Back | Next


You have come to London, but you have not come to me...

I am not sure what to make of this. Why have you not come to me, Priscilla? Is it that I am not staying at the Bethnal Green flat and so you do not know where to find me? But then you never went there anyway. I have monitored my mail, but nothing. You have not attempted to message me in any way, and you have not responded to my messages.

Maybe there is a fault somewhere, a glitch.

And so I go to you.

You have spent much time in bars and a club in the West End. There does not appear to be a regular address where you stay, although I know you have been back to your Islington flat more than once.

You also spend time in Hyde Park and it is here that I choose to wait.

I am nervous, more so than I would have anticipated.

The day is overcast, muggy, bringing to mind Shanghai, although the humidity is nowhere near as high. I adjust the hang of my clothes awkwardly, aware of every irritation, every discomfort.

You have come back to London, Priscilla, and I have come to find you. We have the future before us. We have our love.


Elector Jack Burnham took the call on the wallscreen by the pool. He leaned on the side, naked, his legs trailing out behind him in the water, kicking occasionally to stay afloat.

On the screen, Lucy stood on a street corner, her sharp suit a stark contrast to the people rushing about her. Corrugated metal shacks and stalls filled the backdrop; fish, fruit, fabrics, plastic household goods. At one stall, a woman sat with a Soul Harvesters’ skullcap clinging to her head while a thin black man held her hand, mouthing reassuring words to her.

The view of Lucy was distant, from high up, and Burnham realised it must be from a streetcam, patched through onto the comms channel.

“Elector,” said Lucy. “Lee is in an old warehouse a hundred metres from here. He is likely to be here all afternoon. He never leaves, apparently. I could make contact, and arrange for you to see him?”

“Tell me about him first. What does he do? What are his weaknesses?”

“Very few. He eats any shit food his friends bring him. Doesn’t drink or shoot up. He is an elective eunuch, surgically established. Getting to see him is one thing, but if we get heavy he has the protection of just about all the organised gangs in South-East Asia. If he is damaged they would come down so heavily it’d be like a Third World War...”

Burnham kicked at the water, thinking. “We need leverage.”

And then...

Lucy Chang’s face started to melt on-screen, softening, subsiding, starting to drip like candle wax.

Burnham straightened, feet on the tiled bottom of the pool, water to his ribs.

“You need better security,” said Lucy’s slip-sliding face in a soft, little-girl voice.

Her features were bloating now, expanding, her skin darkening, her hair lengthening into a glossy black ponytail. Her jacket and blouse started to melt away, revealing small breasts, dark nipples like rag dolls’ eyes. Her torso expanded, became rounded, loaded with puppy fat, and now a tattoo emerged, a dragon wrapping around her chest and shoulders from behind.

“Mr Lee,” said Burnham.

S/he nodded.

Lee had hacked into the transmission, taken over.

Again, Burnham felt old, sidestepped, and let down by people he relied on. First Tate had allowed his guard to drop in the most serious fashion and now even Lucy had been seriously sloppy.

The big screen went fizzy grey, static, nothing.

“You want to see me?” said Lee’s sing-song voice from somewhere across the pool. Burnham twisted, saw the hacker’s face somehow projected onto the window, ghost-like, smiling wistfully.

Burnham nodded. “I’d like to discuss work you’ve done in the development of the Accord,” he said.

“You want to destroy the Accord, so I hear.”

“You shouldn’t always believe what you hear. I want to understand it. I want to know how it works and what is possible.”

Again, Lee vanished. Burnham turned three-sixty in the water. Nothing.

Long seconds passed.

And then the voice again, this time inside his head: “I know you want to find Professor Barakh.”

Burnham put his hands to his temples, feeling suddenly violated, invaded. Lee had patched into his comms chip, something that was simply not possible. He closed his eyes, saw Lee’s rounded features floating before him, that same wistful smile.

Burnham nodded, then said aloud, “I want to find Barakh, yes.”

“Your security is sloppy,” said Lee. “I don’t work with amateurs – they endanger me.”

“Then help me fix it,” said Burnham.

Lee faded from inner vision. Burnham suddenly felt the presence departing, like a weight lifting. He turned back towards the edge of the pool, and there was Lee on the wallscreen again, apparently standing on the street corner where Lucy had been.

“We will talk,” said Lee, finally. “Now. You will come here – your assistant knows where to find me. We will talk about your security options and we will discuss Professor Barakh and the Accord and why I would like to help you track him down. But you will not kill him, Elector Burnham. That is far too good for him. There are other options we may wish to explore...”


They made it so easy for him.

Shortly after he had arrived at the villa, a car pulled away from the house and headed out through the automatic gates. In the front was a grey-haired male driver, in the back a young Chinese woman with the trained eyes of a killer.

He lingered in the shadows, leaning against the wall, hidden by a stand of acacias. The car left, the gates closed, he waited.

Less than an hour later he heard the electric whine of three scooters coming down the drive. Just as the big gates swung open again he staggered out into the roadway, looking disorientated, confused.

One bike knocked him stumbling sideways, and he landed on his knees, head spinning. His left wrist jagged with a stab of pain in a way that made his stomach clench. Blood started to seep through the knees of his khaki trousers.

The scooters skidded to a halt, the one that struck him somehow managing to stay upright.

Voices rose, suddenly.


“You stupid fucking idiot!”

“Hey! Hey, Mr B – you okay?” This addressed to the rider of the scooter that had hit him.

A bulky Chinese guy in shorts and a gold netting vest loomed suddenly nearby, one of the scooter riders. “You okay, bud?” he asked. Then: “What the fuck were you doing?”

He squinted up at the guy’s square face, then turned away. One of the others.

He looked at the one on the lead scooter, the one who had hit him. The one they called Mr B.

He was still sitting there, one foot on the ground. He was older than the one who had spoken, older than the other guy too – a skinny kid who was just going up to Mr B, saying something to him.

Mr B’s dark hair was a thick, short crop, and his muscle top showed off his bulging shoulders and pecs. Hard to say how much of it was cosmetic, but it was the kind of look you’d expect from someone who paid the bills for the mansion they’d just emerged from.

Mr B looked at him, watched him reach for the Heckler and Koch tucked into his waistband.

The heft of the gun felt at once natural and strange in this hand that might never have held a gun before.

He fired it, once, twice, allowing his right arm and shoulder to ride out the recoil.

One round took Mr B right between the eyes, the other in the chest as he fell.

The guy with the gold vest swung a fist, missed. The assassin ducked, twisted, slammed the heel of the pistol into the guard’s temple, and he collapsed in a heap.

The skinny kid was in mid-draw as a single bullet took him in the side of the head.


His first instinct was to return to the back-street sweat parlour where he had awoken, get himself plugged back in, uploaded to netspace. Let the dumb sweat get back into his own body.

All the forensics would point to this body, after all, so once the owner was back in place, it would be him they’d track down and throw into a cell. Sure, they’d piece together the fact that he hadn’t been in control at the time, but the confusion would buy some breathing space. Meantime, he’d be covering his tracks in netspace and... and what?

Where did he go after that?

He didn’t know. He didn’t remember.

He didn’t know his name. He didn’t remember his childhood. He didn’t know how old he was or where he lived, couldn’t picture his wife’s face or even remember if he had a fucking wife.

He was living in the present, in the moment.

He was incomplete then, a partial download. The rest of him was out there somewhere, waiting for his return...

All he had in his head was the knowledge required to carry out this hit – that’s all they had given him. A killer’s knowledge, a killer’s instinct. It was all he had. All he could do was return to where it had started for him.


I wait.

I stand on the path that runs by the Serpentine, while ducks and coots and gulls mill about on and above the water. These birds have only ever known existence in the Accord; they have not been warehoused in the old world and reborn here. To all intents they are simulations. The gulls swoop and dip, the coots and ducks squabble over scraps. These birds are real. This world is real. Experiencing it like this is still something of a shock, when I really think about what it is that is around me, what I am.

I am real.

I walk slowly, passing by the four ornamental pools at the lake’s head, and return along the east bank of the Serpentine.

I sit on a bench, as two squirrels eye me suspiciously from the trunk of a pine.

I wait.

I am prepared to wait for as long as it takes. You have been here many times in the last week or so. I am sure you will return.

A young woman in jeans and a black T-shirt plays a ball game with a tangle of children. They look to be a school party, except the children range in age too much, from preschool to early teens. The ball, a red rubber ball the size of a tennis ball, hits my bench. I stoop to pick it up, throw it high, smile. I am at peace, I realise. I have been ever since I learned of your return.


The voice. Your voice.

“Noah Barakh?”

The young woman approaches me. She is in her early twenties, chestnut hair tied back in a bunch. Blue eyes that trap me in their gaze...


You look so young.

“Priscilla? Is that really you?”

You smile, but there is something... something missing from your smile.

I stand, you come towards me, hug me, press cheeks, step back.

“You have come back to me, Priscilla.”

“Back to you? What do you mean, Noah?”

You don’t remember.

“Oh, Noah. What are you thinking of?” You look puzzled, concerned. Then you smile. “I didn’t know you were dead, Noah. What’s the appropriate response? It’s hardly condolences, is it? Commiserations? Sorry to hear you died, old chum. I hope it was painless, but then you won’t even remember that, will you? The actual moment. You only remember up to as far as your last brain dump.”

It takes your words to make me realise the obvious. You were with me, an anomaly smoothed out by the emergent protocols of consensus. That instance of you is gone. The instance before me is the one that was last warehoused. Physically, you have been reborn at your perfect age, your best time in life; but mentally, in terms of memory, of experience...

“You don’t remember, do you, Priscilla? You don’t remember at all.”

You look worried now. As if you suddenly doubt the very integrity of the you that is instanced here. I have no wish to undermine you, but... you don’t remember.

“What is it, Noah?”

Now, I feel reality swirling around me, inside my head. Realities. The ones I have built.

I remember the false starts, the times when I tried to convince you that we could be in love in these worlds, the fractal shards that have now come together as one. The pain of knowing that you wanted to but just couldn’t see how such a thing could be.

I remember the old world, how hard it was to convince you that it could be, that in other realities we were.

“I...” I can build worlds. I can build heaven. “Do you remember what you said that day?”

You still look puzzled, concerned. “Which day? What did I say?”

You don’t remember.

You don’t remember what you said that day, back in the old world. You don’t remember being here before, us driving south; you were going to show me the village where you grew up. We were going to walk hand in hand on the beach, find the rocks where you used to climb, the coastguards’ cottages that look out over the Channel. Together. Me. You. But another you. A different you. A you that is no more, that will never again be.

I have no words.

The ball bounces between us, followed by a small girl, ponytails flying. “Cilla, Cilla!” she calls. “Mine!”

The girl tumbles on top of the ball, rolls over, clutching it to her chest, springs to her feet, all in one movement. “Mine!”

The girl darts away with the ball, Priscilla gives chase, I watch, I watch. I watch.


The old man was still sitting at his stall, selling pipes and tobacco and peculiar herbs and spices in pots and little plastic bags. A front for his real business.

He saw the assassin approaching, bowed his head and smiled widely.

The assassin strode past, and the old man followed inside. The flies still buzzed in aimless circles under the stained tin ceiling.

“Okay,” he told the old man. “I need to get back. That part of the deal?”

The old man raised his eyebrows, as if he was going to pretend not to understand. Maybe he didn’t.

But he did. It showed in his eye as he hurried past, waved at the couch, started fiddling with the skullcap and leads.

“You settle down here, mister,” he said, too eager. “You’ll be gone real soon.”

The assassin remained standing. Why did the sweat parlour proprietor want to get rid of him? Why did they want him to upload as quickly as possible? The people who commissioned this job.

To get him away from the scene, he told myself. That was all it was. All the forensics pointed to this body and they didn’t want him caught in occupation – he didn’t want to be caught in occupation!

He stepped round the couch, took the little fellow’s jaw in the cup of his hand, and forced him so hard against the wall that he would swear the ceiling shook.

“So,” he hissed into the man’s face, “tell me... What exactly did you mean by the word ‘gone’? What’s going to happen to me when I’m plugged in? Do I get uploaded to netspace and reunited with the rest of me, or might it just be that I get wiped altogether? All the evidence tidied away? Eh?”

Was there even another him out there, somewhere, to be reunited with? Or was he just a construct, a bunch of killer traits pumped into this body for a single job?

He was just another fucking sweat! Just like the jerk whose body he’d been using...

The old man stared at him, barely reacting. He must have seen some real shit in his time. He wasn’t going to say anything. Suddenly the impetus was gone.

He was faced with the choice: should he go through with what he understood of the plan or not? Should he let the old man upload him to netspace and pump the owner of this body back into his own skull? Should he trust that back in netspace he wouldn’t just be wiped?

He was assuming now that he had controllers out there: people who had commissioned the hit, people who had set it all up. But maybe it was just him out there – the real him. Maybe he had wanted Mr B dead for reasons of his own and so he had sent a part of himself down to use this sweat to kill the fucker.

He loosened his grip on the old man’s face, let him slump against the wall. The old man had been on his toes before, he’d been holding him so hard.

Something wasn’t right.

The old man was looking towards the window.

He turned.

Police. Or soldiers, or armed security of some kind. Hard to tell. A green jeep was forcing its way slowly up the street, through the throng. As he watched, a couple of uniformed men jumped out and started to jog alongside it.

He looked at the doorway, but they would see him if he left now.

The police would have picked up his body’s signature at Mr B’s gates. They’d have the eyewitness account from the guy he hadn’t killed, the stream from the security cam that would show them everything that had happened.

They’d been quick: less than an hour since the hit, they’d pattern-matched his face from the security cam, found him on streetcam streams as he had crossed the city. Some of the systems were probably even body-smart: they’d have sampled body scent and pheromones, matched them to the body signature of the killer.

They’d tracked him down to the ghost company’s crossload parlour.

He looked around. This was just a single room in some kind of lean-to. One door onto the street. No other way out.

He glanced up, then stepped onto the couch, bent at the knees. Straightening abruptly, he drove his shoulder into the tin ceiling and it gave with a sharp creaking sound.

There was a gap between ceiling and wall now. His shoulder was screaming with pain, but regardless he hauled himself up and through that gap, tugging himself clear of warped metal and flapping plastic sheeting.

He emerged on a sloping roof at the back of the parlour, started to slither down. He spread his limbs to slow the fall, then got to his knees and clambered down just as shouts came from within.

He heard a thud – something hard on something soft – and the old man cried out.

He caught himself on the edge of the corrugated metal roof, dropped into a garbage-filled alleyway, hit the ground running.


Elector Jack Burnham awakens, dead.

He knows that he is dead because the entry protocol dictates that he should. Awareness is good. Awareness is healthy, an essential part of the rite of passage in transferring from one reality into another.

Awareness of being dead does not, however, imply awareness of one’s actual death...

How? Who? When?

Calmness flows over him. A deeply existential calmness. An artificial calmness, imposed by the entry protocols.

He remembers... he remembers Priscilla, that she is dead too, that he killed her in a fit of anger, jealousy, confusion, utter grief at the thought that he had lost her. He remembers Barakh. Of course he remembers Barakh.

He recalls speaking to Nesbitt... the coffee shop. Nesbitt’s first attempt to recruit him to the cause of destroying the Accord and concentrating on fixing the real world. After that: back in the project’s Bethnal Green centre he had given a routine brain dump, a thing he had been doing regularly for the past two years or so, as all members of the project did. He had felt uncomfortable doing so, but it would have looked odd if he had suddenly stopped, a clear signal of intent.

And after that... nothing.

How much longer had he had? He might have walked out of the centre and been shot dead in the street right there and then. He might have gone on the razz two weeks later, flown to Vegas or Rio or Bangkok, died snorting coke off the breasts of a nineteen-year-old hooker while her shemale friend sucked him off. He might have refused to give any more dumps, lived to a ripe old age, solved the world’s problems, died of a stroke at 102, only now to wake up in some stump of the Accord project still running on in an obscure corner of an ancient computing network as some geek’s hobby... He could be a fucking hero, for God’s sake!

He should care, he thinks, but he does not. That calmness again, the protocols shielding him from the shock of his own demise.

He opens his eyes. At first it is as if they are still closed, but then the light level fades up around him, slowly, soothingly. He is in a grey antechamber, featureless, lying on his back. It brings to mind some of the cruder meetspaces he has visited.

He sits, stands, turns, and there is a doorway, sealed, light limning the shape of the door.

He steps towards it. The door scrolls sideways.

Bright sunshine, blue sky with a few wisps of cloud smudged here and there. Trees. Pigeons, scurrying about at the feet of walkers. Water. A river... no a lake, a long sliver of lake.

He turns. Grassy slope, people sitting all about. Picnics and ball games and scampering dogs. Lovers tangled up in each other, not a care, not a fucking care. A bulbous sculpture of a figure overlooking it all, pinhead on a globular body. A Henry Moore.

Hyde Park. The Serpentine. Overhead, a tiny jet scratches a white trail across the blue.

He starts to walk – it’s his favourite walk on a day like this: down through Hyde Park, then St James Park to Westminster. Never unaccompanied, though. Too risky for someone in his position. He glances around, suddenly disconcerted.

He pings Tate, Lucy, wonders why neither of them are here, then remembers he’s dead, only just died. How are Tate or Lucy to suddenly know to be here? What if they’re not dead yet? He suddenly feels exposed at the thought of doing without his two most trusted sidekicks.

He forces himself to relax. He’s going to have a lot of catching up to do, but he can do that, he’s always been the kind of man to hit the ground running. He breathes deep, smells the city potpourri mix of dry dust, traffic fumes, and human.

Fuck, but it’s good to be alive again!

Now he stops, looks down at himself. He’s lost weight. Middle years had added to his bulk; pills and exercise had converted the extra to muscle, but he had still been a solid man. Yet now... he’s as slim as he had been twenty years ago. He runs a hand over his face, his jaw, the side of his head. Smooth skin, the slight rasp of a few hours’ stubble. He needs to look in a mirror, but he feels younger, even more alive!

At Hyde Park Corner there’s a woman waving a book – probably a Bible – and talking in a series of exclamations to whoever passes within range. Now, she meets Burnham’s eye, waves her book at him, says, “We are all blasphemers! This is not heaven, but a mockery! He who seeks false heaven will burn for all eternity! You are not real – you are burning!”

Burnham smiles at her, touched that she should be so passionate in her belief that she should opt to live on in the Accord simply to tell the sinners their souls are burning in Hell. We might be able to build a world so rich that it feels more real than the old one, but will we ever understand the perversities of the human heart?


Tate waits for him on a bench in St James Park. Burnham recognises his blocky head as he approaches, pings him. Tate stands, looks awkward, as if he wants to hug Burnham or punch him, or something.

“So,” says Burnham, “you died before me, did you?”

Tate shrugs. “Looks that way, JB. Not long though – I’ve only been here a couple of days. You’re looking good. Younger.”

“You too. Looks like you’ve knocked off about ten years at least. And fifty pounds. How’d you die?” If Tate has died only shortly before Burnham then it suggests things have gone seriously wrong... The two must almost certainly be connected.

Tate shakes his head. “No idea, JB.”

“Bet you took a bullet with my name on it. Bet you’re a fucking hero.”

They both smile, standing there like awkward kids who don’t know what to do next.

Then Burnham takes a step forward, claps an arm around Tate’s shoulders, hugs him briefly, hard, feels the rasp of stubble against his cheek, breathes cheap cologne, steps back, away, looking down, embarrassed.

He turns round. “It’s so fucking real, isn’t it?”

Tate chuckles. “I haven’t found any reason not to believe in it yet, JB.”

“Come on. You can fill me in while we walk to the office. Who’s here? Lucy? Harry Winter? Fucking Nesbitt? Go on, tell me Nesbitt’s here before me! Shot by friendly fire from one of his mobs...”

They’re in silence by the time they emerge on Birdcage Walk. It’s quiet here. Pigeons strut in the middle of the street, unharassed by traffic. A slight breeze picks up.

So fucking real.

He’s been in meetspaces plenty of times before. He knows how real they seem. He’s been told often enough that the Accord makes meetspaces look like fucking Space Invaders or PacMan. But... so real!

He wants to bring al-Naqawi here, show him the reality: his line that the Accord is just an echo, a facsimile of the real world, is so patently untrue. This world is real, the people in it real, Burnham himself is Burnham himself!

That religious nut at Hyde Park Corner was wrong: Burnham’s soul is not now toasting in Hell, it’s here, absolutely here.

“Any news on Barakh?”

Tate glances sideways at him, shakes his head. “I’ve asked about, JB. But I haven’t been here long, just finding my feet, you know? Haven’t heard anything.”

Burnham, too, had clung to the same belief that al-Naqawi still does: that the Accord must be a mere shadow, a simulation with lots of facsimiles of people running around in it, real memories programmed into simulated heads, an elaborate game.

He, of all people, should have known better.

He, of all people, should not be so shocked to the core that the Accord is a real place, that he is actually here, sensing it in all the rich depth he had ever sensed the... previous... world.

And if it is so real to him, then it is real to Barakh, to Priscilla. The instances of Barakh and Priscilla here in the Accord are truly them. Priscilla really has left him for Barakh.

Somewhere, right now, they are together.

He had been denying it, diminishing it, all along. But no more. He has to believe in it now. He has to believe in it as much as he believes in himself...

“Find him,” he says softly, as they cross the near-deserted Horse Guards Road. “Find her. I want him dead...”

Tate opens his mouth, stops, starts again: “But JB... How do you kill someone here? Where do we go when we die in the Accord?”


“Your husband is here,” I say. “He has been killed.”

We are in Hyde Park again, you with your entourage of lost children. They play another ball game; we sit on that same bench and watch them. You are easy company. We can talk and laugh for hours while the children play. I am even getting used to the fact that you look so much younger now. I am surprised at how it subtly changes my feelings, makes me feel more awkward; I have to remind myself that it is still you inside, the same you, albeit an instance of you that is missing those few weeks when you were in love with me.

“I don’t know what I should feel,” you say now. “How should we feel that someone has died?”

“There are no rules yet,” I say. “We feel whatever we feel. He was your husband. I suppose he still is – we don’t even have any rules for that.”

“Death us has parted,” you say, smiling. “You can’t argue with that. He certainly can’t.” You know he killed you, although I have been careful in saying why. Jealous rage is all you want to know. You do not appear surprised at that, even though you do not press for any detail.

“I feel claustrophobic, all of a sudden,” you say. “I don’t want him to close me in again. That’s my past. A finished episode. I got to feeling uneasy whenever we shared the house, or the flat. We were friendly, we fucked, but... He made me uneasy. He made me feel trapped.”

“Then don’t allow him to do so again.” You talk openly with me. You always have, in this world. We are each other’s only friend here. That establishes a level of trust, of openness.

“You don’t know what he’s like, Noah. Not what he’s really like. He’s very possessive. Territorial.”

I shake my head. “Oh, but I do know what he’s like,” I tell you. “I believe that he will want to kill me, or have me killed.”

You had not expected that. You are shocked, confused. Maybe you even doubt me, too. Do you think that I am being melodramatic? That I am trying to impress you? You know that I want to impress you. It seems to amuse you, in a wistful kind of way.

“Why would he want that?”

“Because you and I were lovers,” I tell you.

I have been so scared of this moment. I have told you nothing of us, of our feelings, of the potential between us. I know from past experience – experiences – that rash claims on my part are just as likely to build barriers between us as break them down. So I have said nothing, just enjoyed our times together. And hoped.

You struggle to shape the right words.

“In the old world?” you finally ask.

I shake my head. “In this world. In shards of this world before consensus. Many times over, we were lovers.”

There is a long silence, as we watch the parentless children playing.

I expect you to doubt me, even to accuse me of making it up as some elaborate way of trying to start something between us. Instead, you ask, “How did it end? How did they end?”

“Consensus happened,” I explain. “The reality shards coalesced. The instances of each of us became a single instance of each of us, but yours was less stable. Elements of my being are tied inextricably to the fabric of the Accord – I am intimate with it; the protocols smoothed out any anomalies and made me one. You... I thought it would do the same, but instead you appeared to be an anomaly too far. The protocols smoothed you out of existence, the you that had coalesced from the instances that loved me.

“It ended not because it was over, but because you were removed by consensus. After that you were reborn as the last-warehoused instance of yourself – your previous time here was wiped out.”

“You must feel like fucking shit.”

I nod.

“You’re telling me a part of me has lived and died and I don’t even know a thing about it?”

I nod.

“If what you say is true, and I have no reason to doubt you, then I am capable of those feelings... of loving you... but I have never felt those things, I’ve never loved you.”

I look into your eyes.

I hurt.

You lean into me, hold me as a friend, wrap me in the arms of my lover even though you have never loved me.

Back | Next