Sky lanterns rise into the clouds over London, spelling out messages of hope for the year to come. Dragons and demons dance among them, trails of fire sputtering in their wake as if some vast cosmic fan has been unfurled, as if each screen panel has been scrawled over with radiant calligraphy.

The crowd stamps and applauds. Lin Phan watches on from the brow of Parliament Hill beside her father. Her white coat is a pale smudge in the night. Her leg braces, numbing metal and unyielding polymer, cut into her flesh. Ignoring the pain as best she can, she gazes upward in wonderment at a depiction of the Azure Dragon, Heaven's guardian, made of speckled particles that spiral away over the Hampstead rooftops and dwindle to embers in the streets below.

A pause, pregnant with possibility. A crackle of firecrackers; and then the beast swoops low over the heads of the screaming onlookers, writhing and roaring in its death throes, its torso suffused with reds and golds and silvers.

A stench of smoke settles over the assembly. The New Year's display is nearing its end. A final glimmer of fiery scales, and the skies return to black. Afterimages dance across Lin's line of sight. As the crowds begin to disperse she tugs at her father's sleeve. "Daddy? Why can I still see the dragons?"

Her father begins to explain about cones, retinas. Wind whips across the brow of the hill. Lin turns back to the sky, not listening, her mouth hanging open to catch the sparse spatter of raindrops now tumbling out of the darkness. She thinks they might be tears shed by the dragons, sad because they have to go back to their caves.

"Come on." Lin's father holds out his hand. They descend the hill, keeping to the side of the path so her slow progress doesn't impede those with greater mobility. Each step is a test of endurance. A faint rumble of thunder sounds in the distance, a weak echo of the fireworks' clamour. Lin can still see a dim outline of the dragons at the edges of her sight, still hear the sound of them in her head.

They pass a family of four. The younger child, a boy around Lin's age, excitedly bangs a wooden stick against the ground, his piping voice crying out a storm-summoning chant. His elder sister turns a thick length of bamboo over and over between her hands. The sound of rice grains tumbling from end to end offsets the rhythm of her brother's ritual. Lin's father, silent now, leads Lin past them into the darkness at the foot of the slope and across the heathland towards their house.

"Did mummy come to see the fireworks too?" she asks, as the children's rain song fades into the night. Her father says nothing, as she knew he would. Lin knows her mother died when she was born. That much she has been told. But her essence remains a mystery, a question mark at the centre of their life.

The grass is slippery. The pain in her legs pushes all thought of further questions aside. Lin is hobbling now. Her father bends to lift her. She pushes him away, angry and frustrated. The rain falls steadier, soaking her through. Still she refuses help, still she splashes onward, water drops drumming on her coat, cramps shooting through her muscles. Her father steers her onto another pathway. Their progress slows, halts.

Another family strolls past, the parents unobservant of the war of attrition being played out, their children turning their heads in curiosity. Her father waits, not moving, leaving the decision to her.

Lin screws her eyes shut, hoping to watch the dragons dancing one more time on the private viewscreen behind her eyelids. She wishes for their wings to swoop over the grass and disperse at her feet in streams of red and green and gold, lifting her away into the sky. But all she sees is faint sparks hovering in the darkness, and all she feels is the pain.

She lets her father lift her, burying her face in his shoulder so he won't see her tears. She finds herself racked with sobs anyway. They reach the perimeter of the park and step out onto the road that leads to their house of cubes and pillars and silence and loneliness, where her father will disappear into his laboratory to work on his experiments, to tinker with the next upgrade to her braces.

"Lin," he whispers, stroking her wet hair. "I will help you to walk."

And he says no more. They walk on through the deserted streets, the only sound that of her father's shoes on the roadway. The rain dies down, and Lin drifts off into dreams of dragon scales and lightning.

Lin waits in the wings, a nervous fluttering in her stomach. Karl Denlo, her father's business partner, gives her a warm smile. "Don't worry," he says. "They won't be looking at you. Not at the real Lin. They're here to see the great Yu Phan."

Lin nods and bites her lip. To keep her mind from the auditorium stage she turns a rainstick over and over in her hands, a gift from Mr Denlo's son Rudy she received a week earlier on her twelfth birthday. She listens to the rice grains' motion, feels the roughly-finished wooden surface scraping her skin. The sound of raindrops fills her head. She imagines herself inside the tube – running wherever she's told, only getting as far as the opposite side before being forced back the way she came...

Six years since that night on Hampstead Heath, six years of modifications and adjustments and breakthroughs and disappointments. She's been through five iterations of the braces now. Still the pain doesn't lessen, still her legs function at little more than a dragging limp, her spine twisted like it was made of barbed wire. She often wonders if the numerous cosmetic mechanisms she's developed to disguise her imperfections are for her own benefit or her father's.

His voice rings out now, holding his audience rapt. "Traditional hydro-gels are limited in scope. We at Phan Medical realised that carbon-based nanocomposites, if used in conjunction with the body's own bio-learning capacities, might reconfigure the human form into more – shall we say – advanced structures. My work on this project began six years ago, here in London..."

Lin stops listening. London, the only city she has ever known, feels as if it's closing in on her like a vice. Her father's company, Phan Medical, expands outwards even as she feels her horizons contracting. Phan: The World To Come, says its slogan, the words everywhere now – splashed over billboards, embedded within multi-player games, flashing across scrollbars and paywalls and retail hubs. Orthotics, analgesics, prosthetics are all under his monopoly. Enhancement implants are catching up fast. It's as if he's shaping the world into a dream of perfect forms, bending it to his own will, forever grasping for something just out of reach.

"Nervous systems are, in effect, quantum computers," her father's voice continues. "To unlock their potential we must see our structures, our skeletons, as exponential. Machines, with the capacity to transfigure themselves. But can we perform such a leap of faith alone?"

Lin shifts, trying to find a comfortable stance. Mr Denlo takes the rainstick from her hands and places a finger to her lips. A last mournful rice shiver fades away. From where she stands she can see her father in profile, his figure stiff and straightened. His audience hang on his every word, on every photograph and diagram of her physical development, every detail of her mother's genetic abnormalities that only revealed themselves in her daughter's own DNA. When she's ushered out onto the stage they will assess her with cold, analytical eyes, as if they wish for nothing more than the chance to dissect her, dissolve her.

"Our tissue engineering program has yielded remarkable results. My own daughter, as you are no doubt aware, was born with severe spinal defects. Through a process of trial-and-error we have begun to see a transformation within her body. One might call her a meta-human-to-be; a harbinger of a new breed. What will be her limitations, when our research is completed?"

Lin allows herself an amused grimace. More and more her father seems obsessed with her – healing her, tweaking her as if she's one of his pieces of auto-responsive medical equipment. She can see that his acolytes feign interest in her welfare only to gain access to him. The thought often lurks at the edges of her consciousness: maybe she, too, is only subjecting herself to this torture to be closer to him. Sometimes her skeleton screams in protest, as if to say: leave me the way I am. Sometimes she wonders if it's worth the risk. If nature has designed her this way then it might be wiser to accept the inevitable, to learn to live with her deformities and not view them as her enemies. Even at her young age she can see her father is driven by the impossible, the lost cause.

A hiss comes from behind her. Mr Denlo is idly spinning the rainstick, a faraway expression on his face. Lin and Rudy will often play together, while their respective fathers shutter themselves within the research laboratories – Rudy slipping through the depths of the house like a water spirit, she stumbling along after him as best she can. This is their secret universe. Their games take on occult forms, childish furtiveness that excludes the adult world. She will always be behind him, forever playing catch-up to his retreating figure as he looks over his shoulder and urges her on, on, on. But still she strives, still she refuses to admit defeat.

Her father's voice rises in intensity, in fervour. "Humanity, ladies and gentlemen, cannot stay earthbound forever. To survive in the cosmos will require a recalibration of what we think of as human. Are we to grovel in the soil of our own graves, or are we prepared to strive for the infinite?"

He pauses, and turns to where she waits. Lin has never heard him say these words before, this hinting at insane plans, these intimations of godhood. A tremor shivers along her muscles, contorting her posture. Unseen to the audience, she shakes her head. Her father twitches his fingers: come.

Lin hesitates. Agony spasms through her spine. The noise of the rainstick murmurs on. Rice fizzes with the sound of sparks now, not rain, a static charge building and building until she can't separate the noise from the pain burning through her nervous system, can't do anything other than close her eyes and visualise dragons swooping through the night sky and breathing flames into her bones.

She opens her eyes and meets her father's gaze. He hasn't moved. Ignoring the pain as best she can, Lin takes the first tormented step out onto the stage. A ripple of applause murmurs through the audience. Her father turns away and taps at his interface. A string of numbers shimmers onto the plasma screen behind him, the secret codes of her body he pores over long into each and every night as she lies in bed awake, willing her body to heal itself so he can rest at last.

Lin and Rudy wait for the chair lift. Below, a panoramic view of the snow-caked valley stretches down to the towering citadel of glass spires and renewable balconies she now calls home, a vast structure teetering above the lower slopes of the Alps like a crane nesting beside a lake.

Her Rainsticks settle into a comfortable shape inside her. Gelatinous skeletal accoutrements, they align her body into a lithe, flowing approximation of the form her father has always dreamed of. Every movement she makes is echoed by the nano-particles swarming through her blood, the gel that surrounds her bones a gyroscope, a balancing act whose safety net resides within her own DNA.

The two years they've spent in exile in Switzerland, far away from the unseen ghost of her mother, has allowed Lin to become the woman she would never have been trapped back in London. Rudy squeezes her arm. She sees more of him than she does her father now. Phan Industries, and the blueprints for his latest project, a space elevator he has named the Spear, takes up every minute of his waking life. She suspects he dreams of his work too, diagrams and tabulations swimming in his unconscious mind like chess pieces. His personal laboratory at the root of their house is his haven, her prison, his guilt mechanism to cement the hold they have over each other.

The ski slopes seem to tower over her. The freezing air distracts her from her nervousness, the tight knot of pain at the base of her neck that betrays the trepidation she feels. "Hey, don't worry." Rudy grins, teeth white against the whiter landscape. "I'll go easy on you."

She shifts her feet, feeling the gel that enfolds her skeleton shifting in concordance with her muscular movements. "Daddy says any physical activity should be safe," she replies, and instantly regrets her choice of words. She knows what Rudy's friends say about her – daddy's girl, silver-spooner, guinea pig...She wishes for nothing more than freedom. Even now, with her body stiffened and straightened into a semblance of utility, she feels harnessed into near-immobility – a mental reining-in of ambition and possibility.

"Mr Phan is the one who should know," Rudy says. "You inspired his elevator, after all."

"I did not!"

"That's what he tells people. He's serious, too."

"His ziggurat to the stars?" Lin snorts. "He'll never build it."

"He built you."

Lin feels herself blush. Rudy seems to sense her discomfort at his words. "It'll be fine, Lin. Think of today as a trial run. If you can do this, why shouldn't the Spear work too?"

"It was your father that conceptualised the Rainsticks, remember? Maybe daddy should be thanking him instead."

Rudy just laughs. When the lift comes he waves the attendant away and helps her into the cradle. Their ascent is a voyage of apprehension and excitement. She has often watched him and his friends from her balcony, slaloming through the falls of whiteness on the lower slopes, beetles crawling over the mountainside she doesn't dare challenge. She feels his offer of lessons has other, deeper resonances. Karl Denlo controls an ever-increasing portion of the Phan empire now that her own father's concerns lie elsewhere. Would a marriage unite the two families or repel them away from each other? She would like to ask Rudy. She would like him to ask her.

But he chatters about pole actions and leg shifts instead. The house, receding now, seems like a toy a child has placed onto a model mountain. A brief flurry of snow whips up. Her father will not know of the change in the weather, the adventures of his daughter. All he cares about is his elevator. "I began with a problem," he will say to his investors, or to the media, or to politicians, "and in its solving a new problem formed. A solution is only ever a re-imagining of a dilemma. But, of course, sometimes it takes a child's imagination to show you what you have been seeing all along."

His plans frighten Lin. Will he go through with it? Private capital prostrates itself at his feet. Even she, a minor cog in her father's machinery, has a value to those who see an opportunity when it presents itself. If it fails, then maybe her father will pull back on his grandiose ambitions, his driving guilt.

And if it succeeds? Then he will push himself on to the next peak, a higher plateau.

Out on the platform the air is calm. Grey swifts glide along the airstreams above, gravityless, swooping over their clifftop kingdom. No-one is on the mountain today apart from the two of them. It occurs to her that Rudy has arranged things this way. She feels both proud and scared at the prospect.

Rudy helps her strap on her skis. He stands, poised, on the brink of the nursery slope. To him it will be a child's run. To Lin, the descent plummets downwards at an almost vertical angle. Her breath catches. Rudy waits, saying nothing. The choice, once more, is hers.

And she recalls that night on Hampstead Heath, and the rain, and the agony shooting through her bones, the crowds from the fireworks display strolling past her without a care in the world; and her father, arms outstretched, his face as serious as she has ever seen it, willing her on to break through the wall and survive.

Flakes of snow settle onto her gloves. Rudy turns and girds himself for the run. Lin, her courage set in stone now, exhales. Muscles burning, she braces her limbs against the bend of her bones and casts off.

Rudy shrugged. "I've not seen him for months, to tell you the truth." He taps an idle finger across the surface of the imager, sending shivers of muted blue light through the rendition of the Spear that hovers between them. "I guess he's back on the Orbital. Maybe the weather down here didn't suit him after all."

"And you?"

Rudy grimaces, a parody of a smile. "I prefer a drier climate nowadays."

The island shifts, sending tremors through the headquarters building. Lin's office sits at the summit, her window affording the two of them a wide-angle view of the construction site. Giant tethers billow upwards like the stanchions of an unfinished circus tent. Hollowed-out foundation cavities emit fiery shimmers of light. Grappling hooks await their nano-carbon cables, the threads that will bind the Earth to the stars. The elevator will be finished within half a decade. Its completion will instigate a new era of exploration for mankind, an ingress to the solar system and – maybe – beyond; or so Lin's father tells her, on the rare occasions they speak. He is known, in bitter conversations among the labourers and in angry media broadcasts, as the Emperor. Brooding in his Orbital far above, he seems ever more detached from humanity. The irony is not lost on Lin.

"Why is he doing this?" She gestures to the hum of activity outside. "This island, this tower, this vainglorious reaching for...what?"

"Compensating for his faulty genes, maybe." Rudy spreads his hands. This is their anniversary. Her father hadn't attended their wedding on the shores of Lake Lucerne seven years earlier – not from disapproval, but because he was so wrapped up in his plans it slipped his memory. Lin, too, had forgotten the significance of this day until Rudy's unexpected arrival, his demeanour hesitant and apologetic.

"And for my genes too?" she says in reply.

"My father says Mr Phan is driven by motivations even he doesn't understand." Rudy's face is an indecipherable mask. "I don't think I've ever taken you away from him, Lin."

The glowing image of the Spear is taunting in its perfection. Lin turns away. A squall of rain patters against the window. A hundred metres away a flash of blue light arcs outwards from the mass of girders that will become the base station for the project. Indentured workers, flown in from the dying states of West Africa and Oceania, swarm over the structure like ants feeding on a carcass. Many will die. The artificial island, nameless, stateless, drifts in equatorial waters. Untethered for now, it will eventually connect to the Orbital in an umbilical conjoining. In dark moments Lin admits it will be the nearest she will ever get to procreation.

"So why are you here?" she asks.

"I came to see if you wished to celebrate. But if you'd rather..."

Rudy's hesitance annoys her. She knows of his life, his assignations, his affairs. They are no longer hoping for an heir. In quiet moments, Lin forces herself to admit this was never what she wanted in the first place.

"We can annul," she says, surprising herself with her bluntness. "If that's what you would like."

Rudy feigns amazement. "Should we not think about it a while longer?"

A kilometre away, a waterspout surges in the wake of the island's drift. A dark mass of seabirds circles, hoping to scavenge whatever oceanic waste has been thrown up. The rain, falling harder now, obscures the view of the diminishing spout until it merges into the runnels of water on the glass. She shifts around in her seat. Her Rainsticks undulate within her; her twin, as much a part of her as her natural body. That same technology, adapted to develop the material for the elevator cables, has kept her alive and mobile all these years. But she knows, even though her father doesn't want to admit it, their tenure is finite. Soon she will have to make the choice: join her ailing father on the Orbital, or slowly crush under the weight of Earth's gravity, her posture bending and straining like a tree in a gale, the pain becoming too great for even Phan's technicians to make tolerable.

She flips off the imager. Now there is nothing between them. Nothing but the unbridgeable scar of withholding, of confinement, incompatibility. "By the time the Spear is finished," she says, "I'll be gone."

Rudy raises his eyebrows to the sky, arcing his gaze upward in an unsaid question. Lin turns back to the window. She doesn't react when he rises to leave. "I'll have my lawyers send the papers over," he says. "No fault, no frills?"

When she doesn't answer he slips silently away. This will be the last time they meet. Lin feels little. Her thoughts ascend, beyond the clouds that spill their waters to the sea, up through the ionosphere to low-Earth orbit and her father's domicile, the centre of his web of influence, from where he extends his tendrils into every corner of Earth's economy. She pictures herself there, half-floating, untethered; her Rainsticks free at last to ripple where they please, her body lithe and supple as it was all those years ago on the slopes of the lower Alps, snow rushing past her as Rudy laughed alongside, her life aligning into grids of happiness before her.

She returns to her tasks, a rueful smile flickering on her face for an atomic instant, her pathway once more set out on vertical strands of nano-tubes and graphene that reach their spider silk filigrees into the sky.

Lin doesn't like to disturb her father when he is in Communion. He will enter trance; he and the ersatz intelligences that maintain Phan Orbital. They have christened them Archies, a private joke: archetypes, images from the collective unconscious, merged with chi, the vapour of creation. Their tank-grown, quasi-mineral physical forms live in the cryo-chambers at the Orbital's heart. From there they ripple outwards in electronic whispers, analysing and controlling, spreading through the station like benign knotweed.

Up here time seems to fold in on itself, endless days pivoting backwards and forwards on a fulcrum point midway between the Earth and the stars. The Orbital, large enough to house hundreds now, is empty of human life save for Lin and her father. The two of them have lived here together for five years now. Even so, they rarely see each other. Today, Lin's father will commune with his creations for hours, as he does every day. His body, bent and twisted with the burden of years, sits hunched inside its support cradle, straining against its harness as the microgravity ripples through the Orbital.

These motion adjustments, devised to match the tautness of the cables descending from the construct's underside, send tiny shockwaves through Lin's body, swells and surges that her Rainsticks stabilise in an instant. She enters her own gel-tank and plugs herself into her comm. Her Communions are undertaken with an increasing sense of detachment. Economic indexes, media streams, plug-ins to the vast games of conquest her fellow humans undertake in their own parodies of intimacy, their minds joined into indeterminate blobs of passivity disguised as activity...She analyses, but feels nothing.

Her Rainsticks tingle in her bones. As the data flows into her consciousness she automatically sifts it into categories of relevance. Grids align in her mind, enhanced by the Archies. Together they feed the evaluations into the composite web overseen by her father. In a strange way it's the closest she's ever been to him. She has discussed the matter with herself, with the Archies. A Eucharist, came the reply. A sacrament.

The thought amuses her. Even though she knows the answer is little more than a reflecting mirror of her own thought processes, an amplifier, the perceptiveness is somehow disquieting.

Hours pass. She drifts, anchored to the material world by little more than her faltering body. The Archies' rudimentary thoughts become hers. She grows bored of overseeing Phan Industries, and turns her attention elsewhere: to the object under construction on an annex to the station. Lumpy, ugly, the deep-space vessel squats on the Orbital's hull. It will leave soon; to Mars, to instigate the next phase of her father's push to dominate the universe. The Spear was only the first stage in her family's migration. The ship, Lin knows, is where her father's heart lies.

Rudy Denlo, Head of Operations now his own father has stepped down, takes care of the Earth-bound activities. Climbers crawl up and down the elevator's wires, laden with raw materials stripped from the planet's crust. Slowly, slowly, the Mars ship takes shape. The dispatches she receives from Rudy are technical, practical, containing no mention of their past life together.

For this she is glad.

A ghost note enters her reverie, a disruption in the flow of serenity. She pulls back, loosens herself from her union with the ether and prepares to re-enter the world of the Orbital. When she emerges from the tank, flexing her muscles to facilitate movement in her atrophying bones, her father is already waiting for her.

"Yes, father?" she says, when they are comfortably ensconced on the station's viewing platform. Opulence surrounds them – magnetic cradles tether their bodies to soft furnishings, samite and tussore-bedecked weavings that seem to grow from the walls and floor. "How was Communion today?"

"It was fine."

Their communications with each other are like this nowadays – distant, polite. He owes her no favours, she supposes. They have settled into their roles – Lin, the dutiful daughter; her father, the patriarch, the Emperor, the weaver of dreams. But he still seems driven – by guilt, by shame, by his own physical pain, greater now as his body nears the end of its natural lifespan.

"Rudy believes the Emigration will proceed ahead of schedule," he says in his old, slow voice. "When the next Spear is built we will be able to pick the most suitable pioneers."

"From those who have paid?"

She doesn't mean to mock. But the insinuation of her father's vision into every aspect of global culture frightens her. He, nowadays, seems uninterested in anything other than his Mars project. But Lin can see the filaments of the company creeping ever outwards, suffocating those who stand in its way, gathering the powerful and greedy around its core until even governments acquiesce to its jurisdiction.

Her father's gaze is shrewd, penetrating. Even in his dotage he exudes a quiet power, a birthright. Not for the first time a fear of him courses through her, as if her Rainsticks are an extension of his own physical being into hers. "Lin, Rudy and I have discussed the future of Phan Industries," he says. "We are at the point where we need to push forward. We believe that you are the person best qualified to execute our vision."

"Father, I have no wish to return to Earth." She shivers. The Spear's cables are invisible from here. But she feels them, tugging at her skin, cajoling her to return to the gravitational oppression she has always yearned to escape.

"That won't be required of you. We need you to focus on one task only from now on, possibly the greatest task any human could perform."


Her father hesitates. "Lin, I know we haven't been close. Up here..." He sweeps an arm to encompass the interior of the Orbital, its plushness somehow obscene. "It may seem as if I have no interest in mankind's future. On the contrary; Rudy and I have been engineering the greatest project ever attempted. The Spear was never for tourist trips or fossil fuel hunts. You know that." He reaches out and takes her hand. His flesh is cold, rough. Lin places her own hand over his, entwining their fingers together in a parody of affection.

"I'll do what you require of me, father," she says. And, she thinks, she means it.

Her father says nothing for a while. The planet rotates magisterially beneath them on the viewing screens, an alien world to both of them now. A note of sadness is in his voice when he finally speaks. "The world is a bleak place nowadays. I have no confidence in mankind's ability to stave off devastation. It's time for a new beginning. A new frontier." He squeezes her hand. "Lin, I need you to be the first emigrant. Prepare Mars for the human race. Make people feel they have come home."

The walls seem to dissolve around Lin, the void rushing in on her as she pictures the depthless, impalpable eternity beyond Earth. And she isn't even surprised to feel a weight lifting from her, a craving for freedom fulfilled at last.

Lin's view of Ascraeus Mons is obscured by a swarm of dust particles drifting over the Tharsis region. The trillions-strong cloud of grains catches the sunlight, refracting into billows of coloured shadow that make Mars seem inhabited by shoals of deep-canyon fish. She turns from the screen. Around her the station hums; not with life, for she's the only living creature aboard. But she feels the potential of the semi-sentient beings that surround her, their minds in constant accord with their doppelgangers on the planet's surface five hundred kilometres below.

She plugs herself into the liquid tank of sugars in the locus chamber and closes her eyes. Within a matter of minutes she's entering the empathic trance-state necessary to merge into confluence with the Archies, they who control the remote machines that roam across the plains of Tharsis, absorbed in a never-ceasing search for raw materials they can use to build Phan City and its planned series of suburbs.

Lin's physical movements will be doubled on the planet's surface by her plasticised avatar. Even though the Archies have no innate intelligence Lin suspects that they accommodate some covert function she can't quite grasp the substance of, however much she prods and probes. Their manipulation of the range of tools at their disposal resembles more a conjoining of souls than the duties they were designed to carry out. It often feels as if they tolerate her, as if they were the masters of the planet and she merely an adjunct to their mission.

She likes it here – so far from her family, so far from everything and everyone she has ever known. Her father, nowadays, remains on his Orbital in a barely senescent half-life. Rudy Denlo is free to flex Phan's economic muscles, detached from the restrictions of law and ethics that burdened the company so in the past. Her father's wealth is immeasurable, ever-expanding. His intricate network of corporations controls plastics, proteins, water recycling, air purification, solar reflectors...His exploitation of environmental devastation has made him a true Emperor. The human race bows to his demands, dances to his tune.

Their final meeting before she left for Mars had been overlaid with an air of regret. He had spoken of humanity, of solutions. "Mars will be just the beginning, Lin. By the time I join you I expect the colony to be self-sufficient."

"How will you survive on the surface, father? Even in zero-g you can't breathe without..." She waved a hand at the robot nurses who attended to his every bodily need – pampering, cajoling, willing his broken lungs to draw in precious air, their ancillary limbs manipulating his wracked body into contorted figures. "Without this. I don't even know if I'll be able to."

"I have no choice. No-one else will save those fools down there." He gestured to the viewscreen and its panorama of the planet below. The plains of Africa were rolling past, green and brown and bordered by encroaching blue. Lin had often wondered whether his life in this eyrie gave him the objectivity to make uncomfortable decisions or, conversely, an unhealthy omniscience. "Lin, if your mother could have seen this..." He sighed. "But the past is the past. So prepare Mars for them. Make it a beautiful world, Lin, for a new age. And if it should happen that I don't live to see it..."


"...then I give you my blessing to shape the future as you see fit."

"That's not a responsibility I wish to take on," she replied. But her father had closed his tired eyes. His breathing became deep, ragged. A robot nurse flexed its arms and lowered his body into the vat of cryo-gel set into the floor of his chamber. Another, humanoid this time, hovered at her elbow. After a minute she followed it out, aching to turn back one last time but willing herself not to do so.

On her passage to Mars she wondered what she could have said differently. Nothing came to mind. Nothing comes to mind now, either, as her head swims and the bustle of the construction site appears in her mind. Archies walk and wheel and fly in a dance of ever-changing activity, their movements pushing inexorably toward the creation of the new metropolis that will, according to her father's plans, save the human race.

Assuming, of course, that any on Earth can afford the transit fees.

The mucilage attached to her neural pathways sparks and trembles. Like fireworks, she thinks. Like electric messages shooting through Rainsticks, mutating me into a super-being, an overlord. An Archie speeds past on a centipede-track, his destination unknown, his motivations unknowable. Will he, too, live in this place when it is finished? Or will these mystics be cast into the Martian wilderness when their work is done, there to exist or expire as they choose?

Sighing, she unplugs herself. Hours have passed. Later, as she sleeps, her weightless body recharges itself as best it can, a jellyfish swimming against an endless tide.

The planets orbit their star in trajectories predictable and fixed. A mast juts outward from the third planet, a pillar to the heavens. Atop it nests a floating tomb, a weightless monument to the future that never was. A counterweight cable vanishes into the starlight from its opposite side, a frond drifting in the endless sea of space. A human figure sleeps within the Orbital, both alive and dead. Machines maintain a breathable atmosphere for the lungs of the Emperor to draw in, his empire now a wasteland, his throne a sarcophagus.

Around the fourth planet a metal disc spins, always showing the same face to the reddened expanses of desert beneath, its unceasing motion a pale echo of the vast processes of the cosmos. A cord binds this vessel to the world below; unseen by human eyes, radio waves flicker through the ionosphere, puppet strings whose marionettes are barely distinguishable from their puppeteer.

Seven cities lie dormant, awaiting their inhabitants. The eighth city, the final one, is finished now too. Lin forgets which one of these constructions was once known as Phan City. Domes, glinting in the Martian sunlight, range across the desert in exponential spirals, fractal vortices. Fine layers of sand coat their upper shells. The water that has been extracted from deep beneath the surface sloshes within carapaces of renewable plastic, turning these rooms within rooms into aquariums, miniature oceans, radiation shields that will protect organic cells from that which would destroy them.

Lin's body, encased in crystallized gas and super-cooled water, exists in a half-life, neither human nor God but rather something inbetween. A guardian of heaven, she often thinks to herself on her shipboard sanctum. That is what I am now. A dragon.

She turned off the news feed from Earth years ago. The emigration will never happen now, that much is obvious. The planned series of elevators were never built. Her father's own structure is rotting, barely operational. The Orbital still hovers at its apex, suspended above the globe like an old and brittle spider, her father's deep sleep undisturbed. But down on the planet eyes have turned inwards. Phan Industries is no more. Rudy Denlo, old now – as old as she; the thought came as a shock – has disappeared into wealth-ridden retirement, safe inside one of the gated nation-states that hold their borders against the rising tides and starving billions.

Lin finds herself unable to shed tears for any of it. She spends her days flitting from one body to another, a parasite feeding from her hosts via subsurface relays and vapour beams. The Archies range across the surface of the planet now. New cities rise from the sand. Channels have been excavated between them, Lowell's canals a reality at last. When the first waters cascade from the sky they will become rivers, torrents, veins to carry precious fluids from pole to pole.

Today, Archies are gathering from all over. Lin, a brood mother in her eyrie far above, watches with pride at the scuttling creatures ringing the outskirts of the city. For them, Mars is home. Her control over them has diminished to the point where she is a mere observer. She knows them now as architects, not archetypes; builders of dreams whose recall fades with the morning light. For mankind, at least. For them, the dreams are fast becoming reality.

On some days she wonders whether she should return to Earth, cajole the human race into reaching for transcendence as her father would have done. Deep down, though, she knows she will never leave this place. Slowly but surely she is transitioning; to new forms, eternal consciousness. Would her forebears see her as still human? That bridge, she supposes, has been burnt long ago. Forgotten, presumed dead, she continues on, living out her life as a true citizen of the void.

Still she prefers it this way. She switches viewpoint, alighting her consciousness within a wheeled, multi-limbed Archie who has lined up with others of its kind. Clouds swirl and billow. Lin watches from both beneath and above, neither viewpoint a true one for her any longer. She feels what her host feels; wind, temperature, the warmth of its brothers and sisters surrounding it. She feels her own body, frail but still functioning, ripple with anticipation at what is to come.

Hours pass. The Archies are silent. A change comes over the Martian landscape, a crackling of potential. Aurora flickers at the clouds' periphery. Colours dance across the sky; azure, carmine, cerise...

Lin senses an ache, an echo of trauma at the root of her flesh. She shifts within her cradle. Plasma gel oscillates with the movement of her body, consoling her, supporting her. The pain recedes to memory, to the past. She focuses her attention onto the surface. Something, now, is happening.

Her host turns its gaze upward. The clouds darken. Lightning spasms – once, twice, blues and golds flickering from horizon to horizon. Static snaps. Even as far away as she is, the hairs on Lin's neck and arms stiffen in charged sympathy. Red dust forms spouts, eddies swirling in the sudden breeze that has picked up. Light plays over the roofs of the domes. The Archies wait, poised at the lip of success or failure; a pivot point, their own crucial moment.

Lin, fingers clenched, holds her breath. Memories dart and skim across her mind's eye. She recalls the braces cutting into her legs, the play of light on the clouds above London. She thinks of her mother, who never knew her daughter. She thinks of her father, who could never feel joy, never feel the satisfaction of a task fulfilled. She remembers the snow showering behind her on the lower slopes of the Alps, the swell of the equatorial ocean, the Spear towering into the clouds, the rattle of rice grains sliding from end to end of her toy as Rudy Denlo pounds ahead of her along the hallways of her house and she screams, trying to break through the barrier ahead of her, forever holding out a trembling hand...

A vibration shakes her bones, a thundercrack from far, far away.

And it's seconds before she realises that the wetness on her cheeks is raindrops, not tears, and the Archies heave a silent, collective sigh of relief and trundle back to their tasks in the deluge that falls now from the Martian sky.

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