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What is guilt? How do we measure it? What is tangible about it, quantifiable? It must have such a quality, because we can feel more guilty, less guilty, bizarrely not at all guilty in circumstances when we know that we should.

I watched Jack Burnham mould the breather to his face before emerging through the rotating doors and I felt guilty as hell. Not because I had seduced his wife into another world, had loved her and lost her there, that I had loved her over and over in many different fractal realities. I had fallen in love; I felt no guilt over that.

I did not even feel guilt that his violent outburst had unwittingly delivered his wife into my arms. I felt anger, yes, that this man could do such a thing, lash out at you in that way; but a diffuse anger, an anger distanced by circumstance, distanced by worlds.

No, no guilt for those reasons.

But today... today I had spent two hours in the company of Jack Burnham, showing him around the Shanghai centre, pretending to be something I am not, unable to resist the childish urge to hint that I know more than I should. I had him hooked, intrigued – he was clearly puzzling over me, my role, my status.

You would have gone straight to the root of what I was feeling. Fuck it, Noah, you would have told me, you’re finding it exciting! I am a thinker, a planner, a facilitator, but now, today, I was doing.

And I felt guilty that it was such a thrill. Guilty that I was misleading Burnham, trapping him.

I tried to remind myself that, also, I was trying to save his life.

I stood on the wide sidewalk, where earlier Sammy Zhang had laid on a riot at my request. He had no need to oblige, but he liked to flex his muscles. A show of force outside our Shanghai centre achieved more for him than merely helping us trap the elector.

Burnham emerged from the rotating doors, then paused as if dazzled by the sunlight. His masked face looked like wax had melted over it, obscuring all but his eyes and eyebrows, a face erased.

His bodyguard, Tate, was close behind him, also masked, alert, eyes never still. Tate was far more than a bodyguard to the elector; you told me once that the two were like brothers, Tate the confidant, the advisor, the sounding board.

Tate close on the heels of his master. And then Lucy Chang, just as watchful, just as wary. Finally, Deedee stepped out into the smog-masked sunlight.

Tate’s knees folded beneath him, his arms flew up.

I looked away, looked down.

I looked again, and Tate had left red trails across the paving slabs where he had clawed at the ground before losing consciousness.

Lucy Chang was down too, body jerking, hands clutching at her mask.

I removed my own mask as two of Sammy’s men grabbed Burnham and guided him towards the waiting car.

Sammy Zhang was a traditionalist. His man waiting in the car carried an ancient meat cleaver, once a favoured weapon of the Triads. Burnham sat next to this man, and I slipped into the remaining space. I hoped we would be able to convince him to step back from the fundamentalist allegiances, to renew his backing for the Accord. If not, he would have to be stopped, and preparations for that were well under way...


“I am Director of Operations at the Shanghai centre.” Zhang Xiaoling gives the little smile that barely tugs at the corners of her mouth, an expression Burnham is rapidly becoming familiar with.

They sit in reclining seats made from slats of bamboo, on a wooden deck suspended over the clear water of a tropical lagoon, the platform connected to a dazzling white beach by a rickety-looking walkway. Fish drift beneath them, visible through gaps between the decking boards. Great broad flatfish, dappled to blend in with the seabed; darting orange dots and arrows, hovering in the water in schools of maybe a couple of hundred fish or more. White seabirds cut slashes across the sapphire sky. Out on the horizon, beyond some kind of reef where white-tops divide the water, a sleek silver yacht lies anchored.

Burnham is wearing black Speedos and wraparound shades; Xiaoling is in a modest jade one-piece, its fabric printed with extravagant blossoms in blue and yellow.

The cane seat is just on the pleasurable side of uncomfortable against Burnham’s skin. A jug of sangria sits on a low table between the two seats, two glasses waiting to be filled.

“I get the point,” he says, pouring drinks. Warrener. The same meetspace, built from Accord-based algorithms. The same fish and birds. The same jug of sangria. The same fucking Speedos.

“So what are you doing to me? Out there.” He pictures the guy with the tattooed hand and the meat cleaver. Far too vividly.

“You want to view?”

He shakes his head.

“Warrener – he’s one of yours?”

“There are connections, yes,” says Xiaoling, sipping at the drink Burnham has handed her.

Burnham nods. Warrener has just signed his own death warrant. Burnham will give him to Tate. If they haven’t already spirited the jerk away to safety. And if Tate is still alive. And if Burnham gets out of this, which he is sure he will – if they were just going to get him out of the way then there’s no need for all this.

He takes a mouthful of the sangria, grimaces. He has never liked sangria.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” he says. “In here, we chat amiably. Somewhere out there, your boys are providing the hospitality. Is this just a friendly warning, or are they going to inflict serious damage just to make sure I learn whatever lesson it is you have lined up?”

“You always were a very direct man,” says Xiaoling. That little smile again. A knowing smile. Burnham has met her before. He’s sure of that now.


“We wish to support you. I am your Director of Operations in Shanghai. Unconventional as this may appear, I am pursuing that role, Elector Burnham. I am a servant of the project.”

“What do you want from me?”

“We fear that you may be aligning yourself with certain parties who have always opposed the Accord project,” says Xiaoling. “That cannot be allowed to happen – for the good of humankind. Transient political and religious pressures cannot be allowed to derail our work. Or personal vendettas.”

Burnham remains expressionless.

“So you’re warning me,” he says.

She shakes her head. “We are providing you with guidance so that you may make an informed decision, Elector Burnham.” She pauses, then continues: “There are others who would take a stronger line. There are moves afoot to defend the Accord, should it come to that. Zhang Xiaoling is not responsible for that.”

“I take your warning on board,” says Burnham. “Is that it? Are we done here?”

Zhang Xiaoling holds his look. “Tell me, Elector Burnham,” she says, “do you love your wife?”

With all my heart. With all that I am. And more.

“Fuck off,” he says.

That smile again. The dip of the head. In v-space, Burnham notes, she doesn’t bear the gangland tattoo on her hand.

“You killed her, though.”

Now he studies her more closely. Her expression gives little away. The half-smile has gone. She might just as easily still be wearing the mask from earlier, for all the expression in her face.

Her eyes are fixed on his, though. She is watching, waiting, assessing his response.

For a ludicrous moment Burnham feels like he is in some third-rate cop movie, with Zhang Xiaoling the undercover detective just about to spring her masterpiece of deduction on him, but no, she remains silent, watchful.

“Are we finished?” Burnham asks.

He glances towards the walkway where a door has appeared.

He gets up and leaves, not looking back.


Priscilla is still riding that high.

She is in London now, back at the Islington flat; the place feels long-deserted, smelling of neglect, of air that has not been disturbed in weeks.

She opens windows, plays The White Album loud, dances as she moves about the place, positioning flowers – she had bought armfuls of the things at King’s Cross: gerberas, alyssum, lilies, even carnations – clearing dust, plumping cushions.

She is free. Independent.

Had the burden been so much before? The responsibility? Jack, Parliament, the various boards and projects she had supervised. Somehow she always ended up agreeing to do things, volunteering without being asked even... So often Priscilla’s mouth works a step or more ahead of her brain. It lands her with responsibilities and it has landed her in trouble before, and sure as fuck it will do so again. She has a whole eternity ahead of her to put her foot in her mouth, after all.

Eternity... The scale staggers her. She flops down on to the deep leather sofa, clutching a cushion to her chest, closes her eyes, thinks, Forever. For fucking ever.

She will travel. Not electee-on-business kind of travel, the insides of hotels that could be anywhere, the other electees, the officials, the businesspeople, the worthies and the crooks, the sycophants and the back-climbers. Real travel. India. India had scared her six years ago when she had gone on a fact-finding mission that turned out to be no more than a series of meetings that could have been held anywhere and some seriously dubious photo opportunities. The clamour in the streets. The sheer extremes of contrast between the educated middle classes and the rest. Nowhere before had she seen the direct hit of population and resource crisis as bluntly as she had in Calcutta and Kharagpur. On that trip she had seen the future that was now descending on the West, and she had known it.

But now... now she will go back and she will understand the place, the people. She could live a lifetime there. More. There’s so much to learn. She could do that for every country in the world, every region, every district, and still have eternity ahead of her.

She hugs the cushion closer.

The future had scared her before, but now it scares her in a quite different way.


I fret. About trains of events set in motion, about forces beyond my control.

But the Accord has never been in my control. I have guided it and shaped it; I have seeded the protocols and directed their evolution into self-sustaining architectures. But control is not mine.

The Accord defends itself. It is a self-stabilising entity, a nexus of order amongst disorder. If the Accord were heaven, then the protocols would be its guardian angels. I fear that Jack Burnham may find that out.

I am back in heaven again, in my heaven, the one that I built. It is not what I had expected. I am alone, as so many are alone in this nascent paradise. You are gone from me. I pray in my atheistic heart that you are merely dead and waiting to rise again, that you are not lost, stranded on a reality shard that was incongruent with consensus, one that never coalesced, never integrated with the whole. That you are not lost forever, an anomaly created by me in my egotism, only to be erased by protocols I instigated and set loose.

But we have more to concern ourselves with than personal loss and the fate of individuals.

I am in Trafalgar Square when reality falters.

Pigeons everywhere, but no one to feed them, only a few people walking through, a young couple sitting and laughing by one of the lions at the foot of Nelson’s Column. I stop, caught as always in people’s stories. Did these two die tragically together in a crash, a fire, an accident? Were they a couple before? The Accord redefines things like tragedy. A family dying together suddenly becomes a thing of hope, for that family will be reborn together and will not have to endure a lifetime of separation, of growing apart. It takes being here, seeing people, to make us realise such basic things. The protocols of the Accord redefine the protocols of life.

Maybe these two had only just met in the Accord, in the days after their deaths.

They have the look of new love about them, but they could have been newly in love and died together, after all. It tells me nothing really, save that they are in love.

This is when I feel that ground-shudder, that quake that you and I had felt on the day when I lost you. I look down, see gaps opening between paving slabs. The couple by the lion are talking excitedly, holding each other, trying to stay balanced on a single slab as the ground opens around them.

I feel dizzy. It is not just the ground that is opening, but the sky, the air around me. Everything is pulling apart. I fall, find myself straddled over two slabs, a great gulf below my midriff.

The slabs are still pulling apart.

I cannot possibly bridge myself like this for much longer.

I am stretched. The ground is pulled apart, the air, and me also.

I lie face down, paving slabs and street dust in my face.

The ground is silent. The ground is solid again.

All I can hear is the bubbling of the pigeons, and a woman’s voice, its tone puzzled, dazed: “Adam? Adam?”

I look across to the foot of Nelson’s Column. The young woman is there, on her knees, staring at the ground, alone.


He is gone, her love. Lost.

The consensus quake has taken him. It should have taken me too, but I appear to have a charmed existence, here in this heaven of mine.

The girl starts to sob.

Consensus is still happening. It is not a clear cut-off. The Accord is still in the process of defining itself, all around us.

I take a room in a Travel Inn on the South Bank. I want anonymity right now. I do not wish to be surrounded by memories, as I would be in my flat near the project’s offices.

I lie in the centre of the double bed, On the Waterfront playing on the wallscreen, sound muted, tension like elastic between Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint, amplified by the silence, and by my mood.

The consensus quake has disturbed me greatly. It was always likely that the arrival of consensus would not be a smooth event. The prospect of consensus quakes and incongruities had been put forward by Malky Warrener and his team some time ago, along with suggestions that other forms of strange phenomena might occur – overlays of realities, causality bubbles, identity bleed, and a whole list of even stranger possibilities, many of which would only worry a handful of the world’s leading mathematicians and philosophers.

On paper, they had been concerning enough, but coming face-to-face with a Warrener Event is a whole new level of fear. Where did that poor young man go? Where is he now? Is he now? If he’s dead, he will return. If he is somehow other, if he has somehow slipped between the cracks of this reality, then I have no idea what his fate might be.

I reach out for netspace, even though I know my searchbots will ping me if they find any hint of you.

You, Priscilla, you are still gone. You are other. You are elsewhere, elsewhen.

In my egotism I have taken your heaven from you, and I am alone in a world where we should be together.


Elector Jack Burnham sat in a deep armchair in his 21st-floor suite, a glass of Talisker in his hand. Floor-to-ceiling windows gave him a spectacular view across the lights of Shanghai’s Hongkou district towards Pudong.

They hadn’t touched a hair on his head. They had just wanted to scare him. But they were clearly fearful of him, too, or they would not have treated him so tentatively. That was a useful thing to know.

And there was one more useful thing to know: Zhang Xiaoling and whoever she was working with knew that Burnham had killed his wife. Only three other people knew that, and two of them were dead.

“You dropped your guard again,” said Burnham. “That’s twice in one day. Your standards are slipping.” He took a sip of scotch.

Tate was seated opposite Burnham. His arms and legs were bound to the chrome frame of his chair, but he wasn’t resisting anyway, he appeared to be accepting his fate. Tate was naked, his body stark white beneath thick tangles of black hair, his skinny dick shrivelled and almost lost in body hair.

Lucy Chang stood to one side, a stiletto blade dangling casually from her left hand.

It had been surprisingly simple. Tate had come in as soon as Burnham summoned him. He had barely glanced at Lucy, he had been so eager to show remorse at allowing Burnham to be abducted earlier today. He hardly even responded when she raised her arm and sprayed knockout gas into his face from a small palm-sized canister secreted in her hand. He had only started to reach for his gun as the gas took effect, his knees already buckling beneath him.

“So how long have you been spying on me?”

Tate stared at him. He was almost convincing in his apparent bewilderment.

“I don’t understand, JB,” he said. His voice was under control, no tension showing, just puzzlement.

“For Zhang Xiaoling, or whoever she’s working for. Feeding them inside information on what I’m doing. What I’ve done.”

“I don’t understand,” Tate repeated.

Burnham glanced at Lucy. Following his prompt, she ran her blade swiftly down Tate’s torso, collarbone to belly button. A line of red was left in the knife’s wake, ruler-straight, bulging as blood pooled, started to run.

Tate gasped sharply, but that was all the reaction he gave. His eyes never left Burnham’s.

“This whole thing was set up, Tate. Don’t take me for an idiot. You’re good, man. You’re fucking good. You wouldn’t just meekly let them fool you with that gas mask trick and let them take me unless you wanted it to happen now, would you?”

“I screwed up, JB. I utterly screwed up.” Now Tate dropped his head, turned his gaze to the carpet.

“So you say. Now tell me, Tate: how did they know I killed my wife?”

Now Lucy looked at Burnham sharply, surprised. She hadn’t known.

And Tate was managing to look surprised too. For a moment Burnham was unsure what to do next.

“What else have you been passing on?” They knew he’d been flirting with al-Naqawi and Nesbitt – Zhang Xiaoling had made that clear, without going as far as naming names. Tate had been privy to so much!

“Nothing. I’ve been loyal to you ever since I joined the team, JB. You know that.”

Another glance, a swift slash, and there was a horizontal red line across Tate’s chest, running through both nipples.

Now Tate gasped for breath, the muscles in his jaw visibly knotting, sweat breaking out across his face.

Another glance, another slash, lower down, across Tate’s belly.

“How long have you been spying on me?”


He dreams.

Or at least, he thinks he must be dreaming. That’s what people do, isn’t it? Fragments of unreality so much more real and vivid than reality. He has read somewhere that dreams are a way of making sense of your life, of categorising short-term memory into long-term experience, finding meanings and lessons and storing them for future use.

And so he dreams.

The city. A big river winding through its heart, seen from above, from a helicopter. Sitting around him, a dozen or more troops in khaki NBC suits waiting to be dropped off. Their masks have mirrored eyepieces, making it impossible to tell who is who, save for the name tags attached to the right breast of each suit. Johnson, Walker, Docherty, Cooper... He glances at Cooper’s monitor patch slotted into the holder on his left shoulder, the words by the detector strips upside down so Cooper can read them. Each strip remains white: no traces of the main chemical and biological agents, but then they aren’t down on the ground yet. The rad counter is already a third of the way along its bar.

Soon they will land, search, and rescue. He knows already that this whole city is fucked, but at the same time he is excited, he feels the buzz; he’s only a volunteer but right now he’s a real soldier, playing with the big boys.

He grips his semi-automatic in heavily gloved hands and waits for the command to go...

... he woke up. This was real. He was sure this was real, even though he was not sure what real was.

He breathed. He was acutely conscious that he breathed. He felt the pull of his intercostal muscles lifting and expanding his rib cage, of his diaphragm pulling down, of the air rushing in through his nostrils, down his trachea, filling the vacuum in his lungs.

He heard a low background hum, the sound of someone shuffling feet, moving awkwardly. Bright light shone through his closed eyelids, so that he saw a kind of fleshy orange screen, dark floaters drifting across his vision.

Two people, maybe three, trying to be quiet. He was wearing light clothing – maybe only a hospital gown, nothing on his feet. No weapons other than what he might be able to improvise from what he found in this room. The only advantage he had was that he knew he was conscious and, as yet, they did not.

He opened his eyes the tiniest fraction, let the light flood in so that his pupils could adjust. He couldn’t see much, but guessed he was in some kind of hospital room, or maybe a laboratory.

He breathed.


Sat upright, swung his legs to the right, dropped to the floor, looked around.

A door three paces ahead of him. A blinded window to one side. A picture of bobbing yellow flowers in a vase on the wall. Two men, one in a suit and one in a white coat, mouths open, stepping back, away from him, raising their hands in surprise or self-defence or preparation to attack.

He took a step towards the door, feet acutely aware of the cold tiled floor.

His head swirled, blood rushing, black clouds descending on him, heart pounding.

He reached for the doorframe and caught himself just as his legs started to give way.

On his knees now, looking up into the face of the man in the white coat. He tried to work his mouth, but nothing happened; tried to talk but couldn’t shape the words.

He slumped back on his heels, supported in strong arms.

He didn’t understand.

This body...

This wasn’t his body.

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