Quarantine

by Greg Egan


B B   A A A A A

This is an excerpt from the novel Quarantine by Greg Egan, first published in the United Kingdom by Century/Legend and in the United States of America by HarperCollins. Copyright © Greg Egan, 1992. All rights reserved.

Publication history


Chapter 1

Only the most paranoid clients phone me in my sleep.

Of course, nobody wants a sensitive call electronically decoded and flashed up on the screen of an ordinary videophone; even if the room isn’t bugged, radio-frequency spillage from the unscrambled signal can be picked up a block away. Most people, though, are content with the usual solution: a neural modification enabling the brain to perform the decoding itself, passing the results directly to the visual and auditory centres. The mod I use, CypherClerk (NeuroComm, $5,999), also provides a virtual larynx option, for complete two-way security.

However. Even the brain leaks faint electric and magnetic fields. A superconducting detector planted on the scalp, no bigger than a flake of dandruff, can eavesdrop on the neural data flow involved in an act of ersatz perception, and translate it almost instantaneously into the corresponding images and sounds.

Hence The Night Switchboard (Axon, $17,999). The nanomachines which carry out this modification can take up to six weeks to map the user’s idiosyncratic schemata — the rules by which meanings are encoded in neural connections — but once that’s done, the intermediary language of the senses can be bypassed completely. What the caller wants you to know, you know, without any need to hallucinate a talking head spelling it out, and the electromagnetic signature at skull level is, for all practical purposes, inscrutable. The only catch is, in the conscious state, most people find it disorienting — and at worst traumatic — to have information crystallising in their heads without the conventional preliminaries. So, you have to be asleep to take the call.

No dreams; I simply wake, knowing:

Laura Andrews is thirty-two years old, one hundred and fifty-six centimetres tall, and weighs forty-five kilograms. Short, straight brown hair; pale blue eyes; a long, thin nose. Anglo-Irish features and deep black skin; like most Australians, born with insufficient UV protection, she’s been retrofitted with genes for boosted melanin production and a thicker epidermis.

Laura Andrews has severe congenital brain damage; she can walk and eat, clumsily, but she can’t communicate in any fashion, and the experts say that she understands the world little better than a six-month-old child. Since the age of five, she’s been an inpatient at the local Hilgemann Institute.

Four weeks ago, when an orderly unlocked her room to serve breakfast, she was gone. After a search of the building and grounds, the police were called in. They repeated and extended the search, and conducted a doorknock of the surrounding area, to no avail. Laura’s room bore no signs of forced entry, and recordings from security cameras proved unenlightening. The police interviewed the staff at length, but nobody broke down and owned up to spiriting the woman away.

Four weeks later, nothing. No sightings. No corpse. No ransom demands. The police have not officially abandoned the case — merely deprioritised it, pending further developments.

Further developments are not anticipated.

My task is to find Laura Andrews, and return her safely to the Hilgemann — or locate her remains, if she’s dead — and to gather sufficient evidence to ensure that those responsible for her abduction can be prosecuted.

My anonymous client presumes that Laura was kidnapped, but declines to suggest a motive. Right now, my judgment is suspended. I’m in no state to hold an opinion on the matter; I have a head full of received knowledge, coloured by my client’s perspective, possibly even tainted with lies.

I open my eyes, then drag myself out of bed and over to the terminal in the corner of the room; I make it a policy never to deal with financial matters in my head. A few keystrokes confirm that my account has been provisionally credited with a satisfactory down payment; accepting the deposit will signal to the client that I’ve taken the case. I pause for a moment to think back over the details of the assignment, trying to reassure myself that I really do understand it — there’s always a hint of dream-logic to these calls, a faint but implacable suspicion that by morning none of what I’ve learnt will even make sense — then I authorise the transaction.

It’s a hot night. I step out onto the balcony and look down towards the river. Even at three in the morning, the water is crowded with pleasure craft of every size, from luminescent sailboards, softly glowing orange or lime green, to twelve-metre yachts, crisscrossed with spotlight beams brighter than daylight. The three main bridges are thick with cyclists and pedestrians. To the east, giant holograms of cards, dice and champagne glasses strobe and pirouette above the casino. Doesn’t anyone sleep any more?

I glance up at the empty black sky, and find myself, inexplicably, entranced. There’s no moon tonight, no clouds, no planets, and the featureless darkness refuses to sustain any comforting illusion of scale; I might be staring at infinity, or the backs of my own eyelids. A wave of nausea passes through me, a contradictory mixture of claustrophobia and a dizzying sense of The Bubble’s inhuman dimensions. I shudder — a single, violent twitch — then the feeling is gone.

A mod-generated hallucination of my dead wife Karen, standing on the balcony beside me, slips an arm around my waist and says, “Nick? What is it?” Her touch is cool, and she spreads her fingers wide across my abdomen, like antennae. I’m on the verge of asking her, by way of explanation, if she ever misses the stars, when I realise how ludicrously sentimental that would sound, and I stop myself in time.

I shake my head. “Nothing.”


The grounds of the Hilgemann Institute are as lushly green as genetic engineering — and brute force reticulation — can make them, in the middle of a summer when they ought to be dead and brown. The lawn glistens in the midmorning heat as if fresh with dew, no doubt constantly irrigated from just beneath the surface, and I trudge down the main access road in the shade of what looks like a kind of maple. An expensive image to maintain; the rates for frivolous water use, already punitive, are tipped to double in the next few months. The third Kimberley pipeline, bringing water from dams twenty-five hundred kilometres to the north, is four hundred percent over budget so far, and plans for a desalination plant have been shelved, yet again — apparently, a glut on the ocean minerals market has undermined the project’s viability.

The road ends in a circular driveway, enclosing a lavish flower bed in spectacular polychromatic bloom. The trademark I.S. gene-tailored hummingbirds hover and dart above the flowers; I pause for a moment to watch them, hoping — in vain — to witness just one contravene its programming by straying from the circle.

The building itself is all mock-timber; the layout suggests a motel. There are Hilgemann Institutes around the world, through no fault of anyone called Hilgemann; it’s widely known that International Services paid their marketing consultants a small fortune to come up with the “optimal” name for their psychiatric hospital division. (Whether public knowledge of the name’s origin spoils the optimisation, or is in fact the strongest basis for it, I’m not sure.) I.S. also runs medical hospitals, child care centres, schools, universities, prisons, and, recently, several monasteries and convents. They all look like motels to me.

I head for the reception desk, but there’s no need.

“Mr Stavrianos?”

Dr Cheng — the Deputy Medical Director, whom I spoke with briefly on the phone — is already waiting in the lobby, an unusual courtesy, which, politely, deprives me of any chance to poke my unsupervised head around corners. No white coats here; her dress bears an intricate, Escher-like design of interlocking flowers and birds. She guides me through a STAFF ONLY door and a tight maze of corridors to her office. We sit in padded armchairs, away from her spartan desk.

“Thank you for seeing me at such short notice.”

“Not at all. We’re more than happy to cooperate; we’re as anxious to find Laura as anyone. But I must say I have no idea what her sister is hoping to achieve by suing us. It’s not going to help Laura, is it?”

I make a sympathetic but non-committal noise. Perhaps the sister, or her law firm, is my client — but if so, why all the pointless secrecy? Even if I hadn’t barged in here and announced myself to the opposition — and I received no instructions not to — the Hilgemann’s lawyers would have taken it for granted that she’d hire an investigator, sooner or later. They would have hired their own, long ago.

“Tell me what you think happened to Laura.”

Dr Cheng frowns. “I’m sure of one thing: she can’t have escaped by herself. Laura couldn’t even turn a door handle. Someone took her. Now, we don’t run a prison here, but we do take security very seriously. Only a highly skilled, highly resourced professional could have removed her — but on whose behalf, and to what end, I can’t imagine. It’s getting a bit late for ransom demands, and in any case, her sister isn’t well off.”

“Could they have taken the wrong person? Maybe they intended to kidnap another patient — someone whose relatives could raise a worthwhile ransom — and only realised their mistake when it was too late to do anything about it.”

“I suppose that’s possible.”

“Any obvious targets? Any patients with particularly wealthy—”

“I really can’t—”

“No, of course not. Forgive me.” From the look on her face, I’d say she has several candidates in mind — and the last thing in the world she wants is for me to approach their families. “I take it you’ve stepped up security?”

“I’m afraid I can’t discuss that either.”

“No. Tell me about Laura, then. Why was she born brain-damaged? What was the cause?”

“We can’t be sure.”

“No, but you must have some idea. What are the possibilities? Rubella? Syphilis? AIDS? Maternal drug abuse? Side-effects from a pharmaceutical, or a pesticide, or a food additive ... ?”

She shakes her head dismissively. “Almost certainly none of those. Her mother went through standard prenatal health care; she had no major illness, and she wasn’t using drugs. And a chemical teratogen or mutagen doesn’t really fit in with Laura’s condition. Laura has no malformation, no biochemical imbalance, no defective proteins, no histological abnormalities—”

“Then why is she massively retarded?”

“It looks as if certain crucial pathways in the brain, certain systems of neural connections which should have formed at a very early age, failed to appear in Laura’s case — and their absence made subsequent normal development impossible. The question is why those early pathways didn’t form. As I’ve said, we can’t be sure — but I suspect it was a complex genetic effect, something quite subtle involving the interaction of a number of separate genes, in utero.”

“Couldn’t you tell, though, if it was genetic? Couldn’t you test her DNA?”

“She has no recognised, catalogued genetic defects, if that’s what you mean — which only proves that there are genes crucial to brain development yet to be located.”

“Any family history of the same thing?”

“No, but if several genes are involved, that’s not necessarily surprising — the chance of a relative sharing the condition could be quite small.” She frowns. “I’m sorry, but how is any of this going to help you find her?”

“Well, if a pharmaceutical or a consumer product were the cause, the manufacturers might be safeguarding their interests. It’s a long time after the event, I know, but maybe some obscure birth-defects research team is on the verge of publishing the claim that wonder drug X, the miracle antidepressant of the thirties, makes one foetus per hundred thousand turn out like Laura. You must have heard about Holistic Health Products, in the States; six hundred people suffered kidney failure from taking their ‘energy supplement,’ so they hired a dozen hit men to start wiping out the victims, faking accidental deaths. Corpses attract much smaller damages verdicts. Okay, kidnapping doesn’t seem to make much sense, but who knows? Maybe they needed to study Laura, to extract some kind of information that might eventually help them in court.”

“It all sounds rather paranoid to me.”

I shrug. “Occupational hazard.”

She laughs. “Yours, or mine? Anyway, I’ve told you, I think the cause was inherited.”

“But you can’t be positive.”

“No.”

I ask the usual questions about the staff: anyone hired or fired in the last few months, anyone known to have debts or problems, anyone with a grudge? The cops would have been through all of this, but after four weeks of brooding on the disappearance, some trivial matter, not worth mentioning at first, may have come to assume greater significance.

No such luck.

“Can I see her room?”

“Certainly.”

The corridors we pass through have cameras mounted on the ceiling, at ten-metre intervals; I’d guess that any approach to Laura’s room is covered by at least seven. Seven data chameleons, though, would not have been beyond the budget of a serious kidnapper; each pin-head-sized robot would have tapped into one camera’s signal, memorised the sequence of bits for a single frame while the corridor was empty, then spat it out repeatedly, replacing the real image. There may have been faint patches of high-frequency noise when the fake data was switched in and out — but not enough to leave tell-tale imperfections on a noise-tolerant digital recording. Short of subjecting every last metre of optical fibre to electron microscopy, hunting for the tiny scars where the chameleons intervened, it’s impossible to know whether or not such tampering ever took place.

The door — remotely locked and unlocked — would have been just as easy to interfere with.

The room itself is small and sparsely furnished. One wall is painted with a cheerful, glossy mural of flowers and birds; not something I’d care to wake up to, personally, but I can hardly judge how Laura would have felt. There’s a single large window by the bed, set solidly into the wall, with no pretence that it was ever designed to be opened. The pane is high-impact plastic; even a bullet wouldn’t shatter it, but with the right equipment it could be cut and resealed, leaving no visible seam. I draw my pocket camera and take a snapshot of the window in the polarised light of a laser flash, then I process the image into a false-colour stress map, but the contours are smooth and orderly, betraying no flaws.

The truth is, there’s nothing I can do here that the police forensic team would not have done first, and better. The carpet would have been holographed for footprint impressions, then vacuumed for fibres and biological detritus; the bed sheets taken away for analysis; the ground outside the window scoured for microscopic clues. But at least I have the room itself fixed in my mind now; a solid backdrop for any speculations about the night’s events.

Dr Cheng escorts me back to the lobby.

“Can I ask you something that has nothing to do with Laura?”

“What?”

“Do you have many patients here with Bubble Fever?”

She laughs and shakes her head. “Not one. Bubble Fever has gone right out of fashion.”


Because I am in business, and because I might — in theory — give credit, there’s a certain amount I can find out about anyone, with no effort at all.

Martha Andrews is thirty-nine years old, and works as a systems analyst for WestRail. She is divorced, with custody of her two sons. She has an average income and average debts, and forty-two percent equity in a cheap two-bedroom flat. She’s been paying the Hilgemann out of a trust fund left by her parents; her father died three years ago, her mother the year after. She is not worth extorting.

At this stage, the most plausible hypothesis seems to be one of mistaken identity; it doesn’t fit well with the professionalism of the kidnapping, but nobody’s perfect. What I need, to take the idea any further, is a list of the Hilgemann’s patients. Details of the staff might also come in handy.

I call my usual hacking service.

The ringing tone seems to reverberate deep within my skull. There’s no doubt that NeuroComm’s product psychologists chose these bizarre acoustics to give a strong impression of privacy, but I’m not impressed; it just makes me feel claustrophobic. At the same time, my external vision fades to black-and-white — supposedly to lessen the distraction, but in fact it’s just one more tedious gimmick.

Bella answers on the fourth ring, as always. Her face seems to hover about a metre away, vivid against reality’s greys, vanishing at the neck as if revealed by some magical spotlight. She smiles coolly. “Andrew, it’s good to see you. What can I do for you?” “Andrew” is the name I use for one of my CypherClerk masks. Her own synthetic human visage might also be nothing but a mask, repeating word for word the speech intentions of an actual person — or it might be a pure artifact, the interface to anything from a glorified answering machine to a system that actually does ninety-nine percent of the hacking itself. I really don’t care who or what Bella is; she/he/it/they get results, and that’s all that matters to me.

“The Hilgemann Institute, Perth branch. I want all their patient records, and all their staff records.”

“Back how far?”

“Well ... thirty years, if it’s on-line. If the old stuff is archived, and it’s going to cost a fortune to get your hands on it, forget it.”

She nods. “Two thousand dollars.”

I know better than to try to haggle. “Fine.”

“Call back in four hours. Your password is ‘paradigm.’”

As the room regains its normal hues, it strikes me that two thousand dollars would be a lot of money to Martha Andrews — not to mention the fifteen thousand I’ve already received in advance. Of course, if her lawyers were confident of a large settlement and a fat contingency fee, fifteen thousand would be nothing to them. Their wish to be anonymous might be no more sinister than my own use of a pseudonym with Bella; when laws are being broken, it’s nice to have bulkheads against the risk of a conspiracy charge.

Do I talk to Martha? I can’t see how it could upset her lawyers, and even if she hired me herself (which can’t yet be ruled out completely; her finances may have hidden depths) then she chose anonymity over the alternative of explicitly instructing me to keep my distance.

I have no real choice but to act as if I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to the question of my client’s identity — even if the truth is that, so far, nothing about the case fascinates me more.


Martha looks very much like her sister, with a little more flesh and a lot more worries. On the phone she asked, “Who are you working for? The hospital?” When I told her that I wasn’t free to disclose my client’s name, she seemed to take that to mean yes. (In fact, it’s inconceivable; I.S. owns a great slab of shares in Pinkerton’s Investigations, so the Hilgemann would never hire a freelance.) Now, face to face, I’m almost certain that she wasn’t dissembling.

“Really, I’m the last person to help you find Laura. She was in their care, not mine. I can’t imagine how they could have let something like this happen.”

“No — but forget their incompetence, just for a moment. Do you have any idea why someone might want to kidnap Laura?”

She shakes her head. “What use would she be to anyone?” The kitchen, where we’re sitting, is tiny and spotless. In the room next door, her boys are playing this summer’s craze, Tibetan Zen Demons on Acid vs Haitian Voodoo Gods on Ice — and not in their heads like the rich kids; she winces at the sound of a theatrically blood-curdling scream, followed by a loud, wet explosion, and live cheers. “I’ve told you, I’m in no better position to answer that than anyone else. Maybe she wasn’t kidnapped. Maybe the Hilgemann harmed her somehow — mistreated her, or tried out a new kind of drug that went wrong — and their whole story about her disappearance is a cover-up. I’m only guessing, of course, but you ought to keep the possibility in mind. Assuming that you are interested in finding out the truth.”

“Were you close to Laura?”

She frowns. “Close? Haven’t they told you? What she’s like?”

“Attached to her, then? Did you visit her often?”

“No. Never. There was no point visiting her — she wouldn’t have known what it meant. She wouldn’t have known it was happening.”

“Did your parents feel the same way?”

She shrugs. “My mother used to see her, about once a month. She wasn’t fooling herself — she knew it made no difference to Laura — but she thought it was the right thing to do, regardless. I mean, she knew she’d feel guilty if she stayed away, and by the time they had mods that could fix that, she was too set in her ways to want to change. But I’ve never had any problem, myself; Laura’s not a person, so far as I’m concerned, and I’d only feel like a hypocrite if I tried pretending otherwise.”

“I take it you’re planning to be a bit more sentimental in court?”

She laughs, unoffended. “No. We’re suing for punitive damages, not compensation for ‘emotional suffering.’ The issue will be the hospital’s negligence, not my feelings. I may be an opportunist, but I’m not going to perjure myself.”


On the train back into the city, I wonder: would Martha have arranged her sister’s abduction, for the sake of punitive damages? Her unwillingness to milk the suit for all it’s worth might be a calculated ploy, a way to ensure a jury’s sympathy by seeming to forgo exploitation. There’s at least one flaw in this theory, though: why not demand a ransom — which could be recovered, through the courts, from the Hilgemann? Why leave the motive for the kidnapping a mystery, crying out for an explanation, inviting suspicions of fraud?

I emerge from the airless crush of the underground to find the streets almost as crowded, with evening shoppers lugging post-Christmas bargains, and buskers so devoid of talent — natural or otherwise — that I feel like stooping down and switching their credit machines into refund mode.

“You’re a mean-spirited bastard,” says Karen. I nod agreement.

As I approach the sandwich-board man, I tell myself I’m going to walk by as if I hadn’t even noticed him, but a few steps later, I stop and turn to stare. His meekly downturned face is as pale as a slug — God doesn’t want us messing with our pigmentation! — and he wears a black suit that must be purgatory in this heat. Amongst the brightly clad, bare-limbed crowd, he looks like a nineteenth-century missionary stranded in an African marketplace. I’ve seen the same man before, wearing the same imaginative message, repeated front and back:


SINNERS

REPENT!

JUDGMENT

IS NIGH!


Nigh! After thirty-three years, nigh! No wonder he stares at the ground. What the fuck has been going on in his brain for the last three decades? Does he wake every morning, thinking — for the ten-thousandth time — “Today’s the day”? That’s not faith, it’s paralysis.

I stand awhile, just watching him. He paces slowly back and forth along a fixed path, halting when the flow of shoppers is too heavily against him. Most people are ignoring him, but I notice a teenage boy collide with him intentionally and roughly shoulder him aside, and I feel a shameful surge of delight.

I have no good reason to hate this man. There are millenarians of every kind, from docile idiots to cunning profiteers, from blissed-out Aquarians to genocidal terrorists. Members of The Children of the Abyss don’t wander the streets with sandwich boards; blaming this pathetic wind-up toy for Karen’s death makes no sense at all.

As I walk on, though, I can’t help indulging a sweet vision of his face as a bloody red pulp.


I was eight years old when the stars went out.

November 15th, 2034, 8:11:05 to 8:27:42 GMT.

I didn’t witness the circle of darkness, growing from the antisolar point like the mouth of a coal-black cosmic worm, gaping to swallow the world. On TV, yes, a hundred times, from a dozen locations — but on TV it looked like nothing but the cheapest of special effects (the satellite views all the more so; in glare-filtered shots, the “mouth” could be seen closing precisely behind the sun, an implausible symmetry, smacking of human contrivance).

I couldn’t have seen it live, it was late afternoon in Perth — but the news reached us before sunset, and I stood on the balcony with my parents, in the dusk, waiting. When Venus appeared, and I pointed it out, my father lost his temper and sent me inside. I don’t recall exactly what I said; I’m sure I knew the difference between stars and planets, but perhaps I made some childish joke. When I looked through my bedroom window — with a choice of smeared glass or dusty flyscreen — and saw, well, nothing, it was hard to be impressed. Later, when I finally caught an unimpeded view of the empty sky, I dutifully tried to feel awestruck, but failed. The sight was as unspectacular as an overcast night. It was only years later that I understood how terrified my parents must have been.

There were riots on Bubble Day across the planet, but the worst of the violence took place where people had seen the event with their own eyes — and that depended on a combination of longitude and weather. Night stretched from the western Pacific to Brazil, but cloud covered much of the Americas. There were clear skies over Peru, Colombia, Mexico and southern California — so Lima, Bogota, Mexico City and Los Angeles suffered accordingly. In New York, at eleven past three in the morning, it was bitterly cold and overcast — and the city was all but spared. Brasilia and Sao Paulo were saved by the light of dawn.

Disturbances in this country were minor; even on the east coast, sunset came too late, and apparently most Australians sat glued to their TVs all night, watching other people do the looting and burning. The End of the World was far too important to be happening anywhere but overseas. There were fewer deaths in Sydney than on the previous New Year’s Eve.

In my memory, there is no gap at all between the event itself, and the announcement of an explanation (of sorts). Analysis of the timing of the occultations had revealed, almost at once, the geometry of what had happened; perhaps I considered that enough of an answer. It was nearly six months later that the first probes encountered The Bubble, but the name had been in use, from the start, for whatever it was they would find.

The Bubble is a perfect sphere, twelve billion kilometres in radius (about twice as wide as the orbit of Pluto), and centred on the sun. It came into being as a whole, in an instant — but because the Earth was eight light-minutes from its centre, the time lag before the last starlight reached us varied across the sky, giving rise to the growing circle of darkness. Stars vanished first from the direction in which The Bubble was closest, and last where it was furthest away — precisely behind the sun.

The Bubble presents an immaterial surface which behaves, in many ways, like a concave version of a black hole’s event horizon. It absorbs sunlight perfectly, and emits nothing but a featureless trickle of thermal radiation (far colder than the cosmic microwave background, which no longer reaches us). Probes which approach the surface undergo red shift and time dilation — but experience no measurable gravitational force to explain these effects. Those on orbits which intersect the sphere appear to crawl to an asymptotic halt and fade to black; most physicists believe that in the probe’s local time, it swiftly passes through The Bubble, unimpeded — but they’re equally sure that it does so in our infinitely distant future. Whether or not there are further barriers beyond is unknown — and even if there are not, whether an astronaut who took the one-way voyage would find the universe outside unaged, or would emerge just in time to witness the moment of its extinction, remains an open question.

Upon hearing reports containing only a single familiar phrase, the media (who’d been fobbed off for six months with theories even wilder than the truth) promptly declared that the solar system had “fallen into” a large black hole, triggering a resurgence of global panic before the story could be set straight. The event horizon surrounded us, therefore we had to be inside it — a perfectly reasonable mistake. The truth, though, is the exact opposite: the event horizon does not enclose us; it “encloses” everything else.

Although a handful of theoreticians valiantly struggled to concoct a model for The Bubble as a spontaneous natural phenomenon, there was always really only one plausible explanation: a vastly superior alien race had constructed a barrier to isolate the solar system from the rest of the universe.

The question was: Why?

If the aim was to discourage us from charging out and conquering the galaxy, they needn’t have bothered. In 2034, no human had travelled further than Mars. The U.S. base on the moon had been shut down six years before, after eighteen months’ occupation. The only spacecraft to have left the solar system were probes sent to the outer planets in the late twentieth century, crawling away from the sun along their now purposeless trajectories. Plans to launch an unmanned mission to Alpha Centauri in 2050 had just been rescheduled to 2069, in the hope that the Apollo XI centenary would make fundraising easier.

Of course, a space-faring alien civilisation might have taken a long-term view. The thousand years or so before humans were likely to embark on anything remotely like interstellar conquest might have seemed no more to them than a judicious safety margin. Nevertheless, the idea that a culture, able to engineer space-time in ways we could scarcely comprehend, could fear us, was ludicrous.

Maybe the Bubble Makers were our benefactors, saving us from a fate infinitely worse than being confined to a region of space where we could — with care — prosper for hundreds of millions of years. Maybe the galactic core was exploding, and The Bubble was the only possible shield against the radiation. Maybe other, hostile, aliens were running amok in the region, and The Bubble was the only way to keep them at bay. Less dramatic variations on this theme abounded: Maybe The Bubble was there to protect our fragile, primitive culture from the harsh realities of interstellar commerce. Maybe the solar system had been declared a Galactic Heritage Zone.

A few intellectually rigorous killjoys argued that any explanation to which humans could relate was probably anthropomorphic nonsense, but nobody invited them onto talk shows.

At the other extreme, most religious sects had no trouble plucking glib answers from their own ludicrous mythology. Fundamentalists of several faiths refused to acknowledge that The Bubble even existed; all proclaimed that the vanished stars were a sign of divine disfavour, foretold — with varying degrees of prophetic licence — in their own sacred writings.

My parents were resolute atheists, my education was secular, my childhood friends were either irreligious, or the marginally Buddhist grandchildren of Indochinese refugees — but the English-language media, worldwide, was swamped with the views of Christian fundamentalists, so theirs was the lunacy I grew up knowing the best, and despising the most. The stars had gone out! If that didn’t spell Apocalypse, what did? (In fact, The Revelation to John has stars “falling to the earth” — but one mustn’t be too literal-minded.) Even those fanatics with small-M millennial fetishes could take heart; the years 2000 and 2001 might have been frustratingly devoid of cosmic portents, but, given the uncertainties of the historical record, 2034 (it was claimed) could easily be exactly the two-thousandth anniversary, not of Christ’s birth, but of his death and resurrection. (November 15th as Easter? Obscure explanations were concocted for this — including something called “Passover Drift” — but I was never quite masochistic enough to try to follow them.)

It was Judgment Day rewritten by some Bible Belt Chamber of Commerce. TV still worked, and nobody needed the mark of the beast to buy and sell, let alone to give and receive tax-deductible donations. Mainstream churches issued cautious statements which said, in so many words, that the scientists were probably right, but their pews emptied, and the salvation-for-money trade boomed.

Apart from post-Bubble splinter groups of established religions, thousands of brand new cults appeared — most of them organised on the sound commercial lines pioneered by twentieth-century religious entrepreneurs. But while the opportunists prospered, the real psychotics were festering. It took twenty years for The Children of the Abyss to make themselves known, but then, being born of the Abyss — on or after Bubble Day — was a prerequisite of membership. They started out, in 2054, by poisoning the water supply of a small town in Maine, killing more than three thousand people. Today, they’re active in forty-seven countries, and they’ve claimed almost a hundred thousand lives. Marcus Duprey, their founder and chief self-fulfilling prophet, spews out an incoherent stream of half-digested cabalistic gibberish and comic-book eschatology, but there are, apparently, thousands of people brain-fucked in just the right way to find his every word resonant with truth.

It was bad enough when they blew up buildings at random, because “this is the Age of Mayhem,” but since Duprey and seventeen other Children have been in prison, many of his followers have come to see his release as their ultimate purpose — and with a tangible (if unattainable) goal to focus their efforts, everything has escalated. It makes no difference what I think, but some nights the question spins in my head for hours. I don’t wish they’d set him free. I do wish they’d never caught him.

Mental illness wasn’t confined to the millenarians; for the secular, there was Bubble Fever, an hysterical, disabling, “claustrophobic” reaction to the thought of being “trapped” in a volume eight trillion times that of the Earth. These days, it seems almost laughable — as quaint as some spurious nineteenth-century upper-class affliction — but millions of people succumbed in the first year. It struck in almost every country, and health officials predicted it would cost the world economy more than AIDS. Within five years, though, the number of cases had plummeted.

Wars and revolutions around the globe have been blamed on The Bubble — although I wonder how anyone can claim to be able to untangle its destabilising effects from those of poverty, debt, climate change, famine and pollution — and the religious fanaticism that would have been present, regardless. I’ve read that in the early days, people spoke seriously of civilisation “crumbling,” of the coming of a new Dark Age. Such talk soon died away — but even now, I can never quite decide whether I find it miraculous, or inevitable, that the cultural shock waves have been so mild. The Bubble changes everything: it proves the existence of aliens with God-like powers, aliens who have imprisoned us without warning or explanation — and cheated us of our destiny in the universe. The Bubble changes nothing: the aliens are aloof and inconsequential, the stars are irrelevant to human needs; the sun still shines, crops still grow, the life of this planet goes on as ever — and there are worlds within our reach to be explored for millennia.

In the early fifties, it was “common knowledge” — for no obvious reason — that the Bubble Makers were about to introduce themselves and justify everything; alien-contact cults flourished, UFO hoaxes reached absurd levels, but as the years wore on in silence, hopes of so much as a curt explanation for our state of quarantine faded away.

I no longer even wonder, why? After thirty-three years of listening to people rant their unlikely hypotheses, nothing could matter to me less. (Granted, the thing killed my wife, indirectly — but then, indirectly, so did I.)

As for the stars, they were never ours to lose; the truth is, we’ve lost nothing but the illusion of their proximity.


Bella, as always, delivers on time. I download the records into CypherClerk's generous intracranial buffers, and I’m on the verge of transferring them to my desktop terminal when, in a moment of caution, or paranoia, I change my mind and decide to keep the data in my skull, for now.

I’m tired, but it’s barely after nine. I don’t want to sleep, but the prospect of plowing through the Hilgemann’s records strikes me as unbearably tedious.

I invoke Backroom Worker (Axon, $499) and guide it through what I want done with each name: first, check my own natural memory for any associations (after all, the chances are that the next-of-kin of anyone worth kidnapping will be a public figure to some degree); then contact the Credit Reference System, obtain current financial details, and append them to the record. I think of triggering notification if the assets cross a threshold value, but I can’t be bothered deciding on a figure, and in any case, when the whole thing is done, I can rank everyone by net worth. I instruct the mod to interrupt me only if it comes across a name I know.

I flop onto my bed, and switch on the room’s audio system. The controlling ROM I’ve been playing lately, “Paradise” by Angela Renfield, is one of hundreds of thousands of identical copies, but each piece it creates is guaranteed unique. Renfield has set certain parameters for the music, but others are provided by pseudorandom functions, seeded with the date, the time, and the audio system’s serial number.

Tonight, I seem to have chanced upon an excessive weighting for minimalist influence. After several minutes of nothing but the same (admittedly, impressively resonant) chord, repeated at five-second intervals, I hit the RECOMPOSE button. The music stops, there’s a brief pause, then a new variation begins, a distinct improvement.

I’ve run “Paradise” about a hundred times. At first, I could hardly believe that the separate performances had anything in common, but over the months I’ve begun to apprehend the underlying structure. I see it as resembling a family tree, or a phylogenetic classification of species. The metaphor is imprecise, though; one piece can be judged to be a near or a distant cousin of another, but the concept of ancestry doesn’t really translate. I think of the simplest pieces as being primordial, as “giving rise to” more complex variations, but beyond a certain point it’s an arbitrary decision as to who begat, or evolved into, whom.

I’ve heard some reviewers assert that, after a dozen playings, anyone who is musically literate should fully understand the rules that Renfield has chosen, making further actual performances unbearably redundant. If that’s the case, I’m glad of my ignorance. Tonight’s second piece is like a brilliant scalpel blade, prising away layer after layer of dead skin. I close my eyes as a trumpet line builds, rising in pitch, then mutates, impossibly, effortlessly, into the liquid sound of metaharps. Flutes join in, with an ornate, mannered theme — but already I think I can discern in it, hidden beneath the fussiness and decoration, hints of a perfect silver needle which will recur in a hundred guises; which will be honed, muted, then honed again; which will be held up for my admiration, one last time, then plunged into my heart.

Suddenly, four lines of glowing text appear at the bottom of my visual field:


[Backroom Worker:

Natural memory association.

Casey, Joseph Patrick.

Head of Security as of 12th June, 2066.]


I’d forgotten that I’d asked for staff records, too — or I would have excluded them. I think about waiting for the music to finish, but there’s no point; I know full well that I’d be unable to enjoy it. I hit the STOP button, and one more unique incarnation of “Paradise” disappears forever.


Casey is five years older than me, so his retirement, shortly after mine, was not so premature. He’s sitting in a corner of the crowded bar, drinking beer, and I join him in the ritual. I suppose it’s a strange way to pass the time, when not a microgram of ethanol will make it into either of our bloodstreams — while mods compute our consumption, and deliver a purely neural buzz in lieu of the (insanely toxic) real thing — but then, if this cultural fossil lasted a thousand years, and endured beyond all memory of its origins, it would hardly be unique in doing so.

“We never see you, Nick. Where have you been hiding?”

We? It takes me a moment to register that he means, not himself and his absent wife, but the bar full of cops and ex-cops; the “law enforcement community,” as the politicians would say — the way they used to talk about the Chinese or Italian or Greek community — as if the neural and physical modifications we share made us into some kind of homogeneous demographic target. I glance around the room and find, mercifully, that I recognise almost nobody.

“You know how it is.”

“Business is good?”

“I’m making a living. You were with RehabCorp, last I heard. What happened?”

“I.S. bought them out.”

“Yeah, I remember that. Lots of retrenchments.”

“I was lucky. I had connections, I got myself moved sideways. There were people who’d been with RehabCorp for thirty years who got dumped.”

“So what’s it like at the Hilgemann?”

He laughs. “What do you think? Anyone who ends up in a place like that — anyone they can’t fix with a mod, these days — has to be a complete fucking zombie. Security is not a problem.”

“No? What about Laura Andrews?”

“You’re in on that?” He’s no more surprised than politeness requires; Cheng would have had him clear me, before she even returned my call.

“Yeah.”

“Who for?”

“Who do you think?”

“Fucked if I know. Not for the sister; Winters is working for the sister. Mind you, Winters’ job isn’t finding Laura Andrews; her job is to make me look like shit. That bitch is probably spending all her time sitting at a computer somewhere, fabricating evidence.”

“Probably.” Not for the sister. Who, then? A relative of another patient? Someone who believes they’d be shelling out ransom money right now, if the kidnapping hadn’t been botched — and who wants to make sure that there isn’t a second, successful attempt?

“The case is a joke, you know. We weren’t negligent. Remember that guy who sued the owners of the Sydney Hilton when his daughter got kidnapped from one of their rooms? He was pulverised. The same thing will happen here.”

“Maybe.”

He laughs sourly. “You don’t give a shit either way, do you?”

“No. And neither should you. I.S. won’t sack you, even if they lose the case. They’re not idiots; they allocate a certain budget for security, enough to keep the patients in. If they wanted some kind of fortress, they know they’d have to pay for it. They’ve been running prisons long enough to understand the costs.”

He hesitates, then says, “‘Enough to keep the patients in?’ Yeah? Laura Andrews got out twice before.” He glares at me. “And if that ever reaches the sister, I’ll break your fucking neck.”

I stare at him, grinning sceptically, waiting for the joke to be made clear. He just stares back glumly. I say, “What do you mean, she ‘got out’? How?”

How? Shit! I don’t know how. If I knew how, then she wouldn’t have been allowed to do it again, would she?”

“But ... I thought she couldn’t even turn a door handle.”

“That’s what the doctors say. Well, nobody’s seen her turn a fucking door handle. Nobody’s seen her do anything smart enough to shame a cockroach. But anyone who can get past locked doors, and cameras, and movement sensors, three times, isn’t what she appears to be, is she?”

I snort. “What are you getting at? You think she’s been shamming total imbecility for more than thirty years? She never even learnt to speak! You think she started faking brain damage when she was twelve months old?”

He shrugs. “Who knows about thirty years ago? The records say one thing, but I wasn’t there. All I know is what she’s done in the last eighteen months. How would you explain it?”

“Maybe she’s an idiot savante. Or an idiot escapologist.” Casey rolls his eyes. “Okay. I have no idea. But ... what happened? The first two times? How far did she get?”

“Into the grounds, the first time. A couple of kilometres away, the second. We found her in the morning, just wandering about, with the same bland dumb innocent expression on her face as always. I wanted to put a camera inside her room, but the Hilgemann wasn’t having that — some U.N. convention on The Rights of the Mentally Ill. I.S. got enough flak over that Texan prison thing that they’re ultra-careful now.” He laughs. “And how could I argue that I needed more hardware? The patients are vegetables. The rooms have one door and one window, both are monitored twenty-four hours — how could I justify anything more? I mean, I couldn’t say to the fucking Director, ‘If you’re such a genius, you tell me how she does it. You tell me how to stop her.’”

I shake my head. “She didn’t do any of this. She can’t have. Somebody took her. All three times.”

“Yeah? Who? Why? What do you call the first two times — dry runs?”

I hesitate. “Disinformation? Someone trying to convince you that she could break out on her own, so that when they finally took her, you’d think—” Casey is miming severe incredulity, verging on physical pain. I say, “Okay. It sounds like a load of crap to me, too. But I can’t believe she just walked out of there, alone.”


It takes me forever to get to sleep. Boss (Human Dignity, $999) may have rendered it a matter of conscious choice, but somehow I still manage to be an insomniac; I always have some reason to delay the decision, I always have some problem I want to think through — as if every last nagging question which once might have kept me awake had to be dealt with in the old way, regardless.

Or maybe I’m just developing what they call Zeno’s Lethargy. Now that so many aspects of life are subject to nothing but choice, people’s brains are seizing up. Now that there’s so much to be had, literally merely by wanting it, people are building new layers into their thought processes, to protect them from all this power and freedom; near-endless regressions of wanting to decide to want to decide to want to decide what the fuck it is they really do want.

What I want, right now, is to understand the Andrews case, but there’s no mod in my head which can grant me that.

Karen says, “Okay. So you have no idea why Laura was kidnapped. Fine. Stick to the facts. Wherever she’s been taken, someone must have seen her along the way. Forget about motives for now — just find out where she is.”

I nod. “You’re right. As always. I’ll put an ad in the newssystems—”

“In the morning.”

I laugh. “Yes, okay, in the morning.”

With her familiar warmth beside me, I close my eyes.

“Nick?”

“Yes?”

She kisses me lightly. “Dream about me.”

I do.



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