November 2053, and a soft, almost invisible drizzle penetrated the fabric of a morning that was hooded by low, still clouds.
Inside the Axiom Few test-shack, hidden under a motorway over-pass some forty miles outside London, the three members of this small team of freelance techno-graduates stood around the workbench, sipping hot tea, and staring at the metal box that lay upon it.
'It appeared on my kitchen table about two hours ago,' said Davey. 'I think it came through one of your time rips, Geek.'
Geek considered the events of six months before, when an AI from some alternate dimension had utilised his Reflection Goggles to move items through one such rip in order to alter the course of the future. That item had been a simple voucher for free coffee, and its effect had been to save the life of Davey's girlfriend by delaying her from a road accident.
This time the object sent was more substantial. It was a closed metal briefcase with a combination lock on it.
'This was stuck to the lid, but it fell off.' He handed Archer a post-it note. Written on it was a single word.
Archer pulled his mobile phone from his pocket and looked at the keypad, where the numbers and digits aligned to enable text messaging. 'So SHOE translates to err... seven, four, six, three.'
Davey smiled. 'Seven, four, six, three, yep. I've already tried that. It didn't work.'
'No, no, you need to look in your shoes,' said Geek. 'Inside your shoes.'
Archer said, 'What for? I think we would have noticed if we had something in our shoes.'
Geek nodded. 'What about on the soles?'
And that was when they found a word and the code. On the sole of one of Archer's Timberlands was the word WATER written in white liquid paper. On the other shoe was a four-digit code. 'Eight, three, three, one.'
Davey said, 'How did they get there?'
'You know something?' said Archer, 'I have no idea.'
'I don't like this at all.' Davey's hands were shaking as he tapped in the four digits on the combination lock. The final entry brought a tiny pressurised hiss followed by the automated hydraulic opening of the case.
Inside, resting on a moulded foam bedding, were six hypodermic syringes, full of a clear liquid.
Geek leaned closer to inspect the contents of the case. 'Now what do you suppose they are for?'
'And why did someone write WATER on my shoe?' added Archer.
'Somehow I doubt it's water in there.'
'I'm afraid I can't talk about it,' said Archer, placing his glass of wine on the table beside his plate. He looked between the two candles that burned at eye level and caught the cynicism of the look in Gemma's eyes.
'Come on, that's a line,' she said, pausing with a forkful of steak halfway to her mouth. She playfully mocked. 'Your work is top secret. You can tell me but then you'll have to kill me, is that it?'
Archer shook his head, needing to convince her that he wasn't like that, 'It's not like that. Companies force us to sign non-disclosure agreements. Our inventions are pretty fringe. I promise it's not a line.'
Gemma nodded, 'You didn't need a line anyway. I'm already here. Eating dinner with you.'
Something had caused Geek to sleep late. He rolled over in his bed and looked at the alarm clock. It was nearly eleven AM. He sat up and swung his legs out of bed. God he felt tired. He shuffled into the kitchen and flicked on the kettle. As he rummaged around in the cupboard for a tea bag, his absent-minded gaze alighted on the empty glass he had drunk water out of the night before. He picked it up and inspected it more closely. Was that the remnants of a soluble powder scudded up the inside?
The sound of drilling outside the front of the apartment woke Archer up. He had dreamed of a domino game the size of the solar system. Staring up at the ceiling through drowsy eyes, at how the light from between the closed curtains scored a bright sunny line between the window and the door, he realised it must be after eleven AM, as the sun didn't come round the building till then in late Autumn. He pondered for a moment the thrill of the sex he had had with Gemma the night before. Reconnecting with his old girlfriend from school had been quite a rush, despite all the fumbling with that condom.
He had thought he would never see her again after the final day of their exams ten years before. That she had gotten in touch - tracked him down even - was something quite special. Sometimes it really was possible to be lucky in love. He twisted his head to look at her, reaching across in the hope she might be willing to indulge him once more on this fine sunny morning.
But she wasn't there, and before he even bothered to call out, on the off chance she may have gone to make a drink or visit the bathroom, he saw the small pink note that lay on her pillow.
Had to go, sorry. Call me.
He picked up his mobile from the bedside table, swung his legs out of bed and stood up. He pulled up her number and pressed the Call button.
Voicemail. He left a message. Then he had a shower, dried off, and climbed into jeans and a white t-shirt. But despite half an hour of looking, he couldn't find the Timberland boots he'd worn to the restaurant the night before.
Still rubbing his eyes, Geek wandered through to the hallway to pick up the morning's mail from the doormat. There was only one letter, addressed to him. He paused before opening it and pulled out one single side of typed paper.
Dearest son, I need your help. You have the mind for this sort of thing so I knew I should come to you. To be honest I have no one else to turn to. The question is whether you are prepared to help me. Something strange is happening here...
Geek read the rest of the letter. When he'd finished, he folded it up and placed it back in the envelope, pushing it into the back pocket of his jeans. He was just turning to make his way back to the kitchen when the sound of the loud doorbell shattered the silence, making him nearly jump out of his pale skin. He turned back and opened it. Standing on the doorstep was the postman.
'Forget something did you?' said Geek.
The postman handed him a box, 'Beg your pardon?'
Geek looked at the box. It said "Techipre Components" on the side. It was a delivery of computer parts he'd had on order, 'Thanks very much. Where do I sign?'
'Nowhere,' said the postman as he walked off, shaking his head as though Geek was mad.
Archer's mobile was ringing. He was in the shower, using the meditative power of the fast running water to aid clarity of thought. He was thinking about the strange events of the day before, about the briefcase that had appeared on Davey's kitchen table. But the ringing phone was persistent enough to make him climb out of the shower with shampoo still in his hair, cursing under his breath and hoping it was important. He answered the call, holding the mobile phone away from his wet ear.
'Archer it's me,' said Geek from down the line. 'We need to meet at the test-shack as soon as possible. I know what the syringes are for.'
'That's excellent, what?'
'I'll tell you when we meet. Get Davey. No questions.'
'Give me an hour.'
Geek was holding the letter in one shaking hand. Outside the test shack there was an endless drone of cars on the motorway overhead, and the occasional lorry rumbled past, causing the corrugated iron walls to shake.
'Why should we help him? He's a fraudulent... worm.' he said through clenched teeth as he tossed the letter onto the workbench. 'People like him are the reason why I don't work for corporations. He was a pickpocket with a white collar. He deserved the sentence they gave him, and I hope he never gets out.'
Now Davey spoke, 'Maybe it's not about helping your Dad. For us it's not about saving him. It's about understanding why it's happening in the first place. The virus. The syringes. This stuff is new.'
Archer picked up the folded sheet of paper and started to read again.
Geek turned to Archer, appealing. 'If it was your Dad, Archer. If it was your Dad. You wouldn't help him, would you?'
Archer shook his head. 'If it was my Dad. I'd let him rot.'
Geek looked at Davey, happy to have a confirmation of his own sanity from Archer, 'See? Let him rot!'
Archer was scratching his head. 'How does a virus target only criminals anyway? There must be some biological reason.'
Geek had done his research. After he had received the letter he had run some web searches. 'It lends weight to the theory that a chemical imbalance causes people to have criminalist tendencies. Elevated copper and lead in the blood. A zinc deficiency. Hypoglycaemia. Because of intervening social issues - muddying the waters, nature versus nurture etcetera - it's been impossible to tell whether those imbalances actually cause someone to be a criminal. But a virus could be manufactured to target people with those deficiencies.'
'According to your Dad's letter. Nearly all the inmates have the disease, and none of the prison guards.'
'Yeah, and the prison authorities don't seem to give a damn. According to Dad they're happy to let it kill them off. And it's already claimed a handful of lives.'
'It doesn't seem to have gotten out,' added Davey. 'The news of it. Scrub City is obviously keeping tight-lipped on this.'
Archer said, 'I'm not surprised, something like this would cause a media frenzy. So are we agreed that we think there's a Darken Loop involved, except this time we're on the receiving end? Items designed to fix this problem are being sent to us from the future.'
'I think so,' said Davey. 'The syringe briefcase appeared as though it had passed through a rip. One minute my kitchen table was clear, and the next it had a briefcase on it. I didn't see it appear, but nobody had time to sneak in and place it there. It's just like what we did when we sent the coffee voucher.'
'They've got to be the antidote,' said Geek. 'Someone or something is helping us introduce an antidote to the prison, to eradicate the virus. It's like before. We're doing it to save the lives of people who are key to mankind's development in the future. Maybe someone in there...'
'You're talking about prisoners here,' said Davey.
Archer reacted, 'Based on what went before, we knew we were doing overall good. Our actions were endorsed by the Humanity Council and the Space Foundation, we should proceed to do what's required of us.'
'We don't definitely know that what we did was good,' said Davey, running his hands through his blonde hair.
Archer shook his head, 'But I don't think we should take risks if we're dealing with an artificially intelligent, multi-dimensional force that is probably many times more resourceful than we are.'
'Resourceful?' Geek laughed nervously. 'If it's so resourceful, why do we keep having to do its bidding?'
That silenced them all. Archer knew perhaps they wouldn't all agree. But that's why they had a leader. 'We should do this,' he said. 'Follow it through. See where we end up, and pull the plug if things start getting out of hand.'
'And has anyone given any thought as to how do we get inside a fortified prison to administer this antidote?' said Geek, his eyes dancing between the two others.
Davey smiled, 'Geek I'm one step ahead of you today. Haven't you worked out what the other word means yet? The other word we found on Archer's shoe?'