Read a sample from DEGREES OF FREEDOM by Simon Morden

It was cold. Petrovitch had climbed the monumental mound of rubble in the heat and the rain and the wind, and now the weather was turning again. His breath condensed in numinous clouds, breaking apart against his greatcoat and turning into sparkling drops of dew that clung and shivered on the thick green cloth.

He had a route: he knew which of the fallen metal beams would support his weight, and which of them would pitch him into a lake of broken glass; that concrete slab was unstable, but this seemingly inconsequential block rested on solid ground. He’d programmed it in, and it showed as a series of waymarkers, of handholds and foot-fasts, but only to him. It had been dangerous, winning that knowledge.

Dangerous to the extent that he was surprised to see another man making his way towards the summit from the other side. No one else had ever tried it before, though he’d never indicated that no one could. It wasn’t like the remains of the Oshicora Tower were his in any moral or legal way.

That he had company had to mean something, but he’d have to wait to find out what.

He wasn’t going to let this novelty get in the way of his ritual, performed as he had done every day at the same time for the previous three hundred and forty-eight days. He carried on climbing, barely having to think about his muscles, letting the weight and carry of his body fall into a series of familiar, learnt movements.

He used the time to think about other things instead: on how his life had gone, how it was now and how, in the future that he was trying to shape, it might change. His face twitched, one corner of his mouth twisting slightly: the ghost of a smile, nothing more. He was haunted by a vision that held almost limitless promise, yet still stubbornly refused to come into being.

He was almost there, but not quite: figuratively and literally. The summit of the ruins of the Oshicora Tower was in sight, turned by his successive visits into a hollow crown of arching, twisted steel. He stepped up and over, and was already searchin for something symbolic to throw.

He kicked at the surface detritus, at the pulverised dust and the shattered glass, the cracked ceiling tiles and strips of carpet, the broken particleboard and bare wires – all the things the tower contained before it was collapsed by cruise missiles.

There was the edge of a plastic chair. He reached down and lifted it up, pulling it free. It was pink, and had become separated from its wheeled base. It was cracked almost in half, but not quite. It would do.

He took it to the precipice, and held it up over his head. It had become street theatre for the crowds below, but that wasn’t why he was doing it. When he’d started a year ago, it had been raining horizontally and he’d been soaked to the skin. There had been just Lucy and Tabletop and Valentina as witnesses. He hadn’t even told them what he was doing: he’d have preferred to be entirely alone on that first day, but they hadn’t let him. After that, it had taken on a life of its own, with thousands now surrounding the wide ring of rubble to watch him ceremonially, futilely, try to dig out the AI buried underneath.

They came, he climbed, he picked something up from the top and threw it to the ground. He descended, and they went. Pretty much it.

He flexed his arms. The pink seat flew through the crisp, still air, trailing dust. It bounced and tumbled, picking up speed as it fell. It pitched into the crowd, who ducked and dodged as it whirled by. It disappeared behind a mass of bodies, and he lost interest in it. Six weeks ago, he’d accidentally hit someone with the edge of a desk, but they’d come back the next day with a bandaged head and a shine in their eyes.

He wasn’t sure what to make of that sort of . . . devotion.

Petrovitch was about to turn and head back down when he remembered one of them was coming up to meet him. Because it was the first time it had happened, he wasn’t quite sure how to react. He wasn’t beholden to anyone, anyone at all. He could just go, or he could stay.

He looked out over the crowd. Normally, they’d be dispersing by now: he’d thrown his thing, his image had been captured by innumerable cameras and streamed for a global audience. They should go. They all had jobs to do, because that was why they were in the Freezone.

But they were staying, watching the figure scrabble forward, slide back just as far. Petrovitch was uncertain whether the crowd were willing him on or trying to haul him down with their thoughts.

He sat down, his legs dangling free over the edge of the rubble. It was risky, certainly. Part of him realised it and relished it. It wasn’t as if the remains were in any way stabilised. They would, and did, occasionally shift.

The man making his way up was taking a yebani long time. The clock in the corner of his vision counted out the seconds and minutes, and a quick consultation with his diary told him he needed to be somewhere on the other side of the Freezone in an hour.

“Are you going to get on with it, or should I come back tomorrow?” he called down.

The man’s face turned upwards, and Petrovitch’s heart spun just a little faster.

“You could come and help me,” said the man.
“Why should I make it easy for you? You never made it easy for me.”
“You could have asked for someone else to officiate.” He stopped and straightened up, giving Petrovitch a good view of the white clerical collar tucked around the neck of his black shirt.

“Madeleine wouldn’t have anyone else. And whether she was punishing you or me, I still haven’t worked out.”

“Both, probably.” The priest scrubbed at his face. He was sweating, despite the cold. “We need to talk.”
“It’s not like I’ve been hiding.”
“We need to talk, now.”
“I’m not shouting the rest of the conversation.”
“Then help me.”

Petrovitch considered matters. It’d be entirely reasonable to raise his middle finger and strand the priest on the side of an unstable rubble pile, leaving him the equally difficult climb down.

“I should tell you to otvali.”
“But you won’t. You’re tired, Petrovitch. The things you want most in the world are just as much out of your reach as they ever were.”

Perhaps it was true. Perhaps he’d grown weary of continual confrontation. Perhaps he had, despite himself, changed.

“Meh.” He jumped down and slithered the ten metres between them, closing the distance in bar seconds. He tucked his coattails underneath him and sat down where he’d stopped. “Here’s good. Say what you have to say. Better still, say why you couldn’t have said it anywhere else. Unless you crave a ready-made audience.” Petrovitch frowned and sent virtual agents scurrying across the local network nodes. “You’re not wired, are you?”

“Priests, above everyone else, should be able to keep secrets.” Father John looked around him for a suitable perch, and Petrovitch rolled his eyes: servos whirred, and tiny pumps squeezed some more moisture out to coat the hard surfaces of the implants.

“It’s not comfortable for me, and I don’t care if it is for you. I have somewhere else to be soon enough, so you haven’t got me for long.”

The father crouched down on his haunches and tried to sit. He started to slip, and Petrovitch’s arm slammed, not gently, across his chest. It forced him onto his backside.

“Plant your feet, you mudak. Be certain.” When he was sure the priest wasn’t going to start a landslide, he put his hand back in his lap. “It’s all about confidence, misplaced or otherwise.”

“A metaphor for your life?” Father John rocked slightly from side to side, trying and failing to create a buttock-shaped depression underneath him.

Poydi’k chertu. It’s worked well enough so far.”
“So far,” said Father John, “but not any longer. You’re stuck, aren’t you?”
Jebat moi lisiy cherep.
“And if you’d stop swearing at me and listen, I might be able to help.” He risked falling to gesture at the people below.
“So might they.”
“I . . .” started Petrovitch. He looked at the crowd. He zoomed in and panned across their faces. He could have, if he’d wanted, named every one of them from the Freezone database. “They come here, day after day, and they don’t say anything. None of them ever say what they want.”
“You must have some idea.”
“I haven’t got a yebani clue.” Petrovitch shrugged. “I’ve never been too good at the human stuff.”
“That much is true. Did it never occur to you to speak to them? That that’s what they’re expecting?”

Petrovitch’s mouth twitched again, and he pushed his finger up the bridge of his nose to adjust his non-existent glasses.

“For the love of God, man.” It was the priest’s turn to be exasperated. “You might be reviled by every politician from the Urals westward, but they,” and he pointed downwards again, “they love you. You saved them. Twice. The ones who actually think about it know they owe their lives to you. Even those that don’t think you’re a living saint are indebted to you to a degree that any leader, religious or secular, would give their eye teeth for.”
“I don’t ask for it or need it.”
“Yes, you do. You come up here every day and do this, this thing that you do. You know it’s futile, pointless even. You could have spent your time lobbying the EU, the UN, but as far as I know, you haven’t talked to anyone about what’s trapped under here.”

“Not what. Who. He has a name.” Petrovitch felt the old anger rise up, but he knew how to deal with it. Breathe slowly, control the spin of his heart, play a brainwave pattern designed to mimic relaxation.

“Michael,” said the father. “That girl said . . .”
“She has a name too. Lucy.”
The priest looked troubled for a moment.
“We’re not talking about Lucy now. Or ever. So stick to the subject because the clock’s ticking.”
“How long is it going to take you to dig out Michael from under here, using your bare hands?”

Petrovitch leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.

“When you say the magic words over your bread and wine, is it you who changes them to body and blood?” He knew he was on ontroversial territory, but he was doing more than enough to pay for the right, just by sitting and listening.

“No. It’s by the power of the Holy Spirit – not that I expect you to believe that.”
“So why say the words at all?”
“Because the words are important.”
“And you have the answer to your question.” Petrovitch stroked his nose. “This is a symbol.”
“But it has no efficacy.”
“This. This throwing something down off this mountain. You’ll be dead before you finish and the A . . . and Michael will still be trapped. The sacraments have the power to save. This is nothing but an empty gesture.” Father John waved his hands in the air, to indicate just how great the nothingness was.

“One man’s empty gesture is another’s meaningful ritual.”
Petrovitch pursed his lips. “You don’t want to go down that road. Not with me.”

The priest pulled a face. “Look, I’ve been sent here. Sent here to ask you a question, and this is the only time you’re ever alone.”
“It’s not like my answer is going to change in company.” His interest was piqued, though. “Who sent you?”
“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

Petrovitch raised his eyebrows. “The Inquisition? That’s unexpected.”
“Give it a rest. They haven’t been called the Inquisition for over fifty years.”
“So what do they want?”
“They want to know whether Michael can be considered to be alive. And if he is, does he have a soul?”
“Really? He’s been trapped under this mound of rubble for almost a year and it’s only now they decide to take any notice. Where have they been?” He snorted. “Up their own collective zhopu?”

“I don’t expect you to understand,” said the priest. “They’ve been doing nothing but debate this since the Long Night. What if an AI shows signs of independent, creative thought? What if it can empathise? What if it has the capacity for generosity, altruism, compassion?”
“I could have given them the answers eleven months ago.”
“That’s not the point. They needed to decide theoretically about all those what-ifs. If it could, what should we do about it, if anything? They have,” and he hesitated, “a protocol they’ve drawn up. A sort of Turing test, except it doesn’t measure intelligence. It measures animus.”
“So the Vatican wants to know if Michael is a spiritual being, or the equivalent of meat.” Petrovitch blinked. “Yobany stos. They want to know if it can be saved.”
“Something like that. The Holy Father ratified the protocol last night. The Congregation called me straight away. They haven’t been sitting on their hands; for the Church, this counts as indecent haste.”

Petrovitch considered matters, then made his decision.

“No,” he said.
“No? I haven’t even told you what the Congregation wants.”
“Doesn’t matter.” He got up and brushed the tails of his coat down. “The answer’s the same. I’m not playing.”

“If the Church declares Michael ensouled, then there’s a moral duty laid on every Catholic to help free it.” Father John tried to stand too, but Petrovitch had moved far enough away to be out of reach. The priest’s feet started to slide again. “I thought that’s what you wanted? You need us.”
“Yeah. So you say.” Petrovitch reached out and took hold of a broken iron beam. He knew it would take his weight, and he swung up on it. From there, he could regain the summit.

“Petrovitch! I thought you’d be pleased.”

That stopped him. He looked back over his shoulder and shook his head slowly. “What the huy made you think that? Listen to me, because I’m only going to waste my breath saying this once. I don’t care what a bunch of old men – and they are all men, aren’t they? – I don’t care what they say about Michael, whether they think he has a soul or not, whether he’s worthy enough to be freed or whether he’s going to be left here to rot or as long as his batteries last, slowly going mad in the dark. He is my friend, and I will not let him die. Vrubatsa?” He turned to leave, then realised he had one more thing to say.

“What?” said the priest.
“Stay away from Lucy. If I find you’ve so much as glanced in her direction, I’ll gut you from neck to navel with a rusty spoon. You can tell Cardinal Ximenez that, too.”
“That’s not . . .” Father John gave up. “You can’t stop them. Your cooperation is not necessary.”

This time, Petrovitch did give the priest his middle finger.

“You’re about to find out just how wrong you are.” He climbed up, and out of sight.

The crowd shifted nervously. They were missing something, but couldn’t tell what. Most of them started to drift away. Others, the hard-core watchers, decided that they’d wait for someone to tell them what had happened.