thumb-tip. Grunted and sucked away the pain. This was real life, for now. Nothing to do but accept it. Or not.
Also in the kitbag had been a chunky watch. He glanced at it and saw the time as 15.48, on one reading. The concentric dials were hard to figure out: the 24-hour clock of Earth, perpetually out of synch with the local time; the longer day of the planet evenly divided into periods, minims and moments (all of which struck him as pointless, like a flashy feature of an executive toy); and a relentless metric march of real elapsed time outside, in which milliseconds that felt like seconds clocked up via hundredths and tenths to seconds, with kiloseconds on a calendar-type scale and a mission date given as 315-and-a-bit megaseconds. Starting, he presumed, from the starwisp’s arrival in the system or the probe’s awakening, about ten Earth years ago. He reckoned metric time would be the best bet for coordinating training exercises, and live actions, too.
The previous evening, he’d given up on specifying a time to meet by anyone’s watch. He and Beauregard—who had indeed been in the British Army, in some intel capacity about which he was still reticent, until reading and disillusion had turned him to the Axle—had settled on “Dawn at the harbour.” Carlos doubted that they’d all turn up—by the time he’d left for the house he’d been assigned (the key, with a handwritten cardboard address tag, was in the kitbag) the group was well into getting drunk. A loud gaggle of young-looking English-speaking locals, obviously already familiar with the recent arrivals, had tumbled out on the terrace around sundown and joined in the fun. They weren’t really young—like the barman Iqbal they were old people reborn, and they combined the sophistication of age with the energy of youth. Part of the bar and most of the patio had become an impromptu dance floor. Carlos had watched the escalating antics with growing abhorrence.
Not that he’d had a good night himself. The house, up on the slope, was well-appointed enough, though impersonal, like a three-star self-catering apartment. A frail-looking, faintly comical contrivance of metallic limbs ambled around the place, tidying up and cleaning behind him with an air of absent-minded obsessiveness. The lack of communications devices other than a wall-fixed emergency phone and a wall-mounted flat screen had left him at a loss and at a loose end. He’d woken repeatedly from confused dreams, sweating under a thin sheet, tormented by the dizzying, dismaying realisation that everyone he’d ever known was dead.
His adult life had been one of slingshot encounters: attractions and flings, followed by widening separation. The faces and bodies remained in memory like fly-by photos, to be interpreted later in depth, sometimes bringing delayed surprises. His only stable orbit, elliptical and repetitive, had been around Jacqueline Digby. Her friends called her Jax. A computer science student at Leeds University, her smile had lured him into the Axle milieu, then incipient: an online reading group, a cafeteria clique, a cat’s cradle of ever-shifting relationships, of fallings for and fallings out. After a couple of years, his and Jacqueline’s deepening involvement in and commitment to the Acceleration had stretched and strained any they had to each other. The last he remembered they hadn’t met for eighteen months, yet there was always the possibility that their paths would cross again. Now they never would. He felt this loss more keenly than he might have expected. Other losses, too: he hoped his parents and brother had survived the war and not been too ashamed by his ignominious end. This seemed unlikely.
He’d also been caught up in futile questions. As the alien sun peered over the shoulder of the headland to his right and feathered pterosaurs squabbled raucous on the black sand, the questions bugged him still.
The most troubling feature of his environment was its sheer