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CHAPTER ONE

London, England, 2065

 

The apple disintegrated silently with a sharp, blue flash and the smell of saltpetre. My stomach quivered, and I took a sharp intake of breath as the anticipation gripped me. Would it work this time?

Over three hundred experiments had been unsuccessful, except to inform me of what didn’t work. I’d dealt with small explosions, radiation, fire, mutations, damage to equipment in the lab. All meticulously recorded in my experimentation diary in an objective and detached manner that, in reality, was often diametrically opposed to how I actually felt about the outcomes.

A bright green light flickered on the nearest corner of the prototype teleporter, signalling the process was complete. But had the apple reintegrated successfully? That’d be a first.

I needed to get it working soon. Everything was on the line: my career, my livelihood, my daughter’s future. The Patron had made that clear. Rumours hinted he was not a man who liked to be disappointed, and I didn’t know how much time I had. The intense pressure to get his project completed often gave me awful headaches, but I had to work through them. Like now.

“Did it work this time, Mother? Where did you send it?”

“That red box.” With trembling hands, I indicated a plastic box a cubic metre in size sitting alone on a table on the other side of the room. It stood out starkly against the clinically pale walls. The red box wasn’t translucent, but it was airtight. I’d figured out early on in my experimentation it was best—and considerably less messy—to ensure the target receptacle would keep whatever arrived inside it in there.

I switched off the prototype device to avoid any accidents and hurried after Cassie.

She paused with her hands on the box lid, ready to pry it off. “Is it safe to open? It won’t be like yesterday, will it?”

I sighed at the caution in her voice. My tests had been more successful over time, but Cassie was wise to be wary. When she’d come to the lab after school yesterday to help me, one of the experiments had resulted in a slurry of boiling apple crush, and another had made its subject radioactive. And we couldn’t even find half of the apples I’d teleported.

“I’ve been tweaking the meson decay rate all day. If it’s in the box—though that’s a big ‘if’—it’s not dangerous. So, you get to open the box for me and see the surprise.” I smiled at her.

“I’m not a little kid, Mother. I’m almost eighteen.” She cocked her head, but flashed a smile back.

I bounced on my toes. Maybe I was the little kid. “Come on, open it.”

“Okay, here goes.” She pried off the lid and stepped back. There was no hissing or gushing of steam, a good sign—something different had happened to the last failed attempt. She tilted the box towards herself and looked in. I tried to peer over her shoulder, but her springy brown hair obscured my view.

“It’s in here, Mother, but it didn’t work properly. See, it’s just sludge. Apple sludge.” She regarded me with narrowed eyes. “It’s applecide. Now what?”

My shoulders slumped. I chewed my bottom lip. This was simply another unsuccessful step in the journey, and every step—successful or not—advances science, but a persistent dull ache in my left temple like a ticking bomb reminded me of the time running out.

I put these negative thoughts aside. I could do this. I just had to persevere.

“Now we take the measurements, because we’ve got a result we can actually measure. Put the box on the scanner, will you?”

Cassie transferred the box onto a flat aluminium plate on an adjacent bench and tapped a button on a display panel beside it. Various colour-coded readings scrolled down the display. We examined them with equal measures of curiosity and wonder.

“Total weight matches,” I said. “It’s all there this time. That’s something.” I gave a miniature fist pump. Maybe things were looking up.

“It’s still warm, though,” Cassie said, poking a finger at a red figure on the display. “Didn’t you say you’d fixed that issue?”

“I said I was working on it. Notice that it’s not boiling.”

“Whatever. I thought you’d have fixed all the problems by now.”

“Remember, there’s only me working on this project, Cassie. There’s a lot of trial and error involved in these tests, a myriad of factor combinations to consider. Don’t be so impatient.” Or sound so disappointed. I was disappointed enough as it was. I’d been working on it for months.

“Hey, I’m helping you, aren’t I?”

I relented. She was right. “True. You do help, when you have time, and I appreciate it.” I pressed a button on another tablet to start my recording. “Maddie Mcleod, Teleportation Project, results of trial three hundred and forty-three. Disintegration of apple successful. Reintegration resulted in”—I paused to peer at the slurry in the red box, which I would soon ask Cassie to clean out—“stewed apple. Note: temperature trending lower after increasing meson decay rate another five delta points.” I flicked my hand to signal the end of the recording.

Cassie stared at me chewing my lip. “You’re doing it again.”

I glanced up and replied sharply. “It’s a habit, and I’m tired. I’ve been testing different frequencies all day. I need a break.”

“Well, go and get a coffee or something, Mother.”

A change of scene might help. Perhaps I needed to calm myself. Why was I annoyed? Because the experiment had failed again? They usually failed; that’s science. Maybe I was bothered because Cassie didn’t seem as perturbed as me. But with the naivety of youth she didn’t appreciate what was at stake if I failed.

“All right. I’ll be twenty minutes. Whatever you do, don’t press any red buttons. You’ll blow up the lab.”

“Seriously?”

“No, Cassie. That was a joke. A weak one, maybe … oh, never mind. Sorry for being grumpy. It’s just so hard trying to solve this problem all by myself.”

“You’ve got me!”

I smiled at her enthusiasm. “Yes, but only after school.”

“I want to help.”

“Wouldn’t you rather come out for a break with me? We haven’t spent much time together lately.”

“You know I don’t drink coffee. I want to stay here. Can you call up the data for all your experiments so I can check it out on a tablet while you’re gone?”

I angled my head to one side. “If you’re going to stay here, maybe you should do your homework.” Not only grumpy, but bossy too. Cassie was old enough to set her own priorities.

“I’ll do it later.”

“All right. You might see a pattern or a hidden clue in the data that I haven’t found myself yet.” A few taps on the tablet brought up a summary listing all the trial variables I’d amended lately. Results ranged from encouraging to hilariously disparaging.

Cassie leaned forward. Her eyes flicked rapidly across the rows of data and the notes I’d added.

“What are flavoured mesons? They sound like drinks.”

“No, they’re not drinks. And, talking of drinks, I’m going to get mine now. Have fun.” I kissed her on the forehead, grabbed my coat from the back of a chair and headed out of the lab. I hadn’t had a break for hours, and I needed one to collect my thoughts. And to escape the stuffy lab for a while.

In the corridor, a cleanerbot swept the already spotless floor, and a wotbot idled in the corner, waiting for an odd job from someone. Most of the Creatives didn’t venture out much, including me, so it hadn’t surprised me that no one else was about. The Patron kept us busy, but I did need to go out occasionally to clear my head.

The stairs were at the far end of the corridor. I walked past the elevator without glancing at it. I needed the exercise.

I’d made it three quarters of the way when a door opened ahead of me. Angie stepped into the corridor. Though I usually preferred to be on my own during my breaks, I didn’t mind bumping into her. Maybe she’d cheer me up.

“Maddie! How are you? How are your tests going?”

“Terrible, for both questions. I’m on my way to JKRs so I can put today’s experimentation nightmares behind me for a while. Want to join me?”

“Sure. Shall we take the elevator or do the stairs?” She made some arm movements, suggesting vigorous walking, and I giggled.

“The stairs, definitely.”

Angie fell into step beside me. I felt the stress washing off me as we descended six flights to the ground floor. Sometimes, I walked up, too, as it was the only workout I ever got, but it depended on how much time I had.

The minimalist marble-floored lobby was empty of people. Only the receptionbot and another wotbot were busy with their mundane tasks.

I hadn’t been outside since I’d arrived at the lab that morning. It was a typical summer’s evening: bleak, overcast with a chance of acid rain, and warm. Except in the perma-shadows of our Patron’s buildings, where it was always a few degrees cooler.

“Look, we’re lucky. There’s a podcar.” Angie pointed at an available bubble-shaped vehicle parked nearby, waiting for passengers.

I shook my head. “No, I’ve been cooped up in the lab all day. I want to walk.”

“Okay, then. Good idea.”

We set off. A chunk of this area was part of our Patron’s empire: buildings, businesses, podcars and people. Members of the Supported class owned and managed a few of the smaller places. Our Patron provided protection and basic food and accommodation to the Supported class around this location. The Underclass weren’t allowed to venture here, so I felt safe outside.

There was a benefit to walking with Angie that I quite enjoyed. She’s about ten years younger than me, in her early thirties, medium height with voluminous blonde hair. She’s strikingly beautiful compared to my plain features and long, stringy auburn hair. The white gloves she always wore as a result of an incident in her childhood gave her an elegant, quirky appearance. Wherever she goes, people step out of her way. Some of them stare. If she realises the effect she has on them, she takes no notice.

People don’t give me a second glance. No one steps aside for me on the street. They just walk into me. And, unlike the old movies, I don’t get asked on a date after a collision on the pavement. I’m lucky if I get a reciprocal apology.

I envied Angie her natural beauty.

“What are you working on at the moment, Angie?” I asked.

She glanced at me. A small smile played briefly on her lips, and she sighed. “More documentation than research at the moment, I’m afraid. It’s tedious, but I have to keep my project records up to date. At least you’re doing something interesting, Maddie? What happened today, anyway? It can’t have been all bad, surely?”

“No. I’m being harsh on myself.” I noticed how quickly she spun the conversation around from her own work to mine, but all Creatives are a little secretive with their projects. “I made some progress. A whole lot of failed attempts ruled out several branches of investigation I’d been trying.”

“You’ll get there. Whatever it is you’re doing, it’s sure using a lot of apples. I’ve seen crates of them go past my door on the way to your lab.”

I smiled at her gentle encouragement. Even though she didn’t know exactly what I was working on, she had more confidence in me than I had in myself.

The density of buildings created wind tunnels. Gusts buffeted us as we crossed the street. I shivered and pulled my coat around me. After a few moments, we were back in the cool shelter provided by other buildings.

A minute later, we reached JKRs, a pleasant and bright café run by Damiano. He’s a friendly middle-aged man whom I’d got to know a little. He swivelled his head in our direction—or to be exact, directly at Angie—and smiled broadly.

“Angie! Maddie! My two favourite women. One moment, please!” He gave instructions to his robot staff, then beckoned us over. “The waitbots can serve the other customers. I will attend to you myself, and it will be my pleasure. What would you like?”

“A coffee with chocolate sprinkles,” I said.

“Me too,” Angie said. “And two slices of pizza. My treat.”

“For you, the coffees are free, if you’ll please sit at the front window table.”

“For sure,” Angie said.

This kind of thing happened to her a lot. Presumably, Damiano considered it good for business to have such an attractive woman sitting by the large window, eating his food. Maybe it drew in more customers.

We chatted about Angie’s work while we waited—no specifics, just how busy she was and how the pressure to complete the work never stopped. I sympathised; it was the same for me. But I suspect I had a lot more on the line than she did. She didn’t have a daughter whom The Patron could threaten or use as leverage.

I averted my gaze. Maybe I should have stayed in the lab and kept working.

Across the room, mesmerised customers watched a large screen broadcasting one of the latest Trials. The contestants raced against time and each other to reprogram wotbots to sort packages and carry trays of drinks. Some of their efforts were hilarious. The prize was a sponsorship by one of The Patrons into a Creative position in his business empire. I glanced at it with interest. Most people had to endure and overcome trials of this kind to secure Creative roles. I’d been one of the fortunate ones who’d earned a sponsorship by achieving well academically.

Damiano brought our order with his usual flourish, and we each took a slice of pizza. I ate with my fingers, licking the dripping cheese. Angie ate with cutlery to keep her white gloves clean.

I finished my coffee. “I must get back. I told Cassie I’d only be twenty minutes.”

“She’ll be fine. Relax. You deserve a rest.”

“I hoped to have a breakthrough today with my tests, but it hasn’t happened yet. I have to keep working.”

“You’re always working so hard, though, Maddie.”

“I don’t have a choice.”

Angie was quiet for a few moments as if contemplating this, but rose from her seat when I did, ready to leave.

A discontented murmur came from some of the other customers. I turned to look at the screen. Something untoward happening in the Trials? No, it had been taken off the air to make way for breaking news. A newsbot read a statement with chilling indifference.

“Lady Jane was assassinated earlier today in Croydon when she took a rare trip outside the protection of her base to visit an unwell friend. She travelled incognito, without security, to avoid attention. A gunman waited for her at her destination and shot her with a laser carbine. Populace Control arrived at the scene shortly afterwards. They determined the gunman was Lady Jane’s nephew, who now replaces her as Patron of her empire according to the Laws of Patronage, 2040. He will be known as Lord Garth.”

I shook my head, stunned. “How can they do that? Accession by assassination, I mean.”

Angie shot me a sharp look. “Don’t you approve?”

“No. It’s ruthless murder.”

Angie pursed her lips. “When you think about it, it’s not so different to the Roman empire, medieval kings, and probably dozens of other government systems.”

“We’re supposed to be more civilised nowadays.”

“True. But when it happens, it’s only one of them who dies, not thousands or millions of ordinary people in some barbaric war. That’s the risk they take for assuming so much power and control over others.”

“Angie, that doesn’t justify assassination.”

Her cheeks flushed. “I respect their boldness. It is within the law, you know, even if you don’t like it.”

“All right. Let’s just forget it.” I glanced again at the screen, but the newsbot had been replaced by the Trials. Politics usually didn’t interest me, and I’d never heard of Lady Jane before, anyway. The news was sad, but it wasn’t my concern. Though it would be a different matter if someone killed Lord Zachary, my own Patron.

Together, we left JKRs to make the return journey through the blustery wind and pockets of shelter to our research facility. At one point, we stepped to the side to allow officers of Populace Control to pass. Their leader checked his comms patch as he went by, probably to determine who we were and verify that we had authorisation to be in the area.

Back at the lab building, we bade each other goodbye in the corridor. I paused to take a few deep breaths, as I already felt my heart rate rising.

I’d worked out why I’d been so grumpy earlier. It hadn’t been the failed experiment or that Cassie had accepted it with a calmness that I’d temporarily lost. It was because I’d realised the only time I’d spent with my daughter for weeks was in the lab, when I was working. I missed the time we used to spend walking together in the London parks, going to open-air concerts and doing all the other things mothers and daughters like to do together.

But I could see no alternative. I had no choice. With another deep breath, I grit my teeth and strode into the lab.

Cassie pored over a long list of equations on a tablet.

“What’s that?” I asked. “Don’t tell me you’re actually doing some homework.”

“No, this is from your stuff, the results of your tests. I reordered them and spotted some patterns. Then I ran a sensitivity analysis of a multivariate linear regression on your input variables.”

I stared at her incredulously. “You did that while I was out getting a coffee?”

She nodded.

“That’s—that’s amazing, Cassie.” I could hardly get the words out. “I—I didn’t know you could do that.”

“Yeah, I’ve been doing applied maths extension modules. I learned all about data analysis and advanced algorithm design in those.” She pointed. “Look at these settings. Try these for the flavoured meson decay rate and the density of axions.” She sniggered. “Shit, now I’m talking like you.”

I looked at the tablet. There was no reason these variable settings would work any better than the ones I’d been trying all day. Yet they could hardly be any worse either.

“Let’s give it a try,” I said. I fetched another apple from my dwindling inventory and put it into the prototype teleporter. My experimental device was a two-metre cubic metal chamber held together by a jumble of components I’d sourced from some of The Patron’s other labs and the lab facility’s supply depot. A thick window allowed me to see inside. It was far too heavy to move in its current form, but it was only a prototype. I planned to make the final version much smaller and lighter once I knew what worked and what didn’t.

I configured the settings Cassie had come up with and moved away a safe distance of a few metres. Cassie joined me.

“Hurry up, Mother. I want to see what happens.”

I signalled that I was about to activate the process. Cassie glanced at me, then refocused on the apple.

I pressed the button on the remote controller. The apple vanished. So far, so good.

“Is it safe to check now?” Cassie could hardly wait to see if her settings had worked as she’d hoped.

“Probably.” You never could be sure, though. She hurried over to the red box and pulled off the lid before I could warn her to be careful.

“It’s here, Mother. It’s in one piece, too!”

“Wow, Cassie, that’s incredible!”

She ran to me, hand raised. I barely had time to lift my own before she slapped it with a high-five powered by solid adrenalin. I gasped and shook my hand; it stung.

She did a little dance, bouncing around in a perfect circle. “Fuck! I’m the greatest! I’m the greatest!”

I didn’t want to deflate her enthusiasm but I had to say it. “We have to scan the apple to make sure it’s all there.”

She grabbed the red box and put it on the scanner with a clunk. Together, we skimmed the readings as they poured onto the tablet. Everything appeared normal. The apple was the same weight and density, so we hadn’t lost any of it during the teleportation process. It was at room temperature too. The mini MRI showed the same internal structure.

“I can hardly believe it,” I whispered. “It looks like it actually worked.”

“Told you, didn’t I?” Cassie did another celebratory dance, grinning widely. “Come on, you should be more excited about it than that.”

“There’s still a long way to go, a lot of testing to do.”

“Boring.”

“It still has to be done.”

“Whatever. Can I stay at Emma’s tonight?”

The sudden change of subject after such a scientific breakthrough almost floored me. “Emma’s?” I eventually managed.

“She’s a girl in my class. She invited me around to watch the Trials. Netflix and chilling.”

“Yes, that sounds fine. As long as you finish your homework first.” As soon as the damning words left my mouth, I realised how ridiculous they sounded given what she’d just helped accomplish. Telling my genius daughter to do her homework? Give her a break.

Cassie rolled her eyes. “What—ever.” She drawled the end of the word and turned away.

I bit my lip and pried open the lid of the red receiving box to examine the apple. The data readings seemed accurate. The apple looked just the same as it had before I’d teleported it across the room, and felt as it should. I sniffed it. There was a delicate crisp apple aroma.

I was still hungry. I took a large bite out of it with a satisfying crunch.

Cassie turned around in horror. “What are you doing?” she cried.

“It tastes normal too,” I said while she stared at me open-mouthed.

“Shit, Mother, are you sure it’s safe to eat after going through your machine?”

“No, but there’s only one way to find out. Call me a rebel. And, to be exact, it didn’t go through my machine. The teleporter disintegrated it, bound its particles together in recycled quantum entanglement, then—”

“Tell me another time. Right now, I’ve got to finish my homework so I can go to Emma’s.” Cassie pulled her music player from her bag, plugged in the earphones and within a few seconds was completely absorbed in what she was doing.

I perused the settings she’d configured again, but I couldn’t see any obvious patterns. Neither did I fully understand how she’d determined them from the scattered data I had. The solution would have yielded itself to me through time and testing, but Cassie had brilliantly discovered it herself. How did I feel about that? Proud, definitely. But also envious, or even cheated out of the accomplishment … I shook my head. Bad thought. Be proud and pleased.

I finished eating the apple.

My comms patch buzzed softly and vibrated on my forearm, alerting me to an incoming message. I glanced at my arm, about to answer it, and gasped. The Patron was calling me!

I hyperventilated but quickly calmed myself. I smoothed my hair and picked up a tablet lying on a nearby bench so I would look busy, then I took the call. It had been months since The Patron had last called me—when he assigned me this project, in fact.

His gaunt face filled the little display on my comms patch. His smooth, authoritative voice poured out. I jumped from nervous tension, then felt stupid for being so self-conscious.

“I see you’re making excellent progress, Dr Maddie Mcleod. Well done. I intend to take a more personal interest in your project from this point forwards. Now, come up so I can see and talk to you in person.”

“Come up? To your office?” I shuddered like a shy schoolgirl.

“Yes. Your comms patch will give you access from now on. I want regular personal reports. This is exciting. I’m impressed with what you’ve achieved so far.”

He disconnected the call, but he might still be listening or watching.

Cassie’s head bobbed rhythmically to her music while she pored over her homework. I decided not to interrupt her. I’d only be a few minutes.

I put the tablet down, left the office and headed to the elevator. One question whirled through my head at the unquantifiable speed of thought.

What does The Patron want?

CHAPTER TWO

I’d worked for The Patron for eighteen years, but I’d never met him. In fact, I’d never seen him, except on a monitor. I’ve always been grateful for his generous sponsorship, though. Over the years, I’d wondered about him, what he looked like, what kind of person he was. At times, I even wondered if he was real. But I would soon meet him in person.

The elevator accelerated me upwards soundlessly. Through the glass outer wall, the street scene receded at an alarming rate. As I watched, JKRs became too small to discern from surrounding buildings. The Thames wiggled its way through the city and became thinner like a snake starving at fast-forward. I looked up, somewhat dizzy. At this rarefied height, only the tops of a few buildings peppered the view to the distant twilight horizon. Daylight faded sluggishly in the summer, late in the evening.

The elevator came to a gentle halt. The door slid open with a “whoosh” that did not cover the sound of my pounding heart. I stepped into a small hallway and walked into an enormous carpeted room with floor-to-ceiling tinted windows. My lab was a teabag in comparison.

Stylish furniture decorated the perimeter. An enormous bed stood on the far side. Sofas piled with luxurious cushions and throws were dispersed about the room. A large desk that could only have been assembled in the room itself stood before an array of data screens.

I took a few steps towards the desk. Where was The Patron? Should I wait, or go away and return later? I didn’t know. Had he been called away by urgent business? Would I be intruding if I stayed?

“Over here.”

A man had been lying on one of the sofas, concealed, and now unfolded into a sitting position. It was him. He was a tall man, mid to late forties, and praying mantis-like thin. His tiny bow tie, and flamboyant clothes that hung off him like colourful washing flapping in the breeze, made him look like a ridiculous dandy.

“Come here, Maddie.”

I walked towards him, not quite knowing what to expect or what to say to The Patron who had absolute control over my life and millions of others. I had a few heartbeats remaining to calm myself for this meeting, but I couldn’t stop wondering: why was he so scrawny when, surely, he could have as much as he wanted of the best food in the world? Could he not eat properly because of the boundless burdens of running his empire? Was his wiry frame some kind of warped status symbol? A sign of guilt for having such abundance?

“Lord Zachary?”

“Yes. Who did you expect? Now, sit over there.” He indicated a curved armchair.

That was rude. My lips pressed together, preventing me from answering back as I would to my daughter or to a peer. Obediently, I ensconced myself in the chair. The seating was comfortable, but I was a prisoner, an insect under a microscope. I wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

I forced myself to speak with a level tone. “You wanted to see me?”

“Yes. You’ve shown yourself to be a smart and innovative scientist. Exactly what I hoped for when I sponsored you straight from University. You’d earned your doctorate by what age? Seventeen? Eighteen?”

“Seventeen, Lord Zachary.”

“I’ve been monitoring your progress on the teleportation project, and I saw what you did, teleporting that apple across the room as if by magic. Extraordinary. Can I offer you a drink? Or supper?”

“Thank you—and yes, please.” Now he was being pleasant. Why, though? I managed to force a brief smile.

“I have only the finest simulated coffee here. None of that real gunk for me, of course.”

I didn’t see him give a signal or activate any switch, but two dwarf-sized waitbots entered the room through a nearby door. They carried trays with coffee and carousels of cakes, sandwiches and delicacies. My stomach rumbled. I hoped The Patron hadn’t heard. The pizza with Angie and the apple hadn’t been enough. I’d skipped lunch and it was already late for dinner.

The waitbots put the trays on an over-sized square coffee table between The Patron and me. One tray each, it seemed. It truly was abundance. As hungry as I was, I would only be able to eat a small fraction of the fancy food. I hesitated, trying to choose.

“It’s all simulated food, actually,” he said, smiling. “The finest there is.”

Lord Zachary leaned forward and brushed a scone with a long, bony finger, almost as if caressing it. I watched, fascinated, until I couldn’t stand waiting any longer. I helped myself from the tray in front of me and ate some little sandwiches containing a variety of fillings. They were delicious, probably the most delectable sandwiches I’d ever had. The bread slices had been cut into sixteenths, something I’d never go to the trouble to do.

The Patron did not speak for two or three minutes. In that time, all he achieved was to spread strawberry jam on his scone so thinly it was transparent, and take one tiny bite of it. I took the opportunity to consume all I could. The food was his way of manipulating me—a bribe—but I may as well eat it.

“It was supposed to be impossible, you know.”

“What?” He’d startled me.

He chuckled. “Your project. I never thought you’d be able to do it.”

I frowned and leaned forward. “I never doubted that I could do it,” I said, “if it could be done.”

“I’ve watched some of your tests. They’ve been interesting, exciting, even amusing at times. I need that. Most of my life is dull. Tedious. Boring.”

A cinnamon twist dangled from my fingers like an unlit cigarette. One of the most powerful people in the world thought his life was boring.

He sat up straight. “The teleporter looks viable now, doesn’t it? How long do you think it’ll take to make it road-worthy, so to speak? A few more days?”

I almost choked. “Much longer than that, Lord Zachary. I still have a lot of testing to do.”

“But the look on your face when you teleported that apple across the room. It was priceless. And your daughter was, like, ‘Whatever’.” Now he was the one acting like a young schoolgirl.

That’s the trouble with working for Lord Zachary. His cameras, his listening devices, his motion detectors were everywhere. Of course, with so many people in his dominion, including thousands of Creatives like me, and maybe millions of Admins, the chance of him observing me at any particular time seemed rather slim. Except he made it sound like watching me was his favourite pastime.

Suddenly, my appetite disappeared. I shivered.

I cleared my throat. “That was just one test. I need to repeat it. Try different circumstances, objects, distances. I have to test everything to ensure it works properly, consistently and safely.”

“But we’ve seen it work. What could go wrong in these other circumstances?”

I didn’t even want to begin answering that. Lord Zachary was not a scientist himself. He had no need to be, with plenty of people under his command to do whatever he wanted, to solve problems, create things and run his empire for him.

“I have to determine the teleporter’s capabilities and limitations. Then I have to make it practical somehow, so it’s safe and easy to use. What I’ve created is a prototype. It might take months, even years, to develop the final version.”

The Patron’s face reddened. “I don’t want to wait years. I’m not going to live forever,” he growled. He nibbled a chicken drumstick and flung the remainder over his shoulder. A roving sweepbot pounced on it.

I held my breath.

The crimson faded from Lord Zachary’s cheeks. He said in a friendlier tone, “Do your best. I’ve got some help for you. A young man, Thomas Kitrell. He excelled in the Trials last week. Won them by a distance. He’s clever and good with technology, and I’ve sponsored him as one of my new Creatives. He can help you write software and test the thing. And he’s an algorithmor. It’s in the rules.”

My breath caught in my throat. I shook my head at this surprise. I was used to working on my own, with Cassie’s intermittent help. Why was he assigning me an assistant? Nor did I have any idea what he meant by “it’s in the rules”.

“Is something wrong?”

I put those thoughts aside for the moment. “I want to talk about my daughter, Cassie. She’ll be eighteen in two months, and her education plan is going well. She’s good with algorithms. More than good. I don’t need an assistant, because I have her help.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Kevin Berry’s love of writing began when he handed in a 50,000 word murder mystery for an English assignment to his stunned teacher. More recently, his fiction has received independent writing awards and glowing reviews. He lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, with two sons, and is most definitely a night owl, writing into the early hours.

Q. Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from this book?
A.
Rachel Weisz. She's even the daughter of an inventor, so she'd be perfect.
Q. When did you decide to become a writer?
A.
I've wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. I've gone from writing murder mysteries and monster stories at school to writing contemporary novels on social issues, and speculative fiction such as fantasy and science fiction.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
My website: kevinberrybooks.com

Next in:
Science Fiction & Fantasy
Thor: The Last Knight of...
How far would Thor go in search of his Hammer
The Sphere
How far would you go to get away?
Marbles
The world is much stranger than she knows.