Chapter One

5.46 am:

Ellone Loire let her head loll back on the leather seat of the KG Nagnem as the car sped along the near-deserted road. The upholstery was fresh and stiff, cool against her cheek. The car was a new model, part of a standard benefits package with the company, and she could still smell the factory polish. It was just becoming light on the Ramp, the massive multi-lane highway that gave access to the Estharian capital.

The rising sun's rays crept across the car, and shone across her face. Behind her lids the comfortable dark turned dull red. Ellone grimaced and turned her face away, to stare out at the roadscape whipping past instead. In an hour's time the lanes would be crammed with workers and bulk transporters, but for now the Speaker for Davensport North-East could marvel at how peaceful the Ramp was. If only you didn't have to be up so early to see it like this. With the blue spires of her adopted city looming around them now, she tried to stifle a yawn and didn't quite make it. Karlin Gardel, seated next to her, caught the movement out of the corner of his eye. The secretary, smiled through his bristling beard, and tapped the screen of his wrist-comp, freezing the data display he'd been watching in the air in front of him.

"Someone needs to catch up on their sleep, obviously,"

She looked down at the dapper little blond man beside her, impeccably dressed in fresh open-neck shirt and one of those light grey Hilda Braun suits he liked, and wondered how he was always so awake in the mornings.

"If someone's staff would brief her, instead of sitting about making smart comments every morning, then she might," she replied with mock-irritation.

Karlin grinned. It was well known among the Speaker's staff she hated losing the peace tiny spaces in the day gave her from the manic pace of the Job. Ellone and her shawl had driven her Chief of Staff bananas more then once, something Karlin and her other staffers never tired of watching. But last night had been Ellone's thirty-second birthday. For once, her tiredness this morning had nothing to do with work.

"Its twenty minutes till Harek reaches the station," he said gently, indicating their driver, "Why don't you grab a quick nap till then? We can do the briefing at the office for once."

"Done," Ellone told him.

She curled up on the seat and let the hum of the hydrogen engine wash over her. Next to her, Karlin stared out of the window, waiting idly for the car to reach the Tube they would take to their Congressional office. Even at this hour Maintenance were out. Trying to beat the rush hour he supposed. Up ahead, behind a lurid orange plastic fence a gutterbot was mindlessly scooping dirt out of a narrow trench and piling it into a tarnished yellow skip. The wind carried some of the dust towards his window. Three workers in orange rubber suits clustered around an open sewage hole were the only humans about, their faces masked from the dust by their re-breathers and hoods. Sewage night-shift, leaving before the dump trucks arrived. The tallest was tapping the keys of his J-Pad, probably e-posting he was on his way home.

There was a tiny bump in the car; it had shifted gear. Harek swore softly, then louder. Karlin's attention snapped up to the driver's face in the mirror, alarmed. Next to him Ellone had sat back up, intent, like a hunting dog catching a faint scent.

"The car, its disabled my driver protocol," Harek sounded shocked as he answered their worried stares "The autopilot's taken over and frozen me out. Wha- account revoked for unsafe driving pattern?"

"We're changing lanes," Karlin said.

He hit the door release pad with his palm. It didn't open. A chime sounded from the speaker set in the headrest; the car's Interactive Program purred in his ear.

"We are sorry, but this unit cannot comply with your request right now. Please wait for vehicle de-acceleration and try later."

"Shit!"

He slammed his fist against the window. Fat chance of breaking it doing that, the stuff was designed to stop a rocket. Harek was equally stuck trying jam the break pedal down with both feet. It stayed stubbornly up.

"Computer," Ellone said tight-voiced, "This is Ellone Loire speaking, driver ident WKP900234G. Match my number and voiceprint. I order you to cease-"

There came that chime again.

"This unit does not hold any record of the individual named Loire, Ellone. Unable to comply."

"What the hell is going on?" Harek yelled. The car was on the wrong side of the road now, slowing down, pulling over. The right wing-mirror clipped bar after bar of orange fencing, making the plastic barricade ripple like a conga line. And by its trench no longer, but looming ahead like a malign colossus, stood the gutterbot.

They were built around obsolete SAM08G chassis's imported cheap from Galbadia, Karlin remembered. The cannons were dismounted, and the claws swapped for sockets. Maintenance would plug whatever tool was needed for a particular job into the machine and send it out. This one's arms ended in a toothy digger scoop and a jackhammer. The car was coasting to a stop next to it.

Designed to stop a rocket.

Ellone leaned between the seats and tried to grab her charging portable. It was just out of reach. She turned urgently to Harek; "Grab my phone now!" she ordered, and the chauffer dived down for it.

"Too late," Karlin said.

The gutterbot leaned over the plastic barrier and slotted its scoop under the middle of the Nagnem with machine precision. Like a human rolling a log over, it heaved once, and the car rolled clear across the highway to crash into one of the spectacular cryst-crete pillars supporting the next section of the Ramp.

5.52 am:

Ellone opened her eyes and looked down at the roof. It was buckled and dented, but it hadn't caved in and that was good. Blood leaked from her nose and splashed on the puddle below. It felt hot and sharp to breathe through. She was hanging upside down by her belt. Somehow she'd got a foot wedged under the front seat as well. Harek's seat was empty; he hadn't been wearing his belt. Who needed to these days? Wow, that was a lot of blood. Was any of it hers? The knowing, and the not knowing, frightened her more then the rush of the accident. She felt her throat starting to constrict.

You don't have time, a part of her that had been watching told her rather chillily. Think! Is anything burning? Can you smell any smoke?

She sniffed cautiously at the inside of the car.

"No," she told herself.

Wow. Good. Then get out of the car!

"My arm's broken," she said plaintively.

Well, we know how to fix that don't we?

"Curaga!"

The spell coursed through her numb body like a warming spirit on a cold day, knitting flesh together her mind hadn't known was torn. A cloudy feeling lifted from her mind, and beside her Karlin's ragged breathing sounded suddenly louder. He was hanging loosely from the harness of his belt. She saw that bone bulged where it shouldn't, and felt some of the blood pooling in her head quit her cheeks.

"Regen!"

He'll be fine. Where is that 'bot now? You need to get. Out. Of. The. Car.

She fumbled for her belt and heard it click open. Then she dropped with a squelch onto the car roof. She didn't look at the front seats. The right door had buckled out in the middle, and the window glass splintered with it, leaving wicked curved shards sticking out of the frame.

"Protect!"

She leaned back and wrapped her arms around the headrests on either side of her, then kicked out, once, twice, three times. The glass cracked, and then splintered away. She drew her foot carefully away, and crouched to shuffle up to the opening. Gingerly she put her head and arms through, and slid forward.

Glass crunched underfoot, somewhere to her right. Half in, half out of the car, Ellone turned her head. A figure, suited in bright orange, stood not three feet away. Something that looked like a bulky gaming-console pistol, with a cheap plastic handgrip, dangled negligently from one rubber-gloved hand. Tazer. Set into the rebreather mask, IR goggles watched her impassively.

Fixed together with the helmet, it looked, she thought dizzily, like someone wearing a post-modern death mask. She fixed the IR goggles with a deliberate stare.

"Don't do this," she told the plastic orbs. It was useless, but she had to try. The figure made two smart steps away from her. Clearing the field of fire for someone behind her she realized.

"Thunda-"

The world exploded into shades of red and blue.

5:57 am:

The gunman pulled the pin and rolled the grenade into the wreck and raced away, counting down. A red van tore past, its driver undoubtedly on the portable to the authorities. Behind him came a roar, a flash, and a hot sucking sensation as the air was super-heated by the fireball leaving the car. Even the tramp of the gutterbot's feet, as the machine was released to run amok among the morning traffic, was drowned out by the soundwave. The gunman reached the sewer-hole where the others had already lowered the body of the Speaker into its sludgy depths, and flung himself down after them. The manhole cover was pulled quickly over the hole of daylight and locked into place with a swift twist.

Snick.