Medusa’s Raft 1
by Justina Robson
In a biotechnological world ruled by the laws of symbiosis, you are who you eat.
On a planet where technology is mined from the ground and pieced together by a talented elite, an engineer discovers the most valuable archaeological find of the age and ignites a war of conquest between the planet’s two rival dominant species: the magi and scientists of the human population and the biotechnological lifeform known only as Karoo.
For the humans of the Empire, seeking to cut and run with the prize, the race is on to grab what they can before their enemy overrun them with greater numbers and unstoppable force.
But then a defector arrives in an imperial capital, with news that could determine the outcome of war and three women of a uniquely talented family are yanked from obscurity to the spotlight.
Success or failure, life and death, hinges on their ability to discover the truth before time runs out. But what has been found and what it means for their future is beyond anything they could have imagined.
Medusa’s Raft 1
Justina Robson is the award-winning author of several novels, novellas and short stories. Most of her books and stories are Science Fiction, dealing in particular with AI, transhumanism, genetic engineering, nanotech and human evolution. They focus on the adaptation of human beings to new technology. She also sometimes writes Fantasy, and sometimes SF & F in combination with other genres.
A graduate of the commercial SF writers’ workshop “Clarion West” in the USA (1996) she has gone on to teach at the Arvon Foundation in the UK. In 2005 she was a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award on behalf of the Science Fiction Foundation. In 2011 she was the Guest of Honour at the World Science Fiction Convention in Perth, Australia.
In addition to her original works she also wrote Transformers: The Covenant of Primus, the official history of the Transformers in the Prime Continuum, in 2013.
She continues to study topics of interest and write at her home in Yorkshire, where she lives with her husband, children and pets.
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Zharazin Mazhd was atop the base of the Engineer’s gigantic aerials array, fifty mets clear of the roof of the Huntingore Manse below and about a thousand more from the next deck down with nothing in between but empty air and wisps of cloud to witness him plummet to his death. The thin air and the cold had frozen him almost into insensibility but at last his patience was about to be rewarded. As he looked to the South he saw his quarry.
Against a gunmetal grey sky a small plane was flying. Barely bigger than a hang glider, its two wings tilted and juddered in the force of the winds that tossed it this way and that. So violent and erratic was the progress that, seen from afar, it could easily have been mistaken for a leaf. But then a streak of light caught the edge of one of its propellers and flashed a regular code of brilliant motes that betrayed its mechanical nature.
He started, heart racing. The slight increase of blood pressure made him wobble and the leather harness holding him against the icy stone slipped a little as it took his weight, lost it and took it again. On reflex he reached out to grasp the freezing column of metal in front of him as he moved around it to conceal himself from the pilot’s view.
His grip was weak. The pain of being forced to maintain one position for hours and then move suddenly was outstanding. But the writer of the letter which had caused so much trouble was coming home and bringing with them evidence which he had been charged with confirming by his dread mistress. A keen sense of relief-to-come and fulfilment of a completed mission gave him the focus he needed. He lifted his field glasses and found that they had frosted over.
A sudden actinic flash lit the cloud banks from above. The thunder roll was a second later, accompanied by a brief fit of tiny hail which smacked him in the face for his stupidity at being high up attached to a lump of metal. He pulled out his cuff and tried to clear his lenses, not thinking about it.
As the plane battled closer, he saw a figure sitting inside the light framework of the craft’s delicate body, arms and legs working hard at various controls. The head was covered in a black leather helmet. Its full glass faceplate reflected the storm clouds. From beneath it an air tube curled down like a slender black trunk to the tanks behind the single seat, making a strange, ugly butterfly seem to be about to burst from its pupa.
Wrestling hard with levers, one leg thrusting forwards, the other braced, the Engineer struggled and cajoled the tiny craft in steady corrections towards the overgrown deck below Zharazin’s deserted flight tower. The bees of the engine became a furious tiger and the underside of the wings lit with a burst of arcane energy in pale purple as the pilot applied maximum power to stall their terrifying speed. Gusts from the descending cloud bank brought a sudden new series of terrifying angles of descent. Abruptly it dropped from the sky with the finesse of a shot bird.
The wind came rushing suddenly around the aerials, making them bang and boom, quiver and shake. It almost knocked him off his perch. He clutched and gasped with a moment of sudden terror. The glasses fell heavily against the strap on his neck. He swore, swore, swore, fumbling with his gloved, dead fingers until he had them back in place, biting his eye sockets with their icy chill. For a second, the view wavered crazily and he lost sight of his quarry, but then he found the small shape, the violet glows already dying back until it was barely more than a silhouette against an ever-darkening sky.
There was a moment when the tiny craft was suspended in the air above the deck, so still that it might have hung there for ever, propeller whirring, fragile. Then, with the sudden relenting of the wind, it dropped like a stone to the burst pavement of the runway. In spite of its seeming delicacy it landed heavily, with a thud that Zharazin felt as well as heard. He found his heart in his mouth and was glad he had eaten and drunk nothing for a day because he would have had to deal with pants full of frozen piss.
The plane should have been smashed into matchwood but it only listed to one side. His right lens was misting up again, but he daren’t clean it now.
The pilot taxied forwards to the green circle’s centre, stopped the plane, stopped the engines. They undid their harness and turned in place to operate a crank that wound in the singing wires of the peculiar instrument, filled with visible shards of crystal, which sat behind them on the fuselage, mounted in an iron box and protected with an alder wood frame.
He knew all its details. The Crystallograph. He remembered its every calculation from the stolen blueprints. He marvelled at it again, as he had marvelled over the aeroplane itself, wondering who and how such a thing was dreamed of, made real, driven. But like all the Sightless, no matter how much he tried he could not grasp how it worked. That crucial insight gave him the slip every time. He could have built one from scratch and then been able only to stare at it and then watch it gather dust. It was baffling, frustrating, but there was nothing to be done about it. Only blood Imperials were gifted with the Sight, and then only one Sight at a time, each a specialist. And only a few Engineers were left, of those scant numbers. And of the Engineers only one was of the Sircene line, capable of creating, understanding and using these high-grade artefacts. He was on her roof, dangling off her aerials, watching her dice carelessly with death as she fulfilled a mission of her own so dangerous that it was worth risking everything for.
And what was that? His mistress, Head of the Glimshard Infomancers, demanded to know and so, unable to refuse even had he wanted to, he had come here and risked himself.
He creaked his way around to get a better angle.
Below him, ignorant of his presence, the rarest Engineer slithered to a position on the edge of the cockpit itself, reaching for the crystallograph again. One, two, three, four – into the grey anonymity of a mail satchel went the crystals from the ’graph box.
They looked like nothings now, shards of coloured rock, clouded with salty faultlines. Only because he was privy to the suspicions of the Infomancy did he know these to be the final components for Minister Alide’s Chaos Gun, the ‘mage’ weapon which would disintegrate anything that came within the range of its entropy beam. But they still looked like nothing, the crystals.
As he watched they were covered in cotton wadding and strapped up tight. Presumably they must not break. Or be seen. Then, bag in hand, with a movement more redolent of joy than fear the Engineer kicked their legs up over the side of the craft and slid down to the ground.
Without their weight the wind buffeted the fragile plane hard enough to make it slide. The pilot put one hand out onto the wing, avoided the still-lethal whirl of the propeller with ease, and gave the crystals’ mailbag a hefty underarm swing before letting it go.
It sailed across the deck and into a bush.
The pilot gave a nod of satisfaction that said clearly they were glad to be rid of it, however temporarily. It was heavy, so there was no chance it would be blown over the edge.
Zharazin could not think about the edge. Must not. All the tower’s safety mechanisms were long since dismantled or weathered away. The instruments that once sang with light and power were silent with the peace of generations of neglect.
He made himself not blink. His eyelashes bent against his lenses.
The pilot was doing things to their craft with a purposeful fury of impatience. After a moment or two the wings were folded up and rolled in, the tail pushed up, and then, with a good shove, the entire thing was wheeled across to the one remaining whole hangar, gently eased through the door and locked in.
If Zharazin hadn’t seen it happen he would never have noticed the hangar itself – little more than one rotting workshop among many – nor believed something like the plane could fit in what was essentially a toolshed with a large door.
The gale rattled the doors as the pilot heaved them to and sealed their mouldering green with a heavy bar. Then – yes! This task is nearly done! – they walked forwards to the bag bush with a strong, swinging stride, clearly high on the early evening’s dangerous activity.
The wind sucked at his boots, caught his scarf and tried to use it as a sail to pry him off his cliff. He resisted. He could have gone already. Should have. Had to signal to those below to watch for the next stage of the crystals’ journey, but he had his own reasons for lingering.
Thunder rumbled. What a fool. Yes. He knew it.
And then it happened. The hands went up, the clasps were flicked free, the headcover pulled off and aside in one smooth gesture as the pilot, inexplicably, ignored the bag to turn and face the coming storm.
A stream of black hair flagged out suddenly, long and thick, as they hung the mask on their belt and then pulled off their gauntlets too and flung out their arms to the sky in a lover’s embrace.
‘Turn, turn, turn,’ Zharazin repeated under his breath. His thundering heart stood still.
Fresh spots of sleet began to land. They spattered the grey stone black in front of Zharazin and dashed themselves to death on the left lens of his glasses. Far above a flash detonated in silence.
One big breath … Then, finally!
At last the exhilarated pilot turned and Zharazin got a clear look at her face for a single, perfectly lit moment.
Thunder shook the array.
Beauty, power, intelligence, secrets. All these he saw in one absolutely perfect moment. His glorious angel, alive, puissant, the best of all her kind.
An electric thrill went through him.
A perfect idiot, dazed by the gods, he dropped the binoculars.
They hit the rail before him and cracked a lens with a sharp retort. There was a brief, awful moment in which he knew he was dead and his feet briefly paddled air.