Accused of being a terrorist, a fugitive physicist takes flight in a gritty future world where the government has gone insane.
Rob MacAulay has followed the flight of seabirds all his life, as well as the elusive nature of quantum field theory. He is a brilliant physicist, famed for solving the Unity Theory, a tall, gentle man with glasses and a tweed jacket.
And he is framed as a terrorist.
Now, on the run from the police and under the steamroller of politics, MacAulay is on a flight of his own. As the EU fractures around him, MacAulay learns that his scientific reputation means little when the world is out to get him.
Thomas Heddiman, technical consultant with the police, finds himself both running with the fox and hunting with the hounds as he pursues MacAulay. But the tall, gentle physicist is an odd bird…and capturing him doesn't go as planned.
Award winning author R.A. MacAvoy (Tea with the Black Dragon, The Book of Kells) joins with artist and storyteller Nancy Palmer to present a tale of the possible future: human anger, human compassion, and a man who turns out to be a very unusual bird indeed.
R.A. MacAvoy has always been one of my favorite writers, and it's an honor to include Albatross, her collaboration with Nancy L. Palmer. A near future SF thriller involving quantum field theory, this is also a story about the complexities of friendship set against a dystopian backdrop. – Cat Rambo
"This book has MacAvoy's signature of extraordinary character development coupled with really good storytelling."– Amazon Review
"I found myself compelled to learn what happens next. I found myself thinking about the story when I wasn't reading it, which are all the hallmarks of a truly good tale."– Amazon Review
The albatross soars over the ocean for long weeks or months. It sleeps as it flies, riding the air currents. It holds within its light body the map of the planet. In three dimensions. In the air it is never lost.
When it must land, it seems so ungainly that we, who can't fly at all, call it a gooney-bird. We see it collapse, all wings and legs.
Following is a story about an albatross. It is also a story about Quantum Field Theory, a model of Physics in which there is a constant danger of Collapse.
Twenty-Eight Years Before
The island called South Uist—or Uibhist a Deas, in the native Gaelic—lies in the Outer Hebrides and is rimmed by tide pools, in which a person may find fascinating things. There are starfish of various sizes, shapes, and colors, much like the various stars in the sky. Crabs scuttle left and right over the white-limed empty shells. The bottom is covered with stones. There is little soft in these shallow beaches.
Late one day in the long hours of mid-summer, one tide pool also contained four pony-feet, submerged halfway to the knees. Just centimeters higher from the water level hung the bare feet of the lad who had sat himself on the pony as it was grazing seaweed off the bottom. He had outgrown old Mr. MacInnes's Eriskay pony over a year ago, but it allowed him to clamber on, while they both sought what interested them in the water. And he hoped he would not have to slide off the pony, because his ma never appreciated him coming home with salt water embedded in his woolen trousers.
A white line sheared over the bottom like a sword-stroke. No. It wasn't on the bottom at all. The line of white was just a reflection on the glittering surface. He lifted his eyes to see an impossible long-winged bird, with each wing tipped in black. He raised his head, and with it he raised both arms, as though he was that flying bird: so close.
The pony also raised his head. From his mouth dangled the black-green of the weeds.
Then the lad was flying beside the bird, or he thought he was: eye to eye. He looked down at the shimmering surface of the water, more than two meters below.
He fell. And if this was a dream it was a most realistic dream, because he was cold and wet.
If he pushed his feet off the bottom, he could easily find the surface. And he was no bad swimmer, even in the cold water and fully clothed as he was.
He had two thoughts: I can't see the bird anymore.
And next: My Ma is going to murder me.
One Called Rob, One Called Thomas
Rob MacAulay stood, his hands in his pockets, looking down at a gravestone. In his head, or perhaps all around him, was a wide empty sky. The stone was not large or imposing, and it read "JANET KINKAID." Under it, "Beloved Wife of Robert MacAulay." She hadn't wanted her doctorates in history or anthropology mentioned, and that was just as well. It would have been a cluttered stone. And of course, half buried in the tall grass, the years 2000—2038.
"Well, my Janet," he sang out, softly but aloud. "It's been an odd two years. For myself, at least. Can't know if time runs the same for you. If at all." Then he paused, for he hadn't come with much to say. Just as a visit.
For just an instant, he pictured another stone next to it, which might say ROBERT MACAULAY, and all the rest. But as he didn't want such a stone to exist, or at least not soon, he thought he'd best be on his way. He touched the black granite in passing.
Janet hadn't wanted to be buried on The Black Isle. She'd wanted to end up on Rob's own Island, South Uist. She'd loved that place as she'd loved Rob. Perhaps before she'd loved him. But in the end, it hadn't been his choice where to plant her bones.
The late evening sky was going purple, as it did sometimes in the long summer evenings, all over the Highlands. Rob looked up at it and missed Uibhist a Deas, his island. But it was easier to visit Janet's grave than his island. Someday, if he by chance he survived, he would have a stone—a beach stone—carved with his wife's name on South Uist.
He lifted his head and the wind caught his overgrown hair and set the coarse strands flapping. It blew up his nose, too, and he smelled the North Sea in it.
He should be on his way. As the news-streams said, he was a man on the run. The least he could do then, was run. Or, more realistically, walk.
It had been an odd two years indeed. Schoolteacher, Physicist, then terrorist. Now even a murderer of some kind. Perfect example of field collapse.
* * *
Before he'd reached the gates of the cemetery, Rob came upon a lad, ginger-haired and perhaps twelve years old. He was dressed in short pants and a rugby shirt. In his hand he held a catapult, and in the rubber center of the catapult was a triangular stone. A squirrel, on the branch of a pine tree, scolded at the boy loudly as the boy aimed the catapult at the it.
"Tha's no good," Rob told him, looming behind and over the lad. Who jumped up and lost the stone. He turned a furious jaw on the man behind him and found he was looking up, and up, and up. Rob was very tall.
The lad's face went redder than his hair.
Rob was bending to pick up the stone, while the lad was considering whapping the rubber against Rob's nose. (Rob's nose was a larger than average target, and there is nothing more aggressive than a fellow caught out in something.) But as one of Rob's hands reached down, the other was reaching out at the same time, and somehow Rob had both stone and catapult in his grasp.
"This thing, here, some people call not a catapult, but a sling-shot."
The lad, his curiosity warring with his anger, asked, "Why?"
"That I don't know. It's nothing like the weapon David used to slay Goliath. But I assure you, there are many folk who call it that. But there is a problem with the way you're using the thing."
The lad was sure this would lead to a lecture on kindness to animals. But instead, the very tall man said, speaking evenly and looking at the catapult from all sides, "You see, here. This stone. It's got no balance to it. It wouldn't fly true: not even if you put it on the end of an arrow. What you want is a round stone, sized for the pouch of the thing here."
"You want me to shoot the squirrel?" The lad spoke with outrage, as though shooting a squirrel in a pine tree was the worst thing he'd ever heard in his life.
"I don't, really. For one, I doubt your mother would cook it for you, and I doubt you would eat it if she did. Mostly they have parasites, you know.
"But if you've got a catapult, it's best you know how it works. Don't you think so?"
The lad in the rugby shirt screwed up his face something awful, but he didn't say anything awful to the man. Standing there, he was so tall, and he had the catapult.
"Now with this stone here—" Rob pulled a good round pebble from his pocket. "—You could hit the base of the branch on which the squirrel is tongue-lashing you. Right at the point where the tree and the branch meet."
"No way. Too far."
"Easy. It's a good strong catapult. You don't even need to allow for ballistics. Just triangulate."
Rob saw the question starting and forestalled it. "Your eyes go straight to the spot on the tree. You can't hold the thing in front of your eyes or you can't see. So there must be a triangle. If you get it proper, you hit the target. Like this." And he pulled back the rubber of the catapult, held it to his chin and released.
The lad saw a piece of bark fly off the pine tree, just below where the branch came out. He cursed terribly, in reverence at the shot.
Rob gave him back his catapult. The boy held it as though he'd never understood the thing before. He watched the tall man walk on by.
"What did you do?"
"I taught you a bit of trigonometry," said the tall man. "Triangles."
"And what if I try for the squirrel with it?"
"That's between you and the squirrel,' Rob sang out as he strode away. And more quietly, to himself, "Besides, I scared it away."
Behind him, the lad was practicing with his catapult. He was trying to hit the bare spot on the pine tree. The rubber was pulled directly to his chin and he was whispering "Triangle."
* * *
It was almost ten years ago that Police Scotland had built a new central office in Edinburgh at the edge of the old Rugby field. Had it been built in the last eighteen months, when by the vote of the entirety of Britain, the Parliament of Scotland had been dissolved, there would not have been sufficient funds for such a building. The reason behind this was simply that the largest single source of income of Britain as a whole now came from the tide turbines of the sea-lochs of Scotland and from the sea north of it, and so Scotland (during the years when it had its own small government) had had the money for such a project. But what it didn't have was the population to overcome the British vote for dissolution, and so Scotland now had no parliament and precious little money.
But the ten-year-old building stood out against the rest of Edinburgh like a boil on a face. It was all glass and ferrous moulding, with strips of bright color in concrete marking the rest. And it was entirely arranged according to the Open Office principle, so that huge rooms were crowded with desks, and likewise crowded with contagion, like any pre-school. Or sweatshop.
More than a year ago, Donald MacManus, the Superintendent of the Edinburgh branch of Police Scotland, had had his fill of his increasing days of illness and the thought of the rest of his work-life being packed in among his own men and women, getting sick. Getting old. He had moved two stories down to one of the few private offices, taking with him his assistant Sinclair Teague. He would have much preferred to take with him also his Financial Fraud consultant, Thomas, but Thomas was constrained by the sophisticated system of outlets and cords that surrounded his large desk like the arms of some cephalopod. With the end of Scottish Parliament came the end of the funds to make such a technical alteration. So the consultant remained above, insulated from both his boss and the inspectors.
* * *
This morning, Thomas Heddiman closed the door behind him as he left MacManus' office. It has been one more morning of listening to the old man grouse about being two floors down from the open office and all his squad.
Thomas couldn't help him. He hated the open office more than the Super. He had more reason to hate it. But Thomas was stuck there, with the machines no one else understood but him. He might as well be a super-monster from a comic book: a man behind a strange crab-shape of machines, wearing noise-cancelling headphones. Inexplicably stuck in the middle of a squad of Edinburgh detectives. The solitary American, too, which made his presence even stranger.
And two or three times a week, as he gave his face-to-face report, MacManus sat there with his pitiful questions about his old squad. As though Thomas was his spy.
"An' they don't tell you anythin' about their projects? About morale, Thomas?"
"They don't tell me anything. They don't like me." He didn't follow it with the second half of it, which was: and I don't like them.
Thomas always took the stairs back to his desk. It felt better to walk up than to find himself trapped in an elevator with certain members of the squad. He leaped up the stairs by twos, by threes, and for a break in the routine, by one up and one down. He never met anyone on the stairs except a cleaning lady. His security badge bounced on his chest like a plastic dog-tag as he bounded. He pulled open the door, walked down the hall with visibly less energy than he showed on the stairs and he entered the open office.
People stopped their conversations as they saw him, but they stopped only for a moment. Thomas, despite being a striking looking man, could give off emanations of pure ordinariness when he chose. Though his hair shone like polished steel above dark eyebrows, and his eyes were up-tilted and shining. Though his features were purely symmetrical, as was the build of his body. Still he could be ordinary as could few others. He dressed in loose and sloppy clothes and wore trainers and seemed much smaller than he was. Thomas had a gift close to that of invisibility.
He said nothing to anyone, but proceeded to his bizarre desk and disappeared into it. Donned his headphones. He flicked his finger over the main switch and begun to hum quietly. This morning he was humming the rondo movement of Cesar Frank's Concerto for Violin and Piano in A. No one in the room recognized it. No one cared to listen.
The mixed babble of the squad started again, and he heard every one of the names they called him.
No one ever noticed he didn't use the headphones to cancel external noise at all. Thomas couldn't have endured sitting in a room full of people while not hearing what they were saying. Ignorance was worse than babble, for Thomas. The training of all his life wouldn't permit such a thing.
He turned on his 3D screen with a gesture of his hand. No one else in the room had such a sophisticated machine, nor would they have had use for it. Nonetheless, there was envy among the senior members of the squad. While he was finding his place in yesterday's work, footsteps approached over the carpet behind him. Heavy, rolling footsteps. And at the base level of the screen, below the confusion of layers, he could see a shadow. A hand descended onto his right shoulder. The man had been looking into his screen. From a certain angle, he might have been able to see what was forming on it, which was a bad idea.
Thomas' own left hand came down and locked the intruding hand where it had put itself on his shoulder. He spun his chair ninety degrees clockwise and looked blandly into the face of the senior inspector, a man named Parks. He looked up in bland inquiry.
"Yow!" cried Parks. "What the fuck do you mean by that, you … you clumsy. Clumsy … idiot?" Thomas was aware of the editing Parks had done between what he had meant to say and what he had dared to speak.
Bland inquiry blossomed into something like a smile. "Oh. That you, Parks? Couldn't see you. Hear you. How was I to know?" But Thomas didn't release the hand until he had used his other hand to blank the screen.
Parks continued to yowl, although he was not hurt. Thomas knew when he was hurting someone.
Across the room, heads lifted. Some of them seemed offended, but some might have been smirking.
Once free, Senior Inspector Parks nursed his hand, shifted from foot to foot and looked around the room for support.
Thomas, for his part, was watching his own breathing.
"That's no way to treat your boss!" Parks spoke loudly enough for the whole room to hear him.
"Oh. I wouldn't!" answered Thomas. "I never would. But what do you want, Parks?"
There was a moment of utter silence in the room, as the crew worked out both sides of this duel.
"I want some work out of you, you bloody … I want you to pull your weight for once."
Thomas' work was to find hackers for a complex banking scandal, and he was good at it. He breathed more slowly than ever.
"So have you got a message for me from the Superintendent?"
"That old man? Don't be stupid for once, Yank. He's gone and you know it."
Thomas' smile broadened as he realized how long Park's must have rehearsed this confrontation. "Well, then, I wonder who is signing my paychecks? I'll have to ask him tomorrow."
This was off-script to what Parks had intended. Thomas excelled at going off-script. Parks obviously did not. Thomas watched the man's eyes move back and forth, as the light from the window struck them. What would the man say next?
"We've got terrorists on the loose and you're working on God knows what up here with half the power in the office going into your computers."
Terrorists again. And electrical power? This was the first he had heard of a dearth of electrical power in the squad room. "You know I don't do terrorism. I'm financial fraud, C.I. Parks. Besides, I'm a foreigner. Your politics are not in my purview."
"Then your purview is fuckin' blind. I want MacAulay."
Thomas was on the edge of telling Parks that his love-life was none of Thomas' business, but that would have been inappropriate. Considering everything about Thomas, very inappropriate. Instead, Thomas swung his chair back. "Please don't stand there, where you can see the screen. You're not cleared to read it."
Thomas Heddiman could have said nothing more infuriating to the Chief Inspector. Yet the man really was not cleared for the Financial Fraud division. Thomas pretended to click on the headphones and listened closely to what the Chief Inspector Parks was calling him. Nothing new.
And there was nothing new on the machines before him. Nothing relevant to F.F., at any rate. Thomas was waiting for a reply to a message he had sent the day before.
But Thomas purely hated to hear a cop—any cop in any country—say words such as those Parks had said. I want MacAulay. Or as it was said more frequently back home, I've got a hard-on for the man. It was supposed to be some sort of metaphor.
It was not a metaphor. It was all too real. And it was a scary thing to hear out of anyone's mouth. To have a hard-on for anyone—meaning that you want him captured, or tortured. Or dead. That phrase caused Thomas Heddiman to suffer an internal shiver. One he never permitted to show.
What was he still doing here in Scotland? Thomas was severely homesick. It had been three years he had lived this exile, because one man had told him to leave home until he had his feelings under check. Probably the only man in the world to have the power to make Thomas Heddiman run away.
Parks was one more reason for Thomas not to search for Doctor Robert MacAulay. Not to do that for Police Scotland.
Yet he found he couldn't stop thinking about the bank robbery for which MacAulay was wanted for murder. If, by some chance, F.F. learned about or questioned his search, he could say it involved a bank robbery, and there might be a connection to bank fraud.
He had seen the medley of videos about the heist before, but only on news streams, back a year ago when it had been big news. That didn't mean he had paid a lot of attention to it. He couldn't pay attention to damn near everything.
Yet he now decided to wait until he reached his flat in Old Town. Where he was not signed on as Thomas Heddiman at all. Where every query and reply bounced from Australia, to California, to a tablet in Edinburgh.
For the first time in months he left early. He was simply weary of those words he heard daily. The words he wasn't supposed to hear, but dare not miss.
Paranoia. Paranoia had saved his life more than once, so he spent some time simply listening. It was the senior inspectors who bad-mouthed him. Some of them, because of an old law, were not Scots at all, but English. As things were going with the dissolution of parliament, perhaps soon some of the young ones would be also.
Being called the Yank didn't bother him. The word faggot only confused him, as he didn't remember it as being in the British idiom. But being called a hacker … He could not endure that. It implied he hadn't worked for what he'd accomplished. And so he left work early.
If they wanted to gossip about something, let it be that. Thomas Heddiman never arrived late or left early.
* * *
The flat in Old Town was ridiculously small and ridiculously dear to lease. It was Thomas' one expenditure in Edinburgh. He liked to walk the streets, when he had the time. And though it was on the bus line, he could also make the commute by foot.
It had come furnished, but the furniture had all gone into a storage room in the attic. Inside, there was a parlor, a tiny kitchen, and a bedroom, all the smaller for having been sliced in half to contain a toilet and corner shower. The worn woolen carpet had been rolled up and replaced by old padded matting bought or borrowed from various local martial arts schools. There were two items of furniture in the parlor: an overstuffed brown sofa and a fold-out table and a chair to accommodate his two electronic pieces. One of these was his tablet and the other was a thing rolled up in a corner with only a cord protruding.
He started the tablet, where the police-issue video of the robbery and murder had been sent from the squad room that afternoon. It was so much visual gibberish. It was more than meaningless. It was, in an obsolete idiom, hinky.
Thomas spent an hour thinking about it, then spent the rest of the evening on his roll-out piano, using headphones to cancel his sound.