Turnover is a little dizzying, but bearable and brief. By this time the mech is well out of the Earth's atmosphere, and still rising. Below me - below in a gravitational sense, from my point of view it's in front, because that's where my screen is - the Mediterranean Sea is ending, and the Arabian Peninsula beginning.

Looking ahead the picture is more complicated. The mech's tactical software is overlaying the picture from ahead of the mech with a number of symbols. Tiny green crosshairs indicate other mechs rising from their various bases towards the blue point in space which is the rendezvous point - where the wormhole is going to be built.

On the Earth's surface below, a pale red crosshair marks the point in central India where the asteroid is going to hit. The rendezvous point is connected to it by a straight grey strand, thin as spider silk. In the opposite direction, the strand extends off towards the Sun - a yellow glow, masked by software routines - and a deeper, more malevolent red marker which is the current location of the asteroid itself. Beside it, a tiny timer ticks down. Forty-two minutes.

This is a pretty sophistimacated piece of tactical software, I think to myself. The original mech just had a heat detector. Anything hot was flagged as hostile and had a range marker, and that was it. Laughably primitive, really.

"Chrononet is dying, Sam," says Ed, making me jump. I hadn't realised he was still there.

There's a machine in Edinburgh, a layer sonar, which, every five seconds, emits a pulse into one of the layers where c is a billion or so times higher than in ours, and records the time taken for it to echo back off the wavefront. There's a website where you can watch the second-by-second countdown and even listen, live, to the individual pings. The pings have taken an almost iconic status, something like the Doomsday Clock. And every day they get very slightly faster. Since the energy virus' existence was first announced the period between pings has halved. But that's not the part people find scary. The scary part is the lack of positive news about Chrononet, which has been steadily dropping behind schedule for over a year now. The scary part is listening to the energy virus approaching and worrying that by the time Humanity gets its act together it will be much too late.

But up until now, I haven't been scared, because I know who Ed is - the smartest person I've ever heard of - and I have confidence in him. So when he says something like "Chrononet is dying" my world is suddenly shaken. "Dying?"

"The problem is power. The amount of power that's going to be needed to flick such a huge mass so far back in time is orders of magnitude larger than anything we can currently generate, even in nuclear explosions. And until I can devise a power source, we can't design satellites, and until we design the satellite we can't construct launch vehicles and plan launches. We've got nothing."

"You always come up with something."

"I know I always come up with something. Whenever I've been building something in the past and I got stuck, it's like the answers were always there. They came to me if I just devoted some thought to them, you know? It used to be easy. But now the answers are all gone. I hit this problem less than ten minutes after you suggested the Chrononet solution, and it's now four and a half years later and I STILL don't have the faintest idea how to begin solving it. Nobody on the team does, and there are some incredibly intelligent people working with me. But here's the thing. Somebody does have the answer."

"To fling a rock that fast..."

"Yes. We need their power source. I don't care what you have to do. When the ring is attacked, as I'm sure it will be, you'll probably have a chance to make contact. When you get that chance, give me and an alert and we'll connect Tyro up to that communications channel. Tyro should be smart enough to decipher their language and start bargaining. Once you've offered our unconditional surrender, find out what they want and whatever it is, give it to them. Understand?"

"Perfectly, although if I'd known what I was getting into I wouldn't have climbed back into the driver's seat after giving Marcus the ring."

"That was your decision. But just try to make the best of it. Well... according to my instruments, you're at the rendezvous spot, correct?"

"So it would seem," I reply, as the sudden cessation of deceleration jolts me out of my seat against the straps momentarily. Then a faint downward gravity takes over, pulling me distantly towards the Earth, as the mech stands on air; or rather, nothing. Green crosshairs marking other mechs are now all around me like flies - I can see some of the mechs properly, though others are kilometres away, still too small to see. The blue rendezvous marker is large on my screen now. "Where are you?"

"Mobile control at Jacksonville cargo docks. It's a port on the Floridian east coast. Though 'mobile control' is just a romantic way of saying it's me and my laptop and a phone and a wireless network connection back to SDC Response. We've just finished building the first wormhole."

"Jeesh, that was quick."

"Give me a few minutes to get it on its way out of atmo and we'll start building yours."

"All right. Marcus, you still there?"

"Yeah, I know what to do," he says. The mech shifts slightly, and very gently pulls the red ring off its finger. Then it holds the ring out in front of it, pointing from left to right. I pray that Marcus doesn't drop it. We could catch it, but it would waste precious time...

Seconds tick by.

And then I can hear Ed shouting to various people around him: "All right! Ladies and gentlemen, we are moving on to phase two! The green ring you see in front of you is a miniature wormhole! We are about to connect it to another ring which is currently situated in cold vacuum! Unless you are piloting a mech, stay outside a fifty-metre radius of the ring if you want to avoid being sucked out into deep space! If you are piloting a mech, that radius is ten metres but be careful! Are we all ready?"

There's a chorus of affirmatives which I cheerfully join in, fishing the remote control out of my pocket.

"All right! Activating the wormholes!"

I hit the button for my red wormhole. Thousands of miles away, Ed hits the button for his green wormhole. Somewhere in some mystical alternate layer of the universe, the two wormholes connect, and Floridian atmosphere begins to vent out of the ring in front of me, sparkling slightly as its water content condenses and then freezes. A few seconds elapse. And then vwhoooosh, a thick grey/blue/black tube of material shoots out of the ring too, like an unlimited supply of playdough being extruded - nearly as thick as the red hoop is wide, growing at maybe twenty or thirty miles per hour, shooting away to my left where a pair of mechs have now grabbed the end and are pulling it steadily away and around in a gigantic circle.

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