Excerpt: Crashing Heaven

Al Reynolds’ Crashing Heaven, published on June 18, has been described as cyberpunk for the 21st Century. With Earth abandoned, humanity resides on Station, an industrialised asteroid run by the sentient corporations of the Pantheon. Under their leadership a war has been raging against the Totality – ex-Pantheon AIs gone rogue.

With the war over, Jack Forster and his sidekick Hugo Fist, a virtual puppet tied to Jack’s mind and created to destroy the Totality, have returned home.

Labelled a traitor for surrendering to the Totality, all Jack wants is to clear his name but when he discovers two old friends have died under suspicious circumstances he also wants answers. Soon he and Fist are embroiled in a conspiracy that threatens not only their future but all of humanity’s. But with Fist’s software licence about to expire, taking Jack’s life with it, can they bring down the real traitors before their time runs out?

 

Crashing HeavenStation’s equivalent of the internet is the weave. It’s fully pervasive augmented reality, overlaying everything everyone sees with personalised virtual content. Jack’s been offweave since his return to Station. Here’s where he goes back onweave again, stepping back into the unreal world that he’s been exiled from for seven long years…

 

At first, it seemed that nothing was changing. Then the soft darkness began to lose something of its density. Dawn was dusting the city with presence, pulling definition into being. As it emerged from the gloom, Fist unveiled the first, most basic component of the weave: the grid that lay over the city, providing a spatial reference point for every single active weavepoint. Straight white lines threw themselves across Docklands, imposing horizontal and vertical regularity on urban chaos. Pale grey lines leapt up from the corner of each square, striating cylindrical airspace into an infinity of cubes.

[What scale are we on, Fist?]

[Ten by ten metres. The spatial mapping goes right down to millimetres. But if I showed you those gridlines, you’d see nothing else.]

[Fair enough.]

[Now, locations. I’m assuming you just want to see the major ground tags? I can show you descriptors for all the cubes – but the data’s so dense, you wouldn’t see anything past thirty or forty metres away…]

[Just the tags, Fist. And street-level detail, nothing more defined than that.]

Where there had been a vista, there was suddenly content. Red and yellow lines streaked across Docklands, parsing space. Letters danced into words, defining streets, squares, neighbourhoods, buildings and stations. A patchwork of colours leapt across the landscape, shouting information into the gathering day. They flowed from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, shifting shade with each one, turning the city into a vast artist’s palette.

[That’s lovely,] Jack told Fist. [Now let’s see the people too.]

[What level of detail?]

[The basics.]

[I’ll break them down by sex – red for men, blue for women.]

[Show me the sweatheads, too.]

[OK – black for them. Minimum scale. One pixel, one person.]

Fist waved his hand and the great patchwork before them was dusted with tiny dots. Many of the red and blue pixels were clumped in residential areas. Many were still in bed, or at least at home. Some were already travelling to work. Streets were lightly spotted with red and blue. Trains showed as moving lines of colour, leaping between the long, thin scatterings that were station platforms.

[They’ll be rammed when it comes to rush hour,] said Fist. [Squashed in like squishies!]

[Fist!]

[And all those sweatheads!]

The town was speckled with black. Most were clumped together in little groups.

[Still asleep in their factories,] said Jack.

[Factories?]

[The places where they hide and drop sweat together. That’s what they’re called.]

[Aren’t sweatheads dangerous when they’re high?]

[Not if you leave them alone. InSec keep them out of the way.]

A few of the black dots were beginning to move towards train stations and major roads.

[The early degenerate catches the worm!] chirped Fist. [I wonder if we can see Akhmatov?]

[I thought you’d completely anonymised him.]

[I left some personal tags on him.]

Fist’s eyes clacked shut in concentration. [There he is!] he said, pointing up and to the right. A white circle highlighted a black dot on a small residential street. [He’s in the back room of a café.]

[I wonder if someone can see him? I thought you said he’d be invisible.]

[They’re still closed, Jack. Perhaps he’s broken in there to shelter.]

[He’s just a distraction. We’ve got the basics up and running. Trip the entertainment and commercial layer.]

A shotgun blast of logos punched themselves into being. With them came the howl of a thousand advertising jingles, a visual and aural cacophony carving into Jack’s mind like a punch. Jack doubled over in pain, eyes tight shut, hands going to his ears.

‘FIST!’ he screamed.

[Shit! Sorry!] The roar of commerce subsided as quickly as it had begun. [I forgot to put the limiters on.]

[Gods’ sake, Fist. Nobody looks at it all at once.] Jack opened his eyes, pulled his hands from his ears and shook his head. Now there was just a hubbub. The world bustled with icons and animations and words and music. Chain logos repeated themselves across the city. Slices of pizza danced on fat little legs, coffee mugs fluttered on glossy brown wings and an idealised market stallholder sung about his wares. If Jack focused on a particular logo it would expand to fill about a quarter of his field of vision. If he waited a second or two more, details of special offers would sing out from it.

[I’d forgotten how much I hated that.]

[I’ll sort it.]

[You can block it?]

[Most people couldn’t, but I can!]

The logos became less hyperactive.

[I’m sure there weren’t so many when I left,] sighed Jack.

[Is that really a pole-dancing hamburger?]

[I’m afraid so.]

[Your human cultural achievements never fail to amaze me.]

[The void sites have come online too.]

[They sit in the marketing layer? Wow.]

Children’s faces hung over the city, monochrome memories of the lost. The images reset every thirty seconds or so, one sad face melting into the next. Sometimes a word would flash up – ‘Remember’, for example, or ‘Innocent’ or ‘Gone’.

[Depressing,] said Fist glumly.

[They’re meant to be. Let’s have the social feeds.]

[OK…]

The geography of Docklands implied social networks. Interconnected engagement webs exploded across the landscape, making them visible. Informal groupings throbbed busily, as people entered their first status updates of the day and caught up with friends across the city. Dormant corporate networks shimmered through and beyond them. Soon they too would wake to life. Some would converge into rich, dense clumps, as employees settled into offices, factories, or shops. Some would remain stretched across the city, virtual businesses whose employees worked in a close digital proximity that made distance irrelevant. Some would pull workers out of Docklands entirely, into the Wart or Homelands. And some would leap into the void, clambering up the Spine to the wharves or beyond.

[What’s everyone saying?] asked Jack.

The morning’s babble rose up around him. It was difficult to separate the messages. Excited voices shrilled joy at a new dawn, a new partner, even just an excellent cup of coffee, while the less perky dreaded the upcoming working day, bitched about waking up alone again, or bemoaned hangovers.

[They’re all soooo mundane,] groaned Fist.

[It’s what people do. It’s just as important as the big stuff.]

[It’s pointless. What’s next?]

[Show me the Pantheon.]

[You want to look at the gods? They’ll look right back at you.]

[I trust your security arrangements, Fist.]

[I’ll call them. They might be hard to damp at first. Close your eyes.]

[Fist…]

[No, really.]

Jack shut his eyes, and the world vanished. For a moment the hubbub of morning voices filled his ear, then that too died away. A breeze sang through the metal that surrounded him. Then a great flash broke in the sky, bright even through closed eyes. A deep, loud industrial hum shook itself into being. It sounded like a choir of machines chanting in a metal church.

[Containing the signal, Jack.]

The hum became a roar and then softened, modulating into a background throb that was almost gentle. There were eleven more flashes of light. Each was accompanied by a pulse of noise that Fist contained, again and again coming to terms with the numinous.

[How’s it going?] asked Jack.

[Difficult to manage their outputs without feeding back our signatures, but it’s just about done. There – open your eyes!]

The world had changed. The Spine had been replaced by six great icons of the divine, representing each of the Pantheon. Only two appeared remotely human. There was Kingdom with his shaven head and East, looking reliably dazzling. She appeared in full figure, her clothes shimmering as they shifted and changed with the fashion whims of the moment. The Eastware in Jack’s mind responded to her presence, until Fist hushed it. For a moment Jack was at one with entire monasteries of her followers, solemnly hymning her dazzling style.

Then, there were the more abstract deities. The Rose’s petals were as violently red as they’d always been but the sharp green thorns partially hidden beneath them were entirely new. Sandal’s crystal cube rotated as slowly and deliberately as ever. The Twins were represented by a great set of constantly moving scales. First one side was in the ascendant, then the other. And of course, there was Grey.

He was a fallen god, no longer capable of acting as a free agent. But his corporate structures had not yet been fully absorbed by his competitors. Thousands of people still needed to use his apps, access data held on his servers, or call in other ways on his strategic and financial services. So his raven was still present, though it now made his broken status humiliatingly clear. A great iron band ran around its body, holding its wings tight to its sides. A silver chain glittered around its legs, and then ran up to its beak, holding it shut. A rag was tied around its head, covering its eyes. It had also been stripped of any animation.

[That’s sad to see,] said Jack. [It used to be so alert.]

The bird’s gaze had once constantly flickered back and forth across Docklands, tracking every single commercial transaction.

[They’re… huge, Jack.]

[You get used to them. After a while, you stop taking much notice.]

[I can’t imagine that,] breathed Fist.

 

Crashing Heaven is published by Gollancz, and can be ordered from Amazon.co.uk here

 

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