THE WHISPER OF DISKS


by


John Meaney




Oxford, 2102
So this is the city: millennium-old spires encased in clear ice, enwrapped by winter's gloom. There, the Bodleian Library, its elegant domed Radcliffe Camera gleaming beneath a transparent shell; there, the Ashmolean's stately grandeur, white snow banked at the stone columns' feet. The streets form ice-chasms where occasional bug-cars slide through softly falling flakes, navigating the whiteout by radar.
       I should never have left. Or never returned.
       Augusta's vantage point is high: a curlicued smartglass tower, the ellipsoid hotel complex sitting at its apex. She is in the most expensive suite, with floor-to-ceiling convex windows. In the glass, her reflection, like a saddened ghost, overlays the ice-bound, moribund city.
       Her long white hair is bound with platinum wire. Her shining pale-blue gown is high-collared – it keeps her warm – and falls in long straight elegant lines. Straight-backed, she stands, though her left hand holds a slender cane.
       Unseen, within the formal garments, a slender exoskeleton provides the real support for her tired, narrow, pain-wracked body.
       You've been here longer than I, she tells the ice-locked buildings silently. But we're both near the end.
       She might have spoken aloud, save for the small silver sphere which floats above her right shoulder: her official biographer.
       I've outlived my enemies. But that's no excuse for relaxing vigilance.
       Instead, she snaps her fingers, places a call to her lawyers. Instantly – despite the fact that it is 4 a.m. in California – her chief legal officer comes on line. The head-and-shoulders image in the holovolume is system-generated (she can tell the difference), but then she has probably woken him up.
       Everything is different.
       Outside, dull winter presses against the window. Since global warming finally tipped the North Atlantic convection cell, English winters are an Arctic hell. And she has grown to hate the cold; she should have stayed in California.
       "I've decided. I'm going into space." She speaks with utter finality. "I want to see, in person. To be there when the flight takes place."
       "But—" The lawyer stops, then: "Yes, ma'am. I'll confirm the arrangements now. Oh, and Happy B—"
       "Good. Augusta out."
       No one dares to call me Gus anymore.
       But that is the least measure of her success – if it is success. For she has outlived her friends, as well as her enemies. With a lonely decade, maybe two, ahead of her... if she strictly follows her medics' conservative, over-protective regimen.
       Her name is Augusta Medora de Lauron (the surname from her seventh husband, which she has kept because she likes it), her personal wealth exceeds anything she ever dreamed of, and today is her one hundred and thirteenth birthday.

Oxford, 1997
When she was eight years old, she told her mother that her real name was Gus.
       "Augusta sounds silly," she announced with great solemnity. "And I'm not silly."
       She waved a spoon as if for emphasis. Dessert was a banana mashed up with a little milk – some sugar sprinkled on top, for the extra calories – and it was a favourite.
       "Does Augusta sound silly?"
       Her mother – she still remembers this, a hundred and five years later, with a brightness and clarity denied more recent events – turned and stared out of the small, grimy kitchen window. Outside, the darkness of a cold winter's evening. Mother's face was lined, though she could not have been more than thirty, and she was very thin.
       "You know" – she turned to face her child, sitting at the cracked formica-topped table (an unforgettable egg-yolk yellow) – "I do believe you're right, Gus."
       Gus's face dimpled in a smile.
       When she had finished her mashed banana, she slid from the chair, and went to fetch her duffel coat while Mother washed up dishes in the big cracked sink. By the time Mother was ready to leave, Gus was already standing by the front door (whose paint was flaking, revealing silver-grey weathered wood: significant in retrospect, natural at the time), her duffel coat buttoned all the way up, her Buzz Lightyear satchel stuffed with books.
       "You're a good girl, Gus."
       "You're a good woman, Mum."
       Mother bent down and they touched foreheads: their own private gesture which they had performed for as long as Gus could remember.
       "Come along, pumpkin."
       Gus sighed, but it was a kind of joke: she liked being called pumpkin, and she always had. Even though she was getting a little old for pet names.

Outside, the streets were cold. Gus walked with her hand in Mother's, hurrying a little as the bus stop came into sight.
       There they waited, beneath the sodium-vapour streetlamp, in front of an old council house whose patchy hedge, black beneath the glowing orange light, scarcely concealed the tiny front garden, the discarded bath and broken parts of rusty lawnmower strewn across it. Finally the bus came, only ten minutes late; its pneumatic door wheezed open and Gus and Mother climbed inside.
       On her lap, Mother clutched the Safeway carrier bag she referred to as her 'executive briefcase'. Sometimes she would close her eyes, lightly dozing, though tonight she was not so tired.
       Gus counted stops, keeping track of the route – "We're on the ring road now, Mummy" – as the bus circled the north of Oxford, and turned off into the small science park where Mother worked. They got off at the usual stop, and walked through the dark, empty car park (which in later years Gus would think of as a parking lot) to the locked entrance.
       Why is it always empty, Mum? she had once asked. Because the important people, Mother replied, have all gone home.
       Inside the lobby, it was her favourite security guard – Uncle Eric with the big grey moustache – who signed them in. Her second-favourite was Big Fredo, who talked to Mother in Italian, which Gus did not understand, though she loved to listen to the flowing lyrical words.
       Are we important? she had asked her mother.
       After a pause, Oh, yes, Mother had replied. You, pumpkin, are the most important person of all. That's why they leave the office building empty, just for you.
       "Hey, Louisa," said Eric. "Good to know the real workers have arrived."
       "I guess so. How's Esther?"
       "Just the same." A slow shake of the head. "Just the same."
       "See you later, then."
       "I'll be here." Just as he always said: "Same old same old."
       Mother hung up her threadbare anorak, took the freshly laundered light-blue work-coat from her carrier-bag, and pulled it on. From the cupboard, she dragged out the big old vacuum cleaner, set the mop and bucket aside for later.
       "Come along, pumpkin. Let's get set up."

The wide, gleaming machine room was her domain. Machine room. Gus had learned the name from one of the late-night computer operators, who used to chat with her before the night-shift had been cancelled. (Because they finally automated the overnight run, the woman said morosely. Even the back-up routine.)
       The place was clean, always cool, with a crispness to the conditioned air which Gus could almost taste. Sometimes she stuck out her tongue – when there was no adult to see – and tried to lick the dust-free atmosphere itself.
       The big desktop shone an eerie white beneath strong fluorescent light. All around stood row upon row of pale-grey and matte-black rectangular boxes: the Computers (the capital was obvious, whenever Mother talked about them) which kept the business going.
       Gus had learned to program in Logo when she was six years old, on the cracked BBC Acorn at the back of her form-room in school, on a decades-old table bearing the scratched initials of long-forgotten pupils.
       By this time, aged eight, she knew the difference between program and data, between processor and disk. Gus was aware that the boxes discreetly labelled System/38 (that was an old one, battered by now), AS/400 and RS/6000 were processor units; the majority of the rest were disk drives. Row upon row of them, like tall refrigerators, stacked inside with spinning disks.
       Once, one of the other cleaning ladies who worked with Mother had unplugged a disk drive – so she could plug in her vacuum cleaner – and the next night the cleaners' supervisor had arrived and taken her off to one side ("For a quiet word," he claimed). The woman left in tears; neither Gus nor Mother saw her again.
       Since then, the cleaners had been under strict instructions never, under any circumstances, to venture inside the machine room where the Computers (with a capital C) were kept. But no one had ever changed the lock-code – X and Y together, then 3-2-Z, before turning the dull steel knob in what felt like the wrong direction – so Mother had found the best place of all to keep Gus safe while she worked.
       "Get out your books, pumpkin."
       "Okay, Mum," she said as always. "I'll be good."
       And then she was alone.
       It was true that she read the books. And that they were a mixture of titles, from War and Peace to G.A. Dickinson's Algebraic Secrets, which were too advanced for an eight year old, though her mother only half-realised this.
       But often Gus would slip down from the operator's swivel chair, leaving her open books before the consoles, and simply sit cross-legged on the floor-tiles, staring at the rows and rows of black and grey boxes. And listening.
       For at night, disks whisper their secrets to those with ears to hear.
       Susurration. A breathing, a soft chaotic overlay of nearly-words, of almost-conversation, as if she eavesdropped upon a salon-full of ghosts from centuries gone by: with everything to gossip of, but no breath to speak.
       Sometimes, they moan.
       But mostly the indeterminate sounds formed overlapping whispers from beyond, whose words would never coalesce into meaning, yet whose message would haunt Gus-who-grew-into-Augusta forever.

Ashley Combe, 1843
Upon the wall, a gaslight hisses, incandescent. Ada lies back upon the chaise-longue, dabbing a dampened cloth on her too-pale forehead. On the dainty table beside her lies a small pile of notes scribbled in black ink, with loops and scrawls surrounding the strange equations, and scraps of verse – forbidden verse! – in her scratchy handwriting.
       And, on one of those sheets, something new: an ink-drawn table with numbered, imperative steps of logic. Slow, for a person to work through those iterative commands: yet in her mind, burning with fever, it is Babbage's gleaming Engine which is alive with the pseudo-thoughts she has created; it is polished cogs and shining rods which click and spin more surely than too-weak mortal flesh, undermined by moral frailty or feminine weakness.
       The Pattern beneath the world...
       Is she mad? Can she, a mere woman, be the first to have deduced the true possibilities of Babbage's calculating engines? Can she, for all her disadvantages, her cursed beginnings, truly perceive the power of mechanical minds?
       For she has written the devil's code, logical steps which will execute within the power-realm of brass and steel, in stately sequence as exact and elegant as an evening's program at a debutante's ball.
       "But I am the Silver Lady..." Her whispered voice trembles.
       For the laudanum's magic is upon her.
       In her vision, she herself is Babbage's automaton: the scandalous Silver Lady with which he entertains his rich and famous guests. That Silver Lady of which 'Lady M' complained in an open public letter: an artificial woman whose garments were too diaphanous for polite society. But in Ada's dreams, it is she who is semi-clothed, with Babbage's rough hands upon her.
       O, my father! It is your Dark Nature which calls to me...
       For all that her mother tried to whip the influence from Ada, Lord Byron's spirit is within her core, tempted by all that is lascivious and compelling.

Then a voice penetrates the heavy dream – "O, my beloved Beauty" – and for a moment she thinks it is William, her too-tame ingenuous husband. But no, he is away in London; it is her dear friend, John Crosse, who takes her hand and presses it to his lips.
       "Sweet, my prince..."
       His hands are within her garments.
       But her mind's eyes is filled with other sights: coils and bubbling vessels, the strange electromagnetic experiments of Crosse and Faraday, the very real mysteries they have explored. And this man, in whose arms she moans, is the son of Faust: for his father Andrew has generated life from electricity. Society is ablaze with the news. After leaving his electrolytic apparatus bubbling for three weeks, he has found tiny animalcules on one of the electrodes. Life, from base inanimate matter.
       And Faraday, her other hero in this scientific age, has Ada's portrait hanging prominently on his wall. Does she inspire him, even as his rough-hewn manner and sparkling intellect fire her imagination?
       Inside, she burns.
       Crosse moves upon her – "My darling, my Queen of Engines, Enchantress of Numbers" – repeating the title which Babbage gave her, and has now become their own.
       She cries out with pleasure, not caring if the servants overhear.
       "My good Doctor, creator of Life, bearer of Fire—"
       A dark-blue glass bottle, lying on its side upon the rug, has become unstoppered. Precious drops of liquid escape, evaporate. Their heady vapour incenses the wild, drugged atmosphere which already pervades the drawing-room.
       The Pattern...
       Yet there is unease beneath her happy, chaotic delirium, as though Ada already senses the new life quickening inside her.
       But she is captivated by logical symbols, drawn in fire within her mind, enraptured by the notion that she – Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, eternally cursed daughter of mad, bad, dangerous-to-know Lord Byron (whose incestuous liaison with his own sister Augusta, after whom Ada in all innocence was christened, is the scandal which drove him finally from England) – has been vouchsafed a vision both divine and mad, of gleaming polished power beyond the strict confining world, and she cries out as she pulls her scientific lover to her sinful bosom once more.

Oxford, 1998
At the age of nine, Gus was still too young to travel to the library by herself – "Not in these godforsaken days," as Mrs Arrowsmith who lived next door would say – although, once they were there, Mother would let Gus roam among the bookshelves without supervision.
       Sometimes, if Mother was very tired, they would walk from home out to the Park & Ride car park, where they could pretend they had left their car (the one they didn't own, that didn't exist) so that they could ride the bus for free. (Was there some kind of ticket Mother should have shown? Gus would wonder later, when she was older, whether there had been a particular, charitable driver.) Most times, though, they caught the normal bus or simply walked.
       Once in the library, Mother would stay in the reading-room, among the reference books and periodicals, and sit drowsing in the warm surroundings.
       One October night, she regarded the pale fog thickening outside the windows – it was 4 p.m. on a Saturday, and she was not working tonight: there was no place to go – and thought about home, of sun-drenched hills and the clamour of noisy, cheerful neighbours, and wondered again why she had ever come to this cold country.
       In front of her, this week's New Scientist was open. She flicked through it, barely understanding what she read. Sometimes she tried to read Nature, a real scientific journal which the library dutifully stocked. None of it made sense, and yet if she half-drowsed, a strangely relaxing sensation of wonder settled over her like a blanket.
       This night, she craned her head to catch sight of her daughter – there, lost in a world of her own, wandering among books. Gus would pick enough to fill the limit on both their library cards.
       If only I had more time—
       But the Catherine Cookson would do her, Louisa, for a few weeks. She barely had the energy to read a page or two, last thing at night, before turning out the light and sliding into sleep in her narrow, lonely bed.

Sometimes, Louisa glanced over the titles which Gus had picked. Once, she had tried to read a book by someone called George Eliot – knowing that the writer had been a woman, writing when only men could call professions their own – but the convoluted nineteenth century English was difficult. There was a man in the story who was talented and successful, but eventually strayed in society as he was overtaken by irrational desires for a Jewess, finally taking the socially disastrous step of converting to her religion. But, it turned out, the man's mother (though she had appeared 'true English') had been a Jewish actress, and the burning desires were his blood's true nature coming out—
       She had thrown the hideous book aside, disturbed for more reasons than she could name, and considered hiding the book where Gus could not read it. But then, Gus was sensible enough not to be swayed by the half-rationalised bigotry of another century. There were Italian novels, and some Spanish ones – easy enough to read – but Louisa steered clear of them. They stirred thoughts of the home she had left fifteen years ago, and could never return to.
       She would stick to her Catherine Cooksons and her Danielle Steels, written in English she could understand, and forget the rest.
       I'm so tired—
       Then someone was shaking her shoulder.
       "Time to go home," the young man said, kindly. "Your little girl's waiting."
       And his concerned thoughts were obvious: You should eat more, too.

In the reading-room's doorway, Gus was standing with her arms full of books. She grinned at her mother, showing the gap in the front where two neighbouring milk teeth had dropped out within days of each other.
       "Sorry." Rubbing her eyes, she smiled at Gus. "Got your books, pumpkin?"
       "Yes, Mummy."
       She took the books from Gus's arms and carried them to the counter, where the librarian could scan them through.
       "Hmm. Abbott's Flatland." He stamped the due-date inside. "Not bad. But I don't know this Pickover chap. Surfing through Hyperspace. Is that good?"
       He looked up at Louisa, but it was Gus who answered:
       "It's not bad. I like the stories."
       Since it was a non-fiction book, the librarian chuckled, and winked at Louisa as though they were sharing a joke. But there were stories inside, as well as strange science; Louisa had looked over Gus's shoulder the last time she had borrowed the book.
       "Come on, pumpkin. Time to go home."
       The young librarian watched them as they left.

Later, on the bus ride home, Gus tugged at Mother's sleeve and said: "Why don't you marry him?"
       Mother's face froze.
       "I'm sorry?"
       Gus knew the one topic she could never ask – would never get an answer on – was the subject of her father. But this was different.
       "The man at the library. He likes you."
       For a moment, Mother was speechless. Then she shook her head, smiling sadly.
       "Oh, no, Gus. I'm not good enough for him."
       "But Mummy, you're—"
       "No, I'm not." Silence, then: "But you... You're the most important person in the world, little pumpkin."
       And Gus, with a child's intuition, kept silent for the rest of the journey. She was tempted to open one of her story books – there was an old one with a bright yellow cover, Time is the Simplest Thing, and she'd read the first two pages inside the library, with the pink telepathic alien blob, and saw immediately that it was brilliant – but she knew from experience that trying to read inside a moving bus would make her sick.
       And the waiting, she knew, would make the story even better.

Over the next year, Mother would occasionally smile and nod to the nice man at the library, but they would never get into a real conversation. And then, one Saturday, there was no sign of him. Neither Gus nor Mother ever saw the man again.
       Eleven years later, when she was twenty, Gus would finally discover her birth certificate – born in 1989 in St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, London – with her mother's name written in the appropriate spot: Louisa Annebella Calzonni. And, in the space for the father's name, nothing.
       Nothing at all.
       And decades after that, when she had become one of the richest women in the world, she would hire private detectives, and even ask favours of official investigative agencies, including Interpol, to find out something of her origins.
       One enterprising team would eventually find the grave of a couple named Calzonni, whose daughter Louisa had disappeared in 1987, in a small village on the outskirts of Turin. But in whose company Louisa had disappeared, or whom she had travelled to meet, no one would ever discover.
       Of her earlier ancestors, Gus would learn nothing.

London, 1844
Grey fog blankets the boulevard which is Pall Mall, causing the gas-lamps – the lamplighter is still on his rounds, can just be seen far down the street, at his work – to hiss in the damp, heavy air. The buildings are grand, doors fronted by columns in the neo-classical style: white-painted or pale grey, eerie in the fogbound night.
       There is a Peeler on duty, on the other side of the wide avenue, his tall rounded helmet lending him the appearance of a toy wooden soldier. But the long truncheon tucked in his leather belt, and the whistle for summoning help, are real enough.
       The anonymous man, Ada's messenger, half-hidden in a doorway and overly conscious of the pistol in his tweed coat's pocket, stands very still.
       Mistress... This is for my Countess.
       Ada engenders such extreme reactions, in her servants as well as her peers: a total, smitten adoration; or a fearful loathing, as though her dark spiritual curse may be infectious.
       Just wait...
       And, eventually, there is the clop of hooves: a disreputable-looking horse and cart passing through, heading towards Trafalgar Square. The policeman leaves his post to investigate.
       Now.
       Ada's messenger, his face muffled against the fog and his hat pulled low, moves quickly but noiselessly across the cobblestones, and into the entranceway of the Aetheneum Club. Ignoring the shining brass knocker, he taps softly. After a long, tense moment, the big panelled door swings open.
       The footman nods in recognition, and leads the messenger inside. In the messenger's left hand is an envelope addressed to F. Prandi Esq; he holds it up for the footman to see. A discreet cough, then another manservant gestures, and leads the messenger along a marble-tiled corridor, to a quiet gentlemen's snug at the rear.
       A knock, and the door is opened from within.
       "Ah, my friend." A rotund man beams. His Italian accent, when he speaks, is scarcely detectable. "Come in. Sit down."
       There is a reek of old cigarillos in the room, although no one is smoking at present. Books line the walls, and copies of Bentley's Miscellany litter two small tables. A globe stands in one corner, beside a heavy, dark-green ceiling-to-floor drape.
       "I am reading the most excellent serial" – the round-faced Italian's smile flashes beneath his dark moustache – "by your wonderful Mr Dickens. Whom I gather" – lowering his voice – "your esteemed mistress personally knows."
       The messenger's expression is stoic. His reply, when he makes it, carries the unmistakable burr of the Scottish Highlands.
       "That I cannot say, sir."
       "And what can you say?" Irritation prickles Signor Prandi's voice. "What, pray, is that in your hand?"
       "A letter, sir. Addressed to you."
       The messenger hands it over quickly, before the Italian can snatch it, or make disparaging comments about his mistress.
       "Hmm..." Tearing open the seal, Prandi flicks a glance over it. "Not signed, I notice."
       "She... Since the matter of the Royal Mail, sir..."
       The Italian's private letters have been intercepted in the past: an absolute scandal to the British public who had assumed their personal correspondence was sacrosanct. But then, Signor Prandi is a known spy, and a foreigner.
       "Don't worry." Reading the note more carefully, he adds: "Do you know anything of this favour she wishes me to grant?"
       A pause, then:
       "No, sir. I do not."
       But that hesitation told its own story. There is a flash of gold, as Prandi hands over two sovereigns. The messenger gulps, then secrets the coins in his waistcoat's watch-pocket.
       "I only... The bairn'll need a wet-nurse, sir, if it is to survive."
       "A child ? Ah, I see. Very good, my friend."
       "Sir."
       The messenger gives a stiff nod, then leaves the small snug, closing the door behind him.

After a decent interval, to make sure the messenger has left the club, Fortunato Prandi sits back in his overstuffed armchair, and uses the silver point of his cane to ruffle the green drape at the small room's rear.
       "You can come out now, Aldo."
       "Thank you." The drape is pulled aside, and a lean-faced man steps into the room. "This message... It's from the countess?"
       "The very one." Prandi taps his teeth with the envelope's edge. "And I wonder what kind of trouble she's in now."
       But they both heard the messenger's comment: there's a newborn child involved. The Countess of Lovelace has been touched by too many scandals in the past; one more would be disastrous.
       "The countess knows" – Aldo Guillermi's face is tightly drawn: his long hair and wide shoulders bespeak an athlete's grace, but his body is fairly vibrating with tension – "of my sister's misfortune."
       How else would anyone associate an Italian spy with a wet-nurse? For Guillermi's sister Maria, so young and beautiful, has but recently lost her firstborn to a raging fever no English doctor could identify, no apothecary could cure.
       "We spoke," says Prandi, still in English, "in general terms, no more. The countess knows of your sister's plight, but not her identity."
       "That is good."
       For a moment, as the two men face each other, it is not certain where the power in this room really resides. Then Prandi's glance slides away. Though he is nominally senior in the republican movement, his forte is solo, diplomatic espionage: moving among the drawing-rooms of the rich and the good, gleaning gossip, recruiting admirers. It is Aldo Guillermi who is the soldier, used to bearing the responsibility of command.
       "Mazzini," he says, "has mixed feelings about the current furore ."
       Guillermi pronounces the last word in the Italian way.
       "The republican cause" – Prandi shakes his head – "can only benefit."
       Both Mazzini, the true figurehead, and Prandi are in exile: the public face of agitation. Prandi's work as a spy has been both hindered and helped by his now-public identity. Mazzini proved, to most intelligent readers' satisfaction, that the British Government caused their personal letters – his and Prandi's – to be opened by the supposedly untouchable Royal Mail.
       Hence this handwritten note from Ada, which reads:
       Dear Prandi. I have a more important service to ask of you, which only you can perform... and goes on to arrange a rendezvous, without specifying the new favour's nature. Ada identifies herself anonymously, thus: I am the person you went with to hear Jenny Lind sing. I expect you at 6—
       "Your mother," adds Prandi, as Guillermi finishes reading the unsigned note, "has raised more funds for the cause."
       "It will be good to see her again."
       Guillermi's mother is French, and France has been home to many for whom Italy is too hot a place to be in these troubled days. More than anything, Guillermi wants to remove his sister from this cold benighted country.
       "Since Maria lost the child" – his gaze turns bleak – "I have feared for her sanity. And since her husband Higgs seems lost at sea..."
       "She had best set sail for southern France, where your mother can take care of her."
       "Yes." Guillermi's hand goes to his hip as though to rest upon a sword-hilt which is not there. "That would be best."
       "And the Countess, it seems, needs a newborn child to disappear."
       Guillermi looks at Prandi. The overweight spy looks unduly pleased with himself.
       "How can you be so certain? There might be another explanation."
       "Ah, my friend. It is not the first time" – with a flashing grin – "I have caused a member of her family to vanish."

Oxford, 2001
Gus was twelve in the December when she took home that end-of-term report card: the last report before everything changed.
       A withdrawn child, the summary read, who needs to interact more with other children. It was the kind of report which Louisa had come to expect.
       But there were one or two puzzled hints from other teachers, including Mr Brownspell who taught physics: Produces occasional flashes of surprising intuition, when she succeeds in engaging with the class at all.
       When the English teacher, Mrs Holwell, set an essay assignment on Inevitability in Daniel Deronda, a novel the class had just read – by chance, the same Eliot book which Gus had borrowed, and her mother had tried to finish, several years before – Gus's reply was a long and flowing indictment of genetic determinism: eloquent and reasoned enough for suspicions of plagiarism to spring up in every adult who read it.
       Worse, the essay contained equations and conceptual diagrams – of interconnected springs – forming a mathematical model of the interdependence of genes, and their developmental motion through a phase-space of genetic possibilities. It replicated some of Kaufman's work (which she could not have seen) from the Santa Fe Institute – which is the nearest, she said in the essay, we get to predetermined lives, and it's not close at all – and demonstrated the existence of broad constraints on the otherwise random, unimpeded arms-race of coevolving replicators.
       "I got the idea," she told Mrs Holwell, "from the Faraday lectures. On the telly."
       The English teacher, who had never heard of Richard Dawkins, was unimpressed. But she was sufficiently annoyed to show Gus's exercise book, during a break in the staff-room, to Mr Brownspell. And he was astute enough to be amazed by what he read.
       "You watched Dawkins," he said to Gus later. "When you were how old?"
       "I was young." The twelve year old, with a solemn expression, shook her head. "But I remembered it."
       "Mm. I don't think—"
       "He's real, you know. I saw him in town last week."
       "Quite." Brownspell was bemused. "He works here, doesn't he? In the university."
       It was the first time Gus realised that Oxford could be a special place.

Perhaps the fuss would have died down, kept Gus's life more normal, if this had not been an inspection week. But Alex Duggen was the inspector, and he was a young man who was overly sensitive to the annoyance he was causing to already overworked teachers. Across the country, politically motivated or well-intentioned curriculum changes (depending on who you talked to) meant that teachers were putting in long unpaid hours to prepare internal reports as well as lesson material; the feeling was of rampant bureaucracy gone mad.
       And Duggen, who had not so long ago been an idealistic neophyte teacher himself, welcomed any excuse to get involved with an issue which did not revolve around paperwork or failed administration. A problem child, or one of exceptional promise – in this case of suspected plagiarism, it could be either – would form a welcome break from a routine he was beginning to hate.
       He interviewed Gus in the art room, keeping her back 'for a small chat' after the others had left for morning break.
       Afterwards, with a strange delight in his eyes, he showed his – or rather Gus's – trophies in the staff-room: geometric models formed of plasticine and bright plastic cocktail sticks.
       "A hypercube." Brownspell recognised one of the forms. "But what's this one?"
       "She's read about tesseracts. Then extended the notion, all by herself " – Duggen blinked – "to hypertetrahedra and hyperpentahedra."
       "Well." Brownspell slowly smiled. "What are we going to do with her?"
       "Hmm? Indeed." Duggen's answering smile grew wide. "Did you know Dawkins is giving a public lecture tomorrow night? In the Zoology Institute."
       "Perhaps" – Brownspell glanced over at Jenny Mensch, who taught French – "a couple of us could take her there."
       "What about Gus's parents? What do you know about them?"
       "A single mother. Works two, maybe three cleaning jobs."
       "Ah." Duggen thought about the child's indictment of genetic determinism. "How very interesting."
       E.O. Wilson showed powerful forces, the twelve year old Gus had written, moving every species. But we are human beings and our lives are more interesting than ants.
       "Gus's mother is devoted to her. You can tell just by the way she looks at her."
       "That's very good."
       "You think we ought to have a word with her?"
       "Yes... Yes, I think we should."

London, 1844
Ada, Countess of Lovelace, stares at the orange crackling fire, at the sheet of paper burning, becoming ash which leaps upwards, falls back. Outside the window, darkness has settled on fog-bound St James' Square.
       "Madam?" A discreet cough. "Are you indisposed?"
       "Not according to the good Doctor Locock," she answers.
       "I will let our guests know," says William, "that you will be along shortly."
       "Please do, sir."
       Her husband William, Lord King, 1st Earl of Lovelace, nods politely.
       What have I done?
       She sees her husband's real concern, and wishes that she could have been true to him, not given to the dark, wild, reckless passions she has inherited from her genius father. During her entire childhood, her stern unforgiving mother, Annabella, kept Ada forcibly away from the tempestuous Byronic verses: drove her relentlessly down this other path, of cold logic and objective mathematics.
       Except that equations burn inside Ada, as insanely bright as any visions the Deity (or Lucifer) heaped upon her mad, bad father, whose bones now lie safely interred in the family vault.
       O, my son. What have I done?
       But there is no room in society for the child she has delivered. The other three – legitimate, everyone assumes – are well loved. She cannot allow herself to believe that their father was any other than her husband, the well-meaning William. His house gives her freedom from her repressive mother: the liberty she has always longed for.
       Last month she gave birth, without her husband's knowledge.
       It is an illness which causes her wild weight fluctuations, and that malady has allowed her to hide the pregnancy. Inspired by a penny dreadful, a cheaply sensational novel in which a woman had not realised she was en ceinte until the baby put in his appearance, Ada has kept the secret.
       Too, it is because of her insane cycles of extreme weight gain followed by catastrophic loss, that William has chosen not to be intimate with her, his wife, for over a year. By the will of Providence, they have spent much of that time living in separate houses.
       Now, one way or another, the child must disappear.

Ada has a wild scheme in her head for financing the child's life. A gambling syndicate, using the power of her logic and Mr Babbage's Difference Engine, seeded with money from William. She has always been able to persuade him: by her forcefulness, by his genuine love for her. And she will need William's written permission to gamble in society, since a woman owns little of her own and it is the husband, always, who owns debts incurred by his family, as surely as he holds title to the capital he has inherited, to the monies earned from his own hard labours.
       "You'll join us shortly, madam?"
       "Oh, yes, dearest William." She sips from her claret. "That I will."
       Her doctor no longer prescribes laudanum. Ada's current medication is a strict regime of hot baths and small doses of claret, taken constantly throughout the day. It appears to be efficacious.
       In the flames which curl and lick inside the fireplace, this is the vision she sees: two scurrying figures in the nightbound dockyards, with a small well-wrapped bundle in their arms. Sometimes the baby cries, sometimes it is silent; either way, misery surrounds it as surely as the cold damp fog settles on the city she is growing to hate.

Oxford, 2004
Bright lights, white walls, and the gabble of cheerful, energetic voices.
       Gus picked at her tub of Ben & Jerry's 'One Sweet Whirled', intent more on the bright babble of ice cream bar conversation surrounding her than the dessert itself. The other students were so much older – eighteen, even twenty – that she had reverted to her quiet ways. Around the various colleges, three or four other undergraduates were very young; one of them, like Gus, was only fourteen.
       The others had been featured in their local newspapers or even the national press; their parents seemed to be teachers or chairmen of small but successful software outfits. Perhaps parental pressure drove them to achieve. For Gus, at home, this was not a factor; she knew only that her mother loved her.
       Here, on wall-boards, a cacophony of brightly coloured notices announced plays, books for sale, a demonstration against world debt (which, on closer examination, had already taken place), used PCs for sale. A small yellow sheet caught her eye: JDK, she thought it read, before realizing her mistake – in fact it was a demonstration of something called JKD. Hardly interesting.
       It was five years since Gus had logged on to www.java.sun.com and downloaded the basic Java Development Kit (already an outmoded name, but serious coders mostly still called it the JDK, rather than SDK) onto her school's battered old PC. And taught herself real programming.
       At her table, the talk had moved from sex to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason; to Professor Schama's thesis that women were the driving force behind cultural change in nineteenth century England (even before they achieved suffrage); to the post-acid house latin revival in general and El Phase-Transition's lead singer, N. Rapt, in particular; and back to sex.
       Gus stared around the packed ice cream bar, feeling out of place.
       "Excuse me," she said to no one in particular, and slipped away from her seat.
       She passed the notice board, scanned the yellow sheet announcing a JKD demonstration – some kind of kung fu: nothing at all to do with programming; you had to laugh – and pressed her way through to the exit.
       Outside, on Little Trendy Street, she turned left, tucked her hands into her pockets, and began to walk. (A towny or a tourist would have called the narrow road Little Clarendon Street, unaware of the separate, insiders' geographical nomenclature known only to students and faculty.) The street, by whichever name, was dark and touched by mist. Gus shivered.
       "—some change, please?"
       A small youth, scarcely bigger than Gus, was sitting on a blanket in a doorway, with a black retriever curled up on his lap.
       "Sure." Gus had very little money – now, or any time – but perhaps that sharpened her senses in some way. She knew real, desperate poverty when she saw it.
       She handed over some coins.
       "Thanks, miss."
       "No problem." She liked the American sound of that: like something from the movies. "Take it easy."
       She walked on.
       Something...
       Usually, this close to the city centre, the streets were safe. But there was a rustle as she passed the bushes by Wellington Square, and she stopped. Her skin prickled—
       Then a heavy hand grabbed her sleeve.
       "Hey, chickie. Should we be out after dark?"
       Stink of breath, close to her. Gus choked.
       And another voice, slimy, behind her: "Gimme, now!"
       Help me!
       Fear paralysed Gus's throat, her mouth wide but silent, like a dying fish. Her mind would not process what was happening as big shapes manhandled her. Gus was utterly helpless.
       I don't want to...
       "Hey!" An echoing voice.
       Sound of a dog, barking.
       "Teasing bitch..."
       Impact on her face. Spurt of warm blood in mouth.
       Then they were gone, vanished into the thickening fog, while she sat back, stunned, on cold paving-stones. Beside Gus, the young homeless man squatted, careful not to touch her.
       "Are you all right?"
       His dog growled at the departed muggers once more, then looked at Gus, stopped, swallowed wetly, then licked her face.

London, 1844
St Catherine's Dock is dark. Two figures hurry across the cobblestones: Aldo Guillermi, muffled against the cold, carrying a cane which he is careful not to tap against the ground, and his sister, Maria. The baby, wrapped in her shawl, is silent.
       "Aldo, we will be late. If it sails, what of our baggage?"
       "Hush. They won't throw it off."
       "But..."
       "It sails, and we sail on board."
       But their voices carry, and dark figures step from the shadows behind a pile of netting and crates. There are three of them, big and burly, with short heavy jackets over their tunics, and heavy belaying-pins in their hands.
       "Well, mates." The first one spits a long stream of something dark onto the dockyard stones. "We've found a new friend, looks like."
       "No." Guillermi raises his empty left hand, placating. "Sirs, I cannot. We're about to sail."
       "'At's what I said, innit?"
       Press-gang? Or worse?
       "I'm sorry." Guillermi adjusts his grip on the walking-cane. "I don't understand. Could you repeat that, please?"
       "You deaf, or what? I said—"
       The cane whips down and up, in an instant: downwards, across the leader's right hand, then uses the rebound to arc backhand across the man's face. His belaying-pin clatters on the cobblestones.
       "Maria, go... "
       They are almost upon him, but Guillermi sidesteps, leading them away from his sister.
       "Get 'im."
       A fencing-lunge, and he stabs the cane's point into a second attacker's throat, followed with a savate side-kick into the lower ribs. The man doubles up, but his mate has already seized Guillermi's arms from behind, the grip unbreakable.
       Strike like lightning...
       Guillermi snaps his head backwards, feels the crunch of broken nose against the back of his skull. Stamps downwards, arcs his elbow back – impact – and spins away.
       ...and roar like thunder.
       Charlemont's never-forgotten words, as he drove his students to fight, scream now in Guillermi's brain.
       "Yaaah!"
       His warrior-yell startles all three attackers. A circular fouetté, a whipping kick into a thigh muscle, and the first is down, leg paralysed. Guillermi spins to one side – half-heard: "I've got 'im" – then his heel takes another in the throat, quicker than thought, in a beautiful revers. Then an arcing series of la canne strikes drops the leader.
       All three men are down.
       A civilized man would stop now, but a soldier knows better. If his attackers have other weapons, this is the moment when they will use them. So Guillermi – as has been drilled into him – does not stop, but whirls and stamps onto ribs, onto heads, whips the cane downwards again and again, until the threat is gone.

He began training in le savate with spoiled young gentlemen, in a somewhat effete salon, during his Sorbonne days. But he moved on to study with the huge powerful champion Charlemont, who regularly lifted small cannon barrels overhead, and whose instruction was practical and deadly. In later years, Guillermi practiced in the sun-drenched south, in the dockyard style of rough Marseilles, where sporting rules have never applied.
       One of his attackers is curled up on his side, hands around his damaged knees, mewling, with a long wicked knife beside him. Guillermi kicks the blade across damp cobbles, out of reach. Another man lies still, softly snoring as though asleep. The third...
       Moves!
       Guillermi leaps back, startled by a flash of light – blade – and then a crack of sound. And the man slumps once more upon the cold dockyard cobblestones.
       "Maria! Are you all right?"
       Like a marionette with severed strings, the corpse lies with twisted neck, a pool of dark liquid expanding beneath its lifeless head.
       "Yes, my brother." Blue steel glints in her hand, beneath the baby's form. "Let's go."
       Her voice is very calm, as she slips the dark, six-inch derringer pistol out of sight. It is a muzzle-loaded 1807 Deringer Phila, blued steel inset in polished wood: a percussion cap pocket gun which requires a steady hand and careful aiming. Guillermi is impressed.
       Some good will come of this.
       It is a strange thought for a protective brother to have. Yet Maria's hysteria is suddenly gone, along with the dark depression of recent days: replaced by a quiet determination. And somehow her renewed spirit has kept the baby – the newborn boy she must protect – from crying.
       "Yes. Three days," he tells her, "and we'll see Maman once more."

Oxford, 2006
There was a lecture to commemorate some obscure academic event – the anniversary of someone else's lecture – and it began with a boring recitation of the history of computing. The lecturer's accent was transatlantic, and his name was Ives, but Gus knew nothing of his work.
       "And, before Turing's life was tragically cut short in 1954, hounded by society to his death, though he almost certainly did more than any other single man to ensure Allied victory in World War II..."
       Gus's skin prickled.
       Turing was here, in this place, she realized. He was real.
       Buried in Ives' tone, she thought, was a resentment towards the society which had caused the mathematician's suicide. Perhaps not everyone in the room detected it – most of her colleagues were waiting in good-natured boredom for the meat of the lecture to follow – but on some level several of them did.
       Ives was a visiting research fellow, and Gus followed his talk with interest: a brave attempt to bridge the conflicting software paradigms of formal specification languages and evolutionary algorithms. Most of the people sitting near Gus were Z experts, used to formulating system definitions with rigorous symbolic logic: they frowned at the anti-reductionist notion of creating code which had evolved, not been designed.
       Gus was fascinated.

Afterwards, she found herself among a small group of faculty and students drinking tea in the hallway outside the lecture theatre. When someone suggested relocating to a common room, Ives put down his half-drunk tea, looking relieved, then made the counter-proposal of coffee in Starbucks.
       "My treat," he said, which swayed the balance.
       "Authors and academics," he would tell Gus at a later date, "are easily swayed by the promise of free drink or food."
       "Pavlovian conditioning," she would reply. "And the desire to meet like minds: let's be fair. "
       The coffee house was teeming with energy. While the rest of the group went upstairs to stake out a claim on seats, Gus volunteered to help Ives carry the collection of cappuccinos, frappuccinos, tea – that last for old Crichton, of course – and lattes, which someone had pointed out was a bag of bevvies.
       "I was hoping," said Ives, leaning on the delivery counter, "to have a conversation free of maths humour, for a change."
       A 'bag' was technically correct: a mathematical set where duplication was allowed but sequencing was irrelevant – both Jim and Maureen had ordered venti lattes, and it didn't matter which of the two drinks either person took.
       "No chance of that round here." Gus was surprised at her own boldness. "If you want normality, head north."
       "Or just outwards, yeah. Town and gown. I love this old place." Ives had chosen to wear a bright red tie, and he was now running his finger inside his shirt collar, and looking uncomfortable. "Less formal than I expected. I was doing some consultancy at a place in London, and everyone was wearing business suits."
       "You might as well take the tie off," said Gus. "Visiting the empire's last bastion must have misled you."
       "Right. Here, it's just like home. I'm the only guy in this city who's wearing one." He tugged it, pulling the knot too tight, in his effort to undo it. "Damn. You know, I had to consciously work out the theory behind this, but I only modelled the putting-it-on operation."
       So much for an evening without maths humour.
       "Let me." Surprised again at her own actions, she reached up – aware of his close warmth – and undid the knot.
       "Thanks. You realize there are more than eighty ways to tie one of these things?"
       "Really?" Gus frowned in concentration, social niceties forgotten. It had become a technical problem, and that was interesting.
       "A handy way to model knot topology," Ives said, stuffing the discarded tie in his jacket pocket, "is to consider the knot's context, the space around it."
       "Oh, yes. Model the not-knots. I've heard of that..."

When the drinks arrived, they carried everything upstairs and found their colleagues gathered on wooden chairs and armchairs around a small table, discussing the constraints placed by Goedel's Theorem on some branch of research which Gus had never heard of.
       Do I really belong here?
       It was a question she asked herself often. But then some maths or physics or computation problem – they were all the same to her – would crop up, and she would be lost in the joy of solving it.
       I should get home now.
       "—your opinion?" Ives was asking her.
       "Sorry. I was thinking of something else." Gus put down the empty cup she realized she was holding. "I ought to be going."
       Ives looked at her for a moment. Just then, they were in an isolated bubble of silence while animated conversation sparkled all around them.
       "What's wrong?" he asked.
       How did you know? She was so used to hiding the details of her life.
       "My mother... She's not well." Gus blinked. She had not told anyone. "They've examined her at the Radcliffe Infirmary, and they don't know what's wrong. Or they're not telling us."
       "Oh." Ives put down his own drink. "Where's home?"
       Gus told him.
       "You've got a car?"
       "No. We—" Gus shook her head. "We can't afford one. And I can't drive."
       "Ah, right." Ives stood up and turned to the rest of the group. "I'll be back shortly. Just going to run Gus home, is that all right?"
       She had not realized he even knew her name.
       "I'm parked in St Giles," he added. "Major achievement."
       He left with Gus, whether it was all right with the others or not.

In the car, as they were travelling, he told her about Seattle: "You'd love it. Friendly city, great campus." He'd delivered various anecdotes about consultancy work for a software giant, during the course of the lecture and later. "Starbucks in the same building. When I was in the Games Division, the company took us to the movies, whenever a sci-fi or a fantasy came out."
       "Cool," said Gus. And then: "You worked for the Games Division?"
       "Yeah, for a while. I devised scenarios for Tokugawa. Devious politics and ninja fighting. What a hoot."
       "Really."
       "Hmm." Ives flicked a glance at her, then returned his attention to the road. "You don't like the game?"
       "It's great, actually." With a shrug. "The martial arts were a bit exaggerated, but that's par for the course, isn't it?"
       "You know about martial arts?"
       Gus's voice was quietly confident: "I train in jeet kune do."
       Big hand, grabbing in the darkness...
       No one would ever mug her again.

In the course of a very long life, Gus would have only one occasion to use her art on the street – or rather, on a lonely El station platform in Chicago, late at night on the Green Line south of the Loop, where a big thug attempted to beat an old man senseless with his own walking-stick, while his laughing buddies looked on – but the difference it made that night was mortal.
       She used a reverse-snake escrima disarm to send the stick flying to one side, before clawing the attacker's eyes and breaking both his knees. The man's six buddies, through alcohol-clouded senses, noticed that she was small and female, and did not process the ease with which she had taken the big man out.
       The rest happened very fast.
       In seconds she was spinning and circling, throwing kicks and elbow-strikes, firing everything she had been taught in a continuous blur of adrenalized motion. The last man was even bigger than the first, drawing a knife from his belt but too late, as Gus used the running side-kick which Bruce Lee had developed to blast her attacker right off the edge of the platform and onto the tracks, where he narrowly escaped fatal electrocution.
       Beyond that one incident, the daily discipline of physical JKD training, and her later experimentation with neurolinguistic programming (though she later criticised the community for narrow, uncritical dogma), were the keys – she always thought – to her longevity and success.
       As for her mathematical intuition... she would never be certain whether such discipline helped or hindered in that regard. But when applied to emotional control and financial management, it would certainly make her rich.
       Very rich indeed.

That night in Oxford, though, as Ives was leaving her house – having stayed to chat with Gus and her mother, and being polite enough to pretend he enjoyed the dark strong tea which Mother made – Gus reached up to kiss him on the cheek, but he moved back subtly and she subsided.
       "I am single," he told her. "But, you know... Most guys, at my age, are either married or gay."
       It took a while for that to sink in.
       "Oh."
       Ives smiled. "Just so long as you know."
       He shook her hand then, while her cheeks flared red. Over the decades, it was only the first of many shared incidents they would have cause to chuckle over.
       And that was the first night she dreamed of knots.

Provence, 1848
Medora stands at the window, looking out at the unseasonal rain falling upon the courtyard, thinking of England, which she will never see again.
       "It's a time of revolution," one of the other two women says. "According to Aldo, this is the year the world will change."
       Medora, painfully thin but strong now, turns slowly around. The woman who spoke, Alicia, is heavily pregnant. Seated by the pale stone fireplace, she rests one limp hand on the hemispherical bulge of her stomach.
       I should no longer regard you, Medora thinks, as my servant.
       She looks up at Aldo's sister, Maria, and they share wan smiles. They grew fond of Alicia when she came up from the village to help out, right from the very first day. Doing more work than she was supposed to. Chatting with Aldo about politics and history. Medora and Maria saw, long before Alicia and Aldo realized it themselves, that the young couple had fallen deeply in love.
       All three of us are sisters now.
       There is the family you are born into – in Medora's case, a dark calamitous beginning: the Byrons are truly cursed – and the family which, if you are a survivor, you get to choose. It has taken Medora a long time to realize this, but she knows it is true.
       "He'll come back safely," she tells Alicia. "Don't worry."
       Alicia nods, but Maria turns away. Since Aldo rode off to fight, she has been subject to moods of deep introspection.
       God will give me strength. Medora puts her hand against her chest, pressing the hidden crucifix against her skin. Even if I am damned, let me help these in need.
       In the past, she was always so weak and useless, going to her hated aunt – and to the woman who is both her cousin and her half-sister, Ada, Countess of Lovelace – for handouts, in desperation. But now, in the modest vineyard, she no longer exists in the eyes of English (or European) high society. The sins of her parents are no longer public gossip: they are between her and God.
       For Medora's mother was Augusta Byron – the woman after whom Augusta Ada Byron, now the Countess of Lovelace, was named – and everyone knows, though no one says, that Augusta's own brother, the famous, devil-driven poet, was the unacknowledged father of her bastard girl-child.

It was Ada who arranged for Medora's relocation to this remote place. And now, since she sent this new child to be raised forever in secret, there has been no contact at all with England.
       I pray to God that it remains so.
       Here in southern France, Medora is known as the Widow Calzonni. Four year old Jean-Pierre, asleep upstairs, is supposed to be the son she bore to a dead fictitious husband; Maria was his wet-nurse.
       Will they ever tell Jean-Pierre of his true parents? That his mother was Ada, the Countess of Lovelace, while his father was Dr Crosse, son of the man said to have created life from base matter?
       It is a decision Medora has not yet made.

"I dreamed of Aldo." Alicia places both hands on her swollen womb. "He was bouncing our daughter on his knee, and she was laughing."
       "A sign from Providence." Maria crosses herself.
       But, in the event, it will be two years before they see Aldo again, although his child will indeed be a daughter.
       He will appear in the courtyard, riding bare-back upon a weary half-starved horse. With his right leg shattered, he will be a changed man at first: bitter, given to drunken rages. But later, bolstered by the sight of his daughter's beauty, his natural optimism will reassert itself.
       By the time of his death, his little empire of olive groves and vineyards will be prosperous indeed. Those riches will remain until the eve of World War II, when disagreements with the local fascisti will cause everything to be lost.
       But now, from the village church, the Angelus bell rings out.
       "Time, my sisters" – Medora hands out well-worn missals – "to pray."

Santa Monica, 2024
Arm in arm, Gus and Ives strolled slowly along the boardwalk. Late afternoon, with the surf rolling in below, pale seagulls gliding overhead. Salt tang upon the air; the fresh sea breeze washing over their tanned faces.
       "You know" – Gus stopped, let go of Ives, leaned over the balustrade, and pointed downwards – "I lost my virginity right about there."
       "Never." Shaking with gentle laughter, Ives looked over. "After dark, I hope."
       "Oh, yeah. With a nice post-doc, since you wouldn't oblige."
       "Right. I can still see the damp spot."
       "Ho, ho."
       They were celebrating, in a fashion: a deliberate way of experiencing today's events as a positive step forwards. For Ives had come home last night to an empty apartment. Not even a note from his departed lover, Raoul: just empty closets and missing cash. And invective scrawled in toothpaste across the bathroom mirror.
       And Gus had just finalized her divorce – her first divorce, as Ives ironically (and presciently) labelled it – and seen her ex-husband drive away with his new girlfriend: large-bosomed, wearing a gaudy, shocking pink short dress, and a triumphant smirk upon her face.
       That'll disappear, Gus reckoned, when she finds out who owns everything.
       For the beach house and Sundriver-coupé skimmer were all hers.
       "We've come a long way," she said. "Hey, that sounds dramatic, doesn't it?"
       "Both of us." Ives touched his new moustache: it had come out tinged with grey, and he was not sure whether he would keep it. "I'm glad I met you, sweetheart."
       "Likewise, dearest. Shall we walk to the end?"
       "Why not?" As they walked on, he began to whistle softly – the Pattern theme, from Amber: the Musical – in counterpoint to the rolling surf.
       "Listen." Gus squeezed his arm. "Are you doing anything tonight?"
       A middle-aged couple in matching Hawaiian shirts and baggy shorts were staring at her and Ives, close enough to hear. She should have known the kind of answer she would get.
       "Wearing you out, all night long. There's a position I've been meaning to—"
       But the couple walked on then, offended, and there was no point in completing the sentence.
       "Oops." Ives raised his eyebrows. "Was it something I said?"
       "Ha. Is it just me, or are people more repressed than when I was younger? Even here?"
       "Probably." Ives looked gloomy for a moment, then cheered up, and gestured at the wide ocean. "Look at that. Are we lucky to be alive, or what?"
       "Yes, lucky." She squeezed his arm again. "Thanks for being alive, my friend."
       She was nearly twenty five, and single once more.
       Saved from a big mistake.
       "We're good for each other."
       "Oh, yes."

Their minds were both similar and complementary. When Gus developed the concepts behind Fractal of the Beast, it was Ives who helped brainstorm the network of developing relationships among the characters. She devised the aliens' forms, he worked out the structure of the shadow organization which fought them.
       She coded the game; he negotiated the license rights.
       From that first product, Ives insisted that he make no money directly. He already had his earnings from lucrative consultancy; she had nothing. "But I'll be rich," he said, as they signed a deal giving him twenty percent of earnings from any future games they might develop together. "And so will you. "
       For the first six months, download figures were minimal. Then, in a fit of nostalgia or desperation, one of the big webnets started promoting a remake of the old X-Files shows, and the whole half-forgotten alien-invasion meme had come alive once more, and sales had rocketed.

Those fictional invaders would prove more important than anyone realized.
       The alien hunt in the game proceeded through many levels. The stories were labyrinthine; a dark and gloomy sense of being watched was present in almost every scene; and there was action, with tricky clues to decipher. Only three players, since the game's release over four years before, ever reached the final level. (Unless there was someone else, with an offline copy of the game, who never hooked in with the rest of the world.)
       But three users' systems had automatically mailed her when they deciphered the final puzzle. She sent each of them a rather substantial amount of money, though the game did not advertise the existence of such a prize.
       One of the three was Arvin Rubens, a protegé of David Hall – and Arvin himself, when still a teenager, had met Hall's mentor, the legendary Richard Feynman – and he transferred the money back to her, with a note saying that he had no need for it.
       "I'd only get myself into trouble," he said in an updated Feynmanism, "by spending it on wine, women and a new holoterminal."
       He also invited both her and Ives to come and work with him in Caltech.
       Sunshine, sea. She could train in JKD at the Inosanto Academy. Why would she want to stay in old, cold Oxford?
       "Even if you don't come," Rubens had told her, "you've already helped my research."
       For the game's final solution involved working out the aliens' true nature. They appeared in many shapes and guises, but the key lay in realizing that each was a different projection of one fractal shape – a single being of dimension 6.66 – into ordinary spacetime. Just as, in the Pickover book which Gus read in childhood, five disconnected blobs appearing on the surface of a Flatland balloon might really be fingerprints from a single, otherwordly hand.
       And the underlying equation was useful because it came directly out of Gus's own research at Oxford, into the fundamental nature of the spacetime continuum.

"Come back to my place," she said to Ives, as they turned back from the end of the boardwalk. "I've got something to show you."
       "Whoopee." Then, "House or lab, do you mean?"
       "I mean the lab, darling. Sorry to disappoint."
       As they passed a row of bright pastel houses, a drunk came shambling up to them, hand outstretched. If you give me money, the display on his write-capable t-shirt read, I'll spend it on booze. But at least I'm honest.
       "Here you are."
       Blinking in the sunshine, the drunk stood looking at the money in his hand – from both of them – as Gus and Ives walked on.
       "If we asked him to tell us how he ended up here," said Ives, "I wonder what he'd say."
       "Let's not go there." Gus used her watch to summon a cab.
       "All right."
       They waited silently until a vehicle slid to the curb, and its gull-wing door swung up. Gus slid inside first, announcing their destination loudly to the cab's AI, knowing that her vestigial accent could cause recognition problems.
       Ives crossed his arms, as the door descended and the street began to slide past.
       "People always draw family trees," Gus said suddenly, as though she herself had not told him to drop the topic of past lives, "upside down. Or hadn't you noticed?"
       "Qué?" Ives spread his hands. "No comprendo. Sorry."
       "Branching out downwards, with increasing time. But the further back you go, the more ancestors you have."
       "Right. Ten generations back—"
       "You have a thousand and twenty four ancestors."
       "Assuming no incest. Yee-hah. You know you're a redneck when—" Ives stopped, looked at her, then patted her hand. "Gus, dear. It wasn't your fault. It wasn't anybody's. Life just turns out like that."
       "I know."
       But Gus's sudden wealth had come too late to keep her mother alive. Genetic defect in the heart, the consultant had told her. The neuro-degeneration weakened her, and we still don't know the cause of that.
       Silent tears, unbidden, tracked down Gus's cheeks.

A holo landscape half-filled the room, hanging above the desktop and extending outwards, so that Ives appeared to be standing in the middle of a mountain range.
       "I've modified here, and here." Gus pointed at additional free-floating holovolumes in which equations scrolled. "But it's little different from the standard mosaic."
       The landscape represented a simplified 3-dimensional spacetime – 2 spatial, 1 time – as an overall brane, formed of interwoven sub-branes. Gus pointed at the 'zoom' icon. The image expanded until gaps were visible: the holes between linked Planck-length tessellae which form the vacuum itself.
       "I reworked the topology" – Gus smiled – "using not-knots. Remember them?"
       "Ah, yes."
       The image flipped into a kind of mirror-converse. What had seemed a landscape was now a moirée pattern draped across something else: an underlying jagged sub-landscape which supported reality.
       "Then I got more interested in the continuum's context than in spacetime itself. Modelling the not-knot—"
       Ives nodded.
       "The power of metaphor. Well done, dear."
       Faraday used the notion of fields purely as a metaphor, explaining electromagnetic action at a distance. Yet modern researchers thought of fields as the underlying reality, while everything else – particles, twistors, branes, tessellae – was illusion. Physicists gained the concept 'with their mother's milk' , as Einstein said.
       But Gus's work changed the metaphor.
       In her model, the eleven dimensions of realspace were the illusory projection, draped across the underlying fractal context which shapes both this and other universes. She had a name for the context: mu-space.
       "The ultimate continuum," she said.
       "If you're right, there's a Nobel prize in—"
       "And I've already sent a signal through it."

Ashley Combe, 1852
Hot flames crackle in the fireplace. A vision of eternal Hell awaiting her? Pain insinuates its claws between the deadening layers of laudanum intoxication: it is the crab, this disease which is killing her.
       "My father—" Ada's voice is a whimper. "I want to be buried—with him."
       "Hush, my dear." A hand pats hers. "That will be taken care of."
       For a moment, she does not know who this is: William, perhaps Andrew Crosse, or Faraday... Last week, she believes, her old friend Dickens read to her. To her. Daughter of the great poet, but a strange, maddened fool in her own right.
       I've done so much wrong.
       Has Charles Babbage been to see his failing Queen of Engines, his dying Enchantress of Numbers? But it is John Crosse, her former lover, who is with her now. For a time, her old friends were barred from visiting; now it is too late for foolishness.
       It hurts—
       Her body is soaked. William and her sons – her three acknowledged sons – have been pouring cold water upon her bared, so-thin midriff to ease the pain. But for now, only Crosse is here with her.
       "I received a letter," he whispers. "About... Jean-Pierre. Our son thrives . He thrives, my love."
       My son?
       "He has a constant playmate," Crosse adds. "Daughter of the man who took him abroad. Giuliani? Something like that. Someday, says Medora, they'll be—"
       The whimpering begins again.
       My son!
       Ada fights the pain, but neither guile nor ferocity will beat this last, implacable foe. Finally, though it takes two more pain-wracked days, metastasized cervical cancer shuts down her internal organs one by one, her ragged breath rattles, and she lies still.
       In the fireplace, lowering flames sputter. Grey ash spills upon the floor.

It was perhaps a mesmeric demonstration, at a soirée held on her twenty sixth birthday, which opened the Pandora's box of Ada's mind, released the dark spirit which could never be contained again. She blamed that experiment – undertaken for sensation's sake – and her own impetuous nature for all that followed. Equations burned, pure thoughts soared, but her inner drives would always deny her peace.
       Years earlier, her father's body, with massive pageantry, was conveyed by carriage, drawn by six black steeds, through London's streets (which were thronged with onlookers), and laid to rest in the family vault. Ada's own funeral is more modest; her narrow corpse travels by modern train, black smoke billowing in lieu of stallion's manes.
       Finally, she lies interred beside the father she was not allowed to know.
       Crosse, meanwhile, crouches beneath his mantelpiece, burning, one by one, every letter he received from the woman he loved, and every note from the forgotten half-sister entrusted with raising their secret child: the son he will never see.

Santa Monica, 2024
That night, her demonstration seemed nothing special. Gus shone red laser light into her kludged lab-bench setup – draining power from the campus mesoreactor: she would get complaints – where the beam simply disappeared.
       But, at the far end of the half-lit lab, a red spot glowed in mid-air.
       To an onlooker, it would have seemed the simplest of holograms. Ives whistled as he examined the apparatus; whatever the underlying mechanism, the results were spectacular. Red light shone into nothingness, reappeared some seven yards away. He realized, though it would take decades for other minds to catch up all the way with his intuition, that this simple demonstration transformed everything.
       Shortly before dawn, they were back at the beach, sitting upon damp sand, breathing in the ocean air. Stars still glittered overhead, though dark-green painted the horizon behind them.
       "We're going to get there." Ives, craning back, stared straight up. "Thanks to you."
       "I hope so."
       They stayed there until the rising sun draped orange fire across steel-grey waves, lighting the warm salt fluid which gave birth to life, splashing endlessly against the shore.

High Earth Orbit, 2102
Sapphire, wreathed in soft cotton. The entire world lies beneath her: a jewel upon black velvet.
       So wonderful.
       Over her right shoulder floats the tiny biographer-globe, recording everything except what's important: her thoughts and feelings. The orbital station's view-bubble is reserved just for her.
       If I'd listened to what everyone knew was 'right', I wouldn't be here.
       Gus has overridden both lawyers' and medics' wishes many times. ("There's no such thing as escape velocity," she told them weeks before. "Not with continuous thrust. I'll use a slow-shuttle. Perfectly safe.") The occasional lie will not hurt them: she came up fast.
       They don't have her perspective on the world.
       After all this time.
       Seventy eight too-short years have passed since her discovery. Lightspeed spinglobes, forming stasis fields within, were created a hundred and twenty years after Einstein's blistering insights into the relativistic nature of spacetime. Her own research (she does not consider herself in Einstein's league) has taken this long to come to technological fruition.
       "Two minutes, ma'am." A respectful voice in her earpiece.
       Wealth comes from her corporations, more than intellectual endeavours. One of her companies owns the patent for this bubble's material: a transparent paramagnetic ceramic. She has always invested ten percent of income, given ten percent away (to children's foundations, mainly) and wisely spent the rest.
       But none of it had meaning...
       Her own researchers, at her insistence, use her as a guinea pig, for telomere replenishment and femtocytic re-engineering: for every life-extending treatment which looks likely to work. Equally importantly, she practices Yang-style t'ai chi every morning. Gus refuses to die too soon.
       ...until this moment.
       Dark space outside. She wishes Ives were here.
       " One minute. "

She remembers Mother, so frail in the hospital bed, in the Radcliffe's terminal ward.
       "Why did you call me Augusta, Mum?"
       A long pause, then the tiniest of shrugs, from shoulders so emaciated her bones looked razor-sharp, attempting to cut through skin.
       "Family tradition, pumpkin—"
       It was days before Mother found final peace in death. But those were the last coherent words she spoke.

Now, Gus watches the stars. Blackness, sprinkled with diamond stars, across an invisible context whose mathematical reality she knows, but whose tangible qualities neither she nor anyone else can see.
       Stardust, every one of us...
       Born in distant suns. And all those suns seem to murmur now, as long forgotten technology once whispered to the girl she was: secrets she will never truly grasp.
       "Ma'am..."
       "I see it."
       Silver dart. A tiny speck, orbiting fast, high above blueness, heading into...
       Gone.
       One moment it was there; next, the vessel no longer existed.
       "Insertion complete."
       Hopeful, that message from Observation Control. There was no explosion; with luck, it means—
       Speck.
       "Is that it?"
       "Beg your—? Yes! Ma'am, they're back."
       Shining light, growing.
       The silver vessel gleams, broadcasting its report of success on all wavelengths.
       "We saw it!" The captain's voice. "Alpha Centauri, for sure. Spectrometer confirms. We were there!"
       "Thank you," Gus whispers.
       The silver biographer-globe drops closer, and she frowns. Then she realizes she is lying down, though she cannot recall changing position.
       Blackness, circling all around.
       And the stars, so bright.
       "...ma'am?"
       Sounds, fading.
       We made it, Mum.
       And, for a moment, she sees it: the fractal Pattern, the mu-space reality that holds up our illusory cosmos—
       Thank you.
       Somewhere, a major blood vessel erupts. A crack, then relief.
       Stars...
       A smile spreads across Gus's lined face.
       ...fading...
       Her personal universe dwindles.
       ...to darkness.
       Is gone.






copyright © John Meaney