Authors: Neal Asher
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To those private companies that are making the plans and actually developing the technology to mine asteroids, build orbital hotels and build bases on the Moon and Mars. Ignore your detractors and keep looking at the stars.
The Good Will of the People
It can been seen that, despite her brutal treatment of anyone who ever stood in her way, Serene Galahad’s reign was still contingent on the good will of the people of Earth. However, the knowledge of the ‘common man’ was limited; he thought that Alan Saul had attacked Earth and released the Scour – the pandemic that annihilated nearly half of Earth’s population of eighteen billion – almost certainly killing someone the common man knew. Under Serene Galahad that same common man seemed to have acquired more personal freedom and more material wealth, while his ruler apparently strove to avenge his losses. Of course, he did not know that the greater freedom he enjoyed was due to Saul wiping out Committee infrastructure and frying a large proportion of those who had formerly wielded the whip. Nor did he understand that his greater material wealth was precisely because the Scour had killed billions of his fellows. Nor did he realize that Serene Galahad was entirely responsible for the Scour. The gratitude he felt for his current ruler was unwarranted, and the sense of motivation that had him turning up at the factory gates early was based on a lie. This sort of ignorance, unfortunately, has been the lot of the common man since the dawn of time.
The sun was shining on what had been Chairman Messina’s small patch of Tuscan countryside. There were lemons on some of the trees and green oranges on others, while below them carefully tended succulents had opened red, orange, white and yellow flowers to the morning sun. Light glinted brightly off an all-chrome shepherd as it strode on patrol near the fence, and razorbirds roosting on a watchtower could almost be mistaken for seagulls. But all this brightness seemed just a veneer over blackness to Serene Galahad.
As her limousine drew up beside the building, Serene felt that its dressing of stone and red pantiles, concealing its recent lineage, was merely a façade of a similar nature, but one that covered failure. She stepped out of her vehicle before Sack, her dehumanized lizard-skin bodyguard, could open the door for her, and she pushed her sunglasses up onto her hair. Already the troops from the two armoured cars were piling out and heading for the two entrances – and going in fast, their instructions clear.
‘It should just take a few minutes,’ Sack informed her, looming at her side.
She shrugged, not really concerned, and continued to survey her surroundings without interest. Coming from inside the building she could hear shouting, a scream, the sound of glass breaking. Of course it wasn’t necessary for her to be here for this, but maybe it could bring her back into focus; maybe this was the remedy she required. Eventually, just as the shepherd disappeared from sight behind some olive trees, Sack told her, ‘They’re ready.’
She began walking towards the main entrance, Sack still at her shoulder and two armoured guards moving ahead. One of the guards held the door open for her while the other one moved on into the corridor beyond. Meanwhile, Sack drew his antiquated automatic and proceeded with it pointing down at his side. There was no need, because no one here – except her troops – was armed. The staff here had all been thoroughly vetted, and none of them would even consider violence against her . . . until it was too late. She moved on past a room full of computers and wall-spanning information screens, another room containing tiers of shelves crammed with old paper files, but with search-and-sort robots, looking like the offspring of document scanners and spiders, crawling along the shelves. And finally she came to a door outside which four of her troops had already gathered.
Serene paused as they moved aside; she glanced at a smear of blood on the floor and wondered if some of those working here might have guessed in advance, or had just been a bit too tardy in following orders. She looked up at the sign on the door, which announced ‘Tactical’, the smaller text below this reading ‘Data Acquisition, Collation and Assessment – Positive Response Planning’. She snorted, then reached down and extracted her new Black Oval palmtop from its pouch at her belt.
‘Ma’am?’ Sack enquired, gesturing towards the door.
She nodded and he opened it for her; she strode on through.
The entire staff of this main tactical unit was present in the room. Some were seated at consoles, but most were herded back against the far wall. Near the door, some desks had been shoved over to one side, leaving just one, the chair behind it facing the room. Troops stood watchfully to either side of it.
Serene moved into the room, pulled out the chair and sat, placing her palmtop carefully before her, tapping it once and watching in satisfaction as it hinged open, expanded its film screen and projected a keyboard onto the desk surface. She reached out but, anticipating her, it had already called up the list of the thirty-four personnel here which she had been looking at earlier.
‘Merrick Myers,’ she stated, looking up.
The woman was clearly reluctant to come forward, but others moved aside quickly and someone behind her gave her a shove.
‘Ma’am,’ said Myers, achieving a ridiculous mix of bow and curtsey.
‘You are the officer in charge here,’ Serene declared, ‘but the blame cannot be wholly attributed to you. Your final assessments for submission to me are made up from a collation of data and assessments gathered from other tactical units. It is the case that what you present to me can only be as good as the data you receive.’
Myers looked quite relieved to hear this and seemed about to say something, but Serene held up a hand to cut her off and continued, ‘Nevertheless, the fact remains that, despite having the best data and tactical programs available, along with the application of the minds of a total of four thousand two hundred and three tactical analysts “Tactical” still got it wrong.’
‘Ma’am, if I could—’
‘You will be silent!’ Galahad spat. Then, after a pause to calm herself. ‘Time and time again your “tactical assessments” underestimated Alan Saul. The failure of Tactical is no small matter. You have allowed the greatest mass-murderer in human history to escape our grasp. And because of that you have also jeopardized the future of Earth. We still do not have the Gene Bank samples and data that would enable us to regenerate Earth’s ecosystem.’
Serene found herself growing irate again as she mentally reviewed what she had just said, and as doubt nibbled at her certainty. Was the blame really all theirs? Yes, of course it was, damn it! She had done everything she could and, as had been the case throughout human history, had been let down by her advisers. She could only work with what she
. It was their
Serene flicked to another list and then fed that into a particular program. This was a random selection of ten per cent of other tactical personnel in places like this, both on Earth and in orbit – a number that rounded up to three hundred and eighty-six.
‘This cannot go unpunished,’ Serene continued. ‘However, I am not so stupid as to allow such a punishment to destroy or cripple an important resource. I have therefore chosen a method suitable to our location here in Italy: I am using the old punishment called decimation.’ She set the program running, watched a loading bar appear, rise to its maximum and then disappear.
‘For those of you unacquainted with the word, decimation was how Roman commanders punished troops guilty of cowardice or rebellion. One in ten was selected and killed.’ She now went back to her previous list of those here and fed that into the same program as well, but paused it with the parameters set. ‘Right now, three hundred and eighty-six of your fellow tactical analysts both on Earth and in orbit are learning what their strangulation collars are for.’
At this announcement many in the crowd before her reached up to finger the hoops of bright metal fastened around their necks. As was usual in this sort of situation, they were seeing or hearing others being punished and assumed this was an object lesson for them; that this time they had escaped.
‘Here, gathered before me,’ said Serene, ‘I have the cream of Tactical – the best analysts and programmers available – and I cannot blithely kill off one in ten of you.’
Ah, the relief in their expressions . . .
‘Your failure is almost of an order of magnitude worse than that of your fellows, therefore you are all going to die.’
It took them a moment to realize what she had just said, a moment for them to begin to protest and mill like sheep being circled by wolves, and just a moment for Serene to set the program running again. Some of them began screaming and protesting, those seated leaped out of their chairs, and all of them groped ineffectually at their now closing collars. A couple ran towards her, the man ridiculously wielding a litter bin. Sack’s automatic cracked twice, both head shots, one lifting the top of the man’s scalp and the other hitting the woman’s nose before exiting in a spray of brains and bone behind her. They both went down, and behind them computers crashed to the floor, as desks and chairs were overturned in a writhing and choking mass of dying humanity.
Serene turned to Sack. ‘That wasn’t really necessary, now, was it?’
‘My apologies, ma’am,’ he replied woodenly.
Serene took in the look of horror on the faces of some of the troops, though most remained hard faced and unreadable. It occurred to her that Sack might have killed those two so as to end their suffering swiftly, but then she immediately dismissed the idea. A man like him didn’t get to the position he held without becoming callously inured to this sort of incident.
Just as on other occasions like this, she noticed the sudden smell of shit, though this time the only collar failure was one that closed too quickly and all the way, severing a head and sending a spray of blood that even reached her desk. She closed up her palmtop, stood, picked it up and returned it to its pouch. By now the choking sounds had ceased, though chests were still heaving and legs kicking. Serene abruptly stepped back, bored with this now, and realizing that though she had felt her malaise lift for a moment, it was back in force.
‘Take me home,’ she said to Sack, before heading for the door.
Var slowly hauled herself to her feet, feeling weak, shaky and nauseous, and only just beginning to accept that she wasn’t on the brink of dying. It was a strange mental state to emerge from; she had given up her responsibilities, had nothing to do, and how uncomfortable and filthy she felt had been irrelevant. But her anger at Rhone, for first trying to kill her out here on the surface of Mars, then leaving her to die when her oxygen ran out, helped her feel alive again. For this had not faded and now became the anchor that stabilized her. And her brother, who had miraculously crossed the solar system to bring her oxygen, seemed to inject some steel into her backbone with the steady regard of his weird pink eyes. She straightened up, gazed at him for a second, then transferred her attention to the vehicle he had arrived on.