The Longest Day
24 September 2085
David Belial awoke to the sound of waves. He stayed where he was, listening with his eyes closed. Using the iSphere, he was able to create the illusion of waking in a cabin by the fjord. Or in the lantern room of a lighthouse. But all Belial wanted was the sound of the waves crashing against the coastal rock. To wake up as he had as a child at his family’s summer house in World’s End on the southern tip of Tjøme. The irregular crashing of the waves interweaving with his dreams before finally washing them away.
Would he dream after today? All conscious creatures dreamed. But what was consciousness really, and would he regard himself and his own memories differently afterwards? There were only philosophical rather than scientific answers to that question.
Belial opened his eyes. He was lying on a camelhair futon in a white, windowless bedroom. When the flat’s artificial intelligence, AI, registered that he was awake, the lights in the room started simulating a sunrise. All sunrises in Oslo and in large parts of Europe were artificial, Belial mused. With few exceptions, the cloud cover across the continent had been permanent since the mid-2060s. For most people under the age of twenty, the sunrise and sunset simulations were the only reality they knew.
He put on his silk kimono and went out into the living room.
From his conservatory on the top floor of the high-rise at the end of Aker Brygge, Belial had a view of most of the Norwegian capital. Akershus Fortress sat on the opposite side of Pipervika Bay. The Fortress Quarter had become the most exclusive part of Oslo in the last decade. From a distance, the almost 800-year-old fortress looked untouched, but inside the walls, everything was new.
The flag fluttered above the presidential place to the northwest. Like him, newly appointed Vice President Solveig Norsjø started her day early. Preparations for Norway to take over the presidency of Thule for the next two years were well underway. Around lunchtime, Belial usually took a stroll through the old palace park, where the statues of King Karl Johan, King Harald, Queen Sonja and Norway’s most recent regent, King Haakon, still stood guard. He didn’t agree with the most rabid republicans, who thought the statues should be removed. Now that Norway – along with Sweden, Denmark and the northern part of Finland – had become part of Thule, the historic link to the independent nation of Norway was even more important. ‘Integration, influence and identity,’ had been the mantra of those intending to vote yes before the referendum and the unification. Old monarchs, no matter anyone’s opinion of the monarchy, were part of that identity.
There was a knock on the door. Belial could see the outline of Antonius, his personal butler, through the pearly white glass.
Antonius opened the sliding door. As always, he was wearing a tailcoat with a white shirt and a white bow tie. His appearance made him seem much older than his forty-two years.
Antonius put down the tray bearing a double espresso, a glass of mineral water and a pill box with the day’s medication on the sideboard by the window. This would be the last dose Belial needed to take if everything went to plan.
‘I’m going straight to the Igloo after breakfast. Is our special friend ready?’
‘He’s always ready, Mr Belial. But I’ll warn him to be on the safe side,’ the butler replied, pulling a face he reserved for this precise topic, as if the conversation were about something distasteful or mildly scandalous.
‘Good,’ Belial replied without reprimanding Antonius for his reaction.
Belial shook the tablets out of the pill box, swallowed them and washed them down with the water. This old-fashioned way of taking medication repulsed him. But the composition of the pill cocktail and the fact that most of the tablets were experimental in nature meant he didn’t have a choice. Antonius put the water glass and pill box back on the tray before leaving him in peace.
Belial opened the door to the balcony and went out, espresso in hand. The air was humid but pleasant. The harbour area on both sides of Pipervika Bay was crowded with boats – everything from ferries to the islands in the Oslofjord, taxi boats and restaurant barges to tourist boats that sailed around the fortress via the opera house to the housing complex in Sørenga, where the outermost houses had collapsed into the water when an underwater gas line exploded in ’74. On calm days you could still see the outlines of the buildings on the fjord bed. A Nordic Atlantis. Of the 314 people who died that winter’s day eleven years ago, only 268 bodies had been recovered. Underwater binocular hire turned a better profit than the tickets themselves.
He finished his espresso, leaned against the railing and studied the old city hall opposite the innermost part of the harbour.
Belial had bought the building when the city council moved to new premises in the Fortress Quarter ten years ago. The façade was almost identical to how it had been when the city hall was opened in 1950. The same couldn’t be said for Fridtjof Nansen Square in front of it. It was there that Belial, together with a consortium of investors, had erected what was colloquially referred to as “the Igloo”. A metal dome as tall as the old city hall which, in addition to Fridtjof Nansen Square, also occupied the neighbourhood between Tordenskiolds gate and Klingenberggata.
Even now, more than a year after the completion of the white dome, Belial was elated by the sight. The bronze statues in front of the presidential palace had nothing on the Igloo – Norway and Thule’s first nuclear fusion plant.
Even for someone with Belial’s contacts, it had been difficult to obtain planning permission for the plant. The city council hadn’t been placated by the argument that there had never been a serious accident at such a facility. Or by the assurances of all the international status and prestige that would follow in the wake of such a project.
In the end, a promise of subsidised electricity for the entire city had been required to win the necessary majority. Not much of a sacrifice in the grand scheme of things. At full capacity, 1.39 per cent of the energy produced in the Igloo was enough to supply the city’s households and industry with power. Tonight was the exception. Belial had informed the municipality that the Igloo would be closed for an hour for routine maintenance. In truth, he needed 99.7 per cent of the reactor’s energy to conduct an experiment of which only a few people were aware. An experiment that, if he were successful, would change the world forever.
24 September 2106
The Quarantine Zone
Marko stopped on the crest of an exposed, muddy hill and waited for the other three to catch up. Two beacons burned to the west, a few kilometres away. The flames had changed colour from yellow to orange in the last fifteen minutes, and as Marko watched, one of them collapsed, sending embers swirling into the sky.
Marko could just about make out the lights from Drammen behind the flames. He had deliberately avoided the city, which was an island of relative safety in the middle of the Quarantine Zone. It had been a difficult decision. After the skirmish in the manor house outside Tønsberg and the subsequent fight against the Shadow further north, they needed more provisions, medication and ammunition. Updated information on the safest route to Oslo would have been useful as well. A guide even more so. But the risk was too high. The Masks didn’t control Drammen, but they were bound to have informants there who kept them apprised of any comings and goings.
Thalia reached the hill first. Even among body modders she would have stood out with her luminous yellow eyes and dark, diagonally cut fringe that didn’t look real until you got up close. Her tight-fitting uniform was showing signs of wear from the fight, but the fabric had proven remarkably resilient. Tears and rips had repaired themselves with only a slight difference in colour in the affected areas hinting at any damage.
It was Thalia who had given Marko the message from Lieutenant Jack Stenthon, his old section leader who he had watched die with his own eyes more than five years ago.
The message was disjointed and disquieting. The first time Marko read it, it seemed a snapshot of dawning madness. But it couldn’t be ignored. Marko had seen Stenthon die, and now Thalia was insisting he hadn’t.
In the message, Stenthon asked Marko to meet him in Oslo, in the place where the gene plague had broken out in 2085. The city had been closed since then. As an extra precaution to stop the incurable plague from spreading, the Quarantine Zone had been set up and the Masks had been authorised to enforce extraordinary isolation laws.
It was still no clearer to Marko why it was so important that Thalia also attend this meeting than when she had emerged from the mirror beneath New Berlin just before large parts of the German capital had been destroyed. But what he did know for certain that Thalia was severely ill and had just taken the final dose of her medication.
Behind Thalia, Olga walked together with I’Ree Xhan. They made for an odd couple. Olga was compact with Slavic features, her head shaved except for a platinum blonde fringe. A tattoo of an old-fashioned caravan on its way through a desert covered parts of the back of her head, extending down to the middle of her back.
I’Ree was slim, and tall for an Asian. Her cheekbones accentuated a narrow, sombre face. Her almond-shaped eyes never stopped surveying her surroundings. Not even now, after she had taken a dose of codeine to dull the pain of the injuries she had sustained in the fight against the Shadow.
Marko waved them over to a mossy rock formation at the top of the hill and crouched down. They huddled around him. He swigged from his water bottle and passed it to I’Ree, who drank before handing it to Olga. He was yet to see Thalia touch any food or drink she hadn’t brought with her.
Marko opened a data link in the iSphere and shared the map of the area they were in.
‘There are two ways into Oslo from here. One of them follows the old main road through Liertoppen via Asker into the city centre. The other crosses the Nyogtha Pass. They’ll be using drones and autonomous battle bots to watch both of them, but the Nyogtha Pass is our best option.’
‘How do you figure?’ Olga asked.
‘One: it’s the more difficult route,’ Marko replied. ‘Two: think about all the stories about it in the allSphere. The ones about how it’s guarded by a creature that rarely lets anyone pass.’
‘Right,’ Olga intoned. ‘Stories I would have laughed at until we met the Shadow.’
‘Same here,’ Marko said.
Involuntarily, his thoughts strayed to the first time he had seen the Shadow. The creature was at least three metres tall and dark in an indistinct way that blurred its outline. The only light it emitted came from its eyes. Two catlike pools of liquid gold. Since that altercation, Marko had taken to surreptitiously studying Thalia, comparing the colour of her eyes with those of the Shadow.
‘So why the Nyogtha Pass?’ Olga asked impatiently.
Marko shrugged. All he had to go on was gut feeling. ‘Because that option seems marginally better than challenging the Masks head-on.’
‘What do you think?’ Olga asked I’Ree.
‘That both options are as bad as each other.’
‘Nyogtha,’ she replied without hesitating. She got up and continued on along the path.
‘Well, that’s that then,’ Olga grumbled.
There was an abandoned town at the source of Tyrifjord. Marko searched the area using a thermal filter, but the only heat signatures he could see were smaller animals. The fields around the small town lay fallow, but only partly overgrown, something that told Marko people had lived here since the town had become part of the Quarantine Zone.
Marko turned to Olga. ‘We need supplies. Maybe we can find something useful in one of the houses.’
Olga nodded. She was still carrying the first-aid kit she’d taken from the helicopter cockpit, but most of the disinfectant gel and all the wound clips had been used to treat I’Ree.
Marko started walking towards the town with Thalia and Olga five steps behind him on either side. I’Ree brought up the rear, completing the diamond formation. It was her job to keep an eye on the area behind them, but Marko also wanted to protect her. The wounds in her back were so deep that really she needed patching up by a professional.
‘Christ, Lenny…’ Marko mumbled the name loudly enough that Olga turned to look at him. Marko ignored her quizzical look and tried to stop thinking about his friend lying dead on the floor in the underground facility.
Lenny had been the section doctor when Marko served under Lieutenant Stenthon during the Georgia campaign. Now one of them was dead while the other, impossibly, had been resurrected. Not for the first time, Marko found himself wondering whether he’d gone mad.
A gravel track led them through a small copse and over a bridge. The track divided on the other side of the river. The main road continued along the eastern bank of Tyrifjord, while a narrower path, partly overgrown, went left towards the town centre.
After a few minutes, a group of three and four-storey concrete and brick buildings hove into view before them. A study in decay: broken windows, leaning walls, gaping doorways and collapsed roofs. In the town centre, an old oak tree had fallen into the local school. Deep red roofing sheets lay strewn in a semicircle around the ruins. Natural causes, Marko decided. This wasn’t like the human destruction in Tønsberg.
His infrared lens flashed. The Omega reacted before Marko did. The weapon turned his body in the direction of the movement. The Omega’s avatar had already chosen his ammunition: anti-personnel mines with expanding lead tips.
Olga and Thalia mirrored Marko’s reaction and turned in the same direction.
‘What is it?’ Olga asked over the iSphere’s close link.
Marko lowered the Omega, shocked by the way the weapon had seized control of him. The same had happened when they had been fighting the Shadow, but the two events were hardly comparable. He’d already been fighting at that point. Now it was as if the Omega was trying to start a fight all by itself.
‘Infrared signature over there.’ Marko pointed with his Omega-ensconced left hand in the direction of the largest building in the town, a structure the iSphere’s semi-intelligent avatar identified as the town’s sports hall.
‘An animal?’ I’Ree asked.
‘No,’ Marko replied. ‘Something bigger.’
‘Maybe we’re better off carrying on towards the pass,’ Olga suggested after a brief pause.
‘No, I don’t like the thought of having something behind us,’ Marko said, not entirely able to shake the notion that his response was affected by the tingle the Omega send up his left arm.
He remembered A1’s words from the underground facility outside Tønsberg: you and the Omega are one. You exist in symbiosis. You supply it with energy and it increases your ability to survive.
Marko still wasn’t sure what to believe. A1 had been convincing in his description of how the Omega had slowly but surely become part of Marko. It had showed him how the weapon had fused with Marko’s nervous system. Now, in hindsight, doubt gnawed at him. Marko didn’t think A1 had been lying, but he also wasn’t sure the artificial human had been telling the whole truth.
Olga didn’t protest, so they headed towards the sports hall in the same diamond formation as before. According to the map, there was an artificial grass pitch at the rear of the building. From where they were, Marko could only see the area next to the pitch – a yellowed patch of land with tufts of knee-deep straw.
The door into the sports hall was ajar. Marko asked Thalia and I’Ree to wait outside and went in through the door together with Olga before I’Ree had time to protest.
The decay they had observed outside was mirrored inside. Rust and yellowed walls. Water-damaged flooring, and blackboards in a lamentable condition. Black mould on every moist surface.
Marko ran a finger across the thin neoprene disc attached to the tip of his left ear – the signal blocker he’d received from A1. The gadget made it possible for him to use the military bioapps without attracting the Masks’ attention. Marko considered activating the application for enhanced hearing, EH. It didn’t use much energy. But the store of biochemical ingredients that powered the apps was almost empty after the fight with the Shadow. He needed time for his body to replenish it. He decided against activating the bioapps for the time being.
With Olga on his heels, Marko passed the changing rooms and continued over to the double doors at the end of the corridor. Omega raised, Marko kicked open the rotting barrier.
A combination handball and basketball court came into view. The roof above the left half of the court had collapsed, burying bleachers, benches, baskets and goals.
Marko barely noticed any of this. He only had eyes for the two figures in the centre circle. One was a tall, older man with a greying goatee and a bloodstained tunic. He was leaning heavily on a younger man who was staring, petrified, in Marko’s direction. But Marko knew his fear had nothing to do with them.
The older man, who Marko had recognised immediately, seemed calmer.
‘So we finally meet, Marko Eldfell. You might not believe it…’ The man stopped himself. ‘I can barely believe it myself,’ he continued. ‘But I’m so glad to see you.’
24 September 2106
Sirens wailed throughout Shantytown. It wasn’t an uncommon sound for the area, but on this particular evening the cacophony drowned everything else out. The district had been overrun by regular policemen, federal task forces, Masks and private security companies – all these and likely other authorities Victoria didn’t know about – since the incident at the factory.
The story going around was that a technical fault had caused the 3D printers in one of Shantytown’s illegal, underground factories to produce a swarm of artificial, lethal insects. Victoria knew better. Qielli had programmed the printers to make the insects and then had the swarm stream out of the factory and disappear into the night sky above Tirana. But not before the insects had demonstrated their potential for harm.
Victoria zipped up her hoodie, trying in vain to exclude a cold that came from within. She had stood untouched in the middle of the swarm while the dragonfly-like insects with scorpion tails attacked mafia boss Caliban and his men. One of these creatures had punctured Caliban’s eye with its sting as several others pressed themselves down into his throat. Just the memory of the sound, the faint “pop” when his eye had burst open, made her feel sick.
Now she and Qielli needed to get away from Tirana before either Caliban’s men or the authorities realised the role they had played in the incident.
‘Is that him?’ Qielli pointed at a vehicle moving slowly towards them with its lights off. Of everything that had happened in the last few days, the change in Qielli was the most unreal. The green-eyed girl looked the same age as Victoria, but she had grown from a baby into a young woman in only a few hours. Such a thing shouldn’t have been possible, yet here she was, at Victoria’s side. Her face was pale and drawn after her feat of mental exertion at the factory.
‘It’s Bogdan,’ Iris confirmed via the iSphere. Victoria’s aunt, with whom they had sought refuge after fleeing from the factory, watched from the window on the first floor. ‘Let me know you’ve got there safe,’ Iris continued, hastening to add ‘if you can’.
Green lettering on the side of the van spelled out Bogdan’s Fresh Fish. Bogdan himself was a plump, middle-aged man with jet black hair that wasn’t quite thick enough to conceal the gleaming white crown of his head. He waved up at Iris before walking over to Victoria and Qielli.
‘One of the policemen at the checkpoint owes me a favour,’ he said. ‘I’m sure he’ll let us out of Shantytown without asking questions. But to be on the safe side…’
Bogdan opened the rear doors and a stench Victoria didn’t associate with “fresh fish” assaulted them. The fishmonger handed them each their own plastic apron and matching hairnet with the letters “BFF” in the same colour as the lettering on the van.
They piled into the front seat. Bogdan leaned across Victoria, opened the glove compartment and took out a rectangular container, which he then opened. Something Victoria recognised from the allSphere as a tape cassette lay inside.
‘This is a reproduction,’ Bogdan said, pushing the cassette into a narrow opening in the dashboard. ‘But the player’s genuine. A Philips.’ Bogdan said the name with pride.
Victoria wasn’t sure whether the brand name was supposed to mean something to her, but the sound wasn’t bad at all. Frequent tempo changes led by a distinct guitar accompanied by a hectic bass line and hypnotic synths. Authentic. Like what the trad hipsters at the rock clubs tried to play. It was like an early version of her own favourite group, Clockwork Angels.
Bogdan headed for Blind Passage, the main street in Shantytown. ‘If we try one of the side streets the police will only be suspicious,’ he explained, pulling in behind a brown, beaten-up HuaweiTesla saloon.
The northern checkpoint was located between two dilapidated blocks of flats. There was a queue to get through because of the major security operation and other actions underway in Shantytown.
The floating billboard above the exit, which normally displayed images of Brisvegas and other destinations the slum’s inhabitants would never see, had been deactivated. An automated surveillance and defence platform hovered in its place. The drone’s barrel pointed straight down at the waiting line of traffic. On the ground beneath the drone, two armoured police cars flanked a narrow gate out of the area.
‘I hope you girls aren’t carrying concealed. They scan everything here,’ Bogdan joked, but despite his jovial tone, Victoria saw the fishmonger’s fists clench around the steering wheel as the van approached the checkpoint.
A red searchlight swept out from the drone and across the first five vehicles in line. The light seemed to linger on Bogdan’s van, but when Victoria turned, she saw that it had already passed over the car behind them.
‘Well, that’s promising,’ Bogdan said, relieved. No sooner had the words left his mouth than the drone emitted a low-frequency wail and dropped towards them. Victoria found herself staring straight down the barrel of one of the defence platform’s many weapons. She squeezed Qielli’s hand. Qielli squeezed back, calming her somewhat.
The brown HuaweiTesla in front of them lurched forwards. The car’s shabby exterior was clearly only camouflage for a far more powerful engine. The HT hit the front end of one of the police cars and pushed it a metre to the side.
The driver needed to reverse before he could get through the space he had made, but he didn’t even get that far. Above them, the drone opened fire, projectiles tearing through the roof of the HT. Plastic and metal splinters bounced off the van windshield. Bogdan ducked down behind the wheel. Victoria started to take cover as well, but the expression on Qielli’s face stopped her. The girl was gazing at the scene unfolding before them with a faint smile.
Smoke rose from the bullet holes in the roof of the HuaweiTesla. One of the policemen took a step closer to the car and asked the passengers to get out with their hands above their heads. Surely no one’s still alive in there, Victoria thought. The policeman seemed to have come to the same conclusion. He was leaning down to open the driver’s door when the passenger door was flung open. A huge, bare-chested man with gang tattoos covering his back jumped out with a machine gun at the ready.
The man managed to point the weapon at the policeman, but before he could pull the trigger, a single shot from the drone punched a fist-sized hole through his chest. Blood and gore sprayed across the van’s bonnet and windshield.
Apparently unconcerned by this turn of events, the policeman dragged the gangster out of the roadway, rolling his corpse into a ditch. Together with a colleague, he pushed the HT into a side street. Victoria could see the outline of the driver leaning against the wheel. A couple minutes later, a pale Bogdan was waved through the gate without question. The first thing he did after passing the checkpoint was switch on the windscreen wipers.
The journey to Durrës took about half an hour. Bogdan stopped in a car park a couple blocks from the port. Some of his usual colour had returned to his face.
Victoria thanked him for the ride. Qielli said nothing, still as quiet as she had been for the duration of the journey.
‘You could have showed at least some gratitude,’ Victoria said once Bogdan had driven away. Qielli raised a hand to silence her. Her green eyes sparkled in the light from the streetlamps. She gave a subtle nod. Victoria assumed she was communicating with someone, but not via the iSphere. Qielli had told Victoria she had neither a personal iSphere nor access to the global information cloud.
‘This way.’ Qielli started heading for the port. Victoria followed, mildly irritated by Qielli’s behaviour. She was tired of being taken for granted.
Their destination turned out to be a warehouse at the end of an old jetty. It was the kind of structure that also functioned as a sheltered wharf for fishing boats in bad weather.
‘Weren’t you getting us a plane?’
Qielli said nothing. She continued in silence towards the door to the warehouse.
‘If you don’t want me to come with you, just tell me. I can go back.’
Back to what? Victoria knew one thing for sure: her days in the service of the Transhumanists were over for good.
Qielli stopped and turned. ‘Of course you’re coming with me. But we need to hurry. Things are happening faster than I anticipated. Both now and in the future.’
Both now and in the future.
That didn’t make sense at all. Victoria was about to ask for – no, demand – an explanation when Qielli opened the door to reveal the aircraft inside.
‘Who on earth is going to fly that thing?’ she asked.
‘That would be me,’ a male voice answered behind them.
Victoria turned. A stocky man in a black military uniform without insignia or anything else to identify who he worked for stood behind her. He was carrying the biggest gun Victoria had ever seen in a holster on his hip. It was the kind of weapon the inhabitants of Shantytown would have called a hand cannon.
‘Who are you?’
The man brought two fingers to his forehead. A parody of a military salute that seemed out of place with the grave look in his dark eyes.
‘Jacob Steinberg at your service.’
24 September 2106
Diego Montevideo, personal secretary to the leader of the Masks, Fernando de Torquemada, couldn’t believe he had ended up in this situation. He had travelled from Paris and the Needle in de Torquemada’s personal Sunmaster ramjet on the pretext of visiting and mollifying the protectorates – an undertaking that probably wouldn’t go amiss. De Torquemada’s absence in the wake of the terrorist attack in New Berlin had sown the seeds of serious doubt as to whether he was fit to serve as leader of the Masks.
De Torquemada had been acting strangely ever since he had finally returned to the Needle together with that Antonius. Diego wanted to find out why, and had used the trip around the protectorates as an excuse to borrow the Sunmaster.
Diego had several theories about de Torquemada’s change in behaviour, the best of which was that Antonius, or someone the butler worked for, was blackmailing de Torquemada. That the leader of the Masks had been forced to execute Council Secretary Cho and several senators in the Council Chambers. But no matter the truth, Diego wanted to know. So instead of going to the protectorates, as agreed, he asked the pilot of the Sunmaster to fly him back to de Torquemada’s most recent destination.
Anxious as he was, Diego nevertheless managed to sleep on the way. When he woke up, the plane was sitting on a landing ground not far from a strange, hexagonal building. The pilot was nowhere to be seen, and when it became clear he wouldn’t be back anytime soon, Diego decided to investigate the building.
The last person he expected to meet in this godforsaken place was Fernando de Torquemada, but that is precisely what happened. When the door into the building opened, a bloodied de Torquemada staggered towards Diego and collapsed at his feet. Two equally intense emotions tore through Diego. Relief that the de Torquemada at the Needle was a fraud, and fear that His Eminence was close to death.
Diego recovered his composure. He gripped de Torquemada’s arms and dragged his unconscious body back inside the building, though “building” perhaps wasn’t the best description. High above Diego, heat lamps shone like artificial suns. Tropical birds and strange insects swooped between the plants. Diego couldn’t see the room’s beginning or end.
He found his way into a small lemon grove and leaned de Torquemada against the gnarled trunk of one of the trees. The leader of the Masks’ eyelids quivered, but didn’t open. Diego unbuttoned the bloodstained tunic, prepared for the worst.
De Torquemada had been slashed across the chest. The wound wasn’t particularly deep, but it was ragged, and the skin was discoloured in some places. Diego cleaned it using water from an irrigation system before tearing the sleeve of his own shirt off to dress the wound.
His Eminence had lost some blood, nothing more. He no longer felt as anxious. Everything would be okay. Diego wasn’t strong enough to carry His Eminence, but as soon as de Torquemada regained consciousness, they would travel back to the Needle and expose the traitor.
There was no contact with the allSphere in this place. But the iSphere worked. Diego made contact with de Torquemada’s interface, where his avatar, naturally enough, reported that its host was unavailable. Diego asked to be notified as soon as de Torquemada was awake. The avatar confirmed the request. In the meantime, he figured he might as well investigate the area. He might find a radio transmitter or some other means of communication that could put him in contact with the outside world.
The first thing Diego noticed when he looked around was how well-organised everything was. Lemon trees, olive groves and grapevines – everything had its own place and special microclimate. The technology taking care of the plants was more or less invisible. The irrigation system was the most obvious thing, and when Diego had a closer look, he discovered small robots pruning the plants, artificial insects hunting pests and micro-composting systems providing the soil with the correct nutrients in their own separate areas. Everything had its function, each plant and organism its biotope. This was a Garden of Eden in stasis, Diego realised. Invariable until the unseen hand of the technology failed.
After half an hour of investigation, he came across a clearing with a pavilion, a simple wooden structure with a canvas roof. A table and two chairs sat beneath the canvas. One of the chairs was overturned, and the ground around it was flecked with blood. Was it here that de Torquemada and Belial had met instead of in New London? Was Belial in here as well, wounded – perhaps even dead?
Diego looked around. His eyes fell on a lightly trodden path through the grass past the pavilion and into the undergrowth. He followed the tracks, unsure what he was looking for.
The trail led to a kind of work station concealed by the dense greenery. Diego sat down on the chair in front of a black tabletop. As soon as he laid his arms on the table, a virtual interface opened before him. No password. No encryption. Whoever the work station belonged to, they clearly didn’t expect any outsiders to stumble across it.
Diego activated the interface. It gave him access to the security cameras in the botanical garden. He toggled between the various cameras, finding one that showed where His Eminence was resting. De Torquemada looked peaceful sitting on the soft grass.
Diego was about to disconnect from the menu when he noticed a folder located further down in the structure: a folder called Camera 21. Diego opened it and immediately realised that Camera 21 was the camera filming the pavilion and the area around it.
Diego opened the file in the folder. Watched himself investigate the pavilion and disappear out of the frame in the direction of the work station he was sitting at. He rewound, only stopping when he saw movement. It was Antonius, leading His Eminence towards the pavilion, where someone else was already sitting with their back to the camera. Belial, Diego presumed.
De Torquemada sat down opposite the seated man and was about to say something when his face twisted into a terrified grimace. Belial slapped the table with the palm of his hand, as if in amusement, but there was something manic about his movements. That was when Diego spotted Antonius. The butler was standing at the edge of the frame, his usually expressionless face radiating a near religious exultation. He had a knife in his hand. A knife he handed to Belial, who took it from him in an awkward, almost mechanical way.
The voice was a whisper in the iSphere. De Torquemada was waking up. Diego tore himself away from the work station and ran all the way back to the lemon grove.
His Eminence had clambered to his feet and was leaning heavily against the trunk of the lemon tree.
‘This is no time for sightseeing,’ he scolded Diego.
‘I apologise, Your Eminence. What happened to you at the pavilion?’
‘The pavilion? How…?’ de Torquemada cut himself off.
‘We’ve no time to lose.’ De Torquemada took a couple steps in the direction of the exit before his knees gave out. Diego caught him before he hit the ground. Perhaps he had lost more blood than he thought.
‘We need to get out of here now,’ de Torquemada continued after regaining his composure.
‘Your Sunmaster’s on the landing ground, but the pilot’s gone,’ Diego explained.
‘We don’t need the pilot.’
‘I didn’t know you could fly, Your Eminence.’
‘I can’t, Diego.’ De Torquemada didn’t elaborate. He looked straight at Diego as if finally registering his first question. ‘Belial’s the enemy. But he also wears a mask over a mask. Something I still don’t entirely understand. Something I need to understand before we can confront him.’
As Diego helped him along the gravel track to the jet, de Torquemada explained how Belial was using a glimmer mask to pose as the leader of the Masks. That certainly explained de Torquemada’s reaction at the table in the pavilion, but whether that was what His Eminence had been referring to when he had mentioned a “mask over a mask” was less clear, and he didn’t seem interested in answering any more questions.
Diego took the opportunity to update His Eminence. When he described the bestial way in which Belial, with help from Antonius, had killed the seven senators and Council Secretary Cho, de Torquemada drily intoned: ‘And you didn’t even suspect you were dealing with a fraud at that point?’
Diego didn’t have a good answer to that.
‘What does Belial hope to achieve?’ Diego asked as he helped de Torquemada up the steps on to the Sunmaster.
‘I’m not sure,’ de Torquemada replied. ‘I don’t even know whether he’s acting alone or has other allies. But from how you describe the situation at the Needle, he’s as good as despotic. No one outside the enclaves is powerful enough to challenge him. He can do whatever he wants.’
De Torquemada stopped on the top step and looked back at the hexagonal building. ‘I’m more and more certain it has to do with Oslo. Something that happened there exactly twenty-one years ago today.’
‘You mean the gene plague?’
‘The gene plague, yes. But not just that. The experiment in the Igloo on the same day is an important part of this. Maybe even the explanation for everything. But Belial knows more about that than I do. He was the only one who went through the rift.’
‘The experiment, Your Eminence? The rift?’
‘Not now, Diego.’
De Torquemada sat in the pilot seat and, to Diego’s surprise, immediately brought the Sunmaster to life. An inward-looking expression clouded de Torquemada’s features. It was the look of someone concentrating on the iSphere. The Sunmaster’s starter engines fired up and the aircraft rose into the air before pointing its nose southwards.
De Torquemada leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. A signal that he wasn’t going to be receptive to all the burning questions Diego had, not least about who was controlling the Sunmaster if it wasn’t de Torquemada. Perhaps His Eminence’s avatar?
Reluctantly, Diego returned to his seat in the cabin. He was worked up and not in the least bit tired. All the same, he couldn’t stay awake, and when he opened his eyes, the ramjet was sitting in an open area outside something that looked like a factory or warehouse.
De Torquemada was looking slightly better now. All the same, Diego had to help him out of his seat.
‘Where are we?’ Diego asked.
‘In the Quarantine Zone,’ de Torquemada replied succinctly, pointing at the building. ‘We’re going in there.’
Diego did as he was told, deciding now wasn’t the time to ask more questions. Besides, it wasn’t like anything de Torquemada said would make him any the wiser.
‘Belial has a dark sense of humour.’ De Torquemada gazed absently up at the ruined roof of what turned out to be a sports hall. ‘We worked well together, he and I. Both as partners in the fatal project in the Igloo, and then when we set up the Masks on his initiative.’
Diego had to stop himself from interrupting. Of course, he knew de Torquemada and David Belial were two of the founders of the Masks. The Igloo couldn’t be anything other than the nuclear fusion plant in Oslo. But what project was he talking about?
De Torquemada ran a hand over the congealed blood on his tunic. ‘That’s probably why he gave me this.’
‘Gave you what, Your Eminence?’ Diego asked. ‘Your chest wound?’
‘The wound’s the least of my worries,’ de Torquemada replied. ‘The knife he used, on the other hand…’
‘What about it?’ Diego remembered the expression on Antonius’ face. The manic grin as he had passed the knife to Belial.
‘The knife edge was infected, Diego. Infected with the gene plague. I can already feel the changes in me.’
The gene plague.
Diego went rigid, suddenly feeling the full weight of de Torquemada’s lanky body against his shoulder. His instinct was to run. To get as far away from de Torquemada as possible.
De Torquemada straightened up, smoothing his goatee with his thumb and index finger.
‘Pull yourself together, Diego. Our guests are here.’
The door into the hall was flung open and a figure Diego immediately recognised as Marko Eldfell walked through.
24 September 2085
Belial had had an underground passage built from the apartment and office complex at Aker Brygge to the Igloo. That said, underwater passage might have been more accurate considering well over half of ran beneath Pipervika Bay. Apart from the emergency exits, which only opened in the event of serious incidents, the corridor was the only entrance into the Igloo. From the old city hall, one single lift descended to the passage, thirty metres below ground.
The figure waiting for Belial in the basement of Aker Brygge was wearing a tight-fitting, black boiler suit. He also wore a helmet that reminded Belial of the first astronauts to land on the moon. A1 was printed on the back of the helmet, black lettering on a white background. The figure turned to Belial, who could see his own face reflected in the polarised surface of the visor.
‘Today you and I will make history. The twenty-first century’s Einstein and Hawking.’
A1 bowed his head slightly. ‘Stephen Hawking died on the fourteenth of March 2018, ergo, in the twenty-first century.’ A1 had a soft, pleasant voice with a genderless midrange pitch.
Although the norm was to categorise artificial humans as “it”, Belial always thought of A1 as a “he”.
A1-001 – as was the unit’s full identification – was the first in a series of only seven, of which three had already been destroyed, two due to accidents, one sacrificed to a malicious virus.
Belial patted A1 on the shoulder. ‘I need to make sure the next generation of artificial humans come with a sense of humour.’
‘Humour depends on context, prevailing norms and the cultural basis of society. It is one of the most complex and least rational of the human emotions.’
‘You forgot the most important component, A1. How old are you?’
‘Two years, four months and three days, Mr Belial.’
‘Then there’s still hope for you, my friend. Experience through exposure is the key to understanding humour. Though not always. I have acquaintances my age who still confuse irony with praise.’
A1 changed the subject. ‘I assume you wish to conduct the experiment despite the discrepancy in the calculations?’
Belial pressed the palm of his hand to a bioscanner. A section of the wall in front of them slid open.
‘That’s correct. The experiment will be conducted as planned. The uncertainty in the calculations is within the standard deviation.’
He waved A1 through the opening first before following after him. The wall slid back into place behind them as strip lighting flickered on in the floor and ceiling. Belial decided against activating the moving walkway. The side effects of the pills he had taken earlier were starting to make themselves known: muscle spasms and brief spells of double vision. Until they abated, it was best he kept moving.
‘I agree that the uncertainty is within the standard deviation. My concern is that the experiment is of such a groundbreaking nature that we’re not sure what the correct parameters for the standard deviation should actually be.’
‘Your concerns are noted, A1. All the same, the experiment will go ahead today, and I expect your full attention.’
‘You always have my full attention, Mr Belial.’
Belial picked up on the vibration about halfway to the Igloo. It was as if an enormous bass speaker were playing music at maximum volume somewhere ahead of them. Music without sound that could only be felt rather than heard.
The vibrations were coming from the Igloo’s tokamak, a device that used a powerful magnetic field to confine a plasma core in which hydrogen atoms fused to form helium atoms, thereby producing energy. The plasma in the tokamak chamber maintained a temperature of 150 million degrees – ten times hotter than the centre of the sun.
As always, Fernando de Torquemada was waiting for Belial by the lift up to the city hall. Belial and de Torquemada had become colleagues and then friends while they were both working at ITER, the first commercially operational fusion reactor, in Southern France. Back then, de Torquemada had been about to complete a doctorate in experimental string theory.
This was the field that had brought them together – that and the fact that both of them belonged to the fringes of their discipline. Fringes that meant they were selected to participate in the Ronson–Carbach experiment at ITER in 2074.
The outcome of the experiment changed Belial’s perception of reality and resulted in a nervous breakdown from which it took him seven months to recover. The effect on de Torquemada had been the same, minus the breakdown.
When Belial returned to ITER in the winter of 2075 after being on sick leave, he found out that John Ronson had taken his own life a few weeks after the experiment and Muriel Carbach had disappeared without a trace. Both the suicide and the disappearance were hushed up by the management, and further financing of the research project was stopped.
The project being shelved didn’t stop Belial from presenting a theory based on the Ronson–Carbach experiment to de Torquemada. A theory that, despite the psychological effect the experiment had had on him, needed to be tested. De Torquemada had agreed, and the two young researchers had formed a partnership. Three years later, they and some investors had procured the necessary funds to build the Igloo.
‘You’re starting early,’ Belial commented, taking the coffee de Torquemada offered him. As per usual, his colleague was distracted by the flexscreen on his wrist. Belial caught a glimpse of a dark-haired woman with a diagonally cut fringe and golden eyes, recognising her – or rather, “it” – as Tactile Holistic Algorithm – Interactive Adaptivity: THALIA.
The Thalia project had been de Torquemada’s private obsession for as long as Belial had known him. His aim was to create an AI that was so good at emulating the user that the program eventually became an exact reflection of their consciousness. Belial thought the entire idea was on the cusp of what might be considered ethically justifiable, but as long as it wasn’t to the detriment of the experiment in the Igloo, he didn’t care.
‘More like finishing late.’ De Torquemada tapped the screen on his wrist and it switched itself off. ‘I’ve been troubleshooting a vector solenoid all night.’
‘Anything that might postpone the experiment?’ Belial asked anxiously.
‘No. Turned out to be insufficient calibration. I’ve remedied the faults and asked the technician to perform one last safety test on similar solenoids just to be sure.’
‘Great. Are you coming to the antechamber?’
De Torquemada shook his head. ‘No. I need a few hours’ sleep before we start. Is it okay with you if I head back to Aker Brygge and use the guest room?’
‘Thanks. I probably shouldn’t have any more of these.’ De Torquemada dropped his own coffee cup into the bin and headed back the way A1 and Belial had come.
When he was about ten metres away, glowing lights, like fireflies, hove into view above his head. They disappeared as quickly as they had appeared.
‘Did you see that?’ Belial asked A1.
‘See what?’ A1 asked, turning to look at him.
Belial stood watching until de Torquemada rounded a corner in the tunnel. The lights didn’t reappear.
Probably just a side effect of the pills, Belial thought.
By the time he reached the green armoured door leading into the antechamber of the Igloo, he had already forgotten about it.
24 September 2106
The Quarantine Zone
The sensation only lasts a heartbeat, so to speak, since it is doubtful whether anything approximating a heart still beats in Krieg’s chest. The experience is alarming. For a few tenths of a second, another consciousness interweaves with his own. The alien psyche is a chaotic presence, alternating between infantile babbling and dispassionate scheming.
Krieg senses tremendous power deep within this other. Power similar to his own. Almost identical. When the consciousness suddenly withdraws, Krieg is unable to follow it. The alien presence melts away. Erases itself from the present and the fabric of events called the past.
Krieg stops, suddenly very away of the sensation of his feet sinking down into the hard earth.
A new thought has taken root. Well, more an insight than a thought: what if the alien consciousness is him? Or was him? A future self that has suddenly been snatched away?
The pull towards the red brick building in Oslofjord is as strong as before, but for the first time, Krieg hesitates. It is not a hesitance born of fear, but rather of confusion.
Until now, his goal has been clear: when the time comes, Krieg will confront the alien organism. Cast it out. He won’t kill it. Won’t simply bring an end to it.
He’ll annihilate it.
The why isn’t important. Even in his new state, Krieg is first and foremost a soldier. Someone who acts without questioning. But now there is an uncertainty. A voice demanding clarity. To see the bigger picture. A picture extending in both directions along the time axis, open to different outcomes across alternative realities.
Which version of himself is the one thinking these thoughts? How independent is he, really? Someone or something in the red brick building is drawing him in. What other forces are affecting him?
Krieg continues until he reaches an exposed hilltop. He stops on a rocky outcrop. He can see a ramjet sitting in front of a sports hall to the northeast, in the centre of a small town. He waits, letting time wash over him like gravitational waves.
Five figures exit the sports hall and cross the open area towards the jet. Krieg raises his arm, visualising the weapon that is part of him and mobilising it. A glow spreads from his shoulder to his fingertips. The air around his arm starts to vibrate. He could decimate the sports hall and the surrounding area, or vaporise one of the five figures with surgical precision, all with thought alone.
He waits until the ramjet lifts off from the artificial pitch and cuts off the flow of energy just as the ochre aircraft changes course in the direction of Oslo.
The energy beam he so clearly envisages doesn’t come. His arm drops, not because he wants it to, but because it is suddenly heavy as lead.
Krieg falls to his knees, following his fist, which knocks a hole in the rock. His arm won’t budge. He can’t move his fingers at all. His hand has anchored him to an anvil of stone.
Krieg doesn’t resist. He sits completely still. Spends the endless seconds searching within. Searching for the door into what is also the way out. Out of the sway of this other entity which might well be himself. And all the while, the brick building calls to him, like a long-lost love with a final card to play.
24 September 2106
Town in the Quarantine Zone
Light flashed behind Marko’s eyes. As if someone was using a defibrillator on him. The Omega activated itself and raised his left arm into firing position, so abruptly that it almost wrenched his shoulder out of its socket.
Numbers and text scrolled across Marko’s retinas. The iSphere’s avatar confirmed with 99.8 per cent certainty that the person before him really was His Eminence Fernando de Torquemada. The other man was identified as Diego Montevideo, de Torquemada’s personal secretary.
Marko hadn’t had nearly enough time to digest that information before the biological hazard icon started flashing in the iSphere.
Gene plague detected. Variant V X-2.2.
Marko backed away, pulling Olga with him, mouth suddenly too dry to shout a warning.
Information continued to scroll across his field of vision.
Variant V X-2.2. Individual DNA protocol. Infection risk = 0%.
Infection risk = 0%.
Marko stopped. Olga tore her arm out of his grasp and fumbled for her own weapon. Marko shook his head. Took a deep breath. Tried to collect himself, to put the situation into perspective.
Fernando de Torquemada, leader of the Masks and the man responsible for hunting the biomodified soldiers – soldiers like Marko – was standing ten metres away.
If you were a biomodified soldier, you had two choices when you encountered the Masks: surrender and spend the rest of your life in a high-security prison, or live a life on the lam where the only certainly was that sooner or later you would be captured and killed. Yet here stood the man in charge of that pursuit, claiming he was glad to see Marko. What kind of manipulation was the leader of the Masks attempting now?
De Torquemada didn’t move. He watched Marko with calm, steel grey eyes. The same couldn’t be said for Diego. The secretary’s eyes wandered, the tension in his body betraying his desire to run.
Marko lowered the Omega and put the weapon system’s avatar in passive standby mode. The resultant stab of reluctance didn’t pass him by.
‘You’re infected with the gene plague,’ he said.
De Torquemada nodded in confirmation.
‘With a variant that isn’t infectious,’ Marko continued. Diego’s relief at these words was palpable. The secretary’s shoulders slumped and a soft groan escaped him.
‘I suspected,’ de Torquemada replied. ‘Belial has access to my biomaterial. The real mystery is why he didn’t kill me on the spot.’
‘David Belial?’ Marko was unable to conceal the surprise in his voice.
De Torquemada nodded. ‘You know him?’
Marko mentally scolded himself, irritated at the ease with which he had fallen into conversation with the person who had caused him and his brothers in arms so much harm. He couldn’t allow himself to forget that the man standing before him was his arch enemy.
‘Can you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you here and now?’
‘I can give you two, Marko Eldfell.’ De Torquemada spoke with a lightness that didn’t seem appropriate for a doomed man. Because he was doomed, whether Marko took him out or let the gene plague do the job for him.
‘Don’t listen to him,’ Olga interjected via the iSphere. ‘He’s trying to manipulate you.’
‘You’re probably right,’ Marko replied on the same channel. ‘But we need to hear him out. It can’t be a coincidence that he’s turned up here now.’
‘What do you suggest?’
‘We’ll decide de Torquemada’s fate together. As a team. Appraise I’Ree and Thalia of the situation and bring them in.’
Marko stayed where he was while Olga went to collect the other two.
‘Now, what’ll it be?’ de Torquemada asked.
Did he detect a ripple of irritation in de Torquemada’s voice?
‘Have patience, Your Eminence,’ Marko replied sharply. ‘You’re not at the Needle now. We’re not your lackeys.’
De Torquemada waved his hand. Marko wasn’t sure whether it was a dismissive or disarming gesture. The man was difficult to read.
‘Let me ask you a question while we wait.’
‘By all means.’
‘How did you find us?’