The following excerpt is © 2007 Peter F. Hamilton, All Rights Reserved. Under no circumstances should this be copied, distributed or reproduced in any way.

CHAPTER ONE

Aaron spent the whole day mingling with the faithful of the Living Dream movement in Golden Park’s vast plaza, eavesdropping on their restless talk about the succession, drinking water from the mobile catering stalls, trying to find some shade from the searing sun as the heat and costal humidity rose relentlessly. He thought he remembered arriving at daybreak; certainly the expanse of marble cobbles had been virtually empty as he walked across it. The tips of the splendid white metal pillars surrounding the area had all been crowned with rose-gold light as the local star rose above the horizon. He’d smiled round appreciatively at the outline of the replica city, matching up the topography surrounding Golden Park with the dreams he’d gathered from the gaiafield over the last... well, for quite some time. Golden Park had started to fill up rapidly after that, with the faithful arriving from the other districts of Makkathran2 across the canal bridges and ferried in by a fleet of gondolas. By midday there must have been close to a hundred thousand of them. They all faced the Orchard Palace which sprawled possessively over the Anemone district on the other side of the Outer Circle canal like a huddle of high dunes. And there they waited and waited with badly disguised impatience for the Cleric Council to come to a decision. Any sort of decision. The Council had been in conclave for three days now, how long could they possibly take to elect a new Conservator?

At one point in the morning he’d edged his way right up beside the Outer Circle canal, close to the central wire and wood bridge that arched over to Anemone. It was closed, of course, as were the other two bridges on that section; while in ordinary times anyone from ultra-devout to curious tourist could cross over and wander round the vast Orchard Palace, today it had been sealed off by fit-looking junior Clerics who had undergone a lot of muscle enrichment. Camped out to one side of the temporarily forbidden bridge were hundreds of journalists from all over the Greater Commonwealth, most of them outraged by the stubborn refusal of Living Dream to leak information their way. They were easily identifiable by their chic modern clothes, and faces which were obviously maintained at peak gloss by a membrane of cosmetic scales; not even Advancer DNA produced complexions that good.

Behind them the bulk of the crowd buzzed about discussing their favourite candidate. If Aaron was judging the mood correctly, then just about ninety-five percent of them were rooting for Ethan. They wanted him because they were done with waiting, with patience, with the status quo preached by all the other lacklustre caretakers since the Dreamer himself, Inigo, had slipped away from public life. They wanted someone who would bring their whole movement to that blissful moment of fulfilment they’d been promised from the moment they’d tasted Inigo’s first dream.

Some time in the afternoon Aaron realized the woman was watching him. Nothing obvious, she wasn’t staring or following him about. Instinct smoothly clicked his awareness to her location without any doubt as to what she was doing –which was an interesting trait to know he had. From then on he was conscious of where she would casually wander in order to keep a easy distance between them, how she would never have her eyes in his direction when he glanced at her. She wore a simple short-sleeved rusty-orange top and knee-length blue trousers of some modern fabric. A little different to the faithful who tended to wear the more primitive rustic clothes of wool, cotton, and leather which were favoured by Makkathran’s citizens, but not contemporary enough to be obvious. Nor did her looks make her stand out, she had a flattish face and a cute-ish button nose; some of the time her slim copper shades would be across her eyes, while often she had them perched up in her short dark hair. Her age was unknowable, like everyone in the Greater Commonwealth her appearance was locked into biological mid twenties. He was certain she was well past her first couple of centuries. Again no tangible proof. After they’d played the orbiting satellites game for forty minutes he walked over, keeping his smile pleasant. There were no pings coming off her that his macrocellular clusters could detect, no active links to the unisphere, nor any active sensor activity. Electronically, she was as stone age as the city. Not that he’d gone active.

“Hello,� he said.

She pushed her shades up with the tip of a finger and gave him a playful grin.

“Hello yourself. So what brings you here?�
“This is a historic event.�
“Quite.�
“Do I know you?�

His instinct had been right, he saw; she was nothing like the placid faithful shuffling round them, her body language was all wrong; she could keep tight control of herself, enough to fool anyone without his training –training?- but he could sense the attitude coiled up inside.

“Should you know me?�

He hesitated. There was something familiar about her face, something he should know about her. He couldn’t think what, for the simple reason that he didn’t have any memories to pull up and examine. Not of anything, now he thought about it, certainly he didn’t seem to have had a life prior to today. He knew that was all wrong, yet that didn’t bother him either.

“I don’t recall.�
“How curious. What’s your name?�
“Aaron.�
Her laughter surprised him.
“What?� he asked.
“Number one, eh? How lovely.�
Aaron’s answering grin was forced. “I don’t understand.�
“If you wanted to list terrestrial animals where would you start?�
“Now you’ve really lost me.�
“You’d start with the aardvark. Double-A, it’s top of the list.�
“Oh,� he mumbled. “Yeah, I get it.�
“Aaron,� she chuckled. “Someone had a sense of humour when they sent you here.�
“Nobody sent me.�
“Really?� she arched a thick eyebrow. “So you just sort of found yourself at this historic event, did you?�
“That’s about it, yes.�

She dropped the copper band back down over her eyes, and shook her head in mock-dismay.

“There are several of us here, you know. I don’t believe that’s an accident, do you?�
“Us?�
Her hand gestured round at the crowd. “You don’t count yourself as one of these sheep, do you? A believer? Someone who thinks they can find a life at the end of these dreams Inigo so generously gifted to the Commonwealth?�
“I suppose not, no.�
“There’s a lot of people watching what happens here. It’s important, after all, and not just for the Greater Commonwealth. If there’s a Pilgrimage into The Void some species claim it could trigger a devourment phase which will bring about the end of the galaxy. Would you want that to happen, Aaron?�
She was giving him a very intent stare.
“That would be a bad thing,� he temporized. “Obviously.� In truth he had no opinion. It wasn’t something he thought about.
“Obvious to some, an opportunity to others.�
“If you say so.�
“I do.� She licked her lips with mischievous amusement. “So, are you going to try for my unisphere code? Ask me out for a drink?�
“Not today.�
She pouted fulsomely. “How about unconditional sex, then, any way you like it?�
“I’ll bank that one, too, thanks,� he laughed.
“You do that.� Her shoulders moved up in a slight shrug. “Goodbye, Aaron.�
“Wait,� he said as she turned away. “What’s your name?�
“You don’t want to know me,� she called out. “I’m bad news.�
“Goodbye, Bad News.�

There was a genuine smile on her face as she looked back at him. A finger wagged. “That’s what I remember best,� she said, and was gone.

He smiled at the rear of her rapidly departing head. She vanished quickly enough amid the throng; after a minute even he couldn’t spot her. He’d seen her originally because she wanted him too, he realized.

Us, she’d said, there are a lot like us here. That didn’t make a lot of sense. But then she’d stirred up a lot of questions. Why am I here? he wondered. There was no solid answer in his mind other than it was the right place for him to be, he wanted to see who was elected. And the memories, why don’t I have any memories of anything else? It ought to bother him, he knew, memories were the fundamental core of core of human identity, yet even that emotion was lacking. Strange. Humans were emotionally complex entities, yet he didn’t appear to be; but he could live with it, something deep inside him was sure he’d solve the mystery of himself eventually. There was no hurry.

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