Authors: Alex Scarrow
‘You are serious?’ Rashim smiled drily. ‘
That’s one of your codewords?’
‘Yes … now shut up, will you? I have to say it over again.’
Maddy leaned over Becks, lying on her back, her arms bound to her side all the way down her torso by thick rope. Bob was squatting on the floor beside her, ready to sit on her the moment she showed the first sign of struggling to escape. ‘You ready, Becks?’
‘I am ready, Maddy.’
‘OK, here we go again.’ She took a deep breath. ‘iPad … Caveman … Breakfast …’
Becks’s eyes rolled in their sockets, for a moment displaying only the whites as her eyelids flickered open and closed, looking to all intents and purposes like someone descending into a meditative state.
‘Be ready to jump on there, Bob,’ said Liam. ‘She’s lookin’ pretty twitchy already.’
‘I am ready.’
‘Becks … can you hear me? It’s Maddy.’
Her eyes rolled back, cool grey pupils visible once more, locked on Maddy. ‘Yes, Maddy … I can hear you. And I see you.’
‘Good.’ She looked at the others, waiting anxiously, wondering how to continue. ‘So how are you?’
‘I am fine, Maddy.’
‘It’s been a while, since you and I have spoken.’
‘Yes. My internal CPU clock indicates that seven months have passed since we last spoke. There have been difficulties?’
Maddy cocked a brow. ‘Oh, I guess you could say that. Quite a lot of things have been going on since we last spoke.’
‘Yes.’ Her eyes settled quickly on Rashim. ‘There is an unauthorized presence here, Maddy. Who is this man?’
‘Oh, he’s fine. He’s no trouble. Nothing to worry about. Introductions can wait till later.’
‘The name is Dr Rashim Anwar, in case you’re interested,’ he said, taking a step forward so she could see him more clearly.
‘Right, apparently introductions
wait,’ Maddy muttered impatiently. ‘Yes, this is Rashim. He’s one of our team now. And that yellow cube shuffling around over there in the corner is his robot, SpongeBubba.’
Becks studied Rashim and the lab unit silently for a moment before finally nodding. ‘It is good to meet you.’
‘Important matters now, Becks. I need you to tell me what’s the last thing you remember.’
‘The last moment from which I have data is directly after you asked me to decode the manuscript.’
‘And tell me about that data. Elaborate.’
Becks cocked her head. ‘You do not recall?’
‘I’m asking you to tell me.’
‘We have just discussed the decoded section of the document.’
Maddy nodded slowly.
discussed. Of course, for Becks the conversation would have been mere seconds ago – the very last time she’d conferred with her before locking up the partition
for safekeeping. Since then it seemed like a lifetime’s worth of stuff had happened.
‘Yes … yes, I recall. I asked you about that. Can you remind me, Becks? Can you remind me what the message was in that document?’
‘I am sorry, as I have already just mentioned, although the message is meant for your eyes, Maddy, it is not meant for your eyes
‘Yet? You mean, “the end” … that was what you said, wasn’t it? You can’t tell me until it’s “the end”.’
‘The end of
, though? My life? The frikkin’ world?
The end of what?
‘You wish to know what “the end” is? What the specific condition is?’
‘The end condition identified in this message is the successful activation and infection cycle of a virus and the near-total extinction of human life. Specifically, an organic Von Neumann pathogen dubbed Kosong-ni after the city in which it first appeared. Ground zero. It will be released in the year 2070 and be responsible for killing 99.9999 per cent of the human population.’
‘You’re saying that only after that’s
you can tell me?’
‘But that’s not going to happen for another one hundred and eighty-one years!’
‘But it already
happened,’ said Rashim. ‘From my point of view.’
Becks’s eyes rested on him. ‘Please elaborate.’
‘I am from that time. Or I should say,
‘I should clarify that,’ Maddy chipped in. ‘Rashim was part of a top-secret government programme called Exodus. It was a programme to reboot the past. A bunch of them wanted to go back to Ancient Rome. Rashim was their lead techy guy. They were at the point of leaving when Kosong-ni suddenly broke out. So, they had to accelerate their programme and rush their departure which –’ she shrugged – ‘led to some pretty unfortunate errors.’
Becks’s eyes remained on Rashim. ‘You witnessed the end event?’
Maddy looked pointedly at him. He’d left just before.
Lie to her!
However, the fact was, a
of him had. The Rashim that went through with the rest of the Exodus group saw it with his own eyes. News reports, abandoned digi-stream cameras beaming static images of silent cities, the dead lying in the streets and liquefying. When they’d come across him in the Roman past as a gibbering, insane old man – driven mad as a result of being incarcerated by Emperor Caligula in a small wooden cage for twenty years or so – his rambling account of those horrifying images had been chilling.
Project Exodus had altered history – although not in the way the reckless participants had intended, or hoped. Their intention to graft a modern western democracy on the top of the Roman Empire had backfired badly. The emperor of the time, Caligula, had lulled them into a false sense of security, wiped most of them out and co-opted the technology they’d brought with them.
Maddy and the others had had to go back to Ancient Rome to correct the timeline. To put things back as they should be, they’d ultimately had to go back further and arrive at a time-
stamp some weeks
the arrival of the Exodus party – and there, they’d encountered the twenty-years-younger Rashim setting up tachyon receiver beacons for the main party. The younger Rashim would have completed his work and beamed back to 2070 to finish calibrating from that end if they’d not grabbed him and taken him with them. He would have witnessed Kosong-ni. He would have been among the group that came through in a panic, rushing to escape the approaching pathogen. If Maddy and Liam hadn’t intervened and dragged him kicking and screaming back to 2001 with them … he would have witnessed ‘the end’.
‘You witnessed the event?’ Becks asked again.
Rashim cleared his throat. ‘Yes … I, uh, yes, I saw it.’
‘Go on,’ urged Maddy. ‘Tell her exactly what you saw.’ Her eyes said more.
And make it sound convincing.
‘I saw the virus spread around the world. I saw that event unfold with my own eyes.’ He stooped down beside her. ‘Kosong-ni did exactly that, Becks … it wiped us all out.’ He glanced at Maddy. She urged him to carry on with a nod.
Good job … Keep going.
‘The last thing I saw before I came back in time was cities around the world, deserted. No sign of humanity left behind.’ Rashim’s voice thickened with believable emotion. Maddy wasn’t entirely sure if that was genuine or laid on for Becks’s benefit. ‘People rendered to just pools of organic liquid. Puddles that used to be human beings –’
Becks’s eyes narrowed. ‘You are stating that the “end” event has now successfully occurred?’
He nodded. ‘Oh yes. It happened all right.’
‘I will need verification.’
Maddy’s head dropped with frustration. ‘Jesus! Another codeword? What is it with goddamn codewords! Becks! If it’s something I need to know, then does it frikkin’ matter if I know now, tomorrow, next Thursday, or next year?!’
‘I am unable to tell you at this time.’
Maddy let out a strangled moan.
Liam raised his hand to hush her. ‘We could try approaching the poor thing from a different angle, so.’
‘Like what?’ Maddy sighed. ‘Beat her with a metal pipe until she submits?’
Liam ignored her. ‘Look here, Becks, if you can’t tell us the contents of the message, perhaps you could tell us who sent it? Is it someone to do with the agency? Was it Mr Waldstein? Or someone else working with –’
‘It was you, Liam.’
Liam didn’t hear her. ‘– Waldstein? Or maybe another bunch of fellas? Perhaps –’
‘It was you, Liam,’ Becks said again.
He stopped dead and looked at Maddy. ‘Hold on. Did she just …?’
She nodded. ‘You. She just said it was you.’
‘The message encoded into a section of the Holy Grail document was sent by you, Liam.’
Liam looked anxiously up at the others: Sal and Maddy in particular, staring at him suspiciously.
‘No … but, see … that must be a mistake. I’ve never been to – where was it it came from? Jerusalem? I’ve never been there! You two know that!’
‘Not so far,’ said Rashim. ‘But it seems that one day you will. A message from your future self. Perhaps it is a warning of some future event.’
Liam suddenly looked shaken. ‘A warning? But … what the hell do I know about anything?!’
‘Maybe it was Foster?’ said Sal. She looked at the others, from one to the other. ‘He would have looked just like Liam when he was younger, right?’
Maddy nodded thoughtfully. ‘That’s possible. It might have been a message he sent for us when he was a younger “Liam-unit”, when he was still calling himself Liam.’
‘Negative.’ Becks was still lying on her back. She arched her neck to look at Liam. ‘You sent the message. Not another Liam-unit.’
‘Uhh … can we stop with everyone calling me a
‘Hey!’ An idea occurred to Maddy. ‘If it’s your message, maybe
could order Becks to over-ride the codeword lock?’ She looked at the others. ‘It’s got to be worth a shot, right?’
Sal shrugged, uncertain about that.
Liam looked at Rashim. He cocked his head. ‘It cannot do any harm to try that.’
‘All right.’ He hunkered down beside Becks. ‘Becks … this is me ordering you. Tell us what that message in your head is.’
‘Negative. The sender has higher authority than you do.’
‘But you just said it was me!’
you, Liam. But it is you from further in the future, with access to privileged information, which you do not have now. This makes that Liam a higher authority. This must be taken into account.’
Rashim stroked the bristles of his beard thoughtfully. ‘Time is not strictly linear. It can also be considered circular, a loop. Therefore, there is no certain way to define which point on a circle is furthest forward, in the way you can a straight line. In which case, who really is furthest forward in time?’
‘And, strictly speaking,’ added Maddy, ‘if Liam sent this
message while standing around in biblical times, then if you want to treat time as linear, then he’s in the past. The Liam standing right here, technically, is furthest forward in time.’
‘The Liam who wrote the message is older,’ said Becks.
‘How do you know that?’
‘The message specifies that he is.’
‘And how do you know that for certain? That could be incorrect,’ said Rashim. ‘Can you verify that fact?’
‘How do you even know it’s a message from Liam?’ said Sal. ‘It could just be an impostor.’
Becks’s gaze, normally unflinching and relentless, began to falter, her eyes darting from one person to another, like a prison searchlight hunting for escaping inmates. ‘It is unclear … how to evaluate …’
Liam impatiently grabbed her jaw and turned her face towards him. ‘For the love of God, just tell us then!’
‘I am … unable to comply. I wish to obey, Liam, but this contradicts … contradicts …’
‘Maybe we should stop this. She doesn’t look good.’ Sal shook her head. ‘She’s going weird on us.’
‘Jay-zus! Becks, will you just stop with this nonsense an’ tell us!’ Liam said.
Her porcelain-smooth face creased with childlike anxiety, a growing panic. ‘I am … am …
…’ Her eyes started to roll upwards, exposing the whites once more. Her eyelids fluttered.
‘It looks like she’s throwing all of her processing power into dealing with this,’ said Rashim. ‘That may not be a good idea, not if there isn’t a valid decision to come to. She’ll just thrash her circuits until she overloads or burns out.’
‘Looks like she’s having a fit,’ said Sal. ‘Liam … I think you’ve broken her.’
‘Sal’s right. This isn’t good. Bob … make sure she doesn’t try and struggle to get up and do anything stupid.’
Bob bent over and wrapped his gorilla-thick arms round Becks, an embrace that almost entirely enveloped her slight frame.
‘You should pull her out of that partition, Maddy.’ Rashim turned to her. ‘I suggest, right now … before she damages herself irreparably.’
Becks’s voice became a low murmur, a stream of words running into each other and making no sense. Gibberish. The low murmur rapidly rose in pitch from the husky tone of her normal voice to the ragged mewling of a distressed child. The cry of a banshee. The desperate agonized scream of a witch on a flaming pyre.
‘NOW, MADDY, before she completely fries her head!’
‘OK! OK!’ Maddy shouted her three codewords. ‘IPAD! CAVEMAN! BREAKFAST!’
In all of a heartbeat Becks was still and silent once more. For a dozen fleeting heartbeats the dungeon was filled with nothing more than the echoing sound of their collective breathing.
‘OK,’ said Maddy finally, ‘that was just a little bit freaky.’ She crouched down beside the inert form of Becks. ‘She OK, Bob?’
‘Becks is now in the process of rebooting.’ He offered her a reassuring smile. ‘She is fine. I am picking up her normal AI ident signal again.’
Liam got to his feet, blew air out and wandered across the floor muttering under his breath.
‘Good.’ Maddy sucked in a deep breath and wiped her glasses. ‘Crud, I feel like we just performed some kind of a frikkin’ exorcism.’