Artificial Evolution is the third book in the Big Sigma series, building upon the story and characters introduced by Bypass Gemini and Unstable Prototypes. Lex, Michella and Squee are once again joined by the mercenaries Silo and Garotte. Along the way they'll need plenty of help from mad engineer Karter Dee and his AI Ma.
After butting heads with the megacorporation known as VectorCorp it was only a matter of time before Lex Alexander and his girlfriend Michella Modane would face the consequences. It is remarkable what a single corporate agent with the resources of a multi-global conglomerate can do to a person's career. In the space of a few days Lex is looking for work and Michella is feeling pressure from the network to ease off the hard-hitting stories. Not one to be silenced, Michella quickly hatches a plan to continue her investigations under the guise of a fluff story about a so-called extraterrestrial, and who better to be her personal driver than Lex?
Meanwhile, mercenaries Silo and Garotte are still nipping at the heels of the terrorist group known as the Neo-Luddites. Rumors of an attempt to secure a devastating weapon bring the pair to a forgotten little planet in an undeveloped corner of the galaxy. Circumstances require that local authorities lay claim to the terrorists' apparent target, but what sort of threat could one gangly collection of anatomical curiosities pose to the galaxy?
The answer to that question will put our heroes to the test and leave a whole world hanging in the balance.
Artificial Evolution is the third book in my own Big Sigma series. While most people who read these stories latch onto Karter and Ma, a mad scientist and his AI, I knew I couldn't let them hog the glory book after book. When the previous story introduced Silo and Garotte, I felt it might be worth a try to see how they could handle a bit more of the spotlight. I'm also told by numerous fans that the villain, or perhaps more accurately the threat of this story, is one of the more terrifying things I've concocted. – Joseph R. Lallo
"…I stayed up all night reading, enjoying every word. Lallo's science fiction reminds me of the early greats: Asimov, Niven, etc. He clearly enjoys what he's doing and creates worlds that I love to get lost in."– Lisa Norman
"I'm amazed at how unique and complex each of their personalities are, am entertained by the appropriate dashes of humor, unexpected twists and plot twists that come satisfyingly full circle, and am often curious at how the author know all this stuff and describes things like space travel in such realistic detail."– Karen Marie Graham
"This series is my current favorite for its humor, fast-pace, great characters and clever sci fi. Not overwhelmingly technical to the point that it's no longer enjoyable, but incredibly sci fi. It's fast pace just captures me."– GoldencatQuill
The darker the corner, the nastier the things that hide there. In the days before space travel, one might have thought twice about walking past a shady-looking alley, or perhaps decided against having a quick beer at a bar on a lonesome stretch of highway. Once humanity left Earth, whole star systems that were shielded from prying eyes and the influence of law quickly formed. Scoundrels claimed little nooks and crannies where they could ply their trade without being bothered, yet could still reach civilized society when the time came to shear the sheep. Where they made their homes, decent folk knew not to linger. The floating bad neighborhood called Diode Station 888 may not have been the most dangerous place to stop for a rest, but it wasn't far from it. It was a cylindrical space station drifting precisely far enough from the nearest transit lane to avoid paying any access fees, and a problem with its stabilizers that no one had bothered to fix left it rotating slowly along two axes. Combined with the patches of broken and jagged infrastructure clustered at either end, it looked almost like it might be a piece of a much larger and more sophisticated space station that had broken free. A large scrolling sign composed of green and red lights wrapped around its center. It read hot food, cold drinks, and gravity provided by state-of-the-art generators. The general state of disrepair and the inexplicable presence of graffiti on the outside of the space station were enough to convince most travelers in the market for any of those things to look elsewhere.
Anyone foolish enough to enter the station would find an Escheresque floor plan. The station must have been built in the early days of artificial gravity, and as such showcased the technology in ways that defied logic. The hollow center of the cylinder had three equally spaced walkways running its length, each providing its own gravity. At regular intervals these walkways sprouted twisting paths that led to the top or bottom of a floor, each of which likewise had its own gravity. To further illustrate the miracle of artificial gravity, no ceilings separated one floor from the next. Instead there was a place of business, a few meters of empty space, and then another place of business upside down on the "ceiling." It was a striking layout, but one that didn't catch on due to the unreliability of early gravity generators. It was one thing to have a clothing store occupying the ceiling of a restaurant. It was another to have a clothing store come crashing down onto a restaurant after a blown fuse.
These days Diode Station 888 was almost empty. It had only one operational place of business: a bar that took up the floor and ceiling of one whole level and was known as Buck's until the sign had been vandalized by someone with a juvenile sense of humor. The rest of the station had been stripped bit by bit of any useful equipment as the bar needed it. Now it was dark, smelly, weightless, and vacant. It made the smoky bar filled with loud music and louder patrons seem even smokier and louder as a result.
A skinny, anxious man sat at a table by himself, ignored by the other patrons. The mere fact that he was being left alone suggested that he was well connected or dangerous enough to be respected. He wore an old but sturdy flight suit. The helmet, which he'd painted with a skeletal eagle, dangled awkwardly from one side of his belt. He'd slung a large pressurized case across his back, and the other side of the belt sported a large empty holster. Empty holsters were a popular accessory in the bar, as a space station is no place for a gunfight, and thus all projectile weapons were checked at the door. Most of the criminals too stupid or stubborn to follow that particular rule had since found themselves deeply regretting it in the moments between atmosphere loss and death.
The anxious man was nursing a beer and watching as a sputtering gravity plate caused a table and chairs to tap dance along the floor a few meters away. A group of drunks had formed nearby and were placing bets on when the furniture would finally launch itself into the unsuspecting card game above.
"Shuddering like that, I would consider it ill-advised to bet anything over three minutes."
The anxious man turned as though he'd heard a gunshot and found that a man with a blond crew cut and fastidious mustache had joined him at the table. His words were flavored by an unmistakable British accent, and he was smiling and at ease despite the threatening surroundings. He, too, wore a flight suit, though in his case it lacked even a holster.
"Get lost. I want to be alone," said the man with the case.
"Do you? Well, a crowded pub is a rather curious place to seek solitude," the Brit remarked. "If I may venture a guess, I'd say it is more likely you are here to meet someone."
"Look, maybe I am, maybe I'm not, but unless you want to meet your maker, I suggest you get the hell away from me."
"Now, you see? It is so very rare to encounter that level of wordplay in the criminal underworld these days. I applaud you, sir. As you are no doubt a busy man, I will make this brief. Approximately three days ago you provided some extremely expensive military communicators to a group of decidedly nonmilitary individuals. Today you're hoping to sell the rest of your batch to someone from the same organization."
"Yeah. And you're not him."
"I'm well aware. I'd like a word with you on his behalf."
"That sounds like cop talk. You a cop?"
The word cop drew the attention of a large portion of the nearby clientele.
"Just curious. I've got a bit of unfinished business with the fellows who purchased the equipment. It takes—"
A deep and worrying voice reverberated from beside the Brit.
"We don't like people coming in here and asking questions."
He turned to find an exceedingly tall and profoundly hairy man standing close enough to provide a strong whiff of his halitosis. The man rested his hand on the grip of a knife so large and well used that it almost certainly had a nickname and a backstory. "Especially from strangers who sound like cops."
"Don't you? Well, that's understandable I suppose. Particularly when inquisitive strangers are so apt to do this."
In a lightning motion, the Brit hammered the heel of his hand into the jaw of the would-be intimidator, sending him reeling backward. The struck man spat a tooth on the ground and turned back to find his opponent had snatched the knife from his belt. The Brit held it with confidence and glanced at the side, spotting a name.
"Bertha? I might have guessed," he said. "Well, Bertha and I urge you to choose your next move carefully."
"You got a death wish or something?" slurred the hairy man as blood began to run down his chin. "This is my bar. These are my guys." The largest and most heavily armed of the nearby patrons were moving like a pack of wolves, steadily surrounding the Brit and drawing an assortment of station-friendly weapons. Most were sharp, electrified, or both, though a few brass knuckles, a few baseball bats, and one cricket bat were mixed into the arsenal. "I don't know how someone who talks like you do and is dumb enough to come into my bar, alone, and hit me could still be alive, but it won't matter too much longer. You have any last words before my guys kill you?"
"How kind of you to ask. I do have a few. First, you keep referring to them as your 'guys.' Am I to understand you haven't got a single woman in your gang? Shameful. You really ought to consider expanding. And second, for your information I did not come alone. I wouldn't be so foolish as to enter a place like this without arranging for some muscle of my own."
"Bill, scout around, find out who this guy brought, and bust his teeth in." One of the heavier members of the crew began to shoulder his way through the crowd. "Bill knows every face that comes in and out of here. When he finds your muscle, do you want to watch me kill him, or do you want to die first?"
"You know, for a murderous psychopath you're refreshingly mindful of my wants and needs."
Bill's voice could be heard from among the crowd. "… Haven't seen you before… nah. Too scrawny. Get lost. You too. Outta the way, cupcake."
A strange sequence of sounds followed. First, there was a soft thud, then a huff of breath and the squeak of a boot. A moment later Bill came hurling backward through the press of bodies, tumbling to a stop beside his boss. Stepping through the wake created by the flying henchman was a woman who was equal parts soccer mom and Valkyrie. She had a head of lustrous blonde curls, a body with full curves, and a flight suit that complemented each quite well.
"Don't call me cupcake, hon," she said.
"Get her! Get them both!" ordered the boss.
The whole of the bar erupted in a chorus of angry cries and stamping feet.
"Silo, your timing, as ever, is brilliant," said the Brit.
"Uh-huh," said Silo, brushing some of her golden curls aside and taking up a defensive stance beside him. She grabbed the edge of a table and hurled it into the largest group of attackers. "Garotte, sweetie, you know, in the month that I've been working on my own, I didn't once get into a brawl. Why is it every time we meet someplace, I end up having to pummel someone?"
"Because, if nothing else, I know how to show a lady a good time." He grabbed the man he had been questioning and pulled him to his feet, kicking a chair into the crowd to make some space and hauling him toward the long bar against one wall.
While Garotte devoted most of his efforts to swiping the stolen knife back and forth to keep attackers at bay until he could reach the cover of the bar, Silo was much more offensive. She delivered forearms and knees, thrust kicks and uppercuts. Her repertoire leaned heavily toward the powerhouse side of the combat spectrum, and she hit like a freight train. The smaller and wiser members of the crowd of ruffians soon learned to keep their distance. Only the truly massive or blindly vicious came within arm's reach, and most of them were flat on their backs shortly afterward. When a man of nearly two meters threw a ponderous right hand in her direction, she sidestepped it, grabbed him by the leather vest, and rolled backward, planting her boot heel on his belt buckle and thrusting him upward with the momentum of the roll. The throw was forceful enough to send the man past the midpoint between the upper and lower floors until he "fell" straight up and smashed through a table above them. The sight was enough to give all in attendance a moment's pause.
"I'm pleased the effects of your lengthy stay in a high-gravity prison are still serving you well," Garotte said, glancing up at the aftermath of her attack.
"I'm telling you, hon. High-gravity workout routine. Three times a week. It works wonders." She grabbed a metal chair and swept it toward the latest challenger, causing him to retreat. "I find the extra strength really helps to control the recoil in large-caliber weapons." She side-kicked another attacker in the chest with enough force to send him end over end. "The feeling of empowerment is nice, too."
It was clear that the bumps and bruises delivered so far had managed to take most of the fight out of the gang. There was still a ring of hesitant fighters eyeing Silo and Garotte, but each seemed to be waiting for one of the others to make the first move.
Garotte was now standing behind the bar. He'd levered the arm of his target into a painful position behind the man's back, and the other hand held the broken remnants of a beer bottle that had been used to incapacitate the bartender. Bertha was slipped into his belt. "Look, my friends. I'm sure we can keep this up as long as you like, but the lady and I are on a bit of a schedule, so if it is all the same to you, we'll ask this young man our questions and be on our way. Is that acceptable?" He dropped the broken bottle and pulled up a datapad with a grid of status indicators on its screen. "Or shall I see what sort of mischief I can get up to with the gravity controls?"
As the crowd collectively considered its options, the malfunctioning gravity plate finally decided to give up the ghost, sputtering off and releasing its payload. Watching a table and three chairs hurl themselves to the ceiling and bash into the unfortunate poker players who had neglected to seek cover convinced a few of them to back away. The rest charged.
Garotte sighed. "Very well." As Silo joined him behind the bar, he ran his finger down the gravity-control pad. Like a shock wave sweeping across the floor, all of the panels on the other side of the bar shut off in sequence, releasing their contents into the grip of the panels above. The whole of the mob found their world turned upside down and were reduced to a battered heap of humanity and furniture on the ceiling. It was enough to take the fight out of the rest of the gang.
"Now, to business," Garotte said, switching the gravity panels back on. The ejected aggressors stayed put on the ceiling, attracted to the closer of the two opposing sets of panels.
"I'd be quick about it, sweetie. These don't strike me as the kind of folks who will give in to common sense for very long," Silo advised.
"Speed was always my intention. Now, sir, I believe we were discussing your prior customers."
"Yeah, yeah. They were a bunch of beat-up military types. They wanted communication devices. High-security stuff. I'll tell you who I bought them from! Just don't hit me! And don't lock me up!"
"That won't be necessary. Just answer a few questions. Did they have you configure the com devices?"
"Was it a difficult task?"
"The manual is seven hundred pages. It took me weeks to figure it out."
"So it is safe to assume that they won't be changing the configuration anytime soon."
"Probably not ever. I didn't give them the manual. I figured it was a good way to ensure repeat business."
"Savvy. Am I correct in assuming that case on your back has some more of the hardware?"
"Configured in the same way?"
"Good. I'd like to buy two of them from you."
"Fine, you can… buy?"
"Of course. I'm not a thief."
Garotte revealed a roll of casino chips, which were the preferred payment method of those seeking to keep their finances off official record these days. The man eyed the roll, peeled it open to inspect it, then pocketed it. "Pleasure doing business with you then." He pulled down the case from his back and popped it open to reveal an array of brick-sized encrypting communicators. They were boxy pieces of heavy-duty metal apparatus. A few hefty data ports were situated along one side, an input video panel occupied the other, and a conspicuous microphone and speaker took up most of a third. From the looks of the attached brackets and inputs, it was meant to be mounted in a vehicle rather than carried around. "Power is here, input panel is here. You'll need a local key or pass code to get on the communication queue the other guys are on, and they didn't tell me what they used."
With a practiced hand, Garotte selected two devices and plugged a battery pack into one. He handed the other to Silo and tapped out a few commands on the input screen of his own once it flickered to life. The last command was a lengthy pass code, evidently entered from memory.
"Where did you get that code?" the man asked.
"In case you hadn't noticed, I can be rather persuasive." Garotte smiled as the screen populated with active channels and a backlog of secure correspondences. "Well, Silo, my dear. We've now got ears on the enemy."
"Good. Let's get out of here. I don't like the atmosphere in this place," she said.
"Certainly. You don't mind if we take the Declaration, do you?"
"We better. I hitched a ride here, and I'm pretty sure the guy I came with is up on the ceiling somewhere."
Garotte tucked both communicators under one arm and hopped over the bar. He and Silo stepped over some of the harder-hit scuffle participants and headed for the door. They'd reached the first of the many twisting panels that made up the walkway when the slurred voice of the gang leader bellowed behind them.
"Get back here!" They turned to find him standing just inside the door of the bar, sporting the beginnings of a black eye, with one lip starting to swell. "You think you can beat up my guys, steal my knife, and then just walk out of here?"
Garotte glanced to his belt. "Oh, of course. Where are my manners? Thank you for the use of your weapon." He drew the knife and hurled it with a surprising amount of force and accuracy. The blade dug into the ground at the gang leader's feet, conjuring a spark and puff of smoke from the gravity plate. It failed instantly, and the leader fell upward, crashing to the ground above. With that, Garotte turned to Silo.
"Off we go, my dear. Busy days ahead. I suspect some crucial data is about to start leaking to some interested parties."