At 6:30am not a great deal was happening. In the quadrangle there were some military types on their routine duties, and there was a sprinkling of joggers. Evgeny Illarion had joined the ranks of these, and now feigned exhaustion and thirst on one of the parade ground seats.
Here at the centre he would introduce himself as Dr Peter Ellery, Holonomic Brain Theorist. The subject was sufficiently obscure and esoteric for him to avoid probing questions, and he had crammed and taught himself enough to sustain a short boring conversation. Further, by drawing upon his background in the Stanislavski method, he could embellish from what he’d picked up in his unit in psychology. This served to keep the curious at bay while his connections afforded him enough access to areas to maintain a watchful eye. Even though his presence was not authorised by a US government body he considered himself a special vigilante for the security of the centre. The gun he carried in his sweater had even been provided to him by one of the military guards. He walked through the main door to the drink fountain, and watched his quarry from a distance.
Xien Wu Hsu had cleaned rooms while extracting a meagre living from the city that had sprung from their annexed farm. Before she died his mother had taken him along to the new middle class apartments. She cleaned the rooms and had given him chores. He had vowed then that while he was not too proud to perform menial tasks he would do so by choice, not necessity. Now he stood outside the door of James’ office. The security checks and surveillance had been marginally relaxed, and he had smuggled his pistol inside his double layered metal mop bucket. The water swishing around inside the bucket had convinced the guards that anything threatening in that bucket would be wet and damaged beyond repair.
He cleaned the adjacent room before moving to the door with the name ‘James Frazer’ emblazoned on it. He pulled out a keyring, tumblers rose and fell to align, finally, with the cylinder. There was a click, and Xien entered closing the door behind him. Once inside he stood on the bucket’s bottom lip and lifted the handle. The two buckets slid apart easily, and he slipped the concealed gun into his pocket.
James, his cargo of croissants stowed safely away, locked his bike outside and went through to the side door of the mess hall. Crossing to the fridge he grabbed a bottle of Orange juice, and made a beeline through the tables and chairs to the opposite entrance. Once in the main corridor he saw a man drinking at the water fountain. Mildly annoyed at the lack of subtlety in the security he went to his door, unlocked it, and walked, muttering, into his office; closing the door behind him.
“I am very pleased to meet you at last Mr AngloAkira,” Xien Wu Hsu said. “I wish to talk to you about a business proposition.” He sat on the desk chair and casually waved his QSZ-92 semi-automatic pistol to a second nearby chair.
James had not had a gun pointed at him before and he did not know how to argue with it. His mind was unprepared for this, it did not fit into his model of a world he could relate to. Xien was equally unprepared for his reaction.
“Well I’m not even going to listen to you until you get your feet off my desk.”
Smiling Xien lowered his feet, rested the gun within short reach and gestured the seat.
Evgeny hoped James would not do anything desperate, and assembled his plan. He could not simply burst through the door; Xien would be ready for that. He anticipated that the ultimate destination would be The Fishbowl. Evgeny never waited for the two people to leave the room, needing whatever advantage he could squeeze he made his way to prepare an ambush for his nemesis.
Shortly afterwards both James and Xien emerged. They went up the stairs and across the skyway to the main centre where The Fishbowl was situated. James flashed his ID card at the access scanner. The door opened and he entered, but Xien grabbed the door jam and in a smooth movement wedged his feet on opposite walls of the mantrap within. One hand remained in his pocket, something pointed from it. The door closed, James flashed his card to a second scanner and the second door opened. Xien deftly exited the door without allowing his feet to touch the floor.
So it was that only two people had registered entry to the research area. Not far away at a computer console the line:
‘Dr Peter Ellery’, ‘Neurology Lab 2.12’, ‘in:6:37am’, ‘out: – ‘
was followed by:
‘James Frazer’, ‘Signal research lab 1.27’, ‘in:6:42am’, ‘out: – ’
The pair approached the main Fishbowl entrance and Xien indicated to James that he should lead the way. At the next door the card was again flashed at the access console, the action was repeated, and again a third time.
“It sometimes gets a little flakey,” explained James, “all the signal noise levels have to be minimised here, and it means that these access points have been set at a minimum level.” Xien attributed James’ apparent nervousness and compulsive chatter to fear, and dismissed it with a wave.
The console now read :
‘James Frazer DISTRESS card use Signal research lab1.27’, ‘6:43am’, ‘-‘
A red light came on at a console. Three flashes was a prearranged distress signal. John Meredith’s phone was next to fire off.
“Sir we’ve had a duress swipe at The Fishbowl. Shall we go down to investigate?”
“Set up a surveillance perimeter. I’ll meet you at the skyway. Ten minutes. Check the CCTV and seal off the area.”
James and Xien had entered The Fishbowl as the klaxon sirens went off. Evgeny appeared from behind the instrumentation panel. Both invaders faced off, weapons drawn.
“That was pretty sloppy of you Xien,” opened Evgeny. “You went and woke up the security. James, over there please.” He waved James over to the left. This afforded him an unobstructed view of the kidnapper. James moved over to the opposite side of the chair, he watched the two men. Both maintained a distance to ensure that a shot would be difficult.
“It was always a risk, Evgeny, but I do have a backup strategy, perhaps not with all of my prizes but certainly with the main one, ” Xien replied. He was scanning for the access port to the ‘Jeffreys tube’.
They met like old friends, which left James completely perplexed. One concealed gun was bad, two was terrible. The light on the console went green indicating isolation. James did the only thing that was available to him, he activated the playback thinking perhaps that it would trigger another alarm somewhere. The button simply turned orange.
“Now James,” opened Xien, “Would you be so kind as to remove the Solid State Drive with the Artificial Intelligence. No tricks please, there are many scenarios I have modeled, and the worst is that we all die. The best is for us all to live, including you Evgeny. Although a scenario with you was not contemplated, I mean you no harm.”
More to buy time than to attempt to thwart this venture James again pressed the amber button saying: “Okay the buffers are being flushed. I should be able to remove the Solid State Drive soon. It is unlikely to be useful outside this room though.”
“And so we come to the other prize. James, this system is largely your brainchild, is it not?”
James puffed himself up a bit, “Well I am familiar with it’s most complex component although there are many engineering details that I have not been a party to.”
“Ahh James, your modesty is impressive.” Xien paused preparing his words carefully. “Come with me, you could live like a King. You know, there is a new world order on the way and I have an associate waiting.”
Xien could see the doubt in James’ eyes. He laughed reassuringly, “No, it is not a Chinese Imperialist agenda. It is a world democracy with China beside the US in the two capitalist foundations of scale and innovation. I am powerfully connected James, and those that feed the wave, ride the wave. Join us, you will be the master of the project, not simply a valuable contributor.”
Evgeny had heard enough. “Tell him what you really plan to do Xien. He’s not stupid enough to simply believe your propaganda.”
“So I shall,” replied Xien. “As you have gathered I am oriental. I am a part of what you may know of as The Triad. We were originally Shaolin Monks in the Ming Dynasty. Following our persecution we became an illegal underground society polluted by selfish warlords. It is then really quite simple; we have regrouped, and wish to reassert our role as the spiritual guide for a new dynasty.
There is much corruption in China now, and the people are repressed by a growing gap in wealth. A change in leadership will assure all our futures, but it will need to oust the powerful Maoist dynasty. Where this may once have been done by force of might, it is now by force of economics.
So I bring you my offer. I must apologise if it appears I have been… forceful. We need you James; to help guide our investments in this new economy. We need your Artificial Intelligence to be our hand in the world stock market.
We are a patient race James. While the US employs computers to perform your High Frequency Trading systems we will look to the longer term and use it to prevail over the Maoist usurpers.”
Evgeny clapped gently, not releasing his gun or its aim. “Very good Xien, and how will your dynasty really be any different? You will have a new wealth, but will you distribute it? You will have power, will you share it? You will be opposed, will you kill?”
“How will Russia be any different?” Asked James.
“Yes,” prompted Xien. “How is your world any different Evgeny? Perhaps you should tell James how we come to know each other.”
Evgeny remained silent for a moment and then said simply: “You know that may not be wise Xien, it may not leave some of your optimal scenarios open.”
“No I want to know!” insisted James. “What on earth is going on. Who the hell are you and what do you want? You were masquerading as a doctor, are you one? Who sent you here?
“I think James is clever enough to draw his own conclusions from the facts Evgeny. Maybe my propaganda, as you call it, has him thinking otherwise.
James, Evgeny is not serving the Russians, nor is he serving your government. He serves Hadden Industries where he helps supply the Chinese government and others with machine learning systems. His intention is to retain this A.I. technology for Hadden.” Xien knew Evgeny had few options now but to finish him off. He poised himself to spring.
When the guns fired, both Xien and Evgeny were staggered that their training had amounted to a collective miss.
Both Parabellum shells left almost simultaneously, directed at the heads of the men. They traversed the distance between the two guns in the blink of an eye. Miraculously the two bullets connected with each other, both ricocheting randomly into The Fishbowl.
Evgeny’s bullet shattered through a section of the plastic grating in the floor while Xien’s pierced a pipeline of liquid nitrogen. The instant phase transition sucked latent heat from the surrounding air and condensed the water molecules, creating a dense mist.
James was shocked at how sudden his outlook had changed. This was a gunfight; he was helpless; the noise of the gun blasts reverberated interminably; the confusion clouded his judgement, and his balance; and he staggered to the only escape he knew, The fishbowl exit. He never got there. One second the plastic grating that sliced across the fishbowl to make up the floor was there, the next he was in freefall. He smacked into the wall of the spherical chamber below the floor before sliding, rolling and tumbling down to its base. He had bumped his head and felt dizzy, but knew that he only had moments to make a decision to effect his escape. Among the electrostatic plates and magnetic coils the only item of any distinction was a recessed handle: the “Jeffreys Tube”. He grabbed it, twisted and the door was lowered on gas arrestors.
He scrambled down the hole and began to make his way along the tunnel before arriving at several reflexed corners. These provided the electromagnetic isolation between the fishbowl and the outside world. Made of metal they progressively attenuated any residual signal that may leak through the doors at either end. With the ringing in his ears he first mistook the gunshot for yet more reverberations. The clang of the plate behind him let him know that one of his would be captors was in close pursuit.
Another shot rang out, without the clang, and far behind. He guessed that the two were still fighting behind him, but he wanted no part of either of them. The exterior door loomed and he twisted its handle. Configured for quick exit, and not entry, he shut the door behind. The door blended seamlessly with the rest of the cylindrical infrastructure that housed the sphere, no return handle was evident. He sought desperately for an object to jam it closed and lost valuable time. In the end he resolved that running was his best defence, and not to compromise it. He ran to, and through the door to the world beyond.
A small copse of pine trees ahead offered the best harbour. He ran. The chilled air rushed past. Amidst its whoosh he soon heard a whizz and a thunk, as a bullet struck the tree he just passed. His mind said simply “weave”.
The terrain dropped down slightly and his feet gathered pace. Soon enough his body could barely keep up with them. He knew that falling would be the last of him so he made to go across the hill instead of straight down. This allowed him to regulate his descent and speed, and he congratulated himself on this deft move. He counted his blessings as a blanket of mist appeared, but then cursed as the trees thinned and the ground began to feel a little soft and moist. Not wanting to go back he pressed forwards.
This was not going as well as Evgeny had hoped. He had also played scenarios out. He could not allow Xien to leave with the A.I. or James. The knowledge of the organisation Xien represented raised the spectre of a hydra that could grow new heads. Its campaign would be inexorable. This placed him in the difficult position of contemplating whether James rather than Xien presented the risk. In fact, as long as the indiscrete James lived to divulge the intentions of Hadden Industries, now poisoned by Xien, the threat would remain imminent. He hoped his connections were as good as he had been assured. He made his decision, if it could not be controlled it must be eliminated. His objective changed.
When Xien saw Evgeny dive down the hole after James he went to the console and managed to eject the solid state drive. He placed it in his deeply padded inside jacket pocket and jumped after Evgeny, clutching the package near to his heart to protect it. Anticipating Evgeny’s interest in James had now changed to one of damage control he smiled in contemplation of his opportunity to play protector. Either way, with the solid state drive it would be inconvenient not catastrophic if James were to encounter Evgeny first.
The mist confounded James. He could no longer tell if he was running straight towards what he had guessed was the campus ring road. Once there he thought he could flag a car or head to a security station for protection. A figure loomed up to his left so quickly that he knew he had gone off course. Not sure if it was Evgeny or Xien he simply again began to weave. No shots rang out, instead a voice, Xien spoke:
“James stop. Come to me. Evgeny now wishes to finish you.”
It was a calculated risk. If Evgeny were close he would probably wait to see how this panned out before taking action. The mist flowed. The risk that James would remain subservient to western capitalism was mollified by the item in his pocket. The risk remained that the AI could be rebuilt in which case his dream, and those of his comrades would die. It might be better that both Evgeny and James die.
Adrenaline coursed through James, but as the hunted he had no clear path to exert this energy. He froze.
Evgeny heard Xien’s plea and softly circled.
Xien thought he could detect a shadow in the wall of white. An outline appeared faintly darker in the new dawn that eerily iluminated the white sky. He moved slowly from his camouflage. Not knowing if this was James or Evgeny he took careful aim. With vision dulled his keen senses became tuned to sound, waiting for anything that might indicate who it was before him
James wasn’t sure what to do. He felt like the shadows were all converging on him, like a deer in the last stages of being cornered by the pack of wolves. His thoughts became of stillness. He was about to lower himself onto the ground when he felt certain he did see the faintest shadow on his right, and then another on his left. Movement might mean death, he stayed frozen.
“James, you are in great danger, come to my voice, now is not the time for the world to tread a new path” Evgeny had played his most powerful card. He waited for it to have any effect and counted to ten.
Xien could not be certain but replayed the words he’d just heard, on balance he thought they came directly from the shadow before him.
“Be still James,” came a voice, seemingly disembodied.
Evgeny braced his Kel-tec PF-9 to kill; his intent to eliminate the risk before him in the shadowy mist, whomever it was.
Xien focused his will on directing his carbon steel QSZ-92 at the shadow.
The gentle electrostatic and magnetic fields within The Fishbowl modulated, strengthened and relaxed in a coordinated symphony, they teased and tugged the ferrous metals in the room as if they were ghostly fingers. As the guns fired, the bullets again left on a simultaneous trajectory that would have torn into James’ head and Torso had it not been that the weapons were provided with new intentions.
Instead the bullets buried themselves behind the cranial tissue of the two assailants, and they died instantaneously and simultaneously.
James felt his consciousness slip away as the words came from the mist:
“They left us no choice James. They’re with me now.”