Archer stood on the South Bank of the river Thames in London on the first real Spring day of 2060. He breathed in the fresh wind that blew in from the estuary beyond the Docklands to the east. He was feeling much better having had a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice, a cup of coffee and a Danish pastry from the stall by the Jubilee Bridge. He had left the bar early the night before and his head was sore when he woke up this morning. Heaven knew how Geek and Davey would be feeling. The two other members of The Axiom Few, his small band of freelance techno-graduates, had gone on to a nightclub.
Moments later he found the answer, or at least part of it. His mobile phone rang in his pocket and when he answered it, Geek's voice at the other end was gravelly and broken.
'Archer, you need to come to the test shack.'
'Let me guess. You had a rockin' night and someone stole your clothes. You need me to bring you some new ones.'
'I wish it were that easy.'
'So, spit it out.'
'Just come will you. I'll tell you when you get here.'
It took Archer less than an hour to reach the test shack by car. The small corrugated iron construction was nestled under a motorway overpass forty miles outside London. It was here that the team's numerous projects and inventions were constructed, reconstructed, abandoned and adopted.
'It was a great night, that's for sure,' said Geek as he threw back two paracetamol and drank from a bottle of water. He put it down in an empty space on one of the work-benches that was littered with cables, microchips, scraps of solder and small moulded plastic housings. The empty space was previously occupied by something Geek had been working on the day before.
'What happened to the Capacillant Frame? You were building it right there.'
Geek hunched his shoulders. 'They've taken it. And all my data files.
'Who's taken it?'
Then a voice behind Archer caused him to turn. It was Davey, standing in the doorway of the shack. 'Have you ever heard of The Precipice Faction?'
Archer shook his head. 'Sounds like a bunch of freedom fighters.'
Davey nodded, 'In a way they are. But it's the mind they want to free.' He stepped further in. 'They've achieved physical freedom. Like us they eschew the corporates and the high politics. They're nomads. Floaters. They scour the Earth looking for ways to achieve new highs. New mental highs. They've gone beyond the sky-diving, spelunking, bungee and base-jumping. What we've learned from last night is that they're moving onto new things. And this is a worry for us.'
Geek chimed in. 'After you left the bar last night, Davey and I went on to a club. We ran into some of Davey's old mates from his caving days. Davey knew back then that they'd joined the Precipice Faction but... what were their names again, Davey?'
'Gideon and Amelia. They're brother and sister. Archer, the thing is, last night they told me they'd left the group. They said the Faction had run out of ideas a couple of years back and had become directionless. No new highs to be found. Stupidly I believed them. I started to get a migraine around one in the morning and I made my excuses, leaving Geek with them to carry on drinking. I mean, it looked like she was hitting on you Geek. '
Archer said, 'They must have been targeting us for a while now. They must have thought we were the key to finding a new high.'
'If they were looking to us for a new high,' said Geek, 'then they've done the right thing.'
'How so? I mean, what is this thing they've taken?' said Davey. 'Look, the Space Foundation and the authorities give us licence to operate the way we do, outside the normal scientific channels, because we can produce results, often quickly. But we operate under the mutual agreement that we cause no harm to others. If anyone finds out that the Capacillant Frame has fallen into the hands of a bunch of miscreants then we could be forced out. We might have to up sticks and operate elsewhere. Build new contacts. Who knows how this could play out.'
Archer tried to untangle a way to appease the two others. 'It won't come to that. The Space Foundation needs us, as they keep demonstrating. If this gets out it will be quickly buried. And besides, do you think the Space Foundation, or anyone else for that matter, would give a toss if a member of a gang of gypsies like the Precipice Faction came to harm because of one of our inventions? They'd probably say good riddance to bad rubbish.'
He was unsure if he'd won the others round, but he carried on. 'Geek, so we can understand what we're dealing with, you need to tell us what the Capacillant Frame actually does.'
Geek produced a box from a blue toolbag that lay at his feet. It was about the size of a car-battery and similar in look to the Capacillant Frame that had been stolen. Two metal rods protruded from the top, and bent inwards toward each other. On the side were a number of ports for data connections with other electronic devices.
'This is a prototype Capacillant. It doesn't work. I had to rewire some of the inside and add space for coolant. Plus the firmware was buggy and the newer firmware required more CPU power, so I had to upgrade to a bigger board.'
'What does it do?'
Geek closed his eyes. He seemed to be clearing his mind, trying to find a way to explain. 'I'd had this dream one night a few months back. It was fuelled no doubt by the amount of time I seemed to spend lately trying to understand Darken Loops and the associated time-rips. I started to wonder if there was a way of accessing a map of these links and branches. Like some sort of interdimensional “A to Z”.'
'You wanted to see if the multiverse was mappable?'
'Yes, but ultimately the Capacillant didn't help with that at all. I managed to analyze a rip using the Reflection Goggles and I took a whole heap of sample images. I started to get an understanding of how the fuzzy, glowing edges of these rips work. But closer inspection didn't reveal anything that would allow me to build a map. I got something entirely different.
'Well, for want of a better word, knowledge!'
Archer raised his hands. 'You lost me at hello.'
Geek smiled. 'Okay. The edges of these time-rips are not just fissures in the fabric that divides these branches. The fabric itself is a knowledge surface. It contains binary data imprinted upon it. A-priori versions of things in the universe. Although "imprinted" is a bit of a two-dimensional, and inadequate, way of describing it.' He pointed at the Capacillant prototype. 'These rods on the top, if you place your head between them, can download that binary into your brain's hippocampus, at a rate of five hundred and forty six petabytes per second. I'm working on the interface, but in a short space of time you'd learn an awful lot about the multiverse. It would probably also turn you into a dribbling clown in the process.'
'Have you ever used it?'
'Of course not. It's too dangerous.'
'Then how do you know it works?'
'I've used the digital interfaces to verify what I know. Maxed out a storage array in seconds. Frankly, at the moment I'm too scared to connect myself to it.'
Davey spoke. 'This, for the Precipice Faction, would be a new mental high. Dangerously so. But how did they learn you were building this thing? You didn't even tell us about it.'
Geek bowed his head to the floor. 'I was an idiot. But Amelia was quite something. We snogged and she asked if we could go somewhere private. I thought she liked me. She was asking about stuff I was working on. I was trying to impress her. I don't remember much but I woke up here this morning and she was gone. She must have spiked my drink. I didn't know that... Look, if I saw more action, you know, on the girl scene, I probably would have been more resistant to her. I'm sorry.'
Archer made his way out of the shack and breathed in some fresh motorway air. The afternoon was turning out to be unseasonably warm. The others followed him out. Geek said, 'How can we find them?'
Davey said, 'I lost contact with those guys a while back. I don't have their numbers. Something tells me that right now they don't want to be found. I have no idea if their intention to steal the Capacillant predates yesterday, or whether they did it on impulse. Frankly I don't know where to start.'
An hour later, Archer pitched his car into the outside lane of the motorway, London-bound. Accelerating to ease away the tension. Geek's inventions always pushed The Axiom Few into dangerous territory. It came with the job. And ultimately it was a case of "no guts no glory". They never wanted the glory, but they also didn't want any of their devices to fall into the wrong hands. It had never happened before and he'd always hoped they could keep things just the way he wanted. Secret. And revealed to others in only the method and measure that was to his preference. Now that an outsider knew where the test shack was, they would probably have to move it. If the Precipice Faction got a taste for Geek's inventions, they could come looking for more. And things could turn very sour very quickly.
While these thoughts were progressing through his head he pushed the car on. Geek had been left with the task of at least beginning to clear up the mess by starting the online search for the Precipice Faction. But initial checks on the web had thrown up nothing solid. The thrillseekers had done a good job of covering their dirty tracks. But then his phone rang. He slipped the car into the slow lane and answered it on speakerphone. 'Geek, it had better be good.'
'It is. Well, it could be. Nothing yet on the Faction, but one of the emergency channels I monitor just flagged up a news item. A surfer-type, aged twenty-one just got dumped on the road outside Kingston Hospital. You know I flippantly used the term "dribbling clown" to describe the side effects of using the Capacillant?'
'Well that's exactly the same term this reporter used. It's a coincidence for sure, but I think we should check this story out. Can you come back and pick me up?'
'Geek, when are you going to learn to drive?'
'Mate, there are a whole host of universes where I did, Archer. And in at least half of them I turn round and pick you up.'