> He's here. He's in the facility right now. I can "hear" him.
>> Who's here?
> Xio. The bad guy. I can feel his mind.
> I'm moving towards the transceiver. Buy me as much time as you can. Whatever it takes.
Hugh Davies looks like the boy he was five years ago at UKAPL. His intractable hair's still in the same slicked side parting he always used to sport. Black tie, long-sleeved shirt, tucked in. What kind of geek dresses so formally? Something's wrong with his brain, the same thing that was wrong with Ching-Yu Kuang's and Jim Akker's. There's something parasitic and metaphorical wrapped around his brainstem.
It's two o'clock in the morning, local time. Davies' workstation is in the same room as eight black monolithic roaring mainframes and their attendant air conditioners. Orange fibre optic cables, white raised flooring and fluorescent lights. This is not a concrete Soviet installation. It's a shiny advanced supercomputer cluster on the second-to-lowest level of an equally shiny science laboratory centre. What's he doing still up? How can he stand the noise down here?
His screen is mounted on the wall. Once he's done with the IM conversation he closes it and pushes a few buttons to pull up a grid of security camera feeds over the top of his Eka work. A cursory glance reveals nothing out of the ordinary. Almost all of the offices are in complete darkness, except for his machine room, and the basement where the Preonic Transceiver has been located, quietly listening to the repeating Script, for almost all of the 2000s.
He turns away from his screen and scans the room, tensing up. He gets up from his seat and walks over to where he can see down between the machines. There's nobody there, of course. That's to be expected. There's only one way in or out of the room, and that's the card-locked door behind him.
He turns, punches the button for exit and goes through. He turns a few corners and ducks into the men's room. Takes a leak. Washes his hands. Looks in the mirror. Turns around while he dries them on a paper towel, spending a few moments following the invisible patch of air as it moves around the room. "I can see you."
Mitch Calrus decides there's no threat, so he materialises, slowly and carefully. He's wearing heavy cold weather gear with a fluffy hood, and his oxygen tank and mask over the top of that. In his arms is a big black rifle with a scope he doesn't know how to use. He holds it like he dearly wants to drop it. He's got bad trigger discipline.
There's a lot that they could ask one another. Mitch senses from the offset that, whatever Hugh Davies was before he was turned, he's a fanatic now: a man who'll take whatever evidence the universe provides him and adapt or selectively ignore it until it fits his existing, concrete worldview. Whether that's Davies' fault for failing to take a sufficiently sceptical stance against the world when it started changing under his feet or the result of the psychopathic zombie weapon Oul's direct interference with Davies' living thoughts isn't really even relevant. Chances are good that John Zhang (currently detained in Brasilia with a device that could turn a continent inside-out by the time the Imprisoning God wiped him and all his knowledge off the face of the Earth in retaliation) and Andreas Kosogorin (missing; unarmed but equally dangerous) are the same. There's likely no reasoning with them and certainly no rescuing them. Still, a little conversation could prove illuminating.
"So explain to me how you did that," asks Calrus.
"You can't stay phased completely into the fourth dimension without falling through the Earth," says Davies. His voice is weak and low-pitched for his size and doesn't sound like his own. "Your feet have to stay in contact with the real ground. Which means your footsteps make noise."
"Negative. We made eye contact as early as the machine room, and it's the loudest place in the building. You haven't answered my question."
Davies throws the paper towel in the bin and grips the sink behind him with both hands, as if steadying himself. "Have you actually studied the Script at all?"
"Did you know that it's not all written in Eka? 'Eka' is just the the first part. From the Sanskrit word for 'one'. It switches language deep inside, to 'Dvi'. And then it switches again. The information becomes so densely encoded that it looks random. By the end of it it's written at such a high level as to dwarf simple English, or any other human language. Because the early parts of the Script look like basic mathematical statements and fundamental physical laws and constants and variables, which is fine, when you approach it from such a low perspective as we humans have no choice but to do. But when you start to understand the greater implications and the higher levels... it stops looking like the laws of physics, and it starts to look like the law." Davies' voice changes while he says this. His face stops expressing what he is saying. As if someone else has begun opening and shutting his mouth for him. "Did you know that you can make real things happen just by delivering a sufficiently unambiguous verbal or mental affidavit to the greater Structure?"
"You saw me in four dimensions because you asked to be able to see?"
Hugh Davies doubles over, holding his stomach. He whirls around and vomits into the sink. When he looks up and meets Mitch's gaze in the mirror something multi-tentacled and neon blue and four-dimensional has begun crawling out of his eyes. He gurgles.
"Did you know Paul Klick killed close to a million people with nothing but an empty copper box and his mind?"
Mitch Calrus backs away, clanking against the tiled far wall of the room, forgetting that he can just phase through it and forgetting to ask his next question, "What did Zykov tell you?"
Davies answers it anyway. "He didn't tell me anything, but I still know it. If I kill you, he'll take all of us up there with him when he goes home."
"You've been lied to," Mitch begins. But Davies turns and staggers forward with superlight beginning to crackle from his digits, leaving strobing ultraviolet trails in the air. Whatever it is he's building inside his brain need not even be directly dangerous; the backlash when the universe takes exception will surely be enough to kill them both. Maybe that's exactly what Davies is trying to do. Gaming the system. Performing an illegal scientific act in order to leverage the violent response for his own (species') indirect benefit. God on your side...
Mitch Calrus gathers his nerve and moves forward to meet Davies, who is not much more than a lurching automaton now. He holds on to his gun with one hand, but points it down and away. With the other, he reaches forward into Davies' coruscating mind and brushes its surface. Davies drops, switched off like a light bulb, while Calrus recoils, shaking his stinging hand. "Dyaa!"
Davies' mind's interior was hot enough to the touch to burn his fingertips.
Every time a forbidden science is discovered, anybody with active involvement in the utilisation of that science suffers. Depending on the scale of the incursion, the unfortunate inventor may simply lose his memories, or the technology may inexplicably run out of control and destroy thousands of uninvolved people besides. As time has passed, the punishments for perceived attempts to probe or step beyond the limits of the cell in which Alef is suspended have increased, and the list of technologies now permanently gone from the universe has lengthened.
But even from the very beginning, even before Mike Murphy's discovery of the underlying axioms of the whole Structure, faster-than-light communication using signals sent through the "ambient layer" of the universe was disabled.
Who discovered the ambient neutrality, abused it, and caused it to be locked out? Were they punished for this?
What messages could have been sent in the small time during which they could be sent? To whom, to where in the universe, were they sent?
Was there a response?
Trafalgar Square has a thousand people in it, which is is sparse for daylight hours on a stinking hot Bank Holiday Monday. All four faces of the base of Nelson's Column are occupied, three dozen bored teenagers slouched on the huge stone steps in black jeans, bright T-shirts and interestingly stylish hair, photographing tourists photographing them, falling off skateboards, and exposing everybody around them to snatches of bad, tinny music from mobile phones. Big red buses, black cabs and white vans crawl past them anticlockwise; snakes of French high school students are dragged to and through the National Gallery; visibly worse-for-wear Monopoly Pub Crawlers in red custom t-shirts file towards their nineteenth destination of the day; Londoners of every age and nationality go about their business.
A tall, skinny Australian nineteen-year-old bundled up in a weighty pink hoodie approaches the cluster and says "'Scuse me. I'm going to climb up."
It's not actually a difficult climb if you have tools, some sort of climbing experience, the right shoes and so on. But it's not for amateurs. It's the kind of dangerous climb that kids try out every day, and nobody bothers to berate them for trying it because none of them get high enough to fall far enough to hurt themselves.
The teens shuffle aside very slightly, giving Arika McClure enough room to plant a foot on the lowest decorative outcrop and reach up to grab the bottom of the bronze frieze. She grunts a little - they can see that her feet have nothing substantial to push against so she tries to give the impression that she is actually hauling herself upwards with her hands and upper body strength alone. Within a few seconds, before anybody has realised what is happening, she has scaled to the broad square overhang and is hoisting herself up around it in a manoeuvre which any professional climber would instantly recognise as technically impossible. And then she's high enough off the ground that nobody can easily see that she's faking it.
The difficult part is making it look difficult.
Some of the kids on the steps act impressed, some dismissive, but none of them take their eyes off her. Another sixty seconds and the whole square is slowing down to watch, including a few police officers. By the time she's halfway up, there are two dozen phone cameras trained on her. Comments waft upwards: "Hey, cool!" "Go go go!" "It's been done..." "What are you trying to prove?" "Nobody cares!" "It's a publicity stunt." "I can see the wires." "She's hot!" "Do a flip!"
Backup is called for. The police start clearing people away from the base of the Column in case she falls. Arika tries to pace herself, but it's like trying to run the hundred metres at the pace of a snail. As long as she stays effectively weightless, pulling herself upwards with her fingertips and toes is absolutely effortless-- and admitting that she has weight and yielding even slightly to the pull of gravity is dizzying. She looks down. Then she gulps and looks straight ahead at the granite. She resists the temptation to just turn around and wave. It would break the illusion too soon.
Completely unplanned and accidentally, she loses a shoe. It bounces off one of the lions guarding the Column and into the crowd, which goes wild.
Bright pink means everybody can see her as she reaches the trickier second overhang and hoists herself onto the platform next to the statue of Nelson. She "rests" briefly, wind whipping her hair and clothes, and considers climbing up to the top of the huge statue itself, but rejects the idea - there's no easy way to perch on his hat. And then she just sits there, on the edge of the huge drop, and enjoys the view while she waits for the crowd to gather.
One hour is about long enough. There are a few television cameras and mobile broadcast units visible, and a sizeable police presence waiting for her to descend. She'd expected a police helicopter to come and buzz her but that hasn't happened - maybe they think it'd distract her and make her fall. Meanwhile most of the kids who originally saw her start to climb are no longer visible, presumably either hustled away for questioning or simply having grown bored and drifted elsewhere.
When her watch beeps she gets up and walks to the corner of the plinth where she reckons the largest number of people will be able to see her. On an impulse, she kicks her other shoe into the crowd. It takes a long time to fall all the way. At street level, someone is bellowing at her through a megaphone. She tries to imagine how many people are watching her live right now, and how many more will watch the recording before the end of history, and shivers. Millions? Would billions be hyperbolic? Is she really about to revolutionise the world as profoundly as she hopes?
Cue the Strauss...
Arika McClure holds her arms out, as if to maintain her balance, and takes a step out into thin air. And then a second.
She sinks slowly, almost to street level, then suddenly rockets up and around the square, through the trees, behind the pillars at the National Gallery entrance, over the fountains, and then back and around and around the Column. She stops above the police cordon near her landing point, where it can be clearly seen that she has no supporting wires or magic up her sleeve, and rotates, swivels and flips freely in the air, as if suspended in invisible gimbals. She stops and raises her hands and drinks in the applause. Nobody has any idea what they've really just seen, but they know it was cool.
Finally, she deigns to step down onto the Earth and face the reporters' microphones.
"Who are you?" "What's your name?" "How did you do that?" "What's the trick?" "Are you a superhero?" "What's your reason for doing this?" "What do you want?"
Arika McClure doesn't bother to explain that there's no trick. The huge quantity of footage that was just shot will easily establish that. She doesn't tell them how she's superhumanly strong, because that'll scare them, or who she is, because that'll come out in time, or her reasoning, because that's easy enough to deduce once you know her life story. Besides all of that, she's realised she only has a few seconds before she's put under arrest.
"I want to join the Coastguard," she announces.
All in all, that seems to get the world's attention.
There's a man at a booth in a coffee shop in the city and he's obviously on something. It's seven fifteen in the morning and he's been staring at the condiment rack in front of him for almost an hour and a half. He's not shaking, rocking, mumbling, or blinking. He has a large coffee. It's full. Stone cold. The man is a heavily bearded fifty-something, and the clothes, the briefcase and the eccentricity of his hair suggest an academic. He has an unobtrusive hearing aid in his left ear.
Thirteen point seven billion years ago, at the instant of the Big Bang, there was a junction point in spacetime, a point where time ran sideways and the laws of physics of the conventional universe had not yet coalesced. If Mitch "Xio" Calrus - who is, as far as Kosogorin is aware, the greatest evil in the universe and the enemy of all intelligent thought - wanted to escape his cell, he could simply travel back to the point where they (the cell, and time) came into existence, slipping out of the trap just before it closed. This cannot be allowed to happen. Therefore, Andreas Kosogorin is taking the liberty of closing that exit route. Time in Alef is about to become one-way.
Andreas Kosogorin was not asked to do what he is about to do. He hasn't even told Mikhail Zykov that he is doing it. He knows in his heart of hearts that Zykov is a good man, sent here from a higher plane to save the world from itself and redeem humanity and lead everybody upwards to a better place where death holds no sting. These are facts that he believes he has come to believe from observing Zykov's genuine devotion to scientific progress, in the Russian Federation and worldwide. That's telepathy: direct and indirect control over the information in someone else's brain.
The truth is that Zykov so fundamentally corrupted his mind that no direct order had to be given. As a result, Zykov is not responsible for Kosogorin's actions. And when the Imprisoning God descends to punish those involved in the oncoming disaster, Zykov will not be touched.
Someone is screaming at him in the background, banging on the cockpit door of his mind: the old Andreas, the one who remembers the days before he met Zykov, when he was still in contact with his beautiful children and grandchildren. Out of the corner of his right eye is a police officer who has caught sight of the one-inch platinum cube on the table in front of him, hidden from the baristas' view behind the salt cellar-- an object which anybody who hasn't been living on Mars for the past nine months would instantly recognise as a Klick Device. Whom the cop is notifying is anybody's guess, but the gist is: "There's nothing to disarm. There's nothing to defuse. He's not responsive. It's not worth the risk of trying to move him or the box."
And as for how much of Manhattan they'll be able to evacuate before Kosogorin's will breaks, and how much of the island (and how many people other than him) - if any - will be caught in the vortex and dumped unceremoniously some seven hundred and thirty-three million years in the past and a million light years from Earth... none of that is really relevant to the story.
Calrus checks in with Moxon while stepping down to the lowest floor of the building. "The warm body I saw in the upper basement was Davies. He tried... I think he tried to kill me. Anyway, he's dead. I killed him. ...I don't know how I feel about that. I'm going to try not to think about it until this is over. The last guy in the building has to be Zykov. I'm about to reach the transceiver room. Status intact and loaded. Confidence... five out of ten. Cavalry's ready, right?"
There's a group of contact points in Calrus' right glove. If, for any reason, he fails to eliminate Oul the clean, merciful, personal way, all he has to do is release the gun from his hand for 2.5 seconds, and the signal will go out for two dozen Class VI all-American supermen to swoop in from their assembly points above the cloud layer, pull him bodily out of the building and lay waste to everything left inside it.
"Cavalry's ready," responds Moxon in his earpiece. He, of course, is elsewhere entirely. None of this is officially happening.
Before he reaches the bottom of the stairwell Calrus hears Zykov speaking aloud to him. "That's amusing. You still honestly think you can settle this in a room with a word and a bullet. I've killed you once before, Xio."
Mitch Calrus stops on the last step, trembling despite his safe intangibility. Ahead of him is a dark, red-lit corridor leading into the huge shielded underground space where Zykov's Preonic Transceiver is installed. Zykov's voice is coming from the nest of computers mounted above the focus of the parabolic dish. It resembles the Americans' receiver, he realises. Maybe there are only one or two possible patterns to build a working FTL communicator. Or maybe the Americans stole the design. He creeps forwards.
"You're four-dimensional," states Zykov. There's echo. Other than the faint hum of the receiver there's very little noise down here.
"You're super-strong," replies Calrus. "Enough to kick a reinforced door down. Enough to withstand a conventional bullet." He moves up to the railing which runs around the circumference of the big deep dish, and begins to move around it towards ten o'clock, where a metal catwalk provides access to the crow's nest. The gun in his hands is, of course, not conventional.
"Up until a few weeks ago I had no idea who or where you were," says Zykov. "I was thinking large-scale. Supervillain schemes on the level of 'flip the Earth's poles, blot out the Sun and slay the world'. If I'd gained power a decade earlier I would have started World War III. Because killing everybody on Earth was the only way to be sure. Then I found out who you were, and... I could have chosen to make the plan a great deal simpler." As Calrus circles the dish he realises that Zykov, too, has a gun in his hands, a bulky black pistol.
"But who cares?"
Calrus takes a few steps along the catwalk and raises his rifle. He is not the greatest shot, but he is close enough to confidently eliminate Zykov. There's one catch - if he fires the bullet while phased, the bullet stays phased for a few hundredths of a second before dropping back into three dimensions. That's long enough to pass straight through Zykov at this range. To be sure of a hit, he needs to become visible for just one second, which is conceivably long enough for Zykov, whose firearm skills are a totally unknown quantity, to get the drop on him.
"In case you hadn't guessed it yet. The whole thing about the Script, and the science? I have been systematically blocking off your escape routes. I have been building a trap around you.
"This is not over, and I am not dead."
Zykov shoots himself.