Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Cloud Lily (a scifi/horror short story, work in progress...)

by P L Herlihy (all rights reserved)

All characters, companies and events in this book are fictitious, any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.


The Cloud Lily
The Cloud Lily clings to the grey stone, mist swirling among its sinuous fronds, biding its time in a cleft in the bare rock of the mountain top as its roots dig deep into the ancient skull of its prey for any last vestiges of food.

Foreword
In 2016, a team of plant hunters working for the biotech giant, Midstream, embark upon a mission to the Cloud Mountains in search of new 'extremophytes', plants living in extreme environments. Novel plants could hold the key to medical breakthroughs and the creation of new medicines and so the competition is fierce to track down new species. Midstream specialises in finding, collecting and patenting plant genes from extremophytes found in some of the most inhospitable places in the world.
Professor Lacey Whorton-Ffynde, plant geneticist, runs Midstream Laboratories based in the Kent countryside, England. Her team of four plant hunters are selected across a spectrum of fields, headed up by Glenn Havener, mountaineer and survival expert. Dr. Chris Forster, plant hunter and mountaineer, Angelique Clement, polar explorer and climate scientist and Reginald Branch, veteran plant hunter are the other full-time members of the team. For the Cloud Mountains expedition they recruit a local support team and establish a base camp at the base of Nube Tepui, deep in the Venezuelan mountain plateau. Nube Tepui's sheer rock cliffs soar vertically some 5000 feet above sea-level, effectively cutting off the flat summit of the mountain from the rich forest below. The hope is, if the team can reach the previously unconquered summit, they stand to find a treasure trove of new plant species for Midstream. But the mountain is notorious for its violent weather systems and dangerous rockfalls, many have tried and failed to reach its summit and each year the mountain's death toll slowly rises.

Chapter One

Lacey Whorton-Ffynde quickly punches in the code for the wall safe in her office and pulls out a slim package wrapped in leather. She carefully unwraps the contents on her desk and, slipping on a pair of cotton gloves, carefully turns the yellowed pages of a old, slim herbal, dated 1559 and hand written in Spanish. The page she stops on shows a painting of a strange plant with flowing roots and thick stems supporting pitcher-like leaves and racemes of lily flowers, painted in the deep maroon of dried blood. Next to it is a name, 'Lirio de Nube' under which is a clumsily drawn skull. The Cloud Lily. As far as Lacey knows, the herbal is the only depiction of this plant, unknown and lost since a fateful expedition by Spanish botanists in 1559 into the interior of Venezuela. Only one survivor was ever found, three years later, mad and starving, wandering in the forests, still clutching the book. Over the centuries the book has been hidden away, passed through private book collections across Europe to finally find its way into the great library at Whorton-Ffynde Grange some time in the eighteenth century where it sat gathering dust until, Lacey, a young girl in search of hidden treasure in her family home, found it in the 1970's.
Her hope is this plant is real and still thriving somewhere in the Cloud Mountains. Her hope is it is indeed as poisonous as the skull suggests. It could be the medical find of the decade and catapult Midstream into one of the top biotech companies in the world. She runs a finger gently over the lily and smiles to herself, then quickly wraps the book up and replaces it in the safe. She checks the time, she should be able to contact her team by satellite phone at the base camp within the hour.

Base Camp
Glenn Havener's alarm on his watch beeps. The satellite will be in range. He strides over to the battery packs under the main awning and plugs his phone into one. As far Glenn is concerned, organisation is the key to success, so if he can charge his phone at the same time he is talking, all the better.
Angelique Clement watches Glenn from the field desk where she is organising an uplink to the satellite for a detailed weather report modelled on her computer for the next five days. Any longer than that and it is the meteorological equivalent of a guess. 'Are you waiting for a call from Prof. Wharton-Fiend?' she calls over, her Canadian accent noticeable in the mispronunciation of the name. Glenn chuckles, and replies. 'Were-Tun Fine! It's pronounced Were-Tun Fine! You've been with us six months and you still can't get it right.'
'Can you find out if helicopter retrieval will be possible if I can confirm a weather window?' She continues typing in their coordinates into the computer as she talks. 'Just to be on the safe side I'd like to see if we can airlift out any samples out as I reckon it's the safest way to maintain a biological quarantine.'
Glenn nods in agreement. 'I'll see what I can do. We can map an extraction point once we are up there and can see the terrain.... Hello? Lacey? It's Glenn, at base camp...'
On the other side of the camp, Chris Forster and Reginald Branch are organising the packing of collecting bags into their rug sacks.



Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Double Take (a science fiction short story)

By Patricia Herlihy

All rights reserved.


All characters, companies and events in this book are fictitious, any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.


19/02/2066, Free States Cyber Security Agency (FSCSA) , London

'We have a problem.'
'What do you mean, we have a problem, I have Solinsky in holding. What problem?'
'This.'
'This?...Where the hell is this? We had quarantine! How the fuck did this happen?'
'It's not Solinsky.'
'It's?... What the...'
'It's not Solinsky.'

Agent 947 stares at the blurry street surveillance photo of a jogging man Agent 957 has pulled up on the screen. 'Not Solinsky?'
'No, made me do a double take too!'
'Damn! Who is it?'
'Don't know, we're running it up. It came up on a routine quarantine sweep twenty minutes ago.'
'Where?'
'Somewhere in the Free States, we know that much.' Agent 957 nods to the shop in the background of the photo. 'You don't get SodaCube shops in the United European Territories.'
947 sighs.'Unbelievable! Have you sent it upstairs?'
'Not yet. Thought you'd want to know first.'
947 stares at the face on the screen. 'Poor bastard. OK, send it up, I'll step up the holding protocol till it's sorted.'

Stepping Hulfton, Free State of England

Bradley Novak checks the time on the Town Hall clock on the walk to the community centre. The lecture is due to start in five minutes, he'd never make it in time. He breaks into a jog and then a sprint past the last block in order to make it. It's really important he gets there in time. Bethany would want him there in time. Sweat prickles the back of the cotton t-shirt shirt he is wearing and his temples are throbbing from the exertion by the time he arrives. The Town Hall clock chimes eleven as he takes a seat near the back of the half full auditorium.
Bethany Duchamp arranges her thoughts carefully as she uplinks her holo-slate to the web, behind her the screen fills with an image of a winged cherub with the caption 'From Medieval Iconography to The Wall, Miracle Angels Through Time.' She adjusts the microphone and, after a small cough, begins her lecture. Bradley settles back into the cool plastic of his seat and sighs, just the sight of her made the running worth it.

Free States Cyber Security Agency, London

'And this is the only image we have to go on?' Frances Smith, Head of the London FSCSA department glances round the table at the team working on Solinsky.
'Yes, Mam. It came up on a routine quarantine sweep. It was pulled up from the street security network as a match for Solinsky. The image isn't tagged as per the Free States Personal Information Integrity Law, only time and date stamped as legally required. The footage isn't great, it's an old street crime camera, probably from before the Wall. The camera would have been triggered by him suddenly breaking into a run.' Agent 957 presents his findings.
Frances grimaces at the lack of information. Damn the bloody Personal Information Integrity Law. It constantly made their job harder.
'Can we track through related cameras? Get a corridor of movement?'
'No Mam. Single cam. We are running up possible leads with background info. The SodaCube shop for one.'
'The shop?' Frances sighs. There must a thousand of those bloody shops in London alone! 'Not good enough. I want this done and now. I am not losing Solinsky because of this. We proceed with protocol. Has this image been picked up in the United European Territories yet?'
Agent 947 replies. 'Nothing to suggest it has. We've removed all trace from the web and erased all but this file copy. I've stepped up holding. We are ready to go.'
Frances runs various scenarios through her mind then taps the screen sunk into the table in front of her. 'Find him, that's a priority order... and find him before our opposites in the UET do. I don't want anything to rouse their suspicions. Get Solinsky out of there. I want him here in the Free States ASAP. Holding moves to Extraction as of now.'

CyberCrime Technologies HQ, undisclosed location, United European Territories (UET)

'And this is current?'
'Within the last hour. Some subtle traces of erasure in the web. Has FSCSA all over it. '
'Can you retrieve the data?'
'Yes. We retro-store the web with a two hour delay for just this eventuality. The Wall constantly updates as part of its security protocol, but the retro store is a snapshot frozen in time.'
'Good, for my eyes only.'
'Of course, Captain Fredericks.'
Simon Fredericks returns to his supervisor cubicle. What were the FSCSA up to now?
Within ten minutes the file arrives at his workstation. He opens the encrypted file, it's a blurry street crime cam image. The face looks familiar and then it hits him. Fredericks gasps. Despite the grainy, blurry focus, the face of the running man is unmistakable. William Solinsky, architect of the Wall. Fredericks' pulse is racing, if Solinsky has fallen into enemy hands, the cyber security curtain that separated the UET from the Free States stood to fall... for a moment he stops his train of thought. It is impossible for Solinsky to be there! He is under permanent house arrest, constantly under guard... Fredericks hits his alarm button and two floors up, an operator connects him to the General.
'What's the matter Fredericks?' The General sighs inwardly, Fredericks was a pain, always referring upwards for the most trivial of cyber attacks. He'd never make it out of his cubicle to the next floor if he didn't start taking some initiative.
'Sir. You need to see this. I've sent you an encrypted image. From within the last hour, it was erased by the FSCSA from the web...'
The General opens the file and stares.
'Sir? Are you still there? I think they have Solinsky...Sir?'

Emergency Meeting Room, UET CyberCrime Technologies HQ

The General paces up and down as he waits nervously for the conference call to begin. How the hell had they got William Solinsky out of the UET so easily? The Board of Directors for the UET Corporation would not be happy. Solinsky had written the code for the Wall. A prime directive programme of constant non-repeating interference forming an impenetrable cyberwall, cutting the web off from anyone except authorised subscribers, subscribers who could then be monitored 24/7 by the Corporation. The schism the Wall caused had changed boundaries and shaped the world map. A new international border between the UET and the rest of the world.
And now it seems Solinsky, a maverick genius and outspoken critic of the cyber-system he helped to create is in the Free States.
'General, we are awaiting confirmation from the compound. It is looking as though the bird has flown the nest.' Madam Chairman commences the conference call.
'Directors, Madam Chairman, we are working at this end to try and pinpoint the location of the image but it is only time and date stamped...'
'We need to re-cage the bird, General. Before it can fly away for good. We are alerting our field operatives, when will we have a location?'
The General sucks his teeth and curses in his mind. What did they think his teams were? Magicians? Most were underpaid undergrads paying off their Corporate debts by crunching data for the very organisation that's crippling them financially.
'As soon as we have any kind of lead...'
'Then we await your intel.'

Stepping Hulfton, Free State of England

Bethany searches the audience for his face as she talks. For a moment she thought he hadn't made it, then she spots him, sunk low into a chair near the back of the auditorium. A surge of relief wells up inside as she smiles in his direction. Could he see her acknowledgement from there? She settles back into her discourse on sightings and reports of guardian angels, glad he had made it on time.
Later, once the auditorium has emptied, he climbs the steps to the stage and smiles, waiting for her to finish packing up her computer.
'Hi! I wasn't sure you would come.'
'Yeah, yeah, just made it, in fact. Had to run half the way.' Bradley is suddenly aware that his t-shirt is sweaty and crumpled. 'Look, do you fancy a coffee? There's a SodaCube in town now, just up on the High Street.'
'Sounds good, Bradley, I'd like that. You know it's good to see you again. When I saw the lecture tour included Stepping Hulfton... I hope you didn't mind that I sent you the invite?'
'No, not at all. How long is it anyway? Four, five years? High time you came back home.'
'It's six years, Bradley. A long time. And, I'm only here for the lecture.'
'Well, nothing much has changed here, except that we have a SodaCube and that the old electri-buses stopped running about the time you left.' They talk as they wander back to the SodaCube shop and find a quiet booth to sit and catch up on the six years since they last met. Bradley notices a fine streak of silver in her long sleek brown hair and the deeper laughter lines around her eyes. But she is the same. The same girl he remembers, heading off to the city to do her post doc.
Bethany catches him checking her appearance and smiles to herself. He hadn't changed a bit.
'So, you still building that water mill?'
'Finished. Living out there now. The business is beginning to take off too, amazing how many people are keen to be completely off grid. I Mill flour and supply power to quite a few local cooperative communes now.'
'Well done you!'
'So how's city life? Is it what you wanted?'
'Yes, yes it was what I wanted, for many years. Now, not so sure. On tour, I remember how carefree life is out of the city. But, my work with the university keeps me tied to the bright lights.'
'Talk is, the lights aren't so bright any more.'
'Well, no. Power is becoming more intermittent, the negotiations with the UET are dragging on.'
Bethany sips her coffee and waits for Bradley to pick another topic. The less she talked about her life in the city, the better.

Free States Cyber Security Agency, London

Frances drums her fingers on the table in a habit she barely notices any more, watching the live streaming from the head cams of the extraction team. So far, it is going well. Part of her brain is turning over the events of the last hour or so. It could work to their advantage. As long as CyberCrime Technologies took a while to find the image of the Solinsky lookalike, they still had the advantage. A Solinsky double could be useful too. Throw people off the scent, maybe even a pawn for a power deal with the UET. They needed to find this doppelgänger and fast. Whatever his life is, it is now over. He is the property of the Free States Security Agency and Frances isn't going to waste the opportunities his uncanny resemblance to Solinsky affords.
Agent 957 manages to squeeze every gram of pixellated detail out of the poor quality image from the crime cam photo. In one hand he is holding some kind of flyer. The words are illegible but there is a logo on it, or a drawing of... 957 leans back and squints at the screen... of an angel, a cherub. He screen grabs the angel and runs a recognition programme through the freeweb. Within seconds over seven thousand hits come back, not good. He adds time and date data, giving a window of about an hour either side of the photo, the man was running to get somewhere. Fifty hits come back. It is the fourth that catches his eye.
'Professor Bethany Duchamp, Angelologist. On Tour Now with her new book 'From Medieval Iconography to The Wall, Miracle Angels Through Time.'. Venues and Times.'

'Mam, I have the location and possible ID.'
'Good, I am briefing the field team in five minutes, route intel to Conference One. I want full a full schematic of the location and all background on possible ID. How quickly can you confirm the ID?'
Agent 957 grimaces, she isn't going to like the answer. ' Mam, the ID is only going to be outline, those living beyond the London super-city often choose that life because they shun the web technology...'
Frances interrupts him. 'OK, send through all you can. At least we know what he looks like. Get his biometric medical data unlocked as well for identification. I am requesting a persona non grata protocol for his securement as FSCSA property, once in place I want your team to erase all trace of him.'
'Yes Mam.'
Frances cuts the connection and looks up at the extraction team camera feed on the screens in Conference One. Solinsky is secured and in the diplomatic shuttle, now in transit to London, ETA one hour and twenty two minutes. Time enough to secure this lookalike. The field team assembles and Frances starts the brief, keeping an eye on the time.

Agent 947 runs an infopoint pattern checker throughout the freeweb using his earlier erasure points from the crime cam image as reference. There is clearly CyberCrime Technologies interest in the missing data. He alerts Agent 957 who in turn, alerts Conference One.
'OK, the Persona Non Grata protocol is through. I want a clean operation and all off-tech. We can be confident that CyberCrime Technologies is aware of the image and maybe on location as well. They probably think it is Solinsky as the holding will have given us a window of opportunity. You can treat this as hostile. I want...' Frances checks the intel arriving from Agent 957. '… Bradley Novak secured. He is officially now our property.'

Stepping Hulfton, Free State of England

Bethany stares out of the SodaCube shop window as though watching the slow ebb and flow of passer-bys. There is a change of pace out here, beyond the city. Out in the free world, away from the financial infostreams, twenty-four hour webtech industries and consumer credit pressures; the web, free or behind the Wall, seems a mad addiction of the super-city dwellers. Here, freedom is the ability to live off grid, without tech access. To live a life of unknown identity from birth to death. The infostream from a direct tap into the FSCSA web onto the screen of her smart-eye lens reminds her of why she is here. They've found him. Time to go. She smiles at Bradley and reaches across to where his hand is lying on the table, taking it in hers.
'Bradley, have you ever heard of a man called William Solinsky?'
'Um, no. Should I have?' There is an undercurrent in her voice, a change of expression Bradley instinctively knows means that whatever she says next, it's going to be bad news.
'He's the inventor of the Wall and is, or probably by now was, held under house arrest in the UET. The Free States are planning to bring him to London in an effort to bring down the Wall.'
'Why are you telling me this? Bethany how do you know this?'
'Because your life is in danger.' Bethany watches through the window, wondering how much time before the team from the FSCSA arrive.
'What?'
Bethany smiles and loosens her grip on his hand as she pulls out a faded newspaper clipping from her files. She hands it to Bradley who stares at it, uncomprehendingly for a moment, then he spots his face in the group photo.
'Hey.. I'm.. no... This guy?' He points to what looks like his face in the picture.
'That's William Solinsky.'
'He looks like me.'
'Exactly. Which, right now, makes you the most wanted face in both the Free World and the UET. Bradley we need to leave now, before they find you.'
'What? Before who find me?'
'Well, The FSCSA, the UET CyberCrime Technologies and any number of freelance bounty hunters and black market tech organisations.'
Bradley stares at the photo and reads the headline of the faded article. 'Meeting the team behind the Wall, the latest in Europe's Web Security Protocols. '
'Bradley. We have to go.'
'I've never seen him before... he invented the Wall?....Go where?'
'With me, somewhere you will be safe.'
'I don't understand.'
'His identity is, was, a closely guarded secret on both sides. But now the proverbial cat's out of the bag. We really do have to go now, Bradley. Please.'
'Go where?'
'Your mill to start with, it will buy us some time. We have to go, now!'
Bradley follows after Bethany, still clutching the newspaper article, trying to process what she is saying.
'Keep to a steady walk, avert your face from any street camera, do not make eye contact with anyone. Head to the grey community-car on the corner. We pay with cash, non-traceable, not e-coins or card, from now on, nothing electronic.'
They reach the community-car parking bay and Bethany feeds a handful of crumpled notes into the machine, enough for a couple of days at least. She jogs round to the driver's side, 'Unplug her and let's get going!'. As Bethany starts the car she notices movement in the rear view mirror. At one end of the main street a road block is being set up by a local police officer. She turns to Bradley as he climbs in next to her. 'How do we get there without using the main roads in and out of town?' She nods to the rear view mirror and he watches the barriers being set up for a moment or two before replying. 'Turn in behind the library and follow the lanes till the old gas tower, remember the tower? Well, just past it is the old weighbridge and then it's country lanes all the way out to the mill.'
'I remember.' Bethany pulls out of the parking bay slowly and turns in behind the library without drawing any undue attention.

On board the Diplomatic Shuttle, en route to London

William Solinsky paces up and down the narrow corridor of the diplomatic shuttle, how long would it take to get there? And why the hell had Bethany not updated her status, she must have him secure by now. He is relying on her getting this Novak to the destination point as soon as he arrives. Otherwise the plan would fail. He would simply be swapping one organisation for another. He checks his encrypted smart-eye lens again. Nothing from her.
'Hey, sit down! You're making me nervous! We have another hour before we arrive at London. Don't worry you are safe with us!' One of the extraction team points to a seat nearby as he passes and William sighs and nods at him, then points to a window seat further down the shuttle and sits down as requested.
William Solinsky invented the the Wall in 2030, a prime directive programme of constant non-repeating interference, forming an impenetrable cyberwall, cutting the web off from anyone except authorised subscribers. This technology was snapped up by the highest bidder, making Solinsky and his team multi-billionaires overnight. The lucky buyers, the United European Territories Corporation wasted no time is implementing the Wall and it became the most powerful weapon in their armoury of political control over their territories. Subscribers are monitored 24/7 by the Corporation. Solinsky's code formed a new international border between the UET and the rest of the world. One by one, the rest of his team had disappeared, mysterious accidents and illnesses the official line, until only he remained, trapped in the UET by a cyberwall of his own making. William stares out of the small window into the black space beyond. He had been sixteen, a teenage uber-geek when he had written the code for a cyber-convention at his university to showcase his talent, an unbreakable security wall to prevent cyber-fraud.
He gets up, nervous energy getting the better of him and helps himself to a coffee from the drinks dispenser set into the rear wall of the shuttle, it would help to occupy the time.

The Old Mill, near Stepping Hulfton

Bethany blinks rapidly twice to activate her smart-eye lens, a match to Solinsky's. The encryption code is subtle, the thought-message spliced between small, random data packets drawn form the web, riding piggyback till they reach their destination where they are re-spliced behind a data protection blanket, only visible on the retinal screen of the other lens.
'I have him.'
'About time! Will you reach the rendezvous?'
'Yes. But the FSCSA have found him too.'
'It was only a matter time.'
'I know... it isn't getting any easier.'
'I'll lay out a decoy trail for the FSCSA, it'll take a couple of minutes.'
'That wasn't what I meant.'
'Don't let old loyalties cloud your judgement, Bethany. The future is within our grasp.'
Bethany double blinks and the thought connection is severed. She checks the time. They needed to get moving if she had any hope of getting Bradley to the London FSCSA shuttle dock in time. She climbs out of the community car and pulls an old tarpaulin over it that she finds in the barn attached to the Mill, closing the big doors behind her. Bradley should be ready by now.

Bradley pulls on a clean t-shirt. He stares for a moment at himself in the mirror, then shakes his head. Downstairs he can hear Bethany moving around. He grabs a wallet full of cash from the top of his dresser and then jumps back down the ladder to the room below. 'Are we taking the car?'
Bethany stops pacing up and down. 'No. They'll be looking for it. I parked it in your barn. We have to be in London in three-quarters of an hour, we need to get to the OverRail.'
'What! At New Limpton? But the security... I don't have a credit profile for it.'
'Not a problem. Come on. We'll have to jog cross-country.'

On board Diplomatic Shuttle, en route to London

Solinksy is reassured by the thought Bethany is en route with Novak. He lays out a false trail for the FSCSA and any other interested party to follow, leading from the SodaCube shop to a community car then on to the nearest petrol station on the southerly edge of town, away from the Mill. From there, it is a motorway onto the London Outer Orbital Network, he would trigger a few Toll Zone Cameras indicating they would head in towards the old M25, trying to bypass the security scan-points on the new network. That should throw them all off the scent for a while.

Emergency Meeting Room, UET CyberCrime Technologies HQ

The General angrily slams a fist down onto screen in front of him. Somehow Solinsky has managed to slip from their grasp and on his watch. The trail from Stepping Hulfton has run cold, freelance operatives finding nothing. It must have been a plant but by who? The FSCSA or by Solinsky himself? Were they being played by the man? He orders an immediate border alert. With any luck, they might catch him on a shuttle but it is the desperate move of a man who has been outplayed.

OverRail Terminal, New Limpton

The OverRail Terminal is deserted. Bethany keys in a code into the ticket-credit machine and it immediately registers an out-of-order message and opens the barriers. On the overhead platform, the next shuttle is due in three minutes. Bradley can feel the all the craziness of the last few hours starting to coalesce into a deep uneasiness. Just what the hell is doing, running around after Bethany, the woman who left him. Because, because of what, an old photo and a road block? And why do they have to get to London? And how does she know about this William Solinsky. And why.. his thoughts are cut by the arrival of the shuttle, a minute early.
They climb on and find an empty carriage. Bethany watches Bradley for a minute or two, waiting for him to ask. To shake himself out of the daze he has been since the SodaCube shop.

'Bethany, how the hell do you know about the FSCSA and this Solinsky man? Is that why you were lecturing in Stepping Hulfton today? I don't understand the connection of this man to you.. and where the hell are we going?' Bradley can feel the rise on volume in his voice and tries to keep his temper in check.
'It's difficult to explain...'
'Well bloody try or I'm getting off at the next station!'
'OK, OK, calm down. Look, it's...' Bethany pauses, watching the feed on her lens, the FSCSA are following the false trail laid by Solinsky. It will buy them some time. She relaxes and grins at Bradley. 'Didn't take us long to start arguing again did it? I was contacted by someone who said your life was in danger. They gave me that newspaper clipping and said that the only way to save you was to bring you to a rendezvous point in London. They offered a lot of credit.'
'You're doing this for credit?'
'Living in the city is not cheap. Look, it's not about the credit, I am convinced that your life is at risk. Please believe me when I say that, sincerely. I want nothing to hurt you.'
The shuttle slows as they reach the next stop. Bradley tries to find a reason to believe anything she is saying. He can find none.
'Why don't I just hand myself in. I can prove I'm not this Solinsky, I'm not the person they are looking for.'
'Like I said before, the FSCSA, the UET, CyberCrime Technologies, bounty hunters and the black market want you because you're not him. You can be used as a decoy and a very convincing one at that. You will be their property, a pawn to be moved from place to place, a cover for the real Solinsky. Your life, the one you think you still have, it's gone. Probably erased already, what little trace there was of it. You have no credit history, Bradley, you live off grid. You couldn't be a more perfect match for a double. Untraceable.'
The shuttle pulls out of the terminal as Bradley stares out he window. 'So who are you working for? Which of those agencies?' He asks quietly, suddenly knowing beyond a doubt that he is only being told half the truth by her.
She smiles and can see no reason why not to tell him, the next stop is where they are getting off. She stands to get ready. 'The man who contacted me was William Solinsky.'

The Shuttle Terminal, London

Frances Smith waits impatiently at the shuttle platform with her team. The agents had missed Novak in Stepping Hulfton and the trail had run cold. She is not about to lose William Solinsky as well. She glances at the electronic noticeboard above the platform. The shuttle is delayed.
'What the... what's going on?'
'Sorry Mam, power drain on the grid, the shuttle is temporarily stopped in a tunnel under the super-city. We think it's an attempt by the UET to stop Solinsky leaving their territories. They've cancelled all shuttles at the border. We'll have our power rerouted in... seven minutes.'
'The tunnel is secured, Mam, and the diplomatic shuttle is in our borders. The extraction team are reporting no problems.'
'Good. Let me know as soon as the shuttle starts moving again.'

In the Tunnel

William Solinsky indicates to the toilet sign at the far end of the shuttle and makes his way past the extraction team to the cubicle in the corridor beyond the door. Once inside he locks it, opens the window and waits for the shuttle to slow to a stop directly by an old fire escape route. He blinks twice to reconnect to Bethany. She is already on her way down from the OverRail terminal above the tunnel with Bradley Novak.
William Solinsky could not believe his luck six years ago, when he had found the local newspaper article online about the pretty young Bethany Duchamp, who had passed her exams with top grades in her year and was off to university in London. Next to her in the photo was Bradley Novak, her then boyfriend. The face recognition software William had been running was a regular sweep to clean the web of himself, because in the future, freedom would be electronic anonymity. The UET Corporation didn't limit his web access, there was no point, they believed he was safely corralled behind the Wall, a prison of his own making. But it is more than just a wall, always more than that, it is an information stream through layers of non-repeating interference, creating a corridor between two political web ideologies that only he had the key to access. Less of a digital information wall and more of a secret tunnel. He had been planning his escape for six years. Bethany had been easy to buy. The cost of a digital life is so high these days, especially if you can adjust someone's debt to suit your needs.
He starts slightly as there is movement near the window. Bethany climbs in through it followed by Bradley. For a second the two men stare at each other. The resemblance is remarkable. Bethany smiles for a second at Solinsky then flips the lid off a small auto injector she is carrying and jabs it into his neck, he gasps and sinks unconscious to the floor of the cubicle. She reaches down and deftly pulls out the contact lens with it long optical fibre connector from his eye and places it carefully into a small case.
''Fuck!..What are you doing?' Bradley takes a step towards the door in alarm.
'Keep your voice down, the extraction team is next door. He found an old image online of you, the one I sent in to the local papers years ago, it's my fault he ever found you. I put you in danger through my own stupid vanity. I was so keen to make it in the city, no matter what, no matter who I hurt. Solinsky has stolen what little of your identity there is online, even swapped your biometric medical details to his. He thought he could buy me to get to you but I learnt my lesson long ago, losing you was the biggest mistake of my life, I'm not going to make it again... Quick! Back out the window. The shuttle is about to move off again. Go on, go!'

The Shuttle Terminal, London

Frances Smith stands over the unconscious body in the cubicle. The biomedical test confirms it is Bradley Novak. It looks like they had lost Solinsky after all. 'Take him to the secure house, get him awake, I want to question him myself.' She gives his leg a swift kick with her heel to make sure but he is out cold.

Somewhere in the Free States, north of London

Bradley tries the engine one more time but the batteries are dead. After climbing back out of the shuttle tunnel they had taken the OverRail to the edge of the city, paid for a community car with cash and headed north on the old roads, avoiding traffic cameras as best they could.
He turns to Bethany and asks, 'So what happens now?'.
'So, we walk.'
'Where to?' Bradley surveys the flooded moorland all around them, sweeping away from the ridge of the road.
'Anywhere off grid.'
'And Solinsky?'
'He has a choice to make. He either assumes your identity when he comes around or he proves he is Solinsky by bringing down the wall. Either way, he will not be a free man.'
'But won't he be after us?'
'Like I said, he's not a free man. And we have the advantage.' Bethany retrieves the small case containing the contact lens. 'This is an encrypted smart-eye lens. I'm wearing one Solinsky sent to me, a link to this one. They provide direct thought access to each other and to the web using constant interference technology so they are untraceable. They are also the only two ever manufactured, they are a prototype pair Solinsky was working on for the UET.'
'And this is an advantage because?'
'We can monitor them all, all the agencies involved. Keep one step ahead of them and...' Bethany pauses and grins at Bradley. 'Access an awful lot of credit Solinsky had planned to take with him, practically enough to work miracles.'
'What about the car?'
'Leave it, we can buy many, many more. I've got a map up on my lens, we can make the nearest off grid village in under an hour.'

Three Years Later at the Fall of the CyberWall.

'And we are witnessing amazing scenes, as the cyberwall finally falls and Europe is free to trade with the rest of the world independently of the UET Corporation. We are reporting live from outside MiracleTech, the company that broke the Solinsky code, where I am talking to Professor Daniel Delvires, team leader on the project. Professor, just how did your team do it?'
'Thank you, firstly may I say our work was only possible because of our mysterious benefactors, the Miracle Angels, whose philanthropic work throughout the Free World included the funding our research into constant interference pattern recognition .....'

The End

Word Count 5618





Thursday, 12 February 2015

Shut-Eye (a science fiction short story)

Shut-Eye

by P L Herlihy (all rights reserved)


Have you ever woken up with a jolt, as though you are falling but instead of landing, you wake up? It is, of course, neither a physical landing not an imaginary fall but the synaptic jolting of your subconscious returning from a trip across the multiverse back to your own brain.
It only happens during sleep and very few people realise what they are experiencing is space travel, in fact, very few people realise they exist in a multiverse, universes stacking up across infinity, folding and unfolding like a prairie of wild flowers... anyhow, let's leave infinity for now. The thing is, next time you get some shut-eye, I'll be waiting for you and then you'll understand.

Landis wakes with a start, she should, by now, be able to control skimming through multiple versions of herself, through multiple universes. Anger clouds her thoughts, did she get the message through to him? She rolls over and turns off the shrill alarm beeping on the bedside table and slips from under the warm duvet into the chill morning gloom, keen not to be late for work again.
...

Dr. Julian Peterson looks up from the paper he is scanning and stares at the flashing green lights and low murmur of the baby monitor, Landis is talking in her sleep again. How can she talk so coherently, his daughter is barely a year? The first time it happened, he thought it was an intruder, had raced up the stairs to her nursery but she was fine, fast asleep still. The baby monitor records her voice and he returns to the paper he is marking, he would listen to the recording tomorrow, tonight there are mid-term reports to finish.
...

Skipper blinks to accept the text via his eyenet and his blood chills as his retina displays the message. Not again. He presses the emergency code for a paramedic on his electo-hand implant, while shouting at the technurse over the eyenet to cancel all his morning appointments. Not again. The thought drums in his brain in rhythm to his racing blood as he takes the steps two at time down to the underground car park. The traffic in the tunnel network would be just past peak, he might have enough recharge on the battery to max the speed back to her. He might get there in time again.
By the time Skipper reaches the underground carport for their flat building, the paramedics are already there. His bioscan unlocks the door and he rushes in but he is too late this time. Landis, his beautiful, fragile, drug-addict wife is lying on the floor in pool of vomit and medipatches. She must have managed to find a new hiding place to stash them. The paramedics do their best but dead is dead and they call for a bodyvan and give him the details of the morgue she'll be taken to and a eyenet voucher for a bereavement co-ordinator.
...

'Landis, you're late. One more time this month and it's a credit dock. You know the rules.' Captain Jules Peterson shakes his head at her as she makes her way to the seat saved for her by her squad. 'Sorry Captain, it won't happen again.'
'Now, where was I? Ah yes, the Skimmer Theorem... anyone want to explain it to me?'
'That during the REM cycle of shut-eye, the individual can access any version of themselves in any universe, like a stone skipping across a lake?' Landis replies hoping to gain a few points to make up for being late.
'Well, basically... yes. The abstract function of REM cycle brain activity is space travel, accessing multiple versions of the self but there are inherent dangers, which is what this briefing is about... people, what are the dangers?' The Captain leans forward over his lectern trying not to acknowledge Landis again. 'Yes, Skip?'
'Brain death, sudden death of another version of yourself while you are in their head-space or the universe collapsing unexpectedly.' Skip grins across the room at Landis and she shakes her head in disapproval at his answer, their friendly rivalry still going strong.
'Good! Yes...'
'He forgot the Law of Diminishment.' Landis interrupts the Captain.
'I didn't forget it, I just didn't mention it' Skip answers indignantly.
'Enough you two!' The Captain's tone changes and both Landis and Skip fall silent under his gaze.
'The Law of Diminishment, someone answer quickly!'
The atmosphere in the room changes as the squads realise Landis and Chip have managed to antagonise the Captain. It is going to be a tough session.
'No one? The Law Of Diminishment states the Quantum Movement of Neural Oscillations, or brainwaves, must remain Equal or constant across multiple universes in order to maintain multiverse equilibrium...' The Captain pauses and draws the equation on the light screen in front of him so it projects into the air above the Squad teams. '… if this equilibrium becomes unbalanced then Multiversal Diminishment becomes not a weak force but a strong force in the natural decay and renewal cycle of universes and could lead to a catastrophic collapse in the multiverse as diminishment ripples disrupt the mechanical quantum forces holding us all in our allotted space and time. This is the Law of Diminishment, the law you have all sworn to protect.'
Landis stares at the equation floating above her head, MD when QM(NO) = E but the Captain is continuing with his safety briefing and there is no time for her to dwell on the consequences of an imbalance.
'...and finally, I would like to pay tribute to Cadet Lawclose, who died in the line of duty last night while attempting to prevent a diminishment ripple in a collapsing universe to catch a skimmer on the run from imminent death. His success cost him his life, a debt we can never repay. Always remember, a shut-eye sentient skimmer, trying to escape his own reality through travel to a parallel universe and trying to take over his counterpart there will lead to diminishment ripples. This, therefore, is a crime which carries the maximum sentence, the removal of REM state neural activity....'
Try as she might, Landis cannot concentrate on the lecture and her mind wanders back to the very real problem she is facing, as she ponders her next move, the Captain continues drumming safety procedures into his squads before tonight's shift.
...

'The thing is, next time you get some shut-eye, I'll be waiting for you and then you'll understand.' Dr. Julian Peterson replays the recording on the baby monitor for the third time just to make sure he is hearing the message right. There is no doubt about it, it is his daughter's voice, but she is barely above baby babble and singular nouns in her waking hours. Was he witnessing the emergence of some kind of latent genius in his sleep talking child?
...

Skipper replays the eyenet video clip of the funeral and sighs again as the incinibox slides beyond the curtains. The bereavement coordinator had taken care of everything, even the holographic flower wreaths and sending out the funeralcam alert to her only family, her father, J Peterson, a man Skipper no longer wanted to even talk to. He switches off the video abruptly and looks around him, he had walked to the end of the old pier without even noticing. Beyond him stretches the endless sky bay of Centenery City, the once bustling hub of trade, now practically deserted since the 3D transport printers came online worldwide. In his hands he holds a plastic urn, engraved with her name. He slowly unscrews the lid and tries to think of something to say. But nothing comes to mind so he simply whispers 'Landis' into the wind as her ashes spin out and disappear into the cold, wide sky.
...

'Did you call me?' Landis smiles as Skip joins her as they exit the lecture hall and head back to the squad rooms. 'Huh? No, just wanted to know what you're up to this evening?'
'Oh, just... you know, the usual, why?' Something is making her hold back from committing to one of Skip's infamous nights out.
'Well, me and the squad are thinking of trying out the new SloochAromary on Broad Street...'
'Slooch-a-whatery?'
'Landis, you have been working way too many shifts recently! You must have seen the posters, Slooch the Aroma in One Shot AlcoSniffs.'
'Really? Another snort shop? You'll rot your brain, Skip.'
'What brain?' He grins at her and drops a cheeky kiss on her cheek before jogging off to catch up with his squad. 'Next time then?' He calls over his shoulder and she smiles and nods at him.
Skip is a good friend, not pushing her for answers though knowing instinctively something is wrong. How long can she keep putting off the inevitable, she will have to tell him sooner or later. Time is running out and the multiverse is catching up with her. Landis rubs a hand over her eyes and slips quietly into her squad room cubicle, unable to shake the feeling someone is calling her name.
...

'Julian, what a pleasure! What brings you to my corner of the University?' Dr. Agetty Lampter, Professor in Linguistics, sweeps some books from an overstuffed armchair and pats the tartan seat, 'Please, sit! Sit! Your rather mysterious email didn't say what it is you are after?' Agetty perches on the matching chair to his opposite the roaring fire in her cramped and overflowing office. She scrutinises him through owl-rimmed glasses while smoothing out the wrinkles in her woollen dress with gnarled, liver-spotted hands.
'Well, the thing is... I am trying to...'
'Where are my manners!' Agetty throws her hands above her head and shrieks in horror. 'Would you like a drink, we must have a drink, look at the time... now, I have cognac or, or just cognac it seems.' She thrusts a deeply cut crystal glass half full of cognac into his hands before he can argue then settles back down in her chair, this time, kicking a log back into place on the fire.
'Now then, you were saying?'
Julian takes a sip and then asks his question. 'Is there any evidence in the early development of child prodigies of ...of very early language skills?'
'Often prodigies are very advanced in comparison to their peers, so typically master new skills quickly, or display precocious talents in one or two areas. So, with language, yes, though not always indicative of understanding, often it can be simple mimicry. What age are we talking about?'
'About a year.'
'Well, speech varies from child to child... is this about your child Julian?' Agetty suddenly remembers the young baby in his arms at the funeral of his wife last year.
'No!... No I well, yes. Agetty, listen to this.' He pulls the baby monitor form his pocket and places it on the carpet between them and presses play. The brief message is loud in the small office.
'The thing is, next time you get some shut-eye, I'll be waiting for you and then you'll understand.'
Agetty listens to the voice and shakes her head, 'That's the whole message and it's your daughter saying it?'
'Yes, although I've never managed to catch her speaking in her sleep, only taped it, she's only a year old. Agetty, is this normal or am I dealing with a prodigy?'
'Normal? No, not normal at all but maybe not impossible... don't worry, I don't think little Landis is about to become a child genius. Some of the vocabulary is novel and separate from your syntax, families tend to share language patterns, in short, she doesn't talk the way you do...this is an adult voice, an adult version perhaps of Landis...Have you heard the phrase, talking in tongues?'
'Um, yes.. a biblical reference isn't it?'
'Amongst other things, yes, it is a phenomena that has been observed through the ages and recently, catching the attention of some decent quantitative studying... now, I had a journal around here somewhere.. ah! Here. This might help explain.' Agetty scratches at the page of a scientific journal with a pointed index finger. Julian takes the journal and reads aloud. 'Voices from the void. The search for multiplicity.' He looks at Agetty questioningly but she simply nods her head and replies, 'Keep reading, keep reading.'
'This month the team at World Linguistics Universal will publish their findings after a five year study of 'off-world' linguistic observations, bringing the search for multiple universes one step closer to home. The WLU team have collected data worldwide and, using complex models to...' Multiple Universes?' Julian breaks off from reading.
'Yes, in a nutshell, the team have been analysing all the data from well, incidents like this, ' Agetty waves at the baby monitor, 'And fitting the information to complex quantum modelling to suggest these are voices from other worlds, other versions of this world. ' Agetty leans towards him. 'This could be the voice of another Landis, an adult version, talking to you through your Landis from another universe.' She takes a swig of her cognac and sighs heavily, leaning back in her chair and staring at the fire. 'Other worlds more advanced than us, imagine that.'
'Another universe, another Landis?'
'Yes, another version of Landis. Or just your baby monitor picking up voices from another monitor in the neighbourhood. Try a different frequency and I'm sure your problem will be solved.'
...

Landis' squad room cubicle is a small anechoic chamber in which is housed a small work desk and the Neural Oscillation Mapping Portal. She sits at her desk and opens a channel on the NOMP and allows the room to fill with a slice of the infinite background noise of the multiverse. Then she relaxes her mind to a meditative, almost sleep state and starts searching for diminishment ripples but it is hard to concentrate when time is running out.
Every squad member did it, it is a natural reaction to check up on versions of yourself. Most grew tired of checking out the status of their alter egos across multiple universes and soon passed the 'freshers inquisitivity threshold'. Landis didn't, couldn't stop. Because her alter egos are dying, rapidly and regularly across the multiverse and in the back of her mind, like a ticking time bomb, is the inescapable thought, when is it me? When do I die? Landis had spent many long nights searching through versions of herself, trying to find a way to avoid the inevitable, all die young, all die before their twenty-fourth birthday. Landis' twenty-fourth birthday is in three months time.
A few nights ago she had found a version of herself suddenly offering a different hope. A new life. The child is still a baby. A year at most. The father, unlike her long-absent parent is caring, had taken on parental responsibility when his wife had died. He loved his daughter. Is it possible he could love her too? Allow her to take over his daughter until she could find a way to...
But her thoughts are cut abruptly off by a blip in the background noise and she pinpoints the co-ordinates and sends them to the squad leader for Rapid Eye Monitoring.
...

Skipper knows he has had enough. Enough of the blame, enough of the endless recriminations from J Peterson, enough of the drudgery of the nine-to-nine, enough of the nightmare memories, waking in a cold sweat to an empty bed. Enough of this world. The 3D bio-printers are now online and calling for pioneers. He calls up the adblip again on his eyenet. Volunteers to travel beyond the known universe to a new dimension. He sends through his biometric data and before he can change his mind, signs up for what many in the scientific community are calling certain death.
...

Sleep finds Dr. Julian Peterson easily, probably because of Agetty's fine cognac. At first he is lost in deep sleep and then he dreams, dreams of another daughter in another world who is waiting for him in shut-eye land to fill his head with thoughts of a multiversal law, more of a curse, which will rob him of his daughter before she reaches twenty-four. But there is a way for his Landis to live beyond her years. If he allows this other Landis to inhabit her sleeping hours, then she lives a double lifespan, they can spend the nights together, a doubling of the time he has left with her, talking, laughing, sharing moments with an adult Landis. Her own father never loved her, abandoning her after her mother's death. She would never harm his Landis, let him decide when it is time for her to leave her. Julian wakes to the alarm clock and the sound of crying and runs to his daughter's cot but she is fast asleep, the weeping he can hear is all his own.
...

Skip stares at Landis across the table in the SloochAromary on Broad Street. 'But, you can't know this for sure? I mean, not for definite?'
''I have found no versions of me beyond the age of twenty-three, all die before they are twenty-four. Time is running out for me Skip. I have to go. You understand don't you?'
'Why are you telling me this?' Anger wells up in his voice, 'I can't let you do this Landis. It's against the law. It's against everything we've ever learnt...'
'My birthday is in a week's time, I have no time left. All I ask, all I want from you is it's you who removes my REM state neural activity...'
'I won't! This has to stop. I won't allow you to be lobotomised...'
'Skip, please. I have thought through every last detail. If this is the way I am going to die, then I choose this way. Just give me the chance of another life first. Let me skim out and then...'
'NO!' But he can see in his friend's eyes he will never manage to dissuade her. Whatever it is she has seen out in the multiverse has convinced her of her own death. He snorts the last of his AlcoSniff and shakes his head. 'When?'
'Tonight. Will you be there for me?'
Skip nods his head and then reaches for Landis' untouched AlcoSniff and snorts it too.
...

The 3D bio-printer is held deep within a subterranean vault, far from the shouters and vidcrews outside. 'Big demo today, did you have a problem getting past the shouters?' The techie asks Skipper as he attaches various probes to his skin. Standing there, cold and naked in front of the vast machine, the last thing Skipper wants to do is make small talk so he just smiles and shakes his head. 'Candidate volunteer 112358 ready!' The techie ushers Skipper to the portal of the machine and adjusts a final probe. 'We will be recording data from you for as long as we can, so please do not remove the probes immediately on the other side. Step through when ready.'
The bio-printer fires up as soon as steps over the threshold. Two thoughts occur to him. One, he is now just so much human ink and the other is an image of Landis, his beautiful dead wife.
...

Skip sits beside his friend on her bed, watching her as she arranges the pillows around her and smoothing out her uniform. She smiles at him and lays a hand on his arm. 'Thank you, I mean it, this means so much to me.' Skip does not reply, just checks he has enough REM remover in his medigun. 'Here lie next to me.' She pats the bed next to her and he lies down beside her and they start to talk quietly about all the things they have seen and all the universes they have visited. The sleeping tablet works quickly and soon Landis is asleep at his side. Skip watches her face, remembering every detail, then after a few minutes gets up and makes himself a coffee in the small kitchenette, it is going to be a long night. As the hours pass he checks her regularly to see if she is in REM state but still she seeps deeply and peacefully.
At four am he checks again, this time, her eyelids are rapidly flickering, her eyeballs flitting from side to side, she is on her way. He watches her dreaming for over an hour and then, summoning all his strength, he places the medigun against her temple and fires.

Twenty three years later...

The fountain in the University quadrangle sprays a fine rainbow of water into the warm blue sky as Landis waits for her father after his lectures. She reflects on the fact he is not getting any younger and it takes him longer and longer to navigate the warren of corridors and stairs to reach their meeting point. Landis is in her final year of study and exams are looming. Something catches the corner of her eye and she turns to look at the fountain at the same time as a large object lands in it, sending a sheet of water over her, soaking her to the skin.
It has taken a quarter of a lifetime for the bioprint-synthesis programme to reconfigure Skipper's body and print it into a different dimension. He lands, naked and alive into a vortex of water and, as the mist clears, the first thing he sees is the face of Landis. 'Landis!'
'How do you know my name?' Landis stares at the naked man sitting in the fountain grinning at her. Her clothes are soaked. 'Hey! Is this a set up? Did the girls from my study group set this up.. are you my birthday strip-o-gram?'
But Skipper does not reply, it is not his Landis, not the hollow-eyed, empty, drug addict but another vibrant, beautiful, laughing girl called Landis and he smiles and laughs too, the 3D bio-printer had worked.
'Hey, are you OK?' Landis catches sight of the probes all over his body. 'Do you need help?' She reaches over the low fountain wall and stretches out a hand to help him up to his feet. 'How do you know my name?' Landis hands him her wet cardigan to cover himself with and Skipper wraps it around his midriff and climbs slowly out of the fountain. 'I don't know, but I think I might have been hoping to meet you all my life.'

Captain Jules Peterson shakes Skip's hand and passes him his Sergeant stripes with a crisp salute. It is not often he has the chance to see one of his pupils excel the way Skip has over the years. Of course it hasn't been an easy ride. That business with Landis all those years ago for for a start, such a shame, she had been like a daughter to the Captain. But Skip had shown real guts, dealing with it. It had earned him his first commendation. He is about to congratulate him when the ceremony is interrupted by a siren. A major diminishment ripple, in all probability another universe collapsing somewhere. They are happening more and more frequently now. The squads quickly disband from the ceremony yard and head to their rooms and the Captain has little chance to do more than squeeze Skip on the arm and then hurry back to see what all the commotion is about. Hardly time for a decent night's shut-eye anymore with all the recent activity. There is talk it is no longer just neural oscillations causing the problem, that somewhere out there in the multiverse, people are trying to move actual matter across dimensions, imagine the destruction it could wreak on them all.

Dr. Julian Peterson wakes with a start, he had been dreaming, asleep at his desk again. The clock chimes four, he would be late meeting Landis again. He picks up the birthday present he has already wrapped and tucks it under his arm, trying to remember what it is he had been planning to tell her today. Something he had forgotten about a long time ago. It was something he once dreamt, yes, a dream about his daughter he had meant to tell her about, about this particular birthday... He sighs, his memory is not what it used to be and he places his hat firmly on his head and tries to remember the details. But, after all these years, the dream eludes him so he concentrates on navigating a way to the quadrangle instead.

The End


Word Count: 4095