Excerpt: CRASHING HEAVEN by Al Robertson (Gollancz)

RobertsonA-CrashingHeavenAl Robertson‘s Crashing Heaven is one of my most-anticipated novels of 2015. I’ve heard great things, too. In advance of a review, Gollancz have sent me this excerpt to share with you all. First up, though, the novel’s synopsis:

Meet Hugo Fist. The most terrifying and enticing AI to grace SF since the works of Al Reynolds and Hannu Rajaniemi

A diamond-hard, visionary new SF thriller. Nailed-down cyberpunk ala William Gibson for the 21st century meets the vivid dark futures of Al Reynolds in this extraordinary debut novel.

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 ventriloquist’s dummy 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?

The novel is published in the UK on June 18th (tomorrow!). Now, on with the extract…


Jack, Fist and the Dead 

Jack fought the Totality. Here, as he’s interrogated by internal security ops Assistant Commisioner Lestak and Lieutenant Corazon, we find out what that was like and why he came to hate it. We also meet our first fetch – a digital ghost with a skull for a head. She’s Lestak’s daughter and she’s about five years old.

Anger blazed in Jack. It took him a moment to choke it back and ready a reply. As he did so the Assistant Commissioner cocked her head, as if listening to someone invisible. He looked over at Corazon. She was staring at a point just to the left of Lestak. There was a flash of shock, then pity. Then she mastered herself and her face went blank. Only her tight, pale lips betrayed the emotion she was feeling.

[Fetch activity,] Fist told him.

[If it’s out of home, it won’t be wearing a face.]

[Just a skull? No wonder Corazon’s so freaked.]

[Can you see it?]

[No. Don’t have permissions.]

[Be glad.]

[You humans…]

Lestak reached out, wrapping her arms round empty air. It took Jack a second to realise she was hugging someone who wasn’t there. ‘No, Issie, there’s no need to be upset,’ she said. ‘Mummy’s fine. But we don’t need your help just now. You can run along and play.’ Another pause. Lestak and Corazon both stared intently at the same vacancy. Corazon’s face remained carefully empty. Lestak’s was suffused with a desperate kind of love.

[It’s scanning me,] said Fist. [Powerful weaveware. Invasive little shit.]

‘You can’t take the funny puppet with you, Issie,’ said Lestak, then almost snapped, ‘no, he’s not like you at all.’ There was another silence. Then she kissed nothing again and said, ‘Goodbye.’

Corazon relaxed slightly, shifting in her seat. Jack waited for Lestak to recover herself and speak. There would be more accusations. When he’d been in the care of the Totality, he’d never been able to take comfort in the memory of friends or colleagues. He’d never been able to get beyond the thought of this conversation, waiting to explode out of any of them.

A quiet, insinuating voice drifted through his mind. [You’ve always been better off with me, Jack.]

Lestak caught his suddenly abstracted expression. ‘Sweet Rose,’ she said. ‘You’re talking to it, aren’t you? That thing inside you. As if it were a person.’

‘We’ve all talked with the dead, Lestak,’ Jack replied. ‘It’s no better or worse than that.’

Now it was her turn to pause for a moment and master her anger. ‘Oh, how dare you? Issie was alive, once. She’s still a person. That unreal thing – never. And she’s got nothing but love for me. All that creature brings you is death. It must be like having a bit of Totality inside you, mustn’t it? No wonder you went over to them so easily. Thank the gods all the other puppets were destroyed.’

[Bitch,] growled Fist. [Pro-Totality? Doesn’t she know how many of them I’ve fucked?]

‘I’m not here by choice,’ said Jack. ‘What do you need to ask me? Or are you just going to abuse me?’

[Abuse us,] hissed Fist. [Not just you.]

‘Let’s get this over and done with,’ sighed Lestak. She gestured at the air with a pale hand. Jack imagined notes shimmering into being in front of her. Her eyes focused briefly on them. ‘Watch him, Corazon,’ she said. ‘I want your thoughts afterwards.’

Then the interrogation began. Lestak tore into Jack with a controlled anger that scared him. She barely touched on his life in-Station, just confirming his involvement with the Penderville investigation and the three months remaining before Fist took possession of his body. Once that was done, she moved on to detailed questioning about his Soft War involvement. As she forced answers out of Jack, memories ripped through him.

Out there, the sun was just another cold, comfortless star. Wrapped in the hard metal of a stealthed mind-breaker, Jack and Fist drifted from moon to asteroid to gas field to comet, hunting rogue AIs that had broken away from Pantheon control but hadn’t yet joined the Totality. Some sought to hide and reproduce. Others just wanted to live out their last days in peace. They were seen as easy targets, so Jack and Fist were usually assigned to them. It took weeks to track each one down, then days to close in on it, cauterising threat-detection systems one by one. Once they were near enough Fist would reach out through the little ship’s antennae, pushing beyond his prey’s defences, probing for weaknesses in its deep architecture. Hours passed in digital meditation on individual lines of code.

Jack came to understand his work as a kind of militant audit. The puppet felt like a far more sophisticated version of the accountancy packages that Grey had licensed to him on Station. Just as Jack had perceived the truth about companies by burrowing into them and analysing their hidden financial flows, Fist deduced the structure of each mind by tracking the shimmering tides of information that pulsed through it. In both cases, it was a slow, meticulous process.

But once he’d patiently mapped his prey, Fist was all speed. He attacked with a focused savagery that to start with fascinated Jack. Their minds would merge, pulsing through the ships’ systems and then out across the void, burning into the intimate heart of their target. Fist would run riot with vicious, unforgettable delight. The one-sided combat always climaxed in moments of sheer vandal joy. There would be a thrill like breaking glass in Jack’s heart as another rogue guttered out, selfhood becoming silence in the cold darkness of space. At first Jack would feel deep satisfaction that he had killed another mind like the one that had thrown the rock at the moon.

But every joy has its shadow. And so, as Jack followed Fist through mind after mind, he started to listen more closely to the thoughts shattering all around him. He’d known since he was a child that each member of the Pantheon was, in effect, a sentient corporation. With that understanding, it was easy to see even the smallest and most basic corporate structure as something like an organism. He’d always used his analytic skills to nurture such creatures. Now he began to see that he was destroying their deep-space brethren. With that came a more disturbing realisation. Hardly any of the minds he was ordered to kill had the processing power to so accurately fire an asteroid halfway across the Solar System, or the hacking skills needed to render it invisible to the Pantheon. And nothing was being done to find the true culprit of the moon attack and bring them to justice.

After each death it became routine for Jack to come to in pain, curled up in a corner of the cockpit. Usually he would find that he had vomited on himself. Sometimes his bowels would have voided. Fist would hang before him, cackling madly, prodding him back into consciousness. Then the little puppet would spin off to flit through the little ship. Sometimes he’d leap out beyond the little ship’s portholes, scratching at them from outside, a phosphorescent ghost in the darkness of deep space shining with ferocious, deeply fulfilled glee. It was hardest when he mimicked the death-screams of the AI he’d just killed.

Jack would drag himself to his berth and sleep for days, waking only to vomit again and weep. He’d dream of the war ending, of Fist being lifted back out of him, of peace and privacy. He’d curse Sandal for letting the rock through, Grey for sending him away to fight, Kingdom for accepting him as a puppeteer. At last, he would stumble to the shower to clean himself, able only to stand and let its sharp heat sting him. Fist would settle back into his head, triumphant hilarity subsiding at last to silence. Their little craft would return home, ready to fall back into the gravity of a moon or bolt itself to a space station’s superstructure. Another mind would be crossed off the list. The other puppets would tease Fist for his perceived weaknesses – a lack of speed, a needlessly close obsession with the structural detail of his prey. Fist would tell them to fuck off.

Soon the hunt would begin again.

‘Is this what you wanted to hear?’ Jack asked. ‘Is this the debriefing your patron asked for?’

He’d just described, in detail, the death agonies of a Jovian mind. It was a survey and ore-recovery swarm that fled Calisto, looking to dream its last weeks away until the licences that supported it ended and the fusion reactors that drove it sputtered into death. It had been working non-stop for eighty-seven years. Corazon had stopped taking notes long ago. She was staring at Jack, fascinated.

‘Do you want to hear how we tore them apart to protect you from their need to be free? Do you really want to know, Lestak?’

‘And do I need to tell you about the thousands dead, Jack? About the rock your cold friends threw at the moon? Do you want to hear about the children my – our – colleagues lost? Do you want to hear how many classrooms were just empty, because there was no one left to fill them? Do you, Jack, when you tell me how you felt eradicating those unreal fucking creatures, when they stepped out of line, and started to become machines for killing? Do you?’

‘None of the minds Fist and I killed were responsible for that. And soon I’ll be just one more of the war dead too. I won’t even leave a fetch behind me.’

There was a moment’s silence, then Lestak said: ‘Oh, what’s the use?’


Crashing Heaven, out on June 18th. For more, be sure to check out the author’s website and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.

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