A Quantum Adventure in Time





Colin Mason










Dwapara Press     Eugene, Oregon



Copyright © 2010, by Colin Mason. All rights reserved.


No portion of this book may be reproduced or used in any form, or by any means, without prior written permission from the publisher.


Dwapara Press

30160 Fox Hollow Road,

Eugene, Oregon 97405

Ph: 541-359-0724

Editor: Mark Mason



About the author:

Colin Mason, a former foreign correspondent, broadcaster and Australian senator, has published 13 books, two of which, A Short History of Asia (Palgrave Macmillan) and A Short History of the Future (Earthscan) are currently best sellers in their area around the world. A Short History of the Future, which is currently being translated into Korean and has been taken on board as a course book by the British Open University, is a factual look at the perils and opportunities of the future. Many of its themes recur in Timeslip.

Of Mason’s three published novels Hostage has been the most successful. Its seven editions in the US, Britain and Australia have sold some 80,000 copies.

Mason has been a longtime SF fan, and is a special admirer of H.G. Wells and John Wyndham. He has long wanted to write ‘reasonably cerebral’ SF, and Timeslip, which is based on quantum physics, is the result.


The author may be contacted by email

at: colinvjmason@gmail.com






‘...the atomic world is full of murkiness and chaos. A particle such as an electron does not appear to follow a meaningful, well-defined trajectory at all. One moment it is found here, the next there. Not only electrons, but all known subatomic particles—even whole atoms—cannot be pinned down to specific motion. Scrutinised in detail, the concrete matter of daily experience dissolves into a maelstrom of fleeting ghostly images.’

—Paul Davies




‘Most everything that’s been written or said about time travel’s bullshit,’ Lyle, leaning back expansively in his chair, expounded. ‘All the sci-fi writers from Herbert George Wells on—in their books you just travel in time. Just like that! Well, it isn’t that simple. There’s some nasty elements and considerable risks.’

Looking around for approval—that’s his usual pushy style, Rona reflected, scowling slightly. Just because you are the world’s number three expert in quantum mechanics, everyone must listen spellbound to Professor Lyle Hadfield—especially women. In her middle thirties and now a little staid, she bridled at his coarse language. And she happened to be fond of H. G. Wells. Both good reasons to indulge her female urge to put down a man who, as her father would have said, was a little up himself.

‘If you’re saying it’s impossible to travel in time, what’s new?’ she asked coolly. ‘It’s just what everyone knows.’

‘No, I don’t mean it’s impossible. I repeat: it is not impossible to travel in time.’

Jane, sitting with them at the outdoor table looking out over the sea past the towering Norfolk Island Pines, was reflecting, as she had done many times before, how beautiful the breakers were, rolling in out of the blue ocean like so many sets of teeth. Brilliant white, wonderful. And they had been doing that thousands, no, millions, of years before people arrived to stuff up the earth. Then, observing that Rona seemed disinclined to comment on Lyle’s outrageous proposition, she said,

‘Lyle, what are you saying? You’re about to lift off into the future?’

Now it was his turn to scowl.

‘Can I ask you both to take what I’m going to say seriously?’

Neither responded, but both stared at him expectantly. What do I see in him, Rona wondered. He’s exasperating, like most men, imposing that tyranny over any woman in sight. Women must take notice of him, listen, say yes. But regardless of these doubts, his bright blue eyes, his habit of handing that yellow hair back from his eyes—these little, tiny things made her heart miss a beat. Annoying, intensely annoying, for the serious, mature scientist she was. The oxytocin was flooding her brain, in a warm, muzzy flow, like she was still seventeen, still at school.

‘At times, Lyle,’ she snapped, ‘you can be very, very irritating.’

She was glaring at him and he recoiled slightly, raising a hand between them.

‘Well…’ Then for once he was lost for words.

‘Back off, Ronnie,’ Jane said good-naturedly. ‘I find it interesting the way you’re laying back your ears and sinking your teeth into him… So unlike you… But anyway Lyle, we’ll shut up. Have your say.’

He looked up at the sky, cultivating his injured look.

‘Three deep breaths… Well. All this year I’ve been working on a knotty project I’ve called Timeslip. You’re both into quantum mechanics enough to know that very strange things happen at that level, in the nucleus of atoms?’

Jane thumped the little table in front of them, making the glasses jangle. ‘This feels solid, but it’s not, right? It’s made of atoms. Everything’s made of atoms. In the nucleus of the atom littler bits, electrons, whatever, wander about, disappear, turn up again somewhere else. Things can be in two places at once, like that cat.’

‘Schrodinger’s.’ Lyle put in.

‘That’s it? It was dead and alive at the same time.’

‘Not quite… But…’

‘So in that very little world things are weird—just about anything can happen.’

Lyle nodded.

‘Weird, yes… Now, if a fundamental particle like an electron can be accelerated to a speed extremely close to the speed of light, which has, of course, been done in particle accelerators, maybe it’s also possible to similarly accelerate the nucleus of a cell, with all its DNA—maybe to the speed of light? For all its molecular complexity, such a particle would still be much smaller than a speck of dust. That’s Timeslip in a nutshell—ten months’ work.’

‘You mean people DNA?’ Rona asked. ‘We are in fairyland, aren’t we?’

He pursed his lips.

‘Maybe. Maybe not. What happens when things nudge the speed of light, and to all intents and purposes effectively reach it?’

‘Time effectively stops?’ she offered, hesitantly. ‘Einstein..’

‘Quite. The general space-time field becomes… available.’

‘Available? You mean something could get into it?’

‘Something in the right quantum state… Yes. It all gets very complex from there on in…but the bottom line is that some quantum forms, expressions, might be moved in time…’

‘Expressions? You mean people?’

‘A quantum expression of them… yes, maybe. My theory is that while a person, or a group of people’s, DNA is being accelerated up to the speed of light, if those people are sitting at the very centre of the accelerator, then when their DNA orbiting around them goes into an altered quantum state “at” the speed of light, it could take those peoples’ conscious states with them. I’ll know soon—that’s why we’re having this conversation now. But there are complications that could be very dangerous. This is where the sci-fi boys so conveniently cut corners. Any movement in time must have huge, long-lasting consequences, like the tail trailing out behind a comet. Our world, our lives, depend utterly on patterns of cause and effect, the passing of time, past, present, future. Start tinkering with that, and anything could happen. Anything. And if the parallel universe people have anything going for them, there could be dangers impossible to imagine, much less foresee.’

His voice, for once, was deadly serious. The two women stared at him.

‘This is utterly bizarre,’ Rona said at last, ‘And creepy. Why…?’

‘Why even think about it?’


‘There is a window of opportunity,’ he said. ‘My figures indicate perhaps two to three weeks before any seriously bad effects could develop. Given that, the reason for going is, of course, curiosity. Why did the old explorers trundle off across unknown seas in their little ships, wondering when they might fall off the edge of the world?’

‘...killed the cat.’ Rona said under her breath.

‘Information brought him back,’ Lyle retorted. ‘Consider. To do something no-one has ever done, go somewhere no-one has ever been…’

‘Preposterous,’ Jane said. ‘But if one actually could…’

‘Now come on Jane,’ Rona said with a touch of anger.

‘Well, if one could… What about you, Rona, you’re a career futurist, that’s your job, your whole life… And as for me, if only I could know what might happen, what’s ahead of us… What couldn’t I do?’

‘The brownies’ve been giving Greenpeace a bad time again?’ Lyle ventured.

‘Brownies? As opposed to greenies? Yes, they never let up. I think they’d kill us all if they felt they could get away with it… The big energy conglomerates—they’ve got billions to throw at us, and they’re just hollow entities, no conscience, no more morals than pigs rolling in the mud… And they’re just as happy as those pigs in the mud… Rona, if one could only know…’

‘…what’s going to happen?’


‘But if you did know,’ Rona chipped in, ‘And you came back. And you changed the present to avoid some terrible future consequences… Then the lives of everyone in the future would be changed just like that. A lot of good people could just disappear. You could easily do more harm than good. Would we want to have that on our consciences?

Lyle laughed.

‘Faust and the devil, what? You girls interest me strangely. As long as we don’t rend the fabric of space time, and we’re able to make a net improvement though our knowledge, or at least not make things worse, who cares? It would be a great adventure! Anyway, I’ll keep you in the picture. I’m right on the edge of something. Tomorrow, even…’

‘If these…these quantum states, did move, where would they go?’ Jane asked.

‘I haven’t a clue. Anywhere. Any time.’

Rona got up.

‘You two…’ She glanced at her watch. ‘Have to go. Bye now.’

Jane’s mind was spinning in so much turmoil she hardly noticed Rona leaving.

‘Lyle. This idea…’

‘Try and get used to it, Jane,’ he said seriously. ‘It’s real… Then, of course, there’s Rona.’

‘What about Rona?’

‘Why is it I seem to set her on edge so much? You know, I like Rona. I’m fond of her.’

‘Are you? And do you find her irritating, too?’


‘That’s very encouraging.’

‘You say so?’

‘Yes, at this stage in your relationship…’

‘We don’t have a relationship.’

‘Oh, but you will.’


Amos Orton, the chairperson of the Five Towns Consensus was still drowsy when the sleeping alcove curtains drew themselves, letting in a shaft of muted pink light. Already burdened by the expectation of a busy and anxious day, he sat up without enthusiasm, yawned, and peered out the window. As always, the Tower stuck out aggressively—its black, vertical silhouette cut across the salmon-tinted sky, which would soon turn, as it almost always did, to an uncloudy blue.

The Tower was life for the Five Towns. Without it they would die. Half a mile high, its seven huge turbines were driven by the monstrous draught created by the sun’s rays falling on the surrounding greenhouse, a mile-wide canopy of glass. They were able to provide almost all the electricity the towns needed as well as most of their food. Amos intended to climb it, maybe even all of the two thousand stairs, something he’d never managed before. The Tower had lifts, of course, going up to the revolving restaurant slung dizzily from spidery supports jutting out at the top. In spite of a great deal of sound insulation, when you sat down to your meal you could still hear a muffled roar from the air rushing up, still massive even after driving the giant propellers that generated electric power, day and night, year in year out, fuelled by the constant sunlight and the heat-banks in the greenhouse.

Frowning, Amos stretched out his arms, prompting the sleeping machine to tilt and rise, dropping him effortlessly on to his feet. He passed through the shower, not needing to speak to it since it knew by now just how hot he liked the water, and how long it should run before it was succeeded by the drying zephyrs of warm air. Most days he wore the same simple clothing, usually grey, but his general sense of unease this morning prompted him to something different as he offered himself to the wardrobe. Which? it asked, and for some reason he punched the Mellow Yellow button. A change, he thought, no more than a quick, passing thought, because as the machine dressed him his mind returned to the problems that had disturbed his sleep through so much of the night.

Water. It was the chief worry for the Five Towns now a dry summer had followed yet another dry winter, even after quite severe rationing and recycling, the water in storage was still falling. Another bad year and the situation would be critical. Major irrigation was needed to grow the food-crops inside the greenhouse, which provided 98 percent of all the Five Towns’ food.

There was plenty of salt water in the sea close by, of course. How to get fresh water from the sea was the chief business for the council meeting at three that afternoon. Amos knew he must push that matter through to a decision. Desalination seemed the only practical way, but this would be controversial—it would demand huge amounts of energy by the frugal standards of the Five Towns, so much so that a second tower would be needed to power it. He anticipated that roughly half the council would say yes, the other half would stall, saying they were sure it would rain before long, despite the fact it only rained here every five years or so at the best of times. Amos was afraid of a disastrous decision to just do nothing.

Turning, he allowed the machine to deftly do up the buttons down the front of his robe. Buttons, were of course, inefficient, but they were a small vanity he allowed himself today, like the yellow jacket, which would turn a few heads as he joined the Walkers, the hundreds of people who every morning ventured out to cover the ground on their own feet. And they did it early. Today, like every other day of nominal summer, the temperature by noon would be a blistering ninety degrees.

Amos was already in a better frame of mind when he strode on to the concourse outside. The path he took ran towards the sea, which Amos had always loved—swimming in it, sailing on it, everything about it. Now, even being briefly on the beach, watching the small waves loiter in, further improved his mood as he lingered there for a few minutes, enjoying the early warmth of the sun.

From this point the path veered to the right, approaching the main entrance to the Tower and the greenhouse areas around it. Not far from the shore he crossed the stone footbridge over the Vanur River, or what had been the river. The broad, sandy bed had been dry for fourteen months now, the wheat and barley planted there to take advantage of any residual damp had long been wilted and brown, the ancient pleasure boats stranded on the banks, sun-bleached and forlorn.

Instead of taking the first staircase leading through the greenhouse to the base of the Tower, Amos stepped off to the left into the warm, humid world of the food hall. He always welcomed the chance to make an inspection here, this place looking as most of the world had once been—lush and green. And so it was today. Off to his left tall, dark-green tomato plants were already fruiting in the hydroponic trays. On his right there were dwarf fruit trees, oranges, lemons, peaches. At the far end of the vast room, screened off into a cooler climate area, were apples, berry fruits, quinces, and winter vegetables. These last, cabbages, cauliflowers and spinach, were growing in long trays set on a vertically rotating rack which exposed each tray in turn to a two minute nutrient spray every hour—this made the best possible use of the greenhouse floor space. Amos stared pensively at the hypnotic, jerky and regular rotation of the trays—it was this technology and others like it that kept the strictly-limited population of the Five Towns alive. And he was so accustomed to the quiet, soothing but continuous stream of talk delivered to the plants by dozens of loudspeakers, that he scarcely heard it.

The steady wind and subdued roar of the generators were an ever-present background—the Tower was still operating, as it had done throughout the night. As the outside air gradually cooled during the hours of darkness, the warm air generated by the Tower’s massive concrete and rock heat-banks kept the turbines spinning. As the sun rose higher and the air in the greenhouse heated even more, both the sound and the wind would become much louder and stronger. Amos had seen the graphs many times, showing how precisely the power output matched the demand through the day and night.

Steve Fielder, the food hall supervisor, had seen Amos come in. Grinning momentarily at the chairman’s unaccustomed garb, he punched Amos lightly on the shoulder.

‘Beautiful, just beautiful.’

‘A change,’ Amos said stiffly. ‘No problems?’

Fielder, who had the high title of ‘Agrarian Supervisor’, but usually just called himself ‘the gardener’, creased his brow in a slight frown.

‘It all looks good,’ Amos said.

‘I would hope so, boss. But I have to tell you, we’re down another two points this week.’

Amos knew. To seventeen per cent of the storage capacity, only enough to keep the growing area supplied for another eight months. Looking around, he saw that everything possible was being done to conserve water. The nutrient-laden solution in the growing tanks was carefully recycled through a complex, seemingly untidy spaghetti of pipes and troughs. But the immediate appearance that the same water could be used over and over again was deceptive—growing plants transpired, of course, releasing water into the air. And while the steady wind that blew from all directions into the Tower passed through condensers, there was a small but constant loss to the air that roared up the huge chimney before being tipped into the dry atmosphere half a mile above them.

‘We’re going to need your gadget,’ Fielder remarked. ‘Sooner the better.’

‘Arthur reckons there won’t be winter rain,’ Amos said. ‘We can’t just let this matter drift, Steve. If it all bogs down, I’ll have to put it to a vote.’

The gardener raised his eyebrows—the Consensus Council did not have that name without reason. At all times matters were talked out, compromises arranged, until there was general agreement. The members of the council, like all the people living in the Five Towns, had been trained in consensus decision-making since their childhood—three-year olds, when they first went to school, quickly took it for granted.

‘As far as I can remember, you’ve never once done that since you’ve been chairman.’

‘And I don’t want to this time. But if there is serious disagreement…’

‘Quite so,’ Steve said. ‘Tom Cooper’ll be your problem.’

Amos privately agreed with this, but he said, ‘Tom’s all right, he’s honest, he says his mind.’

When Amos got on to the first stages of the circular staircase that wound around the Tower, he wondered again how far up he really would get. The first three hundred steps were easy, the next two hundred brought some strain. Two hundred more and there were distinct pains in his left calf. Age, he thought ruefully. It catches up with you in the end. Another hundred and he was unable to resist the attractions of the little coffee house in one of the many ‘trade’ projections hanging from the side of the tower. My problem is I haven’t had breakfast, he told himself, and decided to indulge himself with synthetic bacon, real eggs and non-potato hash browns. This improved his mood considerably.

‘I must get to the thousand at least,’ he muttered. This was what most people aimed for, and he found he was able to reach the gallery at the thousand step mark without too much difficulty. This gallery looked out vertiginously towards Dua, the town in which he lived, and which he regarded for a few minutes with affection.

Like all the living areas these days, Dua didn’t look spectacular from a distance. Its design had been dictated by the realities of the physical world, especially the climate and the severe shortage of energy that had closed in so abruptly with the Disaster. Dua was an extended series of circular villages, each of which housed a maximum of a thousand people, a number determined as being optimal after much deliberation by the sociodemographers. The single-storey housing areas, necessarily built like forts to shut out most of the huge winds that shrieked by only too often, formed an inner ring around a central compound in which most public facilities were located. All these buildings were curved, sometimes in complex patterns—for many reasons straight lines, right angles, box-like rooms, were no longer favoured.

A broad pedestrian pathway formed a ring behind the houses, and outside this were shops, storerooms, garages—anything in any sense commercial. While the basic idea behind all this was that everything could be accessed on foot, this pathway had a hundred public pedal bicycles and tricycles. Among the buildings in the inner compounds were the schools, each of which children could reach easily on their own two feet, or on bicycles, which were almost universal. If you were over sixty, it was acceptable for your bike to have a small electric motor, but if you were younger this would be distinctly uncool. But since most people elected not to grow too old, powered bikes were unusual.

Nobody in Dua owned a car—these were all pooled, and very different from the rowdy, pollutant monsters of the fossil fuel era. Dua’s carpool was made up of sun-powered electric vehicles of modest speed and range, with just a few biodiesel-electric hybrids for any necessary long distance travel. These last, being expensive to build and run, were not much used. The standard electric car had an engaging pram-like look, due in part to the broad flat roof which carried the solar panels. It was not at all unusual to see a vehicle standing in the open, its occupants patiently waiting for the sun to wake the batteries up again.

Most structures in the inner village circles were communal residences of varying sizes. Building was strictly modular, and consisted mainly of plastics which never needed to be painted, were fire and insect proof, and almost everlasting. They were also very strong, able to withstand the huge forces that could come at any time from the storms. These communal houses, used by groups of friends who wanted to be together, and by extended families, had proved very successful, and most people with children lived in them. Their planning was flexible, providing as much space as the group needed, including individual, private apartments. They afforded a high degree of social protection. Young parents had the assistance and company of others like them and other interested adults, reflecting the old adage that, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Children always had access to their peer group, and communal sharing made possible better facilities than the average house had—such things as libraries of real books and music rooms with traditional instruments. And in a society in which man-woman relationships were generally not expected to last for ever, it was easy for partners who had broken up to go on living in the same place and, importantly, still have daily contact with their children.

Dua traded extensively within the Five Towns, and like most surviving communities, had employee-owned specialist businesses which exported to what was left of the wider world. Dua’s most profitable one was highly-developed solar cookers, which competed effectively with similar devices made elsewhere. Even in the northern islands the Dua trademark was highly regarded—not that many Dua cookers actually made it that far, in these days of slow, restricted freighting in the sail-schooners.

Every roof in Dua was covered with amorphous solar panels, usually in the form of roof tiles or cloth awnings. These were able to provide at least half of the community’s power needs, relieving demand on the Tower, which provided the base-load for all five towns.

Looking out from his vantage point, what Amos saw was all deceptively simple, almost arcadian, he thought. And because things went much the same way generation after generation, for most people life was bland, boring even. Especially for the young people. As always, they sought excitement, novelty, adventure. Not too much of those in Dua. They, and livelier entertainment, could sometimes be found in those city residues that could still be approached, although even these were risky. Crime, almost unknown in the towns, was still a major problem in the crippled cities, as they tended to be outside the law. And then of course, there were the Other. Locked in his brown study, Amos brooded, not noticing how his brow creased, his eyes turned bleak. We need something to happen here, he thought restlessly.

Deciding he’d used up enough energy climbing, he took the lift to the top of the tower. The view from here was extraordinary. All five towns were clearly visible. Like Dua, they looked humble and inconspicuous from a distance. The most prominent things in the landscape, other than the Tower, were the elevated rails of the magnetic levitation trains that linked the five towns. One of them had just left the Tower station as he looked down, accelerating rapidly to its two-hundred kilometre per hour cruising speed, and he watched its red beetle-like shape as it vanished into the distance. Also conspicuous were the shine and glitter of the solar arrays located alongside the track, which helped to power the trains.

Otherwise the main characteristic of the view was its colours—brown and black—the brownness of the parched countryside: skeletal dead trees, bare earth, in a few places tufts of pale brown grass just holding on to life, then the blackened disfigurements left by hundreds of spontaneous fires. This would have been enough to bear without the horrifying, deadly, lifeless mess that now occupied the vast majority of the planet, the irradiated wilderness that had followed the Disaster. He shrugged, and turned away from the barren prospect. At least, he thought, we are here, just a few of us, but we are here. How long will we be, though, if rain doesn’t come soon?


‘I’ve thought about it very carefully.’ Jane said deliberately. ‘I feel I have to go. I will go, if you want me.’

Lyle Hadfield looked at her quizzically.

‘Good, that makes three of us.’

Jane, who had been admiring the wonderful sunset that threw such unusual lights into the forest, turned to face him directly.

‘You convinced Rona then. In spite of your mutual… irritations?’

‘No, it was her idea. She wants to come.’

Jane smiled.

‘I’m not really surprised…and you really think something will happen?’

‘I’m sure of it’.

‘We’ve talked this through before. The paradoxes…’

‘Not a problem,’ he interrupted, ‘because we’d be quantum states. Our real persons will stay here, just going on doing day-to-day things. You do see that, don’t you?’

‘I suppose so—no I don’t. I’d just have to trust you. Should I?’

His normally rather nondescript face creased in an attractive smile.

‘Oh yes, you can trust me to get it right. Given that, you’re on, then?’

‘Will it be dangerous?’

‘Who knows?’

‘That’s not much good.’

‘It’s the best you’re getting.’




Amos stared moodily at the large purple vase standing on a table near the window. It was filled with scarlet roses—artificial, of course. The vase was ugly, too tall, too skinny, and surely anyone could see how those two colours fought? The council’s meeting room felt hot and airless, the same thoughts said over and over again. Amos grunted, audibly, not noticing how Tom Cooper turned and stared at him.


‘I’m sorry, Tom—what was it?’

‘I’d like to see us get somewhere,’ Cooper said. ‘Amos, your proposal please.’

Amos dropped his elbows on to the table, leaned forward. A slight headache drummed away in the back of his head. However, things could be worse, he thought—at least I have some sort of a deal.

‘All right then. It seems to me very simple. If it doesn’t rain we’ll run out of enough water to grow food—you heard Steve, we can pretty much put a date on it. Around next May. So the sooner we start on the desal unit, the better. Anyone against a feasibility study?… No hands up? I assume consensus, then.’

But Tom still looked unhappy.

‘Yes, of course, we all agree—but where does it get us? Just more of this running on the spot.’

Amos knew what was in Tom’s mind. There was a communal hope for the future, something described with a shrug as the Great Plan, that some decade, some century, it would be possible to expand out of the towns into their now barren hinterlands, reclaim some of the planet for people. Without at least a vague vision for the future, what was the point of going on living, one teetering generation after another? But the Great Plan would need lots of water and energy. The residual oil in the Middle East was impossible to get at now, and would be for thousands of years because of the high level of gamma radiation. So now, in this post hydrocarbon world, energy was vastly more difficult to generate, more expensive. And because of the climate disaster that was hanging on so stubbornly, it had to be generated sustainably, without increasing greenhouse gases.

‘Nothing we can do about that.’ Amos said dismissively. ‘Next, weather—you’ll brief us, Arthur?’’

Arthur Crouch, the met man, raised his eyebrows.

‘That beat of a butterfly wing in Paraguay again? Nothing’s changed—and it won’t for quite a few hundred years, in my opinion... But after coffee, Amos. I need my fix.’


As soon as Amos had made his cup of indifferent coffee—good stuff was hard to get these days—Tom Cooper approached him.

‘A word in your ear, about a totally different matter.’

‘I’m listening.’

‘As you know, I had to deliver some stuff to Tiga last week. On the way back I thought I’d look in at the Elephant Bay camp, seeing I was passing.’ He paused briefly then added off-handedly. ‘I wanted to see how Gus Albrechsen was getting on.’

‘Yes, you were good friends, weren’t you?’

‘Still are.’

‘You think he shouldn’t be there?’

Cooper took his time answering this.

‘No, Gus made the trouble for himself, it’s fair to say that. But it’s a pity a man so useful’s outside the system.’

‘So you did see him?’

‘We spent half an hour together. It wasn’t specially easy. He’s very bottled up, very aggressive. The controller—Alec Hill—told me he wasn’t happy about Gus, a loner, he says... Gus is still working. Just before I left him he said he ought to be back here, he was on to something. When I asked what it was he clammed up again. “I’m not giving you that while I’m still locked up,” he said. “But here’s a clue—it’s about water.” And that was it. I couldn’t get anything more out of him.’

‘Water,’ Amos repeated. ‘Odd he should say that now—anything about water has to be interesting. Materials physicist, isn’t he?’


‘Hard to see how that could connect, but I’ll keep it in mind.’

‘Do that,’ Tom said. ‘But the main thing I wanted to get across to you about Elephant Bay is more worrying, because it’s to do with security.’


Security ought not to be an issue at any of the camps. People sent there for manifesting violence went with the understanding that they represented a risk to society, and had to do their time at camps like Elephant Bay as a social duty. The place was pleasant enough—like most of the others it had once been a holiday resort, and unlike prisons of the previous century, there were no guards, no walls, no razor-wire. Only Nobabe and Unbabe. People sentenced to a camp knew it would be socially as well as legally unacceptable for them to go back to the towns, and the hostile countryside offered nothing, so they stayed put. Over a period of many years the system had worked.

‘It’s the long-term ones,’ Cooper said. ‘There’s a good deal of restlessness. I heard that from several directions.’

‘To an extent that’s understandable.’

‘Because they can never come back?’


Amos frowned, and pondered. This whole issue was one of the most worrying and difficult the towns had had to deal with, but everyone accepted it must be faced. As the cities had disintegrated, slowly succumbing to climate change, fuel shortage and the impossibility of maintaining the lavish ancient infrastructure, violent crime had increased to an appalling extent.

The cities had been designed on the assumption that cheap hydrocarbon energy would always be available, and of course this was not so. And they were terribly vulnerable. On average they only had food reserves for five days, infrastructure collapsed at the slightest glitch, crime and terror came quickly after even a few hours of electricity blackout. Then there had been the Disaster and its hideous escalation. Neutron bombing of so many places completed the destruction of the world’s mega city phase. All this was in Amos’ mind when he shook his head and said,

‘The camps are necessary. The anti-violence policy is not negotiable.’

‘No argument over that.’

The deaths and destruction worldwide had been so extensive—more than five years of agony—that the new society decided that somehow the violent aspects of human nature had to be eliminated. The Plummer ray, able to detonate at long range any unstable chemicals as they were being assembled, put a decisive end to any weapons based on or detonated by chemical explosives, including the few remaining nuclear weapons. But such deterrents to conflict were not considered enough. Children must be taught from their earliest understanding that any violent act was wrong and anti-social. Hence the analogy of the blackening heart in schools, and the policy that any act of violence attracted confinement in a camp for perhaps three months, possibly as long as five years, in aggravated cases for life.

The socioanthropologists, after much research, concluded that violent crime to a large extent ran in families. This was especially the case with criminals who repeatedly re-offended. Was this due to some males being over-endowed with testosterone? The evidence on this was equivocal. Was there a gene, perhaps a series of genes, at least some genetic basis for an ingrained tendency for repeated violence?

The policy conclusion was that people who exhibited extreme or repeated violence—and their close relatives—would have to live in the camps—an easy, even pleasant life, largely of leisure, with no punitive aspects at all. Except for one thing—the women were dosed with Nobabe. On the basis that few women can resist it, chocolate supplied in the camps was laced with Nobabe, a one hundred per cent effective contraceptive. It was reasoned that this was the most efficient and humane way of ending violent bloodlines.

‘It seems it’s partly the women,’ Cooper said. ‘They get clucky.’


‘You know what I mean. They want to have children. They don’t see why they shouldn’t.’

‘But it’s plain enough. They’re part of bad bloodlines.’

‘No good saying that to them, it’s an emotional matter.’

Amos thought about it.

‘I concede there’s a problem, but I’ve got no answers at the moment.’

‘There’s apparently a group there, centred on those two women, you remember…the harlots.’

Amos blinked at this Biblical term.

‘Who could forget? Anna and Suzie.’

‘They made an impression on you?’

And why not? Amos thought privately. The two women had started a brothel in Dua. That was legal enough in the Five Towns—sexual hang-ups had long since disappeared. It was the kind of brothel that had caused the bother, because it had promoted and catered to violent and bizarre acts associated with sex. That was why the two women had had to be sentenced permanently to the camp.

‘They’re up to their old tricks again there,’ Cooper said gloomily.

‘Well, surely that can be dealt with. The controller…’

‘Oh, they’re discreet about it. Alec Hill says nothing can be proved. I reckon he privately sees it as a sort of safety valve… He’s more worried about other things.’


‘Some sort of conspiracy, maybe even plans for a mass breakout.’

Amos shook his head.

‘But that just can’t happen. We have to stop it.’

‘Exactly. Which brings me to the point. We need information. We have to get to the bottom of it. And there’s only one way to do it. Undercover.’

He explained in a dozen sentences how it might be done.

Amos, really shocked this time, protested.

‘How can we possibly do that? Treat an individual that way?’

‘It’d be in the public interest—an important service to the whole community. Afterwards he’d get the credit for it. But I do admit it has its nasty aspects.’

Amos was far from convinced.

‘Nasty… it’d be all of that! What would Pubmedia do with it? I’ll have to think about it, Tom, very carefully. And of course it’d have to be discussed by council.’

‘I wonder if that’s necessary? Or desirable? We should apply the old need to know principle—the fewer people know about it, the better, in my opinion.’

‘Later!’ Amos had looked behind him, a little startled, to find several of his colleagues grouped around, looking curious.

‘A long coffee break,’ Steve Fielder prompted gently.

‘Why yes, sorry about that, just a few points we had to discuss… All right, back to the table, and we’ll have Arthur brainwash us.’


‘I’ll say what I always say,’ the meteorologist began once they were seated. ‘I’ll give you the best possible information, but no responsibility for accuracy. There could be a storm next week, buckets of rain. We just don’t know why they happen, it’s impossible to forecast them more than a day or two in advance, except that they come very, very seldom.’

It was at this point that the room moved. Amos felt his stomach lurch as the floor under his chair shifted violently to the right, then back again. There was a loud crash. He saw the purple vase had fallen on to the floor, where it lay smashed. Next there was a rhythmic shaking, and a low rumble of sound. The door to the corridor outside slammed shut. Amos felt a visceral terror, his heart and stomach tensed then, glancing around, he saw his own fear reflected in the faces of everyone in the room. Then, as suddenly as it had come, everything stopped. The room was calm and quiet again.

‘What was that?’

‘I’d say it was a small earthquake,’ Crouch said calmly.

‘But we never have earthquakes here.’

‘Well it seems we do now. No doubt about what it was.’

‘But how?’

‘Some subterranean earth movement. Forget it—it wasn’t bad enough to do much damage… You want me to talk about the climate?’

‘I still don’t understand… Anyway, go ahead.’

But Amos felt very little was new in what Crouch had to say… el Nino, circular pressure systems, the effects of global warming… He began to doze off, the met man’s voice just became a soporific drone.

‘As I was saying, Amos. Amos! You’re asleep.’

‘Just drowsy. I know what you were saying… So the likelihood is that the drought’ll just go on?’

‘Yes... Better build your desal plant, I’d say.’

‘If only it was as easy as saying it.’ Amos didn’t try to conceal the frustration he felt And outside, as he walked on to the concourse, it struck him that this frustration was unusual. It wasn’t about anything specific, like the desal plant, but seemingly all around him, like the air. Then, as he pondered this, it firmed up into definite foreboding. As one who trusted his own intuition, he reflected… Something’s wrong, very wrong. But as he walked there was no hint of what it might be.

No hint, at least, until he reached Square Seven, Dua’s main shopping precinct. The place was normally busy enough, full of people passing to and fro, but today it was different. Five Towns’ people were gregarious enough, but they didn’t like being crowded close together. Today they were. There were perhaps fifty people assembled on the west side of the square. They seemed agitated, and there was good deal of chatter. Then, as he approached closer a louder voice said clearly, and mysteriously,

‘….you can’t touch them… Why can’t you touch them!’

‘What’s going on?’ He raised his own voice.

‘Amos…you’re here… Just as well.’ His girl Friday, Merle Jay, was the speaker. She seemed unusually agitated, pushing forward, actually touched people on the shoulder… ‘Move over you, let him see. Hurry up!’

Amos watched silently as the ring of people opened, then he saw them. Two women, one man, but... Strange. Not only had he never seen them before, they looked different. What was it? Mainly the clothes, of course, maybe the hair styling. He knew enough anthropology to know that what they wore was in ancient styles, maybe those of a hundred years ago. His quick intuition prompted him at once, and as he sensed the truth his heart sank, he felt a terrible sense of dismay. This… this apparition of strangers... This was what was wrong, so terribly, terribly wrong.

He stepped up to the group of three, who were regarding him silently.

‘Who are you?’

There was no response, although the younger woman, who struck Amos at once as beautiful, smiled.

‘No need,’ Amos said, struggling to keep down his anger. ‘I know who you are. You come from the past. You’re time travelers.’ He stared at the strangers, his eyes distraught. ‘What you’ve done! D’you understand what you’ve done?’

He tried to control his breathing, restrain his urgent sense of alarm. A radical quantum shift, almost certainly. DNA particle acceleration up to the speed of light into the general space-time energy field, and then... He felt a sudden wave of panic, but resisted it with an effort.

The younger woman took two steps towards him, and extended a hand.

‘Yes, it’s as you say,’ she said, her tones serious. ‘But it’s maybe not quite as bad as you seem to think… We need to talk to you… But first, do people still shake hands when they meet?’

It seemed less than polite to tell her that casual contact was not at all usual, so he took a deep breath, and extended his own hand. But to his horror his fingers slipped through hers, as if she were a ghost, a wraith. A first hint, he thought bitterly, of what was to come.




‘Yes, quantum constructs,’ the fair young woman, who looked the very picture of health, said serenely. ‘That’s what we are. That’s all we are. You know what I mean?’

‘I do,’ Amos said deliberately. ‘I know about dual states… Yes, and I’ve read about those first approaches to retrocausality some decades before your time—Cramer and Dopfer’s variations on the quantum double slit experiment… And you emerge into the field, quite by chance…’

She was laughing. Amos found this deplorable.

‘…here! Yes, that’s close enough—and it works. To be honest with you, I didn’t really believe it would… but—I’m Jane… Jane Curtis… Plainly our way of getting here hasn’t surprised you, but you’re not delighted with it, are you? We wondered about that.’

Amos chose to find these remarks patronizing. He took a deep breath and said coldly, ‘You’re happy not to have found complete scientific illiterates? This area happens to be my field, and I’m familiar with how your… your exploit happened. It took you people a long time to understand how close physics and philosophy are. As I recall it was the Israeli Avshalom Elitzur who said—it must have been around 2006—that when we find a theory that unifies quantum mechanics and relativity, it will involve retrocausality.’

‘That word?’ Jane interposed. ‘I’m not expert in this area.’

‘No? Retrocausality? You don’t understand it when you’ve done it? Movement in time. Assuming a block universe, with space-time an unchanging four-dimensional entity…’

‘…that fits with the general theory,’ the man standing beside Jane put in.

‘May I meet this construct?’ Amos asked politely.

He looked curiously at the fair athletic-looking figure with intense blue eyes. The stranger reddened, looked embarrassed.

‘Of course. My apologies. The name is Lyle Hadfield, I’m a particle physicist.’

‘So you’re the one that’s done the mischief… But the point about the Einstein proposition is of course obvious—there can be no difference between the past and the future, so projections like your’s are quite possible.’ He paused, and eyed them bleakly. ‘Possible, and horribly dangerous. You must at least be partly aware of those dangers, so why are you here?’

‘Because, as constructs in a quantum state, we believe we ought not to attract those difficulties. We continue to exist, you see, in our own time. That should mean that the apparitions we are now, when they’re dissolved, can have no permanent effect. There’s no question of creating any paradox.’

‘There you’re mistaken,’ Amos said gravely. ‘In fact I see in your attitude a certain arrogance, deriving, I’ve no doubt, from ignorance about the true nature of the quantum state and its relationship to what we call reality. For instance, you are probably confident of getting back to your own time.’

‘And why not?’

‘Because you constructs, as you put it, already have established reality here—every word you say, every movement you make, twines you in with us. Think about that. And I remind you, I still haven’t heard your reason for this appalling undertaking.’

Jane shrugged.

‘We had the best possible reason—to somehow overcome the terrible risks we saw ahead, not just for us, but for our whole world.’

She spoke with obvious sincerity and, gazing at him, she felt this answer had changed their relationship fundamentally. He smiled awkwardly and shrugged.

‘That I can understand—completely.’

‘Can you? But how?’ she asked.

‘Believe me, I do. That will become clear to you soon enough. I can even go farther, and tell you now that your mission is doomed. It can’t succeed. I’m sorry. And worse still, I’m wondering whether you understand how much you would disrupt cause and effect if you were able to go back to your time, and the danger that would represent to the apparent universe—our apparent universe. But aside from that, even your being here has dangers. Things, events could ooze in from other dimensions, incompatible, unpredictable, destroying our reality.’

Jane stared at him, crestfallen.

‘Some kind of parallel universe? We had our suspicions—but it seemed worthwhile to us, overall, to try to do something to change the terrible course humanity in our time is on. And the theoretical dangers seemed kind of way out and unreal to us. The universe is going to take care of itself! At least that’s what we thought.’

‘That’s because this whole area is counter-intuitive—it’s normal for the conscious mind to rebel against it, regardless of the evidence, just the way people forget their dreams as soon as they wake up.’

‘But you seem to believe it all.’

He shrugged impatiently.

‘Of course.’

‘But it’s just a theory, isn’t it?’ she retorted sharply.

‘If it had actually been proved by an event we would most likely have been obliterated…’

For the first time she felt truly frightened. ‘You’re really afraid, too, aren’t you?’

‘I have to say yes… I’m sorry… This is very intense on such short acquaintance… Poor hospitality on my part.’

‘By no means,’ Jane said sharply. ‘We’re drop-ins, uninvited guests, we deserve whatever we get.’

‘And you have our absolute assurance we’ll go back if there are problems.’ Hadfield said. ‘When we do, we’ll have no memory of anything we see and hear here.’

Amos was not reassured.

‘Jane seems to be assuming she can take her knowledge of this time back. As for me, I just don’t know. And as for even getting back—there’s nothing sure about that, either.’

‘Not being able to get back is a risk we’re prepared to take,’ Jane said. ‘But you’d better know who we all are, starting with me. I’m the international coordinator of Greenpeace. Does that mean anything?’

‘Yes. All of us here know the history of the Disaster very well, so I’m aware of the most important environmental organisation of its time.’

She stared at him, eyes wide.

‘The Disaster?’

He turned and met her gaze.

‘We’ll come to that with you, but not yet. Later. It’s best for you to see everything in its proper order. That is perfectly possible, of course. Everything is on the standard discprogs that play in all the schools. Unpleasant for the children, but we want them to know exactly what happened and why.’

Jane took a deep breath.

‘I’d better explain a bit further, Amos. First up, it seemed to us that moving forward in time ought not to create trouble. No grandfather paradox, like moving back.’

Amos laughed, but his eyes remained cold.

‘That’s not so, of course—there are quite other consequences, just as serious.’

‘Then there were the really big issues… climate change, energy… ' she said. 'Most people stubbornly went on believing that everything could go on much as it’s always done. But there were a few of us who knew that heads down in the sand could only lead to disaster—catastrophe on a huge scale.’

‘You were certainly right about that,’ Amos said grimly. ‘So you came because you hoped that knowing, you might be able to change things? And you sir,’ he turned to Hadfield. ‘You say in the light of that that you wouldn’t risk creating paradoxes?’

‘We believed—and still believe—that countless millions, perhaps billions of lives were at stake. In view of that, it seemed worthwhile taking the risks.’

There was an awkward silence which the third of the newcomers felt she might break, so she caught Amos’ eye and smiled disarmingly.

‘The idea that our coming here could cause horrible, bizarre consequences is beyond me. But please believe the last thing we want is to bother you. I’m Rona, Rona Wilson, my trade is sociology and my interest is... was... the future.’

Her quiet manner seemed to reassure Amos, who smiled and looked at her speculatively. ‘You’re plainly still quite young… about 35?... Yes? So your time would be…?’

‘We… er... left…on the 30th of August, 2043…’

‘Thinking back… if our reconstructions are anywhere near right, there were plenty of indications of trouble by then.’

‘Oh, there were… Most of the smaller Pacific island nations had been flooded by the rising ocean level. There were vast social disruptions: sixty million people from Bangladesh, Egypt, Vietnam had to be resettled elsewhere. Nearly all the coastal areas had been devastated by huge storms… We’d got used to millions—mostly children—dying from starvation every year. There was enormous tension over oil… The end of oil was in plain sight, but people were still hanging on to their old-fashioned cars.’

‘The droughts had started then, of course?’

‘Yes… In many of the food-producing areas, like us—we are still in Australia, are we?’

‘You are.’

‘Well, we were already in big trouble, and Africa had become…appalling.’

Amos nodded thoughtfully.

‘Yet in spite of all that, you did nothing?’

She shook her head vigorously.

‘Not so. There was a lot going on. People were struggling to get general acceptance of sustainability. Inventors, scientists, philosophers, tried very hard for major changes, but the enormous opposition from the people who owned the old technologies was too great! The very rich knew what was at stake, but they felt secure personally—they had their sustainable bolt-holes organised in remote places like the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. And of course, those big business interests controlled the popular media. It was too easy for them to discredit the climate scientists—feed us lies that lulled most of the population into a false sense of security.’

‘All depressingly consistent with human nature,’ Amos said sharply. ‘But it doesn’t affect the present problem, which you represent. We don’t like problems. Our policy is to act before they happen, and if they do happen, resolve them as quickly as possible.’

‘That sounds…ominous.’

‘Within minutes of our knowing you were here it was suggested we should kill you.’ He raised his hand and smiled. ‘But don’t worry, that could never happen. As you’ll find, we have very definite ideas about killing… Now this conversation has gone quite far enough. For the time being, we’ll try and make you welcome here… Ah, I see some coffee’s arrived. Please help yourselves—if you can!’

Jane looked doubtfully at the tray of drinks. She hadn’t the least idea what would happen as she extended her hand towards the handle of the nearest cup. But when she touched the cup her fingers drifted through it. Observing this, her apprehension turned into irritation.

‘This is coffee!’ She told herself. ‘And I intend to drink it. I will drink it.’

She looked around to see Lyle looking at her. He smiled.

‘Just pick it up,’ he said quietly. ‘You need to be sure, inside yourself, that you can do it, then you just… But don’t try to pick it up by the handle. Try putting your whole hands either side of the cup, so less pressure is needed to lift it.’

She nodded, concentrated her mind, and tried again. This time her hands closed reassuringly around the cup, though with a fuzzy kind of feel. She closed her eyes experimentally and thought of home. Immediately the cup began to drop though her fingers and hands in a most disconcerting way. Quickly, she turned her mind back on to the idea of holding the cup, and could do it again. She, herself, then, had control over the extent of her interaction with this place. How real was it? The implications of that, she thought, were quite profound.


The Tower elevator was made mostly of a clear plastic, and Jane felt slightly sick as it climbed higher, revealing a wide view of the almost entirely brown landscape. She was relieved when it stopped and the door opened. They stepped out on to a level rooftop with tables, chairs and small garden beds, attracting a good deal of curious attention from the people there. Serena Philips, an attractive brunette about her own age, who seemed to have been nominated as Jane’s minder, noticed this and hastened to explain.

‘You’ve been on Pubmedia already, of course. Everyone’s talking about you.’ She looked at Amos some distance off in earnest talk with Lyle. ‘Even though Amos tried so hard to keep it all quiet. He’ll be furious. You may have noticed, he’s the managing type.’

Jane took a long hard look at Amos. I could live with that, she thought, but what she said was, ‘I think I understand how the Tower works. The idea was around in our time. But we were too slow to build them.’

‘But why?’ Serena asked. ‘Surely it was obvious they were good sustainable technology?’

‘Oh, mainly the dead hand of bureaucracy… Old technologies hung on, things like coal and nuclear power stations.’

‘But surely the educated people had something to say about all that?’ ‘Once they would have done… But towards the end it had got so they were afraid to speak out. Even democratically elected governments were always at war somewhere, cutting back personal freedoms. They did the bidding of their true masters, the wealthy elite, who bribed them with campaign donations. The “people” really didn’t get a say. “Controlled Democracy,” a plutocracy really, spread around the world. It manipulated the media to keep people afraid… Often enough about things that didn’t actually exist, just vaguely described as “terror.” So after a while we got police states… If I were saying this in my own time, I’d have to be very careful where, and to whom, I said it… I could be accused of acting against the interests of the state… For “state” read “government.” So we got a world where more than half the people were on the edge of starvation, without proper health care or housing, where over ten million children under five died every year from preventable causes…’

Serena waved her hand in the direction of the outside world.

‘And we got this… That thing you called money—that was a basic problem, wasn’t it? From what you’ve said, and what I learned at school it stopped being a simple means of exchange, it even stopped having any real, definite value—it got rubbery, just got to be a political weapon, when governments wanted money they just printed it—an underhand form of taxation. That’s one reason why we don’t have it. Too risky.’

‘No money?’

‘Not as you’d probably understand it. And we’ve dumped all those costly, inefficient hangers-on to the old money that made billions from usury and speculation—banks, insurance companies, mortgage brokers, currency traders. They even had the nerve to pretend they were respectable! Since they made money without producing anything of value, they were effectively stealing the real wealth produced by other people. That’s how we view it now.’

Jane felt vaguely annoyed.

‘We thought insurance was a very good idea. It protected the individual against loss.’

‘But the loss was the same, however it was replaced, wasn’t it? Such things come out of the common pool of assets. So why invent complicated and costly procedures to do that?’

‘Then, if your house was damaged, say, by fire, what would happen?’

‘Well, to begin with, it’s made so fire wouldn’t damage it. But if there were, say, a very bad storm… a really bad storm,’ Serena looked around uneasily. ‘Why then, the community would repair or replace it. They own it anyway.’

‘You mean you rent it from the state?’

‘Rent? No, our housing comes out of automated factories in modules. Domicile is just provided.’ She laughed. ‘Quite strange that people should be forced to pay for a place to live in. Surely that should be the first, most basic thing, a reasonably efficient modern state should provide? Even some so-called primitive societies could do that. When a couple married, they were allocated a piece of land and the villagers rallied round and built them a house on it.’

Jane thought about this for a few moments.

‘But where does the money come from?’

‘That word again. We don’t use it. We have a means of exchange, of course—exchange credits. They can’t be used for so-called investments – usury and speculation are illegal—and the credits lose value the longer you hold them, so there’s an incentive to spend them. The credits to build the houses come from community income. Real wealth is not money, it’s the capacity to produce valuable goods and services. And surely even in your time productivity was being increased enormously by automation—having robots doing things instead of people?’

Jane considered this.

‘Serena, I can see how basic that is…. And now I turn my mind to it, the problem seemed to be that the huge increase in real wealth from automation just got siphoned off in the wrong directions, to fight wars, make weapons, and above all, make the very rich even richer, ridiculously, obscenely richer!’

Her companion frowned.

‘Yes, I recall some of that from school—early 21st century business structures, CEO salaries. Who could need so much money, who could possibly spend it?’

‘It wasn’t so much money they wanted,’ Jane put in. ‘It was power, power over people, power over whole nations!’

Serena shook her head.

‘Unbelievable! Probably early weaning again. You know there was all that stuff about boobs. Male fixations with them, as objects.’

Jane felt out of her depth.


‘They’re for feeding babies, of course… all sorts of strange psych came from bottle feeding. We’ve got past all that… Doesn’t happen now. Anyway our businesses are co-operative, they’re owned by the people who work in them, they compete with one another and with other towns, they create assets. They are still what used to be called “private enterprise,” but they’re much simpler, more efficient…’

‘But people work for money’ Jane objected. ‘It’s their main inducement to do work.’

‘Here it’s a privilege to work. People compete for it. Now pretty much everything is made by automated manufacture. It costs almost nothing, just the raw materials. Twenty hour jobs are available to about a third of us, ten hour jobs for… oh I would say, another forty per cent. I’m not counting the players and the artists, of course.’

‘You’re going too fast for me,’ Jane protested. ‘Twenty hour jobs, ten hour jobs, players, artists?’

‘The people who do best in the competitive exams, the personality assessments, and so on… They get access to work for twenty hours a week. They’re expected to be motivated. They’re the ones that have new ideas, solve problems. The others, the ten hour people, sort of tag along. I suppose you could call them followers. They just want something to do some of the time—their main interest is enjoying life. Nothing wrong with that.’

‘No,’ Jane put in. ‘We’d pretty much forgotten how to do that… Then the artists, players, I guess they’re just what they sound like?’

‘Yes, every town has its orchestra, its pop music groups, its painters, sculptors, actors, sports people, whatever. The community pays them credits depending on how popular they are.’

Jane stared out over the countryside for some minutes, doing her best to absorb all this. Serena sat patiently, watching her in silence.

‘Very different from our world,’ Jane said at last.

‘Yes. But our world could get to be like your world if we let it. We know some people still get power mad, they want to grab the best of everything even though they don’t actually produce anything of value. The people who do produce something real are busy—mostly they’re happy and very absorbed in their work. This enables others—if you let them—to devote all their time and energy into manipulating things so they get the lion’s share of what the productive people make.’

‘Ah yes, I wrote a book once,’ Jane said thoughtfully. ‘And I found out that the people who actually made the book, the author who wrote it and the publisher who designed and produced it, got less than a third of the final selling price. Seventy percent went to the people who distributed and sold it…’

But for some reason it appeared she no longer had Serena’s attention. Jane, who was watching her closely, wondered at the sudden change in her expression. Serena was staring in some agitation at something over Jane’s left shoulder, but this was quickly explained when a tall, very good-looking young man with long blond hair tied back dropped into one of the two vacant chairs at their table.

‘Mind if I join you, ladies?’

‘You seem to’ve done so,’ Serena said coldly. ‘I suppose there’s no law against it.’

He looked at her reproachfully.

‘Now, now, that’s not quite the reception I’d’ve hoped for, and from a good friend too. We were good friends once, weren’t we Serena?’

‘If so, I’ve forgotten. It was a long time ago.’

‘And this must be the mysterious, fascinating Jane Curtis,’ he said, projecting a dazzling smile that quite confused her. ‘The lady no-one can touch. May I try to touch you?’

‘I hardly think that’s necessary.’ Serena said, her words like ice. ‘I hope you’ll excuse us, anyway. I must tell you you’ve interrupted a rather important conversation.’

But he ignored this, merely smiling again.

‘Since Serena isn’t going to introduce us, Jane, I am Robert Hazzard… Just call me Bob.’

‘Pleased to meet you, Bob.’

Although he seemed affable enough, Jane sensed that he was not really all that interested in her, probably because I don’t have a body, she surmised, and immediately tried to shun this dishonourable thought. But indeed Hazzard now returned his attention to Serena.

‘And how is the good Harold? You’re still together, I take it?’

‘Since you’ve asked, yes, my life with Harry is perfectly satisfactory.’

‘His ears stick out. His mother didn’t tuck them under his sunhat often enough. He should let his hair grow.’

This was said with such comic sincerity neither of the girls could suppress a giggle.

‘Well now, that’s better,’ Bob said amiably.

‘I like his ears,’ Serena said. ‘And I will say for him—’ and she stopped abruptly, regarding Hazzard with what had to be a significant look.

‘Well now,’ the young man said. ‘You can say for him that he didn’t get into trouble and cop two years serving on a sail-schooner. Mind you, girls, let me tell you those journeys were a lot of fun. Tough, but the company was interesting, we saw a lot of places… But now I’m back… And guess what? Yes, I find I’m still hung up on Serena Philips… Now why should I be, seeing her sitting there looking so prune-faced—’

‘Oh, you’re impossible,’ she burst out.

‘But you are prune-faced, you know, at the moment. Those beautiful lips, that should be waiting to be kissed, buttoned up like that.’

‘Oh.’ Serena was on her feet. ‘Go away, you... animal!’

‘What’s wrong with animals?’ Jane, listening silently, had the same thought.

‘I said animal because you do it, you do it, without any thinking, any caring—’

He looked puzzled.

‘Was I like that with you...? Looking back, I should be able to remember.’

‘No, of course I didn’t. You didn’t! Oh! Just disappear, will you? Go away right now. Else I’ll call a proctor.’

‘No need. No need.’ He got up in leisurely fashion. ‘But I tell you plainly Serena—you and I should be together, and before we’re much older, we will be. Au revoir, Jane Curtis, I’m sure we’ll meet again.’

Jane saw that Serena’s eyes were following him as he strode away.

‘Wow!’ Jane said.

Serena turned her gaze on to Jane.

‘What am I going to do about him?’ she asked dejectedly. ‘What would you do about him?’

‘I’d rather not tell you,’ Jane admitted.




That night Jane woke suddenly in a cold sweat, convinced that there was someone or something in the room. She was so frightened that at first she couldn’t open her eyes. Then, she thought, this is just another of those dreams – the kind she called ‘Never look back—something might be gaining on you.’ When she did open her eyes it was very dark, so much so that the blackness seemed oppressive, pressing in on her. Then, as she began to move restlessly on the bed, a faint light appeared in the room and gradually grew stronger. Looking at the end wall she wondered why the big picture of her home beach wasn’t there—then she remembered. Instead a shutter in that wall slid open silently, admitting cold moonlight. Looking around carefully, it became plain that there was nothing unusual in the room. Once she had composed herself for sleep again the light gradually dimmed, the window closed. Nevertheless, she slept badly for the rest of the night.

As soon as the sun was up she went to the communicator on the table by the door. As soon as she touched the screen it lit up, and displayed several icons along its lower edge. When she put her finger on the one clearly labeled ‘Lyle’ nothing happened, then she remembered the coffee. After making the necessary mental effort she felt the pressure of her finger on the key.

Lyle answered almost at once.

‘Jane! Good morning. Sleep well?’

‘Not really. I had a strange kind of dream. Something in the room—something unpleasant.’

He hesitated a few moments before replying.

‘Not altogether surprising, is it? We’ve come to such a different kind of place.’

‘I suppose it has to be that.’ She hesitated. ‘Lyle?’


‘I’m worried about being here. Amos was right, the things he said to us. Just our being here is wrong, dead wrong. I have a feeling dreadful things will happen.’

‘That’s not like you, Jane. But don’t worry. A few hours and those feelings’ll go away.’

‘I don’t think so.’


‘So I think we should go back, get home as fast as we can.’

He laughed.

‘After we’ve been to so much trouble to get here—the first humans ever to do something like this! Look, Jane, give it a few days. This place is intriguing, there’s the potential for all kinds of things.’

‘You think we should stay, then?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘All right then, I suppose I’ll go along with that for the time being...by the way, Lyle, yesterday I tried to touch Amos…really tried, but I couldn't. There was just that crazy business again…his fingers going right through mine. I hate that. Why, when I can hold a cup by trying, do other things,  I can't touch Amos?’

There was such a long silence she wondered if he were still there, then he said, ‘Do I understand from that you really want to touch Amos? Well, I don't understand why you can't. Just bear in mind we're in totally new, unknown territory here. Plainly, we can control how we deal with inanimate things, but when it comes to living sentient beings, there’s a barrier.’

‘Which we can never cross?’

‘Probably not...that's a cause for concern with you?’

‘None of your business Lyle,’ she said, but amiably enough.


Thinking this conversation over, she couldn’t help but feel there was something odd, evasive even, in Lyle’s attitude. Something she couldn’t put her finger on.


‘You have everything you need?’ Amos enquired with his usual formality when he joined them.

‘Thank you, yes. A few surprises—that habit your beds have of tipping one out.’

‘You didn’t have waking beds?’

‘No,’ Lyle said. ‘Nor did we have showers one talks to… But I must say that, seeing you have a water problem, they were very generous.’

Amos shrugged.

‘Every living module has its own filtering and recycling unit. You’ll use the same water tomorrow as you did today. And next week.’

‘Very sensible… Then there are these,’ Lyle said, pointing to the unobtrusive grille on the wall from which cool air flowed quietly. ‘It’s already hot outside, pleasant in here, but I can’t hear the sound of an air conditioner.’

Amos looked puzzled.

‘Air conditioner? Oh, you mean a heat exchange device. No, the Censors abolished those long ago. Too power hungry. The air comes from the Loop. The Loop is a big pipe that runs around the whole village perimeter six feet underground, where the temperature is a constant sixty degrees all year round. The outlet you see here is connected to a spur line running to it—every dwelling has one. The only power use is a small fan at this end of that line.’

‘And that’s adequate?’

‘As you see. In very hot weather a fine water spray is introduced into the Loop, but that wouldn’t be necessary for more than three or four days a year.’

‘Censors?’ Lyle prompted.

‘They’re the officials who decide what technologies to keep and what to get rid of. We decided we don’t want aircraft again, for instance.’

Lyle was shocked.

‘No aircraft?’

‘No fuel for them in any case…There must still be thousands rotting away in hangars. But as far as we know there are none flying,’

‘Surely they were among our best technology, and of course they were useful, getting from one place to another quickly, making the world smaller.’

‘And is that good—really good? When you go to a distant foreign land in a sail-schooner, the days and nights pass slowly, you see flying fish jumping, dolphins ahead, the sun setting over the sea, the clouds passing across the sky.’ He paused for a few moments, then added, ‘And in our opinion their killing potential was too great, too undiscriminating and too easy. You didn’t actually see your victims from an unmanned drone, it was all exactly like a computer game. But out there that thing was killing small babies, old people, dozens, hundreds—what difference did it make to the man at the controls, how many?’

Lyle was confused, he could find no immediate answer to this.

‘What you call the Disaster again,’ he muttered at last. ‘You haven’t really told us about that. I can’t see why…’

‘No,’ Amos said firmly, ‘Not now. Within a day or two we’ll show you what happened—what is to happen. Today I brought you here to talk about you—why you’re here, how you affect us. I want us all to have a clear understanding of what’s at stake.’ He paused, frowning slightly. ‘How to begin? You’ve heard of Bishop Berkeley, of course? Seventeenth century.’

‘Irishman. Eighteenth, actually.’ Lyle murmured. ‘He was only a boy in the seventeenth.’

‘Thank you. He believed nothing material existed except in the mind of God—everything we see, hear and feel is a construct in the divine intelligence.’

Lyle smiled slightly at this as he sat lounging on the sofa under the window, shifting his position regularly to experiment with the way the furniture adapted itself so well, remoulding its form to fit the human body perfectly.

‘That was quite some time ago,’ he responded. ‘I recall reading that while they were sitting in a coffee-house the redoubtable Samuel Johnson kicked a table leg painfully, saying to Berkeley “Thus I refute you!” But of course the good bishop’s ideas about the nature of reality came from an excess of piety, not any kind of science. It was all part of the hermetic tradition. So many of the most famous scientists were mystics, and into that. Newton included.’

There was a brief silence then Rona Wilson said a little severely: ‘Yes, Lyle. But it’d be nice if your pontificating could be relevant. Can we get away from ancient Egypt to our present situation? I know a bit about quantum mechanics and I’ve done some reading… but I have to admit I find it difficult. Can’t you ease our way?’

Jane sighed in assent.

‘All that stuff about strings, superstrings, operating in eleven dimensions, quarks.’

‘Don’t let it worry you,’ Lyle remarked. He really has a most attractive smile, Rona thought. ‘Dear girls, the top string people aren’t far ahead of you.’

‘Mostly discredited now, of course,’ Amos said testily. ‘All that mathgam played on computers, turning out increasingly more complicated results. Not so hard to make everything look elegant when you’re setting up the rules of the game… So let’s go back to basics. What looks, sounds and seems real to us is much less palpable than we think. What we see and hear and feel takes place inside our own brains—we simply respond in interesting ways to various energy vibrations. Hence things that seem solid, aren’t. Even the most conservative observation reveals they’re overwhelmingly empty space, the appearance of solidity given by movement and energy inside atomic structures—’

‘Everyone over the age of ten knows this,’ Lyle murmured impatiently.

Amos stopped speaking and looked at Lyle, whose return stare was just as aggressive as his. Like two stags locking horns, Jane thought. This is the way men waste so much energy. However Amos’ response was mild enough.

‘I’m just establishing a line of thought. About reality and energy—that brings us, of course, to quantum mechanics.’

But Jane felt she had to get things a little clearer in terms she could understand.

‘Shall I be the bunny? Doesn’t quantum mechanics actually demonstrate that material things don’t exist? It’s all energy in one form or another?’

Lyle smiled.

‘This is where it gets difficult, where there’s a frontal collision between quantum science and everyday commonsense. As we get down to the sub-atomic particles it all gets weird to say the least. These things just disappear and appear again out of nowhere. Then there are up and down quarks that make up what seems to be ordinary matter, but there are also strange and charmed quarks, bottom and top quarks that are highly unstable, existing only momentarily...’

‘Does anyone really know… really… what all that means?’ Jane asked.

Hadfield assumed his crooked smile again.

‘I’d say they’ve pretty much given up thinking they know.’

‘But things are still… uncertain, aren’t they?’

‘Yes, you’re on firm ground there. For a long time uncertainty’s been a major agreed constant of quantum mechanics. It goes back to the 1920s—Werner Heisenberg. Things you should be able to measure, like the position and movement of particles, refuse to be measured once you get down to very small bits, what used to be called the fundamental building blocks of matter.’

‘Used to be called?’ Jane prompted.

‘Well, in the sense that atoms were once regarded as something definite, unchanging, “fundamental”—that just isn’t so. No such concrete, fundamental particle exists. These sub-atomic things move about, fluctuate in unpredictable ways, so if you succeed in nailing down the position of a particle, just doing that makes its momentum uncertain. And vice versa. Position and momentum make up what we call a pair, speed and time are another pair.’

‘And is all that real, or also just doing hard sums on a computer?’

Hadfield looked mildly shocked.

‘No, it’s been tested, it’s real all right. Real at the quantum level anyway.’

‘But when we say quantum level we’re talking about the structure of atoms, aren’t we?’


‘So if the way atoms are made up—and they are the basic building block of things—if they are dubious, what about the real world built up out of those atoms? After all, everything palpable is atoms, isn’t it? Our bodies for instance. ’

‘Yes, of course. But a lot of people baulk at that fence,’ Hadfield said. ‘That’s the biggest challenge of all—sorting out how the quantum world and the world we experience are linked together, because there can be no doubt they are linked.’ He smiled broadly. ‘But it gets even weirder. Particles interacting when they’re close together continue to do so even when they’re far apart—Einstein hated this, he called it “ghostly.” But this entanglement happens. And it seems that somehow even the observer—the human scientist involved—can actually influence quantum events. In that case—’

Amos, who had been listening attentively, interrupted again at this point.

‘Are you beginning to see why you people are such a threat to us, not only us, but to the whole universe? That point you made about the influence of the observer is highly significant. You’re aware, of course, of the anthropic principle—the idea that the world is so benign, so efficient, because it was designed to best suit the things in it, especially us? It didn’t get much support in your time, but we see it as important, although in quite a different way.’

There was a long silence, then Hadfield said, ‘I’m beginning to see—you’re implying that the universe, made up of uncertain quantum elements, is not only unstable, but can be influenced fundamentally in certain ways by the activities of people?’

‘Exactly—by the observer. Consciousness, in the form of the observer, can and does create reality. What is a Beethoven symphony? This is standard science for us, we are sure the universe can change, that living creatures in it can have… effects. That’s how the universe is anthropic. But those changes don’t happen when things are what we call “normal”, only when the quantum universe is disturbed, then events happen that are frequently described as “paranormal”. We don’t know how and why this happens, but we have our suspicions—that’s why we’re worried about you being here.’

‘I understand up to a point,’ Jane said slowly. ‘But it’s hard to take, isn’t it? After all, the real world does seem to stay put in a very reassuring way.’

‘Yes, of course,’ Amos responded. ‘Would you agree, Dr Hadfield, that that stability is a major reason why quantum mechanics has never really been accepted by the wider public—that the whole area is counter-intuitive?’

‘Lyle. Yes, most people have that difficulty. I won’t pretend I don’t have it myself to an extent.’

‘So why do we bother?’

‘Because it works,’ Lyle said impatiently. ‘Computers work, lasers work, because of it… If you see a large molecule—in this case of around sixty carbon atoms —pass through two separate slits in a screen at the same time you can be pretty sure it has quantum qualities.’

‘Oh yes.’

‘It was apparently in two places at the same time.’ He frowned at the two women. ‘That work had long since been done in our time. A lot of people were competing, to see who could turn up the largest cat.’


‘After Schrodinger’s cat. Remember?’ Physicists talk about these macro-scale super-positions as Schrodinger cats, or just “cats”. They’re central to finding out just what the threshold is between the quantum and classical worlds. There’s a word— decoherence—that tries to explain why quantum effects don’t appear in larger objects. But we know those effects are there.’

Rona Wilson eventually broke the following silence.

‘You used that word “paranormal”, Amos—and that’s to the point. All this goes way back before the good bishop. The ancient Indian epics repeatedly talk about the existence of other worlds, space travel, the illusory nature of reality, and they date from thousands of years before the Christian epoch. Tell me, have any of you ever seen fire-walking?’

Amos smiled slightly.

‘I’m a pragmatist. Try and walk on fire here, or most places else, and you get some nasty burns, but people coming back in the sail-schooners tell stories about strange things like that happening to the north.’

‘I’ve actually seen it, and what is more, conducted a carefully put together experiment on its credibility,’ Rona said firmly. ‘Three years ago some colleagues and I went to Singapore with a small battery of video cameras, and got permission to record a fire-walking event at a Hindu temple there. When we arrived they were just finishing putting the fire-pit together. It was around thirty feet long and about half that wide. The burning charcoal was maybe two feet deep into the pit and banked up above ground level as much again. Charcoal, as you may know, burns very hot, just below the surface it was plainly white hot. In fact it was so hot we felt almost overcome just being on the edges of it.

‘Then people started to arrive, all Indians, lightly clad, and barefooted. Some had heavy timber yokes pinned to their naked backs with massive steel pins—and those wounds didn’t bleed! The first thing we did was make a careful examination to see if their feet had been prepared in any way, but there wasn’t the slightest indication of this. One of our people was a chemist and he had brought along reagents that he believed would show this up.

‘They approached the pit from one end and then walked the entire length of it. Some actually ran but one youngish man impressed us deeply. He walked quite slowly over the fire, carrying a small child on his shoulders. The videotape record included close-up shots of his bare feet actually sinking into the white-hot charcoal…’ She paused for a moment, and shuddered. ‘We had another camera at the far end of the pit and as they came off we taped the state of their feet. Immediately.’

She looked around at her audience a little aggressively, then went on:

‘There wasn’t the slightest sign of burning—not even redness, no skin damage in any of the six people we filmed. Now wood would have flared up at once, lead melted, in that fire! How could flesh and blood and bone not be affected?’

‘Incredible!’ Jane murmured.

‘Incredible? Of course, that seems to be the only possible response, except that it happened. Six of us actually saw it happening. We had, and still have, an unedited video recording of it. The feet were not protected in any way. We were not subject to some sort of mass hysteria or illusion, after all, illusions can have no effect on videotape. It was put to us that these people might have been subjected to some sort of mental conditioning, or a drug, that enabled them not to feel pain.

‘However, putting even that aside, in the palpable world as we understand it, human skin, flesh and blood exposed to that amount of heat burns. These peoples’ feet didn’t burn. Why? Logically speaking, there’s only one possible explanation, isn’t there?’

‘And that is?’ Amos enquired with a smile. ‘No, let me answer that—the firewalkers understood the illusory nature of reality. They were beyond it.’

‘That’s certainly what they said.’

‘But there are huge implications in that,’ Jane protested. ‘If they could control the material world so fire didn’t burn them, they could do anything, make gold out of lead, abolish illness, be powerful as no humans have ever been before… Is this why governments are willing to spend tens of billions on quantum physics, those enormously expensive particle accelerators? It’s as if it’s the new Alchemy. And why don’t the people who seem to have this power use it?’

Amos shook his head slowly and smiled.

‘Maybe somewhere along the way they acquired wisdom.’



‘Quite creepy,’ Jane said. ‘This idea that the whole universe, everything might be so… so impalpable… be prone to get disturbed. Not be like what it is now at all.’She was sitting in front of a computer screen in Serena’s cozy office, looking at historical images from the 20th and the early 21st century.

‘Do you believe that could happen,’ she asked Serena, ‘and if it did, what would it be like?’

Serena thought for some time before she answered.

‘Well, once again, doesn’t the fact that you’re here at all have a lot to do with it? It’s what we learned at school—that basically somehow matter is really only a form of energy. But I must say I haven’t ever thought seriously about what that means—it’s natural just to go on expecting the world around us to stay the way it always has been.’

‘But if it didn’t? Our world suits us very well, doesn’t it? There’s solid ground to walk on, air to breathe, water to drink, the climate stays within limits, not too cold, not too hot. I’d always taken all that for granted, but when you think about it, the way the world’s so well organised is…strange. Why does it suit us so well?’

‘That man Lovelock,’ Serena said. ‘Gaia, wasn’t it his idea, that the whole world is a sort of self-organising entity?’

‘Yes, a whole new religion grew up around the idea… Lovelock hated that—what the New Age cultists had done to his ideas… But if it all did change, what would happen to us, to everything? Weird life-forms might appear, gravity might not exist any more, we might all shoot out into space…’

‘This is a very strange conversation,’ Serena said coolly. ‘That’s the trouble with being near Amos. He can be such a disturbing person. Upsetting. I can see that’s what he’s done to you. These men with their ideas…men can be such a problem. Do you, did you, find that?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘Why do they have to think? If only they could just be around, help about the place, bring you nice presents, take you out, say amusing things, concentrate on a bit of endurance in bed, change the babies… but no, they always have to be off somewhere after some crackbrained idea—’

She stopped abruptly.

‘Oh, there are cute men like that, but not so much the bed bit. I mean in our world quite often the amusing ones are gay,’ Jane said. ‘Restful, men who aren’t always trying to get up inside you.’

‘Gay? Oh yes, I know that word. Same sex preference?’

‘Yes, do you have them?’

‘Of course, about five per cent of the population. Often quite charming, but they don’t make you buzz, do they?’

‘I suppose not.’

‘Harry isn’t that way of course,’ Serena said thoughtfully. ‘He’s het. There was a brief silence, then she went on, ‘I’ve been thinking. Remember you asked what a changed world might be like? Well, when I was a child we went on a holiday to the Northern Islands. Families only really get one big holiday, that is, to a foreign land, because you have to put up so many credits and it takes so long, going in a sail-schooner. Mind you, that was fun. You help with the sails and the ropes, all that! It’s very warm in the Northern Islands, there are a lot of palm trees, the people are a different colour, and there are volcanoes everywhere, some of them smoking. And of course there are earthquakes. There was one while we were there, not a very big one but it was bad enough. Things fell off tables, doors banged, all that, but the worst thing was the earth moved. That was horrible, having it shift and wave under your feet, then when we went outside there was this great… rift in the ground, like someone hit it with a great big axe. I’ll never forget it, and the way it made me feel…helpless. And I remember thinking, if the whole earth is going to move like this, maybe even split, where will I go, what will I do?’ She paused, her expression changed, she looked apprehensive. ‘And of course we had one here, the day you came. We’d never had one before. D’you think it had something to do with you coming? I’m thinking back to what Rona was saying…’

Jane also found this idea upsetting.

‘I don’t really know. That is, it shouldn’t have happened, not on what I’d been told.’

Serena took a deep breath.

‘Let’s forget about all that, boring…depressing…now look at this,’ she hit the keyboard. ‘See, there you are, ready for a swim.’

Jane giggled at the sepia image of the Edwardian beauty, demure eyes, hair up, clad from neck to knee in a thick bathing costume.

‘Oh, aren’t you lovely!’ Serena crowed.

‘I never wore anything like that! I suppose my grandma might have. Come forward fifty, no, eighty years… Yes, that’s better, we called those bikinis. After an island somewhere, I think. They were a bit of a worry. You go into big waves, how to keep them on? All the boys looking at you, waiting for them to come off.’

‘D’you have a boyfriend, Jane?’ Serena asked.

Jane coloured.

‘Not at the moment… But you have Harold, of course?’

Serena said firmly, ‘I’m very happy with Harry. He is a bit serious-minded, of course. He works very hard, he’s fussy about his work.’

‘Which is?’

‘Oh, he’s a soil scientist—quite a key job because we have to get growing food absolutely right… We were very lucky qualifying. We both have twenty hours you know.’

‘And you?’

‘I’m a socioanthropologist.’

‘Such a long word—must be important. And I’m interfering with your work.’

‘Heavens, no! You see I specialise in the early 21st, and to have people actually here from then, be able to talk to them. It’s fantastic. Jane, I’ve been thinking about tomorrow. Amos wants me to show you everything, so I thought we might start at the beginning. Tomorrow morning we can look at a school, talk with the people there.’

‘Yes, I’d like that.’

‘Fine, I’ll pick you up about ten o’clock. We’ll need to be through by midday. Amos wants you again then. He’s going to show you the standard discprog about the Disaster. Lucky you! Then Harry and I are going out to dinner in the evening. Could you please come, too? Of course he wants to meet you.’




Jane’s waking experience the next morning was totally different. She laughed as the bed tossed her out promptly at seven o’clock, and spent some little time giving the shower contradictory instructions, just to see what would happen. Her mood was happy, optimistic and energetic. She was soon dressed, the food machine provided her modest requirements quickly, and she wanted more than anything else to go out walking in the cool morning air.

The back door of her unit took her out into a busy scene on the ring road behind the residences. Now she had the time to really look about her, she did her best to take in this strange new environment. The shape and layout of the houses were enchanting. They were all domes and curves, and no two seemed alike, some of them set on top of small hills, others nestled down in the valleys between. They were all painted white, no doubt for climatic reasons, but the roofs were neatly covered in sheets of blue fabric, which Jane had been told were solar collectors. However, the road and footpaths were familiar enough—dark grey, almost black—except that they glittered in the early sunlight, as if they contained thousands of tiny crystals.

Jane paused for a while, watching people pass by. They were all dressed colourfully, mostly in loose-fitting smocks or robes, but the women riding bikes—and there were many of them—wore the long shorts once called pedal-pushers. Although there was a lot of coming and going here, the scene was quiet, almost muted. People didn’t seem to be talking much, they seemed to be going about their own business, there didn’t seem to be much conversation or animation.

Some instinct told her she was being observed, and she turned to find a group of half-a-dozen young women standing behind her.

‘Good morning,’ one of them said tentatively. ‘I’m Tanya. You’re Jane aren’t you, one of the people from the 21st? It was on Pubmedia.’


‘I hope you won’t think I’m rude, but may we talk with you a little? We get told it was all bad, bad, bad, but we do find the old world interesting, what you see on the old discs, you know. Everything seemed so big, huge cities, all those coloured lights, thousands and thousands of cars, huge ships, big airliners in the sky—and all so green, things growing. Trees.’ Her eyes were wistful. ‘It must have been marvellous.’

Jane looked around her.

‘Oh it is, in spite of all the problems, and there are plenty of them. But what you’ve got here is marvellous too, considering. I’ve only just started looking, but I want to see everything. You can probably tell me why the road looks like that.’

Tanya looked down.

‘The road? It looks just like it always does.’

‘No, I mean it glitters. There’s a kind of sheen to it.’

‘Oh that… It’s because it’s a solar collector. It makes electricity. Anything flat, a road, a path, awnings of a house, they all have solar cladding.’

‘But doesn’t the Tower make enough electricity?’

Tanya shook her head.

‘There’s never enough… Do you mind if I ask you a question?—We’re all young girls, I don’t think it’ll surprise you’

‘Of course I don’t mind. I’ll answer it if I can.’

Tanya suppressed a giggle then said, ‘Marriage. People thought they were in love, and they were bonded in what you called marriage. She had a beautiful new dress, all their friends came, there were presents, and lots of food and drink. Then they were supposed to stay together forever.’

Jane frowned.

‘It wasn’t quite as simple as that. About half of them broke up, divorced. And nearly everyone had sex before they married.’

‘And before they wanted children?’

‘Oh yes. But plenty of people who weren’t married had children.’

‘So you didn’t have two kinds of legal relationship? But listen Jane, we shouldn’t be talking out here on the road. We’re all art people, our studio’s not far away. Would you like to come and see what we’re doing, then we can talk. We can even give you some coffee, but it mightn’t be very good coffee.’

‘No matter. I’d love to come.’

She followed the group up a winding path edged with low stone walls into a cul-de-sac from which several archways gave. Every now and again was a tiny, but well-tended bed of flowers. Facing one of these was a round courtyard, roofed only by an awning of the ubiquitous blue solar plastic which, as well as collecting electricity, would provide shade during the heat of the day. Easels, each with a low stool in front of it, were set up around the walls.

The first picture to catch Jane’s eye was a forest scene, not dead and dry the way forests were now, but green and verdant as they were in her real world. However it was not painted on paper or canvas but on a large ceramic tile, nor in fact was it actually painted, in the usual sense of the word.

‘May I touch it?’ Jane asked. It was Tanya who answered.

‘Yes, that’s my thing. You’re supposed to touch it anyway.’

Jane took a deep breath, organized the necessary mental power and ran a finger lightly over the picture. The texture was rough and hard, and she saw on looking closely the surface was made up of small pebbles, fragments of wood and broken tile, seashell—anything solid that would serve the artist’s purpose.

‘It’s not finished, of course,’ Tanya said offhandedly. ‘These things take rather a lot of time. It’s a matter of getting everything to stick on until it can be fired.’

‘I think it’s very unusual and attractive,’ Jane said. ‘Why did you decide to do it this way?’

‘I’m not quite sure. But I thought it’d be interesting to make a picture that’d last forever. Not really my idea, of course, two 20th century Melbourne artists called Lucy Boyd and Hatton Beck did them.’

The stool next to Tanya’s picture was in front of a low table rather than an easel. Standing on this was what Jane could only describe as a cross between a picture and a piece of sculpture. At first sight it seemed to be an abstract picture of interlocking curves in muted white, cream and grey colours, then a closer look revealed it was in three dimensions. And it was beautiful, the artist was plainly striving for a complete harmony.

‘Yours?’ Jane enquired of the willowy brunette standing nearby.

‘Oh!’ The girl seemed surprised, even startled at being addressed. Then she smiled. ‘Yes, I’m Wanda.’

‘You’re a good artist. Anyone’d be proud to have done that.’

‘Thank you. I’ve been working on it a long time. I want it to be perfect.’

‘That’s a hard thing to want. Is it just abstract, or are you trying to represent something?’

‘Yes,’ Wanda said vaguely, as if she found these terms difficult. ‘That is, the thing has an idea. Love. By that I mean the sort of love you get quite suddenly for a boy, very intense, very… pure. Or better, you get for each other. You suddenly find yourselves way up above the... well, the difficult things—humping, bleeding… You know?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘When everyone else in the world doesn’t seem important. You’d even want to wash his socks.’

‘And do you?’ Jane wondered if this were too forward a question, but Wanda seemed not to mind. She laughed.

‘As a matter of fact I do. We’re in a stage one relationship. We’ve been in it for four months. So far it’s holding up.’

‘But you don’t expect it to go on that way? Not for ever?’

She shook her head.

‘Probably not. It might though. Sometimes they do, but you’d be silly to dream it will.’

Tanya, who had been listening to this conversation, interrupted with a cup of coffee.

‘Sorry to butt in. Here it is for what it is. This white stuff isn’t really milk, not what you’d expect milk to be. You got it from mother animals, didn’t you?’


‘Weren’t you unhappy about taking it from the baby animals?’

‘Not really… there seemed to have been plenty for them and us too… But now we’re back to this business of relationships. Two stage relationships. Won’t you tell me about that?’

Wanda shrugged awkwardly.

‘You do it, Tanya.’

But Tanya seemed puzzled about how to begin. Then she said; ‘I suppose during your senior school they told you about dopamine, oxytocin, all that?’

‘I can’t remember anything like that that’d tie in with relationships.’

‘Nature, reproduction, diversity—just like Wanda was saying, suddenly you fall very heavily for someone. You want to be with them, everything else fades into the background. Wanda’s quite hopeless when Anton’s around. Surely that must’ve happened in your time, Jane?’

‘Of course it did.’

‘Something wonderful, terrific, that should happen to everyone when they’re young. But we’re quite clear about the reason—nature wants to make sure the species gets reproduced, that’s all. Nature isn’t interested in two people being happy together for the rest of their lives. As I said, it’s lovely, but at the same time it’s a kind of trap. Dopamine levels go right up high, the brain bits you use to make sensible assessments of other people get shorted out. And you have this wonderful, irresistible urge to have sex! But the message they drum into us in school is that it usually doesn’t last. A few weeks, maybe a few months, and the boy you thought was a god who could do no wrong suddenly gets to be quite different, maybe you can’t even talk to each other. Surely you didn’t let people leave senior school without knowing about that?’

Jane thought back.

‘There was sex education of a kind, but it was mainly the nuts and bolts, physiology, contraception, knowing how to dodge disease. Even in the 21st the old idea hung on that when two people fell violently in love, they married or got into a regular relationship, and that was the right thing to do.’


‘You’re right, of course, a lot of times it didn’t last, often people stuck together only because they had children. Others broke up. I told you about that high divorce rate. Mostly it was a pretty painful business.’

‘And it didn’t have to be,’ Tanya said. ‘That bubbly love at first sight thing is our first relationship. If people get to be like Wanda and Anton that’s fine, they can go ahead, provided they remember it isn’t likely to last, and one other thing, more important: they must not have children. They have to use the pills, Unbabe and Nobabe.’

‘I see,’ Jane said slowly. ‘The idea being that children are best in a stable family relationship while they grow up?’

‘That’s it. My mum and dad are still together. After a year, if the relationship is still strong, and the two people want it, they can bond in a second stage, this is a much more serious commitment.’

Wanda, who had been listening carefully, said: ‘It isn’t always that first relationships don’t last. There are some that do, and those people go on to the second. They say it’s different, there’s a bonding hormone—oxytocin—that gets to be around after good sex.’ She shrugged and smiled. ‘It might be that way for Anton and me. I hope it is.”

Jane turned to her.

‘That’s because in the second relationship you’re allowed to have children?’

‘Well, you get the chance. There’s the lottery, of course. And even then, if you have one, it might be…’ She looked away, her eyes downcast, and she seemed uncertain, afraid even.

Jane would have liked to enquire more about the two propositions that emerged from these statements, but she didn’t get the chance. A low melodious, but still insistent chiming came from a corner of the room.

‘Oh, it’s a general communication!’ Tanya said. ‘Wonder what it’s about. Surely not a weather warning… No, it’s for you Jane… is that someone you know?’ She pointed to the communicator screen.

‘Yes, of course, it’s Lyle.’

‘You can just talk to him.’

‘Good morning Lyle.’

‘Morning, Jane. Sorry to interrupt whatever you’re doing, but there’s a certain anxiety about you—not knowing where you are. Amos. Also Serena wants to talk with you. Apparently you’d arranged to go to a school with her today.’

‘I’m not far away, Lyle. I’ll come back right away—about five minutes, I’d say.’


Jane could only approve of the school building. It was what it should be, she thought: a horseshoe of low, vividly-decorated, well-lighted rooms all giving on to a grass and flag-stoned central court of considerable size. There was a large free-form pool across the open end of the horseshoe, and there a noisy group was having a swimming lesson. The sound of scales on a piano, and of a number of stringed instruments being played, wafted towards them. And there were children gardening, digging and weeding in beds inside the central compound.

But as they approached they could not but help hearing the sound of tearful dissension coming from one of the front rooms. Jane felt it tactful to ignore this, so she directed her attention to the small bed of flowers in a raised area to one side of the play area. The children working there looked up and smiled as they approached.

‘They have their own gardens?’

‘Yes,’ Serena said. ‘We think it’s a good idea for little ones to grow things.’

‘An early contact with nature?’

‘Oh, yes, I suppose so, but also because things are so bleak out there. We want them to have that greenness. And they just like it—probably that’s the main reason.’

Jane had settled views along these lines so she asked: ‘You want the children to be happy—always.’

‘Always. There’s nothing more important.’

‘Even when they need to be disciplined?’

Serena smiled at this.

‘That word… It was so important in your time.’

‘But not now? School’s a place where you do as you like?’

‘Of course it is. Why make children do what they don’t like?’

‘But some things—learning to write, arithmetic and so on—surely there have to be boring aspects? Some compulsion?’

‘Not compulsion—never. But there has to be motivation. They have to learn the necessary literacy, numeracy, before they can wear green.’

‘Wear green?’

‘Oh yes, green clothes. Not what you once called a uniform, of course. ‘

Jane thought about this.

‘So wearing green is a status symbol?’

‘Is that what you’d say? Well, I suppose you could call it that. Every child is quite anxious to get to wear green. If you got to be a certain age, and were still in ordinary clothes, well, you’d be out of things, wouldn’t you?’

But Jane was leaning down over the garden bed, sniffing the heavy fragrance of a lush border of white carnations.

‘Lovely.’ But then she hesitated as another quite distinctive odour came to her nostrils. She looked a question at Serena, who flushed slightly.

‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘Some of the councillors felt giving the schools flower gardens would be wasting water. So every child has her own little potty—see, like this one.’ She picked up a plastic moulded container in an attractive orange colour. ‘You see how this clips on top, turns it into a watering can…. it also provides the plants with nutrients. We have to use some water with it of course, but it all helps.’

While Jane was still considering these comments a tall blonde, who seemed hardly more than a girl, emerged from the nearest classroom and greeted them.

‘I’m Ella Wilson, the facilitator,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry to’ve kept you waiting like this, but we’ve had a little problem. It’s sorting itself out now…’ She hesitated. ‘I’m probably imposing on you. If so, I’m sorry, but I think it would do those two a lot of good to have things out with some outside people present. Would you mind?’

‘Not a bit,’ Jane said. ‘I’m interested in the way your schools work. All aspects.’

‘Fine. This is one of the least attractive aspects. You see, Charmian hit Robert—slapped him on the face.’ These words were uttered with enough gravity to persuade Jane to comment.

‘But surely…small children… Is that so unusual?’

The facilitator took her time over answering this, and did so with some formality.

‘I know enough history of education to realise that in your time, or what I understand to have been the case in your time, children did fight, perhaps even fight a lot. But we have views, views on…’

Serena came to her rescue.

‘Our friends haven’t had all that explained to them yet. And I won’t try now in any detail. I think they’d find it rather complicated… Other than to say, you see, we have strong feelings about violence. When a violent man had no more power than to hit someone with an axe, or a sword, that was bad enough, of course, but when he has the power to release a nuclear weapon, worse still make a machine, a robot, able to do that…’

‘I see,’ Jane said uneasily. ‘So the children?’

‘We try to help them understand that. The dangers.’

‘Please come in,’ Ella said. ‘Yes, this way. And I’d like you to meet Charmian’—a small stocky blonde with a determined expression, now a little sulky—‘and Robert.’ Robert, who was a head taller than Charmian, smiled nervously in their direction.

‘He called me four-eyes,’ Charmian said, ‘because I have to wear glasses. I hate having glasses anyway. I haven’t got them on now.’

‘So she hit me,’ Robert said. ‘She slapped my face.’

‘It isn’t good to be violent. You’ve been taught that, haven’t you Charm?’

‘Yes,’ she admitted. ‘But he called me—’

‘Never mind about that.’ Ella waved her hands vaguely in front of the little girl’s face. ‘Would you like someone to slap your face? Has anyone ever done that?’

Charmian’s face fell.

‘No. And I don’t think I’d like it. But…’ And she squared up to Robert, looking up into his eyes, ‘…would you like to hit me back, Robert? That’d be fair, wouldn’t it?’

Robert’s eyes flickered momentarily, and he took his time replying.

‘No. I couldn’t do that. You’re a girl. And you ought to know the score about hitting, retaliation, all that… But you can say sorry if you like.’

‘All right, I will. Sorry. And I feel sorry.’

‘Then that’s all fine,’ Ella said, beaming. ‘Only one other thing, Robert, you apologise for calling her four-eyes. It’s not her fault she has to wear glasses.’ Then she added, ‘Think about your heart.’

The boy immediately looked startled, then a little dejected.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Sorry, Charm. I won’t call you that again.’

‘Just as well,’ Ella said severely. ‘You don’t either of you want to end up in a camp, do you?’

The children looked uncertain.

‘I don’t know,’ Robert ventured. ‘I’ve heard they have quite a lot of fun there… I mean the cars… They climb cliffs, things like that.’

‘I would like you both to go and sit in your places,’ Ella said firmly. ‘And be quiet for a while so I can talk with our visitors.’

She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, plainly switching to a didactic persona, Jane thought. And this was so.

‘Education,’ Ella began. ‘We believe it’s never too early to teach them that it’s what you can do that’s important, not what you have.’

‘Accomplishments?’ Jane put in.

‘Yes, if you get to be a good musician, a good painter, that gets to be a part of self. Self grows. Then they learn about the mistakes of the past… they hear stories about the old times.’

‘Yes? What kind of stories?’

The facilitator hesitated, but only briefly.

‘Yesterday it was the meat eaters—how the Victorian new rich showed off their wealth by eating huge amounts of dead animal, then everyone else wanted to be the same. In the end the saturated fat killed them off with strokes and heart attacks. Now let me see… Yes, the petrol heads…cars…cigarettes! ’ She shuddered. ‘The guns—actually wanting to kill things without a good reason.’

In spite of the justice of these accusations Jane felt indignant, ready to defend her society.

‘You’re quite sure you’re not pushing this too far?’

‘Consumerism,’ Ella began, then hesitated, seeing her audience was not really receptive. She returned her attention to the class. ‘Listen, everybody—it’s time for us to think hearts.’

A muted sigh went around the room, then all the children were silent. Jane noted uneasily that although it had been bright sunlight at this noon-time on the eternal blue day, the room was getting darker. The light seeped away until there was dense blackness. Then it was there, suddenly, hanging in the darkness—a large pulsing human heart in three dimensions, so real that Jane jumped in alarm. Around her a great sigh went up from the children again. A hologram, of course. And while she watched the effigy was… contaminated. Yes, that was the only word to describe the slow ravaging of the heart, its shape slumped, it blackened. After a few minutes its vital beat slowed, then stopped. Then as suddenly as it had come, it was gone. The room lightened, a shaft of sunshine came in through one of the big windows. But the atmosphere in the class had changed. All the children sat quite still, their eyes grave, their expressions thoughtful.

Ella said: ‘Now we can get on with relationships… Yes, what is it, Charmian? You’ve got your hand up.’

‘I’m going home.’

‘Then off you go. But remember there’s drawing coming up at two o’clock.’

The little girl got up and moved towards the door. Just before she went out she turned and said, ‘Yes, I’ll probably come back then.’

‘We are all people in our own right,’ Ella resumed. ‘If we expect respect from other people, we have to give it to them…’

‘Time for us to move now,’ Serena said. ‘Amos has plans for you.’

Once out in the open air again Jane said, ‘It seemed a little odd to me the girl who did the slapping—Charmian?—just walked out of class like that!’

Serena was plainly puzzled.


‘Well, in our schools children are expected to stay in their classes all the time, unless they’re sick, or have a call of nature or whatever.’

‘What an odd idea. You mean to say children are compelled to sit and listen when they’re bored, or just not interested in what’s going on?’

‘I suppose you could put it that way. But a big part of the reason is our schools take care of children during the day while their parents are working, and it would be unsafe for them to be just roaming the streets. As you said yourself, ours is a violent society.’

Serena shook her head, looked quite alarmed.

‘And that’s a good example of how your society was chasing its tail. Discipline again…then violence, then more discipline. So many hang-ups in your world, so much crime. Starting the individual off that way... Bound to cause all sorts of problems in later life—a smothered hatred of authority. That should be obvious, so why do it?’

‘I’m confused myself now,’ Jane said, a little resentfully. ‘I’ll have to think about it. Yes. As well as the child-care aspect, it’s because of the syllabus.’

‘Syllabus? Oh yes, I’ve read about that. All the children had to learn the same things at the same time. Then you had things called examinations. The ones that soaked up enough of the syllabus and could write it all down were regarded as educated.’

‘Well, that’s one way you could put it.’

Serena fell silent for some minutes, obviously thinking, then said, ‘Would you agree that all children are individuals, with different abilities, different attitudes? They might not even be able to learn at the same speed. Some learn things by rote easily, others are more insightful.’

‘Yes, all that seems true.’

‘Then why teach them the same things at the same time, treat them as if they were little house-bricks? If a girl’s plainly going to be a talented violinist, what’s the use of feeding her higher mathematics? All she needs is enough to be able to count her money, and she’ll learn that all right out of self-interest.’

Jane threw up her hands in exasperation.

‘Oh, I can’t answer all that! I’m not an expert on education… You plainly do things differently—why don’t we just talk about that?’

Now it was Serena’s turn to feel stressed.

‘Do you know, I’m so used to our way of doing school that I haven’t thought all that carefully about it. It was the way things were when I was at school, so I guess I just took it for granted… But now, let me think. Yes, isn’t it obvious? Small children are very nervous, tentative about their talents. At the same time they tend to believe that everything an adult says is right. So the purpose of education should be to find out what the talents and strengths of a child are, and encourage them, not under any circumstances quash them! When Charmian walked out a while ago it was because she wasn’t interested in what was going on. It didn’t seem useful to her… We’ve found that children learn faster, and are happier, when they can come and go out of school as they please. We nearly always find they come back again quite soon. When they go home they’re bored. Everyone else is doing things. They aren’t. So they come back.’

‘The way you put it, it does seem obvious,’ Jane agreed.

‘They have to be happy. Happiness is so important. It seems to me from what I’ve read about things before the Disaster that the happiness of the individual wasn’t regarded as all that important. Money, productivity, fighting wars were up top of the agenda, not happiness.’

‘But you can’t just make people happy. It’s something you have to do for yourself.’

Serena looked hard at her.

‘That’s not the way we see it. Of course everyone’s unhappy sometimes. But you can create the best conditions for happiness. If a person is going to grow up happy they first have to be made happy as a small child; the defaults for happiness are set then. ’

‘What was all that about the darkness, and the heart?’ Jane asked.

‘Oh, that’s part of something much bigger. It’ll be explained to you later.’

‘Some kind of ritual?’ Jane ventured.

‘Yes, it was that. Ritual, you know, it’s very important, animals, birds, people, we all need rituals, use them.’


But Jane hardly heard these words. There, on the front of the building, high up, near the bargeboard, a face—but hardly a face, a grotesque parody of one, it appeared to have grown out of the building, distorting the roof-line. Jane’s heart beat faster as she stared at the thing, its leering eyes, the fleshy, gaping mouth. That is alien, she told herself, something far away from us. And at once she felt afraid, a terrible all-encompassing fear so she had to put a hand to her mouth to suppress a scream.

‘What is it, Jane,’ Serena said, concerned. ‘You’re so pale.’

‘Up there! Look.’

But when they both stared up there was nothing.

[End of excerpt]

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