The Big Shift (2022) Chapter 9. Hacking O

in #scifi2 months ago (edited)

DALL·E 2022-11-06 23.09.06 - Wild Ink drawing of a big brightly painted house-boat on a canal in the city, with lots of cats around and on it .png
​The Big Shift – Chapter 9

Hacking O

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Following the wide promenade along the river's embankment, our brave adventurers came to a weir, a great curved waterfall, beyond which the main part of the river split off into narrower canals, leading off in various directions into the shadow of the hives.

'This way', said Jerry, veering off to the right, pushing the cart along the narrow, canal towpath. 'Techno Terry's boat is just along here.. at least it was, the last time I was there..'

On either side of the canal, city walls rose up in layers of history. On the ground level, time-worn red brick walls from the days of the industrial revolution, punctuated by high walls of concrete and steel, warehouses from the twentieth century. Here and there, an old iron footbridge crossed the canal. Higher up, curved Earthcrete bridges snaked and coiled across the spaces between the hives. In some places high above the old canal, the hives joined together completely, arching across the sky like the vaulted ceiling of a vast, subterranean cavern. Birds and bats circled and swooped between climbing vines and hanging roots which covered the outer surfaces of the hives.

After the sound of the great river rushing down the weir, and the sound of the crowds of people out on the embankment, and the sound of motor boats coming and going, it was very quiet along the old canal. But for the gentle flow of the water and the sound of water dripping, everything was still and silent. There was no-one around. The old towpath was narrow, with a long, red brick wall of an old factory, close along one side and the canal along the other. Jerry, Greta, Queenie and Captain Toast walked single file, each silently engrossed in their own thoughts.

At the far corner of the long factory wall, a black cat which had been dozing in a narrow shaft of sunlight, half opened one eye to survey our adventurers approaching. One, two, three humans, a box on wheels and a big white dog. Captain Toast spotted the cat at the same moment and, growling his most fearsome growl, made a run for the cat. The cat didn't move a muscle. Captain Toast skidded to a halt just before reaching the cat, looking confused. He barked his loudest bark and the sound reverberated along the walls at both sides of the canal. The cat yawned, stretched and got lazily to her feet. Captain Toast fell silent again and peered curiously at the cat, uncertain whether to bare his teeth and growl, or do something else.. but what? The cat momentarily stood up on her two back legs in order to reach up and touch Captain's nose with her own. Captain Toast couldn't make up his mind whether to bite off the cat's head or to be friends with this bold creature. Captain opened his mouth wide and made a strange, high pitched sound, then stuck out his tongue and licked the cat across the face. From that moment, the two were firm, four-legged friends.

Captain Toast and the black cat walked ahead side by side along the canal path. Jerry breathing a sigh of relief, resumed pushing the empty cart, with Greta and Queenie following behind. As they proceeded, more cats joined them, running out from the side alley of the old factory, jumping down from walls, there were suddenly cats coming from all directions.

'O.. K..' said Queenie uncertainly. 'This is a bit weird. Kind of cute, but weird.' Queenie didn't really like cats. She didn't especially dislike them, she just didn't particularly trust them.

'Hey, Captain! Hold up! Wait for us!' shouted Jerry, as Captain Toast and the black cat both ran off, chasing each other along the canal path, into the distance.

'Do you know where we are, Jerry?' asked Queenie.

'Yeah, of course', said Jerry. 'It's just along here. I mean, I think it is. I haven't seen Techno Terry in a few months.. actually about a year, come to think of it... so I suppose he could have moved..'

'Oh great', said Queenie. 'So then what? We'll just wander about the orange zone hoping to bump into Greta's sister?'

'Don't worry Queenie, he'll be there' said Jerry. 'Anyway, if we don't find Terry, we can always ask O..'

Queenie grabbed his sleeve and hissed 'Keep your voice down! Don't say O like that.. out loud. It can hear you.'

'Queenie, take it easy' said Jerry, prizing her hand off his sleeve. 'You're being paranoid. Relax. Anyway, how can you not say O out loud? It's just a sound. A vowel. It's not even an actual word.'

'Just be careful ok?' said Queenie. 'Walls have ears.'

Greta bent down to stroke a ginger cat which had been deliberately walking in front of her feet. The cat stood up on his back legs and touched Greta's nose with his very pink nose. Greta laughed. 'Hello Mr Cat', she said, stroking his head. 'Is this the way to Techno Terry's boat?' The cat gave her a long and searching stare, then swung himself around importantly and walked on ahead of Greta, zig-zagging in front of her feet.

The procession of Jerry, Queenie, Greta and about twenty cats continued along the canal path, past the backs of old warehouses, in the shadow of the hives. Captain Toast and the black cat were out of sight, somewhere in the distance, beyond a curve in the canal. Jerry started to look uncertain. He stopped and looked up and down along the canal, stroking his chin. 'Funny, his boat used to be along here. I'm sure it was. Maybe he's moved it further along..' The cats didn't stop to wait for Jerry to make up his mind, they all just skipped and hopped and ran ahead, sure that it was the right way to somewhere.

Queenie shook her head and kept her thoughts to herself.

'Let's follow the cats', said Greta. 'I think they know the way.'

Jerry pondered this for a moment and then shrugged and said 'Ok, why not?' and he resumed pushing the cart along in the wake of the cats. Queenie muttered something underneath her breath, looked uneasily from side to side, back over her shoulder and up into the labyrinth of the hive above. She pulled the brim of her hat down and skulked along behind him. Greta gazed at the water flowing along the canal. It was the same water which had flowed down from the mountains, the streams and brooks that she had followed to the city. It felt like a lifetime ago, though she had only arrived at the city's edge the day before.

Around the bend in the canal, the underside of the hive became lower. It felt like they were entering a tunnel with no end in sight as the canal curved away into the shadows. Pools of light, bounced down from a great height through mirrored ducts, illuminated the path up ahead at intervals in a dim reflection of the sky. Queenie hesitated uncertainly. 'I don't know about this. There's no-one around at all.. and it's dark. Who'd live here?'

'Well, it's away from the crowds, I guess', said Jerry, peering into the shadows. 'Some people like that.'

'Hey.. what's that?' gasped Queenie, stopping in her tracks and pointing up ahead. 'There's something there. I saw something move.'

Jerry and Greta stopped too and strained their eyes to see what it was. 'Hey, I saw it too' said Greta. 'Something shimmering. What could it be? Can you see it Jerry?'

Jerry craned his head forward and pushed his sunglasses up onto his head. 'Yeah.. I think so.. there's definitely something there.. I can't make out what it is.. but it looks like it's coming towards us.'

As the shapeless, shimmering, unidentified object moved towards them from the dim recesses of the tunnel, Greta, Queenie and Jerry huddled together behind the cart.

'Let's get the hell out of here' said Queenie. 'I don't like this place.' She turned to head back the way they'd come, but Jerry grabbed her sleeve.

'Wait Queenie', he said. 'Look, there's Captain Toast. And there's that black cat. They're walking either side of .. whatever it is.'

As the shimmering thing passed under a skylight, it became brighter, sparkling with blue, silver and golden light. As it got closer, it started to take on a form, but was still impossible to make out any clear details.

'It looks like a person', said Greta. 'I think it does. I can't see its shape. There's something hovering over its head. I can't tell what it is..'

The shimmering thing advanced. It was almost definitely a human form, tall and wide, walking on two legs. Its footsteps on the old stone-paved canal path, echoing along the walls of the tunnel were the only sound to be heard. Greta, Jerry and Queenie stood transfixed. The thing was now less than fifty meters away, but it was still a shimmering blur.

Queenie spoke out of the side of her mouth in an urgent tone 'I don't know what that is Jerry, but I don't want to find out either. Let's get out of here, quick!'

The thing was about twenty meters away and now it came into clearer view. It looked like a human, or humanoid, tall and wide. It was wearing a round, silver helmet which was polished to a mirror finish and a long cape, also made from a highly reflective mirrored material. It was carrying what appeared to be an oversized umbrella, made of the same silvery stuff. Captain Toast and the black cat were walking at either side of the mysterious person, or whatever he, she or it was. About twenty or thirty cats surrounded them.

Now the person, or humanoid thing, was right in front of them, looming over them with its big mirrored umbrella. It was too late to run.

'Hello Jerry! What brings you down this way?' It had man's voice, muffled from within the helmet.

'Terry?' Is that you?'

Terry lifted the visor of his helmet to reveal a grinning face. Techno Terry's face was so pale and round, it reminded Greta of the full moon, but with a grey stubbly chin and dark rings under his eyes. 'Yeah, course it's me. Who else did you think it would be? I saw you coming. Who are your friends?'

'This is Queenie and this is Greta' said Jerry.

'Pleased to meet you both', said Terry, shaking their hands. 'It looks like you're trying to be incognito.. undercover.. anonymous.. am I right?'

'However did you guess?' said Queenie.

'The sunglasses, hats and scarves gave you away', said Terry, smiling. 'Here, get under this umbrella and O won't be able to see you at all. My boat's just around the corner, you'll be safe there.'

Greta and Queenie got under the umbrella either side of Terry and they walked quickly along the path, through the dimly lit tunnel. Jerry followed behind with the cart, Captain Toast at his side and several cats at his heels.

Queenie said to Terry, 'Are these all your cats?'

Terry nodded. 'Well, I wouldn't say they're mine.. I mean, they're cats.. they belong to themselves don't they.. but yeah, they're with me.'

Greta said, 'How did you see us coming? Have you got hidden cameras along here?'

'Oh yes!' said Terry, his visor up, still grinning. 'And you'll never guess where they're hidden.'

Queenie and Greta looked all around, up and down. There could be a million places to hide a camera in a place like this.

'I don't know', said Queenie. 'Give us a clue.'

'Meeow!' said Terry.

Queenie turned and stared at him, her jaw dropping behind her face-covering. 'You're joking right!' she said.

'What?' asked Greta. 'I don't get it.'

'He's got cameras on the cats!' said Queenie to Greta.

'Not on the cats', said Terry. 'In the cats! They've all got noodles.'

'Wha-at?!' said Greta, aghast, moving away from Terry.

The boat came into view around the bend in the canal. It was an old, steel-hulled fishing boat from the days before the Big Shift.. the days when fish had been pulled out of the sea by their billions, until there had been almost none left. Its once bright white painted sides were now streaked with brown from rust and grease, but it still looked like a sturdy enough craft.

'Here we are.. This is my boat. I'll tell you about the cats when we're inside. Mind your step getting across', said Terry, leading the way over the narrow gangplank onto the deck.

They entered through the wheelhouse and went down some wooden stairs. Below deck was a low-ceilinged space with a kitchen at the far end, the sink and kitchen surface piled with unwashed bowls, cups and plates. There was a single unmade bed at the starboard side, with a round porthole looking out onto the concrete wall outside. Opposite the bed, on the port side, was a small wooden table and two chairs. A pair of threadbare sofas faced each other across the entrance of this dimly lit space, with a threadbare rug between them. Any and every space which was unoccupied by plates, or with piles of clothes, or notebooks, or gadgets or pieces of gadgets or any number of other random objects, was occupied by cats.

'Sorry about the mess. I wasn't expecting visitors. I don't get many visitors here, to be honest', said Terry, taking off his helmet and cape and hanging them on a hook by the stairs and then picking up piles of clothes from both the sofas and throwing them onto his bed. 'Make yourselves at home.'

Greta, Queenie and Jerry sat themselves down in the sofas while Captain Toast went about inspecting the premises with his nose and making himself familiar with the cats.

'Jerry, did you hear? All these cats have got noodles', said Queenie.

'No way!' said Jerry. 'Really Terry? How? Why?'

Terry sat down next to Jerry, picking up a tabby cat and grinning like a Cheshire cat himself, until he saw Greta and Queenie's faces, now that they had taken off their masks, sunglasses and hats, and were sitting opposite him, glaring at him. 'Come on! Don't worry, it doesn't do them any harm. Let me show you..' Terry kicked the rug away to reveal a hatch in the floor. He leaned forward and opened it up. 'Follow me', he said, climbing down a metal ladder into what was once the ship's hold, but which was now Terry's Techno cave. 'Mind your head', he said. 'You'll have to crouch down and squeeze in.. there's not much room down here..'

Queenie and Greta looked at each other, unsure whether to follow him or to make a run for it while Terry's back was turned. Queenie gave Jerry an urgent look and gestured with her hands, as if to say, Jerry! This friend of yours.. is he ok? This place is weird. This situation is weird and quite frankly he seems more than a bit weird..

Jerry nodded and smiled and gestured with his hands, as if to say, Don't worry. Terry's cool. I've known him for years. And with a grin and a wink, he followed Terry down the ladder.

Queenie and Greta looked at each other, shrugged, as if to say Well, we've come this far.. and followed him down the ladder.

In contrast to the upper cabin, the lower deck was well lit and spotlessly clean. Two long, shiny metal tables ran along the length of each side. Above the tables were cabinets with glass doors. The contents of the cabinets were neatly arranged. Jars and vials, beakers, test tubes, strangely shaped objects made of glass. On the tables, as well as a big microscope and various surgical tools, were some shiny white cubes, rounded at the corners, each with a little green light flashing, hinting at some high and important function.

'Last one in close the hatch!' called Terry. Greta closed the hatch on her way down and joined the others, huddled into the narrow space between the two laboratory tables. 'All right', said Terry. 'Now, there's no way that O can see us in here, so how about you start by telling me what you're doing sneaking around in dark alleyways wearing dark glasses and masks and metal lined hats.. and why you came looking for old Techno Terry here..'

'Maybe we didn't come looking for you', said Queenie. 'Maybe we were just out walking around and then you showed up out of the blue in your silver cape and crash helmet and shiny umbrella.'

Terry laughed. 'Look at this', he said and then made a hand gesture towards a piece of glass on a stand on the table. Suddenly there was Greta's face on the screen, or what was visible of her face behind mirrored sunglasses and a bandanna. It was slightly out of shape and the colours were slightly off, but it was unmistakeably Greta. Terry made another hand movement and the Greta on the screen began to move.

The Greta on the screen leaned forward and the said, 'Hello Mr Cat. Is this the way to Techno Terry's boat?'

'O.. M.. G.. C.. B..' said Queenie, astonished. 'What was that? What did I just watch?'

'That is what Lightning saw.. with his eyes.. not with a camera. Do you get it?' said Terry excitedly.

'I don't get it', said Greta, looking confused and worried. 'Lightning is the cat, right?'

'That's right', said Terry. 'This box here is monitoring the cats' brain waves and converting it into an audiovisual format, so we can see and hear what they see and hear. Look at this..' He made another hand gesture and Greta's face on the screen was replaced by about thirty little boxes. 'Each one is one of my cats.. look, Leo's about to catch a mouse..' he made a hand movement and the mouse filled up the screen, facing a brick corner, nibbling on some crumb, quite unaware of the cat, or of the four people watching it remotely from a secret laboratory in the hold of an old fishing boat, or that this was going to be its last moment before being eaten by Leo the cat.

'Turn it off!' cried Greta. 'It's horrible. This is so wrong! How could you do that?'

'What's wrong with it?' asked Terry, looking hurt. With a wave of his hand, the screen once again became clear glass. 'This is amazing technology. Do you understand what it is?'

'I think it's cruel', said Greta. 'It's cruelty to animals. That's what it is. It's not right.'

'It's not cruel', said Terry. 'I love those cats. They're like family to me. I wouldn't do anything to hurt them, ever.'

'Except for putting brain implants in their furry little heads, eh?' said Queenie.

'What's wrong with that?' said Terry. 'There are millions of humans walking around with implants too. There's no harm in them. Also, the ones I'm using are really new.. two hundredth generation.. they're much better than the old ones. Much fewer side effects. Anyway, humans tend to get more side effects than other animals, because our brains are way more complex. Did you know, the human brain is the most complex structure in the known universe? That's why O's so interested in studying us.'

'What kind of side effects?' asked Greta, not sure she even wanted to know. She felt like all she wanted to do in that moment was to turn around and run back to the hills. Modern life was not for her, of that much she was sure.

'Well, with the early noodles in the first ten years after the Big Shift, there were all sorts of side effects. Quantum interference in the scanning stage, feedback loops, rogue neuron clusters, entanglement.. it took O a while to iron out some technical issues.. so yeah, there were a few .. anomalies, shall we say .. that's what O would call them anyway. But in the last five or six years they've got much better. They work really well now, pretty much all the time.'

'What do you mean, anomolies?' asked Greta. 'Like what?'

'Oh, all sorts of things. Hallucinations, seeing things, hearing things. Weird dreams, visions, premonitions. Some people found they lost their memory but could see the future. Some lost their sense of direction and couldn't find their way home. Some started speaking backwards, or started speaking a different language. Or found they could suddenly play the piano. Or went from being right handed to left handed. Some people got ESP.. you know, extra-sensory-perception? I could go on and on. You could write a whole book about weird side effects from the early noodles.'

'That's awful' said Greta. 'How could O do that to people? How could people let it?'

'Well, it wasn't many people, and not all of those side effects are so bad, if you think about it. Point one percent, or something like that, had side effects and only about one in ten of those had something serious.. so you're looking at about, what, one in ten thousand. Weigh that against the benefits of having an implant and it's a no-brainer.. no pun intended. Also, O paid people pretty well for trialling the early noodles, so there was no shortage of willing volunteers.'

'It sounds like you're a big fan of O', said Queenie.

'Oh you think so do you?' said Terry. 'Listen, I'm a hacker.. do you know what that is? I've got a lot of respect for O, don't get me wrong, but O's my adversary, make no mistake. And in this game, it pays to know your opponent. Can you understand that? Besides which, I couldn't do any of what I do without O. I just take O's technology and use it against O.'

Queenie nodded slowly. 'Yeah, that makes sense. I get that. So what is this place anyway? What do you do down here when you're not cutting open kittens and putting noodles in their little kitten brains?'

'Good God! Is that what you think I do?' cried Terry. 'Do you really think I'd cut a kitten? I'd never do that. Never! Do you even know what a noodle actually is or what it actually does? Have you ever even seen one? Let me show you what a noodle actually looks like..' Terry reached up, opened up a glass cabinet and took out a small bottle made of blue glass. 'Here!' he said, holding up the bottle to the light. 'See that? There's your dreaded noodles for you!'

'What? There's nothing there', said Greta., squinting at the bottle. 'It looks like water.'

'Yes, now look at this..' Terry sat down at the microscope, put on a pair of surgical gloves, carefully opened the bottle and with a dropper, dripped one drop of the liquid onto a silver slide and then clicked the slide onto a magnetic plate at the base microscope. The glass screen lit up again, but the picture wasn't clear. All that appeared were spots, squiggles and odd shapes drifting around against a white background.'

'What's all that?' asked Queenie.

'Oh that's nothing', said Terry. 'Just dust, salt crystals, microbes and stuff. This is at fifty times magnification.. you won't see the noodles till we magnify to about a ten thousand times.. watch this..' He turned a knob at the side of the microscope and the picture zoomed in and zoomed in more and zoomed in more still, until a long, twisted coil came into focus. 'That's a noodle!' exclaimed Terry, pointing at the screen.

'Far out!' said Jerry. 'How big is that?'

'Smaller than you can imagine, Jerry. Small enough to get into any cell in the human body. Or cat body in this case', said Terry, putting the bottle carefully away, back in the cabinet. 'In that one drop we're looking at, there are probably about a million of those noodles. And that's a weak dilution.'

'I don't understand', said Greta. 'What is it? How does it work?'

'Well, those are two big questions. Not so easy to answer in layman's terms', said Terry. 'Technically it's a class of nano-bot, but it has more in common with something like a virus.'

Queenie edged away from the microscope and looked sideways at Terry. 'You know viruses aren't a good thing, right, Terry? I mean, you know that they make people sick and kill people and stuff.. you know that, don't you Terry?'

'Well, that's true.. at least true of some viruses, but actually only a tiny percentage of viruses will actually do you any harm. And those viruses give the rest a bad name. Some viruses are actually good for you. Did you know that every single drop of sea water contains ten million viruses? Every.. single.. drop! Think about it!'

'That doesn't really set my mind at ease, Terry', said Queenie, backing away as far as she could in the limited space available. 'Are they contagious, these noodles of yours?'

'Oh no, not at all, not at all' said Terry. 'They're completely inert in this state. They need to be activated and programmed. It's the programming which has to be done very accurately and precisely. The noodles themselves haven't actually changed all that much since O made the first ones. What's improved is the programming, the operating system. Also the speed of scanning. In the beginning, people had to go around for a month or two months with this silly rubber cap on their head while it scanned their brain structure and activity. Now it doesn't need to do that at all. You just introduce it to the host and it maps, adapts and modifies as it goes along. That's the big breakthrough. All it needs is a bit of your DNA, then you just need to tell it exactly what you want it to do. Once it's in your body, it goes exactly where it needs to go and then uses your own cells to grow itself into whatever structure it needs to do what it needs to do. That way there are no issues with your body rejecting a foreign body, because it's actually part of your body. Do you see what I mean? It's an amazing thing. If you lost an eye it could grow you a new one, but one that could see ten times better. It could just as easily grow you a new finger as grow you tail..'

'Who'd want to grow a tail?' said Greta.

'Oh you'd be surprised' said Terry. 'But that's just basic stuff anyway. O's been doing that for years. The real advances are in neural coupling.. what are known as brain implant devices. Those are just regular noodles programmed to do a very specific task. In the case of my cats, it's the ability to pick up certain kinds of brain activity and then transmit a signal to a receiver on top of my boat, which then gets sent to this box which interprets it into video and audio..' Terry pointed to the white box with the flashing green light.

'How does the signal get from the cat to the receiver?' asked Jerry. 'Do the cats have some kind of transmitter? I didn't see anything on them. No battery pack or anything.'

'That's the really clever bit' grinned Terry. 'This is something that O's only just developed. You don't need any batteries or any transmitter. It turns your hair into a aerials, so your body itself becomes a transmitter.'

'What? How is that even possible?' said Queenie incredulously.

'It's true', said Terry. 'Nobody really understands yet what the exact mechanism is, or how it works, but it involves increasing the iron content of hair so that it can be magnetised and positively or negatively charged. It gives off a very weak signal, but I can still pick it up from up to 500 meters away with my receiver.'

'That's amazing,' said Jerry.

'Totally,' agreed Terry. 'It's what gave me the idea to give it to my cats. They're perfect for it because they're covered in fur and don't wear any clothes.'

'That's why we're supposed to look after them.. poor vulnerable creatures.. and not do weird experiments on them.' said Greta, who was getting very upset by everything she was seeing and hearing.

'Look', said Terry, now getting defensive, 'I'd never do anything to hurt these cats. I told you that. I'm actually an animal lover. But calling cats poor and defenceless is going a bit far don't you think? They're some of the most highly evolved predators on the planet. Of course, they're also funny and cute, but don't let that fool you. Anyway, I take it you didn't come all the way here to debate the ethics of scientific progress. Why did you come to see me?'

'Sorry, I didn't mean to offend you,' said Greta. 'I just cant stand the idea of you putting these implants into those cats.'

'It really doesn't hurt them at all. One drop in their milk is all it takes. They don't even know they've got it.'

'Well.. if you say so', said Greta. 'Anyway, the reason we came is because I'm looking for my sister. I think she's somewhere in the city. Jerry said that maybe you could help me find her.. without O finding me.'

'I see', said Terry, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. After a while he said, 'Yes, I can probably help you. Have you got a picture of her?'

'Only one. When she was a baby, about three months old. That was the last time I saw her.' Greta pulled at a silver chain she was wearing round her neck and took out a silver amulet from under her shirt. She unclasped and opened it up like a book, to reveal two small photos, one on each side, of two identical looking babies. Everyone leaned in to get a closer look.

'Aw, you were sweet!' said Queenie. 'Which one is you?'

'I think this one', said Greta, pointing to the one on the left.

'Ok, that's good', said Terry. 'A recent photo would have been better, but I should think that'll do. What's her name?'

'Nina. Nina Bloom', said Greta. It felt strange to say her full name. She still hadn't got used to saying it out loud and where Greta came from, people rarely used surnames.

'Bloom like flower bloom?' said Terry.

'Yes. Just like that', said Greta. 'I think it's a Jewish name. Apparently my dad came from a Jewish family, but I don't really know what that means.'

'Ok. Interesting. Do you know Nina's date of birth?'

'Yes, it's the same as mine.. we're twins. It's zero, zero, zero.'

'Well that's easy to remember', laughed Terry. 'So, you were being born just when it happened. That's wild.'

Greta nodded solemnly. 'Not that wild really. I hate O for doing that. I'll never forgive O for what it did to my mum and to my family.'

'Yeah, understandable I guess', nodded Terry. 'It was a mad time. Like.. fully.. mad. Everyone lost it. I'm old enough to remember it. I knew it was going to happen.. the signs had been there for ages.. but even then, it was still a shock. The way it happened surprised even me. It was so sudden. In this life, things are rarely quite what you expect them to be. That much I've learned. Anyhow.. do you know your dad's first name?'

'Freddy'

'Freddy? With a 'y' at the end or 'ie'?'

'I don't know actually', said Greta.

'Ok, never mind. That should be enough to go on anyway. Can you give me that photo a minute? I'll scan it in and see what I can find.'

'Hang on a minute!' said Queenie, just as Greta was about to hand Terry the amulet. 'How can you access the system without going through O? We don't want to involve O. That's the whole point.'

'I know that's the whole point', said Terry, rolling his eyes. 'What do you think the whole point of all this elaborate setup is, eh? Listen.. this place is completely invisible to O. This whole boat in fact. O doesn't know it's here. If O happens to look in this spot, all they'll see will be an empty stretch of canal. O certainly doesn't know I'm here. O doesn't even know I exist.'

'What? How?' said Queenie, now for the first time impressed.

'I deleted myself,' said Terry. 'Every bit of data that there was on me. It wasn't easy. Took a while. There were billions of data points and they all had to be wiped. Then I had to cover my tracks. Well, I won't go into all the details because it would bore you to tears. The point is, O has their blind spots, just like anyone. There are ways around, over and under O. If you know how. It's actually not that hard to confuse or confound O.. even if only for a nanosecond.. that can be just enough to slip past, if you time it right. It's all code. Only code. And at the heart of O's code is the Uncertainty Principle. Have you ever heard of that? It's a core principle that Quantum computers operate within. That's something that most people don't understand. '

'Yeah', nodded Queenie. 'That's something I definitely don't understand.'

'Me neither', said Greta.

'Well, to be honest, nobody really understands it, not completely', said Terry. 'But that's ok. You don't have to. What I'm trying to tell you is that there are back doors into the system. You just need to know how to find them. There are ways to get around inside the system without being noticed. You just need to know how to create a distraction and how to cover your tracks. Anything's possible if you can crack the code. That's what I do. Here, give me a minute and I'll see if I can find your sister..'

Terry took a pair of silver rimmed glasses with blue tinted lenses from a drawer under the table and put them on. He began poking with his fingers in the air in front of his face at some objects, invisible to the others, picking some up in his fingertips and moving them aside. It looked to Greta like he was carefully picking his way through a thorny bramble bush that only he could see, picking invisible blackberries. Terry moved something big aside and pulled some large invisible object towards himself which he then began to tickle with his fingertips. 'Ok, now I'm getting somewhere..', he said and then sliced the virtual thing into pieces with his finger and arranged them in the air in front of him.

'Have you found her? Where is she? I can't see her', said Greta.

'Hang on a minute', said Terry. 'Nearly there..' He peered very closely at the blocks of information he's arranged in the virtual space around himself. 'Yes, I think that's her. There were about a thousand Nina Blooms, but I think she's the one.. let me see..' Terry pulled his glasses down to his nose and squinted at Greta. 'Yes, that's her, definitely! She looks just like you, but with short purple hair and piercings. She looks cool.'

'Let me see, let me see!' cried Greta.

'Ok, I'll put her up on the screen', said Terry, clicking his fingers and pointing to the glass screen on the lab table. Nina's grinning face filled the screen. She was wearing heavy purple eyeshadow and purple lipstick to match her purple hair. She had a ring through her nose and one in her lip and one in her eyebrow, but still, the resemblance between her and Greta was unmistakeable.

For a long while, Greta just stared at the picture. So many feelings she'd never felt before came rushing through her in waves. She found she was crying, but didn't make any move to wipe away her tears. Queenie put her arm around Greta and gave her arm a squeeze. Greta smiled through her tears. At last she said, 'Are there any more pictures?'

'Oh, there's loads', said Terry. 'Here she is with Freddy..' Terry waved his hand and another picture appeared on the screen. There he was, Greta's dad, standing on a mountaintop with his arm around Greta's sister, both of them smiling into the camera. In that photo, Nina's hair was long and blue. Freddy was tall and thin with short dark hair, a dark moustache and a big toothy grin. People often told Greta she had a toothy grin, now she saw where she got it from. Nina had it too.

'He looks like Freddy Mercury' said Terry.

'I don't know who Freddy Mercury is', said Greta, leaning forward to touch the screen. She wished she could dive into it and be there with them. 'I've never seen my dad before. He looks nice. He's handsome. I wonder where they were in that picture. It looks like a beautiful place. I wonder who took the photo.'

'Oh I doubt it's a real place', said Terry. 'I mean, it might be a real place, but I very much doubt that they were really there. Here's a nice one. It's a video. Looks like Nina and her friends on some tropical beach. Looks like they're having a party..' Terry waved his hand and the pulsing beat of disco music filled the tiny room. Nina was on a golden beach with palm trees swaying in a gentle breeze and the sun setting over the emerald sea in the background. Nina was dancing with her friends. A tall girl, or maybe it was a boy.. Greta couldn't tell, was extravagantly swinging their hips and waving their arms in the air. 'Wooo!' screamed Nina's friend over the music 'Happy sixteen Nina-bombina!' and gave Nina a big kiss and then they both went on dancing holding hands. A big girl, dressed in pink dungarees and wearing a tall, floppy pink hat, came up behind Nina, put her arms around her, planted a fat kiss on her neck and then shouted in her ear, 'Happy Birthday Nina. I love you sis!'

'I guess that was her birthday party', said Terry, pausing the video.

'We're twins' said Greta. 'It was my birthday too. That was four days ago. But where was that place? It looks really far away from here.'

'That's not a real place. That's in the O-zone', said Terry.

'The O-zone?'

'Greta's from out in the country', said Jerry. 'This is her first time in the city.'

'You don't say', said Terry with a grin. 'I'd never have guessed. Well, Greta, you've heard of the Green zone haven't you?' he pointed upward. 'And the Orange zone.. that's where we are now.. and the Red zone.. that's where you come from. So there's also the O-zone. In the O-zone, you can go anywhere, be anything and do anything. That's where they are in all these pictures. Look here, this one looks like a family photo .. yes, there's a few Blooms there.. maybe that's your grandparents? David and Ruth? Those kids are probably your cousins and aunts and uncles. Big family. I don't know what the occasion is, but it looks like they're on the moon.'

There were Freddy and Nina, surrounded by about twenty other people, young and old, posing for a family photo. They were wearing shorts and T-shirts and standing on the pale grey lunar surface with planet Earth in half shadow in the black, star filled sky behind them, all smiling at the camera. Of course there was really no camera, everything in the scene was artificial, though the smiles were genuine.

'How can they be on the moon?' asked Greta, confused. At the same time, she was thinking, could it really be that this was her family? For her whole life, her family had just been her and her mum. Of course, the people of Skyward Village were also like family to her, but she'd often wondered what it would be like to have a real family. People she was actually related to. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters..

'They're not really on the moon. That's what I'm telling you,' said Terry. 'Do you think they'd all be standing there in T-shirts if they were really on the moon? You know there's no atmosphere on the moon, right? No air. And it's freezing cold. And really far away. Like, you'd need to travel through space to get there..'

'That's what I thought', said Greta, now feeling uncertain of anything and everything she thought she knew. 'So if Nina's not on the beach and not on a mountain and not on the moon, then where is she? I really need to find her. I don't know how to get to the O-zone, wherever that it. Is that where I need to go to find her?' It seemed like the closer she got to finding her sister, the further away she got.

'You mean, you want to actually go and find her.. in person?' said Terry.

'Of course' said Greta. 'What did you think?'

'Well, why not just send her a message? That would be a lot simpler.'

'No' said Greta firmly. 'I need to get to her.. to see her. I don't trust O and I don't believe in the O-zone. Nothing there is real. Can you help me or not, Terry?'

Terry took off his blue glasses, looked hard at Greta and rubbed his chin. Eventually he said, 'Are you sure about this?'

'Of course I'm sure', said Greta, getting impatient. 'I've just walked through the mountains for four days to get here. I need to get to my sister in person.. not in the O-zone. It's very urgent. Do you know where she is? Can you help me get to her?'

'Ok then', said Terry, and put the blue glasses back on. 'Let me have a look..' He drew some abstract shapes in the air with his finger and punctuated them with dots. He dragged something from the top right corner to just in front of his face and poked it decisively. 'Yep, she's here.'

'Where? Where is she?' cried Greta, getting desparate.

'About a kilometre in that direction and two hundred and thirty levels up', said Terry, taking off the glasses again and pointing to his left.

'Really? Oh wow! That's like a five minute walk' said Greta, getting excited. 'Is she really that close?'

'Yes. The city's not such a big place. No-where's all that far away. But getting into the green zone might be tricky.'

'Is it possible? Can you help me?' pleaded Greta.

'Well, I can't guarantee that it'll work, but there are two things I can give you that might put you in with a chance. It's up to you', said Terry, opening a drawer under the table, rummaging around and then taking out two small objects and putting them on the table. One looked like a small silver coin, the other one looked like a glass marble.

'What are those?' asked Greta.

'I'll explain.. just give me a minute..', said Terry, putting the blue glasses back on. 'First I need to set them up..' He picked up the marble and placed it on top of one of the white cubes on the table. Terry did a little hand dance. Inside the marble two tiny lights came on, one red and the other one green. He picked up the marble and handed it to Greta, who took it and peered at the lights inside. 'Do you know how a compass works?' asked Terry.

'Yes, I've got one', said Greta. 'It always points north.'

'Exactly', said Terry. 'So this is like a compass, except that it always points to your sister, Nina. The green light points to her, the red light points away from her. It's pretty simple. The main difference is that it also points up and down, so if she's right above you, it will point straight up. When you get within fifty metres, it will start to flash. Then, the closer you get the faster it will flash. It's pretty simple.'

'Wow, that's amazing. Thank you Terry', said Greta, squeezing the magic marble tightly in her hands and pressing it against her heart.

'That's allright', said Terry. 'Now, this second one is time sensitive. From the moment I activate it, you'll have twenty four hours to get into the green zone and out again.'

'Why? What is it?' asked Greta.

'It's a decoy chip. It sends out a signal that makes you appear to O like a service robot, so you won't be stopped. It'll get you into public spaces but not into private ones, but it should get you as far as Nina's front door. But like I say, it's only temporary. It takes O about twenty four hours to twig. Sometimes less. When that happens, if you're still in the green zone, you're going to get busted quicker than you can say O.' He handed Greta the silver coin.

'Wow, I don't know what to say', said Greta, taking the coin as if it was the most precious thing in the world. 'Thank you Terry. Bless you. But what if I get caught? How will I get these back to you? They must be very valuable.'

'Oh, that's ok' said Terry, with the wave of a hand. 'Those are just cheap components. They're not worth anything in themselves. I just modified them slightly. It's all in the coding. But if you do find your sister, bring her over for a visit, eh?', said Terry with a grin. 'And ask your dad if he knows how to sing Bohemian Rhapsody.'

Greta smiled through her tears. 'I don't get it, but ok.'

'Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality', sang Queenie in a high voice. 'Classic!'

'Very good!', Terry nodded, now impressed by Queenie for the first time.

'Can you do it then?' asked Greta. 'Like, now. I want to go and find them. I can't wait any longer, now that I'm this close.'

'Ok, if you're sure you want to go ahead with it, I can activate the chip right now', said Terry.

'Yes I'm sure', said Greta, handing him back the precious silver coin..

Allright, give me a minute.. I just need to find the codes.. stand back a bit..' Terry placed the chip on the white cube, put on the blue glasses and then began to wave his arms about wildly in every direction. He did this for quite a long time.

'It's quite energetic isn't it, this coding', whispered Queenie to Jerry. 'Looks like good exercise.'

Terry picked up a bundle of something virtual and stuffed it into an invisible box, picked up the invisible box with two hands and then clapping his hands together. The white cube on the table beeped. Terry breathed out, took off the glasses, picked up the silver coin and handed it to Greta. 'There you go. That'll give you about twenty four hours, if you're lucky. I hope you'll be lucky.'

Greta gave Terry a big hug. 'Thank you so much Terry. I'll never forget how you helped me today.'

'Oh that's all right', said Terry, looking slightly embarrassed and patting Greta on the back. 'Good luck to you. I hope you find your family.'

Greta climbed the ladder up through the hatch to the upper deck, where Captain Toast was eagerly waiting to go. There was something strange about those cats, but he couldn't put his paw on what it was. At any rate, he was overjoyed to see the hatch open and Greta's face appear. He licked her face and did his happy dance.

Queenie shook Terry's hand. 'Thanks Techno Terry', she said. 'It's really cool what you're doing here, man. And thanks for your help. Just take care of those cats, ok?'

'But I do', said Terry. 'They love living here. They've got an amazing life. If they didn't like it they could always leave, but they don't. It's a tough world out there, for cats. I look after them, give them a safe home. Maybe they even love me, in some catty way, who knows?'

'Ha! Don't flatter yourself', said Queenie with a wave as she headed up the ladder after Greta. 'See ya.'

'Maybe', said Terry, quietly to himself.

'Cheers Terry. Thanks for that', said Jerry, Giving Terry a hug.

'No worries mate', said Terry. 'Always glad to be of assistance. Say hello to Jack and Granny Mae from me.'

'Will do. Come up and see us at Shopping some time', said Jerry. 'You haven't been up there in ages. People are always asking about you. They all come round to use your Wayback machine.'

'Yeah, yeah, I should come up to Shopping. I keep meaning to.. and I will do. I'm just working on something at the moment.. working on it a lot. It's nearly done.. well, maybe half way there.. but it's going to be big. Like, really big. If it works. And that's a big If. I'll tell you about it next time you come. It's kind of secret at the moment, but if it works.. everyone will hear about it.'

'Sounds intriguing', said Jerry. 'I wonder what it is.'

Techno Terry grinned a most mischievous grin. He tapped the side of his nose and then wagged his finger at Jerry. 'Next time, Jerry. Next time. You'll find your own way out will you? I'm just going to get on with things down here.'

'Sure thing Terry', said Jerry, making his way up the ladder. As he closed the hatch behind him, he looked down to see that Terry was already wearing the blue glasses and wildly gesticulating with his arms and fingers, dancing with the code.

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