Katherine looked through the peephole and saw a man’s jaw, dusty with stubble. He was good-looking, even up close. Behind him, terraces fitted with photovoltaic panels mirrored a cloudless blue sky. But the street was empty. She let the cover slip back into place and opened the door.
‘Bird! I came as soon as I could,’ he said, pulling her into a consoling hug. He released her from his hold and she stood hesitating in the doorway, taking him in. Today the usually friendly face was grim. He wore a black beanie that was pulled down to his eyebrows, his hands tucked into a hooded parka. It was eleven o’clock in the morning on a Sunday in late November. There was intense light without warmth, as though the sun had been replaced by a tepid fluorescent globe.
Rhys Mendes appraised her with his knowing grey eyes. ‘You going to let me stand out here for eternity? In this bloody icebox.’
She had another look down the street, both ways. An old man shuffled out of his flat, maneuvering around the tangled leash of his bobtailed Spandor, its enhanced, copper penny coat glinting in the sun.
‘Come on, you big scaredy-cat,’ said Rhys. ‘It’s just me.’
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Come in, out of the cold.’
As he followed her downstairs into the kitchen, she tried to go over what she’d prepared in her head. She knew why Rhys had come. Akal was dead. She couldn’t think straight.
‘Shall I put the kettle on?’ she said, trying to think of normal things to say.
Rhys walked over to the window overlooking the clumpy grass, the mounds of dirt and the over-preened azaleas. Beyond that, the canal looked like a sink of dirty dishwater. The surface of the water darkened as a shadow moved across it. A Sky Runner drone looking like a giant leggy insect skirted along the canal, the designated route for North London commercial deliveries. Rhys took a seat on the sofa facing her. She’d make a pot, she decided. Let the leaves sit and infuse, let them take their time.
He nodded, but they both knew the real thing was too expensive to bother with. And she still didn’t trust anything that began its life in a culture dish. She brought the teapot over before sinking into the armchair opposite him.
‘Well,’ he said. His cheeks reddened. ‘There’s no point beating around the bush on this, right? We’ve known each other for what, like twenty years? We’re not cousins or neighbours, but we’re cool. I mean, we’re just normal people with mortgages and kids and bills to pay.’
Katherine nodded. She agreed with his perspective but not the examples. Rhys was separated with a four-year-old girl. She didn’t have kids or a mortgage, and as of last week, she wasn’t sure she had a partner anymore. They were cool though, as he’d always said. They weren’t the bad guys.
‘I wanted to give you fair warning. As a pal. I think the directors are going to pull you in on this.’
It was no surprise, under the circumstances. It’s what she had expected.
‘Can you really believe that pathologist’s report? I mean, excessive gaming? He looked at her with a face that seemed to be all bewilderment, but she couldn’t be sure what exactly he knew. Rhys was on the inside, he’d been at Nanoplay for years.
‘I really don’t know,’ she said. She could have just said ‘no.’ She could have told him her concerns about the cog files, but she needed to know more first.
‘Well, from the looks of it, there’s a lot of ruffled feathers. Crisis meetings with the board of directors, though no official company announcements yet. It’s what no one wants to say, but I’ll just go ahead and say it. Finding a connection between Akal and Animo Tzar wouldn’t be that hard.’
‘There’s no point jumping to conclusions. We need to wait until they give us more information.’
‘Come on, Bird, let’s not pretend we didn’t know that the nanobot injections could be risky? This is all such fucking uncharted territory.’
‘There’s certainly no manual. But until there’s evidence to suggest an actual link, that’s just speculation.’
‘Bird, just tell me honestly. Is there anything I should know about the cog files?’
Rhys met her gaze, and Katherine felt him searching her eyes for the answer. She thought about the player profiles that she’d fastidiously, painstakingly put together, working many hours beyond those she’d billed for. Akal was an artist, dancer and pro VR-gamer—she’d demonstrated the most complex combination of outputs, the most vivid imagination, of all the candidates for the game.
‘Look, just as the file shows,’ she said. ‘Akal could not have been in more optimal condition for the game.’ It was easier to distance herself through psych terms than to recall the girl that she’d grown quite fond of. It was better not to remember the person who set herself down in the chair across from Katherine, a confident smile spreading across her face, her training clothes clinging to an enviable physique. ‘It was as though she’d spent her life conditioning her cognitive skills and physical stamina for the very purpose of playing it.’
‘I could take some cues,’ said Rhys, patting his belly. He’d lost a few pounds though. He looked better than Katherine could remember. ‘But maybe all that perfection was just a front?’
‘Maybe we’re looking for a reason when there isn’t one? Sometimes strange, unexplainable things just happen.’
‘Right,’ he frowned. ‘And we live in a world that’s fine with unsolved mysteries?’
She couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so she sipped her tea silently, knowing that Rhys couldn’t sit for one minute without something to say. He could talk to a brick wall.
His gaze drifted back to the garden. ‘Well, nice place. When did you guys move in?’
‘I’m housesitting for the winter. It’s a friend’s.’
‘No. He’s gone—I mean he’s away,’ she said, getting flustered. ‘Bought a one way ticket to Berlin.’
‘Told you he was bad news.’
‘I recall you taking credit for us getting together.’
‘Yeah, I introduced you one night when we went for beers, right? Talented guy, but artists, hey?’
She looked out at the garden, averting his gaze. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think I can go into it right now.’ Her eyes settled on a tiny slipper outside, abandoned next to the sliding door entrance. Katherine had gained a master’s in New York. Fran, the friend that owned the flat, had gained a rich husband and two kids, and now they went to Provence every winter.
‘Yeah of course, sorry.’ He put down his teacup, and sighed. ‘Well, I guess that’s it then? We sit tight like bookends.’ He lifted his cup as though to cheers her sarcastically for the awful position they were in. The waiting game. ‘The thing is, Bird, Nanoplay will stop at nothing to get Animo Tzar out on time. Launch is three weeks away. You and I, we’re the brains. Hunter, the board of directors, they don’t know the first thing about how this works. I mean, if we’re somehow, even indirectly responsible for Akal’s death, we’re fucked. We could be indicted.’
She’d thought about all this. What it could mean for her career. She worried about the paper she was meant to be putting together for Goldsmiths, the whole reason they had agreed to fund the research around the game.
‘Do you think I haven’t thought of all this?’ she said. ‘I don’t know what else we can do, though, at this stage.’
‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’ve started going through the game log and player database. Figured I should see if anything comes up there?’
Now she understood why he’d really come. It wasn’t just for peer support. Rhys wanted her to know that he’d been going through her cog files.
‘But I thought you said they haven’t made any company announcements yet?’ It made her nervous to think what was in those files, captured and memorialised. Even though she’d kept copies, Nanoplay owned everything, they could do what they liked with them.
‘Have a guess at how long it takes to go through that stuff? It’s gigabites of data. A week at least. When they ask for something, they’ll expect it in hours.’
‘You’re doing the right thing,’ she said, because she knew that was the right thing to say.
‘I think I’ll go into the office now, get a start on it.’ He stood up. ‘Thanks for the tea.’
‘Who needs a Sunday?’ she said, trying to be reassuring.
She walked Rhys to the door.
‘Do me a favour, will you, bird brain,’ he said, putting on his jacket. ‘Take a break from those artistic types for a while?’
She watched him as he made his way down Noel Street, heading towards Angel to take a share-shuttle to South London. Not far along, he stopped, then looked for something in his right pocket. She watched him intently. When she saw him take out his beanie, she had to laugh at herself for being so paranoid. He pulled it down on his head, and tucked his hands back in his pockets, walking like a guy that might be off to deliver some furniture.
Katherine went into her study to continue to mark undergrad psych papers, but she couldn’t get Akal out of her mind. Her hand wandered to the gestural screen fitted to her desk, and to her Propositions profile page.
The hair in her picture was the same as she had it now, white blonde and cropped at her ears. She was still listed as a tier-two user. That was an accomplishment, she had to admit, being a few months off forty.
She’d registered as Dr Katherine Bird. Her real title, though some users took it as an invitation for a game of psychoanalysis. As if that idea was so interesting! Lab coats and fishnets were for amateur lovers, not mature women. She wanted to be excited, in the same way she felt while watching Akal in the game, experiencing it through her, the adrenalin rising, the default network of the brain activating as she met each opponent in combat, mind against mind. She set her intention and, with relentless focus, she defeated them all to become the tzar, the game ruler. Akal played to win, that’s what Katherine admired.
‘Katherine,’ said Agatha, ‘you have a new message.’
She wiggled a finger in her ear: there was no sound coming in from the right. It did no good. The pearl-sized implant needed replacing. The voice of her virtual assistant continued on the left, so she made do with one.
‘Confidential and high priority. Requires code to authenticate.’
‘Sender?’ asked Katherine, but she already knew.
‘Authenticating. . . ’ said Agatha. ‘Okay, you’re in. The message is thirty seconds long.’
‘Good morning, it’s Hunter Breach here. You’ve all seen the news: we have a very serious situation on our hands. The board of directors has asked me to hold an urgent meeting at HQ, three o’clock this afternoon. All senior team members working on Animo Tzar are required to attend. If you’re out of the country or have extenuating circumstances, that’s not an excuse; please contact me directly so that we can make arrangements.’
The connection cut out. Katherine sat quite still, her hands resting on the cool, smooth feel of her aluminium desk. On the gestural screen, she pushed through web junk until she located her carefully organised cog files. She then had to pass layers of security authentication until PLAYER 8: AKAL DEVINE came up. She ignored the psychometric tests, transcripts and FMRI scans. Katherine was looking for something specific. She was looking for a recording of her final session with Akal.