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The Port of Cardiff, 9.46 a.m.
In an anonymous office amongst the cranes and containers of Cardiff’s port facilities, dozens of white-coated technicians working in shifts had been monitoring a bank of display screens for the last two weeks. In a neighbouring warehouse, over the past six months, Dave Probert’s brainchild had slowly taken shape. A hand-picked group of researchers in electronics, artificial intelligence, software engineering, and mechanical engineering had assembled his creation according to his brilliant and subtle design specifications. Strict security precautions had ensured that only the prime minister, a few senior cabinet members, top-level government advisers, the military top brass, and Probert’s own team knew what Project Précis was designed to achieve.
Project Précis was classified Top Secret, and had been ever since Probert had first mentioned his idea to a colleague a couple of years before. Some months later, the prototype he’d demonstrated to an invited audience in Westminster had convinced the prime minister to fund his R&D proposal.
At every stage of the construction, he had visited the site personally to inspect the progress on Project Précis. The engineering work, requiring tolerances of hundredths of a centimetre, was perfect. All the component parts been tested and double-tested. Each line of the software had been coded, debugged, checked, and refined until every possible bug had been eliminated. Only was Probert was satisfied with the result of everyone’s work did he announce his press conference. His academic reputation rested on a successful launch.
From a mezzanine floor overlooking the control room, a post-doctoral researcher named Julie Jones surveyed the technicians. At her workstation, the combined results from each set of monitoring instruments were summarised into one at-a-glance printout. She had been Probert’s star pupil from her earliest time at university, and he had immediately recruited her to oversee the day-to-day affairs at Warehouse 17. Julie had supervised the construction work under his watchful eye, and knew every detail of the device. For this reason, Probert had delegated her to look after the initial switch-on of the full-scale model, while he was busy schmoozing with the politicians, businessmen and media down the coast at St Donat’s.
Julie felt a pang of anxiety as she examined the latest set of readings feeding back from the device next door. One of the monitors was registering some unanticipated activity. She ran the test program again and got the same result. She caught the eye of one of the senior programmers and signalled down to him. Half a minute later, Mohammed Khan appeared at her side, scanning the printout quickly.
‘2011 last night?’ he murmured. ‘I was here then – nobody noticed anything unusual. I suppose it could have been a faint trace of a solar flare – or just a glitch in the power supply.’ He shrugged and gave her a reassuring smile.
‘Do you think we should tell Dave?’
‘No, I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s the only blip in the entire fortnight. He’ll be in the middle of his presentation, anyway.’
‘Yeah, you’re right. It can’t be anything serious.’
She glanced up at the clock. It was approaching 9.50. She flicked a switch and spoke into a microphone mounted on her desk.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, Project Précis will go live in just over ten minutes.’ Her voice rang out across the entire office building. ‘Please be sure you are at your workstations for the initialization of the device. Thank you.’
Khan winked at her and headed back towards the stairs.
The Vale of Glamorgan, 1.02 p.m.
The police patrol car barrelled along the A48, its lights and sirens scything a clear path through the queue of traffic.
The Doctor was in the passenger seat, using Pam’s mobile phone to get regular news updates. It seemed that the mysterious phenomenon was self-propagating – the lunchtime headlines from BBC Wales announced that the effects had spread as far as the Valleys, and almost as far west as Cowbridge. Initial reports were also starting to starting to filter through from the outskirts of Bristol. Occasionally Andy’s radio would crackle into life as Gwen relayed the latest information.
‘If this carries on, we’re going to lose everything,’ Andy said.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. I’m sure we can sort this out somehow.’
The Doctor started scrolling idly through the phone’s menus.
‘Pam, can this get Radio 2?’ he asked casually.
Pam, holding onto the back of his seat in fear of her life, squeaked a reply.
‘Brilliant – I love Ken Bruce’s show! I’ll have to get one of these,’ he enthused.
A brown signpost at the next junction pointed the way to St Donat’s. Andy hurled the car off the dual carriageway and onto a smaller country road. An approaching tractor had to swerve into a hedge to let them shoot past.
‘Not far to go now,’ he remarked, and Pam breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Thank God for that – just let me know when it’s safe to open my eyes.’
St Donat’s Arts Centre, 9.46 a.m.
‘Another dream we were sold in the 1970s was that of the “paperless office”,’ Probert told his audience. ‘Every couple of months Tomorrow’s World used to promise us a future in which paper would be a thing of the past. And yet look at the amount of paper we generate these days. Yes, we have “paperless gas bills” and “paperless banking”, but in reality the paperless office is just a myth. There’s always got to be some sort of hard copy backup somewhere in the system.’
He called up a new slide. This one showed a curve rising slowly at first, but increasing sharply in gradient as it departed from the origin.
‘This is an approximate representation of the information content of human society over time, which I’ve adapted from Georges Anderla’s work in the 1970s.’
He indicated the origin of the graph, and Karen grinned. She’d come across Anderla’s model of information some years before. She was also aware that almost everyone else in the room was floundering by this point.
‘Here, we have the start of the Common Era,’ he said. ‘In Anderla’s model, the sum total of human knowledge can be summarised as one unit of pure information, in the mathematical sense. According to Anderla’s hypothesis, two thousand years ago it would have been possible for one single person to know everything that there was to be known. And it took all of fifteen hundred years until the quantity of information doubled.’
He followed the gradually rising curve with his pointer, until he hit a vertical line.
‘When that happened, it was the time of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and the Renaissance. It was a major breakthrough, at least in Europe. Human society took a leap forward as the total amount of information doubled. Each increase in information lays the groundwork for the next increase. It’s a slow process at first. But as time moves on, the development accelerates.’
He traced the graph with his laser pointer. Karen overheard a couple of sharp-suited media types behind her, wondering what the old man on the podium was talking about.
‘It only took about 250 years until the next doubling occurred – and Humankind entered the next step of its intellectual evolution. That was the start of the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, the birth of the scientific method, steam power, the mass-production of consumer goods, and the beginning of the modern era.’
He picked out the next step of the graph, and Karen nodded. Most of the people around her were completely lost. Undeterred, he continued tracing the graph with his pointer.
‘We hit eight units of information here – around the year 1900. There were major revolutions in music, art, and literature, the birth of radio, the dawn of the atomic age, the foundations of psychology, and the beginnings of modern medicine. Not even the most polymathic of people could have become au fait with all the developments of human knowledge by this stage.’
He continued to trace the curve upwards and looked out at his largely unappreciative audience.
‘And this is the problem we face today. The information content of our society increases exponentially over time. There are more journals and more papers published in more and more specialised fields every week of the year. It’s impossible for any researcher to keep abreast of all the developments in even a very narrow academic niche. And every new piece of information needs to be published, catalogued, indexed, cross-referenced, peer-reviewed, cited, and archived for posterity. It’s the foundation for the next stage in our evolution as a species, after all.’
Cardiff Bay, 1.17 p.m.
Captain Jack Harkness had made his way back to the Hub and was sitting at his computer screen, trying to analyse the time-line which Gwen and Ianto had emailed to him. After dropping Martha off he had headed straight back to the Bay, figuring that some part of his vast collection of alien technology would prove useful. However, after running every program he could think of, and even after skimming the Torchwood archives back as far as 1879, Jack was still none the wiser. He cast a wistful glance towards Toshiko’s absent workstation.
‘I could do with your help, Tosh,’ he murmured. ‘This has got me beat!’
The only reply was a mocking silence.
Jack took another gulp of his coffee and leaned back in his chair. It was up to the Doctor now.
St Donat’s Arts Centre, 9.51 a.m.
Dave Probert called up the next slide. Karen recognised this diagram as well – it was the mapping of an iterated periodic function known as a Feigenbaum graph. He pointed out the blurred section at the right-hand side.
‘Georges Anderla missed one vital point. He never had to take the effect of the Internet into account. Now we have all manner of charlatans making spurious claims, which are presented as fact. We can’t separate the wheat from the chaff. If we do the mathematics, we eventually reach a point where information doubles and doubles and doubles – until the graph becomes chaotic. According to some researchers, we will hit this transition point soon – very very soon, in fact.’
The next slide flicked up onto the screen. It was a satellite picture of Hurricane Katrina, on course to skirt New Orleans entirely, according to the US Weather Bureau.
‘The problem with chaotic systems is that we try and use them to make sense of our lives, because we don’t understand the true nature of non-linearity. I’m sure we all remember Michael Fish’s famous forecast of 1987, when he told us that there wasn’t a hurricane on its way. The fact is that the weather forecast can never be accurate, because there are too many variables in the ecosystem for us to make predictions. The best we can hope for is an educated guess based on past experience – or a sound-bite that comes back to haunt the Met Office every time they get it wrong.’
His audience chuckled. He pressed another key on his laptop and the slide changed. It was the Mandelbrot Set, the iconic and instantly recognisable representation of Chaotic Dynamics.
‘In the same way, the vast increase of information in the collective human consciousness makes it impossible to assimilate everything we read and hear and see. As a society, we’re heading for a collective nervous breakdown. We have to address the problem of unmediated information increase now – or risk the imminent collapse of our civilisation altogether.’
University Hospital of Wales, 12.53 p.m.
Martha was addressing a hastily convened emergency conference. Ranged around the table were the top consultants, clinicians, nurse managers, IT experts, administrative chiefs, and Staff Nurse Maria Bowen. Martha had insisted that her old friend should be allowed to sit in on the meeting.
Her extensive experience working with UNIT and Torchwood – not to mention her time spent travelling with the Doctor – had prepared her for pretty much any eventuality, but none of the people around her had ever experienced anything like this. In spite of frequent Major Incident exercises, nothing had prepared the emergency services for the present crisis. Until she’d walked into reception and presented her credentials to a bemused security guard, nobody had had the first idea what to do.
Professor Alan Marsh, one of the most experienced cardiothoracic consultants in Wales, was pressing her for more information as she outlined the situation.
‘We saw the wave at first hand, Professor,’ she replied. ‘We were in the Bay when the effect occurred. It must have spread out from its original source and reached this point soon afterwards. We were just wondering ourselves what was going on when Maria rang me.’
‘By “we”, I presume you mean Torchwood?’ a hard-faced woman at the end of the table demanded.
Maria knew her by sight. Helen Williams was a senior administrator, and was feared throughout the entire NHS Trust for her fierce temper and humourless approach to people.
‘Yes, ma’am.’ Martha gave her a sweet smile.
For a supposedly Top Secret organisation, Torchwood’s activities had made them notorious throughout South Wales. Most high-level people in local government or the public services lived in fear of the day when the black SUV with the tinted windows appeared in their car park.
‘But so far you have no idea what’s caused this mysterious event, or what we do to stop it?’ the same woman added.
‘We’re working on it, ma’am,’ Martha replied. ‘My colleagues are doing everything that they can to identify the source and – hopefully – put a stop to whatever’s going on.’
‘Staff Nurse Bowen,’ Helen Williams said in a cold voice, turning to face Martha’s old friend. ‘I believe you initially decided to involve Torchwood in this.’
‘No, ma’am,’ she said honestly. ‘I just decided to phone Martha – Dr Jones. It was a personal call. We were at the Royal Hope together when … Well, I’m sure you all remember what happened.’
A low murmur went round the table.
‘I thought Martha might have some idea what was going on.’
Helen Williams opened her mouth, but Professor Marsh spoke first.
‘Well, it’s a good thing you did, Nurse Bowen. I’d rather have Torchwood on our side than working against us.’
Nobody else spoke – Marsh was the most senior person at the meeting, and the others would have to accept his decision. He turned to face Martha again and gave her an encouraging smile.
‘So, Dr Jones, what do you need to know?’
St Donat’s Arts Centre, 9.55 a.m.
Dave Probert flourished a sheaf of paper, and Karen’s ears pricked up.
‘Some years ago, I gave this paper on the future of information storage, at a conference in the United States. I stood on a stage like this and addressed the leading minds in the field. I experienced the same reaction then as I’m experiencing now from most of you. Most people’s eyes glazed over within the first ten minutes. My work was laughed out of court. I was denounced as a fraud and a dreamer, by the sort of small-minded people who thought that we’d still be using big reels of magnetic tape to programme their computers in the year 2009.’
He was approaching the climax of his presentation, and the excitement in his voice was palpable.
‘I’ve been involved with what we now term “information technology” since its infancy,’ he smiled. ‘I’ve also been a fan of science fiction since I was a teenager. People like me have never been afraid to look at what the experts say is possible, and fly in the face of received wisdom. If this is science-fiction, then I’ll go and work for Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.’
He rode the wave of laughter, walked off the stage, and wheeled a bulky device about the size of a photocopier back to the podium. “Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to present the future of data storage.” He glanced up the clock. It was nearly 10.00. In just a few minutes his demonstration would begin in earnest.
For no reason that she would ever be able to explain, Karen shivered.
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