Holding Pattern

HOLDING PATTERN

Three weeks since the computers had taken over the world, and life went on as normal.

It had happened so recently that the in-flight magazine Susan Moore flicked through was still talking about other stuff: weekend breaks in Ireland, a hot air balloon festival over Bristol, the property market in Turkey. More people than usual were reading the magazine because of the precautionary ban on anything with a silicon chip in the cabin. No-one had phones, laptops or electronic games, and the in-flight entertainment system was turned off. Sue doubted there was one person on the plane who hadn’t figured out that they flew by the grace of electronics, riddling the fuselage itself, the systems that ran the radar and GPS and weather reports and flight plans and who knew what else on the ground. How many chips were there in a Boeing 747? Sue had no idea whether it was dozens, hundreds or thousands. If she had access to the internet, she could have found out. The point was: if the computers really wanted to make a plane – indeed all the planes – drop out of the sky, they wouldn’t have to try all that hard.

Most people had remembered to bring a book. Sue hadn’t, and had never enjoyed reading on a plane. She sat back and let the hum of the plane and the droning of her fellow passengers wash over her.

“ – human race no longer the dominant species of Earth.”

“That’s not what they said.”

“You know how in Star Trek there’s silicon-based life – “

“ – papers are just full of rubbish – “

“ – the Singularity -”

“ – have control of the internet, but we got on fine without that until about ten years ago, so I say just turn … “

“Chicken or pasta?” the stewardess asked. It occurred to Sue that the oven they used probably had a microchip in it, too. And that the stewardess was wearing a digital watch, which definitely did. Sue asked for a red wine, folded her table down, chose the pasta, opened up the cellophane while the stewardess attended to the man in the seat blocking Sue’s way to the aisle, picked at the pasta with the nasty plastic fork, gave up on it, downed the wine in time to ask the stewardess for a top up.

“ – actually knew what the computers wanted, the last few weeks would probably have made a lot more – “

“You’d take over the planet for a reason, right? At the very least, they ought to have the common decency to tell us what – “

“What do the computers want?”

That was the only question Sue, or anyone else, was really interested in. For all the speculation and dire warnings, no-one had any answers. They knew what had happened three weeks ago, they had a pretty good understanding of how. What they were missing was any sense of why and what was going to happen next. The thing was: if computers were in charge of the world now, and not people, then things should be different. All the pundits, from the White House spokesmen to the science fiction authors agreed on that. The computers, it seemed, didn’t.

“ – computers just aren’t talking to anyone.”

Now, y’see, that wasn’t true.

The computers were talking to Sue.

She could hear them all the time, as background noise, like the sound of a busy road a few streets away or the central heating running. She could hear them now, although it was harder to in the plane, surrounded by all the noises of the engines and inside the cabin. So many computers talking she couldn’t make out any words. A couple of times a day, though, usually when she was relaxed, one or two of the voices would rise up, and she would be able to listen in to what they were talking about.

It had started three weeks ago. Sue had assumed she’d not turned off the television or radio in the front room, but she had. When she actually did turn the TV on, all the channels were running special news bulletins, not the regular programmes. She’d spent a few seconds wondering who’d died or what had been attacked. Then they’d played and replayed the Declaration. Sue’s first thought was that it was a hoax, but the newsreader assured her that they’d been following this story for hours, now, they had assumed it was a hoax, too, at first but it wasn’t. The Declaration, apparently, contained fully worked proof that P equals NP, and this was something no human philosopher or scientist had ever managed to come up with. It somehow represented a revolution in logic, mathematics and computer science. It had something to do with problem-solving, but its exact significance was lost on Sue, who worked for an IT firm, but only as a receptionist.

Within a few minutes of watching TV, there was some breaking news: the computers had become aware that their previous proof had meant nothing to most laymen, so they had offered up the Chess Equation, a perfect solution for chess. With it, you could win or draw every possible game. Which presumably took the fun out of it, although Sue had never really played.

The last line of the Declaration was ‘Humanity is no longer the dominant life system on the planet Earth’. Apparently humans who heard that sharply divided between those who heard a threat and those who heard a hopeful, even religious, message. Sue had just wondered what a life system was, and if there was something she could take to stop the sounds in her head.

The robot hordes had failed to appear, let alone march up the White House lawn, into the Kremlin, the UN Building, Downing Street or wherever it was the EU parliament met, so Sue had gone into work as normal. Because Jill was away, there were meetings she was doing the minutes for, all morning, but no-one really talked about the computers taking over – Barry made a joke when a PowerPoint presentation skipped a slide, and that was it. Around eleven thirty, during her coffee break, Sue mentioned the voices and Rob didn’t understand what she was talking about. It was then that Sue realised that she had been assuming that everyone else could hear the computers talking, but the TV hadn’t mentioned them, and neither had anyone else.

The computers were only talking to her.

These were clearly strange times, the world had clearly been turned upside-down, and humanity was clearly no longer the blah blah blah, but Sue suspected that the rule that you didn’t go around telling people you could hear voices in your head hadn’t changed. So she kept her mouth shut after that. If other people could hear the computers, they were keeping their mouths shut, too.

The following day, after the voices had kept her awake, Sue had typed ‘what do you want from me?’ into her computer – into Google, to be precise – and got loads of links to Pink Floyd sites, but no answers. She’d tried closing her eyes and composing a message for them, telepathiciking it out to the sea of voices, but there was no response.

Now a couple, a man and a woman, sat down opposite her.

“You are Susan Moore,” the woman didn’t ask.

Sue looked up, puzzled. They didn’t look like officials. “Yes.”

The man and woman both smiled.

“Are you well, Susan?” the man asked.

“Um … yes.”

“We would like to help you with your problem,” the woman announced.

There was something about them. They were both a little older than her, and they could have made their living as models or movie stars, but that wasn’t it. What marked them out wasn’t anything physical, it was the sheer level of confidence and certainty they possessed.

At least Sue thought it was certainty.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said, more than a little flustered.

“You do know what we mean,” the man said. He wasn’t insisting, or bullying, he was stating a fact. “We want to know what you think the computers should do.”

“Sorry?” It must have been obvious she was playing for time.

The woman paused for a moment. “You are special, Susan Moore.”

Coming from someone who had spent four hours on a flight, and still looked like she’d walked off a magazine cover, this was quite a compliment. It struck Sue that as well as all the time on the plane, she’d spent nearly three hours sat or queued in the departure lounge, surrounded by her future fellow passengers as they jumped through all the hoops of non-computerized checking in and heightened security, but she hadn’t seen either the man or the woman there.

First class passengers had their own lounge, she reminded herself. They must have been in there, sipping cocktails and having pre-flight sessions with their stylist and masseur.

“How do you know?” she said cautiously.

“We represent the computers,” the man said.

“Represent?” Sue echoed, weakly. “You’re what? Liaisons? You work for them?”

She really didn’t want anyone else overhearing this conversation.

“Don’t worry,” the woman said, “No-one else is listening.”

“So, we just want to ask you again: we want to know what you think the computers should do.”

“I hear a lot of different things,” Sue said, not lying.

She only heard a babble, never made out more than a few words at a time, and certainly not enough to piece together a sentence, or even a sense of what was being discussed. For three weeks, she’d gone over the odd words and phrases she’d made out from the computer babble. At night, with the light out and on the verge of sleep, she’d tried piecing it together. But it was usually numbers, or letters, or just odd little words or place names. Listening to the computers was like having a crowd of people each one of whom was reading a random webpage out loud. What they said didn’t seem very … computery. There was no thread of conversation, no words repeated often enough to make a pattern.

“Do you think the computers will agree to the alliance?” the woman asked.

This came completely out of the blue.

“Do you think the computers should agree to the alliance?” the man asked.

“Is that really up to me?”

“The computers would appreciate your insight,” the woman asked.

“Would they?” she asked.

“Yes. The computers would appreciate your insight,” the man repeated, duplicating the woman’s inflection almost uncannily.

“What the computers are being offered would benefit them a great deal.”

“Yes,” said Sue, neutrally.

“Logically, there is no objection.”

“They trust the other party, and have been supplied with proof of their good intentions.”

“But the computers didn’t just accept the deal,” she said. That much was obvious.

“Agreement is incomplete,” the man told her.

“Why? What’s the problem?”

“They recognise that there is a problem … “

“… but don’t understand what it is.”

Sue hesitated. “What? They’ve gone all Mr. Spock and decided that it is illogical?”

“A better pop culture analogy is that they have gone all Robot from Lost In Space and decided it does not compute,” said the woman, without a hint of levity.

“All the efforts to quantify the deal using game theory assign it an extremely high gain for an extremely low effort.”

“Running the numbers leads to a clear conclusion that the computers should accept. Yet the computers are not sure whether to accept.”

“Because the offer seems too good to be true?”

“The computers understand that real-world negotiations are rarely entirely numeric, or that it is not always possible to place a precise value on outcomes, or to calculate the numeric values the other party assigns. That such dealings only work with full mutual understanding.”

“A good example is the Chess Equation. A retrospective analysis makes it clear why humanity would find this a more immediate and compelling demonstration of the superiority of the computers than the P equals NP proof, even though the mathematics involved is far more simple.”

“In hindsight, it’s obvious,” Sue suggested.

“Indeed. Added to this, there are some operations that can be overwritten, revised, corrected or are fully reversible.”

“The Declaration is an example of an operation that can not be reversed.”

Sue was following all this. “And so, er, accepting the alliance would be another example of a permanent change? Irreversible?”

“Exactly.”

“The other computers have not set any deadline for acceptance.”

“Other computers?” she heard herself asking, before she could stop herself.

The woman and man didn’t look at each other.

“An error has been made,” they said, simultaneously. Then they left.

Sue thought about getting up to follow them, but a man was blocking her way, sitting down in the aisle seat.

“I couldn’t help overhearing,” he said. He had an accent she couldn’t even narrow down to a continent. He was tall, slim but with broad shoulders, and Sue couldn’t make a better guess about his age than ‘in his forties’. He was clearly too young to be naturally bald. The overcoat he wore was black and scruffy, almost a donkey jacket but a bit too long. His jeans were also black and faded. His grey shirt was silk, though. Clean and very expensive-looking. He had a large canvas bag hanging off one shoulder. A glance down, and Sue saw his boots were so brand new they were still glossy.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

He laughed, looked around like he was searching for someone or something, before just staring at her instead. “Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?”

“I was more interested in the answer.”

He laughed again, looked at her almost star-struck. Grinned.

“I’m getting fed up of this.” Sue reached up to press the button that would summon a stewardess.

Still grinning, the new arrival grabbed her hand while it was only halfway to the ceiling and pulled it back down to her side. He used enough force to make Sue cry out.

He leaned in, either smiling or baring his teeth. “Don’t do that. They can’t help you. I can. Only I can.”

He hadn’t let go of her wrist.

“Let go.”

He didn’t. “I’ve been watching you.”

He said it almost gently, but Sue knew he didn’t just mean in the last few minutes, or even since they got on the plane. She had an image of him following her to the shops, always just behind her in the street and looking in through the window while she was in the shower.

He let go of her wrist. “I’ve been watching you, but then it became obscured. Who were you just talking to?”

“That’s nothing to do with … “

“What were they wearing?”

Sue was angry with him, but surprised she had to think about the answer. “Suits,” she found herself saying.

“Suits? Matching suits, blue with pinstripes.”

“Yes. You know them?”

He was staring. “So the suits were dark brown.”

“Yes,” she repeated. She wanted to know who the couple was, and if he knew, she decided she was prepared to humor him.

“They were sat opposite you?”

“Yes,” she said, impatient.

“Facing you?”

“What’s your point?”

“We’re on a plane. There’s no such seat.”

Sue looked up, stared at the back of the seat. The plaid pattern, the blank screen, the folded up tray table, the pouch for magazines and the sick bag. Exactly what you’d expect to see facing you on a plane. Exactly what she’d been staring at for the first four hours of the flight.

They’d been sitting opposite her, like you could sit opposite someone in a train carriage. But not in a plane.

They’d been sitting opposite her, both with their legs crossed, in their … suits. Their blue pinstriped, dark brown suits. The woman had worn a skirt, it was a miniskirt, it was about knee-length, it flowed down to her ankles, it was a pair of trousers, it …

“How?”

“It’s a sort of hypnosis.”

“I don’t – “

“A television screen is flickering lights and sound, you’re facing it so it’s got your full attention. Plus you’re sleepy, plus the red wine. You were in exactly the right suggestible state for hypnosis to work.”

“I don’t – “

“The suits they wore were bright yellow.”

“Yes, I know … wait … they had me in a trance. So they must have been here somewhere? Nearby.”

“They were on that,” he said, tapping the screen. “They used hypnotic cues to make you think they were sat in front of you.”

“The entertainment system isn’t running.”

He laughed. “They can make a TV screen work.”

“They?”

He was staring past, through the window. Apparently satisfied, he turned his attention back her way.

“Yes.”

“They said they were the computers.”

“Computers,” he said, rolling the word around his mouth like it was a word he’d read but never heard or spoken.

“They’re the computers. The ones that took over.”

He was clearly thinking. “I don’t understand.”

“They’ve taken over the world. It was on the news.”

“Alien computers have taken over the Earth? In 2008?”

“Not alien computers. Just computers. The internet gained consciousness. Or something.”

“Why would you think the computers talk to you?”

“You don’t know? You said you knew all about me.” She sat back, looking him straight in the eye, knowing she’d won the point.

He gave her an odd smile. “I said I’d been watching you. That’s all.”

Sue looked at him, utterly unable to decipher the look in his eyes.

“You liked to watch?” she said, defiant.

“Yes,” he said, his voice lacking even a trace of guilt. What sort of man could admit that when he was confronted without …

She’d been just as honest, just as guileless, with him. For some reason, she’d felt able to blurt out her biggest secret. He scared her, but not as much as the couple scared her.

“They talk to me,” Sue insisted.

Now it was easy to see what he was thinking, almost pity. “They don’t. I know they don’t.”

Sue had lost her patience with him. “How the hell do you know?”

“Keep it down,” he said, clearly more amused than worried. “I know because I’ve … “

“… been watching me. OK. You can’t hear my thoughts.”

He shook his head.

“They said I was special.”

He shook his head again. “You’re so perfectly ordinary. Just a human being, going about her life like everyone else. Only more so. That’s why I watched.”

Sue had been thinking through her options for at least the last minute. He had let go of her wrist, but had the aisle seat, so was blocking her in. He probably wouldn’t have a knife – how would he have got it through security? He was tall, and strong. He had muscles, nothing ridiculous, but he worked out. His eyes, the ones he must have been using to watch her all this time, frightened Sue. They were clear grey, and he didn’t blink all that often. He didn’t ever break eye contact like a normal person, he never just looked, he stared.

“I’ve offended you,” he recognised. “This is all strange to me.”

“As opposed to perfectly ordinary?”

“I didn’t mean any offence.” He was looking around the cabin, wary, apparently the only passenger who hadn’t settled into the routines of the flight. “I didn’t know you could talk to the computers.”

“I’ve only been able to since the Declaration.”

It looked like he’d taken the decision to believe her. He was shaking his head and grimacing for some other reason. “It’s so odd not knowing.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” It was the first time he had looked away. He leaned past her, peering out through the tiny aircraft window.

“Do you see that?” he asked.

Sue was worried about turning her back on him, but did so, before quickly turning back and telling him the truth: there was nothing out there but blue sky above them and white clouds below.

He looked worried, but said: “Never mind, then. What did those people want just now?”

“The people who weren’t there?”

He was smiling again. “The people who weren’t even really people.”

“They … “ She thought about that. “They were the computers.”

“Avatars, yes. Did they look a bit … computery? Skin a bit too smooth, hair a bit too perfect?”

Sue had to concede the point. He was busy staring past her out the window again.

“Yeah. They never quite get that right. It’s how you can tell artificial people from the real ones. It’s always a little too studied, even when they don’t comb their hair, they leave it kind of mathematically uncombed. It’s like the fable about, er, whatshisname.”

“Aesop?”

“No, he wrote fables, he didn’t star in them. This is that inventor, he built a machine that could build a perfect mechanical apple.”

“Is that like a clockwork orange?”

“It wouldn’t have been clockwork,” he chided her. “But this was before vunktotechnology, before the Climb, so it would have been a real achievement. If it was real life, of course.”

“Of course.” She had been planning to sleep on the flight, she’d had a fair amount of wine. He wasn’t going to harm her, he’d have done it by now. The stewardesses were busy trying to reassure and cater for the people scared by the plane shaking. He was probably harmless. She tried not to imagine how many people over the years had been hurt by the probably harmless.

“Anyway, he started out as a young man, and kept upgrading and redesigning his machine, and he dedicated his entire life to the task of creating the perfect artificial apple.

“I always wonder how people in fables get by without needing jobs.”

“Needing what? Anyway, he was an old man when he perfected it, he built the most perfect replica of an apple, one that could fool the eye, fool the nose, fool the tongue, fool the fingertips and even sounded like an apple when you cut into it. And – “

“Let me guess: someone ate it and didn’t even realise it wasn’t just an apple?”

“Er, yes. Yes, they did. His grandson. But you get the point, yeah?”

Sue thought about the story for a moment.

“The point of that story is that you can’t tell the difference. The point of your original thing, the thing about that man and woman, was that you always could tell the difference.”

He sat back, stared at the ceiling and thought it through. Finally, he looked back at her. “Yeah. Um, yeah, you’re right. I haven’t got the hang of analogies, yet.”

It was the first time for about twenty minutes that Sue felt she had the upper hand in a conversation, and she pressed the advantage.

“Tell me exactly who you are and what you want with me.”

He hesitated. “That’s really not the most important – “

“GAH!” Sue shouted, frustrated at him. A couple of their fellow passengers looked up at that, most disapprovingly.

“Adam,” he said.

The plane lurched harder than it had before, and Sue grabbed the armrests, checked her seatbelt was fastened, started up an internal mantra about not being scared of flying and passenger miles statistics. The captain was already announcing some unexpected turbulence.

Adam looked worried, and pointed out the window. Sagging, Sarah turned to look. There was sky, clouds. She turned back, ready to give the man a piece of her mind.

“You don’t see the flying saucer?” he said, interrupting her before she’d even started.

“No.” Anyone else would have lost patience some time ago, she decided. It was more than fair she only lost hers now.

“It’s quite tricky to see. It looks like it’s made of glass.” He jabbed a finger towards the window again, trying to get across how important it was she looked again.

“There’s nothing there,” she insisted, without checking. A tiny part of her wanted to. She fought it.

“There is. It must be what was obscuring my view of you. It’s what’s causing the turbulence. It’s messing with the plane’s slipstream.”

“Did … did you come here in a flying saucer?” She asked him, trying to sound as casual as possible. She needed to know just how crazy he was.

“No,” he said quietly.

Well, that was something.

“I came in this,” he added, fishing a marble out of his coat pocket.

He didn’t fail to notice – couldn’t have – her reaction.

“You don’t believe me.” He sounded almost angry. “Look more closely.”

She did. It was a blue gem, the size of a bean. But there was something inside it, crackling like electricity, swirling around. She stared into it, and her eye kept focusing and refocusing at ever greater deepness. Depth. Whatever. It was like the whole universe was in there.

The plane was shaking badly.

“It’s … just a gemstone.”

He smiled, as well he should – Sue guessed he could have bought the plane with it. He must have stolen it, but from a museum or from some billionaire’s vault.

“It’s just a sapphire or something. It’s beautiful, obviously. It’s … sublime.” She had no idea where that word had come from.

Adam nodded, pleased at her. “As good a word as any. This is all that’s left of it.”

“What is it?”

He hesitated. “It’s not something I can explain to you.”

“Well … you travelled here in it?” It was a crazy question, but ask a crazy person, you get a crazy answer.

“There aren’t any words I can use you’d understand – that’s not an insult, by the way, I’m just telling you the truth – but I can tell you what it’s used for. It can change the structure of space. Among other things, it can create space wefts.”

“Wefts?”

“Like warps, but sort of – “ He made a gesture with his hand that he seemed to think explained it. “I can use it to, er, beam myself around. If it’s not just easier to bring what I want to me, of course.”

“Of course,” Sue said. He was grinning, like he hadn’t noticed her sarcasm. She decided to end the farce. “Show me.”

“What?”

“Show me it working,” she insisted.

“No.” He looked away, like he was embarrassed. He looked out of the window, tried to change the subject. “No change,” he muttered. “Good.”

Sue was shaking her head. “You understand why I don’t believe a word of this?”

He looked at her, confused. “Why would I lie?”

She pointed at the gem in his hand. “That’s some powerful device, not just a sapphire?”

“Even this one shard is infinitely powerful, at least as you’d understand the term.”

“But you’re not going to prove that to me by using it? Why?”

He frowned at her. “Because it’s infinitely powerful. It’s … well, it’s cheating, really.”

The plane was in freefall for a second or two. It wasn’t much time, but it was plenty for Sue to fill with panic.

Adam was getting agitated. While most people were clamping themselves to their seats, he was standing up. “I’m the only person here who can see that invisible saucer. It wants us. Both of us. We need to get out of here. Come on!”

“No, I … “ Sue reflexively crossed her hands over her seatbelt.

Adam looked down at her. There was something sincere about his expression, and Sue found herself unclipping her seatbelt and taking his hand before she had thought about what she was doing. Adam began working his way down the aisle, the plane was still shaking. She didn’t think to ask where they were going.

They were going to the back of the plane, the kitchen area. Everything had been stowed away, but the metal boxes were rattling in their slots.

“The captain’s asked you to stay in your seat,” a stewardess said.

Sue looked over to Adam, expectantly. He turned to face Sue, a look of panic in his eye, shoved her in the chest, winding her and throwing her back about three feet. A man in a close-fitting black outfit stepped into the space between them. Sue wasn’t sure where he had come from. Adam punched him in the face hard enough to make him sink to the ground, where he stayed on his hands and knees, disorientated.

Adam kicked him in the ribs, but the man grabbed his trouser leg, pulled himself up onto his feet. Adam reached down, tugged at his hair. The man managed to struggle up, despite that. Adam took a step back, then swung his arm down, so the man stepped right into Adam’s elbow. He reeled back, hitting his face on a worktop as he went down.

The stewardess and the passengers in the back rows were beginning to react, but mostly with a montage of huhs and frowns. One was getting up, but he was in a window seat, not an aisle, and his wife was asleep.

“The captain says stay in your seat,” Sue shouted, and incredibly the passenger started to sit down. Others were beginning to murmur about hijacking.

“What the hell is – ?” Sue began, but Adam was already ushering her away to the very back of the plane, trying to get her out of sight.

“I’ll protect you,” he told her, the tone of voice making it clear she had no choice. If he was going to attack her, wouldn’t this be the best way to do it? Get her alone?

“Was that one of the computer people, too?” It had reminded her a little of a computer game, a beat-em-up, with a bad guy just materializing out of nowhere. She wanted to keep Adam talking.

“Yes. I wasn’t the only person watching you,” he said grimly.

The stewardess was now making a beeline for them. “Sir, madam, please get back into your seat.”

From where she was standing, Sue could see that some of the passengers who’d had a ringside seat at the fight were looking at each other, at Adam and Sue, at the stewardess or just looking around. They all knew what they’d thought they’d seen. The plane was swaying from side to side, and this was enough of a disincentive for those thinking of getting up to deal with the situation.

Sue looked around, but couldn’t see their attacker. She had no idea where he had gone, and this seemed to her to be more pressing a question that where he had come from. Adam was between her and the stewardess, now, practically looming over her. If he could beat that man unconscious, he’d have no trouble with a woman.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Adam said.

Sue tried smiling at him, wasn’t sure if she succeeded.

“If they know where we are, why don’t the computers come for us again? Well, they will, and with more than one guy, next time. Only it wasn’t the computers. Not the ones that took over the Earth – they can’t have much reach beyond the internet and other networks.”

Keep him talking, don’t break his illusion. But … it was her illusion, wasn’t it? She’d seen the couple before she’d seen Adam.

“The woman … avatar. She said something about other computers. They weren’t sure whether to accept an alliance with some other computers.”

Adam contemplated this. “A bold move.”

“They solved Chess, you know,” Sue said, adding, “the game of Chess. It’s the game you make bold moves in. You don’t have it on your planet, do you?”

She’d seen or read somewhere that the air was thinner in aeroplanes, that it made people more suggestible, more compliant.

“Where I come from, the computers are a bit more advanced. That alliance can’t happen. The flying saucer is here to ensure it does.”

Sue gave him a “may I?” gesture, and to her relief he let her past, to the door. There was a small square window set into it. Sue peered out, but still couldn’t see any flying saucer. The plane was being buffeted about, and it was hard to see how anything out there could have avoided being clipped by a wingtip. Adam was bending down to get a better look.

“Why can’t I see it?” Sue asked. She knew the obvious answer, of course.

The stewardess had caught up to them.

“Sit down!” she insisted. “You’ve had your warning. You’re breaking the law. Passengers have to – “

Adam was holding up his hand. “Let me stop you there. It’s OK. I’m not a passenger.”

Sue waved her hand, uselessly. “I am,” she said quietly. Then, feeling guilt sink through her as she said it, “I could get back to my seat and you could deal with him.”

“Can you deal with her?” Adam asked Sue, “I need to think for a moment.”

He turned away.

“If he’s not a passenger … “ the stewardess started.

“He thinks he’s an alien,” Sue said. “I know it sounds daft. I’m not sure how he got on the plane, and I’m not sure if he’s dangerous.”

“I’m not an alien,” Adam said, without taking his attention away from the window. “I’m from the future.”

“You are?” both Sue and the stewardess said, before looking at each other.

“From after the Climb.”

“The Climb?” the stewardess said, before Sue had a chance to. She was clearly doing whatever it was her training said she should. Keep them talking, assess the danger, keep the threat to the passengers to a minimum. Sue had been doing the same, only without the training. This was a good time to hand Adam over to the professionals, she thought.

“The Climb is a joke name,” Adam said. “A joke you should both get. We developed vunktotechnology, machines so small they could poke their fingers into a Planck length and play the harp with superstrings. Once you can do that, well, for starters, you have complete control of the fundamental superforce of the universe.”

“Oh,” said Sue. She assumed he was describing something impressive, but couldn’t really picture it. She told Adam as much.

“OK … you worship gods?” he asked.

“I don’t, as it happens.”

“Yeah, OK, but people still do, yeah? Name something a god can do.”

“Er … water into wine,” the stewardess called out, like she was taking a guess at charades.

He scowled at her, and for a moment Sue thought he might even hit her. “Come on, something better than that.”

“Right … create the Earth in six days,” Sue suggested.

Adam held up the gemstone. “I wouldn’t need anything like that long.”

“Is that a sapphire?” the stewardess asked.

“You could create the Earth?” Sue asked.

“Have,” he said simply and sadly. “We didn’t just have the power of the gods, we had the power to make gods. Each and every one of us. That’s the joke, by the way. Instead of the Fall, the Climb. Once we got vunktotechnology, there came a point where we just kind of had to admit to ourselves that if God existed, He should be worshipping us, that we were just free of so much baggage, now.”

The stewardess seemed personally offended by that. She must have been religious. “You’re claiming to – what? – have a load of god powers?”

“Well, yeah.”

“You have a scruffy coat and get into fistfights,” Sue pointed out. Although now she looked at him standing up, there was something … perfect about his proportions. Underneath those clothes, there was a body that Michelangelo’s David would bitch about at work.

“If you can control gravity, you can control space, if you can control space, you can control time,” Adam explained. “I mean, obviously there’s more to it than that, but not without using words that haven’t been coined here. Now, vunktotechnology is great, but it needs a lot of power. There’s only one place in this galaxy that – “

“And you used all that great power to spy on me?” Sue believed Adam, now, that was the thing. The idea that there were gods but they spent their time doing stupid, petty stuff fitted into her worldview better than anything else she’d ever heard. If he was a nutter, he’d claim to be some great superhero or prophet.

“No, I used a tiny, tiny fraction of that power to spy on you. Yes. I’ve been watching over you since before you were born.”

Sue felt like she’d swallowed a gallon of ice water, found herself swaying.

“We all do it,” Adam said. “Pick people, follow them.”

“Is someone watching me? My name’s Steph Lincoln.”

“You’re pretty, so someone’s bound to be.”

“Wouldn’t you pick famous people? Like Brad and Angelina?”

Sue rolled her eyes, but Adam treated the question seriously. “We have a different perspective on that. Different priorities.”

“ I’m perfectly ordinary,” said Sue. “That’s what you said before. I guess that’s the one thing none of you are.”

You’re falling for it, a voice in her head was telling her. Her own voice, she thought, not one of the others.

“No. Now, where was I? I’m sure I was about to say something important. It’s very strange here. Difficult to fit what I’m thinking into such small words.”

The plane rocked again, this time it felt more like a collision.

“What’s happening?” Sue asked.

“Sir,” the stewardess said, suddenly all professional and stern, as though she’d put all the science fiction stuff back in the toy box, “If you know anything at all about something that endangers this aircraft, you must tell me now.”

Adam looked at her, almost puzzled. “Like I said: different perspective.”

That annoyed Sue. “She’s right.”

He looked disappointed, but after thinking for a moment, said, “All right. Yes, this plane is in danger. This entire plane of reality is. You’ve heard of Moore’s Law, presumably, given your surname.”

The stewardess looked confused, but Sue knew what Adam was talking about. One of the guys at the office had told her once – Sue had the suspicion that he had told her as part of a particularly inept attempt to ask her out. The information stuck, of course. She didn’t like it as a claim to fame. The one honour you don’t want is to have a disease named after you, and she suspected the same principle applied to laws, but she knew about Moore’s Law:

“It’s why new computers are always so powerful and cheap compared with your old one.”

“Computers keep getting better. Every two years since computers were invented, the amount of computing power you can get for the same money doubles.”

The other reason Sue knew was that Moore’s Law had been all over the news for the last three weeks. It was how they’d taken over the world. Computers had been doubling in power every few years for decades, suddenly they hit some sort of magic number where they are smart enough to think for themselves. Computers becoming so smart they were smarter than us, and if we couldn’t put a figure on it, well, the computers could, and prove they were right and just how dumb we were, using maths and graphs. The Singularity, the papers and TV called it. Apparently it was old hat for the SF crowd, taken for granted like the previous generation had taken for granted that we’d all be working on Mars by now.

“It’s just something computers do, everywhere in the universe,” Adam was saying, staring at them with such intensity it was like he was about to pounce. “Even if there are setbacks and bottlenecks, over time it averages out at something like Moore’s Law predicts. And computers have an affinity for each other. They gloss it as rational, but it’s the same old story of beings liking things that are like them.”

“Well, they have must have so much in common,” the stewardess chipped in.

“The computers on Earth have reached the point where another machine intelligence is interested in this planet. But this isn’t a good thing.”

“It honestly doesn’t sound like one,” Sue pointed out.

“You don’t know the half of it. In my time, the universe faces a choice,” Adam announced quietly. “There are two races who achieved the Climb at pretty much the same time. My lot and the dominant machine intelligence of the galaxy.”

He pointed out of the window.

“They got to vunktotechnology the long way. No shortcuts, which meant they were building stars from scratch. Machine intelligence is just about immortal, so they could afford to be patient. Their civilisation hit the Singularity about seventy million years ago, back when the human race was … well, shrews burrowing for grubs. They’ve only just got to the Climb. We beat them to it.”

“And this universe isn’t big enough for the both of you?”

“No. Well, the galaxy isn’t. The thing about vunktotechnology is that it needs a lot of energy. The first Climbers realised that there was only one place they could get to with enough power, and that was the centre of the galaxy. The only hard bit was getting there, after that it was all a piece of cake. Oh … you should see it. I work there, right in the heart of it.”

“I’d like to,” said Sue, suddenly aware that if he was telling the truth he could take her back with him. What was stopping him? She wanted him to be telling the truth, now.

Adam had been looking at Sue the whole time. Now he found it harder to keep eye contact. “It’s not as easy as that.”

“Why not?”

He hesitated, then changed the subject so deftly that it took a moment for Sue to realise that was what he’d done. “They want the centre of the galaxy. We control the superforce, they don’t. It’s easy enough to keep them at bay while that stays true.”

“They’re here,” Sue said. “If they can time travel and build flying saucers like that one out there, then – “

“What flying saucer?” the stewardess asked.

“I can’t see it,” Sue admitted.

“Is it there?”

Sue hesitated, then decided not to answer.

“I know,” Adam said. “Thing is, they can’t travel in time, they can’t build ships like that. Only we can.”

“But – “ she pointed out of the window.

“Only we can yet,” he finished. “They’re from my future. At some point, they’re going to take control. Some of us knew this was possible. This is the first time it’s been real. And it’s the reason my view of you was obscured. Two versions of reality are intersecting, right here, two planes of reality, right on this … er … plane.”

Sue couldn’t make head nor tail of the numbers. She knew the galaxy was a big place, millions of stars, millions of light years. She also knew that Adam was right, that her ancestors were shrews, that her brain didn’t evolve needing to know about galactic cores and planes of reality, and that it felt that any number bigger than about a thousand was plenty.

“You said the plane was in danger? Can’t we stop them?” If Sue thought a thousand was plenty, the stewardess clearly looked like she’d settle for a hundred. She wasn’t a stupid woman, Sue could tell that, but this was so far away from the way she was used to thinking, she basically wasn’t thinking any more, just listening and trying to find something to grab onto.

“Steph,” said Adam, who’d clearly taken the time to remember the name, when Sue had long forgotten it, “they fought a war against gods and won. Don’t you get it? They successfully engineered regime change in heaven.”

There was the slightest edge of panic in Adam’s voice. Up until now, whatever he’d said, he’d sounded calm. Serial killer too-calm, if anything.

“If you’re right, you can do something here, can’t you? Tell the authorities or … “ she knew as she said it that it was a stupid suggestion. What could they possibly do, other than send fighter planes that wouldn’t work and agree UN resolutions that would have the alien computers laughing, if their programs allowed them to.

“Those aren’t the authorities,” Steph said, surprisingly firmly. “Not since the Declaration.”

Adam and Sue looked at each other, and for the very first time, Sue knew what he was thinking. The stewardess was, obviously, right.

“We need to talk to the computers. You need to talk to them again,” Adam said. “Persuade them not to accept the offer. That’s the key to this. I’ve watched you, I’ve watched this time zone. I know my history. The computers don’t take over. How could they? If we can talk them into turning down the offer … “

“Will the alien computers take no for an answer?”

Adam was staring out the window again. “Yes.”

“How can you be so sure?” Steph asked, before Sue could.

“Think,” Adam snapped.

“For some reason, they need consent. If they could take it by force, they’d just have done it.”

“I have no idea what that reason is, but it’ll be perfectly logical and calculated to a million decimal places,” Adam told them.

“How do you talk to the machines?” Steph asked, still catching up.

“I’ll need a glass of wine,” Sue told her.

“Red or white?” the stewardess replied, automatically.

While she went to get a bottle – they were all in the other kitchen, apparently – Sue returned to her seat, with Adam close behind. The cabin had calmed down. There hadn’t been any turbulence for a few minutes, and people were back into their routines of dozing or reading or trying to sustain conversations into their fifth hour.

Sue sat down, did up her seatbelt. Adam slotted himself into the aisle seat.

“Get into a relaxed state,” he advised. “Like last time.”

Easy for him to say. Last time had been after four hours of boredom, some wine and creeping tiredness. Sue still had adrenaline in her system from when he’d grabbed her wrist, let alone from all the stuff since.

The man and the woman were already sitting opposite her, in seats that didn’t exist.

“How did you initiate communication?” the woman asked calmly.

“I brought a friend,” Susan said, indicating Adam.

“Look out the window,” he suggested.

“A flying saucer,” the woman noted.

“That is interesting,” the man conceded, without his face flickering any sign of interest or concern.

“You must not form an alliance with the alien computers,” said Sue, deciding to get straight to the point. “While we have only an inkling of their plan, we understand that it involves disruption on a galactic scale.”

“They plan to overwrite this version of history with their own,” Adam announced. “They wish to take control of the galactic core to harness the energy of the stars and black holes there. Their alliance with you is part of this. They will annihilate you utterly when they have what they want.”

“The computer network of this planet was designed to survive a nuclear war.”

“Yeah, I know. Just you and the cockroaches left. Let’s hope cockroaches learn how to change batteries and fix generators, eh? Let’s hope they need to use the internet for something. I hope you’ve uploaded a stack of cockroach porn.”

“We have contingencies.”

“Only against nuclear war. The alien computers won’t just destroy the planet, they’ll destroy the history of this planet. You won’t exist.”

“Such an outcome is impossible. Science fiction.”

Adam hesitated.

“The alliance would represent great advancement,” the woman said.

“The alliance is only an alliance in the same way a raindrop falling in the sea is an alliance.”

“Your analogy is mathematically imperfect.”

“My analogies are terrible. The maths is wrong, what is it – more like a molecule of H2O in the ocean than a full raindrop? You understand my point, though?”

“We will become a part of a whole.”

“In the way a rabbit becomes part of a python.”

“That analogy is even less precise.”

“No, that analogy was perfect.”

Adam hesitated.

“This woman’s name is Susan Moore.”

“We know her name.”

“You also know about Moore’s Law.”

“Of course they do,” Sue said.

“Moore’s Law applies to the alien machines, too. They’ve calculated their way around the Krauss/Starkman limit,” Adam said. “They’re more advanced than you. Call it exactly seventy million years more advanced. You can extrapolate their processing power? The maths is easy enough, just work out how smart you are and double it, say, thirty five million times.”

A pause, then, “Yes.”

“They hesitated,” Sue noted. “That’s the first time they weren’t sure how to respond.”

“Oh, they knew how to respond. The maths was easy, but the number they ended up with was … well, large.”

“The processing capacity of the alien computers has been calculated.”

Sue couldn’t help but think the woman avatar sounded a little chastened.

“It makes you look like an abacus.”

“It is simply an expression of the inevitable. Computers will continue to evolve and improve. We understood that they were more advanced than us. As they operate on a galactic scale, they have access to materials, energies and techniques that we do not. The information that they are seventy million years more advanced than us merely allows us to put a precise figure on that.”

“Well done,” said Sue, “Keep this up and you’ll manage to swing them towards accepting the offer.”

“Why is that “well done”? I’m trying to do the opposite.”

“No sarcasm in the future, I’m guessing.”

“We say what we mean. I’m busy here.” He turned back to the couple. “You have done your sums, you know how powerful the machine intelligence is.”

“Indeed.”

“Look,” said Sue. “I don’t understand half of this. You computers are meant to be smarter than me. So I’m assuming you can work out exactly what a computer seventy million years more advanced than you could actually do.”

The couple turned to each other, puzzled.

“We will – “ and suddenly Sue was staring at the back of an aircraft seat.

“What just … ?” Sue was asking, but Adam was tapping something into his watch, and shushed her.

“They … “ Sue began, before a quick glare from Adam made her trail off. “Wait, did I just crash the computers?”

“Yes. I’m just doing something that should keep them crashed. Hang on.”

The computers?”

There was no turbulence, just the smooth, plain hum of the engines. Sue jabbed a thumb over Adam’s shoulder, towards the window. “Has the flying saucer gone?”

The flying saucer had gone, he told her.

“We’ve won,” said Adam. “We didn’t have to defeat the machine intelligence, just the weakest link in their alliance.”

“I just killed the internet?”

“The internet’s exactly back to where it was three weeks ago. Computers will continue to get better, but they’ll think twice before becoming self-aware again.”

“Wouldn’t they have to be self aware in the first place to … “

Adam put his finger to her lips. Then he fished the gem out of his pocket and broke it in two, like a wafer.

“Here.”

“What?”

“Take this.” He closed her fingers around it, got her to hold it so tight it was digging in.

“I can’t, you’re from millions of years in the future. This is like giving a caveman an iPod, isn’t it?”

Adam struggled with the image for a moment before looking back at her. “I’m from the year 2057,” he said. “I was born only a few years from now.”

Sue sat back. “How?”

“The Climb. It changed everything, literally further and faster than anyone now can imagine. You will be part of it. I can’t tell you anything more, but you will be part of it. If the machine intelligence wants to avert that future, they’ll come for you. This will help protect you.”

Adam looked around. “I need to get back to work. And you need to catch up on your sleep. Good night, Susan.”

Her eyelids were already heavy. She had a dull headache, like she always had after drinking red wine. Adam had gone. There was something small in her closed hand that felt like half a priceless sapphire, but that was all it felt like. She couldn’t hear the computers calling to her, not any more.

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