Jupiter War (Excerpt)

Check out Jupiter War, the conclusion to Neal Asher’s Owner trilogy. Jupiter War is available now from TorUK, and a US edition is coming May 6th from Night Shade Books!

Alan Saul is now part human and part machine. He craves the stars, yet his human side still controls him. But Saul’s robots make his crew feel increasingly redundant, sowing the seeds of mutiny and betrayal.

Serene Galahad, Earth’s ruthless dictator, hides her crimes from a cowed populace as she desperately readies a new attack on Saul. She aims to destroy her enemy in a vicious display of violence.

The Scourge limps back to Earth, its earlier mission to annihilate Saul a failure. Some members of the decimated crew plan to murder Galahad before she has them executed for their failure, but Clay Ruger plans to negotiate for his life. Events build to a climax as Ruger holds humanity’s greatest asset—seeds to rebuild a dying Earth. This stolen Gene Bank data is offered at a price, but what will Galahad pay for humanity’s future?

 

 

1

THE GOOD WILL OF THE PEOPLE

It can been seen that, despite her brutal treatment of anyone who ever stood in her way, Serene Galahad’s reign was still contingent on the good will of the people of Earth. However, the knowledge of the “common man” was limited; he thought that Alan Saul had attacked Earth and released the Scour—the pandemic that annihi­lated nearly half of Earth’s population of eighteen billion—almost certainly killing someone the common man knew. Under Serene Galahad that same common man seemed to have acquired more personal freedom and more material wealth, while his ruler apparently strove to avenge his losses. Of course, he did not know that the greater freedom he enjoyed was due to Saul wiping out Committee infrastructure and frying a large proportion of those who had formerly wielded the whip. Nor did he understand that his greater material wealth was precisely because the Scour had killed billions of his fellows. Nor did he realize that Serene Galahad was entirely responsible for the Scour. The gratitude he felt for his current ruler was unwar­ranted, and the sense of motivation that had him turning up at the factory gates early was based on a lie. This sort of ignorance, unfortunately, has been the lot of the common man since the dawn of time.

 

EARTH

The sun was shining on what had been Chairman Messina’s small patch of Tuscan countryside. There were lemons on some of the trees and green oranges on others, while below them carefully tended succulents had opened red, orange, white and yellow flowers to the morning sun. Light glinted brightly off an all-chrome shepherd as it strode on patrol near the fence, and razorbirds roosting on a watchtower could almost be mistaken for seagulls. But all this brightness seemed just a veneer over blackness to Serene Galahad.

As her limousine drew up beside the building, Serene felt that its dressing of stone and red pantiles, concealing its recent lineage, was merely a facade of a similar nature, but one that covered failure. She stepped out of her vehicle before Sack, her dehumanized lizard-skin bodyguard, could open the door for her, and she pushed her sunglasses up onto her hair. Already the troops from the two armoured cars were piling out and heading for the two entrances—and going in fast, their instructions clear.

“It should just take a few minutes,” Sack informed her, looming at her side.

She shrugged, not really concerned, and continued to survey her surround­ings without interest. Coming from inside the building she could hear shouting, a scream, the sound of glass breaking. Of course it wasn’t necessary for her to be here for this, but maybe it could bring her back into focus; maybe this was the remedy she required. Eventually, just as the shepherd disappeared from sight behind some olive trees, Sack told her, “They’re ready.”

She began walking towards the main entrance, Sack still at her shoulder and two armoured guards moving ahead. One of the guards held the door open for her while the other one moved on into the corridor beyond. Meanwhile, Sack drew his antiquated automatic and proceeded with it pointing down at his side. There was no need, because no one here—except her troops—was armed. The staff here had all been thoroughly vetted, and none of them would even consider violence against her . . . until it was too late. She moved on past a room full of computers and wall-spanning information screens, another room containing tiers of shelves crammed with old paper files, but with search-and-sort robots, looking like the offspring of document scanners and spiders, crawling along the shelves. And finally she came to a door outside which four of her troops had already gathered.

Serene paused as they moved aside; she glanced at a smear of blood on the floor and wondered if some of those working here might have guessed in advance, or had just been a bit too tardy in following orders. She looked up at the sign on the door, which announced “Tactical’, the smaller text below this reading “Data Acquisition, Collation and Assessment—Positive Response Planning’. She snorted, then reached down and extracted her new Black Oval palmtop from its pouch at her belt.

“Ma’am?” Sack enquired, gesturing towards the door.

She nodded and he opened it for her; she strode on through.

The entire staff of this main tactical unit was present in the room. Some were seated at consoles, but most were herded back against the far wall. Near the door, some desks had been shoved over to one side, leaving just one, the chair behind it facing the room. Troops stood watchfully to either side of it.

Serene moved into the room, pulled out the chair and sat, placing her palmtop carefully before her, tapping it once and watching in satisfaction as it hinged open, expanded its film screen and projected a keyboard onto the desk surface. She reached out but, anticipating her, it had already called up the list of the thirty-four personnel here which she had been looking at earlier.

“Merrick Myers,” she stated, looking up.

The woman was clearly reluctant to come forward, but others moved aside quickly and someone behind her gave her a shove.

“Ma’am,” said Myers, achieving a ridiculous mix of bow and curtsey.

“You are the officer in charge here,” Serene declared, “but the blame cannot be wholly attributed to you. Your final assessments for submission to me are made up from a collation of data and assessments gathered from other tactical units. It is the case that what you present to me can only be as good as the data you receive.”

Myers looked quite relieved to hear this and seemed about to say something, but Serene held up a hand to cut her off and continued, “Nevertheless, the fact remains that, despite having the best data and tactical programs available, along with the application of the minds of a total of four thousand two hundred and three tactical analysts “Tactical” still got it wrong.”

“Ma’am, if I could—”

“You will be silent!” Galahad spat. Then, after a pause to calm herself. “Time and time again your ‘tactical assessments’ underestimated Alan Saul. The failure of Tactical is no small matter. You have allowed the greatest mass-murderer in human history to escape our grasp. And because of that you have also jeopar­dized the future of Earth. We still do not have the Gene Bank samples and data that would enable us to regenerate Earth’s ecosystem.”

Jupiter War Neal Asher Owner trilogy UK cover

Serene found herself growing irate again as she mentally reviewed what she had just said, and as doubt nibbled at her certainty. Was the blame really all theirs? Yes, of course it was, damn it! She had done everything she could and, as had been the case throughout human history, had been let down by her advisers. She could only work with what she knew. It was their fault.

Serene flicked to another list and then fed that into a particular program. This was a random selection of ten per cent of other tactical personnel in places like this, both on Earth and in orbit—a number that rounded up to three hundred and eighty-six.

“This cannot go unpunished,” Serene continued. “However, I am not so stupid as to allow such a punishment to destroy or cripple an important resource. I have therefore chosen a method suitable to our location here in Italy: I am using the old punishment called decimation.” She set the program running, watched a loading bar appear, rise to its maximum and then disappear.

“For those of you unacquainted with the word, decimation was how Roman commanders punished troops guilty of cowardice or rebellion. One in ten was selected and killed.” She now went back to her previous list of those here and fed that into the same program as well, but paused it with the parameters set. “Right now, three hundred and eighty-six of your fellow tactical analysts both on Earth and in orbit are learning what their strangulation collars are for.”

At this announcement many in the crowd before her reached up to finger the hoops of bright metal fastened around their necks. As was usual in this sort of situation, they were seeing or hearing others being punished and assumed this was an object lesson for them; that this time they had escaped.

“Here, gathered before me,” said Serene, “I have the cream of Tactical—the best analysts and programmers available—and I cannot blithely kill off one in ten of you.”

Ah, the relief in their expressions . . .

“Your failure is almost of an order of magnitude worse than that of your fellows, therefore you are all going to die.”

It took them a moment to realize what she had just said, a moment for them to begin to protest and mill like sheep being circled by wolves, and just a moment for Serene to set the program running again. Some of them began screaming and protesting, those seated leaped out of their chairs, and all of them groped ineffectually at their now closing collars. A couple ran towards her, the man ridiculously wielding a litter bin. Sack’s automatic cracked twice, both head shots, one lifting the top of the man’s scalp and the other hitting the woman’s nose before exiting in a spray of brains and bone behind her. They both went down, and behind them computers crashed to the floor, as desks and chairs were overturned in a writhing and choking mass of dying humanity.

Serene turned to Sack. “That wasn’t really necessary, now, was it?”

“My apologies, ma’am,” he replied woodenly.

Serene took in the look of horror on the faces of some of the troops, though most remained hard faced and unreadable. It occurred to her that Sack might have killed those two so as to end their suffering swiftly, but then she imme­diately dismissed the idea. A man like him didn’t get to the position he held without becoming callously inured to this sort of incident.

Just as on other occasions like this, she noticed the sudden smell of shit, though this time the only collar failure was one that closed too quickly and all the way, severing a head and sending a spray of blood that even reached her desk. She closed up her palmtop, stood, picked it up and returned it to its pouch.

By now the choking sounds had ceased, though chests were still heaving and legs kicking. Serene abruptly stepped back, bored with this now, and realizing that though she had felt her malaise lift for a moment, it was back in force.

“Take me home,” she said to Sack, before heading for the door.

 

MARS

Var slowly hauled herself to her feet, feeling weak, shaky and nauseous, and only just beginning to accept that she wasn’t on the brink of dying. It was a strange mental state to emerge from; she had given up her responsibilities, had nothing to do, and how uncomfortable and filthy she felt had been irrelevant. But her anger at Rhone, for first trying to kill her out here on the surface of Mars, then leaving her to die when her oxygen ran out, helped her feel alive again. For this had not faded and now became the anchor that stabilized her. And her brother, who had miraculously crossed the solar system to bring her oxygen, seemed to inject some steel into her backbone with the steady regard of his weird pink eyes. She straightened up, gazed at him for a second, then transferred her attention to the vehicle he had arrived on.

The dust having rolled away, the machine was now clearly visible. On seeing its similarity to an early rocket-propelled precursor of vertical take-off jets she had christened it a “flying bedstead”—and now felt no need to question that label. On the dusty rust-coloured ground rested a cube-shaped framework from which projected steering thrusters, one pointing towards Var and two pointing left and right, with presumably a fourth projecting from the other side. Within it, a single acceleration chair faced up towards the sky, with hardware from thecockpit of a space plane installed in front of it. Behind the chair, two cylindrical fuel tanks had been mounted horizontally, and beneath them the main engine pointed towards the ground.

“I would have said ‘impossible to fly’ had I not seen you flying it,” she rasped.

“The word ‘impossible’ has always been given a severe battering throughout human history, and recently has been dealt a near fatal blow,” he reminded her.

She felt slightly demeaned by his dismissive attitude, and wished she hadn’t used the word ‘impossible’ but instead enquired about the technicalities of flying such a machine. His remark had referred to this Rhine drive he had used to bring Argus Station here. Arrogant of him, she felt, but supposed it did seem pointless discussing the difficulties of flying the contraption that stood before her when he’d recently totally shafted conventional physics. She studied him and he seemed blank to her; not quite as human as the brother she had once known, but was she misremembering? Perhaps it was the effect of those . . . eyes, and the knowledge of everything he had managed to achieve?

“What happened to you, Alan?” she asked, trying hard to connect.

“I may retain that name, but little else of the brother you knew.” He glanced up the valley, seemingly impatient with her. “We’ll talk while we walk.”

Swallowing a snappy reaction, she waved a hand towards his vehicle. “Can’t this thing get us back to Argus?”

“No.” He turned and headed back towards it with the long gliding steps necessary here. “An Earth-format space plane would have fallen like a brick in Martian atmosphere. I had to strip one down to achieve the correct weight-to-thrust ratio, and physically it could not include any more fuel than this used to get me down here.” He reached up beside the seat and detached a backpack, pulled it down and slung it over one shoulder, and turned back to her.

“So we have to go to Antares Base?” she said.

He nodded. “We have to get your Mars-format space plane flying again.”

“We don’t have any fuel for that either.”

“Not a problem as, right now, my robots are constructing a drop canister to get some down to us.” He paused reflectively. “It should come down, twenty hours hence, within just a few kilometres of the base.”

“But we do have the additional problem that I am no longer in charge,” she replied. “Rhone is probably now in control of Antares Base, and its weapons.”

He waved a dismissive hand. “Something to be dealt with in due course.”

He’d stolen a space station and all but destroyed the Committee, so perhaps had some reason for self-confidence, but she found his arrogance nevertheless distasteful. No matter what he had done, a single bullet could still kill him. He turned jerkily and began heading away, kicking up small clouds of dust. Var hesitated, not much in love with the idea of tagging along behind, of being in second place, then reluctantly acknowledged to herself that she was alive only because of him and she hurried to catch up, her legs leaden and a pain nagging in her chest from what was probably a cracked rib.

“Where are you heading?” she asked.

“There’s a cave system leading from Coprates Chasma to that cave you were moving your base to. That will get us close without being seen.”

She had considered going that route herself, but just hadn’t possessed a suffi­cient air supply. Noting the weight of the pack he carried, she felt sure he must have brought extra oxygen bottles along. Yes, of course he’d brought extra; of course he would never make a stupid mistake like forgetting to bring enough air.

“So, tell me, Alan,” she said, moving up alongside him, “how come you’re here now?” It was merely a conversational gambit, and he accepted it as such.

“You could say,” he began, “that my birth into this incarnation was from a plastic crate on the conveyor of the Calais trash incinerator . . .”

Throughout the Martian afternoon they trudged on up Coprates Chasma, with rouge dust hanging in the air over their trail while Saul, in terse and perfectly correct sentences, told her what had happened to him and what he had been doing over the last few years. Var was appalled. Her brother had always appeared pragmatic and mostly emotionless, yet there had never been any indication that he could also be so murderous. But, then, this person beside her was not quite the brother she had known and, in truth, she had previously never had any idea that she herself could become such a ruthless killer. Perhaps they shared the same genetic trait.

Their walk brought them to a triangular cave piercing a steep cliff and, as they scrambled over fallen rubble to reach it, Var realized that Alan seemed just as exhausted as she felt. But he finished his monologue.

“In a state comparable to unconsciousness, I had calculated that what we now call the Rhine drive was our only hope.” He shrugged. “I was arrogant and I was wrong because Galahad’s warship, the Scourge, still managed to intercept us.”

Var felt slightly surprised at this admission of error.

He halted and turned to look at her. “Her troops boarded Argus and a lot of people died. We came close to losing and it was only by my boarding the Scourge and penetrating its computer system that we managed to prevail.”

“So what did you do?” Var asked.

“I penetrated their ID implants and activated the biochips—killing them all with the Scour virus lying latent within them.” He faced forwards and moved on. “We got the drive running again after that and hit the Scourge, which had retreated, with our drive bubble. That ship is back on course for Earth, and now doubtless full of corpses.” He paused contemplatively as they walked, then added, “In reality the only person the Rhine drive actually saved was you.”

Var felt a surge of resentment at that, then shook it off as she contemplated all he had told her. So that was it: end of that chapter and turn over the page. He had summarized some of the most catastrophic events the human race had ever faced, also events that had opened out vast horizons; all had, as their root cause, himself. She found that somehow . . . unfair.

“So what now?” she asked, as they reached the cave mouth. “You always wanted to build spaceships, Var—that is one memory I retain,” he replied. “Give me your opinion of Argus Station, in that respect.”

She shivered and, despite her weariness, felt a sudden excitement. “It was a stupid design.” Yes, it was, but she couldn’t help feeling as if she was about to deliver a proposal to some Committee technology-assessment group.

“How so?” he enquired, flicking on his suit light to punch a beam into the dusty dark ahead.

“The initial aim was to build a ring station that could be spun up for centrifugal gravity. They first put in the structural supports and then began building the ring, and only realized halfway through that they had posi­tioned it over the Traveller engine, so wouldn’t be able to complete it if they intended to use that engine again—which they did. Then, instead of moving the engine so that it pointed either up or down in relation to the ring’s axis, they decided to turn the ring supports into the spindles for cylinder worlds, then went on to build the arcoplexes. It was a government hash from the start.”

“Very true,” Saul agreed.

“We’ll have to move it,” Var opined.

“The engine or the station rim?” he asked.

“The Traveller engine, effectively, since we really need to get that asteroid out of there, cut it up and turn it into something useful.”

“So you propose a ring-shaped spacecraft with the engine jutting below?”

“I propose no such thing.”

He wasn’t walking into the cave, just leaning a hand against the wall of stone as he waited to hear what she had to say. In just a short exchange, this conver­sation had moved on from apparently idle speculation. But she felt sudden misgivings. After all he had done, why would he need her expertise? Was he just offering a sop to her pride? No, she couldn’t allow that thought to take hold: she could be just as good as him, just as successful. She closed her eyes for a second to try and remember the schematics of the Argus Station, and then consider what could be done with it.

“The Alcubierre warp,” she said, her eyes snapping open, “what is its size and shape?”

“It presently generates at a diameter of seven kilometres—a kilometre from the station rim all round. It is oblate, with an axial thickness of four kilometres, though with half-kilometre indents at the poles.”

“I notice your emphasis on ‘presently,’” remarked Var.

Saul nodded. “Without the Argus asteroid at the centre of the station, the warp would be spherical.”

“So that changes the kind of ship you could build,” said Var. “If you intend to retain the drive you already have.”

“True,” Saul agreed. “What design of ship do you propose?” “They were a little two-dimensional in their thinking when they built the station. If the ship itself was spherical, you could build in greater structural integrity, maybe even position new arcoplexes inside it and move the Traveller engine round and then out along one axis—that is, if you feel you need to retain that engine.”

“With the Rhine drive, we essentially fly blind,” he observed non-committal.

She couldn’t help but feel he had been coaxing her to her next words. “You’ve managed to create a warp drive—something long considered impossible in conventional physics circles—so what about Mach-effect propulsion?”

“I have been considering it,” he acknowledged. “As with the Rhine drive, it may be that we already have a large portion of the necessary hardware in place simply with the EM field equipment.”

“I see.”

“So, what would you do first?”

“You’ll need a lot of construction robots, and a lot more materials than you can obtain from the Argus asteroid. Robots first, then start building the skel­eton of the sphere—”

He abruptly stepped away and gazed up at the sky.

“Brigitta and Angela,” he said, “I have sent instructions to the system which concern you. When you’ve finished clearing that mess in there, I want Robotics operating at full production. I’ve also instructed Le Roque to give you everything you need.” He paused for a second, listening to a response, before continuing. “Yes, he’s having the smelting plants extended.” He then turned to Var. “It begins,” he explained. “Shall we?” He gestured into the cave ahead then led the way in.

Of course, once they got deep inside the cave he would be out of contact with the computer systems of Argus Station. He’d set things in motion just then, which seemed fast for someone used to the bureaucratic delays and screw-ups usual in her previous employers. It was also exhilarating, but for the feeling that she was somehow being shifted into place like some game-piece.

 


Excerpted with permission from Jupiter War by Neal Asher. Copyright 2014, Night Shade Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing Inc.

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