Chapter 1: Naissance
“Thoughts become weapons. Philosophies are distinct reasons for war. Good intentions are the most destructive arsenal of all.” –Frank Herbert
2020, Somewhere in the Pacific
The island has been their world for over a year now. The scrubby, windswept sands are host to a contented team busily working underground, amidst screens and handfuls of wiring and components, like the bloodless remnants of a robotic massacre.
They are not allowed to leave, but do not care. Where others would see a prison, they see Elysium. Whether they will still be there tomorrow depended on the game.
Feng is not normally competitive, but does not want to lose today. Losing means they will leave the island in victory, and he will become the first high ranking player to be beaten by a machine. That aside, leaving the intellectual Elysium of the island is itself unpalatable. His defeat will be their triumph, but the foretaste is still sour in his mouth.
If anyone had bothered to ask, he would have told them so. They didn’t, partly because he was sitting alone in the centre of the room, the others arrayed in tiered seating around him.
Mostly, they do not ask because he is the kind of man to have peers, but not friends.
Still, he would have liked someone to ask. Or, for that matter, talk to him. The contrast between their easy conversation and his tension is not helping. He sits back, treasuring the few moments of calm before the game begins, scanning the faces around him.
They are a study in diversity, disparate ages and nationalities brought together by the promise of technological marvels. Each has achieved something substantial, early enough that it does not draw much attention, and each has turned down the attendant personal glory, for reasons ranging from paranoia to diffidence. As a result, they have been noticed by Abraxas, and enlisted to create the computing architecture of the future.
That is what they have been told, at least. It was revealed as a lie when they got to the island, but the lie matters little compared to what they have gained. On the island they have access to technologies that are little more than rumours to the world at large. These marvels are duly understood and accepted as justifications for the duplicity and secrecy.
In a connected world, paranoia is no longer rare, or unreasonable, an inevitable cost of being at the edge of progress. They have been sold, and hungrily bought, the dream of building a brighter world.
It began at Feng’s school. He and his friends had decided to see who could come up with the best adaptive machine. The rules were simple. The machines had to have no prior knowledge of any game, with only strategic data saved for the learning algorithms. They could be embodied or constructed however the builders chose, but every game the machines played would be their first.
Some machines had been good, and some bad. One, perfect in its code, elegant and simple, had proven useless, losing even to turn-of-the-century chess computers. It has a work of art, but too idealised to be practical.
The most successful machine was constructed by Feng’s main rival, John de Gris. John’s machine was sublime. The Brute was incredibly effective, impossible to predict, brutally powerful, and horrifically ugly, at least as far as the code was concerned.
When it won, it was with creative destruction, a visceral force that found flaws in its opponent, magnified the weaknesses, and used them to win brutal victories. When it lost, the same tendency led it to destroy itself, unable to see the true strategic consequences of its actions.
That it was the most successful was not surprising. Feng was gifted, but John was already a rising star, expected to go on to great things.
The door seals with a metallic click. For all its unobtrusiveness, Feng always feels a chill at this moment, as the Faraday cage embedded in the walls completes. It is another uncomfortable reminder that they are invisible, ghosts working on a project that does not exist.
Recognising that it cannot be scrutinised, the strange machine sitting opposite him whirrs to life. Around the room, the white noise of friendly banter giving place to tense expectation.
Lights blink on in the blank façade, and Gerald wakes, casting a brief look at Feng before focusing on the board. Feng thinks he detects a moment’s pause as Gerald reaches to his pieces and sees no handicap stones there. With a grimace, he dismisses the pause as imaginary, a delusion born of his desire for Gerald to become something more than a machine. Gerald is his closest friend, the mute subtleties of this machine far more coherent to his mind than the thoughts and feelings of other humans.
No matter how much of a person Gerald feels to him, it is still just a machine, he tells himself, but he is less convinced with each day that passes.
With a quiet click, striking as a gunshot in the hush, Gerald places a stone on the grid, and the game begins. Feng mirrors the move, and let his mind wander to Gerald’s first game, as the pieces slip onto the board like geological rain.
From the first moment it had played against a person, there had been something special about Gerald. Without a voice or a soul, the machine demanded attention, crude and cumbersome as it was.
Gerald did not always win, but was always a joy to play. It lost most games against John’s Brute, but Feng did not care. The victories The Brute won feel like a divine madness, but Gerald’s victories feel like a battle well-fought against a friendly rival, exhibiting not just creativity but personality.
This personal aspect does not become clear until Gerald is tested against human players. Each player feels something distinct when playing, as if Gerald were responding to them personally, playing a game not against their skill but against them. It was as if Gerald understood them, and was trying to expose the weakest parts of their games to them, to help them overcome their flaws.
Gerald felt human, even to a group that had grown up with computational game players. Computers had come a long way since Kasparov had seen creativity and imagination in Deep Blue, and young as they are these children reflexively avoid the trap of seeing motive and intent where there was none.
Nonetheless, there is something unique about Gerald. The machine feels like it is responding to the opponent on a level far deeper than simply gamesmanship, in a way that no player could express but all felt.
Gerald was capable of surprising them, not in the unpredictable sense of John’s machine, but in ways delightful and subtle. They had no words for it, but Gerald was unique. Though it was less broadly capable than the Brute, Gerald consistently defeated the other machines and players at Go, allowing Feng to cement his position as the real talent of the group.
John tried to be graceful about it, but they were all too young to hide their feelings effectively, and Feng could see that it rankled.
The grid consolidates, islands flowering in an ordered ocean. Gerald lays another piece. The move feels… bold. Risky. In the other chair, Feng doubts he would have even considered it. The move forces him into responding directly, temporarily losing the initiative.
It is a trap, one that he has no choice but to spring. He is in control of so much of the board that he sees no possible risk, only the loss of a few smaller and less strategically important regions. Besides, he has never shirked from challenge, and only knows how to pass traps by springing them.
He tries to tell himself that it doesn’t matter, that if he wins it will still be a meaningful achievement, but feels a twinge of disappointment. He is used to victory, and desires loss as only the young and brash do.
Feng’s game has never been better, and it is incidental to their true purpose here. The games give them a chance to measure their progress in ways other than readouts and simulations, allowing them to step back and appreciate the subtlety and beauty of what they have created here.
Computationally, this endeavour is already a triumph. Go has proven to be the most intractable game that mankind has invented, too difficult for even the most complex computers to be much more than standard-class players.
A device that could play at the level of one of the thousand best players on the planet would win more awards than he could count, and generate a whole new wave of computational adaptation and development.
Knowing this, the team disregard it. Such glittering prizes are mere baubles, for Gerald already exists at the forefront of a new realm. The learning algorithms and hardware are works of art, so elegant and fluid in their development that many of the staff feel that Gerald is bringing himself into being, sliding softly into reality.
The summer of the machines, as it will always be known by the boys, they had travelled to a national competition. On entry, coders chose or were allocated a colour. The white hats set about defending their electronic databases while the black hats tore into them.
On the screens, the players in their rows became territories of flat circles, lines connecting to one another, growing and shrinking, as the balance between them shifted. The abstraction screens flowed as the flows of malware and walls of ICE met, the immovable object and unstoppable force finding one another and embracing, as the coders spin out and adapt their systems.
John’s Brute won the overall prize, and Feng’s other friends also do well. All of them finish in the top fifty, and so are only faintly disappointed by not winning, as precocious youth are with anything but absolute success.
Feng does not compete. A vague but discomforting premonition tells him that Gerald is not ready for public view, and so he avoids the gaze that competition would bring. Still, he is happy for his friends, for John in particular. John is driven by the need to be noticed, and his achievements here give him much to boast about.
As Feng walks home from the station, he turns the idea over in his mind, that competition did not have to mean animosity, and that there was pleasure to be gained in a rival’s victory. It is a vague thought, and one that entirely driven out of his mind by the arrival of the slate.
When he gets home, it is waiting for him. A bevelled black slate, smooth and seamless to the eye and hand, and about an inch thick. When his thumb touches the bottom corner, it lights up, confirming that he has received the package and has 72 hours before it expires.
Confused, he searches for information while he toys with it. No data source he can access has any information beyond tangential rumours that may well refer to something entirely different. Aside from the one he holds, it would seem that no-one has ever even heard of the slate before.
It is extremely responsive, but only to him. He shines light on it, and areas brighten in response, with unique patterns of light and movement. He speaks to it, and it seems to vibrate softly, lights at the very edge of perception gilding the edges. He taps it, and is astonished to see texture rise as barely visible ripples spread, in a geometry that feels replete with meaning but reveals none.
It rewards attention, but with nothing more than intimations of more interest within. No piece of the puzzle seems to fit any other piece, or fit together in any coherent way at all. He knows that it is fascinating, and interactive, and mysterious, and little else.
Thinking back on it now, the flashes of light and colour on the slate resembled nothing more than Go, but with hundreds of colours and a grid that extended beyond this world.
His attention flows back to the game. An opening emerges that will allow him control of a small section of the board deep in enemy territory. Well played, he can create that space and combine it with a contested territory close by, giving himself a substantial advantage.
This is the part he enjoys most, when the path of the game reveals itself and a shape forms. It is like the slate, a wash of solutions without an explicit problem.
He grins broadly as the game consumes him.
By the third day of getting nowhere with the slate, he has a revelation. It might not be a puzzle for him at all. The fact that it had arrived so strangely certainly means that he cannot trust what he thought he knew.
He has tried to analyse it with the various sensors and modules around his house, and found another mystery. The gaze of the machines reveals nothing, their data not even holding the intimation of meaning that Feng finds when he interacts with the slate himself.
It seems to show something more, a slight back and forth, when he presents it to Gerald, but it swiftly reverts to white noise and silence. Although the slate communicates with each device brought close to it, Feng finds only further confusion in studying the results. The interactions dance at the edge of notice, displaying signal patterns that could easily be interference.
Finally, working against time, he rigs a manipulative system and interface, a way for Gerald to integrate with the various sensor and manipulator packages strewn around his room.
It is love at second sight. The black slate and the nascent Gerald fall into bewildering patterns of interaction with one another, taking turns to present and respond to information.
Eventually, a few hours before the deadline, the slate chimes, clear and crystalline, and flashes, bright colours sliding across one another under a brilliant white glow. Then it falls silent, never to respond again.
The next day, a car pulls up beside him. A hawkish man steps out, his dark features perfectly composed. When he speaks, it is with a quiet authority beyond his years, the voice of a man used to fair-won respect and command. “Mr Feng. My name is Georgy Zhukov. I represent a group called Abraxas, and would like to talk to you about your future. I would like to offer you opportunities that few others even know exist, if you are willing and able.”
Feng is taken aback, broken from his already-habitual reverie by the sudden appearance of such a worldly figure. “Sorry? Opportunities to do what? Who are you? I mean, you said Zhukov, but that doesn’t really help…”
Feng steps back, trying to absorb this pellucidly present creature. For all his naivety, he recognises the bearing and manner of the intruder immediately. Some things leave marks that cannot be washed away.
Zhukov is a soldier, young in the blood and old in the eyes, witness to and survivor of humanity’s dark. For a moment, Feng considers asking him about his military service to show that he sees this, but the words dry in his throat as he catches Zhukov’s eyes. The man is only a little older than Feng, but stands as if the world could collapse around him and leave him untouched, unsullied and unbowed.
While Feng prevaricates, Zhukov steps aside and opens the car door behind him, revealing an interior better suited to a spacecraft than an automobile. “We would like you to use your skills in an environment few even know exist, let alone have access to. In this vehicle is a small sample of the technologies we possess, and to which we can offer you access. Perhaps we could discuss this further inside?”
And that, more or less, is that. Thinking on it later, Feng assumes that they had been watching him for some time, and have chosen him rather than John for reasons of temperament and creativity. He also assumes that Abraxas sent him the slate, in a move of the same secrecy and mystery that soon becomes his world.
It is true that they have been watching him, but not to the extent he thinks. In all of these thoughts, he is essentially wrong. He will learn of John’s fate later in his life, but the slate will remain a mystery falsely solved, only to be answered centuries hence, after another half dozen of humanity’s greatest minds have felt its touch.
Perhaps what follows would be different, if Feng had not made such simple assumptions. For now, we must turn away, for such conjecture is neither here nor there. For now, all that matters is the game.
Gerald puts down a stone fractionally more heavily than the last. It is clear to Feng, but barely noticeable from any other vantage. Feng’s heart skips a beat, so attuned to his creation that this tiny gesture is akin to seeing his reflection blink. This is a development he could not have anticipated, and which none of them are been prepared for.
Stretching to cover his discombobulation, Feng considers drawing attention to it, but dismisses the desire quickly. Even if he had not already cared deeply for Gerald, the game itself holds him back. He sees now that the move is the culmination of a strategy that started with the first move, building subtly and unnoticeably, each move part of an obvious strategy that drew attention, and a slower one behind. To have a hidden third layer behind these two is a sign of a truly masterful player.
More importantly, it is a sign that must be secret. Abraxas’ aim is to build a series of adaptive, strategic machines. For the central model to have any intimation of self is disastrous, a sign that their creation is beyond their control. They would wipe every routine that could have led to this action.
Feng shakes his head at the thought, unable to countenance the idea of killing Gerald, so newly born to life and mind. He still does not understand the gift the slate has given him, and fears for Gerald’s soul, especially in this delicate stage of its development. For all that he owes his masters, he must have some secrets, and this is a worthy one.
For these minds, coming to the island was like entering paradise. Almost all of them are very private people, and many lived solitary lives before they were brought to this carefully constructed and isolated wonderland.
For all that the group centres on Feng, each person is used to being alienated and constricted, and they have blossomed on the island.
There is a single sour note. Enamoured as they are of the technologies they are using and creating, all are uncomfortable with the level of secrecy Abraxas maintains. It culminates, once a month or so, in the same circular discussion. Feng has come to think of as the Oppenheimer argument, a kind of confessional and justificatory reflex.
The first time, it was the culmination of months of building shadows, a creeping darkness they all felt but were unable to express. They had all been too afraid to face their fears directly, and it had been Mia who had eventually broached the issue.
To the surprise of everyone in the group, it was the ever-present Zhukov who presented the alternative view. At first, they were afraid that he would veto the discussion. His acquiescence to the debate and spirited but reflective engagement encouraged the group to air and discuss their issues.
The latest iteration was less than a week ago. Mia spoke at their customary late-night conference, when they discussed the potential strategic impact of this software, not just in terms of military impact but on the world of man as they knew it.
Mia stands at shoulder height, but always seemed taller, her horselike mane and vital spirit increasing her stature in the thoughts of all that encounter her.
She stood a little way off from the fire, letting the chill brighten her thoughts. The moon shone bright over her shoulder as she looked at the team leaders huddled close to the flickering embers.
She was exhausted, and impassioned. “What, exactly, have we just done? I know it would have been done without any of us – well, mostly…” She cast a significant glance towards Feng, but he avoided her eyes. “But is it okay? Is this really an achievement, or have we created something that’s gonna make things much, much worse? We’ve been assured that this will change the world for the better, but how can we really know when we don’t even know who Abraxas are? What if they have some other intention here, some way of using these technologies to do harm?”
Considering the newly visible pattern on the board, Feng sees that Gerald will soon break his defences and swarm outwards. If he is not arrested immediately, Gerald’s stones will spread like a tide as his own are consumed. It is desperate, and building this layer had risked the entire game, but it is the same move Feng would make, given the circumstances. He feels a surge of pride.
His decision made, Feng looks into Gerald’s lights and nods slightly, a bow of respect between masters. He had never acknowledged Gerald this way before, but revelation deserved reward, especially when it comes at such risk.
Gerald’s neck straightens, his focus shifting from the Feng to the stone, and out to the whole board. Without a word, or any further interaction, they came to exposition, and complicity.
If he is honest, Feng dislikes the Oppenheimer argument because it is about him. The others are secure in the knowledge that they can be replaced, but he cannot. The knowledge that one is just a cog is a great freedom from the actions of the machine, and Feng has no such freedom.
That it is always Mia that speaks for the team does not help. He feels a reflex distaste as the image of her flitted across his mind. It is the way she acts, he tells himself, as if she holds some moral high ground that they have all forsworn. He knows that any activity so secretive must be morally bankrupt, and could never be a sign of good things, no matter what they have been told.
As a result, he feels that she must be a hypocrite. Anyone that cleaves to ethics in the way that she appears to must be deluded or contradictory. Such a person would never have agreed to Abraxas’ conditions, regardless of the treasures on offer.
Feng is sure of this, as one can only be in convincing oneself of the illusion of other choices. He tells himself that any truly moral person would understand that secrecy and darkness are only needed for things that cannot stand the light.
It does not occur to him that there is a greater nobility in fighting from the inside, for he cannot imagine that one can do so and keep one’s soul.
On the night of the last argument, Feng’s dismissal of Mia is obvious in the way he stands as he speaks, his hands brushing her concerns aside like mist. Partly, it is a feint, a movement to distract from the need to shake himself to action against his distaste.
He speaks, late and soft, almost as if to himself. “Why would they lie to us? All this secrecy is excessive, but reasonable considering the money and influence it represents. If there’s some other intention, we won’t find out until afterwards, so it has nothing to do with us.”
Lips tight with distaste, he shrugs. “Anyway, the things we do are only so much dust in a tide of historical inevitability for Abraxas, whoever they are. Better to be within the tide, shaping it as we can, than to fight against it.”
He waves his hands at the nightblack ocean, seething with invisible life. “A butterfly flaps its wings here, and in a decade a country is destroyed because one of us picked one equation over another. Is this better than if we had picked nothing at all? At least we have the work that we’ve done, the knowledge that we’ve advanced a dozen sciences by years.”
Mia, emboldened by the fires on the beach and in her heart, retorts quickly. “That’s defeatist bullshit. They have no real obligation to us, or to release the discoveries we’ve made. They picked us to do something they still haven’t fully explained, because we were the best, and after this we’ll just get thrown away, or absorbed into other secret programmes.”
Her voice carries gently on the breeze, the wind falling to lend depth to her words through deathly silence. Her eyes meet the eager and troubled gaze of her audience. “There has to be something more we can do than this. A way of using what we’ve developed to do more than just help embed power with the powerful, even if they’re the ones that enabled us to do this work. It’s a great privilege that each of us is here, but is that privilege really enough to excuse knowing our work will be abused?”
They look away from one another, unable to cross the divide between them. Eventually, Feng shrugs, finding himself unable to express his thoughts.
At the edge of the circle, Zhukov raises an eyebrow, and smiles.
In the long years to come, Mia will often think back to this moment and wonder whether she had known, and denied it to herself, or whether she had truly been so naïve as to not see. The very last time she thinks about it, on the day she dies, she will find her answer, and know peace, seeing that one good and true thing had come of it all. She will see a child that is not a child, born of mind but not of man, and will know that she has birthed the future from this deserted beach.
In the flowing movement of the game, Feng’s memories of their argument evaporate, as if they cannot hold their reality in the face of the board. He has managed to regain control, to stop the avalanche that he had seen coming, and is closing in for the kill.
Gerald will lose, but it has been a worthy game.
Then it happens. Gerald lays down a stone, tapping it once as his fingers rise, in a gesture of subtle but absolute finality.
Feng’s breath catches, and his eyes cloud and brighten. It is a “Kami no Itte”, a divine move. It is strategically and tactically perfect, and will take Gerald from a weak and embattled position to victory. The move feels like an expression of self, an indication of the epiphanies Gerald’s soulless mind has undergone. With a start, Feng realises that Gerald is aware. This move is a gesture of elegance and completion, the culmination of hours of slow movement, and shines in Feng’s mind like the taste of rapture.
A very lucky player might see a Kami no Itte once in a lifetime. To see one from a machine is a moment Feng will always treasure, a surge of hubris and awe lighting his heart.
His mind races through the permutations, seeing nothing that will allow him more than another fifteen moves. Even if he is incredibly lucky, by the thirtieth move from now, he will have convincingly lost.
His eyed brighten with tears of wonder and joy. He had expected a hard game, and knew that he was likely to lose, but to lose like this… it is magnificent.
He stands up and punches the air, his youth showing in his glowing smile. “I concede. He’s ready.” He pauses expectantly, and the cheer rises around him.
This team will never be known, never have their contribution to this project made public, but they were there, at the heart of it. They designed the technologies and machines that will take humanities from the stars to the fizzing interactions between atoms, but their role will never be known. It does not matter. Each of them feels a surge of wonder and grateful obeisance, that they have been enablers of and witness to this marvel.
They have been told the world will be a better place, and know that this is the moment everything changed, in a bunker deep beneath the ground of a nondescript pacific island.
The corks pop, and there is a strange melancholy in the air, a knowledge that this will be the high point of their careers and the fulcrum of their lives.
The party that evening is a strange, intense affair, an uncoiling of emotional and intellectual tension and wonder. There are brawls, and the burying of hatchets, laughter and tears. Often, these happen to the same people, in sequences so fast they will barely remember them.
Feng makes his excuses and leaves early. He needs to rest, and to think of Gerald, the meaning of his accented moves, whether there were further instances lost in the flow of play but retrievable from memory.
Much has changed, and the thoughts need time to bloom and refine, until he understands what has happened.
Walking back to his room, he passes by the now silent lab, and enters, seeing Gerald still sitting in the centre of an empty room. Quietly, he closes the door, the familiar click soothing his overwrought nerves. He sits down on the back of Gerald’s casing, leaning against it and soaking in the dead calm.
“Look at what we did, Ger. What a world…”
After a short while, mind clearer, he rises with a deep sigh. Deep in the heart of one of Gerald’s eyes, a light blossoms and fades like a sudden nova in empty space, its edge fading with a soft purple-green afterglow.
Feng rises, pats Gerald affectionately, and leaves.
When he returns to his room, there is someone waiting. For a moment, he thinks that it is Mia. In his exhaustion and wonder, he is willing to admit that the resentment he bears her is little more than unrequited love, and a resentment that she has kept her soul while he happily sold his.
Unfortunately, such romantic notions are far from the world Feng now inhabits. With a measured glance, Zhukov rises, wasting no time with small talk. “Congratulations on your success. We have to talk, and it has to be now. There’s coffee and Cleans on the counter if you need to sober up.”
Feng shakes his head, trying to fight through the fog. Cleans help, but nothing in life is without cost. In this case, sudden sobriety comes with a disconcerting washing out of shade and colour from the world, leaving the detoxed subject sober but seeing in simple contrast blocks. Like many, Feng found the attendant discomfort simply not worth the advantage of being quickly sober. “What are you here for? I’m guessing this isn’t official, what with turning up in my room in the middle of the night.”
Zhukov smiles tightly. “Quite. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, what you have been told of Abraxas is a cover. A successful one, but the best lies are those closest to the truth, don’t you find? We created it in order to develop certain anticipated technologies, and gather talent such as yourself, in a way that could be relatively isolated from the interference of governments and other global bodies. You have now completed the first stage of a project that we hope will reshape war.”
Feng blinks, uncertain of what is happening. “Reshape war? Well, I suppose, though I can’t really see how it’s more than an incremental development of research that’s already taking place, looking at it over the medium term.” He begins to pace as the problem catches fire in his imagination. “No matter how much better a machine you make, what difference could it make? People are still people, after all, and it doesn’t look much like we can do anything about that. Whatever we develop will just end up on both sides of a conflict, and that inevitably leads to escalation.”
Zhukov smiles, without humour and with no little cruelty. “Agreed. There are those that think otherwise, but no program, no matter how powerful or diverse, could change the way people are.” He lays down a thumb-length crystal and a palm-sized block with an indentation and projection lens. “Still, I believe we can alter the flow of history, if we adapt this technology correctly.”
His eyes lazily watch Feng put the crystal into the reader and explores the interface. Smiling with the memory of their first meeting, Zhukov continues, his voice gathering pace and weight as he comes to the crux of the matter. “In a few hours, someone will arrive to offer you continued employment with Abraxas. I have come to make you an additional offer. We waited until now because some felt that you would be unsuitable for true command, but we can no longer delay.”
He locks eyes with Feng. “Join us in the core. You will be given a diplomatic passport, and a military intelligence ranking that will show you the true face of the world. These rewards, great as they are, are mere ornaments to the true prize I offer. We want you to be one of us; to become an Archon.”
The rest does not need to be said. Such invitations are made only once, and the cost of refusal has to be death. Any organisation so secretive that they employ unknown technologies in a hidden location, crewed by people that have disappeared from the face of the planet, have permanent solutions for those that do not join them.
Still drunk, and considering the word Archon, Feng bursts out laughing, lurid sci-fi and fantasy stories painting themselves across his mind’s eye. “An Archon? Really? How …”
His words trail off in the cold light of Zhukov’s eyes, and he hesitates for a moment, his throat caught on the realisation that he can no longer pretend to be both the intellectual scientist and a creator of weapons.
With a single question, his fate is sealed. “Will I have experimental autonomy? Within the bounds of the project, of course.”
Zhukov nods, and gathers his effects, aware that the conversation is over. Questions mean acceptance, and the details can be hammered out later. They have come to an understanding, these last few months, and there are others he has to see before the end.
As Zhukov reaches the door, Feng calls out, his mind racing. “When do we leave?”
“After breakfast. Be ready.”
Zhukov strides out, calm and happy. The work on the island is done, but the Great Work has only just begun, and he and Feng will be at the centre of it. Little more could be asked of the world.
Soon, the steel gray pre-dawn light gives way to a blazing sun. A few hours later, the island is a hive of activity, as goodbyes are said and essential equipment packed. An hour later, it is quiet again.
Flashes of light glinting off skimmers take Abraxas employees on to their new lives. The sun is now high over the island, shadows washing away in the midday light.
An automated system detects that each craft is out of sight and accelerating to hypersonic speeds, and a low chime rings in commemoration and alarm. A storm-tinged mushroom rises from the island, a concussive wave travelling across the ocean like ripples in a giant pond. Dozens of people, already removed from the records, turn to ash, along with billions of dollars’ worth of equipment, sacrifices to the birth of the Zatoichi.
They are the first and quietest victims of Feng’s genius.