Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Introducing ~ Zoology. In the future, food is new gold...

(All rights reserved. All characters and events are fictitious, any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental.)

ZOOLOGY

Earth was abundant. When we had finally finished plundering its resources, we moved on. But our new homes were never as rich. So we sent ships with scientific teams to find new zoology in distant galaxies we could farm, synthesise or simply hunt down and eat.


Daniel Delacroix ~ Expedition Pilot, Veterinary Scientist, 54

Cressida Blythe ~ Expedition Security Specialist, Survival Expert, 38

Aliya Garcia~ Tracker, Secondary Security Specialist, 25

Harp Engelthrop ~ Planetary Ethnobiologist, 27

Grove Jones ~ Large Entity Zoologist, 38

Yume Moto ~ Zoologist, Insectologist, 46

Cme ~ Xenograft, hazardous zoology retrieval unit, microbiologist, years since graft: 10. Actual age protected under a Newtrishia Corporation patent.



One

Grove Jones stops on the main gangway of the space port and glances at the briefing alert on his digi-billet. The ship he is looking for is called the 'Saturn Anne II' but he can see no sign of it on the computerised docking list boards. Just like the Newtrishia Corporation to hire some tin-can space barge that can't even find its way to the right docking bay. He spots a techanoid and waves the billlet at him. 'Know where this is?'
The teachanoid blinks twice and then pulls the rictus grin of the very poorly made synthetic robot. 'Yes sir! The last bay, in late last night. Boards not updated yet. Very big ship. Have a very happy journey now.'
'Last bay, late. Says it all.' Jones growls in thanks at the too-cheery reply, shoulders his backpack and heads in the direction of the illuminated arrow sign lit up on the techanoid's chest plate.

In the last bay, lost in the deep shadow of the run down warehousing quarter of the space port, the Saturn Anne II gently rocks in her space moorings. She is an Ark class ship, a great hulk of corroding alloys and multi-plane biosynth. Along one flank, her name is emblazoned, scored and scorched over time until all that is legible are the letters, SAT AN . Grove stares up at the name and reads it aloud 'SATAN. Well, that seems appropriate for this particular hell hole of a space port.' He glances around at the dock, a sudden feeling of menace running through his veins but he is alone. Just him and the ship. 'SATAN it is.' He shakes his head, sighs and slaps the side of the ship but instead of the reassuring pressure of metal, the bulkhead shivers and an echo of it runs up through his arm into his mind. Grove leaps back as though stung. Did the ship just whisper the name, 'Annie' to him? He squares his shoulders and gently slaps the side of the ship again, this time whispering 'Annie' but the metal bulkhead simply clangs to his touch.

Harp Engelthrop stands in the cargo hold of the Saturn Anne II and stares at the rows of bio-cages, sealed hazmat tanks and quarantine bays running in corridors the length of the hold. Overhead is a network of inspection gangplanks and environmental control ducts. Even though he knows planets all over the five galaxies need feeding and it is his work, particularly on crop foods, that might help to stave off starvation for billions of people, the sight of an empty ark reminds him of how close to extinction humanity is. The ark, though old, is well equipped. At least the Newtrishia Corporation had invested well in making sure whatever they found would make it back to the galaxies alive. Whether or not Harp would make it back alive would depend on the rest of the team on this mission. He checks the time, the meet and greet is scheduled for 12.00hrs in the galley. Time to go and find out what his chances of survival are.


Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Space Force Forensics

(all rights reserved)

One

It barely takes a second for Errand to realise his mistake and now, he too, is trapped in the cramped midsection of the space capsule. Just him, the freeze dried corpse he is investigating and a countdown to oblivion as the capsule's auto programme kicks in for re-entry into the atmosphere of the mining planet below. 'Shit!' He glances at the dried eye sockets of the corpse, 'Welcome to my world.'.
Above him, in the geostationary orbiting Mining Platform, the rest of his team are at work as the small capsule uncouples from the docking umbilical and fires its thrusters.
'Is he meant to be taking the capsule into orbit?' Rage asks, peering through the grimy porthole of the makeshift forensic laboratory to the capsule fast disappearing from view.
'What?' Growman looks up from his test results and stares at Rage.
'The capsule's moving away.' Rage points to the porthole as Growman leaps up and runs over to look. 'Oh no. No, NO!' Growman grabs Rage by the shoulders and propels her towards the hatch to the lower deck. 'Get to Anya as fast as you can, get her take out the Multi-Grab and try and retrieve him. I'll see if the Mining team have any kind of communication system rigged up with the capsule. How far out is Lake?'
'Too far!' Rage yells over her shoulder as she lowers herself through the hatch to the lower deck. 'He wouldn't get back before the capsule hits the atmosphere! Why would Errand uncouple it?'
Growman pauses momentarily trying to work out if there is any reason but can only conclude it's some kind of pre-programmed function that has been accidentally triggered. 'He wouldn't.' He replies tersely, 'Hurry! Now where in this heap of space junk is the comms room?'

Eighteen hours earlier at the Space Force Forensics HQ...

Super Commander Maeve Peacehart leans, slightly menacingly, over the virtual galaxy operations table towards Lieutenant Korel Errand and smiles the paper thin smile of a veteran politician.
'You see, Errand, this is more than a simple UFDO (Unidentified Flying John Doe), the Mining Corporation have asked for us to work this case. I don't know why Mining Security aren't dealing with it. They claim it's from outside their territory, flown in on a tanker and they've called us in. Just a routine, easy UFDO. But there is never anything easy about the Mining Corp. So I'm sending you and your team in to clear this all up.'
Errand shrugs. 'Could just be a UFDO, often they get snagged on the long haul space tankers in the shipping lanes. When the tankers are on autopilot and the crew in status. No one realises till it docks a month or six later. Most likely an observance jettison gone wrong.'
'They are opening a worm for us.'
'Opening a wormhole to retrieve a piece of space junk?' Errand whistles at the extravagance. 'And they're paying?'
'Yes. Like I said, there is never anything easy about the Mining Corp. You will depart with your team at 05.00hrs. Take a full forensic shuttle, I want nothing left to chance. And I want answers.'
Errand can sense the tension in the Super's manner easing as she hands over the case to him. Now it is his problem. His and his team's.


Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Six Quick Sci-Fi Stories



Simultaneity (a sort of stereo dreaming)

The Double Take

Shut-Eye

Space Zombie Holiday

The Final Vote

The Reality Gap

Six futuristic short stories featuring space travel, multiple universes
alternate states, dystopian societies and space zombie horror.

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 as 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 think 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. Chris glances across at Reg as he mentally tries to calculate the extra weight plant samples could make on the return journey back down if Angelique is unable to guarantee a clear window for a helicopter and starts in surprise. He could have sworn he saw Reg slipping a bottle marked with the hazard pictogram for acute toxicity on it. The distinctive crossbones and skull are unmistakeable, even in the low light under the forest canopy. Reg looks up from his pack, sensing Chris is staring at him.
'Expecting trouble up there?' Chris asks, as casually as he can, one brow raised to try and soften the intense stare of his agate-green eyes.
'What? Oh, this?' Reg retrieves the small bottle of poison from his pack and chucks it over to Chris, who catches it carefully. 'It's basically a weed killer. I don't know why but, perhaps I've heard too many of the local team's stories. Just a precaution. There's something not quite right... an odd feeling to this place. Did you know Nube Tepui is meant to be cursed? There is a local legend that if you make it to the top, you never return.'
'No one has ever made it to the top. It's unconquered, that is the whole point of this expedition!' Chris inspects the small glass bottle with its seal still intact. 'You need to store this with the medical equipment and log it, I don't remember seeing it on your manifest. We need to know exactly what everyone is carrying as we go up the cliff. You get caught in a rock fall and this smashes all over you, you, and anyone helping you, will be dead. This stays at base camp. OK?' Chris waits till Reg nods and then carefully hands the bottle back. He'd check later to make sure Reg logs and secures it properly. It is the first time he has ever seen Reg so rattled by an expedition. The mountain, the remote location, the climb itself would be enough to contend with without local superstitions scaring everyone into dangerous behaviour patterns. Chris tries to lighten the mood, sensing Reg's tense disapproval at being reprimanded by the younger man. 'Anyway, what kind of plants are you expecting us to find up there? Triffids?'
Reg laughs and relaxes the tension from his shoulders. 'No, just heliamphora, pitcher plants, which are carnivorous. There are twenty-three known species, I'm hoping we will add to the number as well as any lichens and mosses I guess you'll be collecting...'
Chris nods as Reg launches into an explanation of the feeding mechanisms of pitcher plants, glad to see his familiar ease return and he makes a mental note to mention to Glenn about the local team's superstitions regarding Nube Tepui.
Reg is right, he will, as usual be collecting lichens and mosses. Lichens are a composite organism, two different things living together in a symbiotic relationship. Normally a fungus and an algae or cyanobacteria. The fungus protects and collects water and nutrients which the algae or cyanobacteria can use and in return, photosynthesise to produce food for the fungus. Lichens are not a plant, but a living organism and there are tens of thousands of them. The reason Midstream is so interested in finding new lichens is for the antibiotic metabolites some produce. New lichens means new metabolites which could in turn be new medicines.
'Well, this is done.' Chris swings his pack onto his shoulder to judge the weight and gives Reg a friendly pat on the back, 'Ill catch up with you later. Need to check the weather report with Angelique, could you store this with the others when you're done?' He places his pack next to Reg's and then wanders over to where Angelique is busy at the field desk.
She waves as he approaches. 'Good news, the weather is looking promising. Possibly a three day window opening up tomorrow evening.'
'A night climb?' Chris perches on the edge of the desk next to her. 'I had hoped to get a clear run at the cliff face. Can we push it till the following dawn?'
'I can only guarantee seventy-two hours, forecasting beyond that is stepping into uncertainty. It looks as thought the weather should hold but...'
'I know, I know, better safe than sorry.' Chris knows Angelique will not commit to more than three days but from the chart he is seeing on her screen the weather could hold for as much as a week.
Glenn is talking loudly over the satellite phone and, judging from the tone, Chris guesses it is to the Professor back in England.
'Yes, we have a window opening up tomorrow and so we will possibly attempt a night climb... yes but a bivouac is possible. No, I think we are all able to minimise any risk, once above the forest canopy the moonlight will help... no I... yes. A helicopter for biological quarantine. I can organise coordinates, it wouldn't have to land. Yes, yes I see. Of course, of course. Yes and I would like to just point out....hello?' But Professor Lacey Whorton-Ffynde has already hung up.
'Great! Looks like she's not going to authorise a night climb. Too risky, not for us but in case we miss any plants!' Glenn shakes his head. It narrows the window on the weather forecast.
'And the helicopter?'
'She'll organise it once we are up there and have something she thinks worth the extra cost, otherwise bag, tag and bring it back down ourselves, as usual.'
Chris shifts from the desk and as Glenn starts to stride towards the mess tent. 'Glenn, could I have a quick word with you?'
'Sure, I'm going to grab a cup of tea. Join me.' Glenn looks at Chris, noticing the concern in his voice. Glenn smiles at Angelique as he passes and shrugs his shoulders. 'Sorry about the helicopter.'
She smiles and shouts after them as they walk off, 'Sorry about your night climb!'

Chapter Two

Midstream Laboratories
Arvin Panchal taps lightly on the limousine window as it pulls up outside the ornate wrought iron gates. The glass rolls down smoothly and he leans towards the small security camera in the entry system and smiles in what he hopes is an engaging way.
'Mr. Panchal, nice to see you Sir. I shall let the house know you are on your way up?'
'No, no let's make it a surprise.' Arvin nods a thank you, a slightest tilt of the head, as the security guard opens the gates and lets his limousine through.

'Arvin, what a pleasure! What brings you out to the Grange?' Lacey calls out as she nimbly runs down the last flight of the Great Oak staircase to greet Arvin as he waits in the Great Hall below. The receptionist smiles as Lacey reaches forward to plant a swift kiss on each cheek. 'We'll be in my office, Loren, could you organise some coffee and hold all calls except from the expedition.'
'And that is why I am here. I wanted to find out exactly how it is going. I want you to know Panacea Progressives is very serious in it's offer.'
'Really Arvin? Business now, it's almost six pm! Late enough for you to stay on for dinner I hope?'
'Well, the thought had crossed my mind.' Arvin slips an arm around her waist and draws her close to him as they reach the privacy of her office, tenderly brushing her hair from her eyes and leaning in for a kiss.
'Arvin, I know you far too well. Enough.' She slips from his grasp. 'I still have work to do, this expedition is important!'
'I know, I'm teasing you. I wanted to see if you have had a chance to even consider the merger proposal. I'm heading out to Paris tonight and it would good to be able bring some news to Head Office.'
'Arvin. Honestly, I'm only concentrating on the expedition at the moment. Your merger proposal is still sitting in my in-tray. I thought you said there was no urgency to the offer?'
'There isn't, I was simply passing and thought I'd see how the expedition is going. I know how much it means to you.' Arvin smiles and moves away from her, prowling around her office like a caged animal as the coffee arrives.
'They're at base camp. The climb will be in a couple of days, weather permitting.'
'Good! Then there is nothing you can do here for two days, come with me to Paris, let me convince you how good this merger could be for your company. Have a little fun for a change, Lacey. I have reservations in all the best restaurants.' Arvin stops pacing and somehow seems to have cornered her against her desk, demanding a reply from her. In fact, he is almost angry, impatient at the amount of time it is taking to woo this woman into letting his company buy her out. Luckily she is as beautiful as she is intelligent and so, wasting his time in running after her is almost a pleasure. He hides his anger under a smile and drifts a finger across the visible bare skin of her clavicle, feeling her shiver slightly to his touch. He kisses her lips, running his hand lightly down over her body and then pulls her to him but before he can continue she pushes him firmly away.
'Arvin. This isn't the time, I really am very busy. I'm sorry you won't be staying for dinner. Perhaps Paris another time, after I've had a chance to go through your proposal but as I have said before, I am keen to make something of Midstream on my own.'
Arvin blinks, recognising he is getting nowhere and in one swift move, retrieves his coffee and drinks it down. 'Then I am wasting your time, I had better go or I will miss my train.' He sweeps to the door before Lacey can protest. 'Good luck with the expedition.'
Lacey sighs as he shuts the door behind him. She is in no mood to be playing the gauche little business woman to his suave corporate swaggering. He must see how transparent his moves are. She smiles ruefully to herself. Perhaps in another time, another place they would meet and be lovers. But the merger is never going to happen, not least of all because she knows it would be a buy-out. Her plans for Midstream, for the Cloud Lily, did not in anyway include Arvin and his company, no matter how beguiling his big, brown eyes.

Base Camp
Chris quietly outlines what had happened with Greg and the poison to Glenn over a mug of tea. 'All kinds of rumours about Nube Tepui are flying round the camp. It will have us all spooked if we are not careful. We can't afford for any accidents or mistakes, this is going to be a difficult climb without everyone taking matters into their own hands.'
'I agree, Chris, I'll address to the whole camp tonight now we have a weather window coming up. Pep talk. Nip all these rumours in the bud. I must admit, it's unlike Greg to be so rattled by ghost stories. At least we'll be climbing in daylight.'
Chris nods, hoping Glenn's pep talk will be enough. 'I'd like to start the climb before dawn with my team. Get as high as we can on the first day, set up a bivouac so the rest of you can get to it. Give us a relay point for getting to the summit. We should be able to sleep up there as long as we can get shelter from rockfalls. Daylight hours will be longer once we are past the forest canopy.'
'Sounds a good plan.' Glenn and Chris start discussing the climb in more detail as the day turns to night and the camp fires start to burn, forcing long shadows into the trees.

Glenn looks around at all the gathered faces in front of him. Some he knows well and would trust with his life, others are new to the team, hired for local knowledge and experience. The undercurrent of tension Chris mentioned earlier is almost palpable in the air. Whatever it is that has made everyone so nervous needs to be exorcised by him, right now, or the mission will be in jeopardy. He clears his throat and raises a hand to get everyone's attention. 'So, thank you! Thank you all for waiting for me to talk tonight. I hope the um... food, is probably the best way to describe it, was edible tonight.' The reference to the reconstituted dried rations raises a few chuckles. 'And I am delighted to be able to confirm we have a suitable weather window opening up the day after tomorrow and so we can get this expedition on the way. We will not be climbing at night and so will camp out on the way up and way back, which will give us a day on the summit. Chris will organise you into teams tomorrow and we will go through the whole expedition plan at 0.900hrs.
Now, I know there are always pre-climb jitters and especially so with this mountain, but I believe it is here to be climbed and that we are here to climb it. We have the best state-of-the art equipment and resources available to us and I trust my team implicitly. And it because we have this trust, because I know we won't take risks, cut corners or shirk our responsibilities to each other. Because, for those of you who are new to to our team, we never leave anyone behind or spare any expense to make it happen.'
Angelique is about to add 'except for a helicopter' but refrains as she glances around at the rest of the team. All of them are drinking in Glenn's words as though a talisman against some unknown evil waiting in the shadows. She sighs and keeps her cynicism to herself.
'Nube Tepui will be our guide. We will monitor her constantly for rockfalls and water run-off. We will listen to her. We will climb her respectfully and, by working as a team with the meticulous professionalism I have come to expect from you, this mission will be a success. So, get a good night's sleep and tomorrow we will start on the final prep. Thank you.'
A spattering of spontaneous applause breaks out as Glenn sits back down next to Angelique. 'Do you think they'll buy it?'
'Buy what?' Glenn asks, massaging insect repellent into his close-cropped hair.
'The whole technology and team spirit bullshit. These people are scared. Scared of the mountain. Scared people don't make for good climbers.'
'A certain amount of respect for the task in hand is required, you know that.'
'Respect for the mountain yes but not fear, Glenn. Not fear.' Angelique leans over and rubs in a spot of cream he has missed on his forehead. 'Fear makes animals stampede and humans run away.'





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

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