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First pages

One

September 2065

This is her last day. Despite Liyan's freakish belly, her teamsters haven't stared too much this morning. All eyes in the Hub are focused, all minds generating lifestyle news content for Globlm3dia. Like most of them, Liyan usually researches and writes her trend stories from home, appearing at the Hub only for fortnightly meetings. Maybe the others are getting used to the anachronistic sight of a pregnant human female.

She has a headache, again, though this one seems more sophisticated than its predecessors. A buzzing hypersensitivity is capping her cranium, making the air smell of rust – another maternity-induced olfactory hallucination, no doubt. Thanks a million, Tymbo.

Both the editor-in-chief and daily editor left the room directly after the meeting, didn't stay on for the usual nag/no-excuses session. But the screen cameras keep their little bead eyes trained on each worker, making sure they don't log into the deepweb to gamble or log in to their 2lives as sex slaves or whatever. That's why everyone's working so diligently: they know they're being watched.

Must be something important. Perhaps the chief is in town. Nobody on the team has met him (or her); nobody knows his or her real name.

Electric white light sears the sides of Liyan's vision. Half the room turns to X-ray for a flash second, then regains colour. Dizzy, she lowers her head between her legs. Get to the lavs, now. It could be...

Oh guardz, no. Not the baby coming three weeks early. Not here, not now.

In silence she rises and moves, carefully, unsteadily, towards the doors. Nobody notices her; they're all streaming InWorld music. Why the frack did she agree to have another baby, au naturel again? Tym thought she'd enjoy it, that's why. She must clamp her jaws against the pain as she treads the glass walkway to the fifth floor lavs, clutching the railing like some invalid while the waterfall's rainbow lights sway to wind chimes across her Inworld. She rightblinks a MedChek, for her heart rate (fine), the foetus's heart rate (fine too) and their blood pressure (hers is a touch low).

Ha, so there the editors are, off on a toplist team-building jaunt, it appears. Through the glass she watches them jostling to get a seat in the bubblecraft hovering on the lower terrace flight pad, their faces serious, hair whipped by the undulating air. Among the cluster of people she recognises two company financial directors, the editorial chief who's only seen on the floor twice a year, and T0r36 in his customary black mandarin-collar jacket. There are three others. Not really enough space for them all in what looks like a four-berth chopper, is there? T0r and another seem to force themselves in just before the doors seal shut and the craft starts to lift off. The three left behind are gesticulating angrily; a comical sight when set to the soundtrack of her rainbow chimes. Must be something important. Maybe another craft will fetch them.

In the women's lavs, Liyan pees, then splashes water on her prickling face. Every day there's some new fracking weird symptom of this maternal condition, for guardzake. She sighs at the swollen visage in the mirror, leftblinks away the ads for beach-ready body treatments. Ya, so she was once LiLi Hotstuff, a young professional with potential and long limbs with a uniform coffeebean sheen. 'Dangerously attractive', Tym had summed her up. How can she feel danejactive with this flesh-melon attached to her thirty-two-year-old body, incising new pink, pink stretch marks this very moment?

The first pregnancy was a daring adventure, proof of her rebellious spirit. Boyki's gestation was a picnic compared with this one; three years ago she was a whole lot younger in a number of ways. Additionally, not knowing the due date is eating away at her sanity this time around. Tym, on the other hand, is relishing the mystery of childbirth, as he frequently and irritatingly refers to it. The baby is only officially due in two weeks but could appear any time, according to Dr Shansky, the specialist gynobstetrician she consults online.

Nobody wants to give birth accidentally on the office boardroom table, you know. It's bad enough walking down the street; the stares at her flagrant bump make her want to spent the whole forty weeks indoors inhabiting her Inworld as a thin, flirty avatar called Flikc. You should see how the men stare in fascination, how the women shrink back as if she's a bomb about to detonate. Yes, this thing around her middle is a natural growth! Yes, ma'am, this female's actually growing a human child! She's as huge and weirdly formed as a stegosaurus, rhinoceros or other extinct creature, and she's tired of it. Thankfully, today is her official last working day at the Hub. She plans to resume work two months after the birth, though Tym thinks she should take six months to spend more time with the new baby, Boyki and him. She sees an argument looming.

Like any normal modern couple, she and Tym could have outsourced the whole #pregbirth business (complicated, undignified, medically risky) to a poor woman living behind the Line who subsists on homegrown GM soya beans and rice and is thankful for the money. The deepweb is full of offers from legitimate agents with young women in accredited birth houses; they could have picked one who's saving up to educate herself secretly with an online degree from UniState, or earning money in order to defect from 1State. They could have saved her! Just think, she and Tym would have met her onscreen, been shown around the birth house via webcam, inspected where she prepares food and washes her hands and performs ablutions: that's what everyone else she knows with a kid did. But Tym wouldn't have a surrokid. And one of those pet-like kidbots was totally out of the question, of course, although she never seriously considered that. She's heard they're just like real children, only more predictable, and can be reprogrammed if they're really getting on your nerves.

In the bathroom mirrors Liyan mimes the conversation they'd had. No, no, babe, he had said. The women in birth houses actually have no choice. The funds don't go to them; they're siphoned off by the bosses who run the baby-making businesses. The women are kept in perpetual slavery as life-producing machines. You don't even know if you're getting your own child, Li.

That started an argument about genetic tests and at what point you'd feel the need for one, and genome editing, performed by machines wielding molecular scissors. Par for the course nowadays. Who wouldn't want hereditary diseases excised from their kids' genetic code? Not Tym, it seemed. Why not add the tumour suppressant gene from elephants and spare your children cancer in later life? Because we must never become intolerant of imperfection or we will lose our humanity. Yawn. That, predictably, was followed by Tym's conspiracy theory about the existence of a whole chain of outsourcing and deception to generate profit from natural human activities.

So she agreed to an archaic birth, in theory. But Tym's not the one suffering back pains that feel like you're being dissected with long needles for an art installation, and he doesn't have this weirdly lit headache inside his head. Why didn't she insist on doing a local surrogacy, all three of them present at the birth?

Because they couldn't afford it. And because she loves him. Because he thought about all this late into the night and, regardless of the fact that their procreating friends were having surrokids, came to her and said, 'Babe, it's not right. Maybe it's okay for others but it's not for me. If we have a kid, we must take responsibility for it right from the moment of conception. It must be ours.'

That's pure Tym. His wallscreen background reads WHAT IS THE ETHICAL SOLUTION?

Liyan slinks back towards her workstation hoping nobody will see her. She's in time for the second morning meeting, a drab recap of the first meeting plus a brainstorm of new features. With a black throw draped over her shoulders and belly, Liyan keeps her eyes lowered, secretly scrolls through her InWorld messages to the faint beats of her playlist, and lets others dominate the meeting. Afterwards, they all return to their temporary workstations for the last 2x40' selfwork session before lunch.

Then something happens. A purple-blue corona of mysterious light flares around everything. A white flash cuts through her vision. There's a burning smell, and a crackling seems to echo right across the office, from every tunnel, corridor and chamber, thrumming harder against her ear drums, accompanied now by a volley of crashes outside the building, by thuds, splintering, screams. After it stops, the visual silence is deafening.

Nothing is moving in front of her face. All music has ceased. All talking.

Liyan grips the desk to steady herself, and the item of furniture suddenly seems far too close. Her colleagues are strange, stark figures caught in a blank room.

Everything seems bare, stripped of life.

It cannot be. But it's true: her InWorld has vanished.

It's impossible. Automatically superimposed onto her vision from the age of five, according to UniGov educational statute, it has brought her rolling updates on school, work, friends and news for more than twenty-five years, giving her the personalised images, medical information and social contact she regards as her world. Where has it gone? Surely childbirth doesn't disable your life?

Liyan stares into the air in front of her, stunned. Without the background music and animation, the office and its occupants appear disabled; a new version of dead. As her eyes search the room, a suspicion grows. A few teamsters are clutching their heads, emitting moans. A solitary voice punctures the silence, awkwardly loud. A woman. What's going on? Somebody utters a response, a man. I can't see properly.

But it's the expression of bewilderment on the faces of every person that confirms to her that the unthinkable has happened.

Everything has gone blank.

Boyki's with Gran. Oh guardz. She doesn't know the drill.

Liyan pushes past the panicking Media Hub workers shouting to one other, elbows her way through dim corridors lit only by shards of grey natural light, musters all her strength to shoulder open a stiff fire-escape door and clatters down the rickety metal staircase, seven flights, to the bottom. Already people are gathering in the street, where the air smells burnt. A brownish haze coats everything and a strange, reddish corona surrounds the sun.

She hurries past the scattered remains of dronebots that have dropped from the sky, a few with injured people trapped beneath them. She passes the many eltaxis standing stationary in the street while their occupants either sit stunned, waiting for this hopefully temporary blip to pass, or yell from behind the windows to passers-by, some of whom are breaking the car windows with blunt objects to free the passengers.

No no music, no messaging, no blinkivated InWorld flickering its multicoloured visuals over her view of reality; just the bland, quiet light of day. She can even hear her breathing – fast, shallow, scared. Without power, the world outside and the interior of her head are startling, bleak places.

Liyan has only vague memories of life without her InWorld implant, inserted as per IndiGov educational requirements when she was six years old. Never without her personal organiser, Nik, she has not been aware of this calm, strong director inside her, who instructs her now in short messages. Go to Tym. Now. Ground floor. Be quick.

Thanks to his cataclysm survival-guide site, Tym had casually issued the following memorandum over his shoulder while she caught up on work one night. Babe, if we're every anything unusual or dangerous happens – a power cut, a rebel uprising, a hurricane, escaped genmod animals from the labs – we grab our kid asap and meet on the ground floor of our building. Except in the case of a tidal wave: in that case, get yourself to the highest natural point nearby. A hill is good. Are we in agreement?

She'd snorted with laughter and replied, Ya, okay, sure thing.

'The WorldGov should be ashamed of themselves,' a freed eltaxi passenger shouts as Liyan rushes past, holding her belly for protection. Two blocks further, she reaches the nursery school, where she finds Boyki's teacher in tears as she and her assistant guide children into the weak sunshine on the pavement. 'Tym's mother fetched Boyki just before lunchtime, as arranged,' she informs Liyan. 'Do you have any idea what's going on? All our teaching aids switched off, and I struggled to open the security doors manually, even with my assistant's help. We were almost trapped! I can't contact anyone. I don't know how to get these kids back to their parents. All their addresses are on my InMap, and it's totally disappeared, like everything else. We'll just have to wait here with the children and hope their parents show up. Nothing like this has happened before. Is it a fire or something? What's the smell?'

'I don't know,' Liyan says apologetically. 'I've got to try to find Tym and Boyki. Sorry, I've really got to go.'

The teacher's face is stricken. 'Will you be coming back?' she asks.

Liyan holds up her hands. 'I'm sorry, I don't know. It seems like a blackout. Keep the kids together and wait here. Get them some water. The parents will come.' Feeling guilty, she starts to walk away. What if some of the parents don't come? 'I'm sure one the neighbourzone guards can help you,' she calls out.

Go. Get there as fast as you can. Dread rises in Liyan's throat as she pounds forward, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Is Boykie trapped with Gran Kyros in her building in Silverstreams? Thankfully the apartment is only one level above ground floor. In fact, Kyros chose it so that in the highly unlikely event of a fire, she'd be able to jump onto the flat-roofed shopfront below and slither down the wall to the safety of the street. 'It's high but I'd make it,' she'd said. Liyan had thought her paranoid. A fire, in this day and age? Like the Great Fire of London?

An unusually warm draught blows through the corridor of road between the tall buildings; Liyan swallows down a wave of nausea. Passing narrower side streets, she feels the air being sucked in, pulling her clothing from her damp skin. Within half an hour, twenty minutes even, she should be home. Grab Boyki asap, Tym had said. Kyros's apartments is two suburbs away, which would take an hour's walk, she estimates. Best she stops at home to find Tym. Then they'll walk together to Kyros and Boyki.

She sees her husband like a mirage through the sunfilta entrance door to their apartment block. He's attempting to wrench the doors open with the help of a few neighbours. When she knocks and waves, the look of relief on Tym's face is like a punch to her chest. It takes two men and a metal bar pilfered from the art installation in the lobby to lever the door open.

A neighbour calls a cursory greeting to her and bolts up the road in the direction of the zone centre. Tym holds Liyan more tightly than usual, kisses her harder. 'The lifts aren't working, and the ground floor fire-escape door to the street won't open, so we had to force this one open,' he explains as residents stream from the lobby into the road, pushing each other, some whimpering and others actually crying out. Dressed in the sturdy walking boots, camouflage gear and backpack she's always mocked ('as if you will ever be stranded in the wilderness, babe'), he hands her a backpack.

'You're organised,' she says wryly.

'Of course. This is serious and we need to quick. Ready to go? We must go to Boyki and Mom immediately and see if things are any better in Silverstreams,' he says. 'Here, put on your walking shoes. I've also packed your toiletries, socks, underwear, some sensible clothes, a warm hat and sun hat, and that manual sunscreen you laughed at.'

'Oh guardz,' she laughs, 'I'm sure I won't need all this.'

'Just in case,' he says. 'Thank me later. If this is widespread, we are in bigger sh#t than the dinosaurs. Really. Let's go.'

'No!' she says. 'What if we can't come back here? If this building is condemned, I need to rescue a few things. I'm running up to get Boyki's blankie and a few toys for him.'

'Look,' he says, indicating the residents pouring from the fire escape door into the lobby. 'You can't get up there now anyway, Li. Not in your state, okay? It'll take you half and hour and you'll overheat.' In other words, he's not going on her behalf. Glaring at her, he adds, 'We need to be ahead of everyone else, then get as much food and bottled water as we and Mom can carry from the neighbourhood food stores.'

'But how will we pay?' she asks.

'A verbal “I owe you”,' he shrugs. Then he whispers, 'we're not going to pay, Li.' He slips a backpack over her shoulders and adjusts the straps. 'We'll also need to stop at the Seed Bank at the University and take a few things.'

'Are you nuts, Tym? We can't just steal! These things aren't ours to take. What if the lights come on in an hour? Then we'll both have criminal records and I'll lose my job.'

'Liyan,' he says, gripping her arms, 'what's happened is that something major has fried all the electrical grids in our area. Trust me; I ran a few checks when the power died. Everything electrical in this area has been destroyed. This means our neighbourhood isn't going to be coming back to life any time soon. We need to get to Mom's and camp out at her place, see if anything's better there. Let's go.'

She glances up at the building with longing. Her amber earrings, the lock of hair from Boyki's first haircut, the treasure box Tym gave her to celebrate their first six-month anniversary of their meeting...

'You have me and your pendant, babe,' he says as he touches the hollow in her neck. Liyan always wears Tym's wedding gift to her: a miniature glass planet containing blue and green swirls, enclosed in a platinum web. 'And a few bottles of water and Nufood sachets,' he adds. 'You have everything that's important.'

'What if your mom's decided to bring Boyki here and is already on her way? We'd need to ask someone to tell her we've gone to her place...' The words extinguish themselves as she surveys the clusters of people forming around them and hears them ask one another where they're going, where to find water, where to sleep the night now that the entrance to the buildings has been forced open and will provide no security.

'I can print out a notice and leave it on the door,' says Liyan. No printer, no power, no. If I could write, I could leave a note. But handwriting was dropped from UniState school curricula in 2035, when Liyan was a toddler.

 

They follow the traffic artery through the suburbs, where eltaxis stand stranded in the middle of road and power lines dangle from poles like spaghetti. People are still emerging, dazed, from buildings to cluster in the street.

Within half an hour Liyan's feet are blistered and aching and she's struggling to keep up with Tym. At times he must stop and wait for her, and occasionally he withdraws a water sachet from his backpack, pulls it open and hands it to her as if she's an athlete. But this is an actual feat of endurance, she tells herself – isn't it? It's definitely the first time since that hike they took during their first year of dating that they've ever walked this far from home.

The doors to Silverstreams are open. Tym charges up the fire escape steps to knock on his mother's door while Liyan pants behind him.

'Who is it?' Liyan can hear the anxiety in Kyros's muffled voice.

'Mom, it's me,' Tym calls.

Kyros opens the door with joy on her face.

'Mama!' While Boyki throws himself at Liyan and hugs her legs, Tym holds his hands protectively over Liyan's balloon abdomen, as if afraid his son will precipitate a birth. So he should be, Liyan thinks; tonight would absolutely not be a good night.

Then Tym swings his son up for a hug. 'So my Boyki's been playing on Gran's fluffy mat with his rockets and space stations, huh?'

'I didn't know what to do, so I just waited,' Kyros is saying. 'I did hope you'd be coming. I mean, I thought that was all I could do. There was no way of contacting either of you … all the normal communication channels are dead, across our whole zone, it seems. It was too far to walk, though I thought I could try it...'

'You did the right thing, Mom,' says Tym, stepping into the kitchen and opening cupboards to survey her supplies.

Liyan kisses her mother-in-law's cheek. In the absence of aircon it's slick with sweat, and she can smell and almost taste the salt, surprisingly strong.

'Okay all, I need you to stay here while I go shopping,' announces Tym. He's tipping out the contents of his backpack on his mother's meal table: his penknife, a large kitchen knife, a multi tool, clothing including his waterproof suit, a medical kit, toiletries, a rolled-up tent, a metallic insulation blanket, a blanket, a small towel and some of Boyki's clothes.

'But everything's closed, Tymbo,' Kyros says. 'Noa, my neighbour, told me. She works in the central food store as an order compiler and she was actually there, working, when the lights went out. The generators aren't working; nothing. The staff ushered everyone out to prevent theft.'

'Mom,' says Tym stuffing a few of his mother's storage bags into his backpack, 'I'm just heading out for a bit. See you in about an hour to an hour and a half max.'

He avoids her questioning gaze but they all know what he's about to do.

 

 

Something is wrong. Obyn awakes to a disconcerting absence of light and sound. At this hour he should be hearing the faint chorus of Altereal birdsong from the compound gardens, seeing marbled colour seeping in through the blind as it opens, millimetre by millimetre, as his chosen wake-up call.

Why has his light alarm not activated this morning? He raises his forefinger to open the blind remotely and stares in astonishment when it remains inert. He touches the blind covering the window pane. He taps it. No response.

Having slipped on his robe in the frail light, Obyn stands at the doorway of his pod, hoping the automatic opening mechanism works, but it too has ceased. He tries pushing the handle-less door but it's jammed shut. Unless he can find a way out, he is a prisoner.

This is merely a problem, to which there are a myriad solutions. The pod contains a kitchen window of unbreakable glass like the others, also in lockdown mode, and the pseudo skylight above the central study area has turned black. But in the bathroom he assesses the air vent above the wet zone: small, worryingly small, but a possibility nonetheless.

He's surprised to feel droplets of perspiration falling in a line onto his neck as he stands on a chair and forces the vent inwards. It's become hellishly warm in here.

During his fifteen-minute struggle through the rectangular opening, he becomes slick with sweat. What if he remains stuck halfway? But he pushes, flexes, drags his flesh in. After crawling through the stuffy tunnel beyond, he kicks down a lattice metal barrier, which falls only after his sixth, more brutal, attempt; then through into a dark, low-ceilinged room smelling of damp. When he locates by feel a circular trapdoor above him, Obyn guesses where he is. He must use a broken wooden bannister found on the floor as a battering ram to push it outward, and when he climbs out onto the roof, he sees the Institute as he has never seen it, completely still and unpopulated. The morning light is an insipid grey, the fountains have stopped, and no bird sings.

Obyn slides down a drain pipe to the ground, ripping his robe. As he follows the gravel arc path to the Gathering Hall, the colour of his robe sticking to his neck, his crunching steps seem too loud.

Where the hail is everybody?

He begins to run from the Hall, astounded by the heat his body is generating, propelled by his fear. That state of pulsing hyper-wakefulness beams in a boyhood memory from the time his father was retrenched. The world's last human accountant, Pa bitterly referred to himself thereafter, having been replaced by a forensic auditing computer programme named FOB.

For the first time in years, he feels again his old anger at being left alone. He was always being told to stay in the home pod and get on with his school work while his parents rushed his handicapped brother Ivo to hospital or therapy or took him on an outing. As the healthy child, Obyn's role was to compensate for his brother's shortcomings and his father's disappointment at siring what he considered a reject.

Obyn strides up the wide path to the Core building with anger running up his limbs in prickling lines. Dry leaves flutter past his feet. Autumn, so soon? He glances around him: indeed, in a matter of hours the trees have become tatty galleons hung with weathered flags. Everywhere, yellowing and rust-coloured leaves are drooping, detaching and falling to the ground, disintegrating. Yesterday was summer; today things are dying. Something has overridden the seasonal smoothing system and nature is returning on overdrive, he surmises. Fast-fall.

The bell tower clock has stopped at five minutes past four, and the aura shimmer around the Core entrance, that high D-natural hum and blue-white light that slightly stung the skin – gone. The arched doors are flaking silver paint, he notices for the first time, and today they do not open at his touch as they ought. He pushes. Nothing. He resorts to a sharp kick. The doors swing open and bang shut; satisfaction flares in him. But the interior is deserted, bar a pigeon trapped in self-induced panic in the lobby's diamond-shaped skylight, beating its wings against the glass.

'Come!' he calls, opening the doors and sending yellow thought-energy to draw the pigeon out. See the opening instantly, bird. It flutters upwards again in vain, paying him no heed.

Frowning, Obyn leaves the bird and ascends the dim stairway to the High Chamber. The door at the end of the corridor is open. Without pausing, as he might have on any other day, Obyn enters. There, slumped on her throne with eyes closed, her forehead in her hand, is the Principal.

She looks up, blinks. 'Obyn! Thank goodness. Well, that's one consolation. Harald is fading fast.' She shakes her head briskly.

'Madam, does he require assistance?'

A groan is heard from the back of the room, behind the Principal's desk. She waves a hand in the academic head's direction. 'Soon he will be gone,' she mutters. 'Not everyone can adjust. I've always suspected he wasn't made of sturdy stuff, unlike me,' she says of the Grandmaster rumoured to be her long-term partner. 'Or you, clearly,' she says, casting an appraising eye over Obyn's glistening face and neck. 'Our ancestral genetic underlay either trips us up or saves us at defining moments such as these.'

'We should help him, Madam. I insist,' Obyn declares, impatient with her defeatist philosophising. He begins to centre himself, to open his energy gates mentally and infuse the prostrate body with healing charge. But the gates seem not to open. The space before him, which would ordinarily be flooded with expansive emerald-green energy by now, is blank. Obyn wipes his forehead with a sleeve.

'I don't... I can't seem to affect him,' Obyn admits. Disobeying the customary spatial respect for the Principal, he steps through her field, towards Harald, to try to touch the man physically.

'No!' The Principal halts him with a raised hand. 'He cannot be helped. The best thing to do is accept it, Obyn. Don't waste the energy you have left. You'll need it to survive.'

From the floor come inaudible words.

'Madam, surely we should at least try,' Obyn appeals.

Harald's face is flushed pink, shiny like an overripe fruit, his jaw chattering. His unseeing gaze slides across the wall and floor; then his eyes close.

When the Principal lowers her head, Obyn sees the moisture beading on the lower rims of her eyes. 'It will soon be over,' she says quietly.

'Madam, do you have any understanding of what has happened?' Obyn asks.

'I can only view this as a critical juncture, Obyn,' she says, 'a point from which civilisations may proceed in a number of ways. The cause was a solar storm, and for some unfathomable reason we didn't get data warning us of this. All systems have been deactivated since it struck in the early hours of the morning.'

'Deactivated?'

'Technically destroyed,' she clarifies.

'Where are my students?' he demands.

The Principal leans back in her throne, massaging her eyebrows. 'Obyn, Obyn, not everyone survives an event of this magnitude.' She fixes her stone-coloured eyes on him. 'We have to count ourselves fortunate that we are alive,' she says. It's an admonishment: he, a master of the Institute, ought to understand and accept this.

He leans over her desk. 'Tell me where they are.'

She averts her eyes. 'We do not expect to find any survivors among your 8er group.'

It hits him like a punch to the diaphragm. 'Why?' he demands. 'Why am I standing here, and you – and not a single one of them? Do you attribute this to mere genetic luck?'

'Different batches,' she says, throwing a hand to the air. 'Different intake; different wavelengths they were exposed to under our influence. Unfortunately, your students would inevitably respond negatively to the amplitudes that reached the Institute in the early hours of the morning. They will be lying in their beds, as they went to sleep last night. That's all I can tell you.' She applies her thumbs to her temples and glances at Harald, whose form has become still in the shadows behind her.

All that talent, potential, life – gone? All his colours, really gone forever? Competitive flames-and-guns-loving Myx, Tatra the energy-artist who painted with her brainwaves, clear-minded Citri, Freya with her butterfly wings about to spread, harmoniser Uli, Thyst in her forest huntress boots, and Amuel whose wisdom was worn with a mantle of humour: Obyn groans as he revisits the spectrum of potential his students comprised.

'As I explained, Obyn, Harald has not made it,' the Principal declares simply. 'Neither have your students, regrettably. You and I should be fine.'

'Surely something can be done, Madam!' Obyn protests. 'These are people, not disposable assets.'

A crooked smile appears on her face. 'Think about that more carefully, my dear Master of Matter Sculpture. The members of this Institute are precisely that, are they not?'

'Disposable assets?'

'Well, yes, in that each student has been tasked with providing a particular service, a function. The whole point of this institution is to produce matter sculptors and other energy workers who may then be sent out into the field to work.'

'And if they do not achieve a certain goal, they are worthless?' he protests.

'Not entirely. There are many possible scenarios,' she says evasively.

'Freya and Myx were setting off on their first test mission,' he mourns, realising he will be the one to find their corpses.

'Obyn, consider your students perished,' she says.

'Madam, were you aware that the pair were in the light chamber last night, beginning their transition procedures?'

The Principal shifts delicately in her seat. 'Now that you remind me of it, those two may in fact be somewhere else…'

'Myx and Freya? Where? Have their doubles merely been sent elsewhere, or could they still be alive?'

'I cannot answer all your questions,' she snaps. 'I can only tell you that they may be... caught in the test scenario. If the signal went off before the solar storm hit, they may have crossed over, and therefore might still be there. Or they may be stuck somewhere in the middle for some time before they either cross over or...'

'They're trapped? How will I find them?'

The Principal laughs bitterly, then sighs. 'Try the original unabridged method, my dear Obyn – what we were taught in the very beginning, under the previous administration, if you can remember that far back. Meditative thought, centring, focus; then try your damndest to communicate with the two of them. Send out a message and see if anything comes back to you. Let me know if you have any luck, if I'm still here.'

While the region of his sternum burns, Obyn gives a curt nod and turns to go.

'They have a limited time,' she adds behind his back.

Obyn turns back.

'According to the test scenario,' the Principal continues, 'the candidates have approximately nine Earth months to find a way of co-operating and turning the scenario around.'

'What happens after the cut-off?'

She refuses to answer. But she knows; he's sure of it.

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

An author and journalist, I live in Cape Town, South Africa. I have printers’ ink in my blood, thanks to my Scottish journalist and novelist forbears. A former features editor on O, The Oprah Magazine and Cosmopolitan South Africa, I've written six books and devised the Peacock Book Project writing adventure, inspired by my master's degree in creative writing. When not at my desk, I surf and dance the Argentine tango.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I once lived on a farm. Seeing birds being plucked for the pot, water pipes fixed, vegetables grown, fruit trees pruned and harvested, made me wonder: if modern people like me don't know how to farm or use manual equipment, what would happen if shops, technology and modern life suddenly stopped?
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
We all suffer losses: failures, deaths of loved ones, relationships that end. Yet loss is balanced by gain, sometimes in unexpected forms. In this novel, the world as we know it has ended, but all is not lost.
Q. Why do you write?
A.
To entertain and inspire. Writing is the freest act I know. I write to help others take action despite their fears; to reframe difficulties; to consider what's worth fighting for; and to spread the uncanny healing powers of reading and writing.

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