Earth Hour

Earth Hour

illustration by robh ruppel

[#]

Monstrous, sticky with blood, Angus crossed the street and stood in the alleyway at a barrier of black-and-yellow crime-scene tape. Backtracking the darts’ trajectory had been the work of moments for the second cop out of the VTOL: even minutes after the attack, the lines in the smart soot had glowed like vapor trails in any enhanced gaze. An investigator in an isolation suit lifted the crossbow with gloved reverent hands. Cat-sized sniffing devices stalked about, extending sensors and sampling pads.

“What’s with the bicycle wheels?” Angus asked, pointing.

“Surplus to requirements,” the investigator said, standing up, holding the crossbow. She turned it over and around. “Collapsible bike, pre-grown tubular wood, synthetic. See, the handlebars form the bow, the crossbar the stock, the saddle the shoulder piece, the chain and pedal the winding mechanism, and the brake cable is the string. The darts were stashed inside one of the pieces.”

“Seen that trick before?”

“Yeah, it’s a hunting model.”

“People go hunting on bicycles?”

“It’s a sport.” She laughed. “Offended any hunters lately?”

Angus wished he could see her face. He liked her voice.

“I offend a lot of people.”

The investigator’s head tilted. “Oh. So you do. Lord Valtos, huh?”

“Just call me—” He remembered what had happened to the last person he’d said that to, then decided not to be superstitious. “Just call me Angus. Angus Cameron.”

“Whatever.” She pulled off her hood and shook out her hair. “Fuck.” She looked disgustedly at the cat things. “No traces. No surprise. Probably a spray job. You know, plastic skin? Even distorts the smart dust readings and street cam footage.”

“You can do that?”

“Sure. It’s expensive.” She gave him a look. “I guess you’re worth it.”

Angus shrugged. “I’m rich, but my enemies are richer.”

“So you’re in deep shit.”

“Only if they’re smarter as well as richer, which I doubt.”

“If you’re smart, you’ll not walk back to the hotel.”

He took the hint, and the lift. They shrouded him in plastic for it, so the blood wouldn’t get on the seats.

#

The reaction caught up with Angus as soon as the hotel room door closed behind him. He rushed to the bathroom and vomited. Shaking, he stripped off. As he emptied his pockets before throwing the clothes in the basket he found he’d picked up Glenda’s lighter and cigarette pack. He put them to one side and showered. Afterwards he sat in a bathrobe on the balcony, sipping malt on an empty stomach and chain-smoking Glenda’s remaining cigarettes. She wouldn’t be needing these for a few months. By then she might not even want them—the hospital would no doubt throw in a fix for her addiction, at least on the physical level, as it regrew her body and repaired her brain. Angus’s earlier celebratory cigarillo had left him with a craving, and for the moment he indulged it. He’d take something to cure it in the morning.

When he felt steady enough, he closed his eyes and looked at the news. He found himself a prominent item on it. Spokespersons for various Green and Aboriginal coalitions had already disclaimed responsibility and deplored the attempt on his life. At this moment a sheepish representative of a nuclear-waste-handling company was in the studio, making a like disavowal. Angus smiled. He didn’t think any of these were responsible—they’d have done a better job—but it pleased him to have his major opponents on the back foot. The potential benefit from that almost outweighed the annoyance of finding himself on the news at all.

The assassination attempt puzzled him. All the enemies he could think of—the list was long—would have sent a team to kill him, if they’d wanted to do something so drastic and potentially counterproductive. It seemed to him possible that the assassin had acted alone. That troubled him. Angus had always held that lone assassins were far more dangerous and prevalent than conspiracies.

He reviewed the bios linked to as shallow background for the news items about him. Most of them got the basic facts of his life right, from his childhood early in the century on a wind farm and experimental Green community in the Western Isles, through his academically mediocre but socially brilliant student years, when the networks and connections he’d established soon enabled his deals and ventures in the succession of technological booms that had kept the bubble economy expanding by fits and starts through seven decades: carbon capture, synthetic biology, microsatellites, fusion, smart dust, anti-aging, rejuve, augments...and so on, up to his current interest in geoengineering. Always in before the boom, out before the bust, he’d even ventured into politics via a questionably bestowed peerage just in time for the packed self-abolition of the Lords and to emerge with some quite unearned credit for the Reform. The descriptions ranged from “visionary social entrepreneur” and “daring venture capitalist” to “serial confidence trickster” and “brazen charlatan.” There was truth in all of them. He’d burned a lot of fortunes in his time, while adding to his own. The list of people who might hold a private grudge against him was longer than the list of his public enemies.

Speaking of which, he had a conference to go to in the morning. He stubbed out the last of Glenda’s cigarettes and went to bed.

[#]

The assassin woke at dawn on Manly Beach. He’d slept under a monofilament weave blanket, in a hollow where the sand met the scrub. He wore nothing but a watch and swimming trunks. He stood up, stretched, scrunched the blanket into the trunks’ pocket, and went for a swim. No one was about.

Shoulder-deep in the sea, the assassin removed his trunks and watch, clutching them in one hand while rubbing his skin and hair all over with the other. He put them back on when he was sure that every remaining trace of the synthetic skin would be gone. Most of it, almost every scrap, had been dissolved as soon as he’d keyed a sequence on his palm after his failed attempt, just before he’d made his way, with a new appearance (his own) and chemical spoor, through various pre-chosen alleys and doorways and then sharp left on the next street, up to Kings Cross, and onto the train to Manly. But you couldn’t make too certain.

Satisfied at last, he swam back to the still-deserted beach and began pacing along it, following a GPS reading that had some time during the night been relayed to his watch. The square meter of sand it led him to showed no trace that anything might be buried there. Which was as it should be—the arrangement for payment had been made well in advance. He’d been assured that he’d be paid whether or not he succeeded in killing the target. A kill would be a bonus, but—medical technology being what it was—he could hardly be expected to guarantee it. A credible near-miss was almost as acceptable.

He began to dig with his hands. About forty centimeters down his fingertips brushed something hard and metallic.

He wasn’t to know it was a land mine, and he didn’t.

[#]

One of the nuclear power companies sent an armored limo to pick Angus up after breakfast—a courtesy, the accompanying ping claimed. He sneered at the transparency of the gesture, and accepted the ride. At least it shielded him from the barracking of the sizable crowd (with a far larger virtual flash mob in spectral support) in front of the Hilton Conference Centre. He was pleased to note, just before the limo whirred down the ramp to the underground car park (which gave him a moment of dread, not entirely irrational), that the greatest outrage seemed to have been aroused by the title of the conference, his own suggestion at that: Greening Australia.

Angus stepped out of the lift and into the main hall. A chandelier the size of a small spacecraft. Acres of carpet, on which armies of seats besieged a stage. Tables of drinks and nibbles along the sides. The smell of coffee and fruit juice. Hundreds of delegates milling around. To his embarrassment, his arrival was greeted with a ripple of applause. He waved both arms in front of his face, smiled self-deprecatingly, and turned to the paper plates and the fruit on sticks.

Someone had made a beeline for him.

“Morning, Valtos.”

Angus turned, switching his paper coffee cup to the paper plate and sticking out his right hand. Jan Maartens, tall and blond. The EU’s man on the scene. Biotech and enviro portfolio. The European Commission and Parliament had publicly deplored Greening Australia, though they couldn’t do much to stop it.

“Hello, Commissioner.” They shook.

Formalities over, Maartens cracked open a grin. “So how are you, you old villain?”

“The hero of the hour, I gather.”

“Modest as always, Angus. There’s already a rumor the attentat was a setup for the sympathy vote.”

“Is there indeed?” Angus chuckled. “I wish I’d thought of that. Regretfully, no.”

Maartens’ lips compressed. “I know, I know. In all seriousness...my sympathy, of course. It must have been a most traumatic experience.”

“It was,” Angus said. “A great deal worse for the victims, mind you.”

“Indeed.” Maartens looked grave. “Anything we can do...”

“Thanks.”

A bell chimed for the opening session.

“Well...” Maartens glanced down at his delegate pack.

“Yes...catch you later, Jan.”

Angus watched the Belgian out of sight, frowning, then took a seat near the back, and close to the aisle. The conference chair, Professor Chang, strolled onstage and waved her hand. To a roar of applause and some boos the screen behind her flared into a display of the Greening Australia logo, then morphed to a sequence of pixel-perfect views of the scheme: a translucent carbon-fiber barrier, tens of kilometers high, hundreds of kilometers long, that would provide Australia with a substitute for its missing mountain range and bring rainfall to the interior. On the one hand, it was modest: it would use no materials not already successfully deployed in the space elevators, and would cost far less. Birds would fly through it almost as easily as butting through a cobweb. On the other hand, it was the most insanely ambitious scheme of geoengineering yet tried: changing the face of an entire continent.

Decades ago, Angus had got in early in a project to exploit the stability and aridity of Australia’s heart by making it the nuclear-waste-storage center of the world. The flak from that had been nothing to the outcry over this. As the morning went on, Angus paid little attention to the presentations and debates. He’d heard and seen them all before. His very presence here was enough to influence the discussion, to get smart money sniffing around, bright young minds wondering. Instead, he sat back, closed his eyes, watched market reactions, and worried about a few things.

The first was Maartens’ solicitude. Something in the Commissioner’s manner hadn’t been quite right- -a little too close in some ways, a little too distant and impersonal in others. Angus ran analyses in his head of the sweat-slick in the handshake, the modulations of the voice, the saccades of his gaze. Here, augmentation confirmed intuition: the man was very uneasy about something, perhaps guilty.

Hah!

The next worries were the unsubstantiated unease he’d felt just before his sister’s call, and the content of that call. It would have been nice, in a way, to attribute the anxiety to some premonition: of the unusual and worrying call, or of the assassination attempt. But Angus was firm in his conviction of one-way causality. Nor could he blame it on some free-floating anxiety: his psychiatric ware was up to date, and its scans mirrored, second by second, an untroubled soul.

Had it been something he’d seen in the market, but had grasped the significance of only subconsciously? Had he made the mistake that could be fatal to a trader: suppressed a niggle?

He rolled back the displays to the previous afternoon, and reexamined them. There it was. Hard to spot, but there in the figures. Someone big was going long on wheat. A dozen hedge funds had placed multiple two-year trades on oil, uranium, and military equipment. Biotech was up. A tiny minority of well-placed ears had listened to voices prophesying war. The Warm War, turning hot at last.

Angus thought about what Catriona had told him, about the undocumented, unannounced mitochondrial module in the EU’s next genetic upgrade. An immunity to some biological weapon? But if the EU was planning a first strike—on Japan, the Domain, some other part of the Former United States, Brazil, it didn’t matter at this point—they would need food security. And food security, surely, would be enhanced if Greening Australia went ahead.

So why was Commissioner Maartens now onstage, repeating the EU’s standard line against the scheme? Unless...unless that was merely the line they had to take in public, and they really wanted the conference to endorse the scheme. And what better way to secretly support that than to maneuver its most implacable opponents into the awkward position of having to disown an assassination attempt on its most vociferous proponent? An attempt that, whether it succeeded or failed, would win Angus what Maartens had—in a double or triple bluff—called the sympathy vote.

Angus’s racing suspicions were interrupted by a ringing in his ear. He flicked his earlobe. “A moment, please,” he said. He stood up, stepped apologetically past the delegate between him and the aisle, and turned away to face the wall.

“Yes?”

It was the investigator who’d spoken to him last night. She was standing on a beach, near the edge of a crater in the sand with a bloody mess around it.

“We think we may have found your man,” she said.

“I believe I can say the same,” said Angus.

“What?”

“You’ll see. Send a couple of plainclothes in to the Hilton Centre, discreetly. Ask them to ping me when they’re in place. I’ll take it from there.”

As he turned back to face across the crowd to the stage he saw that Maartens had sat down, and that Professor Chang was looking along the rows of seats as if searching for someone. Her gaze alighted on him, and she smiled.

“Lord Valtos?” she said. “I know you’re not on the speakers list, but I see you’re on your feet, and I’m sure we’d all be interested to hear what you have to say in response to the commissioner’s so strongly stated points.”

Angus bowed from the waist. “Thank you, Madame Chair,” he said. He cleared his throat, waiting to make sure that his voice was synched to the amps. He zoomed his eyes, fixing on Maartens, swept the crowd of turned heads with an out-of-focus gaze and his best smile, then faced the stage.

“Thank you,” he said again. “Well, my response will be brief. I fully agree with every word the esteemed commissioner has said.”

A jolt went through Maartens like an electric shock. It lasted only a moment, and he’d covered his surprise even before the crowd had registered its own reaction with a hiss of indrawn breath. If Angus hadn’t been looking at Maartens in close-up he’d have missed it himself. He returned to his seat and waited for the police to make contact. It didn’t take them more than about five minutes.

Just time enough for him to go short on shares in Syn Bio.

 

Earth Hour copyright © 2011 Ken MacLeod

Art copyright © 2011 by Robh Ruppel

9 comments
Peter D. Tillman
2. PeteTillman
Excerpt from a larger WIP?

Regardless, short & sharp. Go with this world!

Cheers -- Pete Tillman
--
"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here -- this is the War Room."
-- Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick)
David S.
3. David S.
Great story, enjoyed it a lot.

As someone who grew up in Manly, and still lives a stone's throw north of there, I was pleased to see that in Ken's future we'll finally have rail link to the city (we've been waiting 85 years so far) and that Manly beach will by then be backed by bushland instead of concrete sea walls and apartment blocks as it is today.
David S.
5. Tim Graham
Hi Ken,

As an Aussie, I found this story particularly interesting. The amount of backstory woven into the story lead me to want more -- a lot more. Wonderful writing - great description and action. The world feels real.

It sort of felt like a cliffhanger at the end, to hook you into the next episode. I'd read the novel :)
David S.
6. Roderick T. Long
The last three paragraphs on p. 1 were especially fun.
Bill Siegel
7. ubxs113
Another great story from my favorite SF author, thanks!
David S.
8. Kai Middleton
Thanks for an excellent read. I echo the other person's "short and sharp" comment. I like the plots within plots within plots triple cross.
bex
13. somewheresouth
Yay! New stuff from Ken Macleod, with whisky mentioned :) love it. And a bit of time focused on Sydney, where I used to live. Reminds me a bit of the song with the chorus "from St Kilda to Kings cross" by Paul Kelly. Thanks, I'm enjoying tracking down Ken Macleod's books at the mo!
Rich Bennett
14. Neuralnet
Great Story and well done illustration! Cant wait to read more

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