3.30 pm, GMT, Friday, April 18th, 2132, Bari JopperPort, Puglia, Italy

Like most airports worldwide, other than those which had been designated to accommodate long-distance stratocruisers, Bari's airport, named after a long-forgotten Pope, had been downsized in the late 21st century and converted into a jopper hub, with connections mostly to local Italian cities.

Now Slavica stood in the arrivals lounge, close, not that she knew it, to the spot where her great-great-great-grandfather Peter had waited for his daughter-in-law and her children in 2015. Such places had become much less formalized, since passports and identity documents were abandoned in 2060: whether in fizz or in cyber-space, the system knows who and where you are at all times, and security is ensured by pervasive short-wavelength scanning fields which would instantly detect any anomaly. So there are no barriers, fences or uniformed, uninformed staff. It is a very long time since there was a deliberate attempt to damage or destroy people or equipment. Robot attendants there are, of course, in case you should need anything.

Through a protective glass screen, mostly to dampen noise, Slavica watched as Michael walked across from the jopper, carrying a small suitcase.

"Sorry to have to ask you to come here," said Michael, after they shook hands formally. "It was OK for me to be in Rome; I had legitimate business. But I'm trying not to leave too many traces of coming here, obviously."

Once in the car, driving automatically, of course, behind the darkened glass windows they were able to clinch.

"It'll take about forty minutes," said Slavica eventually after Michael's eager hands had checked every inch of her body, it seemed, and she had to stop herself from tearing off his clothes then and there.

"Will there be anybody there?" enquired Michael.

"No, you'll be able to have your way with me." She grinned. "The servitors and the garden bots are quite basic. Definitely not intelligent enough to be bribed by Baidu! They're bright enough to stay out of our way, at least, until we call them. There's a local agent who checks by once a week, but when he knows I'm there he doesn't come.

Soon Michael was remarking on the conical trullis which are such a feature of that corner of Italy. In their original form they are hardly convenient to live in, and even many of the conversions that had been popular in the 20th century were abandoned once people had warm, comfortable lives in the cloud. So the countryside, as everywhere, had largely reverted to its 18th century appearance. Here and there the odd family clung on to traditional ways of life, cultivating olives, making wine, but the 10 percent rule made it next to impossible, which was the intention, and the prevailing way of life now centred around holiday resorts, staffed by full-time bots of course. Only relatively rich families like the Webers maintained their old homes for occasional visits.

"How often do you come here?" asked Michael, their bodies entwined, her head on his shoulder.

"A bit more often nowadays. It's so quiet, and so real. I can really think. I suppose I'm breaking the rule, but nobody seems to mind."

"I had you classified as an essential fizz-body," said Michael. "There's only a few thousand of us; the ones who are too important to keep bottled up in the cloud. Actually I prefer it in the cloud, most of the time, but realistically I can get more done down here. It shouldn't be so; I think it's got to do with the intensity of experience. However clever the RCRs are, there's some sort of depth lacking in personal communications."

At that, Slavica couldn't help herself, and grasped Michael. "You can go quite deep, I know."

So that was the end of sensible conversation in the car.

"It's almost a time capsule," said Slavica as she showed Michael around the house. "The furnishings are mostly as Peter left them in 2028. That was the last time anyone really lived here. Obviously we've kept the systems up to date."

"I love the pictures," said Michael. "There are so many of them; you could hardly add another. I don't know the artists, but they are all very painterly, interesting."

"Peter was a keen collector, and he lived in so many places. Apparently he used to boast that he knew just about every one of the painter personally."

"These are the best ones," she added as they walked into the library, a large, high timber-vaulted room with bookshelves and pictures vying for space and attention. "Mostly Russian. His second wife was Russian and he lived there for quite a while."

"It's rather a beautiful room," admitted Michael. "I could spend a lot of time in here."

With the sunlight streaming through the windows, intensifying the colours of the pictures and the furishings, the room seemed to float in space, suspended between the wooden gallery at one end and the stairs down to the wine cellar at the other.

"Stewart said he should have been an architect," said Michael.

"I keep forgetting you're almost family," said Slavica. "Perhaps we're being incestuous?"

"Shall we go outside?" suggested Michael. "While there's light."

"I turned on the water garden as we came in," said Slavica. "It's the piece de resistance, in a dry country with no rivers. Peter made a vast reservoir which fills up in the winter, so that you can run the water garden even in the middle of summer."

In the end they sat in a small Roman temple overlooking Peter's lake and an arboretum under-planted with wild flowers, sipping Bollinger.

"It's actually beautiful," admitted Michael. "Is this how he designed it?"

"More or less. Gardens aren't like houses; they change, grow, die. But we haven't had to do much to it. Peter's house-book - I'll show it to you later - makes it clear that he believed in shape, above all, in a garden, like Le Notre or Capability Brown. Flowers are fine, but they're just the final layer of decoration, like jewels on a beautiful woman. Inside there are his original drawings for the place, and what you see now is almost exactly what he designed, 120 years ago. When he died, there was a gardener who knew what to do; but then he died too, and Stewart had the Netherlands institute design a garden control system, which maintains a garden according to the original design. Then they commercialized it, and it was quite successful, especially with municipalities. But this is just a shack, really, even if it's nice; you must have much grander houses?"

"Museums," said Michael. "Lots of super-grand houses, but they don't have a function any more, not even as weekend places. They are just tourist attractions. Once in a while we have a party in one of them, just to pretend they still exist. Anyway, in the cloud you can spend your weekends at Versailles if you want, and it's just as real without the risk of getting your head cut off."

"Talking of museums," said Slavica, "did you know that Leonardo came from around here? His house is only fifteen kilometers away from here. I'm its 'guardian', weirdly. When he died, the administrators looked around for someone to look after it, and they found me. If it would amuse you, we could go to see it tomorrow."

"I'd love to," said Michael. "Any chance of another glass of champagne?"

Slavica mentally called Giorgio, the butler, who appeared seconds later, decked out in full 19th century tail-coat and pinstripe trousers.

"Good evening, Miss. It's nice to see you again. Good evening, Mr Sedgwick; we are honoured by your presence."

"I'm incognito," laughed Michael. "But for more Bollinger, I'll admit to anything."

"Oh, and by the way, Giorgio, we'd like to go to the Masseria Leonardo tomorrow for lunch. Could you ask them to get ready, please?"

"Of course, Miss."

"We had to sacrifice a garden shed for him," said Slavica a little sheepishly. There wasn't room in the house for the staff wardrobe, and all their electronic kit. Or anyway we weren't prepared to share it."

"There's something to be said for Mentmore, then," chuckled Michael.

* * * * *

As they climbed the stairs to Leonardo's control room at the Masseria, Michael asked who owned the house.

"Leonardo didn't have any living relatives," said Slavica, "and there was no will, so it's kind of an orphan estate. It's in the hands of a public administrator here in Italy, and they're still looking for relatives in other branches of the family. It's only been a year, after all. After five years, if they can't find anyone, they'll simply auction it."

They were panting as they reached the tower room.

"It's a long way up," complained Michael.

"There's a lift," said Slavica, "but it's better for us to get some exercise, don't you think?"

"We had plenty last night," said Michael, putting an arm around her.

"It's as he left it," said Slavica, after he let her go, gesturing to the banks of equipment and the elaborate chair Leonardo had occupied while connected to his RCC meetings. Each of the four walls had wide picture windows looking out over the Puglian countryside; but instead of the typical, hilly countryside around Slavica's house, dotted with numerous converted trullis, the views seemed landscaped, with gentle 18th century inclines, judiciously placed groves of trees and olive plantations.

"It looks like a Mediterranean Versailles," offered Michael.

"But there's no water," said Slavica. "If I was to take it on, I'd try to do what Peter did, a few lakes and so on. For my taste, it's bit lifeless like this."

"Are you tempted?" asked Michael.

"No, no. It would be a mass of work, and I come here to relax, not supervize gangs of construction bots. Why don't you buy it?"

"Another useless palace? No thanks! Anyway, what excuse could I give?"

They sat at lunch on a terrace in front of the house, some parterres adding a dash of lively colour to the muted reddish-brown earth of the olive groves and the green of the pine trees.

"Don't answer if you're not ready," said Michael while they waited for the butler to bring coffee after the meal, "but I'm curious to know how you're getting on with the new RCCs? We didn't seem to talk about it at this month's meeting."

"And whose fault was that?" enquired Slavica. "Anyway, I can fill you in." She paused while the coffee was poured.

"One of the problems I have had is that you can't be in an RCC from fizz, or rather that it's too dangerous because of the lack of back-up. And it takes too long to go to the storage location every time I want to do an RCC experiment - especially since my body gets stored in Arizona. That means I've had to work through groups of my students in the cloud. Of course, I get a full set of traces from the RCC afterwards; and the guys report to me individually. But I'm still working at one remove, so to speak. It's OK with the physical brain work, obviously. So I've jerry-rigged a harness that I can put myself into; it still takes an hour or so, but that's a whole lot better than going to Arizona and coming back again."

"Isn't that dangerous?" worried Michael. "It means there's no supervision of your body while you're in the cloud. Why don't you move your location to New York? Most of us have done that."

"It would still mean a two-hour drive there and back, and they're so slow with all their prep routines."

"There's a reason for that," said Michael. "How do you know you're doing the prep back-ups correctly?"

Slavica gave him a withering look.

"OK," he said, "I forgot you studied brain sciences. But it's still risky."

"Whatever. I'm making much faster progress now. I hadn't realized just how much clearer the experiences are in the new model RCC; they were telling me about it, but you have to feel it to understand. It's routine by now that we can get two separate groups, two RCCs to communicate with each other telepathically, not just images, but language and other semantic concepts. It's unbelievably fast, as well. Non-local, you see. You have an extensive discussion, perhaps involving a hundred exchanges, and it's all over in less than a minute. People tend to sleep a lot afterwards; there's a kind of overload in the amygdala and memory storage gets blocked up. I could cure that in the e-clones, but it's not allowed, obviously. It affects me, too, so I limit myself to one session a day, and use the groups for the others."

"And?" asked Michael, who could tell that there was more to come.

"It's scary," said Slavica, rolling her eyes. "Are you sure you want to know?"

Michael sat quietly.

"Psi is three things, classically. There's plain telepathy, there's precognition, and there's psychokinesis. After we'd demonstrated telepathy, I thought we ought to take a look at the others. So we did precognition first. They still have races at Monticello in fizz, and you can still bet on them, so we picked a race in 24 hours' time and tried to imagine it within an RCC group. It wasn't easy, at first. There was a whole blur of images of horses, riders, the crowd yelling. The problem was to locate the images precisely in time. Eventually we found that by imagining the clock over the grandstand first, fixing its hands at the moment of the race, and then starting the race as if it was a film, we could kind of wind it forward to the finish. It kept breaking down, but we practised on and on, and eventually we saw the finish, with number 35 in front. I went to the pari-mutuel in fizz and put 50 credits on."

She smirked.

"Very good odds I got. It was an outsider. 25 to 1."

"Ohmigod," groaned Michael. "Do you have any idea what that means?"

"Every idea. That's why it's scary. Anyway, I gave the money to charity. The big question, anyway one of the big questions, is how robust the predictions can be. Could you withdraw the horse, say, in between the prediction and the reality. If that was so, then it's a kind of 'multiple universes' situation, which has fallen out of fashion. We didn't want to go about nobbling horses in their stables, so we set up a random number generator in the lab – that was always the classical experiment for demonstrating precognition – to print out a 20-digit number once a minute and put a clock on the wall above it. Then we decided we would nobble the machine by switching it off and back on, at an agreed time, and ran another trial. It worked: we got the number right, even after the machine had been switched off and on. So it seems there's only one future, after all, and it already exists. We haven't checked it very far; we've made some predictions for three months' time, six month's time, a year's time, etc, but of course we don't know the answers yet. The images do seem to get hazier, the further out they are, but that may just be that we're not very good at conceptualizing them."

"What about the group?" asked Michael. "What's to stop them using the RCC to rig the stock exchange, for instance?"

"They can't. I control the RCC. It's in the cloud, and the access codes are dotted around in the cloud, some are even just in my memory. Then there's a back-up set with the lawyers in case I fry myself!"

Michael was thoughtful. "Still, it would destroy most of humanity's social structures. You would know when you were going to die, for instance?"

"Perhaps not? You could predict the outcome of an operation, say, if you knew when it was going to take place, but it seems so far that you have to be precise about time and location before you can get an image. Definitely the stock exchange would have problems. All kinds of betting on the future. Otherwise, I'm not sure."

"Is there more?" asked Michael, seeing some sort of glint in Slavica's eyes.

"I'm sorry, but yes." She sighed. "PK."

"Spill it out," said Michael.

"It's the same, more or less. We have to know the physical time and place before we can do it, and so far we haven't managed anything bigger than a die; but that's just a matter of practice. If we're in the RCC and it's now, and we have all seen a picture of the die, or the real thing, and its surroundings, we can move its location, through space, through a lead plate, through anything, really. If we try to move it to a location occupied by a non-displaceable object, down into the table, say, it just doesn't work. If it's in the future, it's the same as for precognition, we have to start with the time, an image of the time from a clock in the same space as the die. Then you come out of the RCC, say it's set for one hour in the future, and sure enough the die moves right on schedule. It doesn't move, actually, it simply vanishes and reappears in its new location. There's a little puff as the air is expelled from the new space. The best bit is that when we set it up the motor neurones in the cortex behave just as they would if we were moving a physical object. That's to say, the motor neurones in all six e-clones are cooperating, or at least reflecting each other's behaviour. But they don't even twitch when the actual move takes place, if it's in the future; we've checked that."

Michael shut his eyes, and sighed deeply.

"That's it," said Slavica. "Promise. That's all there is."

Michael laughed. "Well, perhaps that throws a new light on why they decided to limit the e-clone back in 2060."

"Or perhaps not," mused Slavica. "Maybe they just didn't have enough bandwidth to do any better. Or both."

"Anyway," said Michael, "I'm beginning to understand why the G3 had to be in fizz. And this accounts for that feeling of lack of depth you always have in the cloud. You only have half your brain, yes, we knew that, but there is no connection to the rest of your group, to humanity. What happens when you enlarge the number of people in the RCC; do you know?"

"You're wondering if we can do without the physical G3, right?"

Michael nodded.

"Well, we've only taken it up to 12, that's the two student groups of six put together, and the result is more clarity, more speed, once they've gotten used to it. And we already know that RCCs function perfectly well with any number of members. That's what they were designed to do, after all. It needs to be proven, but I see no reason at all why all of the legacy institutions in fizz shouldn't switch to being RCCs, in technical terms. The difficult bit is how to re-engineer society to live with precognition, as I see it. That's if we want to go forward with it at all."

"Could you design precognition and PK out of it?" asked Michael. "I mean, it's a no-brainer to put the institutions in the cloud if they're fully humanized, so to speak. I don't think the mob will like it; they rely on their secret fizz networking with administrators and councillors. We'd better not let them know about it! I don't want to worry you, but seriously I think you might be at risk, at least as long as you're the onlie begetter. We need to beef up security at the Institute; you're far too casual about it, you know."

"Pretty difficult to separate precog and PK away from esp as such," said Slavica. "I think it would have to be done by forbidding them; but the traces are very noticeable, so the RCC could automatically record and report any instance of it happening. There could be fines, deprival of rights etc, just like other crimes. But I prefer to think about a grand humanity-wide RCC which could shift an asteroid out of orbit if it was heading for Earth."

"How long will it take you to get it to a state in which it's ready for release?" queried Michael. "Then of course we'd have to get approval from the G3 to abolish themselves! Perhaps over a long timescale, so all the non-immortals can die off first!"

"It's another year, more or less, to explore the boundaries of what's possible, decide what to include, what pathways to allow, find out how big we can make them, what happens when you've got a hundred e-clones. I can't get much further than that at the Institute, and it would be too risky to involve outside people. I'm already a bit nervous about some of the students I'm using. They can't get at the coding, but obviously they know from personal experience what is going on. What happens if they leak?"

"I think we need to involve Ferdinand," said Michael. "He has to know about it; it's got to be his decision as to what we announce, and when. And he can organize you much better protection than I can. I can't defend your e-clones, for instance, even if I can defend your body to some extent. And the more copies there are of what you're doing, the safer you are, from one point of view."


Back to previous chapter
Back to Contents page
On to next Chapter
Copyright 2011-2016 M G Bell. The material contained on this site is the intellectual property of M G Bell and may not be reproduced, transmitted or copied by any means including photocopying or electronic transmission, without his express written permission. Contact the author.