Michael was leaning over the wooden balustrade, watching the ripples spread out from the comms’ unit he’d just dropped into the stream below. The hint of a smile crept across his face as he remembered the first time he had stood on this spot.
It seemed like a lifetime ago now.
Then the Structure had been little more than just another virtual lifescape. But it had already shown potential, it had promised so much ... How wrong they’d all been. The smile disappeared as he recalled what was now happening, what he now knew, what the models were predicting.
He closed his eyes for a moment and cast his mind back to the beginning. Then he’d been one of original 'Three' as the media had dubbed them, Uri, Lucy, and himself.
What a …
Opening his eyes, he looked up towards the Arrivals and Reception Hall, the RaH, towering high overhead, casting what felt like its omnipresent shadows over the Concourse and the small memorial garden he was standing in, with its gurgling stream and little bridge.
His eyes lingered for a moment. The RaH, perhaps the most potent symbol of the Company’s hegemony in this place - a true terminus, he thought, but was it more than just the end of the line for the Nannos that stretched back across the Chaos?
His eyes dropped down to the expanse of steps and terraces that anchored the massive construct to the Concourse and paused for a moment, staring at the seemingly endless stream of migrants cascading down to the Gates and beyond, to what they all hoped would be a new life down on the Levels.
He suddenly realised the time.
It couldn’t be!
He’d been on the bridge for almost ninety minutes. He’d been due to meet up with Gabi over an hour ago.
Possibilities flooded through his mind.
None of them good.
She must have missed a connection ….
He knew she’d made it to O'Hare, she had messaged him from the departure lounge. She'd been about to board a shuttle to Paris, the first leg of her convoluted journey to this place. From Paris she’d been due to catch a flight down to Nairobi, there she would take the Metro to the East African Hub.
All perfectly straight forward.
So why was she late?
The shuttles were always on schedule, he couldn’t remember the last time one had been delayed, not seriously. A weak smile crept across his face, they were one of the few transports that still functioned efficiently back in the Reality.
Of course they did, the company operated the franchise.
There must have been … Maybe there had been some kind of problem, a security alert. What if one of the servers had gone down - Paris or Cairo, perhaps?
Possible, he supposed…
Anything was possible…
What about some kind of disruption after insertion?
He vaguely recalled a netcast talking about Gaia fundamentalists threatening the migration programme - but if there had been an ‘incident’, it would have been all over the nets, he would have heard.
But there had been nothing, no alert, no netcasts. And now he’d thrown away his comms’ unit …
He tried to clear his mind for a moment.
No need for a comms’ unit. Not here.
Forcing himself to recall half remembered protocols, he closed his eyes and opened a channel to the Net and started a query.
Stop. Stop. Stop.
Far too risky.
He quickly closed the up-link and leaned heavily on the balustrade, looking down into the little stream below.
There had to be a better, a safer way at least.
If any of the Nannos were down he would have heard.
Options, what were the options?
The Reality, the Nannos, or here?
Logical, he had to be logical.
First the Reality; there had been talk of unrest in Northern Europe, Paris in particular, was a hot bed of radicals.
Possible he supposed.
But, in truth, unlikely. The company, the Structure, weren’t a target for terrorists, not in the Reality at least, not yet.
Assume she had made it to the Hub, then what? It was possible that she’d been picked up at security. Unlikely, if they were looking for anyone they would be looking for him, not her.
Did they know about her?
He didn’t think so.
What about the transfer?
The Chaos was still to some extent an unknown. More likely he supposed, anomalies, distortions, even fade-outs were always a possibility. He’d been monitoring fluxes in the Chaos, the nothingness, the space between the one hundred and twenty three n-dimensions that separated the Structure and Module duplex from the Reality, for almost fifteen years now. Instability was a constant, that’s why it was called the Chaos.
But nowadays the fluxes were little more than inconveniences that the systems managed, just another set of variables that the processors manipulated.
But that had been changing ….
Michael cast his mind back over the last year – the instability had been increasing. That was, in part at least, why he was here, what had finally persuaded him to make the journey he had hoped would never be necessary.
Less than nine months ago he’d monitored a ‘storm’. Was it only nine months ago? Anyway, he could think of no better word to describe what he had seen. It had all but engulfed half of the Structure; a dozen Levels had almost been lost. The company had tried, and in the end succeeded, in damping it down – but at what cost?
He hated to think.
Subsequently, they, the company, had downplayed the whole incident as a ‘one off, a freak of nature’.
Who were they trying to kid?
Shortly afterwards he had discussed the incident with an old friend who had been in Chicago at the time, actually in one of the company’s control centres. It had been a close run thing, he’d said, they had almost lost an entire quadrant ... And there were rumours about Lucy … As far as he could tell, no one had seen her for months.
But he could prove nothing of course, and the company was hardly likely to call in the regulators – far too much was at stake.
But why hadn’t the authorities acted? Surely they had to know what had happened.
He raised his head and focused on the RaH again.
He had checked the stasis before they had left, the Chaos had been quiet. His eyes dropped down to the Concourse, it was clear from the stream of migrants that the Nannos were working just fine.
He leaned forward over the balustrade again and gazed down at the building’s rippled reflection in the stream below.
No, the cause was far more likely to be closer to home; he stared at the reflection of the upper floors of the massive building, and wondered if he was being paranoid.
It had been over five years since he had walked out. Five years since he’d stumbled across what Lucy and Uri had been up to, five years since he’d first tried to act ...
Back then he had thought he carried some weight, influence at least, that he was someone who would be listened to …
But he’d been wrong. Like everyone else he’d been used, it was now clear that he had been just another pawn on the board.
He had to find Gabi.
What had they agreed?
Closing his eyes he slipped into recall:
She was lying on the oversized bed they had bought in the sales the previous fall, the sheets were ruffled, the quilt on the floor.
“I know exactly where you mean. You took me there once, there was a small plaque on that funny little bridge....”
Michael’s eyes snapped open and homed in on the small brass plate screwed to the pillar just off to his left
In memory of Sonya Ahmed, Michelle Cheney, Gideon Dorit, Mohammud Seoud Edoo, Tracy Guggins, Tara Kiran, Paul Libman, Lauren Parisi, Sheetal Harish Patel, Hari Prabhaker, Shira Schlesinger, Swati Vyas, Saskia Wrede, Lan Zhang. Who lost their lives in the service of Mankind.
1st September 2043
She had known where to meet. There had been no confusion.
Thinking about it, there might have been some sort of hold up back at lake Victoria, one that might only be effecting that Nanno, or at most the East African hub.
If only they could have risked transferring together or at least left from the same hub, but they’d both known the risks. They had done the right thing.
So what now?
He should check the schedules, verify the data flows. He could interrogate the Net from anywhere in the system of course, but Dominic would be monitoring communications.
Better to go carefully, at least try to be discreet.
Michael knew that here of all places, he couldn’t hope to avoid being identified by the central processor for long, particularly if there was any sort of alert on. But there was no reason to bring that moment forward one second sooner than necessary.
The information he needed would be on public display in the RaH. His eyes scanned the rippled reflection of the building in the stream again. His greatest difficulty would be fighting his way through the rivers of would be migrants.
Instructing his pack-it-all to wait, he made his way off the small wooden bridge with its delicately carved balustrades, then through the small garden back out onto the Concourse. It wasn’t far to the terraces that led up to the entrance hall, five hundred metres perhaps, but this close to the RAH was congested at the best of times, this was about as close as you could get to the centre of off-Reality operations for the company. Within this short sector there was not only the RaH, the terminus for the Nannos back to the Reality, but also half a dozen Gates servicing the new ‘Megas’, the latest generation of migratories, the destination for the vast majority of souls passing through this place.
The migratories had been Uri’s ‘New Solution’. They had transformed the Structure from little more than an ambitious leisure park into something much bigger, something that had become, quite literally, world changing.
The company still had a leisure division of course, and whole sections of the Structure were still dedicated to tourism, adventure and plain escapism. But they were now little more than side-shows; the real business was now nothing less that resettling a significant proportion of humanity in this ‘Alternate Reality’.
Michael looked all around him. Yes, it had been a bold, even an inspired, project; but he had long suspected, and now believed, it to be a fatally flawed one. The Structure had never been designed to take the meta-load, the sheer volume of consciousness, that it was now being called on to handle. And despite all they had learnt the Chaos was still largely an unknown ... Who knew how much manipulation it could take?
As Michael weaved his way through the rivers of migrants his thoughts turned to his destination in the Structure. New Rome, a recreation level loosely based on second century Ancient Rome; it had been one of first environments to be constructed and the first to be fully stabilised and opened up as a commercial proposition.
In those early days it had been used as a development hub, in fact for almost a year it had been his home away from home. At the time, both he and Lucy had probably spent more time there than back in the Reality. It had been in New Rome that they had made many of the discoveries that had finally stabilised the environments, the Levels that made up what they now called the Structure. And he now suspected that it would be there that any solution to the growing instability would be found. Of course that was if there was a solution to be found at all.
He eventually made it to one of the elevators, the risers, translucent columns of crystallised Stuff that surrounded the RaH like rows of serried organ pipes. Pausing for a moment he looked up, the building seemed to merge into the High Vapours, the clouds that shrouded the singularity contained high overhead; it provided the power that sustained everything, the Module, the Nannos, even the Structure itself. For a brief moment he wondered what would happen if the singularity were ever to break free … Disaster, it would be nothing short of a disaster, and not only for the Structure. It could affect everything, including the Reality. Thank God that would never happen, could never happen. They had been careful, ever so careful.
The moment passed and he stepped forward …
The one hundred and twenty second floor was reached in seconds, as the riser gently slowed a vaguely familiar voice gently whispered inside his head ‘Welcome to the Infozone’.
Michael’s heart sank when he saw the vast expanse of emptiness laid out in front of him. He’d known since before he had walked out all those years ago, that once the Migratories, the ‘Homelands’ as the company now called them, were opened up, the traffic would be pretty much one way.
But ‘knowing’ and ‘seeing’ weren’t quite the same thing, not the same thing at all. He wondered how long the company would keep supporting the Leisure Clusters, how long it would be before they converted the whole Structure into to the new ‘Megas’, the new ‘Homelands’.
He closed his eyes for a moment. Where, for God’s sake, was it all leading?
As the Riser cleared the floor he felt himself being gently being nudged forward and then suddenly his ears popped as he was ejected from the pod and began gently drifting down towards an expanse of marble floor.
Michael flexed his knees as he landed; then quickly took stock of his new surroundings. Like everywhere else he had seen since arriving, it was substantially the same as when he’d left. But somehow it all ‘felt’ different, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but in his gut he felt something was wrong, very wrong.
He looked up, overhead floated Convolakin’s famous holo of the Structure; thousands of tiny points of light all joined by coils of silk like threads, the whole edifice shimmering and pulsating in harmony. He paused for a moment. No matter how many times he’d seen that image, pale imitations of which had graced every teenager’s bedroom walls for over a decade now; it still brought tears to his eyes. Despite everything that had happened, no matter what Lucy and Uri had done, he still considered the Structure, something beautiful, something to be proud of. If only it weren’t so flawed.
He had to get on.
Leaving the iconic holo behind, he passed through a massive arch and out onto the main floor beyond. As he did so, a familiar warm glow enveloped him and a strangely familiar, yet impersonal, voice whispered “Welcome Michael, it’s good to see you again...”
Michael was immediately taken aback, the Net knew…
Which meant ….
It meant nothing.
There must be thousands, no millions, of ‘Michaels’ in the system at any one time. Stop worrying; it was a low grade interface to the net, a ‘guardian angel’ a GA as they were called, nothing more. It had merely accessed his tag, nothing more than that.
Nothing to worry about.
Michael convinced himself that he was right, that it was nothing more than an automated greeting protocol. His ID was good, but in his heart of hearts he knew it wouldn’t hold up to any serious interrogation. It wouldn’t fool Dominic for a minute.
‘It’s great to be back’. He lied, turning around half expecting to see one of official ‘Guardians’ standing behind him, but no one, no-thing, was there – his ‘guardian angel’, wasn’t even a holo.
‘I need to check the input/output schedules, could you please provide a schematic’ he asked confidently, looking upwards, high into the vaulted ceilings. He knew he’d overdone it, never say ‘please’ to a GA, particularly one likely to be linked directly into the Net, potentially even to Dominic himself.
He just hoped it was too dumb to notice.
Real time input files began to form in front of him – Michael quickly began assessing them. Which Nannos were on line? Which gates were in operation; he even called up some of the efficiency ratios. It was a crude, but effective, guide to how heavily the system was laden – help him to identify any areas of stress, perhaps even provide clues to any systems failures.
It took him a while to digest it all. Finally, sure that he had understood the protocols, he concluded that everything was as it should be; there didn’t appear to be any delays. The East African Node was fine, Lake Victoria was clear, there were no storms, no anomalies, nearly all the KPI’s were green, and the few that were amber related to a sub-system going down on one of the Megas, Amity V, no wonder the Concourse was heading for gridlock.
He didn’t know whether to feel depressed or relieved, maybe Gabi had changed her mind. He considered submitting a specific query, put a trace on her, find out exactly where she was in the system. No, that would be a step too far; that would be playing straight into Dominic’s, and therefore the company’s, hands. He checked the time; he had better get back to the garden and wait for her there.
He stood just out of the flow of migrants, careful to avoid obstructing the entrance to the garden, not that anyone was bothering to go in, why should they? The garden was a memorial, no, a cluster of memorials, to construction workers and others, that had been lost during the Construction.
How many had really been lost? He knew it had run into the hundreds.
He had known many of them, some had been friends. Now he had little doubt that most of them had been sucked up into the Chaos, outside time, beyond help, beyond hope …
Were they dead? He thought. For their sake he hoped so; according to Lucy, and she really did know about these things, the Chaos was pretty close to what most people thought of as Hell.
He thought he saw her; a willowy shape disappearing into one of the concessions that dotted the Concourse, opportunities for the company to extract the last Yen, Euro or Dollar from migrants before they transferred down to the Levels.
A few moments later the figure re-emerged.
False alarm. Wrong height, wrong features, wrong everything. How could he make such a mistake?
For a moment, everything seemed to close in on him. Half buried memories welled up.
A figure was calling to him … A half remembered face …No, No, No. Not here, not now, not ever ….
He slumped back against the balustrade staring blankly up at the white marble columns that reared up from the Concourse ahead of him; towering up into the High Vapours that shielded the Singularity.
Then something glistening in the distance caught his eye and drew his attention; the distinctive spherical shape of the CD, the Command Deck, was emerging through the clouds.
He felt uneasy.
They couldn't possibly have tagged him already.
He visualised the small team of technicians that would be on board, overseeing the singularity, the stasis, maintaining the ‘systems’. He could almost see them slouched back in their recliners, manipulating the projectors that maintained both the Module and the Structure itself, supremely confident in their capabilities. Fooling everyone, themselves included, that they were the masters of the forces they were directing.
"Go find some place else to block."
Michael was startled.
A group of …. it was hard to say ‘youths?’, ‘yobs? – Certainly not migrants’ stood menacingly, encircling him. One of them, a mountain of a man, crew cut and wearing an old V-garb in default grey, with tears across his chest and down by the hem, reached out and physically lifted him into the air.
Michael gasped for breath as his robe was twisted tight around his neck, a blistered knuckle digging painfully into his throat.
"What d’you think you're doing? Who gave you’re the right to complete the Circle …?" The man-mountain growled in a heavily accented voice, pressing his foul smelling mouth hard up against Michael’s cheek.
Michael fought for breath, his eyes darting from face to face, imploring for help.
Crap, he thought, the man-mountain was talking crap, he had been blocking nobody.
The pressure subtly increased.
"I’ll move ... I didn't realise...." He gasped.
Howls of laughter erupted all around.
His tormentor seemed to roar, then burst into laughter.
"He didn't realise!" He mocked.
Michael managed to shift his position slightly; he was now staring directly up into his assailant’s eyes. They were distant, cold.
Suddenly there was a flash, quickly followed by the sweet and sickly smell of burning flesh.
The man mountain’s features began to contort, his grip weakening with every second. Slowly, even gracefully, Michael felt himself being lowered down to the ground as the now smouldering figure slumped down beside him, his limbs contorted at unnatural angles.
Michael’s eyes shot up, the man-mountain’s accomplices were standing motionless, staring at Michael’s tan and white pack-it-all, the small hexagonal follower unit just below the strap now flashing wildly, its alarm shrieking.
A satisfied smile began to creep across his face. His pack-it-all’s semi-intelligent systems must have sensed his danger, it would have automatically slipped into defence mode, taken what it believed to be appropriate action.
He didn’t know whether to be relieved or alarmed.
What would it have done first?
Its protocols dictated that it would have connected to the Net, posted an advisory.
It couldn’t have acted without clearance from the company; not here …
Logically then, the Central Processor, or one of it’s subsystems at least, knew that a ‘situation’ had developed on the Concourse. Therefore it could only be a matter of time before …
They would investigate.
Worse, by now Dominic would be processing everything …
Michael looked around; his assailants had already begun to melt back into the crowds.
They would now be the least of his problems; kneeling down beside the pack-it-all he manually reset the alarm and closed the uplink to the Net.
But he knew he was closing the door after the horse had bolted. He felt numb, sure that what had just happened wasn't chance.
As the minutes passed, his uneasiness grew, something had been wrong, whatever his assailants were, they certainly hadn’t been migrants. Equally, they were unlikely to be the company.
So, if not them … who?
And the man mountain had said something about ‘completing a circle’. What was that all about?
But the damage was now done, he had to get on, get away from this place. Slowly, regaining his composure, he called his pack-it-all and together they made their way down the Concourse. As they passed a small vend area he glanced back, his assailants had gathered outside one of the more shabby looking vend-points, a few arms were pointing upwards.
Michael looked up too.
A small elliptical shape had emerged from the large pod that hung underneath the glistening platform, and was now drifting down towards the Concourse.
No doubt towards him.
A drone, just what he didn't need.
He considered trying to hide, lurk behind one of the columns perhaps, loiter in a concession; but he knew it would do no good; the pulsating form would already have locked on; he could almost hear it communicating back to the Net, maybe even to Dominic himself – checking, cross referencing … Reporting.
Shit, shit, shit.
He had to do something. Drones were not that intelligent, if he could lose it, or dupe it at least.
He needed a decoy, someone who looked at least vaguely similar.
A family of migrants were eating over at one of the nearby vend areas. The father, he was about the same height, same age.
If he could get close ...
It might work.
Michael instructed his pack-it-all to keep scanning, then mustering all his confidence, strode out across the Concourse. Out of the corner of his eye he checked that the drone was following.
"John, will you come over here and help?"
The woman was struggling to release a small child's hand from one of the disposal bins' covers.
Her husband got up and had almost reached the screaming child and his increasingly distraught wife when a stranger stepped out from nowhere.
"What the hell ...."
As the two men collided, the migrant didn't notice the stranger's hand reach out towards him, let alone sense the tag being inserted into his garb.
"Sorry!" the man muttered.
"No problem." The migrant replied instinctively, wondering what the hell was going on - it looked as if the man had deliberately walked into him. His hand quickly checked his garb for their travel documents.
Then the child let out another scream and he remembered what he had been doing.
"Now honey, let me take a look at that hand ..."
Michael made his way back across the Concourse and stood behind one of the marble columns. He looked back towards the vend area, then up towards the drone; before smiling with satisfaction - the semi-intelligent device had already locked onto the migrant father.
He knew that the deception couldn't last, it wouldn't take long for Dominic, or one of his sub-systems, to work out what had happened. It would then be a simple matter of going back and checking the log. But that would take time and with any luck, by then he would be long gone, down on the Levels, in New Rome.
He called his pack-it-all and together they started back towards the sanctuary of the little garden.
He still had to find Gabi.
What the hell had happened to her? What was she playing at?
Back on the bridge, he stared down at the stream again, and started to think about her, in the last few months she had achieved what nobody else could have done; goaded him into action. Forced him to face up to what was happening, the collapse that he, and many others, believed had already begun.
They had met in Paris; the real one, France. He still wasn't sure whether it had been accident or design.
Did it matter?
They had both been attending the same conference; from that first meeting he had known she was special and one thing had led to another.
It had been a good time.
She had been like a breath of fresh air. Since leaving the company in a blaze of publicity and recriminations almost five years previously, he had all but become a recluse; obsessed with the Structure, but by the same token, afraid; wary of its potential, but reluctant to approach too close. If he was honest with himself, afraid of what he might find, of what he knew he would find.
He was where he was and now at least he had to do what they had agreed. He checked the time again, 21.59, if he was going to make his departure slot, he really had better start making a move.
Ten minutes later, he’d made it as far as Gate twenty-six; the crowds had thinned a little and the Mover lay ahead. Michael turned and looked back down the Concourse then up at the clock – he knew he was grasping at straws, but it was possible that Gabi would make her way here.
He spotted a small vendpoint; from there he would be able to see her when she passed by, if she passed by.
His mind wandered. Was this some sort of test?
How would he respond under pressure?
He knew the answer.
The incident back in the garden had unnerved him more than he cared to admit. Sitting on one of the perilous looking stools that surrounded the bar was unbearable; he got up and started pacing. What would Dominic make of his behaviour?
Somewhere in the back of his mind he recalled authorising an algorithm to detect deviant movement patterns - was this deviant?
Of course it was.
How good was the algorithm?
He couldn't remember.
He forced himself to think positively. Looking around, he surveyed the Concourse with professional pride and the hint of a faint smile began to creep across his face - had he really designed all this? All, was pushing it a bit. But he had been in charge of the design team, overseen the specifications – the Module had been his vision, his dream.
But it had worked … It had made leaving the Reality and building the Structure possible. No one could deny that.
He had had his doubts about the company almost from the beginning, everyone who knew him knew that; but there was no denying that they had achieved the near impossible. They hadn’t just changed the world, they had created several new ones.
God, they’d been good.
He looked around and marvelled at the detail. Arches that were impossibly large, clouds and platforms floating effortlessly above the seemingly endless sequence of Gates, Vendpoints and Concessions.
The smile expanded in the soft light escaping from the singularity containment field, filtering down through the High Vapours, making everything all look so normal, so calm, so permanent.
He almost laughed out loud.
Nothing could be permanent, not in this place.
His eyes dropped down, what really pleased him were the small things, trash cans almost but never quite full, the paintwork just slightly marked. Great skill had been shown in constructing the Module, but more had been displayed by making it human. He laughed again. Human, he wasn't even sure what the word meant any more.
Was Uri human?
What about Lucy? At times he had his doubts.
And as for Dominic ...
He shifted his gaze and looked up. The perspective, he knew, was deceptive, he could see at least part of the RAH in every direction he cared to look – he smiled.
That was clever.
He knew that the Module was a giant, albeit alternate, torus, ‘floating’ inside the central processors of Via.tran was the popular conception. In reality, he knew that like the Structure itself, it didn't really have a form, not in the normal sense. Just existence. They both formed Alternate Realities, beyond ‘space’, and to all intents and purposes outside ‘time’, at least as far as science understood extra-dimensional realities at all - the ‘Elsewhere’ had been coined by a number of commentators, technically it was rubbish, but it was a pretty good description and had stuck.
He began laughing out loud, but quickly looked around and thought better of it.
Do not draw attention to yourself. He kept repeating
What was normal?
He laughed. The company had always made a point of claiming that the Module was the busiest transport hub in history. They were wrong, he thought, the Module, the Nannos, the Net, even the Structure itself were outside of the conventional space-time matrix, and therefore history - they didn't even understand that.
Thinking of time, he looked up towards the clock again.
Shit. That late, he’d better get on his way.
The ‘Mover’ wasn’t far, but it could easily be full. If Gabi had made it this far, she would have to catch up with him at the Gate.
Maybe she’d missed him in the crowds.
Michael watched the gates pass by as the snake-like vehicle accelerated. Some of the Gates down to the Levels were large commercial affairs, the original Resort Levels he recalled, others were plainer but orders of magnitude larger - the new ‘Homelands’. He noticed a few of the Gates had red glowing spheres hovering in front of them; he didn't recognise the symbol but he could guess what it meant.
Not good at all.
Documents, had he still got his travel documents? His heart missed a beat as a moment of doubt swept through him. His hand fumbled in the folds of his garb and eventually found the disc Gabi’s friend had given him. He brought it out and inserted it in his slate and scanned the coding over and over; everything looked fine.
He had never attempted to travel on a cloned dataset before.
The uncertainty returned.
Just before the Mover came to a halt at what was clearly his stop, the end of the line, a speaker in his headrest burst into life.
"NewRome… NewRome … NewRome … New …
The cycle stopped abruptly.
Michael heard the announcements but wasn’t listening as he gazed out at the gaudily lit signs that now surrounded the carriage.
He felt uneasy.
Above, the High Vapours seemed lower, much lower, now much more like storm clouds; that didn’t seem right. He had never seen that before, what did it mean?
The doors to the mover slid open and he quickly made his exit.
Outside, it was like walking into a brick wall, the humidity was stultifying, the atmosphere leaden and oppressive. He paused for a moment, then looked around, the hoardings were showing scenes from the Coliseum; he tried not to look.
Uneasiness turned to nausea.
Michael’s pack-it-all manoeuvred itself out of the luggage area at the rear of the vehicle and caught up with him as he approached the small queue in front of the check-in desk. He had thought he had known what he was letting himself in for, but now he wasn't so sure.
In the early years, during the Construction, Rome had almost become his second home. That now seemed a lifetime ago. Now it was euphemistically referred to as a 'Fantasy Level’, the debauchery he could just about understand, but the violence and the mindless cruelty, that was harder to stomach. He, they, hadn’t designed it that way; it was just the way it had turned out, the way the paying punters had wanted it.
According to central records in Chicago, Lucy still kept a villa there. That was the main reason for choosing Rome, he recalled, where Lucy kept a villa, she would also keep records, and if he was going to find out what was really wrong sooner or later he would need to see them.
Michael stood in line and glanced up at the departure board ahead; transfers were running ten minutes behind schedule; that was unusual. As he waited, he couldn't help staring at the middle aged couple in front of him, what had drawn them to New Rome? Alphas, Russians, he guessed. They were both reading tourist notes on their slates and looking nervous - more nervous than him, he hoped. Probably first timers he thought. He wondered if they knew what they were letting themselves in for.
Michael remembered the first time he had entered what was now the Structure, back in forty-two. Nothing like now of course, crude and bare were the words that came to mind. Back then New Rome had been little more than a small translucent meta-sphere, glistening with false colours and it had had that unmistakable damp, claustrophobic even, feel that all new environments seemed to have.
The middle aged couple in front of him reached the head of the queue, Michael watched them hand over their discs to the tall red headed woman behind the desk, her eyes were green but cold, her smile oozing insincerity. She was now asking them to sign something. Michael watched closely, the couple looked quizzical for a moment, but then did as she’d requested.
As the woman retrieved the duly signed slates, the smile expanded to fill the heavily made up face. Then a young man, a boy really, escorted the now noticeably less confidant pair the short distance to the Gate - a shimmering velvet curtain of darkness.
One moment they were there.
The next …
The woman looked up; Michael was now locked in her sights, her smile homing in on him. If he decided to cancel, wait for Gabi, there would be no guarantee that he could get a rescheduling anytime soon. He was torn, he couldn't stay here, it was either back to the Reality or down to Rome ... If he went back, it might be weeks before they could get even back this far …
That might be too late.
It probably would be too late.
Too late he thought, too late. He was now here, he was now committed, had had to go on, he owed Gabi, he owed himself ...
He stepped forward.
He waited nervously whilst the woman scanned his disc. This was the moment of truth, how good had Gabi’s friends really been …
As he waited he scrutinised every nuance of the face in front of him, what lay behind that fixed smile, he wondered.
After what seemed an eternity she looked up,
"Welcome to the Module. Mr …’ She paused and looked at the screen for a moment “Mr. Richards ...” she continued. ‘If you would please sign this disclaimer...’
Disclaimer to what? Michael wondered.
What if he refused to sign?
Stop it. Stop it, this was no time for a scene.
Michael took the stenno she was holding out and completed the formality and handed back the slate.
"Thank you" the woman replied perfunctorily, not even bothering to check what he had written, and waved him through.
“You’re welcome” he replied ingenuously as the boy led him to the Gate.
But her smile was already homing in on the young couple behind him.
The Portal seemed to rear over him, glistening with potential.
This was it ...
Up on the Control Deck a spike appeared on one of the monitors. One of the duty officers pulled up a diagnostic – Nanno number six again. Probably another power surge, he thought.
He made a note in the log.
Second time this shift.
Clouds rushed passed him, lighting flashed all around.
Back in the clouds.
There was something below …
Something big; something approaching fast.
He stood on a small hill overlooking what looked like an ancient battlefield spread out over a barren landscape. His senses seemed heightened; he could almost sense life all around him. But there was a tension; there was also an uncomfortable feeling of familiarity, had he been here before?
In the distance there was the glistening thread of a river weaving its way between the hills below him. In the distance stood a tower, its top lost in the clouds that swirled all around.
Lighting flashed, thunder followed.
Michael looked up. Suddenly there was the deafening roar of engines as seven gull winged craft swept low overhead heading towards the tower.
All of a sudden the earth erupted.
The darkness returned ...
"Michael, Michael … Are you all right?"
Michael opened his eyes.
Is that you Lucy?
That enigmatic smile of hers stared down at him as if from the mists of a dream. He felt her hand dust over his brow for a moment, then she bent down and touched her lips to his. He closed his eyes.
Was this a dream?
Wake up. Wake up.
"Close your eyes, everything will be all right." A voice said from somewhere inside his head.
Darkness returned and with it came the fall.
Now he was standing at the base of a great tower, the same one?
Probably, he thought.
A figure was running towards him, their robes billowing out behind.
"Michael. Michael." The figure kept shouting.
Lucy … Gabi?
He wasn’t sure.
“Run ….” The figure shouted. “Run.”
Michael looked around, but there was nowhere to go except up.
“Up?” He shouted.
“Run …” The figure repeated.
Michael opened his eyes again. Lucy was now standing at the far end of the room talking to a tall figure; their face hidden in the shadows.
"He still has no recollection …”
“He’s been disconnected too long …”
“Time, he needs to be connected and he needs time …" Lucy said. “How much do we have?”
The figure said something; but Michael couldn’t hear.
She then turned and looked over towards him. “It’s no good, we can’t risk losing him now, we’ll have to wait.”
The darkness returned.
Michael found himself standing in the centre of some sort of arena, the sweet sickly smell of death filled the air.
He looked up.
Something very large was rushing towards him.
Dixmoor, Chicago: 29 January
The bar reeked of stale beer. Liza chewed her gum and leaned back on her stool and wondered what she was doing here. No; more than that, why any woman would come to a place like this. This was a place for men, a particular type of man she thought, not the type she would normally give a second thought about.
Some women did come here of course, she looked around the room for the umpteenth time that evening, her eyes alighting on the tart perched at the bar over by the door. She paused for a moment, what age was she? Hard to say, late thirties, maybe early forties? Some men, the sort that came to places like this, would probably find her attractive, but to her eyes she just looked over made up and under dressed. She almost broke into laughter, here she was being all judgemental, the woman was just doing a job, just like her.
End of story.
Liza shifted her gaze up and through the half frosted window, out onto the blustery and cold January night. Live and let live she thought, at the end of the day the woman was probably better off in the warm in here rather than out there in a January storm.
Looking around the room the bar was quiet; there were just the two small parties of middle aged men. She knew for sure that one of the groups, the one by the door, came from the Facility, the Via.tran Research Centre that dominated this part of town. They had been in every night since she had started here, that was over two weeks now. To her practiced eye they were waiting for someone, or something. Sure, they were drinking beer, laughing and joking, but her training told her that they were scrutinising everyone who came in through that door.
Judging from their clothes, the other group were from out of town, way out of town, their robes looked exotic, exotic in Dixmoor, now that was a joke. This was the first night that they’d been in. Where were they from? What were they doing here of all places? Roy's was way off the usual tourist trails, and out-of-towners, like them, just didn't come to this part of town, particularly to a bar like Roy’s.
She’d tried to engage with them, but had been met with mono-syllabic answers and downcast eyes. Something wasn’t right, they weren’t right. Maybe they were going to a party, she decided, maybe they were just gay. Maybe both. But that still didn’t add up, not here, not in Dixmoor.
No, they weren’t gay she decided, their obvious interest in the tart ruled that out.
Maybe they were the ones she was looking for? Liza’s orders had been vague, she had been posted here to monitor the bar and to report back. But monitor what? Marietta had been uncharacteristically vague; all she had said was that she was to report anything out of the ordinary, particularly if it involved Roy, the owner. Did four Kooks in bizarre robes count as unusual?
Probably. She wasn’t sure.
She looked back at the group from the Facility. They were definitely neo-techs, but even given that they just didn’t feel right. After nearly three weeks she was pretty sure that they were somehow connected to Roy, but what was the link? So far she hadn’t found it. She still hadn’t figured out what Roy was up to. But something, he was up to something, every instinct she had told her so.
One of the out-of-towners raised his arm and called her over. She had heard one of the others refer to him as Galba, at least that was a start, here we go. Lifting herself up off the bar stool she had been balancing against the yellowed wallpaper, she grabbed her tray and headed over to the table.
"Hi guys …what can I ...?” But before she could complete the sentence, Galba turned his head and stared at her with piercing violet eyes.
For a brief moment Liza thought she detected something lurking somewhere behind those sad and very knowing looking eyes.
Then, it was gone.
But she had paused too long.
‘Now? …’ He snapped.
Thinking back, afterwards, it was at that moment that she sensed that something was wrong, he was wrong, but what did that mean, what was wrong.
She stared intently for a moment at the man; then quickly scooped the empty glasses up off the table. With her free hand she searched in her sac for her spray to clean the table ...
but Galba waived her away, mouthing. "Go …"
She dropped the spray back into her sac, turned, and headed back to the bar. As she did so, out of the corner of her eye she noticed one of the men from the other table disappearing out the door. The whore followed.
Shit, why now?
She couldn't just drop things ...
She’d been snookered.
As she approached the bar, Roy, the barman, come manager, come something really quite unpleasant, stood staring at her. She felt almost physically sick just thinking about what was going on behind those piggy eyes.
Reaching the serving station she all but slammed the tray down in front of him and ordered the beers, staring hard into the mirror behind him and chewing particularly heavily on her gum. Roy cast his eyes down her long lanky body, lingering for a split second longer than he should have done on her partially exposed cleavage. Parallel thoughts rushed through his mind. How much he would like to get to know this one better and how much had she seen?
Reaching over to the cooler he pulled open the door and reached in to extract four chilled bottles. Opening them effortlessly on the counter, he went out of his way to place them carefully, too carefully Liza thought, on her tray. All the time she was keeping one eye on the mirror. Shit, she could just see the door out to the street closing. Someone else must have also gone out.
She glanced down at the tray, then up again to the mirror, but all she could now see was the thick layer of plaque framing Roy's yellow stained teeth that were grinning inanely in front of her. He said nothing and had done almost nothing, but somehow she felt dirty just standing there.
She tried looking over his shoulder into the mirror, but he moved, he kept moving. What table had the person who had left gone from? She had to know.
She had to know now.
She started to lift the tray when Roy wrapped his chubby hand around her arm.
“Wait.” He said.
She froze and stared into his eyes.
What now ...
“Glasses. Don’t you need to take clean glasses?”
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. She resisted the urge to slam the tray down on the counter; instead she controlled herself, she was losing precious time.
“Yes.” She replied. Still trying to see what was going on in the mirror behind him.
But she could see nothing; a pillar was obstructing the guys from the Facility and she couldn’t see the out of towners from this angle.
He knew of course, he knew she couldn’t see.
She watched as he went over to the washer to get clean glasses, every movement he made seemed to be in slow motion.
Get on with it, get on with it. She kept uttering underneath her breath, he eventually returned and placed the glasses on her tray.
“OK now?” She asked, staring hard at those eyes she had come to hate so much.
She didn’t wait for a response.
Back in the lounge area she could see that one of the chairs from the guys from the Facility was empty. Returning to the out-of-towners table, she quickly sprayed and wiped the table defiantly before serving the drinks. But Galba studiously ignored her, his eyes fixed on the door to the street.
Leaving the tab on the table, she returned to her stool by the washrooms. She had expected something, but she had been surprised that the whore was somehow involved. She must learn to be less judgemental… Was she more than she appeared? What was she hiding, what could she possibly hide under those apology for clothes?
She was now out in the alley, exchanging … What? Somehow she doubted it was fluids.
Looking at her watch, why so long? It was damned cold out there and the tart, for certain, wasn’t dressed for an Illinois January storm, neither was he, probably. What had he been wearing? A jacket, maybe, certainly not a coat, she was certain the coats were still all there, she was certain ...
Thinking about it, it had been a well thought out manoeuvre and it had almost worked. Galba’s timing just hadn’t been tight enough. If the situations were reversed she would have done better.
But she still didn’t know what she’d seen. What had happened? What was happening? Something had happened and she was no further forward. That would look good in her report.
She leaned back on the stool, considering her now rapidly diminishing options. She was torn, go out into the alley, and possibly, probably, blow everything. Or wait until they came back. On balance she thought it was better to stay where she was. Both of them had to come back inside soon, neither of them were dressed to be outdoors in the middle of a storm, it must be fifteen below freezing out there, she looked out the window; at least.
She shot a glance back over to the out-of-towners again. They were less obviously agitated, but she could see they were unsettled. Then one of them, Galba, got up and grabbing his long grey robe from the stand and started heading purposefully towards the door. Just at that moment the door burst open and the whore stumbled in, collapsing by the long defunct lotto machine in the corner. She was white as a sheet and panting heavily. Liza looked on as the men from the Facility jumped up and rushed past the slumped figure, out into the alley.
From behind the bar, Roy moved faster than Liza would have believed possible; half running, half lolloping over to the woman now curled up on the floor.
Liza watched, Galba was now leaning over the frail and now vulnerable looking figure and wrapping his thick heavy robe around her. He then lifted her carefully and headed over towards the bar. Roy suddenly appeared from nowhere and offered to help.
"Have you got a bed or a sofa." Galba demanded. His violet eyes darting everywhere, focusing for a moment on Liza. She felt a shiver run down her spine, those eyes were somehow scary.
"This way, this way" Roy responded, heaving his bulk through one-eighty degrees and leading Galba and the whore through to his private apartment behind the bar.
The door slammed shut behind them.
Liza now stood in the bar alone. The door out to the street flapped noisily as the storm caught it , blowing fresh snow hard against her face. She went over and closed it, she needed to think, she needed to preserve what evidence there was, it had all happened so quickly. But one thing was sure, something wasn’t right, she knew she had missed something, possibly lots of things, that wasn’t good.
She glanced over to the door behind the bar. Why had Roy taken Galba and the whore into his private rooms? She quickly went over to the closed door and pressed her head up close, listening for voices.
She stood upright again and knocked firmly. “D’you need any help?” She called out.
Finally grasping the handle firmly, she gently exerted pressure downwards.
Of course it was. Stupid. She stepped back and leaned heavily against the bar. She knew Roy kept a spare set of keys, she just had to find them, they were under the one of the pumps. She quickly dropped down searching for them, they were just where she thought they would be.
She quickly studied them carefully, all sizes, all shapes. That one, she finally decided, selecting the only one that looked remotely right. Inserting it carefully in the lock, she turned it slowly she then gently eased the door open.
Of course it was; she really was having one of those nights.
Later, as she sat in the back of a cab as it weaved its' way through the empty city, she thought back on the events back at the bar. She had searched Roy’s rooms thoroughly; the man was a pig and his private rooms were no better than she had feared, but despite her best efforts, she had turned up nothing; not even porn. That had surprised her.
Of course she had called for back up. That was standard procedure, but she felt sure they wouldn’t find anything. She took comfort in the fact that by now the company would have all the bases covered. By now all the airports would have been notified, the railroads alerted, even the local police departments keeping a watch.
The company was well connected and the local authorities were eager to please. Even so, she had no real expectation of a result; the birds had flown. She had blown it. Her problem was now simple, how was she going to break the news to Marietta that she had failed, the birds had flown.