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Whole Wide World

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Whole Wide World

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Author: Paul J. McAuley
Publisher: Tor, 2002
HarperCollins/Voyager, 2001

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Winner of both the Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick Awards, Paul McAuley has emerged as one of the most thrilling new talents in science fiction, acclaimed for his richly imagined future worlds as well as for his engrossing stories and vivid, all-too- human characters. Now he gives us a gripping and unforgettable thriller of the day after tomorrow--when the world and the Web are one.

London, in the aftermath of the Infowar. Surveillance cameras on every street corner, their tireless gaze linked to a cutting-edge artificial intelligence system. Censors zealously patrolling the Internet. A talented, young woman murdered before the cybernetic gaze of eager voyeurs.

A policeman sidelined to a backwater computer-crimes unit seizes on the chance to contribute to this high-profile murder case, but soon finds himself entangled in a web of high-tech intrigue. Why was Sophie Booth's murder broadcast over the Internet? What is the link between her brutal killing and London's new surveillance system? Who is the self-styled Avenger, and why does he communicate only by e-mail?

Whole Wide World is a compelling cyber-conspiracy thriller set in a world where information is the universal currency, and some people will do anything to be able to control it....



I was running laps in the local park when my mobile rang. I managed to drop my headphones around my neck and hook the headset over my ear without breaking stride. I was hoping it would be Julie, but it was Detective Inspector Pete Reid, T12's duty officer. He said, "I need you to make a pick-up."

"I'm not on call," I told him, and rang off.

I could just about stand up to Pete Reid, a dedicated alcoholic at the end of an undistinguished career. At least, I could do it over the mobile, which rang again almost at once, with the insistent warbling of a small and very hungry bird. I let it ring and put on my headphones (the extended reissue of Elvis Costello's Armed Forces) and kept running.

Sunday, early June. The sky hazy with heat as if bandaged in gauze, the sun burning through it like the business end of a welder's torch. According to the watch Julie had given me the previous Christmas, it was eighty-eight degrees. It felt hotter. People in various states of undress sprawled on browning grass like a horde of refugees from one of the European microwars. I was aware of the brief snags and thorns of their drowsy inattention as I ran past.

I'm not a natural runner. I run as self-consciously as an actor in some low-grade drama. I run to stay in touch with my body; at a certain age, specially after you've been badly hurt, you become horribly aware of its tendency to sag and sprawl and seize up, of its obdurate otherness. I run because there's virtue to be wrung from moderate exertion. In the good old days of cohabitation, I'd come back boiled red and trembling, and after some heroic hawking in the sink my announcement to Julie that I'd managed six kilometres (a judicious doubling of the actual distance) would earn me a cold beer or a glass of nicely chilled Colombian Chardonnay.

I ran past a man rubbing sunscreen into the trembling flanks of his boxer dog. I ran past a family eating from styrene clamshells. Sweat soaked my T-shirt, gathered at the waistband of my shorts. My left leg hardly hurt at all. I ran past a kid resting his head between the speakers of a sound box broadcasting heavy pulses of raga metal to the indifferent world. I ran past a temporary security checkpoint on the other side of the park railings, where coils of smartwire and high kerbs of hollow, water-filled plastic blocks choked the road down to a single lane. Three peace wardens in red tunics, black trousers, and mirrorshades--pit bulls in Star Trek leisure gear, their paws resting on belts laden with shock sticks, plasticuffs, extensible batons, and canisters of riot glue and pepper spray--scanned the sparse traffic for bandits who just might be heading into the City Economic Zone to liberate building materials.

The mobile was still ringing. I pressed the yes button.

Pete Reid said, "Where are you?" PoliceNet's quantum encryption made him sound as if he was shouting through a metal pipe crammed with angry bees.

"Shoreditch Park. Doing laps."

I ran past a couple of men drinking beer and watching a portable TV shaded by a cardboard box, like a shrine. The TV said, "Bandwidth totally secure and safe for all the family."

Pete Reid said in my ear, "I see you."

"Fuck off."

"I'm in the system, Minimum. White T-shirt, red shorts."

"Lucky guess." I shouldn't have resented Pete Reid's use of my nickname, but sue me, I did.

"Watch the birdie," Pete Reid said.

Tall steel poles were planted at intervals along the park's perimeter, coated in gluey grey antivandal paint and topped with the metal shoe boxes of CCTV cameras and their underslung spotlights, the cameras linked via RedLine chips to ADESS, the Autonomous Distributed Expert Surveillance System, which watched all London with omniscient patience.

One night in March, I'd seen these same cameras track a fox. The hapless animal had become increasingly frantic as it dashed to and fro, trying to outrun spotlights that fingered the darkness with unforgiving precision, until at last it could run no more and stood still, scrawny flanks heaving, eyes blankly reflecting the glare of overlapping circles of light that briefly twirled around it before snapping off. That's when I'd become aware of something new and nonhuman at play in the world; an intelligence vast and cold and unsympathetic testing the limits of its ability.

Now, one camera and then another and another turned to follow me as I ran past. Watching the detective. I gave them the finger.

"A 92 per cent recognition factor," Pete Reid said. "Even without the caring gesture."

"For someone who wears elasticated boots because he can't tie a proper knot, you're a very technical boy all of a sudden."

"We have search filters and microwave links. We have polygonal forcing routines. We have eight crucial physiognomy points, too, whatever the fuck they are. There's some kind of slogan on your T-shirt but I can't quite read it. No doubt something sarcastic. You're a sarcastic little fucker, Minimum, but I'll let it slide because I need you to do something."

"Who's running the rig? Someone has to be helping an old-fashioned one-finger typist like you."

"I'm with Ross Whitaker," Pete Reid confessed, "hacked into the system through his phone. We're in a squad car in Walthamstow, waiting for the word to go in and seriously hassle this pinko journalist."

"Was sitting in the office waiting for the phone to ring too boring for you?"

"I have a weakness for journalists. And I didn't know I was going to get two fucking call-outs on a Sunday."

"I hope T12 isn't paying for your time on ADESS."

"Don't you worry. Ross has a mate in the Bunker."

"Because Rachel Sweeney will carpet you when she finds out."

"It's off the books, Minimum. Stop trying to give me a hard time, you aren't built for it. Now listen, you got your warrant card?"

"This is a favour you're about to ask me, isn't it?"

"Do a lap around the corner," Pete Reid said, and gave me an address. "It's a pick-up, that's all. See the exhibits officer, grab the gear, in and out, bing bang boom, no problem. I'll send a uniform with a car and an evidence kit."

"Make that a pretty massive favour," I said.

"In and out, what's the problem? Get the job done, and I'll have Ross here suck your dick by remote control."

That's how it began. I didn't know that it was about a suspicious death. I didn't know it was about the dead girl in the silver chair. The information was only partial.

The poor young trees the council had put in along the road two years ago, those which hadn't been snapped off by kids or poisoned by dog piss, were hanging their heads like ballerinas about to faint. Cars smacked over speed bumps like boats on a choppy sea, trailing music in their wakes. People sat on the balconies of council flats like spectators at the Apocalypse. A very fat black woman enthroned on a red velour armchair held a little electric fan under her chin. The noise of televisions and stereos pounded out of open windows. I ran past a church, a discount off-licence with the no-nonsense offer of CHEAP BOOZE painted across its steel-shuttered windows and a burly guard just inside its door, burnt-out live/work flats carved from an old cinema that had started life as a music hall, a row of almshouses. There had been hamlets in marshy fields here, once upon a time. A priory. Country lanes in the drowsy shade of elms and oaks. Then a clutch of theatres, houses creeping north, paved streets, factories and warehouses thrown up on either side of the new canal. Fifteen years ago, artists and pop stars had made the area fashionable. Developers had moved in, turning sweatshop garment factories into loft-style flats for City workers flush with easy money. The InfoWar had wiped them out; now there was talk that the artists might be moving back.

I ran over shattered paving stones, heat-softened tarmac. I ran past an old woman wrapped in a heavy woollen coat despite the heat, a scarf tied tightly over a wig the approximate shape and texture of a Brillo pad. She was pulling a wheeled shopping basket as slowly and steadily as if ascending the north face of Everest. I ran past a couple of gangbangers on the corner, as nervously alert as gazelles, eyes bloodshot from too much crumble. Advance troops of the yardie gangs that were once again trying to push across the river onto Turkish turf. They were serviced by kids on scooters and mountain bikes, kept their stashes hidden, did their deals in burnt-out buildings, hidden from ADESS's sleepless scrutiny. At night, their whistled alerts and signals permeated the neighbourhood like the cries of curlews in some mournful marsh; every few weeks, one was found dead on some patch of waste ground, stabbed in the heart or shot in the head.

I ran easily and sweetly, my T-shirt sticking and unsticking to my sweaty back, my feet cased in Nike Victory 9s that, sprung with argon pockets and flexing sheaths of smart elastomers, could probably have run better by themselves.

I had no trouble finding the address Pete Reid had given me. It was halfway down a narrow street jammed up with police vehicles--three patrol cars, a Ford Transit van, a couple of unmarked Scorpios, a sleek silver Saab. Two men in black trousers and buttoned-up white shirts leaned against a black van, quietly smoking. The van's motor ticked over; the metal box of a refrigeration unit outlet clung to its roof.

I didn't have to be a detective to know that this was not a routine shout.

A woman Police Constable was squatting down to talk to an old woman in widow's weeds who sat in the back seat of a squad car. A young constable in a short-sleeved shirt was stretching blue-and-white tape from a drainpipe to the lamppost in front of a three-storey house which was squeezed between a wreck of a building with an abandoned office-supply shop at street level and boarded windows above, and the blackened shell of a late 1990s flat conversion I'd seen burning on the first night of the InfoWar. The house had two narrow doors on either side of a plate-glass window protected by security bars; clearly it had been subdivided beyond its means.

Copyright © 2001 by Paul J. McAuley


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