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The protocols of Accord are rigid. They are watertight. There is no way around them. That is the way it must be. That is how I seeded them, the direction in which I guided their development. I am their architect.

But... But... I am the man who also planted certain trapdoors. I still have work to do. I still have unfinished business.

A door appears before me. It slides up, revealing greyness beyond. I step through, close my eyes, preparing myself for the rush, for the...


... I made myself lie there, breathing steadily, deeply, fighting back the surge of adrenalin, the physicality of return. Still, my heart raced, an unfamiliar heart.

After a time, I opened my eyes, sat, swung my legs away from the bunk as steadying hands took my arms.

Zhang Xiaoling. I had ridden her body before, many times, riding her like a sweat, her in Shanghai, me in London or elsewhere. A routine thing, and yet it could never be routine. Now I shifted, familiarising myself with the responses of her body again, intensely aware of my breasts, tight against the fabric of my jacket, the pressure of the seam of my jeans at my crotch.

I thought then of you, of loss.

I stopped myself. I had business here. I had to keep going. There was so much at stake.

Zhang Xiaoling was a good choice – one she had suggested herself. Young and breathtakingly intelligent, she had risen to assume real influence over the Shanghai branch of the project. Her access to people and resources were what I needed on the occasions when I chose to return: no one must know when I am back, other than a select few, so I needed someone on the inside, someone high up.

There were other advantages too: riding a sweat made you deeply aware of all the subtleties and nuances of body, of expression and mannerism. Riding a sweat of another gender, and from another culture, reinforced this, making it harder to lapse into the mode of being me, less likely to betray my true identity. It kept me on my toes.

The office. Picture windows overlooking the park where a huddle of old men stooped over shared game boards, gesturing in the air to control their pieces.


“Professor Barakh.” Rudi de Groot leaned with his back against the window, as if suspended in mid-air. The bright sunlight had prompted his conjunctival grafts to shade themselves almost as black as his skin. “They are waiting.”

He led me through into the meeting room, a space much like the office, the same view over the park, the same glass and black iron furniture. Sammy Zhang sat deep in a black leather armchair. Three other young Shanghainese stood nearby, watching me.

“Sammy,” I said, taking the seat opposite him.

He looked at me, an expression of distaste on his face.

“You are not Zhang Xiaoling again,” he said. He liked to make it clear that he could read me, read Zhang Xiaoling.

I shook my head. “I am Professor Barakh,” I said. “We need your help.”

Sammy had three dots tattooed into the webbing between finger and thumb of his right hand, just as Zhang Xiaoling – I – had on hers/mine.

“You need more real estate, right?” he said. No messing: this was his meeting; he was the man with the good cards.

I nodded. Virtual territory. The Accord was getting hungry.

“You have the funds?”

I nodded again, allowed myself a brief smile. I was his sister, after all, or at least, I was riding his sister’s body.

His expression didn’t change, the only hint of feeling that look of slight distaste. He appeared so young, the barely pubescent look all the rage in the more cosmopolitan Chinese cities at present. He had a few wisps of moustache, a long thin face, square glasses worn purely for chic value. I had to remind myself that this kid was older than me, that he was probably the most powerful man in eastern Asia, running or at least controlling pretty much any cybergang of any significance from Sapporo to Port Moresby.

Just then, Deedee pinged me through the latest figures on Sammy Zhang: top of the Hang Seng Index; stock in SZ seen as one of the top ten safest investments for global pension funds according to the latest report in the Financial Times; the most recent contract on his head was worth almost $60 million, up three points at latest close of trading. Things were certainly going well for Sammy Zhang.

“We can get you all the capacity you need for now,” said Sammy. “But pretty soon you’re going to be bringing the whole thing down. We can carve you real estate on all the server farms in the world, we can build virtual space for you in all the null network space in between, but you’re still going to be bringing it down, you go on like this.”

“The Accord is hungry.”

“The Accord is not sustainable in more than the near term. But until you hit that point you need me, Professor Noah Barakh. I am the only man who can supply.”

I smiled again. One day in the not too far future Sammy Zhang would be redundant. The Accord would need him no more. But until that day... I nodded, kept my head dipped in deference. “My colleague, Rudi de Groot has the details,” I told Sammy. “We are ready to proceed with the transaction.”


Jack Burnham just wanted to get into a hotel, strip out of his damp clothes and wallow in the air con. Nobody had told him Shanghai was so hot and oppressive, the air so humid it was like you were trying to breathe soup...

He left Lucy Chang to deal with the taxi driver. She was talking to him in the Shanghainese dialect, rather than universal business Mandarin, he knew. He had yet to find a language she couldn’t just slide into automatically. Grammar and vocabulary feeds direct from the net helped, but it was still pretty damned impressive.

The lobby was heaven. Whatever Barakh had invented, it could only be a dim echo of heaven set against this: air conditioning, driving down from ducts in the ceiling, air with an icy chill, a dryness that you could breathe deep and feel tingle in the depths of your lungs. Quiet, too. Not absolute silence, but just a polite hum of background noise, not the din of petrol cars and electric cars and horns and voices and radios and music and low-flying jets.

Burnham was suddenly very aware of the clothes sticking damply to his body. He put a hand on Tate’s arm. “Deal with the bags, would you? I’ll wait here. I want to go straight out to the centre.” No point showering and drying off: as soon as they set foot outside again the humidity and heat would take its toll.

Fifteen minutes and a glass of ice tea later, they were back outside, Lucy flagging down another cab. Soon they were driving along the Bund, a haphazard jumble of skyscrapers and old colonial buildings to their right, the Huangpu River to their left, and beyond it the Flash Gordon rocket-like Oriental Pearl TV Tower reaching for the sky.

The car dropped down a slip road into a tunnel that passed under the river, the road eventually emerging in the Pudong district, where the skyscrapers dominated. Burnham had always thought of New York as a city where you just had to keep looking up to take it all in, but Shanghai was at least the Big Apple’s match. The skyscrapers were staggering, the tops of many of them seemingly lost in the clouds, others bearing flying saucer-like discs at their summits. Soon the car pulled up outside one of the towers, and Lucy started haggling with the driver once again.

“So,” said Tate as they waited on the pavement, two islands amid a steady flow of people. “What’s the plan? Do I need to know anything?”

Burnham chuckled. Plan? “We just walk in, sponsor’s visit. They have to show us around, impress us. And we try to spot anything fishy.” And then he added, “And if they don’t give us something today, we get heavy with them: full audit, call in the IFA to go through every file on every last workstation. We’ll lock the bastards down for six months just asking questions, and all legitimate.”

Looking around now, he saw that all of the buildings took security seriously, with heavy metal grilles over the ground-floor windows, armed guards on the doors, security cams watching every angle, drones hanging in the air. Even more like New York than he had first realised, then.


Priscilla walks. And walks. And walks.

She wants to know how this place works. Where the limits are.

She wants to explore heaven.

Deanmere Gap is a ghost village, the shop and pub boarded up, not a soul in sight. Not enough people have died yet. But still everything appears to function. There is food in the house, fuel in the car; TV and netspace working as normal. The shop may be shut, but she can order online; there don’t appear to be any supply problems, even though there can hardly be enough dead farmers to work the land...

This is what consensus is, what consensus decrees. The Accord must function.

She wants to find the limits, though. Can you die in heaven? What would happen if you just walked? And walked? Beyond the point of exhaustion? Beyond the point of hunger, of thirst?

She walks, out east from the village along the cliff path, eventually finding the South Downs Way, the route well worn through the short grass despite the lack of walkers. She pauses some time later, breathing deep from the incline. White cliffs wrap left and right along the water’s edge, and below, the red and white finger of Beachy Head lighthouse stands in shallow water, a narrow walkway connecting it to the beach.


Priscilla is tired. She is thirsty and hungry, and she has a blister the size of a plum on her left heel.

It is dark now, and she is just entering Eastbourne, along King Edward’s Parade.

She heads down onto the beach, smells the sea on the inshore breeze. Ahead, she can see the lights of the pier.

Priscilla is tired and sore and thirsty and... alive!

And fuck, but it feels good!


I left Sammy Zhang content with the deal he had struck. He was milking us, sucking cash out of our backers like a leech. But... I really didn’t care.

I rode a glass-sided lift to the twenty-fourth floor, the streets of Pudong district shrinking to toytown dimensions below. Between the scrapers I see the Oriental Pearl Tower piercing the sky, a needle penetrating one sphere and then another. I always love the Shanghai skyline, and wonder how much of that is me and how much a residual part of Zhang Xiaoling, a gut thing, a cellular connection.

I emerged from the lift, followed a corridor, entered a room that was a single wide-open space, scattered with beanbags, easy chairs, low coffee tables. A screwed up screen had been discarded on the floor near the doorway, its visible surface still showing scrolling numbers, a felt-pen slash scrawled across it.

“Sums not adding up again, Huey?” I asked the grey-haired wire of a man hunched up in a nearby sling chair.

He raised his chin from his drawn-up knees. “You Xiaoling or he?”

“Me,” I told him.

“He,” he said. He pressed the heel of his right hand against his temple. “It works, He. I can see it. Just can’t make the language work for it.”

Huey Kashvili meant the language of numbers. He had been working on his proof for more than six years.

“We need to move, Huey,” I told him. “There’s only so long that we can keep going in netspace before we bring the whole infrastructure down.” I didn’t need to spell out the implications of that: power failures, communications blackout, transport shutdown... the chaos and panic, the knee-jerk reactions in countries already at war with each other. Bring down the net and usher in Armageddon. And that was just in this world. No one knew what the implications might be for the Accord if it ran out of resources...

Huey was staring at the floor.

“You getting on okay with the team now, Huey?” Last I’d heard, three of the team weren’t even talking to him.



He pressed the side of his head again. “I’m talking to them now, He. Trying to keep them in line, yes?”

Huey had a team of sixteen snapshot-Hueys, running off an almost-reality shard in one of the project’s experimental realms. He was parallel-processing himself. I sat in on one of their meetings once. Only once. They had rigged the RS so that they could bootstrap its processing capacity, running things at twice, three, maybe four times normal speed. Their voices had sounded like speeded-up children’s toys, all seventeen of them; at first, I’d thought they were arguing, because of the frantic shrilling of their voices; then I had decided that, no, this was just an effect of their jacked up RS; and finally I had realised that they were indeed arguing – violently, passionately. Five subjective minutes of this had been enough to drive me away. No wonder Huey always looked so shell-shocked, living as he did in constant interior dialogue with the reality shard. What I had seen for mere minutes was inside his head twenty-four seven.

They were our star team. What they had been allowed to publish was still causing ripples in the mathematical sciences several years on, but we had soon classified their output.

Right now, Huey and his sixteen inner twins were trying to find the language to describe Kant-space, trying to delineate a realm that was beyond our ability to experience. But it was there nonetheless, although the Hueys still had to pin down the there of it, too.

Just then, Deedee pinged me. Unexpected visitors, one hour’s notice.

He should have known better than to bother me with this, when I get to visit the Shanghai centre so infrequently. But then I saw who the visitor was to be, and understood why I had been warned.


Burnham, Lucy, and Tate received a polite welcome; they were taken to the eighteenth floor and given a white tea in a room that looked out across a park where old men played chess in the pouring rain.

“You seem heavy on the theoretical side here,” Burnham said casually at one point, to the skinny young woman in a quaintly retro dove-grey Mao suit, who had been introduced as Zhang Xiaoling and was now showing them round.

“That is a strength, yes,” she said, in a voice so soft Burnham had to strain to make out her words.

Burnham stopped in the corridor. “Why?” he asked her.

Zhang Xiaoling was more than just a guide. He had spotted that from the off: she was too well informed, too measured and carefully judged in her responses.

She glanced back, stopped, turned.

“Theory underpins all that we do, Elector,” she said. There was an edge to her words, he realised. Was it fear? Anger at his unannounced intrusion? He didn’t know, but he did know that he had her on edge. He could handle being patronised if he knew he had the advantage.

“So will you tell me why you need not one cosmologist but a whole fucking football team of cosmologists?” said Burnham, keeping his voice light and even.

“To play against the football team of quantum physicists?”

Burnham stared at her, then allowed himself to laugh, allowed her to turn the mood from cagey, hostile, to relaxed, nothing to hide.

Tate had continued past them and was now standing by a window at the far end of the corridor. He beckoned and Burnham went to join him. For a moment, he saw nothing odd in the surging crowd in the street below, but then he realised that there was some kind of disturbance, police drones buzzing the throng, spraying them with gas that shimmered in the air. Bricks and boards were being thrown, and riot police had formed a double line across the mouth of a side street, stun guns at the ready.

Zhang Xiaoling came to join them. “No need to be concerned,” she told them. “It’s not uncommon for the streets to erupt. When you go out, though, remember to wear the breathing masks we give you – the gas may be lingering.”

Burnham nodded. He had noted the change in Tate’s behaviour. His bodyguard would have noted the route from secure exit to where the car would await them, the lines of escape, the places of refuge in case the unrest should break out again while they were outside. He was a good man to have at your side.

Xiaoling gestured for them to return along the corridor and Burnham noticed that she had three blue dots tattooed on the webbing between forefinger and thumb on her right hand.

“You didn’t answer my question,” said Burnham.

“The Accord has required much theoretical research, Elector,” Xiaoling said. “In all kinds of apparently unrelated fields. We also have a team of applied Kantian philosophers working here.”

“That or McDonald’s for them, eh?”

She continued: “Here in Shanghai we have been pursuing research into next generation computing. The Accord is embedded in netspace, but soon it will need more resources than even that can provide. The Accord needs to push the development of next generation computing if it is to flourish. We are looking at wetware computing – infinitely self-repairing and self-replicating data architectures based on organic molecular chemistry. We are looking at interstitial processing and data storage – tying data storage and processing into the fundamental nature of the universe, embedding netspace and the Accord into uncollapsed quantum states. In Kantian terms, it’s shifting the Accord into another state of being which is beyond our ability to experience. It’s all documented. I could ping you a list of references to both academic papers and confidential project reports that outline the research carried out here. It was all personally approved by Professor Barakh.”

Lucy Chang pinged him just then, ever efficient, to confirm that there was documentation covering the research work Xiaoling had just outlined. A footnote added that while all legitimately documented, the work appeared to have been downplayed at every opportunity – they clearly didn’t want attention drawn to it. There was something going on in Shanghai. Xiaoling was feeding Burnham with a proportion of the truth as a blind to whatever else they were doing here.

They ate a light lunch, looking out across the park, the chess-playing old men, the groups mesmerically doing t’ai chi. They saw more of the research centre’s facilities, met more of the staff, and Burnham continued to press Zhang Xiaoling, but she gave them no more.

Finally, they found themselves back down in the lobby, peering out through the glass frontage shielded by its heavy metal grille. Their car was waiting.

“Thank you, Ms Zhang,” said Burnham, taking her slender hand in his and shaking it. “This visit has been most illuminating.”

She smiled, bowed her head, said, “Pleased to meet you again,” which left Burnham puzzled about any previous encounter. There had been no ping from Lucy when they arrived to inform him of any prior meeting with Xiaoling.

“Allow me to accompany you to your car,” said Xiaoling, heading for the rotating doors.

Before they left, a man in a suit stepped up to them, proffering skin-coloured masks moulded to fit over nose and mouth. Burnham recalled what Xiaoling had said about the riot gas. He took a mask, pressed it to his face and felt it mould itself into position.

Xiaoling was already waiting outside. The pale flesh colouring of her mask hid her nose and mouth so that she looked unformed, a human template waiting for features to be added.

Burnham stopped by her side. “We’ve met before?” he asked.

She looked at him. “We must have, I’m sure,” she said.

Tate emerged from the rotating doors, followed by Lucy and a Dutch PR man called Rudi de Groot. All three wore masks, de Groot’s darker to match his skin tone.

The car was a short distance away across a wide paved area that teemed with people and yet still managed to appear less crowded than earlier. The riot probably had something to do with that. The car’s doors were open, a blocky-bodied man in a dark suit waiting outside – some kind of security guard by the look of him.

Burnham started towards the car, but then stopped, motion in the periphery of his vision drawing his attention, someone stumbling, falling, flailing their arms... a muffled male groan... falling face down on the paving, hands clutching at the surface of the grey slabs, knuckles white, clawing so hard that the fingertips left trails of blood across the stone.



Someone had taken Tate out.

And now Lucy, too, her knees buckling, her eyes wide, meeting his look, her body bucking then, as she had some kind of spasm.

Her hands... clutching at the mask.

Something in the mask – there was something in the mask, something that was knocking her out, had already knocked Tate out.

Lucy ripped the thing off, but it was too late. Her eyes rolled, a choking sound came from deep in her throat, and she slumped sideways, across Tate’s legs.

Burnham turned, saw Zhang Xiaoling and de Groot watching him.

He paused, waiting for the same thing to happen to him, but nothing.

He tugged at his mask, felt it resisting him as he pulled it off, sucking at his skin; and then it released its grip and he hurled it away.

Hands pinned his arms, a man to either side of him, grips like vices. Two more suited men had emerged from the crowd to seize him, he realised. How had he not noticed them waiting there? How had Tate not noticed them? Now they half-carried him, half-dragged him, across to the car.

They released him and he climbed in. He had no choice.

Zhang Xiaoling seated herself at his side. A slim thirty-ish Han Chinese man was already seated by the far door. He had the same three dots tattooed on his hand, between thumb and forefinger, as Zhang Xiaoling... on a hand that was holding a heavy meat cleaver, its blade polished silver like a family heirloom. De Groot climbed into the front seat, and even before the doors had closed the driver had eased into gear and pulled out into the traffic.

“So,” said Burnham, “you going to tell me just who the fuck you are, and what you’re planning to do?”

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