Petyr always believed his fate was inescapable, that actions are guided by the whims of a cruel, unfeeling universe. A boy in Soviet-era Poland grows into a man, immersed in organised crime and casual cruelty while, over the border in Ukraine, an amazing discovery is made. Inevitably, the universe draws these two events together, and the fate of reality itself may be about to be at stake.
Petyr was small for his age, a grubby child with a close-cropped scrub of dark hair, squatting in the dirt, tracing circles in the ground with a twig. His eyes were pale blue and there was something faintly disconcerting about his gaze, about the way it focused on you, like he was stripping away each layer piece by piece. He dimly remembered his father, a roaring, moustached drunkard of a man, despised by everyone in the village. He drowned in the lake when Petyr was very young, and no one much cared except his mother. He had no brothers and sisters. His mother had no time to look after him now. She was alone, and had to make ends meet. There was no school so all the children of the village ran more or less wild until they were big enough to work in the fields. The others bullied Petyr and used to throw rocks at him when he tried to join in their games. After a while, Petyr learned to keep to himself. So most days he would crouch in the dust and draw, dreaming of things he didn’t have words for yet. His whole world was grey and colourless, a marbled overcast sky over brown, cheerless fields stretching to a horizon that seemed fenced-off.
That was where he was the day Uncle Wacław came to visit again. He wore a big coat and a hat pulled low over his eyes and he carried an old leather bag with all his things in it wherever he went. His boots were scuffed and dirty. Petyr heard him coming up the road and he watched him walk all the way up to his little house. When he came close he stopped and put his bag on the ground. “You’ve grown, boy.” Petyr just stared at him. “Not much,” Wacław went on, “but a little. Where is my sister?”
Wacław’s visits were the only reprieve from the greyness of everyday life. He was a youngish man, slightly built and quiet, like Petyr, but had a powerful physical presence and the same piercing gaze. He would sit in their tiny parlour, drinking vodka, and telling Petyr about the world. “A new age is coming, boy,” Wacław said that night, staring fixedly at the small child beneath his scowling black eyebrows. “They can round us up, imprison our leaders, but they’ll never stamp out our spirit. It’s here.” He clenched his fist on the table. A gnarled, worn hand, that looked huge to Petyr. “Here in the land. With your mother, with you.”
His mother came in at that moment with food and she shook her head. “You fill his head with foolish notions, Wacław.”
“He is the future, sister. His generation will free us from this yoke. He will be rich, this boy.”
She hushed him as she put the bowls down on the table. “Don’t talk like that.”
She left the room to get bread, and Wacław gave Petyr a sharp look. “Who do you want to be when you grow up, boy? You want to be like the men in this village, working a patch of land the government hands you, or do you want to be like the men in Warsaw in their suits, telling us all what to do? Eh?”
Petyr frowned. “I don’t want to be like either of them,” he said eventually in his high, reedy voice.
“Good. You want to be free, don’t you?”
Petyr nodded. “No one’s free,” his mother said as she came back into the room. “You tell him rubbish, brother. What is freedom? Everyone is someone’s slave. The government do what the Soviets tell them, they do what their books tell them. Even your father, Petyr, the freest man I knew, he was a slave to the drink. And you’ll end up as he did, Wacław, you mark my words.” She aimed a mock slap at her brother’s head and he waved her away with a sly smile.
Then he took another gulp of vodka and winked over the glass at Petyr. “No one can ever own a man. You’re always free in your heart. They can do what they like to your body, but they can’t chain you on the inside. Decide what kind of man you want to be, and never give up fighting to become it.”
Petyr was twelve-years-old when he found out his uncle had been killed. Old enough to be helping in the fields, uprooting turnips. His mother was on the other side of the field, near the gate, when a man he didn’t recognise came to her from the direction of the village square. He was a stranger, but he reminded Petyr of his uncle somehow. He was too far away to have heard what he told her, but his later knowledge of the events supplanted reality and put words in the man’s mouth. Just as every day of his childhood now seemed grey and cold, so too did those words boom out across the fields, so a young boy could hear them clearly. “He was part of a protest in Kalisz. He tried to break down the doors of the town hall and the police dragged him away. We heard later he was dead.”
He’d watched, confused, as his mother collapsed into the stranger’s arms, wailing uncontrollably and then he’d started running. Not to her, but away, out past the fields and into the wild country away from the village. In his memory, all days became one day, and it seemed now that that was the same occasion that a group of boys found him wandering alone, not far from the lake where his father had drowned. “Runt!” they shouted at him, and threw rocks.
“Leave me alone!” he screamed at them, but they just laughed.
The biggest of them was a boy called Tomasz, and now he walked up to Petyr. He had a big rock in his hand. Petyr tried to get away, but even though Tomasz was bigger he was also faster and much stronger. He grabbed him by the collar and pushed him up against an old tree that had been blasted into ruin by a bolt of lightning last winter. The other boys just watched as Tomasz lifted another rock and held it over the cowering Petyr’s head. “I’ll smash your skull and see what’s inside it, runt,” he said. Then, “Did you know your mother was a whore?”
“What’s a whore?”
They all laughed. “It means she belongs to any man in the village that wants her,” Tomasz explained with a nasty look in his eye.
“People don’t belong to people!” he’d shouted back, but all it got him was a rock to the head and then thrown in the lake. He’d never learned to swim and, as he thrashed desperately in the cold water, he could hear them laughing again. Then he knew what it meant to belong to a person: to be helpless, to be a plaything, and he knew why his uncle had died.
Some of the men from the village came along and found the boys before anything bad could happen, and they hauled the half-drowned Petyr out of the lake. When his father found out, Tomasz got thrashed bloody, but it didn’t make Petyr feel any better about what had happened. As he lay in his little hard bed, his mother tending to his cut with careful diligence despite the bone-deep tiredness in her eyes, he asked her something that had been on his mind for a while. “Mother, why don’t we leave?”
She’d smiled tightly. “It’s not that simple, Petyr.”
“Because it isn’t.”
“We can go wherever we like though. Just pack up our things and leave.”
“We can’t carry all our things.” She gestured around at the room. Their possessions were meagre enough, but she was right.
“Leave them then.”
“That’s the problem, you see,” she said softly, wiping at the blood crusting his scalp with a damp tissue, “as little as we have, if we were to leave, we’d have even less. And what then? Where we would go? What would we become?”
“That kind of thinking got your uncle killed. It’s a lie. Even in other places, where they think they’re free, they’re not really. The best thing for you, my son, is to work hard, tend the fields, grow big and strong and then go to a city when I’m dead and gone. You can work in a factory, or become a soldier. Then you’ll work even harder and become someone important.”
“But I still wouldn’t be free.”
“What is ‘free’? Free is nothing. You think money makes people free? It’s just another kind of slavery. Even if you have it all, you’re nothing more than a slave to money itself. Wacław thought he was fighting for freedom, but in the end his desire for it killed him. What was he a slave to? Dreams. Foolish dreams. He should have been here, working, not out drinking with protestors in cities. Now what do we do?”
Petyr was confused. “What do we do? Uncle Wacław only came to visit now and then…”
“Sweet boy,” she said, running a calloused hand down his face, “you don’t understand the world yet. But you will. There will be more hard lessons, I’m sorry to say.”
Two years later, when he came in from the fields to find out Tomasz had been telling the truth about his mother, Petyr ran away from home.
Gordon was an affable, handsome American who, it seemed to Yuri, hid a core of hard steel beneath his soft, friendly exterior. He shook his hand warmly when they met. “Yuri, right?” Yuri bobbed his head, a little overwhelmed by this golden figure in their midst. Gordon was a millionaire, he was told, an industrialist and venture capitalist who had seen the potential revenue for the taking in this part of the world long before anyone else, or so it seemed. They were standing in the foothills of the Carpathians, above a green valley in which nestled a lake of brilliant blue water. The sky was streaked with fast-moving clouds. Gordon’s hair was tousled in the wind. He put a hand over his eyes and gazed out over the landscape. “Amazing. Like Colorado but with more borscht, am I right?”
“I suppose,” Yuri replied noncommittally. He was a short man, going bald too young, nervous around almost everyone. But he was the one his government had chosen to help this American entrepreneur. With the Eastern Bloc falling apart and men like this springing up like mushrooms after a spring rain, they couldn’t afford to be left behind. The great experiment of Socialism was seemingly in ruins: everyone had to run to stay in place now. Nothing was certain.
Gordon dusted off his hands and then hooked his thumbs into his belt. He looked like he was going on vacation with his brightly coloured jacket and his Levis jeans. “Which way to the radiation spike?”
Yuri lifted up his backpack and shrugged it on with no small amount of effort. It was a heavy piece of kit. He took out the Geiger counter and pointed with it. “Not far. Just a mile or so up the path there.”
Gordon looked at the mountainous route doubtfully. “And you’re sure we can’t take a chopper?”
“Nowhere to land.”
“Okie dokie then.”
They scrambled up the trail with difficulty. Even the tall, strong American was breathing hard by the time they reached the little cleft in the rock where Yuri’s team had first made the discovery last month. His instrument was clicking loudly long before they got there.
“They tell me it’s not dangerous,” Gordon said.
“Not dangerous, no,” Yuri said. “Just strange.”
Gordon looked around. “It’s just rock. When do we start digging?”
“When we have the money.”
He laughed. “Of course. You guys spent so long saying you weren’t interested in it, and now look.” He leant forward and tapped on the rock wall before him. It sounded perfectly normal. “So, you’re the scientist, Yuri, what do you think’s down there?”
Yuri shrugged. “Some kind of mineral deposit.”
He shook his head. “Nothing like that. Not from our readings.”
Gordon nodded then looked around. The mountains reared up behind them over the valley. Gordon pointed. “We’ll need to build a road up to here so we can bring in mining equipment. Who owns the lake down there?”
Yuri looked down at the sparkling blue water. “No one. It’s just villages.”
“How big do you think the deposits here might be?”
“We get readings for miles. It’s just strongest here. Whatever it is, it’s big.”
“We might need to build a plant close by, to refine it, or process it or whatever. Hard to say right now. I want to fly in some of my equipment from Texas. No point buying it locally since we’re going to have to airlift it all in anyway. I need an airfield down there.”
“That’s a big project…”
“You said it was a big deposit. And I got where I am by thinking big, Yuri. They teach you that in Mother Russia?”
“This is Ukraine,” Yuri said defensively.
“Yeah, yeah. Tell me all about it when you’ve been on the map for more than a couple years.” He was already walking back down the trail, sketching out the logistics of the operation with wide sweeps of his arms. Yuri watched him go, then pulled up his heavy pack with a grunt and followed doggedly behind.
Petyr got his first taste of the men wearing the suits when he was a young man, trying to make his way in the city for the first time. He sold turnips out of a cart. He knew all about turnips. He’d only been there for a few weeks, and could scrape together enough to pay for a room in a boarding house in the rougher end of town. He was standing on the corner of a gloomy square, almost ready to give up for the day, when two men approached him. They were bigger than him, and had a dangerous look he recognised. “Who told you you could sell your stuff here?” one asked him, picking up a turnip and turning it over in his hands with a look of distaste.
“No one told me I couldn’t,” Petyr answered timidly.
“It doesn’t work like that,” the other man said.
“They told me the city was free.”
“Nothing’s free,” the first man said with a cruel smile, “not even now.” He dropped the turnip to the floor, and it rolled away into the gutter. “You want to sell here, you have to pay us.”
“Because if you don’t, we hurt you.”
That’s how it began, with fear. Petyr gave his money to the men in the suits, and they let him sell where he wanted and, in return, his legs remained unbroken. He had to move out of the boarding house and sleep in the corner of the warehouse he bought his turnips from, in secret. Then things started to get a little better. He got a regular stall in the market, thanks to the men in the suits, and fear became respect. The men came back to check on him now and then, and he would give them a turnip, as a joke almost. “What do I want with a turnip?” the first man, the leader of the two, who was called Boris, would joke.
“A turnip is very versatile,” Petyr explained each time. “You can boil a turnip, fry a turnip, pickle a turnip. Anything you like.”
“Yes, but it’s still a fucking turnip, isn’t it?” Boris replied one day, “You should sell cucumbers.”
“I know about turnips,” Petyr shrugged.
“You want to be a turnip seller all your life. I know a man who brings cucumbers into the city. Sell cucumbers, you’ll make much more money.”
In a year, he had his own shop, selling all kinds of fruit and vegetables. Produce from abroad was just starting to become available now that the Iron Curtain had fallen, and Petyr was riding the cusp of a strange wave of prosperity. Things were still difficult for the big men in Warsaw, but for his little corner of the world, life had become brighter. Eventually he could afford to hire a boy to work for him, a skinny lad from the city called Witold. He was smart enough, but lazy, and Petyr was often angry with him. “I came from nothing!” he shouted at him frequently when he did something wrong again, “I scrounged for turnips in the fields when the Socialists were in power and now look at me!”
Witold never listened. He wanted to go to America. All he ever talked about was Hollywood and the movies. “I’ll be Arnold Schwarzenegger one day,” he boasted, flexing imaginary muscles.
“Shut up, boy. Deliver these groceries.” Petyr shoved the bag at him and sent him on his way with a kick.
More men in suits came to visit, not just Boris and his friend. One was an older man called Henryk to whom the others showed obvious deference. He walked with a cane, but it did nothing to diminish his obvious air of power and authority. “They tell me your cucumbers are the best in the city, Petyr,” he smiled, picking up a jar of pickled ones.
“It’s true, sir,” Petyr said, not making eye contact as he hovered nearby. He knew enough to be polite.
“I like cucumbers. You pay your dues, yes?”
“Petyr’s a good boy,” Boris said, giving him a gentle pat on the cheek, “when we first met him, he just had a barrow full of turnips.”
“And now the whole city says, ‘come to Petyr’s greengrocer’s, he has the best stuff’, oh yes.” Henryk nodded as he prodded at the various fruits and vegetables stacked up in crates all around the shop. “I’m opening a new restaurant in the main square, Petyr. We need fresh produce. Good stuff.”
“I’d be very pleased to provide whatever you need. Please…” He held an arm out to his shop. “Anything you like.”
“We will pay good rates,” Henryk assured him, “I’m a man of my word, as I’m sure you can tell.”
Witold came back at that moment, kicking a can with a surly expression on his dirty face. When he saw the shop was full of important people his mouth flopped open like a fish’s and he didn’t know what to do. “Excuse my boy,” Petyr said, ushering Witold through to the back room.
“Your son?” Henryk asked with a frown.
“No, just a boy from the city who runs errands,” Boris explained for him.
“Ah. Do you have a family, Petyr?”
“Perhaps you should find a wife. We like our friends to be settled. Happy. Respectable.”
“If only I had the time!” Petyr said, spreading his hands helplessly.
“You’ll have time. I like you, Petyr. You provide vegetables for my restaurant, we’ll pay you good money. You can move out of this little hovel, or maybe open another shop across town. Then you can hire more grubby boys, or pay another man to mind your shop. Then you can go to bars and meet girls, yes? We know the best bars, isn’t that right, Boris?”
“The best bars,” Boris agreed.
After that, things started to get interesting. Petyr began to get a reputation for quality produce in the city, but he found he was a better manager than a greengrocer, and soon he started to expand into other areas. He didn’t just go to Henryk’s bars – he ended up owning one. And then, as the city got bigger, louder, richer, he expanded into clubs. Henryk died, and Boris was his successor, and the interesting thing about that, was that Petyr had now known Boris long enough that he was party to a few of his secrets. And so, for the first time in his life, he had real power – power beyond thrashing the now long-forgotten Witold or buying a girl for the night – power that meant something. Real power and real money. And Petyr liked it.
Yuri was huddled in the back of the pick-up, face wrapped in a scarf to protect against the biting wind that blew harshly up from the valley. On the huge causeway built of dirt and packed gravel, there was very little protection against the elements. There had already been some accidents over the winter, but fortunately no fatalities so far. It was a grey evening, with wisps of snow in the air, and Yuri looked down at the valley, now a hive of floodlit industry. The blue lake was lost in amongst warehouses, depots, bunkhouses. They were miles from any towns, so most of the workers stayed here for weeks at a time. The villages were long gone, their occupants forcibly evicted by a government intent on courting this rich American and his plans to bring…something…to this part of the world. At the top of the makeshift road, the entire mountainside had been levelled by strategic dynamiting, and now a great, grey amphitheatre of stone greeted them. At its heart was the entrance to a low, square tunnel, illuminated by more floodlights.
Yuri clambered out of the car and scrambled across the manmade plateau to where a small party were awaiting his arrival. At their head, swaddled in designer ski-wear, was Gordon. He lifted his goggles when Yuri approached. “How can it be this cold when we’re so far south?”
“It just gets cold,” Yuri shrugged.
“Yeah, well never mind that.” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb, towards the tunnel. “I hear we’ve finally found something. I’ve pissed away millions into this hole for the past three years, and what do I have to show for it?”
“You’ll see,” Yuri told him. The rest of the team were other investors and men from the government. They stayed silent as the scientist led them towards the tunnel. “This route was only excavated a few weeks ago,” he explained as they walked, “so it’s not safe.” A man at the checkpoint distributed hardhats.
“Just show me what’s down there,” Gordon snapped.
They followed him into the tunnel, lit by flickering lights suspended on cables held by iron rings driven into the ceiling. No one was working now – all the diggers would be down in the complex, drinking their pains away in the shack they called a bar – so they had the dim passage to themselves. Yuri knew it well enough, having ordered its excavation in the first place when it became clear where the strange radiation readings were coming from, but he still felt uncomfortable delving so deeply into the living rock of the mountain. Thousands of tonnes of unyielding stone were above their heads, and it made him uncomfortable. The tunnel penetrated some half a mile into the rock, following a slight downward trajectory. At the end, a wider space had been dug out, so they were all able to stand and look at the discovery. Everyone was quiet for a short time, just staring at it, until Gordon finally broke the silence. “What is it?”
Yuri shrugged again. Before them, instead of the grey, stratified rock of the mountain, was a wall of cloudy, black marble, curving very slightly away from them. Where the light hit it, there was a hint of some crystalline structure in its indistinct depths. “Some kind of mineral deposit.”
“We don’t know. Nothing that’s ever been seen before.”
“Well…what kind of properties does it have? It’s radioactive, right?”
“Yes, but it’s not any kind of radiation we understand.”
Gordon waved helplessly. “So take a sample! Do whatever it is you dorks do in your labs!”
“We can’t cut it. None of our tools even scratch its surface.”
Gordon looked at the blank, unyielding wall with an expression of confounded rage. “All right then. Well how fucking big is it?”
“Judging from the radiation spike, we estimate…well…this section seems to be a sort of cylinder, about three-hundred metres across and a hundred meters deep.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Gordon said dismissively, “but I guess big, right? And, hey, what do you mean ‘section’?”
“It’s a little hard to tell,” Yuri explained, “but the object seems to be irregularly shaped. We need to do some more excavations, but it looks like it may have two kind of…struts…” he tried to mime with his hands, “coming from the main body. They go upwards, actually, about fifty metres into the mountain.” He pointed. “What we’re looking at is actually the side of the cylinder.”
Gordon tilted his head, evidently trying to picture it. “So it’s just a big disc, with two things striking up out of it?”
“So it seems.”
“And who the hell put it here?!”
“We have no idea…”
“I’m not a geologist, but that can’t have formed naturally, right?”
Yuri held out his hands. “I have no explanation.”
“Some scientist,” Gordon grunted. “Look, if we can’t make a dent in this thing, we’re just going to have to blast the mountain away and haul it out in one piece, aren’t we? And then you’d all better hope it’s worth something or I’m going to bury this whole valley in rubble so no one ever finds out I sank my fortune into some weird rock formation.”
As he started to walk back up the tunnel, Yuri hurried to catch up so he could walk beside him. Gordon’s steps were long and forceful. He was obviously not happy. But he had to take this opportunity – his benefactor was so rarely around to talk to in person. “Uh, sir, the other scientists and I do have some theories about this object, if you’d care to hear them.”
“Sure. Knock yourself out.”
“You see, we’re not sure how humans could have built this and, while I understand that you feel you have to see some return on your investment, we thought it might be prudent to contact some other experts in more…esoteric…scientific fields to come here and study this phenomenon. I’ve already taken the liberty of drafting a shortlist of…”
“No. The last thing I need is spies for my competitors sniffing around here. I’m the only American investor working in this part of the world right now, and I intend to keep it that way.”
“But, this could be a discovery of unprecedented…”
Gordon stopped and raised a warning finger. “You heard me, doctor. Just dig the fucking thing out, find out what it is, what it does and how I can make some money off it, and then we can tell the whole goddamn world about it, all right?”
“Yes, sir,” Yuri said quietly.
“Glad we understand each other. Now, I need to get out of this fucking hellhole before my balls freeze off. I’m supposed to be hosting a gala in Miami tomorrow night.” He stormed back to the surface, his silent entourage in tow.
Petyr and Boris shared a bottle of vodka at a table in the corner of one of his clubs, before the doors opened. The waitress smiled at both men as she deposited the glasses and Petry thanked her brusquely. Boris was more generous with his time, taking the bottle from her hand gently, returning her smile and complimenting her on her hair. She responded to his gentle flirting with a melodious laugh and a hand that lingered slightly on his shoulder as she left. He was by no means a handsome man, but he was well known to everyone who worked for Petyr. “You show no interest in women,” Boris observed as he poured, “it’s not a problem if you’re gay, you know. I don’t care. You’re rich enough to fuck who you like now.”
Petyr shook his head. “I’m not gay. I just prefer to spend my time with women I own.”
“She’s yours, isn’t she?” Boris asked, gesturing with the bottle before pouring Petyr a generous glass.
“She works for me. It’s not the same.”
“Isn’t it? You couldn’t have her if you wanted?”
Petyr downed the vodka and flicked his glass back to Boris to refill. “They’re all whores. I know that. But I hate the pretence of it. You give her all these words and smiles, buy them gifts. Why? You know what you want and so does she.”
“You were always a straightforward man,” Boris chuckled. He gulped his drink down and started to pour for them both again. “But listen, you’re not a young man now.”
“So, remember what old Henryk told you? A man needs a wife, and heirs. You have an empire now.”
“It’s your empire, not mine.”
“Petyr…Petyr…” Boris reached across the table and patted him on the cheek. Petyr suppressed his desire to flinch away. “You have been a good friend to us. A very good friend. We want what is best for you.”
“I know that.”
“So, let me help you. I know a girl. I think she’ll be good for you. She was a dancer, but she fell and now her ankles can’t take it. But she’s pretty. Very pretty. I think she’d like you.”
Boris clapped his hands. “You’ll have dinner at one of my restaurants. It will be a magical evening.”
“I said yes,” Petyr said, before swallowing another glass of vodka. “But you didn’t come here to talk about finding me a wife.”
“No,” Boris admitted. “There was something else. Last night, you might have heard about some unfortunate business in the old factory district.”
“They said someone died.”
“Very unfortunate, yes. Now, as your memory is so good, my old friend, do you remember where I was last night?”
Petyr smiled faintly. It was always like this – an act of generosity, followed by a request like this. He didn’t begrudge it. Boris had power. Petyr was powerful too in his way, but his domain was much smaller than his friend’s, and he relied on his patronage. It was just the way of the world. Inevitable, inescapable. “You were here all night, of course. I would swear to it.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Boris said darkly. Then he stood up and Petyr rose with him. The two men embraced and Boris patted him on the cheek again before leaving. He stopped briefly near the door to talk to the waitress, then was gone again. When she came back to collect the glasses, Petyr told her she was fired.
Life continued to go smoothly. The girl – Luisa – was pretty and charming, and almost before he knew it, they were married. They spent a lot of time apart. Petyr had a nice home and she had a lot of friends she liked to spend time with. He thought she might be seeing other men, but he didn’t care very much, since he continued to see other women anyway. His nightclub business expanded to venues in other cities, and Boris helped him to invest his money in other ventures: property, computers, oil. Together, they began to become wealthy men. He had children, but he was busy running his business. One day, Boris introduced him to someone else. They were at a party on a yacht in the Black Sea.
Boris called him over. “Petyr! Come here! Come and meet my new friend.” He was talking to a short Asian man with glasses and a calm, expressionless face. As Petyr came over, Boris handed him a champagne flute. The drink was flowing freely. “This is who I was telling you about,” Boris explained to his friend, “my business partner. Petyr, this is Makato. He’s one of those hungry young sharks from Japan we hear so much about. Very interested in business opportunities in this part of the world.”
Petyr shook Makato’s hand politely. “Pleased to meet you,” he said mildly.
“And you,” Makato replied in clipped English. “Boris tells me you and he have quite an investment portfolio.”
“Really, Boris knows a lot more about these things than I do.”
“He’s right,” Boris admitted, “but Petyr does the hard work. This man started his life pulling turnips out of the ground in some farm back when the Soviets were still running things. You know what he had? He had shit.”
“Less than that,” Petyr murmured.
“But now look at him!” Boris patted him on the cheek, like he always did. He was getting old now, flabby where he was once imposing and muscular. Petyr had no idea who would fill the power vacuum when he died, but he decided at that moment that he wouldn’t wait around to find out.
“Makato,” he said, angling himself slightly so Boris was subtly cut out of the conversation, “what sort of business were you thinking of doing here?”
In a grey conference room in Kiev, Gordon stared at Yuri in disbelief. “What do you mean you can’t move it?”
Yuri shifted uncomfortably in his seat. There were more investors and government representatives and others whom he didn’t know, all sitting around the table, all looking at him, but Gordon was taking the lead at the head of the table. He felt like he was on trial. “The…uh…the object isn’t that large…it’s just…well…”
“It’s so dense, you see. I mean, the crystalline structure is so…so complex…it’s just layered with these sort of…uh…well…structures. So, for its size, it just has…I mean, it’s too heavy. We can’t get the necessary equipment up the mountain.”
“So we’ll build a bigger road,” Gordon said, waving his hand.
“What will that cost, Gordon?” another American to his right asked.
“I don’t care what it costs!” he replied, slamming his fist into the table and making Yuri jump.
“We’ve sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into this project already,” a third investor with a British accent said from halfway down the table, “with no return at all. You’ve drained a lake, evicted villagers from their homes, blasted away half a mountain – for what?”
“I think…I think we do need to study this more,” Yuri said, shrinking back nervously as all eyes turned to him again. “I’ve…I’ve never seen anything like this object. We have absolutely no idea where it came from. I think…I think that to just consider the monetary value of it is to…is to…uh…well, to miss the point. This is an unprecedented scientific discovery…” He trailed off under their scrutiny.
“The doctor is right,” an official in military uniform said from the other side of the long table, “we don’t know what this thing is. It could have any number of valuable properties. Have we tried burning it?”
Yuri stared at him. “I…no…we haven’t tried that…but…I mean, it’s impervious to anything we try anyway. We need to bring in more scientists. Experts, I mean. I know about radiation, but there is so much more here. We need geologists, chemists, physicists, maybe even…uh…maybe even astronomers, given that no know human civilisation could have…uh…” He wilted again beneath their stares.
“Scientists cost money,” Gordon answered shortly, “money I don’t have left for this project. I’m nearly ruined as it is, and I’ve made my name and my fortune by knowing when to get out when the going’s good.”
“Please, you must reconsider,” another government man said, “we are very happy to continue to subsidise your operation until such a time as…”
Gordon was already standing up. “There is no operation, as of this moment. Dismantle all the facilities. Send the workers home. This whole thing has been an embarrassing mistake. Gentlemen,” he said, addressing the representatives of the government, “I thank you for your hospitality during the last few years and I hope we can work together again in the future when opportunities present themselves, but for now we will be parting company.” His investors started to get up too.
“Wait,” Yuri said, looking with alarm from one indifferent face to the next, “what about the object?”
“Bury it, sell the land” Gordon growled, “I don’t want my reputation attached to a failure of this magnitude.”
“And the last thing we need,” the man in uniform added, “is another high-profile radioactive disaster in this country.”
“But…you can’t just make something like this go away…people need to be told…”
“You signed a non-disclosure agreement when you came on board, doctor,” Gordon said as he paused at the door, “and I’m sure your countrymen here have no qualms about enforcing its terms. I thank you for your efforts over the years, but I’m afraid this project is a dead end.”
Yuri sat there, watching everyone filter out of the conference room then, when he was alone, he quietly packed away his notes, zipped up his briefcase and tried to figure out what to do with his life now.
In a penthouse office overlooking the dazzling lights of Hong Kong, Petyr poured himself a glass of vodka and watched the aeroplanes flash their way slowly across the sky, leaving the dark lines of contrails against the gradually deepening night. The door to the office clicked open, and Makato entered. Petyr turned and pointed to the open bottle on his desk with a questioning look.
“No, thank you,” Makato answered in his quiet, even voice as he took a seat on the leather sofa to one side of the room and took out his tablet. “How did things go with Masterson?”
“They didn’t.” He drained his glass.
“Did you act angry?”
“Of course,” Petyr replied with a thin smile as he poured another vodka. His hair was silvery-grey now, the same coarse scrub clinging to a head that, no matter how well-tailored his suits, always looked too big and bulbous for his slim frame.
“We’ll have to keep an eye on things. This is a risky strategy.”
“All the ones worth trying are.”
“So you keep telling me.” Makato perused his tablet, flicking his long fingers deftly across the screen. “This may be of interest to you: do you remember that land we acquired in Ukraine a few years ago?”
Petyr gave it some thought as he sat down at his desk and brought his own computer online. “In the Carpathians?”
“What about it? It’s all mountains, isn’t it? Not cold enough to build a ski resort, I wouldn’t have thought, but what about mining? That was the plan, wasn’t it?”
“We did some digging into government records. Apparently an American tycoon tried to do some development there in the early nineties.”
“Oh? Anyone I’ve heard of?”
“He lost everything in the project, it seems. Killed himself a year later. Anyway, I finally got around to sending a team there to investigate. We uncovered some very interesting things.”
Petyr leant forward. “Now I’m intrigued. If I didn’t know you better, I’d almost say you were itching to tell me about this…”
Makato’s expression didn’t change. Makato’s expression never changed. “There were the remnants of a road built up to a mountainside that seemed to have been destroyed by a controlled explosion. We got some local workers to dig it out and we found…well…” he tapped his screen and nodded over to Petyr’s computer. “See for yourself.”
Petyr waited for the e-mail to arrive, then opened the attachment. He frowned at the image on the screen. “What is this?”
“It was buried under the rubble of the mountain.”
Petyr cocked his head. The object, still partially buried under tonnes of shattered rock, seemed to be a sort of dark marble cylindrical slab with two tall pillars protruding directly from its surface, like a sort of upturned stool with a leg missing. One of the workers was standing next to it for scale. It was at least a hundred metres tall. “That doesn’t tell me what it is.”
“It’s some sort of artefact. Possibly extraterrestrial.” Makato’s voice was completely level as he said it, as if it was a perfectly ordinary conclusion to have reached.
“Right…and do we know what it does, or who put it there?”
“Would I come to you with just half a story? That image is two months old. I’ve had my best scientists working on this. How would you feel about owning an alien supercomputer?”
Petyr thought about it. “Probably quite good, I suppose. How do you know it’s a computer?”
“It’s built of an unknown mineral with a highly-complex, but very orderly crystalline structure. We’ve run some tests. We think it’s capable of storing data at a quantum level.”
“Which means it breaks the laws of physics. It can record the position and velocity of subatomic particles, if necessary. That violates the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.”
Petyr shook his head. “You’re the thinker, I’m the builder. Break it down for me.”
“The universe as we understand it is composed of a kind of quantum soup of probabilities. At the Planck Scale, all that exists are solutions to waveform equations. If you know both the position and velocity of a subatomic particle, you can, by extrapolation, infer everything about reality. You see, Petyr, we’re not supposed to know the answers to questions built this deeply into the fabric of the cosmos, because their lack of solutions is what makes time tick.”
“Are you saying this thing can predict the future?”
Makato held out his hands. “Perhaps. If nothing else, it may be evidence that we live in a deterministic universe, in which our choices mean nothing. It shouldn’t be possible to build a computer like this, not in the universe we think we live in.”
Petyr tapped his fingers against the glass of his desk. For a moment, he was far away, lost in a childhood he’d tried very hard to forget. “Someone once told me,” he said in a soft voice, “that no one is truly free. We are all slaves to the world in which we live. I’ve long believed that our decisions are not truly our own. We follow the path laid out for us by circumstances. There is no version of this reality in which I do not sit here in this office now, talking to you. Our lives are guided by the universe’s inevitability.”
“The existence of this object would seem to support such a conclusion. And yet…”
“The Copenhagen interpretation still holds true. It has been proved experimentally that quantum physics is beholden to probability. This computer, whatever its origin, may open the box to discover the fate of Schrödinger’s Cat, but the maths is still valid up to that point. So, I asked my scientists how a universe can be both deterministic and still demonstrate, say, wave-particle duality.”
“And what did they say?”
“They had no answers, except for one brave soul who hazarded a crazy guess. He said, that if the universe is set in stone, the only possible resolution to the idea of infinite probabilities is an infinite number of deterministic universes.”
Petyr rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “Infinite universes? One for each choice we made?”
“What a fascinating thought.”
“But that’s all it is,” Makato said and, for just a moment, it looked like he was smiling, but maybe it was just the way the shadows moved across his face. “Just a thought…unless you know of any other evidence for such an outlandish conclusion?”
“Bexley,” Claire whispered gently, shaking his shoulder, “there’s someone for you to meet. A specialist from Poland. He says he’s interested in hearing your story.”
Bexley opened his eyes, looked at the woman he thought he knew, but now didn’t. He was getting used to the idea of being crazy, but he’d never get used to the idea of Claire being a straight-laced nurse in a mental hospital.
A shortish man with close-cropped grey hair entered his room and sat down. He had a broad smile that never reached his pale blue eyes. “Hello, Bexley,” he said in a heavy Eastern-European accent.
“I’ll leave you two alone,” Claire smiled.
When she walked out, the stranger moved his chair closer to Bexley’s bed. “I understand you have an interesting tale, young man.”
“You could say that.”
“Why don’t you tell me about it?”
“Which version do you want? The one where I’m a crazy man who thinks he’s stuck in the wrong universe, or the one where I was just a normal guy who took a drug that changed reality before his eyes?”
“I’d like to hear the second one, Bexley.”
“Sure.” He sat up in bed and poured himself a glass of water. “What’s your name? You’ll understand if I like to keep a handle on people’s identities. You never know when they might magically change into a stranger.” He nodded disdainfully towards the door Claire had just left by.
“Of course.” The man held out a hand. “My name is Petyr. Petyr Wójcik.”