New York, America East, 2141
It was only when she reached the top of the staircase and burst through the door on to the deserted roof that Jana decided to die.
She’d died once before and it wasn’t so bad, but she’d hoped to avoid doing it again for a while.
She scanned left and right, searching for some sliver of hope; a skylight, a fire escape, some form of cover, a discarded crowbar to use as a weapon. There was nothing. All she could see were the flat, featureless slabs of reconstituted rubber that formed the skyscraper’s top seal. At the far edge of the roof was a small concrete lip beyond which rose the skyline of New York, shimmering in the heat.
The skyscraper was an old twentieth-century construction, forty storeys high. Once it had dominated the skyline, but now it was dwarfed by the looming organic skytowns that twined sinuously up into the cloud base.
Even so, it was quiet on the roof. The noises of the city didn’t reach up here. Jana knew the membrane windows of the skytowns masked hives of furious activity, but here it felt tranquil and deserted.
She was easily visible from a thousand offices. Should anyone glance down at the city for a second, they would be able to see Jana, hands on knees, gasping for breath, sweat-drenched, scared and alone in the middle of a flat, black roof. Would anyone spare her a second glance? She was standing at the heart of one of the most densely populated cities on Earth, but she felt entirely alone, just as she always did.
A shout broke her reverie.
‘Up here, the roof!’
Jana straightened and began to walk towards the edge. She felt a sudden calm at the certainty of what was about to happen. There was something liberating about having no choice.
She actually smiled as she approached the edge and looked down at the city streets so far below. Traffic was backed up along Broadway again, but the cabs and buses flew serenely in their dedicated lanes, speeding above the general traffic, untroubled by the congestion at ground level.
There in the middle distance she picked out the old stone buildings that ringed Central Park, the prosperous sector of town that she called home; a ghetto of lawyers, technocrats and bankers. Her mother would be there now, working on her speech for tonight’s big event.
Jana wondered whether her mother would hear about her death in time to cancel. She imagined her standing on the podium in front of the serried ranks of cameras and dignitaries, mid-speech, as an aide walked on to the stage nervously and whispered in her ear. Jana saw her mother’s face crumple and blur, her knees weaken as she slumped forward against the lectern in shock.
A nice thought, but it was more likely she’d show some of that famous stony-faced resolve.
After all, she’d make sure that her daughter would only be dead for a month or so.
‘There she is.’
Jana raised her head and glanced over her shoulder. Three young men had emerged on to the roof behind her. She turned to face them, the backs of her calves pressing against the cold concrete of the roof lip.
She’d not had a good opportunity to study them during the pursuit. She’d never seen them before, but twenty minutes earlier they had leapt at her out of an alleyway and tried to bundle her into a waiting car. She had struggled free and run. A number of times she’d thought herself safe, but each time they’d caught up to her again. Now, trapped at the edge of a roof, there was nowhere left for her to run.
The men all carried improvised weapons. The one on the left, with the scar on his cheek and the shock of bright red hair, brandished a thick metal bar. The one on the right, the short one, wielded a wide-blade knife. The middle one, the tall leader with the cold sneer on his thin lips, had a chain dangling from his left hand.
‘Who are you?’ Jana shouted. ‘What do you want?’
They fanned out and began to walk towards her, panting with exertion after the long pursuit.
‘Remember our orders,’ said the leader to his mates. ‘She wants the head intact.’
She’d been assuming they were a gang from the favelas, hunting for rich kids on a day trip to the big city, but this odd statement caused her to reconsider. Some mysterious woman wanted her head? She spent a second trying to make sense of this, but couldn’t, so dismissed it as a problem for later.
When the three youths were within a few metres of her Jana grinned. The one with the scar paused, unsure how to respond, but the other two kept coming and he soon resumed his advance.
Smoothly, without taking her eyes off her would-be murderers, Jana stepped up and back on to the thin ledge. The leader stopped dead and put his arms out to indicate that his friends should stop too. They did so.
The leader cocked his head to one side, curious, sizing up Jana’s resolve. He looked uncertain. He had thought he was in control here, but now it seemed that his cornered prey had seized the initiative.
Finally, he spoke.
‘You haven’t got the guts,’ he said.
So Jana smiled, spread her arms wide, closed her eyes, and leaned back into space.
She felt her feet leave the concrete and the wind buffet her back, roaring in her ears. Her stomach felt hollow and her senses told her she was cutting through the updraughts of the city that was rushing to meet her.
But she didn’t hit the ground for a hundred and twenty-eight years.
Jana was expecting a bone-shattering impact and a long silence. Instead, a second or two into her fall, she felt a tug upwards. Her first thought was that it was a freak gust of wind momentarily slowing her descent, but the tug increased. It felt as if the gravity that pulled her down was fighting an opposite force that wanted to pull her skywards.
She opened her eyes and gasped. She was hovering in mid-air, surrounded by a halo of coruscating bright red sparks, like some kind of human firework.
Instinctively Jana activated her ENL chip, intending to scan the quantum physics database for anything that could explain the impossible phenomenon that hovered above her. The chip at the base of her skull responded with a treatise on eating habits during the English Civil War of the seventeenth century.
Jana was so surprised by this that it took her a moment to realise that the world around her was darkening, as if a huge cloud was blocking out the sun.
She hadn’t made a sound as she’d fallen to certain death, but she screamed in terror as the darkness deepened and she felt her body being crushed by forces too strong to resist. She only stopped screaming when blackness entirely filled her sight, blotting out the sky, and then …
She was lying on a hill, cool grass in the crisp morning air. Bright blue sky, birdsong, the buzz of insects. She heard a noise above her so she sat up and raised her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. Squinting, she could see a plane – no, a missile, a huge missile – arcing down from heaven, trailing fire and smoke, screaming towards the Earth and then …
Hot, bright sun, sound of surf, dry air in her nose, sand underfoot, the eyes of a lizard regarding her with listless, heat-sated lethargy. It flicked out its tongue at her. Unsure what to do, she flicked her tongue out in response and then …
In a crowd, jostled and shoved by hot sweaty bodies. Smell of stale beer and cigarettes. Loud noise, almost deafening, screech of electric guitar, flash of coloured lights, big screens above her displaying a man in a gold lamé suit smoking a cigar and wearing red plastic devil horns, and then …
A clean white room, sterile and silent but for the soft hum of air conditioning and electric lights. A door flung open and a tall, fat man in a white lab coat running towards her, shouting, ‘Take my hand, quickly, take my hand.’ Reaching out to the man and then …
A street. Ruined buildings to her left and right, sound of gunfire and explosions. Impossible butterscotch sky. A tank, hovering above the rubble, floating towards her through the smoke. A hand on her shoulder, turning to face … herself, with a gash across her forehead and blood in her eyes. ‘You’ll be all right,’ she told herself. ‘I can’t tell you how or why, but you’ll be all right. I promise. Oh, and—’ Then …