Green and ochre forests slipped beneath the monomag while Sebastian stared out of its curved sky-panorama windows. The near-silent hoops of the Dyson thrusters propelled the train at a deceptively high speed, and before he knew it the city was in sight with its tall, gleaming spires projecting far above the rumpled autumn canopy. It was nothing like Iceland. Yes, the trees there had come back, but they were uptight pines, not at all like the deciduous trees of Britain that could relax in the temperate climate. Even the cold Britannic winters offered a balmy relief from Reykjavik’s biting wind, but still he missed the place.
‘Excuse me, can I get you a drink Sir?’
He looked up from his reminiscing. ‘No, I’m fine, thank you,’ he said to the waitress.
She nodded. ‘If you need anything, just use the comms. The buffet car is open at the far end.’ She pressed the door control and continued on down the carriage without waiting for the glass screen to close. A young, slim woman with wavy blonde hair slipped through before it shut.
‘Hey, Jen,’ he said and turned back to looking out of the window.
He saw her reflection sit down on the seat opposite him and smooth out its shiny black coat. ‘You okay?’
‘Just a bit homesick, I suppose. Did you finish your thesis?’
‘I did, and I’m so glad I kept a backup off the system.’
He turned to face her. ‘Why? Did your infoslate break?’
‘No, I wasn’t able to connect to Manchester Uni’s servers this morning. When I checked the news, it turned out they’d been hacked.’
‘Oh Gods!’ The very idea was appalling. ‘I’d better check mine.’ He pulled his infoslate out of the antique canvas backpack his grandfather had given him and attempted to connect to Hereford University.
Within moments he was presented with the login screen, which he authenticated with his thumb print. ‘I’m in.’
‘That’s a relief,’ Jen said. ‘I thought you were going to say—’
‘What is it?’
He felt a cold sensation in the pit of his stomach. He turned the infoslate around to show her.
‘No files found? What does that mean?’
‘Exactly what it says. The system has none of my files on it. They’ve all gone! My thesis. All those years of work, gone!’ If his work wasn’t on there anymore, he might as well kiss goodbye to his doctorate.
She moved over next to him and put her hand on his shoulder. ‘Well it can’t all be gone—there will be overnight backups in the Bristol datacentre, surely.’
He tapped the Restore backup button.
‘It won’t connect.’
‘Try logging in to the datacentre directly.’
He switched the connection, but instead of being presented with the login screen, a temporary holding page appeared.
The Bristol datacentre has been removed from service.
‘Why?’ he yelled. ‘I can’t accept this!’ He tapped frantically at the screen, bypassing the security in moments.
‘What are you trying to do?’
‘They wouldn’t take the system offline for no reason. There’s got to be something in a log somewhere.’ The system records began scrolling up the screen. ‘There! That’s it – a break in the log times. Bingo!’
‘What have you found?’ Jen’s voice crackled with tension.
‘I’m not sure, but if there’s no data in the logs it probably means something has physically happened to the building. I have to contact my brother.’ He tapped a few commands and a uniformed police officer with cropped, dark brown hair and square jaw appeared on-screen.
‘Hey Seb, what can I do you for?’
‘I need a favour, Mike. A datacentre in Bristol went offline at 07.21 this morning and there’s no data in the logs, which is strange. I think something’s happened to the site. Were there any police reports?’
‘What do— Never mind, I’ll check.’ He turned away from the screen and tapped at a terminal. When he turned back, his expression was dark. ‘A bomb went off, destroying several buildings in the area. I’ll go down and investigate. You look a bit pale – are you okay?’
‘No I’m not … I’ve got to go.’ Sebastian closed the connection. He wanted to cry.
‘Oh, Seb.’ Jen squeezed his shoulder. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘What am I going to do? I should never have trusted the damned stupid system! All those years of simulations and research, gone! My father’s inheritance will run out soon if I’m not getting student allowance.’ There was only one thing for it. ‘I’ll have to get a job.’
Jen drew in a sharp breath. ‘I know the perfect thing for you!’
He rolled his eyes.
‘No, honestly. There’s a security coder job going on Tenebrae station. You’d be great at it, given how quickly you got into those records.’
‘Me? A job on a space station?’ He shuddered at the thought of leaving Earth. ‘It’s a bit … adventurous.’
‘Oh, go on, I’m sure you could do it. Isn’t that why you carry that old thing?’ His backpack gave a metallic clunk as she nudged it with her toe.
He turned away and stared out of the window, lost in thought.
The burnt-cauliflower bumps of the forest burst from between grey slabs of fragmented tarmac. Large pines grew through the long-caved-in roofs of terraced houses, penned in by walls. The windscreens of the occasional 21st century car glinted in their rusting frames. So much junk left behind. So much nature had reclaimed.
The monomag cleared the old, swallowed suburbs and the forests peeled back as the gleaming white spires of Manchester loomed up, surrounding the train.
Jen stood. ‘This is my stop. Keep your chin up.’
His stomach lurched as the monomag decelerated, and he forced a smile. She smiled back and closed the glass doors behind her.
A minute later the train was on its way to Birmingham. He gazed out across the leafy horizon, dreading the thought of what would happen when he arrived at the university. Maybe she was right. Maybe he could stop things like this happening to others. He could almost hear his father gloating from beyond the grave. I told you, you should have followed the family and joined the ’force along with your brother – then you wouldn’t have had this problem.
He’d show him …