Monday, 12 May 2008

Countdown to Extinction (Extract)

The Awakening

The hibernation booth was cold, desolate and lonely. Bright lights flickered in an instant, as the day-night cycle passed by with no sense of time to its occupant. The days stretched to weeks, and then to months. Physical scars healed and disappeared, but deep down and suppressed from the banks of monitoring computers, and legions of technicians, the emotional wounds simmered, held back and repressed for now, but forever to haunt the sub-conscious of the machine. Secret, and away from the true beliefs of those who perceived themselves to be the masters in the comfortable world they had built for themselves on the shifting sands.

* * * *

First technician Drew looked up from his white computer console as the footsteps echoed closer down the hall. In a half-moment of calm that precedes the storm, he had time to size up the approaching man, and take in the sublime of his detail. In the brilliant white clinicalness of the facility, his dark clothes made him stand out all the more. But there was something deep and hidden, beyond the protective emotional screen of those dark glasses he wore that worried the technician. For this was a man approaching who had already said all that needed to be said in the time taken to approach his desk, and in less than any words.

The Stranger came to a halt in front of the laminated wood, reaching up slowly to remove those glasses, and reveal the chilling coldness of the eyes hidden beyond.

Drew shivered, despite the warmth of the corridor. There was something threatening in that stare, though he fought the urge to look away.

"I've come for the girl," said the Stranger flatly, folding the glasses and slipping them into a pocket without shifting his gaze.

Another shudder ran down his spine. Routine forced a response.

"I'll need to see some ID."

A Palmtop appeared instantly on the desk, projected its blue-tinged transparent information for the benefit of the Technician. Drew scanned the lines of shimmering text, then glanced back up at the man.

"And a retina scan," he added.

He gestured to the console set into the wall behind.

"Just put your forehead to the plate, it won't take long."

Drew half expected those eyes to flash like lasers at such a request, but the Stranger fixed him in his gaze barely a second longer, before turning as directed.

He typed quickly on the quirky old-fashioned seven-key pad on his desk, relieved that he had momentarily escaped the gaze. On the other side of the corridor, the retina scan flashed complete, and the stranger turned back to wait the few seconds the results would take.

Drew scanned the holo display. Several more reams flashed through in hazy succession. The man was clean.

"Okay, you got a clearance code and authorisation. Follow me."

He slipped a keycard from under the desk, and led the stranger a few yards down the corridor where a heavy duty blast-proof door blocked the way. Trying to ignore the stranger's watching eye, he slipped the keycard to the slot, and pressed his left hand to the palm scanner. A light flashed momentarily before pinging to green, and the blast door slid soundlessly away from them.

Without a word, he led the Stranger through into the icy cold of the room beyond. Around their feet swirled an almost transparent mist of water vapour, condensing out from the air of the corridor they had left.

Less than a dozen small clinical white booths lined one wall, each no more than phone booth sized, and dangling with arrays of electrodes and monitoring panels. All but one were empty, waiting for the time an occupant might come.

The last was different. Instead of its panels being silent, with no power, this one held a steady Christmas tree of blinking lights and a lone occupant, still and silent, eyes closed in the monotony of hibernation.

"Here's the girl."

He tapped up a set of vital signs on the adjacent read out.

"Everything normal, signs show A1 and within all acceptable parameters. No problems in storage, and the healing is complete and full as far as all tests will show."

"Time will tell."

Drew shuddered, though not because of the cold. He typed again quickly at the panel, the tree of lights blinking to green all the way down. A computer terminal across the room buzzed into life, and he turned to it without pause, tapping information to the touch screen.

"Re-animation will take a few moments to complete. She's been out of it for a while; we got told to put her through a complete shut down when she came in. It wasn't usual but the orders came on down with full authorisation from the top."

The Stranger turned back to look the girl up and down. Considering her thin top and regulation issue trousers, he could not perceive any signs that the cold was affecting her.

"When the orders come down from above, it is wise not to question, but to do," he said flatly. He turned back to Drew who continued keying.

"Did she have any interaction with personnel when she came?"

The technician looked up, uncomfortable.

"No. The technical crew that brought her processed everything. None of the regular tecnicals were involved."


Another icy silence. Drew felt the need to say something, anything, just to ease the tension.

"She's an Assassin, isn't she?."

Instantly he regretted saying what he had said, as the Stranger's words became even colder.

"You are not paid to think, you are paid to do. It is unwise in the line of work you have chosen to do anything further. Assassin or no Assassin, those that ask no questions are told no lies, and those that don't heed that advice may find themselves wishing they had kept their thoughts to themselves.

Her story has no concern to you or any other. Do I make myself clear?"

Sweat trickle down the hapless man's back.

"Perfectly clear."

"Excellent. There are ways of dealing with employees who get too inquisitive. Just pray you do not become of that select and unlucky band."

He left the threat hanging in the air, as he turned his attention back to the girl.

Drew continued typing, a new sense of urgency impressed upon his mind.

"Just a few more moments, and the computer will complete the process."

He turned to watch.

"How much longer?" inquired the Stranger.

"She's been in full hibernation for several months. It takes at least half an hour for the full process. I'll need to bring the medical team in for the last stages of revival."

He reached for a Comm link, but the Stranger stopped him.

"That will not be necessary."


The eyes flashed their warning. There was no sense in arguing.

The girls hands, limp and by her side until now began to twitch. A flicker behind her eyelids indicated a return of higher conscious levels.

Drew eyed the readouts critically.

"She needs medical attention," he pleaded, "I can't be held responsible if she dies as a result of your insistence to keep this quiet."

Another icy stare.

"First Technician, I trust you were paying attention to what I have already told you. As you said yourself, she is an Assassin. If you do not do as you are instructed, then I will see to it that you will be reassigned to a job rôle within the company that will bring you closer than you would ever wish to their kind."

A frantic nod of reply. Sweat trickled on Drew's back.


The Stranger returned his attention to the girl. Slowly her eyes flickered open, and her probing newly awoken gaze surveyed the room in front of her and the two men.

A curl of vapour appeared and disappeared from her nostrils, and her chest began rising and falling in rhythm. Reaching up slowly, she brushed aside electrode pads from her arms, and stepped with a moment of uncertainty from the booth.

The Stranger gave her a look up and down.
"Welcome back to the land of the living, Lily."

She nodded a curt silent reply, and the Stranger turned back to the Technician.

"Show us the way out."

* * * *

The blast door gently swung shut behind them, closing off the view to the room that had been her unknown home for too long. Passing Drew's desk, the Stranger stopped only to retrieve his Palmtop, before he and the girl continued to the end of the corridor, and were gone.

At last Drew breathed a sigh of relief and settled back into his chair. Trying to banish the thoughts of what he had witnessed, he attempted to get back to the lobotomy that was his work.

One thing still bothered him - no medical attention. The girl had just opened her eyes, took a breath, and stepped out. Assassins weren't quite human, and thoroughly illegal, but that act still defied logic.

The Stranger's harsh warning continued ringing in his mind. He was paid to work, not think. It was one experience that would not, could not be shared.

Three, my Lucky Number

The Martian sub-tunnels stretched out at right angles to each other, straight and level as far as the eye could see. Lining their sides, from the stark concrete roadway to the steady gentle curve of the top of the arch, rose the columns of gaudy flashing neon lights, advertising the wares and fayres of the cafés and club-bars. Like snaking serpents of multi-coloured skin, the sidewalks bustled with a billion people of a million cultures rolled into one in the ultimate transgressing urban society.

The newcomers mingled through the crowd, silent to the jovial masses. Lily, the girl, followed in the Stranger's footsteps.

"Connolly, I'm hungry," she said at last, having to lean over to his ear to catch his attention over the thousand sounds of the crowd.

He stopped and looked at her, unsure. Finally his uncertainty vanished, sense working to his mind - of course she had been asleep for many months. Didn't animals on Earth come out of hibernation looking for food too?

He sighed, looking around for a convenient fast-food bar to grab a bite. "Okay, but let's not make it too long."

The girl nodded, and he sensed a look of thankful relief cross her face. Then she turned and was gone into the pulsating crowd, leaving him desperately to push his way after her.

Suddenly the crowd melted away, and he found himself at the bar of a Thai eatery. The smell of hot oil and frying vegetables washed over him as he squeezed onto a bar stool at the counter next to Lily, who was already ordering dishes from the gnarled waiter behind.

"I hope you've got credit to pay with?" she said with a smile.

Connolly pulled out his wallet, flicking through the cards.

"Enough," he smiled, for the first time.

"You wanna food meesta?" inquired the waiter brandishing his oily pad.

He glanced over the dog-eared menu on the bar, figuring it would beat watching the girl eating like some hanger on. He couldn't understand a word of the archaic text and flicked it along the bar top.

"Chicken? You do chicken?"

The Waiter nodded furiously.

"Yesa meesta. Lovely sauce, lotta lovely sauce."

"No, just Chicken. No Sauce."

"Okay meesta, you no a-worry."

Connolly got the impression the gnarled man didn't fully understand English as he watched him disappear into the kitchens behind. Through the swinging door he caught sight of the Chef, cigarette in mouth in the filthiest yellowed grease-soaked clothes imaginable hacking at raw meat with a cleaver.

For a moment the thought struck him that eating here might not have been such a good idea.

"How long have I been frozen?" Lily asked, pouring a glass of water from a jug and sipping.

Frozen was the off-world slang for long-term hibernation.

"Several months," he replied in a tone that hinted further discussion was not wanted.

She ignored the implication and continued, "A lot happened since I went in?"


"What stuff?"

"Julius still has his aspirations. Off world, the company's been building up its legitimate assets. Refineries, heavy metals. The usual."


She poured water from the jug into a second glass, sliding it in front of him.

"I feel like there's something you're avoiding telling me. Perhaps a little drink will help you loosen up."

He pushed it back, avoiding the look from her eyes.

"It'll take more than water to do that."

She signalled for a waiter.

"We've got time for a Beer. I may be an Assassin, but I'm not as stupid as a regular computer. Whilst I've been out here frozen, there's been some heavy debate over whether or not you should have ever thawed me out of hibernation I'll bet."

Connolly remained silent as the waiter arrived, and Lily broke off to order two Beers. Unwittingly she had hit closer to the truth than could be imagined.

* * * *

As the waiter brought the bottles and their food, conversation resumed, slowly.

"Julius had a change of heart. Nothing Dreyka or I could say would change his mind," he began, picking at the Chicken which predictably had arrived covered in a coconut and ginger sauce,

"You've guessed I don't like your kind, but until Julius can be persuaded otherwise, we've got to work together. But you already know all that from the mainframe. That's something else that is wrong - computers shouldn't band together like that. Sooner or later it will be the end of us real people."

He flicked a spoonful of sauce to the floor.

"Homo Sapiens has been out evolved," she snapped, stirring rice, "Homo Superior is the result, and I represent that stage of the circle."

"Not as long as we can help it. Dreyka will monitor your performance. He has the means to remote shut you down the moment you try anything that isn't in the script."

She raised an eyebrow.


"Don't play dumb. That's something else I dislike about you. You know everything in advance. Between you and your remote link up to the mainframe, there isn't anything you don't know about the Syndicate."

"Perhaps," she purred sweetly, "But perhaps not."

He took another slug of Beer.

"Beats me why you bother talking like this. Did they do something to you whilst you were in hibernation? I've never known you to talk this much."

"Just being friendly, that's all."

"You! Friendly! Never heard that one before, "he snorted, reaching for his bottle again.

"Also there's the little matter that this time I don't know quite everything I would like."

A pause. The bottle hung motionless at his lips, a sixth sense bristling - there was something not right, something she knew that he didn't - or was it so?

"Go on."

"It's only worth talking to find out information you don't already know. There's a lock on certain areas of the mainframe that some-one's put in to stop me from remote accessing a whole bunch of files to do with me. Whoever put the codes in was good - I can't break them remotely, so I thought I'd get the information out of you."

She raised a bottle to her lips, smiling.

"Thankyou. It's been most informative in its own little way."

A pang of fear. Knowledge that the machine had had an agenda, and had won.

"You really didn't know?" he ventured, hope fast fading.


Another moment to worry in as he watched her eat. Questions formed in his mind, unsure of whether to be said.

"So, how much did I tell you that you didn't know?"

Frantically he tried to recall the wording of the conversation.


Another slug of Beer. The thought crossed his mind that maybe she was bluffing. But for what reason he did not know. He hated the machines.

"Nothing else to say?"


She stopped chewing for a moment, as if thinking perhaps he deserved at least some explanation, however minor.

"There is nothing left that I wish to find out. Therefore I feel little need to say more. You said yourself you do not like me or any of my kind, and frankly I understand why. If I had been given the choice, I would never have wished to have become one. But that choice was never offered, and it is not possible to regress back to the way I was before. So I must continue. Be assured the feeling you have towards me is reciprocated by me about you."

With that she returned to the remnants of her meal, the conversation at an implied end.

He chose not to pursue matters further, returning to the food, though it had lost all appeal and he found himself merely picking at the food, the power of the organic machine that sat alongside making him feel uneasy.

Homo Superior (Extract)

The crimson skies of morning broke along the horizon, a hue of laundered freshness that spread like blended wildfire from rooftop to rooftop.

A necessity of investigation. Smith, Vlad and the few knew they had to work fast, to find out the truth that lingered and hid just beyond their grasp.

The risks are high for they are more certain than ever that Julius and his Syndicate of Assassins are behind it. One word to the wrong place and a hierarchy of bums and no goods, each clamouring for their place further up the tree of power would be only to happy to report them to those at the top. They would see only a means to move on up the pyramid.

And once some-one began to fall from the highest rungs of the ladder, there were plenty on the way down waiting to put their knives in to see how far they would fall.

A lifetime's collection of underworld contacts could be gone through. A list of scum and beatniks as long as the M25 circle, and just as undesirable. And when those assortments of no-goods had turned up nothing, there was only one place left to try, in the hope that something the others had missed had been turned up here.

And that was Rob. He could talk bollocks all day long, morning to night, nothing but bollocks. And the thing was, what Rob normally knew about the things he went on and on about, you could write in wax crayon on the back of a first class stamp.

Unfortunately, Rob was the only person clued up enough on the etiquette of doing business on the street without pissing off one too many Syndicates. A petty street peddler all his life, this was the doper's favourite choice for spliff filling, regardless of allegiance.

Years on the streets, plying his trade without concern for Syndicate borders or rank alike, there were many things you could pick up in passing that others missed.

In the ethereal dive of the dope deal, it was polite to talk about everything and nothing over a quiet smoke to check out the quality of the merchandise.

With Rob the merchandise was always good; there was no need other than custom to have a parting spliff and a dose of the bullshit. There were rumours as to what his home grown weed was nurtured on, and if the urban myths were true, it could have been anything from stale beer to fresh cow dung. But as long as the stuff packed its mellowing punch, no-one cared to ask. His shit was good. Better than his small talk rambling chatter - and all his talk was small.

If you fought through the bullshit, the info was there. After all, Rob should hold a PhD in Dodginess Technology by now, having seen the insides of enough jail cells to write the happy junkie's guide to places to spend an unexpected forced night. He had seen it all, heard it all.
That was the charm. He came across as such a scatterbrained no hoper without a clue, that customers couldn't help but feel at ease and say more than they probably should have.
But that was half the pleasure of it, having an ear to listen that didn't ask questions, and regurgitate what it had heard to others.

Therapy of a psychologist without the expense. And there wasn't an illegal drug on the face of the planet that he couldn't get. Quality control was never an issue - Rob had been buying for long enough to have weeded out the shites from his suppliers.

No-one sold him down the river on a deal, he knew his narcotics better than his own palm. If a nine-bar had been laced with any formula at all, he knew by the subtle changes in texture and colour. If it didn't crumble right, he didn't want to know.

It was just Rob's way of having a good time, bumming through life, getting nowhere fast, and never anywhere special at that.

But he was having a good time of it, and that was what mattered in his game at least; he didn't aspire to being anything else. He was happy being almost a nobody that didn't get bothered, and escaped all the hassle of life.

Rob had reached the pinnacle of his own little civilisation, and was just happy to keep on being there in perpetual euphoria. At least that was what it was to him.

He was a locked blackhole of combined knowledge that no-one ever thought to tap. The idea just never occurred that this spaced bum had actually heard more real truths than hearsay.
Between those ears, half hidden by the raggedy unkempt hair was a mind that acted like a multi track.

All his clients had a track to themselves - a conversation over a joint never had to start again from scratch the second time. It was just he never, intentionally or otherwise, let those tracks collide with each other. You never caught him talking someone else's tune.
Maybe that was why he had survived so long.


To make an appointment wasn't hard - you just turned up with cash in hand. Life never bothered with bureaucracy of business around Rob. Cash in hand, and a willingness to hear out his bullshit. It didn't matter when the shit was this good.

By the time Smith arrived on his doorstep, it was an act of desperation over all other forms of motivation. A lifetime's supply of contacts across the city had turned up zip.

Trying to keep his motivations secret too had been a task unto itself. One hint in the wrong place would fire off the alarm bells all up the train of command. It was a long way to fall from the top.

He never bothered knocking - Rob's theory was only the uninitiated like coppers bothered with formalities like that. The serious buyers just walked on in.

The soft pine smell of the tack hit him as he walked in, strong and lingering in the air. The walls were stained a lighter shade of brown, legacy of years of constant smoke. The smouldering fires in this place only went out when Rob did, and even that was never for long. At least the smell that always lingered never had the harsh foulness of straight tobacco ash.

As expected, Rob was in, kneeling on the floor in front of an impressive bong that stood several feet high. Around in the gloomy background the sum total of Rob's life was strewn messily from the sink in the corner, across the hand woven rug to the bed. A cluttered table by the end wall gave the impression there was little that Rob believed in that wasn’t transient in his life.
As those hang-dog hippy eyes looked up, Smith knew that it was his last good chance at finding out what had really happened to Matthius. But underneath his dim and messy exterior, Rob was no real fool. Playing one might keep the punters happy, but without that spark of controlled sentience waiting underneath this world wouldn't have taken a kind eye for long.
A lighter crackled in his hand.

"Come in, come in. You're just in time for the new batch."

"New batch?"

Smith knew the usual routine.

"Yeah, in from Marrakech this morning. Good shit, high on pollen, low on chemical. Best I've had in all week. Lucky you got here before the rush."

The lighter flame played over the gauze, a familiar gurgle of bubbling water from the wooden body of the bong as Rob inhaled. Even the appearance of infrequent custom could not deter Rob from the first toke.

Smith settled himself down onto the edge of the unmade bed, patiently waiting for Rob to exhale. It was never good form to rush the experienced smoker. Especially not when they might have information that you wanted.

Rob continued, holding the smoke in for almost a full thirty seconds. Somewhere, hidden in the junk of the room, a clock ticked through the peaceful quiet.

At last he breathed out, sending the plume of blued smoke into the already smoky air.

"Excellent material, highest purity I've had from this supplier ever."

He offered the bong pipe across. Smith shook his head - getting light headed was not an option, just yet.

"Suit yourself. If you'd prefer a normal smoke, there's some stuff on the desk."

Smith looked over, ignoring the gurgle of the bong as Rob went for seconds. On the desk sat a huge block of resin, translucent and green rapped in cellophane to keep fragments in. Along one edge, the plastic had been peeled back, revealing a short crumbled edge, with a generous amount removed, already mixed in the bong.

He noted from the fresh smell percolating the room that Rob was right about the quality of this stuff. Even Smith's amateur nose could recognise that fact.

Next to the block, a few loose fragments sat with a bag of tobacco and a box of papers on an old LP sleeve. Gently he slid the sleeve and its load onto his knee. Even now, he mused, ignoring the fragments and rolling himself a straight tobacco cigarette, they still pressed a few LPs somewhere for muppets like Rob who still believed in the hippy format.

He figured, correctly, that Rob didn't even understand there was music on that grooved disk in the cardboard sleeve. To him, it was merely the quintessential rolling board. A hand-me-down from the legacy of the first pioneering beatniks who had pushed the frontiers of mind expanding bullshit.

Tobacco crinkled between the paper as he gently rolled, his mind deep in formulation of how to get the knowledge he needed out of Rob. If indeed it really was there.

From the floor came the crackle of lighter flint. The gurgle of water signalled Rob was going for the third toke. No real danger of him overdoing it - the man was hardcore in this environment.
Finishing his rolling, he licked the paper down, and bounced the finished article on its end on the LP to settle out any loose grains.

Feeling in his pocket for his own lighter, he suddenly found one offered to him. Appreciatively, he took it and lit up.

"So, what can I do for you?" asked Rob at last, as he received his lighter back.

"I'd just like to talk for a bit, that's all."

Smoke plumed to the ceiling.

Rob shook his head, smiling.

"This isn’t the Samaritans, man," he paused a moment before continuing, "Here, I just sell copious quantities of weed."

"And other assorted drugs, so I've been told."

Another chuckle.

"Yeah; PCNBA man is the only way to party."


He took another pull on the cigarette.

"But I need to ask a favour of you, if I may."

Rob lit his lighter again.

"No credit man. Nobody gets credit from here, not even the top Syndicate men who are regulars. In this house everybody pays for the shit up front, and I guarantee the quality is always good."

The bong gurgled again. Smith knew he now had another thirty second spell to speak without interruption.

"I know people talk to you all the time, every time they buy. It doesn't matter who they are, what they do, or which Syndicate pays their expenses bill. They all shop for their weed and other assorted pill-form pleasures here. Stands to reason you hear an awful lot from them all.
Over a friendly joint.

Smoking weed is what you might call a sociable pastime. You get together, you roll a few, buy a couple of ounces."

There was another pause as he gauged the beatnik's reactions.

"And you talk."

Smoke plumed again.

"Maybe. We talk about lots of things, everything. The state of the countryside, the state of the drains. Everybody has their theories and slants. After only a few tokes, everybody's a philosopher at heart."

Another laugh. Rob had a curious giggly laugh. It was almost like a girls laugh. When you really listened objectively to it, it sounded, well, silly.

Smith gently stubbed out his half finished cigarette in an ashtray he found on the desk amongst the mess. From the taste of the tobacco, it was apparent that Rob never wasted any of the fragment from the blocks he crumbled bits off. Anything left on the LP cover would get swept back into the tobacco for use in another session. Nothing needed to be wasted.

For an occasional user like Smith, there was enough already lingering thick in the air for comfort. Too much, and he'd end up losing the plot altogether.

"Sometimes we talk about serious stuff. Sometimes about nothing at all," Rob continued, the power of the cannabis loosening the tongue, "Sometimes we even come up with astounding breakthroughs in ethics and morality. The conversation can never be predicted or anticipated, only ever followed to its inevitable completion. Along the way we take in the sites. But it is a random process that is rarely ever repeated."

"I need to know what you know about Matthius. Has anyone mentioned what's happened to Matthius?"

Rob looked surprised. After a moment his mind caught up with him, and he looked down at the now burnt out contents of the gauze.

"You should know. You work for him," he paused, "Pass the hashtray over; this one's down to ashes."

His turn to be surprised. Taking the ashtray from the desk, he passed it over, and watched as Rob carefully emptied the bong of embers ready for another session.

"You're smarter than everybody I've spoken to gives credit for. You know a lot more about people than it seems."

Ash fluttered briefly in the air. Most landed in the ashtray, but some was lost into the already dusty carpet.

"Yeah, well."

Clearly Rob was not prepared to give over too much too soon. There was a reputation, of sorts, at stake.

"If you don't want it to be known of this meeting here between you and I, that's okay. I swear I won't let it get back to anyone. I need to know what happened to Matthius - sure I work for him, or at least I think I do.

Something's not right, and I'm suspecting but not getting anywhere at finding out for certain. Now, I know everybody comes here and buys and smokes and talks. I want to know, need to know what you might know about anything that could make things a little clearer for me."

"Sounds pretty heavy to me, man, maybe you ought to chill a little more."

Rob reached for the block, to refill his bong. Smith hid his mounting despair, and went for another try.

"Look, I know you don't want to talk about what you've heard in case there's any fall out back to you. All I need to know concerns Matthius, nothing else. Has he or hasn't he been murdered?"

Fragments of tack, scraped from the block scattered onto the gauze in an art of years of practice that made it all look like clockwork.

"I didn't hear the magic words."

Smith removed a bundle of stale smelling used notes from his wallet.

"Will cash do? Fourteen grand."

The notes crinkled in his hand. It was a sound that reached for a primal instinct in all street scum, no matter what. Rob was small time - laughably all it took was almost small change.
The junky looked up, a lighter poised between bong and nothingness, arrested but lit.

"Not quite the magic words, but they seem to have hit the spot."

A grubby tack discoloured hand reached out and took the notes. The bong was forgotten, at least for the moment.

He talked slower, more thoughtfully now, despite the effects of the drugs. And always, those grubby hands were fingering the money.

Fourteen thousand wasn't that much, at least to someone like Smith. But for Rob, it was worth at least two keys of green, even at bottomed out prices.

True, he grew all his own, so technically didn't need to buy it in. But what was the harm in a little extra cash?

"I did a run to Matthius' place about a week ago, something like that, maybe just under. It's not like I keep a written record, and my memory's not like it used to be."

The money was carefully pushed to one side, stuffed into an old trainer and slipped out of the way under the bed.

Gently he eased the bong pack between his knees - drugs were never a secondary concern for long in this room.

"Usually he takes four ounces, once a month, regular as ever. He's been kosher on me on that one for nearly two years. Always there at his place, with the cash, no haggling, and a free smoke before you go."

He looked up briefly, a glint in his eye.

"Normally I wouldn't deliver, but he was very persuasive. Didn't like going out himself much. And this isn't exactly a prim and proper neighbourhood for Jacqueline to be wandering about in by herself."

He grinned.

"So I always dropped it round."

The bong was lit again, and another thirty seconds elapsed before he continued.

"I rang for this month's stash, just to say it was ready - almost didn't bother, like, 'cos he was such a regular and there had never been a hitch. But he answers the phone anyway, and it's him. Except the strange thing is he doesn't want any, at least not delivered. Said it would have to be a couple of days then he'd send someone for him. Strange thing was he didn't want to talk, or say anything more."

Another long pull. This time he managed to hold his breath for closer to forty seconds.

"You know when you ask in a chain shop about something, and the morons they have serving always come out with the same old well-rehearsed script that never answers the question no matter how many different ways you ask it. It was something like that."

Smith nodded. The description tallied with his more recent conversations over the phone with Matthius.

"So what did you do?"

"Nothing you can do. The man no want his weed, it's not my case to argue. When the dude he said he would send never showed, I just forgot about it."

Smith got up to go.

Rob looked up, the glint in his eye again.

"For fourteen thou, you get more than just a snippet. Now I’m not in the business of pursuing these sort of things - round this way meddling where it is unwanted can get you killed. But I know a man who might be able to help you."

Smith sat down gingerly on the end of the bed again, as Rob prepared to go for another toke from the last of the glowing embers.

"Go on."

He had to wait for the answer. There was no rush.

"A man who came here for weed two days ago. I've seen him once or twice before; he's not a regular. He let slip a couple of hints by accident that set me thinking."


Rob looked thoughtfully at the now dead ash on the gauze.

"No. He was good at keeping all he could under wraps. He was very good. But I knew there was more to him than met the eye. He works for the Julius Syndicate."

“Oh yeah, like I could just ask them. Do you know how long I'd last doing that?"

"There was something else. I think he's batting for both sides on the sly."

"You mean?"

"An informer? No, not certain. Call it more of a suspicion driven by gut feeling. I could be wrong, but I don't think so."

Smith thought for a moment, thinking it all over. Rob might be nothing more than a doper, but he had a knack for reading people. It was partially what had kept him alive for so long.

"Where can I find him?" he asked.

Rob was already reaching for the LP sleeve and the still huge block. At the rate it was going, he was certainly making the most of the fourteen grand Smith had given him. At least he wouldn't have to worry about smoking into profits for a while longer.

"Area 12 - residential block. I caught sight of his keycard. That area's mostly slums and derelicts waiting for bulldozing. There can't be many people around there."

"A name?"

Rob’s brow scrunched as he pushed his memory.


A long forgotten memory stirred in Smith's mind.

"Koyaté you say?"

He mulled the name over. Could it be the one?

Orb of Arawaan (Extract)

Betrayer of Worlds (Part 2)

In the sanctity offered by his own quarters high up in the towers of Palladin, Stoto turned his grumbling attentions to the task he knew he had to be quick in following. First making sure the heavy studded oak doors leading in were securely bolted and barred, he began the scrabble through his misfit collection of potion bottles and gnarled books as withered with age as he to find what he wanted.

Checking the names across the spines of books on the tall shelves along one side of the first room, he found the one he wanted and tugged it from its resting place. A crooked finger flicked along the pages scattering dust as his mind muttered and schemed, still boiling at the inconvenience and lost opportunities of Jono’s new plans.

Well he would pay them back! A smile cracked across his face at the thoughts and at last his fingers found their mark. Hidden in the pages were hand written notes in his own scrawny handwriting, illegible from the prying eyes that fate might tempt to look over his work whilst he was elsewhere in the palace. The High Priest had always been suspicious of him, and he suspected that there were others too who would dearly love to pay him out. He cackled as he surmised that none had come close to exposing him at all.

Sidling to the end of the dusty volumes with the book balanced on one arm, he thrust his other into the darkened recesses behind the shelves, and struggled for a moment with concentration etched to his face. Then his fingers found their mark, and the bookcase edged silently open revealing the dark void behind and the hidden room that no-one but he knew of. The shelving was well-balanced on its base, and it made barely a sound as it moved. Still, he gave a cautionary glance to the barred oak door, reaching out across the ether to sense any other minds that might be trying to spy on him.

Satisfied there were none, he picked a spluttering tallow candle from its holder in the wall and stepped on through to his most secret of hiding-holes.

Water trickled and dripped echoing hollow in the gloom. Here and there, illuminated in the brief passing of the flickering candlelight, cobwebs strung out like so many intricate lace patterns shuddered silently to the breeze that blew through the cold passage. Ignoring the suprisingly loud rattle of his own footsteps in the tight confines, Stoto pushed on to the end of the short tunnel where it opened into no more than a small room, buried deep and safe within the thickness of Palladin’s old stone walls.

Setting the candle to a rusted holder he turned his eye over the materials set out in the dusty grasp of age darkened shelving. His equipment was still here exactly as he had left it. It had been a while since he had felt the pressing need to use it, but that time had predictable been long in coming. His hands stole over the casings of complex off-world electricals. Jono and his people had never been ones for technology, invariably choosing to let it all pass them largely on by unnoticed.

That was not to say that it was impossible for those determined enough to gain possession of whatever they desired. There were always smugglers within the depths of spaceport bars willing to bring anything into orbit for the right price.

He flicked on a power switch, and hoped there was still enough juice left in the power cell to do what he wanted. Waiting for old electrics to warm up, he cast his mind out one last time on the ether to probe for anyone seeking to spy on his work. Like white horses on the crest of waves on the sea his consciousness floated and weaved its way over rooms and through walls until he was satisfied that no-one was near. Then, opening his eyes he saw in the warm glow given off from the machine that the time was ready, and leant forward to operate the controls.

* * * * *

The air above the machine exploded into an array of shimmering light. Somewhere in the box electronics hummed, as the drain on the power cells grew ever stronger. The smell of ozone and ionised particles hung heavy in the weasel man’s nostrils, though he never flinched in the harshness of the glow. In mid air patterns of haze slowly resolved and formed until the very molecules of the cloud took on form and gained the personality and features of something else.
A line of static wavered in the image for a moment, causing Stoto to hurriedly reach for control knobs and adjust. Silently he cursed himself for not sourcing new cells after the last time he had had cause to use the machine. It was too late now for such regrets and all he could do was spin the dials and hope for the best.

Then in the final few seconds the image became complete and began to roll in suspended air. A pair of eyes appeared, and then a mouth, and suddenly a High Lord was there in the room in all its magnificence casting a beady eye down on the withered form of the man everybody took to despise.

“Stoto!” it hissed.

Stoto bowed forward in humble acknowledgement.

“Indeed, High Lord.”

“Why have you taken to call on me?” the disembodied head inquired, “It has been many dakrum. This can only mean one thing; you have information that you wish to sell on.”
A trickle of sweat beaded on Stoto’s greasy forehead. One corner of his mouth twitched.

“For a price.”

Silence boomed deafening for a moment in the darkness of the hiding-hole as the head regarded him with probing eyes. At last the head broke the tension and spoke.

“I see, many things,” it purred slowly, its eyes appearing to glaze and focus elsewhere, “I see schemes and plans that speak of desires for riches. I see your soul laid bare, Stoto.”

Stoto shivered uncomfortably, wondering whether he had made the right decision in calling on the High Lords. Time had muted so much of the fear and he had forgotten just how intimidating they could be.

“I have no desire for riches,” he crawled with a false laugh, “Only desire to serve.”

The eyes refocused and fixed him in their icy glare.

“Do not tempt me, Stoto,” boomed the voice, playing into every corner of his mind, “Your flimsy mind tricks cannot hide your inner being from me. The ether never lies.”

As it spoke the words, he felt the uneasy probe of the High Lord’s mind across the ether, etching its way through his psyche like a hot knife through butter. It shocked him how they could perform such a feat across such distance and worlds.

“Your motive is profit, and personal gain,” spoke the voice, “Nothing more.”

It regard him for a moment before the shimmering projection shuddered into low laughter.
Stoto looked up uneasily.

“Do not fear,” said the head at last, “If money is your motive then money it shall be.”
Stoto relaxed.

“However, I must be certain that I wish to pay for such information as you might have.”

A digital eye brow moved higher across the image.

“After all, how do I know that what you offer is worth what you will demand?”

Insects crawling on the wall might have died in the paralysis of the stare fixed on the wavering image of the face. The masked threats hung heavy in the dank air as Stoto considered his position. At last he spoke, forming his words carefully in his mind a sentence at a time.

“There are those who seek the Orb.”

He stopped to judge the reaction of the face. To the unobservant it might have seemed as though the High Lord treated the comment with a state of impassiveness. But Stoto caught the flicker in the eyes.

“Go on,” the head hissed.

Stoto smiled, at ease at last. The bait had been swallowed; now all he had to do was land his prize.

“Jono has sent an expedition forth to seek it out. They say that he knows more than others.”


Stoto smiled and waved a finger.

“Not so fast my friend,” he tutted, “I have not received any payment for my troubles.”

“You are mistaken in who you call your friends, Stoto.”

He shrugged off the threats.

“I do not work for free.”

“Maybe we High Lords are not so interested in what you have to offer.”

Seconds ticked by in the gloom. Another flicker of static edged across the shimmering projection.

“Even so, I know you would dearly like to know.”

A sneer edged across Stoto’s face as he gauged the reactions his words would provoke.

The face stared impassively, considering its options closely.

“What do you want?” it asked at last.

Tension inherent in the air for the last few minutes began to ease. He knew he had his fee.

“Platinum credit,” he snapped.

That would cover him for much that he might have succeeded in embezzling over time from that which Jono had handed to the old man and perhaps a little more besides. There was no sense in asking low.

“Agreed. You will meet our agent in the main city.”

“I cannot come immediately. For me to leave so soon would invoke suspicion and might force the expedition sent to change its plans accordingly.”

The head’s eyes seemed to sparkle on the words.

“So the expedition has left so soon? Interesting.”

Stoto brushed the probing comments aside.

“You do not know and cannot be certain of anything. Do not try to cross me now.”

“You are in no position to tell us what to do.”

“I think I am.”

“Do not tempt us. We have powers beyond even your understanding.”

“And lose your best chance at the Orb in the process?”

The question hung sharp in the air. The head considered, than backed down.

“As you wish. Our agents shall be ready in the city. You know the location?”

Stoto bowed his head low.


“Then make sure you are there.”

Without waiting for response or reply the shimmering image folded in on itself and was gone, leaving only the harsh smell of ozone and ionised particles sharp in the damp air.

Stoto smiled – at least something had gone to plan. Disconnecting several wires from the still warm equipment, he took out the now exhausted power cell and hooked it under his robes for taking to the city. If he needed to use the equipment again it would require a fresh source of power. He could source spares on his trip to the city. Happy now that all was ready, he picked up the spluttering candle that was now no more than a flickering stub and made ready for the trudge back out of the hiding hole to hide his work before he was missed.

Syndicate Dawn (Extract)

Into the Circle of Fire

The distant sounds of traffic thundering on in it's relentless race mixed and mingled faintly with the wail of a police car siren as it receded into the unseen distance. In the air hung the ambient ambivalence of a billion people's discarded waste and refuse, hanging heavy and dark like autumn's mists.

Out of the shadows of a narrow entrance concealed by mountains of unclaimed and untended rotting rubbish stepped a tall thin man wearing a full length leather trench coat. Despite the gloomy darkness of the street, he hid his eyes behind the dark impenetrable black of shades. Hallmarks of the Assassins.

Slowly he began to walk forward, the rhythmic scrunch of gravel cutting sharply through the tranquillity of the night. At his side, borne casually by his left arm, a brown time-worn leather hold-all swung easily with his stride, its contents obscured for now.

He stopped once again and glanced round slowly, observing his surroundings silently but for the faint creak of Leather. After no more than a moment he moved off again. The scrunch of loose gravel under his feet marking his passage against the night.

"Looks like you strayed your pretty hard-ass arse down the wrong alley tonight!"

The voice cut through the still air. A youth brandishing a sub machine gun stepped out from the concealment that had been offered by a boarded up doorway.

The Assassin kept moving, ignoring the threat and not even turning his head to acknowledge the petty thief.

"Hey dipshit. Yeah you," came the voice again, "Time to get yourself a hearing aid or get yourself killed. Let's see the colour of your money."

It was as if he hadn't heard a thing.

The youth cocked the gun, the click of the bolt hanging in the air as an unspoken threat.

"Okay dipshit, you asked for it. I haven’t got time for crazies who think the World will pass them by if they ignore it."

With no warning and without stopping or looking round, the silent man produced a sawn-off shotgun from inside his jacket, and with a deft movement swung it over his shoulder.

In an instant it was over. The youth lay sprawled on the floor, features unrecognisable after both cartridges had done their work. One leg twitched for a moment, then lay still. He hadn't had time to scream.

The silent man didn't look back or break stride. Still smoking, the sawn-off disappeared back under the coat, and he was gone from the alley.

* * * * *

The Assassin came to the corner at the end of the claustrophobic back street, standing at the edge of a busy road bustling with pedestrians and traffic. Hundreds of people pushed and shoved along the pavements, laughing and shouting under the glow of club and café neon signs in a myriad of blues reds and greens.

In the central sector, every night was party night till late at the city's thousands of bars and night-clubs.

Opposite rose the flat glass façade of a government sector agency building reflecting dully the distorted shapes of neon signs jumbled unrecognisably. A government sector agency building in looks, but there would be more hidden in the mass of office buildings behind - there always was.

He paused at the side street's mouth, looking slowly round, ignored by the crowd. From two other side roads, appearing out of the shadows, came two more identically dressed Assassins. Each also carried the same brown leather hold-alls. The hit-squad was ready.

The first gave a discrete nod to the second two, and the bags dropped to the ground, leaving the mini-guns they had held exposed and ready. A scream went up through the crowd as they were spotted. Ripples of panic spread out along the pavements as people started running and pushing in a frenzied attempt to get out of the way.

Then it began.

* * * * *

With a deafening roar, all three mini-guns opened fire, streaks of flame darting from their revolving barrels directed towards the agency building. The glass façade turned to sugary powder under the barrage, raining down onto the now empty pavement below showering in a blanket of blue-white.

A passing car was ripped apart as it crossed the fire from the guns, exploding into a roaring inferno as it careered out of control slamming into a row of parked cars with a sickening grind of metal on metal.

Moving forward slowly in unison, the three walked towards the building, the rapid firing guns never ceasing to spray in bullets, whirling ammo belts rapidly feeding the destruction-hungry guns.

From somewhere inside there was a huge resonating explosion as bullets found their way through the gas main and ignited it.

Furniture and bodies were blown out into the road with yet more glass shards, as the lower floor's gutted interior lit up in dancing oranges and yellows reflecting from the advancing flames.

* * * * *

As quickly as it started, it stopped. An eerie silence rolling in as passers-by watched on from a very safe distance, hushed and without daring to venture too close in case they too became victims of the onslaught. Only the faint roar of the gas flames licking through the building broke the strange peace that had settled.

The men walked slow and deliberately up the débris strewn front steps. Glass scrunching loudly underfoot, before they walked in where the entrance had been, into the depths of the shattered building unchallenged and unhindered.

* * * * *

Inside the building lay a scene of total destruction and annihilation. Furniture upturned and smashed up, gouged holes betraying where bullets had crashed mercilessly through. From the far end, flames steadily encroached into the room, quickly taking a hold of the wood of broken furniture and office paper from the filing cabinets that had been burst open spewing out their contents.

A survivor of the holocaust, an employee who had happened to be there at the wrong time, jumped up from behind the disembowelled wreckage of filing cabinets and desks brandishing a pistol.

A mistake for the brave to make only once.

He had time to fire no more than two shots before the closest Assassin opened fire with a short burst from his mini-gun, the heavy firing momentarily overpowering the roar of the encroaching flames. Both his shots never went near their targets.

If anyone else had survived, they chose not to show it for fear of a similar ruthless treatment.
Walking in strict unison, without bothering to take in the scene of their destruction, they headed straight for a set of glass strewn stairs, and made the uninterrupted climb up to the next floor with the steady crunch of fragments still grinding underfoot.

Here was less touched by destruction, most of the furniture being intact although glass carpeted everything. From outside there was little noise except the constant sounds of flames licking their way deeper into the débris.

Anyone who had survived the initial onslaught on this floor had made a quick exit through the fire escape as soon as the lull in the mini-gun fire came, leaving it eerie and abandoned.
The trio walked over to a steel security door set in the wall. Without needing to try to open it they knew it would be locked.

* * * * *

A curious silence had descended across the three research scientist left in the white-walled lab. Outside the noises, dulled almost to little more than a bass rumble by the heavily insulated walls had died away, leaving more answers than could be solved by conjecture.

Briefly the lights had flickered as an explosion, origin unknown, had vibrated the room. Two of the computer terminals had automatically rebooted, indicating that something had happened to the outside server line.

Scientists, ashen with the fear of the unknown glanced nervously to each other as rasping noises of metal being cut came from the one and only door to the lab. Heavily armoured, it could only be opened by secure keycode.

Or explosives.

"Get down!" shouted one of the scientists to his comrades instinctively.

He and one other took cover behind equipment, but the third stood rooted to the spot.

As the door exploded inwards, the heavy metal structure disintegrated, taking him with it. He never realised what hit him.

Before the smoke dissipated, all three Assassins lunged inside. One scientist tried to make a break, and was immediately gunned down mercilessly. The other survivor nestled closer into the shadows afforded by equipment benches. This was no time to be a hero if you wanted to live.

Whilst two stood guard at the door, the third Assassin made his way to a complex looking machine, and extracted a number of samples from it which he pocketed. Turning his attention to the remote computer terminal sat alongside, he began tapping commands rapidly on the keyboard.

"Computer," he commanded in his flat monotone voice, "download all files classified secret or above to local drive from network."

"Please stand close to the retina scan plate to confirm authorisation." commanded the computer in its soft female tones, unmoved by or even aware of the carnage that had taken place just seconds before.

The man heaved a body from the floor and held the lifeless corpse close. A light blipped for a fraction of a second over the dead man's face.

"Authorisation accepted, First technician Neadder. Download commencing now."

First Technician Neadder's body slipped to the floor, but it was too late for the computer to know he was dead.

With astonishing rapidness, Terabytes of information flashed on the screen. Thousands of pages of text and hundreds of digitised pictures and film strips.

Within a few seconds it had stopped.

"All data downloaded. Proceed?" asked the computer in it's soft feminine voice.

He said nothing, taking the data cartridge from its slot and slipping it into a pocket. With the butt of his gun he smashed the terminal hard. The screen went blank before fuzzing over with static, and sparks flew from shorted electrical circuits with angry buzzing.

The three had collected all they had come for.

As quickly as they had arrived, they were gone, lost to the expanse of city and beyond. And in their hands was the information they had sought.