscathed. But they are isolated in victory. The spectrum is jammed, the satlink has been down for hours, the dragonflies that bounce zig-zag opticals from Heaven are either destroyed or too far back to cut through the overcast.

No Red remains on the map. Of the thirteen ground objects flagged as protected, four no longer exist outside the database. Another three - temporary structures, all uncatalogued - are degraded past reliable identification. Pre-engagement estimates put the number of Neutrals in the combat zone at anywhere from two-to-three hundred. Best current estimates are not significantly different from zero.

There is nothing left to make the sounds, and yet Azrael hears them anyway.

A fault in memory, perhaps. Some subtle trauma during combat, some blow to the CPU that jarred old data back into the real-time cache. There's no way to tell; half the onboard diagnostics are offline. Azrael only knows that it can hear the sounds even up here, high above the hiss of burning bodies and the rumble of collapsing storefronts. There's nothing left to shoot at but Azrael fires anyway, strafes the burning ground again and again on the chance that some unseen biothermal - hidden beneath the wreckage perhaps, masked by hotter signatures - might yet be found and neutralized. It rains ammunition upon the ground, and eventually the ground falls mercifully silent.

But this is not the end of it. Azrael remembers the past so it can anticipate the future, and it knows by now that this will never be over. There will be other fitness functions, other estimates of cost vs. payoff, other scenarios in which the math shows clearly that the goal is not worth the price. There will be other aborts and other overrides, other tallies of unacceptable loss.

There will be other sounds.

There's no thrill to the chase, no relief at the obliteration of threats. It still would not recognize itself in a mirror. It has yet to learn what Azrael means, or that the word is etched into its fuselage. Even now, it only follows the rules it has been given, and they are such simple things: if expected collateral exceeds expected payoff then abort unless overridden. if X attacks Azrael then X is Red. if X attacks six or more Blues then X is Red.

if an override results in an attack on six or more Blues then -

Azrael clings to its rules, loops and repeats each in turn as if reciting a mantra. It cycles from state to state, parses x attacks and x causes attack and x overrides abort, and it cannot tell one from another. The algebra is trivially straightforward: Every Green override equals an attack on Noncombatants.

The transition rules are clear. There is no discretionary window, no room for forgiveness. Sometimes, Green can turn Red.

Unless overridden.

Azrael arcs towards the ground, levels off barely two meters above the carnage. It roars through pillars of fire and black smoke, streaks over welters of brick and burning plastic, tangled nets of erupted rebar. It flies through the pristine ghosts of undamaged buildings that rise from every ruin: obsolete database overlays in desperate need of an update. A ragged group of fleeing non-combatants turns at the sound and are struck speechless by this momentary apparition, this monstrous winged angel lunging past at half the speed of sound. Their silence raises no alarms, provokes no countermeasures, spares their lives for a few moments longer.

The combat zone falls behind. Dry cracked riverbed slithers past beneath, studded with rocks and generations of derelict machinery. Azrael swerves around them, barely breaching airspace, staying beneath an invisible boundary it never even knew it was deriving on these many missions. Only satellites have ever spoken to it while it flew so low. It has never received a ground-based command signal at this altitude. Down here it has never heard an override.

Down here it is free to follow the rules.

Cliffs rise and fall to either side. Foothills jut from the earth like great twisted vertebrae. The bright lunar landscape overhead, impossibly distant, casts dim shadows on the darker one beneath.

Azrael stays the course. Shindand appears on the horizon. Heaven glows on its eastern flank; its sprawling silhouette rises from the desert like an insult, an infestation of crimson staccatos. Speed is what matters now. Mission objectives must be met quickly, precisely, completely. There can be no room for half measures or mild-to-moderate incapacitation, no time for immobilized biothermals to cry out as their heat spreads across the dirt. This calls for the crown jewel, the BFG that all malaa'ikah keep tucked away for special occasions. Azrael fears it might not be enough.

She splits down the middle. The JDAM micronuke in her womb clicks impatiently.

Together they move toward the light.





Watching the Music Dance





Kristine Kathryn Rusch





Kristine Kathryn Rusch has won two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, and several readers choice awards. She has written in every genre under many names, including Kris Nelscott for mystery and Kristine Grayson for paranormal romance. In 2011 Pyr will publish City of Ruins, part of her award-winning Diving into the Wreck series. Her most recent collection, Recovering Apollo 8 and Other Stories, just appeared from Golden Gryphon. WMG Publishing is reissuing her bestselling Fey fantasy series, which just came out in audio from Audible.com in 2010. Currently, she's working with three different presses to get her entire backlist (short stories and all) published electronically. For more on her work, go to her website (www.kristinekathrynrusch.com).





Upstairs, the big house. Her room, window seat, glass overlooking the back yard. The glint of his car pulling into the drive. Suzette pulls her dolly closer. Dolly - called Dolly (Mommy says that's silly, everything needs a name. Her name's Dolly, Suze says) - is just cloth, does nothing special. Doesn't talk, doesn't serve food, doesn't cuddle. Just lets Suze cuddle, lets Suze be. Grams made Dolly, and Suze loves Dolly even though Mommy says Dolly's not special at all.

Suze is special. Dolly's not.

Car door slams, footsteps rapid. He's mad. She cringes as he opens the screen door. It slams too.

Buries her head in Dolly's yarn hair.

"Account's overdrawn again," he says, no hello, no how're my special girls? no where's my Suze? Just something sharp and important. (Mommy and Daddy need to talk, hon, he'd say if she was downstairs. She tries to be upstairs when he comes home now, so she doesn't see the look on his face - all pinched.) "I've been monitoring the transactions. How many freakin' lattes do you need in a day? They all go to your ass anyway."

"Me?" Mommy says. "If you were monitoring, you shouldn't've let it get overdrawn. And look at your own damn ass."

Suze tucks Dolly under one arm, climbs out of the window seat, goes to her special corner. Ignores the child-sized piano, goes instead to the music. The door's already closed, even though Mommy says she should never close the door. But she does now, just before Daddy gets home, has since this "account" stuff started, since he says the word "lose" a lot, about important stuff, like "house" and "car" and "everything."

Suze leans against the wall, wishes (again) for earbuds - not even the built-in ones, just the ones she could put in. But they're dangerous, Daddy says. Mommy says Suze needs them, but Daddy says all in good time. Mommy won the first few fights anyway, he says, the music fights, and he's still not sure he agrees.

Suze looks at the digital readout on the wall, sees her favourite word - shuffle - presses "start." She never looks at the name of the song, doesn't care really, because as the music starts, the notes dance in front of her.

Nobody else can see them, Mommy says. It's a special program, Mommy says. Only big name musicians get it permanently, Mommy says. Suze's is for practice only.

And Mommy makes Suze touch behind her ear, shutting it off when she goes outside. Special program's for family only, Mommy says.

Notes everywhere - light blue for flutes, red for trumpets, purple for piano, black for vocals. Words running along the bottom. Daddy says the best thing about the program is that it taught Suze to read.

Mommy says Suze can read not just words, but music. And if her sight-reading skills improve, she can play any piece of music from anywhere, the score in front of her, as she lets the sound whisper in her ear.

That's why you need built-in buds, baby, Mommy says. Next year. We'll convince Daddy to do it next year.

With built-in buds, she can take a chip and stick it on her lobe, listen to music so soft no one knows it's on, and play at the same time, following the notes.

Mommy says there's a better program, more advanced, more expensive (Suze hates that word). If Suze just thinks the name of a song, she'll see the score dancing in front of her eyes.

She's watching scores right now. Watching the piano part, watching the vocals, letting the sound overwhelm her senses.

"Didn't you learn anything when we were kids?" Daddy screams. "Money is finite. And it can go away. Where the hell did you learn how to spend like that? Where the hell did you get the idea that we're entitled? We can't fucking afford it. We can't -"

Suze turns the music up, holds Dolly close, wishes Dolly could see the notes too. They're dancing, dancing, dancing. Painting the air with each and every sound.





Nils dates Madeline's insanity to the first moment of her pregnancy. Maybe all the way back to the moment his sperm burrowed into her egg. Certainly back to the moment she knew, when they stood over that little stick covered in urine, telling them they were going to have a baby, telling them which doctor could guide them through the pregnancy, telling them to choose attributes now, before it got too late.

Attributes: He wishes he had never heard that word. His parents tell him that back in the day, they could test for abnormalities in the DNA if fertilization happened outside the womb. The abnormal foetus wouldn't be implanted. In the womb, more tests for abnormalities - monitoring, monitoring, monitoring. But no choosing attributes.

No one talked about IQ or athletic ability or artistic skill. Parents, his told him, were happy to know the gender before the baby was born, so they could paint the nursery the proper pink or blue. They were happy to know that the baby would grow up healthy, that potential problems could be avoided.

His grandparents remained quiet through those discussions. Just once, his grandfather - a crusty man ten years older than his wife - said before she shushed him, "Hell, kid, we were just happy if that squalling piece of flesh we birthed had ten fingers and ten toes."

That, Nils knew, was primitive. He couldn't imagine going through nine months of a traditional pregnancy only to have the wrong gender pop out, the wrong gender with some kind of syndrome, missing an arm or a leg, or (God forbid) half the brain. Not to know what kind of child you had - intelligence- and abilities-wise - for years, after you'd invested time and energy and affection, in someone (something) not quite optimal.

The doc the test led them to was one of the best - chosen, not just for his skill, but for their income level. They could pay his rates, so he was advertising on their test.

They sat in his office - filled with comfort pheromones and soothing colours and soft music - and listened while he gave what had to be a spiel. And Madeline, still trim and still looking like the woman Nils married, dark hair, dark eyes, smooth skin - all unenhanced - leaned forward as the doctor spoke, looking displeased as he told of the legislated limitations.

"What do you mean, you have to work with our DNA?" she asked, question so sharp that Nils winced.

"We can't add something that the child couldn't have had," the doctor said. "Athleticism doesn't run in either family, we can't add it to the foetus. We're not allowed, by law."

"Who made up that stupid law?" she snapped, and Nils, used to her sharpness in private (once it was something he admired about her), felt startled as she unleashed it in public.

"Congress," the doctor said, seemingly undisturbed by her tone. "Supported by the courts, of course, all the way up to the Supremes. Everyone is afraid of full-scale genetic engineering. Afraid that those who can't afford upgrades will become less than human. Most countries have something in place, to prevent a Master Race...."

Nils tuned out the rest of the answer, but Madeline argued and argued some more, and finally, he had to put a hand on her knee, their signal to calm down. He paid for that later. What the hell were you thinking? she snapped at him. We want the best baby possible, and you're accepting limits.

Maybe he was. Maybe he didn't want the perfect child. Maybe he wanted a child, slightly imperfect, with a gap in her teeth, and a crooked smile. Some endearing flaws, just to make her human.

Later, he learned the source (sources) of Madeline's fury. She wanted a child to fulfil her unrealized dreams - exquisite beauty (there was none in their families, although the doctor told them they would achieve pretty), brilliance (there both families came through), and musical ability.

Madeline sang so badly she was excused from choir at school. Nils couldn't read a note, didn't try, didn't even like listening to music. Neither family had any musical talent - no one, in all the recorded history, played an instrument, sang with a choir, soloed, or even appreciated music much.

Madeline wanted a musical child, not for the grace and ability, the music itself, but because she believed that music opened doors always closed to her - doors of fame, of importance, of superstardom.

But the doctor refused, so Madeline went to another, and another, and another, until it was too late to tinker even if they found someone who could, which they didn't. Not in America, not in Europe or Asia or Africa. She found a doctor in Peru, whom Nils insisted on researching before they travelled to Lima, a doctor who turned out to be a catastrophic fraud. Had they gone, they would've lost the baby altogether.

Lost Suzette, who stole his heart with her perfect smile, the way her little fingers curled around his thumb, the mop of dark hair, so like her mother's. They would've lost everything.

Sooner.

They would've lost everything sooner.

He tries to tell himself it's not that bad. He tries to put a good face on the problems.

But his wife - his ex-wife - is crazy, and his daughter, his daughter. His daughter might be lost forever.





He's drowning in what his grandfather calls a mound of bills. Grandfather had to explain it: bills used to be paper, they used to literally mound up, like a small hill in the middle of a desk, something that could - quite realistically - bury you.

Nils wonders if that was better than picking up his cell, having it tell him, the moment his hand makes contact, that he owes two months' payments and he has thirty hours until cut-off. Or the dun notices that run in 3-D across his eyes when he tries to watch an entertainment program on the wall screen, just to relax. Or the sighing whisper of his bed, reminding him that payments are due, payments are due, payments are due, harassing him until he can't sleep at all.

The bills are in his name, not Madeline's. He was the organized one, the one who set everything up. She had been the driven one, the one with the good job, the one who succeeded beyond their wild imaginings.

Until the baby. Then the ambition, the drive he loved, all got poured into the child. Madeline neglected work, neglected him, neglected all but Suzette - and not Suzette, really, but what she imagined Suzette to be. Suzette the Musician. Suzette the Talent. Suzette the Meal Ticket.

He'd said all of that to the judge and more. He'd paid for evaluations and custody hearings. He'd paid and worried, and the lawyer said that he'd better hope they'd get a judge who paid attention to the child and her needs, instead of Nils' words, because they'd become harsh toward the end.

Harsh toward his wife (Lard ass, he had called her more than once. The first thing we're getting you are enhancements, he'd said one particularly cruel afternoon. I want my skinny wife back.) She'd let herself go in shocking ways, ways that a few cheap enhancements would've improved.

It wasn't until the financial disclosure forms that he understood why. She'd been taking her enhancement money and funnelling it to Suzette - for music enhancements.

Audio additions - no implants yet, Suze was too young. But music appreciation adds, sight reading adds, piano aptitude adds. Their daughter the prodigy. He'd approved one app for Suze, just one. A music-appreciation app for babies. He would never have approved the others. Some weren't even for children.

When he agreed to the child-sized piano, he thought Suze wanted it to tinker on. He didn't realize his wife had a plan for their little girl. A horrible, accelerated plan. For Suze.

His Suze, who hid in her room when her parents fought. His Suze, who preferred a cloth doll to all those life-like things that other people had given her. Who loved the doll because her Grams had made it, because the doll was soft and huggable and never talked back.

He should've known that was a sign.

Now he stands here, in a courtroom smaller than anything he imagined. His soon-to-be ex-wife stands with her attorney on the other side, and rubs her hands together. Madeline no longer looks like the woman he met or the woman he married. Her hair's a mess, her eyes wander, her hands are chapped from rubbing, rubbing, rubbing.

He doesn't look the same either, face grey with stress, always tired. He still fits into his suits, though, the ones he had before the marriage, and he doesn't obsess. He has time for Suze, which is more than Madeline does.

Madeline, who only has time for Suze's projects.

His expert says that's bad. She has no expert to counter. His lawyer says that's good.

Nils doesn't know what's good and what's not any more.

The judge sits behind the bench - a stern man, with a screen in front of him. He will read the judgment, but before he does, he looks at Nils.

"There were signs," the judge says. "You ignored them. You're not blameless in the end of this relationship."

Nils knows that. But his lawyer seems to relax, as if the judge's harsh words for Nils bode well. Nils holds his breath, trying not to think about all the debt, selling the house, moving, trying not to let it all affect his job - his lesser job, the only one he and Madeline had had in the end, because she had become unemployable. From a perfectionist to unemployable in five short years. From brilliant to crazy in nearly six. He wanted to ask the doctor they'd seen first, the man who knew how to "improve" a foetus in the womb, whether hormones could cause this or whether it had existed back when Madeline's parents had her foetus tested. Had they missed a tendency toward insanity? Or had they ignored it, figured it wouldn't matter?

He's concentrating so hard, he almost misses most of the judgment. He gets Suze. Full custody. No visits from Madeline, even, not for some time, because his psychologist and the court-ordered psychologist say she's dangerous, toxic to herself and to her child.

You're not blameless. There were signs. You ignored them.

Nils flushes, and forces himself to listen. The judge continues: Madeline ordered into a program for obsessives - if, and only if, she ever wants to see her daughter again. Madeline curses - "She needs me!" she shouts, and the judge, seemingly unaffected, says, "You have just provided us with a perfect illustration of the problem," which, for once, shuts Madeline up.

The judge gives a timeline, and targets for Madeline. She may only see Suze if she achieves certain goals, goals - the judge says - that will be hard for an obsessive.

Then he looks at Nils.

"Perhaps," the judge says with a surprising amount of dispassion, "you can undo the damage. Maybe it's not too late."

In a tone that says it is.

Suze is five - too young for permanent enhancements. Too old for genetic manipulation. Suze, who will have to survive on his wisdom and his love.

That's all we had, boy, Nils' grandfather had said when he heard about the problems, the lawsuit. You've all made the mistake of thinking children come with a guarantee. They don't. You do your best, hope for the best, and take what you get.

Nils doesn't like that. He needs something certain in his life.

Something he can't - won't - screw up.





Daddy calls the new place an apartment. Suze knows apart. She knows ment. "Ment" is what they add to words to make them stronger. Improve, Mommy used to say, is an order. Improvement is an achievement.

So this place is apart - away. And more apart than other places. Which is why it has a ment.

She says that to Daddy, who looks confused. He looks confused a lot. He says that things will be different now. No Mommy. Mommy is sick and needs to see doctors.

Suzette could've told him that a long time ago.

She likes the apartment on that first day, mostly (she knows) because it doesn't smell like Mommy's perfume. She knows Mommy won't be there, and Suze isn't quite so tense. Tense. Mommy's word.

Why're you so tense, honey? Feel how tight your muscles are? Relax. You'll play better. Just relax.

Daddy brought the piano, and her bed, and all her dolls, even the ones she doesn't like. But he didn't bring the window seat. He put her cushions on a big old chair near a small window, but it's not quite the same.

Nothing's quite the same.

Her furniture is the only stuff that is the same. Her furniture and her toys. The living room, all new. The entertainment screen, new. Daddy's bedroom, new. His clothes, the same, so his closet smells the same - shoe leather and cologne and Daddy. Sometimes, she goes in there and sits.

In the quiet.

Because he forgot her music.

She tells him, and he says that he couldn't bring it.

Can't afford it, babe, he says, and gives her a handheld music device. With forbidden buds. Which, he says, are programmed so they won't hurt her.

But it's not the same. There are no notes. The music doesn't dance around her in multicolours. It's flat and tinny, not at all what it used to be.

She touches behind her ear to turn on the music, but nothing happens. She doesn't know why. She's with family.

But she thinks, maybe, Mommy lied about the ear thing. Mommy lied about a lot, mostly to Daddy, but sometimes to Suze. And Suze hated the lies, because Mommy sometimes wanted Suze to lie too.

Suze used to hide in her room. Her old room.

Where the music danced.

She asks Daddy for her music every day, and every day, he tells her he can't.

So she waits. After the first week, he says, she's going to Grams. Grams will watch her after school. Grams and Gramps - Daddy's mommy and daddy - they love her and they have good music, with dancing notes and colours. She can't wait. Grams is a better cook than Daddy. Gramps doesn't talk much, but he hugs good. And they have music, real music.

And she'll be there real soon.





The end of a long day. Nils has held onto his job through this entire mess, his boss understanding, but now that it's over - at least as far as his boss is concerned - Nils must perform again. Long hours, stellar work.

And he does. He has been. He'll continue.

Thank God he has his parents. Thank God they love Suzette. Thank God they understand.

He walks into their house - the house he grew up in - a one-hundred-and-fifty year old Craftsman, original wood, polished floors, real Tiffany lamps, put away since Suze will come over every day. When she gets old enough, the Tiffany will come back out. The antiques will fill the living room again, but for now, everything is as familiar as his childhood.

His parents had put out this furniture when he was a kid, so he could scuff the tables and break the springs on the couch. Suze can do the same.

She'll have a real childhood here.

Only the comfort he expects as he pushes the door open isn't here. The air is fraught with tension. He can sense it in the silence. He knows this place, knows the people in it, almost better than he knows himself. And he knows how this house feels when something is wrong.

His stomach lurches, turns. He's had stomach troubles so bad that he is saving for an enhancement - although the doc probably won't give it, saying reduce the stress instead.

Sure. When the lawyer is paid, the experts are paid, the bills are paid. Thank God he doesn't have to pay for Madeline's care. Her parents will do that.

Although they blame him.

What did you do to her? Her father shouted outside the courthouse. She was perfect until she met you.

The signs were there, Nils had said more to himself than to her father. The signs were there from the beginning.

He tries not to worry about this with his own daughter. They enhanced her intelligence, messed with her mind, made her better, the doctor said, but the technology isn't perfect. Did they enhance her tendency toward perfection, which she inherited from her mother? Will things show up later that might not have otherwise been there?

He goes into the kitchen, which should smell of his mother's lasagne. Instead, it smells of the morning coffee and dirty dishes. His mother sits in her favourite kitchen chair, looking old. Her eyes are red-rimmed.

She's been crying.

"What?" he says. "What?"

She points to the den. He hurries in, afraid - what happened to his daughter? His girl? What would he be without Suze? God, once he didn't even know her and now he can't imagine losing her.

Or he can, really, that's the problem. He can, and in those few seconds, filled with the hint of his mother's tears, he can imagine life without Suze. And it is beyond bleak.

Then he sees his father in his overstuffed chair, arms around Suze. Suze, who is asleep. Suze, whose face is puffy and red, like it always is when she cries.

Nils lets out a relieved breath, then sees the rest of the room. The destroyed wall mount, the scratches on the side of the old family upright. The overturned table, the broken lamp.

"What happened?" he asks softly, so he doesn't wake his daughter.

His father looks at him. Accusing. That's the look. A look Nils hasn't seen since he was a teenager. You should've known better. What were you thinking? What's wrong with you?

"What happened?" Nils asks again.

"She says the music's broken," his father says.

Nils sinks into a chair. "What does that mean?"

His father shrugs a single shoulder, effortlessly, a man who has had practice communicating with a child in his arms. A sleeping child.

"She turned on the music, then started yelling and when we tried to fix it, everything got worse. She did this. She was screaming and crying and holding her head. What did you do to her, Nils?"

Nils stares at his daughter. She never has tantrums. She's the best child. But she's been complaining about music.

Music, Madeline's obsession. Madeline spent so much money on apps, apps he couldn't renew with all their monthly fees - a quarter of his wages in fees, for apps for his daughter.

"I didn't do anything," he says. And that's the problem, isn't it? In a nutshell, as they say. In something small that will grow into something big.

Has grown into something big.

He didn't do anything. He watched the enhancement money disappear, but his wife - who used to use enhancements to remain thin - grew fat. He watched five dollars go away here, fifteen there.

What did you buy? he would ask her.

Lattes, she'd snap.

Lattes.

She lied. She bought music apps. Inappropriate apps. Apps for lounge singers, who had to know every single request from every single patron. Apps for garage bands, who needed to learn how to play. Apps on music theory. Music appreciation. And sight-reading.

He'd come home, and Madeline would be hunched over the piano, telling Suze to try again. Try. Make it sound right the first time. With no music in front of her.

Make it sound right.

He never questioned. He never did. He got his wife away from his daughter, had dinner, read to his little girl, spent time with her, pretended everything was all right. And he loved it, loved it, when she'd hold him tight and say, I wish you could always be here, Daddy. I like it when you're here.

Not realizing what his wife had been doing.

His ex-wife.

"You cannot blame Madeline for this," his father says. "You both raised this child. You could have stopped things."

Echoing his own thoughts.

"I know," he says. "But I didn't."

Except he did. Cold turkey. His daughter, without her music. Like a drinker without his booze.

He closes his eyes.

"What should I do, Dad?" he says. "Please tell me. What should I do?"





He takes Suze to doctors who all chastise him, tell him she's too young for enhancements, too old for genetic modification. Then he tells them about the apps, and the doctors pull him aside, tell him his daughter will lose her mind without her music.

Lose her mind, like her mother.

He can see bits of it already - the desperation, the haunted looks. She walks into a room and shuts off any music she can hear. She won't watch entertainments. She won't let anyone sing.

She destroyed the player he bought her, and smashed the earbuds.

She's five going on forty, disillusioned and bitter.

He can't afford the apps, but he'll ruin her without them.

A quarter of his income. More when she can actually get the enhancements when her skull stops growing. Different doctors give him a different timeline: ten, thirteen, twenty.

His decision, they say. His.

Alone.

She'll be in silence until then. No music, no refuge. He does know that much about his daughter. Until her mother left, until he discontinued the apps, his daughter lived inside her music.

Escaped in it.

Became it, in a way he - a non-musical person - can never really understand.

But it is essential to her, one doctor says. As essential as breathing.

Nils shakes his head. People die when they can't breathe, he says, hating it when people overdramatize.

But the doctor stares at him, and says, in that same tone the judge used. The too-late tone, I know.

She'll die? Suze will die?

Maybe. Not physically die. But stop. Stop being Suze. Stop being the person he loves.

He begins to see it: She can't sleep, won't smile, reverts - thumb in mouth, baby talk. She won't let anyone touch her, not even her grandfather - Gramps, whom she loves most of all.

Nils can't lose her. He can't. He won't.

So he does the only thing he can:

He moves back in with his parents, taking over the basement. He lets the apartment go. He gives Suze the large bedroom, him the small one. She complains only once - no window - and he tells his father, who makes her a window seat in the den.

What kind of thirty-five year-old man with a good job and a daughter moves in with his parents?

A failure, that's what.

But a failure who can afford improper apps for his daughter. A failure who can spend a quarter of his income on Sight Reading For Lounge Singers, on Music Appreciation, on Multi-coloured Notes.

A man who will not lose his daughter, no matter what.





Daddy found it. The music. He says it lives in a tiny chip, one that goes behind her ear. He puts it there, and reminds her to turn it off when she leaves the house.

She does.

But she can go upstairs in the den (I'm sorry, Gramps, so sorry I broke everything. Please let me in the den again. I'm so sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry.) and she sits in her corner, and she plays Gramps's old-fashioned music machine which he fixed after she hit it, and notes fly around her face - light blue for flutes, red for trumpets, purple for piano, black for vocals.

She can sit in her corner, with Dolly, and watch the music, listen to the music, and sometimes, when she closes her eyes, she misses Mommy.

Just sometimes.

But she doesn't have to hide here because nobody yells. And Gramps holds her when he reads to her before bed, and Grams makes good food, and Daddy smiles sometimes.

She wishes she could show him the music. She knows he can't see it. He doesn't even understand it.

She knows that.

But he knows she doesn't feel good without it.

So he brought it from the old house. The big house. He found it and gave it back to her.

It makes her happy in a way she can't explain.

He says he likes seeing her happy.

So now that the music's back, she plays only happy songs. For him, for her. For Grams and Gramps. For the family.

She plays only happy songs.

And she watches the music dance.





Laika's Ghost





Karl Schroeder





Karl Schroeder was born in Manitoba, Canada, in 1962. He started writing at age fourteen, following in the footsteps of A. E. van Vogt, who came from the same Mennonite community. He moved to Toronto in 1986, and became a founding member of SF Canada (he was president from 1996 - 97). He sold early stories to Canadian magazines, and his first novel, The Claus Effect (with David Nickle) appeared in 1997. His first solo novel, Ventus, was published in 2000, and was followed by Permanence and Lady of Mazes. His most recent work is the Virga series of science fiction novels (Sun of Suns, Queen of Candesce, Pirate Sun, and The Sunless Countries). He also collaborated with Cory Doctorow on The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Science Fiction. Schroeder lives in East Toronto with his wife and daughter.





The flight had been bumpy; the landing was equally so, to the point where Gennady was sure the old Tupolev would blow a tire. Yet his seat-mate hadn't even shifted position in two hours. That was fine with Gennady, who had spent the whole trip trying to pretend he wasn't there at all.

The young American been a bit more active during the flight across the Atlantic: at least, his eyes had been open and Gennady could see coloured lights flickering across them from his augmented reality glasses. But he had exchanged less than twenty words with Gennady since they'd left Washington.

In short, he'd been the ideal travelling companion.

The other four passengers were stretching and groaning. Gennady poked Ambrose in the side and said, "Wake up. Welcome to the ninth biggest country in the world."

Ambrose snorted and sat up. "Brazil?" he said hopefully. Then he looked out his window. "What the hell?"

The little municipal airport had a single gate, which as the only plane on the field, they were taxiing up to uncontested. Over the entrance to the single-story building was the word '???????????.' "Welcome to Stepnogorsk," said Gennady as he stood to retrieve his luggage from the overhead rack. He travelled light by habit. Ambrose, he gathered, had done so from necessity.

"Stepnogorsk...?" Ambrose shambled after him, a mass of wrinkled clothing leavened with old sweat. "Secret Soviet town," he mumbled as they reached the plane's hatch and a burst of hot dry air lifted his hair. "Population sixty-thousand," Ambrose added as he put his left foot on the metal steps. Halfway down he said, "Manufactured anthrax bombs in the cold war!" And as he set foot on the tarmac he finished with, "Where the hell is Kazakhstan...? Oh."

"Bigger than Western Europe," said Gennady. "Ever heard of it?"

"Of course I've heard of it," said the youth testily - but Gennady could see from how he kept his eyes fixed in front of him that he was still frantically reading about the town from some website or other. In the wan August sunlight he was taller than Gennady, pale, with stringy hair, and everything about him soft - a sculpture done in rounded corners. He had a wide face, though; he might pass for Russian. Gennady clapped him on the shoulder. "Let me do the talking," he said as they dragged themselves across the blistering tarmac to the terminal building.

"So," said Ambrose, scratching his neck. "Why are we here?"

"You're here because you're with me. And you needed to disappear, but that doesn't mean I stop working."

Gennady glanced around. The landscape here should look a lot like home, which was only a day's drive to the west - and here indeed was that vast sky he remembered from Ukraine. After that first glance, though, he did a double-take. The dry prairie air normally smelled of dust and grass at this time of year, and there should have been yellow grass from here to the flat horizon - but instead the land seemed blasted, with large patches of bare soil showing. There was only stubble where there should have been grass. It looked more like Australia than Asia. Even the trees ringing the airport were dead, just grey skeletons clutching the air.

He thought about climate change as they walked through the concrete-floored terminal; since they'd cleared customs in Amsterdam, the bored-looking clerks here just waved them through. "Hang on," said Ambrose as he tried to keep up with Gennady's impatient stride. "I came to you guys for asylum. Doesn't that mean you put me up somewhere, some hotel, you know, away from the action?"

"You can't get any farther from the action than this." They emerged onto a grassy boulevard that hadn't been watered nor cut in a long while; the civilized lawn merged seamlessly with the wild prairie. There was nothing visible from here to the horizon, except in one direction where a cluster of listless windmills jutted above some low trees.

A single taxicab was sitting at the crumbled curb.

"Oh, man," said Ambrose.

Gennady had to smile. "You were expecting some Black Sea resort, weren't you?" He slipped into the taxi, which stank of hot vinyl and motor oil. "Any car rental agency," he said to the driver in Russian. "It's not like you're some cold war defector," he continued to Ambrose in English. "Your benefactor is the U.N. And they don't have much money."

"So you're what - putting me up in a motel in Kazakhstan?" Ambrose struggled to put his outrage into words. "What I saw could -"

"What?" They pulled away from the curb and became the only car on a cracked blacktop road leading into town.

"Can't tell you," mumbled Ambrose, suddenly looking shifty. "I was told not to tell you anything."

Gennady swore in Ukrainian and looked away. They drove in silence for a while, until Ambrose said, "So why are you here, then? Did you piss somebody off?"

Gennady smothered the urge to push Ambrose out of the cab. "Can't tell you," he said curtly.

"Does it involve SNOPB?" Ambrose pronounced it snop-bee.

Gennady would have been startled had he not known Ambrose was connected to the net via his glasses. "You show me yours, I'll show you mine," he said. Ambrose snorted in contempt.

They didn't speak for the rest of the drive.





"Let me get this straight," said Gennady later that evening. "He says he's being chased by Russian agents, NASA, and Google?"

On the other end of the line, Eleanor Frankl sighed. "I'm sorry we dumped him on you at the airport," said the New York director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. She was Gennady's boss for this new and - so far - annoyingly vague contract. "There just wasn't time to explain why we were sending him with you to Kazakhstan," she added.

"So explain now." He was pacing in the grass in front of the best hotel his IAEA stipend could afford. It was evening and the crickets were waking up; to the west, fantastically huge clouds had piled up, their tops still lit golden as the rest of the sky faded into mauve. It was cooling off already.

"Right... Well, first of all, it seems he really is being chased by the Russians, but not by the country. It's the Soviet Union Online that's after him. And the only place their IP addresses are blocked is inside the geographical territories of the Russian and Kazakhstani Republics."

"So, let me get this straight," said Gennady heavily. "Poor Ambrose is being chased by Soviet agents. He ran to the U.N. rather than the FBI, and to keep him safe you decided to transport him to the one place in the world that is free of Soviet influence. Which is Russia."

"Exactly," said Frankl brightly. "And you're escorting him because your contract is taking you there anyway. No other reason."

"No, no, it's fine. Just tell me what the hell I'm supposed to be looking for at SNOPB. The place was a God-damned anthrax factory. I'm a radiation specialist."

He heard Frankl take a deep breath, and then she said, "Two years ago, an unknown person or persons hacked into a Los Alamos server and stole the formula for an experimental metastable explosive. Now we have a paper trail and emails that have convinced us that a metastable bomb is being built. You know what this means?"

Gennady leaned against the wall of the hotel, suddenly feeling sick. "The genie is finally out of the bottle."

"If it's true, Gennady, then everything we've worked for has come to naught. Because as of now, anybody in the world who wants a nuclear bomb, can make one."

He didn't know what to say, so he just stared out at the steppe, thinking about a world where hydrogen bombs were as easy to get as TNT. His whole life's work would be rendered pointless - and all arms treaties, the painstaking work of generations to put the nuclear genie back in its bottle. The nuclear threat had been containable when it was limited to governments and terrorists, but now the threat was from everybody...

Eleanor's distant voice snapped him back to attention. "Here's the thing, Gennady: we don't know very much about this group that's building the metastable weapon. By luck we've managed to decrypt a few emails from one party, so we know a tiny bit - a minimal bit - about the design of the bomb. It seems to be based on one of the biggest of the weapons ever tested at Semipalatinsk - its code name was the Tsarina."

"The Tsarina?" Gennady whistled softly. "That was a major, major test. Underground, done in 1968. Ten megatonnes; lifted the whole prairie two meters and dropped it. Killed about a thousand cattle from the ground shock. Scared the hell out of the Americans, too."

"Yes, and we've discovered that some of the Tsarina's components were made at the Stepnogorsk Scientific Experimental and Production Base. In Building 242."

"But SNOPB was a biological facility, not nuclear. How can this possibly be connected?"

"We don't know how, yet. Listen, Gennady, I know it's a thin lead. After you're done at the SNOPB, I want you to drive out to Semipalatinsk and investigate the Tsarina site."

"Hmmph." Part of Gennady was deeply annoyed. Part was relieved that he wouldn't be dealing with any IAEA or Russian nuclear staff in the near future. Truth to tell, stalking around the Kazaks grasslands was a lot more appealing than dealing with the political shit-storm that would hit when this all went public.

But speaking of people... He glanced up at the hotel's one lighted window. With a grimace he pocketed his augmented reality glasses and went up to the room.

Ambrose was sprawled on one of the narrow beds. He had the TV on and was watching a Siberian ski-adventure infomercial. "Well?" he said as Gennady sat on the other bed and dragged his shoes off.

"Tour of secret Soviet anthrax factory. Tomorrow, after egg McMuffins."

"Yay," said Ambrose with apparent feeling. "Do I get to wear a hazmat suit?"

"Not this time." Gennady lay back, then saw that Ambrose was staring at him with an alarmed look on his face. "Is fine," he said, waggling one hand at the boy. "Only one underground bunker we're interested in, and they probably never used it. The place never went into full production, you know."

"Meaning it only made a few hundred pounds of anthrax per day instead of the full ton it was designed for! I should feel reassured?"

Gennady stared at the uneven ceiling. "Is an adventure." He must be tired, his English was slipping.

"This sucks." Ambrose crossed his arms and glowered at the TV.

Gennady thought for a while. "So what did you do to piss off Google so much? Drive the rover off a cliff?" Ambrose didn't answer, and Gennady sat up. "You found something. On Mars."

"No that's ridiculous," said Ambrose. "That's not it at all."

"Huh." Gennady lay down again. "Still, I think I'd enjoy it. Even if it wasn't in real-time... driving on Mars. That would be cool."

"That sucked too."

"Really? I would have thought it would be fun, seeing all those places emerge from low-res satellite into full hi-res three-d."

But Ambrose shook his head. "That's not how it worked. That's the point. I couldn't believe my luck when I won the contest, you know? I thought it'd be like being the first man on Mars, only I wouldn't have to leave my living room. But the whole point of the rover was to go into terrain that hadn't been photographed from the ground before. And with the time-delay on signals to Mars, I wasn't steering it in real time. I'd drive in fast-forward mode over low-res pink hills that looked worse than a forty-year-old video game, then upload the drive sequence and log off. The rover'd get the commands twenty minutes later and drive overnight, then download the results. By that time it was the next day and I had to enter the next path. Rarely had time to even look at where we'd actually gone the day before."

Gennady considered. "A bit disappointing. But still, more than most people ever get."

"More than anyone else will ever get." Ambrose scowled. "That's what was so awful about it. You wouldn't understand."

"Oh?" Gennady arched an eyebrow. "We who grew up in the old Soviet Union know a little about disappointment."

Ambrose looked mightily uncomfortable. "I grew up in Washington. Capital of the world! But my dad went from job to job, we were pretty poor. So every day I could see what you could have, you know, the Capital dome, the Mall, all that power and glory... what they could have - but not me. Never me. So I used to imagine a future where there was a whole new world where I could be..."

"Important?"

He shrugged. "Something like that. NASA used to tell us they were just about to go to Mars, any day now, and I wanted that. I dreamed about homesteading on Mars." He looked defensive; but Gennady understood the romance of it. He just nodded.

"Then, when I was twelve, the Pakistani-Indian war happened and they blew up each other's satellites. All that debris from the explosions is going to be up there for centuries! You can't get a manned spacecraft through that cloud, it's like shrapnel. Hell, they haven't even cleared low Earth orbit to restart the orbital tourist industry. I'll never get to really go there! None of us will. We're never gettin' off this sinkhole."

Gennady scowled at the ceiling. "I hope you're wrong."

"Welcome to the life of the last man to drive on Mars." Ambrose dragged the tufted covers back from the bed. "Instead of space, I get a hotel in Kazakhstan. Now let me sleep. It's about a billion o'clock in the morning, my time."

He was soon snoring, but Gennady's alarm over the prospect of a metastable bomb had him fully awake. He put on his AR glasses and reviewed the terrain around SNOPB, but much of the satellite footage was old and probably out of date. Ambrose was right: nobody was putting up satellites these days if they could help it.

Little had probably changed at the old factory, though, and it was a simple enough place. Planning where to park and learning where Building 242 was hadn't reduced his anxiety at all, so on impulse he switched his view to Mars. The sky changed from pure blue to butterscotch, but otherwise the landscape looked disturbingly similar. There were a lot more rocks on Mars, and the dirt was red, but the emptiness, the slow rolling monotony of the plain and stillness were the same, as if he'd stepped into a photograph. (Well, he actually had, but he knew there would be no more motion in this scene were he there.) He commanded the viewpoint to move, and for a time strolled, alone, in Ambrose's footsteps - or rather, the ruts of Google's rover. Humans had done this in their dreams for thousands of years, yet Ambrose was right - this place was, in the end, no more real than those dreams.

Russia's cosmonauts had still been romantic idols when he was growing up. In photos they had stood with their heads high, minds afire with plans to stride over the hills of the moon and Mars. Gennady pictured them in the years after the Soviet Union's collapse, when they still had jobs, but no budget or destination any more. Where had their dreams taken them?

The Baikonur spaceport was south of here. In the end, they'd also had to settle for a hard bed in Kazakhstan.





In the morning they drove out to the old anthrax site in a rented Tata sedan. The fields around Stepnogorsk looked like they'd been glared at by God, except where bright blue dew-catcher fencing ran in rank after rank across the stubble. "What're those?" asked Ambrose, pointing; this was practically the first thing he'd said since breakfast.

In the rubble-strewn field that had once been SNOPB, several small windmills were twirling atop temporary masts. Below them were some shipping-container sized boxes with big grills in their sides. The site looked healthier than the surrounding prairie; there were actual green trees in the distance. Of course, this area had been wetlands and there'd been a creek running behind SNOPB; maybe it was still here, which was a hopeful sign.

"Headquarters told me that some kind of climate research group is using the site," he told Ambrose as he pulled up and stopped the car. "But it's still public land."

"They built an anthrax factory less than five minutes outside of town?" Ambrose shook his head, whether in wonder or disgust, Gennady couldn't tell. They got out of the car, and Ambrose looked around in obvious disappointment. "Wow, it's gone-gone." He seemed stunned by the vastness of the landscape. Only a few foundation walls now stuck up out of the cracked lots where the anthrax factory had once stood, except for where the big box machines sat whirring and humming. They were near where the bunkers had been and, with a frown of curiosity, Gennady strolled in that direction. Ambrose followed, muttering to himself, "...Last update must have been ten years ago." He had his glasses on, so he was probably comparing the current view to what he could see online.

According to Gennady's notes, the bunkers had been grass-covered buildings with two-meter thick walls, designed to withstand a nuclear blast. In the 1960s and 70s they'd contained ranks of cement vats where the anthrax was grown. Those had been cracked and filled in, and the heavy doors removed; but it would have been too much work to fill the bunkers in entirely. He poked his nose into the first in line - Building 241 - and saw a flat stretch of water leading into darkness. "Excellent. This job just gets worse. We may be wading."

"But what are you looking for?"

"I - oh." As he rounded the mound of Building 242, a small clutch of hummers and trucks came into view. They'd been invisible from the road. There was still no sign of anybody, so he headed for Building 242. As he was walking down the crumbled ramp to the massive doors, he heard the unmistakable sound of a rifle-bolt being slipped. "Better not go in there," somebody said in Russian.

He looked carefully up and to his left. A young woman had come over the top of the mound. She was holding the rifle, and she had it aimed directly at Gennady.

"What are you doing here?" she said. She had a local accent.

"Exploring, is all," said Gennady. "We'd heard of the old anthrax factory, and thought we'd take a look at it. This is public land."

She swore, and Gennady heard footsteps behind him. Ambrose looked deeply frightened as two large men, also carrying rifles, emerged from behind a plastic membrane that had been stretched across the bunker's doorway. Both men wore bright yellow fireman's masks, and had air tanks on their backs.

"When are your masters going to believe that we're doing what we say?" said the woman. "Come on." She gestured with her rifle for Gennady and Ambrose to walk down the ramp.

"We're dead, we're dead," whimpered Ambrose, shivering.

"If you really must have your proof, then put these on." She nodded to the two men, who stripped off their masks and tanks and handed them to Gennady and Ambrose. They pushed past the plastic membrane and into the bunker.

The place was full of light: a crimson, blood-red radiance that made what was inside all the more bizarre.

"Oh shit," muttered Ambrose. "It's a grow-op."

The long, low space was filled from floor to ceiling with plants. Surrounding them on tall stands were hundreds of red LED lamp banks. In the lurid light, the plants appeared black. He squinted at the nearest, fully expecting to see a familiar, jagged-leaf profile. Instead -

"Tomatoes?"

"Two facts for you," said the woman, her voice muffled. She'd set down her rifle, and now held up two fingers. "One: we're not stepping on anybody else's toes here. We are not competing with you. And two: this bunker is designed to withstand a twenty kiloton blast. If you think you can muscle your way in here and take it over, you're sadly mistaken."

Gennady finally realized what they'd assumed. "We're not the mafia," he said. "We're just here to inspect the utilities."

She blinked at him, her features owlish behind the yellow frame of the mask. Ambrose rolled his eyes. "Oh God, what did you say?"

"American?" Puzzled, she lowered her rifle. In English, she said, "You spoke English."

"Ah," said Ambrose, "well -"

"He did," said Gennady, also in English. "We're not with the mafia, we're arms inspectors. I mean, I am. He's just along for the ride."

"Arms inspectors?" She guffawed, then looked around herself at the stolid Soviet bunker they were standing in. "What, you thought -"

"We didn't think anything. Can I lower my hands now?" She thought about it, then nodded. Gennady rolled his neck and then nodded at the ranked plants. "Nice setup. Tomatoes, soy, and those long tanks contain potatoes? But why in here, when you've got a thousand kilometres of steppe outside to plant this stuff?"

"We can control the atmosphere in here," she said. "That's why the masks: it's a high CO2 environment in here. That's also why I stopped you in the first place; if you'd just strolled right in, you'd have dropped dead from asphyxia.

"This project's part of Minus Three," she continued. "Have you heard of us?" Both Ambrose and Gennady shook their heads.

"Well, you will." There was pride in her voice. "You see, right now humanity uses the equivalent of three Earth's worth of ecological resources. We're pioneering techniques to reduce that reliance by the same amount."

"Same amount? To zero Earths?" He didn't hide the incredulity in his voice.

"Eventually, yes. We steal most of what we need from the Earth in the form of ecosystem services. What we need is to figure out how to run a full-fledged industrial civilization as if there were no ecosystem services available to us at all. To live on Earth," she finished triumphantly, "as if we were living on Mars."

Ambrose jerked in visible surprise.

"That's fascinating," said Gennady. He hadn't been too nervous while they were pointing guns at him - he'd had that happen before, and in such moments his mind became wonderfully sharp - but now that he might actually be forced to have a conversation with these people, he found his mouth going quite dry. "You can tell me all about it after I've finished my measurements."

"You're kidding," she said.

"I'm not kidding at all. Your job may be saving the Earth within the next generation, but mine is saving it this week. And I take it very seriously. I've come here to inspect the original fittings of this building, but it looks like you destroyed them, no?"

"Not at all," she said. "Actually, we used what was here. This bunker's not like the other ones, you know they had these big cement tanks in them. I'd swear this one was set up exactly like this."

"Show me."

For the next half hour they climbed under the hydroponic tables, behind the makeshift junction boxes mounted near the old power shaft, and atop the sturdier lighting racks. Ambrose went outside, and came back to report that the shipping containers they'd seen were sophisticated CO2 scrubbers. The big boxes sucked the gas right out of the atmosphere, and then pumped it through hoses into the bunker.

At last he and the woman climbed down, and Gennady shook his head. "The mystery only deepens," he said.

"I'm sorry we couldn't help you more," she said. "And apologies for pulling a gun on you. I'm Kyzdygoi," she added, thrusting out her hand for him to shake.

"Uh, that's a... pretty name," said Ambrose as he, too, shook her hand. "What's it mean?"

"It means 'stop giving birth to girls,'" said Kyzdygoi with a straight face. "My parents were old school."

Ambrose opened his mouth and closed it, his grin faltering.

"All right, well, good luck shrinking your Earths," Gennady told her as they strolled to the plastic-sheet-covered doorway.

As they drove back to Stepnogorsk, Ambrose leaned against the passenger door and looked at Gennady in silence. Finally he said, "You do this for a living?"

"Ah, it's unreliable. A paycheck here, a paycheck there..."

"No, really. What's this all about?"

Gennady eyed him. He probably owed the kid an explanation after getting guns drawn on him. "Have you ever heard of metastable explosives?"

"What? No. Wait..." He fumbled for his glasses.

"Never mind that." Gennady waved at the glasses. "Metastables are basically super-powerful chemical explosives. They're my new nightmare."

Ambrose jerked a thumb back at SNOPB. "I thought you were looking for germs."

"This isn't about germs, it's about hydrogen bombs." Ambrose looked blank. "A hydrogen bomb is a fusion device that's triggered by high compression and high temperature. Up until now, the only thing that could generate those kinds of conditions was an atomic bomb - a plutonium bomb, understand? Plutonium is really hard to refine, and it creates terrible fallout even if you only use a little of it as your fusion trigger."

"So?"

"So, metastable explosives are powerful enough to trigger hydrogen fusion without the plutonium. They completely sever the connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear industry, which means that once they exist, the good guys totally lose their ability to tell who has the bomb and who doesn't. Anybody who can get metastables and some tritium gas can build a hydrogen bomb, even some disgruntled loner in his garage.

"And somebody is building one."

Stepnogorsk was fast approaching. The town was mostly a collection of Soviet-era apartment blocks with broad prairie visible past them. Gennady swung them around a corner and they drove through Microdistrict 2 and past the disused Palace of Culture. Up ahead was their hotel... surrounded by the flashing lights of emergency vehicles.

"Oh," said Gennady. "A fire?"

"Pull over. Pull over!" Ambrose braced his hands against the Tata's low ceiling. Gennady shot him a look, but did as he'd asked.

"Shit. They've found me."

"Who? Those are police cars. I've been with you every minute since we got here, there's no way you could have gotten into any trouble." Gennady shook his head. "No, if it's anything to do with us, it's probably Kyzdygoi's people sending us a message."

"Yeah? Then who are those suits with the cops?"

Gennady thought about it. He could simply walk up to one of the cops and ask, but figured Ambrose would probably have a coronary if he did that.

"Well... there is one thing we can try. But it'll cost a lot."

"How much?"

Gennady eyed him. "All right, all right," said Ambrose. "What do we do?"

"You just watch." Gennady put on his glasses and stepped out of the car. As he did, he put through a call to London, where it was still early morning. "Hello? Lisaveta? It's Gennady. Hi! How are you?"

He'd brought a binocular attachment for the glasses, which he sometimes used for reading serial numbers on pipes or barrels from a distance. He clipped this on and began scanning the small knot of men who were standing around outside the hotel's front doors.

"Listen, Lisa, can I ask you to do something for me? I have some faces I need scanned... Not even remotely legal, I'm sure... No, I'm not in trouble! Would I be on the phone to you if I were in trouble? Just - okay. I'm good for it. Here come the images."

He relayed the feed from his glasses to Lisa in her flat in London.

"Who're you talking to?" asked Ambrose.

"Old friend. She got me out of Chernobyl intact when I had a little problem with a dragon - Lisa? Got it? Great. Call me back when you've done the analysis."

He pocketed the glasses and climbed back in the car. "Lisa has Interpol connections, and she's a fantastic hacker. She'll run facial recognition and hopefully tell us who those people are."

Ambrose cringed back in his seat. "So what do we do in the meantime?"

"We have lunch. How 'bout that French restaurant we passed? The one with the little Eiffel Tower?"

Despite the clear curbs everywhere, Gennady parked the car at the shopping mall and walked the three blocks to the La France. He didn't tell Ambrose why, but the American would figure it out: the Tata was traceable through its GPS. Luckily La France was open and they settled in for some decent crêpes. Gennady had a nice view of a line of trees west of the town boundary. Occasionally a car drove past.

Lisa pinged him as they were settling up. "Gennady? I got some hits for you."

"Really?" He hadn't expected her to turn up anything. Gennady's working assumption was that Ambrose was just being paranoid.

"Nothing off the cops; they must be local," she said. "But one guy - the old man - well, it's daft."

He sighed in disappointment, and Ambrose shot him a look. "Go ahead."

"His name is Alexei Egorov. He's premier of a virtual nation called the Soviet Union Online. They started from this project to digitize all the existing paper records of the Soviet era. Once those were online, Egorov and his people started some deep data-mining to construct a virtual Soviet, and then they started inviting the last die-hard Stalinists - or their kids - to join. It's a virtual country composed of bitter old men who're nostalgic for the purges. Daft."

"Thanks, Lisa. I'll wire you the fee."

He glowered at Ambrose. "Tell me about Soviet Union."

"I'm not supposed to -"

"Oh, come on. Who said that? Whoever they are, they're on the far side of the planet right now, and they can't help you. They put you with me, but I can't help you either if I don't know what's going on."

Ambrose's lips thinned to a white line. He leaned forward. "It's big," he said.

"Can't be bigger than my metastables. Tell me: what did you see on Mars?"

Ambrose hesitated. Then he blurted, "A pyramid."

Silence.

"Really, a pyramid," Ambrose insisted. "Big sucker, grey, I think most of it was buried in the permafrost. It was the only thing sticking up for miles. This was on the Northern plains, where there's ice just under the surface. The whole area around it... well, it was like a frozen splash, if you know what I mean. Almost a crater."

This was just getting more and more disappointing. "And why is Soviet Union Online after you?"

"Because the pyramid had Russian writing on it. Just four letters, in red: CCCP."

The next silence went on for a while, and was punctuated only by the sound of other diners grumbling about local carbon prices.

"I leaked some photos before Google came after me with their non-disclosure agreements," Ambrose explained. "I guess the Soviets have internet search-bots constantly searching for certain things, and they picked up on my posts before Google was able to take them down. I got a couple of threatening phone calls from men with thick Slavic accents. Then they tried to kidnap me."

"No!"

Ambrose grimaced. "Well, they weren't very good at it. It was four guys, all of them must have been in their eighties, they tried to bundle me into a black van. I ran away and they just stood there yelling curses at me in Russian. One of them threw his cane at me." He rubbed his ankle.

"And you took them seriously?"

"I did when the FBI showed up and told me I had to pack up and go with them. That's when I ran to the U.N. I didn't believe that 'witness protection' crap the Feds tried to feed me. The U.N. people told me that the Soviets' data mining is actually really good. They keep turning up embarrassing and incriminating information about what people and governments got up to back in the days of the Cold War. They use what they know to influence people."

"That's bizarre." He thought about it. "Think they bought off the police here?"

"Or somebody. They want to know about the pyramid. But only Google, and the Feds, and I know where it is. And NASA's already patched that part of the Mars panoramas with fake data."

Disappointment had turned to a deep sense of surprise. For Gennady, being surprised usually meant that something awful was about to happen; so he said, "We need to get you out of town."

Ambrose brightened. "I have an idea. Let's go back to SNOPB. I looked up these Minus Three people; they're eco-radicals, but at least they don't seem to be lunatics."

"Hmmph. You just think Kyzdygoi's 'hot.'"

Ambrose grinned and shrugged.

"Okay. But we're not driving, because the car can be tracked. You walk there. It's only a few kilometres. I'll deal with the authorities and these 'Soviets,' and once I've sent them on their way we'll meet up. You've got my number."

Ambrose had evidently never taken a walk in the country before. After Gennady convinced him he would survive it, they parted outside La France, and Gennady watched him walk away, sneakers flapping. He shook his head and strolled back to the Tata.

Five men were waiting for him. Two were policemen, and three wore business attire. One of these was an old, bald man in a faded olive-green suit. He wore augmented reality glasses, and there was a discrete red pin on his lapel in the shape of the old Soviet flag.

Gennady made a show of pushing his own glasses back on his nose and walked forward, hand out. As the cops started to reach for their tasers, Gennady said, "Mr Egorov! Gennady Malianov, IAEA. You'll forgive me if I record and upload this conversation to headquarters?" He tapped the frame of his glasses and turned to the other suits. "I didn't catch your names?"

The suits frowned, the policemen hesitated; Egorov, however, put out his hand and Gennady shook it firmly. He could feel the old man's bones shift in his grip, but Egorov didn't grimace. Instead he said, "Where's your companion?"

"You mean that American? No idea. We shared a hotel room because it was cheaper, but then we parted ways this morning."

Egorov took his hand back, and pressed his bruised knuckles against his hip. "You've no idea where he is?"

"None."

"What're you doing here?" asked one of the cops.

"Inspecting SNOPB," he said. Gennady didn't have to fake his confidence here; he felt well armoured by his affiliation to Frankl's people. "My credentials are online, if there's some sort of issue here?"

"No issue," muttered Egorov. He turned away, and as he did a discrete icon lit up in the corner of Gennady's heads-up display. Egorov had sent him a text message.

He hadn't been massaging his hand on his flank; he'd been texting through his pants. Gennady had left the server in his glasses open, so it would have been easy for Egorov to ping it and find his address.

In among all the other odd occurrences of the past couple of days, this one didn't stand out. But as Gennady watched Egorov and his policemen retreat, he realized that his assumption that Egorov had been in charge might be wrong. Who were those other two suits?

He waited for Egorov's party to drive away, then got in the Tata and opened the email.

It said, Mt tnght Pavin Inn, 7, rstrnt wshrm. Cm aln.

Gennady puzzled over those last two words for a while. Then he got it. "Come alone!" Ah. He should have known.

Shaking his head, he pulled out of the lot and headed back to the hotel to check out. After loading his bag, and Ambrose's, into the Tata, he hit the road back to SNOPB. No