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The Star Fraction

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The Star Fraction

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Author: Ken MacLeod
Publisher: Legend, 1995
Series: The Fall Revolution: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Apocalyptic/Post-Apocalyptic
Artificial Intelligence
Human Development
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(55 reads / 22 ratings)



Synopsis

Britain in the 21st century is a Balkanized mess. Moh Kohn is a security mercenary unaware that he holds the key to information which could change the world. Janis Taine is a scientist who needs Mohs help. And a rogue computer program is guiding events to a breathtaking conclusion.


Excerpt

I

Smoking Gunman

It was hot on the roof. Above, the sky was fast-forward: zeppelin fleets of cloud alternating with ragged anarchic flags of black. Bright stars, mil- and comsats, meteors, junk. Moh Kohn crouched behind the parapet and scanned the band of trees half a klick beyond the campus perimeter. Glades down, the dark was a different shade of day. He held the gun loose, swung it smoothly, moved around to keep cool. The building's thermals gave him all the cover he could expect, enough to baffle glades or IR-eyes that far away.

"Gaia, it's hot," he muttered.

"Thirty-one Celsius," said the gun.

He liked hearing the gun. It gave him a wired feeling. Only a screensight read-out, but he heard it with his eyes like Sign.

"What'll it be tonight? Cranks or creeps?"

"Beginning search."

"Stop." He didn't want it racking its memory for an educated guess; he wanted it looking. As he was, all the time, for the two major threats to his clients: those who considered anything smarter than a pocket calculator a threat to the human race, and those who considered anything with a central nervous system an honorary member of it.

He'd been scanning the concrete apron, the perimeter wall, the trees for three hours, since 21:00. Relief was due in two. And then he wouldn't just be off-shift, he'd be off-active, with a whole week to recover. After seven nights of staring into the darkness, edgy with rumors, jumpy with hoaxes and false alarms, he needed it.

Music and laughter and noise eddied between the buildings behind him, sometimes loud when the speeding air above sent a blast down to groundlevel, sometimes--as now, in the hot stillness--faint. He wanted to be at that party. It no attack came this watch...dammit, even if there did. All he had to do was not take incoming fire. Shelling it out was something else, and it wouldn't be the first time he'd dissolved the gray-ghostly nightfight memories and the false colors of cooling blood in drinking and dancing and especially in sex--the great specific, the antithesis and antidote for violence--to the same night's end.

Something moved. Kohn chilled instantly, focusing on a point to his left, where he'd seen...There it was again, where the bushes fingered out from the trees. Advance cover. He keyed the weapon's inertial memory and made a quick sweep, stepping the nightsight up ×3. Nothing else visible. Perhaps this was the main push. He turned back and the gun checked his hand at the place it had marked.

And there they were. Two, three--zoom, key to track--four, crouching and scurrying. Two with rifles, the others lugging a pack. The best straight line of their zigzag rush arrowed the Alexsander Institute. The AI block.

Cranks, then. No compunction.

"Do it for Big Blue," he told the gun. He made himself as small as possible behind the parapet, holding the gun awkwardly above it, and aimed by the screensight image patched to his glades. His trigger finger pressed Enter. The weapon took over; it aimed him. In a second the head-up image showed four bodies, sprawled, stapled down like X- and Y- chromosomes.

"Targets stunned."

What was it about? Kohn checked the scrolling read-out. The gun had fired five high-velocity slugs of slip--skin-contact liquid pentothal. It had put the cranks to sleep. He could have sworn he'd switched to metal rounds.

"HED detected. Timer functioning. Reads: 8:05...8:04...8:03..."

"Call Security!"

"Already copied."

Kohn looked over the parapet. Two figures in hard-suits were running across the grass toward the unconscious raiders. He thumbed the Security channel.

"Lookout Five to Ready One, do you copy?"

("7:51.")

("Yes, yes.")

"Ready One to Lookout. Receiving."

"They've got a time bomb with them. Could be booby-trapped."

They stopped so fast he lost sight of them for a moment. Then an unsteady voice said, "Hostiles are alive, repeat alive. Our standing instructions--"

"Fuck them!" Kohn screamed. He calmed himself. "Sorry, Ready One. My contract says I override. Get yourselves clear. No dead heroes on my call-out. Shit, it could be dangerous even from there, if it's a daisy cutter...Hey, can you give me a downlink to the UXB system?"

"What hardware you got up there, Moh?"

"Enough," Moh said, grinning. The guard took a small apparatus from his backpack and set it on the grass. Kohn adjusted the gun's receiver dish let, hearing the ping of the laser interface. The screensight reformatted.

"OK, you got line-of-sight tight beam, user access." The guards sprinted for cover.

Normally Kohn couldn't have entered this system in a million years, but there's never been any way around the old quis custodiet (et cetera) questions. Especially when the custodes are in the union.

Fumbling, he keyed numbers into the stock. The gun was picking up electronic spillover from the bomb's circuitry (no great feat; AI-abolitionists didn't really go for high tech) and bouncing it via the security guard's commset to British Telecom's on-line bomb-disposal expert system.

"2:20." Then: "No interactive countermeasures possible. Recommend mechanical force."

"What?"

In a distant tower, something like this:

* * *

IF (MESSAGE-UNDERSTOOD)

THEN; /* DO NOTHING */

ELSE DO;

CALL RE-PHRASE;

END;

* * *

"SHOOT THE CLOCK OFF!" relayed the gun, in big green letters.

"Oh. All right."

The gun lined itself up. Kohn fired. The screen cleared and reverted to normal. The gun was on its own now.

"Status?"

"No activity."

He could see that for himself. The pack containing the bomb had jerked as the bullet passed through it. So had one of the bodies.

Kohn felt sick. Ten minutes earlier he'd been annoyed that these people weren't dead. No one, not even his true conscience, would blame him, but the twisted code of combatant ethics revolted at prestunned slaughter. He stood, and looked down at the prone figures, tiny now. The one he'd hit had an arm wound; at the limits of resolution he could see blood oozing rhythmically...

Therefore, not dead. Relief flooded his brain. He talked into the chin mike, requesting medicals for the injured hostile. What about the others? Campus Security wanted to know.

"Put them in the bank," Kohn said. "Credit our account."

"Lookout One? What's the name of your account?"

Disarmed, waking from their shots, the attackers were being handled gently. They'd gone from hostile to hostage, and they knew it. An ambulance whined up.

"Oh, yeah," Kohn said. "The Felix Dzerzhinsky Workers' Defense Collective. Nat-Mid-West account 0372 87944."

"Uh-huh," muttered the guard's voice. "The Cats."

"Hey!" another voice broke in, ignoring all comm discipline. "We got one of your exes!"

"Lookout One to unidentified," Kohn said firmly. "Clarify message."

"Red Crescent truck to Lookout, repeat. Patient Catherin Duvalier has employment history of work on your team."

Catherin Duvalier. Gee Suss! "One of your exes," indeed.

"She was freelancing," Kohn lied. "Where are you taking her?"

"Hillingdon Hospital. You want her released on recovery?"

"Like hell," Kohn choked. "Don't even put her in the bank. We're keeping her this time."

"Secure ward, got you." The medics slammed the rear door and leapt into the ambulance, which screamed off around the perimeter road like they had a brain to save. Fucking cowboys. Subcontractors for the Muslim Welfare Association in Ruislip. Probably trained by veterans of Cairo. Always assume incoming...

Behind him he heard a heavy, dull crump and the song of falling glass. "You missed the backup fuse," he snarled at the gun and himself as he flattened to the roof. But then, in the sudden babble in his phones, he realized it was not his bomb.

The crank raid had been a diversion after all.

* * *

Janis Taine lay in bed for a few minutes after the diary woke her. Her mouth was dry, thick with the aftertaste of ideas that had colored her dreams. Just outside her awareness floated the thought that she had an important day ahead. She kept it there and tried to tease the ideas back. They might be relevant.

No. Gone.

She swallowed. Perhaps, despite all precautions, minute traces of the hallucinogens at the lab infiltrated her bloodstream, just enough to give her vivid, elusive but seemingly significant dreams? More worryingly, she thought as she swung her legs out of bed with a swish of silk pajamas and felt around for her slippers, maybe the drugs gave her what seemed perfectly reasonable notions, sending her off down dead ends as convoluted as the molecules themselves...Par for the course. Bloody typical. Everything got everywhere. These days you couldn't keep things separate even in your mind. If we could only disconnect--

She heard the most pleasant mechanical sound in the world, the whirr of a coffeegrinder. "Pour one for me," she called as she padded to the bathroom. Sonya's reply was inarticulate but sounded positive.

It was an important day so she brushed her teeth. Not exactly necessary--she'd had her anticaries shots at school like everybody else, and some people went around with filthy but perfect mouths--but a little effort didn't hurt. She looked at herself critically as she smoothed a couple of layers of sun cream over her face and hands. Bouncy auburn hair, green eyes (nature had had a little encouragement there), skin almost perfectly pale. Janis brushed a touch of pallor over the slight ruddiness of her cheeks and decided she looked great.

Sonya, her flatmate, was moving around in the kitchen like a doll with its power running down, an impression heightened by her blond curls and short blue nightdress.

"Wanna taab?"

Janis shuddered. "No thanks."

"Zhey're great. Wakesh you up jusht like zhat." She was making scrambled eggs on toast for three.

"Gaia bless you," said Janis, sipping coffee. "How much sleep have you had?"

Sonya looked at the clock on the cooker and fell into a five-second trance of mental arithmetic.

...

Copyright © 1995 by Ken MacLeod


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