Jack Glass is the murderer—we know this from the start. Yet as this extraordinary novel tells the story of three murders committed by Glass, the reader will be surprised to find out that it was Glass who was the killer and how he did it. And by the end of the book our sympathies for the killer are fully engaged. Riffing on the tropes of crime fiction (the country house murder, the locked room mystery) and imbued with the feel of golden age SF,this is another bravura performance from Roberts. Whatever games he plays with the genre, whatever questions he asks of the reader, Roberts never loses sight of the need to entertain.This novelhas some wonderfully gruesome moments, is built around three gripping HowDunnits, and comes with liberal doses of sly humor. Roberts invites us to have fun and tricks us into thinking about both crime and SF via a beautifully structured novel set in a society whose depiction challenges notions of crime, punishment, power, and freedom.
This narrative, which I hereby doctorwatson for your benefit, o reader, concerns the greatest mystery of our time. Of course I’m talking about McAuley’s alleged ‘discovery’ of a method of travelling faster than light, and about the murders and betrayals and violence this discovery has occasioned. Because, after all – FTL! We all know it is impossible, we know every one of us that the laws of physics disallow it. But still! And again, this narrative has to do with the greatest mind I have known – the celebrated, or infamous, Jack Glass. The one, the only Jack Glass: detective, teacher, protector and murderer, an individual gifted with extraordinary interpretive powers when it comes to murder because he was so well acquainted with murder. A quantity of blood is spilled in this story, I’m sorry to say; and a good many people die; and there is some politics too. There is danger and fear. Accordingly I have told his tale in the form of a murder mystery; or to be more precise (and at all costs we must be precise) three, connected murder mysteries.
But I intend to play fair with you, reader, right from the start, or I’m no true Watson. So let me tell everything now, at the beginning, before the story gets going.
One of these mysteries is a prison story. One is a regular whodunit. One is a locked-room mystery. I can’t promise that they’re necessarily presented to you in that order; but it should be easy for you work out which is which, and to sort them out accordingly. Unless you find that each of them is all three at once, in which case I’m not sure I can help you.
In each case the murderer is the same individual – of course, Jack Glass himself. How could it be otherwise? Has there ever been a more celebrated murderer?
That’s fair, I hope?
Your task is to read these accounts, and solve the mysteries and identify the murderer. Even though I have already told you the solution, the solution will surprise you. If the revelation in each case is anything less than a surprise, then I will have failed.
I do not like to fail.
In The Box
‘Hey Liz! What’s in the box?’
‘It’s my little voice of self-doubt.’
Liz Phair, ‘Smoke’
The prison ship was called Marooner. The name had nothing to do with its colour.
This was its sixth run, and, as it had done five times before, it began by unloading its kit. The remaining seven prisoners waited in the hold. There were echoes as they coughed, or kicked their heels against the plasmetal wall. Still, it was hard to believe that when they left 8Flora the space had been crammed with more than forty human beings. It was surely not big enough for so many bodies.
There it was – the growl. The shudder
‘That bump,’ said Gordius, ‘is them unloading the fusion cell. I heard it’s possible to short it – to explode the whole asteroid, which is a way of saying, by way of saying, transforming it into a shell of rapidly expanding dust and—’
Lwon said: ‘stop talking.’
But Gordius couldn’t stop talking. He had watched all the other prisoners being unceremoniously unloaded; each batch to their own prison. Now, finally, he knew his own time had come and his nerves had got the better of him. ‘You know what space is? It is a moat. It is an uncrossable million-mile moat. We’ll never see home again. Eleven years? There’s no way we’ll last it out. And if by some impossible fluke we do, then we will have gone insane and won’t want to go back.’
Lwon repeated his instruction, with a more ferocious emphasis.
‘There!’ said Gordius. The ship was jettisoning its cargo packages into the hollow: a cylindrical scrubber, for the air; a lightpole; a small pack of spores. Finally, and – most important of all – three excavators, cabled together. The momentum of the package, and its Newtonian equal-and-opposition, made the plasmetal structure of Marooner as a whole wobble and chime. Boom, boom, thrum. Outside, as each package flew into the cleft, and collided with the wall, or wedged in at the narrowest point, of course there was no noise at all. But the seven prisoners were inside the ship, listening to the activity. It was the sixth time they had heard it: they all knew what was going to happen next and could not help but be apprehensive. The voices of stevedores could be heard, the content of their shouts muffled by the intervening structure of the ship, leaving only a rhythmic groaning musicality. ‘It’ll be hard enough work,’ said Gordius, ‘digging out, and not only the digging, but the architectural business of designing the – of making the most of – making the most of – but even harder work will be finding a way to live together without killing one another.’
‘I’ll kill you right now,’ said Davide, ‘if you don’t shut up.’ And the wall, to which they were all of them strapped, said: grrrmmm, and there were intimations of certain other, unfathomable noises.
The terms of the sentence were that these seven be deposited in the hollow of the asteroid known as Lamy306 – 200m across, this worldlet, this little-princedom. The hollow was a crescent-shaped valley in the surface of the rock, the residue of some long ago impact (of course), one which had deformed the material of Lamy, twisted it, broken and folded it over, leaving a long, thin, pocket-shaped cave: it stretched some fifteen metres along the surface of Lamy, extended, at its deepest, ten metres into the worldlet. It was no more than a metre wide at any point. Into this irregular-shaped cavity Marooner had deposited all the relevant gear, and there were only two further tasks for it to perform. It deployed its foam hose, and applied a skin of gluey sealant to seal over the long slit-mouth of the declivity. The ship worked from one side to the other. The seal set almost instantly upon being exposed to the vacuum outside.
The seven all knew what was imminent. Lwon spoke up: ‘listen everybody,’ he barked. ‘We’ll more likely survive this if we work together. No fighting, no panic – we’ll need to get the light on first, and then the scrubber—’
Ejection cut him off. Then the cargo hold shuddered and shook and the seven humans inside it felt the startlement of anticipation. All seven hearts pumped suddenly harder. Some of the seven readied themselves, some were too flustered to do so, but it came, irrespective of whether they were ready or not.
A hatch opened in the hold, and the rail to which all seven were attached came free from the wall. They went in this order: Gordius, three times the weight of any of the others, a near spherical man; Mo, his mouth set in a line and his eyes tightly closed; Davide, roaring; Lwon, calm, or seemingly so; Marit looking startled; E-de-C waving his heavy fists as if he would fight the very air; and at the end of the line, the feeblest of them all, Jac, with no legs, looking idiotically placid. As if he didn’t quite grasp what had happened to him!
Then they were sucked out and down, smacked on the front and back by the cold, flexible material of the discharge schute and into the swirling microgravity darkness.
It was perfectly dark and very, very cold. Jac, sensibly enough, clutched his head with his arms as he shot down the schute, but as soon as he was aware that he had emerged into the cavern itself he put his arms forward. A painful, jarring collision. He caromed from a rocky surface, and was able to quench his speed. Naked skin touched naked asteroid, that mystic Sistine-chapel-ceiling moment of contact: the first person to lay hand upon it since the unpolished globe had formed out of its dust and ice. There was no handhold, of course, and although Jac’s fingers scrabbled at the rock he could not anchor himself. Lacking legs, it was harder for him than it was for the others. The air inside the pocket was gusting and burlying, yanking him one direction and then another. It was disorienting, monstrously disorienting; the black density of that lightless place, his ears filled with white noise and pain. He flew backwards, collided a glancing blow against some unyielding plane of hardness, smacked frontways and bounced back.
This is what was happening: the Marooner, having pumped the cavity full of air to a higher-than-sea-level pressure, was now sealing the last gap in the seal. Jac had been inside the cargo hold during the six previous iterations of this procedure, and so he knew what the ship was experiencing right now – linked to the sticky matter of the seal by the tether of the very hose that was laying it down, and buffeted by the venting gases from the (shrinking) hole into the aerated cavity. The seven of them had sat tethered in the same hold, crammed with prisoners, as the Marooner leapt and shook until the conniption motion subsided and the vessel detached and angled itself about and accelerated away. They had sat there with thirty five others whilst that happened; and then with twenty-eight people, and with twenty-one, and with fourteen, and now it was only them. Now the Marooner’s cargo hold was empty, and when the shimmies and shakes diminished, and the seal was completed, the sloop would turn about and navigate back to 8Flora.
No spacecraft would come this way again for eleven years.
When a ship finally did return it would find one of two things. They would be alive and the work done; or they would be dead and the work not done. Perhaps the seven prisoners (or whatever proportion of them survived) would have excavated the interior spaces of the asteroid into a series of habitable chambers – or perhaps they would have hollowed one great chamber and adapted the fusion engine to shine in the midst like a sun; or else they might have carved a beehive of cells and zones; or a thread tangle of tunnels.
If they – or some of them – were still alive, then the Gongsi would recover them. Mostly, when this happened, the survivors were pathetically grateful, eager to climb back on the prison ship. Very occasionally the survivors would resist; would have gone rock-native, would scatter from the retrieval officers and try to hide – or fight. But in that unlikely eventuality they would not be permitted to stay; for the rocks were most valuable to the Gongsi as vacant possession. Land a touch-up team, put in some windows, tow it into a more advantageous orbit, and sell it. Real estate. And the prisoners? Released, sent back onto the cavernous freedom of the Ulanov System.
But first you had to survive the sentence. And that meant you had to turn a tiny pocket of air filling a declivity no larger than a room, near the surface of a frozen asteroid, into an environment that could support seven human beings for a decade and more. You had to do this yourselves, without external help or guidance, and using as few items of equipment to help you as the Gongsi could, always mindful of its profits, get away with supplying. It was a simple and indeed (that overused corporate term) elegant business model. The Gongsi was one of four working in this field; their name – it happened to be Diy?rén – was hardly important. It had won the contract for handling convicted criminals by agreeing the lowest per capita fee per delinquent. From this baseline they worked to extract the maximum profit from the situation.
This is the way the worlds work. It’s always been like this.
Of course, none of this was in the minds of the seven prisoners. The entire, pitiless horizon of their existence was as close to them as the jugular veins in their necks. Everything was swallowed up by the pressing need for immediate survival. There was a mighty rushing sound, and an acrid gunpowder stench, a tingle of sand blown upon the face. Jac coughed, and coughed again. Everything was black. But in the commotion he was thinking: how large is this space? Not large. With seven men breathing it, how long will the breathable air last? Not long.
Somebody’s voice, muffled by the rushing, in the dark: ‘the light – quickly – light, or we’re dead!’
Jac bounced again off the wall, cracked the side of his head painfully, and lurched forward. Putting out his arms he scraped rock on both sides, and pushed with all the strength in his shoulders. He wedged himself still, and for a moment all he could do was blink and blink and cough. The darkness was complete; the rock felt killingly cold against his flesh.
‘Find the light!’ somebody bellowed, again, his voice distorted. ‘Or else—’
There was light. A strip of yellow-white, and the whole narrow chamber was illuminated with a gritty, cloudy radiance. It stung Jac’s eyes; or else, the still-swirling dust did that.
Jac blinked, and blinked. He was able to make out the shapes of his fellow prisoners, some stationary, some still hurtling. It was Davide who had grasped hold of the light pole and turned it on – indeed, Jac could see the ingenious way he had used it as a brace to hold himself steady in the swirling air, wedging it between the angle of two walls. The space they were in was really not very large. A wedge of pitted black-grey rock above and below tapering to a stocky dead-end. And at the formerly open end of the declivity, a new ceiling of red-brown of permaseal, the fabric of which was wobbling slightly in the gusts. Jac thought exactly what everybody else was thinking: we must survive here for eleven years. We must take a pole of light, and a bundle of equipment you could pick up for a couple of thousand credits in any Mart, and with that we must somehow keep seven people alive for four thousand days. It seemed flatly impossible. Of course Jac knew, as they all did, that many prisoners did manage to do it—the Gongsi’s business model depended upon this, in fact. But the Gongsi’s business model also accommodated the death of a proportion of prisoners; for in almost all cases they could retrieve the kit they had supplied, and even in death the fees they took from Ulanov police authority administrations per prisoner more than covered the costs of portage and sundries. If they survived and turned the asteroid into saleable real estate the Gongsi made a lot more money, of course. But there was no incentive for them to offer a helping hand. The question for Jac was: if they did survive, then in what mental state? On the other hand, such questions were a less pressing concern than imminent death.
Alienated from his bId for the first time in his life, Jac was unable to call up the numbers—how many prisoners, as a whole, died during their sentence? And of that number, how many were instances where the whole group of seven died? And of that number, how many such deaths occurred within the first few hours of being deposited?
They were all thinking it. Eleven years in the most hostile environment imaginable, entirely dependent on their own resources, with no hope of assistance. A prison made of rock insulated from the rest of humanity by millions of miles of vacuum in every direction. Eleven years! Their only hope was to endure the full eleven year term and pray that the Gongsi hadn’t forgotten them by the end of it, and was still trading, and had the incentive to come collect the hollowed out globe.
Jac had more to fear from the end of that eleven-year period than from the sentence itself. Of course, he didn’t tell the others that.
‘Now! Quick!’ Davide was shouting, indistinctly, his mouth caked with dust. ‘Locate the scrubber!’
Now that the lightstick was on, those who were still being burlied about by the breeze were able to orient themselves a little better, and brake their velocity against the walls or in at the thin end of the wedge. In moments, the only things still moving were the items of kit the Marooner had unloaded into the cavity. Even in tumbling motion, bashing dust from the walls as they bounced, it was easy to see which was which: the largest was the fusion cell, knocking ponderously between wall and wall; only slightly smaller, on account of it being three machines strapped together, was the bundle of excavators—the irregular shape of this package together with its size meant that it had become stuck in the wedge. But the rest of the kit, the tree-trunk-shaped scrubber, the spore pack, a sealed box of biscuits (Lembas brand) so small a child could hide it under her tunic—these things continued to bash and rattle about the claustric space.
Jac wiped his face with a dusty hand, leaving it no cleaner than before. To his left, the great globe-shape of Gordius was squashed between the walls, his arms waving, and the fat of his flesh rippling. It was hellishly cold.
To his right, Jac could see the other five. Marit made a swipe at the scrubber as it flew past him, caught it with one hand and tipped it about in mid air. But before he could make a second swipe and actually grasp the device, Lwon kicked off with both feet, shot across the space from the far side and scooped the scrubber into his open arms.
‘Hey!’ cried a hoarse-voiced Marit. ‘I had it!’
Indeed, Lwon had put himself at some disadvantage by leaping the way he did. He collided almost at once with the other wall and had to yank his head round to an alarming angle to avoid smashing his skull. He sprawled on the rebound. The scrubber spun about, and he thrashed to steady himself. Finally Lwon managed to get his heel into a kink in the rock and settle himself. But he had achieved his aim: he had the scrubber.
‘Listen to me!’ he cried. ‘Heed me! The next few hours are the most dangerous. One false step and we all die. We can’t afford to fight amongst ourselves.’
‘Turn the damn scrubber on,’ said Marit, aggrieved. ‘No sermons!’
‘That’s no sermon,’ boomed E-d-C. ‘He’s running for office!’
Somebody else booed, or groaned, or perhaps coughed. Through the dusty air, Lwon called: ‘I’m not saying I should be leader,’ though that was obviously exactly what he was saying. ‘I’m not telling anyone what to do. But if we start fighting amongst ourselves, we might just as well wreck this scrubber here and now—choke to death in hours, instead of dragging out the agony for years.’
‘I’ll tear your head off,’ growled Davide, although without particular belligerence. After all, he had the light pole.
‘Turn the scrubber on!’ said Mo. ‘Turn it—on.’
‘Wait,’ said Lwon, putting his hand up. ‘We don’t even know what model it is.’
‘What’s to know?’ said Marit, slapping his legs to warm them. ‘A scrubber’s a scrubber—’
‘We can’t afford any mistakes,’ said Lwon, turning the bulky device over and over. ‘A single mistake could kill us all.’ But there were no instructions printed on the machine; and he couldn’t draw out the theatre of his moment for much longer.
So he turned the scrubber on. It made no sound, but the dust near one of its circular apertures stirred and started drawing slowly in.
‘Why don’t we all take charge of a different thing each?’ said Gordius. ‘Then we all got a stake—yeah?’
All faces turned to the far end of the cleft. The light was string, the shadows it threw black and stark, stretching oddly over the slant surfaces of the walls. ‘What’s you say there, fat-boy?’ demanded Marit.
‘I’m only saying,’ said Gordius, his voice audibly quivering with retreat, ‘is that—look, there’s seven of us. The fusion cell, the scrubber, the light, the, uh, the spore pack, the, uh, uh, the biscuits—that’s five items. Divided equally between …’
‘Oh, you want the biscuits, do you?’ bellowed E-d-C. The effort of shouting caused him to cough violently. ‘Those biscuits got to last us until we get the spores growing their slop. You eat them all up, what we going to eat?’
‘We could eat him,’ said Mo, showing thirty-two teeth. ‘He’d last us a while. And as for half-man there,’ Mo gestured towards Jac, ‘I guess you don’t eat as much as a regular guy?’
‘Hey, don’t misunderstand. I don’t want the biscuits,’ insisted Gordius. Even in the bitter cold of that space, he was perspiring. ‘I wasn’t saying that! I mean—sure, I’d like a biscuit, but, sure. The food should be equally divided, until. Sure. But, look, I don’t mind, and I guess Mr No-legs here doesn’t mind either. Why don’t you five divide the five items between you? And then you could—you could—’
Lwon interrupted him: in a loud, stern-to-be-kind voice. ‘Your best bet, Softbody, is keep your opinions to yourself. We got a lot to do just to stop ourselves dying right here and now.’ He looked in turn at the other four: Davide, Mo, Marit and E-d-C. ‘I know you, Ennemi-du-Concorde, and you know me. I know you are strong, and that you got the willpower. You know the same of me, I think. I’m not setting to boss you—I’m not setting to boss any of you.’ The scrubber in his arms was carving a spectral Doric column out of the floating dust near his shoulder. ‘I tell you what,’ he said.
‘What?’ boomed Marit, with sarcastic emphasis.
‘I say when we get ourselves sorted, and the air and water and food supply is settled, when that’s done I say we excavate seven completely separate chambers, and have one each. Then we don’t need to be in each other’s hair. Then we can just wait out our time best as we can. But until then …’
Davide, evidently, had a practical mind. ‘Break that lightpole into seven,’ he said, ‘and I don’t reckon you’d have enough light to even grow the spores.’
‘They’d grow,’ said Marit. ‘But slow—slow—and small. But you’re right, the better bet is keep the pole in one piece. Or maybe break it in two.’
‘And there will be time to discuss all these things,’ said Lwon. ‘But not right now! Now, we have more immediate concerns!’
Jac examined the whole space. It didn’t take him long. ‘We could make a window,’ he said.
This was the first time any of the others had heard him speak, for he had kept his peace on the outbound flight. The sound of his voice made all eyes turn towards him. ‘You say—what was that, Leggy?’
‘We could make a window,’ Jac repeated. ‘Let sunlight in. I know we’re a long way from the sun, but we’d still ensure a degree of …’
Mo started laughing: a curt, barking, aggressive noise that transformed almost at once into coughs. Lwon said, dismissively: ‘sure, half-man. You do that. You conjure your magic window and set it in the side of the rock.’
For some reason, Jac persevered: ‘there must be silicates in this rock. It wouldn’t be hard to run a line from the fusion cell, melt the—’
‘Talking of which!’ boomed E-d-C. ‘I’m cold as the grave.’ He started an ungainly, ill-coordinated crawl over the surface of one wall towards where the fusion cell was lodged. Lwon followed him with his gaze, but did nothing to stop him. He still had the scrubber, after all.
E-d-C’s large hands grabbed the cell, turned the massy object easily in the microgravity, and dialled up some heat. As soon as he did so, the others began to shuffle, or scramble, over towards him. The air was horribly, horribly cold; and although the fusion cell put out only faint warmth it was better than nothing.
All except Lwon. ‘Don’t get too cosy,’ he yelled. ‘We need to find water before we can get ourselves all warm like a cat on an exhaust plate. We need to find some ice or we’ll all be dead in days.’
The other four alpha-males ignored him. Gordius was whimpering a little as he tried to extricate his bulk from where he had wedged himself. Jac made his way hand-on-hand over to the big fellow. ‘You’re stuck in there pretty good,’ he observed, bracing his thigh-stumps against the rock and pulling at an arm.
‘I bounced in the dark,’ said Gordius, struggling, ‘and then—wham. It shot me in here, like a … like a … ouf.’ He came loose and floated out.
They gathered their various bits and pieces and tucked them all into the cleft to keep them from moving about. Davide propped the light pole at an angle, wall to wall, somewhere near the middle. Then they all set about unpacking the three excavators with which they had been supplied. The scrubber would keep the air fresh, but without water they would not last long. That meant digging through until they found ice. ‘What if we don’t find any?’ asked Gordius. He knew the answer to this question as well as any of them; but that didn’t stop him asking it aloud. ‘We die,’ Jac told him. ‘What if we find some, but not enough to last us eleven years?’ Gordius pressed. ‘What if there isn’t enough ice in this rock to last seven men eleven years? What then?’
There was no point in answering him.
E-d-C had brought out the first of the excavators, and was examining the device. ‘Anybody here ever worked as a miner?’ he asked.
The scrubber had cleared some of the dust out of the air; and the breeze had settled, running toward the scrubber along one wall and away from it along the other. Jac found that he was able to cough up and moisten his mouth sufficiently to get most of the grit out of it. ‘I dated a Moon Miner once,’ Mo said. ‘She was tough as a battlebot.’
‘She ever impart the wisdom of her profession to you?’ E-d-C enquired.
‘Then press your lips tight, idiot,’ E-d-C snapped.
Mo glared at him. Lwon spoke up, to defuse the hostility. ‘By the time we’ve finished our term here,’ he declared. ‘We’ll all be expert miners.’ He had the second excavator and was examining at it. ‘It is a series of problems to be solved,’ he announced. Even with the heat from the fusion cell, their environment was extraordinarily cold. Breath spumed from his lips with every word Lwon spoke. ‘That’s all it is. If we take each problem in turn and solve it, working together, then we’ll get through it. It’s a series of problems to solve—all that’s left, after that, is the will to endure our time here.’
All that’s left after that, Jac thinks, is the will.
‘So I’m no expert,’ E-d-C, ‘but these look like utility models. Decades old. Second-hand. I can tell.’
‘You amaze me,’ said Davide, in a perfectly unamazed voice.
‘Eleven years,’ said Gordius, apropos of nothing.
‘There must be a schute,’ said Marit. ‘An schute. Ein schute. I,’ he said, rummaging. ‘This?’ It was a coil of black cable, about as thick as a man’s wrist. There were three schutes, rolled together: one for each digger.
They unspooled one of them, and found its business end: a pen-nib-shaped bit. ‘All three together,’ said Lwon. ‘E-d-C—and Davide take first shift. We dig until we find some ice.’
Davide, holding the third excavator, removed his attention from the controls to angle his face in Lwon’s direction. ‘That sounded very much,’ he said, ‘as if you were giving me an order.’
The tone in which he said this, as much as the words themselves, brought a frozen quiet to the space. Everybody looked at Lwon.
‘If you’d prefer not to, Davide,’ Lwon said, in a low, measured voice. ‘That’s fine. But if we don’t find water, we will die.’
‘I’ll have a go!’ said Gordius, brightly, holding his arm out for Davide to pass him the excavator.
Saying nothing, Davide uncoiled his own waste schute, and fitted the open end into the port at the back of the excavator.
E-d-C had already fitted his schute to his digger. ‘So, the exhaust,’ he said. ‘Through the rock? Or through the stuff they sprayed to seal this cave?’
Marit, near the ceiling, reached out and thumped the artificial substance with his fist. Then he wrapped his arm back around his knees and hugged himself. Jac, from the other side of the cleft, saw how vigorously he was shivering. In the microgravity the little muscular tremors made him jiggle in position slightly, as if he were being agitated from without, like a particle in Brownian motion.
‘The thing about the seal,’ said E-d-C, ‘is that at least we know it’s not too thick.’ He pushed off with his feet, dragging his excavator with him. On reaching the ceiling he pressed the sharp end of his schute against the material of the ceiling, and turned the device on. Jac expected—he didn’t know what: whirring, lasers, something. But the point simply sank into the material. It pulled a metre or so of hose after it. Then it stopped.
‘I’m going to try this one on rock,’ said Lwon, scrabble-pushing himself to the other side of the cavity and pressing his waste schute against the wall. This time there was more noise: a coffee-grinder whirring sound. The schute-point burrowed more slowly into the rock, and tugged one, then two, then three meters of hose after it. Then it stopped.
Davide had picked a third place on the rock, and his schute dragged less than two metres of hose. The three men took their respective machines to different parts of the cavewall, and set the drillmouth against the rock.
‘Is there no way we can—what’s the word—’ Marit said, evidently unhappy that he didn’t have one of the drills. ‘Dowse?’
‘Dowse?’ Lwon repeated.
‘You’re just going to dig? That’s blind luck. What if there’s no ice in the direction you choose to excavate?’
‘Then,’ said Lwon, ‘we try another way. We keep digging until we find it.’ And he started his machine.
It wasn’t an excessively loud sound, but it wasn’t restful on the ear either, and there was no escaping it. Lwon, E-d-C and Davide ground at the rock in sweeping or circling motions. The first two were able to provide traction by setting their feet against the other wall, and Davide dug his heels into the edge of the ceiling. But it did not go quickly, and there was nothing at all for the other four prisoners to do but watch. The fusion cell was giving out a modicum of heat, and although it did little to warm the air more generally, Mo, Marit and Jac clustered around it, and Gordius got as close as his great bulk would allow. ‘Why isn’t the fusion cell hotter?’ Mo wanted to know. ‘It’s got enough energetic potential to blow the whole asteroid to dust. I mean, if all released at once. So why did they set the heating element to max-out at such a low threshold?’
‘Why do you think?’ growled Marit. ‘They’re sadists. Low-level bureaucratic sadists.’
‘I think,’ Jac put in, emphasising the first word, and continuing in a singsong voice, ‘there’s a more practical reason. It’s cold now, and will be for a while. But there will come a time when our main problem will be finding ways to radiate excess heat.’
‘Shut your head-hole, Leggy,’ said Marit. Jac looked away, smiling.
Grrn, grrn, grrn, went the drills.
‘I’m thirsty,’ said Gordius, eventually. ‘Would it have killed the Gongsi to maroon us with a couple hundred litres of fresh water? Would it? How much would that add to their precious expense sheet?’ He kept chattering on. His was the type of personality, Jac noted, that was unable to leave well alone.
The dark grey walls made a Λ. The air was filled with scraps and orts of dust, crumbs of rock. The smell of cordite was in Jac’s nostrils. Stenchy, stenchy.
‘It would only be postponing the inevitable,’ said Jac. ‘They could hardly supply us with eleven years’ worth. We will have to shift for ourselves. Might as well start as we mean to go on.’
‘But,’ said Gordius, pressing his fists into his ample stomach. He didn’t say anything else.
‘You sound like you’re on their side,’ observed Mo. ‘That’s a provoking attitude to take.’
‘I will say it one more time, Leggy,’ said Marit. ‘And no further warnings. Keep your head-hole shut.’
Jac regarded at him with a sly eye. But he didn’t say anything else.
‘Eleven years,’ said Gordius. ‘We won’t last one. We’ll die of thirst in a week. There’s no ice in this rock. There ought to be a law. The Gongsi ought to be compelled by the Lex Ulanova to survey their prison stroids, to ensure—’ He petered out.
They fell into an unhappy silence. Jac watched the three diggers. Davide was the most aggressive, straining his muscles to try and force the drillmouth hard against the rock. Jac wondered if that would make a difference; presumably the machine processed as much matter as it did, regardless of whether it was pressed or merely set against the rock. But Davide was an impatient man. Everything about him made that fact plain. He would have to learn to shed his impatience, Jac thought, or he would not last very long. Lwon was more methodical, moving the drill in a tight circle and slowly carving out a metre-diameter circular space. E-d-C was making more dramatic, sweeping left-to-right gestures with his machine, scraping out a shelf. It required considerable muscular effort to move the excavators—weightless but nonetheless massy—through this shuttling series of motions. Jac wondered how long it would be before he exhausted himself. From time to time E-d-C and Lwon would stop, examine the area they had carved out, and check their machine. Davide did not stop.
Time passed. Nobody had any way of measuring the time: none of them had any bId connection any more. Jac cast his mind idly back to his schooldays. How had ancestral humans done it—measured the passing of time? (He was going to think: how did cavemen manage? But that seemed, in his present situation, too much like irony). Water clocks. Pendula. Both things that depended on gravity. What sort of clock could they build in this gravityless environment? Sundials. There was no sunlight, here.
It didn’t matter. Time didn’t matter. Only the will mattered.
Davide was sweating, despite the ferocious cold.
Jac watched the particles of dust sliding slowly-slowly in beautifully coordinated trajectories, slowly, in towards the intake end of the scrubber. Gordius saw that he was looking. ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ he said.
‘You’re thinking: what if the power chip in the scrubber malfunctions?’ Jac hadn’t been thinking that, actually, but he didn’t say so. ‘Well,’ Gordius went on. ‘I was thinking that too. Without the scrubber, we’d all asphyxiate in a very short time. But, see, if that happens, we can hook it up to the fusion cell.’ He said this as if he had spotted something terribly clever and useful. Jac went back to watching the dust patterns.
Time passed. The next thing that happened was that Davide broke off from his digging. ‘Somebody else have a go,’ he gasped. ‘I need a rest.’
‘You’re straining at the machine,’ observed Lwon, over the noise of his own digger. ‘You need to take it easier.’
‘Two-and-a-half-hours a day,’ Davide snapped back. ‘Minimum—minimum. Any less than that, and your muscles will waste. You’ll end up looking like Leggy, there.’ He nodded in Jac’s direction. Then he pushed off and flew slowly over towards where the biscuits had been stowed. Lwon saw what he was up to, quickly enough. ‘Wait!’ He shut off his digger.
‘I’m either having some biscuit,’ Davide announced, ‘or I’m eating your flesh, raw, Lwon.’
‘We all eat at the same time, and we all take the same amount,’ announced Lwon, forcefully. ‘That way we avoid falling out. If we start fighting amongst ourselves, then we might as well cut our own throats. And the biscuits won’t last us long, anyway. We should keep them till we’re really hungry.’
‘I am really hungry,’ Davide barked. ‘Did you just see the job of work I did?’
Jac watched Lwon’s face, as he sized-up the situation—whether this big man was going to back down, or not. Lwon evidently decided the latter was the truth of it. ‘In that case, we all get one Lembas. All of us—one each.’
Davide growled, but made no objection. So E-d-C shut off his digger too, and the seven of them gathered around the food. Davide took it on himself to hand out the supplies: one biscuit per person. ‘Leggy here don’t need a whole one,’ he said. Marit laughed. ‘I’d be happy with half,’ Jac said, mildly. But Lwon spoke up: ‘give him the same as everyone else, Davide.’
Nobody got very far with their biscuits. Without water, it was too parching a meal, not calculated to please dusty mouths. Jac ate some few nibbles, and put the remainder back. Davide went to the far side of the cavern, turned to face the rock, wedged himself in, and went to sleep. Or perhaps he didn’t: he was shivering pretty violently, and it was hard to imagine he got much rest. But he made a performance of sleeping, and of do-not-disturb, and everybody else let him be.
‘Come on,’ said Lwon. ‘We need water.’ Gordius again offered to take his turn, but Marit overruled him and took the spare machine. Drrn, drrn, drrn.
They laboured for a long time. The relatively high pressure in their pocket meant that the air was dry, and that fact combined with the dust meant that everybody felt terribly thirsty. ‘Could they not leave us a single keg of water?’ groaned Davide.
‘The scrubber will produce a little water, I think,’ said Jac. ‘The reaction takes the carbon from the see-oh-too and—’
‘You’ll be quieter,’ snarled Marit, ‘when I rip out your tongue.’
Jac, smiled, but said nothing more.
It was colder than could easily be expressed, colder than any of them had known before. As Davide said, repeatedly, in tones of gruff incredulity, it was amazing that human beings could exist for any length of time in such cold without simply expiring. They were wearing whatever they had been wearing when they were arrested—tunics, trows, dish-shoes. None of them were in cold-weather gear. Their breath burst from them in great cloudy bursts like ectoplasm; their eyelids kept sticking together as the moisture froze. Working helped a little; and a couple of them imitated Davide’s exercises: furious running up one wall and down the other. At other times they clumped together, scowling for shared warmth.
The cold was very hard to bear, but the thirst was worse. The dry air and the effortful labour of drilling parched their mouths; their tongues felt like dry horns, the roofs of their mouths were swollen and hard and caked in dust. Their muscles ached from operating the machine, or else from the constant shivering. The seven of them bickered amongst themselves constantly, and there were occasional flare-ups; but nobody had the energy to pursue it. Rock crumbled laboriously from the biting parts of the drills. They stopped continually, examined the face of excavation and checked for ice. It was only rock, nothing but rock.
‘Days,’ said Lwon. ‘Without water, we won’t last more than that. We may not even last that, given that it is so cold.’
But Jac was right; one of the side-effects of the scrubber clearing CO2 from the air was a thin trickle of water from a spigot on the cylinder’s side. It was barely enough to wet a single tongue, let alone supply seven labouring men with sufficient fluid. And given that fact, it possessed the potential to focus strife amongst the seven of them to dangerous levels.
Lwon announced that they would take turns at this trickle, and although Marit loudly challenged his right to make this announcement, everybody agreed. There was no other way. Davide went first, and then Lwon. But it took many hours for the spigot to refill, and with each person to wet his whistle the mood of the group as a whole became more sour.
Matters came to a head quicker than Jac expected. Ennemi-du-Concorde broke off digging and floated towards the spigot. As he approached the scrubber, Marit said: ‘I am next. You take your turn—after me.’
Without so much as looking at him, E-d-C growled ‘try to stop me and I’ll tear your jaw off.’
E-d-C lifted the massy, weightless scrubber in both hands to bring the spigot to his mouth. At once Marit struck. He launched himself from the wall with both legs and collided hard with E-d-C. The two men spun about in an arc, pivoting over the sliding scrubber. But the space was so confined there was hardly any room for them to scrap. E-d-C’s spine smacked audibly against the wall. Marit started landing blows, like a boxer at close quarters, in at E-d-C’s ribs and stomach. Jac could see that he was holding a piece of rock in his right hand.
But Lwon acted with impressive speed. He was on Marit’s back almost at once, calling to Davide to help, and in moments the two of them had disengaged the struggling Marit. In the course of this, Davide received a stone-holding fist blow on the side of his head, and this did not improve his mood. But then E-d-C swam over to join in, and the three men began pounding Marit.
This punitive battery didn’t last long. The next thing was that Marit, solus, was rotating slowly in the middle of the space, curled into a ball, coughing and shivering. He was a human spindle, and he was drawing a thread of tiny red beads about himself. The thread was coming from his mouth. E-d-C took what little water was in the spigot into his mouth, and, watching him, Jac felt the dryness in his own mouth that much more intensely.
They dug on. Marit sulked in the corner for a bit, but when Lwon kicked him gently and told him to take a turn at the digger, he did as he was instructed.
They dug, thirsting and frozen, for hours. ‘I’ve never felt so physically miserable,’ Mo announced to the group, finishing a shift with the digger, hugging himself and pressing himself close to the fusion cell. ‘It is literally impossible that I could sleep. Sleep is simply an impossibility.’ But he fell instantly into unconsciousness anyway, and Lwon moved his body away from the vent.
Gordius said: ‘we are going to die.’
‘This headache is enough to make me want to excavate my own skull with the digger,’ growled E-d-C.
There was nothing to do but go on. Their environment acquired a hallucinatory aspect. The dark grey walls. The way the continuous brightness of the lightstick laid a straight set of bars and shafts and lines through the cluttered, dusty air of their space. At one point Jac thought the walls were sweating, and pressed his face against it to discover only icy dryness and bitter-tasting dust. There were ashes lining the inside his throat. There was a throb to the fabric of spacetime. The box was not shut sufficiently tightly. The voice was leaking out. Jac listened to the voice, or ignored it, indifferently. It hardly mattered. He was hours from death. They all were.
The drill ground on. Jac felt it inside his own teeth. There were microscopic people trapped in his teeth, clearing the space with miniscule diggers. His nerves sang.
His turn on the machine. He pressed it against the rock, and it moved through the material with a painful slowness.
Everybody’s lips were the colour of the walls.
‘Wait,’ cried Lwon. ‘Wait.’ He was poking his hand at the front of his digger, the skin on his neck twitching with microshivers. Jac had this thought: if I lean over and turn the switch on his machine, the digger will devour his hand and arm, and he will die. He restrained the impulse, of course. He felt giddy, nauseous, freaky. Punchy, skittish. Ill, dry, dry, dry.
Lwon was holding something in front of him. It looked like a piece of coal. ‘Ice,’ he said.
Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer © Adam Roberts 2013