In my last blog, outlining the link between Integration and The Stream, I promised that I'd share a couple of the opening chapters. So I'd better stick to that. Here's the first chapter which introduces you to Carole Cantor, my protagonist from the time of the Flood.
Please bear in mind that this is the first draft - I expect to tweak this beyond recognition before I publish it, but it should give you a taste of what's coming. I'm most likely to significantly change the world politics happening here, but it's as good a placeholder as anything, and isn't critical to anything that comes later.
Chapter two "Kofi Albus: Affirmation" coming soon!
Carole Cantor was twenty-five years old. The day that affirmed years of hard work and dedication had finally dawned. She’d mapped out her life to guide her to this moment, waiting to start research at Tethys Corporation, the mecca for any technologist.
Entwined next to her in the auditorium was Kumi Kumar, the man she loved. What could be more perfect? It was just a pity that the world was about to end.
Kumi squeezed her hand. She shifted to look at him, feeling the tiny motors mould the cushion beneath her to match her new posture. Kumi’s warm blue gaze reassured her, as always. Since they’d first met at university, their lives had been comfortably aligned, their goals leading them symbiotically to these first appointments at the Tethys headquarters in Pune. His light, carefree nature was the perfect complement to her more serious, introspective nature; a gestalt that Carole was sure would enrich their lives - however short they might be.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Kumi, reading the concern on Carole’s face. ‘Don’t let what’s going on spoil today. Hopefully, it will blow over quickly.’
‘What happens if it doesn’t?’ said Carole. ‘It only needs to detonate once. It seems more serious this time. The old world will never be happy until they’ve destroyed each other and taken us down with them.’
‘There’s nothing we can do about it. Put it to the back of your mind and concentrate on the induction. We can talk about it all later. Assuming we’re still alive of course.
He grinned disarmingly at her, then frowned.
‘Oh shit,’ he whispered, looking over her shoulder.
‘Hi there,’ said a nasal voice from behind her. ‘If it isn’t the Alliteratives, as I live and breathe. Fancy meeting you here.’
‘Hi Nikhil,’ sighed Carole. She’d known he was starting here today too but had been hoping to avoid him. Nikhil Sardar had been in the same year at university and had infested the same social circles. He was such a little…no, that wasn’t fair. There was no harm in him, he tried to be pleasant and convivial but somehow managed to casually insult people along the way. He tried too hard. His false familiarity rankled whenever he popped up like an unexpected meerkat.
‘Is it OK if I sit here?’ said Nikhil, after settling into the seat next to Carole.
‘Isn’t this amazing?’ he said, pressing randomly on the touch-sensitive screens embedded in the desks before them. Tiles of information sprang into view and quickly disappeared, their ephemeral lives curtailed by Nikhil’s enthusiasm.
He picked up the wireless earbuds resting on the surface in a clear, hermetically-sealed bag.
‘What are these for?’
’To listen to that,’ said Carole, pointing towards the front of the room. The wall behind the raised dais was an expansive display surface covered in news feeds, adverts and a prominent countdown to the start of the presentation. ‘Use the touch screen to select which tile to listen to. Or press the question mark to read the fucking manual.’
‘So who’s going to win?’ said Nikhil obliviously.
‘At what?’ said Kumi.
‘Russia or China?’
‘It’s not a game, Nikhil,’ said Carole irritably. ‘If war breaks out, it’ll turn nuclear quickly. And the Afro-Indian Alliance isn’t going to sit idly by if our allies are attacked. How do you think it will end?’
‘I…uh. It never comes to anything anyway,’ he trailed off.
‘This is different. Russia’s already started invading.’
After the hybrid wars earlier in the century had left many of the old western democracies in chaos, Russia had built a new empire by expanding westwards. Their invasion was welcomed by many, with their mission to bring peace and stability back to the failing nations finding eager acceptance - even though the divisions that had torn them apart had been fomented for precisely this purpose. However, once the New Russian Empire had spread beyond the bounds of the former Soviet Union, China responded aggressively, and Russia backed down. Eventually, the world subsided into a new status quo, with a Sino-Russian Cold War stagnating the old powers. The Afro-Indian Alliance blossomed to fill the technological power vacuum.
That was until five years ago when a new nationalist Russian leader vowed to complete the expansion and spread peace across the rest of Europe. After renewing the hybrid attacks to prime the countries for takeover, their forces had moved across the eastern Swiss border. China responded with an ultimatum to withdraw or ‘face immediate and terminal reprisal.’
The deadline for that ultimatum expired in under half an hour.
‘At least we get to meet Raj Tamboli,’ said Nikhil, deflecting back to a subject he knew more about.
Carole’s face brightened. That was one thing they could agree on. Seeing Raj Tamboli in person for the first time was a definite highlight of the day. At least she’d go out on a high, meeting the man who’d inspired her since her formative years.
Raj Tamboli was Tethys. More accurately he was their CTO, but without him they were nothing. His creativity, charisma, conviction and vision had built the company from the ground up. He left the day-to-day business management to his CEO, Rani Misra, but Raj was the face of Tethys. When the old internet was curtailed after the social disinformation campaigns of the first hybrid wars, it was Raj’s concept for a global curated online environment acceptable to post-democratic governments that made his fortune. He became an influential if reluctant political figure as the Afro-Indian Alliance consolidated its rise to prominence.
‘That’s the best bit about working here,’ said Carole. ‘I’ve wanted to see him in person for as long as I can remember.’
‘I can’t believe he’s got the time for this,’ said Kumi. ‘I’d have thought he had higher priorities than talking to us minions on our first day.’
‘Apparently, he does it every year,’ said Nikhil. ‘He insists on kicking off the induction program for each new intake.’
‘I’m definitely not complaining,’ said Kumi.
‘Nor me, he’s always been...’ said Carole before trailing off, distracted by the headline on the main screen. ‘Shit.’
She scrambled to unbag her earbuds, ripping it open. The others swiftly followed suit. She jabbed her fingers at the touch screen to select the audio channel, catching the announcer mid-sentence.
‘…authorities have stated that unless Russia halts their advance into Switzerland and give a commitment to retreat, China will launch a surgical nuclear assault on the Russian bases in Austria. Russia has yet to respond, but with the deadline approaching in just over twenty minutes…’
‘Fuck,’ said Carole.
‘Um, yes,’ said Kumi.
‘It’ll be fine,’ said Nikhil.
Carole opened her mouth to respond, but the warmth of Kumi’s squeeze suppressed her annoyance.
‘Let’s see what Raj has to say about it,’ said Kumi, pointing towards the countdown on the screen. ‘It’s just about time to start.’
‘Yeah, at least it’ll give us something else to think about,’ said Carole. ‘Here we go, five, four, three…’
‘Afterwards, shall we go…’ started Nikhil.
The lights dimmed. The central pane on the screen faded to black. The familiar Tethys logo animation emerged from the middle until it filled the window accompanied by the corporate jingle.
‘Dum. Dee-doo-dee-dummmm,’ accompanied Nikhil, until skewered by Carole’s glare.
The display cross-faded to a simple, textual slide matching the teal and white of the logo.
Welcome to Tethys
Where the Virtual becomes Real
Introduction by Raj Tamboli, CTO
A single spotlight brightened to illuminate the central podium where an immediately recognisable figure stood. A susurration of surprise spread around the auditorium.
‘Rani Misra?’ whispered Carole. ‘Where’s Raj?’
Rani Misra blinked and raised her hand to quell the grumbling, deploying her executive smile.
‘Sorry to disappoint you all. Raj has been unavoidably detained but hopes to join us later. As you know, these are troubling times.’ She waved at the headlines on the display. ‘We at Tethys have anticipated such a day and have planned for many contingencies. Raj needs to be free to trigger these as necessary. He tells me that he has a few surprises up his sleeve, which of course is probably of little surprise to us. Looks to me as if he’s been up all night, so as CEO I volunteered to step in as I know how important these sessions are to him. Anyway, to be honest it would be hard to focus on anything more constructive until we see how the Swiss situation develops.’
She looked down at her watch, clearly distracted by a notification.
‘On the subject of which, I’ve just heard that for every base China attacks, Russia say they will retaliate with a nuclear strike against a Chinese city. Great.’
Carole prodded the touch screen trying to find out more details, but the story didn’t appear to be there yet. Rani obviously had a back channel to the news before it had been approved for public consumption.
Rani Misra took a visibly deep breath.
‘OK, let’s get on with this.’
‘As the slide says, welcome to Tethys. You’re all starting as part of a major new intake of blue sky research staff here at our headquarters. You know the things the company is famous for, the internet products that transformed the world giving low-cost access to our satellite broadband systems, now backed up by a fleet of high atmosphere balloon drones. We then expanded into space exploration leading to the launch of our fleet of generation starships, part of Raj’s vision to ensure humanity survives no matter what we do to our cradle planet. But that’s not why you’re here.’
She tapped her wrist to animate on a new slide listing a wide range of technical disciplines.
‘Over the last few years, we’ve been expanding in-house research into disparate areas of science and technology. If you are here, it’s because you are a specialist in one of these fields. They may look a random collection, but we see a synergy behind these that will drive the next phase of the company’s expansion.’
‘For example, our neurological research department which focusses on the nature of consciousness, brain scanning and behavioural feedback is leading to advancements in artificial intelligence. These improvements in AI are feeding into the control and realism of our humaniform robots.’
Carole turned to look at Kumi who returned her smile. AI was his field; he was eager to get started.
‘Our research into nanovirus technology is leading to new ways to heal ailments, especially genetic ones, and also to airborne vaccine distribution.’
‘These areas are well advanced, indeed we are close to launching the first products to emanate from these programs. It goes without saying though that all the things I’m talking about right now should be treated as highly commercially confidential unless I say otherwise.’
’Some research may seem more esoteric, such as in our cosmological research department. However, their advancements in the rejuvenated fields of LQG and brane cosmology has given us the first inkling of a real space drive, something way beyond the conventional. Raj is incredibly excited at the prospect.’
Carole felt another squeeze of warm encouragement through Kumi’s grasp. That was her field, but even she was surprised to hear there might be an immediate practical impact from the theories. Hopefully, she’d find out more later in the day. Assuming there was a later.
She’d skimmed the rest of Rani’s slide so started only half listening. Carole wasn’t quite sure what the point of this was, they’d already joined the company. They didn’t need enticing any more although she was genuinely impressed at the breadth and depth of topics currently being researched at Tethys. She was more concerned with what was going on in the rest of the world right now.
Goading the touch screen news feed into life, she tried to see if there were any more updates. The news of Russia’s threatened retaliation had broken publicly now, but nothing else as far as she could see. There was an odd breaking story about a plane landing in Sydney with all the passengers and crew unconscious, but that was it.
‘Political science may seem to be an odd bedfellow with the rest of our research, but unless we can build a better, fairer society than the chaos we see around the world, what’s the point? For the rest of the day, you’ll be given a…’ she faltered, disturbed by another message at her wrist. She frowned and tapped at it.
‘I’m sorry, hold on, I just need to check this.’
She unfolded her tablet and clicked frantically.
‘OK, I don’t understand this. There’s…something…strange going on out in Australia. I need to keep an eye on it. I’ll project it onto the main display, you might all need to know what’s happening.’
She shared her personal feed. It appeared to be a security camera’s view of the foyer of an airport terminal, except that all the people visible were prostrate on the floor. Were they dead? No, at least not all of them. Carole could see some nearest to the camera breathing slowly. What had happened?
‘This is Sydney Airport,’ said Rani. ‘It’s not the only place it’s happening. Here, this is the road outside.’
This scene was more chaotic. Bodies were scattered randomly on the pavement, other than an orderly queue of corpses leading to a taxi rank. Cars had run into each other as their drivers had lost consciousness, except for the automatic cars patiently waiting for the blockages to awaken. It was harder to discern if anyone was alive, but none of the collisions appeared to be serious.
The camera cut to a view of a motorway. It was carnage. Traffic was stationary after a series of high-speed crashes had blocked the road. Some cars had driven up the embankment, many of which had then flipped over. Those were the lucky ones. The majority of vehicles on the main carriageway were severely crumpled by impact. Fires were raging, spreading from car to car. A couple of drivers were visible, collapsed motionless over their steering wheels as the flames licked towards them. Overhead, a light aeroplane could be seen tumbling out of control before disappearing beyond the embankment.
Rani tapped her watch and switched the feed again to show a TV studio. Two guests were slumped on a sofa, and the presenter was stood over them, looking round in confusion. He grimaced and put his hand up to his ear. Looking down at the blood on his fingers, he collapsed to the floor.
The shocked silence in the auditorium slowly gave way to murmured consternation.
‘This is Singapore,’ said Rani. A similar scene of prone figures, crashed cars and flames appeared. ‘It appears to be spreading like a vir…fuck. No. He…’
She tapped rapidly on her tablet, and another pane appeared on this main display showing the Tethys Tether app with the message ‘Calling Raj Tamboli’ in the centre. Another couple of taps and the main auditorium audio was switched so the Tether dial tone could be heard. The room fell silent, the hypnotic drum of the sound building the tension as the seconds it took for Raj to answer stretched to eternity.
Raj’s face appeared in the pane, so familiar and yet so unlike his public appearances. A scowl of annoyance broke through his exhausted expression. Normally so calm and measured, he looked stressed to the point of snapping.
‘What? Can’t it wait?’
‘Have you seen what’s happening?’ said Rani. She sent him the feeds.
Raj’s demeanour cycled between his initial annoyance, surprise and worry before settling into open-mouthed appalled realisation.
‘What have you done, Raj?’
‘I…I had no choice. I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry for what?’
‘I thought it was ready. It worked in the lab. Only headaches. No time for more testing. I had to do something. Before we all died.’
‘What the fuck is the Flood?’
Anger returned to Raj’s face.
‘What did you think the point of all these programmes were? I’ve been planning this for years. It was obvious this day was coming. I had to find some way of uniting humanity. Together, in the Stream.’
‘The Stream? But that’s just a concept, we’ve never sanctioned its development.’
‘You need to pay attention. The Stream needed a distributed neural network. What do you think our expanded internet infrastructure actually is? Our nanovirus research gave us the vector needed to grow the neural connections to access it, as designed by our neurological research team. The new drone fleet was in place to distribute the nanovirus. Did you think there was no purpose to all this? No plan?’
Rani’s placid exterior started to crack.
‘What gives you the right to force this on everyone?’
‘Who else was going to save us from destruction? The Russians? The Chinese? The UN? Look where they’ve got us. It had to be done, even though it wasn’t ready.’
‘That worked well, didn’t it? Look at what you’ve achieved. All these deaths, the destruction. You’ve got to stop it.’
‘I can’t. It’s too late.’
Rani threw up her hands.
‘I want nothing to do with it. You’re on your own now.’
‘You think anyone will believe you didn’t know about it? I need your help. Otherwise, it’s your word against mine.’
Rani calmly turned her tablet to face the auditorium.
‘I think you’ll find I have witnesses.’
Raj jumped forward and disconnected the call.
Rani looked up at the auditorium. Grimacing, she held her hand to one ear.
‘Does…anyone else feel strange?’
Carole frowned as she heard rumbles of assent spreading around the room. She felt fine. She turned to Kumi. His eyes were glazed and he was moaning gently, one hand cupping the side of his head.
‘What’s the matter?’ she said. ‘What is it?’
Before Kumi could reply, Nikhil slumped against her, unconscious, blood seeping from one ear. Pushing him forward to rest on the desk, Carole realised with a shock that he wasn’t breathing. She checked that Kumi was no worse and took a deep breath; maybe that first aid training hadn’t been a waste of time. As she stood to try to resuscitate Nikhil, a burning pain ignited down one side of her head causing her to collapse back into her seat as the fire raged higher, blinding her in one eye. The last thing she saw was Rani collapsing to the floor. Then the world went red.