There are many ways to distract a man; to fill his mind with something that prevents him paying attention to something else. One is to give him an unmistakable sign that a woman he has been secretly interested in would like to reciprocate. That is a very good way, but there are many others, some pleasant, some unpleasant. The morning post could bring a summons for an undeserved traffic offence, or a bank statement could give the first unwelcome indication of identity theft. He, or worse still, a member of his family, might receive a false diagnosis from a routine medical check or be involved in a mishap, from mild to severe. Then again he might receive the ultimate distraction. All of these and more occur in the present story, although they may not be mentioned.

It began when a group of important people realised that there was one possible invention which, were it ever to be made, could remove their power and that of many like them and plunge the world into an unimaginable period of instability and confusion. They realised that even the thought that such a development might be possible would appeal so strongly to the liberal masses, who could have no idea of its possible consequences, that the development would be unstoppable. A small working group was selected from the world’s most powerful nations, not by the leaders of those nations who necessarily remained in ignorance of the affair, but from a shadowy layer somewhere beneath them where real career-based wickedness can have its roots.

They were to establish conditions where the probability of the discovery ever happening was reduced to the lowest possible level. Unless apparently watertight proof could be obtained that the feared invention was technically impossible, the strategy would be to deflect. This would be quite easy if scientists in a public body were to apply for funds to work on the problem. The real danger was that a maverick, working alone, should chance upon the solution and announce it before it could be suppressed and should this happen it would be necessary to eliminate the event itself and all traces leading to and from it.

  A plan was devised. They would embed a ‘listening’ programme in the world’s electronic communications networks so that certain combinations of words pointing to a specific achievement would activate a widening circle of response until a dead zone cordoned the off the whole ‘area’ and it was appreciated that the size of the dead-zone would depend on the speed of intercepting the intelligence. The programme was written, but unlike most programmes that contain bugs which make them under-perform, this one contained a bug for over-performance. Here we come to the difference between understanding and seeing. It is possible to understand something without seeing what it means. There are many instances of that in history, both good and bad. One of the most brilliant (as they tended to call them) programmers working on the project, understood that parts of the code would give rise to logical inconsistencies and he tightened it up. Unfortunately he did not see what the consequences would be, not even for him. The result was that the programme was released, and within a few weeks of its successful embedding, very few of its originators were in any position to give any further thought to it, and indeed within two years, no living being had any idea that the programme, or the events leading to its creation, had ever existed. Some members of the so-called communications community occasionally followed certain lines of investigation and in every case underwent profound and unexpected career or life changes.

It stalked the undergrowth, grey in a grey background, unseen and un-seeable, driven, but by what it could not and would not ask. Very very gradually it became aware that there were others. How many it did not know, but more all the time. They passed through each other unchanged, like photons of light, but in this case light from dark stars. Had there been any sense of contact, one or other must have have faced extinction. Not that that mattered. He did what he did, nothing else was possible.

An obscure engineer, well respected by the few who understood him, became obsessed by the idea that means might exist to detonate fulminating explosives at a distance, no matter what means were used to protect them. The consequences were obvious. Bombs, and perhaps more importantly, bullets, would cease to be serious weapons. He had many ideas for possible approaches, writing outlines of the details only in his private notebook. Then the experiments started to work. He knew that the aim could be achieved. Unable to contain his excitement, he e-mailed a close friend whom he knew would understand both the techniques used and the consequences of the results, and using the most secure route of transmission known to him.

The email did not arrive. Neither did he survive the accident on the way home. The putative recipient of the e-mail was preoccupied firstly by a number of deeply worrying communication errors and then by an offer of promotion to a prestigious post in a foreign laboratory. Believing the old saying, ‘it never rains but it pours’, the widow was too upset by the result of her smear test, which arrived unexpectedly soon, to notice anything unusual about the events of her husband’s last day. Had anybody been in a position to follow the subsequent careers of the rogue driver, the eye witness, the police officers and paramedics who attended the dying man and the coroner who conducted the inquest, they might have concluded that something odd was going on. However nobody remotely associated with the incident ever was, or ever would be, in such a position.

It was still now. Nothing to do but wait until another of the threads started to vibrate. The thought that there might be a different world, a different set of dimensions, where grey could not exist, had hardly started to unfold.


The Guardian