Authors: Charles Stross
PROLOGUE: WEDNESDAY CHILD
IMPACT: T plus 1392 days. 18 hours, 09 minutes
Wednesday ran through the darkened corridors of the station, her heart pounding. Behind her, unseen yet sensed as a constant menacing presence, ran her relentless pursuer—a dog. The killhound wasn't supposed to be here: neither was she. Old Newfoundland Four was in the process of final evacuation, the last ship supposed to have undocked from bay green fourteen minutes ago—an icon tattooed on the inside of her left eye showed her this, time counting negative—heading out for the nearest flat space-time for the jump to safety. The launch schedule took no notice of tearaway teens, crazed Dresdener captains with secret orders, and gestapo dogs with murder burning in their gun-sight eyes. She panted desperately, nerves straining on the edge of panic, lungs burning in the thin, still air. Sixteen years old and counting, and if she didn't find a way to elude the dog and climb back to the docking hub soon—
She didn't want to be there when the wavefront arrived.
Three-point-six light years away, and almost three-point-six years ago, all two hundred million inhabitants of a nondescript McWorld called Moscow had died. Moscow, an introverted if not entirely rural polity, had been in the midst of political upheavals and a nasty trade dispute with New Dresden, something boring to do with biodiversity and free trade, engineering agribusiness and exchange rate controls. Old Newfoundland Four, Portal Station Eleven, was the last remaining sovereign territory of the Federal Republic of Moscow. They'd hauled down the flag in the hub concourse four hours ago, sounded the last retreat with a final blare of brass trumpetry, and marched slowly to the docking hub. Game over, nation dissolved.
There'd been a misunderstanding, and Dresdener warships had impounded a freighter from Moscow. Pistol shots fired across a crowded docking hub. Then someone—to this day, the successor Dresdener government hotly denied responsibility, even though they'd executed their predecessors just to be sure—had hit Moscow Prime with a proscribed device.
Wednesday didn't remember Moscow very clearly. Her father was a nitrogen cycle engineer, her mother a protozoan ecology specialist: they'd lived on the station since she was four, part of the team charged with keeping the life-support heart of the huge orbital complex pumping away.
But now the heart was still. There was no point in pretending anymore. In less than a day the shock front of Moscow Prime's funeral pyre would slam past, wreaking havoc with any habitat not shielded by a good thirty meters of metal and rock. Old Newfie, drifting in stately orbit around a planetless brown dwarf, was simply too big and too flimsy to weather a supernova storm at a range of just over a parsec.
Wednesday came to a crossroads. She stopped, panting, and tried to orient herself, biting back a wail of despair. Left, right, up, or down? Sliding down to the habitat levels of the big wheel had been a mistake. There were elevators and emergency tunnels all the way up to the hub, and all the way down to the heavy zone. The central post office, traffic control, customs, and bioisolation were all located near the maintenance core at the hub. But the top of the pressurized wheel rim was sixty meters above her, then there was another hundred meters of spoke to climb before she could get to the hub, and the dog would sense her if she used the lifts. There was too much centrifugal force down here, dragging at her like real gravity; she could turn her head sharply without feeling dizzy, and her feet felt like lead. Climbing would be painfully slow at first, the Coriolis force a constant tug trying to pull her sideways off the ladder to safety.
Dim lighting panels glowed along the ceiling, turned down to Moonlight Seven. The vines in the small hubgarden at the center of the crossroads drooped, suffering already from eighteen hours of darkness. Everything down here was dead or dying, like the body she'd found in the public toilet two decks up and three segments over. When she realized the dog was still on her tail she'd headed back home to the apartment she'd shared with her parents and younger brother, hoping the scent would confuse the hound while she sneaked away onto one of the other evacuation ships. But now she was trapped down here with it, and what she should really have done was head for the traffic control offices and barricade the doors—
Her training nudged her forward. This sector was given over to administration offices, station police, customs and trade monitors, and the small clump of services that fed them during their work shifts. Darkened office doorways hung open, unattended, dust already gathering on chairs and desks. Very deliberately, she stepped into the police station. Behind the counter a public notice poster scrolled endlessly, STATION CLOSED.
Grunting with effort, she clambered over the chest-high barrier, then rolled down behind it.
The antique leather satchel Herman had told her to take banged against her hip; she cursed it and what it had brought her to. It was half-full of paper: rich, slightly creamy fabric-weave paper, written on with real ink that didn't swim and mutate into different fonts when you stroked the margin.
Dumb matter, the sort of medium you used when you really, really didn't want some tame infowar worm to unpick your traffic. Nestled at the bottom of the bag was a locked cassette full of molecular storage—records from the station customs post. Records that somebody thought were important enough to kill for.
She twitched a ring, dialing the lights up to Twilight Three, and looked around the cop shop. She'd been there once before, when Constable Barca had given her year a tour of the premises. That had been a pointed adult hint about how to stay out of trouble. Things were different now, the offices and detention areas and waiting rooms all gaping like empty sockets in a skull. The administration thought they knew all about teenagers, but they were wrong. She'd seen the locked cupboard in the ready room and got Pete to front a question about it: sticky foam and pepper gas, breathing masks and handcuffs in case of civil disorder. In case of riot, break glass.
Old Newfie was mostly peaceful; there'd been just one murder and only a handful of fights in the past thirty years. Admin thought a SWAT team was what you sent to deal with a wasp's nest in a ventilation duct. She paused at the locked cabinet, dumped the satchel, and grabbed something that looked more useful.
Claws rattled on the floor outside the office, and paused.
IMPACT: T plus 1392 days, 17 hours, 30 minutes
"What do you mean, she's missing?" Constable Ito said irritably. "Can't you keep your children under—"
The tall, stooped man ran his fingers through his thinning hair. "If you had kids—no, I'm sorry! Look, she's not here. I know she has a shipboard badge because I pinned it on her jacket myself, all right? She's not here, and I'm afraid she might have gone back home or something."
"Home?" Ito pushed his visor up and stared at the worried father. "She couldn't be that stupid. Could she?"
"Kids!" It came out like a curse, though it wasn't intended as one. "No, I don't think she's that stupid. But she's not on the ship, either, or at least she's turned off her implants—Constable Klein sent out a broadcast ping for her an hour ago. And she seemed upset about something this morning."
"Shit. Implants, huh? I'll put out a notice, all right? Things are insane around here right now. Have you any idea what it's like trying to rehouse fifteen thousand people? She'll probably turn up somewhere she isn't meant to be, crew service areas or something. Or decided to hitch a lift on Sikorsky's Dream for the hell of it, before she undocked. She'll turn up, that I promise you. Full ID, please?"
"Victoria Strowger. Age sixteen. ID 3 of that name."
"Ah, okay." Ito made an odd series of gestures with the rings on his right hand, tracing runes in copspace. "Okay, if she's somewhere aboard this pile of junk, that should find her. If not, it'll escalate to a general search in about ten minutes. Now if you'll excuse me until then—"
"Certainly." Morris Strowger sidled away from the Constable's desk. "She's probably just dropped her badge down the toilet," he muttered to himself.
Behind him the next in the queue, an elderly woman, was haranguing the Constable about the size of her accommodation module: she refused to believe that her apartment—one human-sized cell in a five-thousand-person honeycomb of refugee pods slung in the cargo bay of the New Dresden freighter Long March—was all any of them would get until arrival in the nearest Septagon system. The relocation was paid for, gratis, courtesy of the (new) New Dresden government, and the residual assets of the Republic of Moscow's balance of trade surplus, but the pods weren't exactly the presidential suite of a luxury liner. 1 hope Vicki gets tired of hiding soon. Maybe it'll do her some good if the Constabulary find her first and run her in. Teach her not to go looking for trouble in the middle of an emergency …
IMPACT: T plus 1390 days
Take a girl like that. Pallid complexion, cropped mop of black hair, pale blue eyes: waif or demon? She was a bit of a loner. Preternaturally smart for her age: her parents planned her, used a sensible modicum of predictive genomics to avoid the more serious pitfalls. Paid for the most expensive interface implants they could buy, imported from Septagon: they wanted only the best for her. She was seventeen and sullen, going through one of those phases. Refusing to wear anything but black, spending her free time poking around in strange service ducts, training an eighteen-million-synapse nerve garden in her bedroom (parents didn't even want to think about what she might be training it to dream of). She grew plants: deadly nightshade, valerian, aconite, hemlock—and what were they going to do with the latter when it reached full height? (Nobody knew. Nobody knows.) She liked listening to depressing music in her room with the door shut. Her anxious parents shoehorned her into the usual healthy outdoor pursuits—climbing lessons, solar sailing, karate—but none of them took a grip on her imagination. Her legal forename was Victoria, but the other teens all called her Wednesday; she hated it, but not as much as she hated her given name.
Wednesday was a misfit. Like misfits from time immemorial, she'd had an invisible friend since she was young: they played together, exploring the espionage envelope. Elevator surfing. Duct diving—with an oxy mask; you could never tell what might be on the other side of a sealed bulkhead. But most kids didn't have invisible friends who talked back via the expensive net implants their parents had shelled out for, much less taught them skills like steganography, traffic analysis, tail spotting, and Dumpster diving. And most kids grew out of having invisible friends, whereas Wednesday didn't.
That was because most misfit kids' invisible friends were imaginary.
When she was younger she'd told her brother Jeremy about her friend, who was called Herman: but Jerm had blabbed to Mum, and the result was a tense inquisition and trips to the network engineers, then the counselor's office. When she realized what was expected of her she denied everything, of course, but not abruptly; Herman told her how to do it so as to allay their suspicions. You're never alone with schizophrenia, he'd joked mordantly, annoying her because she knew that schizophrenia was nothing to do with having multiple personalities, and everything to do with hearing voices in her head. When she'd first learned about it she'd dialed chlorpromazine and flupenthixol up from the kitchen pharm, and staggered around in a haze for days while Herman witheringly explained how she might have poisoned herself: Parkinson's was a not-unknown side effect of primitive neuroleptics. It wasn't a word she'd known before he used it.
Everyone had known evacuation day was coming for months. They'd known about it to the day, to the hour in fact, since a couple of weeks after the Incident. The ships began to arrive a week ahead of zero hour.
Normally Old Newfie only received one liner a month, clearing via customs to transfer passengers and cargo to the short-haul local freighters that bounced back and forth across the last parsec. But right now all the docking bays on the hub were extended, piers pressurized like great gray hagfish sucking the guts out of the station.
The surviving in-system freighters had come home for the final time two weeks earlier, rerigged with ferry tanks for the final flight. Everyone huddled together on the one station, thirty thousand souls drifting above the ecliptic of a gloomy red gas giant eight times the mass of Jupiter. They had fuel—that was what Old Newfoundland Four was in the business of selling—six hundred megatons of refined methane ice bunkered in a tank farm streaming kilometers behind the axle of the big wheel. And they were close enough to one of the regular trade routes between Septagon system and the core worlds to pick up passing trade, close enough to act as an interchange for local traffic bound for Moscow. They were still profitable and self-sufficient, had been even since before the disaster. But they couldn't stay there—not with the iron sunrise coming. The liner Sikorsky's Dream nuzzled up to the hub, taking VIPs and the governor and his staff.