By Tom Holt
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 18, 2010. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
But not everything is quite right in Lucy’s life. For starters, she has no memories prior to 2015. She also keeps having run-ins with a unicorn. And to make matters even worse, a bomb is hurtling through interstellar space, headed straight for Lucy — and the planet known as Earth.
By Tom Holt
Expecting Someone Taller
Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?
Here Comes the Sun
Faust Among Equals
Odds and Gods
Paint Your Dragon
Wish You Were Here
Snow White and the Seven Samurai
Nothing But Blue Skies
The Portable Door
In Your Dreams
Earth, Air, Fire and Custard
You Don’t Have to Be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps
Someone Like Me
The Better Mousetrap
May Contain Traces of Magic
Dead Funny: Omnibus 1
Mightier Than the Sword: Omnibus 2
The Divine Comedies: Omnibus 3
For Two Nights Only: Omnibus 4
Tall Stories: Omnibus 5
Saints and Sinners: Omnibus 6
Fishy Wishes: Omnibus 7
The Walled Orchard
Alexander at the World’s End
A Song for Nero
Lucia in Wartime
Copyright © 2010 by One Reluctant Lemming Company Ltd.
Excerpt from Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages
copyright © 2010 by One Reluctant Lemming Company Ltd.
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Hachette Book Group
237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017
First US Edition: June 2010
Orbit is an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Orbit name and logo are trademarks of Little, Brown Book Group Limited.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
For John Foster
Who likes dogs
On the planet where a dog’s best friend is his man, the director of the Institute for Interstellar Exploration is taking Spot for a walk.
He picks up a stick and throws it. Spot scuttles happily away, yapping and prancing, and returns a moment later with the stick in his mouth. The director smiles affectionately, and tries to take back the stick. Spot growls. It’s a playful growl, but there’s something in it the director doesn’t quite like; something very old, recalling an injustice. He frowns.
“Bad boy, Spot,” he says.
Spot is actually a singularly apt name for this dog’s man – if you can call him that; he’s only seventeen, little more than a puppy, and the unsightly facial blemishes that give his name their aptness will most likely clear up in a year or two. The important thing to instil in a man at this age is instinctive respect and unquestioning obedience. “Bad boy,” the director therefore repeats. “Drop it. Drop the stick.”
Spot backs away, head down, rump elevated, firmly gripping the stick, a study in appealing mischief. Naturally. Over countless thousands of years, ever since insatiable curiosity drove the first wild monkey to peer in at the cave door and enlightened self-interest induced it to stick around, the Ostar have bred humans to be cute, lovable, endearing. They’ve filtered the gene pool and manipulated the bloodlines to promote great big puppy eyes, comic-mournful expressions, big floppy ears, sweet little button noses. And mischief too, of course. The puppy knows – it’s bred in the bone – that its job is to defy authority up to a point; and then give in. When the command is given to let go of the stick, he must reaffirm his owner’s self-image as lord of creation and master of the universe, in return for which he gets a pat and a biscuit, and the eternal contract between the two species is thereby endlessly renewed.
The director, contemplating this, frowns. Irony, or what?
Even so. He glances at the chronometric calibrator (call it a watch) clamped to the back of his paw by a thousand too-small-to-see gravimetric tethers. Round about now, he tells himself. Which is just another way of saying, There’s still time, just about. One call; you could stop it. This doesn’t have to happen.
Maybe Spot has some kind of basic empathic ability. Hundreds of human-owners right across Ostar will swear blind that their pets can read their minds, though a more reasonable explanation would be an acute instinctive awareness of their owners’ body language. Same thing. Spot is looking up at the director with huge worried brown eyes, sensing the doubt, the disquiet. He makes a faint whinnetting noise in the back of his throat.
In spite of himself, the director smiles, wags his tail reassuringly. “It’s all right, Spot,” he says. “Nobody’s going to hurt you.”
Quite. Nobody’s going to hurt you. But maybe your billionth cousins a billion times removed won’t be so lucky.
In his dream, George Stetchkin was in the dock at the Central Criminal Court, accused of the murder of nine million innocent brain cells. The usher was showing the jury the alleged murder weapon, an empty Bison Brand vodka bottle. Then the judge glared at him over the rims of his spectacles and sentenced him to the worst hangover of his life.
When you wish upon a star, and sometimes when you don’t, your dreams come true. George woke up with the judge’s words echoing in his head, far too loudly, and groaned.
I’m in no fit state, George protested, but he knew it wasn’t any use. George spent so much time in no fit state that he was entitled to claim it as his domicile for tax purposes. In spite of that, unaccountably, by some miracle, he still had a job; a very important, responsible one. He glanced at his bedside clock. Time to get up.
No, really. Come on, he urged himself: you can do it. If Jesus Christ rose from the dead, so can you. Yes, but Jesus got a three-day lie-in first. You’ve only been in bed for, oh hell, two and a bit hours.
His digestion surged like overexcited magma into a volcano, and pumped about a quart of the finest acid through his hiatus hernia. He yelped, and made himself fall sideways out of bed on to the floor. There, he told himself, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
He tried to draw on his reserves of mental strength and determination, but he got put through to his memory instead. Board meeting, 9 a.m. sharp. He recalled the memo, the gist of which was that the Ten Commandments had been rationalised and condensed into one – Thou shalt not miss this meeting – and the penalty for transgression would make the liveliest imaginings of Hieronymus Bosch look like Disneyland. Damn.
At least he didn’t have to squander time on getting dressed, since he was still wearing his suit. True, his shirt-front was a complete record of everything he’d eaten and drunk in the last forty-eight hours, but he reckoned he could get away with that. Everybody would be too busy staring at his spectacular black eye to notice. It hurt, by the way, but the massed choir of his hangover drowned out his eye’s rather weedy solo. Small mercies. He wiped some of the incrustation off his shoes on to the bedspread, and lurched towards the door.
Someone (he had no idea who; nevertheless, the best friend he’d ever had) had sent a hovercar for him. It was parked outside the block, floating twenty centimetres or so off the ground. The driver turned his head, looked at him and grinned.
“I know,” George said. “Hit it.”
A really bad hangover is when you feel all the bumps and potholes in the road when you’re riding in a hovercar. George scowled so hard he was in danger of straining his eyelid muscles, and tried to concentrate.
Someone had been robbing banks. Not in a submachine-gun-and-stocking-mask way; not by hacking into the account database and leading the virtual dollars away like a cybernetic Pied Piper. Someone was causing huge quantities of freshly printed banknotes to vanish out of locked, sealed, electronically booby-trapped, infrared-infested, CCTV-haunted bank vaults, usually in the early hours of the morning (local time), always without unlocking the locks, unsealing the seals, tripping the booby traps, breaking the beams or even showing up on the TV. In his capacity as head of security for the Credit Mayonnais, George had personally viewed all the footage. Now you see ten billion dollars, now you don’t. It was like watching a really bad conjuring trick – bad not because it didn’t work, but because it was inherently so unconvincing. A stack of banknotes five metres by one metre by one metre doesn’t just vanish into thin air. If you see it happen on the screen, you know it’s got to be a trick. The problem was, he had no idea how it was done.
So far, the perpetrator had got away with fifty trillion dollars.
Of course they’d tried heat sensors. Of course they’d tried motion detectors. It went without saying that they’d posted small armies of guards with shotguns in the vaults. Gadgetry; when the chief cashier of the National Lombard in Chicago locked up for the night and switched on the security system, the drain on the power grid dimmed the lights right across the city. That hadn’t stopped whoever it was from taking NatLom for seven billion dollars in one hit. So far, they’d managed to keep a lid on it – just as well, because the amount of actual folding money in the banks of the industrialised nations was dangerously less than it ought to be – but it was only a matter of time before someone found out, and then—
George closed his eyes. It didn’t help.
How were they doing it? He’d consulted a Nobel laureate physicist, who’d considered all the evidence in detail and replied, “Teleportation.” But that’s not possible, surely. “You’re right,” the physicist had replied, with a fifteenth-storey-ledge grin on his face, “it’s absolutely impossible. But there’s no other way.”
So George had had the physicist design special sensors which would detect the tell-tale signs of teleportation (were it possible, which it wasn’t) – a significant build-up of EM potential in the immediate vicinity, negative verterons in the ambient ion stream, devastating electrical storms and floods that’d wash away entire cities – and sure enough, they’d drawn a blank too. “Well of course,” the physicist had commented, “what did you expect? Didn’t I tell you teleportation isn’t possible?”
And today, George was due to report his findings to the board. They would be expecting answers. Strictly speaking, Not a fucking clue was an answer, but George had an idea that it wouldn’t be a popular one, even though it had the merit of being absolutely true. It was, he suspected, one of those cases where the truth might very well set him free, or at least induce his employers to let him go, which presumably amounted to the same thing.
Concentrate, he ordered himself, as enough acid to burn through a steel door spurted through the tiny hole in his oesophagus, and his head rang like a bell.
Recapitulation time. The volume of air inside the vaults had remained exactly the same. No change in temperature. Nothing to indicate movement of any sort. No build-up of static electricity. The atomic clocks mounted on the vault walls had neither slowed or speeded up during the relevant time period, so relativistic distortion was a non-starter. Also, not one single stolen dollar bill had so far turned up anywhere, so whoever was doing this wasn’t spending the proceeds. Besides, how would anybody set about laundering fifty trillion dollars? The serial number of every missing note was on file. There was no way—
He opened his eyes and grinned. Then he tapped an e-mail into his Warthog, shrugged and hit the Send key. He’d concluded the message with Reply soonest, but it was a crazy idea, born of bad dreams and residual alcohol and stress and a mind that thought the way a knight moves on a chessboard. Still, it was about the only thing he hadn’t tried yet.
Years ago, George Stetchkin had been a scientist himself and, in spite of all the pollution and wear and tear his brain had had to put up with since then, in some ways he still thought like one. He believed in cause and effect, he spent the duration of every conference he attended in the bar, and he had faith in the proposition that to every question there is an answer. Scientific method; all he had to do was apply it, and—
The car stopped; a fraction of a second later, so did the contents of his stomach. He stepped out of the car, swayed, and trudged up the bank steps.
Shortly afterwards, the chairman of the board looked at him and said, “Well?”
No, not really, he managed not to say. Instead, he presented the facts. They knew them all already, of course, but it was What You Did at meetings like this one. Also, it bought him a little time.
“Thank you,” the chairman said. “And?”
Even worse than “Well?”. He took a deep breath, and really wished he was a better liar. “We have various working hypotheses,” he heard himself say, in a little squeaky voice, “but obviously I can’t go into details until we’ve had a chance to collate further data and subject our theories to properly structured analysis. Suffice to say we’re confident that we’re on the verge of making real progress.”
The finance director looked at him down a runway of nose. “In other words, you haven’t got a clue.”
George grinned sadly. “We have quite a lot of clues, actually,” he said. “Unfortunately, they’re all somewhat negative. I can give you a list of 306 ways they’re definitely not doing it, if that’s any help.”
“No,” said the finance director. “Not really.”
There followed a silence you could have smashed up and put in six dozen whiskies. Over the years, George had acquired something of a feel for silences. This one, he suspected, meant We have nothing left to say to you; in which case, the only honourable course left open to him was to re—
Something in his pocket bleeped. His guardian angel, thinly disguised as his Warthog. “Just bear with me a moment,” he mumbled, pulling the gadget from his pocket. “This is probably the vital lead I’ve been waiting for, so if you’d just—”
He didn’t finish the sentence because he couldn’t be bothered; and because, quite unexpectedly, what he’d just said about the vital lead had turned out to be true.
It wasn’t an answer. It wasn’t even a coherent question. It was more of a shape, which might, if only he could catch it in a bottle and do something really clever to it, eventually turn into a question, the answer to which (if, against all the odds, he could figure out what it was) might cast a single bent photon of light on to the mystery. In other words, a stunningly amazing breakthrough. He stared at the figures, and time seemed to stop; he could practically see time running frantically without moving, like the cat in the cartoons just before it realises it’s run off the edge of a cliff. He stared at the figures again, and in his brain arithmetic forced its way out of the alcoholic ooze.
“What? Oh, sorry.” He remembered where he was, and what he’d just been about to do. He managed not to smile. “As I thought,” he said, “our latest tests have confirmed our leading hypothesis, to some extent. I can now definitely assure you that we’re…” He paused. “Getting somewhere.”
“Ah.” The chairman tapped three fingers on the table. “Would you care to…?”
“Right,” George said. It was as though a strong electric current was flowing up from the keyboard of the Warthog, through his fingertips directly to his brain. “Here we go. I asked the technicians at the Oslo branch – you remember we got taken for seven billion? Yes, I thought you probably might – I asked them to take a random sample of the banknotes that were left behind.” He hesitated. These men weren’t scientists, they needed things said simply and at least twice. “The ones that weren’t stolen, I mean. They took a random sample of a hundred notes, and they weighed them.”
A slight rustle, as of a sleeve dragging across the table. He ignored it.
“Then,” he went on, “they called up the printers and asked them to confirm the precise specifications of all the banknotes they print for us. As you know, the notes are printed on indestructible plastic that doesn’t fray or get tatty, and they’ve got an aposiderium security strip implanted in them. The printers were quite categorical about it: each note weighs 0.3672 grams when it leaves the press, and that’s the weight it stays at. With me so far?”
He looked up and saw a short row of annoyed, bewildered faces; men who didn’t know whether they were listening to drivel or something extremely clever. It was appalling bad manners to subject men of their importance to such a level of doubt, but he couldn’t help it. Or, come to that, care less.
“The notes we tested from Oslo branch,” he went on, “each weighed exactly 0.4176 grams. Well, with a margin of error of 0.0003, but that’s neither here nor there. Gentlemen, whatever happened in that vault when it got robbed made all the banknotes that weren’t taken nearly a tenth of a gram heavier.” He stopped, and blasted the board with a short-range, wide-beam grin. “What do you make of that, then?”
Then, “Nothing,” said the chairman. “What do you make of it, George?”
“Ah.” He reduced the grin to a pleasant smile. “That’s it, isn’t it? Obviously, what I’ve got to do now is get on to all the other banks that’ve been robbed and see if they report the same effect. If they do—”
“Dust,” said the marketing director.
Not what he’d expected. “Excuse me?”
“I expect it’s just dust,” the man repeated. “When the thieves took the money, they stirred up the dust lying on top of it. The dust went up into the air, came down on the remaining money, and made it all just a tad heavier. Well?”
George shook his head. It was a massively reckless thing for him to do, in his state of health, but he felt it was justified, as being the smuggest gesture available to him at that precise moment. “No dust in the vault,” he said. “The movement sensors are so delicate, a few specks of dust shifting about’d set them off. It’s a sealed, sterile environment. No dust.”
He’d just made another enemy, but so what? If he was right, or if his head had just been dropped on by the apple of inspiration that would eventually lead him to rightness, everybody in this room would be desperate to be his friend.
“That’s quite right,” the chairman said. “I remember when we had the extractor units put in. They cost a fortune and came in way over budget.” They’d been George’s idea, of course. “You’ve checked they were working at the time of the robbery?”
George hadn’t, but his people didn’t make mistakes like that. “Of course,” he said. “So it’s not dust. But I have an idea what it could be, if you’d all just hold on while I do the maths.”
It was a great joy to keep them waiting, but he couldn’t savour it as much as he’d have liked to. It was a complex calculation, and he daren’t get it wrong. The finance director was drumming his fingers on the table-top, almost certainly on purpose, but he managed to ignore him.
“OK,” he said. “We know the number of notes that were stolen, and the number of notes that were left behind. I’ve calculated the total weight of the stolen notes, and the total extra weight added on to the unstolen notes, and—”
The chairman was wearing a frown he hadn’t seen before. “They’re the same?”
“No,” George replied, and for a moment he felt as though he’d stayed on an escalator just that little bit too long. “No, there’s a slight difference, 1.682 grams. That’s—”
The chairman cleared his throat. “What does it mean, George?”
“Something.” He hadn’t meant to shout, but this really wasn’t a good time for deference and diplomacy. “It means something, I know it does, but I can’t quite…” He lifted his head and put on the most wooden, stuffed-animal expression he could muster. “As I said,” he said, “we have a distinctly promising lead, it’s a little bit too early at this precise moment to be able to predict exactly when I’ll have an answer for you, but I can—” (Oh, why not, he thought. They’ll fire me anyway.) “I can quite definitely and unreservedly guarantee that, very soon now, I’ll have this problem solved and dealt with, and that’s a promise. You have my word. Very soon you’ll have either the answer or my resignation. So?” He opened up the smile again. “How do you like them apples?”
Pause. “Excuse me?”
“I mean,” George said, “will that do? Is that satisfactory? Because if not,” he went on, “I’ll resign now and take my findings to InterBank Santiago. I’m sure that once I’ve solved the mystery for them they’ll be happy to share the solution with everybody else in the industry. Eventually,” he added.
It was so like one of his recurring daydreams – the one where he stood up to the board and bashed the table with his fist and told them a thing or two, and they whimpered and cowered like timid little mice and doubled his wages – that he half expected to snap out of it and find them all scowling at him and calling Security to have him thrown out. But apparently not. They weren’t happy, but a large part of their unhappiness proceeded from the knowledge that George had outmanoeuvred them. And, in the words of the late Richard Nixon, when you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.
“No, that’s fine,” the chairman said, in a dangerously calm voice. “You follow up your lead, and we’ll reconvene in, say, three days’ time, and by then I’m sure you’ll have this whole thing rolled up. Everybody agreed?”
Ah well, he thought, as he staggered out of the meeting; I have a job for three days, guaranteed, which is more than I’d expected and probably rather more than I deserve.
He left the building. There was no hovercar waiting to take him home again. Well, quite. Hovercars were a courtesy the bank extended to its employees, and if the meeting had gone as planned he wouldn’t have been one by now. As it was, he’d bought himself a tiny weeny scrap of time. Long enough for a glacier to move a millionth of a millimetre, or for a stalactite to grow one layer of calcium molecules. Or, looked at another way, three generations of mayflies.
He went to a bar. He knew all the bars within a square kilometre of the bank. More to the point, they all knew him. But there was one he was still allowed to go in, and there he went.
“A triple Tijuana Sunburst, please,” he said to the barman. “And what weighs precisely 1.682 grams?”
The barman looked at him. “A large cockroach,” he said. “What’s a Tijuana Sunburst?”
“Make that a triple Scotch,” George said.
It was, in the event, a good triple Scotch, though not quite as good as the one that followed it; and George’s mind slowly began to work. He’d asked the barman the wrong question, he realised. Not What weighs precisely 1.682 grams?, but Seven billion of what weigh precisely 1.682 grams? And that wasn’t quite right either, because a quarter of the stolen money had been in ten-dollar bills, a sixteenth had been twenties, and so on. He amused himself by doing the sums (for some reason, figures had always soothed him; it was words that had caused all the problems in his life, along with alcohol, women and a dog) and was eventually in a position to reformulate the question: 108.492 million of what weigh precisely 1.682 grams?
Simple long division, which he could do standing on his head and had frequently done slumped in gutters. The resulting number was very small and very long, and when he looked at it, it rang no bells whatsoever. But – something weighing that very, very small number of fractions of a gram had been removed from each missing banknote, and the balance, just plain ordinary plastic, had been redistributed among and reintegrated with the unstolen notes. Perhaps. It was a theory. And, of course, this incredibly difficult operation had been carried out invisibly in full view of the security cameras, in a fraction of a second so tiny they hadn’t been able to isolate it yet, by an agency that left no trace it had ever been there. Neat trick.
- On Sale
- Jun 18, 2010
- Page Count
- 400 pages