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Author: Charles Sheffield
Publisher: Ballantine Spectra, 1999
Series: Aftermath: Book 2

1. Aftermath
2. Starfire

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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The end draws nigh....

The year is 2053, and Earth has barely recovered from the Alpha Centauri supernova that destroyed much of the planet's infrastructure. Now the supernova's residual effect - a storm of high-energy particles - is racing toward Earth, and an international effort has been launched out of the Sky City space colony to save the planet. But the controversial plan - to build a giant protective shield for Earth - is falling dangerously behind schedule.

A series of unexplained murders has disrupted the Sky City workforce, so much so that a brilliant but monstrous criminal has been enlisted to track down the Sky City killer.Then comes more startling news. Evidence indicates that the original supernova was caused deliberately, and that the lethal particle storm will arrive sooner than anyone expected. But who - or what - tried to destroy the Earth? And will the answer come in time to save it from its final apocalypse?



From the private diary of Oliver Guest.
Entry date: June 25, 2053

When you have died once, you become most reluctant to do so again.

I had been watching the man since early afternoon, ever since my Alert system detected his presence five and a half miles to the south. He came on foot, much closer to the sea edge than I would ever go. On his back he wore a light knapsack, and in his right hand he held what looked like a solid walking stick. Ten steps to his left the three-hundred-foot cliff dropped sheer to the crawling waters of the Atlantic.

He was in no hurry, pausing from time to time to turn and stare seaward. He might be a solitary and contemplative hiker, wandering the wild west coast of Ireland from Donegal Bay to Tory Sound, admiring the scenery and enjoying his own company. He might; but that hope vanished when at the point of closest approach to the castle he made a sharp right turn and headed straight for it.

I studied him under maximum magnification as he came nearer. He was of middle height and medium build. A strong west wind blew his long hair over his forehead, and that, together with the dark beard and moustache, hid most of his features. There was, surely, nothing about him to make me nervous. Wasn't it reasonable that a walker might ask for a drink of water, or even inquire about accommodation for the night?

It was long years of caution and a determination never again to be captured that speeded my pulse and tingled along my spine.

Above all, do no harm.

Therefore, assume that the man is an innocent stranger, and he will come and go peacefully.

He ignored the scullery entrance, closest to his direction of approach. Instead he walked around the building to the leeward side and found the solid oak door of the main entrance. I am sensitive to loud noises, and I had covered the massive iron door knocker with felt. The triple knock was soft and muffled, as though he knew he was observed and had no need of a loud announcement of his presence.

I opened the door and confirmed my first impressions. Outside the threshold stood a stranger, a man of uncertain age and nondescript clothing, long-haired and full-bearded, four or five inches shorter than me. He was not smiling, but there was an expectant look in his brown eyes.

"Good afternoon," I said. "Can I help you?"

"I don't know about that." He raised dark eyebrows and took a step closer. "But I sure as hell hope so, Doc. Because if you can't, I'm beat to say who can."

The voice and West Virginia accent provided the link, far more strongly than the casual "Doc." It had been twenty-seven years, but I knew who he was--and I knew that he knew me. My instincts shouted, "Kill him!" but instincts are highly unreliable. Moreover, I lack a talent for unpremeditated murder.

Instead I said, "Seth Parsigian. Would you like to come in?"

I did not offer my hand. He nodded, grinned--I would have recognized that smile, after much longer than twenty-seven years--and stepped through into the hallway of gray slate. He stared around him.

"I wondered if you'd recognize me," he said. "Where are the kids?"

"They are away in Sligo, and they will be gone for two days. Furthermore, I cannot believe that you are unaware of that fact."

He winked. "Could be. Not very smart of me, eh? Coming here alone, nobody else around. Might be dangerous. But I don't think it will be. You an' me, we got too much to offer each other."

That short exchange told me several things. He knew about my darlings, and I must assume that he had possessed the information for some time. And he could not be the only one with knowledge of my whereabouts. Seth Parsigian merited several unpleasant adjectives, but stupid was not one of them. His best insurance was that I would realize others knew where he was and would pursue me implacably if he failed to return. He was also telling me, very clearly, that the reason for his presence was not to recapture the infamous child murderer Dr. Oliver Guest, and return him to the blind cave of centuries of judicial sleep. He was here because he needed something from me.

Otranto Castle is, as castles go, of mean proportions. The short entrance hallway leads to the long dining room, and off to one side of it lies my private study. "Come in," I said, and led the way there. "Come in and sit down."

As I poured whiskey and put the pitcher of peat water beside it, I studied my visitor. My first thought, that he was here because the telomod therapy was failing, did not bear up under examination. Seth Parsigian appeared no older now than when I had last seen him, over a quarter of a century ago. If anything, he was healthier.

But if it were not the telomods, what could I possibly have to offer that might guarantee my continued freedom and safety?

He was examining me as closely as I scrutinized him.

"Looking good." He raised his glass. "Here's to the Oliver Guest telomod protocol. Been taking it yourself, haven't you?"

It was not a question that required an answer. I also appeared no older than at our last meeting. The mystery was that everyone did not employ the protocol. The teratomorphic potential, I suppose, frightened many. Speaking for myself, it interests me little what I may resemble at my death.

"How did you know that I was still alive?" I asked.

"I was pretty sure you weren't killed in the fire. The body we found had dentures. But I didn't have evidence that you weren't dead an' rotting until eleven years ago."

A most comforting statement. He had known of my existence for eleven full years, and I was still a free man.

"How did you learn that I was living, and where I could be found?"

"Oh, through the kids," he said casually. So much for all my precautions. "I figured you'd find a hiding place an' lie low for as long as you could stand, but eventually you'd not be able to resist. You'd get around to cloning 'em. I knew that if you did it one at a time, I'd never find you. But you did all eighteen too close together. I had a long-term screen on the data net for that type of anomaly, and it popped right up with the first six."

"Starting eleven years ago."

"Right." Seth picked up on my unasked question. "So why haven't I turned you in? You can answer that as well as I can."

"Because I am a specialist in telomod therapy, and if I were to be placed again into long-term judicial sleep, you would have no access to my knowledge."

I knew what Seth apparently did not. Although a pioneer--hubris tempts me to say the pioneer--in the techniques of telomod therapy, I left that field many years ago. I have since gone on to new researches, and others have developed protocols less risky and more routine than mine.

"A bit of that, at first." Seth, disdaining peat water, refilled his glass with neat whiskey. "But it's really a lot simpler. Try again, an' let's put it the other way round. Why should I turn you in?"

I considered. With Seth Parsigian there was no need for pretense. "Because I am Oliver Guest, a murderer and monster. Because I killed eighteen teenage children. Because I was sentenced after due process in a court of law to spend six centuries in judicial sleep, and most of that sentence has yet to be served."

"Not my department. Justice wants you, let Justice find you. If they can't, screw 'em. I told you, it's simpler than you think." He leaned forward. "I get you locked up an' iced down, you're gone. History. No way you can ever help me. But I leave you free, you owe me--big-time. If I need help, you can give it to me. An' I'm telling you, Doc, I need help now."

I had been living in western Ireland for twenty-seven years, far from the scientific mainstream. True, I had indulged my own interests and followed progress in related fields through the web, but that did not add up to an ability to serve Seth Parsigian's needs.

However, it would be unwise to suggest that. Instead I said, "I'll be glad to help you. But how?"

"First, you can answer a couple of questions. I'm pretty sure I know the answers, but let's get 'em out of the way. You were a world expert on cloning--don't go modest on me an' deny it. Did you ever clone yourself?"

The idea was so ludicrous that in spite of my internal tensions I snorted with laughter. "Clone myself? Certainly not. Do you think the world is ready for a second Oliver Guest?"

"Not ready for the first one, if you ask me. But I wanted to be sure. You see, I knew you were living here and had been for ages, so cloning was a natural thought."

Not to me. But before I could comment he went on. "All right, tell me this. How much do you know about Sky City and the shield? And have you ever been out there?"

More easy questions, although disquieting ones because of their possible implications. We were moving to an area of expertise where my chances of helping Seth Parsigian were negligibly small. "I know very little about Sky City, and even less about the space shield. Far less, I suspect, than the average interested ten-year-old. I have never been into space, and furthermore I never intend to go there."

"Don't be too sure on that last one. How much have you heard about the deaths in Sky City over the past six months?"

"I have heard not one word. Don't deaths happen all the time during space construction work?"

"Not these deaths. Twelve of 'em. All teenagers. All girls. All beauties. Your personal specialty, an' you've not heard a word? Jeez." Seth stood up and walked through to stare at the dining hall, with its long, solid oak table that we used only when all my darlings were home. "I hope you got some way of feeding me tonight, Doc, because we gotta talk about those deaths on Sky City, an' we gotta figure out what's goin' on out there. An' I can tell you, from a standing start that might take us quite a while."

Copyright © 1999 by Charles Sheffield


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