Science fiction legend Ken MacLeod begins a new space opera trilogy by imagining humankind on the precipice of discovery – the invention of faster-than-light travel unlocks a universe of new possibilities, and new dangers.
The Velocity Paper
Summer 2067, Earth
Lakshmi Nayak sat at the desk in her student flat in London, staring at a sheet of blue lightweight airmail paper. The page of equations was elegant and perplexing. Two things about it baffled her.
The equations, and the cryptic notes and marginalia, were in handwriting identical to her own. So was the address on the airmail envelope, stamped and postmarked BFPO, Kabul. She’d found it that morning, in her pigeonhole down at reception. Disappointed, having been expecting a packet of tea from her mother in Kerala, she’d stuck the letter in her jacket pocket and hurried to take the Tube to Imperial. Only this evening had she remembered it, and turned it over, puzzled from the beginning. Nayak had never been to Kabul. She didn’t know anyone who might be among British forces posted overseas. She hadn’t written the equations.
The second perplexity was the final line at the foot of the page. It read:
V was velocity, c was the speed of light, and x was . . . a large number. A ridiculously large number, from what sense she could make of the equations immediately above, but that wasn’t the point. Any number greater than one implied a velocity faster than light. Nayak suspected a prank. It was like the proof that 1=2 which had puzzled her for five minutes when she was seven years old.
Maybe that was what it was: a reductio ad absurdum, exposing a mistake hidden in some too easily accepted premise . . .
But if so, why the brevity? Why not lay out every step, every assumption?
If it was a prank, she had to admire its precision targeting. The thesis that she spent her days and evenings struggling to write concerned inflation: the rapid expansion of the early universe, space itself stretching out far faster than light could travel through it. The airmail page in front of her began with equations she’d used many times: textbook stuff. Between them and the absurdity at the end was a chain of reasoning with many links missing, their place taken by vertical rows of three dots, and annotations like ‘obvsly’. This wasn’t just her handwriting, it was her style. This was how she scribbled notes to herself when barely able to keep up with a tumbling torrent of thought.
Was it possible, then, that she had written this, and furthermore contrived its circuitous return, in some fugue state? Unlikely, but . . .
Nayak sighed and stood up, stretching her back. She gazed out of the window at the evening sky: yellow at the tower-bitten London skyline, fading through duck-egg green to pale blue with red clouds, among which Venus hung bright. Since childhood, the sight of the planet had always given her a small thrill. Her mother had told her that there was a place on Venus named after the same goddess as she was: Lakshmi Planum, it was called. Much later, she’d been amused to learn that the Union’s floating cloud colony passed over it regularly. Odd to think that there were people on Venus; that someone, at that very moment, might be looking back.
She tapped the paper on her desk.
‘Smart-Alec,’ she said, ‘search back six months on document.’
Seconds passed, as the AI scanned her eye-log records.
‘No results found.’
‘Shit,’ said Nayak.
She made herself a coffee, sat back down and reached for a pen and notebook. She didn’t notice the sky darken. Now and then she gazed, unseeing, at the lights of passing airships on their descent to Heathrow. Robotically, sleepwalking, she filled hourly mugs with coffee. By the time the sky reddened again she had filled twenty pages of the notebook, and all the gaps in the proof. The dawn chorus filled the air outside as she hesitated for a moment, and then wrote down the final equation.
She clicked the pen and laid it down with a sense of finality, and exhaustion.
Well. That was that. Faster-than-light travel. And if so, she could well have written the airmailed page herself. FTL held the possibility of time travel, and the message was itself the proof that it would some day be realised. Because she would, at some time, travel back from the future and post it to herself.
Which in turn meant that until she did that, she couldn’t die.
Oh, and one more thing. Nayak straightened her back again and looked out at a sky busy with airships, empty of starships. Humanity was alone in the universe.
Because if it wasn’t, we’d know. If faster-than-light travel was possible, and this much faster at that, as she was sure she’d just proved, interstellar commerce must be easy. Another twist
to the Fermi Paradox, to add to the prevalence of life-bearing worlds. Plenty of life out there, but no intelligent life. If aliens existed, they’d be here already.
Paradox upon paradox. If she had derived this result from her own future memories of it, who had discovered it in the first place? Perhaps the equations were like the Vedas: self-created, a revelation without a revealer. The thought made her shiver, and almost giggle.
She threw herself face down on the bed and slept for ten hours.
* * *
The second morning after her all-nighter, when she’d got over the grogginess, Nayak transcribed her notebook scribble to screen, formulated it properly as a paper and printed off a fair copy. She took it to her supervisor. Adam Kurtz was ten years older than her and (in her view) had done a million times more than she had, even before he’d defected from the Union to the Alliance. His office at Imperial was no bigger than anyone else’s, though. Nayak sat on the visitor’s chair between teetering stacks of journals and off-prints and tried not to shift about too much. Kurtz had long sandy hair, a CERN souvenir T-shirt, and glasses with flip-down screens. He kept the screens flipped up as he read her paper. She didn’t know if this was a good sign.
He looked up and rattled the stem of a billiard e-pipe between his perfect teeth.
‘Hm,’ he said. ‘I see you’ve been working. Why not on your thesis?’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Nayak. ‘This just came to me.’
Which was true, in a way.
‘I’m still trying to find the mistake,’ said Kurtz. ‘Because there must be a mistake, yes?’
‘That’s what I thought,’ said Nayak. ‘I was hoping you could spot it.’
Kurtz laughed. ‘When I was a small precocious child I proved by inspection that a circle can be divided into only three mutually adjacent arcs. From that I concluded that I had solved the Four Colour Map problem. This was forgivable in a schoolboy.’
‘Well, yes, I once did something like that.’
‘So did we all, no doubt.’ Kurtz raked his fingers through his hair. ‘My point being, it’s all too easy for an amateur or beginner to miss what a specialist in the relevant area would see at once.’
‘But this is our area!’
‘Not really, no. Just as I had mastered elementary geometry but I had no idea of topology, and no idea that was the territory I had blundered into.’ He drew on his pipe and examined the dispersing cloud of vapour. He didn’t do tricks. ‘I suspect the weak link is the values for x. We’re missing some variable that reduces it to less than 1. Much less than 1, if it’s physically realistic. The energy value for the inflaton may turn out to be almost entirely virtual, in the present universe. Though . . .’
He stared off into the distance, or at any rate the top right corner of his office.
‘Leave it with me,’ he said.
* * *
She left the paper with him and got on with her thesis. To her surprise, the problems that had stymied her earlier had become a lot clearer after her work on the paper. She stormed ahead. Every time she consulted Kurtz, over the next few months, she finished by asking him − almost casually, on the way out − if he’d had any further thoughts on what was wrong with her equations. Every time, he sighed regretfully or puffed out cherry-scented vapour and murmured that he was still puzzling over it.
In the end, she got impatient. Her thesis was complete and ready to submit. As she left Kurtz’s office after they’d agreed on that she turned and said, ‘Any progress, on—?’
Yet again, he shook his head. ‘No. I haven’t had time recently to give it enough thought, but I’m sure I’ll see it.’
‘I think we need other minds on the problem.’
‘I’m going to pre-publish. Stick it up on phys.x-archiv.’
Kurtz looked alarmed. ‘I wouldn’t advise it. It’d be like throwing meat to hungry dogs. It’ll get torn apart.’
‘That’s kind of the idea, Adam. Find out what its real weaknesses are.’
‘You don’t understand. This isn’t some controversial interpretation or barely adequate data set or whatever. Just putting this forward is like claiming you’re smarter than Einstein. The problems in the paper might be very subtle, but you should be able to see they must be there. The criticisms might well be welcome and clarifying, but you’d be branded forever as a crank.’
‘Oh, come on!’ she said. ‘Even if I formulate it as a puzzle, a paradoxical result, and invite the real experts to show me any flaws in the logic?’
Kurtz scoffed. ‘The real specialists − the likes of Lowery, Chiang, Bliebtreu, Faber, and your own country’s Mehta and Vijayan − wouldn’t give it a passing glance. No, you’d get peer review all right − from your peers! Postdocs, postgrads even, your own future colleagues. Don’t do this to yourself.’
‘I want to know what’s wrong with it,’ Nayak said. ‘And I don’t care who tells me.’
Kurtz looked away, then back. ‘You do that, Lakshmi. You do that. On your head be it.’
She did, and it was. The criticisms were fiercer than Kurtz had warned. Her values for the mass of the inflaton had been rendered obsolete by a result published months earlier – obscurely and indirectly, yes, but she should have known. The transformation in the fifteenth step of her proof was inapplicable to her purpose. She’d overlooked the relevance of Lowery’s refutation of Mehta’s Conjecture. So it went. For days before her viva they distracted her, when she should have been looking out for weak points in her thesis and coming up with ready answers for the examiners.
But once again, unexpectedly, it was her worrying over the criticisms of the velocity paper that sharpened her wits for the verbal examination. The thesis passed that trial by ordeal, with some light revisions required before it was finalised. She had her doctorate. Her corrected thesis was printed in a dozen copies, bound, its spine gilt-stamped. One copy went to her shelf, one to the university library, one to her supervisor, and the rest to other libraries and colleagues. Only her own would ever be opened again. Nayak celebrated, then flew home to Kozhikodi to celebrate some more, with her family and school friends. After a month she flew back to London.
* * *
The airship was above the Black Sea and Nayak couldn’t sleep, so she padded to the lounge and called up a nightcap. Her specification was vague, but the sari-clad Air India hostess behind the bar compiled a cocktail that would, she assured Nayak, have the desired effect. Nayak sat at a table by the window, looked down at the lights of boats and the firefly drift of other aircraft through the reflections of the cabin’s interior, sipped her drink and contemplated in her glasses the disheartening results of Smart-Alec’s latest job-hunting trawl on her behalf.
The slim young man’s face wasn’t familiar, but it was well-known enough to be tagged instantly in her glasses: Marcus Owen, journalist. He wore a black suit over a black T-shirt, and Sony glasses. His jaw was outlined by a razor-trimmed beard, his features tanned.
‘Good evening, Mr Owen,’ she said, just to make sure he knew she knew who he was.
‘Oh, “Marcus”, please,’ he said. ‘May I join you?’
His accent was British and his looks on the far side of striking. The phrase that sprang to Nayak’s mind, annoyingly enough, was ‘devilishly handsome’.
‘Please do,’ she said. He took the chair opposite and laid down his glass.
‘I don’t intend to be up long,’ she said.
‘Not to worry, I have work to do before I turn in,’ said Owen. He gave a theatrical sigh. ‘Writing up a report for the British Council.’
The British Council was widely believed to be the only wholly reliable intelligence service of the United Kingdom, and one of the best in the entire Alliance.
‘Ah,’ said Nayak. She took a quick sip, hoping to hide her fear. She put the glass down a little too carefully for that.
‘Just back from Tamil Nadu,’ Owen said. ‘Mercifully, it’s quieter than we expected.’ He gave a self-deprecating laugh. ‘I’ll still get a good travel piece out of it.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Nayak’s mouth was dry. She took another sip. ‘So, uh, I suppose you want to ask me what I was doing in Kerala, but honestly it was all just family and sightseeing. Nothing political.’
‘You have political relatives,’ Owen said.
Kerala had been governed by the Left, off and on, for most of a century. Its relations with China and Russia – the Co-ordinated States, as they now styled themselves – and even the Union were thus sometimes a little warmer and closer than was welcome in New Delhi. And sometimes, of course, they were very much welcome in New Delhi, whenever India’s national government needed some leverage on the rest of the Alliance. The level of intrigue was legendary.
Nayak forced a smile. ‘I’m from a well-off Indian family. Of course I have political relatives! Some of them quite high up, as it happens.’
Owen chuckled. ‘Don’t worry, you needn’t warn me off. I’m not here to ask about your relatives. I’m here to have a word with you. Off the record, of course.’
‘Me?’ She blinked hard and gave her head a quick shake that was almost a shudder. ‘I’m not political. I’m a theoretical physicist, for all the good that does me.’
‘Job-hunting?’ He sounded sympathetic. ‘I know what that’s like. I’m in rather a niche line of work myself. Journalism − an obsolete profession carried on as a boutique artisan craft, like drystone walling or coalmining. Hence the need for an Arts Council subsidy and British Council . . . arrangements.’
He left the word to hang there. She reached for it, with a look of distaste.
‘You’re not offering me an arrangement? Like I said, I have no interest in—’
‘No, no,’ said Owen, making a wiping gesture. ‘Please don’t take offence. Wouldn’t dream of anything so crass. Ah . . . this is actually about your speciality, Dr Nayak.’
‘“Quantum gravitational effects in early-universe cosmology”? Ask away, Marcus.’
‘I didn’t mean your thesis,’ said Owen. He sucked on the straw in his now slushy Manhattan, making wide, innocent eyes.
‘The velocity paper?’ Nayak crushed air and tossed it over her shoulder. ‘A student exercise in trying to find the mistake I know is there.’
‘Well, yes,’ said Owen. ‘There must be a mistake, mustn’t there?’
‘That’s why I published it. Quite a few mistakes have already been pointed out.’ She smiled wryly. ‘I’m taking them one by one and working through them.’
Owen leaned back in his seat. ‘Have you looked at how others have tackled it?’
‘Well, my esteemed critics, obviously.’
‘No, I mean the people who in recent years have published speculations in this area.’
‘The cranks?’ Another dismissive gesture.
‘No, not them. Mainstream physicists.’
‘I didn’t know there were any working in that area.’
‘Well, quite. There’s a reason why their work is obscure and seldom cited.’
‘Because it’s always torn to shreds?’
‘Not exactly. Nor is the topic discreditable in itself. In the last century even NASA maintained a small research interest in what it called Advanced Propulsion Concepts. In the 1990s Miguel Alcubierre published a paper on warp drives, and was taken seriously. Some problems with his idea − fully acknowledged from the beginning, of course − were that it required seriously unfeasible amounts of energy, exotic matter with negative mass, that sort of thing. But the notion was never dismissed on the grounds that FTL travel is flat-out impossible. It was deemed impracticable, that’s all. In recent decades, a number of well-regarded physicists and engineers have revisited the question.’ He stroked his chin, rasping the designer stubble. ‘Such papers are invariably published close to the end of the researchers’ careers, and in some cases − their lives.’
So this was what it was about!
‘Name me some names,’ Nayak said.
Owen’s neat eyebrows twitched upward. ‘All right,’ he said.
He began to recite names. Nayak put her glasses on and let the list build and the connections ramify. The date of the paper and the date of subsequent papers by the same author (usually, none); the date of the paper and the date of author’s death (often close); nature of death (sudden; after a short illness; accident; alleged homicide, unsolved).
‘Well,’ said Nayak, shaken. ‘That’s me warned, I take it?’
‘Yes,’ said Owen. ‘Sorry.’
They glared at each other for a moment.
The air hostess from behind the bar shimmied over with a tray. Deep brown eyes, air-hostess impersonal smile.
‘I see your glasses are empty.’ She swept them up. ‘Another?’
Nayak sighed, and glanced at Owen.
‘I’m happy to stick around for a bit,’ he said.
‘OK,’ said Nayak. She smiled back at the air hostess. ‘The cocktail was nice, thank you, but I’m not sure I want the same again.’
‘May I recommend Nikka Whisky From the Barrel?’
Nayak looked it up. ‘If he’s paying.’
‘Of course,’ said Owen. ‘And the same for me. Two small jugs of water on the side.’
‘Coming right up!’ said the stewardess.
She turned and left like a calligraphic flourish in silk, to return a minute later with the drinks. They both watched her leave.
‘Bloody robots and their tireless cheerfulness,’ remarked Owen, looking away from the departing vision.
‘Robots?’ cried Nayak. ‘You mean she—?’
‘Oh yes,’ Owen said.
‘Shame,’ said Nayak. ‘I have sisters and classmates who’d kill for her job.’
‘It isn’t a job,’ Owen said. ‘She’s not an employee, she’s equipment.’
An awful thought struck Nayak. ‘Does she know?’
Owen shrugged. ‘In an abstract sense, yes, in as much as she knows anything. They’re hardwired to answer truthfully if the question is put directly and seriously, and I’m sure by now someone has been tactless enough to press it on her. So it’ll be in her memory.’
Nayak shook her head and gazed down at the lights of Odessa, coming into view on the right. ‘Must be awful, knowing that.’
‘They’re not conscious in our sense, so I wouldn’t worry.’
Nayak took a sip of the whisky, savoured its 51.4 per cent alcohol sting for a moment then gave the glass a good watering. Her second sip, she could actually taste.
‘Oh, I don’t worry,’ she said. She felt bitter. ‘We’re all robots anyway.’
Owen’s eyes narrowed. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Completely deterministic systems.’ Her cheeks twitched. ‘I know that whatever happens I’ll survive to write to myself a message from the future. Because that’s how I got the basic ideas in the first place, months ago. That’s how I know it’ll one day be built and will work, come to think of it.’
Owen seemed to grasp her point immediately.
‘That may be,’ he said. ‘I don’t pretend to understand the theory, but quite possibly it does have the implication you’ve just drawn.’ He bowed his head and breathed out, misting the cold glass of the table, and doodled lines and loops with a fingertip. He looked up. ‘It implies nothing, however, about the survival of other people. Such as, for example, those sisters and old school friends you mentioned. Or your parents. Grandparents. Cousins. Nephews and nieces. As you pointed out, you have a lot of relatives, some of them political, some highly placed. Such connections can give security—but also vulnerability. The Indian intelligence services take information from the British Council very much in good faith, you know. Sometimes this is a mistake, but everyone understands these things happen.’
He stood up and knocked back the remainder of his costly single malt.
‘Well, it’s been interesting, Dr Nayak. But as I said, I have work to do. Enjoy the rest of your evening.’
‘Thank you,’ she said mechanically. ‘You too.’
In an hour or two, depending on the weather, they’d be over Romania. Union territory. If she were really as confident as she had told Marcus Owen, she could contrive some way to exit the aircraft and jump. She decided there were less dramatic, and safer, ways to defect.
* * *
To defect! The intention had formed almost before she’d given it conscious consideration. She knew something of what defection meant from an early conversation with her supervisor, Dr Adam Kurtz. What made his situation different, she’d one day inquired over mid-morning coffee, from that of the other academics from the Union who also worked at Imperial? Anyone could come and go between blocs as they pleased – the visa requirements for the Co-ordinated States were slightly more stringent than those between Union and Alliance, but that was all. The AIs kept track of everyone anyway. What difference, she’d asked, did defection make?
‘Quite a lot,’ Kurtz had explained. ‘For one thing, it means I can travel in the Union − go home, even − without being arrested. Or otherwise, ah, inconvenienced. Now that I’m registered as a defector the Alliance has my back, you see, even though I’m not yet a UK citizen.’
‘What could you have been arrested for?’
Kurtz had shrugged. ‘Draft evasion, most likely. Worst case, if they wanted to make an example of me: mutiny and desertion. I refused to co-operate with a certain application of my research. I’d already done my stint of military training – it’s short, and you can get out of it if you conscientiously object, which I didn’t – but anyone who has done it is deemed to be in the Reserve. So if the Union Army asks you for some service later in your life − it’s an order, soldier! The request that was made of me was lawful, but this time it did go against my conscience. So I took a train to Paris, then London. Completed the necessary formalities. And here I am.’
‘What were you asked to do?’
Kurtz had smiled. ‘That I can’t tell you.’
Nayak had found herself frowning. ‘Is it . . . better here?’
Palms upturned, hands moving up and down as if comparing weights: ‘There are advantages and disadvantages, let us say. The Cold Revolution . . .’ A sigh, as was usual when the phrase came up. ‘The cliché’s true, you know: it’s a revolution in the sense that the Cold War was a war. And like the Cold War it pervades and polarises everything. On this side, in the Alliance, we’re trying to slow it down. Back there in the Union, they’re trying to push it forward, very slowly and carefully but . . . there’s a relentlessness about the process that it’s a relief to get away from. Like . . . you know when a background noise you had grown to not notice suddenly stops? In my civics class a teacher quoted H. G. Wells: “It may be a very gradual change, but it will be a very complete one.”’ Kurtz’s expression had become pained, for a moment. ‘Imagine that.’
* * *
Nayak couldn’t imagine it at the time, and she couldn’t now.
She knew of the turbulent times before her birth not only from history but − more vividly − from the conversations of her politically connected uncles and aunts back in Kerala. Decades of turmoil had culminated in two shocks: the restoration of democracy in the US, and its establishment in Europe through a continent-wide insurrection: the Rising. By the time the dust settled three great powers had consolidated: the Alliance, comprising the Anglosphere minus Ireland and Scotland and plus India; the Union, comprising most of continental Europe plus Ireland and Scotland; and the Co-ordinated States, a somewhat strained alliance of Russia, China and some of their dependencies.
The new Europe that had emerged from the Rising embarked on what it called the Cold Revolution, to establish what its proponents called economic democracy. It was not overtly totalitarian. There were many political parties, and no One Party. But in all institutions you could easily spot the responsables − veterans of the Rising, or recruited since − whom everyone knew and turned to whenever you needed someone with the clout to get things done and sort things out, and within and among these and sometimes entirely separate from them were the cadre, whom you couldn’t spot at all unless you were a responsable yourself. The habits of security, of anonymity, of conspiracy from the bad old days died hard.
However mysterious, even secretive, the Union was, it didn’t sound terrifying. The thought of having to think very carefully about returning to India even for a visit hurt, for sure. But so did the thought of not being able to continue her research or talk to anyone about it. And if defection brought her the protection of the Union, surely it would extend to her extended family? She could ask, and she was sure that would be granted. The Union’s clandestine services had a reputation for the long arm and the hidden hand.
That much she knew about society in Europe.
It might be enough.
* * *
Her first thought was to visit the Spinoza Institute in South Kensington. Close enough to Imperial for her to drop by as if casually. Lots of people visited, for exhibitions and events, lectures and lessons. All very innocuous: archaeology, philosophy, literature, languages, costumes and customs, fashion and art. The Spinoza Institutes were an extension of cultural influence, Union soft power of course, but visiting wasn’t held against you, as far as she knew. But it would certainly be recorded. It could become part of building a case. She hesitated as she passed the entrance, then hurried on up Exhibition Road. Better not to give any warning of her intention.
Two days later she was on a train to Edinburgh. Tourist visa, open return ticket. She still felt tense as the train pulled out of Berwick-upon-Tweed, but all that happened when it glided over the border a few minutes later was the firewall scan moving down the carriages, leaving a shiver in its wake like a passing ghost. Everyone’s devices now spoke to Iskander, not to Smart-Alec. A guy further down the carriage shouted: ‘Welcome tae Scotland! Welcome tae the Union! Welcome tae freedom!’
To her right, green fields reached to a ragged edge of coastline, all cliffs and coves and stacks, and beyond it the grey North Sea. You couldn’t tell by looking, but the surface was already half a metre lower than it would have been without the Nordzee Barrier, endlessly under construction. Wind turbine blades cartwheeled along the horizon.
‘Welcome,’ said Iskander’s default voice in the earpiece of her glasses, warm and almost intimate. ‘I understand you wish to defect?’
Nayak jolted upright in her seat. She fought the impulse to look over her shoulder.
‘Never mind how,’ said Iskander. ‘A simple yes or no, please.’
‘Well . . . yes.’
‘Done,’ said Iskander. ‘We can sort out the screen-work and face-to-face later. For now, be assured the Union has your back.’ There was a pause, as if the AI was thinking. ‘You may have concerns about threats to your relatives.’
‘How do you know?’ Nayak whispered.
‘I’m a Triple-AI,’ said Iskander, trippingly. ‘It’s what I do. Anticipatory algorithmic artificial intelligence.’
‘Ah. That explains it.’ She wasn’t sure if the sarcasm got across.
‘The matter is in hand,’ said Iskander. ‘Relax. We can talk later.’
Not at all relaxed, Nayak huddled into the corner of the seat and looked out at the rain. As she came off the train at Waverley Station in Edinburgh she looked about, alert for any indication that she’d travelled from one side of the Cold Revolution to the other. Everything looked much the same as it had at King’s Cross. More colour and decoration in clothing, perhaps. The pillar ahead of her showed scrolling ads: Louis Vuitton, Dior, Hertz. Then it segued to one for the Union Army: soldiers with a dawn sky behind them gazing at some bright off-camera landscape ahead. The symbolism was too obvious to need spelling out, so spelt out it was: The Rising Lit the Way. As she approached the barrier Nayak saw two uniformed militia striding up the platform and froze. They approached the man who had been shouting and arrested him for public drunkenness on public transport.
* * *
The escalator propelled Nayak out of Waverley Station and on to Princes Street. Like any other new arrival, she stood for a moment looking around in confusion. The sky was overcast and the air cold. The street to her left had shops on one side, a tall monument that looked like a sandstone spaceship and a green dell of garden park on the other, and was overlooked across the railway line by a castle on a crag looming like some anachronism out of the haze of fine drizzle. Trams clanged, bikes whizzed, midday commuters hurried and lunchtime shoppers strolled. Her hotel was to the right, over . . . she thumbed her phone and summoned the map to her glasses.
‘Hello, Dr Nayak,’ said a voice she hadn’t forgotten.
She blinked away the map and stared at Marcus Owen, who stepped out of the passing crowd with a friendly and surprised-looking smile.
‘What brings you here?’ he asked.
Nayak clenched her leg muscles to stop her knees from shaking.
‘I was about to ask you the same!’ she said, forcing a bright tone.
‘Oh, I’m a frequent visitor to the Union,’ said Owen, glancing around. ‘Fascinating place, in its quaint way. Not much opportunity for journalism, but in this case I’m here on cultural matters. We’re hosting a major exhibition at the National Gallery, just along the road there.’ He waved, flashing to Nayak’s glasses a poster for some sculpture show. ‘And you?’
‘Ah, I’m just—’
‘You have a job interview,’ said Iskander, urgently in her ear. ‘Late this afternoon, on the other side of the country.’
‘—on my way to a job interview on the west coast.’ She forced a smile. ‘You’ll recall I wasn’t having much luck in my own field, and you had made your feelings clear about my prospects in that area, so—’ Iskander patched the ad to her glasses ‘—it turns out there are lots of openings here in planning consultancy, and—’
‘Mathematics has many applications?’ Owen said.
Owen nodded towards the station, with a slight frown. ‘If you’re heading west, there’s a direct connection onward from here to Glasgow.’
‘Of course,’ said Nayak. ‘Just thought I’d break my journey with a stroll through Princes Street, and on to—’ Iskander flashed the name ‘—Haymarket.’
‘Delightful!’ said Owen. ‘Well, I’m going that way. Mind if I accompany you as far as the Gallery?’
‘Say yes,’ Iskander said.
‘No!’ said Nayak. ‘Sorry, Mr Owen. I don’t welcome your company, and I hope you understand why.’
With that she turned sharply to the left and marched off, her rolling case rumbling behind her. As she crossed the first junction, just before the high monument, Iskander said: ‘Don’t look back.’
‘He’s following me?’
‘Yes. Perhaps. Wait and see if he follows you past the Gallery.’
‘Very well,’ said Iskander, as Nayak waited at the next junction. ‘Please fix your gaze on the red dot that has just appeared in front of you. Don’t look at traffic, don’t look at any other pedestrians. Simply follow the dot, starting . . . now!’
The lights had changed, and not in favour of pedestrians. Nayak had a split second of hesitation, then without conscious decision stepped out into the traffic as if she was in a virtual reality game where she wasn’t keeping score. The rear wheel of a bus almost brushed her toe; a bicycle rider hurtled past behind her with an angry yell; a cab slowed just enough for her to evade its front bumper. Then she was across. The huddle at the other side parted in front of her. The crowd on the pavement flowed past her as she walked slowly or stepped briskly or swerved or stopped, following that red virtual will-o’-the-wisp. Sometimes it led her across the street through traffic, once up a side street to the right and along a pedestrianised passageway, then back down to Princes Street again.
‘We’ve lost him,’ Iskander reported. ‘However, please continue following the dot to Haymarket.’
That took fifteen minutes. Inside the station’s noisy concourse, Iskander said: ‘The next train to Glasgow is in ten minutes.’
‘I can see that! What about my hotel?’
This seemed presumptuous. She’d taken for granted that the business about the job was merely a pretext to get away from Owen. ‘Thanks a lot.’
‘You really do have an interview booked.’
‘Well, you can cancel that too. I’ll do my own job search, thank you very much. And I do want to see Edinburgh.’
‘You’ll have plenty of time for that later,’ said Iskander. ‘This job opportunity may not come again. Consider. I suspect your defection is connected to your controversial paper. A planning consultancy would be a very good place to turn your theory into a practical proposal, while developing your mathematical abilities in new directions, and all under cover of obscurity.’
‘But . . .’ She blinked up the advertisement again. ‘“Tarbet, Argyll”? Middle of nowhere. Obscurity, all right!’
The AI didn’t sigh, but something in its tone suggested it would have if it could. ‘It’s a light-industrial town with a thriving tourist trade and a lively social scene. There are excellent connections to Glasgow, and indeed to Edinburgh. You can be there in two hours if you take the next train.’
Lakshmi Nayak didn’t believe in karma, not really, nor fate or destiny, nor providence or predestination. But − as she gazed through the glass roof of the station at the grey sky − she felt certain that at least one event in her future was already fixed: she would send that airmail letter to herself. She would travel on a faster-than-light ship. To the stars, and back! And the way to make that happen was for herself to take a hand in building that ship − or at any rate, its drive. The Nayak Drive! Maybe they would call it that, she thought, hugging herself so as not to laugh at her own presumption.
She didn’t believe in any gods, either, but she had just trusted this talkative, all-seeing, all-pervasive superhuman calculating machine with her life. It wasn’t a god on her side, exactly − gods never were − but maybe her purposes and its could be made to coincide.
‘You don’t have to take the job,’ said Iskander.
‘I’ll check it out,’ said Nayak. ‘Open return, please.’ She walked through the barrier confident that the tickets were already on her phone.
* * *
The maglev bullet train flashed her to Glasgow, leaving her impression of the landscape between the cities a blur of green and glass. Flicking through the job description on her glasses, Nayak wasn’t paying the landscape much attention anyway. The post was junior analyst at a new planning consultancy co-op, and it involved a lot of mathematics new to her. At Queen Street Station she changed to a lower platform and a slower train. Glasgow suburbs slid by, and suddenly a river to the left. By now Nayak was looking intently at Leontief input-output tables and Kantorovich optimisations, and how they were transformed and applied in the kind of software the co-op used. As she studied the transformations, she saw what seemed an obvious simplification. Surely someone had noticed this before?
She scribbled virtual notes with her stylus and placed them beside a sheet of code.
‘Iskander,’ she said, ‘why don’t they do it that way?’
‘That’s a good question,’ said Iskander. ‘I suggest you ask it at the interview.’
The line hugged the northern shore of the now widening river, which opened to what seemed an inland sea to the west. It passed behind a ragged basalt crag to which a castle clung like a necklace draped on a skull. Castles on volcanic remnants seemed to be a theme in this country. Then the line climbed gradually, up behind a new industrial town that abutted a quite distinct cluster of high towers, from which it was divided by a wall that ran − she now saw − up, and then along, the hillside. Drones flitted back and forth across the wall. Behind the towers lay a region of docks and cranes and huge fortified buildings.
‘Faslane,’ Iskander told her. ‘The Alliance naval base. That area and a smaller one a couple of mountain ranges over − Ardtaraig − are English territorial enclaves.’
Nayak felt a shiver. The power from which she’d just defected wasn’t far behind her, it was right up close − and would be, if she took up the job. She flicked her gaze away from the militarised shore and out to the water, to be met by the sight of the long, black, sinister shape of an inbound nuclear submarine.
‘Look further,’ said Iskander. ‘Look across the river. That conurbation along the shore? It’s called Inverclyde and comprises three towns: Port Glasgow with the shipyards, Greenock with the docks and Gourock with the ferries. The consultancy does a lot of work there. It’s a good place to build a ship.’
‘Yes. I’ll keep you posted.’
She returned to her interview preparations, and to the enticing thought of a very different kind of ship, the vessel that would take her to the stars.
* * *
It was the year they found Arthur. So the Scots claimed, anyway. Workers for a visitor centre at the top end of a Scottish sea loch in Argyll had dug into a hillside to extend its car park, and found a stone tomb containing Romano-British armour and the remains of some warlord from the Dark Ages. The site was overlooked by a mountain called Beinn Artair or Ben Arthur, and lay within the ancient Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde. The local tourist board got a few respected historians to admit through gritted teeth that, yes, it was just about possible that there might be some . . . And that was enough, they were off to the races. The Scottish Republic claimed the legendary king of the Britons, to the indignation and derision of the English, not to mention the Welsh. On Asian and African networks the ruckus was a popular ‘And finally . . .’ item on news bulletins for days.
So when Lakshmi Nayak stepped off the train at the Arrochar and Tarbet Station, and looked out over the green and glass glitter of the town’s new-built factories she wasn’t surprised to find, opposite the station exit, a freshly painted sign reading:
Welcome to Argyll: Homeland of Arthur
She set off down the road to her interview, smiling.