An Extract from The Curve of the Earth: A Samuil Petrovitch novel
Meet Samuil Petrovitch. Russian cyborg super-genius and hero of post-apocalyptic London, known as The Metrozone. Brilliant, selfish and cocky, he’s dragged the city back from the brink more than once – and made a few enemies on the way.
So when his adopted daughter goes missing, he’s pretty sure he knows who’s responsible and why. It never occurs to him that guessing wrong could tip the delicate balance of nuclear-armed nations.
This time it’s not just a city that needs saving: it’s the whole world.
Petrovitch wanted to be alone, to worry and to brood, but he was part of the Freezone collective and that meant never having to be alone again. Company was built in, through the links they wore. Except for him. He didn’t wear a link: he was so connected that, at times, it felt like it wore him.
So he’d taken himself off so he could pretend – not far, just to the top of the hill which overlooked the collection of different-sized domes below. The narrow strip of land before the sea looked like a collection of luminous pearls cradled in the darkness of a winter night.
He’d reached the summit, as determined by at least four satellites spinning overhead, and sat down on the wet, flowing grass to wait. He faced the ocean and felt the first tug of an Atlantic gale stiffen the cloak he’d thrown around him.
“Yobany stos.” He’d been there for what? A minute? Less. “When there’s news, vrubatsa? Otherwise past’ zabej.”
He hunched over and stared at the horizon. The last vestiges of twilight were fading into the south-west, but the moon was almost full behind the racing clouds. Enough light for him to see by, at least, even if the climb up would have been crazy for anyone else.
Somewhere over there, over the curve of the Earth, was his daughter, his Lucy, and she had been out of contact for fifty-eight hours and forty-five minutes.
These things happened. Once in a while, the link technology they all carried failed. It meant a break in what kept each individual bound together with the rest of the collective, and a quick trip to the stores for a replacement.
White plastic pressed against bare flesh. A connection restored, and the collective was complete once more.
Lucy was beyond the reach of any Freezone storeroom. She was on the other side of the world, and even he couldn’t just pop over and present her with another link. There were difficulties and complications, not entirely of his own making.
The clock in the corner of his vision ticked on, counting the seconds. Relying on other people still didn’t sit easily with him, though he’d had a decade to get used to the idea. Relying on the Americans and their ultra-conservative, hyper-patriotic, quasifascistic, crypto-theocratic Reconstructionist government?
His heart spun faster just thinking about it. They had a joint past, one that barely rose above mutual loathing, and he was certain there was something they weren’t telling him. There’d been – a what? At this distance it was difficult to tell. The Freezone had only just started the laborious process of gathering the raw data and trying to fashion meaning from it.
He pulled his cloak tighter around him, not for warmth but for comfort.
There was a figure standing next to him, dark-clothed, whitefaced. It hadn’t been there a moment before, and it wasn’t really there now. It stared west with the same troubled hope that Petrovitch had.
[There’s,] and the voice hesitated. It hardly ever hesitated. The only times it ever hesitated were when it was dealing with meat-stuff. Important meat-stuff.
[There’s been a development.]
[There is no sign of Lucy.]
“Yeah. That figures.” Petrovitch clenched his jaw and bared his teeth. “Where the huy is she?”
[The search-and-rescue team’s initial findings do not indicate the actions of any outside agency.]
“They wouldn’t, would they? I knew it. I knew it was a mistake to let her go. I should have—”
[Forbidden it?] said Michael, looking down on Petrovitch. [She is twenty-four years old and an autonomous citizen of the Freezone.]
“She’s still my responsibility.”
[Not by law or custom. Need I remind you what you were doing when you were twenty-four? Or when you were eighteen?]
Petrovitch fumed. “It’s not the same.”
[Sasha, we will find her.]
“Of course we will. Tell me what they’re saying.”
[That at eleven fifteen local time, a search-and-rescue team comprising USAF, Alaskan police and University of Alaska personnel, flying out of Eielson Air Force Base, conducted a preliminary search of the University of Alaska Fairbanks North Slope research station. The single known occupant of that research station, Dr Lucy Petrovitch, was not located despite a thorough search of all the solid structures. There was nothing to indicate that she had either left the station on an expedition, or been forced to leave against her will. A search of the immediate area has commenced, though it will be necessarily limited in scope.]
“What the huy does that mean?”
[It means they have four hours of daylight in any twenty-four-hour period, and the air force transport must return to base. An overland expedition is being arranged. They estimate it will arrive in a week,] and Michael paused again. [Which seems unnecessarily delayed. I will attempt to ascertain a reason for this.]
Petrovitch felt impotent rage rise like a spring tide. His skin pricked with sweat.
[Talk to me, Sasha,] said Michael. [Tell me what you’re thinking.]
Lucy’s link was standard Freezone issue. Satellite enabled, always on, not just reliable, but dependable: powered by the heat from her body.
“They don’t go wrong. They just don’t.” He looked up at Michael’s avatar, framed against the silver-lined clouds. “She took a spare. I made her, because I’m a good father. And neither of them are working.”
To prove the point, he pinged her machine – both of them.
He got nothing, and there was so rarely nothing.
“Something’s happened. I want to know what. I want to know now.”
[How many of our protocols are we going to break this time?] asked Michael. “As a point of reference? More than the Baku incident?”
[More than Beirut. We’re going to break them all if we have to. Assemble an ad-hoc. They can decide.]
Michael polled the Freezone collective and selected five names with the required expertise and wisdom. There was no need to wait for them to assemble, exchange pleasantries, enquire about the kids; that wasn’t what an ad-hoc was about. He’d been in enough to know the score.
There were preliminaries, though: for the record.
[Welcome, Freezone ad-hoc committee number four thousand seven hundred and ninety-two, convened on February fifth, twenty thirty-four, at twenty forty-eight Universal Time to discuss the preliminary response of the Freezone to the disappearance of Lucy Petrovitch. Please state your names.]
The five people could be anywhere on the planet. They could be in the mother dome in Cork, or planting electric trees in the Sahara. It didn’t matter.
Petrovitch blinked. “Hey,” he said.
She shouldn’t have been on the ad-hoc. Though she was one of the few North Americans they had, it was a veritable United Nations as it was. The point being, it was personal for her. She was Lucy’s big sister in all but name. She wasn’t going to even pretend to be impartial.
He used a backchannel to talk to Michael. “Are you sure about this?”
[You don’t get to question the make-up of the ad-hoc, Sasha. That’s one protocol you don’t get to break.]
That was him told.
Addressing the committee, Michael gave them bald facts: shortly after midnight, three days ago, Lucy Petrovitch lost contact with the Freezone. That she had been conducting research on Alaska’s frozen, dark North Slope was a complicating factor, but not the primary concern.
The point was, she’d vanished. And no one seemed to be in any particular rush to find her.
[We need to decide what assets we dedicate to the search, and how they are best deployed.]
Human minds worked differently to Michael’s. There was a long gap before anyone spoke.
“I would say, we do everything, despite the Americans,” said Mendelane, “but it cannot be denied that we require – at the very least – the co-operation of the relevant authorities. We must tread carefully.”
“She is one of us,” said al-Ghazi. Where he was, he could see the same sky as Petrovitch, the same Moon illuminating the tops of the electric trees as they cooled and clicked in the Saharan night. “There is no question of us doing nothing. Would they permit Freezone personnel in Alaska? Or our proxies?”
[I will pass on a request to the US State Department,] said Michael. [You must decide whether we ask, or whether we insist. And if we insist, how forcefully we put our demands.]
“I would be cautious,” said Mendelane.
“I wouldn’t,” said Tabletop. “I’d threaten them with everything we can, and if that’s not enough, we make shit up until they give in. Look, Lucy’s not the sort of kid – not the sort of woman – to go wandering into the night in her slippers and dressing gown, especially when that night lasts for twenty-plus hours and it’s fifteen below. If they’re not interested in looking for her, we’ll do it instead. We could have a team on the ground by tomorrow morning.”
“The university said it would take them a week,” said Moltzman. Petrovitch didn’t know him personally, just his reputation score, which was a respectable eighty-something. “Why would they say that if, firstly, a military search-and-rescue could be deployed in hours, and secondly, they know we could do it faster, with most of our people half a world away?”
[That is a good question,] noted Michael, and Moltzman’s pregnant rep birthed another point. [I can suggest some possible answers, but assigning probabilities to them will take time if I am to be accurate.]
“It’s because she’s a Petrovitch,” said Tabletop. “This whole thing was a set-up from start to finish: the original invitation, which she should have refused, the fact that she was alone, in winter, in the dark, in an isolated location. I said she shouldn’t go.”
[An ad-hoc said she should accept.]
“They were wrong!”
[Samuil Petrovitch was on that ad-hoc,] Michael reminded her, reminded them all. [He agreed with the decision made then.]
“That’s come back to bite him on the arse, hasn’t it?” She lapsed into sullen silence, and the dead air that followed stretched uncomfortably.
There was another protocol surrounding the ad-hocs, that the petitioner wasn’t supposed to speak on their own initiative: they could answer questions, clarify positions, discuss motivations.
But not be an advocate, and certainly not grandstand. The committee members weren’t a jury, and an ad-hoc wasn’t a court.
Petrovitch held his nerve, and his tongue.
[It may have been that the ad-hoc was not in possession of all necessary information, although I did my best at the time.]
Having slapped him down once, Michael was now taking responsibility for Petrovitch’s piss-poor judgement. [That also may be the case here: however, this is the way we decided we would conduct our decision-making, and if you do not come to a consensus, I will dismiss you and convene another ad-hoc.]
“No,” said al-Ghazi quickly. “We will decide.” He had no way of knowing if he was in the first ad-hoc or the tenth: the Berber tribesman had embraced the nature of the Freezone’s ad-hocracy with all the fervour of a convert, and he’d been called on to play his part.
[We have not heard from one of the committee. If you please, Mrs Levantine.]
“Well now,” she said, and Petrovitch imagined her leaning back in her chair, knitting needles maintaining a steady click-clack rhythm. She didn’t knit out of utility, but out of respect for the craft. “Lucy’s the age of my eldest granddaughter, and I know she hasn’t got her birth mother or father to worry about her, but she has Sam and Madeleine, and all of us instead. She never struck me as a silly girl: a little too serious for her own good, if you ask me, so I agree with Tabletop. She wouldn’t walk out of a safe place for any reason except a very good reason. So either someone took her, or she was persuaded – by someone else or her own mind.”
“You think she is still alive,” said Mendelane, “despite what an extended break in linking usually means?”
“Oh, for certain. No one would take the trouble of going all that way just to, you know, hurt her.”
“Will whoever has her look after her? Until we find her?”
“Well now,” she said again. “We can hope, can’t we?”
Moltzman cleared his throat. “So, what do we need to do? Demand in the strongest possible terms that the authorities treat her disappearance as a crime, not as accidental or negligent. That they put all reasonable effort into finding her . . .”
“Strike ‘reasonable’,” said Tabletop. “They need to prove to us they’re doing everything they can. Missing persons is an FBI thing: we want nothing less than someone on the ground, up on the North Slope, directing local assets.”
“One of us or one of them?” asked Moltzman.
“Both,” said Tabletop emphatically. “We watch over their shoulder so we know it’s being done right.”
[Does everyone agree to this course of action?] Michael tabulated the votes, and reported back the result. [The committee is unanimous. The question remains, who do we send?]
“I will go,” offered al-Ghazi. “I would be honoured to accept the duty.”
Honoured he might be, but the Americans would eat him alive. Petrovitch jumped in, almost without thinking. That was a lie: he’d done nothing but think since Lucy had gone offline. When the moment presented itself, he was ready.
“No. That’s my job,” he said.
Tabletop was instantly furious. “Sam: they’ve got one Petrovitch already. We’re not giving them another.”
“Who else, then? You?”
“You know I can’t . . . anybody. Anyone else but you.”
“Fine. Name someone better equipped to survive Reconstruction America. Someone who’ll get Lucy, and bring her home.”
“This isn’t meant to happen, Sam. You’re not supposed to get involved again.”
“Yeah, well. I am involved.” A muscle in Petrovitch’s face twitched, and he started to notice the cold and the wind again.
“I suppose I’d better tell Maddy.”
It was just him and Michael again, on the hillside, with the domes below and the sky above.
[Good luck with that,] said Michael.
“Yeah.” Petrovitch scrubbed at his face and thought about getting up. “Probably best done in person. Difficult to land a punch over a link.”
Michael’s avatar patted him on the shoulder. Petrovitch could feel the reassuring pressure, despite it all happening somewhere on a virtual interface buried deep in his brain.
“You’d better fuck off now. Certain you’ve got better things to do than nursemaid me.”
[You know where I am . . .] The avatar vanished, and Petrovitch levered himself up.
“You’re everywhere,” he said, and started back to the sea.