"Honey: it's all over," Jason Chilton says to his wife when he gets home. He strides in through the front door, proud at the decision he has made. It's not a long time since he was home, but it's a long time since he was home and he felt like he was home. His wife Janet is loading the washing machine in the kitchen and she is more than a little surprised to see him home so early. Before she can do anything he picks her up and kisses her. "I'm done with the whole business. I'm not flying anymore. I'm not taking part in experiments anymore."
"Oof. So did they work it out? Did they work out what's— why you can fly?"
"I don't really care. I decided I've had enough with it. I just want to have a normal life and walk on the ground and watch the kids grow up, and who can stop me? It was an experiment. I tried to do something positive for science, and science doesn't seem to be smart enough to deal with what I can do, so forget 'em." He kisses her again. "I prefer reality."
"So you're going back to work? No longer 'on sabbatical'?"
"I think I'll take the rest of the week. We can all spend some time together. And then on Monday I'll go and see what kind of a mess Dan at the office has left for me to come back to. Is there any tea? Where are the boys?"
As his wife puts the kettle on, Jason goes into the living room and flumps down on the sofa. It's going on five in the afternoon. There are cartoons on the television and a stack of newspapers and magazines on the coffee table. Eight-year-old Ally is messing about with a model aeroplane, one of those flat-packed things which slots together from three pieces of foam and works for about half an afternoon. His younger brother Jonathan is patiently constructing a rudimentary Dalek from black and red Lego bricks. The place is a mess. It's a good day. And no one can ruin it.
"I think Paul Klick was right."
Ching looks up and around guiltily. They have a fairly secluded table at the Hornpiper. Probably nobody heard anything. Ching takes a sip from his pint glass and puts it down, and then says, slowly and with consideration:
"Paul Klick was the greatest mass murderer in human history. Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot had help. Allies. Paul Klick killed eight hundred and ninety-nine thousand people with a single device which he built with his own two hands. He also killed more people in a split second than have ever died at any other single moment in history. He was insane. You are my friend. But you can't say things like that to me. Or to anybody."
Mike Murphy stares into his own drink for a long while. "I don't think he killed anybody," he says, quieter. He pulls out some notepaper from his pocket. "This is what he was working on at the time his wife died."
Ching glances at the notation. It's obviously Eka-derived, but it's fairly sophisticated stuff. He can't read it easily. "Am I going to have to decode this myself or are you going to tell me what it means?"
"Do you believe in God?"
"If by that you mean, do I believe that there exist multidimensional beings of colossal scale and intelligence in planes of reality far above ours, with powers and abilities which would appear in our reality to resemble omnipotence, capable, even, of deterministically predicting human behaviour to great accuracy, before whom our entire universe, all its physical extent along with its past, present and future, is as insignificant nanotechnology, then yes. Seph is dating one. If you mean, do I believe any of them take an active and enthusiastic interest in human life and lives, in the fashion of the Abrahamic God... no. I only know one god and for all the world he would appear to be just a guy. I have seen no compelling evidence for anything but indifference on the part of the rest of them. Like I said. Nanotechnology. Who takes an active interest in a specific electron?"
"Maybe God does," says Murphy. "It's not like discovering the Structure is any more shattering a blow to Biblical teachings than discovering aliens would be. Or the discovery of evolution, or the motion of the Earth. So his Creation is bigger than we ever knew? That's wonderful. That's powerful."
"You ever do any set theory?" asks Ching. He flips over a beermat and writes out some numbers, "0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6...". He circles the "3" and labels it, "you are here". At the end of the sequence, after the ellipsis, he writes a lower-case Greek omega, "ω". He circles it and labels it "God". He waits a moment for Murphy to understand, then he adds "ω+1..." after God. Then he circles this, and labels it "?".
"I don't know what this is supposed to mean but I don't find it a compelling argument," says Murphy.
"If the Structure is anything like ordinal arithmetic," says Ching, "there's always a bigger God. There is nobody at the top. There is no top. There's only one end to the sequence, the bottom end, where we are." He scribbles it out. "Of course, it probably isn't. The Structure, I mean. Forget it. This is a cheap laugh at your expense. I don't know. Why do you ask?"
"These are Klick's equations. || is a mathematical operator which measures intelligence within a volume, like you'd measure mass or electrical charge. And the letter 'A' represents our universe..." Murphy explains the conversation he had with Klick in his final moments. He explains what an infolectrical hypersystem is, and the rough topology of the hole in reality which Klick created. And then he explains what he thinks an infolectrical hypersystem really is, and where he thinks the hole really led. Murphy explains it slowly and patiently, while Ching becomes increasingly incredulous and uncomfortable.
"You really believe this," says Ching.
"...You're trying to reconcile two things which can't be. Which shouldn't be. You're trying to mesh a methodology predicated on the gathering and repetition of observations together with a system of beliefs whose core concept is that they cannot be tested. No scientist will stand with you. No Christian will stand with you."
"Anybody who walked into the sphere--" begins Murphy.
"They were freed," Murphy repeats.
"Nothing rings right about this. If they were freed, why couldn't they come back and tell us? Suppose you just stepped out of the universe into this cosmic updraft. And you saw something approaching your notion of heaven. Wouldn't you come back down and tell people? And reassure them that you weren't actually dying? Tell them they should come too?"
"Maybe they couldn't come back."
"So in what sense were they freed?"
"Maybe they enjoyed it so much that they didn't want to come back."
"And left their families on Earth to die the old-fashioned way? Selfishness. Not heaven."
"Paul Klick was a rational man. A scientist. Not a murderer."
"He was driven mad with grief." By now Ching has read the blogs. So has almost every person in the Western world. "I can't even begin to imagine what he lost. I'll grant you that he really did believe he was doing the right thing. Every murderer does. But he was wrong. He must have been wrong. We don't even know what was in the box. We don't know how his machine worked because there is no machine to look at. We just have theory."
"But the Script changed. We've seen this happen before. It's a familiar enough pattern. It changed to lock out that specific theory. And at the moment the Script changed, the box stopped working. Isn't that evidence enough?"
And it might. It really might. Ching takes another drink, thinks about it for a moment, and is forced to concede this point.
"It might be enough to prove that... the Berliners went somewhere, rather than being destroyed in place. But even if we assume that, what if a human mind can't survive the higher dimensions unprotected? We can't survive space. We can't survive on the Sun or at the bottom of the ocean or even a single hot day in the desert. We can only live comfortably in... I don't know, a... a vigintillionth of this whole universe!"
"Maybe it's different up there," says Murphy. "Calrus said that the rules are different. We live in an environment poorly suited to the development and support of intelligent life. Maybe we can model it?"
"Maybe. You can try, if you like. My life is already complicated enough. Besides. There's a whole other aspect to this. What if you're right? The people are gone. And the technology is gone. What if you're right and this is a scientific manifestation of your faith? If this was what you think it was, then... either Paul Klick figured out a way to kill immortal souls, or the only way into heaven, the only way, was to be in that window, five kilometres wide and sixteen hours long, on the eighth of August 2008. And nobody else will ever get to go. And nor will the hundred billion people who died too early. That's even worse! It shouldn't change anything. This," says Ching, "is just a piece of paper with equations on it. All of this is just... observations. But faith is when you believe something, when you have no reason to believe it. No observations, no concrete testable hypotheses, just gut feeling. And nothing really changed on that day. The door opened, the door closed. We're back to where we were before it all started. So what?"
"I know it shouldn't change anything," says Mike Murphy. "But the alternative is that Paul Klick, a man I barely knew but who I did actually vaguely care about, did what he did... by mistake. Because of an error he made in his science. Science he got from the Script. The same Script we work with every day. And that's something I don't... don't want to believe."
"I know things are bad. I know living at the MPR is bad. I know having the most powerful country in the world after me is bad for our relationship. We need anonymity, a place we can call home and at least one job between us. I know Arika needs stability and she needs some way to switch off and rest. And she needs therapy, Christ. She's in denial and she's not ageing properly and her internal biology is all kinds of screwed up, much more than Jason's. But there are real lives at stake. More lives than I can even describe. Superhuman war is going to happen. It's an inevitability. If more countries than just America get the technology, if they have any kind of opposition, then that conflict has as much of a chance of consuming the world as nuclear war did thirty years ago. And in less than a year we have the twelfth Power. And if all that happens, people discover who Arika and Jason are after the fact, it will be, in many senses, the end of their lives. They'll never be able to be human again, and I don't want to know what they'll do in retaliation.
"These are bad times. But from the most basic ethical standpoint I have to keep going with this. You can stay with me, if you want, and I'll try to keep us both safe. Or... you can leave until it's done. Until it's safe and you want to come back.
"I love you. If you stay with me, you'll be in tremendous danger. That's the whole of the thing."
"You care about Arika more than you care about me."
"You-- please don't say things like that. You care about Arika. We both do. But I'm a scientist. And with Jason 'retired', she's our only data point. And she refuses to go public. And this Script... is like striking solid diamond. The stuff in here is insane, it's unreal."
"This Script is doing things to your head!"
"If I could explain what I've seen it would be doing the same to you--"
"You care about this more than you care about me," says Susie.
"No! Of course I don't!"
And Ching realises with a jolt that he's lying.
"Mitch?" asks Seph Baird one lazy, rainy afternoon.
"What would happen if you died?"
Mitch is silent, thinking about this, for long enough that Seph has to prod him to make sure he hasn't just forgotten about the question. "Where were you before we earthed you?" she adds.
"This world is three-dimensional. I'm kind of flattened down to fit into this shell. The real me is much bigger and more complicated than this, but I'm kind of hamstrung. They're like limbs I can't feel. Or move. It's how I can't leave the cell. But that power is all still out there. You tapped some of it on that day at the dish. There's a connection. It's-- hard to describe--"
"What happens if your 'shell' dies, then?"
"I honestly don't know," he says. "It could be a minor setback. I could just go straight back into the cloud and then you could do the earthing experiment again and I'd be back. But I think it would probably actually kill me. Properly. Without the intelligent core behind it, the power left behind would just fizzle out and biodegrade, like any corpse. It's like-- it's like I'm Stephen Hawking. A guy with motor neuron disease. All I can do is wiggle a finger or two or three. What if you took away my ability to move that finger? It depends how you do it. Just severing the nerve or the finger would leave me alive but basically inert. But the net result would be the same if you shot me in the head. And I don't know what corporeal three-death qualifies as."
"If you knew some more of the mathematical modelling behind all of this, could we figure it out?"
"Sure. But I don't."
"Well, think about where I'm coming from. What do you know about subatomic physics? I mean. Um. What does a typical human know? And you're so far beyond that limit from my perspective. Call me an ignorant cosmic supergod if you must. The only answer I can give is that I don't think I want to try it."
"The reason I ask is..."
"Oh, this is other than just being concerned for my safety?"
"We think we've found a way to get you home."
"And you lead into this by asking whether death would be a major setback for me? I don't think I like where this is going."
"It's kind of... complicated. And it's going to involve an aeroplane. And a girl who can fly."