Chapter 1

FRI 2041/07/12 13:01 TimeZone 4

  On the last normal day in the history of the world, Rick Parkland's plane approached University 5153 over a tan-colored desert. Alone under the curving windshield, he watched the dark sky while trying to meditate, and thought about his upcoming vacation.
  "Please sit up and strap in," the plane said.
  He watched the approaching runway, the wings folding like plastic feathers. Model buildings rose over a parking lot, and suddenly he was looking up at them. A bump, but no screech.
  The plane left the short runway, rolled to a stop, and lowered its staircase door. Rick adjusted his Gargoyles visor before emerging in the desert sun. He smelled dust in the hot air. He only carried a light backpack. United Nations inspectors used parcel services for everything. Pick-up bins made the world his apartment.
  The sparkling Pigeon closed its door, turned in a blast of heat, and took off again. Sound faded slowly over the plain.
  "Tina," he said in his collar microphone. "Start case UO5-21204."
  "Try not to have too many Standards and Protocol violations this time," his assistant Tina Kinner sighed. In her home office east of the Cascades, there was little she could do.
  "I can't promise that," Rick replied self-consciously. He approached the main building. Silence was the only good thing about deserts.
  It had been a strange flight. Following an old Soviet highway, the plane kept drifting to the right. All UN inspectors had software training, but his degree was in philosophy. Scanning the aircraft's tiny mind, he had spotted a disabled program. The earth's rotation speed increased as the plane headed south, and it was pushed aside by the atmosphere. To compensate it should have aimed left.
  A new error type. Rick had no longer felt alone in the plane. Perhaps it wrote its own code.

  He had three firm beliefs. Number Three was the power of coincidence: weird things happened for no reason. Lotteries, wars, Homo Sapiens. Events repeated themselves, because humans were mostly alike. Belief Number Two was that he should always think one step further - by taking a step back to see the big picture.
  He walked to the Applied Mathematics Center, a Gothic power plant from an alternate future. Over the entrance, a circle shone in red neon.
  The lobby had metal chairs and plants in a tower of light. He felt anticipation in waiting rooms. "Anyone here?" A negative icon appeared in his gigapix visor, startling mirror pools that could retract in his cap. His overlapping display screens could made dirt look beautiful. His gloves were also keyboards.
  He still heard jet engines in his head, the sounds of a busy world over the horizon. The plane's drift was a metaphor: he had found an invisible force, noticeable only by the deviation it caused. Or had it found him?
  He checked the map in his visor. Three-floors, 40.000 square meters, nine departments. Security cameras watched each other.
  The UN specialized in wealth distribution, but his job as an Article One inspector was to prevent change. His bosses believed in freedom, not privacy. They feared technology more than death. An inspector would sacrifice his family to stop a virus. Rick would share this ball in space with five times more humans than the number of seconds in his lifetime, and the UN wanted to know them all.
  "Don't let the dust fool you," Tina typed. "Lower-Ustyurt grasslands of Kungrad district gained 800 towns since 2039. The university leases land from U-stan and Tu-stan, faculty from every-stan. They're a cross-section of humanity."
  "I sense tension," he said, and was startled when a door retracted in the wall. The Physics Wing was open.
  "I stole a 212-Bug," Tina said in his earpiece. "The floor is empty."
  It looked empty. "Keep checking," he said. Bad luck to arrive in an empty building.
  His Box scanned the area, 20 GB to walk through the door. Circuits in the walls, floor, trees, toilets formed an extended awareness, the Net's emerging brain. Everyone would be replaced by their own entourage. His own Box was a fireproof marble that knew all his interests, and looked for new connections. 1% of Rick's consciousness had already leaked online and was freely shared.
  He hurried through a gallery of cubicles with sharp edges but little color; nebulous vanilla, solemn ivory, shades of eggshell. Mainframes in locked rooms pondered ontological equations. Scientists claimed nothing really existed, except math. The "real" universe was a void that didn't even contain its own absence.
  Covering his face, he coughed a micro-probe into a wastebasket. He hoped the employees would find it this time. Rick wanted to keep his reputation for partial incompetence. No one was intimidated by him.
  The next room felt as if someone had just left. He saw movement and turned, the map focusing as he moved. An open door led to another empty room, and two doors beyond. ShoulderCam playback showed nothing.
  Someone was hiding here, for the usual reason: forbidden science. All research was strictly monitored, even in private homes, and the dangerous stuff (scale zero to nine) was regulated. One bad thought could end it all: a new gene, an unstable isomer, a line of software.
  Hiding behind a false personality, industrial spies could be ruthless. One inspector had been defeated by unmixing the air, moving all the nitrogen to one corner. Tina monitored his performance, and his sensors could detect most chemicals. With luck, it would end now.
  The cameras only showed empty rooms, frozen shadows. He himself would be supervisible: software could project his image in any direction, through walls and furniture, into dark rooms. Always in the foreground, but out of focus.
  Rick was always studying new ways to absorb data, including Deep Immersion. Some people could mimic a new language in hours. He pressed a button, and saw a panorama of the building, a thousand viewpoints merged into one. A figure walked through a corner room, half a step ahead of him. Reality had turned inside out.
  Every building had a micro-climate. Electrical imbalances, air streams between floors, pocket tornadoes. Scanning for something that shouldn't be here, a cold drink or a warm seat, he saw the door lock had cycled 483 times today. That should be an even number.
  All pathways through this floor were equally dangerous. Someone had been too clever.
  The main hall was closed, to prevent his footsteps from scrambling a teleportation experiment. Two identical crystals in a black box would switch places. With quantum entanglement, standing still had become an exact science. The kind of research the UN wanted to encourage. The most dangerous item here was a one-micron laser piston, perfectly safe without plutonium inside. The power of a bulldozer inside a pen.
  Because of an unusual D4-alarm, the east hall was also closed. Pipes flowed toward a shadow web on the wall. An analog physics simulator, a black hole in a drain.
  A poster in binary announced "philosophers know nothing". The two fields had a feud about how the universe began. He'd played a small part in a phi-phy murder case long ago.
  Through the years, Rick had simplified his life, rejecting most obligations. He was intensely curious about the world, but felt he was missing a lot. He couldn't always tell what was important. At this moment he felt completely free.
  "Getting warmer," Tina said. "Keep moving." As a Class-3 Facilitator, her job was not to be surprised. In her late forties, Tina was highly respected in the Inspector Corps. Tough but sensitive, she could handle many problems at once. Her hair looked wild but never changed. She led a complicated life, with a certain restrained glamour. In her rural compound, domes and greenhouses were set among winding paths. Her adopted family had many adventures.
  Rick's uniform contained a VF-radar that could see around corners, but there was heavy interference from experiment shielding. Walking past a map of the universe, he saw an empty zone, without so much as a single atom, called The Cave, a trillion light-years from Earth. The map was extrapolated from the cosmic background radiation, the white noise at the edge of time. Expanding into itself, that area would take longer to cross than to circle around. The universe was rotating, and matter was repelled from there.
  "No more delays," Tina said. "Don't make me come over there."
  "Please don't."
  "I will."

  He took a short tunnel into Expert Intelligence, a world center for urban planning. He hoped to visit them all. They organized knowledge for the Net: perception and usability tests, a scanner that uploaded reality itself.
  It was too easy to change the floor plan. The hall had Inca-Mughal, neo-Classical, Gaudi-baroque-postmodern influences. All from 3-D printers, it looked real. Color and light adapted to each visitor. Slanted sunlight cast deep shadows. He went the wrong way before returning to a corner that looked different, and continued down a communist hall with Calvinist overtones. A model Hindenburg hovered near an air inlet. He paused in a tiny Korean courtyard to check the echo of his footsteps. False windows showed world locations: earth tones, color dialects, how the sky was lit.
  Rick liked to act cool under pressure. He and Tina had many ongoing debates. "Social Problem number 9:" he said. "There are currently twice as many persons in the world who can become fathers than mothers. The biggest imbalance ever. UNFAQ stats show an increasing number of men have to stay single, especially in Asia. Polygamy and serial monogamy are undemocratic."
  Tina read more than he did, and didn't have to look up the stats. She realized Rick was still obsessed with a famous case from years ago, where he had been humiliated in front of the world. He would probably bring it up again.
  "Men have a surplus of available partners when they get older," she said primly, as if she was winning.
  "Old ladies are discriminated against because they don't die?" After her reply about childbirth, he responded that having a choice was always better than not having it.
  The final room had an absurd Organic style, walls of living wood and oversized fronds. The screens showed fractal maps like pages of angry handwriting, separate nations marked in red like cracked windows. Countries resembled bacteria colonies. He saw a high fence with vines and flowers, the "Future Wall". Israel 2.1 did not want the Lithics as neighbors.
  It was easier to start something than to control it. He couldn't predict the future, but Rick had started to glimpse a vast shape ahead.
  In the corner, a frictionless chair was still spinning. The staff had left only minutes ago.
  "I'm blowing cover," he said. "Starting scan now."
  "I'll send body bags," Tina replied.
  The Immersion began. Reality deepened. He became disconnected, but saw every detail. He forgot his past. Each investigation was a new game. His skin felt cold.
  The security system's physics model included every object in the building, even him. He began to change the digital reality. The virtual building started to vibrate, the lights flickered, and loose items lifted in the air around him. The doors opened, and furniture swarms circled each other. He added fictional characters from all cultures, an army of figures, mascots, cartoons, joined by copies of himself and other inspectors. They walked, jumped, and flew through the rooms, filling all available space. Closest to him were a flying fish, a glass house, and a robot knight.
  When the building was packed, the movement stopped - and he listened to the silence.
  "You're frozen," Tina said, "stand by." Her voice became a tone.
  Rick looked for errors in the crashed simulation, a gap between the statues. His mind spread across time.
  Slowly, he began to see the truth. This case was much bigger than it seemed. The enemy was a highly skilled Class-5 Fam. They had found a way to control their thoughts and those of others, and were absorbing new members without their consent. It explained a recent increase in missing persons. Local police would have to try to visit every member in the same minute, but it was already too late. The group would reprogram random civilians, turning them into highly motivated slaves. Rick had to make a decision . . .
  He blinked and raised his visor. Actually, that was just a simulation he ran this morning. He often carried a thought too far. That didn't mean he didn't believe it.
  Reality seemed gray by comparison. "End test," he told Tina. "All clear."
  "Better safe than dead."
  He never saw the figure sitting in an unlit cubicle a meter away. There was a slight draft as he passed, like an exhalation.
  He crossed a small greenhouse with desert plants, Saguaro cacti with bright red Garagum blossoms and African spurges. The air was dry but charged. This might be his last moment of peace.