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Alex Scarrow

Gates of Rome

PROLOGUE

10 August 2001, Brooklyn

Joseph Olivera gasped, air huffed in and out of his lungs in total darkness. The noise of his rasping breath bounced back at him from hard walls somewhere off in the black. He tried to calm himself. Steady his nerves.

You knew what it was going to be like.

Yes. He’d had that explained: the sensation of falling, the milky nothingness, the light touch of energy crawling over your skin like the probing, curious fingers of a pickpocket. Still, even though he’d mentally prepared for it, forewarned, Olivera had been cautioned by Waldstein that the first time was the hardest.

But he hadn’t expected this. Pitch black.

‘Anyone th-there?’

He could hear the drip of water somewhere, possibly from a low ceiling. And, faintly, a quiet rumble that increased in volume as it passed overhead and then finally faded to nothing.

‘Hello?’

Just then another noise. A metallic rattle from behind him. Joseph turned towards it and saw a horizontal sliver of light appear. It widened, accompanied by the jangle of a chain, and Joseph recognized it as the bottom of some shutter door. He saw a pair of feet outside, cobblestones, a muted grey of diffused light.

‘Hello?’

The feet shifted, a figure ducked down and looked under the shutter door. Joseph saw a paunchy middle-aged man with a beard and glasses, wearing shabby corduroy trousers and a green woollen cardigan with leather elbow patches. ‘Hello?’

Joseph squatted down so the light from outside could pick out his face. ‘Is this the right place?’

The man with the beard chuckled. ‘Ahhh… you must be our new recruit.’ He ducked under the shutter, straightened up inside and walked to the side of the shutter, patting in the darkness until his fingers found a switch.

A fluorescent light fizzed on above Joseph. He could see now he was in some brick archway. It smelled of damp cement and stale urine. In one corner he could see a pile of loops of electrical flex. Beside that, a dozen cardboard boxes that had the images of ancient-looking computers printed on the side. Early twenty-first-century bricks of clunky technology.

‘This… this isn’t the place, is it?’ asked Joseph.

The man smiled and crossed the pitted dirty floor towards him, his feet crackling across shards of broken glass. ‘This is it.’ He offered his hand. ‘I’m Frasier Griggs by the way.’

‘Joseph Olivera,’ he replied.

‘I agree it doesn’t look much at the moment. Mr Waldstein, I presume, told you we’ve only just started setting up things in here?’

Joseph nodded. ‘But I… I thought…’

‘You thought it would be something grander?’

‘Yes.’

Frasier laughed again. ‘It’s all that’s needed.’ He looked around. ‘Good choice, I’d say. Nice and discreet. I don’t think it’s been occupied in years.’ He kicked an empty glass bottle aside. It skittered across a carpet of grit and rat droppings. ‘Unless you count vagrants and drug addicts, that is.’

Joseph glanced at the cobblestones outside. ‘This is really 2001? I’ve really travelled back over half a century?’

‘Oh quite, yes. August the tenth, 2001 to be precise.’ Frasier spoke with an almost theatrical accent, what used to be called ‘British’ before that small nation vanished into the Euro-block.

He walked towards the shutter and ducked down to look outside. Frasier followed him over, squatting down beside him. ‘This is Brooklyn. Tell me, Joseph. You ever see pictures of Brooklyn before they abandoned it to the flood waters?’

Joseph shook his head. He only knew the outskirts of this once-fine city as a maze of waterlogged streets, collapsed rooftops sprouting weeds and struggling saplings.

‘Quite characterful and vibrant was Brooklyn.’ Frasier gazed at the graffiti-covered brick wall opposite, and above it a mixed urban skyline of cranes, factory roofs and warehouse apartments. He sighed. ‘I used to collect priceless antique CDs from about this time. Marvellous stuff they used to call “hip hop”. Big Daddy K? MC Kushee? Ever heard of those composers?’

Joseph shook his head.

‘Ah well. It’s only old farts like me listen to that sort of thing now.’ Frasier nodded at the scene outside. ‘Thirty years from now all this will be gone. It’ll be nothing but a drowning ghost town. Abandoned ruins. Left to rot. Pity.’

Above them was a warm blue, cloudless sky, criss-crossed with the vapour trails of distant air traffic.

‘Anyway, Mr Waldstein has already given you your brief, I presume?’

Joseph nodded.

‘We’re sourcing as much of the equipment components as we can from the present. It’s safer that way. The less of a footprint we leave from our time, the better.’

Joseph had noted the boxes of desktop computers. ‘Are those old machines powerful enough to — ?’

‘Certainly. I’ll have to tinker with the network so their CPUs synchronize. And I’ll strip out that stone-age operating system and replace it with W.G. Systems software. Should be fine, though.’

Joseph gazed across the East River at Manhattan.

‘Quite a sight, isn’t it?’ said Frasier. ‘This really was a beautiful city back in its time.’

‘Yes.’

They listened to the wail of a distant police siren, the honk of the East River ferry on its way down to Governor’s Island, the faint boom of a passing car hi-fi, the gentle whup-whup of a helicopter high above.

Joseph found himself sharing Frasier’s dewy-eyed wonder.

Everything seems so much more alive.

This was a mankind full of passion and energy. From here the future looked limitless, the possibilities endless. This is what the world looked like when it still had a hope. Joseph’s breath fluttered. It was intoxicating.

‘Well now… this field office of Mr Waldstein’s won’t sort itself out if we just sit here. There’s a lot to do.’ Frasier stood up and kicked a discarded McDonald’s carton out of the archway and across the cobblestone alley. ‘Is Mr Waldstein joining us today?’

‘Yes… he s-s-said…’ Joseph worked at containing his stutter. ‘He said he’d be along shortly.’

‘Good,’ said Frasier. ‘Because I need to ask him where he wants me to set up the displacement rack. Going to need to check the wiring for tolerance. And of course where to put the back-up generator.’

‘Where will I be setting up my equipment?’

Frasier pointed into the gloom of the archway. ‘It’s in the back room. There’s another room. See that sliding door? Half a dozen Gen-Inc-5H bio-growtubes from our Salt Lake Genetic Research facility, and several hundred gallons of that disgusting growth solution. It wasn’t easy beaming that lot through, I can tell you.’

‘Is it assembled already?’

‘No! That’s your job. Anything else you need, except the foetuses of course, you’re going to need to source locally.’

‘Uh, right.’

Frasier suddenly grinned broadly, his eyes wide behind the glint of his lenses. ‘Quite something, this project of his, isn’t it? Guardians of history and all that!’

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