Read by Robin Miles
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Hundreds of miles above Earth, the space station Ciudad de Cielo — The City in the Sky — is a beacon of hope for humanity’s expansion into the stars. But not everyone aboard shares such noble ideals.
Bootlegging, booze, and prostitution form a lucrative underground economy for rival gangs, which the authorities are happy to turn a blind eye to until a disassembled corpse is found dancing in the micro-gravity.
In charge of the murder investigation is Nikki “Fix” Freeman, who is not thrilled to have Alice Blake, an uptight government goody-two-shoes, riding shotgun. As the bodies pile up, and the partners are forced to question their own memories, Nikki and Alice begin to realize that gang warfare may not be the only cause for the violence.
SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
“Consciousness Does Not Exist,” says Mehmet.
Jenna has just caught up to her lab partner as they glide along the main level-two conduit inside the Axle, his eyes betraying that his focus is not entirely fixed on his immediate environment. He is reading something on his lens.
“That sounds deep for this time of the day,” Jenna replies, by way of bidding him good morning.
“No, it’s the name of the lecture Maria Gonçalves is giving today. Really wish I could have seen that.”
“You’ll see it after you finish work. And you’ve seen a hundred. What’s special about this one?”
“I mean seen it live. She’s giving it in person.”
Okay, now she gets it.
“Seriously? Wow. When did that last happen?”
“When I was in diapers, probably.”
“Damn. Couldn’t you have swapped your shift?”
Mehmet fixes her with a withering look.
“Yeah, like that’s why I won’t be there.”
“Only the great and the good able to get tickets,” Jenna suggests.
“Tickets? You jest. Invite only. But on the plus side, they sent me my date for getting the new Gen-4 mesh. Four weeks today.”
“Way to go. I’m not even on the formal waiting list. I’m on the waiting list for the waiting list.”
“My own stupid fault. Dragged my heels because I wasn’t convinced it would make much of a difference, but that’s not what I’m hearing from the people who have got it.”
“No kidding,” Mehmet says, warming to the subject. “I was talking to Javier last week. He’s had his a month. He says the data retrieval is night and day’s difference. It’s like you just instantly know the information.”
“Yeah, I hear there’s far less of a watermarking effect. You don’t get that feeling like you’re peering over somebody’s shoulder at their worksheet. Guess I’m going to have to wait a while to experience it, though.”
They reach a six-way junction, both of them changing axis with a practised light tug on a handhold. Official protocol states that personnel are supposed to come to a complete stop before proceeding, but right now there’s nobody else around to bump into. That’s what she loves about working in the Axle. There never is. Compared to the wheels, it’s always practically deserted.
“Lateness appears to be a consistent theme for you at the moment,” Mehmet says. “I thought I was going to end up on my own here today.”
“Sorry. There was a problem on the static. They had a car out of commission, meaning a knock-on delay, and then the car I got from Faris was rammed.”
“Little flavour of home. When the static is busy like that, close your eyes and you could be on the subway train in New York City. Just need somebody to piss on the floor a few hours before, give it that authentic smell to recreate the full effect.”
Jenna yawns and stretches as they drift along the shaft.
“Late night?” Mehmet enquires.
“No, just feels like it’s been a long week. Late night tonight though. Gonna tear it up.”
“Got a date?”
“Only with one of those famous Sin Garden mojitos over on Mullane. Then maybe five more.”
Mehmet shakes his head, a wry smile on his face.
“What? You still think I’m crazy paying those prices?” she asks.
“No. I think it’s funny that somebody is getting a backhander purely for growing mint to supply those things.”
“Unauthorised botanical cultivation. Can’t imagine that’s what the Seguridad call a jump-seat offence.”
“No, but I’m sure some prick at the FNG would be able to tell you the exact expected yield in zucchini, or whatever, that they would otherwise be growing in that square footage of soil.”
“And what about your social life?” she asks. “I hear you’re switching phase on us.”
Mehmet looks bashful.
“Yeah, this guy I’ve been seeing. It’s getting serious. He’s on Meridian.”
“And you’re leaving all us sweet people on Atlantic for him? It really must be love.”
“I already got a lot of friends who are on Meridian phase. Been thinking of making a change for a while. This was just the final nudge, you scope me?”
Jenna fixes him with a look. He withers.
“Okay, it is love,” he admits.
“So what tests we running today?” he asks, conspicuously changing the subject.
Jenna smiles by way of acknowledgement. It will be a shame when he switches. She likes working with him.
The test chamber is now only a few metres ahead. The entrance is a bladed aperture at the end of the shaft, but inside it’s like a giant buckyball. She and Mehmet are both in synthetic pharmacology research, based out of Wheel Two. The firm they work for has a block booking on this chamber, studying the sustained effects of microgravity on certain artificial compounds.
“That’s weird,” she says, reading the security status on her lens. “The chamber is open.”
“It looks unambiguously closed to me,” Mehmet responds, confused.
“I mean it’s not locked. The team using it last can’t have closed up properly. See, these are the losers and wasters you’re about to throw your lot in with when you shift to Meridian.”
Without the security interface requesting an access code, they don’t have to stop outside. The aperture dilates in response to their proximity, so they can let their momentum carry them inside uninterrupted. Jenna executes a somersault to emphasise this fact, but as she spins upright again, she is tugged to a stop. Mehmet has grabbed the rim for purchase with one hand and taken hold of her shoulder with the other.
She looks at him by way of demanding an explanation.
Mehmet is staring into the vastness of the chamber, eyes wide: speechless, shivering, scared.
In zero-g, the gentle ballet of objects in motion can make anything look elegant.
Glistening organs dance gently around each other in the bright expanse, like motes of dust in a shaft of sunlight. Intestines curl and twist between sections of limbs denuded of skin, muscle exposed like illustrations in an anatomy textbook. She sees an empty skull, the top sheared off. The brain has been removed, floating free amidst this carnal constellation.
Jenna is almost as much a geek as Mehmet for the work of the Neurosophy Foundation, but the one thing she never got is why they are pioneering memory erasure. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want that.
She does now.
“There will be no children.”
It is the first thought that flashes into Alice’s mind as she slowly approaches consciousness, like a diver rising towards the surface. The words are prompted by a sound: that of children’s voices, laughing and shrieking with delight. At first she thinks she is imagining them, but though her eyes are closed she knows the voices are coming from outside her head.
There will be no children. It is one of the things she remembers being told to expect about her first trip to Ciudad de Cielo—CdC—and yet she can hear them, clear as day. Is it a recording?
She opens her eyes. She can only see directly in front, the beige wall of the passenger capsule’s interior. Her head is restrained for safety inside a protective cradle, but the brace is not there purely to hold her in position. It also houses sensors monitoring her vital signs, which it streams to her lens, superimposing the data upon her field of vision.
The standard lens system comprises one contact for each eye, transferring data to and from a circular processing unit attached to the wrist. This disc also accommodates a sensor that interprets finger gestures by way of a primary control interface. The rig is completed by a sub-vocal audio relay that integrates so seamlessly with one’s hearing that Alice sometimes forgets it’s an auxiliary source. It is from this that the children’s laughter briefly issues once more before being cut off.
She has been asleep. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say she must have passed out. She does not know for how long. Alice has never felt so disoriented, so brain-scrambled. This must be what it feels like to have a hangover, she thinks, never having experienced one personally. She has consumed alcohol, but only in moderation, strictly within the recommended lower- and upper-limit parameters prescribed for maximum health benefit.
“Dr. Blake?” says a voice, close by this time, not originating from the speakers.
A male face moves into view, the motion strangely fluid, as though gliding. It is further evidence of her wooziness. He seems to float into her field of vision like a figment from a dream. His hand is resting on the outer guard rail around her passenger cradle.
His features are Chinese, but less diluted than hers. He is about her age, either side of thirty. He is smiling, his tone gentle, his accent American.
“You lost consciousness. It sometimes happens during the ascent.”
Alice searches for her voice, feeling relief when it comes online.
“How long was I out?”
He smiles in a manner she interprets as intended to be reassuring.
“Precisely two hours, seventeen minutes and twenty-two seconds, but you’ve been monitored the whole time.”
“What caused it?” she asks. She knows that a precipitate loss of consciousness sits on a spectrum bookended by simple fainting and hypoxic brain injury.
Again the patient smile.
“I’m not qualified to interpret the data, but in my experience, most of the time it’s a result of cumulative exhaustion brought on by tension and anxiety over the prospect of the ascent, exacerbated if you had a long trip to reach Ocean Terminal. Don’t think of it as anything more significant than that you were tired and you fell asleep.”
It feels like more than that though, like coming around from anaesthetic or something. Some parts of her mind seem accessible, others clouded. She knows that the platform is one hundred and sixty thousand kilometres above the base. She knows that the ascent takes five hours and fifty-three minutes. She knows all manner of technical data regarding the elevator and its operations, but she has an altogether less crisp recollection of her trip prior to entering this capsule.
“How much longer is the climb?” Alice asks. She can see the current time on her lens, but the formerly animated trip data field is now blank.
“The climb ended twenty minutes ago,” he replies, amusement now taking over from reassurance in his tone. “Welcome to Heinlein Halfway Station.”
He loosens his grip on the guard rail, which is when she understands that he was not resting on it, but holding it to prevent himself from floating away.
“The other passengers have already disembarked from the capsule. The protocol states that we leave you to come around on your own. Nobody stays out for very long once we hit the top, though you were nudging at the upper end of the scale.”
He brushes his fingers against the rail, the action providing enough purchase for him to rise and drift away from her with dreamlike fluidity. It is no dream, though.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space,” he says.
She wonders why he makes this statement of the obvious, confused further by the absence of passengers who might be the other addressees. She detects a certain self-consciousness to it too.
She searches her memory for secondary levels of significance to the words and he reads her confusion in the blankness of her response.
“It’s just something we say, a stupid tradition. Don’t know how it started, but it kinda stuck.”
Of course. The minute self-consciousness denoted that he was quoting. Like many such frivolous and pointless customs, it was observed for no greater reason than that it has been observed many times before, though its current observers could not explain its origin.
“Don’t worry if you’re feeling a little disoriented,” he assures her. “Again, it’s perfectly normal.”
Alice stares at his features. She doesn’t remember ever seeing this man before, though he must have been with her in the capsule.
No, she recalls. He wasn’t. Nobody occupies a passenger position unnecessarily. An escort leaves you at the bottom and another meets you at the top. Every inch of storage space, every gram of weight is carefully accounted for to a precisely budgeted dollar value. The elevator massively reduced the cost of reaching geostationary orbit. Cars run constantly, as many as four simultaneously at different stages of ascent and descent, totalling twenty trips per day. The weight and volume of materials being transported over any given twenty-four-hour period exceeds the cumulative payload weight and volume the human race sent into orbit in its first five decades of space exploration. But nonetheless, nobody is assigned a passenger cradle unless their travel has a demonstrable value—which is what truly confuses her as once again laughter and high-pitched squeals of delight ring through her ears.
“I can hear children.”
“Yeah, that’s a common-access feed from elsewhere on the platform. You’ll be sharing a shuttle with them to CdC. The family came up on an earlier car but they have been taking a tour of the platform before moving on.”
“Tourists.” He gives her a knowing look. “Every million they spend pushes us a little closer to the stars.”
Alice strains to look around, but her head is snugly secured.
“If you feel you’re good to go, I’ll disengage your restraints. You ready?”
He means is she ready for physical movement and for microgravity, but these are merely physical considerations.
“My body seems fine, but my brain feels like it is still catching up.”
“Don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal too. Do you need any pointers? Like who you are and what you’re doing here?”
She realises that this is a joke, though it is uncomfortably close to the truth.
“Probably wouldn’t hurt.”
It is coming back in waves: articles and fragments of memory washed up like flotsam that she now has to assemble into coherent objects. She hopes this is all an effect of the ascent, and therefore temporary, rather than a result of being in space. Her name is Alice Blake. She is travelling to CdC on behalf of the Federation of National Governments to replace the outgoing Principal of the Security Oversight Executive. She will be here a minimum of six months as long as she doesn’t screw up; considerably less if this woolly-headedness proves chronic.
She remembers things about her journey but she isn’t sure they are in the right order. The capsule. The elevator. A platform in the ocean.
Logic helps fill in the blanks between specifics like track between stations. There was a long flight in an airplane. Did she fly direct to Ocean Terminal? No. It was too small to land an aircraft that size. She was on a large passenger jet, a long-haul flight. There was a delay, a problem with hydraulics.
She remembers the docks, azure water all around the platform, sparkling in the hot sun as she climbed the gangway. She went there by boat, a hydrofoil. She remembers ships moored at other points on the hexagon, offloading cargo. The shouts of men on the vast floating docks working to prepare the payloads for the elevator, the complex tessellation of pallets and cases in the vast hold beneath the tiny passenger capsule.
There is a soft hum as restraints withdraw from around her body, the head brace folding up and back. She attempts to stand but finds she cannot: one final anchor point at the base of her spine is preventing her from moving.
“Yeah, before I uncouple the last safety bolt, I have to advise you to please let me know if you think you might throw up, in which case I’ll guide you to the nearest vacuum sluice. A proportion of people get nauseous in microgravity. We still don’t know why: it’s been happening since the first rocket crews, though obviously what they brought up was the right stuff.”
She doesn’t understand what he means, how twentieth-century astronauts’ vomitus could somehow be a suitable substance, though from his expression she suspects it was another joke. She does not get it, but responds with a polite smile.
“Just take it slow, see how it feels.”
Alice hears the clunk of the maglock disengaging and pushes up with her palms. She recalls her briefings on this but the result is still massively disproportionate to the effort. She rises instantly and at speed, shooting up past her escort before throwing out a hand to stave off impact with the ceiling.
Another childish giggle reverberates in her ears, but this time the source is her own throat.
As the sensation of drifting through the air registers around her body, she experiences the most intense endorphin rush. It is as though the weightlessness extends beyond the physical, a feeling of the purest pleasure, the simplest, most undiluted awareness of mere being. She is lost in the moment, everything beyond it divested of relevance. It only lasts a few seconds, but even as her body thrills, it is as though this purge reboots her mind. Everything comes rushing back in, the fragments assembling themselves into place, properly this time.
He guides her towards a circular hatch in the ceiling, a bladed aperture on a surface ninety degrees from the doorway by which she entered the capsule. It dilates in response to his proximity, granting access to an airlocked passage at the end of which is a second blade-locked circle. She is uncomfortably reminded of an automated device for chopping vegetables that sat in her parents’ kitchen, but she obliges as he glides to one side and beckons her to pass through first.
The second aperture swishes quietly open once they are both inside and its counterpart has closed. Again he urges her upwards. She rises into a white-walled corridor, punctuated by panels of black. As she draws closer, she sees that they are not black, but transparent: there are tiny points of light in the darkness. She is looking into space. Then as she floats closer and higher, her elevation affords her a perspective directly down upon the Earth.
She gasps, quite involuntarily, looking round at him as though to say: “Are you seeing this?”
“Yeah. It never gets old.”
He looks pleased but there is something knowing about his intonation, something minutely self-conscious, like when he said “we are floating in space.”
She does not have enough experience of this individual to get a reliable reading on his microgestures and the subtler nuances of his speech. She can’t be sure, but something seems insincere, rehearsed. She searches for a comparison. It prompts a memory of a tour guide, an attendant at a theme park. And, of course, that is all he is. This is not her liaison.
Glancing up again, away from the mesmerising sight of the glowing sphere beneath, Alice looks out into the blackness and observes that the points of light she saw were not stars. They are shuttlecraft, part of a constant traffic between here and her final destination.
“Getting like a freeway out there,” her escort tells her. “Our fleet of ion shuttles are the workhorses of modern space. CdC is in an orbit seventy thousand kilometres above us, but these old faithfuls make each round trip burning less energy than it takes to drive a city block.”
He beckons her along the passage, leading her upwards at a perpendicular junction. His hair moves like he is underwater, and as it lifts she sees a thin line below the base of his skull, where no new hair will grow: the site of his mesh implant.
She skims the wall with her fingers for propulsion, adjusting the force she exerts following her initial miscalculation. The shaft plunges several storeys beneath her unsupported feet at the perpendicular junction, a drop so dizzying as to make her eerily aware of what would happen should the magic spell wear off and gravity apply as it normally does.
There is another perpendicular turn, before they pass into what a sign above the larger bladed aperture denotes the Passenger Holding Area. It is a cylindrical chamber, with an airlocked doorway to the shuttle bay dominating one side. Along the other, a row of windows looks down into the cavernous interior of the space elevator’s upper terminus, formally known as Heinlein Halfway Station.
There are seven people already inside the chamber. Instantly she recognises three of them as the other passengers who had travelled in her capsule. She hadn’t spoken much to any of them, though they were all introduced when they boarded the elevator down on Earth. Their names are Kai Roganson, Davis Ikicha and Emmanuelle Deveraux. The other four comprise the family she has been told about: a man, a woman, a girl and a younger boy. The children are spinning in the air, laughing fit to burst.
Their mother warns them to cool it down or they might be sick. A sign on the wall cautions passengers against unnecessary manoeuvres in micro-gravity. Alice is dismayed that neither entreaty appears to be having an impact.
They are small, however. Perhaps the sign is generally more concerned with the greater hazards deriving from the potential of adult collisions.
She has learned that many rules do not apply so rigidly to children, or at least that some discretion may be applied in their enforcement.
The children are wearing miniature versions of the same environment suit as was issued to everyone else. It is designed to create a perfect seal with a rebreather mask in the event of a pressure loss, but in practice it functions principally as a giant diaper, collecting and filtering secretions during what could be an eleven- or twelve-hour journey between gravity-dependent toilet facilities.
Astronaut training used to involve learning to pee through a suction tube (crucially disengaging without spillage). She learned its history by way of background prep for the mission. She thinks of the commitment and determination required simply to enter the selection process, the punishing multidisciplinary programmes and simulations that had to be mastered, the sacrifices and risks driven by an unquenchable desire to reach space.
This triggers a connection in her memory and belatedly, she gets the joke. The right stuff.
She’s had plenty of preparation and been briefed exhaustively, but none of it was about making the journey. Like everybody else in this chamber, she got here by stepping into an elevator. None of them was trained for the ascent any more than a commercial airline passenger gets flying lessons.
“Everyone, this is Dr. Alice Blake, as some of you already know. Alice is here with the Federation of National Governments.”
He reprises introductions for the three she has already met, then indicates the four she has not.
“Dr. Blake, this is Mr. Sayid Uslam and his wife Arianne. And of course, taking advantage of the environmental conditions over there are their two children Karima and Zack. They are here on a sightseeing vacation.”
Alice puts the name and the face together. Uslam is an energy magnate, a riches-to-ultra-riches entrepreneur whose family name has run through the infrastructure of Jadid Alearabia since the days of post-oil and post-war reconstruction.
Mr. Uslam nods and offers the empty smile of someone who knows Alice is not important enough for him to care who she is or why she is here. His wife doesn’t even look, instead floating closer to the children who are now bumping their heads against the glass despite signs specifically warning passengers not to touch the windows.
Alice does not believe this is one of those areas where discretion must be exercised.
“What ages are your children?” Alice asks their mother.
“Zack is six and Karima is almost eight.”
“Then presumably at least one of them can read the notices regarding contact with the glass.”
The woman’s eyes flash with barely suppressed outrage. In Alice’s experience this is often the emotional response when a person is confronted with dereliction of their responsibilities. In this instance it does not prevent her from making amends.
“Zack, Karima, don’t bump the glass or this lady here will have us thrown off the space station,” Mrs. Uslam tells them.
This last seems an unnecessary level of threat, but children sometimes require exaggeration in order to make a point.
There ensues a silence in the chamber, an awkwardness that Alice has learned often follows when a person’s behavioural shortcomings have been made explicit in the company of others.
The individual most uncomfortable in the aftermath appears to be the escort, which is when it occurs to her that the one person he has not introduced is himself. People are often welcoming of a distraction at such moments, so she decides to offer one.
“Forgive me, but I don’t believe you told me your name.”
“Oh, my apologies. I’m pretty sure I did, but I’m forgetting you were a little woozy.”
He is mistaken. Her memory is functioning perfectly now, and she only ever has to be told someone’s name once.
- "Excellent hardboiled noir...absolutely gripping."—SciFiNow
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—Daily Mirror on The Sacred Art of Stealing
"Christopher Brookmyre hits another high score with this brilliant, fast-paced nightmare."
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- Nov 7, 2017
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