In deep space, far from Earth, Judy senses a change of mood aboard the passenger ship she travels on…and a quick investigation reveals that the craft is succumbing to a mysterious alien infestation. Just as hope seems lost, a group of combat drones appears to rescue all the passengers, except Judy – who is told she is the property of a forgotten mega-corporation based on Earth.
Returned against her wishes to an Earth under constant assault from the same alien infestation, Judy begins to learn her place in a conspiracy billions of years old. But is she ready to take on the benign, omnipotent, all-seeing Watcher who guides human destiny?
And destroy it?
Edward sat in the conference room, his hands covering his face, his feet on his chair so that his knees were drawn up to his chest.
“I don’t like them,” he said.
“Don’t be silly,” snapped Saskia, striding into the room.
“That’s not going to calm him down, is it?” said Judy, quite reasonably. She placed a reassuring hand on the big man’s shoulder, and said something softly that Maurice couldn’t hear.
The cause of Edward’s distress could be seen floating in a viewing field above the black shiny table.
“What are they?” asked Maurice.
“We don’t know,” admitted Judy. “Nor does Aleph.”
She pointed to a viewing field, where the system-repair robot they had picked up from the Petersburg could be seen clinging to the hull of their ship. Aleph gave Maurice a cheery wave.
Maurice gave a half-hearted wave in return as he moved closer to the images. They reminded him of flowers: they were all the same size and shape, roughly spherical. Their surfaces were spectacularly coloured, bursts of yellow and red and orange tangled around each other in fractally entwined patterns that deepened to a dark rose at a focus. Maurice understood why Edward seemed so frightened. The patterns on those flowers were unnerving: they gave the impression that they were looking straight at you.
To conceal his uneasiness, Maurice pulled out his console and brought up a scale reading. The flowers registered as just over thirty centimetres in diameter. He called up a topographical mapping.
“The readings suggest that they are not completely spherical,” he announced. “There is an indentation at the other side of these objects. They’re hollow. So what’s inside?”
“We don’t know,” said Saskia. “They’re turning so as to face us as we travel. It’s like they are always keeping their back to us, not letting us see what they’re hiding.”
Maurice rubbed his chin. “Oh. I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”
“Nor has Aleph,” said Judy.
“I don’t like them,” repeated Edward. He noted Saskia’s glare. “They’re not right,” he whined. “They’re alien!”
Judy rubbed his arm gently and spoke to him in a voice learned from Social Care.
“Edward, they’re not alien. Aleph says so.”
“Aleph is an alien himself! Why should we believe him?”
“There are no such things as aliens,” snapped Saskia, looking painfully thin and bristling with nerves. “I already told you that. We have never found aliens on any of the planets we’ve visited, and humans have travelled a very long way. Aleph is just a system-repair robot.”
“Easy, Saskia,” said Maurice. “Hmm, has there been any sign of the Bailero yet?”
“Of course not.” Saskia was scathing. “We got stiffed again.”
Maurice tapped at his console. “We’re in the middle of empty space,” he said thoughtfully. “The closest star is over three parsecs away. Hmmm, if I were an AI escaping from Earth on a warp ship, this would be just the place I would choose to hide. Right where no one ever comes.”
“Hide maybe,” said Saskia irritably, “but not a very good place to build an empire from. There are no raw materials out here. The Free Enterprise said it was manufactured by the Bailero. Out of what, though?”
“I don’t know,” said Maurice. He gestured at the orange-red eyes of the flowers. “Maybe out of those things. Are there any more of them around?”
“Not that we know of.”
Maurice concentrated on his console. The space flowers- or whatever they were- were about 200 kilometres distant. The Eva Rye was currently at rest relative to them. He checked back on the search pattern that he had programmed: a three-dimensional spiral that swept out a path through a volume of space that was covered by the limits of the ship’s senses. Long-distance senses had picked up the flowers from nine hundred kilometres back, and had watched them closely as the ship slowed to a halt. And the flowers had turned to watch the Eva Rye right back.
“Odd,” said Maurice. “I wonder what they are hiding inside? Let’s try and catch them out. Aleph?”
“I’m going to take the Eva Rye up and over to the other side of those things. Why don’t you let go of our hull and just stay floating here? If they turn to follow us, you might then get a look at what they’re concealing.”
“Maurice,” said reprovingly, “that wasn’t part of our contract.”
“Aleph, there should be an antique Warp Ship waiting here for us, payment for taking Judy to Earth. Instead we have found space flowers. Look at it this way, Aleph, if there is no ship, there is no contract, so we will not be going to Earth.”
“There’ll be a ship,” said Judy resignedly.
Saskia glared at her. Maurice ignored them.
“Help us, Aleph, and we’ll soon be on our way.”
“Oh, very well,” said Aleph. “I’m letting go of your hull. Off you go now.”
Maurice’s fingers danced across his console. “Where’s Miss Rose?” he asked, casually.
“In her room, of course,” said Saskia. “This is just wasting fuel, you know.”
“Well, what do you suggest?” asked Maurice. “Should we just ignore those things and sit here waiting for the Bailero to turn up of its own accord?”
Saskia said nothing to that.
“Fuel?” said Judy suddenly, her head tilted to the side. “The Eva Rye uses fuel?”
“Oh yes,” said Saskia bitterly. “That’s part of the FE deal. Apparently use of such things as AIs and VNMs and unlimited engine range only gives us the idea that we can get something for nothing. That’s contrary to the FE philosophy. Though, of course, in our case we seem to get nothing for something every time we do a deal…”
Saskia sensed that she had lost her audience’s interest. She took a green apple from the white bowl in the centre of the table, and bit into it. She crunched on it noisily as the Eva Rye began to move.
“I don’t like this,” moaned Edward. “I don’t like this!”
“Shh,” said Judy.
“The Petersburg did warn us,” complained Saskia, but Maurice tuned her out.
They watched the flowers intently. The red and yellow and orange blooms hung there, apparently motionless.
“…which means they are turning to follow us,” said Maurice. “They are still trying to conceal their contents. Aleph, what can you see?”
“Nothing as yet,” said Aleph. “Keep going. I can see them turning. They are… Oh damn!”
The crew of the Eva Rye saw it happening at the same time. The flowers seemed to move together, their hidden mouths joining together to kiss and conceal.
“Now what?” said Saskia.