Nathan Driscoll looked up and noticed that one of the suns had gone out.
He stepped back, his hands greasy with gore and his nostrils full of the scent of burned flesh, and watched as an evac team carried away the injured soldier he had been tending, and then loaded him into a waiting air-ambulance. The medbox units that had once been an integral part of the ambulance's interior had long since been stripped out, so the soldier's stretcher was instead slotted into one of several brackets, the rest of them already occupied by other injured men and women.
Nathan studied the pattern of dim red balls that clung to the coreship's curving ceiling, a dozen kilometres above the city of Ascension, his breath frosting the air. He couldn't work out precisely which of the thousands of fusion globes had just failed, but he had sensed the sudden, marginal drop in ambient light; the world had just become a little bit darker than it already was. He pulled his scarf tighter around his neck in a futile attempt to counter the biting cold.
He brought his gaze back down, and in that moment saw her.
A group of refugees - perhaps a dozen men, women and children in all - was making its way past the ruined façade of a mall about half a block away. Probably they'd been forced to abandon their homes as the fighting between the Consortium and Peralta's terroristas spread along the banks of First Canal. Despite the half-light, Nathan had spotted a woman with long brown hair gathered up in a band, her terrified features smeared with dirt.
It was only the briefest of glimpses, but his heart leapt nonetheless.
Almost as soon as he'd spotted her, a cadence of ground-rattling thumps heralded the return of a four-legged rover-unit from the battle, troopers clinging to its sides while the most seriously injured were lifted on to pallets mounted on top of the rover itself. Nathan rushed forward, with the other two volunteer medics, and helped to load the wounded into another air-ambulance that had dropped to the fractured tarmac almost as soon as the previous one had lifted off.
Nathan began to doubt himself, even as he worked. It had been the merest, most fleeting glimpse: only part of her face had been visible. She had been wrapped up in layers of clothing, a rag pulled tight around her neck to ward off the plummeting temperatures; because, ever since the Shoal had abandoned them, the temperature had dropped even as the light failed. It didn't take a genius to realize the coreship was dying.
Nathan pulled himself up inside the second air-ambulance, along with Kellogg and the other new volunteer whose name he'd already forgotten. The ambulance's jets began to whine, preparing for take-off, but his mind was on other things.
He was almost certainly mistaken, of course, as he imagined he saw Ilsa everywhere he looked: in the faces of the troopers and volunteer aid workers, or among the refugees who vastly outnumbered them all; or the corpses that had come to fill the streets and canals as the fighting intensified.
But then again, this might have been her. It might have been Ilsa. If he could find her ... if she was still alive ...
Nathan hopped back down from the open rear of the ambulance. He could see no sign of the refugees, but he guessed they were heading for the shores of the canal. His fluorescent plastic waistcoat - meant to identify him clearly as a non-combatant - flapped around his waist in the backwash from the jets.
'Nathan!' Kellogg bellowed down at him. 'What the fuck do you think you're doing?'
Nathan looked up, shook his head. 'I saw someone I know,' he yelled over the noise.
More than likely the refugees intended to wade across the canal under cover of darkness, since the bridges were frequently targeted. If they could get to the other side, they had a chance at escaping the worst of the fighting.
'Nathan, get the fuck back in!' Kellogg yelled again. 'Once this thing goes, it goes!'
'I'll find my own way back,' Nathan replied, and started to jog away, heading towards the canal. Kellogg yelled something else, but the words were lost as the ambulance's VTOL jets lifted it high above the ground. It tipped its nose in the direction of Third Canal and northwest, and began to accelerate.
The streetlights had been down ever since Peralta had targeted the city's primary fusion reactor systems. Nathan stripped off his waistcoat and shoved it deep inside a pile of rubble.
He jogged on past the ruined mall and kept going, squinting into the deep shadows as he went. He alternated between running and walking until he finally arrived exhausted at the banks of First Canal several minutes later. His bones ached, and more than ever he felt the slow onslaught of late middle age.
Nathan crossed the street and peered down the embankment at the black waters. The dark shapes of bodies drifted by, carried along by the artificial tide. Ice had formed on either side of the canal, and he squinted up and down its length until he sighted a huddle of dark shapes moving along the path at the foot of the slope, maybe fifty metres away.
Nathan slipped and skidded down the steep stone facing of the embankment until he reached the path they were on. Some of the refugees were already braving the ice and the freezing cold to wade across the slow-moving waters.
'Hey!' he yelled, waving as he came towards them.
Several turned and shouted out in fear, assuming, in the dim light, that he must be one of Peralta's soldiers. A few more threw themselves further into the water and started swimming frantically.
Nathan slowed down and raised his hands. Their faces, even in the faint light, were clouded with terror and suspicion. 'I'm not with Peralta or anyone else,' he yelled. 'I'm just looking for somebody. I thought she might be ... '
Then he moved a step closer and saw her: an angular woman with brown hair, her eyes dulled by fatigue. It wasn't Ilsa, though. Now he could see her more clearly, he could only wonder how he might have made such a mistake.
'What the hell are you doing, running straight at us like that!' one of them demanded, his face looking bruised and ugly in the dim light, fists bunched in readiness at his sides. Like the rest, he wore several layers of extra clothing to try and keep the cold out, the topmost layers already ragged and worn.
'I'm sorry, I-'
Bright light suddenly flared down on them. Nathan crouched instinctively, and squinted up the embankment towards several figures that had suddenly appeared there, silhouetted by arc lights mounted on top of a rover. He heard one of the refugees mutter the word terrorista, but Nathan knew these new arrivals were Consortium troopers.
Some of the troopers quickly made their way down a series of steps leading to the waterside path, their weapons held up in readiness against their shoulders. The rover came closer to the rim of the embankment, its blunt, instrument-shrouded head swinging slowly from side to side, scanning the environment constantly for threats. Its brilliant light shone down on the filthy waters, illuminating the bloated shapes of the dead.
One of the troopers came up close, pushing her visor up to reveal a small round face, a lick of dirty blonde hair pushing out from under her heavy black helmet. Karen, he realized with a shock. Sergeant Karen Salk, his sometime lover.
She grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the rest of the refugees, who had finally realized they weren't in immediate danger. The rest of the squad kept their weapons raised regardless; terroristas had a habit of hiding amongst those fleeing from the fighting.
A military transport of similar design to the air-ambulances dropped down towards the road that ran parallel to the top of the embankment.
'Kellogg said you'd run off in the middle of a fucking combat zone!' Karen shouted at him. 'I mean, what the fuck was going through your head'
Nathan found he couldn't frame an answer, so he remained mute as she tugged him towards the steps, and the beckoning lights of the transport waiting above.
Several minutes and a dozen kilometres later, the same transport dropped down towards a camp that spilled out along the streets lining both sides of Third Canal. Smoke rose from clusters of tents and prefabs where a sea of refugees warded off the freezing cold by burning furniture and anything else combustible. These were the lucky ones, awaiting immediate evacuation; in the surrounding city, there were tens of thousands dying more slowly of starvation or freezing inside their homes.
The transport's lights picked out the landing pad on the roof of the clinic and began to drop towards it. Nathan glanced out of a window and saw in the distance the great flickering wall of energy that delineated the nearest perimeter of the coreship's human-habitable zone. Closer to hand loomed the black shape of one of the sky-pillars, a great, carved rock limb that was only one of hundreds supporting the coreship's outer crust.
'Hey. Nathan, you stupid bastard. Wake up. It's me. Karen.'
Within minutes of disembarking from the ambulance, he'd crawled on top of a spare trolley in the clinic, and passed out. He groaned and sat up, blinking in the harsh lights and rubbing at a sore spot on his arm.
Karen regarded him with a mixture of scorn and pity. She'd taken off her helmet and matte-black body armour and let her hair fall down to her shoulders. One of the doctors stood next to her, a dark-skinned woman in disposable paper clothing.
The clinic, unlike almost anywhere else currently in Ascension, was warm. The doctor leaned in towards Nathan and pulled one of his eyelids up, shining a bright light directly into his pupil.
'Seems okay,' she remarked, her voice brisk. She then took out a hypo and aimed it towards Nathan's arm, almost before he realized what she was doing.
'Hey!' he shouted, sliding off the trolley and out of her immediate reach.
The two women stared at him with almost identical expressions of exasperation.
'For God's sake, Nathan,' said Karen. 'Doctor Nirav is trying to help you.'
'Thanks, but I don't need any shots.'
'What, you fucking phobic or something?' she replied in a voice full of scorn.
'Command think Peralta's got his hands on some kind of nerve agent,' explained Nirav. 'That means everyone gets a shot, and we also take a blood and DNA sample at the same time. Everyone has to do it, no exceptions.'
Nathan glanced warily towards the doctor. 'Forget it. No samples of any kind, either.'
'Why the fuck not?' asked Karen.
'Sorry,' said the doctor, patting a pocket. 'Got that already while you were out cold. So how about you stop whining and take the shot now, so I don't have to get some of the guys from security to come here and hold you down while I give it to you anyway?'
He hesitated, and even thought about making a run for it and taking his chances outside before they could identify him from his DNA sample. But where could he go His work as a medic had given him a sobering overview of just how bad things were in the city; outside lay only a cold and hungry death.
Instead he nodded, and Nirav pressed something cold against his neck. There was a hiss and a sudden jolt of pressure against his skin, and then it was over.
A block of ice immediately settled into the pit of his stomach. It had only ever really been a matter of time before they worked out who he was, and there was literally nowhere he could run.
As Nirav departed, Karen folded her arms and studied him with a mixture of motherly concern and mild contempt. 'To be honest, Nathan, after the way you ran off back there, I was worried maybe you'd caught a whiff of that nerve gas and gone crazy. Who was it you said you saw?'
Nathan shook his head. 'I made a mistake.'
She sighed and reached out to tug him closer to her. 'How awake are you?'
She shook her head. 'Not the right answer,' she said, pushing a hand through his hair. 'It's been a long day, Nathan. Let's go back to my place.'
What Karen called 'her place' was a room in a commandeered administrative block on the other side of the main refugee camp. She had cleared it of most of its remaining furniture, whatever hadn't already been burned or looted, and had installed a spare cot from the clinic. Technically this was against the rules, but nobody seemed to care enough to enforce them. The illicit arrangement did have the advantage of giving her and Nathan some privacy.
A small portable heater glowed in the dark nearby, illuminating Karen's warm lithe body from behind her. Nathan slid his hands around her waist, then moved them up to cup her small breasts. Her tongue felt wet and salty as it licked against his lips. He felt himself stiffen, a wave of sudden, needful ardour washing over him.
She grinned and slithered expertly on top of him, quickly sliding him inside her. She was already wet. Her hands pressed down hard on his chest, the sensation almost painful, then she began to move, her hips grinding slowly.
Even the building's basement generators, augmented by their tiny heater unit, could not together quite keep the cold out, and soon he shivered, his skin prickling in the frigid air. He thought of the bodies he'd seen floating along the canal, picked out by the rover's unforgiving searchlights, and felt his ardour begin to fade.
'I'm not sure I can,' he muttered, and felt a sudden wave of fatigue wash over him. It had been, as she had said, a long day. 'Maybe we should try and get some sleep.'
'Shut up,' she said, her voice ragged, hands pressing ever more forcefully against his chest. 'Don't disobey the orders of a superior officer.'
I'm not in your fucking army, he thought. But he dutifully held on to her plump thighs and banished those images of death and decay from his mind, concentrating instead on the tumble of her hair across her shoulders and the moistness of her lips when she leaned down to kiss him. To his surprise it worked, and he listened to the increasing hoarseness of her breath just before she climaxed and came to a gasping halt. Her head tipped back, before she finally collapsed against his chest.
'Oh fuck, I needed that,' she moaned.
'You're welcome,' Nathan muttered. He glanced towards the window, where he could see the underside of a sky glowing a dull red.
Karen slid back down beside him and lay there for a few moments, her head resting on his shoulder. He sensed something else was on her mind and, after a few minutes of silence, she pushed herself up on one elbow and stared down at him.
'So who was she' she asked, regarding him with a serious intensity.
Nathan gazed at her blankly until he realized she meant Ilsa. 'What makes you think I was looking for a she?'
'Intuition.' Karen's expression softened a little and she smiled. 'I'm not saying you have to answer. I'm just curious.'
'Does it matter?'
'You know, Nathan, it doesn't take a genius to guess you're hiding something.' She rolled on to her back beside him and sighed. 'I guess there's never going to be a good time to tell you this.'
'Tell me what?'
'I'm being reassigned. They're sending several new expeditions into the rest of the coreship, and I've been asked to join one. We might even try to penetrate the command core this time round. It'll be a joint operation, undertaken with the surviving Skelites and Bandati in the other zones.'
'What are you hoping to find? The coreship is dead.' He'd seen external shots of the starship taken by the Legislate ships that arrived a few weeks after the Shoal had abandoned it. Almost all its drive-spines had been burned away as it escaped Night's End. Early hopes of finding a way to pilot it back to Consortium territory had been quickly dashed, but contact had now been made with races in the other environments, including one or two previously unknown to mankind.
Karen frowned. 'You understand what I'm saying, don't you?'
Nathan smiled and stroked her hair for what he guessed would likely be the last time. 'That we won't be seeing each other any more, is that it?'
'I wasn't sure how you'd react.'
'I think we both always knew a day like this was coming.' He looked inside himself and realized he wasn't lying. Life had been grim, desperately so for too long now, and their time together had helped keep him sane. 'No more chasing after General Peralta, then,' he added. 'You must be relieved.'
She scowled. 'Peralta's a dead man. He's never leaving Ascension alive. He must know it too, but he just keeps fighting.'
Nathan found himself wondering what she might think if she were to find out he had briefly been in Peralta's employ, and until a few months before. The warlord, faced with a stark choice between arrest and execution on the one hand and a slow, lingering death on the other, had demanded safe transportation off the coreship for himself and his inner circle, almost as soon as the first relief operations had arrived. The Consortium had other ideas, however, and Peralta had then made good on his threat to carry out attacks on refugees until he got exactly what he wanted.
Ilsa had been amongst the first to slip away from Peralta's compound under cover of night, and ever since he had made his own escape a few months later, he had been searching for her so they could find a way out of Ascension together. He had hoped his volunteer work on the ambulances would improve their chances of being lifted out of the coreship, once he'd found her.
'Unless he can find a way to mix in with the rest of the refugees, and slip past you,' Nathan suggested. He was careful to keep his voice casual.
'They scan everyone who goes through,' she replied, and yawned, pulling herself in closer to him. 'With DNA profiling, biometrics, the works. Don't you worry, there's no way in hell anyone gets on to a ship without us knowing exactly who they are.'
'That's good to know,' he muttered, staring up at the ceiling, wondering if Nirav had yet checked his DNA profile against the Legislate's security databases.
'Hey. Wake up.'
Nathan grumbled and shook his head, opening bleary eyes. He could tell it was dawn because the light outside the window was now marginally brighter than during the night. Karen was already sitting up, the thick grey blanket pulled up around her naked breasts.
Two men stood by the open door to the office, dressed the same as any other troopers except for the grey shoulder markings that identified them as internal security. They were armed with pulse-rifles.
'Ma'am,' one of them said to Karen, throwing her a salute but unable to hide the smirk on his face. 'Sorry to wake you, but we've got orders.'
'What goddamn orders' she snapped.
Nathan glanced down towards Karen's pistol, still in its holster and half-hidden under her tangled clothes, and decided his chances of surviving a shoot-out were minimal in the extreme.
'We're here to take Mr Whitecloud into custody,' said the trooper who'd spoken. 'The orders came from Representative Munn. You'll see they're marked highest priority.' He passed the credentials to her.
She scanned the papers for a moment before looking back up. 'Ty Whitecloud?' she asked, looking utterly confused. 'Who the hell is Ty Whitecloud?'
'He is, ma'am,' the trooper replied, nodding towards the man who had been calling himself Nathan Driscoll.
Karen turned to stare at him like she'd never set eyes on him before.