The Causal Angel (Excerpt)

Check out The Causal Angel, the third and final book in Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean de Flambeur series. The novel is available July 15th in the US from Tor Books and July 17th from Gollancz!

Influenced as much by the fin de siècle novels of Maurice leBlanc as he is by the greats of SF, Rajaniemi weaves intricate, warm capers through dazzling science, extraordinary visions of a wild future, and deep conjectures on the nature of reality and story.

In The Causal Angel we will discover the ultimate fates of gentleman rogue Jean de Flambeur, his employer Miele, the independently minded ship Perhonnen, and the rest of a fractured and diverse humanity flung throughout the solar system.

 

 

1
The Thief and The Last Battle

We are barely past the orbit of Mars when Matjek figures out the truth about Narnia and helps me find Mieli’s trail.

‘That can’t be the end!’ he says, holding up a book. It is a big, battered purple volume, with a circular window-like cover image that shows clashing armies. He has to lift it with both of his four-year-old hands. He struggles with its weight and finally slams it down onto the table in front of me.

The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis, I note with a sigh. That means difficult questions.

For the past few subjective days, the tiny main vir of our ship, the Wardrobe, has been a calm place. I created it based on a dream Matjek told me about. It is an incense-scented labyrinth of high bookshelves full of haphazardly stacked books of all sizes and colours. Matjek and I usually sit at a rough wooden table in the small café area in the front, brightly lit by diffuse sunlight through the display windows.

Outside – painted on the imaginary glass for us by the vir – is the turbulent flow of the Highway, thousands of lightwisps, rockships, calmships, beamriders and other craft of every kind, reflected from the Wardrobe’s solar sails in a myriad glinting fragments. And somewhere in the back, in the shadows, the blue and silver books that hold the fractally compressed minds of the people and jinni and gods of Sirr whisper to each other with papery voices.

Until now, Matjek has been reading his books quietly, leaning his chin on his fists. Which has suited me fine: I have been busy looking for Mieli in the death cries of Earth.

‘They can’t just all die! It’s not fair!’ Matjek says.

I look at him and make my sole Highway-zoku jewel – an emerald crystal disc with a tracery of milky veins inside, a gift from a friendly cetamorph – spin between my fingers.

‘Listen, Matjek,’ I say. ‘Would you like to see a trick?’

The boy answers with a disapproving stare. His eyes are earnest and intense, a piercing blue gaze that is at odds with his soft round face. It brings back uncomfortable memories from the time his older self caught me and took my brain apart, neuron by neuron.

He folds his arms across his chest imperiously. ‘No. I want to know if there is a different ending. I don’t like it.’

I roll my eyes.

‘Usually, there is only one ending, Matjek. Why don’t you find another book to read if you didn’t like that one?’

I really don’t want to have this conversation right now. My minions – a swarm of open-source cognitive agents distantly descended from rats and nematode worms – are scouring the System public spimescapes for public data on Earth’s destruction. There is a steady stream of qupts in my head, cold raindrops of information from the storm of ships beyond our ancient vessel’s walls.

And each of them is like the stroke of a clock, counting down time that Mieli has left.

 

A lifestream from a Ceresian vacuumhawk. A grainy feed recorded by photosensitive bacterial film on the solar sail wings of a fragile non-sentient space organism that was following a female of its species past Earth. Not nearly detailed enough. Next.

A <SPIME> from a Sagan-Zoku synthetic aperture array on Ganymede, public feed.

My heart jumps. Not bad. A hyperspectral dataset from a few days ago flashes past my eyes, like flying through aurora borealis, multicoloured sheets of light that show both Earth’s surface and the surrounding space in intricate detail. The Dragons are dark gashes in every layer, but I don’t care about them. With a thought, I zoom into the L2 Lagrange point and the cloud of technological debris where Perhonen should be. Come on.

‘But I want to know,’ says a distant, insistent voice. ‘Who was the Emperor? What was beyond the sea? Why was Aslan no longer a lion?’

The spime view is detailed enough to show the space-time trail and history of every synthbio fragment and dead nanosat in that little Sargasso Sea of space – except that Mieli’s ship Perhonen is supposed to be there, too, and it isn’t. I swear under my breath.

‘You said a bad word!’ Somewhere far away, Matjek is tugging at my sleeve.

It is frustrating. All the public data I can find is subtly corrupt, even data with supposedly unforgeable quantum watermarks from zoku sensors. It makes no sense, unless there is a major spoofing operation going on. It makes me wonder if it’s already too late.

Where the hell is she?

I rub my eyes, send the minions to scour the ad hoc networks of the Highway to see if anyone else has noticed the phenomenon. Then I let their qupts fade into distant background noise. Suddenly, I miss Perhonen’s intel gogols very badly, although not as much as I miss the ship itself.

‘Why did they have to look at his face in the end?’

In a situation like this, it would know exactly what to say.

‘Look, Matjek. I am very, very busy now. I have to work.’

‘I can help you. I am good at working.’

‘It’s grown-up stuff,’ I say carefully. ‘I think you would find it boring.’

He does not look impressed.

‘That’s what Mum always says but once I went with her to her work, and it was fun. I crashed a quantum derivatives market.’

‘My work is not nearly as exciting as your mum’s.’ I know it’s a mistake the moment I say it.

‘I don’t believe you. I want to try!’ He reaches for my zoku jewel. I hold it up, spin it in my fingers and make it disappear.

‘Matjek, it is rude to take other people’s toys without asking permission. Do you remember what I told you? What are we doing here?’

He looks at the floor.

‘We are saving Mieli,’ he mutters.

‘That’s right. The nice lady with wings who came to visit you. That’s why I came back to you. I needed your help. That’s why we are in the Wardrobe. I let you name her, didn’t I?’

He nods.

‘And who are we saving Mieli from?’

‘Everybody,’ Matjek says.

 

Look after her. For me. Promise, Perhonen said.

When a Sobornost Hunter attacked us, the ship tried to save Mieli by shooting her into space. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The problem is that Mieli served the Sobornost for two decades and carries a Founder gogol in her head. There are too many forces in the System that want access to that kind of information, especially now. For example, the Great Game Zoku, the zoku intelligence arm. They might be nice about it, but when they find her, they are going to peel her mind open like an orange. The pellegrinis, the vasilevs, the hsienkus or the chens will be less polite. Let alone the mercenary company she infiltrated and betrayed on Earth.

We have to find her, before someone else does. And several baseline days have already passed.

Even if I knew where she was, getting to her would not be easy. Our good ship, the Wardrobe, is little more than a tangle of carbon nanotubes inside a cherry-sized blob of primitive smartmatter, tugged along a Belt branch of the Highway towards Saturn by kitelike solar sails. It hatched from a 3000-ton Wang bullet. I lit a 150-kiloton nuclear explosive under it to escape a dying Earth. Fragments of the shell that protected the ship still float around us, a threedimensional puzzle of steel and boron, and a wispy mess of used anti-acceleration gel that trails the ship like a stream of toilet paper from a car window. It’s not the vessel I would choose for a high-speed System-wide chase.

And if I do find Mieli and she finds out what happened to Perhonen, there will be blood. Mostly mine.

 

I take Matjek by the shoulders gently. ‘That’s right. Everybody.’

‘I want to help Mieli, too.’

‘I know. But right now, you will help her best by being quiet and reading a little bit more. Can you do that?’

He pouts.

‘The Princess said we were going to have an adventure. She didn’t say anything about you having to work so much.’

‘Well, the Princess does not know everything.’

‘I know. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. I thought you were my friend.’

There is a sudden, hollow feeling in my chest.

I hate to admit it, but my motives for bringing Matjek along were selfish: his jannah was the only place that Chen’s Dragons were forbidden to touch.

And then there is a fact that not too long ago, I was ready to steal his soul.

‘Of course I am your friend, Matjek. What was it about the book that that upset you so much?’

He hops from one foot to another. Then he looks at me with those clear eyes.

‘Is this place like Narnia?’ he asks. ‘Are we both really dead?’

 

I stare at him.

‘Why do you say that?’

‘It makes sense, when you think about it. I remember going to Mr Perenna’s white room. I was really ill. There was a bed, and then I was on the beach, and felt fine again.

‘I never thought about it when I was there. I just kept playing. Mum and Dad said I could play a little longer. They were going to come back, but they never did. It was like I was dreaming. But Mieli came and woke me up.

‘So maybe I was ill and died in the real world and the beach is Narnia and you’re Reepecheep the mouse.’

Matjek was four years old when his mind was copied into the jannah. The last real thing he remembers is going to the upload insurance company with his parents: the rest is a never-ending afternoon on the beach. As far as he knows, one of his imaginary friends, the one he calls the Flower Prince, came back and took him on an adventure. I can’t bring myself to tell him that his parents have been dead for centuries and that the world he knew was eaten by Dragons that his future self made.

‘Matjek—’

For a split second, I consider my options. I could roll his gogol back a few days, make him forget all about me and The Last Battle. I could recreate his beach. He could keep playing forever.

I take a deep breath. For once, Mieli was right. There are lines that have to be drawn. I’m not going to turn Matjek into an edited gogol like me. And there is no way I am building a prison for the boy.

I take Matjek’s small hand in my own. I squeeze his fingers gently, looking for words.

‘You are not dead, Matjek. Being dead is different. Believe me, I know. But things can be real in different ways. Your parents never believed in us, did they? In me, the Princess, the Soldier and the Kraken?’

It takes some effort to speak the names in a steady voice. Matjek’s imaginary friends – or their distant descendants, the Aun – make me uncomfortable. They claim I’m one of them, and saved me from being eaten by wildcode in Earth’s atmosphere. But they did not save Perhonen.

Matjek shakes his head.

‘That’s because we live in a world they can’t see, the world of stories. Once we find Mieli, I promise I will take you back to the real world. But I need you to help me first. Okay?’

‘Okay.’ He sniffs. I suppress a sigh of relief.

Then he looks at me again.

‘Prince?’

‘Yes?’

‘I always forget the stories in my dreams. The children always forget Narnia. Will I remember you when I go back?’

‘Of course you’ll remember.’

The word echoes in my mind like thunder. Remember. That’s it! Grinning manically, I lift Matjek and hug him tight.

‘Matjek, you are a genius!’

I have been looking for Mieli’s trail in public data sources that have been compromised by unknown forces. But there is one place in the Solar System where they remember everything. And keep secrets better than anyone else.

 

Setting up an anonymous quptlink to speak to the King of Mars is not easy, but I work feverishly now that I finally have a plan. I’ve encouraged Matjek to tackle an algorithmically generated, neuroadaptive fantasy book from the late twentyfirst century next: I’m hoping it will keep him busy for a while.

We are several light-minutes away from Mars, and so I slow down my subjective clockspeed to simulate a real-time conversation. I create a slowtime sub-vir and step inside: nothing fancy, just a fragment from my visit to the hsien-kus’ ancestor simulation of old Earth, a basement bar in Paris, full of calm, friendly expatriate bustle.

I pause for a moment, savouring a screwdriver cocktail. Technically, the detective and I were adversaries, and I would hate to ask for his help even if he wasn’t my ex-lover Raymonde’s son. I make a last-minute effort to think of other options, conclude there are none, and send the first qupt, making sure to attach a grin.

How are you, my King?

Don’t call me that, the answer comes. You have no idea what it’s like. The qupt carries the gritted teeth feel of frustration, and I smile.

It’s a title you earned, Isidore. You should embrace it.

What do you want, Jean? I did not expect to hear from you again. Don’t tell me you want your Watch back.

Clearly, the boy is growing teeth.

You can keep the Watch. I seem to recall you had trouble with keeping appointments, or so Pixil said. I would like to let him ponder that for a while, but time is short. I need something else, though. Your help. It’s urgent.

What happened on Earth? There is a hunger in his query. Did you have something to do with it?

It’s better that you don’t know the details. As for what happened – that’s what I’m trying to find out.

I send him a quick summary of my efforts to find Mieli, adapted to the Martian co-memory protocols.

Isidore, someone has been tampering with all the public data I can find. The Oubliette exomemory may have slipped past them: if your encryption schemes are too much trouble for the Sobornost, they will give anyone pause. I need all the Earth and Highway observation data you have from this period.

Isidore’s reply is full of feverish enthusiasm. This is almost like the Kingdom, forging the past, but on a much larger scale! I’ll have to use the Cryptarch Key to get all this. Why would anyone go to so much trouble?

Perhaps someone is really afraid of a Dragon infection. That is the best idea my minions found amongst Highway chatter. Or to keep anyone else from finding Mieli, I think to myself. Although why anyone would deploy such resources to hide one Oortian, even a servant of Joséphine Pellegrini, I have no idea.

Please hurry, Isidore. And stay out of this. You have a planet to rule. There is a Sobornost civil war going on: the usual courtesies do not apply anymore. If they find out you have the Key, they will come after you. You don’t need distractions.

Like I said. You have no idea, Isidore qupts. There you go. A dense, compressed collection of co-memories floods the quptlink. I file it away for detailed analysis, thankful that I kept the vasilev-made exomemory emulation and hacking tools I used during my brief but eventful visit to the Oubliette.

Thank you, Isidore. I am in your debt. I pause. Please say hello to Raymonde for me. I try to hide the bittersweet emotion with vodka and lemon, sending the tart taste of my drink with the qupt.

I will. But Jean, why are you trying to find Mieli? She fought side by side with Raymonde, her ship saved us from the phoboi, we are all grateful for that, but what do you owe her? It sounds like you are free now. You can go anywhere you want. This time the hint of bitterness is his. From what I know about her, Mieli can look after herself. Why are you trying so hard to save her?

The question takes me by surprise. I let time flow at its usual pace so I have time to think. Isidore is right. I could go anywhere. I could be anyone. I could go to Saturn or beyond, find someone to take care of Matjek, and then be Jean le Flambeur again.

Perhonen once asked me what I was going to do when our mission was over. When I think about it now, it is like peeking over a sheer cliff. It makes my gut wrench with fear. So little of me came out of the Prison intact. What do I have left, except promises?

Besides, Mieli still has a chance. She has spent her entire life chasing after a lost love, and it has all been for nothing. That’s what happens to those whom Joséphine Pellegrini touches, I know that far too well.

Because it’s the kind of thing that Jean le Flambeur would do, I whisper down the quptlink. Stay out of trouble, Isidore.

Then I cut the link and lose myself in the data, and finally find Mieli in the memories of flowers.

 

The data is from a Quiet-built distributed telescope. Like much of Oubliette technology, it is more like an art project than engineering: synthbio flowers with photosensitive petals that collectively form a vast imaging device, seeded in the city’s footsteps across Mars. They spend their lives watching the Martian sky like a vast compound eye, until the phoboi eat them.

The data is from the Oubliette exomemory, and so accessing it is like remembering. Suddenly, I recall seeing a tiny dot in the sky. But unlike with a normal memory, the more I focus on it, the clearer the image becomes, until I see Perhonen’s winged spiderweb form. A thought brings me to the right moment. There is a flash, and then a smaller shape detaches from the ship, hurtling through the void.

There she is. I follow her with the flowers’ eyes.

Mieli floats in the nothingness, a woman in a dark robe, turning and tumbling, until a ship comes for her, a zoku ship, shaped like a glass clockwork orrery. Zoku trueforms – foglet clouds around human faces with jewel haloes – pour out and surround her. Then she is gone, and the ship accelerates at a solid G, towards the Highway.

I summon my minions. It only takes them moments to identify Mieli’s rescuer in the public Highway spimescapes. Bob Howard, a Rainbow Table Zoku vessel – one of the sysadmin ships that the zoku use to maintain their router network. Uncharacteristically, it is currently on its way to Saturn, riding one of the expensive kiloklick beams, and will reach Supra City in approximately seventeen days. Not very efficient use of resources for a sysadmin zoku, especially given the chaotic situation in the Inner System.

I steeple my fingers and think. The Great Game Zoku has Mieli, there is no doubt about it now. One of their sleepers in the Rainbow Table must have spotted an intel gathering opportunity and has been ordered to deliver Mieli to Saturn. Of course, they could have decided to shove her through a Realmgate instead, turned her into quantum information and used the router network to get her there nearly at the speed of light – but Mieli has military-grade Sobornost implants that could have self-destructed her when passing through a Realmgate. No, they are trying to get her there with all her atoms intact.

I empty my glass, lean back and let the mutter of the bar wash over me. There is still time. The seeds of a plan are already taking root in my head. Unfortunately, the Wardrobe will never get to Saturn that fast. My issues with the jannah ship are not merely aesthetic.

But Isidore had a point. I do have my freedom now: apart from annoyingly persistent copy protection, the cognitive locks that Joséphine caged me with are almost completely gone. Ever since we left Earth, I have been thinking about my other ship, my real ship, the Leblanc, and its hiding place in the Gun Club’s Arsenal on Iapetos. If I could just get to it in time—

Or if I could slow things down.

All the uncertainty is gone. I feel like myself again. I lose myself in the plan. I’m going to need tools. A quantum pyramid scheme. A pair of physical bodies, a nugget of computronium, a bunch of entangled EPR pairs and a few very special hydrogen bombs…

I’m going to take her away from you, Joséphine. I’m going to steal her back.

 

To my surprise, the pyramid scheme turns out to be the easy part.

You are now a Level 4 Navigator! I receive a satisfying jolt of entanglement from the Highway-zoku with the qupt, a reward for discovering a new coordination equilibrium that unravelled a conflict over trajectories through a Jovian Lagrange point. Of course, they don’t have to know that I used a botnet to create the conflict in the first place.

Bid for your mass stream herding contract: gathering fragments specified by <SPIME> and guiding them to Iapetos. Offer: a combinatorial auction for Iapetos corridor access or equivalent Highway entanglement. A cetamorph ship – a huge bubble of water held together by a synthbio membrane and crewed by hominid-whale hybrids – wants to take up my job offer to collect the Wang bullet fragments and take them to Saturn. I set up a mental alert to review it later: I can’t afford it just yet.

Expressing. Desire. Collective. Join. A qupt that echoes with a thousand collective voices. A big punter, this one: a Venusian floating city jury-rigged into a spacecraft, the Vepaja, carrying Sobornost-grade computronium. I devote a few milliseconds of attention to reel it in and send it a quantum contract. The city does not read the fine print. It’s hard – NP-hard, to be precise – when verifying the contract structure is computationally intractable within the lifetime of the Universe.

Earth’s destruction convinced the Beltworlds that the Sobornost has finally started a campaign of active assimilation. The Highway is overloaded, with every refugee competing for rapid low-energy orbits out of the Inner System. I am one of many entrepreneurial minds to propose a collective computational effort to nearby ships to look for better corridors out of the Inner System, and to win Highway-zoku entanglement. The trick is to embed a simple quantum program in the contract that allows me to skim a small amount off the top of whatever the collective members receive – and to make algorithmic bids for certain trajectories, making them very desirable.

Ursomorph rockship Yogi-14 attacking Ceresian ships Featherlight and Honesty.

I cringe. That was an unfortunate side effect of my scheme. An ursomorph rockship – shaped like a flint axe, kilometres long, sculpted by synthbio and fusion flame – refuses to admit that it lost a trajectory bid. The wispy medusa ships of the Ceresians descend upon it. The Highway-zoku struggles to contain the destruction, sends in their own q-ships, relocates lightmills to route traffic around the expanding bubble of the battlefield.

Mass stream disruption in the Saturn corridor. Streamship Bubble Bobble buying mass stream queue positions.

Lightmill in Martian orbit unavailable.

Requesting Poincaré invariant surface access for Saturn kilocklick beam.

Buying derivatives on future access rights to Saturn kiloklick beam.

I hold my breath. That’s the great thing about the zoku: their jewels force them to follow the zoku volition. I watch with satisfaction as the Highway-zoku routes the Bob Howard to a slower beam. It does not buy me much – perhaps an extra week – but that is just enough for me to get to Saturn right behind the Rainbow Table Zoku ship. Hopefully that won’t be enough time for the Great Game to break Mieli completely.

And of course, I now also have enough entanglement to trade for the tools I need for the Iapetos job.

Smiling to myself, I step back into the Wardrobe’s main vir.

 

It is snowing in the bookshop. Large white flakes drift down from the shadows in the ceiling. The bookshelves look like snow-covered trees, and the café table has been replaced by a tall lamppost, with a cast-iron gas lantern on top that casts yellow, fluttering light. My breath steams. It is cold. Matjek is nowhere to be seen.

Somewhere, far away, there is the sound of tiny bells. A set of small footprints leads into the shadows between the shelves. There is a discarded candy wrapper on the ground, silver and purple against the snow. Turkish Delight.

‘Matjek!’ I shout, in a snow-muffled voice. There is no reply. How the hell did he do this to the vir?

I stick my hands into my armpits for warmth and fumble at my Founder code to repair the damage done by the future god-emperor of the Solar System.

A snowball hits me in the back of the head.

I blink at the stinging wetness that slides down my neck. Matjek laughs somewhere in the darkness. I’m still rubbing my head when the qupt comes. It’s Isidore.

Jean! You can’t believe what I found! I struggle to receive an exomemory fragment, flashes of flying in the Martian sky, a bright star between a man’s fingers. It’s not just Earth, it’s the Spike, and the Collapse, you have to see this—

The detective’s voice is lost in a flood of images. Phobos falling from the sky. A pillar of light in the horizon. An earthquake, the whole planet ringing like a bell, the Oubliette losing its balance.

And then, silence.

 


The Causal Angel © Hannu Rajaniemi, 2014

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