We are thrilled to share an exclusive extract from Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds, today. Step into the futuristic world of Prefect Dreyfus for a fast paced new SF crime story. This is your new SF obsession.
One citizen died a fortnight ago. Two a week ago. Four died yesterday . . . and unless the cause can be found – and stopped – within the next four months, everyone will be dead. For the Prefects, the hunt for a silent, hidden killer is on . .
From a distance it almost looked natural.
A planet with a ring.
A world of ochre and mustard clouds, with nothing of the surface visible. A poisonous place, peevishly inimical to human habitation. One shrivelled moon. Ten billion such worlds clotted the galaxy: useless to all but the most desperate of species and civilisations.
The conjunction of planet and rings was not, in itself, worthy of note. It was the natural business of things, where gravity had its way with rubble and ice. Granted, it was more usual to ﬁnd rings around gas giants rather than a small, rocky planet like this one. But even the tiniest of worlds might lay temporary claim to a ring system, if a moon or asteroid fell too deeply into their gravity well. Gravitational dynamics being what they were, though, such a ring system would not endure more than a few million years.
This ring system was much younger even than that.
Young because it was the work of people, not celestial mechanics.
They had come here in vast starships, crossing the gulf of light years from Earth. Down in the permanent ochre murk of Yellowstone’s toxic atmosphere they had founded Chasm City, the greatest urban settlement in human history. And in a girdle around Yellowstone, an adornment to the metropolis below, they had set into orbit ten thousand artiﬁcial worlds, each an exquisite fabulation of rock and metal and glass, each with its own name and customs, each bountiful with air and water and a teeming cargo of people. They called this circling river of worlds the Glitter Band, and at the peak of its glory it was home to one hundred million living souls.
The worlds coexisted in peace, for the most part. The people were as grudg- ingly content as the truly free will ever be. Wealth and power were in almost limitless abundance. Matter and energy danced to human whims. Even death itself was in slow, stubborn retreat. There was no militia, no standing army. Weapons were rarely glimpsed, rarely spoken of. Crimes were exotic, Olympian achievements – crimes of passion even more so. Few social tensions arose because each world was allowed to choose its own destiny, its own political and administrative path. Citizens could move between worlds as they wished, selecting the environment that best met their desires. The only binding law was the iron rule of universal suffrage. Flawless, incorruptible machinery ensured each citizen had their say, not just from year to year, but from day to day, hour to hour. Citizens were polled on every conceivable matter. The process of participation became as habitual as breathing. It was a dream of democracy. But unlike most dreams, it worked.
Or at least, most of the time.
Occasionally there was a fault in the polling systems, or a tiny loophole that some unscrupulous faction tried to exploit. This became a minor but nagging problem. And so the worlds of the Glitter Band agreed to create a monitoring taskforce, a small, independent body of trusted ofﬁcials who would be free of ties to any one world, who would not themselves have the vote, but who would operate solely to keep the machinery of mass participation running smoothly, inviolably.
They were called prefects.
They were assigned a tiny, pumpkin-faced world of their own, scarcely more than a hollowed-out boulder, and it was named Panoply. So small was the scale of the problem that at ﬁrst it was believed that fewer than a hundred prefects would be needed. Eventually, and after some resistance, their numbers were permitted to rise to just below a thousand. They were given vehicles, monitoring instruments, some limited forms of enforcement.
One prefect for every ten worlds. One prefect for every hundred thousand citizens. It did not seem sufﬁcient. But it was, and for decades the prefects went about their work almost without attention. They were never liked, never welcomed, but they were very rarely required to use the powers at their disposal. When they did, it was always as a last resort.
But then the time had come when the prefects had to do something terrible.
To save the Glitter Band, it had been necessary to kill part of it.
Late that evening, high in the Shell House, just before drowsiness snatched him to unconsciousness, he stirred from his bed and moved to the window. Fingers of orange and russet light played through the shutters, accompanied by a distant crackling and hissing that rose and fell in tide-like waves.
Cautiously, struck by some faint sense of impropriety, he opened the shutters on the glassless window and took a breath. The evening air ﬂooded his lungs, sooty with combustion products. He coughed, a sudden human sound that seemed louder than it had any right to be, and then stiﬂed any further coughing with his hand.
Across the grounds, far from the Shell House – but still within the family dome, on the edge of Chasm City – something was on ﬁre.
He watched it, mesmerised and troubled. There was a glow, concen- trated in a small area and hemmed in by a darker mass of trees and vegetation that obscured the heart of the ﬁre. Above the conﬂagration the dome panels reﬂected the glow in dusky variations of the same orange tones he had seen through the shutter.
If there was a ﬁre in the grounds . . . but, no, he thought. There was no danger of such a thing taking hold and spreading. Automatic sprinkler systems would cut in long before the ﬂames posed any risk to the Shell House itself. And besides, his father would have programmed Lurcher to detect ﬁre and take immediate action to extinguish it.
The only curious thing was that the robot had not already done so.
Then he caught a movement above the tree-line, silhouetted against the glow: a metallic arm sweeping into view before returning to conceal- ment. Puzzled, certain of what he had seen, but not understanding its signiﬁcance, he watched and watched – while slowly drawing the shut- ters, until he peered out through a single furtive slit.
Presently the glow grew less intense. The crackles and hisses ebbed to silence. The smells faded, as the air in the dome was subjected to its usual circulation and ﬁltering process.
Still he observed, certain the evening’s mystery was not over.
He did not have long to wait. Lurcher emerged from the dense cover of the inner part of the gardens. The robot strolled nonchalantly, silver legs scissoring, two of its four silver arms swinging. In the other pair it carried buckets of tools, as it often did when attending to its gardening chores. From the domed head at the top of its tall, slender body, a single eye stared ahead with unblinking focus.
His instinct was to retreat further back into his darkened room. But if the robot detected that its nocturnal activities were being witnessed, it gave no indication.
What was left of the glow guttered out. A red reﬂection lingered on the dome, fading until only his imagination insisted there was still a trace of it.
The ﬁre was out. The thing – whatever it was that had been set alight, and allowed to burn – had been consumed.
He closed the shutters fully and returned to bed. Under the sheets he coughed the last traces of smoke from his lungs. It was not long before the drowsiness took its hold of him, properly this time – vengefully, almost – but in the last moments of clear consciousness a distinct certainty formed in his mind. A white tree had stood where the ﬁre had been.
A dead white tree, hollow to the core, in which he had once liked to play.
Thalia Ng would have preferred not to have an audience while she worked. That was not the way it was happening, though. A small party of civic functionaries was in attendance, watching in a loose semicircle while she completed the routine upgrade that was her day’s business in the Shiga-Mintz Spindle.
‘And . . . we’re done,’ she said, as the core began to sink back down into its pit, status symbols conﬁrming the upgrade had proceeded without difﬁculty.
‘You’ll be on your way now, then,’ said the citizens’ designated spokes- person, a functionary named Mander.
The core was nearly back where it belonged. She eyed it for a few more moments before turning to look at the thin-faced man. ‘Someone might think you wanted to see the back of me, Citizen Mander.’
‘It’s not that,’ Mander said, his Adam’s apple moving hard.
The polling core sank fully into the ﬂoor. An iris whisked shut to seal it from casual tampering.
‘I’ll say it if Mander won’t,’ said a tall woman standing just behind Mander. ‘We don’t have to pretend you’re welcome here, Prefect. Of course you can visit and do as you please while you’re here.’ She brushed a hand through long auburn hair, pushing it away from a shrewish face. ‘But that doesn’t mean we have to like it. Not after what happened. Not now that we know.’
‘Know what, exactly?’
‘What you’re capable of,’ said anotherman, emboldened by thewoman’s outburst. ‘What you’ll do, when it suits you.’
‘You mean,’ Thalia said mildly, ‘the lengths we’ll go to to protect your interests?’
‘It was butchery,’ said the woman.
‘It was surgery,’ Thalia corrected, keeping her voice level, uninﬂected, unintimidated.
‘It’s no good arguing with them,’ someone muttered. ‘They’ve got a justiﬁcation for everything. They could murder us all and still say it was in the shining name of democracy.’
It was just a spasm, but Thalia felt her ﬁngers twitch for the handle of her whiphound, still holstered on her belt.
‘If you don’t like democracy,’ Thalia said, ‘then you’re in the wrong solar system.’
‘As if we have a choice,’ sneered the woman.
‘There’s always a choice,’ a red-faced man said. ‘They’d just rather none of us were aware of it. But maybe it’s time to consider the unthinkable. Maybe it’s been time ever since they showed their true colours. We all know what’s possible, if enough of us take a stand. Panoply won’t inter- vene now – they’re too afraid.’
‘Be grateful you’ll never need our intervention,’ Thalia said. ‘But if you did, you’d still have it. You don’t have to like us to count on us.’
It was an old line, one she had picked up from Dreyfus.
Something buzzed in her ear. She pressed a ﬁnger against her earpiece, squeezing it.
‘It’s Sparver,’ she heard. ‘Thalia, drop whatever you’re doing. Even if the core’s still exposed, leave it – we’ll secure it remotely. Are there citizens with you?’
She eyed the civic functionaries, feeling the full needling pressure of their suspicion and distrust.
‘Yes, and they’ve been most hospitable. What’s the—’ She was about to say ‘problem’ but prefects never spoke of problems, at least not in public. ‘What’s required of me, Prefect Bancal?’
‘There’s a situation inside the habitat. I’m passing coordinates to your whiphound. It’ll proceed ahead of you and secure the area.’
It was probably some kind of civic disturbance, a citizen mob or some- thing the local constables were not equipped to handle.
‘I’ll be right behind it.’
‘Not immediately. Return to your ship. There’s a containment vessel in the aft stowage compartment. Retrieve it, break out a second whiphound, and follow it to the ﬁrst.’
Her hand moved back to the whiphound. Nothing about this was part of the plan for visiting Shiga-Mintz. It was an in-and-out, all per- fectly routine. Nothing about second whiphounds or cases in stowage compartments.
‘Prefect Bancal . . .’
‘Get on it, Thal. When I say every second counts, I mean it.’
She drew the whiphound’s handle from her holster. In its stowed form the whiphound – an autonomous robot whip with enforcement, detain- ment and evidence-acquisition capabilities – was a black, grip-coated rod about the size and thickness of a truncheon, inset with a battery of twist controls at one end. On sensing its removal from the holster, the whiphound extended its roving ﬁlament, pushing out a thin silver ten- tacle until it made contact with the ground. The tentacle stiffened along its length and formed a snakelike traction coil at the point where it met the ﬂoor. A single bright red eye glared from the other end of the handle.
The whiphound had gone from being an inert tool on her belt to a thing that was alive, purposeful and more than a little intimidating.
‘You know what to do,’ she said. ‘Go.’
The whiphound nodded its handle and slinked away, picking up speed with a series of sinuous whipping motions. It made a dry whisking sound as it skated across the ﬂoor and the functionaries jerked back to allow it passage. It vanished through the doorway, already moving faster than a person could run.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Mander, as if he had every right to an explanation.
She ignored him, still pressing a ﬁnger to her earpiece.
‘Whiphound deployed, Prefect Bancal. I’m on my way back to the cutter.’
‘Quick as you can, Thal.’
She took him at his word, leaving the polling core and the gawping, mystiﬁed functionaries behind, breaking into a jog and then a run. She sprinted up a ramp, through a short warren of corridors, into the bright sunlight of civic gardens, past a hissing line of ornamental fountains, up an escalator to a forested plaza, onto a high-speed tram to the dock.
She stood on the tram, one hand on the ceiling hoop, as it accelerated away from the stop. It had been three, maybe four minutes since Sparver had ﬁrst contacted her. There were citizens on the tram, watching her with puzzled, worried expressions.
‘It’s all right,’ she said, pausing to catch her breath. ‘This is a local emergency, nothing to be concerned about.’
Panoply must have been pulling strings to override local trafﬁc patterns because the tram made a non-stop sprint for the docking complex. Thalia boarded her cutter – the smallest class of Panoply spacecraft, and the only type she was authorised to operate single-handedly – while her hand kept reaching for the whiphound. It felt wrong to be back in the cutter without her weapon. But she opened the aft hatch, craned down to look inside, and found a silver object she didn’t recognise.
It was a stubby cylinder, about the size of a space helmet, and there was a handle on top of it.
‘The silver thing, Sparver, I’m presuming?’
‘Take it. Your backup whiphound knows where to go.’
She hoisted the cylinder, then went to the foil-sealed cavity that held the second whiphound. She broke the seal, extracted the whiphound, hefted the heavy black handle for a few moments and then let it deploy.
‘Want to tell me what this is all about?’
‘Follow the whiphound. Your ﬁrst unit is already on-site and securing the theatre.’
She left the cutter and headed back into the public spaces of Shiga-Mintz, the cylinder dangling from her left hand. It was awkward more than heavy, as if it was mostly hollow. The second whiphound slithered ahead of her, showing the way, glancing back with a puppy-like impatience. In a minute she was back on the tram, retracing at least part of her route, the whiphound slinking up and down the tram’s interior, its eye sweeping menacingly.
The tram was nearly empty this time, with only a handful of passengers at the far end of the compartment.
‘What do you mean, theatre?’ Thalia asked, keeping her voice low. ‘You’ll ﬁnd a citizen,’ Sparver said. ‘They’re dying. You’re going to
operate on them.’ ‘I’m not a surgeon.’
‘You don’t need to be. The whiphound knows what to do.’
The tram sped on. Towns and parks ﬂashed by outside. Thalia eyed the citizens she spotted in these rushed glimpses, strolling along paths, going in and out of white-walled buildings. Just glimpses, no chance to make out expressions or gain more than a ﬂeeting impression of body language. But word spread quickly in a place like Shiga-Mintz, where everyone shared access to the same abstraction. The air crackled with a million invisible thoughts, ﬂashing from skull to skull. It would not be long before everyone knew something was up.
‘What’s wrong with them?’
‘A neural episode,’ Sparver said. ‘That’s all we know at the moment.’
The tram came to a hard stop. The doors opened, the whiphound springing out through the widening gap, those few citizens on the plat- form jerking back as the slithering weapon made its presence known. Thalia had barely caught her breath from the ﬁrst run, and now she was bounding after the whiphound with the extra burden of the silver cylin- der. It bumped against her hip as she jogged.
A ramp led down from the tram stop into an area of manicured gar- dens. An agreeable enough place to spend an hour or two: winding gravel paths, ﬂowerbeds, elegant lakes and painted bandstands. Still daytime, by the habitat’s internal clock. Yet citizens were already moving out of the park, looking back with a certain unease even as Thalia barged through them, ﬁghting against the ﬂow.
Peacocks scattered into undergrowth, protesting at this interruption to their easy routine.
Ahead was a circular intersection of four paths. A ring of people had formed within it, and the mood was agitated. Thalia caught a ﬂash of moving red within the ring and realised the ﬁrst whiphound was estab- lishing a widening cordon.
The second whiphound, having brought her to the ﬁrst, slinked back and lowered its head in a submissive posture. She opened her right ﬁst and it sprang into the air, retracting its tail with a crack, its handle tum- bling into her grasp and allowing itself to be holstered.
‘Deputy Field Prefect Thalia Ng,’ she called out. ‘You are under Panoply observance. Step back from the whiphound, please.’
‘It’s not letting us through!’ shouted a man. ‘Call your toy off, Prefect, before someone dies!’
The man wore a green and white outﬁt, and he carried a white box marked with medical symbols. A woman in an identical outﬁt stood next to him. Parked a little way off was a luminous green, fat-wheeled tricycle with the same markings.
‘We were tasked to a medical emergency,’ the woman said, anger break- ing through her voice. ‘It’s still happening. But we can’t get to the citizen with that thing of yours running around.’
Thalia pushed through the ragged circle. The ﬁrst whiphound was still circling at high speed, etching a deepening line in the gravel, a plume of dust barely having time to settle before it came around again. A determined citizen could easily have crossed the cordon between the whiphound’s circuits, but so far no one had summoned the nerve. Thalia did not blame them for that. It took force of will to step over the cordon herself, even knowing the whiphound would never hurt her.
‘Prefect,’ the female medical functionary said, with a sort of resigned calm. ‘You must let us through. Whatever’s happening to that citizen—’
‘Is our responsibility,’ Thalia said, with all the authority she could muster. ‘Pull back. You’ve done your duty here – I’ll make sure that’s noted.’
‘How can you . . .’
The male medic set his jaw and stepped over the cordon, glancing back at his colleague for encouragement. The whiphound sped around in its circuit, at ﬁrst appearing as if it would ignore his transgression. Then with an almost effortless insouciance it ﬂicked out its ﬁlament, tangling its end around his ankle, and between one instant and the next the man was on the ground. The whiphound released him and resumed its patrol.
The man tried to get to his feet, then collapsed back down again, yelling in surprise and pain.
‘It’s probably broken your ankle,’ Thalia said. ‘When I’m ﬁnished here you can get the medical attention you need.’ She levelled her gaze at the woman. ‘Don’t try to help him.’
Then she directed her attention to the citizen, the man at the epicentre of all this commotion. She had only given him the most cursory of glan- ces until this moment. He was on the ground as well, lying on his side, quivering from head to toe. He was a respectable-looking individual of no particular age, hair neatly groomed, clothes smart but unostentatious, only a dusting of gravel marring their cleanliness.
Thalia set the silver cylinder down. She knelt next to the man, digging a knee into the gravel. His eyes were rolling back into their sockets, a ﬁne white foam spilling from his lips. She touched a hand to his forehead, and almost ﬂinched back at the heat coming off him.
‘Sparver,’ she whispered. ‘I’m with him now. He seems in a bad way. If there’s something I ought to know . . .?’
‘Give your second whiphound the command sequence “One Judith Omega”. It will know what to do. Meanwhile, open the containment vessel.’
Her hands were starting to shake. She had some dark inkling what was about to happen. She fumbled the second whiphound back out of the holster.
‘Containment for what?’
‘Just get on with it, Thal.’
Her lips were dry. The man’s palsy was intensifying. Choking sounds were coming from his mouth. ‘One Judith,’ she began, before pausing with a terrible heaviness in her throat. ‘Omega.’
The whiphound jerked from her grasp, ﬂinging out its ﬁlament. Its red eye swept the immediate locality then locked onto the man.
‘Open the vessel,’ Sparver reminded her.
There was a control under the handle. She pressed it and the lid un- sealed itself. She set the lid aside, handle down on the gravel. The interior of the vessel was a sterile white, its walls perforated with tiny holes.
The injured functionary was still calling out in distress. Beyond the cordon, the mood was turning ugly. Thalia felt something sting the back of her ear, as if someone had lobbed a piece of gravel at her. She pivoted on her heel.
‘I’ll repeat what I said. I am Deputy Field Prefect Thalia Ng. I am here on the authority of Panoply. I am sanctioned to use lethal force in the execution of my duties. A physical assault against a prefect is considered grounds for immediate reprisal.’ She swallowed hard. The words had come out well enough, but she had not found quite the effortless tone of authority that she was certain Dreyfus would have used. Dreyfus would barely have bothered raising his voice.
Dreyfus could sound disinterested even as he was issuing a ﬁnal warning.
‘Tell them the man’s already as good as dead,’ Sparver said. ‘No local intervention’s going to make any difference to his chances, but Panoply might be able to help.’
The whiphound had coiled the end of its ﬁlament around the man’s neck. There were two edges to that ﬁlament: a blunt one, which it could use for traction – as well as twisting bones until they broke – and a cutting edge. The second edge was a busy miracle of molecular-scale machinery. It could eat its way through almost any material it encountered.
Blood swelled along a ﬁne scarlet line as the whiphound dug deeper into the man’s neck. Thalia did not want to look. She gazed around in a slow arc, addressing the horriﬁed audience. She felt like the last actor on a stage, crouching down with some wild madness in her eyes, a bloodied dagger in her hand after some gruesome act of vengeance.
This was not what she had seen herself doing at the start of the day. ‘There’s nothing you could have done for him,’ she said. ‘None of your medicine would have helped. But we can. That’s why I’m here.’
‘Take the head,’ Sparver said, ‘and put it in the containment vessel. Seal the lid. Then get yourself back to Panoply.’
A large quantity of blood stained the gravel. It turned the stones shades of rust and pink, as if they were an expensive import. That said, there was less blood than she would have expected. The whiphound must have been doing something clever at the level of arteries and veins – a sort of surgery, rather than a quick, mindless decapitation. When the head rolled loose, she watched her own ﬁngers scoop it up by the hair and place it neck down in the silver vessel. A head was a strange thing to hold, heavier than she had thought, and yet somehow not heavy enough.
Then she put the lid back on the container and felt a faint scuttling going on inside as some sort of process was initiated.
‘Tell them to secure the body and freeze it,’ Sparver said. ‘A Heavy Medical Squad will be here shortly. Tell them the emergency is over and they need have no fears for their own safety. Tell them Panoply thanks them for their cooperation.’
Thalia did these things. It was her speaking, she knew it. But it might as well have been Sparver, pushing his words out through her mouth. The whiphound was cleaning itself, drawing its ﬁlament back in at a slower than usual rate.
She was about to ﬁx it back in the holster when she had second thoughts. It was a long way back to the cutter, and she would need to get there with a man’s head still in her possession.
‘Forward scout mode,’ she said. ‘Ten-metre secure zone. Lethal force authorised. Proceed.’
She said it loudly, as much for the crowd’s beneﬁt as the whiphounds.’ The second unit scooted ahead of her. It knew the way they had come, and it would make sure there were no surprises along the way. The ﬁrst whiphound broke away from its circling cordon and established a moving barricade around Thalia, daring anyone to cross it. She marched forward,
the vessel clunking against her thigh, now much heavier than before.
No one stopped her.
In another habitat, elsewhere in the Glitter Band, a hooded man watched from the edge of a gathering.
He was glad of the rain misting down from the distant curved ceiling of the wheel-shaped world: it had given him licence to slip the hood over his head without appearing to seek anonymity. There were other hooded onlookers, as well as people under hats, ponchos or umbrellas. Their clothes were as drab as his own, dyed in natural shades of grey and brown. Modest, stone-built homes dotted a gentle hillside, with smoke curling up from their chimneys. A waterwheel turned next to a mill, and off in the distance two woodcutters were at work with manual saws, lopping the branches off a fallen tree trunk. Further away, farm labourers and harnessed animals were working terraced ﬁelds.
The gathering was taking place in a gardened commons, on an area of land that jutted out into the millpond next to the waterwheel. There were footpaths and well-tended ﬂowerbeds arranged around a collection of statues relating to signiﬁcant historical events and ﬁgures from the birth of the Glitter Band. The speaker was leaning on one of these statues, standing on its plinth to gain some height over his audience. The statue was a kneeling ﬁgure, a young woman in an old-fashioned spacesuit, helmet at her feet, digging her ﬁst into fruitless soil. Her face conveyed a mixture of desperation and determination, despair vying with strength.
The speaker leaned against her with laconic disregard, one arm resting on her head. He was tall and thin of frame, his dark purple clothes of a simple but formal cut. A collarless jacket hung from his slender shoulders. He had not bothered with an umbrella, poncho or hood, but the rain glistened off his hair, upsetting the lavish wave of his blond curls. He was nearly sixty years old, but his features were smooth and unlined, with an unsettlingly boyish quality. His eyes were a very pale blue, touched with coldness. The only distinguishing mark was a pale vertical scar under the right eye, a blemish so easily removed that it could only have been a deliberate decision to retain it.
Dreyfus studied the face with particular attentiveness. He had seen all the images of it he could ask for, but it was something else to commit it to memory with his own eyes. If it held even the tiniest clue as to the inner workings of the mind behind it, he was determined not to miss a detail.
What the man had to say was almost incidental to the recordings of similar gatherings Dreyfus had consulted, and the ﬂow of words varied little from one performance to the next.
‘Good people,’ the man was saying – as he had done hundreds of times before, in hundreds of habitats. ‘Good citizens, people of Stonehollow. Two years ago you were all witness to the actions of Panoply, in response to the so-called Aurora crisis. You’ll have heard the ofﬁcial line: that an artiﬁcial intelligence exploited a subtle weakness in the security provisions of the Glitter Band, enabling it to gain control of the mass-manufacturing infrastructure, spewing out an infestation of self-replicating war machines. They’ll have led you to believe that the cost of our survival – the disarm- ing of that threat – was the surgical destruction of forty-one habitats and the loss of more than two million human lives. They’ll tell you that as if it somehow excuses their actions, or even paints them in a ﬂattering light. “Look at us, taking such momentous decisions in your interests! Look at the hard things we had to do.” What they won’t tell you is those actions were only needed because of the lapses they made over many years and years, after all the trust we vested in them.’ He was smiling as he spoke, beaming down at his audience, the tone of his address at odds with the indictment he’d made. ‘Make no mistake, though. You still haven’t been trusted with the truth. What was Aurora, exactly? They won’t say, despite the rumours. Nor will they offer any sort of explanation as to what became of that so-called artiﬁcial intelligence after the crisis was concluded. There’s a reason for their evasiveness, just as there’s a reason you won’t hear about the catalogue of blunders that caused the whole tragic affair. It suits them to have you think the whole terrible business was somehow sprung upon us without warning, and not something that could have been avoided, had their eyes been on the task given to them.’ The words ought to have lost their sting by now. Panoply had been criticised before; this was nothing new. But Dreyfus knew the crisis had sprung out of a conﬂuence of factors that could never have been anticipated. The shocking thing was not that the emergency had happened in the ﬁrst place, but that it had been contained with only a modest loss of life. And – although their numbers were small, compared to the civilian deaths – Panoply’s own operatives had been lost, including Dreyfus’s close colleagues.
But all he could do now was listen.
‘Their failing cost millions of lives,’ the man was saying. ‘And in their betrayal of that public trust, we see now that the entire institutional framework of the Glitter Band was never anything more than a conﬁ- dence trick. The security we counted on was never there in the ﬁrst place. We surrendered our sovereignty to the wisdom of Panoply and in return they left us bereft. Our shining democratic apparatus was a hall of mir- rors, designed to blind us to the truth of our own powerlessness. But it needn’t be that way.’ He allowed himself a signiﬁcant pause, beaming out at the onlookers, adjusting his leaning posture against the statue of the Amerikano pioneer. Now his voice lowered, becoming conﬁding, invit- ing the nearest onlookers to pull closer. ‘Across the Glitter Band, a new consensus is dawning. Habitats don’t need Panoply. Panoply wouldn’t be there for them if they did! And so they choose autonomy. They are taking back control. Control to manage the affairs of their citizens in a way that suits their needs, not those of some distant, disconnected net- work of overseers. Nothing can stop them. Provided the citizens vote to secede, Panoply cannot deny them their wish. And so it has proven. In the last six months, eight habitats have already declared their independ- ent status. The prefects can’t touch them. They can’t even step inside without an invitation! And has the sky fallen? Has the world ended? Not in the slightest. These habitats continue to thrive. They continue to trade – with the Glitter Band, with Yellowstone and between themselves. Free movement of citizens and materials has not been endangered. Far from it, my friends – far from it.’
Dreyfus felt his neck hairs bristle against the fabric of the hood collar. He had heard enough. The point had not been to listen to the words, but to get a clearer impression of the man speaking them.
Devon Garlin was not the only ﬁgure associated with the breakaway movement, but he was by far the most inﬂuential and outspoken. Where Garlin went, dissent followed. His ideas took a toxic, ineradicable hold. Dreyfus had been tracking him throughout the whole breakaway crisis and he was in no doubt that Garlin’s presence and prominence was critical to the momentum of the whole affair. Something about this easy-going, affable ﬁgure pushed the citizenry to act against their own interests. It was Garlin who had taken the lead in turning public opinion against Panoply; Garlin who had publicised the legal and institutional loopholes that permitted habitats to secede from the Glitter Band without penalty.
So far only eight had jumped. A manageable number, in Jane Aumonier’s view. Small habitats, for the most part, with low population loads. But Garlin was still moving from world to world, disseminating his views. Panoply, meanwhile, was keeping a close eye on the mood across the entire Glitter Band. About twenty more habitats – some of them quite large – were in open debate about whether or not to secede, and almost all of the others were at least aware of the possibility. Aumonier’s response was to wait and see what happened. Dreyfus was not so willing to stand back and let events take their course.
Satisﬁed, if not exactly reassured, he was turning to make his way back to the shuttle dock when a change in Garlin’s tone snagged his attention. ‘Wait, friend – I’m not done yet. You wouldn’t want to miss the best bit, would you?’
Dreyfus ought to have kept walking. Others had already begun to drift away from the gathering, so it was not as if he had called attention to himself just by leaving. He should have kept walking. Not slowly turned around to face Garlin, knowing he was the subject of the statement.
Dreyfus said nothing. He looked over the heads of those before him to the man leaning on the statue.
‘The rain’s easing, friend. You can drop the hood.’ The friendly tone of the words only brought out the steel beneath them. ‘Go on. There’s no need to be coy about your identity. I knew who you were from the moment you arrived.’
Dreyfus left his hood up. He had hoped not to speak, because to do so would draw exactly the scrutiny he had meant to avoid. But Garlin had rendered his efforts futile.
‘I just came to hear you speak, like everyone else.’
‘Are you going to introduce yourself, friend?’ There was a beat, no more than that, before Garlin continued. ‘I’ll do it for you. Good people, good citizens! This is Tom Dreyfus. Or should I say Prefect Dreyfus? He walks among us – Senior Prefect Tom Dreyfus of Panoply. One of the very men who brought us to the brink of disaster two years ago. I wonder why he’s so keen to preserve his anonymity?’ Garlin let out a snigger. ‘You couldn’t have expected to pass unnoticed, Tom?’
‘I’m here as a civilian,’ Dreyfus said, doing his best not to raise his voice, not to sound in any way perturbed. ‘I wanted to hear what you had to say.’
‘And what did you make of it, before some other business called you away?’
‘You make a very persuasive case.’
There was a murmur of conversation from the onlookers, but only Garlin and Dreyfus were speaking at a normal volume. Dreyfus prickled under the attention, feeling cast in a role he had never asked for.
‘You see how it works now,’ Garlin said, nodding out at his audience. ‘We’ve got them rattled. Rattled enough that they send out people like Dreyfus to mingle with us and attempt to undermine our efforts. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it, Tom?’
‘I told you why I was here. You call yourself the voice of the people, the spokesperson for the common citizen. Why shouldn’t I be interested?’
‘Is that all it is, just innocent interest?’
Dreyfus looked around at his unwelcome audience. ‘Don’t allow your- selves to be taken in by him,’ he said, addressing no one in particular but making eye contact with as many as possible. ‘He’s not the common man he makes out. His birth name was Julius Devon Garlin Voi – the wealthy son of Marlon and Aliya Voi. Ask him about the Shell House. He was raised in a private estate in Chasm City, not in the Glitter Band. He’s been pampered from the moment he was born. And now he wants to tear apart the very society that welcomed him with open arms, like a spoilt brat breaking his playthings.’
Someone ﬂicked down his hood and the last traces of the rain drizzled down against his scalp. Dreyfus turned again, showing no haste or anger, not even seeking eye contact with the person who had dropped his hood. ‘Let him leave,’ Garlin said, pushing a false magnanimity into his words. ‘He’s within his rights. We won’t stop him doing as he chooses. We’re not the ones who fall back on force and intimidation in the face of our enemies. Nor are we the ones who say that a man must be deﬁned by his origins.’
Dreyfus began to walk away from the gathering. He had been near the back of the audience but there were still a few stragglers to push past. They moved out of his way, grudgingly. But he had only taken a few steps when something tripped him. It was sudden, and he hit the ground hard enough to knock the wind from his lungs. For a moment – probably no more than a second, although it felt longer – wet grass pushed into his face, prickling into his nose and eyes. He forced himself up. The ground here was scuffed and muddy, and his hands came away smeared with grass and soil. He had probably been tripped deliberately, but there was an outside chance it was just an accident.
Dreyfus was pushing himself to his feet when Garlin bounded over, kneeling slightly to bring their faces level.
‘Let me help you up, Tom.’ ‘There’s no need.’
‘You should watch your step. No one wants to see a prefect face-down in the grass like that.’ Garlin braced a hand under Dreyfus’s elbow and made a theatrical show of grunting as he helped him up. ‘My, you’re heavy. I didn’t know they let prefects carry around so much weight.’
Dreyfus wiped his hands on his knees, the fabric absorbing the stain into itself.
‘You and I aren’t done.’
Cold blue eyes regarded Dreyfus carefully. Finally Garlin gave a nod. ‘I doubt very much that we are.’
© Alastair Reynolds, Elysium Fire, 2018
Elysium Fire will be available in hardback, eBook and audio download on the 25th January 2017.