Back | Next


The Accord was still big news two weeks after hitting consensus – two weeks after it became real, as people were saying.

“But what’s going on in there?”

Burnham gave his easy smile, took a breath, the studio lights hot on his skin. He had the confidence to not rush in, knew that a well-handled pause could do wonders to give the impression of someone in control, calm, confident.

“People are living their lives,” he said. “Or rather, their after-lives.”

Shawna Brakes flashed perfect white teeth at him. When she nodded her hair and head moved as one. On screen she looked, well, pretty much perfect, but in the flesh so much of her was clearly fake. In the flesh she looked Photoshopped. “When can we speak to someone inside the Accord, Elector? When can we see it?”

“You need to talk to one of the technical team for a precise answer on that one, Shawna, but my understanding is that such a thing is just not possible. We can monitor activity in the Accord, but that’s a technical process, a study of data-flows and processing activity. We cannot look in, just as they cannot look out: the Accord is a self-contained entity. As soon as consensus was reached it coalesced into an independent thing – a world, if you like – governed by its own protocols of what is real and what is not.”

“Isn’t that just a bit scary?”

Burnham smiled again. “Not at all. As I say, we are monitoring it closely, and everything is functioning as expected. The Accord is there, waiting for us all if we choose to enter it when our time in this world draws to a close. It is perhaps the highest achievement of our species.”

He kept the smile on his face as he spoke. He was in control. He would not let his guard slip. This should have been his greatest triumph, but now the success of the project he had guided was laced with bitterness.

“What would you say to those who argue that it’s social engineering on a scale unprecedented and unjustified?”

“Electee Nesbitt is entitled to his views,” said Burnham. “And it’s a valid position to take, in some respects: the Accord is a human construct, an artificial environment designed to sustain our continued existence after death, so of course it’s a form of social engineering. But since consensus it has defined itself in its own terms, established its own protocols for what is real and what is not. That’s not social engineering in the old socialist paradigm – it’s an evolutionary thing, an organic process.

“In any case, much as I respect Electee Nesbitt – I did elect him, after all! – I do find some of his public statements a little contradictory, to say the least. On the one hand he campaigns against the Accord because he says it is social engineering, but on the other he strongly proclaims our right to defend our coasts and our assets against – what was the term he used the other day? – ‘that plague of African locusts’... Although I would dispute his use of language, he supports the State’s position on border integrity, but surely that is a form of social engineering? I must ask him to clarify his arguments for me the next time our paths cross...”

As he spoke these words, making the connection between the Accord and the migration question, Burnham realised he had opened himself up to an obvious line of questioning.

“What do you say to the growing campaign to use the Accord to, if you like, give mankind another chance?”

“The Soul Harvesters?” Burnham asked, buying time because he did not have an answer he could comfortably give in public. He couldn’t just admit that a large proportion of the human population had, quite literally, missed the boat – the scale of loss was just too huge...

Shawna nodded, her hair looking as if it had been carved from soap.

The Soul Harvesters... Even the most optimistic extrapolations produced horrific figures for the loss of human life over the coming decades. Climate shift was destroying agriculture, replacing previously rich land with desert and dustbowl; rising sea levels were flooding densely populated and food-producing areas. Shortages of fossil fuels were making inroads into industrial agriculture, transport, and all kinds of manufacturing industries. Resource drain and mass migration were fuelling conflicts so that for the last fifteen years more of the world had been at war than at peace. And then there were the epidemics. AIDS had killed millions and was now in abrupt decline, but in its place malaria, drug-resistant tuberculosis, influenza, and a relentless onslaught of new haemorrhagic fevers were chasing each other around the globe on the backs of the migrating masses. Little wonder that Nesbitt and his retro-fascist followers found such a receptive audience.

But the Soul Harvesters took a different tack, one of acceptance. In the coming decades billions would die – but everyone had a chance of renewal in the Accord! Even now, there were armies of volunteers travelling the most devastated regions of the world, collecting personality dumps of everyone who wanted to be reborn upon their death.

“The Soul Harvesters?” Burnham repeated. “I am full of admiration for them. But at present it’s a mere drop in the ocean. I have personally ensured that the campaign receives state sponsorship, but it is simply not possible to keep pace with the tragedy that is upon us.”

Shawna smiled, bobbed her head, and Burnham realised that in front of a projected audience of nine and a half million he had effectively admitted that a large proportion of the human race was well and truly fucked.

“Moving on...”


“Mr Warrener. Thank you for making the time to meet me.” Elector Burnham smiles, indicates a reclining seat made from slats of bamboo, and sits on a similar seat, both on a wooden deck that extends over the perfect clear water of the lagoon. Flatfish cruise over the coarse sand, and the air around the two of them is punctuated by the slashing flight and dives of white seabirds.

Burnham is wearing black Speedos and wraparound shades. The cane seat is just on the pleasurable side of uncomfortable against his skin. A jug of sangria sits on a low table between the two seats, two glasses waiting to be filled.

“Fuck me, but this is real!” says Burnham. Sometimes a meetspace is little more than a blank canvas – a greyscreen backdrop with seats for the participants and no further effort to lend verisimilitude. But this... this meetspace belongs to the project, and they’ve taken a lot of trouble over its construction. “Is this what heaven’s like?” asks Burnham, filling the two glasses.

Warrener pulls at his pencil moustache. “It uses the same algorithms,” he says. For some reason Burnham hadn’t expected the gentle Edinburgh accent. “But it would be misleading to say that this is the Accord. Consensus would not allow this kind of intrusion.”

“Come now, Mr Warrener. There are always loopholes, aren’t there?”

“There are no loopholes with consensus, Elector.”

Burnham chooses not to pursue the point. There is always a way, though.

“I’m very impressed,” he says, instead. “If this is anything close to what the Accord is like, then it’s very convincing.”

“Believe me, Elector, it is more than convincing. The whole point about consensus is that when the point of accordance was reached, it became real. At the moment of consensus, the ‘very convincing’ became the real. The dead came alive.”

“I’ve watched the PR.”

Warrener looks away. Through the gaps in the deck Burnham sees a school of bright blue fish, basking in the shade. So fucking convincing!

“Did Barakh come alive?”

For a moment, Burnham thinks Warrener is going to refuse to cooperate. “Feel free to terminate this meeting whenever you choose,” he says gently. He has read that some Yakuza gangs use v-space in this way when they wish to interrogate someone. The separation of mental from physical is a powerful tool. Right now, Warrener sits back on his cane lounger, in his own little subset of a very convincing heaven, while back in the real world... Back in the real world he is with Tate.

“We cannot tell if Noah successfully transferred to the Accord, Elector. The protocols lock us out of that kind of data. Also, we know that Noah is a special case. We know that he was running several instances of himself in various fractal realities pre-consensus. The protocols would have to regularise that. They might have allowed only one instance to persist; they might have tried a merge; they might have erased his presence altogether. The protocols are the most fundamental rules of consensus – they are the laws of the universe in the Accord, they decree what is and they decree what cannot be.”

“Did he survive?”

“It is more probable than not that there is an instance of Noah Barakh in the Accord,” says Warrener.

“And Electee Burnham?”

“The same conditions apply...” Warrener is clearly struggling. “Where there were instances of Noah, there were also instances of the electee. It appears that Noah was running some kind of private... experiment. He was running multiple reality fragments for... for private purposes.”

“So what you’re telling me is that if Barakh is in there then my wife almost certainly is too?”

“The probabilities are the same, yes.”

“Then we need to find them.”

“But that’s not possible. It’s simply not possible, Elector.”

This time, Burnham chooses to pursue the point. “You don’t understand me,” he tells Warrener. “I said, we need to find them.”

“But... the protocols prevent it.”

“Then if I were you, Mr Warrener, I would be very concerned.”


Private experiments...

Private experiments that always featured instances of both Barakh and Priscilla. How many affairs had they been having, for fuck’s sake? What kind of thing was this Accord, that it could be used for one man’s sex games? For the first time, Jack Burnham started to understand some of the fears the tabs were propagating about the Accord: where were the controls? What was going on in there? Was it heaven or had he financed the construction of hell?

Burnham was in the back of his car, Tate driving.

They slowed, approaching a placard-waving crowd. Middle-aged women, children – Jesus, a small boy with African’t felt-tipped across his forehead, couldn’t be older than four or five. The look of hatred in the kid’s eyes!

Something struck the windscreen with a loud thud. A brick, it had looked like.

“Should we really try to get through this?” asked Lucy Chang, sitting beside Burnham.

The elector was lost in thought. Civil society – it was a myth. In truth, we were all like this, each one of us pushing up against the envelope of acceptable behaviour. The angry child, the baying mob, the betrayed husband... Every last one of us could turn into a monster. Even sweet, efficient Lucy Chang.

He smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. “No worries, Lucy,” he said. “This car is impact-proof to the nth degree. If worst came to worst, we’d just put the handbrake on and wait for the riot squad to clear the mob, but it won’t come to that – look, they’re falling back even now.”

Sure enough, a double line of police with riot-shields was pushing the crowd back, clearing a path for Burnham’s car.

Soon, they passed through a gate in a fence, three metres high and topped with coiled razor wire. A couple of metres on, there was another fence, another gate, and then they were in the compound.

They got out of the car as a small group of officials approached from a temporary cabin. Looking round, Burnham couldn’t see much of the camp – they had entered in one corner, and most of it was laid out beyond the office cabin, and the parked vans and jeeps.

They paused to greet the officials, anonymous suits every one of them, nobodies. Lucy made the introductions, but Burnham’s mind just wasn’t on it...

They started to walk through the parked vehicles, and now Burnham saw the makeshift shelters – temporary cabins like the office unit, tents, a handful of battered old caravans. Thin, black faces turned to watch the approaching group with its trail of camera crews. Overhead, a swarm of mini-copters trailed them, filming their every move – some for the news agencies, others for security.

“Between two and three o’clock this morning,” said Lucy, her eyes looking distant from that double-vision thing, looking out at the real world while simultaneously viewing a data-stream fed via the chip embedded in the stem of the sunglasses pushed high on her head. “That was when they landed.”

“How many?”

“It was clearly a coordinated landing. Two hundred and sixteen made it alive. A further thirty-seven bodies have been found at last count.”

Burnham had watched the footage in the car. Small boats had landed in the early hours along the south coast, from Brighton to Rye. Some were known to have launched from the larger vessels, but some... could they really have voyaged from North Africa in those tiny boats?

“How did they die?”

“Most drowned either trying to swim ashore or in capsized boats. Nine were shot by vigilantes.”

Burnham kept his face straight, trying not to show any shock to the cameras. Nesbitt and his followers had proposed a bill only a few days earlier promoting the right of Britons to defend their borders by whatever means necessary – collective self-defence, he called it. It wasn’t law yet, but it was only a matter of time.

They stopped at the first cabin, where a group of women and children sat, doe-eyed, unresponsive. They looked to be in shock. Or maybe sick, according to the common prejudice, inbound carriers of every deadly disease known to humankind. Most looked to be on the edge of death. A small boy with a grossly distended belly lay sobbing softly in his mother’s arms, the arms little more than sticks of bone clothed in lax, lifeless skin. A man with only one leg bore heavy scarring over his exposed torso; Burnham guessed he had survived a haemorrhagic virus, somehow managing not to bleed to death. Scenes like this were familiar from southern Europe, but... well... in Bexhill-on-Sea, for fuck’s sake?

These people had endured so much. If they thought anything, they probably thought they had made it, they had landed, they had broken through the cordons.

But if, indeed, they harboured such thoughts, then they were wrong.

They would be shipped out within fourteen days. Looking at them, Burnham felt sick at his knowledge of their fate, but he knew that was the law, and he knew that it had to be the law. It was all about survival now. It always had been, but now, looking at these empty people who had given so much and gained nothing, he finally believed it to be true.


He didn’t know what he had expected a Soul Harvester to look like, but it would not have been the weedy, jeans-clad kid just stepping out of a patched-together caravan, followed by a group of boat-children. The van stood on piles of bricks and didn’t look as if it had moved in years; maybe this had been some kind of travellers’ camp before the migrants’ compound was established; internal migration was a big issue, too, with the east coast losses over the last few years.

The Harvester looked happy for no apparent reason and that was when Burnham twigged that this was what the kid was doing: he had that kind of evangelical look in his eye, a puppy-dog eagerness, an utter conviction. Barakh really had built heaven with all the God bits expunged, a humanist heaven, and here was one of his apostles.

“Sir. Mr Burnham. Elector Burnham.” The kid shuffled forward, proffering a hand which Burnham avoided touching while simultaneously smiling and dipping his head so that his ignoring of the hand did not seem like a rebuff.

Burnham blinked, and the instant was long enough for a subliminal data stab to inform him that the kid was no kid: he was actually the other side of thirty years old, and one of the region’s main coordinators of soul harvesting. He had mailed Burnham twenty-three times over the past six months, and doorstepped him twice.

“Charlie,” said Burnham. “We meet again.”

Charlie Bonnetti grinned, and Burnham wondered if he was genuinely a bit goofy, or if it was just a disingenuous act he affected. The latter, probably, Burnham thought.

“So what brings you here? I thought you people were out travelling the world?” Gathering up as many of the lost as they could before it was all too late.

“I’m just back from Mozambique,” said Bonnetti. “I gathered somewhere close to eleven hundred souls.”

“That’s some going.”

“But these people are just as much in need of our mission as any others,” said Bonnetti. “They’ve travelled all this way – the least we can do is gather them up before...”

It always amused Burnham. Was he really that daunting that people should be so wary about arguing with him, or confronting him with their views?

“Before every last one of them is shipped back to Rabat or Safi or Nouadhibou? It’s the legal requirement, Charlie. You know it is. And you know that I don’t have the powers to make exceptions just like that. It’s heartbreaking, it really is. But what viable alternative do we have?”

“Return to the quota system,” said Bonnetti, made confident now by Burnham’s warm, embracing, in-front-of-the-cameras manner. “We could take more of the displaced in.”

Burnham, clapped Bonnetti on the shoulder and said, “Walk with me, Charlie.”

They headed past the caravan and through a cluster of tarpaulin-clad shelters.

“We’re on the same side, Charlie,” he said. “When it comes down to it we’re both drawing a line in the dirt. Our only difference is where to draw the line. Sure, we could let more migrants in, but as you say, we’d have to have a quota system. And when we hit the quota, we’re back in exactly the same position: defending border integrity, dealing with illegal entrants with camps like this. It really is heartbreaking.”

Word had circulated that the visit was taking place, and soon the illegals were swarming around them like flies.

At first, Burnham was perturbed by it, assuming they would try to hound him for clemency. But then he realised that it was not him that they wanted to see, it was Charlie Fucking Bonnetti.

Burnham drew back, and stood with Lucy as hands clutched at Bonnetti, tugging at his clothes. For a moment, Burnham thought it might turn ugly, but Bonnetti handled it skilfully, suddenly transformed from awkward young man to someone with natural authority.

“Fuck me,” Burnham muttered into Lucy’s ear. “They all want to be saved.”

Bonnetti plugged a cable into the pod attached to his belt – the kid probably had enough data storage on his body to hold the brain dumps of an entire nation.

The cable led to a kind of skullcap. Burnham watched as Bonnetti stretched it over a young girl’s head and it moulded itself to the contours of her skull. This was the device Bonnetti’s technical people had developed from an open-sourced block of Accord coding – these caps were being used in the field all around the world.

Beyond, the chain-link fence topped with razor wire loomed, a permanent reminder of the status of this camp’s occupants. Security guards looked on, eyes screened by mirrored visors, hands resting casually on machine guns.

Bonnetti was in his element, playing a clapping game with the girl, having her in fits of giggles as he repeatedly lost count. Burnham guessed the girl was about six or seven, but he knew her small frame could be the result of malnutrition and she could easily be several years older.

Burnham realised he was waiting for something to happen and that that was a mistake, for the recording had probably started the moment the cap had moulded itself to the girl’s skull.

Sure enough, soon Bonnetti did something to the cap that made it lose its shape and he peeled it from the girl’s head, the brain dump apparently complete. Just then, a woman – the girl’s mother, Burnham presumed – stepped forward, bent over Bonnetti where he sat in the dirt, and smothered him in a long embrace, talking to him in French, words Burnham could not quite catch.

Maybe these people had achieved something after all, he realised. They had come all this way, managed to land against all the odds, and would be sent packing within days, but... there was a place reserved for that child in heaven.

Now, Bonnetti attached the cap to the girl’s mother. While his recording device did its work, he engaged the woman in conversation. She seemed happy, a happiness bordering on hysteria, Burnham thought uncomfortably.

When they had finished, she took Bonnetti in her arms again and sobbed violently into his shoulder, rocking back and forth, manhandling him so roughly that Burnham wondered why no one intervened.

Finally, Bonnetti stood, and turned to face Burnham. “You see what it means to these people?” he said, as much for the cameras as for Burnham. “It’s probably the first time they’ve ever known real hope.”

The first time since landing on Brighton beach and thinking they’d reached the promised land, Burnham thought, but he said nothing.

Just then, the woman yelled something in a piercing half-shriek. Was it French, or some other language? Burnham wasn’t sure any more.

The woman had her daughter by the hand, and the girl was in that limbo between puzzlement and terror.

In her other hand, the woman held a kitchen knife, its blade about ten centimetres long.

In a single movement, she swung her hand, the knife, slashed it across her daughter’s throat. Blood geysered out of severed arteries, and the girl made an awful gasping sound – from her mouth or from the new opening in her throat, Burnham couldn’t tell, didn’t like to even think.

The girl slumped, and her mother released her hand.

Everyone stood motionless, stunned.

Overhead, news and security copters dropped lower, closer to the action.

The woman wailed, dropped the knife, ran through the crowd towards the fence.

She would never get over it, but she threw herself at it nonetheless, tried to pull herself up. Gunfire rang out, either from one of the guards or from a security copter.

The woman’s body jerked. For a moment she looked as if she was going to hang there, somehow lodged into the chain-link, and then she slid down, toppled back into the dirt, lay motionless.

A child started to wail. A man shouted. Another man snapped an order. People started to move about.

Burnham was transfixed, though, transfixed by the look on the woman’s face. Lying on her back in the dirt, her torso ripped through by four bullets, her right hand crimson with her daughter’s blood, she was smiling, at peace, triumphant even. She bore the look of a woman who knew with utter conviction that she would soon join her daughter in heaven.

Back | Next