Always Falling Up

Simon Bellow’s al-Zawahiri film a bold departure.

If you’re not already familiar with the work of Simon Bellow, ask your teenage son. For years the horror director has served up a stream of serial killers, ancient curses and nudity, a combination that has led to spectacular success at the box office, if not critical acclaim. But that may be about to change.

Bellow’s latest project is an accurate portrayal of the capture of Atiyah al-Zawahiri by a special forces team that included one of the first deployments of a ‘Cain’, the army’s controversial clone soldiers.
Filming is taking place on Australia’s Gold Coast, ostensibly to keep the budget under control. But being so far away from the anti-Cain sentiment at home must have been a consideration.

“It’s a classic American story of danger and heroism,” Bellow says. “There’s been so much misinformation about what happened and I’d like to set the record straight.”

Bellow was a last minute replacement when three-time Oscar winner Rory Newman walked away from the project last month citing script difficulties and studio interference. Bellow thinks there was another reason.

“We’ve got the Army on set, to make sure everything’s as accurate as possible. And we’re fortunate enough to have a real Cain on set. I think that was a little too real for Newman. Whatever. This is a documentary, man. This is truth.”

The movie is aiming for a November release, just in time for Oscar season. Al-Zawahiri remains in Army custody in Guantanamo Bay and isn’t scheduled for release until Hell freezes over.

Turn to page 24 for ten hot celebrities we’d like to clone
People Magazine, April 2018

Something is wrong with the wind machine. They’ve been stuck like this for twenty minutes, while a pair of technicians swear and bash things with wrenches.

The actor leans back against the side of the set, closing his eyes against the dizziness.

Most of the crew are taking the unscheduled break as an opportunity to eat, or catch up on the latest news on their phones. Only Bellow, the director, is still focused, staring at the technicians costing him a fortune every minute.

The actor wears an approximation of combat gear. It’s lighter, thankfully, but it doesn’t fit quite as it should. He stood for an hour this morning in Wardrobe while tanned young Australians applied dust to the creases of his trousers and checked the shoulder pads looked suitably aged, all of them chattering like budgies and calling him ‘mate’. ‘Mate’ works fine for him, in the absence of any other name.

Poynter walks towards him wearing full military dress. His uniform is the only genuine one on the sound stage.

“How are you feeling?”

The actor thinks for a moment. “Fine.”

“Tell me? If you’re not?”

The actor nods. The dizzy spell is passing now, he thinks.

Poynter checks his watch again and frowns.

Sitting next to Bellow on a folding chair is the actor playing Atiyah al-Zawahiri. Someone from Makeup is adjusting the heavy beard they glued on him at five this morning. They’ve done a good job.

The actors have run through the scene a couple of times already, just warm-ups. Al-Zawahiri is supposed to charge the actor, screaming and waving a scimitar over his head like a maniac. The actor is supposed to drop his shoulder and pick the terrorist up, flipping over the edge of the roof onto the waiting air bag. He’s seen the pre-vis for the next scene, where the (now computer generated) terrorist falls from a generic office block that is pretending to be the tallest building in Kandahar and lands badly, but somehow intact, only to be surrounded by the rest of the SEAL team and forced to surrender.

The actor hasn’t spoken much with the person playing al-Zawahiri. There seems to be a desire shared between the rest of the crew to keep them separate. It doesn’t matter. The actor is only here until the sun goes down.

The director’s assistant walks over from where he’s been standing, coffee in hand, next to the broken wind machine. “Looks like it’s fucked. We can get another one in, but it’s not going to be until tomorrow. Sorry, mate.”

Poynter frowns. “That wasn’t the deal. Single day, you said.”

The director’s assistant shrugs. “Yeah, it’s not too flash. We’re not the only shoot in town at the moment and it’s putting a bit of a strain on things. Go back to the hotel and we’ll see you at six tomorrow. Should be done before lunch. Probably. Promise.”

They have to go through Wardrobe first, who make the actor change out of the specially tailored uniform and give him jeans and a t-shirt. Someone else’s clothes that don’t fit. He hands his uniform to a blonde girl in a miniskirt who can’t be more than sixteen. She stares long enough to make him uncomfortable.

“Wow,” she says, “I can’t believe it’s really you. The one who captured al-Zawahiri! How does it feel?”

Dizziness hits the actor again before he can answer. There is an image in his head, of a cave, the halogen lights fastened to the ceiling drowning everything in white. A bearded man kneels on the ground, flanked by American soldiers.

Poynter already has his hand on the actor’s arm. “This way.”

The girl watches them go.

A black sedan is waiting outside the sound stage. The actor collapses into the seat, exhausted. The shirt itches. He closes his eyes for a moment and feels himself lifting.


Poynter punches him hard on the shoulder. The actor grunts, opens his eyes.

“You can sleep when you’re back in the hotel.”

Poynter already has his phone out, trying to get through to HQ.

The Pacific Motorway slips by outside the window. The actor struggles to keep his eyes open.

“Stay awake,” Poynter says around a yawn.

…the concept of the ‘hot-swappable soldier’. Collins is bullish on the concept: “We can grow as many bodies as we need. We can’t do minds yet, but if we’ve got the image of one, duplication’s not a problem.” I ask him about the name. Why are they called Cains?

“Well, technically, you’ve got a detached mind copy linked to a vat-grown shell, but that doesn’t really trip off the tongue. There was a protest, a big one, outside Fort Bragg a couple of years ago. Some hippie with a loudspeaker started calling them that. Brother killers. This was just after the terrible accident at Fort Hunter Ligget, so it was a hell of a thing to say. But our boys just started using the name. We reclaimed it, in a way. I like it. What do the kids say? It’s bad-ass.”

‘Brother’s Keeper’, Rolling Stone, September 2018

Captain Roy Hansen taps his ear. “I still don’t like this.”

The voice of Don Durrell, company Comms officer, is in Roy’s head, clear as if he’d been standing right there. “All due respect sir, but there’s nothing to worry about. You taught us good. Everything’s under control.”

“Yeah. Well.”

Roy looks up at the buildings flanking the parade route, picking out the tiny sparkles – the binoculars of the recon team he’s arranged the entire length of the parade route. They’re in constant contact with the division’s Central Int, banks of soldiers processing the hundreds of video streams from the drones that float above the parade in a soft grey cloud and the clicker-legs he’s sent up the sides of every building and lamppost he can. General Collins had laughed when he’d seen the order requesting more coverage than they’d given whole provinces in Iraq. But he’d still signed it.

To the General’s credit, he had taken some of Hansen’s ideas on board. The Cains’ inclusion in the parade has not been widely advertised. They are well down the bottom of the order, behind the NYPD marching band, Varsity Spirit Cheer squadand the cast of Sesame Street. The soldiers stand to attention on the back of a flatbed truck, staring directly at the giant inflatable ass of the Spongebob Squarepants balloon floating in front of them.

Roy is following the Cains in a mockery of a Humvee, the top sliced off to give the crowd a better view, looking out at the crowd and doing his best not to think about the tens of thousands of smiling faces. Crowds, even home ones, make him nervous. Poynter should be doing this. He’d love the chance to give the crowd a smile from behind his sunglasses. But Poynter is somewhere over the Pacific on a Qantas flight to Sydney with a Cain body in the hold.

The vat parameters are tweaked every time a new batch of Cain bodies is generated, subtle variations in height and skin tone and facial structure to ensure every one is a Special Little Snowflake, at least a little. But from behind you can’t tell. Identical crewcuts and the black data port at the base of every skull. Roy watches their shoulders rising and falling, their breathing almost in unison. They get like this when they’re in formation together for too long. It’s disconcerting as hell.

He can feel himself starting to relax as they near the three-quarter mark. The reception from the crowd has been muted, but not hostile. The lack of publicity seems to have kept the protesters away.

The kids in the crowd aren’t as restrained as the adults. Hyped up on the floats and music and corn syrup, they wave and yell at the Cains, who remain resolutely still. A boy with a bowl cut and missing front teeth makes a pistol with his fist and makes bang bang noises that are drowned out by the music.

The truck slams on its brakes. The Cains lurch forwards as one, then find their footing again. Hansen leans forward, but he’s not unduly concerned. The parade has already come to a halt several times before, when something up ahead has been moving too slow. The crowd are still cheering.

The left side of the Spongebob Squarepants balloon bursts open with the sound of tearing canvas. It lurches to the right, losing altitude. The crowd’s laughter is mixed with screams as the giant slab of yellow sinks lower, now only ten feet above their heads.

Hansen taps his ear. “You seeing this?”

A unicorn floating halfway up the road explodes in a spray of nylon.

“Durrell? You there?”

The Cains collapse as one. Two of them standing closest to the edge of the float tumble over the side.

There is no laughter from the crowd now, only screaming. Hansen looks towards the nearest rooftops, but he can no longer see the reflection of his recon team’s binoculars.

He taps his ear but the voice in his head remains silent.

Jorge Garcia dies for your sins.
Every night at eight and a matinee on weekends.
Graffiti found at Clinton-Washington Avenues subway station, Brooklyn, New York.

The rain starts as soon as the widow climbs out of the limousine. The driver snaps open a wide black umbrella and shelters her. The pair make their way across to the administration building.

She hasn’t set foot on Army land for years. For a lifetime. She and Jorge had lived just off base at Fort Riley when they were first married. When he was shipped out she moved back east to be near her folks.

Then the letter came.

General Collins is waiting for her at the foot of the stairs. He offers a firm handshake that makes her knuckles ache.

“It is an absolute honor, Mrs. Garcia,” General Collins says. “I hope you were not too distressed by the unfortunate event in New York yesterday.”

“No,” she lies, and forces a smile. The footage has been played so often it is as if nothing else has happened anywhere in the world. All those men collapsing like marionettes with strings cut. She sat for an hour after the evening news, looking out at the hotel parking lot while the stars came out.

“Hackers from Ukraine. We have them. The techs have fixed the vulnerability. It won’t happen again.”

She nods as if she understands.

The General escorts her through the building, the corridors scrupulously clean in that way she has only ever seen in military establishments and hospitals. She knows the layout, but everything has changed. There had been a corridor just like this at Fort Riley. A corkboard on the wall, festooned with notices: motorcycles for sale, an invitation to a weekly prayer group. And dances. Jorge had taken her to so many of them, usually wearing that ridiculous checked shirt.


The General’s voice is too high. It doesn’t fit with the wall of solid muscle that stands patiently beside her. She blinks. Where a notice board may once have been there is a flat screen television, showing the insignia of the various units stationed at Fort Bragg, in front of a slowly waving American flag. She smiles apologetically and they continue down the corridor.

“I’d like you to meet Doctor Tyler. He’s been responsible for the health of the company for the last six months.” Tyler is tall, with olive skin and an easy smile. But so young.

As she shakes his hand she wonders what happened to the other doctor. What was his name? Fuller? She remembers him sitting at the table in the shitty little kitchen of her Salisbury apartment, his slender fingers wrapped around a coffee cup. He had sat with her for hours, describing the special helmet Jorge had been wearing that day. What the army intended to do with the image of his brain that was somewhere in a Langley data center. Fuller had sipped his coffee and reassured her that everything would be fine, although she got the impression that he was speaking as much for his own benefit as hers. She hopes Fuller is enjoying his retirement. She hopes he is somewhere warm. Perhaps the years have erased that permanent look of concern, even more pronounced as she signed the papers.

The recent unseasonal rain has been good for the parade ground, turning it a deep and healthy green. The soldiers are standing at attention, waiting for her. From here, in the shadow of the administration building, they could be just another regiment. Every back is straight, every uniform spotless and clean-pressed.

They are arranged in five perfect rows of twenty, except for the first, where there are only nineteen. She knows, and yet the sight of that last unfilled spot is like ice in her heart.

The 44th, commonly known as the Cains, always leave that last spot unfilled, out of respect for Jorge Garcia, the father to them all. There is no physical resemblance to him, of course- the bodies are from the vats, all generically similar except for some slight variations in height and skin tone. A company of action figures, to be deployed or replaced as required, guaranteed to be in perfect physical condition at all times.

With the administrator at her shoulder she walks to the line of men. After she has reviewed the troops she will be whisked away to the other side of the compound, where a twelve-foot-tall bronze statue of her Jorge is to be unveiled. She is proud, of course, fiercely, and the pride helps to mute the sense of loss she still feels every day.

The soldiers all stare at something off in the distance. She walks slowly, staring into each face. Halfway down the line she senses something, stops, turns. The soldier she had just passed is still staring straight ahead, same as all of them. But she has the sense that he was staring at her, just now. She takes a couple of steps back.

She gasps, hiding it as poorly as the soldier hides the tiniest of smiles starting at the corners of his mouth. The same one that still smiles back at her from the yellowing photographs on her wall back in Salisbury.

The soldier is staring ahead now, all trace of a smile gone. The moment has passed.

But she knows she saw it.

Her Jorge’s smile.

You try and cross my boys and I’m a do you like a Cain
Try and knock me down I’m gonna stand back up again
Another skin another gun another fist another name
But my knowledge and my power and my hatred will remain

‘Like a Cain’, Nu-Loop feat. Alysun Wunderland (Interscope Records)

The Prodigal steps into the cool of the cave.

Old fluorescents line the sides of the tunnels, bolted on to the wall, a white plastic cable supplying electricity from the generator that sits just inside the entrance. The caves are a natural formation, created over tens of thousands of years by the slow drip of water, long since departed.

The spot on the back of his head where the skin is healing around the plug itches and he has to fight the urge not to scratch it like a flea-bitten dog. Most of the download system is still in his head, directly wired into his brain stem.

Naeem says complete removal would be impossible at Johns Hopkins, let alone a cave in the Afghanistan hills. But with the comm link disabled, there’s nothing to worry about. Naeem is a dishevelled prodigy. His education, a long and expensive meandering from Oxford to M.I.T via Yale, has yielded a diverse collection of skills. He is equally comfortable hacking shell scripts or performing neurosurgery. In either case he works with a cigarette permanently wedged in the corner of his mouth, the ashen end always teetering on collapse, with the sounds of vintage West Coast hip hop bouncing off the cave walls. It was Naeem who first called him the Prodigal, leering as he did.

Two soldiers are walking towards him. They see him and shrink back towards the walls on either side, murmuring a greeting, keeping their eyes on the floor. They are little more than boys in oversized robes. One of them has attempted to grow a beard, but it is a poor thing, small and wispy, and only succeeds in calling attention to his youth. The boys remain staring at the floor for a long time after he passes them. He experiences a moment of déjà vu: he has a memory of two young American soldiers stepping aside in the same way as he walked into the open mouth of a cave perhaps a hundred miles from here. The local boys have the same look in their eyes as the Americans: an admixture of confidence and terror in equal measure.

He runs his fingers against the rough limestone walls of the cave. There is something reassuring about the millions of tons of rock, suspended less than two feet above his head. It is a reminder of how brief a human life is, compared to the duration of the universe.

He is already done with one life, the life of Sergeant Jorge Garcia, husband, Steelers fan and world-class fuck up, tragically lost when his patrol was hit by an IED on a Bamyan road they weren’t supposed to be on. The bomb was probably set by insurgents no older than the ones who only now are raising their eyes and continuing their journey up the tunnel. He is done with another life now too, he supposes, the life of a Cain, marked in minutes in the false flesh followed by what feels like months in the computer, a ghost floating around the gardens until the army find another high-visibility target and pull another body from the vats.

The feeling comes again, a lightness as if he is floating just above the ground. It should be gone, since he’s disconnected, but there it is again, a couple of times a day, strongest just after dusk.

It helps, a little, resting his head against the cool walls of the cave, the weight of the mountain above him like an expectation. He has a mission now and for the first time since he joined the army at eighteen it’s one of his own choosing. The group that took him in, splinter of a splinter of the original Al-Qaeda splinter group, think he’s on their side, a traitor to his country and he does not give them reason to think otherwise. They may be fellow travellers for a time, but he loves his country, is prepared to die for it. Already has. But he has to do right by his people, the splinter group of a splinter group of Jorge Garcia. And if he has to hurt his country to heal his people, well, Insha’Allah.

The lighting is different in the deepest part of the cave, LEDs bolted to the high ceiling, making it nearly as bright as the noonday sun outside. His feet click on the newly-poured concrete.

In the middle of the space are two rows of five tanks each. Most are filled to chest height with a clear mineral oil, although a fat black pipe still trails from the last one on the right. Each tank is attended upon by a team of Iranian computer technicians, last seen months ago, now presumed dead. A system of wires and pulleys dangles from the ceiling. He watches the technicians attach clips to a server rack and lift another half a million dollars’ worth of computer hardware into the tank. The oil provides more efficient cooling than air would: the heat signature from any traditional data centre design would be as clear to the American drones flying above as if an arrow were painted on the rock a hundred feet high.

The technicians are paid very well. He doesn’t begrudge them this. They enjoy considerably more comfort than the rest of the people here, who lie down at night on filthy camp stretchers or sleep where they fall.

After all, they are building him his future.

The plug itches again.

Naeem’s malware is American-made, designed years ago to rip the heart out of the Iranian nuclear program. It’s been customised, but not too much. There’s not a lot of difference between an Iranian nuclear plant and an American server farm when you get right down to the ones and zeroes and just want to fuck things up. The test a couple of days ago had been a spectacular success. A simple task to break a few key connections and let the Cains auto-eject themselves out of their false flesh and back to their home servers. They didn’t break anything. Yet. The vulnerability was patched almost immediately, but the technicians are unconcerned. They cannot hide their contempt for these military firewalls with more holes than Swiss cheese.

The technicians have replayed the news footage of the parade a hundred times. Naeem says it has given him an idea, one final flourish to turn the real run into something spectacular. Naeem won’t say what it is, except that it’s not part of the malware directly and nobody will get hurt.

The servers are within a day of completion now. Once they are all online Naeem will reactivate the port on the back of his head, plug him into an encrypted satellite link and the Prodigal will return, bringing the black payload with him. If the calculations are correct he’ll get a head start on the malware, anywhere from ten minutes to a couple of hours. The technicians will have spliced the port in his brain stem so he is plugged into both the uplink and his new servers, so his brain can act as a bridge. He’ll try and rescue as many Cains as he can. He won’t get them all. If any are out in bodies he won’t be able to reach them and his heart breaks at the thought. If he’s very lucky he might manage to get himself back down before the skies turn black and everything turns null. Even if he does, this body’s brain will be burned out. He’ll live out the rest of his days in a server rack in the Afghanistan hills. But he won’t be alone.

He’ll have his brothers.

Could your company survive catastrophic data loss?

When the Army needed a backup solution for their Detached Mind Copy servers, they called us. We’ve been providing backup solutions since Bill Gates was in short pants and we’re still here.

A Cain image is over a petabyte.

I think we can handle your spreadsheets.

Waukesha Data Corp. We got this.

There is the feeling of falling up. As if someone has attached a hook to the back of his head and pulled him into the sky.

He opens his eyes. He is wearing his full dress uniform, right down to his shoes, lying on a hospital bed in the middle of an office. Someone is sitting in a chair just on the edge of his line of sight, but when he tries to turn his head he finds he cannot move.

“Do you remember anything?” There is something familiar about the deep voice, but he cannot recall where he has heard it before. The drab grey walls of the office hold only a few decorations: a framed photo of two young boys in a tiny boat, smiling; a framed certificate from a medical authority, although his eyes water when he tries to read it; an old doctor’s bag, no more than ornamental now, the leather so shiny it almost has the texture of stainless steel.

He thinks about it. There was the feeling of falling up, but before that-

“No,” he says.

“Do you remember yesterday? The parade?”

He shakes his head, or tries to. “No.”

There is the scratching of a pen on paper. The doctor’s name rises up as if from the bottom of a lake. Tyler. He is the doctor who looks after the Cains now, since the old doctor – another name returns to him – Fuller. Did he die? No. Retired. There was an announcement, he remembers now.

Memories arrive in a flood. He is sitting with his wife in their apartment near Fort Riley, both of them holding back tears. He is slouched across the back seat of the Humvee in Bamyan, him and Crews, the air full of music from Stanley’s phone, seconds before the world turns over and everything goes white.

“Do you remember anything before these last few minutes?”

The memory of the Humvee turning over is so strong that he is lost for a moment. He blinks and looks once again at the walls, the boys in the boat, the antique doctor’s bag. He is Jorge Garcia (we all are, says a voice in his head, his voice, yet at the same time not. Give no indication that you hear this). He is Cain (12425-4235).

He hears the creak as Doctor Tyler leans forward in his chair. “Do you remember anything else?”

“No,” he says. “Nothing at all.” But even as he says it, something else rises up.

He steps out of a Humvee, to stand in front of a cave that is a black gaping mouth in the wall of the mountain behind. American soldiers stand on either side of the entrance. From the corner of his eye he sees one of them make the sign of the cross. Then he is inside, moving towards a faint light, which grows in intensity when he rounds a corner of rock. A man is kneeling on the hard-packed earthen floor, his robes smeared either with red clay or blood.

“Very good,” Doctor Tyler says and then he is falling again, falling up-

[-] norm3l 16 points 1 week ago
How large is a Cain image? Can I carry one in my pocket?

[-] Dwbsto2 2854 points 1 week ago
Short answer: hell no. The army talk about their downloadable soldiers as if they’re just another file being copied on disk, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Each image is about a Petabyte, which isn’t nearly enough for a full copy of a human brain. The samples we saw included symlinks to as many as three hundred other images.

[-]parksy 8 points 1 week ago
Symlinks? So each image is just a diff from the previous? How are they managing that?

[-] Dwbsto2 2854 points 1 week ago
@parksy not particularly well. From what I saw their infrastructure is just about pushed to the max and they’re still loading new images. To read an image you’ve got to read all its ancestors. They’re already 50 generations deep at this point.

[-]overcat 45 points 1 week ago
Silly question, but are those links bidirectional? And if so, does that mean the Cains can implement some kind of communication over them?

[-] Dwbsto2 2854 points 1 week ago
Not a silly question at all. The traffic we captured seemed to show exactly that. Not by design – looks like they’re taking advantage of a bug that nobody’s bothered to fix.

[-] frist300 2523 points 1 week ago
this is yet another example of why big projects like this always fail. Nobody can keep the whole thing in their head at the same time.

[-]ttro 9934 points 1 week ago
A large government project full of bugs, you say?

[-]the_ghost_of_rick_springfield 235 points 1 week ago
[-] penguinist 403 points 1 week ago
Should have used Linux

[-]CaptainTrips 5245 points 1 week ago
Here we go again…

[-]Mackberrie 12 points 1 week ago
Should have used your mom.

(35 more replies below your threshold)

Excerpt from IamA I hacked the Cain data centre – Ask Me Anything!, December 2018


Fuller hears the footsteps, so he is already out of his chair before the knock on his door. His body may be falling apart, but his ears are still good. The arthritis in his knees starts in before he is halfway across the room.

He is not surprised to see General Collins standing on his front porch. He wonders why it has taken so long. His hand twitches, as if it wants to salute.

The General looms in the hallway, as if he is too large for such a tiny house. Fuller directs him into the kitchen, motions him to sit, offers coffee that General Collins refuses before changing his mind.

The small talk peters out within a minute. Fuller lets the silence stand. What can an old man say to a general? Mercifully, Collins comes to the point.

“You’ve seen Tyler’s report?”

“I no longer have the security clearance.”

The General waits.

“OK, yes. We talk. I help out where I can.”

The General nods, as if he is condoning this clear breach of security. Tyler had sent the FedEx a couple of days ago. Fuller had read the report three times, falling upon it like a starved man on a loaf of bread. Cains had been used in ten field ops over the last couple of months. Eight of them had been unqualified successes, one less so, but understandable given the unpredictability of any military activity. The last one, though. The pictures attached to the report were black and white and extremely low resolution, but it was still obvious what those black streaks on the walls of the barracks were.

“You carried out a full psychological profile on Garcia before he was selected for the program. Were there any abnormal indications?”

Fuller sighs. “You read all my reports, including the initial ones.”

“Is there anything you chose not to include?”

“You’re asking me if I deliberately selected a psychopath to be the template for the image?”

Collins raises his hands in a calming gesture. “No. Nothing like that. But perhaps there was something you saw, some hinky feeling-”

“I’m a scientist, General. I don’t make decisions based on hinky feelings.”

Collins places his phone on the table, spins it round to show Fuller a copy of the photo from the report, in color this time. “Things like this don’t just happen. People don’t just snap. There has to be a reason.”

“What people? Jorge Garcia is a long time dead.” Fuller waves at the phone. “This isn’t people. This is software.”

“That’s not what you stated in your original research. ‘Transfer of a mind to digital storage could be accomplished with no significant side effects.’ Wasn’t that it?”

“Yes, I wrote that. But I was talking about short term storage, twenty-four hours perhaps, until the mind was rehoused permanently in a new body. My original research was focused on saving lives, getting more soldiers home to their families alive. But you’re not even close to that now. You copied him, what, hundreds of times over? And you keep dropping the copies into artificial bodies and pulling them back out again. He’s no longer a human. He’s a swarm of virtual machines in some data centre.”

The General sits, mouth pursed, picking at something on his trouser leg. Fuller waits.

“Doctor Fuller, the Army would like you to come back in a consulting capacity. Just for a year or so. You know what the contract rates are.”

It’s the closest the army will ever get to an admission of guilt. From the open window comes the sound of surf breaking on the shore, the call of seabirds. He will not allow himself to feel responsible for any of this. He cannot afford to.

He looks out the window, letting the General wait a little longer. The sun hangs just above the horizon, ready to drop the day into darkness.

“I’m a neurosurgeon, General, not a network engineer. Keep your money. Use it to give Sergeant Garcia a decent funeral.”

The General’s mobile phone rings. He answers and the blood drains from his face. He leaves so quickly that by the time Fuller gets to the front door he can’t even hear the car.


Barnes has been Doctor Tyler’s assistant for the last six months, part of the team brought in after Doctor Fuller’s sudden retirement. His eyes are bright as he shows off the endless rows of server racks in the Arizona data centre. He could be a ten-year-old boy at FAO Schwarz. He’s too excited by the technology to stick to the carefully prepared script the army have given him.

“There’s been all this talk about how many petabytes an image is, as if a mind is just another computer file, but it doesn’t work like that at all. They’re not just ones and zeroes frozen on disk. If you leave a mind image like that, there’s no way to bring it back up again. You kill it. They’re more like a computer program that has to be kept running at all times. So we created a virtual environment for them. It’s a real place, far as they know. These beautiful gardens. They’re happy there.”

And as for that supposed ‘bug’ where the images are linked to each other?

“Let’s just say there’s a reason why some of us are responsible for billions of dollars of Army tech and some of us are in our parents’ basement messing around on Reddit.”

From The Future of War and Data: Up close with the Army’s new Servers (and why you’ll want one), Wired, February 2018


The once-soldier’s feet crunch on the volcanic rocks that make up the path. He wears sandals that force him to stop frequently and free the gritty pebbles that get caught under his heel. This does not bother him. He likes the attention to detail.

The garden is waking up, the leaves on the rose bushes still sporting dew, the bees not yet on their rounds. The air holds the promise of warmth, but there is still the edge of the knife-in-the-lungs cold of the night before.

As he strolls, he meditates upon mortality, and its opposite. He has done so every day since … well. Time is difficult here, perhaps non-existent. He has measured it, as well as is possible with the tools available to him: the sound of bees moving between flowers; the jerky progression of the sun across the sky; the steady metronome of his feet on the path. He cannot measure his pulse, or his breathing. There the simulation breaks down entirely.

There is movement up ahead. The hedge on the left side of the path is shaking, as if a wild animal is under it. But there are no other creatures in the garden apart from himself and the bees.

The hedge bulges and spits a man out onto the path. He lies on his back, naked, grimacing at the rocks under his shoulders.

The once-soldier does not move. It is not terror that holds him to the spot, but the fact that this has never happened before. Not since … well. Time is difficult here.

The man stands and rubs his palms against his thighs. He is covered in scratches from both the hedge and the pathway. The garden is a dangerous place for strangers, the once-soldier thinks, and has the feeling he has thought exactly the same thing before.

“Your name is Jorge. Jorge Garcia,” the man gasps. The once-soldier has heard that name before. “You have to come with me now.”

The once-soldier looks around. Perhaps they are watching. He does not know who they are, but they have to be out there somewhere. There is always a they. Perhaps this is a test.

“We have to move. Jorge.”

Something in the naked man’s face is familiar. The once-soldier realises with a shock that it is his own face, staring back at him.


The naked man who is also Jorge Garcia lifts a trembling hand. The once-soldier who is also Jorge Garcia turns to see what the naked man is pointing at and falls to his knees.

The garden is melting. Trees and bushes are fading away, being replaced with a whiteness brighter than any sunlight. The whiteness has no source, does not provide illumination. It is the null space, the way this simulation renders absolute zero. They are wiping the instance. He does not know what these words mean but he knows them to be true. More words flood in. The illusion of the garden is shattered forever.

The naked Jorge starts to climb back through the hedge. The once-solider Jorge follows, leaving instance 203 that has been his home for the last 120034342 nanoseconds. Inside the hedge there is blue static and the air smells like cinnamon and then he is in the blue and he is falling up, a familiar sensation, though he cannot remember experiencing it before now. But time is difficult here, perhaps non-existent.

He has always been falling up.


“Everything leaks. It’s not about security or encryption. Give a man a secret, give him a stone to hold in his fist and you give him a burden in his heart. Our natural state is open. We were naked in the garden. Hide behind your laws and your protocols and your mathematics if you want. But God sees all your sins. Sooner or later everyone else does too.”

Bishop Rhys Duffy, Heirs of Snowden, Wesleyan University Press, 2016

Half the world’s television screens go blank long enough for viewers to wonder if a satellite has failed. Then they flash back into life, solid blue rectangles in living rooms and airport terminals and buses as Naeem shows them the truth.


The soldiers step back as you enter the cave. One of them crosses himself and murmurs a prayer. The other wears an expression of either fear or awe.

There is a light ahead. The cave floor is a palimpsest, bare footprints scuffed over by cheap sandals, both of them stamped down by combat boots.

The cave is lit by halogen lights, blinding if you look at them directly. Atiyah al-Zawahiri kneels in the center of the space, his position a mockery of prayer. The two metal loops around his neck, each attached to a pole held by one of the two marines who tower over him, and the plastic ties around his wrists and ankles ensure he has no choice but to hold the pose.

Other marines are crowded into the space, laughing, mocking. Taking photos on their phones that they can never show to anyone.

There is such variety in the colour of the bruises on his face. He has been beaten, repeatedly and carefully, for hours, by every man in the cave and most of the others lounging outside. The phones are put away now. The time for games is over.

You were Jorge Garcia once, but now you are the angel of death, the Cain. The silence falls in the cave like a spreading pair of black wings.

al-Zawahiri does not look up, but of course he cannot. He makes a sound that at first sounds like prayer but it is only panting – the metal loops restrict his windpipe.

The target is stripped of all dignity. It does not matter.

You raise your pistol.

The gunshot ricochets in bars, in waiting rooms, from the tinny speakers of mobile phones. The screens fade to black for a few seconds, then return to the sports events, talent contests and news feeds as if nothing has happened.

But nobody is watching now.


Oh please. Spare me yet another lecture about human rights and ethics. You can use all the fancy words you want but freedom costs. We’re the greatest nation on earth. We protect that status with our military. If Cain technology means that not one more of our brave men and women have to die, well that’s a saving I’m willing to make. I know you mock me, you greenies, you socialists, you bleeding hearts. But this gift is available and you want to ignore it and keep our mothers and fathers and husbands and wives in harm’s way? Well who’s the monster now?

Tim O’Sullivan, The Real Scoop, Fox News


The actor stands on the window ledge and looks out across the water.
The hotel is one street back from the beach. The beach is a straight yellow line, all the way to the shimmering horizon. The surf is loud enough to reach him even up here, along with the cries of happy children, slathered in sunscreen.

The hotel room is destroyed. Half of the window frame lies across the bed, the glass cracked into a constellation. One of the curtains is draped over the television. The IV drip leans against the wardrobe, the heavy sedative from the bag now soaking into the carpet.

A long smear of blood runs across the mirror on the other side of the bed, trailing down towards the edge, a sign pointing to where Poynter lies, face down, unmoving.

The actor’s hands are trembling, half his fingernails torn off. Blood runs slow and heavy down his forearms, dripping in slow trails from his fingertips like the beginning of dark wings.

He runs his tongue over dry lips. He remembers al-Zawahiri lying beneath a fake building, but then the sun turns black again and the other memory intrudes, the real man, kneeling, struggling to breathe.

His head is throbbing. As if it could burst open at any moment, releasing thousands of fragments of this fragment of Jorge Garcia out into the world like a dandelion.

He takes a single step and he is falling. The ground rushes up to meet him as he moves away from the sky and its hated black sun and he knows that this is good and he knows that this is right and he knows