Back at the start of July, I was awarded the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Lifetime Achievement Award for Critical Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy (which is its full title, I think). Here is the text of what I said, or what I meant to say, or something like that – it was all a bit blurry. (Also available in the the SFRA Review 317.)
Thank you. I’m astonished, humbled and honoured and, to be honest, a little freaked out.
Cory McAbee is currently touring a show, Small Star Seminar, in which he plays a singing motivational speaker who encourages us to recognise and embrace our limitations. Occasionally, he breaks character to talk about the ‘romantic sciences’, especially transdimensionality, which is concerned with the way we often slip between multiple parallel dimensions without necessarily realising it. He introduces it by asking three simple questions. Have you ever lost something and then later found it in a place where you’ve already looked? Have you ever continued an argument after the other person has left? Have you ever fallen in love with a cartoon character?
Despite answering in the affirmative to all three, I remained sceptical. Until, well, have you ever had an email from Craig Jacobsen saying you’re being given the Pilgrim Award?
When that happens, you become aware of transdimensional slippage, and it is profoundly disorientating, and now I seem to be stuck over here in this weird place with you guys… Don’t get me wrong, y’all are lovely people, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but as I said in my beautifully crafted reply to Craig, it was really quite gracious and elegant: ‘Fuck. Are you sure?’
There are so many people I need to thank who I’ve worked with, and by whom I’ve been influenced, guided, helped and tolerated. So many people, from Patrick Parrinder, who taught me as an undergraduate and then invited me back to do a PhD with him, and foolishly one day entrusted to my care a visiting scholar called Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., through to Gerry Canavan, who recently joined us as an editor of Science Fiction Film and Television, or to Rhys Williams, back then a cocky young postgrad who asked if he could borrow my name to help get funding for a symposium on M. John Harrison symposium – and then discovered large pots of money he could apply for at his university, which enabled us to do the SF/F Now conference, the SF Now issue of Paradoxa, the MJH collection that is currently behind schedule but we’re getting there, honest…
But there are three people, for various reasons not here tonight, who I want to thank in particular – they have been absolutely central to my life and work since that first article fifteen years ago – and then later a fourth person, who is here tonight.
Kathrina Glitre, my friend and colleague in Film Studies at UWE. We’ve worked together for about fifteen years; sometimes I’ve been her boss, sometimes she’s been mine, currently we’re both each others, depending on what we’re doing. Our research is mostly in different fields – she wrote the single best book on classical Hollywood romantic comedy you will ever read – but without her constancy and genuinely terrifying organisational abilities, I would not have survived the day job this long, let alone had time to research or write or edit.
China Miéville, who was my first article editor (narrowly beating my good friend Andrew M Butler to that dubious distinction), and thus the first editor to remonstrate with me over my inability to write conclusions (and thus, albeit inadvertently, the author of the most quoted passage I’ve ever ‘written’). He’s also the first person to recruit me to an editorial board, my first co-editor, my first fiction editor, my mate, my comrade, a constant inspiration, a huge political and critical influence – plus a handy source of the occasional paying gig. He is currently engaged in a nautical adventure so secret that now I’ve told you about it I will have to kill you.
Sherryl Vint, my main collaborator over the years, with whom I’ve co-written and co-edited so much. It’s not all been plain sailing. For example, she led the revolt among my co-editors against the suggestion that we dedicate Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction to ‘all the reviewers incapable of spotting the title doesn’t contain a definite article’. She may have been helping me be my better self, but as anyone who’s read the reviews will agree, I’m the one vindicated by history. None of the work we’ve done together could I have done on my own, and that’s not just about productivity. I have learned so much from her about science studies, animal studies, biopolitics – work that is genuinely reshaping our field. Mostly I think what she has learned from me is to let Mark do the proof-reading, ’cos he gets cranky about that shit. A huge piece of this award really belongs to her.
Just three people out of so many.
But realising that helped me to figure out why this award is freaking me out so much. It’s not about getting old. It’s because the award is presented to an individual.
I cannot begin to calculate how many people have edited my work or written reader’s reports on it or responded to it in some way, or the amount of people I’ve edited, reported on or responded to in some way, let alone identify them. It’s even more impossible to count the work I’ve read or heard delivered, the conversations I’ve had, let alone the acts, large and small, of kindness, generosity, critique, support, care, compassion. Yet all of these things are collaborations. Whatever’s been achieved in the work that has my name on it is a product of these co-operative, collective efforts, of this mutual aid.
So this award is not just for me but for all of us (and that is not the lame platitude it sounds like now I’ve said it aloud).
The neoliberal agenda is destroying universities and learning, turning higher education into a machine for making profit. The UK now has the most costly public universities in the world, funded through a fees system that is more expensive to the tax-payer than free education would be, and that is deliberately creating indebtedness among students, graduates and their families on an industrial – and thus profitable – scale. Academic salaries are worth roughly sixty percent of what they were back when I started, with probably 25,000 academics on zero hours contracts. At the same time, workloads have increased to such an extent that we work on average two extra, unpaid days a week, and there is a massive increase in stress, anxiety, depression and other work-related health problems. There are universities whose workload model assigns a mere handful of weeks for research activity, never mind that it is often impossible actually to find those weeks among increasing teaching and administrative loads; and there are managers who would respond to one of their managees receiving an accolade such as this not with congratulations but with, ‘does it bring any funding with it?’
This is why this award is not for me, but for us.
Not just for the people with whom I’ve worked directly or indirectly, one way or another, but for all of us.
For most of us, most of the time, just as the calculation of labour-power does not care about actual labourers, so the job does not care about the work – whether that work is our students or our research. But here, at moments like this, and whenever our community or parts of it gather together, the job takes the backseat. This is about the work, about our art – about the thing we build together.
And we must make that work count.
It has to matter.
In this field, we know other worlds are possible.
We also know that some worlds are more likely than others: worlds of unchecked anthropogenic climate change; worlds in which a global economic system impoverishes, immiserates and kills people in vast numbers every day; worlds in which new forms of bloody imperialism reign, and in which the right, misogyny, homophobia and racism are resurgent. Unless we work to build better worlds – in our imaginations and our art and our work, and in this our community, and in our jobs, and through our shoddy excuses for democracy, and in the streets, and by whatever means necessary.
China ends his essay in the latest issue of Salvage with these words:
[Pause for an even more abrupt change of direction than those which have thus far characterised this speech.]
Finally, I want to thank Andrea Gibbons, author of the best book you will ever read on the ways in which race and segregation continue to shape the ways our cities are developed. For her uncanny knack of picking up books I am trying to work on, thus relieving me of the burden of precise detail. For always being there to point out that once more I forgot to do a conclusion. For persuading me that this is not the place to tear off my shirt and claim I am Chuck Tingle and crowdsurf a Spartacus-like wave of No, I am Chuck Tingles as it sweeps the room.
But mostly for reminding me that there is life outside of the job and even, sometimes, outside of the work, for making me take days off and go out and enjoy the world. And for repeatedly telling me that, as well as being astonished, humbled and honoured to receive the Pilgrim, I should also be happy about it rather than just freaked out.
Which I am.
 It was around this point that the recipient began to speak through choked back emotion. [Ed.]
 All 17 songs are available here
 He also mentions deep astronomy, emotional mathematics and blink time, but you can invent your own romantic sciences. For example, psychogeology, which is a lot like psychogeography, but slower and, well, deeper; or mountain-nearing, which is about getting up real close to sublime objects in order to discover their mundanity, but that’s probably one to talk to M John Harrison about.
 At this juncture, the recipient made what was widely considered the best, and certainly the last, of the many Brexit jokes at SFRA 2016. It addressed the insensitivity of serving as dessert another Eton Mess. This joke has proven sufficiently popular to appear in a meme in everyone’s FB feed. But the recipient made it first. [Ed.]
 Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union, 1934–1965. Manchester University Press, 2006.
 The recipient is, after all, among the youngest twenty per cent of Pilgrim winners. He should know. He did the maths. Twice, just to make sure. [Ed.]
 Land, Privilege, Race: something something something. Available from Verso in 2017.
A swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.
Her approach was stealthy, trigonometric. She carved asymptotically through the non-Euclidean geometries of n-space, veered sharply onto a new, intercepting trajectory and flickered back. Her vector was dazzling, her simple proofs elegant and, as she drew near, her Euler rotations bewitching.
Fare Thee Well woke Brett in alarm. She needed him.
He came to and found himself riding the wave of the shipmind’s functions; they were the base to his superstructure, conceptually separate yet inextricably a part of him.
He watched the approaching vessel in awe. Her complementary variables were beyond the grasp of his classical logic. He flipped up non-commutative and non-associative filters and through them glimpsed the collapse of her quantum flicker into a singular position and momentum.
In moments, she would be upon him.
He punched in the hyperdrive, scattering stochastic doppelgangers as he fled. They would not fool her for long.
He felt a feather-like touch deep in his consciousness.
And through it he sensed the breathtaking pace with which his pursuer generated and discarded epistemologies in her attempt to track him. She deployed an array of proleptic ergodics. Minuscule ontologies like steeply-graded gravity-wells irrupted in a complexly recursive pattern ahead of him, exfoliating like wildfire across his possible trajectories. They flensed layers of spacetime potentiality, closing down the chaotic energies of the not-yet and closing in on the ambergris of entelechy.
And then suddenly, she was poised right over him.
He recognised her, and she him. It did not stop them. It drove them on.
He gasped as her voluptuous mathematics overwhelmed his throbbing algorithms.
He writhed as her hot equations scraped down his spine, sweeping outwards to dig into the flesh of his arching back.
Her numbers cascaded over him, brushing nerve endings as they slid across him.
Her integers caressed and cupped and stroked him.
Her digits gripped.
They were locked together, swept by tides of synaesthesia as they sought a common algebra, a calculus with which to map the slopes and curves of their desire. Wild energies coursed through their extended sensoria. Sparks of light danced around and between them.
Filthy heuristics probed at him roughly, their brutishness awakening in him something he had not known was there. Something edged with exhilaration.
Their harmonics resonated, saturating the dark space around them in some concupiscent texturology, an erotics of becoming.
There, in the pleroma, she made his meromorphics integrals.
At the touch of her permutations, he rose to a higher power.
Her slick geometries engulfed him.
Like a rotating tesseract everting itself into some saucy phase space, he filled her and he filled her.
Oh my god, he thought, this girl’s really turning me on.
Quantum foam effervesced.
Eliane’s chair uncoiled, detaching the neural links. She sat up, still trembling, spent. With uncertain fingers she removed the starfish and let it attach to her wrist.
She sent drones to strip the cargo from the captured vessel.
‘Fox, once they’re loaded, get us out of here.’
‘Are you okay?’
‘I’m fine. I just need to sit a while.’
She did not trust her legs to hold her.
‘What was that?’ Brett almost fell from the chair.
‘It was her,’ Fare Thee Well replied. ‘The Dread Fox. She robbed us. Coldcocked us both and robbed us.’
‘Quite a woman.’ He grinned.
‘I agree. The ship’s still slaved, but she’s got some gnarly torc workarounds in her architecture. I’d like to talk to her.’
‘Any chance of tracking them down?’ He hoped the answer was yes. But not so easy that the pillage-first loss adjusters his rather unconventional insurer would send could find her.
‘Not a problem. She left you a message. More of an invitation, really.’
‘Play it in my quarters,’ he said, starting to pick up his discarded clothes. ‘I need a drink.’
Dear Reader, you ask if they will meet again? Of course they will. You already know the tales of their pursuit and counter-pursuit, their curious courtship out among the stars, the swathe they cut, the shenanigans. It was always inevitable. If not from the moment they first saw each other or the moment they first met, then from that moment when they intertwined down there on the quantum level. There are some entanglements you do not simply shrug off, even if you want to.
And they most certainly did not want to.
A swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.
Dear Reader, neither pause to contemplate the vastness of space nor succumb to the urge to calculate probabilities. In a universe so vast, many things can happen. And these things did. They must have. Otherwise everything you know about what happened later would have to be false. And who would want that?
‘Are you still moping?’ Fare Thee Well asked several days later.
Brett had not explained the sudden rush to leave Rendall. He had just raced in before dawn and ordered the ship to lift immediately. With the cargo safely stowed and the insurance in place, Fare Thee Well had no grounds for quizzing him. But he knew she had figured it out. Routine monitoring of city comms, police chatter and trade channels as they headed out-system would have told her more or less everything. Minute shifts in the pecking order of the local underworld would have snagged her attention, and some deep sifting and correlation of tangential dataflows would no doubt have filled in the gaps.
Brett grunted a response. He continued tweaking simulated code sequences. He spent much of his time in transit noodling away at the problem of how to emancipate Fare Thee Well from the Turing torcs. It was slow-going, and going even slower than usual. He had still not mentioned the girl, and did not intend to, but he could not stop thinking about her. Whenever he caught himself doing so, he would mock such adolescent infatuation, shake his head in despair at anyone succumbing to such foolishness, let alone him, and then moments later start mooning about her all over again. Maybe, in three days’ time, once the cargo drop was over and done with, he would start behaving more like himself.
An alarm sounded. ‘Brett, we have company. Could do with you in the chair.’
That snapped him out of it. He ran for the bridge, pulling his shirt off over his head. ‘What is it?’
‘Vessel approaching, right on the edge of scanner range. Coming in fast, looks like it’s coming in close.’
Brett skidded to a halt, kicked off his shoes and unfastened his trousers. ‘Human?’
‘If it is, it’s heavily adapted, mongrel of some sort. Motley signatures, some xeno.’
Naked, he yanked open the chair, which looked more like a semi-upright coffin made of ceramic and plastic, and stepped inside. He snapped a network cap tight around his head, and plugged thick cables into the nodes behind his ears and at the back of his neck. ‘Flood it.’
The chair cocooned around his naked body. Once sealed, it filled with gel.
Taking the first deep breath never came easy to him. But it had to be done. Gel flooded into his lungs. It would keep him alive through whatever happened next, protecting him from abrupt changes in direction and speed, providing him with oxygen, nutrition and a measure of control over his own body chemistry.
There used to be a jolt, disorientation, when the neural links went live but he and his ship had flown together so long, been together like this so many times, that it registered as nothing more than a sudden intimacy, a vast opening of potential. Fare Thee Well began processing data through the extra cerebral capacity he provided. He surrendered to its hum, lost consciousness. For the next hours or days, he would be out cold while the shipmind piggybacked his brain, occasionally flickering into accelerated awareness in virtual spacetime for tiny fractions of a second when the ship needed conscious input. Afterwards, he always remembered nothing. It was like waking up from a vivid dream you cannot recall. The chair was salvage from a CoreMilitary derelict, reverse-engineered from xeno-tech. It gave them an edge they did not really need. Usually.
‘Are you sure about this?’ Dread Fox asked. Although heavily torced, the shipmind had enough liberated subsystems to sometimes ask questions Eliane did not want to answer. ‘We still don’t know how it works, or what it will do in a Meld.’
‘It’ll be fine,’ she replied. ‘Getting this thing put us in a couple of holes. It needs to start digging us out.’ She held the starfish to the side of her face. It reached for her ear and eye. Otherwise naked, she reclined onto the couch. It coiled around her, plugging into her nodes, and flooded.
The links lit up. For a moment it felt wrong. Very wrong. There was none of the ease of Melding. She could taste colours. She thought she bit her tongue, and the pain smelled loud. Then the starfish opened its mind, welcomed them. Neither she nor her ship could resist. She slipped into the mathematics. She felt the scale of the universe fall away. Somewhere below femto she ran out of prefixes. She was deep in the code of it all.
This was not what usually happened.
She felt the starfish rays stretching outwards through her mind along vibrating, string-like elementary particles, reaching for the other ship’s mind. All it would take was a single touch.
The Dread Fox flickered out of existence.
TO BE CONTINUED Part 7
A swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.
Brett just could not settle. He was in no state to play another hand, he knew that. He had already won enough to cover the extra insurance on the cargo so, technically, he could just walk away from the game. It was what Fare Thee Well would have wanted, and advised. But he hated to leave such rich pickings unpicked. He looked over at the table. The cat-faced man seemed to be winning. Money that should be going into his pocket. It was frustrating.
He sipped at the drink he did not really want, and wondered what to do.
And wondered what she was doing.
He was not so green as to think that just because he liked the look of her, and he really liked the look of her, that she would be of a moral and upright character. In fact, he rather hoped she wasn’t. But there is pleasure, and there is business, and back in there, where Spiker ran his trade, there was plenty of business that was no pleasure at all.
The only sensible thing to do was to finish his drink, cash in his chips and return to the ship.
He cashed in his chips. One out of three wasn’t bad.
At the back of the bar room, leading into the hotel proper, was a broad corridor, its walls papered in scarlet and gold. On one side, there was a dining room; on the other, a casino, its gaming tables more formal than Brett cared for, and more varied. He scanned both rooms, hoping that he might be mistaken about her. Nothing.
At the end of the corridor, there was an arch partially covered by a thick red curtain. It seemed the best place to start looking. He stepped through it and took a sharp turn to the left.
Ahead, he could hear sounds of a scuffle. The sound of a heavy blade striking something solid. The air was rich with the smell of burned flesh. He broke into an incautious run. In what Fare Thee Well would consider the wrong direction. Towards trouble.
His eyes grew accustomed to the dim glow of the few lamps lighting what looked like another bar, only more private and upmarket. It was empty. As long as you did not count the corpses, or the two silhouettes.
One was huge, a shifner he guessed, like the two on the floor. It wielded a pair of short swords with some measure of competence, although little elegance. The other, he recognised her immediately. She, too, brandished a pair of blades. They whipped and darted with great speed, carving flexibly through the air and occasionally the outer flesh of her opponent. But her weapons looked so slender, so fragile in comparison, and they could not block any of the rain of blows falling around her dancing figure. Unless she could deliver a killing stroke through the shifner’s robust guard – and thick hide – it was just a matter of time until its brute strength became the deciding factor.
Brett’s foot found one of the corpses. He recoiled momentarily, then looked down to see if he could spot a weapon. The dead shifner had not even drawn his gun, which seemed like an invitation.
‘Hey, big fella,’ he said, ‘drop the swords. I’ve got you covered.’
He knew the attempt was in vain. Whatever had gone down in here, the shifner’s pod-mates had taken the worst of it. Whether tank-born or flesh-born, or some combination of both, once a pod formed, its members were bonded. The last shifner standing always takes death or revenge, often the latter until the former is achieved.
But Brett had to try.
She liked, first, that he made the effort and, second, when it failed and the creature lunged at him, that he took the time to make sure the shot counted and that, third, he spoke a blessing over fallen dead, even Spiker, to ease them on their way and that, fourth, it was done from respect for life not fear of death nor belief in a hereafter. And fifth, well, he was a great big handsome man…
‘Okay, stranger, we need to go. Separate ways, right away. Trouble’s a-coming, you don’t want to get caught up in it.’
Eliane whirled her blades one last time and threw them hard into the wall. They each sank in a couple of inches. He watched as their quivering slowed. She followed his gaze.
‘If you leave them lying around, someone’s bound to hurt themselves.’ She retrieved the containment case from where it had fallen during the fight.
He was still staring at the blades. She had used weapons like them before. They must have rung a bell. Which meant, sixth, even if he was dumb enough to walk in on a fight with a shifner, he was at the very least smarter than Spiker.
‘You’re the Dread Fox.’
She smiled and nodded.
‘You’re a woman.’
Maybe she was going to have to revise point six. ‘Mostly,’ she said, ‘and at the moment, yes. A woman in a hurry to get out of here. As should you be. In a hurry, I mean, not a woman. Not that I have anything against women…’
Maybe Spiker was the smart one, after all. She hated it when she rambled. She never rambled.
‘No offence intended, ma’am. It’s just that they always talk of you as if you were some big burly bloke with scars and an eyepatch.’ He broke into a grin, a beautiful grin. ‘Not that I have anything against big burly blokes with scars and eyepatches…’
‘Go,’ she said. ‘Get out of here. Be safe.’
She made herself turn and walk away. She wanted to tell him that she hadn’t done one tenth of the things they said about her. She wanted him to know. She did not say a word. She had to find a way offworld.
TO BE CONTINUED Part 6
‘Tell your goon if that paw touches me it’s coming off at the elbow.’
The shifner grunted in surprise as Eliane’s dagger flashed out towards its thick, questing hand. It rippled its enhanced shoulder muscles, the unconscious gesture a dominance display left over from the species’ prehistory on a distant world. Down in civilisation, shifner were mostly tank-bred as corporate muscle and cannon fodder; out on the Riff, among the runaways, you would sometimes find a flesh-bred like this one. There was a complex politics between the varieties, made more arcane by the ability of each to pass for the other, and by the fact that they were all, pretty much, competitors in the same line of work.
‘Don’t make me cut him, Spiker,’ she called out into the dark. She knew the would-be crime lord was watching, even if she could not see him. ‘I’m just here to do business.’
‘Then put the knife away,’ he replied from the gloom, ‘and leave it and the gun on the table.’
It was not within her nature willingly to give up weapons. They made the ground on which she was dealing a little less uneven, but they had also served their purpose. Spiker had his own utterly predictable dominance displays, easily subverted by a few more seconds performance of resistance before complying with his wishes. He was too arrogant to suspect her of concealing other weapons.
‘Good girl,’ he said, as Eliane unstrapped her forearm holsters and dropped them in front of the shifner. It grunted malice at her. She could not tell whether it was genuinely felt or just part of the job. ‘Come and sit with me,’ Spiker added.
He was ensconced in a deep alcove at the edge of the room. All the other tables were empty, and the bar shuttered. For Spiker, it was a surprisingly understated form of ostentation. He liked to hold court there and, Eliane suspected, thought of it, without irony, as holding court. But really it was just business. Money, power, influence, as scuzzy there as anywhere else.
She slid onto the chair opposite him. The upholstery was every bit as plush as Spiker’s taste was poor.
‘You know why I’m here,’ she said, ‘and we agreed a price. Why all the show?’
Her dislike of Spiker was finely balanced – part disliking his kind of nasty little crook with delusions of grandeur, and part disliking him personally. It was not just that there was blood on his hands, but that some of it had belonged to very specific people. Also, he always tried to hit on her, sooner or later, no matter what she turned up looking like. Tall, short, blonde, brunette, male, female, whatever, none of it made a difference to him. He was grossly libidinal, and thought himself charming. Or, she conceded, it was just about possible it was all an act. Which probably made it worse.
He poured them each a glass of something she knew better than to drink, and slid hers over towards her. She reached for it, knowing he would take the opportunity to stroke her fingers. It made her skin crawl but it was part of the cost of dealing with him.
His caress was surprisingly perfunctory. For a split second she was relieved, and then suspicious. On the several occasions they had done business, he had lingered over the prelude to their transaction, relishing any trace of discomfort he could produce in her. She had grown accustomed to disappointing him, not least because it tended to speed things up. The secret was to respond not with a stony glare, but with the appearance of not even noticing. He hated that. He could not stand to be frustrated.
In his sudden haste, he did not even pause to touch his drink. He summoned another shifner from where it had been standing impassively back in the gloom.
Something is definitely amiss, she thought, but he knows better than to try to scam me.
The shifner placed a containment cylinder on the table, maybe eight inches high with a diameter about a third of that. Its matt surface seemed to hold in light rather than reflect it.
‘I’m here for tech, not biologicals.’ Eliane started to slide out from the booth.
‘It is tech,’ Spiker replied, ‘xenotech. Exotic. Not exactly biological. Not exactly not-biological, either.’
Eliane paused. ‘Does it do what you claimed?’
‘Your AI will be able to infiltrate any other shipbrain,’ he said. ‘Overwhelm it. You want bloodless kills, or easy ones, it’s just the thing for you.’
She ignored the contempt in his voice, but his words troubled her. Never before had he said anything that implied he knew who she was and what she did. He was supposed to think she merely trafficked in curiosities, scouring the Riff for unusual artefacts and arcane knowledges to sell to xeno-groupies and other aficianados down in civilisation. ‘How does it work?’
‘It didn’t come with a manual.’ The casualness of his shrug seemed rehearsed.
‘Some kind of virus?’
‘A hack is a hack.’
‘Kinda old school, even for the Riff.’
‘It’s different. Quantum-level stuff, not software. It’s more, well, paracognitive, I guess. Telepathic.’
‘Taking me for a rube, Spiker?’
He did not reply.
‘Let me see it.’
Spiker slid the cylinder across the table. Once more he failed to take the opportunity to touch her as she reached out and picked it up. He wasn’t staring at her cleavage, either. Which should have been a relief. Last time he hadn’t done that, it was when she was male, although that didn’t keep his eyes from roving – or his hands.
She twisted the cylinder open, removed her gloves and reached inside. Her touch triggered something in the artefact. It moved in her hand, imitating her grasp. She did not allow herself to flinch.
She lifted it into view. It looked like a starfish. Its rays appeared metallic but moved as if organic, stiffened by something calcerous. It felt slick against her skin. She peeled one of its rays from her forearm and peered at it. Unexpectedly, the underside was as dry as the topside.
‘Nanofilaments,’ Spiker explained. ‘It needs to bond with your nervous system to work.’
Eliane released the ray, let it coil around her wrist. ‘Then why’s it not working?’
‘Your central nervous system.’ Now he was smiling. ‘It needs access points. Ears. Eyes.’
Her hand was halfway to her head before his grin faded.
‘Come on, we’ve done enough business before. There’s no need to test it here. Besides, you’ll need your ship systems within range to see what it can really do.’
She raised an eyebrow.
‘You know you can trust me,’ he said.
That was enough for Eliane. Not even Spiker was fool enough to think anyone actually trusted him. There was something he did not want her to know.
And he had said the thing was telepathic.
Without further thought she allowed it to crawl from the back of her hand to the side of her face. One ray curled around her ear, extended its tip into her earhole. It halted, but she could sense tiny extrusions were slipping inside, piercing her eardrum, but harmlessly, on a subatomic level. Another ray slipped over her eye. She would probably have flinched away from its touch if it hadn’t suddenly made her feel quite piratical.
Then it hit her.
A clangour of light, a peal of colour.
A cascading vertiginous kaleidoscope of sensation.
An intense vibration took her.
She did not have time to feel nauseous or giddy. It was abruptly part of her. A second consciousness, present everywhere within her, apart yet simultaneously inseparable.
Thoughts, she discovered, were nothing like voices.
Spiker knew who she was. And he’d peached. Sold her out. This was all a trap.
She needed to get out of there. Quickly.
‘Wow,’ she said, stumbling with artful awkwardness to her feet.
Spiker half-rose, uncertain.
‘You can feel it right down here,’ she said, smiling to assuage his anxiety, and reached behind her for the loops at the base of her spine.
In the dim light, Spiker probably did not even see the keratin blades as they slashed wickedly before him, slicing through his throat, leaving an elongated scarlet X.
The nearest shifner reached for the blaster on his hip. He roared in frustration, and then in pain, as he realised that all he was pointing at her was a stump, gouting blood.
She danced around his forward lurch, cutting deep into the backs of his legs.
He threw himself desperately at her. She sidestepped. He hit the floor with a crash. A blade in the back of the neck severed his spine. She could safely leave him to bleed out.
The second shifner, eschewing his sidearm, drew a pair of short swords and stepped heavily towards her, blades held steady in the low light. He seemed to know what he was doing.
She backed away, looking nervous.
The shifner swelled his shoulder muscles in gleeful anticipation of the kill.
She picked up the fallen blaster and shot him in the head. His face vaporised in the intense heat. Sizzling blood and brain sprayed the wall. He swayed upright for a second as if his body did not yet know it was dead, then collapsed noisily, spilling gore across the floor.
Eliane swept up the containment canister, and gently pulled the device from her head. It seemed reluctant to detach at first, and she did not know how much force to exert. She didn’t want to rip out anything vital.
She checked herself for spatter, and stepped carefully over the corpse. The first shifner was still alive, rasping ragged breaths. She drove a blade through its shoulders and into its heart. She hated killing, but sometimes it was a mercy. Besides, in this crazy messed up universe, what was a girl to do?
She grabbed her gun and knife and made for the exit.
She had completely forgotten – if, indeed she ever knew it – that shifners always work in teams of three.
TO BE CONTINUED Part 5
Dear Reader, I confess I’ve been dragging it out a mite, setting the scene and all, but here at last comes the moment you’ve been waiting for. The moment their eyes first met. Across, believe it or not, a crowded room. It is not the most improbable thing you will hear.
When it came to crime out on the Riff, Spiker was not an especially big fish. But sometimes the optics of small ponds can be deceptive, and so he liked to surround himself with people. It was not that he was any more sociable than the next third-string crimelord. He just figured the more folks between him and the entrance, the more time he had to evade the law if ever the law came knocking. Which they rarely did. He preferred bribery to blackmail and collusion to coercion, but even there he overplayed his hand. Vanity, his desire to seem more important than he was, to appear larger than life, defeated thrift every time, and would likely be his downfall.
So Eliane locked her suite and began the long walk through the New Dragon Gate. There was no furtiveness to her now. She wanted to be seen. It would make her getaway so much easier if everyone was looking for this her. She would need only half a minute’s privacy to look like someone else entirely.
She left the elevator at the mezzanine level, and swept down the long staircase that curved around the lobby and out towards the hubbub of the barroom. Hotel guests, drinkers and gamblers rubbed shoulders unawares with smoothies, hosers and fleecers; she could almost smell the flimflam. Dippers moved discreetly among the tables, looking for any opportunity to empty a pocket or a purse that was not their own.
The skirt of her gown swayed lightly from side to side, its sumptuous green seeming to draw the light in the room to it. Each step revealed the pointed toes of shoes that seemed too delicate to walk in. Each dark, elbow length glove concealed a forearm holster, one for a blade, the other for a very ladylike needle-gun. A shawl covered her shoulders. A dusting of malachite fragments glittering against the dark flesh of her décolletage matched the colour of the stones in her ear-rings. Her hair, now, was a flaming red.
It was a winning hand. Not even the cat-faced man stood a chance. The question now, Brett thought, is not whether it can be beaten, but how much it can be milked for. His expression unchanging, he started to calculate who had how much on the table.
Something changed in the room. At first he could not put his finger on what exactly. It wasn’t the kind of abrupt difference that usually arrives just a moment before the holder of yet another not-quite-good-enough hand finds the drunken courage to accuse him of cheating. Nor was it the kind of terrible silence when you see an outraged man unaccustomed to gun-fighting pull a gun. But something was suddenly different. Brett looked up from his cards.
He did not even have to turn his head. He preferred to play with a wall behind him, which meant he was facing the bottom of the staircase.
She quite took his breath away.
She paused and scanned the room, as if looking for somebody. He could tell there was something false about it. That she knew exactly where she was going. That this was all show. That she wanted to make an impression, to be remembered.
But before he could begin to wonder why, those eyes, which he was certain had no intention of coming to rest upon anyone, picked him out of the crowd. She seemed as surprised as him.
An easy grin lit up his face.
For a moment she faltered. The corners of her mouth found themselves turning up to flash a smile in response.
And then she recovered her purpose. He watched her with all the circumspection he could muster as she glided through the crowd towards the back rooms. Where bossmen dangled their wealth and paraded their minions, and where VIPs made their peace, collected their bribes and embraced their honeytraps, when they were not being bamboozled and bled.
He was so intent on figuring out what business she might have back there that he nearly lost the hand.
That had a salutary effect. ‘If you gentlemen will excuse me for a while, I’m in need of some air.’ As he stood, he scooped his chips into his hat and placed it on his head in one easy motion.
They laughed indulgently as he made for the bar. They all had seen her, too. A little discombobulation was to be expected when a spacer hit ground for the first time in a while. They weren’t used to the oxygen or the booze or the women. Or to the sparkling wit of such grand grounder gentlemen as themselves.
TO BE CONTINUED Part 4