After dinner, Paul’s mother complained of tiredness and went to her bedroom to run a meditation program. Paul wiped clean their small table, and dropped the empty foodpacks into the recycling chute. Then he went into the living-room. He requested some music, and lay back on the foam couch, trying to organise his thoughts. Ivan’s face loomed behind Paul’s closed eyes. The man’s features were fleshy, rounded – Paul remembered the cold eyes. The endless maze of scar tissue was something to lose yourself in, the beguiling circuits looping and flowing around the ruddy face. A face to hypnotise, to charm and to be reckoned with. Paul thought of the snapped fingers. Ivan was used to being obeyed.
Paul shook the face from his mind, and replayed the whole message in his head. Two parts of it made him feel sick. Ivan had referred to the Dregs, but made them sound insignificant compared to the new threat. And Ivan had said he would send someone. Soon.
Paul walked quietly to his mother’s room and peeked around the half-open door. She was asleep, a dream-frown playing across her features. Her plain uniform hung on the back of the door like an indolent ghost. Guiltily, Paul realised that he could take the opportunity to do some detective work. He fought the twin pressures of curiosity and shame. He was desperate to begin a search for clues that would help him to understand the overheard conversation. At the same time he was aware that any information he uncovered would involve probing into secret files, private conversations and his mother’s personal records.
The indecision ruled his brain, and his body took over. He felt hungry. Paul walked along the corridor to the kitchen-diner.
The Rafaels’ pod was a long rectangle. It had one central corridor with a window at one end, and the lift doors at the other. On either side of the corridor were three rooms: a living-room, a kitchen-diner and a data-room on one side. Three bedrooms were on the other side, each with its own small clean-cubicle.
The walls of the corridor had changed since the early-evening. They showed a huge seascape, complete with rolling seas, moving incessantly. Conditioned air pumped through the ducts filling Paul’s senses… ozone, salt, moisture.
In the kitchen-diner Paul retrieved a soyog from the fridge. It claimed to be banana flavour. Paul had never had a banana, so the claim went untested. Spooning the sweet yellow food, Paul tried to decide what to do next.
It seemed clear the first thing was to establish the exact identity of Ivan. After that, he could do some careful probing into his own past, and that of his parents. Having made his decision, Paul realised how scared he was. The overheard message had unsettled him. Paul threw the soyog into the recycler, and wiped his hand on his shirt. Trying to compose himself he walked to the living-room. It might be possible to replay the vidphone message from the mystery man, but he would have to hope his mother hadn’t encrypted it.
Paul activated the vidphone, and requested a call log. His mother’s message was there – the last conversation, listed at 16:14 on Friday. The file record was red, and had his mother’s personal icon alongside, indicating only she could access it.
Undeterred Paul mined his memory for some of the snatches of speech he had heard. Two key details came to Paul’s mind. First the nature of the message meant the man was off-planet – and further away than the Moon. Second, Ivan’s facial scarring – the intaglio. He must be important, powerful. There was, of course, a third factor: the other man that Ivan was sending. But Paul had no way of knowing who he was or when he would arrive. Paul decided to concentrate on finding Ivan for the moment.
The data-room was the smallest room in the pod. It housed only a couch, supported by a thick pillar. The pillar ran under the floor and into the guts of the pod. Under Paul’s feet, beneath the floor a one nanometre thick computer controlled everything in the pod. The computer took up every available part of underfloor space. It was a Class III Sierpinski Carpet (domestic). It had the same performance capacity as 30 human brains (30 hubs), though without any distractions from emotions or consciousness. It was programmed to obey.
Paul was interested in computer science, and did well in it at school – though it was often considered a ‘meat’ topic. In one of Paul’s most recent lessons the teacher had excitedly explained that in the preceding month a Class I Menger Sponge (military) had been the first to achieve the status of ‘mega-hub’ (the equivalent of one million human minds). The military computers were programmed with consciousness, but not emotion the teacher said.
Paul climbed onto the couch, and lay back. As his head touched the cushioned surface, the couch slipped two monofibres into tiny sockets in the back of Paul’s neck. He closed his eyes and entered the world of the computer.
Nestling at the base of Paul’s skull was a hard bundle of technology – a data-pack – a specially crafted collection of needle-thin electrodes that delicately intruded on his spinal cord. The pack performed several vital functions. It identified him to the wider world as Paul Rafael, allowing many ambient systems to recognise him: in the pod, at school. The data-pack also allowed Paul seamless interaction with the datascape. He could direct his searches using clear mental commands, the images before his closed eyes changing to suit his shifting priorities.
The high-colour web stretched before him, an endlessly undulating, constantly changing three-dimensional world. Files took the form of towers, different colours indicating their status. Sheer, micro-thin walls surrounded related information, forming cells, like a honeycomb. Some walls were short and had open doors – allowing Paul to access the world beyond – these were the public areas. The further from his starting point, the larger the walls became, until it was impossible to scale them – these were the private gardens. Nearly all the larger walls had hidden doorways to the data beyond, but it was an expert (and illegal) task to find them, decode the locks and access the information beyond. Over time the system learned the gardens Paul liked to visit and organised the world so that they were close to his starting point.
Paul made straight for a favourite seer-garden which always gave good information. The seer took the form of a sphinx, playing at being wise, intelligent, and all-knowing, though Paul knew it was merely a collection of algorithms connected to a semantic database. He queried the seer with the sketchy details he had.
It responded immediately with a list of promising leads. Paul looked at the first and asked for the source-information, which comprised a huge collection of documents, newsfeeds, videos, and still pictures. The first paragraph of the summary document read as follows:
Ivan Luis Gregorio VIII (2220- )
Bloc Ambassador to Mayflower II since 2251 when he succeeded his clone-father in the role. Has special duties to protect and promote understanding of Europan exobiology. A patron of several scientific bodies, including the Teller Foundation.
A still picture of Gregorio confirmed it was the man Paul had seen on the vidphone. Paul returned to his personal space, taking the information about Gregorio with him. Around him was stored all the information related to his pod, and his family. Large chunks of files showed him how the pod was controlled – temperature, lighting, … Smaller chunks related to personal files. Paul began with these – ignoring his own, and sifting through those of his parents. Looking at a file brought it to life in front of him. Words, pictures and sounds played, paused, rewound as he willed it. He rapidly scanned through his mother’s personal files – vidclips of her as a child, documentation relating to her birth, her education, her working life. There were many crosslinks to his father’s datafiles, and to his own. Tracking each one down would take time. Paul sighed, mentally rolled up his sleeves, and began.
Most people found that datatime was very productive. The computer reacted instantly to shifting thoughts and half-formed ideas. Paul only needed to start to think of a file, or a piece of information, and its contents were shown to him. He scanned the data in each file swiftly, highlighting or storing particular pieces of information for later analysis. Paul had used a computer from an early age. His data-pack had been implanted shortly after birth. He had been trained in the art of datamining by special programs designed to help him organise, store and access the millions of pieces of information in a sensible way. Paul swam through the data like a shark – information passed unguided, unquestioned around him. Occasionally he could catch sight of a worthy fish, and would devour it.
At the end of an hour, Paul had sifted thousands of documents, and found three that were of particular interest. He asked for them to be copied to his classpad. The file summaries were:
Subject: John Rafael [Paul’s father]
Document: X09/343/9054 [System Travelpass]
Date: 2256-11-21 [Ten years ago]
Data: Entry stamp for Mayflower II
Subject: Paul Rafael
Document: A13/445/1435 [Medical Record]
Date: 2256-4-13 [Paul’s third birthday]
Data: Minor cranial surgery
Subject: Classified (top)
Document: Classified (top)
Data: Encrypted (hard)
Paul gently eased himself up from the couch, opening his eyes as he did so. There was a moment’s disorientation, as there always was, as he exited the datascape, and re-entered the real world. He blinked several times, and shook his head slowly to dispel the dizziness.
He pondered the meaning of the three documents. The first indicated that Paul’s father had been to Mayflower II ten years ago. Paul had been nearly two at the time, and his father’s job as a construction-worker had often taken him away. So it was entirely possible his father had been there. However, Paul had always been interested in Europa, as many of his generation were. Europa was a key name in the history of space exploration – the first point of contact between humans and non-terrestrial organisms. One hundred and forty years before Paul was born the first Earth probes had penetrated the kilometre-thick ice on the surface of Europa to reveal a teeming sea beneath. They had first found simple unicellular organisms, algae-like plants and tiny translucent seaworms, proving that life existed beyond the Earth. No light penetrated the ice, so the organisms had evolved to survive on the volcanic vents that studded the sea bed. Later more spectacular discoveries had been made: complex organisms and food chains; animals that were closer to Earth’s fish, whales and sharks.
In the years since then many probes had been sent to Europa, and nearly a century ago the first manned spaceflights. Over one thousand species of Europan had been discovered and catalogued. Europa had become a point of pilgrimage for spacetourists (those with enough money) and there were several private companies which offered safaris below the ice mantle to view the soupy sea. Paul thought of visiting there often. He talked about it frequently.
Paul’s father had been to Mayflower II ten years ago but his mother had never mentioned the trip. It was a strange secret to keep.
The second document told him that on his third birthday Paul had undergone some minor surgery to his skull. Paul knew his data-pack had been installed shortly after birth, and he bore no scars and had heard of no accidents since then. What was the purpose of the surgery?
The final record was almost no use. All the data was classified and hard-encrypted. The date, however, was significant – the date of his father’s death. It was impossible to know what the record might say, but it was the only hard-encrypted document in all the files that Paul had checked. Its meaning was an enigma.