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The Hunger Star: The Wolfe Files, #2

The Hunger Star: The Wolfe Files, #2

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The Hunger Star: The Wolfe Files, #2

Longueur:
400 pages
6 heures
Sortie:
Jul 15, 2016
ISBN:
9780995176904
Format:
Livre

Description

Tick tock… 

The Die Back — the death of billions through war, famine, plague and infrastructure collapse — appears almost inevitable. Only good luck and constant interventions by the powerful AI-run Skellig Michael Institute are staving off a new dark age or even mass extinction. 

In light of the deteriorating situation, the Skellig Michael is relocating its headquarters from high Earth orbit to Luna. The first wave of colonists will soon embark in the Marathon, the Institute’s skyscraper-sized spacecraft. 

But at the heart of the Institute is a mole, a high-ranking traitor, dedicated to the failure of the mission and the destruction of the Institute’s greatest assets, its advanced AIs. The only clues to the mole’s identity are the dying words of a terrorist. 

Edward Wolfe, sociocybernetics expert and his cyborg lover Morgan must track down the mole before he or she can strike. The task is impossible, failure, unthinkable.

Sortie:
Jul 15, 2016
ISBN:
9780995176904
Format:
Livre

À propos de l'auteur

Chris Atack lives in Baie D'Urfe, on the outskirts of Montreal. As a science and SF writer, he is especially interested in the tensions between rapidly advancing technology and lagging forms of governance. When not obsessing about the mess that is modern society, he tries to improve his French and become a better sailor.

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The Hunger Star - Chris Atack

THE HUNGER STAR

by

Chris Atack

The Hunger Star

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional  and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

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© 2016 Chris Atack

All rights reserved including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

ISBN  978-0-9951769-0-4

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Cover art by Dan Atack

With love and thanks to Lynda, Dan, Julia and Maggie for years of help, encouragement, jollity and purrs.

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An extra special thanks to Dan Atack for creating and producing unique cover art and to Greg Smith for his expert copy editing.

Table of contents

Near Miss

Assignment

Knights of Golgotha

History in progress

10,001  (dead) Dalmatians

Shangcouver

Quinn

Upwell

Infantry versus armor

Santiago

Never war no more

Luna

Near Miss

Since the Skellig Michael Institute was founded, its mandate has been to preserve civilization at all costs. We’re trying.  And at the moment, to be brutally honest, we’re failing. SocioCybernetic [1] analysis shows that our interventions have slowed, but not reversed the drift toward economic, political and environmental breakdown.

Our race is now at the crumbling edge of a very high cliff. One step more topples us into the gulf of a new dark age, or even total extinction. The Dean and Governors have therefore elected to safeguard civilization by establishing our permanent headquarters in lunar orbit. This is a prelude to permanent colonization of Luna and, in due course, points beyond. Let us be very clear on one point: relocating HQ to lunar orbit does not mean forsaking Earth. We will work harder and more diligently than ever to head off catastrophe on our home planet. Our Luna initiative is the moral equivalent of taking out insurance, not of abandoning a sinking ship.

Dean’s keynote address

Skellig Michael Congress

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The jagged scream of the alarm sliced into Wolfe’s brain. One moment he was dreaming, a recurring dream in which his childhood home was being demolished, even though his parents’ furniture was still inside. The next he was fully awake with adrenaline spilling through his veins in a panic-edged endocrine cocktail. It was a drill of course. Almost certainly just a drill. Over the intercom came the calm voice of Helen, the Institute’s AI. "We have emergency launch conditions. Emergency launch of Marathon will take place in nine minutes, repeat nine minutes. Everyone to their stations please."

Nine minutes? That was absurd, less than half the time of previous drills. Even with the mammoth ship’s systems on permanent standby (at enormous cost), even with Helen’s supercharged consciousness enabling systems right now, surely launch in nine minutes was impossible? Not necessarily, Wolfe decided. In nine minutes they could probably blow the massive bolts holding Marathon to Orbital One, the host space facility, and begin the crawl to the moon. That would be one memorable way to start the day.

On the other side of the room Morgan was dressing, slipping her slim body into black low-gee overalls with an extraordinary economy of motion that Wolfe even now found time to admire. Her rounded muscular hips disappeared into the featureless garment, then her freckled shoulders. A zipping sound and she was transformed from lover to efficient crew member.  Jesu come quick, these drills are getting me down. What’s this? The third one this week?

So it is a drill? inquired Wolfe hopefully.

Lover, I truly don’t know. She gathered her thick dark hair in a loose knot at the back of her neck and glanced in the mirror.

If anyone did know, if would be Morgan, Wolfe thought as he bent to tape his moccasins. Morgan was an artificial construct, human yet not. The victim of a near-fatal shooting, her choices had been death or reconstruction as a living AI interface, the ultimate wired-in woman, a living extension of the Institute AI.

As always, Morgan seemed to read his thought. I may be wired through to Helen, but that doesn’t mean she tells me everything, I assure you. I’d go mad if she even tried. And she certainly doesn’t tell me about drills in advance. That would spoil the fun. Ready?

Wolfe straightened up, ran through a rapid mental checklist, nodded.  Let’s move.

In the corridor, disheveled people were hurrying in every direction to get to their stations. Although the Marathon would only carry a crew of forty on its voyage to Luna, about half the staff of the Institute’s orbital facility had some role to play in getting the ship underway. Wolfe passed Krishna Davadi, his Monday squash partner, pulling a sweatshirt over a lurid red pajama top as he half-jogged toward the main communications room. They exchanged grimaces as they passed. If this was — Jesu come quick — the real thing, all hell would be breaking loose Downwell[2]. An emergency launch of the Marathon — the Institute’s gargantuan Lunar vehicle — was authorized only for reasons of self-preservation or because the Die Back was in progress.

And it could be. With drug-resistant plagues shoveling shivering victims into mass graves from Tibet to Tasmania, with the three megapowers shoving loaded automatics up each other’s noses, with two major wheat strains unusable because of the Asian blight, the situation was twitchy. To make a mild understatement.

It took three minutes to jog from their quarters in the south quadrant of the residential area to the corridor that led to Marathon's giant main airlock, glittering under the bright fluorescent lights like a steel maw. Six minutes to launch, said Helen’s sweet, ubiquitous voice. Wolfe calculated they were a minute from the ship’s locks, with another minute needed to reach their stations once inside.

If this was the real deal, then a missile somewhere Downwell was in the firing tube, locked in on Orbital One. Or Helen had intercepted an order which would re-orient one of the megapowers’ orbital lasers to their co-ordinates. Or it could be a nuclear exchange between the FreeMarket and the Islamic Coalition, or a major natural disaster of some sort. Or it could be a drill. In which case they could be back in bed in half an hour, instead of lumbering out toward Luna with earth smoking behind them or Roach knows what hellish device snuffling along in their wake.

The five-minute warning sounded as they passed through the immense air locks that separated the Marathon from Orbital One, the Institute’s space-based headquarters. Wolfe heaved an inner sign of relief. One less river to cross. At least if this was the real thing they wouldn’t be left behind. His destination now was the main control room, his immediate task to head the SoCy/diplomatic team which was charged with evaluating current situations Downwell and advising on last minute niceties. As in, several dozen variations on a basic theme: we’re skedaddling to Luna now, please don’t shoot. It was an easy job; his real work would come at the other end, negotiating with the bull-headed bureaucrats at the Luna Colony Office about Institute status on the moon

Morgan’s station was within the main hydroponics area where she served as biotech farmer, a new skill she had picked up since they had been formally selected for Marathon's crew two years ago. They stopped in an alcove, slightly out of the stream of people. Wolfe brushed her hair with his lips, noting its fresh, herbal smell. See you soon.

Yeah. Back home or en route to Luna.

Either way, take care. As Wolfe turned away, Helen’s voice sounded all around him: Four minutes to separation.

He reached the control center in under a minute, was mildly gratified to find that his two fellow members of the Executive Committee had not arrived yet. Drill or not, it was time to begin playing the game in earnest. Strapping himself into the padded chair he greeted his console: Wolfe here. Warmed and ready.

You’re in the grid boss, affirmed the console. You made good time this morning: five minutes, sixteen seconds.

Amazing what adrenaline can do. Focus please, why are we here instead of in bed?

The console replied promptly: Islamic Coalition is realigning its orbital lasers — right across our orbital path.

Hostile act?

Unknown. It could be a glitch. We’ve noted some aberrations in the IsCo systems over the last two hours. They may be having tech troubles.

And if not?

Could be a slap on the wrist for our recent interventions in Indonesia. Or it could be the real thing. Your immediate assignment is to select our departure bulletin.

As usual, agreed Wolfe. Display top-line messages please.

A holo display of relevant info packages appeared in the air before him. Wolfe glanced at it, nodded, satisfied that he had not overlooked anything. After six months of intensive training he knew the key departure bulletins by heart. All of them had been run through exhaustive linguistic, semiotic and SoCy testing to give the messages exactly the right communications weight.

Wolfe selected bulletin three, a simple holo of the Dean, explaining that the Institute’s lunar expeditionary craft had been launched in response to unspecified military threats. It reminded everyone that the Institute, as an autonomous nation, had every right to launch a lunar mission, and concluded with a message of general goodwill.

Concur, said his console after a few moments, during which it checked the response with an AI sub-program. Message relayed for broadcast in three minutes. Stand by.

Wolfe looked up from his console in time to see Lara Stevenson,  the ship’s Chief of Navigation and Drive Systems, saunter into the control center, every hair in place, every button buttoned, glacier-cool and collected as if she was taking a stroll in the park. Wolfe had mixed feelings about the Nav/Drive chief; she was highly competent, a nuclear engineer by background, and a Rhodes scholar. She was also fussy to the point of mania and cold as ice. Not that you wanted a dizzy romantic in charge of the awesome machinery of the Marathon's drive, but a little human warmth would be nice.

Lara nodded a curt greeting and sank into her seat, already absorbed by the readouts on the console display. After a few moments she swiveled her chair to talk to Marathon's three Nav/Drive experts sitting behind her — known collectively and incorrectly as the pilots. For security reasons they had not been allowed Downwell since they started training eighteen months ago. Now they had the pale, slightly fragile look of people who had been in space a long time. Wolfe did not know them well, but then no one did. They had been strongly discouraged from discussing the particulars of the flight itself. In a sense they were redundant; Helen was supposed to handle the launch and flight control completely. Still, it was reassuring to have a human crew as backup.

Wolfe glanced at the empty seat beside him. Only Spiro Rakosi, the Marathon's Chief Engineer and member of the Executive Committee was absent. Which was nothing unusual, he was invariably late, in drills as in real life. Still the countdown was pretty far advanced; he’d better show up soon, if he planned to be included in this little jaunt.

As if on cue, Spiro burst into the control center, panting and purple with exertion, a heavy-shouldered man with a dark complexion, thick, dark hair and piratical beard. He flung himself into the seat beside Wolfe and belted in, his huge hands moving with surprising precision. Why in plague’s name do we have a drill every time I invite a special friend over for the evening? All I wanted this morning was some peace and quiet, a chance to enjoy a little human affection — is that asking so much? Instead, I wake to this honking bag of throw-up. Baah! Console, display ship status, top level. He began to eye-surf the waves of data that rolled across his display, grunting and muttering to himself.

Wolfe grinned to himself. The Executive Committee was now present, with all its quirks and foibles. A committee was a strange thing to put in charge of a ship, but then the Marathon was no ordinary vessel. The size of a cruise ship or a small skyscraper, its systems were too big, its drive too arcane, its mission too complex, for one person to grasp. Only an AI could really fit the picture together, which meant the real captain was Helen. But UN regulations did not permit AIs to captain ships, so the Executive Committee was nominally in command of the Marathon.

Finally, his junior, Jamie Shu, an earnest Euro-Asian with exquisite turquoise eyes and a lush figure, struggled in, panting from the run through the winding corridors of Orbital One. Good morning, said Wolfe politely as she buckled herself in.

Good morning. Jamie rubbed her already bloodshot eyes and stifled a yawn. She was writing, Wolfe recalled, a major paper on Hitler factor analysis, an interesting new branch of SoCy. Probably up late hitting the chips. Either that or she had a new friend. You know, in a funny way I hope this is it, she said. I’m tired of waiting.

Me too, agreed Wolfe with feeling. Still, better to leave on schedule, with nothing barking up our backside.

True.

Two minutes to separation, said Helen calmly. Explosive bolts armed. Systems optimum. Stand by please.

Wolfe felt a surge of savage exultation as a low vibration began to build: the huge ship’s systems coming up to full power. In a few minutes they could be on their way to the moon. Luna! Be damned to all jarring whys and wherefores; in a few weeks he could be walking across the sterile surface of another world. To see Luna, feel the tug of its mild-mannered gravity, see the Earth floating, blue and beautiful in the sky — this had been his engulfing dream in the two years since he had been selected as primary crew. A whole new world to explore, to build — the first true step toward race independence. He found himself hoping with all his heart for launch.

How long exactly would the voyage take? It depended, naturally, on the specs of the propulsion system, and these were the Institute’s most closely guarded secret. Those with a technical bent amused themselves by betting on the nature of the main drive. One thing was clear: rocketry had at least some role to play. Huge boosters had been fitted all around the rim of the skyscraper-size cylinder that was Marathon, and Wolfe had watched several space trials of burns in progress. Informed opinion said that the rockets were mainly for maneuvering and attitude control, that the ship didn’t – couldn’t—carry nearly enough fuel to take the massive vessel to Luna. Wolfe frankly didn’t care; he was a SoCy boy, not a propulsion geek. As long as the drive got them there in one piece, with food and oxygen to spare, he was happy.

He sampled the air, scenting the complex soup of ozone, sweat and pheromones he associated with fear and extreme tension. Two summers ago he had contracted a rare and unpleasant strain of Tokyo Flu, sometimes known as Tokyo Nightmare. Since recovering, his senses had been more acute, most especially his sense of smell, which had been boosted by several orders of magnitude. His cognitive abilities were also measurably higher. It had, he sometimes thought, almost been worth the days of tortured delirium he had endured. Almost.

The Institute quacks had reacted with delight to his new gifts, putting him through endless tests and training exercises. Under their tutelage Wolfe had learned to identify the molecular byproducts of human emotions, especially the primal ones: fear, anger, lust. There had even been a paper written about him: Enhanced olfactory sensibilities mediated by TF(G) infection: a new model for neural modification?

It was a gift that was often revealing, sometimes revolting, always hinting at a whole new dimension of perception, could he but cross the threshold. Some smells had the same emotional impact on him as raw primary colors, others carried the subtle intuitive message of a fine violin concerto. One day he would explore the whole area further — one day when he had more time.

Pop! Air pressure surged as the main airlock several hundred meters away swung shut. Any stragglers who were not on board the Marathon weren’t going to Luna this time around. Assuming this was not a drill.

Sixty seconds to separation.

Wolfe took a deep breath. It couldn’t be a drill. They were too far into the count surely? (This is it — light the fuse sisters and brothers!)

Forty seconds. Thirty.

At launch minus twenty three the countdown display flickered, came to a halt. Simultaneously, Helen’s easy voice filled the room. Countdown aborted. Groans and jeers came from all around the control room, were presumably filtered back to the AI’s consciousness somewhere in the metal cube that contained her thoughts. It was a measure of Helen’s capacity that while controlling the Institute’s countless twisting enterprises Downwell, while winding the Marathon's systems back to pre-launch mode, she was able to respond within milliseconds to the crew’s disappointment. The AI’s standard icon coalesced on all the console displays around the room. As usual it took the form of an attractive young woman with dark hair, and a striking resemblance to Morgan. It made a gesture and the control room fell silent.

First, well done, said the icon. We came to readiness in the shortest time yet, and we proceeded as far down the count as we have ever done. Your performance was flawless; we were ready to launch. The icon looked around the control room. For a moment its eyes appeared to meet Wolfe’s, an illusion so compelling that he looked away. Some of you may be wondering why yet another drill, and in the uncomfortable early morning hours. As it happens, this was not a drill. We appeared to be under threat from IsCo-controlled laser arrays. Apparently they were sent incorrect coordinates for a routine test. The icon paused significantly. "The coordinates have now been changed.

That at least is the official story. More likely, the Islamic Coalition is sending us a coded message deploring our support of opposition groups in Indonesia. The icon shrugged. All part of the job. We can expect more of the same in the weeks ahead. So we’ll continue to drill, or to come to alert as needed. Sorry — I know it’s nerve racking, but we haven’t much alternative. Questions? The icon looked invitingly around the tense control room. No? Well, I’m happy to chat further on an individual basis if anyone likes. Once again, good work. Let’s stand down. The icon shimmered and went out.

Wolfe secured his console, stood and stretched. It was still an hour before breakfast call for Alpha shift. He toyed with the idea of dropping by the hydroponics area to pick up Morgan but decided against it. Shutting down the farm took at least half an hour and he would just be in the way. If he slipped into Marathon's observation bubble for a few minutes he could admire the view — something he never tired of doing — then catch Morgan just as she was leaving her station. It sounded like a good plan.

Five minutes of climbing the ship’s snaking ramps brought him to the circular entrance to the observation room at the south end of the Marathon. At the ship’s axis and mounted on gimbals, it was a spin-free zero-G area. Usually at least three or four people could be found floating  in the chamber, staring out at the impressive view from high orbit. Today, because of the early hour, he was alone. He floated across the room toward the viewing port and looked out in never-failing wonder. Below him, or at least out from him was the Earth, an immense living teardrop of blue, green and white trickling down the dead cheek of endless space. Above the globe, stitched against the eternal night of space, was a brilliant, glaring white star — the Hunger Star.

It had blossomed into luminous being three weeks ago — the very night the United Nations had officially announced huge rice and grain shortfalls for the coming year, the end result of new crop infestations and eccentric weather patterns. According to some commentators, its appearance had triggered the global food riots that followed the announcement, as terrified people the world over looked into the sky and saw their own doom written there in the supernova’s white, malevolent glare. From that night on, despite official attempts to rename it, tame it with a technical tag, the supernova had been known as the Hunger Star.

It was so bright Wolfe blinked as he looked at it, trying to somehow grasp the immensity of the titanic forces that had been unleashed hundreds of years ago and billions of klicks away, sending this stream of light washing across the galaxies. It was impossible; the thing was beyond the scope of his mind.

He looked back toward Earth; so beautiful, so serene, the cradle and home of his self-tormented species. Things were bad Downwell, you didn’t need SoCy to tell you that. On a race level you could feel the Die Back coming; that was what made the Hunger Star such a terrifying portent — it was the external reflection of a truth already indwelling. Wolfe felt a sudden shudder of apprehension run through him. He had the unreasoning sense that something — something bad — was about to happen. (What’s it about Long Eddie? Stay focused, stay frosty.) Still, he had been taught to trust his intuitions. Something was definitely nagging him.

Too much stress, he decided, inevitable in a time of change and uncertainty, but still wrenching.  Or perhaps this ambivalence about Earth was a normal part of preparing to say good-by to the home planet. Official launch was only three months away. The psych team had predicted moderate to severe psych trauma for crew members as the burn date approached, had even decreed that all Marathoners should have at least a week Downwell to say good-by — or whatever the shrink term was for that — before heading out to Luna. Assuming they weren’t forced into an emergency launch, he would dearly like to take that leave, perhaps visit his family’s cottage one last time with Morgan.

He sometimes wondered why he was doing this — leaving whatever passed for home behind, taking off in a metal cylinder to start a new life on an airless moon. He had never really thought of himself as the hardy colonial type. Yet, recalling the surge of exaltation he had felt when launch was imminent, he knew he was committed to the expedition. What might they find on Luna? Other than bureaucracy and vacuum of course... Lava tubes snaking below the surface. Water ice in places where the sun never shone. Craters that could be roofed over and pressurized. A refuge and maybe a new home, if not for them then for their children.

Meanwhile, in a real sense, home was where Morgan was. And by now she must be nearly finished shutting down the farm. No doubt they could devise a way to pass the time until the morning meal while working off some spare adrenaline energy and dispelling the pre-launch vapors. Wolfe took one last look at the tableau then exited the observation chamber and made his way back down toward the farm.

Too late. The hydroponics area was already secured and silent; the crew must have been working at top speed thought Wolfe with a grin. Anxious no doubt to catch a few more winks before breakfast. Never mind, he would catch up with her in their cabin. Wolfe directed his footsteps back toward crew quarters.

Officially it was very early, but in practice life at Orbital One was a three-shift, twenty-four hour carnival, with quiet enjoined only around the sound-proofed residential zones. He passed several friends, a half-dozen acquaintances who greeted him. Orbital One was a small but dynamic community, its population constantly shifting as Institute personnel were shuffled back and forth from the festering trouble spots Downwell, new recruits inducted, senior fellows rotated.

It was far from unusual to see unfamiliar faces, and work parties could be found toiling at all hours on various arcane tasks. So Wolfe thought little of it as he rounded a bend in the corridor and came face-to-face with three staffers in their twenties, Weenies[3]  to judge by their age and manner. They were working outside a door marked AI Core Area, apparently checking access circuits. A panel hung open and one of them was probing the tangles of micro-cabling inside with a field sensor while another stood ready with a small laser drill. The third was consulting a diagram.

The weenie with the laser glanced up as he passed, boredom etched on his freckled, open face. It’s two months now in a row I’ve drawn night shift, he complained in a Swedish accent. Her Worship surely has it in for me.

Time froze for Wolfe while his intuition screamed an alarm. The moment stretched out and out, his mind churning data with the intuitive speed of an AI. (What’s wrong with this smellograph, Long Eddie, old bloodhound?)

Item: few station staffers would talk of ‘night shift.’ Item: you did not service the AI core area with laser drills. Item: Fear hung in the air, fear with trace whiffs of a scent he associated with intense fight-or-flight reactions, impending physical violence. Somewhere, subliminal and far off, was the musty reek of high-yield explosives. It smelled very, very wrong.

The answer flashed into his consciousness with the speed and certainty of a mathematical formula: terrorists. It was impossible, unthinkable. Terrorists could not, according to Security, get anywhere near Orbital One, much less on board. But this time Security was wrong.

The boy was still looking up at him with an engaging grin. The moment was frozen with such clarity that Wolfe found time to wonder at it, even as his brain raced to address the inevitable follow-up: what in hell to do?

If he could reach the end of the corridor he could zip to a comm station, raise the alarm. But help might take several minutes to come, several more to organize into effective counterforce. In that time the intruders (if, against all logic, intruders they were) could get into the AI core chamber and blow Helen’s brains out. If they managed to destroy Helen, the Institute would lose unthinkable amounts of data, its control and administration systems would be annihilated. The Marathon would be crippled. Morgan would be effectively lobotomized.

And he might not even get to the end of the corridor. A bullet or tight particle beam to the skull, even an old-fashioned twist of the cord and he was no longer a threat. Which left one option open: take the intruders out now. (And pray they really are intruders brother.)

Even as the decision crystallized, he pivoted lightly on the ball of his foot, crunched a low vicious side kick into the man with the Swedish accent. His heel connected with sickening force just at the point where neck meets the jaw. The young man’s eyes rolled upwards and he lurched sideways into one of his companions. The impact absorbed most of his momentum. Wolfe landed off-balance and threw a jab into the face of the woman to confuse her for a moment. He connected with enough force to snap her head sideways, closing her left eye. She recovered with lightning speed, pulling a long, lethal plastic blade from inside her overalls and leaping toward him, lunging in, blade held low. Only Wolfe’s lateral momentum kept him from being disemboweled as he skidded aside.

Even so, he could not ward the attack off completely. Wolfe knocked the blade away from him with his forearm, slicing open his sleeve from wrist to elbow and taking a slash just over his right kidney. Even as he felt the first sting he pivoted outside his attacker and launched a spinning hook kick to her blind side. It caught her squarely in the temple; she fell to the floor, eyes rolling backwards in her head. Before she hit the ground the third terrorist had grabbed the knife from her limp hand and was stepping toward him, his face a mask of rage.

Wolfe backed up against the bulkhead, eyeing his opponent closely, trying to stay loose. The man feinted with his knife then drove in with a kick to the throat. Wolfe stepped aside, caught the foot as it flashed past, twisted hard. There was a sudden snap and a scream of agony. The terrorist fell heavily then snapped his arm back to throw the knife. At the last moment he pulled his arm in and stabbed Wolfe in the fleshy part of his calf. Three wounds now. Wolfe realized he had less than a minute before he collapsed from blood loss. He kicked his opponent in the crotch, stepped through and stomped down on the man’s windpipe. Anger changed suddenly revulsion as cartilage crunched under his foot.

The knife dropped from limp fingers and Wolfe kicked it up the corridor. Three down. His time sense snapped back like a heavy spring that has been stretched too far.  The present unrolled at sickening speed. Turn. Stumble up the corridor to the nearest comm station. Push the red alarm button. His arm and right side ached like hell, there was blood, a lot of blood. Turn and go back to the scene of the mugging.

One terrorist, the woman, was groaning to herself and moving feebly. The other two were motionless, unconscious or dead. Wolfe looked at the clock on the wall. Just over a minute had elapsed since he had come sauntering down the corridor. He sat down heavily on the floor, tore his sleeve off his shirt and wrapped it around his arm, hoping the medics would arrive soon. He was very cold, his arms and legs were lead: he was going into shock.

And blood everywhere, from his cuts, from the injuries he had inflicted in those few seconds of pulping violence. Wolfe hated the smell of blood, salty and organic like a fever swamp at the edge of some unwholesome sea coast. He stared into the scarlet pool beside him. Its bright red surface seemed to grow and spread until it covered the whole corridor. He seemed to be falling into a mighty lake of blood rimmed with fire, its crimson surface written with neat black equations, sinuous graphs, the complex, oddly beautiful signature of the Die Back. In the distance he heard the drumming of footsteps down the corridor, wondered lazily if the avatars of the Die Back — Dr. Tic-Tac, The Roach, Baron Boom and Auntie Lean — were coming to pay a personal call. But it was only an Institute team, he saw as they rounded the corner. He sighed and closed his eyes. It was high time they blasted for Luna.

An hour later, Wolfe sat in the infirmary, watching while Gambit Krantz, chief infirmary sawbones and Orbital One chess champion, tended the long, ugly gash on his forearm. His right flank had already been frozen and repaired. Just a flesh wound, Krantz had remarked cheerfully of the fifteen-centimeter slash over his kidneys. Typical quack comment thought Wolfe sourly. Anything less than total organ replacement was a hangnail — unless the physician’s own sacred flesh was involved. Krantz shot the last staple across the wound with a flourish and grinned up at him. Having a nice day?

Not one of my best.

Oh I don’t know. You’ve accomplished something concrete, which is more than most of us can say. Krantz sprayed a cloud of neon-pink artificial skin onto the mess and grinned up at him. You’ve killed two saboteurs, incapacitated a third and saved Helen. Which means you’ve saved the Institute as we know it. And all before Alpha Shift breakfast call. Not bad going if you ask me.

They were terrorists then?

Well, weren’t they? Krantz stared at him. Jesu come quick, you weren’t sure?

I didn’t check to see if they had ‘saboteur’ tattooed on their chests, if that’s what you mean. Didn’t have time.

So how did you ID them?

They smelled like fear and violence. Wolfe described his olfactory cues while Gambit nodded and made

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