Authors: Alex Scarrow
‘A thriller full of spectacular effects’
‘Insanely exciting, nail-biting stuff’
Independent on Sunday
‘This is a novel that is as addictive as any computer game’
Waterstone’s Books Quarterly
‘Promises to be a big hit’
‘A thrilling adventure that hurtles across time and place at breakneck speed’
‘Plenty of fast-paced action … this is a real page-turner’
‘A great read that will appeal to both boys and girls … you’ll find this book addictive!’
‘Contender for best science-fiction book of the year … an absolute winner’
Winner of the Older Readers category,
Red House Children’s Book Award 2011
Roald Waldstein stared at her almost serene face. ‘Does it hurt?’
‘No,’ she replied, her voice barely more than a whisper. ‘There’s no pain. Just … I just feel … fluffy … drifty …’ Her thick voice cleared. ‘Is … is Gabriel OK?’
His wife didn’t know the full news. And she didn’t need to.
‘He’s fine, Eleanor,’ he lied. He struggled to keep any trace of emotion out of his voice. ‘Quite fine.’
She sighed. ‘Thank God.’
The freighter pod had hit her e-Car side on at a busy intersection. Apparently the freighter’s auto-drive software had glitched and the twenty-ton vehicle had considered the cluttered intersection to be wide-open road and had sped forward, barrelling into Eleanor’s small bubble car. Their son, Gabriel, was pronounced dead by the paramedics the moment they arrived on the scene. To be honest, amid the twisted and shredded wreckage there’d been little left of him for them to work on.
Eleanor, on the other hand, was found alive, but had been cut clean in half by a panel from the driver-side door; a jagged edge of carbo-plastic as sharp as a surgeon’s knife had cut straight through her just above her belly button. Through skin, through organs, through spine and halfway into the driver’s seat.
She’d been severed completely in two.
The paramedics had managed to stabilize her. But it was a temporary measure only. Eleanor was going to die. The damage to her body was far too catastrophic to salvage any chance of life. But with several drips running into her they were able to buy her a couple of hours: barely enough time for a loved one to be contacted and rushed in to say a final goodbye. Or, failing that, a chance to set up and run a neural scan recording.
This they’d done: a digital recording of her dying brain. The data storage of a human mind was so immense that only the final minutes were usually recorded. A simulation, a software version of the very last moments of a life.
The data – several hundred terabytes of it burned on to a data-waffle – was a chance for the absent bereaved to say a final goodbye to a
of their loved one.
A chance to say goodbye over and over.
For some people, it was an indispensable therapy. For others it was a grim piece of Frankenstein fetishism. Some people chose never to run the simulation. The data, a recording of the activities of the last moments of billions of brain cells, was linked to heuristic AI, creating a simulation of a mind that was sometimes almost a completely convincing facsimile of the departed. Talking with it, a response might seem odd, but mostly, on the screen or via a voice-synth modulator, right there was their loved one, momentarily arisen from the dead, albeit only for a minute or two.
Waldstein looked at the screen in front of him now. The computer monitor was on a desk cluttered with screwed-up paper, soya-snack wrappers, food-encrusted bowls. He preferred talking to Eleanor with just the text in a dialogue box, not the synthesized speech. Although the voice-synth almost sounded like her, it could never truly emulate Eleanor’s distinct voice.
Six years ago now he’d lost them both. Every day without
fail he started the morning in his small scruffy workshop having a conversation with his dying wife. Mostly it was a near-identical conversation, but on occasion he would take it in different directions and the software would accurately produce the responses that Eleanor would most likely have given him if she’d been standing there with him.
, every time they spoke would be the very
time this parting conversation took place … and, also for her, the very
time they would ever speak. An eternal loop of heartbreaking sadness that occurred every time Waldstein decided to punish himself and run the software. Yes, it was just code … but it really was, in a way, a piece of Eleanor.
> You … you’ll tell Gabriel about me, Roald? Won’t you?
‘Of course, my love.’ Waldstein pressed his lips, forcing himself to sound upbeat. ‘I’ll tell him all about you. How beautiful you were. How much you loved him.’
> … Thank you … but don’t make him too sad thinking about me … I want him to be a happy child …
The cursor paused, as if she was sighing.
> … I just want him to remember he once had a mother …
Waldstein nodded. ‘He’ll know all about you. And be proud of you.’
> And you … my love. Find someone else. Someone who’ll love you as much as I have …
Eleanor. So utterly selfless.
> … Promise me, Roald … promise me you won’t live a lonely life … promise me you’ll find someone else, someone who’ll make you happy … someone who’ll love Gabriel …
Not every time, but most times he ran the simulation, she
demanded that same promise from him. And every time she did, he lied. ‘I promise.’
> … Good … Thank you …
He gazed past the screen into the past and remembered how she’d looked all those years ago on the hospital bed, surrounded by machines and tubes and liquids being piped into her, the shredded remains of her lower body hidden beneath a sheet. He’d been there to hold her hand, look into her eyes and have this conversation for real. He recalled her beginning to slip away. At this stage in the simulation and back then, her mind was starting to close down. She’d smiled wearily, the important matters settled. She was getting ready to let go.
> … Good …
In recent years when he’d run this simulation he’d wanted to mention a ray of hope that he was holding on to. That he was working on something that might just change everything; that could just mean she and Gabriel might not have to die; that they could be together again in a version of this world in which some other unlucky soul had been in the path of that runaway freighter pod.
But there were only two minutes of time in which to talk and, in the end, if he promised her hope, promised her that he could change things … then what was he doing? Providing ‘hope’ for a piece of code that was about to reach the end of its two-minute run time.
What would the
Eleanor have made of that? What would she have made of the idea that he was hoping to travel back in time to make it so that she never died in a traffic accident? She would probably tell him that it was a fool’s goal. That fate had a certain way it intended to go for everyone.
That what would be, would be.
Que será, será.
And so, this morning, Waldstein ended the conversation in
the same way he always ended it. ‘I love you, Ellie. I always have. I always will.’
> … I know, my dear. I know …
‘Gabriel and I are going to be just fine.’ That same painful lie each time.
> … Thank you …
He pressed a finger to his lips. Kissed it, then touched it against the grimy computer screen in front of him, on the black dialogue box, against the winking cursor. ‘You go to sleep now, my love. Go to sleep.’
> … I will …
He recalled the conversation ending just like that six years ago and her eyes closing heavily. The slightest smile on her lips and another minute of silent machine-enforced breathing, before one of the computers linked up to her indicated with a soft beep that the brain signal had finally flat-lined.
The simulation ended with a menu that offered him the choice to run it again. He never did. Not twice on the same day. That would be too much to bear.
‘Goodbye, my love,’ he whispered.
Then he smiled. ‘I’ll be seeing you soon.’
Saleena Vikram won’t exist yet. Not for another hundred and thirty years. But she will. The real me. You know, it feels so strange … I feel like something unreal, like a ghost.
Sal watched the morning bustle of Farringdon Street from the flatbed back of the coffee cart. Smoke rose from one end of the cart as the barista roasted coffee beans in a skillet over a bed of hot coals. Across the busy street a baker was setting up an unlicensed kerbside stall, ready to sell buns and loaves of bread, until a bobby pounding the street would inevitably move him along.
She cupped the mug of coffee in both hands, savouring the warmth and watching curls and twists of steam rise and vanish in the cool morning air. No, not exactly a ghost … she didn’t feel like a ghost. More like the disembodied soul of a life yet to start; a soul waiting patiently for the correct body to be born so she could attach herself to it. Make it whole, complete.
And without that body being born, without that real Saleena Vikram, she would be damned as an eternally lost soul.
Actually, the more she thought about it, yes … a ghost. That’s what she was. A lost soul. She put down her mug and picked up the pen in front of her. A biro. She shouldn’t really be using that outside the archway. But her mitten-covered hand concealed it
well enough, and anyway she was the only customer sitting here on the coffee cart.
I know Maddy and Liam haven’t decided yet what it is we should be doing. But I have. I believe history should remain unchanged. And if sometime in 2070 we all end up wiping ourselves out, then that’s the way it has to be. That’s our fate.
You can’t sidestep destiny. You can’t cheat. If that is really what is meant to happen, then you just have to let it happen. I’ve seen enough altered presents and futures to know there are plenty worse outcomes than that.
In truth, mankind having another one hundred and eighty-one years from now was a pretty generous destiny as far as she could see. All humankind seemed interested in doing was having, having, having. Sucking this world dry like a parasite sucking life from its host. She’d read an article on the net, back when they were in New York, about a thing called the ‘Gaia Theory’. In short, the article had talked of the world being very much like a living, breathing organism, with the ecological system performing functions not dissimilar to the biological system of an organic body. Thinking on that scale, humans were little more than mites, like microbes on a person’s skin. Bacteria even. And perhaps the shift in weather patterns, climate change, was that ‘body’ reacting to the irritant on its skin.
She wasn’t entirely sure she bought into the theory, but as a metaphor it worked nicely. Ultimately it was this world that counted. This one delicate blue orb in a desolate and infinitely lifeless universe. If this world really was the
place in the universe that carried life, then surely the preservation of this unique biochemical accident was far more important than the
preservation of any one particular species? Dinosaurs had their time. Mammals had their time. Humans had their time, and so something else inevitably would follow.
There was something very reassuring in thinking about things that way. Life would go on after 2070. Just not human life.
But before all that, before it all ended for mankind, a young girl called Saleena Vikram would be born and live a full and hopefully happy life. Well, as happy as a life could be amid a starving, polluted, exhausted, drowning world.
Sal sipped her coffee again and realized, as she watched the baker finish up setting out his wares, that she, if not the others, already had a mission, a game plan. Even if Liam, Maddy and Rashim were still pondering what the hell it was they were supposed to be doing. She knew.
Waldstein is right. History has to go the way it was meant, even if we don’t like where it will eventually take us. You just can’t cheat. And I won’t let them.
‘Can you tell me what you remember prior to our setting up here in London?’ asked Maddy.
The support unit tilted her head, blinked her eyes. ‘I have a number of inherited memories from Bob. Therefore I am recalling his direct experiences. For example, his mission with Liam to Washington, 1956. His mission with Liam and my AI predecessor – Becks – to England in 1194. I recall his mission to reacquire Abraham Lincoln in 2001. His –’
Maddy raised her hand to silence her. ‘So you are familiar with our various activities to date, through Bob’s eyes?’
‘That is correct.’
‘And what about your AI predecessor? What about Becks?’ She glanced at the others, sitting nearby, listening closely to the responses coming from this new version of Becks. ‘Can you recall any events
Becks consulted her hard drive. ‘I have a number of post-event logged memories. I have image and sound files generated by my AI predecessor from sixty-five million years ago. From England, 1194 …’ Becks half-smiled. ‘I recall John Lackland, soon to be King of England, asking me to marry him.’
Maddy nodded. ‘Very good.’ Those were memories she would have shared with –
– to Bob and the computer system in order that their three separate AIs could all benefit
from the pooled data. While it had happened to the original Becks, now it was secondhand –
, actually – data. The same digital information that Bob had access to.
Maddy cast a glance at him, sitting beside Liam on the leather chaise longue, intimidating and large, yet as compliant, obedient and reliable as a well-trained Golden Retriever. Above them an oversized goldfish-bowl-shaped bulb hung inside an iron cage and bathed the oak table and the scatter of mix-’n’-match furniture around it in a sickly, flickering amber glow. She could barely see Bob’s eyes lost in the shadows beneath his thick caveman brow. But she knew he was studying his fellow support unit intently. Ready to react if she began to behave unpredictably.
‘Becks … I have an important question I want to ask you now.’
Maddy took a deep breath. ‘Tell me what you feel about Liam.’
Becks frowned, puzzled. ‘Please clarify that question.’
‘Do you have any feelings for him? Any
that could be interpreted as a strong emotional attachment to him?’
She queried her data silently for a few moments. ‘Liam O’Connor is the operative. My primary goal is to protect the operative from any harm.’ She looked back at Maddy, and across the dungeon at Sal, perched on the low padded arm of a Chesterfield chair. ‘My goal is also to protect other members of the team from harm.’
‘Becks, do you recall telling us that you
She shook her head. ‘I do not recall making that statement.’ She frowned, a hint of disapproval knotted in her brow. ‘And I would be unlikely to make such a statement. I am able to mimic behaviour that would appear to be “love”. But I am unable to experience such a thing directly.’
Liam fidgeted awkwardly. Maddy noted his cheeks colouring pink with poorly concealed embarrassment.
‘Oh dear,’ Sal groaned, ‘you’re not saying it’s all over for him, are you? You dumping him?’
Becks turned to look at Sal impassively. ‘Please explain what dumping –’
‘Sal … please!’ Maddy cut in. ‘This is serious.’
She shrugged an apology. ‘Just messing.’
Maddy tapped Becks’s shoulder to draw her attention back to her. ‘Ignore her, she’s just jealous.’
Becks once again locked her eyes on Maddy. ‘Yes, Maddy?’
‘I have one last question I want to ask you.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Are you aware of a portion of your hard drive that is locked by a codeword?’
‘Yes, Maddy. I am aware of an inaccessible part of my mind.’
‘And what can you tell us about this locked area?’
‘I can tell you the size of the partition and precisely how much data is stored. I am, however, unable to tell you what information is stored in there.’
‘Do you actually know … but you are not able to tell us?’ asked Rashim.
‘Negative, Rashim. This version of my AI does not have authority to access the locked data.’
‘We know that already.’ Maddy explained to Rashim: ‘A while back I decided to set up a separate version of her AI on the same computer she has in her head. I’m beginning to regret that now,’ she said with a sigh. ‘But at the time there were things going on that I thought I needed to keep strictly to myself and I needed an AI who could work with me …
She looked guiltily at Liam and Sal. ‘Obviously, now, there are no more secrets between us, but back then I just didn’t know
what I was meant to be doing. Anyway … point is, Rashim, she has a partitioned section of her mind that can be unlocked only by using three spoken codewords in the correct sequence.’
Rashim looked at her. ‘And you remember them, of course?’
‘Of course I do! I’m not an idiot.’ She narrowed her eyes at him for a moment before carrying on. ‘When I speak the codewords the partition will unlock and her “consciousness”, for the sake of a better word, will transfer to the version of her AI installed in there.’ She sat back in her chair. ‘It’s
version of Becks who knows all about the mystery encoded in that old manuscript.’
‘The Voynich one? The one you were telling me about last week?’
Maddy nodded. She’d explained to him as best she could: about how they’d come across the ancient medieval manuscript containing an encoded message addressed to her by name. A medieval manuscript that had itself been copied from a much older manuscript that was universally known as the Holy Grail. Rashim had gawped at her like a simpleton when she’d mentioned that. But then she’d rationalized it was an obvious ‘drop-point document’ for a time traveller to use. It made perfect sense. A real document. A carefully protected document guarded by fanatical warrior monks – the Templars. And a document that dated back almost two thousand years. Frankly, it would be odd if someone at some time
smuggled a message on to that faded scroll. A perfect message board for anybody moving around time over the last two millennia.
Of course, the big question was
wrote the message. And more importantly: what exactly was the message?
Becks’s partitioned ‘secret’ AI had been given the final task of decoding the crucial passage in the Voynich Manuscript. Again, a decision Maddy had been regretting ever since, because
the decoded message had contained an instruction to Becks not to reveal the message she’d just successfully managed to decode.
At least not
‘So,’ Maddy continued, ‘it’s
partitioned version of Becks’s AI we need to be sure hasn’t gone completely crazy on us first.’ She looked up at Bob. ‘We need to know she’s
before we can ask her precisely what it is she needs to hear – be told … in order to open up and tell us the contents of that message.’
‘Didn’t she say she’d tell us what the secret was “
when it was the end
”?’ said Liam.
‘Uh-huh, she did. But, c’mon, “the end”? That means exactly – lemme do the math here – exactly
to anyone.’ She looked at the others. ‘She’s obviously waiting for a nugget of information, some specific event, or perhaps another codeword, before she’s prepared to spill the beans.’
Rashim looked like he was struggling to catch up on the conversation. ‘So she decoded this ancient manuscript but then, when you asked her to tell you what the message was, she …?’
‘She said she’d tell me “
when it was the end
”. That’s right.’ Maddy shrugged. ‘Which is about as useful as a chocolate crowbar.’ She looked at the others. ‘I think it’s finally time we dig this truth out of her. One way or another we get the whole truth, everything!’
The others looked uncertainly at her.
‘I mean it! The whole thing: who sent us a message from two thousand years ago … and what the hell it was they wanted us to know. I can’t help thinking the reason why Waldstein decided to set his meatbots on us is linked to that message somehow.’
‘Aye.’ Liam finally nodded. ‘I’d like to know what it is we did that annoyed the fella so much.’
‘Maybe we should just leave it,’ said Sal. ‘Maybe we should just wait until –’
‘You’ve got to be kidding, Sal? We need to get right in there,’ Maddy said, lightly tapping Becks’s temple, ‘into that part of her head and really talk to her. You know?
‘If the AI locked in that partition is unstable, she may become extremely volatile,’ cautioned Bob. Sal nodded.
‘I know. I know. Which is why we’re going to restrain her. Chain her the heck down. And if it comes to it, Bob, you’ll have to sit on her if she starts to bug-out on us. OK?’
Rashim shook his head. ‘We are talking about this poor …
… like she isn’t even here!’ He looked at Becks and she at him. ‘She has heard us talking about what we’re planning on doing – anyone wonder what she might make of this?’
He looked around at everyone and then back at Becks. ‘Perhaps we should just ask her?’
Maddy sighed. ‘Rashim, you should know better than me. She’s a silicon chip on legs, that’s all. A meatbot. I’m not going to waste my breath worrying about her feelings.’
‘She has heuristic, adaptive AI. Designed to grow beyond her source code. That makes her, and Bob also, more than just a collection of code functions. She can
.’ Rashim glanced at Becks again. ‘Which is why I believe you need her to co-operate; to
that this is a logical course of action.’
‘Seriously? Oh for …’ Maddy rolled her eyes. ‘Right, OK … if it makes you feel any better …’ She turned to Becks. ‘Would you mind ever so much if we strapped you down and messed around inside your mind?’
Becks smiled obediently. ‘I am happy to comply with this, Maddy.’
‘There? See? She says
‘More to the point, Maddy,’ added Rashim, ‘it’s
coercion, you are going to have to use to talk her into revealing what she knows.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Your support units have some
sophisticated AI going on in their heads. AI that was designed for combat situations: threat-level analysis, friend–foe identification, flexible mission re-prioritization. They’re not like my lab unit: dumb code-loop lemmings. They can make decisions beyond their core programming.’ He looked at Liam. ‘Didn’t you tell me once that Bob reset his mission parameters to rescue you?’
‘Aye, he did.’ Liam nodded at Bob and slapped his arm affectionately. ‘The big-hearted fool decided to come rescue me rather than report back home for new instructions.’
‘Exactly. These AIs are sophisticated enough to – in extreme circumstances – abandon specific mission orders and generate new mission priorities.’ He turned back to Maddy. ‘They can
. Which means … it is just possible that you are in with a chance of convincing Becks to tell you what she knows. Even if that means disobeying a command forbidding her to do so.’
Rashim nodded again. ‘Reason.’