The last thing Edmund sees before the lance takes him full in the chest is the glint in his opponent's eyes behind the visor. He should have been concentrating on his own lance-tip, guiding it onto its target in the split second before the riders pass. But he has always been more interested in the techniques of the joust than in its outcome. What makes a participant successful? Quick reactions? Absence of fear? An unusual ability to concentrate?
A few seconds later, Arthur was already standing over him, grinning.
"You're not getting any better," he said. "That's eight in a row."
"Good on you!" Edmund said hoarsely, shaking his head. He felt in mild shock, and in pain from psychosomatic bruising. He pulled himself up, brushing aside the headpiece.
"Why do you think that is?" he asked.
"Easy," Arthur replied. "You're half-hearted - or scared, if you don't mind my saying so."
"And you're not scared?" said Edmund.
"Why should I be?" Arthur answered. "It's only a simulation."
And that, thought Edmund, was the problem. How could one really understand the subtleties of jousting - or of real combat, if it came to that - when those taking part knew there was absolutely no danger of their being hurt or killed? You needed a programme that made simulations feel absolutely real - which completely removed awareness of their being simulations.
Edmund's work as a psycho-historian had led him to the same conclusion on several occasions. When he had been researching the plague years in medieval Europe, volunteers had played the parts of barons, burghers, monks and peasants in complex and convincing multi-participant simulations – the processing power of the equipment at his disposal was awesome. A random selection of the cast was programmed to become infected with Yersina pestis, almost all then dying.
The participants had been monitored within the simulation, and interviewed afterwards. Yet it had been impossible to improve on the written records of how people actually perceived their situations at the time. Those taking part were only too well aware that they had not contracted the plague and were not dying; also that the end of the world was not at hand, that disease was not a punishment for sin, and that the Jews were innocent. However good the simulations, every participant had an innate defence mechanism against illusions that seemed to threaten their lives.
Edmund had put out feelers to various software houses in the hope that one of them would have made a helpful breakthrough in countering what he had come to think of as the "awareness problem". None had. Indeed he was given to understand that he was asking for something which conflicted with established ethical standards: entirely removing the ability to tell what was real risked creating lasting psychoses. After a number of futile runs with various unsatisfactory products, Edmund was ready to abandon the whole approach.
Sitting at the small work-station he shared with Arthur Bradley in the School's simulation lab, he looked unhappily down the rows of recliners, each with its fold-over isolation pod and wired-in headset. Use of the costly facility was strictly rationed. It had taken years of preparation, followed by months of negotiation, to get his project approved. Had all that time been wasted?
Almost from the first, he had decided to participate in the simulations himself. Besides being able to observe the test subjects directly within each scenario, it had given him the opportunity to tackle, personally, the awareness problem. And, to some extent, he had succeeded. In the jousts with Arthur, he had actually begun to feel – or at least simulate the feeling of – fear. That, as Arthur had pointed out, was why he was losing. But finding a way to generate the ability in others had proved beyond him.
Indeed, when he had consulted the medical staff attached to the facility, they had been anything but helpful. Instead of suggesting solutions, they had warned him that they might recommend the termination of his participation. In their view, his "ability" was the first sign of psychological disturbance.
Arthur Bradley, his colleague in the history department, was robustly resistant to all attempts, as he put it, to get inside his head. He was in his mid-twenties, more than ten years younger than Edmund, but clearly thought of himself as an equal rather than a junior. This sometimes got on Edmund's nerves.
"As far as I'm concerned," he told Edmund, "I want a clear distinction between what's real, and what isn't."
Their technical assistant, Siobhan Kelly, gave Edmund one of her curious, lop-sided smiles, peeping sideways through long, dark hair from her station across the aisle. A quiet woman, perhaps in her early thirties, she had come to them from a small but expanding software company based in Cambridge. She claimed to have met Edmund, though he couldn't remember it, at a conference run by the University on "Interaction and Cooperation between Arts and Sciences". Apparently he had made an impression.
Her c.v. had revealed extensive experience as an econometric modeller both on academic projects and for governmental bodies. Why she had decided to leave this high-profile field for the relative backwater of psychohistory was not clear. She was obviously brilliant. Perhaps she had hit a glass ceiling. Perhaps she had felt too old in a field teeming with teenage geniuses. Perhaps she found recreating the past more satisfying than trying to guess the future. At any rate, she had hinted that she had some ideas of her own which would be revealed once she had developed them further.
According to Arthur - who did not get on particularly well with the older woman - beneath her shy exterior Siobhan was seething with frustrated ambition, feminist resentment or lust, or perhaps all three. He doubted her ideas on psychohistory could amount to much. Anyway, he too, was working on a new approach. Though aware throughout that they were in a simulation, participants would not be told in advance what setting they had entered; and in the process of discovery, authentic reactions might be triggered. He had sketched out a brief trial scenario, which Siobhan and the IT department had already programmed for testing.
Leaving the School, Edmund found a letter in his pigeon-hole. A company he had not heard of was asking for a meeting. It claimed to have developed a methodology which might interest him.
Edmund's first reaction was to ignore the approach: either, he thought, it would be another dead end, or – in view of what the established firms had told him – he might find himself involved in something legally suspect. In the end he decided to meet the company's London representative. That, after all, would not commit him to anything.
When Edmund arrived at the intimate bar off Fleet Street where he usually had his lunch, he found his contact already there. She was stocky, dark-haired with flattish features, but not unattractive, and with a surprisingly firm handshake. A pint of real ale was already on the table, opposite her glass of sparkling water. She had done her homework.
"I am Anna," she said with an accent Edmund couldn't quite place. "We understand what you look for, Professor, is simulation which people cannot tell is not real. Yes?"
"This enables you to establish what people in past ages feel. Yes?"
Edmund nodded again.
"But is dangerous to take away sense of reality for too long. So secret is to take away for critical moment, then give back when test over. Yes? This we can do."
Edmund realised he was, in principle, interested.
"How?" he asked.
"Answer is pre-con-dit-ion-ing," Anna answered, each syllable of the word stressed as if she were spelling it out. "When enter simulation, at first believe fully real. You, Professor, collect data. Then signal, and pre-conditioned realisation only simulation. No damage to psyche."
If that were really so, Edmund thought, there were possibilities for getting authentic reactions.
"Without asking you to give away trade secrets," he said, "what is the procedure?"
"Procedure is like used by hypnotist," Anna replied. "Subjects pre-conditioned : big moment, think real; then signal, realise only simulation. All embedded in programme."
Despite some excitement, Edmund told himself to proceed with caution. It could all be untested theory, or even some kind of scam.
"Two more questions," he said, looking straight at Anna. "Where exactly are your facilities? And how much will it cost? You probably know my budget is limited – history isn't the first call on the School's funds."
"We know this," Anna replied, also looking Edmund in the eye. "We charge only very small percentage of your budget. Main cost, in fact, is travel of you and your team to Tvorez laboratories in Belarus."
Edmund was only mildly surprised. Eastern European countries outside the EU were the most likely source of technologies - how should one put it? - on the edges of legality.
"Well, fortunately I don't have much of a team," said Edmund. "In fact I'm probably the only one that needs to travel. All the preliminary work can be done here."
"Good," said Anna. "You tell us scenarios, we set up system."
"And I suppose there won't be any problems in finding volunteers?" Edmund added.
"Oh, no, no!" replied Anna. "Many very eager to volunteer for very small pay. We have deal, yes?"
Though it was extraordinarily sudden, Edmund found himself agreeing.
"Yes," he echoed, "I think we do have deal…a deal - subject, of course, to tender documents, estimates, contract and so on. How do you want to proceed?"
Anna rose from the table and held out her hand.
"We send all necessary documents tomorrow, Professor. You and lawyers of School go through. Then I am in touch again. Thank you. Is nice to meet you."
And following another firm handshake, and without turning back, Anna left.
Swaying from side to side as it negotiated potholes in the forest road, the company's Mercedes was heading, as far as Edmund was concerned, into terra incognita. Tvorez Software had been vague as to the exact location of their facilities, but had promised to pick him up at the hotel in Minsk and take him there. "A drive of only a few hours," the company brochure said.
On the plane there had been time to think. Anna had been as good as her word, and immaculate documentation had arrived in Edmund's pigeon-hole the next morning, including financial proposals which could only be described as super-competitive. Despite the suddenness of the arrangements, he had met no difficulty in getting faculty approval, and was able to offload lecturing and other engagements onto colleagues. Only when high above Eastern Europe did he begin to think of several questions he should perhaps have asked. Tvorez Software seemed respectable and competent enough. It had a client list – most of them public bodies in Belorus itself – which appeared impressive. But whether it was a private company, a government agency, an academic body or something incorporating elements of all three was not entirely clear. There was something of the cloak-and-dagger, Edmund felt, hiding behind the glossy literature.
Every now and again the road the Mercedes was following would make a sharp turn, so that Edmund became increasingly unsure of the direction they were taking. Judging by the sunlight glimpsed through the tree cover, they were travelling eastwards, but whether with a more northerly or more southerly tendency he couldn't tell. They could still be in the Minsk region; or in any one of the three to the east. There had been villages and fields, but there had been no stops and they had been travelling too fast for him to catch the names. It did not help that he spoke only a smattering of Russian, and no Belarusian at all. The driver's English seemed confined to the words "hello" and "please".
It was almost dark when they arrived at what Edmund assumed was their destination. As he had guessed would be the case, the Tvorez facility was near no town or village, and took the form of a huge compound protected by high, and almost certainly electrified, fencing. The car entered by a manned gate, and stopped outside a long single-story building constructed partly of concrete slabs, partly of timber. To Edmund's surprise he saw Anna waiting on the steps of the main entrance.
"Welcome to Tvorez company", she said as he climbed up to her and once again experienced her firm handshake. "Driver will take all bags to hospitality suite. Please follow."
The suite turned out to be amazingly luxurious for somewhere, as he realised he had been thinking of it, in the middle of nowhere. The oil-paintings on the walls were real; the Central Asian rugs on the light-oak floor were elaborate and expensive; there was a drinks cabinet containing not merely a few bottles of superior vodka, but a range of malt whiskeys, Cognacs and Armagnacs, and a carefully-chosen selection of wines from around the world. Tvorez clearly did not believe in economising on client entertainment. Edmund indeed had the wild thought that he could probably drink his way through the whole fee Tvorez was getting if he set his mind to it.
Having made a start on this project with a modest Talisker, Edmund spent half an hour unwinding in the suite's large marble and gold-tapped bath; then dressed in a clean shirt for dinner. This, he learned from the invitation (in English) brought up with his luggage, would be in a private dining room in the main building, and would be attended by the members of the Tvorez staff assigned to his project – and, of course, Anna, in whose name the invitation had been issued.
The team of six, introduced by Anna when he arrived, was a surprise. He had expected one or two suited middle-management types, accompanied by a few jeans-and-tee-shirt techies. Instead, though all were dressed in lounge suits, he detected that none felt comfortable in them. They should have been in uniform. And this at least made one thing clear: Tvorez was a thinly-disguised military establishment.
Though uneasy at the implications, Edmund reassured himself with the thought that his project involved nothing that could possibly have security implications. The contract with Tvorez Software was good; and quite a few organisations in the same field, in all parts of the world, lived in a grey area where the corporate and the governmental overlapped. Belarus was no longer a State-run economy. Unlike several now independent parts of the old Soviet Union – in the Caucasus and central Asia a series of civil wars and border disputes had resulted in a region of nasty authoritarian regimes, some Islamic, some Stalinist, some puppets of China or Russia - Belarus now appeared to be a functioning democracy. It was even making genuine efforts to qualify as a candidate EU Member State. Anyway, someone at the School would surely have checked everything out before giving Edmund the go-ahead.
At a suitable moment, following an excellent meal – whatever their ranks, Edmund thought, all dined like officers – Edmund was called on to introduce his project. It appeared that everyone in the team was able to understand his English, though few said anything apart from brief questions on matters of fact. No doubt they had already received a full background briefing. The evening was brought to an abrupt close when Anna rose to her feet followed, as one, by the rest of the Tvorez team. It might have just been old-world courtesy. But Edmund thought it more likely that she also should have been in uniform – almost certainly that of the CO.
Edmund allowed himself a small Cognac in his room before turning in.
The next morning, after a shower and a Continental breakfast served in his room – bagels: had someone confused London with New York? – there was a tour of the facilities. Given that the unique extra offered by Tvorez was the pre-conditioning of the research subjects through some kind of hypnosis, Edmund half-expected to see elaborate rigs of flashing lights and counter-rotating wheels. In fact there were only the usual padded recliners, each with a set of headphones and opaque goggles wired-in to a central console.
There were places for six participants, including Edmund himself – not many by comparison with the laboratory in London. But he had decided to concentrate at the moment on the psychology of one-on-one confrontations: secutor against retarius; the settlement of disputes, under old Anglo-Saxon law, by single combat; the medieval joust; the 18th century duel… Two subjects – three including himself - would be enough.
For a test run, Edmund had chosen a simulated bare-knuckle boxing contest from the early 19th century: one that might have pitted a semi-professional from the lower orders against one of the many gentleman amateurs who fancied themselves as pugilists. There could be no (simulated) fatality; but the experience of pain and blood would (presumably) seem real.
Two volunteers had been recruited by Tvorez, both fairly tall, well-muscled men, fitting the roles Edmund had programmed for them - though the thought did strike him that, as they were to be under hypnosis, and the event was to take place within a simulation, their real physiques should perhaps be immaterial. No doubt all the available subjects – almost certainly army personnel – would be of the same build. Both seemed to be in their early twenties, with close-cropped, military hair-cuts, and round, vaguely Asiatic faces. They might, indeed, have been brothers.
Edmund was anxious to see how the two test subjects were to be pre-programmed before entering the simulation; but it was explained to him that this would be done within the normal procedures. All three were asked to take their places on the prepared recliners, to fit the headphones and goggles, and to bare one of their arms. To aid full immersion in the programme, one of the technicians explained, and also to facilitate the monitoring of body functions, an intravenous relaxant would be administered while the simulation was running. Edmund felt the needle in his arm…
…and finds himself standing in a small patch of meadow, surrounded by woodland. In the centre of the meadow there is a roped-off area, within which the two test subjects are warming up. Both are naked above the waist, and wear three-quarter-length canvas trousers above bare feet. On the far side there is a small crowd of spectators, mostly men dressed in shabby button-less shirts and breeches, some wearing black stovepipe hats. They remind Edmund of illustrations in early editions of the Pickwick Papers. And that is, of course, where they have found models for the simulation, he thinks. Scattered here and there are one or two women in long high-waisted dresses and straw hats dangling blue ribbons. Several voices are crying odds on the fight to come, and there are shouts of encouragement to one boxer or the other. Edmund is impressed. The simulation is faultless, even to the gusts of wind that disturb the leaves of the surrounding trees, and the slight give of the dampish ground beneath his feet. Then it occurs to him that he, too, might have been preconditioned to see an environment that appears entirely real – though in his case, of course, knowing that it is not.
He still feels a slight pricking sensation in his left arm, where, in the real world, the needle has been inserted. That arm – now, of course, simulated – has around it a thick, padded bracelet, with a small screen and touch-pad on the upper surface. This, Edmund realises, is one of the important innovations promised by Tvorez: software enabling emergency communication to take place between a subject within a simulated reality and technicians in reality itself.
Before he can test the system, however, someone cries out, and the fight begins. The boxers circle round, probing each other's guard. Neither seems anxious to launch an attack – and, for Edmond, this is already significant. In the simulations he has carried out in London, fight participants have been unnaturally reckless, trading blows and rushing into mêlées confident that no real harm can come to them. This has made the data he has collected suspect.
Eventually there are some catcalls and jeers from the small crowd, and the two boxers begin to engage. There is a short flurry of punches, after which both begin to bleed from cuts on the head, and one appears to have damaged his right hand. The other, seeing an advantage, lands several powerful blows to the body, after which his opponent tries desperately to hold on. He is pushed back, and slips on the damp grass. The man still on his feet might have been expected to move in for a decisive blow; but, instead, he stands back looking somewhat confused, and waits for the other to get up.
The fallen boxer eventually stands and the bout resumes. At first there is more probing; and then the man with the injured hand launches a frenetic attack, forcing his opponent back onto the ropes. For a moment the other seems taken by surprise, and merely covers up. Then, slipping sideways, he lands a firm right-hand jab on the other's nose, breaking it, and producing a torrent of blood. Edmund assumes the fight will be stopped; but there is no referee, and no second with a towel to throw in. The injured man tries despairingly to clear the blood from his eyes and backs away, pursued by the other, who lands repeated punches on his opponent's body - but not, Edmund notes, on the damaged face.
The end is not long coming. Falling to one knee, the injured fighter concedes; and the other, having briefly raised both arms in victory, helps his opponent to his feet. Edmund notes a brief round of applause from the simulated crowd. He thinks of going across to talk to the two boxers, who – at least according to the information he has been given – should by now realise that they have been in a simulation rather than a real fight. But before he can do so his vision blurs and he feels himself falling…
…back into the recliner. Taking off the goggles and headphones – the needle had apparently already been removed - Edmund looked around to see whether the two subjects were also out of the simulation. But both the other recliners were empty. Where were they? he asked. A technician replied that they had been taken off to a special unit where the effects of the hypnosis were being reversed.
"They OK, OK," the technician assured him. "No psychological disturbance".
"When can I see them?" Edmund asked.
"Soon", came the reply. "Perhaps tomorrow."
"But why not now?" Edmund insisted. "You said they were OK, didn't you?"
"OK, but now resting," the technician answered. "Tomorrow, eh?"
Edmund was forced to accept, though he had hoped to carry out additional research at immediate post-event interviews. He thought of contacting Anna to see if the technician could be overridden; but was told when he made enquiries that she was not actually at the facility. Eventually he returned to his room, and began writing up the results of the pilot run. Though somewhat surprised at the unavailability of the test subjects, he was not unduly perturbed. Even interviews a day after might provide useful insights.
It was not, in fact, until late the following afternoon that he was able to see the two participants in the fight scenario. The meeting took place in what appeared to be an ante-chamber of the medical centre, with Edmund and his test subjects facing each other across a large deal table. The sun was already setting, and the light from the single, rather dirty window was supplemented by an old-fashioned low-powered light-bulb. Edmund had already begun to think of his location as a military base rather than a research facility. Now he had a strong feeling that he was sitting in part of the prison wing.
Looking at the two men, Edmund realised he was quite unable to tell which had been the winner in the simulation, and which had been defeated. Neither, of course, had a broken nose or was in any way marked – even strong psychosomatic effects would by now have worn off completely. Edmund was nevertheless surprised at his inability to distinguish between them: the simulation had been technically superb. Then he reminded himself that, in a simulation, fighters did not have to look like their real selves. He wished that, the day before, he had taken a better look at the real subjects before they had put on their headsets.
The interviews with the two men – conducted through an interpreter - provided very little new information. They remembered the fight; and, yes, they had thought it real at the time. But when it was over they had suddenly become aware that it had only been simulated. Afterwards they had undergone a large number of tests to detect any psychological damage. Happily, they had both come through and were declared entirely sane. They were glad they had not, in fact, physically harmed each other. When pressed for memories of their state of mind during the fight, their answers were unclear, at least as relayed by the interpreter. They remembered, though, that they had been constrained by some kind of code: to suspend the contest when an opponent was on the ground, to accept a submission. Queensbury rules, Edmund concluded, had been incorporated into the software.
Despite the lack of complete data, Edmund was satisfied that Tvorez had delivered what had been promised: a simulated contest during which the contestants believed it to be entirely real. Now he could move on to more demanding scenarios, notably where there was the possibility of one or more fatalities. He decided to restrict the experiments, for the time being, to one-on-one contests. For the second, he chose a formal combat between men-at-arms.
This time, Edmund finds himself in what appears to be an arena: a circular, grass-covered depression, flattened out at the bottom, and terraced at the edges. The central area is covered in reddish sand, and is once more roped off. The two contestants are already in place. They are in full armour, partly of steel plate and partly ring-mail. They hold studded leather shields and over-a-metre-long swords. Again there is a substantial crowd of onlookers, the men this time wearing a variety of belted woollen smocks, breeches and felt or hide boots. Judging by the headgear – large fur caps with coverings for the ears – the simulation is based on the traditional dress of medieval Muscovy or Lithuania. The few women are in long, dark red or brown dresses topped with white, embroidered waistcoats, and round, white-red-and green hats. Some of the older women, the babushkas, wear colourful headscarves.
The signal for the fight to begin is given by one member of the crowd whose costume appears of a slightly better quality than the rest – no doubt intended to be the local dvoryanin. Again – and in contrast to the simulations Edward has run before – there is no immediate, devil-may-care flurry of action. Instead, the combatants remain almost stationary, with only occasional slight advances, retreats or anti-clockwise movements around each other. After about two minutes, one of the fighters attempts a long-range cut, which his opponent, without difficulty, takes on the shield. The action is then repeated in reverse. Finally, both launch simultaneous cuts, resulting in a clash of swords, followed by a clash of shields. They push each other apart, and again pause some two or three metres apart.
Edmund realises something that has not occurred to him before. Too much early activity, given the combined weight of armour, sword and shield, can result in a fighter rapidly tiring, so putting him at a fatal disadvantage. Rather than the flamboyant action and dramatic climax required by film scripts, such combats in real life – or it this case, in what the combatants believe to be real life – are as much matters of endurance as of skill. Edmund also notes that the onlookers are, on this occasion, quiet: there are no catcalls and demands for the fighters to get on with it. What Edmund has only just realised has been written into the scenario.
Eventually one of the armoured figures momentarily lowers his shield, and the other, believing he has an opening, steps forward, swings back his sword and aims a slashing blow at his opponent's head. But the lowering of the shield has been a feint. Stepping inside the swinging sword, the first fighter uses his sword-point to penetrate the other's armour at the joint between shoulder and shield-arm. Blood begins to run down the wounded man's breastplate, and a succession of swinging blows forces him back. Unable to hold up his shield, he parries with the sword, but is obliged to take several blows to the body, and one to the head. His armour and helmet, however, hold.
Edmund expects that, at this point, the unwounded fighter would press his advantage. But it seems he needs time to gather breath. Then Edmund has a second realisation. Instead of wasting energy hammering at the other's armour, the first fighter can wait to see whether blood-loss will weaken him sufficiently to allow an easy victory. And indeed, instead of renewing the attack, the first fighter begins a series of feints and retreats, forcing the other to turn and move, with blood continuing to flow from his wound.
The wounded man, however, is aware of the tactic. Dropping his shield, he uses the freed hand to press under the shoulder-joint, hoping to limit the flow of blood; and in this he is partially successful. Then he advances. He knows, thinks Edmund, that his only chance is a quick victory, before further blood loss weakens him.
The other, though, knows that too. Backing away, he contents himself with taking blows on his shield, or parrying. For several minutes the pair move round the sanded area, the one attacking, the other backing away, passively defending.
Suddenly, the advancing man evades a parry, and delivers a powerful blow on his opponent's raised sword-arm, directly on the elbow joint. There is a cry, and the struck man drops his sword. He takes a second blow on his shield, but is unable to stop a third striking him on the side of the side of the head. He stumbles and falls. The victor, with blood now once again pouring down his side, moves to stand over him.
But he makes no attempt at a coup de grace. Instead, he almost immediately turns away, and, using his sword as a stick, walks shakily to the edge of the sanded area, under the ropes, and begins to climb. Has there been a mistake? Edmund decides to test the communication programme installed by Tvorez, and types into the key-pad on his arm:
"When did they realise only simulation?"
There is a short delay, and then there is a reply on the screen.
"Subjects still think real."
Edmund starts towards the man on the ground; but once again his vision blurs, he begins to fall…
…and found himself, as before, on the recliner, alone in the room apart from the same Tvorez technician. Also as before, he was told that an interview with the two subjects was not possible before the next day. It duly took place in the same room the following afternoon.
He had taken care, this time, to look closely at the subjects before the start of the simulation, and the men facing him across the table were clearly the two that had been lying next to him on their recliners. Neither showed any signs of injury; but neither was able to add much to what Edmund had already witnessed. They had believed the simulation to be real almost up to the moment when the simulation had ended.
Back in his room, Edmund began to write up what he had deduced from the two exercises so far. One thing was obvious: when the participants believed they were taking part in real combat rather than a simulation, their approach was one of extreme caution. Also obvious was their reluctance to inflict severe damage on opponents. And this, Edmund realised, must be because they were aware of who those opponents were - probably colleagues, even friends.
In sum: as a means to analyse the reactions of men in real combat, the simulations had been virtually useless.
Had there been time for him to interview the subjects within the simulation after they had ceased to believe it real, he might have learned something; and he intended to take that up with Tvorez. Perhaps, though, the time had come to admit failure and terminate the contract. There would be a financial penalty; but not a particularly large one. On the other hand, having come all that way – and he had to admit that life at the Tvorez facility was a vast improvement on his rather dog-eared existence at the School and the flat in Camden. Was there perhaps a solution?
That evening at dinner – which, was in a larger and more Spartan dining room than on the first occasion, but attended only by three others apart from himself – he raised the matter with the officer (as he thought of him) who spoke the best English, and who seemed, in fact, to have taken over from Anna as his liaison. Like Anna, his communications were brief. Unlike Anna the man remained silent for about a minute, and then said:
"This will be no problem."
Edmund was astonished. "What will you do?" he asked.
"We make changes to preliminary conditioning," was the reply. "No problem."
And there the conversation ended.
Edmund had planned that the next simulation would examine the basic, primitive elements of combat, uncomplicated by conventions or technology. The combatants would carry no weapons; but they would have access to materials that could be used as weapons: stones, sticks – and, of course, any skills in unarmed combat. He had asked that the two subjects be more or less equal in stature and training. In the previous simulations, he realised, the subjects might have been unevenly matched; and knowledge of this might, from the start, have significantly altered their behaviour. Even if, in the planned simulation, the subjects - so he had been assured - would no longer be aware of their true identities, it was better to eliminate anything that might distort reactions.
For much the same reason, he had decided to participate in the current simulations only as an observer. In London he and colleagues had taken roles as combatants, all starting from a position of virtually zero skills. He and fellow-researcher Arthur Bradley, for example, had learned from scratch how to ride in full armour and then to joust, becoming - always in simulation, of course - really quite proficient. At Tvorez, however, it was doubtful whether his very few other combat skills would match those of militarily-trained personnel.
On the following morning Edmund accordingly found himself, together with the two subjects provided by Tvorez, slipping on the usual headset and goggles, and receiving the usual needle in his left arm. During the few seconds before slipping into the planned scenario, he repeated to himself, twice, the break code - the alphanumeric sequence which he could key into his bracelet within the simulation, and which would automatically terminate it. A certain uneasiness - which he found it difficult to justify rationally - made it seem important that the current code was firmly memorised. As he started to repeat it for a third time…
*…he is once again in the same arena-like setting, the red sand at the bottom now raked smooth, but with a number of objects - stones of various sizes, some sticks - scattered around the edges. On the slope above are the onlookers, roughly the same number as on previous occasions. No doubt, Edmund thinks, a template generates the same crowd for all scenarios, only the costumes being varied. But on this occasion there seems to have been no attempt at a particular historical context. All, men and women alike, are dressed in plain collarless shirts or vests, nondescript baggy trousers, grey or dun - in fact they could be off-duty soldiers transposed from the real Tvorez base, Edmund realises.
There is, again, a slightly better-dressed spectator in the front row, an officer perhaps, equivalent to the dvoryanin figure in the previous simulation. Edmund looks at him more carefully than before, and has the feeling than he is in some way familiar. Then it comes to him. The officer/dvoryanin character has been modelled on the English-speaker who has taken over from Anna as his liaison. Looking round at the faces of the other spectators, Edmund wonders whether they might not all be representations of real Tvorez personnel. He looks particularly hard at the women: could one of them be – he smiles as the phrase comes to him - an Anna analogue?
Before he could complete his examination, however, the images of the two subjects appear at opposite ends of the arena. They are both naked except for what Edmund supposes must be breech-clouts: pieces of white cloth wound between the legs and around the lower torso. Both are of the same stocky build and with the same Mongolian features as the previous subjects.
The officer figure gives a signal for the combat to begin. At first the two fighters stand still looking at one another. Then one turns and picks up a saucer-sized stone in one hand, a thick, metre-long stick in the other. For a few seconds the second fighter does nothing. Then he too turns and picks up a number of fist-sized rocks, holding one in his right hand, the others stacked on the open palm of his left. The contrasting game-plans are clear.
For a moment the two stand still, again looking at each other. Then the combat explodes into action. The first fighter launches himself towards the other, holding the stick in front of himself as a shield. In response the second fighter begins throwing his rocks, giving them impressive velocity, at the approaching target. Two miss. Then a third evades an attempted parry with the stick, and catches the running figure beneath the arm. The wound begins to bleed; but there is no pause in the first fighter's charge, and he narrows the gap to only a few metres. The second fighter has one missile left. Freed from carrying others, he half turns, then spins, hurling the rock. It hits the approaching man on the neck at a range of less than five metres. He staggers, dropping the stick to clutch his throat, but holding onto the stone. Then, gasping for breath, he closes with his opponent, who starts to retreat. But the retreat is too slow. A swinging strike from the hand carrying the stone crashes on the side of his head, and he falls to the ground.
This is the moment, Edmund thinks, when the new conditioning will come into play. Will the victor now back off, as in the previous simulations? The stone-wielder is still on his feet, but is clearly having difficulty breathing. He lurches sideways, and looks as though he, too, will fall. But regaining balance, he approaches the fallen opponent; raises his arm; and brings the stone down with added force on the other's skull, which breaks open. There can be little doubt that the blow is fatal. The whole affair has been over in little over a minute.
The dramatically altered behaviour of the subjects compared with that in the previous simulation has already provided Edmund with some valuable information. In real combat of this kind, between genuine opponents, speed in determining strategy and carrying it out appears, after all, to be of significance. He decides to question the subjects immediately, within the simulation – given the likelihood of serious psychological problems for both as a result of the outcome, Tvorez must surely by now have triggered the realisation that the action was not real.
He moves towards the centre of the arena. But then, still holding the stone, the victor suddenly rushes in the opposite direction, to where the officer apparently in charge is sitting. This is outside the agreed programme, Edmund thinks, disconcerted. He follows; but not in time to intervene in what now happens. Still unsteady on his feet and gasping for breath, but with vicious determination, the man brings the already blood-spattered stone down on the head of the officer, who only has time to half rise from his seat. Once again there is a sharp crack. A second death has occurred.
Something is badly wrong, Edmund realises. The simulation has been corrupted, either deliberately or through an – admittedly improbable – accident. It is time to bring it to an end. Thankful that he has had the foresight to memorise the break code, Edmund taps it into his bracelet, noticing as he does so that the killer is being overwhelmed by a number of the other spectators.
Edmund stares down at his bracelet in disbelief. Then, assuming that he has made a mistake while spooked by the turn of events, he re-enters the code more slowly. Still nothing happens. He gives it a sharp tap and a shake – though this can hardly make any difference to a simulated device – and tries again. Once more nothing.
Meanwhile, the spectators have come together in a huddle round the prone figure of the dead officer. His killer has been forced to lie face-down while his wrists are tied together on his back, despite the fact that he appears to have already passed out. Strangely, there is very little noise – no screams from the women, no shouted comments or orders. They are waiting for something.
This something comes as a further shock to Edmund. Appearing at the edge of the arena behind the spectator group, a figure resembling the technician who has been in charge of preparing Edmund and the two subjects runs down to the body of the officer and begins to search his pockets. The search is soon over. The technician extracts what appears to be some kind of communication device and turns towards Edmund, who feels the bracelet on his arm move slightly. Otherwise, nothing changes. The technician figure starts towards him, holding his device in front of him and operating its controls. Then he stops and turns to the group of spectators behind him, shouting. As a body they run towards Edmund. Their expressions are not friendly.
For a moment Edmund stands still. Surely someone will terminate at this point? Then instinct takes over. He turns and climbs up the bank behind him, crosses a short stretch of grass, and, before plunging into the trees beyond, looks back to see the first of his pursuers cresting the arena edge. Edmund strikes deeper into the trees, hoping that the direction he takes will be concealed by their closely-spaced trunks.
He runs straight for about fifty metres; then turns sharply right, aiming back towards the edge of the forest. He can hear the pursuit behind him, then to his right; but getting closer. They are fanning out to cut off any doubling back. Edmund turns again to run parallel to the forest edge in the hope of outflanking them.
Suddenly he is out of the trees and on a rough track, which bends away to his left. He pauses for a moment. Taking the track will increase his speed; but also increase the chances of being seen. He decides that speed is more important. Though he is already breathing hard – he has occasionally gone jogging on Hampstead Heath, but there is no getting away from the fact that his life is mostly sedentary – he races as fast as he can along the track. As he rounds the bend, he sees that it stretches almost dead straight ahead of him for over a kilometre. Should he go back into the forest? He needs a rest in any case.
Turning right, he moves into the trees…and his arm is immediately seized and twisted behind his back, while his head is put in a tight lock, choking off any cry. Taking the track, he realises, was a mistake. He expects to be taken back the way he has come.
But, instead, whoever has him begins frogmarching him deeper into the trees. He attempts a strangled shout: "Stop! This is enough!" Someone has re-written the scenario as a malign prank. Once this simulation is over, he promises himself, he will shake the dust of Tvorez off his feet, get back to London, and sue. The apparently defective communication device is on his free arm, and he reaches behind in an attempt to hit his captor with it. There is an impact; a click; a pricking sensation; his vision blurs; and he loses consciousness.
*When Edmund came to, he was already framing in his mind the angry demands for information he would put to the technician. He began to lift himself from the recliner…and discovered that he was apparently already out of it, lying on the floor. He put his hands out to push himself up; but, instead of smooth slabs of composite tiling, he found his hands sinking into a yielding, slightly damp surface. At the same time, there was a strong scent of vegetable-decay, leaf-mould…with a shock, Edmund realises that he is lying on the forest floor, still - incredible and disconcerting though that is - within the simulation.
He opens his eyes and looks up. Sunlight is filtering through the branches of the trees above him. Much closer, two figures in dirty combat fatigues are looking down at him: one a slightly chubby man with short, reddish hair, and wearing rimless glasses; the other a taller, slim girl with long blonde hair tied back tightly from a high-cheek-boned face. Both, he guesses, are in in their late teens or early twenties, and both are smiling.
"Strastvoutye!" the woman says as he looks at her. "Wyelcome!"
"What is this?" Edmund replies. " How…why… are you in this scenario?"
"Syenario? Ah, nyet, not syenario," the woman says. "Realnuy. Real."
"What do you mean, 'real'?" Edmund answers. "It's obvious someone's playing around, God only knows why, but this is a simulation. I remember…"
"Nye ponimayoo…not understand," the woman interrupts. "You must now come. Tvorez soldiers soon here."
The events of the past half hour or so come back to Edmund. Part of the scenario or not, it is clear that he is being hunted, for a reason he can't fathom. It is also clear that he is somehow now locked into the simulation, the break code having been, he realises, sabotaged - wiped from the software. This is a flagrant breach of ethical principles and his contract, and almost certainly a criminal offence - in Belorus as much as in the UK, he hopes.
He rises to his feet, helped on either side by the two figures. They are both, he notices, grimy and noticeably malodorous, as if they have been living rough for several weeks. Underneath the dirt, though, they seem cheerful and pleasant. Whoever has inserted them into the script has clearly intended them to appear friendly, despite the earlier assault. Perhaps they are to become allies in the odd, unauthorised drama being played out. Edmund smiles at each in turn, and holds up his hands in mock surrender.
To his surprise, the man immediately steps forward, and takes hold of Edmund's left arm. He then undoes the strap of the communication bracelet, and carefully takes it off.
"Vot! See!" he says, turning the underside towards Edmund, and pointing.
Half protruding from a small hole in the surface of the bracelet is a thin needle - an exact counterpart of that used by the technician to administer the pre-simulation relaxant. Edmund looks down at his arm. A small purple ring indicates that the bracelet has indeed administered an injection - that is, he reminds himself hurriedly, the simulation of an injection. What on earth has been the purpose of that?
The girl seems to be trying to tell him something. She points to the bracelet, then to his arm, and then puts her hand to her head and mimes falling asleep. Then she points back at him, nodding and smiling. Her clear blue eyes look at him steadily, as if expecting a reaction.
And, indeed, Edmund suddenly felt a wave of cold panic. Could they be right, could it actually be true that this was all real? He saw only too clearly how it might have been managed. The "relaxant" would have been a powerful anaesthetic. When he came to, he would believe himself inside the simulation. At the end of the planned scenario the bracelet would deliver another anaesthetic, and he would awake in the recliner, believing the whole experience to have been an illusion.
Edmund cast his mind back to what had happened at the arena. Clearly the attack on the officer was not supposed to have taken place: it resulted in something going badly wrong. Of course! The officer had been carrying a communication device, which a technician had been called in to activate. It was supposed to send a signal to Edmund's bracelet, triggering the injection and leading him to believe that the simulation had been terminated.
But, even when the technician had retrieved it, it didn't work. Why? Then Edmund remembered the failure of the break code, and his annoyed tapping and shaking of the bracelet. This must, temporarily, have jammed the needle. Only later, when he struggled with the two who captured him, did it finally do its job.
The implications of this, though, were unthinkable. While Edmund had believed himself to be witnessing a series of simulated contests, they were actually taking place. This perhaps explained why the boxers and the men-at-arms had been so reluctant to do real damage. But then, how was it that the final contest had resulted in two, and possibly three, brutal deaths? Edmund also remembered his interviews with the subject pairs. They had shown no signs of injury. But then, again, he had no real means of proving that the men he had seen in the recliners and had interviewed afterwards were the ones who had actually taken part in the contests.
Edmund felt his mind going into fugue. Was this a simulation of reality? Or was it reality disguised as a simulation?
But then it came to him: there was, of course, a third explanation. It could be a simulation; but one incorporating elements - the pleasant young pair who had captured him, for example - cleverly designed to convince him it was reality. It was perfectly feasible, he realised, for the programme to have been rewritten in that way.
In the end, Edmund concludes that this last explanation is the most plausible: the horrific events he has witnessed in the arena cannot conceivably have been real. He is still within the simulation.
Edmund decides that his best course is to go along with the altered scenario, and see where it leads. He can think of no reason why Tvorez should have made the changes, which are so extensive and elaborate that the cost in programming time must have been massive. But then, he reminds himself, they are the military. Cost is probably irrelevant.
To find out more he must now try talking to the young couple. It is annoying that they do not seem to speak much English, and his rudimentary Russian will not be much help. Those who have designed this game - it has now become a game, he has concluded, rather than academic research - might have given them a common language.
He points at the two.
"Kto?," he says, "Who are you?"
The woman - really only a girl underneath the dirt, he realises - answers.
"Ya Natasha," she says, tapping herself on her chest. "On Grigor," she continues, indicating her companion. "Muyi…we scientists."
She pauses to think; then, evidently happy at remembering a colloquial English phrase, adds, grinning:
The game, thinks Edmund, is beginning to follow a classic narrative: contestants, escaping the forces of malign authority, meet up with a small band of enlightened revolutionaries – one, of course, an attractive blonde. If they successfully navigate a number of close-shaves and near-disasters to overthrow the evil overlord, the game is won. Is this what Tvorez has set up for him? Is this some heavy-handed joke?
The two young scientist figures are urgently beckoning him to follow them deeper into the forest - no doubt to the secret rebel HQ. There are sounds of people approaching from the other side of the track, so Edmund quickly complies. They move rapidly ahead for some a hundred metres, then branch off leftwards at a sharp angle. The tactic is the same as the one Edmund has followed earlier.
This time, however, there are no signs of the pursuit fanning out to cut them off. Instead, they are soon back at the track. The man Grigor crawls to the edge, and looks back down to the point where they left it not long before. It seems clear. Signing to Edmund and Natasha to follow, he dashes to the other side. When all three are across they move once more at right-angles into the forest.
Expecting to sheer off again to get clear of the pursuit, Edmund is astonished when, coming to the forest edge, he sees not more than fifty metres away the tall, electrified fencing of the Tvorez facility. He looks in alarm at Natasha and Grigor. Has he been fooled into trusting a couple of his pursuers?
He is even more alarmed when Grigor pulls out a pocket mirror, and flashes a signal in the direction of the fence. Edmund gets ready to run. The result of the signal, however, is not a squad of troops but an answering series of flashes. Then a grey-uniformed figure emerges from the ground in front of the fence - there must be a tunnel under it, Edmund realises - and sprints towards them, carrying a large metal box by its webbing straps. Reaching the forest edge, he falls panting beside them. He is of the same build, and has the same Mongolian features as the test subjects – indeed, Edmund thinks, he could easily be one of the subjects. He unlocks the box and unloads several packs of tinned or plastic-wrapped food, a compact stove and gas cylinders and, finally, a bottle of vodka. Evidently Grigor and Natasha are getting their supplies from covert friends inside the compound.
There is a rapid exchange in Russian or Belarusian, which Edmund is unable to follow. Then the bringer of the supplies gives a quick salute and runs back the way he has come, disappearing as he reaches the fence.
The putative rebel HQ, when they arrive at it some twenty minutes later, turns out to be a small, open-sided shed on the edge of an abandoned meadow. Weeds and small trees poke their crests above the long grass. The shed itself, once, perhaps a shelter for two or three cows, is in the process of collapsing: there are holes in the roof where wooden slats are missing, and all three walls have large gaps where planks have rotted away. Natasha and Grigor have made rough beds of branches in the corners opposite the open side. Two grey plastic sacks, probably containing spare clothing and used as pillows, are the only other items in the shed until the food, drink and stove they have carried are laid on the ground inside.
"Dom!" says Natasha, waving her arm and smiling at Edmund. "Oo nas!"
She picks up the bottle of vodka, opens the top, takes a gulp and offers it to him.
"Zdaróvye!" she adds.
Edmund understands that he should take a nip himself, and pass the bottle to Grigor. When Grigor eventually passes it back to Natasha, about a quarter of the contents has gone. Natasha bends down and opens one of the packages, which contains small balls of pastry. When Edmund tries the one Natasha hands him, he finds it has a delicious spicy meat filling. The vodka is passed round again, the packet of food is soon empty. No-one says anything; but all three are laughing…
And Edmund suddenly realises that he has forgotten where he is. He has believed himself, for a moment, to be eating pastry-covered meat-balls with two young renegade scientists, and mildly intoxicated on vodka. Actually, he has to tell himself, he is lying on a recliner in the Tvorez facility, under sedation and connected to a sophisticated AR programme.
He looks more closely at the Natasha and Grigor figures. It is impossible, he realises, for them to be programme-generated constructs. They must be the projections of real participants in the simulation, in reality, like himself, lying on recliners somewhere in the Tvorez buildings. Do they know they are in a simulation? he wonders. Or have they, like the subjects of his tests, been conditioned to believe that what is happening is reality? That, after all, is what they have tried to convince Edmund is the case.
Natasha now connects a gas cylinder to the stove, lights it and starts heating an opened can of some kind of thick soup. Once it is steaming, she wraps it in a piece of cloth and, like the vodka, she takes a mouthful and then passes it round. The light is beginning to fade outside the hut, and Edmund assumes that it is now late evening, dinner time. In fact, he has been feeling hungry for some hours. The simulation appears to be mirroring real time.
And this, he knows, is worrying. His hunger will be real; but the meatballs and soup are illusions. Though lying on the recliner will not use up much energy, going the whole day and the night to come without food of any kind will not be healthy. More seriously, he is likely to become dehydrated – unless, of course, the needle in his arm is doing more than feeding him a sedative. He is still wearing the bracelet, and enters the break code again on the off-chance that it is once more operational. Still nothing happens. For whatever purpose, Tvorez is keeping him in the simulation.
The soup is finished, and so is half the vodka. Grigor leaves the shed and returns a short while later with a bundle of branches, which he arranges against the rear wall and indicates is to be Edmund's bed. Luckily it is a fine evening; at least, Edmund thinks, the Tvorez programmers are not treating him as badly as they might. Otherwise it would be raining – or, for that matter, snowing. He feels less hungry and quite tired. Perhaps he is correct about the intravenous feed. As it grows dark Natasha and Grigor tidy away the stove and supplies and lie down on their respective beds in the corners. Edmund does the same between them.
"Spokoynoy noch'!", says Natasha, and Edmund repeats the phrase, part of his limited Russian vocabulary. Natasha gives an impressed "mmmm", and says "Good night!" which Edmund also repeats, together with a mimicked "mmmm". From Grigor there comes only a grunt.
Then, abruptly, Natasha leans over and kisses him firmly on the mouth - not a long kiss, but one that takes him completely by surprise, despite the fact that he has been half hoping, since drinking his share of the vodka, that something like that would happen. For a moment he feels a growing arousal. If it weren't for Grigor…
Then he remembers that the kiss hasn't really happened. What, he wonders, is Tvorez playing at? Natasha is looking down at him, her now loosened hair falling across both their faces, and with a lop-sided, playful smile. Edmund is about to say something when, as quickly as she has leant over, she head drops back onto her plastic sack.
"Good night once more!" she says, turning over to face the now sleeping Grigor.
There is a good chance, Edmund thinks, that he will now fall asleep too – or, to be more accurate, lose consciousness. When he comes to he will once again be in the real world. Now he is not as sure as he was that this is what he really wants. He listens to Natasha's breathing…
*…and awakes to find Grigor kneeling over him, shaking his shoulders. Natasha is already on her feet, hastily stuffing items from the supply pile into her plastic bag. Outside it is scarcely dawn. Grigor helps him to his feet, thrusts the stove and two gas cylinders into his hands, and pulls him outside and into the meadow. The long grass is wet, and Edmund's trousers are almost instantly soaked. He starts to object; but Grigor hisses and puts a finger to his mouth. Natasha is already half way across to the woodland on the far side of the field, crouching down as far as possible below the level of the grass and small trees. Grigor signals to Edmund to do the same, and drags him after Natasha.
From behind they are noises. Looking back, Edmund sees a number of dark figures emerge from the trees and surround the shed they have just left. Two slip in, and immediately come out. The whole group then spreads out, some moving into the meadow. Almost at once these see the tracks through the grass left by Natasha, Grigor and Edmund, and they shout out the information. The three only just manage to reach the woodland on the far side before the squad of some half-dozen begins crossing the meadow after them.
They plunge into the trees, running straight ahead. Natasha is the tallest, and, it is soon clear, the fittest. Still carrying her sack, she slips between the trees and over fallen branches like a deer, gracefully agile. Edmund and Grigor, however, are very soon in trouble, stumbling and panting in an effort to keep up. Edmund has already dropped one of the gas cylinders in the grass. Now the stove and the remaining cylinder fall from his hands. For a moment he thinks of picking them up; but Grigor grabs his arm and pulls him on. Behind them the pursuing squad has reached the tree line and is catching up.
Grigor shouts something to Natasha, and she briefly stops and turns. He waves for her to go on without them. For a few seconds she stands looking at them, uncertain. Then, as the sound of the approaching men grows louder, she gives a half-salute, turns again and disappears into the trees.
Grigor now starts running again, turning rightwards away from the direction Natasha has taken, and still carrying his sack. Edmund realises what he is doing, and follows. The hope is that the pursuers will go straight on after Natasha, leaving the two men to double back or find somewhere to hide.
But they are winded and make too much noise. Grigor drops the sack and tries to put on a spurt. Somewhere on the way he has also lost his glasses. The lead members of the squad are only a few metres behind. Then Grigor trips on a fallen branch and lands heavily on the other side. Edmund leaps the branch, but catches his foot on Grigor's outstretched legs and pitches forward. In a second they are both seized and their hands taped behind their backs. One of their captors shouts out, and they are joined by a man carrying a medical case, from which he takes a syringe. Edmund's arm is held up. The injection goes into his wrist…
…and he was back on the recliner in the Tvorez centre: the simulation was over at last. Assuming it had been some kind of escape game, he had presumably not made it to the end. It was a game he was unquestionably not going to play again.
Edmund angrily tore off goggles and headphones, and rolled to his feet, ready to demand an immediate meeting with the project team. Pain shot up his legs, and he almost fell. The psychosomatic bruising and stiffness was worse than he had ever thought possible, he felt exhausted, and the arm that had received the needles – both real and simulated – was swollen and discoloured. He was forced to grip the side of the couch while looking round for the technician.
It was the same man whose avatar had begun the chase. He was standing by the door; and for a moment seemed uncertain whether to escape through it, call for help, or come to Edmund's assistance. In the end he remained where he was and merely said:
"Good. Back now. Is need to talk".
"You don't say!" replied Edmund. Then, realising that the phrase was probably too idiomatic, added:
"I demand a meeting with the project team! Please inform them at once."
The technician did not move. Edmund walked unsteadily towards him and shouted:
"Komandant! Now! Buistro!"
That seemed to get through. The technician hurried through the door, shutting it behind him. When Edmund tried it, it was also locked.
During the next ten minutes or so, he lay back again on the recliner hoping to recover and prepare for a confrontation with Anna. He could not help thinking of the events within the simulation – in particular those that had taken place in the arena – as real experiences. Even as part of a game scenario they were intolerable.
Eventually there were noises at the door, which opened to let in the technician; then two men in combat fatigues; and, finally, Anna, also in braided military uniform. No attempt was now being made, Edmund realised, to disguise the real nature of Tvorez, nor of its head.
"Professor," Anna said at once. "We owe explanation. We are most sorry for unacceptable errors. Those responsible will be disciplined."
Edmund did not respond immediately. It occurred to him that dealing with the Belorus military might not be quite the same as dealing with an academic or commercial body. Complaining loudly, citing his contract and threatening legal action might not be all that effective. Instead, he said in as normal a voice as he could manage:
He could see relief in Anna's face.
"Was unfortunate mix-up in programmes. Scenario for you was mixed – entangled, I think you say – with military training programme. We are very sorry, Professor."
"So Tvorez is an army base," Edmund answered. "Why was that not made clear at the start?"
"Is not quite military," Anna continued smoothly. "Tvorez does tasks for Belorus Defence Ministry, like training programme you go through. I, as Director, am honorary Colonel. But also academic, business work. We make sure for future that these now kept very separate."
The explanation seemed at least plausible, Edmund thought. A programme training military personnel to evade capture in hostile territory made sense. The way in which he had found himself within it, however, did not.
"I wish to interview the subjects involved in the appalling end to the combat scenario as soon as possible," he said. "Also," he added, "it would be useful to interview the two who appeared as Natasha and Grigor…they were projections of real people, I assume?"
Anna appeared slightly taken aback; but then replied:
"I am sorry. Natasha and Grigor part of military programme. Is not possible for you to question them."
"But, of course, there will soon be meeting with contestants in original simulation, when tests are over."
"And also, I hope," went on Edmund, "with the liaison officer who took your place. Having his head smashed in, outside the script, must have been rather traumatic."
Again, Anna paused; then replied:
"I am afraid that, too, will not be possible. You are correct. The experience was exceptionally traumatic. He is no longer at Tvorez."
"Well, at least I can interview the person who arrived immediately afterwards…that is, his original," said Edmond, pointing to the technician by the door.
The man looked puzzled. Then Anna directed a few sharp words at him, which Edmund did not understand; and he began to look terrified.
Anna turned back with a smile to Edmund.
"This man," she said, "almost certainly responsible for mistakes. We now examine him. You later."
"If there is a later," Edmund almost said, but managed to keep to himself.
Reasonable though Anna's explanations were, he could not shake off a feeling that they were not the full truth.
Still disorientated and aching, Edmund was escorted back to the guest suite. After Anna and the accompanying guard had left – the other had taken the technician away in a different direction – he tried the door to his room. To his relief, it was not locked. He then swallowed two large shots of single malt and opened the project folder on his laptop. Was it possible to draw any useful conclusions from what he had just experienced?
The first problem was to separate those events which had followed his original project from those which had stemmed from the military programme. Assuming that at least the beginning of the confrontation between his two subjects had been as planned, at what stage had the corruption occurred? Edmund would have liked to think it was just before the first brutal, if simulated, death. On the other hand, given the parameters he had set, that outcome could well have been exactly what his test was designed to deliver.
The failure of the break code, the arrival of the technician figure, his flight from the pursuing spectators and everything that had subsequently taken place were obviously part of the military scenario. But what was to be made of the bizarre events in between? Why had the victorious subject killed the presiding officer? Crucially, at what stage had the subject become aware that he was only in a simulation?
Or, it suddenly occurred to Edmund, perhaps the murder of the officer had nothing to do with the corruption of his programme. What if it arose, instead, from a defect in the subject's prior conditioning? What if the subject had believed throughout that the events were real? Having taken part in a fight to the death, and on the point of death himself, had he reacted like a gladiator who has nothing to lose, and turned on a leading member of the crowd which had come to watch the spectacle?
It could even be the case that the conditioning had functioned as intended, and that the subject had attacked the officer in the full knowledge, by then, that the events were only simulated. He could have been taking the opportunity to work off resentment at some punishment. Or perhaps the officer was generally disliked, and this was a way of giving him a nasty – though actually relatively harmless - shock.
It was vital, Edmund concluded, that he interview the subject concerned as soon as possible. No doubt, like the officer, he could be badly traumatised, particularly if the conditioning procedure had failed. It that case Tvorez would want to keep him under protective wraps as long as possible. But Tvorez owed Edmund. Military or no, they had signed a contract. He could also, he thought, make a lot of trouble for them, especially with the Belarus government, which would surely be alarmed that a foreign civilian had participated in one of their military training programmes. Anna would have to make the subject available. It was even possible that something might be learned relevant to the original research project.
Then there was the strange and pleasantly unsettling episode with Natasha. How could that have been part of a military training programme?
Closing his laptop after sketching out a few key questions for the interviews to come, Edmund went to the wide triple-glazed window and looked out. He might, he reflected, have still been within the simulation, looking from the Tvorez side at where he and the two scientists had been. It was mid-afternoon, and the forest edge beyond the fence and the grass strip was illuminated by bright sunlight. Under the tree canopy beyond it was impenetrably dark.
Suddenly Edmund froze. From just inside the tree-line there came a series of flashes. Someone seemed to be signalling with a small mirror.
Getting from the first-floor guest suite to the ground floor beneath it seemed, at first, impossible. The only stairs Edmond could find were the ones that led down to a long passageway, and eventually to the lobby by the main entrance. All the windows were sealed. He reasoned, however, that there must somewhere be a back staircase for the staff that cleaned his room and restocked his drinks cabinet. After some frantic tapping on the walls of the landing outside his rooms he found it, the doorway disguised to blend in with the pinewood panelling. It was evident that Tvorez did not want him, or indeed any of their clients, moving around unsupervised.
At the foot the stairs Edmund found himself, as expected, in a service area. There were open cupboards stacked with bed-linen, blankets and towels; shelves carrying boxes of soap, and miniature bottles of bath-oil and shampoo; and, in a locked glass-fronted cabinet, vodka, whiskey, brandy, wines and other drinks. In a separate area through a small archway were supplies of another kind: outdoor clothes and boots, webbing belts and pouches, water-bottles, back-packs; and also a number of metal boxes with carrying straps.
There was also a door leading to the outside, no doubt for taking deliveries. It was, of course, locked. Edmund wondered if he might be able to force it, but the lock and hinges were of heavy-duty steel, and the door itself was faced with sheet-metal. He looked for some other way out; but there was only a small sealed window.
He was about to give up and return to the first floor when there was a noise. Someone on the outside was turning a key in the lock. Edmund quickly climbed half way up the stairs, out of sight, but still able to see into the service area. The door opened and the man in the grey uniform who had delivered supplies in the simulation – or one very like him – came in carrying one of the metal boxes.
Edmund prepared to rush back up the stairs to the first floor. But the man in grey went through the archway to the outdoor equipment store, no doubt to return the box he was carrying. For a moment, Edmund realised, the way to the outside was clear. Should he take it?
He hesitated for only a second. Trying to make as little noise as possible, he leapt to ground level and sprinted through the still open door.
Edmund's first thought, as he emerged into bright sunlight, was that he needed somewhere to hide. The man, having deposited his box, would almost certainly come out again – that he would go up to the guest floor and out through the official guest entrance was surely out of the question. The window in Edmund's suite had not given a good view of the ground immediately below, but he thought he had seen some bushes up against the wall about twenty metres to the right. He had not been wrong. A short dash, and he was able to throw himself to the ground behind reasonably thick cover. But only just in time. The man in grey uniform emerged from the building, locked the door behind him, and passed within only a half-metre of Edmund's hiding-place. He then rounded a corner and was out of sight.
So far, so good, thought Edmund. And then it occurred to him that the way back was now closed, at least the way he had come out. He could always, of course, go round to the main entrance. However, entering the Tvorez facility again officially when, officially, he had never left might prove awkward. In any case, he would be no further forward than before in investigating the signals from the forest edge.
It was only at this moment, now that the short burst of action was over, that the full implications of those signals hit him. An event which had occurred in the simulated Tvorez training programme now appeared to be happening in the real world. How could this be? He remembered what the Natasha and Grigor characters had told him: his experiences in the "training programme" had been real, not simulated. But this was still unthinkable. And an alternative explanation, which then occurred to him, was even more unthinkable: that he had never exited the simulation at all: that what was now happening was a devious double bluff, itself an element of the programme.
For a moment Edmund felt as if he was on the edge of a cliff suffering an attack of vertigo: had he not already been lying down he would have been unable to keep his balance. Then he pulled himself together. Though there seemed to be no sure way to establish the truth, one course of action was open. He would cross over to the forest edge, and find the source of the flashed signals. If it turned out to be Natasha - and he had to admit that he strongly hoped it would be - he could at least question her further; and he could perhaps learn something even from a simulation.
The decision made, Edmund got to his feet and looked across the stretch of grass towards the electrified fence. If the simulation was consistent - or had been an accurate reflection of reality, or had been reality – there would be a tunnel under it more or less in a direct line between where the signal had come from and the door into the storage area. Crouching, he ran to the approximate spot; and, yes, there it was: a trench concealed by a grass-covered lattice of branches, deep enough to let him crawl to the other side without being electrocuted. Still crouching – though anyone happening to look out of the Tvorez building would have had little difficulty in spotting him – he reached the edge of the forest and dived into the darkness.
He had been spotted; but not from where he had come. Once again he was grabbed from behind – but this time far less violently – and a long-fingered hand was placed over his mouth. He was able to turn. It was, of course, Natasha.
For a moment she kept her hand over Edmund's mouth, at the same time hissing "shh!" into his ear. When he nodded, she let go, and signalled that they should go deeper into the trees. Edmund followed for about a hundred metres, after which she suddenly stopped, turned, and pointed at him. She was not smiling.
"Why you are coming back?" she asked. "What they say to you?"
"I've come back because I saw you signalling with the mirror," Edmund replied, miming with one hand to get his meaning across. "I thought you could tell me what's happening."
"Not sent by Tvorez?" Natasha continued. Her attitude was still unfriendly.
"No, absolutely nyet!" Edmund replied. "They don't know I'm here," he added, hoping that it was true.
"You escape?" Natasha asked, her voice less hostile. She took a step towards him, smiling. Was she about to kiss him again? If so, he had to resist the tempting distraction.
"Yes, da. I need to know the truth," Edmund answered. "They said before was a simulation, a training programme. Now…is this a simulation?"
"Not simulation!" Natasha replied vehemently. "Real! Last time real also. We tell you!"
"But why?" Edmund asked. "Po chemoo?"
"Is military programme," Natasha answered. "Condition soldiers to fight with no fear."
Then she added: "I psicholog, qualify Moscow University last year."
"So how do you come to be here in Belarus?" Edmund went on, pointing at Natasha and then in the direction of the Tvorez building to clarify the question.
"Need job," Natasha replied curtly. Then: "Tvorez give much money to help make programme. But bad, not legalno. So run away. Grigor same."
If what she was saying were true, thought Edmund, then Tvorez – Anna - had been lying from the start. It was possible he had discovered some dark military secret; and that meant he was now in serious danger. They would hardly let him go back to London as if nothing had happened. But then, why on earth would they have got him involved in the first place?
On the other hand, it was also possible that Natasha was wrong…that is, a simulated Natasha, with a real Natasha actually, like him, on a recliner in the Tvorez building. And, given Tvorez's techniques, her projected self could easily be convinced that the simulation they were in was reality.
That explanation, though, also raised awkward questions. What, for example, was the point of trying to convince him, within the simulation, that Tvorez was acting illegally?
The more he turned the dilemma over in his mind, the more only one course of action suggested itself. He must somehow get back into the Tvorez building and look in the room where he – and presumably Natasha, too – were perhaps on their recliners. If the recliners were empty, one possible conclusion was that everything was real, and perhaps had been real from the start. In that case, he needed to get away fast – away as far as possible from Tvorez before he was missed, and somehow make it to Minsk airport.
If, on the other hand, everything had been and still was a simulation, what they found would of course prove nothing. But, then: what would happen if he – that is, the simulated he as he was now – tried to liberate from the simulation another simulated he on the recliner? The situation would be full of paradox. The whole programme might crash, and he would be definitively back in the real world.
He had to find out the truth. It was worth a try.
His first problem was to let Natasha know what he had in mind. Her English was, by quite a distance, ahead of his Russian. Even so, when he began to outline his plan, pointing in the direction of the Tvorez buildings and signalling that they should go there, she backed away in horror. She had understood, evidently, that he was encouraging her to surrender.
After several minutes of mixed mime and occasional words in English and Russian, he seemed to convince her that he was on her side. He could, of course, have just said goodbye and tried returning to Tvorez on his own. But it had occurred to him from the start that this would be impossible without someone more familiar with the facility's layout than he was. Even if he could somehow get in the same way he had exited, the only way from the guest suite to the main buildings was via the main, well-guarded, entrance. He needed her to show him how to get in without alerting any of the official military personnel. As a non-military scientist, she might just know a way.
He also had to admit that being with Natasha's would be welcome in its own right. He had found himself running their kiss in the open-sided shed over and over again in his head, even when Anna had explained that the whole episode was only part of a garbled military training programme. And now, he realised, it was possible that the kiss had been real. Terrible though the implications were in other ways, he was almost wishing that this was true.
As these thoughts began to suggest a completely different plan of action, his optimism about Natasha's ability to get him into Tvorez was quickly justified. When his objective became clear, Natasha smiled, nodded, and beckoned Edmund to follow. After first retreating into the forest, they took a wide right-hand loop, and emerged again beside a gravelled track that led to a wire-mesh gate in the Tvorez fence, closed with a heavy padlock and chain. On the far side was a small hut – presumably a guard-post – and beyond that a number of oblong, single-storey buildings constructed of breeze-blocks, but with slatted wooden roofs.
Natasha signed to Edmund to stay back, and to crouch or lie down. She herself moved cautiously, still under the cover of the trees, until she was in a position to look through the fence at the guard-hut. After a few moments, she returned, signalled to Edmund to get to his feet, and together they walked openly up to the gate. Natasha took a key from one her fatigue pockets, undid the padlock, disengaged the chain and opened the gate enough for both of them to slip through. She then quickly replaced the chain, padlocked the gate shut, and, pulling Edmund behind her, took cover in the narrow passageway between two of the breeze-block buildings. She put a finger to her lips to make sure Edmund stayed quiet, but was grinning at the same time. Pointing the guard-hut, she mimed drinking from a bottle, then falling asleep. Evidently this was fairly routine behaviour for those sent to guard a hardly ever used back entrance.
After a few moments of listening, Natasha began edging round to the far side of one of the buildings, indicating that Edmund should stay put; and vanished round the corner. About a quarter of an hour went by, and he began to wonder what he should do if she failed to return. After half an hour he had become seriously worried; but a few minutes later Natasha suddenly reappeared. She was no longer in soiled combat fatigues, but wearing all-in one white overalls with a hood concealing her hair and much of her face – for a heart-stopping moment, indeed, Edmund had not recognised her. She had brought with her a second, larger white all-in-one, which he was evidently supposed to put on. Once he had done so, Natasha beckoned him to follow. Together they walked openly up a dirt path, reinforced with wire mesh, towards the Tvorez main buildings. Edmund was astonished and full of admiration at the speed and efficiency with which Natasha had operated, once she had known what he wanted.
The side-door which they eventually came to was guarded by a young soldier in combat fatigues. For a moment it looked as though he was going to check their identities, and Edmund got ready to run. But Natasha flashed some kind of pass at him, together with a quick smile, and he stood aside to let them both in. On the opposite side of a small vestibule were a pair of swing doors. They crossed and pushed through.
They were in the casualty ward. On either side of the central passageway was a row of beds, each holding a patient bandaged on an arm, a leg, the head or in some cases the whole body. Those whose faces were visible all had the same central-Asian features as the subjects in the combat scenarios. Looking more closely, Edmund had the uneasy feeling that he half-recognised one – a man who appeared to have a broken nose. Another, his neck in a brace and heavily bandaged, was attached some kind of respirator. Could he be, Edmund thought, the man in the unarmed combat simulation who had killed his opponent, and then the presiding officer, with a stone?
He looked round to see Natasha urgently beckoning. She pointed to a side door, and he followed her through it into a passageway. On either side were several doors with barred grills at eye-level. Natasha again beckoned for him to come closer, then whispered:
"See! Not simulation. All real men, some now dead."
Edmund could not stop himself from shivering, as if the temperature had suddenly dropped below zero. Those combat scenarios they had programmed in London…Tvorez had never run them! Instead, they had carried them out in real life, tricking him into believing it was a simulation. Men had fought and died in front of him! Had they also thought it was a simulation? And why? Why?
"Why?" he whispered to Natasha. "Po-chemoo?"
But she put her fingers to her lips, and indicated that he should stay where he was.
"I go for Grigor," she told him, pointing to the end of the passageway, where there was another set of swing doors. Edmund tried to follow; but she signalled him back, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek - he found himself feeling disappointed there had not been more - then went to the doors and through them. He was again on his own. And in shock.
For some minutes, Edmund stayed exactly where he was. Then he decided that he must find out more. He walked quietly to one of the grilled doors off the corridor and looked in. It was a prison cell. A man in combat fatigues, with the same build and features as the others, was lying on a wooden shelf, either asleep or unconscious. Moving along the corridor, he looked through the other grilles. The rooms were identical, all but one with a sleeping, unconscious – or possibly, Edmund realised – dead inmate. These were almost certainly the "volunteers" for participation in his project, promised by Anna.
Thinking of Anna brought him back, with a jolt, to awareness of his situation. There was no question any more of bringing himself out of simulation by confronting another self on the recliner. This was reality. And it was obvious, too, that Tvorez could not let him return to London with that information. He should have made for Minsk airport while the opportunity had existed, instead of persuading Natasha to bring him back inside. What had he been thinking of?
He answered his own question. He had been thinking it inconceivable that what he had witnessed was really taking place. It was still almost inconceivable. Which brought him back to the question: why?
For a moment, he considered taking his life in his hands, revealing who he was and demanding to be brought to see Anna. Then a better idea came to him. With luck, he had not yet been missed from the guest suite. If he could somehow get back there, he could re-appear officially as if he had never left – but now knowing that the whole thing was a fraud. If he was clever, he might get Anna, or one of the other members of the team assigned to him, to let something slip.
The first problem was that he had no idea how to get from where he was - presumably the medical section of some kind of prison wing - to the area holding the guest suite. This could only be solved when Natasha returned. The second problem was more serious: how could he get back to his rooms without being seen? Going back the way he had come, through the service area, was now impossible. The only way was to go to the main lobby and pretend to have just come down from the guest suite.
He returned to the spot where Natasha had left him. No-one else had yet come into the corridor; but surely it was only a matter of time before someone did, if only to check on the prisoners. He looked up and down to see whether there was a hiding place. There was nothing obvious. But perhaps the one empty cell at the far end of the corridor was open. He walked quickly past the occupied calls and – yes! – the final door was slightly ajar. Hiding there would be as good a line of retreat as any.
And then the door at the other end of the corridor – the one through which he and Natasha had come – swung open, and a white-coated figure came into the corridor. Hoping that he was in time before the figure looked up towards him, Edmund slipped into the empty cell and pushed the door to, flattening himself against the wall beside it. He heard footsteps approaching – not steadily, but with pauses every now and again. As he had predicted, someone had been sent to check on the prisoners.
The footsteps grew louder. They reached the adjoining cell. Then they stopped immediately outside Edmund's door. If the figure looked through the grill, he would not be seen. But if he (or possibly she) came in, he would have to act; though, even given surprise, he did not much rate his chances, a university lecturer against a soldier possibly trained in unarmed combat.
What actually happened, though, was possibly worse. Instead of pushing the door open and entering the cell, the figure partly opened it; and then slammed it shut. There was the sound of a key in a lock. And then the footsteps retreated smartly back the way they had come, ending when Edmund heard the door to the casualty ward swinging closed.
For some minutes, Edmund remained frozen against the wall. Then, recovering from his mild shock, he tried the door. It was, of course, securely locked. Crossing the cell, he sat down on the bench which lined one of the side-walls. Concealing himself was obviously now futile – indeed his best hope was that Natasha would soon return, find him there, and somehow unlock the door. Given that she had already managed to get a key to one of the back entrances to Tvorez, there was quite a good chance that she could lay her hands on keys to the cells.
Indeed, the more he thought about it, the more Edmund began to marvel at Natasha's resourcefulness. In what he had, at the time, taken for a simulation, she had easily evaded capture by the squad sent to where she and Grigor were hiding out. She seemed to have had no problems in obtaining supplies from allies within the Tvorez military. When convinced by him to re-enter the compound, she knew the guards would be asleep, had a key to the gate, and, once inside, had quite quickly found effective disguises for them both. For a girl just out of university it was impressive - indeed almost too impressive. The more he thought about it, the more there began to grow in Edmund a very slight feeling of unease.
Immediately, however, he pulled himself together. This was no time to have doubts. It was important now to plan carefully what he would do once Natasha returned. Assuming she could get him safely out of the prison wing – if that's what it was – he could perhaps enter the entrance lobby in the white coveralls, slip them off where he could not be seen, and present himself as having just left the guest wing. Then he would call an emergency meeting of the project team and announce that he had to attend an urgent meeting in London, leaving right away. He would be away for perhaps a week; and further simulations would have to be postponed until he returned. Presumably there would be no problem in taking him to Minsk airport. Once in London he would report exactly what he had discovered. Then it would be up to the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence or someone to take the necessary action.
There would, of course, be problems with the School. The payment to Tvorez had not been large; but, given the likelihood that Tvorez would refund it, it would probably have to be written off. He didn't look forward to explaining the situation to Arthur and Siobhan, either. Anna had offered him what looked like a golden opportunity to make his name, he had rushed to accept without checking properly, and had been made a fool of. Worse: there was a chance he would never make it back at all, that there would be some regrettable, but fatal accident….
Just as these dark thoughts began to provoke the first stirrings of fear, he heard the doors to the casualty ward swing open and shut; then footsteps approaching. This would be Natasha, at last! Edmund jumped to his feet in relief. But as the steps grew closer, it sounded as though there were made by at least two people. Alarmed, Edmund took up his old position against the wall to one side of the door.
The footsteps reached the outside of the cell, and stopped. There was a tapping on the glass panel in the door. Edmund remained where he was. There was more tapping, and then the sound of a key being inserted into the lock. Hiding no longer had any purpose.
"Who's there?" he said in a loud whisper.
"Natasha", came the answer, in a similar whisper. "And Grigor. We let you out."
The key turned in the lock, there was grating noise, and as the door opened Edmund stepped out to welcome his rescuers.
In front of him was a soldier in combat fatigues, holding a machine pistol. And behind the soldier, smiling, was Anna.
"Come!" she said.
Edmund was surprised to find himself, not strapped to a metal chair in some interrogation unit, but once again in the private dining room where he had been entertained by Anna on his first evening in Tvorez. She was now sitting opposite him, in full uniform, and flanked on one side by the man in combat fatigues who had escorted them from the prison wing.
"You are well?" she asked.
During the short march to the dining room - it had turned out that the cell corridor, together with the casualty ward, were in the main bloc less than half a minute away from the entrance lobby - he had tried to ask what they were going to do with him, where was Natasha, did they know he had somehow got lost…But Anna had remained silent. Now her first question came as a slight surprise. After a short moment, he decided merely to reply
"Very good!" Anna responded. "Now - you wish to ask questions?"
Edmund was, this time, really surprised. He had been expecting the questioning to come from the other side of the table.
"Yes, I do," he answered, trying to order his thoughts.
"Those men," he said at last. "The injured ones in the ward. They looked like the ones in simulations. Were they?"
"Of course," Anna replied. She seemed quite happy to admit the deception.
"So there were no simulations" Edmund went on. "It was all real. Everything was real, wasn't it?"
"Perhaps," said Anna.
"What do you mean, 'perhaps'?" Edmund asked. He felt he could risk taking a more aggressive tone. "Those men who were killed: did they really die? How could you allow that?"
Anna responded to the second question only.
"Was big mistake," she said. "You asked for different set-up, so fighters were told only simulation. Then, when fight over, winner decides - as only in simulation - to attack officer. This officer not very popular; soldier thinks to teach him lesson, I think you say."
Edmund began to feel slightly dizzy.
"So when I saw his head being bashed in, that really happened!" he said. "My God! No wonder I wasn't able to see him afterwards! And the other man, the loser. Was that 'big mistake' too?"
"No," Anna replied. "That was part of scenario you wished."
Edmund now began to experience rising panic.
"You say it was my fault? But you told me it would all be simulated. If I'd thought for a moment…"
"No fault," Anna interrupted. "Justifiable."
"'Justifiable!" Edmund almost shouted. "What is this place? You said you were running training programmes. Is fighting to the death part of it?"
"Of course!" said Anna.
Edmund, stunned, found himself at a loss for words. Then another urgent question occurred to him.
"But why me? Why did Tvorez want to run my scenarios? Why did you…"
And then the answer came to him.
"I was a cover!" he half-whispered. "If it all came out, the School - and me - would be partly to blame."
"That is an explanation, certainly," said Anna. Curiously, she did not seem at all upset. In fact, she was actually smiling. Does that mean I shall never leave here? Edmund thought. Well, if so, there are still things I'd like to know.
"Where is Natasha?" he asked.
Anna's smile broadened on her slightly flat face, making it look like a ghastly comedy mask.
"Natasha is very well," she replied.
"So, I can see her" Edmund insisted.
Anna burst out laughing.
"I'm afraid that will be quite impossible!" she said.
"What have you done with her?" Edmund again almost shouted. "I want to see her!"
Anna again laughed.
"I assure you.." she continued, and then, it seemed, almost broke down with suppressed giggles. "I assure you, that cannot happen."
Edmund suddenly felt as if iced water were being poured down his spine. "Is she dead?" he asked in a low voice.
To Edmund's horror, this seemed to make Anna's laughter uncontrollable.
"Ah, well," she said at last. "Perhaps the time has come."
She rose to her feet, as did man beside her.
"Now I show you something," she continued. "Please follow".
This is it, thought Edmund. A firing squad? Would there be a chance to escape? Not yet.
With one of the escorting soldier in behind him, he obediently followed Anna out of the room.
The lobby of the Tvorez building, when they reached it, was entirely deserted. He would, he realised, have had no difficulty getting back into the guest suite if he had not been trapped in the cell. Looking out of the main entrance, through which he now expected he would be taken, he noticed that the guards normally stationed on either side were now absent. Indeed, the building felt curiously empty: there were no sounds of swing doors opening and shutting, no voices coming from the small room behind the reception desk, no distant shouts or vehicle noise from outside.
When, unexpectedly, Anna led the way into the corridor leading to the laboratories, he was surprised to find that it, too, was deserted. Normally - admittedly in his only short experience - there would have been at least one or two technicians or lab assistants coming or going to the entrance lobby or one of the storage or rest rooms off the corridor. As the three moved towards the lab entrance at the far end, he noticed that a set of swing doors half way down were those he had come through a short while earlier. This was the way to the casualty ward, and, beyond that, the cell row where Natasha had left him. Could she have returned there after all, but too late to find him?
As they passed the doors, Edmund decided that this was possibly his only chance. Suddenly diving to one side, he hurled himself at the doors, falling heavily to the floor once he was through. He was in a small lobby, with another set of door in front of him. These, he remembered, led directly into the ward.
In some pain, he got to his feet and moved forward. Would he be able to get through before he was recaptured? Then he realised that non-one had come after him. Puzzled but thankful, he pushed the far doors open and went into the casualty ward.
It, too, was deserted. The rows of beds were still there; but now they were empty, the bedclothes made up neatly. In less than an hour the whole room had been cleared of the injured. Nor was there any staff.
Even more puzzled, Edmund crossed to the far side and went through the doors to the corridor beyond, hoping desperately that Natasha would be there waiting with an explanation. But there was no one. Could injured and staff, he wondered, have been rounded up and locked in the cells for some reason? He looked into the first one, where before there had been a sleeping figure. It was empty. So were all the others.
Now completely bewildered, Edmund returned through the doors to the casualty ward. Anna and the escort were waiting for him on the far side.
"Better you come with us," Anna said quietly.
Once again Edmund was led through the two sets of swing doors and then followed Anna towards the laboratories. With a start he realised that this had been his objective all along. At the time he had thought he could find out definitively whether or not he was in a simulation. Now he knew the truth.
Anna led him through the doors to the lab; then stood back while he advanced to the short row of recliners. He looked at the one which he had earlier occupied. There was a figure on it, wearing dark trousers and a white shirt - exactly the same clothes that he himself was wearing under the white coverall. Baffled, he went to the recliner, removed the figure's goggles and looked down. He is staring into his own face.
Edmund finds it impossible to draw breath. The room around him begins to lose focus. He falls sideways onto the recliner, and comes to rest lying across his own torso. But before losing consciousness he glances back at the doorway. Anna is no longer there. Instead, Natasha is looking at him through her long blonde hair with a curious, lop-sided smile….
*Folding back the headset, Edmund looks down the row of stations. Next to him, Arthur is still stretched out in his pod, evidently not yet out of simulation. But beyond him Siobhan also has her headset off. Beyond her the other stations are empty.
Siobhan looks sideways at him, her expression a mixture of nervousness and bravado, with a definite dash of coquetterie.
"Well, what do you think?" she says.