PART ONE – SLOUCHERS
Dirty streets not far from Southwark Bridge. For the last half hour, a small crowd had been gathering. No conversation. Shambling, ragged figures dragging themselves forward, arriving singly or in small groups. Clothing ripped and worn away; any colour it may once have had drained out, or obscured by dirt until all was a uniform grey. Hair hung long and untended, in strands that the early morning not-quite-rain had dampened until it dripped tear smudges down grimy cheeks.
They came in all shapes and sizes, but there was something about each that joined them to the tribe. Like their clothes, that had once been an assortment of styles, the differences that should have made individuals of them had leaked out of every face. Features merged, slack jawed and vacant, into a single expression; a coagulation of humanity.
Young as well as old were bent over and shambling; though there were not so many of the old; and few children. All looked empty, like a people whose lives had just stopped. And after that, either under or above ground, they had simply waited, for the longest time. Whatever inner spark had wakened and directed them to this place, died within each lumbering figure at the moment that they linked with the common crowd, which stood dumb and inanimate as if each member had forgotten why he had come.
One figure stood apart from the rest; more recognizably human. His clothes were worn out like the others’, but not so dirty. His hair, that might have once been blond, was long, but combed after a fashion. His silver and grey beard had been trimmed not many weeks ago. It was clear that in the past, he would have been a giant of a man. Even now, bent with age and hard living, he stood well over six feet tall. His hands were enormous; rough-skinned, broken-nailed and bony-jointed things. The face was a ruin; cheeks sunken, eyes heavy-lidded, but in his eyes a clear blue still showed under each corrugated eyelid.
The old man watched the others with something like speculation in those clear blue eyes. The crowd paid no attention to him or to anything else. From time to time the old man stamped his feet to keep warm. His boots were too big even for the huge feet inside them; one lace broken and the other wrapped around the toe of the boot to bind its loose and flapping sole. The others didn’t seem to notice the cold, even dressed in no more than rags. One wore an overcoat with no shirt or sweater beneath, another had no more than a stained remnant of a nylon jacket for warmth; his neighbour’s threadbare dressing gown hung open over a pair of crumpled oversized jeans. The next wore nothing over a greasy t-shirt with the faded remains of a design traced out under the crusted filth of it.
As the old man watched them, he had the impression that each one of the crowd was straining to remember something. Their faces were empty, but still there was something of longing in them that had not been completely extinguished.
The watcher was supporting himself against a shopping cart that was half-filled with items; mostly books of all kinds. Paperbacks, hardbacks, books with pictures and without; some that looked new and some with broken spines. He would take as many as he could find from wherever he could find them, provided only there were no pages missing. Now the old man reached into the cart and lifted out a notebook. Then, taking from his overcoat pocket a half used-up pencil that seemed to disappear between his thick, knotted digits, he found an empty page and commenced to write.
He was interrupted when the crowd began to move off. There was no leader and no given signal that anyone might see. It was only that the disordered, vague milling about that had been going on for a while, began to tend in a particular direction rather than turning back on itself. As the procession slowly got underway, the old man held back, following at a distance.
Progress was confused but inexorable: there was a definite purpose to it; and a sense of expectation that swelled with a sense of destination. There was even a little noise to add to the squeaking of the shopping cart and the flapping of the loose sole on the old man’s boot; even if the collective hum of voices was more like a low and sustained moan than a buzz of conversation.
The crowd passed on through one street and another. Finally, they came to a square, where another, larger crowd of the same type was already waiting.
It would have been a typical London square except that the centre of it was dominated by a giant cuboid structure that stood about five metres high. It was constructed in steel that had once been described as stainless, although now it was stained in any case. Around the cube were arranged some long, low structures of the same material, like metal cow sheds. And around these, like the outer ring of some ancient burial site, was an array of small upright columns, polished steel obelisks in minature.
These last were water dispensers, with an open hatch set into the face of each elevation, inside which a faucet set on the inner wall poured a steady stream of water into a small trough. A few of the new arrivals approached these and pushed their faces into the flow, drinking and wiping their soiled faces at the same time. Some bent their faces into the troughs beneath and sucked up water like animals.
No announcement was made, but at a certain point came the whirr of heavy electric motors and then the clanging of metal screens that began to open simultaneously in each of the shed-like constructions. The doors opened simultaneously: behind them were open serving hatches: long, trough-like rows interrupted every so often by low square blocks that housed carton dispensers. The dispensers were stacked with square containers of treated paper that all carried the same red and yellow design. The troughs themselves were filled with something that looked just like popcorn, even though that was not exactly what it was.
There was no rush toward either the water or the popcorn, but before long all the available outlets were crowded with busy hands grasping at paper bags or stuffing them full of the popped cereal. Still the old man remained at the edge of the square and only watched.
Like the other structures, the giant cube had shutter doors on each of its four elevations that faced out across the square. These shutters had opened, exposing giant flat screens that were, for the moment, inert. Even so a sizeable number of the crowd ignored the water and popcorn, preferring to edge closer to the lifeless screens, their faces upturned in expectation.
It wasn’t much longer before the screens flickered alive. The collective, wordless drone that was the only sound made by the grazing street people ceased abruptly. In its place was something like a profound sigh and then a hush of expectation and the sounds of popcorn crunching underfoot as all shuffled to be as close as possible to a screen.
The first programme was a quiz show, as always. The old man waited, watching the crowd rather than the rapid succession of bright images and pretty faces that flashed across the screen too fast, in too- bright colours. He didn’t try to follow the mock complications of the show. It was enough to know that the audience was in the grip of the entertainment from the first moment of tranmission.
Every so often, the action would be punctuated by an urgent sound effect, followed by the same strident signature jingle that boomed out across the square through a powerful sound system, louder than anything else. This five note phrase meant that a question had been answered correctly or not, that a contestant had won or lost everything or that a new prize was being announced. The trivial events on screen were just interludes between these moments, but throughout, all eyes remained locked onto the images, upturned faces rapt with attention.
Finally, the old man made up his mind to advance. He reached down to find something in the cart and drew out a couple of five litre containers. Next he unscrewed the caps and filled each of the containers with water from one of the faucets. Then he pushed the cart over to one of the popcorn dispensing sheds. He filled five of the paper dispensers and loaded them into the cart with everything else. When he’d finished, he returned to the faucet and drank deeply from the flowing water before dipping his huge hands into the sink below and wiping his face. He smoothed some more of the cold water across his scalp and through his grey hair and then he was on his way without any of the viewers having glanced in his direction.
Later that morning, the same old man was to be seen on the south embankment of the river. Again he hung apart from the crowd, a solitary fixed point in the human flow. It was a different kind of crowd in this place and the old man knew that here his kind were tolerated on condition of maintaining near invisibility.
The people who promenaded the bank were members of the privileged elite: the working class. The old man had a memory, vague like most of his remembrance, that this description had once meant something quite different; but for the passers-by he observed today, dressed in a variety of styles and colours, it was the badge of belonging in this bright world.
He knew that the smart fabric of their clothing somehow swept itself clean and remembered the shape of its design. Some of the strollers wore special glasses that enabled them to view location specific installations from the digital world as they walked. Many of the younger ones weaved through the crowd on skateboards powered by tiny electric motors, or in some cases the new wheel-less kind, that weren’t so reliable or cheap, but slid over an electromagnetic space between board and ground. The old man even saw three teenage boys attempting to make trick manoeuvres on retro skateboards, that didn’t have any power through the wheels.
Everywhere he looked there was some kind of display. You didn’t need special glasses to see most of them. There’d been no planning regulations for years: in fact, there were no effective regulations of any kind, although some kind of parliament still met in the big building further up the river. The old man could recall when the place had been called the Palace of Westminster, but now its official name was The Big Ben. In any case, that building and the debates that even now were staged inside it, existed for the benefit of tourists, who seemed to find the quaintness of it amusing.
London was a show. It had been like that since the last of its great industries, banking, had collapsed or moved east, to what used to be called China. People with money liked to live here in spite of the mostly foul weather. They came to be entertained and be close to other people with money, sufficiently hemmed in that they could be confident that the value of their property investments would remain reassuringly high.
Close to where the old man was standing was a theatre in the shape of a circus, a reconstruction of something from a byegone age. A large banner on the wall promised “Shakespeare!” in giant red lettering, but the old man had read the books he collected well enough to understand that what was on offer here was not the works of a long dead playwright but an entertainment based on some themes suggested by his words. The old man would never see the inside of the theatre, but he could briefly experience a rare feeling of superiority, knowing that most of the paying customers would believe they were experiencing the real thing.
London was always either preparing itself for a celebration or congratulating itself on having completed one. This year was the official Year of the Princes and so the public thoroughfares and squares were again being torn up to replace perfectly good year old pavings with new and better ones, while a few streets back the city rotted. The ugly safety barriers and cones blighted the river walk, obstructing the passage of pedestrians, but the people didn’t seem to mind them, or the noise of the works. It was all too normal to notice.
The old man had been standing watching the crowd stream by for some time. He seemed to have an eye on one individual in particular; the only other person who hadn’t moved on in the flow. This slight figure still remained, looking out over the river, propped against the ancient wall of the embankment with his back to the old man, who stood at some distance from him.
Judging from the cut of his light hair and his clothing, the stranger who was contemplating the waters seemed to be a young man, although he hadn’t looked round yet. His smart-tech suit was new enough and clean (of course) but not too fashionable. He seemed respectably working class, though not seriously wealthy. And still he hadn’t moved. Something must be occupying his thoughts and it probably wasn’t the beauty of the river
The Thames was back to its natural state, if you took account of the centuries. It had been a sewer in the pre-industrial age and then a stinking and dangerous conduit for the factories and workshops that came after. After industry was gone, the waters had cleared up briefly to the point that sightings of healthy fish were regularly claimed. But then the presence of so many people and the lack of public administration had its inevitable effect. By now, the Thames was dirty and stinking once more. Self appointed voices of indignation complained that something should be done, to no avail, but in spite of the filth, the river still held an inexplicable and potent attraction for sightseers and anyone else who wasn’t too busy doing other things to notice it.
It was late Friday morning and the rain still had not decided whether to fall or only hang in the air. The surge of people in both directions along Bankside and across the Millennium Bridge continued. The only fixed human points were a few street vendors, the young man leaning on the parapet who couldn’t tear his gaze away from the river; and the old man who stood well apart from the other, but seemed to be observing him.
Finally the youth came to a decision. He stood erect rather abruptly, like a man who has just realised he is late for an appointment, and in that moment his face appeared in profile. He was pale, with a thin face that made his long straight nose more prominent. His light hair was long on top, seemingly with a mind of its own. His eyes were grey blue with lashes that were too thick for a man. Directly he set off with a purposeful stride towards the bridge: it was clear that he intended to cross.
He had hardly started to move when the older man also revived; taking a slightly different route, but heading in the same direction. The old man looked uncertain in his movements and shambolic in his gait, but even hampered by the trolley it seemed no trouble to him to keep pace a discreet distance behind the youngster.
Apart from the irregular hammering of drills and the continuous hum of the people talking to each other, the river walk was quiet. The two men were about halfway across the pedestrian bridge when the calm of the morning was shattered by a loud bang. Almost immediately a plume of black smoke began to rise from the area around St Pauls, on the far bank; and for the next few seconds everything was silent as conversations paused and work halted. Next came the sound of shouting from the other side of the river, coming closer; and then a noise that sounded like weapons firing.
The young man and his shadow were close enough to see three men wearing black hoods come running from the direction of Paternoster Square, heading down the steps towards the bridge. One of them held a pistol He turned to fire at pursuers who now appeared: security cops in the familiar black uniform and body armour. One of the police loosed a round from his machine pistol at the man who was about to fire. The hooded man fell soundlessly and a woman who had been standing near him screamed and fell. Blood started to pump from her leg. The two remaining fugitives ran for the bridge without looking back, seeking the cover of the crowd that filled the way.
One of the police carried a heavy weapon, perhaps an assault rifle. From his position near the top of the steps he braced himself and fired two single shots. Each of the running men dropped lifelessly to the ground just in front of the pedestrian bridge. In another moment everyone was speaking again. The police were shouting instructions: the woman continued to scream.
The youth remained rooted to the spot as if his mind had not yet assimilated the scene he’d witnessed. The old man had already turned and started to retrace his steps as briskly as was possible without seeming to hurry. Other citizens resumed their activities. A small crowd gathered around the spot where the terrorists had been shot, watching the police mark out the site before taking the bodies away, but there was not much of interest to see after that. People in this city had become accustomed to such incidents. The woman stopped screaming eventually. She’d lost a lot of blood by the time the ambulance arrived. An hour and a half later the blood stains on the footway were the only record. The police left them for the street cleaning service to deal with; no need for forensics.
Aled Fox watched the developments in the street with the same rapt attention that he’d given to the river and the strolling people earlier. It wasn’t that the violent campaign of the terrorists held particular interest for him, more that he was in a passive state of mind. Later maybe, he’d reflect on what he had seen and come to some conclusions about it. For now his brain only stored up what he was seeing, together with every minute detail.
Although his thoughts were elsewhere, Aled could hardly be said to be thinking about anything at all. His clothes and appearance showed that he was working class; a valid person. He had his own portal to the Market. He wasn’t a non-being like the teeming masses huddled in the dark postcodes where you never went; or like one of those poor devils in the black hoods that the police had just smeared on the street. By the sound of that bang, the rebels were planting bombs now. Well it wasn’t surprising, given that they’d face the same penalty for breaking windows, or making graffiti on the wrong walls.
Aled reflected that the lives of those people must be near insupportable. Even their clothes were just cheap rags with no nanotechnology: they had no style and needed to be washed and pressed by hand. The street people were instantly recognisable by their clothing; soiled and baggy with faded colours. It was the fashion to suppose that they didn’t mind it, so long as they could find a reasonably dry hole, close enough to a Dispensary with local Viewscreen. Lately, Aled was not so sure that he believed it.
He’d never given much thought to the street people in the past. But he knew exactly why some part of his thoughts turned to them now. It was the fault of the girl.
And it was no coincidence that when he’d set off to wander without an intended direction, which was what he did when he was working and needed to think, his unconscious steps had brought him here. He’d met her on this riverbank, close to where he was now standing. By now, he was painfully conscious that she was extraordinarily pretty, but before that day he wouldn’t have noticed her at all. Somehow your brain learned not to notice the street people. And in fact he hadn’t seen her: instead he’d walked straight into her. At the time, he’d put it down to his own absent mindedness, though later he wasn’t sure she’d not contrived to bring about the collision. Usually when Slouchers found themselves in good postcodes they seemed to have an instinct to avoid being noticed or touched: something else that Aled had only lately observed.
Bumping into one of the non-people, even literally, didn’t impose any social obligation on Aled to speak to such a person, even if he could see that he’d accidentally winded a young girl; but he’d always been cursed by an excess of politeness. He began to apologize, awkwardly; and then she smiled and he actually saw her for the first time. After they’d talked for a while, and he’d discovered that she was looking for cleaning work, it had become obvious to him that he’d needed a cleaner for a long time and that he’d been lucky to meet just the right person for the job.
Technically, cleaning was a Service, and there were businesses on the Market that provided it. Aled knew from his friends that it was possible to reach informal understandings with girls like this, who would work for slightly less than the lowest market rate and not argue about their hours or conditions. His friends always complained about the poor quality of the work and the slovenly attitude of the girls and having to hide whatever things they might steal; but still they seemed to find it worth continuing with these arrangements. In any case, he really did need some help with the flat. He lived alone and spent most of his time in the work room. He wasn’t particularly dirty or untidy: it was just that he never saw the domestic chores that needed doing and so they accumulated until living conditions in the flat became impossible to ignore.
He’d been dazzled by the girl’s smile, but he could see that she was not typical of her class. Her clothes were the normal shapeless grey, but they were clean. Even close up her body had no smell. She had managed to wash her dark hair in some way: though it was long and unstyled, it seemed almost healthy. Aled had decided that there was something not English about her, though he did not enquire, for fear of seeming rude. Anyway, she had nothing of the sagging physique and weary lethargy of the typical Sloucher.
And there was no denying that Soria knew how to work. Within days she’d transformed his home. He’d lost hours of writing time as she banged about in the rooms, up and down the stairs with bags full of what she described as rubbish. Aled was certain that many things that he might have found useful in future were being discarded along with the rest, but he felt unable to interfere in the domestic upheaval he had called into play.
Well that was all good: he couldn’t have kept living in squalor indefinitely and he could easily afford the pitiful wage that the girl had suggested. The problem was Soria herself: he’d got used to having her around so quickly, although she never said much or put herself forward. Now he was confused, asking himself how did he really feel about her?
Aled looked around him and realised that he’d been walking towards Southwark. He paused again, watching some foreign tourists puzzling over a map while an unnaturally large seagull harassed a small child who was trying to eat an ice cream.
The business with Soria was perplexing, but not enough to keep his thoughts away from his long standing preoccupations for too long. It was the work that kept him absent minded always. He’d finished two pieces in that week. The first was only a jingle to pay the rent; because those deceptively simple fragments of melody sometimes paid well, if you found you’d accidentally discovered one of those hooks that will lodge in the unwilling brain of the listener. He wasn’t too nervous on account of that one, but the second was a piece he had been working on for a long time. He had high expectations for it, though at the same time he was fearful of it being a flop. Reluctant to admit to himself, but he half suspected this work could be the masterpiece that would make his reputation.
Aled had promised himself that when he finished it, he would take a break, at least in his mind. He knew that he’d need to empty his thoughts of that work before he could be fresh to consider another project; but after such an intense and prolonged effort it was difficult to switch off. He was sure that he would start to relax once he knew how the work had been received in the Market and he’d uploaded both pieces early that morning. He supposed that just now what he was really doing was avoiding being in the flat until five thirty, which by convention was close of business (although the Market never closed). Only then he would discover the value of his efforts.
Maybe he’d meet some friends later, if anyone still remembered him after so long in isolation working on that score. At least he should ring his agent. But while he was thinking of who to call, part of him was all the time wondering if Soria would still be around when he returned and how she might take it if he suggested they might share a dial-in meal in the flat.
The country to the north west of the city had been the place where new technology companies sprang up. It was an area with good communications and easy to get to from the established university towns and the airport. Nowadays most of the global corporations sited their national and regional headquarters here only because money attracts money.
Jack Brennan was employed by one of those corporations that was notionally based in Japan, though almost nobody took those national distinctions seriously any more. His personal listings gave his occupation as head of security, with a few discreet clues as to his level of seniority and experience. It was unusual to have so little information on your personal site, but people who understood such things appreciated his reticence and would certainly know where to find whatever they might need to know about him. Besides, Jack wasn’t the type of employee who changed jobs often. Anyone who did investigate would discover that Jack was considered one of the best. It had to be that way, or the corporation would not have considered hiring him. In his area of expertise, either your CV was impeccable or you were unemployable.
Right now, Jack was worried. His friends would have told him that he was a worrier by nature: except that he didn’t really have any friends. Apparently this was part of the psychological profile that explained why he was so good at what he did.
Other people might claim that Jack worried too much, but so far as he was concerned, other people, more specifically those people who employed him; didn’t worry nearly enough. Today was a case in point. His boss, the man at the top of things in Europe, had decided to fly his daughter across to London for the week. So far so good, except that Jack didn’t really see why the visit should be necessary. There was always risk involved in physical travel and they could communicate perfectly well across continents through the reality systems that were among his employer’s best selling products. Then it had been decided that they should meet at the corporate headquarters, so that daddy could show his little girl around before they moved back to the city hotel; where security wouldn’t really be a problem. That meant the potential nightmare of a car journey, with the associated risk of attacks, kidnapping attempts, even accidents. Their route would be obvious to anyone and there were a thousand places on the way where things could happen.
It was true that lately the corporations had involved themselves less in assassination and associated forms of criminality: it had become a counterproductive form of competition. But there had been periods like this before when the business world seemed to have reached an uneasy equilibrium. Something always happened to upset the balance. Eventually ambition or desperation would provide the motivation for one player to risk an extreme action and then the cycle would start again; normally a brief but intense period of conflict before the rivalries settled back into more conventional modes. Governments were powerless to do anything about it. Governments were powerless, full stop. No one could predict what might set it off again. Jack’s only concern was to make sure that when it did kick off, none of his clients should be in the cross hairs as a target.
There were three limousines parked in front of the steel and glass palace that was the corporation’s nerve centre in the region: they were long and black and heavily armoured. The president and his daughter would travel in the middle one. There were no drivers, because drivers could be bought, or they might be drunk or high when they were needed: in any case they made mistakes. The vehicles would be controlled from a remote location and by their on board computers. A trusted operative would travel in each of the front two cars. Jack and his small team would be in the third, prepared to secure the destination on arrival.
They were waiting for the president now. The limousines had parked up just before the scheduled departure time, so that no one who didn’t already know the itinerary should have time to set up any kind of attack; but that had been more than ten minutes ago. The president was a tough guy, but he couldn’t deny his little girl anything. In truth, Jack couldn’t imagine what interest the girl might have found in a tour of regional HQ. Probably she was just being polite about it for her old man. Anyway, the cars shouldn’t be standing out here in the street. There was no good reason not to start out from the underground car park, except that the day was sunny and the president wanted to make an exit through the main lobby like some kind of old-fashioned movie star. The building was on a campus with controlled entry, but there were plenty of high buildings not far away; any one of which could hide a shooter with a rifle that was high powered enough to get the job done.
Jack’s fingernails were already a mess, but he chewed them some more anyway as he paced up and down the line of vehicles, anticipating lines of fire; where someone on the ground might try to intercept them; where an insider might make his move.
At last the president and his teenage daughter sauntered out of the building and into the bright sunshine. They were talking and laughing; paying no attention to the stern faced men and women attending them. Everyone waited as the personal bodyguard held open the door of the middle vehicle and got in behind the VIPs: then everything started to happen in double time. The security team sprinted for their allotted places and a few seconds later the convoy began the journey down the short stretch of motorway into Central London.
By the time that Aled walked back to his apartment building, he thought he had made up his mind to ask Soria to stay for dinner. In the gloomy frame of mind that seemed to come with finishing a project, he expected to find that she’d finished up and left hours ago, but then, when he came out of the lift and down the hall and as he was fitting his key into the lock, he felt an inexplicable certainty that the place was not empty.
He opened the door and there was Soria, but not as he expected. Rather than working, she seemed to have been waiting for him. She sprang up from the sofa as he came in.
– Where’ve you been? I’ve been worried about you.
Aled was caught off balance. It wasn’t part of their relationship that she should worry about him. He answered that he’d been walking and had lost track of the time.
– We have to move fast. It’s not safe here, she told him. I’ve packed some of your things.
He had no idea what she meant. He noticed that there was an airline bag on the floor in front of her that seemed to be stuffed full. For a second,he wondered if she’d been intending to rob him. Aled made no move. He didn’t know how to react or what to say next.
– You really don’t have a clue, Soria told him. Check the screen in your workroom, but hurry.
He did as she instructed. It was the first place he’d been intending to go in any case; and even with this strange new turn of events, he was more than eager to see how his work had been received. He knew it wouldn’t take long to find out.
Aled had always been vague about how the Market worked. Mary, his agent, had tried to explain it to him more than once. Of course he understood the theory. Everything was there, to be bought and sold by everyone. Transactions were more or less instant; because in the end there were only a few buyers and sellers that needed to be matched for any kind of deal, relative to the capacity of the network to process data. Everybody who was buying or selling was on the network, which meant that if you were not, you may as well not exist.
Once the Market identified potential buyers and sellers, it was easy for the system to conduct a virtual auction in a matter of minutes, without the active intervention of anybody. It was understood that human interaction would slow down the process intolerably, so if you wanted to deal, you had to live with that and accept the house rules. Decisions about trades were driven by algorithms that buyers and sellers included with their registration, many of which were too complex for humans to understand. Most serious buying was done by the handful of big corporations that dominated the world economy, plus two or three high net worth individuals. Any of them would have found the idea of relying on individual executives to make these decisions laughable.
In the case of what Mary called intellectual property, which included the music that Aled wrote, a series of events would have occurred once he pressed the enter key to submit his latest work. All of the publishing houses that currently had interest in that kind of product and had signed up to the standard terms of contract of the Market (which were non-negotiable) would receive an evaluation copy which would be machine analysed to assess market segments of end consumers who might be responsive to the product, and the degree of responsiveness that might be anticipated.
The various individual programs of the publishers would take into account every factor, such as whether the relevant segments were already served by existing product of that provider and what opportunities there were for synergies; for example did the publisher have a performer on the books who could be identified strongly with this type of work and if so had the company already invested in the promotion of product that was similar to the submission. Aled had heard of composers who’d received huge payouts for product that was bought by corporations which only wanted to suppress it, due to their already advanced plans for shows based around other work that was similar but not as good: it was his personal nightmare.
The main thing to remember was that these systems would determine the potential buyers’ views of the value of what he offered. And by now the highest bidder would have already acquired the work and the right to do whatever they damn well pleased with it. The lifetime value of the work would be a sum of money instantly credited to Aled’s account; that he now needed to check. Mary told him that this number was calculated as the discounted cash flow of future anticipated revenues from his work. Aled didn’t attempt to understand that, but he knew that the number he’d see would validate (or not) the amount of time he’d spent over his music.
With that thought overriding the recent strangeness, he burst into the workroom and threw himself at the desk, heart pumping from fear as much as anticipation as he clicked the mouse to refresh the screen. Now more than ever, he was sure that the piece he had submitted was his best work. Even if it was worth nothing, he wasn’t sure that he’d ever be able to do better.
It took less than seconds for the machine to come back to life, but still Aled felt a sense of waiting. The response page was already opened on screen, but blocked because the session was timed out. He entered his password feverishly; his gaze fixed on the screen as the numbers finally appeared.
Then he knew there was some mistake. It was said that the Market could not make mistakes, but even so it must have happened. The number was too big: it was in millions. He looked at it again and was even surer that it must be wrong. That wasn’t even the right reference. Somehow they´d mixed up the jingle and the big work. He clicked back a page. It seemed that both pieces had been sold at least. He could consider himself a real composer, finally. His hands had stopped shaking and now he clicked back to the page that displayed the figure that was a computer error.
Except that it didn’t look like an error. Eight bars of music in the key of D minor that he’d thought might be used to help sell some product that was associated with relaxation. He’d not even listened to it seriously himself. But there was the number: eight figures.
He’d started to feel nervous again. He clicked to another screen and entered some complicated identifiers. His bank balance. It wasn’t just an error on the display. The system had followed through and the money was in his account. There would be people anxious to get their money back. There would be a lot of questions about whether the Market was foolproof after all; even though everything was based on it. Had someone found a way to beat the system? But if so, why would they divert the money to him.
– Aled, that’s too long. We have to go, now.
Soria was standing in the doorway, commanding him in a voice that didn’t allow for disagreement. He still had no idea what she meant. Now he was beginning to think that maybe he did not know her either. And meanwhile, downstairs the men who had been watching the flat received their orders to move. They got out of their parked car and made their way across to the apartment building.
The drive south down the motorway and through the suburbs went as smoothly as Jack could have wished. The motorcade pulled up on time in the private entry of the futuristic hotel that had been completed just a few months earlier, looming over the great park. It was more Las Vegas than London, but these days the difference between the cities wasn’t that much.
Even as they came gently to a standstill, Jacks team were spilling out of the limousine, taking up their designated positions. Jack followed: strangely the bodyguard still had not opened the door of the VIP limo. Jack walked briskly across to open the door himself and immediately saw why. No one inside the vehicle was breathing.
Training took over. There was no odour of gas but he opened the other doors to be sure. He felt all three bodies for a pulse, knowing that there was none. Music was still playing in the car and he clicked it off. His people had begun to walk towards the car with shocked, slack expressions. He ordered them back to their posts and called his deputy to join him. He felt a strange exhilaration, as if the pessimistic side of his nature had always known that the day would come; the day when he would lose a client. Now that the worst had happened, there was almost relief mixed in with the other feelings.
He noticed that each of the dead people in the car had the same expression. Serene. Their eyes were open but it was as if they had drifted into sleep, to a dream so satisfying that they never came back.
– It looks bad Jack.
Stevens was a good man. He was making an effort to hold it together, as they all were.
– It’s as bad as it can be.
– I can’t say. Look at their faces. Doesn’t look like it hurt whatever it was.
The words weren’t spoken, but the thought was there just the same. These people were dead and their troubles were ended. Jack and his whole team had become unemployable as of this moment. There would be an enquiry to find causes, but the effect was clear: security had failed. If it was decided that Jack or any of his team had been in on it; well that would be the end of their worries; but in any case, there would be no future vacancy for a high end personal security chief with a deceased client in his resume. Jack hoped that some of the team had savings. He’d never seen the point personally: he’d always known that he wouldn’t last long if he dropped out of the working class.
– What should we do now?
Stevens was right. Orders had to be given. He considered what he should say. He’d known the president for three years. Thought him a good enough man; devoted to his family. And the girl was just a kid. Not to mention his own man, who’d just been collateral damage. None of them had deserved this and someone was responsible. Someone had called it in and the job would have been done by professionals, somehow. Jack knew that he had maybe twenty four hours left as the official head of the corporation’s UK security, though his actual responsibilities were more or less over. There was only one more thing left for him to do.
– Get on the network, he told Stevens, I want to know which of the pros who could be involved in this are in town right now and I want to know exactly where they are at this minute. Find me a car I can use, not one of these hearses, and then secure the site. Give me a few minutes to get clear before you call the emergency services. There’s nothing they can do for these people anyway.
Stevens nodded by way of saying that he understood where Jack was coming from, even if he thought his boss was indulging in an empty gesture. Some hotel staff had started to appear in the parking bay, looking cautious but curious. Stevens signalled the team to keep them away. There was not much else they could do until the police arrived.
When he got home, the old man spent some time examining the condition of the books he’d found, once he’d taken care of Suzy that is. Suzy was his companion: a Labrador cross that he’d found in the streets around Whitechapel when he’d been scouring that area for books about four years ago.
Time was a vague concept for the old man. It seemed that his mind was sharp in some ways; not so clear in others. Children would have described him as crazy, making fun of him and telling stories about him, except you didn’t see too many children in these slums any more. There was something in what they gave out at the Dispensaries that kept the birth rate down and even if children were born, people didn’t remember how to care for them.
There was something in that stuff which gave you cancer too. Everyone knew it, but still everyone turned up at the Dispensary. In any case, what would you eat if you were off the popcorn? The drugs were free and the feeling was good. It was a gentle high that left you feeling satisfied, with no aggression. That feeling and the non-stop entertainment shows that were pumped out on the giant Viewscreens set up in every neighbourhood, were what made life bearable for most of the people in the streets the old man roamed.
The old man preferred books to video, but he’d take as much as he could get of whatever was handed out at the Dispensary. It didn’t seem to damage him in the same way as other people. He was old by most standards, but in terms of Sloucher life, he was ancient. It was something to do with genes maybe; or him being so big. His personal belief was that he owed his persistence to the way he’d lived in the old days before this world. He supposed that he’d used just about any drug that was available back then, when the quality was better. He believed that he must have built up some kind of immunity. In any case it was too late to think about stopping now.
He seemed satisfied with what he’d put in the cart that day. Carefully he removed a pair of tiny spectacles from his large face and folded them away. Suzy had finished her food, though she continued to run her lips around the tin bowl in hopes of finding something overlooked. She wasn’t hungry: that was just Labrador greed.
Now it was getting dark. The old man carefully fitted the rough shutters he’d made for the windows and checked that he’d secured the doors. Only then did he start to prepare his own meal. He lit a small spirit stove that gave a low heat, but enough to warm the contents of some cans that he’d salvaged from a corner shop. Even now you could find real food that had been missed by looters who’d been in more of a hurry than the old man usually was.
The building that the old man called home had been a library and that made him feel at home, although he remembered that libraries had started to be emptied out of books even in the days when there were still official bodies to run them. Now the only authorities were the police and some few services that the corporations judged essential; enough to keep public health risks under control, though health was a relative term. Everything else had fallen apart, unless you lived in one of the good postcodes with their gated communities and private services providers.
But the libraries had tended to provide decent IT resources even after the printed books were left to rot. Abandoned computers that he’d found here were in good order, even if they were old fashioned and the network access could be restored if you knew how. The old man preferred books to computers, but both had their uses.
He talked to Suzy for a while until it was fully dark; then he thought that he might allow himself enough light to read for a while. Events were progressing and he was content so far. He only hoped that Soria would be careful to look after herself. It was a dangerous world out there.
Aled had started to argue with Soria. It was ridiculous to say that they had to leave right now and that he should bring the bag with him, without any kind of explanation. The girl would only tell him that the situation was complicated and just now there wasn’t time to discuss. Who did she think she was anyway? He only paid her to clean his flat.
Suddenly she grew silent and motioned him to be quiet.
– There’s someone outside, she whispered.
She signalled for him to follow her into the kitchen. There was something about her attitude that made Aled comply, in spite of himself.
– Stay here, she ordered, heading back towards the apartment door. Only now she was carrying a large knife that she’d picked up from the block next to the drainer.
Now that they were both quiet, it did sound as if there was something moving in the hall outside the flat. The door was secured on a latch, though not one that would keep a determined intruder out for long. Aled remained crouched behind the cover of the kitchen unit, as he had been told, feeling stupid and somehow humiliated for doing so. He couldn’t think of any reason why a thief would want to break into his apartment.
Soria was standing, back to the wall, next to the external door, eyes fixed the door handle. Her legs were braced in a broad stance and there was something about the way she held the knife that suggested she knew how to use it for more than slicing meat.
They had been silent for a minute and Aled was on the point of telling Soria to stop playing games, when the door handle twitched. Someone was trying it from the outside. Soria put the index finger of her free hand to her lips to indicate that Aled should stay quiet.
Then the door burst open, falling from its hinges. The hand that came through the doorway in the next moment was carrying a gun. It wasn’t a big gun, but it looked big enough to Aled.
Soria’s knife flashed and the owner of the hand howled in pain. She’d slipped it under the arm of the attacker and drawn the serrated blade back across his wrist. Blood spurted from the wound but the girl ignored it. Taking advantage of the man’s shock she grabbed his gun arm and pulled him into the room and onto her blade with the full weight of his momentum. The knife passed under his ribs and up into his sternum. Soria used both hands to force it in up to the hilt. The man still clutched his pistol which fired harmlessly into the furniture before his body realised that his heart had been split open and was not able to pump any more blood to his brain or other vital organs.
Soria grabbed the pistol.
-Don’t move, she shouted to Aled. He wouldn’t have been able to if he’d tried.
Soria retreated from the open doorway, keeping the gun trained on it.
– You may as well give up, someone shouted. There’s enough of us and we’re coming in.
Soria was kneeling behind the sofa, outstretched arms pointing the weapon at the doorway. She was breathing hard; panting, and starting to shake.
– Right you had your chance, said the voice. Aled waited for bodies to come flying into the room firing.
Instead there was a soft grunt and a loud snap. A different voice, with a soft Irish lilt, spoke next.
– Don’t shoot. I’m not with these goons and I’m not armed. I’m coming in with my hands up. Okay?
Soria made some kind of noise in response.
Jack Brennan walked slowly into the room with his hands displayed at shoulder height. It had been an exaggeration to say he was not armed, but at least he hoped these people would recognize a friendly face.
– What do you know about this situation?
– Less than you. Would you put the gun down if you’re not going to shoot me?
It was true that he knew nothing. Brennan had been driving already by the time Stevens gave him the news that there was currently only one team in town that fit the profile they were after. Stevens had the names they were using and the registration of the car they’d rented. A few minutes later he gave Brennan the present location of the vehicle.
Brennan had not expected to find them parked outside a not very upscale apartment block in a residential area, but he assumed they’d gone inside. When he followed, hearing the upstairs sound of a hit not going according to plan, he knew that he’d found his men. Why serious players like Lester and his friend should have been loosed after this young couple was still a mystery to him.
– The man outside is called Lester. He might be able to tell us something, but we should ask him quickly because I think I broke his neck. It doesn’t look as if his friend here is going to say much.
They looked at each other as if to say, do we trust him. It looked like the girl was in charge. Anyway she was the one holding the gun. Jack kept eye contact with her and tried to stay patient.
– We mightn’t have long anyway, he observed. Sure that someone will have called the police and perhaps it’s not a good idea to be there when they arrive.
– Why do you say that? the girl demanded.
– Just a guess, Jack smiled. You’re deeply involved in something whether you know it or not, or else these boys wouldn’t be here. If you think the police can help in a situation involving the likes of these, then you’re in more trouble even than you think. Maybe I can help you though.
The girl looked at the young man, still crouching in the kitchen doorway. He nodded. The girl lowered the weapon but kept a grip on it.
– I’ll see if I can get anything out of Lester then.
Neither of them wanted to follow Brennan out onto the landing. A few minutes later they heard a muffled impact. Brennan walked back into the room unscrewing a silencer from a tiny pistol that he carried. He put both back into the breast pocket of his jacket and peeled off his leather driving gloves.
– He was past speaking I’m sorry to say. Was making noises but you couldn’t make sense of them. Not that much different to how he was normally to be honest.
– Why did you have to kill him? Soria demanded.
– It seemed like the kindest thing. Anyway he might have recovered enough to give someone information about us. Brennan looked around him.
– And now we really do have to leave. I see you’re already packed. He picked up the airline bag easily. Come on the police will be here in another three or four minutes.
He stepped over the bodies in the hallway and headed for the lift without waiting to see if they would follow.
Duke Ito was busy with his putting practice. For a man approaching eighty years old, he was justly proud of his low handicap. It was a matter that he regarded just as seriously as any other ongoing project he undertook. Since he rarely left his quarters, most of the competition rounds he posted were virtual; but he had assurances of the world’s best golfers and his own engineers that his simulations were so close to the real experience of playing the great courses that it would be difficult to know the difference.
This simulator was one of the corporation’s projects in which he took a personal interest. Capturing the actual motion of the player accurately had been relatively simple compared to the task of mapping each of the courses in such obsessive detail that the player could be sure that if he pitched the ball a given yardage the physics of the imaginary ball would match the bounce that a real ball would have. It meant that every contour of the ground, every stretch of rough, and even the softness of the ground depending on the conditions selected, required analysis and replication. Men had broken their careers on it and Ito knew that some of his managers regarded it as a vanity project. What mattered to Ito was that now the work was done and in spite of the astronomical cost, the project would soon be showing a profit.
The short game was particularly important to Duke Ito. At his age and with his slight frame he could not hope to compete with younger, more vigorous men at the tee or on the fairway. He was never long, but he was always straight. On the longer holes it took him an extra shot to reach the green, but when he did, his ball would be close to the pin more often than not and even when it was not, his deadly putter would make the difference against all but the very best opponents. For this reason Duke Ito liked to say that the short game was really the long game. You came from behind to finish first.
The Duke played the game, even in practice, with the absorption he felt it deserved; but some part of his brain was always occupied with other matters. At the moment he was concerned about the apparent murder of his colleague in the European region, together with the man’s daughter. He’d known and respected the man and regarded the loss as an irritating waste. And there were other elements of the case that concerned him more.
There seemed to be no motive for the killing and no clue as to how it had been achieved. The local security chief had gone missing afterwards, but for the moment there was no indication that he’d had anything to do with it. Ito had heard he was a good man; and perhaps he was doing the honourable thing, hunting down the guilty parties. It was a shame to lose such men, but now of course he was compromised and useless to the corporation. There were other men as good waiting for their chance. The chief had been fired of course, but Ito had said that he should be left alone for the time being. They would merely keep an eye on him.
Then there was the report he had just read, from his pattern recognition analysts. There’d been a string of incidents across the world. Allowing for different time zones and inaccuracies in the reporting, all the attacks had occurred more or less simultaneously. Each incident involved the death of someone between fifteen and twenty and in two other cases adults had died as well. There were eight incidents that they knew of so far and in each case the victims had no wounds and no obvious injuries; only peaceful expressions. All of them were rich kids; children of high ranking corporation officers; thogh different corporations had been targeted. It was too early to guess what all this might mean, but at his age, Ito dreaded another cycle of corporate blood-letting and would do what he could to avoid it.
Most worrying of all the most recent crises, in some ways at least, was the case of the young boy, also in London. It was not unheard of for ideas to be posted on the Market which generated absurdly large receipts. In a way the corporations welcomed such instances: they increased trust in the system and even lowly workers could hope they might be the one to come up with the next big idea. Ito knew that in most cases the big numbers were paid either for relatively simple ideas that somehow everyone had overlooked (it still happened) or when someone came up with what it pained him to call a paradigm shift: an idea that changed the way of looking at everything in a particular field. Either way, the possession by a competitor of such a thing was a cause for worry.
Ito didn’t know what this boy had sold, because his own company had not bought it. Evaluation copies were designed to be impossible to read once an auction was complete; and it would be an affront to the system for a corporation even to try. All corporations observed laws strictly, where that was more convenient than to break them or have them changed; but the sanctity of contract was as much a foundation of the system as the Market itself. Besides, Ito knew that it would take days if not weeks to unscramble any useful information from what encrypted data they could retrieve.
But he had seen the boy’s profile, and there was nothing in what he’d been working on that suggested a value anything like what had been paid, even in the unpredictable world of musical entertainment. The Duke did not consider the numbers involved to be particularly large by his own standards, but they were enough to attract attention, and that could be embarrassing. More important than money was market confidence. Already there were whispers that the Market had made a mistake. That couldn’t happen. It couldn’t be allowed to happen: the consequences would be too grave. So there had been no mistake and if there had it must be erased cleanly.
And now he heard that the boy had disappeared. He must be found soon.
Everything seemed to be happening at once in London. Duke Ito thought that maybe he should take a trip to that part of the world. Not to London itself of course. The city had always been a vulgar place and now it was without charm entirely. He held his putting action and walked across to the desk that appeared to be standing at the edge of the seventeenth green at St Andrews. A few clicks and the display on the small screen reassured him that the weather in Scotland was expected to be bearable in the coming week.
Duke Ito mostly drank water, but he collected Scotch, and as regards the game, it was always good to be able to personally compare his favourite simulations against the real thing. He typed an instruction to his assistant to make the necessary arrangements before resuming his practice.
It was getting dark. Brennan drove. He was not talkative at the best of times and his passengers seemed too much on the verge of shock to initiate conversation. After they had put some distance between themselves and the crime scene, Brennan finally spoke to Aled.
– Nice suit you´re wearing. Got a phone in it?
– Of course, Aled replied, puzzled. Everyone he knew had a mobile printed on their nanofabric. Otherwise you’d have to carry some sort of device around with you. It seemed a dumb question.
– It will have to go, Brennan told him. Makes you easy to find. And we need some proper clothes for your girlfriend. I won´t ask why she´s dressed like a Sloucher, but that does make her conspicuous .
– I´m not his girlfriend, I´m his cleaning lady.
Brennan screwed his head round to look at her for a moment.
– If you say so. We still need to get you a suit.
Before long the old circular road brought them to one of the great shopping malls that lined its route. Brennan steered them slowly into the access road and lifted his hands from the wheel as control passed to the computerised traffic manager that would take them to the most convenient parking space currently available on site. Their speed dropped to the regulation twelve miles per hour. The access road crossed the main circular road via an underpass. Brennan squinted up at the sky.
– Starting to rain, he noted.
The rain wasn´t heavy. Brennan gave them instructions as to what to buy and how long they had to do it. He gave them cash to make the purchases, warning Aled not to use the credit facility printed into his suit. Aled complained that in any case paying with paper money would make him stand out like a time traveller. Brennan replied that not using credit might look odd, but banknotes wouldn’t give away his location. He claimed that he made it a rule never to leave home without a wad of cash. They didn´t argue with him, but set off with sulky expressions, a little surprised that he didn’t not propose to go with them and appeared to trust them to return. Brennan said that he had things to do meanwhile.
– Shall we go to the police? Aled suggested when they were clear of the vehicle. He seems like a dangerous man.
– Everyone we meet is dangerous to us now, Soria told him. I don´t know about Brennan but so far he´s only helped. And we need help.
As far as Aled was concerned, her comment did not really answer the question of whether they should return to the car, but they seemed to agree without discussion to go through with the clothes buying project. It gave them something to think about and in Aled´s case something familiar to do. He’d been wondering for some time what Soria would look like in proper clothes. At least, that was one of the ways his imagination had pictured her.
It was a long time since he’d visited a mall; and for the girl he was with it was probably the first time. Aled found physical shopping pointless when there were maybe a dozen websites that held his personal measurements and would supply him with the latest designs, or even his own designs, in a matter of hours. Malls were only where people went to see and be seen as they browsed. Aled half imagined that the merchandise you could actually buy in store would be cheap rubbish for display only. Still, there seemed to be plenty of shoppers around.
They passed through the downstairs area with its assortment of broadly spaced specialist retailers, into the obligatory atrium with brushed steel escalators serving the various decks under a plexiglass sky. The next floor up was for the mainstream retailers where Aled intended they should shop, reasoning that it would take too long for them to sort through the more interesting boutique shops that were on the upper levels. That way he thought they’d stay inconspicuous.
For Soria, everything was new. He could see that she found the variety on display almost threatening. She stood out so much in her rags that she leaned closer to Aled to make clear to whoever might be watching that they were together. The sensation wasn’t at all disagreeable for him. She steered him into the first shop that seemed to be appropriate, eager to be done.
The store was quite busy, although to Aled it did not seem that there was much stock on display. All of the assistants seemed to be engaged in lengthy discussions with other customers or each other. He supposed that the store was where you came to get advice as to what might look good on you. They didn’t have time for that. Quickly passing through the male section, he grabbed some things he thought he could put up with from the racks; then he escorted Soria to the ladies area, where he supposed they‘d need to spend more time.
Soria had never worn anything made from nanotech fibres. In fact she had never bought clothes in a real shop before. People she knew traded in the open air and the goods there were used, or at best old stock long ago abandoned. She knew that the clothes here were supposed to remember your shape and that there was something in them that kept them clean and fresh all the time, even when it was hot. Working people had phones and other devices imprinted on the cloth for convenience. She supposed that everything must be terribly expensive although she could not see any prices displayed. She asked Aled to point out the cheapest items in her size.
– You´re forgetting I´m rich now, he smiled. Grab something that fits and put it on in the changing room so that we can lose the rags. After that you can choose something you might like.
He handed her a suit that was not out of fashion, but nothing radical; maybe a little tighter than she might have chosen herself; also some low heeled boots. Soria had already picked out some plain underwear. while she was trying it all on, he paid for the purchases they’d made so far, with the cash that Brennan had given them. He felt like an eccentric handing over banknotes. The cashier eyed the money with open suspicion, as if this was some kind of trick.
Soria came out of the changing rooms. She´d left her old clothes in there as he had suggested. No doubt the assistant would send in a team with heavy gloves and protective glasses to remove them once they were discovered. Soria looked as beautiful as he’d expected. They should get her hair cut if there was time. Nothing too different though.
– It´s good, he said.
Aled held out another handful of Brennan’s cash, hoping that the assistant would know what to do with it and how much of it she should keep. He was surprised to see the girl’s expression change from studied blankness to something that looked like terror.
He had no time to consider her extreme reaction, because he then heard a whine and simultaneously a thud; and he looked up to see plaster kicked out of the wall well above his head. He turned to see a large man, unknown to him, pointing what he could now recognize as a gun in his direction. It seemed that the man had fired and missed very badly. Why he had missed was not clear from his open mouth and startled expression, until Aled noticed that Jack Brennan was standing in close behind the man, gently supporting the fall of the other’s body as it slid to the floor. As the unknown man collapsed, Aled saw that Brennan was discreetly sliding a knife blade from between the man’s shoulder blades.
Since nothing unusual or noisy happened in the next few seconds, panic did not immediately ensue. The shoppers were still trying to work out whether what they thought they had seen had actually happened; and if so what it might imply for them.
Before they could decide, Brennan was alongside Aled and leading Soria by the hand. He took the banknotes from Aled’s unresisting fingers and placed them on the counter.
– Keep the change. We’re in a hurry, he told the girl.
He led them through a door at the rear of the shop that Aled hadn’t noticed before. They passed through a narrow hallway to another door and then a stairwell.
– Service exit, Brennan said. Never go into a room without knowing the other way out.
They followed him down the steps.
– Why this way? Aled asked.
– There’ll be more of them in the mall. They may have this covered too, depending on how many there are. We’ll have to risk it.
Brennan was first out of the door and quickly established that no-one was waiting for them. They exited to a bay that was underneath the level of the shops but open to the car parking area. Someone had activated an alarm and now people were spilling out of the mall exits in confusion.
– Could be good for us, said Brennan. You see our car there? We go for it now. Quick and don’t stop for anything.
They broke cover some distance from the milling crowd and it was clear that they had been spotted immediately. Three men, who didn’t look at all like shoppers, converged from different parts of the throng and began moving quickly towards them. They were too far away to prevent Aled and the others reaching the car, but they were closing fast.
Brennan took the driver’s seat, initiated the start sequence, and began checking his weapon all in one flowing movement. The other two were still closing the doors next to them as the vehicle began to move. Aled automatically fastened his seatbelt, which seemed rather futile when he thought about it.
The three men were now running towards them at full speed, dropping the pretence of being anything other than pursuers. Since the vehicle was under the control of the mall’s automated traffic manager and speed was limited, the men on foot, who had weapons in their hands now, were gaining on them.
Brennan fired once through his opened window and one of the men dropped to the ground, holding his leg. The other two ignored him and kept coming, but more cautiously.
– If they keep after us like this, I can pick them off easily, he said. We have to hope they don’t have the brains to head for the exit and set up an ambush there.
As if they had read his mind, the pursuers halted and Aled saw one of them point at what seemed the faraway place where the service road joined the highway: both of them began sprinting in that direction. The car was moving a little more quickly now, but its route was not so direct. It would be touch and go which party would arrive first.
– Can you drive? Brennan asked Soria.
– I can steer.
– Good enough. Take the wheel, he told her. The two of them exchanged places easily , since neither had any control of the vehicle.
As soon as we get free of the tractor, floor the accelerator and don’t worry about traffic. Aled, keep down. It’s you they’re after.
After that, Brennan was busy working out probable lines of fire and said no more. Aled undid his belt and slipped down into the well of the car as he’d been told. The next few minutes would be even more tense, given he could see nothing.
– I think we’re gaining on them, Soria ventured.
– Maybe, just be ready, Brennan replied.
Something small, travelling fast, hit the side of the car.
– They’re firing at us, Soria shouted.
– That’s a good sign. It means they’re desperate. We’re barely in range.
Aled didn’t feel like he was out of range as he heard two more impacts. Brennan fired once in reply.
– We’re clear, he yelled to Soria. Hit the pedal now.
They swerved into the line of traffic, moving at speed and provoking squeals of brakes and a horn chorus of disapproval. Aled guessed that it was now safe for him to sit up. He looked back to see the two pursuers bent over at the side of the road, winded but uninjured.
– You can ease back to the speed limit now, Brennan told Soria after a time. We don’t need to attract more attention.
– Where are we going?
– Never mind for now, just keep driving.
Aled had a question.
– You were behind us all the time, weren’t you? You never let us out of your sight.
– That would have been stupid of me, wouldn’t it? Or would you have preferred if I had?
– What would you have done if we’d tried to go for help?
– I thought your girlfriend was too smart for that.
– You were using us as bait, weren’t you? Aled insisted. To see if there’d be others.
Brennan considered that one.
– I’d no reason to expect there’d be others, he said after a while, but it’s always best always to plan for what you don’t expect. We needed those clothes anyway. And by the way, he said, producing the knife that Aled saw still had traces of red on the blade, hold out your arm.
– Why, Aled asked, but by way of reply, Brennan had seized the cuff of Aled’s jacket and now began to cut through the seam at the shoulder.
– Hold still, it’s sharp.
When he’d cut through enough stitching to rip the sleeve off the jacket, he gestured to indicate the other arm. When he’d cut off both sleeves he lowered the window beside him and tossed out the offending material.
– You can put on the new top when we stop, he told Aled.
– That was my phone and credit card, Aled protested.
– They were telling someone where you are, Brennan replied. Don’t worry they’re of no use to anyone who doesn’t have your fingerprint or retinal scan. No one is going to steal your identity.
– I feel like they already have.
– Littering the highway is still illegal, Soria reminded them.
When they’d been driving for a while, Brennan announced that they needed to find somewhere to rest for a while and dump the car where it wouldn’t be found. His own place was no good, he said, looking meaningfully at Soria. She thought for a moment and said she knew somewhere. Brennan only nodded. Aled wondered how they were supposed to get around without a car: how would they take cabs without a credit card?
– There’s something I should tell you, Brennan began. There’s more than one lot of bad men after this lad. Don’t ask me why. The two we met earlier on, they were freelance and not very good. The sort of men you hire if you need someone who is on the spot and you are in a hurry. But the other three were professionals, working for a corporation. I’d like to know which one.
– It doesn’t mean they have different bosses, just because there’s two groups, Aled pointed out. Brennan nodded.
– True enough, but I checked out the car of the first team before I came up to your place, to see what I might be up against. The stuff they had with them; hoods and ties and the like. They meant to carry you off, not kill you. That’s probably why your girlfriend was able to get the drop on them.
– Will you stop calling me that? Soria asked.
– This last lot, Brennan continued, ignoring her, well I’m sorry to say it lad, but they only wanted you dead.
After they left the circular road, Soria drove them through neighbourhoods that were unfamiliar to Aled, where the homes had all been abandoned. They passed street after street of derelict houses lined on both sides by the remains of ancient cars, lacking wheels or sometimes doors. In places, the rubbish piled up in the spaces between the cars threatened to block their passage.
– I had no idea there were so many empty houses in London, Aled said.
– They’re not empty, Soria told him. They’re just homes for people that you don’t see. You wouldn’t notice them even if they didn’t stay off the street in daytime.
That seemed a little unfair.
– But how could anyone live here?
– Slouchers is what you call us isn’t it? Someone told me it used to be Scroungers, in the days when they gave you money not to work, instead of all the drugs you want and giant TV screens in every neighbourhood and the freedom to rot where you squat. He’s an interesting someone, by the way. We’re on our way to see him now.
The old man had suspected that Soria might show up before too long. If he was surprised that she arrived with her employer and a dangerous looking stranger in tow, he didn’t show it. But then, it was difficult to make out what the old man was thinking at the best of times. His mind didn’t work in quite the same way as other people.
Even so, it was clear that he wasn’t comfortable about Brennan. After he held open the door for Soria and Aled to pass, he put a huge grimy hand up in front of their companion to block the way. He spoke indistinctly to the other two.
– I don’t know what this one does, Brennan heard, but it’s nothing good. No offence son, but we don’t welcome his sort here. Working class.
– Not any more, Brennan replied. The old man looked at Sonia, who nodded.
– In that case, come inside friend and welcome to a different world.
Inside the library, a Labrador dog threatened them with an overenthusiastic wagging tail and wet tongue until the librarian discouraged her with a friendly swipe. He’d taken care to secure the door behind them. It was clear that he’d worked to make this space as secure as possible from intruders. Most of the windows were blocked off and the ones that weren’t were high in the walls and had homemade shutters fitted. The seating was whatever had been left when the place was abandoned by whichever authority had closed down libraries. Brennan thought it was odd that some of the chairs had been pulled into a rough semi-circular arrangement in a space between the bookshelves. Did the old man organize a reading club?
The librarian indicated the chairs with a sweep of his paw that suggested they should sit down and make themselves comfortable. He told Soria that there were rooms enough on the upper floor for each guest to take one. Aled supposed that the old offices wouldn’t actually have beds in them but he found he was suddenly so tired that a moulded plastic chair could seem like a place of comfort. The librarian asked Soria some more questions in a low voice that didn’t carry to the other two, then he left them for a time.
– He wanted to know about the car, Soria told them.
They’d left it about a mile from the library, in a space that Brennan said would not visible from the air. They hadn’t come across another human being on the walk.
Soria told them that the librarian had gone to prepare food and drink.
It was difficult for Aled to imagine how the old man could have acquired a store of either. He didn’t seem to be all there, even by the standards of Slouchers. They had understood him to say that they were welcome here, but they mustn’t be seen outside in the neighbourhood. He’d barred the doors and windows that weren’t already secure before pottering off to what Aled supposed was the improvised kitchen. Aled had some feeling of being held prisoner, but Brennan seemed relaxed enough. Relaxed wasn’t the right word. Better to say he was no more like a wild animal, constantly checking his surroundings and never still, than what they’d seen up to now. Hunter or hunted, Aled wondered.
– We can’t take this man’s food, he suggested to Brennan. It’s all he has.
– We need to eat and rest, Brennan replied.
When he judged that the beans and other tinned goods that had been emptied into the saucepan had burned sufficiently, the old man lifted the pan from the little camping stove and emptied the contents into a large metal bowl. He called them into the room and handed each guest a spoon. He would eat later, he said. There was water to drink and to rinse the bowl afterwards. It came from a water butt fed by a large diameter pipe that ran in through a high window. The librarian explained he had rigged the rainwater collection himself. The building had a good sized roof and it rained plenty in London, but not enough for washing, he warned them. He pointed to some cups on an old steel drainer. Then he left them again.
Aled was not sure whether drinking water that ran off a roof was safe. Once he’d eaten, he found that he was sufficiently thirsty and preoccupied with more urgent worries that he didn’t care.
Soria explained that the librarian was known as Jerry; whether this was short for Gerald or Jeremy, or only from his habit of talking about what Jerry would be doing next, she didn’t know.
– He keeps checking the windows, as if he’s worried about what’s outside, Aled said. I guess this isn’t a safe place after dark. Maybe he worries about Slouchers breaking in to rob him.
– Jerry isn’t worried about Slouchers, Soria said. You’ve seen the size of him, and have you noticed that cricket bat he carries everywhere? Most of them aren’t dangerous anyway, except to themselves. Do you think the corporations would hand out free drugs that made people aggressive? If you ever feel threatened by a crowd of hungry Slouchers just point a TV screen at them and they’ll calm down in a minute.
– Well something is making him nervous. If not that, then what is it?
– A different problem. Having us here maybe.
Soria showed them the upstairs rooms. The librarian and his dog were nowhere around.
– Upstairs I don’t like, Brennan said. No way out. I’ll take a couch down here.
– We can trust this man, Soria told him.
– I don’t see what choice we have, Aled said.
– Trust is a big word, Brennan commented.
Everyone was tired and the two of them left him downstairs. Watching them together had made Brennan conclude that maybe they weren’t really a couple after all, but that left the question why Soria had been so ready to defend Aled. No one was chasing her. He thought about that for a while as he prowled the downstairs area.
After he’d checked out the possible entries and escape routes he spent some time among the bookshelves, trying to make out titles in the feeble light. Brennan wasn’t much of a reader; well these days, who was? He could see enough to understand that all these volumes wouldn’t have been found in the one place and that the old man wasn’t collecting just any old books. They were to read, not burn. The librarian had gone out to save these works from the wreckage of the world outside, for some specific reason that Brennan couldn’t follow. Still, it made him think more highly of the old man that he seemed to be capable of forming a purpose and keeping at a task, even if the project was useless.
Brennan had always known that he didn’t have that in himself. He’d read his own psychological profile often enough and he recognized the person it described. Directed work was something he needed and without it he was good for nothing. He’d been paid well at the corporation, up to a point: not enough to be set up for life but enough to be comfortable. But still he’d never bothered saving anything for a rainy day. He knew that when the rainy day came and the worst happened; when he eventually lost a client for example; then he’d become unemployable. Nothing beyond that seemed worth worrying about.
He expected that in such a case he wouldn’t last long. However much money he saved, it would run out sooner or later; and then it would be better to end things in a proper way while he was still able. The alternative of a gradual slide to oblivion that unfortunates who fell out of the working class generally suffered held no appeal. In his work he’d seen one or two of those types at different stages of disintegration. Since he didn’t have a family and he didn’t collect friends, Brennan judged that he’d not be missed.
But first, there was the business of finding out why this had happened to him; and the matter of revenge.
Next to the bookshelves was a large area filled with computer workstations: a whole bank of useless machines that had probably been superannuated on the day they were installed; dust covered screens that would never be lit again. The old man had cleared some of them from the cubicles to make space for more books.
But here was a curious thing: two of the screens were set apart on a larger desk. They weren’t all that dusty, and when he felt the screens with his hand, one of them was warm. They were connected to sockets in the floor so there must be a power source somewhere. There was more to this inspired fool who‘d taken them under his wing than Brennan had supposed.
Geoffrey Hunt knew that he was Frankie’s biggest fan, even if Frankie himself didn’t know it. Of course Frankie was too fabulous to concern himself with ranking his fan base. There were millions of Frankophiles all over the world. Geoffrey was in daily contact with some of the more obsessed by email and through his Frankie website; but he was clear that none of them understood Frankie like Geoffrey did(he always thought of Frankie as a he, even though his idol had progressed through incarnations in both sexes and the neutral gender).
All kinds of other simstars had come and gone over the years, but Frankie was the first; the original. That wasn’t what made him unique and it was surprising how few people knew much about what did. All the later stars had been through their changes over time driven by their semi-autonomous characters, but the limits on their natures were pre-set and assigned by their creators. Only Frankie had been built with all the talents and personality traits of a superstar, but with self-awareness and without limits: he was free to become anyone he chose to be.
That had made him dangerous to the commercial interests, which is why they’d broken the mould and left him as the only one. They’d understood from the start that it was impossible to plan and control the development of a true star. They’d trusted to built in hyper-narcissicism to ensure that he’d d whatever would bring on the adulation of the masses. They hadn’t foreseen how that could work against them sometimes; like in the present time, when Frankie had not been heard from by anyone for almost two years.
But it was unpredictability that made him real. No one who designed an intelligence made up of all the characteristics of the great stars; an exhibitionist superego with giant talent and the power to grow and develop freely; should be surprised if the payback wasn’t always what was expected.
Geoffrey knew everything about Frankie’s history; too well to pretend that his hero could be called an admirable person, by normal standards. But normal standards didn’t apply: Frankie was too big for them. Geoffrey would have paid any price to spend a few minutes being Frankie, though he knew that could never be: someone who defined cool, who never got old unless he wanted to, and even then could become young again, someone completely at home with himself, loved even by those who disapproved but couldn’t help themselves and seeming not to care much much either way. The next best thing to being Frankie was to know all there was to know about Frankie. To Geoffrey, this was his reality: his job and his own life were a pale illusion in comparison.
When he got the invite, Geoffrey had first assumed it must be some kind of hoax, even though the details seemed genuine, but whatever doubts he had, there was no way Geoffrey could ignore the invitation. The worst that could happen was that he’d be made to look an idiot in the fanboy chat rooms.
The Reality was better than he could have imagined.
The house was marble and as Geoffrey passed from the dazzling sunlight of the afternoon into the welcoming shadow of the palms, he noticed the pleasurable cooling sensation on his skin. A silent footman led him through high ceilinged rooms that echoed to his steps; here and there expensive pieces of furniture in the Spanish style. The walls were hung with paintings of an indeterminate age.
It took a while to walk through the house and at the back they came to a patio door in heavy oak that opened into a garden space which seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. The servant indicated that he should go on alone and Geoffrey began to follow the path, pushing his way through palm fronds and giant ferns that brushed lightly against his face. In the distance he could hear a sound like rushing water.
Maria Hernandez also knew for sure that she was Frankie’s biggest fan, but still it was a surprise when her invitation arrived. She had an undemanding job and was free to spend most of her time talking with her friends about Frankie, or arranging Frankie get togethers, or just dreaming about Frankie. Of course, all the main streets of her barrio had a reality booth, but for Maria there was a special one that she and her friends maintained as a kind of shrine. Before the start of last year, you could meet Frankie at any time in one of the booths, provided your credit was good. As an AI: he could be in many places at once all over the world, conducting simultaneous personal interviews. But then he had chosen to disappear and no one had really known whether it was time out, or the end. Until now.
And this was not just a visit to a pay booth like even a casual fan might make. She had a personal invitation.
At the shore, Geoffrey found that the water was still and clear and not too deep. There were various multicoloured and intriguingly patterned organisms growing on the bottom and from time to time shoals of tiny fish swam past. The path continued over the lake or sea, whatever it was, as a series of flat stones that appeared to be floating on the water. There seemed to be some current pulling the stones out towards a small atoll that was at some distance from the shore, but even though Geoffrey never saw new stones appear the path was always in place. The atoll looked like coral, so low that it was barely above the level of the water. That was where the sound of rushing water was coming from and that was where Geoffrey could just make out the figure of someone sitting, straight backed and cross legged staring out across the seemingly infinite ocean. He knew that this was who he had come to meet.
Missy Pilgrim was for sure Frankie’s number one fan. She mailed a gushing acceptance of his invitation in a New York minute and her fingers barely stopped moving on the keyboard as she posted updates to all her followers.
As Geoffrey came closer to the island, he saw that it was indeed coral, in the shape of a horseshoe. The horseshoe shape surrounded a vortex into which the waters whirled and sank and it was this that the figure, still unmoving, with back to him; appeared to be contemplating. The current was moving more quickly around Geoffrey as he picked his way carefully across the stones and he had the sensation of danger, but nothing could keep him from his goal. Frankie was waiting for him.
When he finally stepped onto the island, the figure stood and turned to face him, removing the hooded top to show a face that was different than before, but somehow still the same. Frankie smiled at him.
– Good of you to come, the voice said to Geoffrey (to Maria, to Missy and all the others)sit with me here for a while.
Each of them had their own private audience with the star. Though every visitor had spent hours and many credits in the presence before that day, asking breathless questions that later seemed so stupid, which he answered with a weary humour, or chose not to answer as the paid for minutes ticked away; this experience could not be compared. The star didn’t have to say anything at all. The idea that he had chosen to spend time with them filled each visitor with awe. There was a kind of gratitude in it; and didn’t their devotion deserve that?
In fact Frankie only said one thing more apart from his words of welcome: “April the Twenty-third, remember”. Geoffrey knew what it meant: a comeback. He had a thousand questions but Frankie only smiled at them and turned back to watching the waters. Ivan wanted to know where. Missy asked how you could get tickets. Maria burst into tears. Frankie only smiled.
After a while the footman appeared at Geoffrey’s shoulder and touched him gently, silently indicating that it was time to leave. Geoffrey followed the servant back across the stone pathway like a pilgrim taking his leave of a holy place.
The librarian returned sometime in the early hours of the morning. If Brennan had been asleep at all he was awake in the moment that the noise of the door scraping ajar sounded. Opening the door fully took a few moments more, but even in that short time Brennan heard stirrings upstairs. By the time he had moved to a position to respond to whoever might appear, Sonia was coming down the stairs, followed by Aled, looking sleepy but keeping quiet.
Good, they were learning that you couldn’t trust in anything. Brennan had time to notice that they came down separately and didn’t seem to have been together. Why did that matter? Stupid. He signalled for both of them to remain silent and keep back from the door.
The librarian was not alone.
– Now it’s serious alright, Brennan commented.
Jerry’s great bulk shuffled clumsily into the room, encumbered by someone that he half carried, half dragged under one arm. The other man was unconscious or worse. There was blood on his forehead from somewhere, which seemed to have to do with the cricket bat that Jerry had tucked under his other arm. The man’s black uniform and body armour told them all that he was a National; a member of the elite police squad whose job it was to keep order. The librarian walked a little further into the room, then simply dropped the man onto the floor. The cop lay where he fell, as Jerry went back to fix the door.
– Bastard killed Suzy, was all he said.
It took a little while for Brennan to understand that Suzy was the Labrador and to piece together the story of what had happened from the librarian’s account. Jerry had been keeping watch outside the building (why was he so concerned about intruders?) and clearly he could move around quietly when he needed to, in spite of his size, because he’d come up on this one from behind as the man had been looking for a way into the building. He gave the man a reasonable size whack on the head to put those thoughts out of his mind. A few paces away he’d found the body of his dog.
– He broke her neck to keep her quiet. But she never barked. Probably only trying to say hello.
It was the longest coherent thread of thought that Brennan had heard the librarian express so far. Tears were rolling down the man’s face from the effort of keeping in the sobs that were at the edge of his voice.
– So you killed him? Brennan asked.
– Went back and fetched him a proper whack, not like the first little tap, Jerry replied, but he’s alive.
Brennan checked that it was so. The man was breathing a little but unconscious. So far as he could see, the cop uniform was real, though the gun was missing: he assumed that Jerry had it. Grief did not prevent the librarian acting. From somewhere he had produced a length of rope and now he secured the unconscious man’s arms and legs, just to be sure, he said. Then he wheeled a shopping trolley in from the hall.
– What are you thinking? Brennan asked him.
– Can’t stay here, Jerry replied. River isn’t far. This one’s going in the Thames.
Brennan nodded. He’d already formed the view that the old man knew what he was about. Aled and Soria seemed appalled by what was happening; even more when they understood that their host meant to put a living person in the river.
– What exactly is going on? Aled asked. It seemed like they were about to become accessories to the murder of a policeman.
– I’m sorry, I can’t give you certainties, Brennan told them, but if I have to take a wild guess, I would say that whoever wants you caught or dead found the car. That would put us in a radius that is too big for a few men to cover. Whoever it is wants you so bad that they were prepared to involve the security forces. They wouldn’t have wanted to do that. The cops are more or less available for hire by the corporations, but they create paperwork and things get messy. I suppose they were given some cock and bull story about you being involved in terrorism. That’s all that would bring guys like this one into our present neighbourhood.
– But anyway, you can’t just dump him in the river, Aled complained.
Brennan explained that the policeman would be carrying some form of tracker, which was why Jerry was moving quickly. If he was noted as stopping in one place too long that would give their location away. On the other hand, if the man’s vital signs stopped, an alarm would be raised.
– So I imagine what Jerry is proposing to do is wheel our friend round in that trolley for a while to make it look as if he’s snooping as he should, and then by the time his control realises that their signal is floating out on the tide, your man is away from the scene. He’s by no means so dumb as he looks and it might work.
– But can’t you stop him?
– Why would I want to do that? You think we’re any better off if the police know where we are? Get your things ready. We have to leave now.
They had no idea where they would go, but the librarian surprised them again. He spoke briefly and privately with Soria, who told them that he’d given an address and name of someone who would help them.
– We have to move carefully, Brennan warned them. If I’m right this cop won’t be the only one, and we stand out dressed like this.
– What about him? Aled asked, indicating Jerry.
– He says that if they come back here, he’ll be ready
Dominic Pearson was not really interested in video games. Like everyone in the Corporation, he played occasionally: he preferred sports sims, that were as close to life as you could get, rather than the fantasy titles. He didn’t even have a properly customised avatar: it was more or less in the form of Pearson himself; a small neat man who looked like an accountant; balding and with spectacles that were almost an affectation in a time when defective vision was routinely corrected by surgery.
Pearson certainly would not have chosen this particular game: it seemed idiotic to him. He’d spent the last thirty minutes wandering through a post apocalyptic landscape that was beautifully realised but seemed to be without purpose. He’d already died and had to restart twice before he realized that all the strange animals and some of the plants would attack him. By the time he made his way back to the point where he’d discovered weapons were to be found, he was under attack from a species of mutated zombies that seemed to be smarter than zombies had a right to be. He managed to fight off that assault, but not without losing quite a lot of health in the process. Given his lack of practice and enthusiasm for the game, it was surprising that he was able to make progress at all, but in spite of his appearance, there was a speed of reaction and a coldness of deliberation, particularly now that his character had a weapon in his hand, that gave him some kind of edge.
Even now he took little satisfaction from the game. He was playing only because his employer had told him to do so. His instructions were to be at a certain point in the game at a certain time and he knew that his employer would not appreciate his being late. He noted that he had unlocked a weapon that was a variant on a chainsaw, which he ignored. It seemed likely to be spectacular rather than useful. One of the undead creatures sprang out at him from the shadows of the corridor down which he was passing. He despatched it with a single shot to the brain from the small pistol that was his current weapon of choice, and moved on down the corridor.
The rendezvous point was unpromising. Pearson’s character was inside a cave and the way forward was through an open space that was littered with hiding places for zombies. On the far side he had a choice of three mine shafts that opened into the sheer rock wall and he supposed that only one of them led to comparative safety. Pearson suspected that to stay in the open space would be to start an unwinnable battle: the enemies would just keep on coming. The easy approach would be to make a dash for one of the shafts and if it turned out to be the wrong one, you would die and restart before going for the next. But this was one of the games in which Ito, his employer, had taken a personal interest (who could say why?) and the save points were frustratingly few and far apart. If his character died here, Pearson would have to start again more or less from the beginning, and he’d never be in the specified place in time. Knowing Ito, there would be some clue in the game that should tell him which passage to choose.
– The one you want is on the left, a voice told him.
There was someone else playing the game: a character in the blackness of the cave that somehow he had not noticed. The only other players he had come across up to this point had been heavily armed space marines and giant orc creatures, more intent on ploughing a bloody furrow through the gamescape than hiding in caves.
– Was this really necessary?
He turned and made out the small stooping figure of Ito. His employer’s game avatar was more bent and frail than the old man appeared in reality.
– It is never a waste of time for company personnel to experience our products at first hand, Ito replied. Perhaps more importantly, I have some things I want to tell you, and I prefer that they should remain private. It is true of course that all human activity leaves some kind of record, but you would be surprised to learn how faint is the trace of activity in a game and how much noise surrounds it provided that our interaction is brief. As I said, the shaft on the left is the one you want. It is guarded by a depressingly large number of enemies and it leads to a chamber that is a dead end. The chances of fighting your way out again are slim, but that is not important. If you wanted to carry on with the game you should have taken the passage to the right. There is a small steel cabinet in the chamber that you can open easily and your instructions are in it: a temporary file that has just been inserted and will be deleted again as soon as one player has opened it. The information is expressed in the language of this game I’m afraid, but you will understand it easily enough, when I tell you that there is someone I want you to find, who does not want to be found and that there are two people with him, one of whom is an ex-employee who must be helping him, since he is still alive.
– Would you prefer that he wasn’t?
– It’s too early to say. The person in question either constitutes extremely inconvenient evidence that something which must work perfectly does not, or else he knows how to make or do something that is very valuable. I would very much like to have the chance to talk to him and find out which. Something interesting is developing that we need to understand.
But for now I have another meeting to attend and must leave, which is a pity. I should enjoy seeing how you make your way through that next level. The combination of your lack of interest in the game and your natural talents makes you a most untypical player. It shows up how much we assume about our customers in the design process. By the way, that abandoned bus that somehow found its way into the canyon; most of them will come at you from there. But probably you had worked that out already. We’ll speak again soon. Don’t die in the meanwhile.
With that, Ito was gone.
Soria had thought that she knew where to find the address that Jerry had given her, but the longer they walked the less sure of herself she felt. There’d been no time to check details. Brennan insisted that they stay away from anything that had once been a main road, which made things harder. She had never met the person whose name she’d been given, but if the information was correct then that should not be too much of a problem. She knew they were heading east and that the place they wanted had once been a little park, near to one of the old underground stations where the District Line used to run quite close to the surface, in the old times that Jerry so liked to talk to her about.
They hadn’t seen any signs of police presence in the area, but Brennan said that didn’t mean much. He insisted they move carefully. Soria was more concerned about getting lost than getting caught.
She knew that her sense of direction had not failed when they began to hear sounds of people in the streets ahead. At least, there was a background murmur of voices; above that came amplified sound from the neighbourhood screen. As always, the noise was too loud and too excited, even a distance. Soria could hear the commentary clearly enough to know they were showing a sports repeat: it was last month’s Battle Royale with Montreal taking on Berlin; a contest that had finished weeks ago. These people would watch anything.
What had once been a park was now something quite changed. The low iron fencing was still in place except where sections had been pulled away for who knows what purpose. The grass had been trampled by many feet and now only hard earth remained. A few of the many plane and poplar trees that had once grown there still clung to life, but most were bare trunks with the boughs that were within reach stripped off for firewood.
There must have been more than two hundred people in the space, closely packed together, but the buzz of conversation was low. Eyes were fixed on the cube that rose from the centre of the old park, or rather on the moving pictures that were displayed on the broad screens of each of its elevations. On screen, there were flurries of action mixed with close ups of unfeasibly good looking contestants in close fitting armour. Brightly coloured statistics that probably meant nothing to the watchers flashed across the screen. The crowd looked up, open-mouthed or half mumbling the numbers that popped up from moment to moment.
It was a sight that was as familiar as it was depressing for Soria.
– How do we find our way through this lot? Aled asked her.
– The place we want is in the park. It used to be a pavilion or something like, that our friends have taken over.
– Funny place to squat, said Aled. Not exactly peaceful.
The programme was building to one of its many climactic moments and bursts of painfully loud music were coming more frequently. In truth it wasn’t possible for the crowd to become more engrossed in the spectacle, but the programme makers were doing their best. The next scenes were likely to be unpleasantly violent.
– Can we get to the pavilion quickly and quietly and try to merge in with the citizens in the meantime, Brennan spoke urgently.
They followed his meaningful glance and saw three black uniformed officers coming into view at the far side of the square.
– We should leave. We can come back later, Aled suggested. Brennan shook his head.
– Don’t look round. There’s another three behind us. They haven’t spotted us I think, keep making your way towards that building and don’t hurry. It’s our best chance.
They passed through a gap in the low fence and made their way towards what had once been some kind of park building. Clearly it was still used for something, as there was a small knot of people gathered around it. There was no business sign on view, but as they approached the smell of curry in the air around the pavilion told its own story. The three of them pushed their way gently past a group of vacant looking individuals, who seemed to have been vaguely attracted by the smell of food, without having as yet been able to make a connection between their reaction to the smell and a sensation of being hungry.
The door was open, so they stepped inside. There was a single large room furnished with tables and chairs that must have been salvaged from a variety of locations. At the far end, some cooking equipment had been set up and two Indian men were stirring open drums filled with a substance that was definitely curried, while a third attended to the customers.
There weren’t so many customers as they had expected from the crowd outside. To eat, you needed something to pay with or trade. In their expensive clothes, Aled and his friends stood out as if they were from another planet. The other diners regarded them curiously, but no one approached or spoke to them.
Brennan strode across to a window. The pavilion was raised up a little above street level, so he had a good view across the heads of the crowds. He watched for a few moments and returned to the other two.
– The police are working their way through that lot out there, he said quietly. They are keeping a low profile but it’s only a question of time before they come in here. Looks like we could be trapped.
Soria turned to the three Asian men who were running the kitchen.
– Which one of you is Ricky? she asked.
Neither of the two who were cooking looked up, but Soria thought that she noticed each of them pause in their stirring, just for a moment, on hearing the name. The third, who was no more than a skinny kid, gave them a bright smile.
– Can I take your order? he asked, speaking with a heavy Indian accent.
– We’re looking for Ricky, Soria insisted. Jerry sent us. A big man with a white beard and a cricket bat.
The boy nodded.
– If you come here you have to order, he said. If you order you have to pay. Please sit down. I take your order.
– We don’t have much time, Brennan whispered to Soria.
– We’ll sit down, she said to the boy. But please tell Ricky we’re here and it’s very urgent.
She wasn’t sure whether the other two Asians were following the conversation, but one of them was now frowning and looking distinctly unhappy. The boy offered them a choice of tables. Brennan selected one next to a window where he could sit with no one behind him and facing the doorway. He was scanning the place for possible exits. Aled didn’t seem to have any ideas. The boy came over and asked Soria what they would have.
– Whatever is cheapest, she said. I don’t know how we pay, but we have money. Only we need to speak to Ricky now.
The boy only nodded again.
– Maybe he’s busy. My uncle might not be happy to disturb him.
Soria thought that the uncle must be the frowning cook, who was now out of hearing range. From where she was sitting, she had no view through the window, but the body language of Brennan, sitting opposite, told her that he was preparing himself for some form of action in not very many seconds’ time. She could think of nothing else to say to the boy: she only looked at him imploringly. If it all starts in here, she thought, innocent people are going to be hurt.
The boy leaned close to her and spoke in a whisper.
– Follow me but don’t say anything.
He spoke again in a voice that was not loud, but loud enough for everyone to hear.
– Okay, if you insist you can see the manager, but I tell you that the man from the mayor’s office has already been round this month and we paid him what he asked. It doesn’t matter if you call it health and safety or pest control or what you like. We can only afford one payment a month.
His face was a picture of sadness and dejection as he led them through a small door behind the cooking pots and into a tiny office that was just big enough to accommodate the four of them and a fat man who was already in there, sitting behind a tiny desk on a chair that was far too small for him, working out some numbers with a pencil and some scraps of paper.
– Great, said Brennan. Now we are properly trapped. There was no outside door to the room.
– Look out of the window, the young man advised him.
The window next to the desk of the fat man, who barely looked at them and didn’t speak, was large enough for a person to climb out of. It was on the side of the building that faced away from the square and so there were few people wandering in the shadows between the dead trees outside. They might have a chance that way, Brennan thought.
The young boy smiled, but he had already given some kind of signal to the fat man. In a moment the two of them had moved the desk aside and pushed the little chair against the wall. The fat man kneeled and quickly rolled up the bit of carpet on which the furniture had been standing. Underneath the floor was plain wood, but it was clear that someone had sawn a makeshift door out of the planking.
The fat man lifted out the free section and the young boy lowered himself into the dark space beneath.
– You come with me, he said.
There was no time to argue. In a moment they were all crouched in the little dark space under the pavilion with the improvised door back in place. They could hear scraping as the fat man was putting everything above back as before.
There was space to either crouch or crawl. The boy was silent, so no one else spoke. They followed him as quietly as they could, moving by touch and sound. He seemed to know his way well enough without needing to see.
He stopped and patted something set into the cement floor. Soria felt cold metal under her hand.
– Help me with this, the boy whispered.
They eased the iron plate aside. The boy told them to go first, but to be careful. It was an inspection shaft, with ladder rungs set into the wall. There was a faint light below, but it wasn’t clear how far down they would have to climb. They started down the shaft. There was nowhere else to go.
The grating closed above their heads, but they realised that the boy had pulled it closed after him and was coming with them. It wasn’t such a long way down as they had feared and below was the solid floor of a narrow passage. The passage continued straight ahead for further than they could see in the half darkness, but after they had walked along it a little way, the boy led them into a little chamber off the main way that was the source of the light.
– That isn’t a sewer, Brennan said to the boy. What’s it for?
– No idea, he replied, but if you carry on down there, it comes out in the station.
Soria saw that the chamber was larger than she had first thought and that they were not alone. There were two other Indian men, older than their companion but not by much, who were engaged in sorting through and arranging various boxes and parcels that were stacked against the wall. They had been startled when the visitors appeared, but as soon as they saw the young man with them, they exchanged a few words in their own language with him and went back to work, ignoring the newcomers completely.
– Come with me, please, said the boy.
The underground chamber didn’t have an office as such, but it was clearly a place where work of some kind was done and in one part of it a space had been set aside for organizing things. Here they squatted on the floor and looked at each other.
– So , you go first. What is the story? The boy asked them.
– We only speak to Ricky, Soria told him.
– He is Ricky, I guess, Brennan said gently.
Ricky said they shouldn’t call him Indian: he was Bangladeshi. Brennan said he couldn’t see how it made any difference. They were all Londoners surely, if they were anything. He doubted that Ricky had ever seen the Bay of Bengal or that he could point it out on a world map. But Ricky insisted no, it was important to remember where he was from, even if he’d never actually been there.
– It’s part of holding on, you understand. We are still making our way, not going down with the drugs and television. Life is hard and no one gives you anything. No chance of a job. For us, that’s normal.
He explained that his uncle, the one upstairs, had set up the curry shop in the abandoned park pavilion. He had to make some payments to be left alone, like everyone else, but he was making a living. Ricky and his friends had something else going on down here; that was also owned by uncle in a way, but really it was their own.
– Something to do with all those packages, Brennan guessed.
– Let me show you, Ricky suggested.
He produced a torch from somewhere and led them out of the chamber and further along the passage. They heard rushing and clattering sounds as they neared the end. They emerged onto a narrow platform.
– Be careful, Ricky warned them. The station is that way.
He shone the light briefly along the tunnel where the platform continued.
– This is practically on the surface, so it’s almost light in the daytime.
The tunnel was a big space. The concrete road surface that had been put in after the rails and sleepers were torn up was a cheap, hurried effort that was uneven and blistering. They could see as much in the torchlight. The rest of it was more or less as it had been in the days of the underground railway network. There had been nothing worth salvaging. The tunnels would probably smell of oil and electric motors forever.
In fact there were electric motors busily at work now, creating the rushing and clattering cacophony that filled the tunnel, but these were powering a tide of vehicles that appeared briefly out of darkness and rushed on into darkness.
– This is the line heading east, Ricky told them. The other side is busier.
The vehicles were travelling in the same basic direction, but that was the only rule that seemed to apply. They ranged from giant, lumbering carriers the size of coaches, to tiny buzzing three-wheeled carts that darted among the traffic, too small to carry a human. It was incredible that so far they had not seen a single collision in the anarchic progress.
– They are all automatic of course, Ricky explained. It’s not safe for people they say.
He grinned at that.
– They have sensors to react to each other and there is a regulation speed. But of course time is money and machines are easy to adjust and replace. So basically everything moves at its own speed, which is as fast as possible.
– There must be a lot of accidents, Soria wondered.
– Oh yes. A lot of journeys never completed. Many unexplained pile-ups. Many parcels and packages never get delivered, but to send another is cheap. Everything up above didn’t fall apart because it’s hard to make things; only because there aren’t enough customers to buy them all. Speed is everything.
– And those boxes in the chamber? Soria continued.
– Could be called natural wastage, Ricky finished the thought.
They returned to the chamber. You couldn’t speak in the tunnel for all the noise and Soria had to tell their story. She didn’t know how much to leave out and she thought that maybe Brennan would want her to keep some things secret, but he made no interruption. In the end she told Ricky almost everything she knew, except that when she’d finished she realized that she didn’t know very much and that in any case it didn’t make sense. For instance she knew next to nothing about who Brennan was and why he was with them apart from that he’d said they might be looking for the same people. She left pregnant gaps in her tale but Brennan made no attempt to fill them.
Only when she’d finished did Brennan speak.
– Of course, Soria still hasn’t told us how she came to lead us to you, or to Jerry for that matter. Or why she is working for this lad as a cleaner but seems to know an awful lot about him as well as having a nimble way with a blade.
There was silence for a moment after that. Soria changed the subject.
– The librarian told us you would help us get out of London, she told Ricky. Only I don’t see how it’s possible, with so many people looking for us. We can’t even go back upstairs.
– What if we had a secret road that no-one else uses?
– You’ve got to be joking lad. You mean using the tubeway for people? Not a chance.
– We do it all the time. How do you think we move all these parcels around? No point in pinching things that you can’t sell, is it? We can’t put it up for sale in my uncle’s shop.
Ricky insisted that all that was necessary was to choose the right ride and keep hold of a stout pole to fend off other drones that got too close. If you could do that and keep track of where the stations were, the results were hardly ever fatal.
– You can get as far as Upminster on the line, he told them. After that, there’s other forms of travel. You can get to Felixstowe in the end and find a boat if that’s what you need. It’s a question to know the right people, isn’t?
– There is no way made I am going back in that tunnel to hitch a ride, Brennan told them.
A bright yellow lightbulb set high on the whitewashed wall began to flash on and off.
– We don’t have time to argue, Ricky informed them. It seems that your friends upstairs didn’t believe that you went through the open window. They must be on their way down now. We can hide the stuff, but it’s too much risk in case they find you here. There are some good punting sticks at the side of the platform. No more talk. Let’s go.
Brennan forced himself to ignore feelings of dizziness and nausea as the drone sped along the rough tarmac of the underground highway. Here and there the surface was broken up or strewn with heavy debris. The automatic pilot that controlled the drone would make last minute adjustments of course and speed that threatened to topple the vehicle or at least send its unofficial passenger spinning off into the path of the advancing mechanical stampede that was all around them. With one hand, Brennan tightly gripped the pole that Ricky had handed him. With the other, he held even more tightly to the superstructure of the drone.
Up ahead he could see Aled and Sonia, who were riding together on a heavy six wheeled truck that would probably go over rather than round anything that got in its path. The vehicle didn’t have a cab as such, but they looked comfortable enough. At least they were better off than Brennan, stuck on this flat bed with nothing more than some roughly welded-on lifting gear to cling to.
Ricky had accompanied them. Although he’d been last to leave the platform and he was riding nothing more substantial than a light trike with an image of a pizza painted on the rear delivery box, he looked the most comfortable of them. He’d move forward and back, keeping them in view, occasionally checking his speed by bracing against a slower moving vehicle.
For now, everything seemed to be working out, but the erratic changes of speed and direction were a constant reminder that everything could turn fatally bad in seconds; as if the walls, burn-scorched in places, or the occasional carelessly swept aside pile of drone wreckage weren’t reminder enough.
From time to time, Brennan asked himself what speed they might actually be travelling at. It wasn’t possible for him to judge accurately. The acetone taste of the air, the rush of wind in the tunnel and the succession of ambulant mechanical shapes that suddenly loomed huge and terribly close before fading back into the gloom, all combined to make his every sense scream that their speed was the one universally known as too fast.
Even so they’d made a reasonable distance without mishap, passing a few stations on the way. Brennan had seriously considered making a leap for safety the first time his vehicle slowed down to negotiate a station, but then he might never see the other two again. Sticking with Aled and Soria seemed like the only chance he had to solve his own case, assuming that there’d been any link between what happened to Aled and the death of Brennan’s employer. Besides, the two of them wouldn’t last more than a few hours on their own.
If it came to that, what did Brennan himself have to worry about? His life was over; he’d admitted and accepted it. For no reason that he could think of, that reflection did not make him any more fatalistic about the chances of meeting his end in a tunnel crushed between an overdue delivery of electrical goods and a too slow bulk despatch of Swedish flat-pack furniture.
Now the tunnel was opening up more often, so that they’d be running up a canyon rather than through a cave. The patches of daylight became still more frequent and Brennan knew that they were riding close to the surface. They must be well to the east of the city by now. He started to worry less about collisions and more in case the vehicles were not all headed for the same destinations. They might lose each other in spite of everything Ricky had told them. Brennan suddenly realized that what he had told them had not included any instructions about getting off.
At least, above ground the drones didn’t seem to be travelling at such a suicidal pace. Behind him, Soria raised an arm and waved at him. Brennan lifted his non-anchored hand to respond and noticed that the knuckles were more than white from gripping the pole so hard. There couldn’t be so far to go now to the end of the line; just a few more stations. Another one coming up ahead now.
But something wasn’t right up ahead.
Brennan could see people moving on the platform and even at this distance he could tell they were holding weapons. A hasty attempt had been made to erect a barrier in their path. There hadn’t been time to do it properly without being flattened by drones, but how could anyone have known even a little time in advance that they were travelling in this way? One of the group must have a transmitter planted on them, or else the kid had sold them out. But they’d have been caught earlier if it hadn’t been for Ricky.
There wasn’t time to think it through just now. Brennan tossed his pole into the side of the track and reached for his gun.
END OF PART ONE