Survival Game (The Apocalypse Duology #2)@Gary Gibson

PROLOGUE

Takhterum Old Quarter, Alternate Two-Seven-Six

A Long Time Ago

Exhaustion nearly overwhelms Lars Ulven before he can ascend to the top of the university’s tower. He stumbles, hands clutching at the topmost steps, so that he almost has to crawl the final distance to the stone balustrade. He leans on it heavily, breathing hard, almost shaking from the effort, but filled with a need to look at the streets below and see if there is anyone, anywhere, still alive.

The skies of this alternate, at least, are empty of the invaders: no dark forbidding shapes falling out of the sky and destroying whatever they touch. Lars looks out across the still green waters of the Bosphorus towards the city’s Public Transfer Facility, a vast pyramid rising from its artificial island at the mouth of the river. Closer to hand lies the city’s Old Quarter, dominated by ancient domes and minarets that glisten beneath the afternoon sun. But instead of the bustle of street markets and music, and the dance of holographic displays, there are only deserted avenues, abandoned vehicles and a terrible, unending silence.

Lars makes his way back down to the university’s transfer facility and crosses to Alternate One-Nine-Four. Takhterum becomes Kushta: once again, Lars seeks out the version of the tower that exists in this universe, and counts the steps as he climbs to the top. There are two hundred and fifty-six. There are always two hundred and fifty-six.

Once again, he sees only empty streets and hears only the thin wail of the wind.

The Syllogikos is a single culture spread across hundreds of parallel Earths, linked one to the other by transfer gates. Within the Syllogikos are two hundred and seventy-three iterations of this city on the Bosphorus, nearly all of which contain, in turn, some version of this university. In some alternates the streets are spread wide, while in others they are squeezed close together. In some, the tallest buildings rise no more than five or six storeys, while in others vaulting towers of steel and glass reach all the way to the clouds.

Since the invasion from the Deeps began, Lars has visited barely more than a dozen of the alternate universes that make up the Syllogikos. And yet everywhere he goes, he finds only the silence and stillness of death.

He comes very close to climbing onto the balustrade and throwing himself to his death. Then he thinks of his daughter, and somehow he finds the willpower to make his way back down into the bowels of Kushta’s university.

Lars sleeps that night in an office picked at random. He dreams of his wife, her hand slipping from his grasp, of the surging, panicked crowd around the transfer stage, of the great dark shapes of the invaders floating down to swallow terrified refugees in their thousands. He sits up, gasping like a drowning man, and searches through his rucksack for the tiny carved box he has carried through universe after universe. He opens it and picks out the string of memory beads, shuffling them through his fingers one after the other and sinking briefly into the memories with which each one is encoded. His favourite is of his daughter when she was still a little girl, running in the field by the house when he was only just starting his career in the sciences.

If there is even the slimmest chance his daughter Erika is still alive, he cannot allow himself to give up.

His hunt goes on. Kushta becomes Fu-Lin; Fu-Lin becomes Istambol, then Constantinople, then Chalcedon, and on and on, the name of the city morphing and shifting in line with the buildings and streets as he travels from alternate to alternate.

Often, on arriving at an alternate, he finds the control console for the transfer stage has been wrecked, in the misguided belief that this could halt the spread of the destruction. On such occasions, he is forced to hunt through supply cupboards and break into equipment bays in order to locate the portable stage he needs to continue on to the next universe.

It is not long before he comes to the conclusion that his search is hopeless, that there cannot be a single unaffected alternate the length and breadth of the Syllogikos. If there is anyone left alive, they must be located in those alternate universes that are not part of the Syllogikos – those of interest solely to the scientific and research community.

And that, at least, is a community Lars knows better than any other.

Lars travels back home to Alternate Seventeen.