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Alex Scarrow

The Doomsday Code

FACT

The Voynich Manuscript is a very real document written in an unidentifiable language that dates from the Middle Ages.

FACT

Despite numerous attempts by code-breakers and computer decryption software, the manuscript’s code has yet to be broken.

FACT

The source of the Robin Hood legend remains a mystery.

FACT

The true identity of the Sheriff of Nottingham at the time of King Richard’s return from the crusades is uncertain.

PROLOGUE

2044, Chicago

‘So, ladies and gentlemen,’ said the man, ‘this is what you all came to see. In just a moment I’m going to step inside that Faraday cage and disappear.

Right, so he IS just another fruitcake. Anna Lopez shook her head. That’s all I need.

Her eyes met one or two of the other members of the small audience, journalists like her. She recognized a few faces: a reporter who covered science and environment issues for one of the Euro News digi-stations; a science editor for a Stamford-based technology e-periodical. They’d all received the small vanilla-coloured invitation card last week with just a few words of explanation printed on it. An invitation to come down to a place called Larkham’s Gallery ‘to witness the demonstration of a technology that is going to change the lives of every man, woman and child on this troubled planet’.

Anna Lopez sighed. The world could sure do with a bit of good news.

Larkham’s Gallery sounded nice. Like a nice little boutique gallery where there’d hopefully be wine and nice little savoury things on silver trays being offered around. Instead they were sitting on three rows of uncomfortable plastic school chairs in a grim-looking warehouse with a fizzing strip light overhead and the echoing tap tap tap of rainwater dripping through somewhere.

‘The cage itself takes the charge and will distribute it evenly around me, creating a space big enough for me to — ’

‘To what? Make you vanish?’ called out someone from the row behind. ‘My kid can do that trick with his old Chuckle Cheese magic set.’

Someone snorted coffee into their styrofoam cup.

‘No,’ said the man on the stage. Anna had forgotten his name again. She looked down at the scribbled notes on her T-Pad.

Waldstein. Even the name sounded corny.

‘No!’ he snapped, silencing a ripple of laughter. ‘This isn’t a party trick!’

Anna raised her hand. ‘Mr Waldstein?’

‘Uhh … yes?’

‘You say you’re going to vanish?’

Waldstein nodded. ‘I will be transported elsewhere for a period of no more than a minute.’

‘Uh-huh, transported.’ She nodded. ‘Where, exactly?’

He grinned, pushing frizzy coils of salt-and-pepper-coloured hair out of his face to reveal eyes as wide as a child’s behind the glint of his glasses. ‘Another moment in time,’ he announced theatrically.

Behind her she heard a chair scrape the cold concrete floor and someone mutter, ‘Idiot,’ and the receding clack of footsteps. Either side of her she could hear and see the other journalists shuffle awkwardly.

Time? The poor deluded old fool seemed to be talking about time travel. She decided he was clearly in need of some sort of help; perhaps he needed to be in a place with padded mint-green walls and soothing music. Other chairs began to scrape noisily. It looked like this madman’s pitiful little charade was over already. She almost felt sorry for him.

‘Don’t go!’ Waldstein shouted. ‘Please! Stop right there!’ The footsteps stopped. ‘I’ll show you right now!’

Anna watched him huddle over a wobbly picnic table on his makeshift stage of stacked wooden pallets. He tapped the keys of a battered and beaten old laptop. Beneath the table was something that looked like a copper boiler, cables snaking in one end and out the other and over towards a tall wire cage. She heard the low hum of power surging inside the copper device, and the lights in the warehouse began to dim. It was then that it occurred to her the fool’s little contraption was drawing mains electricity.

Oh my God, he’s going to fry himself. Right here. Right in front of us!

Waldstein stepped smartly over the cables and opened the door of the wire cage. ‘Just you watch!’

She stood up. ‘Mr Waldstein, I think you should — ’

Waldstein stepped inside and slammed the cage shut with a loud clang that echoed around the warehouse. The humming was growing louder. ‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ Waldstein’s voice rose to a shout over the noise. ‘You’re about to witness the very first journey through time!’

‘Mr Waldstein.’ Anna stepped forward. ‘Please! You should stop this!’

She noticed that one of the digi-station journalists had pushed his way through the chairs and was filming the cage with his palm-cam. She shook her head with disgust. No doubt the sicko was hoping to catch the whole thing — catch this poor deluded Froot Loop frying himself like a potato chip.

Jesus …

Waldstein was smiling calmly at her through the wire. ‘Don’t worry, my dear, I’m going to be just fine!’ he called out above the increasing hum of power building up towards a discharge.

‘Please!’ cried Anna, surprised at the sound of panic in her voice. ‘Please! Just get out!’

Waldstein’s smile was almost reassuring. ‘I’ll be fine, my dear. I’m going to see them again. I’m going to see them, touch them …’

Them? Who? What’re you talking about?’ she shouted, but her words were getting lost amid the growing din.

Suddenly sparks began to dance along the wires of the cage.

‘Stand back!’ shouted someone. She realized the charge could quite easily arc across the space towards them. Instinctively she stumbled backwards several steps, bumping into an empty chair, barking her ankle painfully. The chairs were all empty now; everyone was on their feet. She could hear someone calling for the police. No one came here tonight so they could watch a man voluntarily cook himself — not even a crazy. And there were enough crazies out there these days.

Sparks sputtered from the cage and showered on to the floor. The strip lights across the warehouse ceiling fizzed, popped and went out, leaving them in a darkness lit only by the strobing flash of Waldstein’s electrical execution. She could still see his silhouette in there, perfectly still, amid the curtain of sparks. Still, calm … not the

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