This is a work of fiction.

Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2013 by Alastair Reynolds All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Broadway Paperbacks, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Broadway Paperbacks and its logo, a le er B bisected on the diagonal, are trademarks of Random House, Inc. This edition published by arrangement with BBC Books, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, a division of the Random House Group Limited, London. Doctor Who is a BBC Wales production for BBC One. Executive producers: Steven Moffat and Caroline Skinner. BBC, DOCTOR WHO, and TARDIS (word marks, logos, and devices) are trademarks of the British Broadcasting Corporation and are used under license. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request. ISBN 978-0-385-34680-1 eISBN 978-0-385-34681-8 Printed in the United States of America Editorial director: Albert DePetrillo Series consultant: Justin Richards Project editor: Steve Tribe Cover design: Two Associates © Woodlands Books Ltd. 2013 Production: Alex Goddard 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 First Edition


The worst machine in the universe was a marble-grey box no larger than a coffin or shipping trunk. Its base was wider and longer than its lid, so that the sides had a slight cant to them. Three of the sides were blank, save for that marbling. The fourth, one of the two ends, had an angled console jutting out from it. The console’s upper surface was set with a square matrix of white controls, each of which had been embossed with a precise black symbol in an alien alphabet. There were 169 controls, 169 different symbols, and the Red Queen’s people understood about 75 of them. The rest had eluded their best scientists for centuries. The Red Queen regarded the machine as possessing a quality of intrinsic malevolence. If anything could be said to be evil, it was this device. Yet she could not afford to ignore its transformative power. Of all the potent technologies recovered from the Consolidator, the ghost ship that had fallen into orbit around her adopted world, this was by far the most important and seductive. The machine was called the Infinite Cocoon. It was fitting. ‘The volunteers are ready, ma’am.’ The Red Queen – her full title was Her Imperial Majesty Uxury Scuita – nodded at the aide who had scuttled up to her


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throne to deliver this information. Like all Praxilions – like all the native creatures of this world she ruled – the aide was a furry caterpillar, a pipe-cleaner bent into an upright ‘L’. Its canine head reached the level of her knees when she was on the throne. The little Praxilions had many limbs, differentiated for function, and red and white longitudinally striped fur that made her think of toothpaste and seaside amusements. They smelled like sweet shops and perfume counters. ‘Remind them again that they don’t have to do this.’ ‘They know that, ma’am.’ ‘Nonetheless, tell them again. Let there be no doubt.’ Without asking for assistance, the Red Queen pushed herself to her feet. She reached for the sceptre she kept clipped to the chair’s side, using it as a walking stick as she made her hobbling way down the set of stone stairs at the throne’s base. Praxilion aides skittered around her anxiously, ready to catch her should she fall. ‘I’ll be all right,’ she muttered. ‘Allow me a moment on my own, then bring the volunteers in.’ The evening air was cool on her private balcony. She waited until the door was shut behind her, then made her way to the ballustrade, sceptre clicking on the hard stone flooring. Her right hand gripped the gold-crusted sphere screwed into the top of the sceptre. She rested the other on the balcony’s rail. It was a long way down, but she had always had a head for heights. She thought of the sea, roiling far below, on a similar evening. But there was no sea visible from the imperial palace; they were too far inland for that. Praxilion was a beautiful world, especially at twilight. Gently rolling hills, purple in the gathering gloom, ferried her eye to the pink-hazed horizon. Here and there, like clumps of pale frogspawn, were Praxilion villages and hamlets. She had grown accustomed to their alien architecture over the years, with its blobby preponderance of domes and small, igloo-like dwellings. It almost looked homely. They had been good to her, the Praxilions.


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There. Her eye caught the rising spark of the Consolidator, climbing from the west. It was difficult to miss, being the only large thing in orbit. A ship as large as a small country, older than the very world it encircled – and one that her people had barely begun to explore, despite six thousand years of trying. They had done well, given the difficulties. The technologies and materials they had already extracted from the Consolidator’s less impregnable vaults had accelerated Praxilion’s industrial revolution to a tremendous degree. But there was so much more waiting to be brought down, if only they could get at it. And yet each new item seemed to cost them more than the last. The Axumillary Orb had taken a dozen lives to bring it into her grasp. Dozens more had been lost trying to understand the thing’s safety mechanisms, which had been carefully locked when the fabled weapon was placed aboard the Consolidator. No wonder she kept it close at hand. Twice as many Praxilions had been lost bringing out the Infinite Cocoon – and many, many more had gone to their deaths by volunteering to test the machine itself. It was late in the evening. The galaxy was old. Its stars had been through many generations of birth, exhaustion and rebirth. Praxilion astronomers had surveyed these ailing, metal-clotted suns and found scant signs of intelligence beyond their own world. But the records extracted from the Consolidator spoke of a different era. A bright, teeming period, when the galaxy held court to countless species, countless cultures. A period when even the ultimate barrier, time itself, had been shattered. The Epoch of Mass Time Travel, or the EMTT. A time of wonder and miracles. The Praxilions were haunted by a terrible sense that they had come too late to the party. But the Consolidator offered a glimmer of hope. Somewhere in the ship, so their intelligence led them to believe, was the secret of time travel – a fully functioning time-portal device. The Praxilions dreamed of


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forging a connection between their world and the distant past – a rejuvenating umbilical. It was a good and noble ambition, the Red Queen thought. It would have been even better if it had not required the use of the Infinite Cocoon. She returned inside. The volunteers were assembled next to the waiting machine, together with a small cadre of nervous technicians. The lid of the machine was open – it had slid off to the side, appearing to support itself along one edge. A greenish-yellow glow shone upwards from the open casket, illuminating the high-flung arches of the imperial palace. The Red Queen walked to the machine’s side. She leaned her weight onto the sceptre. ‘I’m getting old,’ she said. ‘You all know this. I was younger when I came to your world, but that was thousands of years ago. Drugs and stasis have slowed the march of years, but they have not stopped it completely. The Consolidator would probably recognise me as a humanoid, were I to go aboard it. But there is just one of me, and I am far too frail to be much use up there. I am but a weak and feeble woman, as someone once said. That is why we have called for volunteers. That is why you are here, before the Infinite Cocoon. The people of Praxilion thank you for your courage. But you do not have to go through with this. There will always be others willing to take your place, and there will be no shame in turning away now.’ ‘I am ready,’ said the first volunteer. ‘Good,’ the Red Queen said, studying the naked creature. They all looked the same to her, Praxilions, and divested of their belts and harnesses and armour were all but impossible to tell apart. Furry, friendly looking tubes of red and white, like draught excluders. ‘And what is your name?’ The Praxilion said: ‘We are Ver.’ They had three sexes, which even now the Red Queen had difficulty in distinguishing. Females, males, and a gender that


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translated, perhaps imperfectly, as ‘sculptor’. ‘Very well, Ver,’ she said. ‘Whatever happens from now on, you have the thanks of your people, your world, and me. We take none of this lightly. Are you ready for the Infinite Cocoon?’ ‘I am ready,’ the brave creature answered. ‘Do you understand the risks? That, even if the transformation is successful, it cannot be guaranteed that the process is reversible? You may have to spend the rest of your existence shaped like me?’ ‘I understand.’ ‘We will of course do our best. You have that promise.’ ‘Thank you, your Imperial Majesty.’ ‘Then we shall begin.’ The Red Queen nodded at the technicians. Four of them moved around Ver and lifted the Praxilion from the ground, then deposited their charge in the waiting interior of the Infinite Cocoon. ‘Good luck, Ver,’ she said. The technicians shuffled back on their many legs. Two of them moved to the console at the end of the machine. ‘We’re ready,’ one of them said. ‘Proceed.’ The technicians did something. The Infinite Cocoon’s lid began to slide shut, squeezing the greenish-yellow light down to a narrow bar, then eclipsing it completely. The box was sealed. It began to hum and gurgle. ‘Support medium entering the cavity,’ said one of the technicians. ‘All indications nominal.’ The white buttons were lighting up and going dim, in complicated fashion. The technicians responded to these changes calmly, but with great haste and seriousness. It took two of them, and they both needed to use three sets of upperbody manipulators. It was like a cross between brain surgery and speed chess.


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‘Commencing metabolic breakdown,’ reported the other technician. ‘Digestion proceeding along normal pathways.’ ‘Compensating for variance in absorption equilibrium,’ stated the other. ‘Stabilising… confirmed. Outer tissue and muscle mass now losing coherence.’ ‘Skeletal structure growing diffuse. Peripheral nervous system now fully attenuated. Tracking core neural functions.’ There was a question she had always meant to ask at this point. Was the subject conscious? Was the subject aware of what was happening to them, what might yet happen? The relatively few volunteers who had endured the Infinite Cocoon came through with puzzlingly different reports. Some were adamant that there had been a continuity of experience, an unbroken chain from the moment the lid closed to the moment it opened. That they had maintained a thread of narrowing awareness even as they were reduced to a kind of soup. Others spoke of no such continuity. It had been like falling asleep, or drowning, or being smothered in warm wet clay. Then there had been a nothingness, a kind of death, before the emergence, harrowing or otherwise. Sometimes they remembered their past lives. Not always. Perhaps it was best not to know. ‘Phase one metabolic breakdown complete. All indications normal. Beginning morphic patterning.’ The machine kept up its humming and gurgling. Beneath the lid was now nothing that resembled a Praxilion. A thing, in other words, not unlike the Red Queen herself. ‘Growth symmetries established. Tissue differentiation proceeding normally. Ready to accelerate patterning.’ One of the technicians raised a two-fingered hand. ‘Hold.’ The other technician glanced at the control matrix. ‘Phenotype template’s drifting. Try and lock it down.’ ‘What do you think I’m doing, for Praxil’s sake?’ Haste now became panicked urgency. There had been a coordination to their efforts before; now their six pairs of hands


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threatened to become tangled up, like pianists fighting over a grand piano. The buttons were lighting and dimming at a quickening rate, almost too fast for the Red Queen to track. The Praxilions had speedy reflexes, but even they had their limits. ‘Switch to procedure six!’ ‘I have! It didn’t work! We’re on seven now!’ ‘Not working either. Switch to eight.’ ‘Too risky!’ ‘You must! We’re already past the point of no return!’ The Red Queen’s grip on her stick tightened. The knot in her stomach had become a dark coiling horror. She had seen things go wrong before. It was very, very unusual for there to be a good outcome once this point was reached. The Infinite Cocoon was almost maliciously unforgiving. ‘Stabilising,’ one of the technicians reported. ‘I think we can bring it back!’ ‘Perhaps.’ The other sounded a cautious note. ‘Re-imposing initial contours.’ The Red Queen whispered at an aide. ‘What are they trying to do?’ ‘Trying to bring Ver back, I think. The morphic patterning failed, but if they can re-impose Praxilion anatomy…’ ‘I thought they were past the point of no return.’ ‘They were. A little. But if they can’t go forward…’ ‘We have it!’ called one of the technicians. ‘Partial morphic lock reacquired. Lock firming up! Praxil be blessed! Ver, hold on in there! We’ve got you!’ ‘Hold on,’ the Red Queen whispered. And in that moment her eyes met those of the other two volunteers, still waiting near the Infinite Cocoon. She nodded at them, sharing their concern. For an instant the barriers of species and rank were irrelevant. They were all thinking creatures and they wanted Ver to come through this. No matter if the attempt to impose human anatomy had failed; they just wanted brave little Ver to survive.


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‘Reconsolidating,’ one of the technicians said, the dance of lights on the console beginning to ease. ‘Biochemistry approaching Praxilion norms,’ said the other. ‘Ver is coming back!’ The Red Queen let out a sigh of thanks. So the Infinite Cocoon had chosen to be merciful today. It was nothing that could ever be counted on, but she was grateful. Even if her hatred of the thing only deepened, that it could be so viciously unpredictable. ‘Support medium draining away. Subject has regained full biological integrity.’ ‘Get the lid open,’ she called. ‘Now!’ Reluctantly, perhaps, the technicians hastened the process to completion. The machine stopped humming and gurgling. The lid began to slide aside. Yellow light flooded out of the widening gap. The Red Queen risked a step closer to the open machine. The technicians were peering in over the sides, straining their pipe-cleaner bodies to their maximum extension. She caught a flash of red and white within the box, a moving mass of bright coloured fur. A living, breathing form. Ver was back. Something sprang out of the box. It was a thin, tapering tentacle, striped like a barber’s pole. It curled itself around one of the technicians and hauled them into the air, over the lip of the Infinite Cocoon, into the box. The technician screamed. The others, for a moment, were too shocked to move. Then another tentacle shot out, and a third, and the Red Queen halted, knowing that something had gone appallingly wrong, as it so often did. Whatever had come back, it wasn’t Ver. A second technician was in the grip of the monster now, emitting a shrill note of pure terror, like a boiling kettle, even as its colleagues tried to grab onto it. And then a detachment of armed guards arrived, carrying gold stun rods that crackled


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with purple and lilac electrical discharges, and they looked to the Red Queen for her orders. ‘Kill it,’ she said. And so they did, plunging their stun rods down into the machine, poking and prodding, the thing in the machine making its own terrible sounds, a kind of protracted slurping, and after a few seconds of that the technician that had been caught was hurled out, visibly dead, and the second was released, sprawling back, its body twitching like an accordion, legs and arms thrashing in the air. It did not take long to kill the monster; it usually didn’t. Confined within the machine, disorientated, they were seldom able to put up much of a fight. But even now, the Red Queen could not say for certain which were the worse sort: the monsters that wanted to break out and kill everyone, like this one, or the ones that wanted only to die. ‘That was a bad one,’ she said, when the technicians had finished recording the remains and cleaned what had once been Ver out of the machine. ‘Almost the worst we’ve seen. I want a full report as to what went wrong, of course.’ Then she added, though it hardly needed to be said: ‘Poor Ver.’ ‘It will take some time to compile the report,’ one of the technicians said. ‘And even then, there probably won’t be much we can say for certain.’ ‘Do what you can. In the meantime, all volunteers are to be released from their obligations. No one should have to go through that.’ ‘And the time machine project?’ asked the other technician. ‘Suspended, until we can be sure of not doing that to anyone again.’ ‘We’ll never have that certainty,’ the first technician said glumly. ‘Your Majesty?’ It was one of the other volunteers speaking, one of the two that had been waiting.


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‘You are excused,’ she said, with a generous sweep of her hand. ‘You’ve proven your courage by coming this far. Go, return to your families. You owe Praxilion nothing.’ ‘We’d still like to go through with it,’ said the other. ‘We’ve been studying the statistics, and…’ ‘Technically, there’s an improved chance of success after a major failure,’ said the first volunteer. ‘And by anyone’s reckoning,’ the second said, ‘that has to count as a pretty major failure.’ ‘Did you know Ver?’ the Red Queen asked. ‘Ver was our friend. Ver would not have wanted Ver’s death to dissuade us,’ said the first. ‘Ver understood what a difference the time machine could make to Praxilion. We must have that technology. No matter the costs.’ ‘Ver’s bravery mustn’t be wasted,’ said the second forcefully. ‘The technicians aren’t to blame. We trust them. We are ready to take our chances with the Infinite Cocoon. We are ready to become like you.’ ‘And risk becoming something worse?’ she asked. ‘For Praxilion,’ they said in unison. The Red Queen looked down. Her instinct was to turn them away. They were courageous, it was true. But they also craved the glory that would come to anyone who managed to get far enough into the Consolidator to find the fabled time equipment. Fame, fortune, prestige beyond measure. For now, she suspected glory had the upper hand. The inescapable fact, though, was that sooner or later someone was going to have to get into the box again. ‘Your names?’ she asked. ‘We are Hox and we are Loi,’ they answered in unison. ‘Very well then, Hox and Loi. I commend your dedication. Which one of you wants to go first?’


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