Falcon’s Egg, the sequel to Right to Know, is a fast-paced action-adventure. Discovering a plot to reassert Imperial control over the recently rediscovered Peregrine, Lorn Kymbal tracks the conspirators into the deepest and most dangerous reaches of the planet and beyond. Kymbal, a veteran of the war of liberation that almost costs his life, fights killer robots and his own inner demons as he tries to win freedom for himself and his planet.
By Edward Willett
No smoke rose from the ramshackle cabin.
There should be smoke, Lorn Kymbal thought.
He lay in the snow atop a ridge overlooking the clearing, his winter field uniform making him little more than one white lump among many in the snow-drenched landscape, peering through binoculars powerful enough he could zoom in on individual nail holes in the cabin’s rough wood planking. But the windows were shuttered, the door was closed, the snow lay as thick and crisp and even as even Good King Wenceslas could have liked, and there was no smoke.
There should be smoke.
Lorn checked his watch. Two minutes until he was supposed to approach the cabin and meet with the man who had lived there for as long as he could remember…the man who had never asked to meet with him before, or shown the slightest interest in him, despite his long relationship with Lorn’s parents.
He dearly wanted to unsling the multirifle he carried on his back, but one thing he knew very well about Javik, the man in the cabin—if he was there—was that approaching him with a weapon was a very bad idea. Even if he was the one who had asked for the meeting.
Lorn wasn’t even sure why he was so nervous about this whole set-up. The only threats he normally faced in this part of the frontier—where, after all, he had grown up—were winter-starved longtooths and the occasional poacher. The dead-enders of the Skywatchers cult had been cleared out of this region long since. Lorn had cleared out a few of them himself a few months ago and had a jagged red scar on his thigh to show for it, from a slug which had come within centimetres of taking out his femoral artery, and him with it.Things had generally been quiet here.
But now it’s too quiet, he thought. As they like to say in the holoadventures.
He scanned the surrounding woods. Nothing moved, and maybe that was why it seemed too quiet. Not a bird, not a barkrat, not a biterbunny. As though everything had gone into hiding.
As though something had scared them off.
Probably just a big predator, Lorn thought. Longtooth, maybe—or a pack of meathawks. Nasty, but nothing I can’t handle.
Though he’d be surer of that with a weapon in his hand.
His watch vibrated. Time to see what’s what at last. He got to his feet and headed down the snow-covered slope.
The door stayed closed. The windows stayed shuttered. The only sound was the crunch of his booted feet in the snow.
On the porch, he took one last look round at the dark, brooding woods, then put his hand on the latch. It lifted easily, and he stepped inside.
From the outside, the cabin had looked like the thrown-together-out-of-odds-and-ends shelter of some sort of bearded mountain man. On the inside, as he had suspected it would—though the man who lived there had never before, to his knowledge, allowed anyone to enter it—it looked like the nerve center of a global intelligence gathering operation…which, in a way, it was.
But Javik was not seated at the rough wooden table, above which flickered the restless lightning of holographic data displays. Instead, he lay on the bed in the corner, as rough a piece of furniture as the table, made of unpeeled branches. His eyes were closed, but his eyelids twitched, and his lips with them, though he made no sound. The green blanket beneath him was stained, and the smell rising from it made Lorn blink hard and swallow. Javik had never been one for personal hygiene, but from the look and smell of things he’d not only not bathed in weeks, he hadn’t moved from the bed for days.
Maybe he’s sick, Lorn thought. He stepped closer to the bed and cleared his throat. Javik didn’t respond. “Javik,” Lorn said. “It’s Lorn Kymbal. I’m here.”
Javik’s eyes jerked open. “Anomalies,” he said, his voice a croak. “Anomalies!” His right hand, which had been lying out of Lorn’s sight on the far side of the bed, suddenly rose. In it, he held a small rectangular object, black and featureless—a netlink. “Take it!”
Lorn reached for it. The moment the netlink, still warm from Javik’s hand, was in his grasp, Javik’s hand dropped, and he dug under the blankets for something else Lorn couldn’t see. His head turned toward Lorn, his pupils wide black pools. “Now go. Into the woods. Get out of sight.”
Lorn felt the familiar surge of the anger that these days always lay close to the surface. “Like hell! You hauled me all the way out into the middle of nowhere for this! I don’t care how secretive you like to be, you’re damn well going to tell me—”
“Get out!” Javik snarled. His right hand came up again. Now it held a pistol, a massive, ancient slug-thrower of a design Lorn had never seen outside of a museum. The end of the barrel gaped at him like a screaming mouth. “Now!”
Lorn’s hand twitched as though feeling for the familiar-but-missing weight of his own sidearm. Fuming, he backed slowly away, never taking his narrowed eyes from the reeking hulk of the man in the bed. The pistol tracked him to the door.
“Into the woods,” Javik said. Now his voice held a note of pleading. “Into the woods, boy…Lorn. Out of sight. Fast!”
Lorn hesitated. “Javik—”
The pistol flashed and roared, and Lorn ducked instinctively but uselessly as a large chunk of the doorframe disintegrated, showering him with splinters. “Damn it, Javik!”
“Out!” Javik said, the sound a howl. “Out! Hide! Now! Time’s up!”
Furious, Lorn turned and slammed out through the door. He ploughed through the deep snow and into the woods, then turned and glared back at the cabin. The man’s finally gone crazy, he thought.
Crazier, he amended. Javik hadn’t exactly been right in the head since the day he’d installed a permanent link to the planetary ’Net in his own brain and whatever bizarre software-to-wetware translation algorithm he’d come up with to make the interface possible. Why does he even need those holodisplays? he wondered. He snorted. Because he can’t get an upgrade, that’s why. Technology’s leaving him behind. Maybe he’s—
His thought broke off as he heard a faint sound, the rustle of something small moving through the snow. So not everything’s been scared away. He glanced through the screen of branches toward the noise. Probably a barkrat. Too bad I can’t shoot at it without Javik emptying his pistol at me. Make a good supper—
He froze. The thing moving through the snow wasn’t a barkrat. In fact, it wasn’t any animal he’d ever seen before.
What it looked like was a giant black spider, but no such creature existed on Peregrine to his knowledge—certainly not in these familiar mountains, though who knew what dwelt in the uncharted jungles of Margaret’s Land, across the sea…
Then he realized what it really was, and he tried to stop breathing. Because he had seen something like it before…but not on Peregrine. He had seen it in Mayflower II, the ancient starship in orbit above the planet, whose near-disastrous arrival seven years before had nearly led to the planet’s destruction—not to mention his own: he’d almost died there as a teenager.
It was a robot, kin to the maintenance robots aboard that ship—maintenance robots that could also be programmed to kill.
Though this one was much smaller, little bigger than the barkrat he’d first thought it. It scuttled across the snow on eight flickering black legs. It scaled the wall of the cabin. It dashed across the tree-branch roof and dropped down the fieldstone chimney.
Javik’s pistol boomed once, making Lorn flinch and sending snow sliding from the roof.
And then the cabin exploded.
The blast and a wave of searing heat hurled Lorn onto his back, burying him in the snow, while bits of wood and metal and stone tore through the tree branches above him in a deadly hurricane. Bark and leaves and branches dropped all around him. He could hear debris pattering the ground for several seconds.
Lorn hauled himself to his feet, coughing on the acrid smoke drifting past him. He stared at the shattered hulk of the cabin, nothing left but a few blackened support timbers, splintered and splayed out from the few hearth stones left standing like the petals of some strange charcoal-colored flower.
He didn’t bother looking for Javik’s remains; he knew he wouldn’t find them.
Shit, he thought. Shit shit shit. The crazy man with the built-in netlink had always just been here, part of the background of his life as long as he could remember. And now, just like that, he was gone.
He lifted the netlink in his hand and examined it. Blank and black, it told him nothing. He’d have to activate it if he wanted to learn anything. Which at the moment seemed like a really bad idea.
Javik knew that thing was coming. He knew it was coming, and he wanted me to see it…and to have this. But why?
He hadn’t been close to Javik. The only person who could make any claim to have been close to Javik was his mother. And now I’ll have to be the one to tell her he’s dead. Damn fool. What the hell did he get himself mixed up in? What is he trying to mix me up in?
“Anomalies,” he growled. He pocketed the netlink, turned, and climbed back up to where he had left his pack and his snowshoes, unshipping his multirifle as he toiled up the slope. He didn’t figure he’d be putting it down soon because whoever had sent that robot likely hadn’t wanted any witnesses. He had to get out of there. “Damn snow,” he muttered as he trudged along the ridgeline toward his camp, a kilometer distant. “How am I supposed to hide my tracks in this?”
The answer was, of course, that he wasn’t. All he could do was keep an eye on his back trail and hope that if those black spider-robots moved in pairs, they didn’t have enough autonomy to follow trails in the snow—even really obvious trails like the one he was leaving.
But he couldn’t keep looking behind all the time. An hour later, he was struggling up a particularly steep and slippery bit of slope toward the rocky outcropping he had chosen as a landmark to mark the route down to his camp, just a couple of hundred metres away on the far side of the ridge. The climb had required him to sling his multirifle again and use both hands to take advantage of the handholds provided by the undergrowth. He knew how vulnerable he was during those four or five minutes, and that made him hyperaware of the sounds in the snow-shrouded woods all around him—otherwise, he might never have heard the soft slithering sound of something behind him.
He threw himself to the side. The multirifle was out of the question, but his sidearm was in his hand even before he raised himself up again, facing back down his trail—just in time to see the black spiderbot, twin to the one that had skittered down Javik’s chimney, gathering its metal legs under it. It jumped, and he fired at the same time.
The pistol, like the multirifle, could fire a laser, a slug, or an explosive shell. He’d set it to default to the slug, and the bullet caught the spiderbot in mid-air. A single pistol shot, as he knew from bloody experience, couldn’t transfer enough energy to an onrushing human attacker to stop his forward momentum, but the spiderbot massed far less than a human: it wasn’t hurled back, but it was stopped in mid-jump. It dropped into the snow, legs splaying out as it fell. It immediately scuttled forward again, but the momentary pause had given Lorn enough time to thumb his sidearm from slug to laser. He pulled the trigger. A flash of light, and the spiderbot simply…stopped. There was a neat round hole through its center, the edges glowing red but already darkening. Lorn rolled over again and frantically scrambled on up the slope.
He’d just crested the ridge when the spiderbot exploded.
The blast sent him tumbling down the slope in a welter of snow. Ten metres downhill, he slammed into a tree trunk. Groaning, clutching his bruised side, he pulled himself upright and looked at the cloud of smoke dissipating overhead. “If Javik wasn’t already dead, I’d kill him myself,” he said out loud. He shook his head. His ears rang. “And I really should stop talking to myself.” Then he snorted. His therapist had said something like that. “Which is reason enough to keep right on doing it!” he said. Then he clamped his mouth shut because that had just sounded crazy.
He could see the bright blue of his tent just a few more metres downslope through the trees. With relief, he struggled to his feet and stumbled down to it.
Hoping the spiderbots didn’t travel in threes, he set to work striking camp. He wanted to be kilometres away before dark…and before he looked at the netlink. He had everything in his backpack and was heading down the slope into the next valley over from the one the unfortunate Javik had called home within ten minutes. He continued to keep a close watch on his back trail, but nothing moved, and as he plunged through the snow, he heard birdcalls resuming in the trees around him—a reasonably good indication, he hoped, that no strange black spiders were stalking him through the trees.
At the bottom of the valley, a stream burbled over rocks, flowing to his right—south—eventually emptying into the Green Falls River, the biggest river in this part of the Peregrine wilderness, and a relatively heavily populated region, though the scattered farms and villages along it were still considered remote from the heartland on the other side of the mountains rising behind him. If he set out straight ahead, over progressively lower ridges, he would relatively soon emerge into the vast desert that dominated the eastern half of the continent, stretching all the way to the ocean. It was out there that he and his father had seen an aircraft crash seven years ago, when he was just fifteen, and had rescued from the wreckage Art Stoddard, whose arrival on the planet from Mayflower II had triggered so much change.
Not enough change, Lorn thought, not for the first time.
His boots were waterproof and heated; he stepped into the stream without hesitation and began picking his way downstream. Running water was still the best way to throw anything off a trail, whether human, animal, or—he hoped—robot. The going would be slow and the footing treacherous, but it was more important to cover his tracks than to traverse large distances. Distance would mean nothing to something like those spiderbots.
As he cautiously made his way along the streambed, checking behind him at regular intervals, he tried to figure out where they had come from. They clearly weren’t of Peregrine design. That pointed directly at Mayflower II.
Could they have been smuggled down from the ship? There were dead-enders on board—Art Stoddard’s parents, for example—who refused to descend to the surface, living aboard the starship as though nothing had changed (though he suspected even the Stoddards weren’t averse to eating the fresh food shipped up to Mayflower II by shuttle).
But the only way to get anything down to the surface from the ship was via that same shuttle, and knowing what he knew of the security procedures in place, he had a hard time picturing how that could happen. If the devices weren’t found during the initial screening on the ship, they would surely be found during the careful examination on the planet. The Peregrine authorities weren’t about to trust the good intentions of anyone who had chosen to remain aboard the ship that had once threatened to bombard the planet with matter/antimatter missiles.
That didn’t mean, though, that the designs hadn’t been smuggled down, and the spiderbots constructed in some hidden microfactory. Pretty much anything could be made by one of those, given the right programming and raw materials. So that could explain how they had been constructed. The bigger question was why—and without looking at the netlink, it was a question he couldn’t even begin to answer.
One thing was clear. Javik, the man hardwired into the planetary ’Net who had been the first person outside the government to know about the approach of Mayflower II all those years ago, had also known the spiderbot—or something—was coming for him. Which meant not only that he had discovered something someone desperately wanted to remain secret, but also that those same someones knew their secret had been discovered.
The uncomfortable question from Lorn’s point of view, then, was: did they also know Javik had summoned him?
If they did, they knew his name. They couldn’t know where he lived, since he had no fixed address, but they could well know where his parents lived, with his little sister, Melissa, now a teenager; they would know his friends—though there were few enough of those. They could threaten him in all sorts of ways.
And if that second spiderbot had had visual capability and someone had been monitoring its usage, they could be sending more—or something worse—after him right now.
“Thanks a bunch, Javik,” Lorn muttered. “I love you, too.”
He glanced up at the sky. He had hours more daylight. He intended to make the most of them.