In the 28th century, humans inhabit more than a thousand self-contained orbital colonies in the near reaches of the solar system. Billions of colonists follow the religious teachings of the Aescelan, priests who promote managed evolution and control their followers' reproduction through genetic engineering.
We teach life as a sacred river, its headwaters in the hot primordial seas of four billion years ago, branching out over the continents of the planet, its streams at last bursting over the high banks of the Earth to populate the thousands of orbiting colonies...in time the river will flood our solar system, and beyond that, who can say?
Dr. Abraham Cohen
Lecture on Britannia colony
Nicholas stood before the soaring window of the sky lounge in the Mourin spaceport, located in the shell of the spherical colony.The view served as a powerful enticement for travelers on stopover to spend their vacation here, or at least to make a mental note to return in the future.
Rivers poured down from mountain peaks to crash through densely forested canyons and join the distant ocean.Because of his perspective from the lounge, the sea was actually inverted high above Nicholas's head, past the elongated twist of clouds.The pristine landscape stretched away into the distance, well beyond the vanishing point of his vision.
He could not see any of the meditation temples or quiet resorts from here; they were carved into the rock shelves, even their facades sculpted and colored to blend in with the neighboring cliffs.Many of them could not be reached by road or river, but only by navigating the steep trails and dense forests on foot.Haunting mists rose as far as he could see.The peaceful beauty of the land made him ache inside.
Why shouldn't he stay here, as he'd told his captain he would?He could spend a few days studying sacred texts and learning proper yoga posture on the rocks by a roaring waterfall.He might reconnect with the Great Man's teachings of peace and acceptance, and return home ready to take up his former duties.
"Mr. Kilharne," a voice said behind him.It was the name of one of his two backup identities. Nicholas turned to see the thin gypsy pilot in his ragged wool and leather jacket. "We're preparing to depart.Might want to pick up some provision for yourself."His grin revealed sharp, uneven teeth. "We don't have fancy meals like the big Triod ships, you see."
Nicholas looked again at the inviting panorama.He didn't want to leave this place for the smoke and metal hell of his true destination: Stellax colony.However much he longed to stay, to cultivate peace within himself, he'd made his choice.He could never return to his old life.
Tearing his eyes away from the serene forest, Nicholas followed the pilot to his ship.
The trip to Stellax lasted several hours, with a stopover at the busy port of ReTokyo.Nicholas found himself cramped into a corner of the small, dirty cabin, where the crew's socks and underclothes dried on a taut line.The ship had a foul stench, like rotten cabbage.
He shared the worn bench seating with a few other passengers.All of them were cyborgs.Nicholas tried to inspect their metal arms and eyes without being too obvious.He could not understand why anyone would attach such machinery to themselves when the Aescelan priests knew how to regenerate missing organs and limbs.To install machinery in one's own body was one of the deep sins, an offense against life itself. Sharing a small room with people who debased themselves so thoroughly caused him a nervous, twitchy discomfort.He could sense the depth of difference between himself and the repulsive, alien people around him.He was truly striking out into apostate worlds, where many had never even read the prophet's teachings.
He would have to grow accustomed to their inhuman appearance, and quickly.Stellax served as a manufacturing base for the Triod Corporation, which dominated the cybernetics and spacecraft industries, but made its true wealth constructing new colonies under contract to various clients.Stellax attracted those who wanted to modify their bodies into something less than natural.The colony had a notorious reputation as a den of data pirates and flesh-choppers, the black market surgeons who specialized in transforming human beings into machinery.
Stellax was an unholy place, without a single Aescelan temple.This, along with its infamous criminal element, attracted Nicholas on his mission.On Stellax, a person could find almost any information he needed, though Nicholas feared the price would be much more than he could afford.
Nicholas ate a small meal of fresh fruit and dried roots he'd purchased on Mourin; he assumed it had come from the monastic forest.He chased it with berry-flavored vitamin water.His cyborgs companions paid no attention to him.A couple of them stared straight ahead with distant eyes, as if not really present in the cramped cabin.They wandered inside their own circuitry, or perhaps linked up to the satellite network that connected the sprawling billions of humanity.
Looking at the crew's drying laundry, Nicholas wished he could do the same.The damp chemical smell seemed to grow stronger every minute, and to make things worse, the ship's crew played strange, abrasive music over the rusty sound system, with lyrics in a tongue he couldn't understand.
Through a narrow window, he could make out the Earth, closer now than he was accustomed to seeing it.Heavy, yellow-tinged clouds swirled over its surface.Eight space elevators extended out from the planet's equator to orbital transit stations, where the products of the colonies were sucked down for consumption on Earth: timber, agricultural produce, manufactured goods, minerals quarried from the asteroid belt.
He lifted his wife's caduceus necklace from his pocket.The little icon of intercoiled serpents, one silver and one lapis lazuli, could have balanced on his thumbnail.He brushed a fingertip across it.He missed her.
"You're praying?" one of the cyborgs asked.His voice was deep and resonant, almost too loud, as if artificially amplified.It took Nicholas a moment to realize the man was talking to him. "You pray?"
"I am," he said.
"You believe in gods?"The man's expression proved difficult to read.A web of gleaming circuitry was etched into the left side of his face, and the eye there was a cold, dark blue video lens.
"I believe in the teachings of the Great Man, and in the river of life which unites us all."
"Superstitions won't get you far where you're going.Coin is the only law on Stellax."
"Then what do you believe in?"
"I believe in freedom, and the strength to hold it."The man lifted a robotic arm plated with discs of steel. Its servos purred as he opened and closed a fist. "If I'm going to be programmed, I want to do it myself.Don't need any priests doing it to me."
"I don't understand.The priests show us the truth--"
"They show you their truth, and you believe it."
"I believe it because I have faith.If I did not have faith, I would still believe, because I can see the results.Healthy children, a thriving ecosystem.What else could matter?"
"Did you ever think that you believe it because you have no choice?You were born into your religion?" "I was.My family has been devoted to the Teachings for generations."
"Then how can you know whether you see the truth?They programmed you as an embryo, didn't they?Of course you're going to believe them."
"I don't understand."
The cyborg leaned forward, touching the caduceus that hung from Nicholas's neck with one long, skeletal steel finger. His dark video eye seemed to penetrate Nicholas's skull, as if he studied the brain underneath."What's to stop them from making you obedient?With the opportunity to shape you before birth, why wouldn't they make you a blind, devoted follower?"
"Stop this heresy!" Nicholas snapped.A couple of the other cyborgs, bulky armored men, glanced over with a look that might have been mild amusement. "The priests do no such thing!They are only interested in removing disease and enhancing our natural abilities."
"How could you know?" Nicholas's voice became low and hard as he glared at the apostate cyborg."Do not speak this way any longer.You tread on holy ground."
The cyborg gave another sharp grin. "You seem like a decent man.More decent than me, I would gamble.What could bring someone like you to a godless place like Stellax?"
Nicholas chose his words carefully. "Research."
"I would stay away from the Triod facilities.They're heavily guarded, and more concerned with security than the safety of innocents."
"No, no, I'm looking to purchase rare information.For myself.Nothing to do with Triod technology."
"Data can be costly."The cyborg reached into a jacket pocket under his mechanical arm, and Nicholas tensed, ready to fight if necessary.Instead of a weapon, though, the man produced a data cube inscribed with flickering, stylized runes.He set it on the armrest between them and nudged one of the cryptic symbols.
Light poured out of the cube's top, swirled, and formed into a complex, three-level playing board, each level connected by miniature staircases to the one above it.Two rows of golden figures appeared on the lowest level, just in front of Nicholas--rampant dragons, cowled sorceresses, and mounted knights.An identical silver army appeared before the cyborg, facing Nicholas.On the small tier at the top, a golden emperor and a silver emperor faced one another.
"Knights and Dragons," the cyborg said. "Do you play?"
"I've played a simplified version.Just two levels."
"Good enough.We've got a couple of hours before we dock on Stellax.First move's yours."
Nicholas felt a genuine smile creep across his face.He hadn't expected to make friends on this trip, or to have a moment for recreation.
The various dragons stretched their wings or pawed the air, and unleashed miniature howls.One of Nicholas's even vented a jet of flame.The knight's horses tramped in their squares, while their passengers hefted swords or lances.Even the tribunes read scrolls in a squeaky nonsense language that sounded like remixed baby talk.The figures acted impatient to play.
Nicholas touched an archer and it jogged forward two squares.It drew a needle-sized arrow from its tiny quiver and notched it into a bow.
"Risky." The cyborg sent a silver knight galloping towards his archer.Three squares forward, and one to the side.
As the game progressed and Nicholas began to focus on his opponent's strategy, he let himself relax.It was the first illusion of peace he'd felt in days.
Engrossed in the game, Nicholas did not even notice when Stellax colony slipped into view. The cyborg pointed it out to him and watched his reaction closely.
Nicholas shuddered at the sight.Stellax was built like a giant, slowly turning wheel with twelve spokes.He'd seen colonies this shape before, but they usually had a simple, graceful curve all the way around.Colonists lived in the well of the wheel, where centrifugal force held dirt, crops and cities in place.The usual black web of solar collectors provided energy.
Stellax looked like a nightmare version of such a place.Triod corporation had added modifications and extensions jutting out like metal spikes from the basic wheel shape, pointing in every direction.Steel beams and raw asteroid rock composed much of the outer structure, as if aesthetics had simply never entered the minds of the builders.Heavy black smoke poured from multiple exhaust vents, staining and scorching the hull, giving him the impression that the interior of the colony might be a giant furnace.
They passed over a factory platform on the outer hull of the wheel.Workers in spacesuits climbed and floated among the incomplete skeleton of a new space freighter, which would have been much too large to construct inside the living space of the colony.Some workers maneuvered modules into place with oversized robotic arms like small cranes, while others welded the frame together using blowtorches mounted in place of their hands.Long ago, Triod had determined it efficient to merge its labor pool and its construction machinery into a single, adaptable force.
Nicholas did not have a good feeling about his visit here.He'd been foolish to leave his home for worlds he did not understand.
"Your move," the cyborg said.
Nicholas turned his attention to the shimmering game board.Time to move in for the kill.He directed his knight up the stairs to the third, "palace" level, where the cyborg's silver emperor stood unguarded.One more move and he'd have the game.
The cyborg shook his head. "You forget somebody."He touched his remaining sorceress.The little figure raised her hands, and a transparent ball formed above her head.Lightning crackled inside it.
Nicholas held his breath.A sorceress could do three small spells or one large one per game.He'd eliminated the cyborg's other sorceress twenty or more moves ago.He could have sworn the cyborg had used the remaining sorceress at least once--but apparently not.She had sat in her original position, untouched throughout the game.
A storm cloud swirled into view above his golden knight.Lightning and brimstone rained down on it, annihilating the knight, leaving nothing but a black smudge on the square.The silver sorceress dissolved, too, her powers spent.
Nicholas sighed.The cyborg had an archer poised to climb the steps to the palace level, and he had nothing with which to stop it.He'd ignored the archer as being too slow to reach the emperors before his knight.
He advanced his remaining dragon up to the second level, but it was futile.Over the next three moves, the silver archer ascended the stairs, approached the golden king, and fired an arrow through its heavy robes.The emperor clutched the arrow, performed several melodramatic spins, and then collapsed and dissolved. The assassin pranced around in the gold imperial square and cheered its victory in a tiny voice.
"Good game," Nicholas said.Was this a bad omen?
"You're just overconfident," the cyborg told him. "You kept your focus narrow and closed up your options too soon."
"Thanks for the analysis, doctor." He glanced out the window to see the approaching round dock set into the colony hull. "So you live here?"
"As much as I live anywhere.You got a name, shopper?"
"Kilharne." Nicholas gave the same name he'd given the ship pilot. "Michael Kilharne."
"Sure it is." The cyborg gave half a smile."My name's Drexx."
"Sure it is," Nicholas replied, and they shared a laugh.
The ship's frame boomed and shuddered as the hull made contact with the docking bay. "I'll have to run when we arrive.If you're looking for a good data pirate, you could do worse than talk to a guy named Axon.He's a bartender at the Neksus.Knows a lot of people, for a fee."
"Thanks."Nicholas stood and stretched. He slung his almost-new travel pack over his shoulder. "What if I want another game of Knights and Dragons?"
"You'll find someone to play. I have to turn invisible for a while."
"I understand that."
"I'm sure you do."The ship's crew opened the airlock, then stepped aside for their handful of passengers to exit.No pretty holograms showed up to thank Nicholas for his business, to hope he had a nice flight, or to wish him a pleasant stay at his chosen destination.
He stepped into a dark corridor that reeked of scorched metal, grease, and human sweat.Customs officers in heavy, spiked cyborg armor waited ahead.Nicholas reached for a false identicard.He hoped Ludovic had been very thorough.