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Chasm City
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Chasm City

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Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz, 2001
Series: Revelation Space: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Hard SF
Immortality
Nanotechnology
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Synopsis

Tanner Mirabel was a security specialist who never made a mistake - until the day a woman in his care was blown away by Argent Reivich, a vengeful young postmortal. Tanner's pursuit of Reivich takes him across light-years of space to Chasm City, the domed human settlement on the otherwise inhospitable planet of Yellowstone.

But Chasm City is not what it was. The one-time high-tech utopia has become a Gothic nightmare: a nanotechnological virus has corrupted the city's inhabitants as thoroughly as it has the buildings and machines. Before the chase is done, Tanner will have to confront truths which reach back centuries, towards deep space and an atrocity history barely remembers.


Excerpt

ONE

Darkness was falling as Dieterling and I arrived at the base of the bridge.

"There's one thing you need to know about Red Hand Vasquez," Dieterling said. "Don't ever call him that to his face."

"Why not?"

"Because it pisses him off."

"And that's a problem?" I brought our wheeler to near-halt, then parked it amongst a motley row of vehicles lining one side of the street. I dropped the stabilisers, the overheated turbine smelling like a hot gun barrel. "It's not like we usually worry about the feelings of low-lives," I said.

"No, but this time it might be best to err on the side of caution. Vasquez may not be the brightest star in the criminal firmament, but he's got friends and a nice little line in extreme sadism. So be on your best behaviour."

"I'll give it my best shot."

"Yeah--and do your best not to leave too much blood on the floor in the process, will you?"

We got out of the wheeler, both of us craning our necks to take in the bridge. I'd never seen it before today--this was my first time in the Demilitarised Zone, let alone Nueva Valparaiso--and it had looked absurdly large even when we'd been fifteen or twenty kilometres out of town. Swan had been sinking towards the horizon, bloated and red except for the hot glint near its heart, but there'd still been enough light to catch the bridge's thread and occasionally pick out the tiny ascending and descending beads of elevators riding it to and from space. Even then I'd wondered if we were too late--if Reivich had already made it aboard one of the elevators--but Vasquez had assured us that the man we were hunting was still in town, simplifying his web of assets on Sky's Edge and moving funds into long-term accounts.

Dieterling strolled round to the back of our wheeler--with its overlapping armour segments the mono-wheeled car looked like a rolled-up armadillo--and popped open a tiny luggage compartment.

"Shit. Almost forgot the coats, bro."

"Actually, I was sort of hoping you would."

He threw me one. "Put it on and stop complaining."

I slipped on the coat, easing it over the layers of clothing I already wore. The coat hems skimmed the street's puddles of muddy rainwater, but that was the way aristocrats liked to wear them, as if daring others to tread on their coat-tails. Dieterling shrugged on his own coat and began tapping through the patterning options embossed around the sleeve, frowning in distaste at each sartorial offering. "No. No... No. Christ no. No again. And this won't do either."

I reached over and thumbed one of the tabs. "There. You look stunning. Now shut up and pass me the gun."

I'd already selected a shade of pearl for my own coat, a colour which I hoped would provide a low-contrast background for the gun. Dieterling retrieved the little weapon from a jacket pocket and offered it to me, just as if he were passing me a packet of cigarettes.

The gun was tiny and semi-translucent, a haze of tiny components visible beneath its smooth, lucite surfaces.

It was a clockwork gun. It was made completely out of carbon--diamond, mostly--but with some fullerenes for lubrication and energy-storage. There were no metals or explosives in it; no circuitry. Only intricate levers and ratches, greased by fullerene spheres. It fired spin-stabilised diamond flèchettes, drawing its power from the relaxation of fullerene springs coiled almost to breaking point. You wound it up with a key, like a clockwork mouse. There were no aiming devices, stabilising systems or target acquisition aids.

None of which would matter.

I slipped the gun into my coat pocket, certain that none of the pedestrians had witnessed the handover.

"I told you I'd sort you out with something tasty," Dieterling said.

"It'll do."

"Do? Tanner; you disappoint me. It's a thing of intense, evil beauty. I'm even thinking it might have distinct hunting possibilities."

Typical Miguel Dieterling, I thought; always seeing the hunting angle in any given situation.

I made an effort at smiling. "I'll give it back to you in one piece. Failing that, I know what to get you for Christmas."

We started walking towards the bridge. Neither of us had been in Nueva Valparaiso before, but that didn't matter. Like a good many of the larger towns on the planet, there was something deeply familiar about its basic layout, even down to the street names. Most of our settlements were organised around a deltoid street pattern, with three main thoroughfares stretching away from the apexes of a central triangle about one hundred metres along each side. Surrounding that core would typically be a series of successively larger triangles, until the geometric order was eroded in a tangle of random suburbs and redeveloped zones. What they did with the central triangle was up to the settlement in question, and usually depended on how many times the town had been occupied or bombed during the war. Only very rarely would there be any trace of the delta-winged shuttle around which the settlement had sprung.

Nueva Valparaiso had started out like that, and it had all the usual street names: Omdurman, Norquinco, Armesto and so on--but the central triangle was smothered beneath the terminal structure of the bridge, which had managed to be enough of an asset to both sides to have survived unscathed. Three hundred metres along each side, it rose sheer and black like the hull of a ship, but encrusted and scabbed along its lower levels by hotels, restaurants, casinos and brothels. But even if the bridge hadn't been visible, it was obvious from the street itself that we were in an old neighbourhood, close to the landing site. Some of the buildings had been made by stacking freight pods on top of each other, each pod punctured with windows and doors and then filigreed by two and a half centuries of architectural whimsy.

"Hey," a voice said. "Tanner fucking Mirabel."

He was leaning in a shadowed portico like someone with nothing better to do than watch insects crawl by. I'd only dealt with him via telephone or video before--keeping our conversations as brief as possible--and I'd been expecting someone a lot taller and a lot less ratlike. His coat was as heavy as the one I was wearing, but his looked like it was constantly on the point of slipping off his shoulders. He had ochre teeth which he had filed into points, a sharp face full of uneven stubble and long black hair which he wore combed back from a minimal ist forehead. In his left hand was a cigarette which he periodically pushed to his lips, while his other hand--the right one--vanished into the side pocket of his coat and showed no sign of emerging.

"Vasquez," I said, showing no surprise that he had trailed Dieterling and me. "I take it you've got our man under surveillance?"

"Hey, chill out, Mirabel. That guy doesn't take a leak without me knowing it."

"He's still settling his affairs?"

"Yeah. You know what these rich kids are like. Gotta take care of business, man. Me, I'd be up that bridge like shit on wheels." He jabbed his cigarette in Dieterling's direction. "The snake guy, right?"

Dieterling shrugged. "If you say so."

"That's some cool shit; hunting snakes." With his cigarette hand he mimed aiming and firing a gun, doubtless drawing a bead on an imaginary hamadryad. "Think you can squeeze me in on your next hunting trip?"

"I don't know," Dieterling said. "We tend not to use live bait. But I'll talk to the boss and see what we can arrange."

Red Hand Vasquez flashed his pointed teeth at us. "Funny guy. I like you, Snake. But then again you work for Cahuella, I gotta like you. How is he anyway? I heard Cahuella got it just as badly as you did, Mirabel. In fact I'm even hearing some vicious rumours to the effect that he didn't make it."

Cahuella's death wasn't something we were planning on announcing right now; not until we had given some thought to its ramifications--but news had evidently reached Nueva Valparaiso ahead of us.

"I did my best for him," I said.

Vasquez nodded slowly and wisely, as if some sacred belief of his had just been proved valid.

"Yeah, that's what I heard." He put his left hand on my shoulder, keeping his cigarette away from the coat's pearl-coloured fabric. "I heard you drove halfway across the planet with a missing leg, just so you could bring Cahuella and his bitch home. That's some heroic shit, man, even for a white-eye. You can tell me all about it over some pisco sours, and Snake can pencil me in for his next field trip. Right, Snake?"

We continued walking in the general direction of the bridge. "I don't think there's time for that," I said. "Drinks, I mean."

"Like I said, chill." Vasquez strolled ahead of us, still with one hand in his pocket. "I don't get you guys. All it would take is a word from you, and Reivich wouldn't even be a problem any more, just a stain on the floor. The offer's still open, Mirabel."

"I have to finish him myself, Vasquez."

"Yeah. That's what I heard. Like some kind of vendetta deal. You had something going with Cahuella's bitch, didn't you?"

"Subtlety's not your strong point, is it, Red?"

I saw Dieterling wince. We walked on in silence for a few more paces before Vasquez stopped and turned to face me.

"What did you say?"

"I heard they call you Red Hand Vasquez behind your back."

"And what the fuck business of yours would it be if they did?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. On the other hand, what business is it of yours what went on between me and Gitta?"

"All right, Mirabel." He took a longer than usual drag on his cigarette. "I think we understand each other. There are things I don't like people asking about, and there are things you don't like people asking about. Maybe you were fucking Gitta, I don't know, man." He watched as I bridled. "But like you said, it wouldn't be my business. I won't ask again. I won't even think about it again. But do me a favour, right? Don't call me Red Hand. I know that Reivich did something pretty bad to you out in the jungle. I hear it wasn't much fun and you nearly died. But get one thing clear, all right? You're outnumbered here. My people are watching you all the time. That means you don't want to upset me. And if you do upset me, I can arrange for shit to happen to you that makes what Reivich did seem like a fucking teddy bears' picnic."

"I think," Dieterling said, "that we should take the gentleman at his word. Right, Tanner?"

"Let's just say we both touched a nerve," I said, after a long hard silence.

"Yeah," Vasquez said. "I like that. Me and Mirabel, we're hair-trigger guys and we gotta have some respect for each other's sensibilities. Copacetic. So let's go drink some pisco sours while we wait for Reivich to make a move."

"I don't want to get too far from the bridge."

"That won't be a problem."

Vasquez cleaved a path before us, pushing through the evening strollers with insouciant ease. Accordion music ground out of the lowest floor of one of the freight pod buildings, slow and stately as a dirge. There were couples out walking--locals rather than aristocrats, for the most part, but dressed as well as their means allowed: genuinely at ease, good-looking young people with smiles on their faces as they looked for somewhere to eat or gamble or listen to music. The war had probably touched their lives in some tangible way; they might have lost friends or loved ones, but Nueva Valparaiso was sufficiently far from the killing fronts that the war did not have to be uppermost in their thoughts. It was hard not to envy them; hard not to wish that Dieterling and I could walk into a bar and drink ourselves into oblivion; forgetting the clockwork gun; forgetting Reivich; forgetting the reason I had come to the bridge.

There were, of course, other people out tonight. There were soldiers on furlough, dressed in civilian clothes but instantly recognisable, with their aggressively cropped hair, galvanically boosted muscles, colour-shifting chameleoflage tattoos on their arms, and the odd asymmetric way their faces were tanned, with a patch of pale flesh around one eye where they normally peered through a helmet-mounted targeting monocle. There were soldiers from all sides in the conflict mingling more or less freely, kept out of trouble by wandering DMZ militia. The militia were the only agency allowed to carry weapons within the DMZ, and they brandished their guns in starched white gloves. They weren't going to touch Vasquez, and even if we hadn't been walking with him, they wouldn't have bothered Dieterling and me. We might have looked like gorillas stuffed into suits, but it would be hard to mistake us for active soldiers. We both looked too old, for a start; both of us pushing middle age. On Sky's Edge that meant essentially what it had meant for most of human history: two to three-score years.

Not much for half a human life.

Dieterling and I had both kept in shape, but not to the extent that would have marked us as active soldiers. Soldier musculature never looked exactly human to begin with, but it had definitely become more extreme since I was a white-eye. Back then you could just about argue that you needed boosted muscles to carry around your weapons. The equipment had improved since then, but the soldiers on the street tonight had bodies that looked as if they had been sketched in by a cartoonist with an eye for absurd exaggeration. In the field the effect would be heightened by the lightweight weapons which were now in vogue: all those muscles to carry guns a child could have held.

"In here," Vasquez said.

His place was one of the structures festering around the base of the bridge itself. He steered us into a short, dark alley and then through an unmarked door flanked by snake holograms. The room inside was an industrial-scale kitchen filled with billowing steam. I squinted and wiped perspiration from my face, ducking under an array of vicious cooking utensils. I wondered if Vasquez had ever used them in any extra-culinary activities.

I whispered to Dieterling, "Why is he so touchy about being called Red Hand anyway?"

"It's a long story," Dieterling said, "and it isn't just the hand."

Now and then a bare-chested cook would emerge from the steam on some errand, face half-concealed behind a plastic breathing mask. Vasquez spoke to two of them while Dieterling picked up something from a pan--dipping his fingers nimbly into the boiling water--and nibbled it experimentally.

"This is Tanner Mirabel, a friend of mine," Vasquez said to the senior cook. "Guy used to be a white-eye, so don't fuck with him. We'll be here for a while. Bring us something to drink. Pisco sours. Mirabel, you hungry?"

"Not really. And I think Miguel's already helping himself."

"Good. But I think the rat's a touch off tonight, Snake."

Dieterling shrugged. "I've tasted a lot worse, believe me." He popped another morsel into his mouth. "Mm. Pretty good rat, actually. Norvegicus, right?"

Vasquez led us beyond the kitchen into an empty gambling parlour. At first I thought we had the place to ourselves. Discreetly lit, the room was sumptuously outfitted in green velvet, with burbling hookahs situated on strategic pedestals. The walls were covered in paintings all done in shades of brown--except that when I looked closer I realised they were not paintings at all, but pictures made of different pieces of wood, carefully cut and glued together. Some of the pieces even had the slight shimmer which showed that they had been cut from the bark of a hamadryad tree. The pictures were all on a common theme: scenes from the life of Sky Haussmann. There were the five ships of the Flotilla crossing space from Earth's system to ours. There was Titus Haussmann, torch in hand, finding his son alone and in the darkness after the great blackout. There was Sky visiting his father in the infirmary aboard the ship, before Titus died of the injuries he had sustained defending the Santiago against the saboteur. There, also rendered exquisitely, was Sky Haussmann's crime and glory; the thing he had done to ensure that the Santiago reached this world ahead of the other ships in the Flotilla, the ship's sleeper modules falling away like dandelion seeds. And, in the last picture of all, was the punishment the people had wrought on Sky: crucifixion.

Dimly I remembered that it had happened near here.

But the room was more than simply a shrine to Haussmann. Alcoves spaced around the room's perimeter contained conventional gambling machines, and there were half-a-dozen tables where games would obviously take place later that night, although no one was actually playing at the moment. All I heard was the scurrying of rats somewhere in the shadows.

But the room's centrepiece was a hemispherical dome, perfectly black and at least five metres wide, surrounded by padded chairs mounted on complicated telescopic plinths, elevated three metres above the floor. Each chair had an arm inset with gambling controls, while the other held a battery of intravenous devices. About half the chairs were occupied, but by figures so perfectly still and deathlike that I hadn't even registered them when I entered the room. They were slumped back in their seats, their faces slack and their eyes closed. They all bore that indefinable aristocrat glaze: an aura of wealth and untouchability.

"What happened?" I said. "Forgot to throw them out after you locked up this morning?"

"No. They're pretty much a permanent fixture, Mirabel. They're playing a game that lasts months; betting on the long term outcome of ground campaigns. It's quiet now due to the rains. Almost like there isn't a war after all. But you should see it when the shit starts flying around."

There was something about the place I didn't like. It wasn't just the display of Sky Haussmann's story, though that was a significant part of it.

"Maybe we should be moving on, Vasquez."

"And miss your drinks?"

Before I had decided what to say the head cook came in, still breathing noisily through his plastic mask. He propelled a little trolley loaded with drinks. I shrugged and helped myself to a pisco sour, then nodded at the décor.

"Sky Haussmann's a big deal round here, isn't he?"

"More than you realise, man."

Vasquez did something and the hemisphere flicked into life, suddenly no longer fully dark but an infinitely detailed view of one half of Sky's Edge, with an edge of black rising from the floor like a lizard's nictitating membrane. Nueva Valparaiso was a sparkle of lights on the Peninsula's western coastline, visible through a crack in the clouds.

"Yeah?"

"People around here can be quite religious, you know. You can easily tread on their beliefs, you're not careful. Gotta be respectful, man."

"I heard they based a religion around Haussmann. That's about as far as my knowledge goes." Again, I nodded at the décor, noticing for the first time what looked like the skull of a dolphin stuck to one wall, oddly bumped and ridged. "What happened? Did you buy this place from one of Haussmann's nutcases?"

"Not exactly, no."

Dieterling coughed. I ignored him.

"What, then? Did you buy into it yourself?"

Vasquez extinguished his cigarette and pinched the bridge of his nose, furrowing what little forehead he had. "What's going on here, Mirabel? Are you trying to wind me up, or are you just an ignorant cocksucker?"

"I don't know. I thought I was just making polite conversation."

"Yeah, right. And you just happened to call me Red earlier on; like it just slipped out."

"I thought we were over that." I sipped my pisco. "I wasn't trying to rile you, Vasquez. But it strikes me that you're an unusually touchy fellow."

He did something. It was a tiny gesture which he made with one hand, like someone clicking their fingers once.

What happened next was too fast for the eye to see; just a subliminal blur of metal and a breezelike caress of air currents being pushed around the room. Extrapolating backwards, I concluded that a dozen or so apertures must have slid or irised open around the room--in the walls, the floor and the ceiling, most likely--releasing machines.

They were automated sentry drones, hovering black spheres which split open along their equators to reveal three or four gun barrels apiece, which locked onto Dieterling and me. The drones orbited slowly around us, humming like wasps, bristling with belligerence.

Neither of us breathed for a few long moments, but it was Dieterling who chose to speak in the end.

"I guess we'd be dead if you were really pissed off at us, Vasquez."

"You're right, but it's a fine line, Snake." He raised his voice. "Safe mode on." Then he made the same finger-clicking gesture he had done before. "You see that, man? It looked pretty similar to you, didn't it? But not to the room it didn't. If I hadn't turned the system off, it would have interpreted that as an order to execute everyone here except myself and the fat fucks in the gaming seats."

"I'm glad you practised it," I said.

"Yeah, laugh about it, Mirabel." He made the gesture again. "That looked the same as well, didn't it? But that wasn't quite the same command either. That would have told the sentries to blow your arms off, one at a time. The room's programmed to recognise at least twelve more gestures--and believe me, after some of 'em I really get stung for the cleaning bill." He shrugged. "Can I consider my point adequately made?"

"I think we've got the message."

"All right. Safe mode off. Sentries retire."

The same blur of motion; the same breeze. It was as if the machines had simply snapped out of existence.

"Impressed?" Vasquez asked me.

"Not really," I said, feeling prickles of sweat across my brow. "With the right security set-up, you'd already have screened anyone who'd got this far. But I suppose it breaks the ice at parties."

"Yeah, it does that." Vasquez looked at me amusedly, evidently satisfied that he'd achieved the desired effect.

"What it also does is make me wonder why you're so touchy."

"You were in my shoes, you'd be a fuck of a lot more than touchy." Then he did something that surprised me, taking his hand from his pocket, slowly enough that I had time to see there was no weapon there. "You see this, Mirabel?"

I don't know quite what I was expecting, but the clenched fist he showed me looked normal enough. There was nothing deformed or unusual about it. Nothing, in fact, particularly red about it.

"It looks like a hand, Vasquez."

He clenched the fist even harder and then something odd happened. Blood began to trickle out of his grip; slowly at first, but in an increasingly strong flow. I watched it spatter on the floor, scarlet on green.

"That's why they call me what they do. Because I bleed from my right hand. Fucking original, right?" He opened the fist, revealing blood pouring out of a small hole somewhere near the middle of his palm. "Here's the deal. It's a stigma; like a mark of Christ." With his good hand he reached into his other pocket and pulled out a kerchief, wadding it into a ball and pressing it against the wound to stanch the flow. "I can almost will it to happen sometimes."

"Haussmann cultists got to you, didn't they," Dieterling said. "They crucified Sky as well. They drove a nail into his right hand."

"I don't understand," I said.

"Shall I tell him?"

"Be my guest, Snake. The man clearly needs educating."

Dieterling turned to me. "Haussmann's cultists split up into a number of different sects over the last century or so. Some of them took their ideas from penitential monks, trying to inflict on themselves some of the pain Sky must have gone through. They lock themselves away in darkness until the isolation almost drives them insane, or makes them start seeing things. Some of them cut off their left arms; some even crucify themselves. Sometimes they die in the process." He paused and looked at Vasquez, as if seeking permission to continue. "But there's a more extreme sect that does all that and more. And they don't stop there. They spread the message, not by word of mouth, or writing, but by indoctrinal virus."

"Go on," I said.

"It must have been engineered for them; probably by Ultras, or maybe one of them even took a trip to see the Jugglers and they screwed around with his neurochemistry. It doesn't matter. All that does is that the virus is contagious, transmittable through the air, and it infects almost everyone."

"Turning them into cultists?"

"No." It was Vasquez speaking now. He had found a fresh cigarette for himself. "It fucks with you, but it doesn't turn you into one of them, got that? You get visions, and you have dreams, and you sometimes feel the need..." He paused, and nodded towards the dolphin jutting from the wall. "You see that fish skull? Cost me a fucking arm and a leg. Used to belong to Sleek; one of the ones on the ship. Having shit like that around comforts me; stops me shaking. But that's as far as it goes."

"And the hand?"

Vasquez said, "Some of the viruses make physical changes happen. I was lucky, in a way. There's one that makes you go blind; another that makes you scared of the dark; another that makes your left arm wither away and drop off. You know, a little blood now and again, it doesn't bother me. At first, before many people knew about the virus, it was cool. I could really freak people out with it. Walk into a negotiation, you know, and start bleeding all over the other guy. But then people started finding out what it meant; that I'd been infected by cultists."

"They started wondering if you were as razor-sharp as they'd heard," Dieterling said.

"Yeah. Right." Vasquez looked at him suspiciously. "You build up a reputation like mine, it takes time."

"I don't doubt it," Dieterling said.

"Yeah. And a little thing like this, man, it can really hurt it."

"Can't they flush out the virus?" I said, before Dieterling pushed his luck.

"Yeah, Mirabel. In orbit, they've got shit that can do it. But orbit's not currently on my list of safe places to visit, you know?"

"So you live with it. It can't be that infectious any more, can it?"

"No; you're safe. Everyone's safe. I'm barely infectious now." Now that he was smoking again he was calming down a little. The bleeding had stopped and he was able to slip his wounded hand back in his pocket. He took a sip from his pisco sour. "Sometimes I wish it was still infectious, or that I'd saved some of my blood from back when I got infected. It would have made a nice going-away present, a little shot of that in someone's vein."

"Except you'd be doing what the cultists always wanted you to do," Dieterling said. "Spreading their creed."

"Yeah, when instead I should be spreading the creed that if I ever catch the sick fuck who did this to me..." He trailed off, distracted by something. He stared into the middle distance, like a man undergoing some kind of paralytic seizure, then spoke. "No. No way, man. I don't believe it."

"What is it?" I said.

Vasquez's voice dropped subvocal, though I could see the way his neck muscles kept on moving. He must have been wired for communication with one of his people.

"It's Reivich," he said finally.

"What about him?" I asked.

"The fucker's outsmarted me."

TWO

A maze of dark, damp passages connected Red Hand's establishment to the interior of the bridge terminal, threading right through the structure's black wall. He led us through the labyrinth with a torch, kicking rats out of the way.

"A decoy," he said wonderingly. "I never figured he'd set up a decoy. I mean, we've been following this fucker for days." He said the last word as if it should have been months at the very least; implying superhuman foresight and planning.

"The lengths some people'll go to," I said.

"Hey, ease off, Mirabel. It was your idea not to waste the guy the instant we saw him, which could easily have been arranged." He shouldered through a set of doors into another passageway.

"It still wouldn't have been Reivich, would it?"

"No, but when we examined the body we might have figured out it wasn't him, and then we could have started looking around for the real one."

"Guy's got a point," Dieterling said. "Much as it pains me to admit it."

"One I owe you, Snake."

"Yeah, well, don't let it go to your head."

Vasquez sent another rat scurrying for the shadows. "So what really did happen out there, that made you want to get into this vendetta shit in the first place?"

I said, "You seemed reasonably well informed already."

"Well, word gets around, that's all. Especially when someone like Cahuella buys the big one. Talk of a power-vacuum, that kind of shit. Thing is, I'm surprised either of you two made it out alive. I heard some extreme shit went down in that ambush."

"I wasn't badly injured," Dieterling said. "Tanner was a lot worse off than me. He'd lost a foot."

"It wasn't that bad," I said. "The beam weapon cauterised the wound and stopped the bleeding."

"Oh yeah, right," Vasquez said. "Just a flesh wound, then. I can't get enough of you guys, I really can't."

"Fine, but can we talk about something else?"

My reticence was more than simply an unwillingness to discuss the incident with Red Hand Vasquez. That was part of it, but an equally important factor was that I just didn't remember the details with any clarity. I might have before I was put under for the recuperative coma--the one in which my foot was regrown--but now the whole incident felt like it had happened in the remote past, rather than a few weeks ago.

I'd sincerely believed that Cahuella would make it, though. At first he seemed to have been the lucky one: the laser pulse had gone right through him without cleaving any vital organs, just as if its trajectory had been mapped in advance by a skilled thoracic surgeon. But complications had set in, and without the means to reach orbit--he would have been arrested and executed as soon as he left the atmosphere--he was forced to accept the best black market medicine he could afford. It had been good enough to repair my leg, but that was exactly the kind of injury the war made commonplace. Complex damage to internal organs required an additional level of expertise which could simply not be bought on the black market.

So he'd died.

And here I was, chasing the man who'd killed Cahuella and his wife; aiming to take him down with a single diamond flèchette from the clockwork gun.

Back before I became a security expert in the employment of Cahuella; back when I was still a soldier, they used to say that I was such a proficient sniper that I could put a slug into someone's head and take out a specific area of brain function. It wasn't true; never had been. But I'd always been good, and I did like to make it clean and quick and surgical.

I sincerely hoped Reivich wouldn't let me down.

To my surprise, the secret passageway opened directly into the heart of the anchorpoint terminal, emerging in a shadowed part of the main concourse. I looked back at the security barrier which we'd avoided; watching the guards scan people for concealed weapons; checking identities in case a war criminal was trying to get off the planet. The clockwork gun, still snug in my pocket, wouldn't have shown up in those scans, which was one of the reasons why I'd opted for it. Now I felt a tinge of irritation that my careful planning had been partially wasted.

"Gents," Vasquez said, lingering on the threshold, "this is as far as I go."

"I thought this place would be right up your street," Dieterling said, looking around. "What's wrong? Scared you'd never want to leave again?"

"Something like that, Snake." Vasquez patted the two of us on the back. "All right. Go and bring down that postmortal shit-smear, boys. Just don't tell anyone I brought you here."

"Don't worry," Dieterling said. "Your role in things won't be overstated."

"Copacetic. And remember, Snake..." He mimed firing a gun again. "That hunt we talked about... ?"

"Consider yourself pencilled in, at least on a provisional basis."

He vanished back into the tunnel, leaving Dieterling and me standing together in the terminal. For a few moments neither of us said anything, overwhelmed by the strangeness of the place.

We were in the surface-level concourse, a ring-shaped hall which encircled the embarkation and disembarkation chamber at the base of the thread. The concourse's ceiling was many levels above, the intervening space criss-crossed by suspended walkways and transit tubes, with what had once been luxury shops, boutiques and restaurants set into the outer wall. Most of them were closed now, or had been converted into minor shrines or places where religious material could be purchased. There were very few people moving around, with hardly anyone arriving from orbit and only a handful of people walking towards the elevators. The concourse was darker than its designers must have intended, the ceiling scarcely visible, and the whole place had the quality of a cathedral in which, unseen but sensed, some sacred ceremony was taking place; an atmosphere that invited neither haste nor raised voices. At the very edge of hearing was a constant low hum, like a basement full of generators. Or, I thought, like a room full of chanting monks holding the same sepulchral note.

"Has it always been like this?" I said.

"No. I mean, it's always been a shithole, but it's definitely worse than the last time I was here. It must have been different a month or so ago. The place would have been heaving. Most of the people for the ship would have had to come through here."

The arrival of a starship around Sky's Edge was always something of an event. Being a poor and moderately backwards planet compared with many of the other settled worlds, we were not exactly a key player in the shifting spectrum of interstellar trade. We didn't export much, except the experience of war itself and a few uninteresting bio-products culled from the jungles. We would have happily bought all manner of exotic technological goods and services from the Demarchist worlds, but only the very wealthiest people on Sky's Edge could afford them. When ships paid us a visit, speculation usually had it that they had been been frozen out of the more lucrative markets--the Yellowstone-Sol run, or the Fand-Yellowstone-Grand Teton run--or they had to stop anyway to make repairs. It happened about once every ten standard years, on average, and they always screwed us.

"Is this really where Haussmann died?" I asked Dieterling.

"It was somewhere near here," he said as we crossed the concourse's great, echoing floor. "They'll never know exactly where because they didn't have accurate maps back then. But it must have been within a few kilometres of here; definitely within the outskirts of Nueva Valparaiso. At first they were going to burn the body, but then they decided to embalm him; make it easier to hold him up as an example to others."

"But there was no cult then?"

"No. He had a few fruitcake sympathisers, of course--but there was nothing ecclesiastical about it. That came afterwards. The Santiago was largely secular, but they couldn't engineer religion out of the human psyche that easily. They took what Sky had done and fused his deeds with what they chose to remember from home; saving this and discarding that as they saw fit. It took a few generations until they had all the details worked out, but then there was no stopping them."

"And after the bridge was built?"

"By then one of the Haussmann cults had gained possession of the body. The Church of Sky, they called themselves. And--for reasons of convenience, if nothing else--they'd decided that he must have died not just near the bridge but right under it. And that the bridge was not really a space elevator at all--or if it was, that was just a superficial function--but really a sign from God: a ready-made shrine to the crime and glory of Sky Haussmann."

"But people designed and built the bridge."

"Under God's will. Don't you understand? It's nothing you can argue with, Tanner. Give up now."

We passed a few cultists moving in the opposite direction, two men and a woman. I felt a jolt of familiarity when I saw them, but I couldn't remember if I had ever seen any in the flesh before. They wore ash-coloured smocks and both sexes tended to wear their hair long. One man had a kind of mechanical coronet fixed on his skull--maybe some kind of pain-inducing device--while the other man's left sleeve was pinned flatly to his side. The woman had a small dolphin-shaped mark on her forehead, and I remembered the way in which Sky Haussmann had befriended the dolphins aboard the Santiago; spending time with the creatures that the other crew shunned.

Recollection of that detail struck me as odd. Had someone told it to me before?

"Have you got that gun ready?" Dieterling said. "You never know. We might walk round the corner and find the bastard tying his shoelaces."

I patted the gun to reassure myself that it was still there, then said, "I don't think it's our day to be lucky, Miguel."

We stepped through a door set into the concourse's inner wall, the sound of chanting monks now quite unmistakably human; sustaining a note that was almost but not quite perfect.

For the first time since entering the anchorpoint terminal, we could see the thread. The embarkation area into which we'd stepped was a huge circular room encircled by a balcony on which we stood. The true floor was hundreds of metres below us, and the thread plunged from above, emerging through the ceiling via an irised entrance door, then stretching down towards the point where it was truly anchored and where servicing machinery lurked to refurbish and repair the elevators. It was somewhere down there that the sound of the chanting was coming from; voices carried higher by the odd acoustics of the place.

The bridge was a single thin thread of hyperdiamond stretching all the way from ground to synchronous orbit. For almost its entire length it was only five metres in diameter (and most of that was hollow), except for the very last kilometre which dropped into the terminal itself. The thread here was thirty metres wide, tapering subtly as it rose. The extra width served a purely psychological function: too many passengers had baulked at taking the journey to orbit when they saw how slender the thread they would be riding really was, so the bridge owners made the visible portion in the terminal much wider than it needed to be.

Elevator cars arrived and departed every few minutes or so, ascending and descending on opposite sides of the column. Each was a sleek cylinder curved to grip nearly half the thread, attached magnetically. The cars were multi-storeyed, with separate levels for dining, recreation and sleeping. They were mostly empty, their passenger compartments unlit as they glided up or down. There were a handful of people in only every fifth or sixth car. The empty cars were symptomatic of the bridge's economic woes, but not a great problem in themselves. The expense of running them was tiny compared with the cost of the bridge; they had no impact on the schedule of the inhabited cars, and from a distance they looked as full as the others, conveying an illusion of busy prosperity which the bridge owners had long given up hoping would one day approach reality, since the Church had assumed tenancy. And the monsoon season may have given the illusion that the war was in its dog days, but plans were already drawn for the new season's campaigns: the pushes and incursions already simulated in the battle-planners' wargame computers.

A dizzyingly unsupported tongue of glass reached from the balcony to a point just short of the thread, leaving enough space for an elevator to arrive. Some passengers were already waiting on the tongue with their belongings, including a group of well-dressed aristocrats. But no Reivich, and no one in the party who resembled any of Reivich's associates. They were talking amongst themselves or watching news reports on screens which floated around the chamber like square, narrow-bodied tropical fish, flickering with market reports and celebrity interviews.

Near the base of tongue was a booth where elevator tickets were being sold; a bored-looking woman was behind the desk.

"Wait here," I said to Dieterling.

The woman looked up at me as I approached the desk. She wore a crumpled Bridge Authority uniform and had purple crescents under her eyes, which were themselves bloodshot and swollen.

"Yes?"

"I'm a friend of Argent Reivich. I need to contact him urgently."

"I'm afraid that isn't possible."

It was no more than I was expecting. "When did he leave?"

Her voice was nasal; the consonants indistinct. "I'm afraid I can't give out that information."

I nodded shrewdly. "But you don't deny that he passed through the terminal."

"I'm afraid I..."

"Look, give it a rest, will you?" I softened the remark with what I hoped was an accommodating smile. "Sorry, it wasn't my intention to sound rude, but this happens to be very urgent. I have something for him, you see--a valuable Reivich family heirloom. Is there any way I can speak to him while he's still ascending, or am I going to have to wait until he reaches orbit?"

The woman hesitated. Almost any information she divulged at this point would have contravened protocol--but I must have seemed so honest, so genuinely distressed by my friend's omission. And so clearly rich.

She glanced down at a display. "You'll be able to place a message for him to contact you when he arrives at the orbital terminus." Implying that he hadn't yet arrived; that he was still somewhere above me, ascending the thread.

"I think perhaps I'd better just follow him," I said. "That way, there'll be the minimum of delay when he reaches orbit. I can just deliver the relevant item and return."

"I suppose that would make sense, yes." She looked at me, perhaps sensing something in my manner that was not as it should have been, but not trusting her own instincts sufficiently to obstruct my progress. "But you'll have to hurry. The next departure's almost ready for boarding."

I looked back to the point where the tongue extended out to the thread, seeing an empty elevator slide up from the servicing area.

"You'd better issue me with a ticket then."

"You'll be needing a return, I presume?" The woman rubbed at her eyes. "That'll be five hundred and fifty Australs."

I opened my wallet and pinched out the money, printed in crisp Southlander bills. "Scandalous," I said. "The amount of energy it actually costs the Bridge Authority to carry me to orbit, it should be a tenth the price. But I suppose some of that gets skimmed off by the Church of Sky."

"I'm not saying that doesn't happen, but you shouldn't speak ill of the Church, sir. Not here."

"No; that was what I heard. But you're not one of them, are you?"

"No," she said, handing me the change in smaller bills. "I just work here."

The cultists had taken over the bridge a decade or so back, after they had convinced themselves that this place was where Sky had been crucified. They had stormed the place one evening before anyone realised quite what was happening. Haussmann's followers claimed to have rigged the whole terminal with booby-trapped canisters primed with their virus, threatening to discharge them if there was any attempt at an eviction. The virus would carry far enough on the wind to infect half the Peninsula, if there was as much of it in the bridge as the cultists said. They might have been bluffing, but no one was prepared to take the risk of the cult forcing itself on millions of bystanders. So they held the bridge, and allowed the Bridge Authority to continue running it, even if it meant that the staff had to be constantly inoculated against any trace contamination. Given the side-effects of the anti-viral therapy, it obviously wasn't the most popular work on the Peninsula--especially as it meant listening to the endless chanting of the cultists.

She handed me the ticket.

"I hope I make it to orbit in time," I said.

"The last elevator only left an hour ago. If your friend was on that one..." She paused, and I knew there was no if about it. "The chances are very good that he'll still be in the orbital terminal when you arrive."

"Let's just hope he's grateful, after all this."

She almost smiled, then seemed to give up halfway through. It was a lot of effort, after all.

"I'm sure he'll be blown away."

I pocketed the ticket, thanked the woman--miserable as she was, I couldn't help but feel sorry for her having to work here--and then walked back to Dieterling. He was leaning on the low glass wall that surrounded the connecting tongue, looking down at the cultists. His expression was one of detached, watchful calm. I thought back to the time in the jungle when he had saved my life, during the hamadryad attack. He had worn the same neutral expression then: like a man engaged in a chess match against a completely outclassed opponent.

"Well?" he mouthed, when we were within earshot.

"He's already taken an elevator."

"When?"

"About an hour ago. I've just bought a ticket for myself. Go and buy one as well, but don't act as if we're travelling together."

"Maybe I shouldn't come with you, bro."

"You'll be safe." I lowered my voice. "There won't be any emigration checkpoints between here and the exit from the orbital terminal. You can ride up and down without getting arrested."

"Easy for you to say, Tanner."

"Yes, but still I'm telling you it'll be safe."

Dieterling shook his head. "Maybe it will be, but it still doesn't make much sense for us to travel together; even in the same elevator. There's no guessing how well Reivich has this place under surveillance."

I was about to argue, but part of me knew that what he said was right. Like Cahuella, Dieterling couldn't safely leave the surface of Sky's Edge without running the risk of being arrested on war crimes charges. They were both listed in systemwide databases and--save for the fact that Cahuella was dead--they both had hefty bounties on their heads.

"All right," I said. "I suppose there's another reason for you to stay. I'll be away from the Reptile House for some time now: three days at the very least. There should be someone competent looking after things back home."

"Are you certain you can handle Reivich on your own?"

I shrugged. "It takes only one shot, Miguel."

"And you're the man to deliver it." He was visibly relieved. "Fine then; I'll drive back to the Reptile House tonight. And I'll be watching the newsfeeds avidly."

"I'll try not to disappoint. Wish me well."

"I do." Dieterling reached out and shook my hand. "Be careful, Tanner. Just because there's no bounty on your head, it doesn't mean you'll be able to walk away without doing a little explaining first. I'll leave it to you to work out how to dispose of the gun."

I nodded.

"You miss it so badly, I'll buy you one for your birthday."

He looked at me for a long moment, as if on the point of saying something more, then nodded and turned away from the thread. I watched him leave the chamber, exiting back into the shadowed gloom of the concourse. He began to adjust the coloration of his coat as he walked; his broad-backed figure shimmered as it receded.

I turned around myself, facing the elevator, waiting for my ride. And then slipped my hand into my pocket, resting it against the diamond-hard coolness of the gun.

THREE

"Sir? Dinner will be served on the lower deck in fifteen minutes, if you intend to join the other passengers."

I jumped, not having heard anyone's footsteps on the staircase which led up to the observation deck. I'd assumed I was completely alone. All the other passengers had retired to their rooms immediately upon boarding--the journey just long enough to justify unpacking their luggage--but I had gone up onto the observation deck to watch our departure. I had a room, but nothing that I needed to unpack.

The ascent had begun with ghostly smoothness. At first it hardly seemed like we were moving at all. There had been no sound, no vibration; just an eerily smooth glide moving imperceptibly slowly, but which was always gaining speed. I had looked down, trying to see the cultists, but the angle of the view made it impossible to see more than a few stragglers, rather than the mass that must have been directly below. We had just been passing through the ceiling iris when the voice had startled me.

I turned around. A servitor had spoken to me, not a man. It had extensible arms and an excessively stylised head, but instead of legs or wheels, its torso tapered to a point below the machine's waist, like a wasp's thorax. It moved around on a rail attached to the ceiling, to which the robot was coupled via a curved spar protruding from its back.

"Sir?" It began again, this time in Norte. "Dinner will be served..."

"No; I understood you first time." I thought about the risk involved in mixing with real aristocrats, then decided that it was probably less than that involved in remaining suspiciously aloof. At least if I sat down with them I could provide them with a fictitious persona which might pass muster, rather than allowing their imaginations free rein to sketch in whatever details they wished to impose on this uncommunicative stranger. Speaking Norte now--I needed the practice--I said, "I'll join the others in a quarter of an hour. I'd like to watch the view for a little while."

"Very well, sir. I shall prepare a place for you at the table."

The robot rotated around and glided silently out of the observation deck.

I looked back to the view.

I'm not sure quite what I was expecting at that point, but it couldn't have been anything at all like the thing that confronted me. We had passed through the upper ceiling of the embarkation chamber, but the anchorpoint terminal was much taller than that, so that we were still ascending through the upper reaches of the building. And it was here, I realised, that the cultists had achieved the highest expression of their obsession with Sky Haussmann. After his crucifixion they had preserved the body, embalming it and then encasing it in something that had the grey-green lustre of lead, and they had mounted him here, on a great, upthrusting prow that extended inward from one interior wall until it almost touched the thread. It made Haussmann's corpse look like the figurehead fixed beneath the bowsprit of a great sailing ship.

They had stripped him to the waist, spread his arms wide and fixed him to a cross-shaped alloy spar. His legs were bound together, but a nail had been driven through the wrist of his right hand (not the palm; that was a detail the stigma-inducing virus got wrong) and a much larger piece of metal had been rammed through the upper part of his severed left arm. These details, and the expression of numb agony on Haussmann's face, had been rendered mercifully indistinct by the encasing process. But while it was not really possible to read his features, every nuance of his pain was written into the arc of his neck; the way his jaw was clenched as if in the throes of electrocution. They should have electrocuted him, I thought. It would have been kinder, no matter the crimes he had committed.

But that would have been too simple. They were not just executing a man who had done terrible things, but glorifying a man who had also given them a whole world. In crucifying him, they were showing their adoration as fervently as their hate.

It had been like that ever since.

The elevator tracked past Sky, coming within metres of him, and I felt myself flinching; wishing that we could be clear of him as quickly as possible. It was as if the vast space was an echo chamber, reverberating with endless pain.

My palm itched. I rubbed it against the hand-rail, closing my eyes until we were free of the anchorpoint terminal; rising through night.

Copyright © 2001 by Alastair Reynolds


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Chasm City - Alastair Reynolds

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