City

 

09:00 Second Day

OK. Deep breath. It's time. Step forward and get things started.

Carolyn took her leave of Simon, and stepped onto the stage, walked up to the lectern.

"Good morning, everyone!"

She lowered her hands to indicate silence, and slowly, the hubbub subsided.

"Welcome to the second day of this conference on development via the local supply of services. As most of you know, we have had a last minute addition to the programme.

"Today's keynote speech by VN Bhattacharya of IndOS about the success of business networks in Rajasthan using wifi simputers will now start at 9:45, after a special guest speech.

"I am honoured, privileged, to be able to welcome someone who has been working on how to bring development to less advantaged people for at least as long as I've been alive.

"Speaking to us today, on the subject Human Development - being all we can be is Nancy Elanor, Lady Wolf.'

Cued came the acknowledgement.

And she turned to where Nancy had emerged, and clapped to prompt the audience. This was the moment of truth, in a morning that had already started off strange.

She had woken abruptly, but peacefully, in the dark, the alarm clock by her bedside showing 06:20, ten minutes before it was due to go off. She stretched, luxuriating. She just felt great - even though she had sunk the best part of a couple of bottles of the old vino before crashing.

She remembered getting up to go to the loo a couple of times, not really waking up, but otherwise had slept soundly, and dreamed - something, something that left only a vague feeling of contentment.

Another stretch, and she sat up, awake now, with no lure of sleep, pre-empted the alarm.

She hesitated, her finger on the switch. Silence, or the radio? What might she find happening in the world the day after the shock of the Visit? After the fire from heaven had deleted the worst leaders and regimes? She remembered all too well the chaos in Iraq after just such an event - the long-suppressed rising up in an orgy of unconstrained reaction. To imagine it multiplied tenfold, and more, without a single soldier on the ground to attempt to impose order - and had Nancy not herself mentioned armies turning brigand? - filled her with apprehension.

Could ignorance be bliss? Or was that just the feeling of an ostrich? How complicit was she herself, as a focus for the Visit?

With a sense of calmness that surprised her, she switched on the radio.

"...Our technology correspondent takes up the story of the vanishing spam. " came the presenter's voice.

"Yes, thanks Eddie. It's like in the last 24 hours we've had a whole new Internet installed. All those familiar e-mails promising you a share of Nigerian oil money or to enhance your virility, have simply stopped arriving in the last day..."

Was that really the big story? Even for a business affairs slot, a spam story seemed more the sort of thing for a slow news day. She let it babble on to itself, and rolled out of bed.

She picked up the dressing gown from the chair by the bed-side, and headed for the kitchen, and coffee. Just a few steps, but enough to notice quite how coarse - how dull - the towelling felt. Spoilt by yesterday's luxury? or just a part of the upgrade that she noticed it at all?

The coffee smelt good, if not great, as she ground it, and put it to filter, though the prospect of her usual scanty breakfast of toast filled her with slight revulsion, but she shelved that thought and went to shower while the coffee brewed.

Emerging cleansed, hair wrapped in towel, she poured herself a welcome cup, and took a first sip, then went back into the bedroom to comb out her hair and get dressed while it cooled. Sitting on the bed and combing out the tangles, flinging drops of water all about, she considered having it all cropped short, and thus lower maintenance. It was something she had avoided in previous years, not wishing to fall into a stereotype, and not yet old enough to get away with it as a matter of course .

Hair restored to some semblance of order, and bunched into a ponytail, she had then gone to the wardrobe, and spotted the washing basket full of neatly folded clothes,not at all as she had left it. She picked up the knickers at the top of the pile and sniffed, suspiciously. They didn't smell used, or even of cloth, freshly laundered or not; there was just the faintest hint of something unfamiliar,dry and neutral, but not unpleasant. They didn't look worn, just plain white cotton briefs - but without any label.

That roused her suspicions. Only one way to test. She slipped them on. "Black," she thought. They obligingly changed colour.

Her first reaction was that she'd no longer need to worry about drying her laundry again. The next was to wonder about how infectious this was. She'd long ago spotted the fallacy in The Man in the White Suit, that the miracle fabric wasn't proof against the forces of changing fashions, even if it hadn't self-destructed. But what she had in her laundry basket was the real thing they should have feared in that film.

And then the real sinking feeling. If her clothes had become contagious, what else might she be spreading? For a brief while she wondered about simply sealing herself in. But that would lead to having to call in someone official - getting tangled in the system she had tried all her adult life to keep at arm's length. Then she remembered the dissolving husk of the re-entry capsule, and the knife with any fragments of her flesh, blood, or clothing it had snagged, that she had cast, unthinking, into a drain.

If there was any infection of any sort, it was already spread. She could - if believed, and not written off as a crank - cause the springing of the ever more totalitarian powers that the government had granted itself since the Twin Towers, cause panic and most likely, death. Or she could say that the genie was already out of the bottle. Whatever, it was out of her control. So she just let it go, feeling a calm instead of her usual fruitless spiral of worry. No, she would not wear a hair shirt, metaphorical, or somewhat literal, but trust that Nancy's intentions were benign, and anything of the Ascended was beyond her power to thwart.

She dressed, sipping her coffee as she did, then considered what sort of image she wanted to project, before settling on a pale chocolate suit, and black T-shirt, completely plain,and high necked.

Her attention was caught by the radio she'd left playing - something about a nuclear weapon

"...in Washington, State Department officials are denying accusations from the Director of Homeland Security that this was an attempt to discredit his agency that had gone criminally out of hand. The BBC has also received reports that a number of middle-ranking officials as well as members of both Houses of Congress are currently being held under military custody in undisclosed locations around the country.

"Although the President has gone on national television to call for a sober and responsible reaction to the evening's events, there is still a feeling of shock in and around Washington as the news spread."

She remembered what Nancy had said about a coup attempt in America, and wondered what had really gone on, and what was going on, unreported. Were there survivalists and militias heading for the hills in the Midwest? How many people might know who that the Visitor was involved in frustrating - and unwittingly setting off - the whole thing.

The radio carried on, quoting the Presidential address, while Carolyn fidgeted with her outfit, then turned to a consideration of food, scanning kitchen cupboards for something that sparked interest, eventually settling on a bag of dried apricots that had not quite yet fossilised at the back of one shelf, and thrust them into one pocket.

Returning to the bedroom to switch off the radio, she was caught by the change of tempo in the announcer's voice.

"...speaking to us on a poor quality line from the Ukraine."

Mushy sound, and then "Yes, I'm speaking to you from a military helicopter about a mile from the reactor site. When we did a fly-by soon after dawn, the alien machines had all stopped moving, and the reactor buildings were hidden under a glossy black dome.

"Now the dome is like smoked glass - you can just see the reactor buildings and the sarcophagus inside, as well as all the devices that were being built during the night. We're closer now than we could get then, as the sheer terror that some of the machines give off stopped suddenly about twenty minutes ago, which is why we're in the air now.

"The feeling that something is about to happen is palpable.

There was a brief pause.

"Yes, I'm not sure if you could hear that, something rumbling, very low bass tone, it's coming from the dome. Getting louder, I can almost feel it over the throbbing of the helicopter engines, and the pilot is starting to take us away. Something is definitely about to happen.

"My God! It's moving! The whole thing is starting to lift off! The ground level inside the dome is yards above the outside. It's just drifting up like a balloon, leaving a crater behind.

"It's just taken a big bite out of the ground, and is floating off with it. The dome is a globe, floating far above us now, vanishing into the sky. The whole Chernobyl complex has just taken off and flown away. All that is left is a hole, and three silvery towers that are standing at the ends of the powerlines."

The background noise continued for a few seconds, before the handover back to the studio, and the weather forecast - which was one of those infuriating ones that started by describing a mixture that would apply to all of Britain but for a few bits around the edges, not specified until later, but the rough gist of which seemed to be that in London, it would be fine, albeit with a chill to the wind.

No need for a heavy coat, then, she thought as she switched the radio off; a light jacket should do.

And it was indeed shaping up to be a fine morning, just a few puddles left from the overnight rain, the sky that she could see almost clear, only a handful of cirrus wisps, and the wind brisk on her face, though the jacket blunted it completely.

Passing Coram's Fields, with the trees only beginning to consider colouring for the autumn, it seemed to be about to be one of those last days which hinted at summer, for all that sunset was soon after six, too nice a day for spending indoors. Then she shivered as she remembered the "last perfect day" that she had been shown, the beginning of the fire before the final ice.

The walking warmed her, and by the time she crossed New Oxford Street, she had slung her jacket over one shoulder, and feeling a sense of superiority over the general flow of people in heavy cold-weather gear. Sure, there was some superficial cooling of the skin on her bare arms, but nothing significant,as her system rebalanced to cope. There were calories from the wine to burn, and some of the apricots, after all.

The lecture hall and seminar rooms were already busy when she arrived at the lecture halls, as staff and student volunteers worked on the behind the scenes set up. As she looked in at the main auditorium, to check that the A/V kit that had been temperamental the previous day - as she had to remind herself it was for everyone else - was being tested, she heard her name called.

"Oh, Simon," she replied , "Everything under control?"

"Yeah, sure. Most of this place runs itself; and the arrangements for the new schedule didn't cause much of a stir. Even the usual suspects were all 'whatever' at me - I guess the Visitor flap is going to be as bad for morale as it was yesterday." He paused, looked again at her.

"Say, you seem to be thriving on all this. I don't know who you are bringing along here, but I know that getting a VIP in at the last minute would give me more white hairs than I already have." He stroked one side of his head, indicating what had been black hair several years before, and was now steel grey.

"You look like it's taking years off you. Should have gotten into the major leagues years ago,eh?

"Still, when's the mystery guest due? Will there be a limo?"

"I'm not sure. Our meeting was rather informal, so I expect not. Let's go to the committee room, where we can talk about this."

They threaded the corridors and up a dingy flight of stairs to the office that they were using for administration. As Carolyn opened the door she became aware that the room was already occupied.

Nancy had beaten them both, and was sitting in one of the chairs, feet up on a stack of papers on a side table, a cup of coffee in one gloved hand. And wearing an outfit that looked a lot more the stereotype of sci-fi babe. She had kept her usual colour scheme, with a blue leotard, and the yoke and short sleeves of a jacket, something that fell in the space between belt and skirt, and high boots in white.

Simon spoke first.

"Uh, Miss Y-," he began.

Nancy put the coffee down, stood up.

"It's Lady Nancy Elanor Wolf, actually, and I'm here by myself, so stop worrying, Simon."

Gone was the weird accent from the first radio broadcast, or even their first meeting,Carolyn thought. Now she was speaking pure BBC - or more precisely, pure Charlotte Green.

"Simon's just worried in case I brought a red-head along," Nancy explained, "when all I was doing was just having a little game with his head.

"No, you're right, it's not the sort of thing that will really suit a serious presentation later. I'd better change into something more in tune with the zeitgeist."

She turned to Simon, who was still boggling and trying to find the right question to ask of the right person, and she waved a stern finger at him.

"No fan service for you, I'm afraid," she told him, breaking out into a mischievous grin as she did, and as her outfit began to morph, the colours dulling until she was wearing a delicately textured grey suit, a white shirt with just a blue bow tied at her neck to relieve the monochrome. From the breast pocket of the jacket, she drew a pair of wire rimmed spectacles, and put them on.

"This more suitable, you think?" she asked then, without pause for answer, "Now down to business. What sort of multi-media facilities do you have in the auditorium? Or do you have networking facilities? I gather I have to be prepared to handle a whole range of protocols, so I brought along a whole lot of kit, if there isn't anything where I can take over the hardware."

"Over to you on that one, Simon," was all Carolyn could venture when things started to get that technical. And in any case, she had other things to do.

With a heartfelt look at Carolyn that had more than a little of the "Just you wait 'til later..." about it, Simon settled resignedly to being tech support.

No sooner had Carolyn actually turned to deal with various administrivia that had accumulated during her unscheduled jaunt, than Nancy looked up from the case of varied electronic gadgets she had set out on the side table to ask "Is there somewhere inconspicuous near the podium where I will be able to wait. It will be simpler that way."

Carolyn thought for a moment, then decided she couldn't remember. "I'll have to go and see. Have fun with your toys while I'm gone."

She was sure Simon would. She could see the gadgetry had captured his immediate attention.

Time passed as she was accosted by one delegate after another, for various trivial matters, before she was able to poke around in the main auditorium, to find a small store cupboard where some of the AV equipment was stored, and some of the electrical switch-boxes. Satisfied that was the best that was on offer, she was about to head back when That will have to do. We should be about ready to come down, now. Nancy's thought echoed in her head.

'As you seem so keen on hiding, when, what...' She couldn't quite frame the question, and her thought tailed off into confusion.

I'll be able to keep myself inconspicuous on the way down, but I don't want the hard work of keeping the whole crowd from noticing me. After, I'll be out of the closet. And then I can rely on hard physical security. As there's no significant amount of fissiles in the neighbourhood, I only have to worry about crude physical violence in this epoch and that's the sort of thing I've been having to deal with since I was in my teens. And today, I've got better back-up technology than I had back then. You've not spotted my minders in there with you already, have you?

Carolyn looked around. No-one seemed out of place.

Look up

She did, scanning the ceiling, the lights, and then spotted something anomalous in the corners above the stage, some of the migraine effect that had masked Nancy's car. Briefly shapes resolved, small blue and white objects like shortened 3 litre soda bottles, that became yellow and black before fading behind the migraine again.

The wasp colour scheme tells everyone that they have been armed.

Those are just one tier. The best security technology can provide is riding overhead.

Image of dozens, hundreds, of similar devices hanging above the city.

We're done here, so see you shortly.

Time to fuss at some of the kit on the podium, get a couple of gofers sorting out other side tables, before Simon and Nancy arrived. Simon went to recheck the A/V interfaces, while Nancy just faded from perception.

"Not too long now," Carolyn said, as much to herself as anyone.

"Yeah. The eager types will start to trickle in in a quarter of an hour or so," Simon agreed, not looking up from what he was doing.

A small strand of chirpy music broke into the general background.

"Mine," Simon announced, and fumbled in his pocket for the phone.

"Hi, Sis. ... Yes, I am up. ... At work, at the LSE. ... Where? ... Yes, I know the place. ... When? ... Maybe quarter past nine. ... what's up? .. OK, See you then." He put the phone away.

"Sorry about this - Family business. I need to go and meet my sister. I'll be heading out just as soon as the lecture is under way."

"I suppose that can't be helped. OK, go on then."

The minutes ticked past, and the butterflies started fluttering in Carolyn's stomach until it was time to make that fateful announcement.

09:15 Second Day

Celia sat nursing yet another refill of coffee, waiting, in the greasy spoon by Embankment Station. She lounged in her chair, feeling comfortably replete, after a serious full English with chips and a fried slice. And no grit, though likely all sorts of additives, and sausages containing what was only technically meat. At least, she thought to herself, the lycopenes in the ketchup would have been healthy.

The feeling of a full stomach left her feeling anchored to the real world, while the lack of sleep for the last couple of days that she'd experienced left her light headed; and the coarse black coffee had her slightly jittery as she overcompensated for an involuntary period of abstinence from caffeine.

She was just about over the initial trauma. The scene when she had returned was at least familiar. When she had booted her mobile, it had reverted to its zero date, back in April 2002 - no surprises there; just an annoying habit it had picked up when not in constant use. And no point resetting it and waiting for her calendar to catch up with the intervening time. She had just called up the BBC News website.

The dateline was familiar enough to be disturbing. Rather than skipping her ahead of the time she experienced, as earlier visits into the otherworld had done, this time she'd spent more time there than had elapsed here. This was only the morning after the night before, the night that Aradia had knocked on her door.

But even just the night hours had seen changes. She skipped past the trivial ones : a coup attempt by the local God-botherers in the States - not really a surprise, to her mind - and the slow motion chaos of only a slightly different kind to normal that continued in the broad arc from the south of Africa, around via the Himalayas and down into Indonesia, nor even the Chancellor's proposed new tax regime for micropower producers.

More of interest were the little stories. Activity within what she thought to herself of as an Absolute Terror Field at Chernobyl - hadn't Aradia mentioned something that might have been that? - construction work in oilfields, and temperature anomalies in the North Atlantic that she only found data about some links and sites away from the main news, following mentions of possible landings. There was some odd engineering going on, and on a planetary scale. And reading between the lines of stories from both ends of the arc of chaos, she wondered what other untold events might be unfolding out on the high seas.

Of the Visitor herself, no further sign or message, save for the continuing multi-terabyte infodump of her distributed website - not the sort of thing to surf with the limited form-factor of her mobile - just the ring the comet,and now a skein of other, smaller, satellites in the same orbit; bodies the showed as featureless white globes, several meters across, in the pictures she hunted down.

The sensation of discomfort from feet that had gone beyond cold brought her eventually back from cyberspace. And not only her feet - her kidneys had noticed the temperature too. By now the sun was well clear of the skyline, but for all the brightness, it was still a chilly October morning, with the City microclimate likely responsible for there not being a frost.

And, she realised, despite whatever qualities the water she had drunk in that garden, it had not offset the fact that she had hardly eaten for the last subjective day, and was now famished. Where to go at not yet 8 o'clock of a morning?

She guessed that the City would be awake, but only ever visiting London on Saturdays, she only ever saw it when it was shut down, and had no idea where to find things, while all the West End would be likely to provide would be various coffee shops - and her stomach was after more than a ciabatta sandwich. Then, a memory arose.

She could not remember the occasion, but had a vague recollection of her father driving her and her brother up to London very early in the morning, and the recollection of a fried breakfast somewhere near Embankment, while outside it had been still well before day. There was some hazy idea that this was where cabbies and bus-drivers refuelled. That had been easily thirty years ago, but if that failed, there would at least be the concourse at Charing Cross and the chance of a breakfast burger.

Holstering her mobile,she sauntered down the road, the traffic's busy roaring a sign that she was truly home again. In the patches where the sunlight fell, there was the promise of some last false summer. Her spirits lifted, as the walk let some of the tension she had not even been aware of flow out of her body.

Home. The Smoke, the Great Wen. Here, it seemed that nothing had in fact changed. Faced with a challenge from out of space, the world had done pretty much nothing. No revelations of secret American superhumans in bright spandex, nor even olive drab. No sudden launches of new-model space shuttles. No giant robots out of Japan. None of the things, in fact, that always seemed to happen on the screen or in print.

If there were any Secret Masters, they had not revealed themselves.

And then the gut-churning thought hit her.

The Secret Masters had shown their hand, set their champion in motion. And she was all that the bickering bunch of Queens, Moon-daughters and Sorceresses had managed to bring into play.

She quickened her pace, past the moored ships, up to the new bridge out of Charing Cross, where she had to wait for the lights, then down the side to Embankment.

There was a café, not too modernised - Americanised - serving breakfast. She wasn't sure it was the same place, or even just its successor, but it offered the sort of thing she was after. It was slightly insalubrious, not the sort of place she'd normally frequent, but it wasn't exactly a normal occasion.

She ordered a black coffee, and queued up a full English, and carried the cup to a vacant table - then stopped. She really had to go now - but how to mark her place? After some brief thought, she unpacked her waterproof, and left that on the table beside the cup, and dashed off, hoping that the ladies wouldn't be too unspeakable.

Returning in a much more composed state of mind, she found, as always seemed to be the way, that food had arrived in her absence. And when they said Full English - well it didn't have devilled kidneys or kedgeree, but apart from that it was the works - sausage, bacon,eggs,beans, tomato, fried slice - and chips, rather than what she still felt was the new-fangled import of hash browns.

While she set to work on the plateful, tending to the remaining demand of the meat on her conscious activity, she felt that she would be happy to be liberated from the tyranny of guts and bladder and appetites, in some angelic state of upload - cleaner, better, upgraded.

She must, she reflected, be getting old. Thinking back, she remembered when - and it must have been as a teenager, she had shared the distaste of the characters in Niven's Protector at the concept of trading the physical capacity for sex to receive enhanced intelligence and much extended lifespan. Now, she would be happy to transcend much more of her biological frame for the same outcome. And she had a keener feel for what enhanced intelligence might mean - the ability to apprehend as a whole, things only deduced from their parts at a merely human level of intellect, like being able to see the classification of finite groups, tens of thousands of pages of incremental proofs and intermediate results, in the same way she could see the proof that primes were unbounded in number, and see that both were equally obvious.

She pondered her next move. This was definitely something that would be better done with enhanced intelligence. She had no guidance, not even the vague suggestions of doing something, using something, only when all else failed. She had the Mark, as enigmatic as it had always been for the last thirty-plus years, a vanishing coronet of starstuff and moonshine, and a tin cup that she strongly suspected was the Grail - and none of which came with manuals or on-line help. The one performed to its own agenda, the next she could not even access; the last would hold water, and might have some effect if displayed in the right circumstances - though she hoped she could avoid being driven by an army of the restless dead to the edge of Heaven.

The thought struck her as she was wiping her plate with the last chunk of the fried slice - that perhaps these were things she did not need to know how or when to use, that she was merely a delivery system, wound up and launched, that would inevitably take one or other or all to a place or time where they would perform their function.

So she would follow the traditional method to achieve intelligence amplification - talk it over with someone else. And there was only one other who would understand where she was coming from - her brother, who now had an attic flat somewhere south of the river, where Camberwell faded into Kennington. It was now well after eight, so it was a sensible time to call - if he was in, and in the country, he would be surfacing soon. As the last batch of photos from exotic parts of the world had gone up on his website only in August, it seemed likely he'd be around.

She let the mobile ring, was about to give up, when it was answered.

"Hi. Are you up yet?...Are you at home? or where?...I need to talk to you - could you come and meet me?...The diner near Embankment - the place with steel tables outside...When can you get here?...I met Angharad duLac again last night - I don't want to say more on an open channel. See you nine fifteen...Bye"

And then there was nothing much to do except get her coffee cup refilled, and wait.

She saw him a while before she recognized him. It showed that it had been over twenty years since she'd seen him at all frequently, she wasn't used to the cropped. and now greying, hair, and now dressed in an unusually formal outfit, even with a tie. He too took his time, peering through the café window, to spot where she was sitting.

He came in at a rush, and squatted by her table, balancing himself with hands on the tabletop.

"If you've settled up here,let's go," he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "If we hurry, we can get back to the conference while the Visitor is still speaking, I'm sure you'll want to see her."

She took a second or two to register exactly what it was that he'd said. But her reaction could only be one thing.

"No! I mustn't. That's what they want, it must be. We mustn't meet - at least not until I've figured out what it is I'm carrying.


Author's note

Here's where I've stalled. Celia was meant to go and meet Carolyn at this point for another bout of philosophical discussion, and then get on to this concern, and there be concern about shadow matter constructs and things hiding in Banach-Tarski spaces.

And in the 3 years since I started this, the world has moved on a lot. Dubya has done in his way a small part of what Nancy would have done more surgically. It gets more difficult to keep the focus on the personal struggles.


© Steve Gilham 2004
© Mr. Tines 2004


Chapter 6 - Avalon

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