Kyron, the gardener, was woken before dawn by his double. As usual, it spoke without words, sending a soft bell-chime ringing through his brain, gently but quickly bring his ba to full alertness.
"All right, all right" he grumbled, rolling off the thin pallet and groping for his clothes. By instinct, he looked for his simple work kilt, but today he found that his slave had left him a soft blue body suit instead. Then he remembered why he was being woken this early; today he was going to have to venture out into the desert, to watch the sky and hope.
He pulled on the enveloping costume with a quiet grunt at the irritating, unfamiliar sense of restriction, then sat back cross-legged on the palette, and communed with his shadow.
No problems. He'd been prepared to let his double work with his sah, or even use his shadow, but it seemed that everything was going as anticipated.
Kyron made his way out of the main quarters, acknowledging a few greetings from colleagues, stepping aside as slaves rolled about their business. Over the preceding weeks, he'd become accustomed to sleeping indoors; because of the current problem, he was now forbidden to spend his nights out in the fields, as he'd long preferred. It had taken him a while to become re-acclimatised to the different noises and smells, the whole different atmosphere of nights inside; he had eventually managed full, uninterrupted sleep, and today he felt rested and alert, but he caught himself hoping that, soon, he would be able to return to his old habits.
He smiled grimly at himself for that. If today didn't bring a cure for the great problem of the moment, it wasn't only his sleeping habits that would suffer.
Outside the main block, the air was chill. Kyron amused himself by reflecting just how chill it would be in the great deserts, where he would have to venture today, then looked carefully at the fields all around him.
The crops and trees and, a little way off, the small area of uncut grassland all looked healthy, despite the cold. As Kyron had calculated, they appeared to be enduring -- for the moment.
Kyron saw a termite scurry across the path three paces in front of him. On reflex, he moved and crushed it. Then his double murmured inside his ear, and he turned to greet Dallquis.
Dallquis, tall, thin, pale and weak-eyed, peered at Kyron for a moment, then nodded back. He seemed intent on going on his way with no more formality -- understandable, given that the seals were his ultimate responsibility -- but then he paused.
"Today, isn't it? The new supplies -- arriving today?"
"Yes" acknowledged Kyron, "if everything works correctly."
"Shouldn't it?" Dallquis seemed genuinely surprised at the thought, which amused Kyron. The fellow had become concerned with his part of the present troubles, almost to the point of monomania; he genuinely seemed not to have picked up the steady hum of concern that had filled the dining halls and rest-chambers for the past few weeks.
"Well, yes, it should. But the whole business has had to be very hasty, you know; the replacements were put together faster than anything like that has ever been done before. The despatch was calculated carefully enough, but it was -- parabolic. And as to the arrival, well, the star-gazers have had to judge things very finely..."
"Yes, I see" said Dallquis, but in a vague way, his mind evidently already straying back to the minutiae of his seals. Then his gaze went past Kyron, who glanced round as his shadow murmured again, to see Ferrocha bearing down on him from the direction of the main gate.
Ferrocha was an impressive figure at any time; her job was almost militaristic, and her bearing reflected this. She was charged with the safety of those venturing out into the great desert, and it was, Kyron admitted to himself, a heavy load. The distant authorities had decided that the only way to ensure the success of this venture was to make those in charge of each aspect directly and personally responsible for their areas of duty, albeit giving them power to reflect that responsibility. As Ferrocha and those working for her always reminded others, the only way to survive in the desert was through discipline and care; hence, when anyone ventured out, Ferrocha had complete authority over them -- and a very personal concern for their well-being.
She was tall, as tall as Dallquis and more powerfully built, with ebony skin and neatly braided hair. She usually wore the kind of bodysuit that Kyron was currently finding so confining, and seemed to find it comfortable; over it, this morning, she was partly armoured. Evidently, as everyone would have expected if they thought at all, she was taking charge of the expedition. She ignored Dallquis, knowing that he had no involvement in her current duty, but stared at Kyron for two heartbeats.
"Kyron? My people will be ready when the rest of you are. The captain is coming too."
Well, she wasn't upbraiding him for anything yet. Kyron nodded acknowledgement, then murmured a politeness to Dallquis and stepped round the other man towards the main gate. Ferrocha continued on her way into the central block, and Kyron glanced at her retreating back.
He remembered times when his double had encountered hers, in the course of duty. She had a powerful sekhem, reflecting her responsibility; the formidable image that this left with Kyron made him even more nervous of her. His double was not emotional -- emotions were always things of the physical body -- but it was made to be cautious, and it transmitted its response to his ba.
Kyron laughed at himself again. The seven-fold division of being was a metaphor -- an ancient metaphysic that had been found useful in this age. A practical person like Ferrocha herself would tell Kyron that he should simply accept that her personality was what impressed him, regardless of the context. He told himself that it was sensible advice.
Kyron took a small detour on the way to the gate, so that he could inspect a length of the wall on the way. To his relatively untrained eye, no deterioration was visible; streaks of brownish-yellow temporary sealant marked the damaged areas, and he could see no tell-tale traces of moisture anywhere on the outside of the clear panes. The hastily-concocted termite repellant, smeared on the soil a couple of paces back from the wall, seemed still to be functioning; no insects were to be seen across it.
Within the gatehouse, Kyron found a bustle of activity. Half a dozen chariots were receiving final checks from Ferrocha's technicians and their small assistant slaves, while big desert-service slaves were being attached to their yokes. It was an elegantly versatile form of transport, sacrificing only a little efficiency over conventional vehicles.
One of the techs looked up at Kyron's arrival, gave an instruction to the nearest slave, then came over.
"We've got a suit ready for you, Chief Holist" he said, "just step this way, and I'll help you fit it."
"Thank you. But please, forget the title, will you? Even the slave-master knows my name."
The man nodded, but Kyron suspected that he'd soon forget the instruction. Sharing much of Ferrocha's responsibility, these techs were imbued with the same formal mind-set. The slave-master, powerful and, some would claim, more intelligent than any of the humans it served, was nonetheless a human creation; obedience was its nature, including obedience to whims such as Kyron's. The tech, by contrast, shared authority as well as responsibility.
Apart from which, the slave-master would, in its icy heart, know Kyron by his ren, the unique code that metaphor called the "true name". Labels would not worry it.
Kyron found the armouring room already occupied; other techs were already fully equipped, and Indigan, the second-in-line to the Chief Biologist, was just pulling on a metal sleeve. As Kyron fastened a rigid corslet, the first part of the armour rig, Captain Ferrer arrived, shortly followed by Sands, the senior technician whose responsibility for communications gave him rank equal to a Chief, and two of his tech staff.
Kyron looked around the group as they greeted each other quietly. The techs, some of whom were armoured themselves and some assisting others with the complex sequence of checks and tests required, were a varied crew, but their relative youth and lower status made them seem to fade into the background. They treated Kyron himself with as much respect as any other Chief, although he had come to expect less; he was the only member of the community with this high status but no full-time department under him, reflecting the ambiguous view many held of his work, and he usually asked others not to use his title. He had often told people that he thought of himself as a gardener, but he gave that up when he was accused -- by someone who respected his position as a Holist -- that it was an affectation; nevertheless, that was how he thought of himself, and he preferred everyone to use his given name.
The more senior people included their overall chief. Ferrer continually interested Kyron. He had never heard the Captain referred to by name, only by title; it was sometimes said, only half-jokingly, that the man had been given his post because no-one could decide what such a job required, but the Captain convinced the authorities that he had it. In fact, his scholarly qualifications were impeccable; he was an expert engineer. However, his uniqueness lay in his past work leading and organising great projects. He ran routine staff meetings, and led the recent emergency work, with the same calm efficiency. Yet his appearance was unremarkable; he wasn't tall, and he looked fleshy, even plump. He wore a moustache that, given his obvious Hispanic ancestry, reduced him dangerously close to stereotype.
Indigan was a middle-aged woman, with steel-grey hair. The same was true of her Chief, Li Chua, but otherwise the pair were very different. Kyron frequently worked with the biologists, and had established a working relationship despite their undisguised belief that his role should be subsumed in their own. Li Chua, an exuberant enthusiast who genuinely believed that the broad scope of her biological interest made her a Holist, frequently teased Kyron about his "superfluous" status; Indigan was a quieter figure with a talent for detailed analytical work, but Kyron found her readier to actually listen to him. She currently had something of the status of a minor hero, having been the one to identify the details of the problem with the termites. Lastly, Kyron looked at Sands, a broad-shouldered man with a fondness for team sports; he was a complete professional, almost revered by those under him, and he, too, distrusted Kyron's function. Kyron liked his honesty, only rarely finding his attitude a nuisance.
Ferrocha appeared in the room just as Indigan was leaving, and completed her armouring briskly, finishing before the Captain and Sands. She then inspected all the others; her techs, who had done the same already, took no apparent offence at this. Finally, she permitted the group to mount their chariots, two to each.
The slaves rolled them forward, towards the outer gate-house, while those techs who were remaining behind left the main room. The gate could only pass three chariots at a time -- this expedition was unusually large -- and Ferrocha, riding with one of Sands' underlings, marshalled the group. She led the first three vehicles, ordering Kyron and Indigan, who each shared a chariot with one of her techs, to follow her.
The big slaves manoeuvred the chariots with mechanical delicacy to fit them neatly into the cramped space; Kyron took the time to look around at the robust, brassy-surfaced chamber. He ventured beyond the walls only very rarely, and the design of this space enhanced his sense of leaving behind a tiny, beautiful, but artificial crystal of life in the middle of desolation. The outer chamber, between the two domains, emphasised the artificiality of the separation; not subject to what Kyron thought of as his art, it was stark and stern, like something from the age of steam.
One set of gates slid smoothly shut. Through the canopy of the chariot, Kyron heard the hissing of pumps, rising steadily in frequency. Then it fell away, and indicator lights over the gates flickered and changed. On the intercom, Kyron heard Ferrocha speak briefly with the gate slave; then the outer gate opened, and the three chariots, led once again by Ferrocha, rolled out into the Martian desert.
The second group of chariots followed after a few minutes; Ferrocha took the time to issue instructions about the order of travel and to remind everyone once again of standard safety routines. So it was only when the six chariots set out that Kyron was able to take in the scene as a whole.
Each chariot consisted of four balloon-tired wheels on a square chassis. This held a squat, box-like body high from the ground, and the bubble canopy was mounted on top of that. Apart from some thin struts and braces, this was entirely clear, the plastic material having a faint green tinge, only darkening to brown and black where the morning sun hit it on the left side. The desert slaves were clamped to yokes on either side of the chariots; solidly built, barely humanoid in form (except, disturbingly, for their powerful legs), these strode forward, guiding the chariots around the worst rocks but always maintaining the loose 'V' that Ferrocha had ordered. They and the chariot wheels raised small clouds of dusty sand, but these quickly fell back in the thin atmosphere. They kept up a steady pace, down from the plateau where the station stood and into the great open plains, and the crystalline vaults of the human structure were soon lost in the distance. This area was relatively clear of boulders or outcrops -- it had been carefully selected for the station site -- and the slaves could take a nearly straight route to the landing-site. The same lack of obstructions enhanced the grandeur of the landscape for Kyron. The few dunes that the thin but swift winds could pull up against the light gravity saved the scene from intolerable starkness, but the sky, dominated by a glaring sun in one direction, indigo in the other, and the unsoftened mountains in the distance, all combined to intimidating effect.
Kyron had looked at pictures of such views when the station was still being designed, and insisted that his task would have to include a great deal of gardening. Although the various environments within its walls had been designed, first and foremost, as refined ecological systems, he had managed to influence many details -- a bend in the stream here, a miniature hill there, a grouping of trees in the swamp section to create a view across the pond-sized "ocean". He believed that the result gave workers, who might have been overwhelmed by the Martian landscape outside, a sense of calm, and the psychologists concurred enough to support him. He had been amused, but pleased, when 'zine-boards on Earth had credited him with resurrecting the art of landscape gardening.
The chariots reached the lowlands, and at Ferrocha's word, they fanned out. Next to her chariot was the one in which Sands rode; clamped on its back was a beacon. That chariot rolled ahead of the group, but Ferrocha stayed not too far away. The Captain remained on slightly higher ground; the other three scattered across the plains, Kyron's out to the right. He lost sight of the others, but heard the radio chatter as Sands halted, and ordered his desert slaves to detach themselves, then to set up the beacon. Kyron had seen it back at the station; it was just a box of instruments on a rugged tripod base, with a cluster of dish antennae on the top, mostly angled skywards. Cables would be run from it to the chariot's fuel cells.
Sands held quiet, jargon-laden conversations with his techs in the other chariots and back at the station, before one of them let out a half-shrieked "Yeah!", followed by a calmer "Com-sat confirms transmission, Chief".
"Beacon operational," declared Sands flatly, "what status on the pod?"
"Still nominal" came from the station, then "deflection in about ten minutes, Chief."
There followed a protracted wait. Kyron made a token attempt at small talk with the tech in the other seat of his chariot, but both men were preoccupied with the lightening sky, and soon fell silent.
"Pod re-entry deflection" muttered the radio, and Kyron instinctively looked for a shooting star, although he wasn't sure if there would be anything to see, and he guessed that it would be far below the horizon in any event.
"Malfunction" declared Sands. Kyron gasped, and looked for diagnostics, realising at once that nothing was coming in from the station. A second later, he decided that only the most straightforward radio signals were unaffected.
"Comms systems down" Sands announced. "Seems to be affecting the beacon. I'm triggering re-boot... No, down again. Looks like a program error..."
Kyron was switching his screen to a system display and pulling out a keyboard. His double, roused instinctively from the implanted chips in his neck, moved into the local system formed by direct links between the chariots' computers. Both conscious components of Kyron's self watched as Sands invoked a variant program from hard-store, and saw it crash.
"Bastard" said Sands flatly, "I think there's a full independent program here."
"A ghost?" One of his techs queried.
"No such thing" stated Ferrocha and the Captain together.
"Possibly" commented Kyron, almost at the same time.
"Chief Holist Kyron?" The Captain didn't sound particularly irritated, but Kyron suspected that he was ready to cut comms activity to a 'necessary minimum'. He looked for an argument that would enable him to do what he thought was going to be necessary.
"Use whatever names you like, Captain, but whatever is doing this must be big and flexible -- to pop up just at the right moment, cut us off from the station, and jam the beacon."
"Sabotage?" asked the Captain, voicing the question that had only been raised in corners round the station in the recent weeks. "No, we'll look at that question later. Right now, how do we deal with this?"
"I'm looking" said Kyron.
He summoned his sah and shadow alongside his double, and glanced at the screen; his sekhem flickered and glowed as he invoked his rights and powers. His double attached itself to the sah; he leant back in his seat and took three deep breaths, shutting his eyes and bringing on his low-level interfaces.
This was why he felt qualified to take on this problem. The disciplines he was using were not refined; a little self-hypnosis and a lot of relaxation. Nonetheless, few people were able to do what he was doing so completely.
Kyron detached his ba, his conscious mind, from external perceptions, triggering switches that cyber-surgeons would only implant after long and tedious psychological tests. He focussed on the three sub-programs he was using, double, shadow, and sah, channeling outputs from each to the input-streams of each other, making his sekhem, his private database of codes and personal routines, available to all. It was a delicate balancing act, that had to be re-worked and continuously maintained according to the details of the processing environment; if it failed, the whole complex of processes would crash, and Kyron himself would probably have a severe real headache as well as the metaphorical headache of re-starting the three programs.
By which time, the pod would probably be lost.
Kyron took a moment to study the situation. His sah analysed what was around it, and projected corresponding glyphs onto his vision. He became aware of another complex closed-unit process, active in the truncated network formed by the chariot computers.
"I thought I had better monitor. But you're the expert here; I suggest you carry on, Chief Kyron."
The source of problems was not immediately apparent to Kyron; he guessed that it would hide until it saw its assigned victim. He communed briefly with his double, identified some necessary files, then invoked his sekhem through his sah.
The trigger codes for the beacon program were held in open storage. Carefully, with difficulty, he re-started it.
The beacon was marked by a plain triangular glyph; Sands and his people had little time for artistic detail. It blinked, and switched from inactive grey to initialising red, then active green. Plain text and sound output echoed half-subliminally on the edge of Kyron's sensorium; he re-directed it to permanent store, for later study.
Something moved. Kyron's double moved too, with the power of his shadow. Kyron had given it that, leaving himself only the standard interface routines of the sah; the semi-intelligent, high speed shadow routines worked best when used for one task at a time. The double used them as efficiently as Kyron could himself -- better, he suspected, as he was not a full-time systems expert. The beacon program was working under his authority, protected by all the security codes his sekhem held; when the attack came, his shadow was automatically invoked.
The two programs locked. For a moment, Kyron thought that the fight was finished; most program conflicts lasted only a few cycles, mere milliseconds. Then he saw that his shadow and double were still marked as fully active, and his sah showed that the attacker also showed signs of activity.
Kyron was impressed. For a program conflict to last long enough for a human observer to watch it, thousands of complex functions would have to be running, testing one against the other. This was a true battle, and Kyron was far from certain of the result.
A "double" program was a bundle of expert routines designed to work on his behalf in computer real-time, where human responses were simply inadequate, hopelessly slow. The double was based on a model of his own personality, with multifarious software tools attached; Kyron could give it general instructions, and trust it to deal with details, in ways that reflected his general wishes as well as his specific commands. Tinkering over years had made it a reasonable software tool, as well as an agent of Kyron's wishes; linked to his "shadow" program, his set of low-level interface processes, it was versatile and potent. Whether it was a warrior was entirely another question.
Kyron set his sah to scanning the attacker. A moment later, he gasped, almost losing his meditative concentration. This was, indeed, a ghost. He looked for ways to restrain it.
The command was so blandly inappropriate that Kyron took a moment to react. Then all he did was watch. The new entrants to the action were marked only by glyphs -- department symbols with names and qualifiers attached -- but Kyron guessed who they were without reading their labels. Ferrer was present, lending the full authority of his sekhem codes, but Ferrocha was doing the work. She herself, her ba, was operating her shadow; speed was not her concern, and nor was elegance. Kyron marked her as less adept with programs than himself, but she was thorough and meticulous. The attacker was negated, locked out of the processor.
"Don't destroy it!" Kyron realised as he spoke that the request was futile, but also that it should be possible to re-construct the attacker from permanent storage later.
"A moment, Chief Kyron." Ferrocha's tone was flatly calm; she installed her sah and double alongside Kyron's, defending the beacon. Kyron instructed his double to signal any further attacks, and removed his ba from the system, in time to hear the Captain telling the station that a 'temporary problem' was dealt with, and asking them to remain quiet for a while.
"Thank you, Chief Kyron." Ferrocha was calm as ever, but the screen showed her leaning back in her seat; she ran her hands through her braided hair, and cracked a slight smile.
"Yes -- my thanks, too." The Captain was expressionless. "That was a dangerous virus. Have you any idea how..."
"Not a virus, a ghost." Kyron stated as flatly as he could manage.
Ferrocha smiled again. "Chief Ho... Kyron, I think the comp staff are competent to purge old personal routines from memory. Anyway, whose ghost?"
"That ghost was smart enough to avoid purges. Anyway, I don't think it was any kind of accidental remnant. Perhaps ghost is the wrong word."
"What word would you use?" Ferrocha still seemed a little amused, but also genuinely interested.
"You could try demon, I suppose."
"The Captain talked about sabotage. Well..."
"Contact. 'Chutes deploying." The comms tech was a professional, staying with his task despite the conversation that was fascinating most of the group. His announcement was followed by a flow of confirmation from the station. Kyron leant back in his seat, watching the sky.
There! Kyron was never sure who called first. After a few moments of craning, he made out the dot. It expanded with painful slowness, but eventually it resolved into a trefoil; soon after, the big central vent-holes in the chutes showed dark sky through the white, and after that, the pod itself became visible.
Directional Control Nominal came over the radio, and the pod half-circled lazily under the 'chutes, then twisted back. Now it was visibly heading towards the beacon, almost-but-not-quite on top of Sands' chariot.
A tech's shadow quoted altitudes in the thousands of feet. After one thousand, the same shadow called a count-down from eighteen seconds. At two, one 'chute, then the other pair, cast off and drifted away, twisting back on themselves in the thin breeze, soon vanishing into the glare of the small, harsh sun.
Firing announced the shadow, and dark orange sparks appeared around the base of the pod. Its fall seemed barely to be slowed; before Kyron could decide how well the descent was going, the shadow said Impact.
Unprompted, the desert slaves stirred, turning the chariot towards the landing-point, then set out at a swift mechanical trot. Kyron realised that they were relatively close.
They were second to the scene. A pair of techs had stopped their vehicle ten paces short, detached the slaves, and opened the canopy. Marrokov, one of Ferrocha's lieutenants, was hunched over the pod, as Mhann, of Comms, watched from a distance. Marrokov looked up. "Damaged" she announced. Kyron winced; then his sah indicated that his armour, and that of the tech with him, was secure, and the chariot was evacuated; he opened the canopy.
The damage was limited to the retro-jet control systems. The pod was cooling rapidly, and was opened by the time that any more chariots arrived.
Kyron shone a torch inside, then reached in and drew out a hard plastic flask.
"Termite eggs" he announced. Indigan looked over his shoulder, nodded, then took the flask from his hand. He passed her two more, and she took them back to her chariot. Then the tech from the other seat took two smaller cannisters.
"The cultures?" Indigan called, and Kyron nodded. Developing in the station's tanks, the mod-yeast from these would produce a new sealant, more robust in the face of termite attacks. A second response to the problem.
Indigan's chariot turned and set off, back to the station. There were more containers in the pod, but no risks were being taken; the collection would be divided between the six chariots.
I wish there could have been six pods, thought Kyron. But Earth, struggling with a new series of environmental catastrophes, battling to restore its atmosphere and oceans, had barely been willing to send one pod. A few years before -- or, Kyron confidently expected, a few years hence -- projects of the scale of the station could be conceived; for now, the Martian station mostly had to look after itself.
The Captain approached the Chief Holist. "Kyron? Could I ask you to travel back with Ferrocha? You two resolved that problem earlier between you; you may want to discuss further plans." Kyron mumbled assent. "Fine. And the two of you can catch me later -- let me know what you think..."
The party finished divided the containers between themselves, and Ferrocha saw each chariot on its way. When only her own was left, she signed Kyron into the other seat, snapped the canopy shut, and ordered the slaves to action.
Kyron noticed that the vehicle, while similar to any of the others at first glance, had subtle differences in detail. One of these was a distinctly mechanical-looking switch on its radio input, and Ferrocha reached forward and clicked it firmly to 'Off'.
"Now," she said "you called that program a ghost."
Kyron began to shrug, suppressed the gesture, and nodded instead. "That's how it looked to me."
Ferrocha was watching ahead, squinting at the dust raised by the other five chariots. "I don't like that metaphor, the whole seven-fold business. Anyway, aren't you stretching it too far?"
"Yes and no. Oh, I don't think that it was the remnant of a past programmer -- dead or alive. But I think it may have been built out of a shadow and a double. That's how it looked."
"You can tell that much from the external view?"
"I'm a holist; I'm supposed to know about patterns, remember?" Kyron took a deep breath; now the crunch. "Anyway, that particular pattern was very familiar. I think it used a holist's shadow."
"I don't know that. All I'm saying is that it looked like the standard pattern for people in my job."
Ferrocha continued looking ahead. "I suppose Du'Saud and his people may be able to confirm that, back at the station," she said, "but okay, for now I'll take your word for it. That still leaves the question of where it came from."
"Yes." Kyron tried to think through the possibilities, to sort strong likelihood from paranoia. "Especially if it was behind more of our recent problems."
"Could it have been?" Ferrocha was asking her questions methodically, like someone working down a check list for a machine; it seemed to Kyron that she was deliberately turning this into a problem of pure fact, and he wondered what more emotional reactions, of shock or cynicism, she might allow herself later.
"Well" he said, "we assumed that the change in the termite's digestive bacteria, that made them interested in the wall seals, was a random mutation. But we tinkered with them sometimes, made sure their gut chemistry was balanced, and work on the cultures was computer-aided, of course. So a really smart computer virus could have introduced the change deliberately."
"Pity we couldn't reverse it for ourselves."
"No chance, I'm afraid; the mutant was too well-established in the community. We couldn't out-compete it, and..."
"I know that. We need a whole new strain of termite to sort out the balance, out-compete the pests. Just hope it isn't too tough and smart for the rest of the micro-ecology, right?"
Ferrocha didn't sound as annoyed as her words implied. Kyron glanced at her, but she continued staring ahead, her expression impassive. He decided that her profile wasn't her best view.
"Right" he answered. "But we should have caught the whole problem earlier, snipped it in the bud. A lot of us thought that a lot of our programs weren't performing to scratch when we didn't."
"So now you're saying that they might have been sabotaged. Right." Ferrocha nodded slowly. "So I'm going to have to ask again. Who planted this 'ghost', and how?"
"God knows." Kyron had bought time to think about this, but he still hadn't found a simple answer. "It could have been in the system since the station was set up, but equally, we get a lot of traffic over the radio link that goes more or less straight into our comp network. I think some of it is complex enough for the demon to sneak in with it."
"Is that what you're calling it again?"
Kyron realised what he'd just said. "Yes, I suppose so. 'Ghost' implies a remnant, an accident -- this seems to be malicious. And no, I don't know who owes us that malice."
"There's people don't like the project, on Earth. Say we're a waste of resources."
"I know -- but they're just a lunatic fringe, really. We're officially self-supporting, these days. Old news."
"Except when we need this sort of help." Ferrocha didn't smile at that, but Kyron was coming to recognise how dry her humour could be.
"Quite. I suppose that this thing could be left over from the start-up phase, when we were more controversial... But there's another possibility. You know how the politics gets on Earth. They may be working full-time to patch everything up, but they still find time to fight each other at the UN."
"So why pick on us?"
"Lots of reasons, possibly. To undercut another faction who are pushing for space-based research, maybe; some of the competition for funds is from computer modelling specialists. Or just to embarass the countries who backed us."
"So we'd better ask the Captain to have a very careful talk with his contacts back there?"
"Yes... Meanwhile, I suppose we'd better talk to Du'Saud and his people about a system purge..."
They talked on for some minutes, until the station came into sight once more. Ahead of them, weak plumes of dust marked the others' chariots, and Ferrocha snapped her microphone back on and began issuing commands to the gate slave, then putting queries to the slave-master, establishing who was where.
Kyron looked only at the station. The sun, higher in the sky now, was reflecting off the panes all across one side of the ocean section and the vaulted roof of the central corridor. Beneath that roof there was an artificial pampas, studded with termite mounds -- or rather with their stubby remains, after the demolitions of Mars' first, tiny, ecological war; Kyron knew that he'd be spending most of his waking time there for weeks to come, helping the replacement species get established. Through and beyond the ocean section, he saw green -- the established trees of the station's miniature rain-forest, surviving despite the recent fluctuations in their atmosphere. On the other side, the station's farm section was still in shadow.
It was, necessarily, a world in microcosm. Kyron, whose task was to take an overview -- and, when he could, to look to the aesthetics of the design -- suppressed the persistent urge to think of himself as its God. It was an urge than many of the station dwellers felt, often with as much right as him; it even had a nickname -- 'Martian hubris'.
Lights on the chariot's console showed that the vehicle was, once again, linked in to the station comp network, and Kyron sent his double forward, using his sah, to see what might have happened in his absence.
Hubris, shadows and the seven-fold division of the self; the new world was developing intense images, variants of the fashionable metaphors of Earth. It might not have gods, but it already had myths. Including, the gardener reminded himself, its demons.
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