The air in the Mainframe Hall felt artificial: cleanroom-filtered, its temperature constant within the smallest fraction of a degree; seemingly immobile, breezeless. Everyone gathered in front of the Project Director gazed up at the virtual displays.
“What you are seeing is a representation of neural activity. It is identical to that of a normal human brain. Your brain, my brain. Except this, for the first time, is a complete computer-generated simulation. Capable of thoughts, maybe even dreams, exactly like any of us experience.”
“But it has no body to feel,” said one of the journalists. “Eyes to see. Won’t it go mad without sensory input?”
The Project Director smiled. “We have restricted neural activity to specific clusters. Nothing here is a complete mind. But, if it were, there has been a lot of research into the psychotomimetic effects of sensory deprivation—”
“Mimicking psychoses . . . causing hallucinations,” explained the Project Director. “This research suggests that in such cases where subjects are deprived of genuine sensory stimuli, they hallucinate false ones. See people and environments that aren’t there.”
“So if there isn’t a world around us, we invent one?” asked another of the journalists.
“Effectively, yes. But this won’t happen with these simulations – they’re restricted to specific functions and neural clusters, allowing us to simulate specific psychiatric disorders and see, for the very first time, exactly how they tick. It will have a massive benefit for mankind.”
“And beyond that . . . how far could a synthetic mind – an artificial intelligence like this – go?”
“Theoretically, it would allow us to understand the human condition like never before. It could even be turned onto answering questions about the universe and give us insights into the true nature of reality.”
“Aren’t there dangers?” asked another journalist.
“What kind of dangers?” Still no impatience in the Project Director’s tone.
“People talk about the Singularity – about artificial intelligences overwhelming our own.”
“Trust me,” said the Project Director, “we are a long way from that. There is no whole mind here. No danger.”
Marie Thoulouze felt the air cool suddenly, a seasonal change seeming to take place in the space of a second, but something more than the sudden drop in temperature caused her skin to prickle into gooseflesh. The sun was still bright, perhaps now even brighter, but the air had changed: not just temperature but pressure, humidity, consistency. She had an oddly intense feeling of déjà vu, that she had been here before and that she had felt exactly the same then, and countless times before that. Maybe it was the occasion: maybe you are aware of history being made.
Marie stood at the back of the crowd that had gathered in the Vieux-Marché and the smell of so much humanity crowded together for such an inhuman purpose filled her nostrils. Pungent. Sour. Rank. The mob gathered in front of her jostled for a better view as a cart trundled over the dried mud of the square. Cheers and chants in a French that Marie found difficult to understand, a French very different from her own. She cast an eye across at the ranks of English and Burgundian soldiers, their glaives and halberds gleaming in the cold sun, who seemed to tense, to prepare, as the cart entered the square.
Marie edged round the crowd, keeping back from the increasingly dense, increasingly agitated throng. There was another, more intense explosion of jeers and catcalls from the Rouennais mob, loyal to the Duke of Burgundy, as a slender, pale girl– clothed in a simple dress of rough cloth, her hair bible-black and unevenly cut to expose a slender white neck, her hands bound behind her – was lifted down from the cart by two English soldiers.
Marie gasped. Her heart pounded. She knew what was about to happen and she muttered a prayer for the girl, her hand reaching up and grasping the crucifix at her neck.
Like a path scythed through wind-writhed corn, the way to the stone pillar at the center of the square was cleared through the crowd by two parallel ranks of breast plated and helmeted soldiers. An old bent-backed woman lunged forward between two of the restraining guards and thrust a wooden cross into the bound girl’s dress, lodging it in the neckline before being pushed roughly back into the rabble. The girl’s eyes were wild, confused, and she seemed not to have noticed the old woman’s act of pity and piety.
A circle had been cleared around the stone pillar, against which a wooden scaffold had been erected and heaped with tar-dipped faggots, logs and barrels of pitch. The only part left exposed of the scaffold was the rough-hewn timber steps that led to the platform at the top. Marie found her way to the cleared path and followed the sad procession to the empty space around the pyre, amazed that none of the English soldiers tried to stop her and afraid that she might be seized at any moment. The mob seemed too hysterical and frenzied even to notice her presence. She watched as the girl was brought to the clearing and made to stand before a seated group of silk-clad clerics. There was an exchange of words, the girl saying something and the clerics replying, nodding. Marie could not catch what was being said, but she knew. She knew exactly.
She watched as the girl was guided up to the platform by the hooded man Marie knew to be Geoffroy Therage. As a chain was fastened around the girl’s waist and further rope bonds fixed her to the pillar, two of the clergy stepped forward and raised a cross on a long pole so that it came up to the girl’s eye level and she locked her gaze upon it. They held it there while the executioner stabbed repeatedly into the pyre with a lit torch, while the kindling caught into crackling life and the flames began to spit and surge with an intensity that seemed to increase in parallel to the hysteria of the crowd.
Marie heard high-pitched screaming from the fire and thought for a moment it was the desperate sounds of the girl’s agony, but there was a chorus of other screeches and percussive snaps and pops, and she realized they were the sounds of combustion: the fire now a single, writhing, surging entity consuming everything in the execution pyre. But then Marie heard other screaming, and realized it was her own voice as she sank to her knees, the heat of the blaze almost unbearable even at this distance.
A Burgundian soldier stepped forward and Marie saw something dark writhing furiously in his gauntleted fist. He swung it with full force and she saw the black cat follow a twisting arc through the air and into the flames.
“She is not a witch!” Marie screamed, pleadingly, at the soldier who did not even turn in her direction. “She is NOT a witch!”
Marie sobbed. Great, wracking sobs as she gazed up at the burning girl. Marie, whose faith had always been deep and pure and complete, could not believe she was witnessing the death of her heroine. How had she come to be here, Rouen, on the thirtieth day of May, 1431, to witness this horror unfold? How could anyone ever believe she had seen this great evil with her own eyes? She needed proof. Positive proof.
Still sobbing, she reached into her pocket for something and held it at shaking arm’s length, pointing it at the girl who now burned like a torch atop the pyre.
Marie used her thumb to select the camera function of the cellphone she had taken from her jeans and pressed the button, in an attempt to capture the image that seared into her brain, the image that filled her universe.
The image of Jeanne d’Arc as she passed from one world to the next.
The thing about the remarkable and the extraordinary is that, if they are part of your everyday life, they become by definition unremarkable and ordinary. That which awakens awe and wonder in others ceases to be noticed. For Walter Ramirez, the extraordinary that had become ordinary, the remarkable made unremarkable by daily exposure, was the Bridge.
The Bridge was known by millions. All around the world people could call the Bridge to mind, even if they had only ever seen its image. The Bridge was an icon, it was a symbol, it was a means of transit. For many, it was a destination.
But sometimes, when you have become accustomed to the uncustomary, there still comes the moment in which you see it as others see it. Ramirez experienced two such moments that Wednesday.
The first was when he drove his marked Explorer out of the Waldo Tunnel. Ramirez was on the early shift and the sun was just about to come up as he drove his prowler out into the infant day. Despite having seen it so many times, the scene that opened out at the tunnel mouth was one to send a small electric current running across the skin and raise the hairs on the nape of Ramirez’s neck. There were still lights on in the city, a cluster of bright white and yellow pinpricks in the purple velvet of the immediately pre-dawn sky, shimmering in reflection on the Bay; to his left was the Bay Bridge. But ahead was the Bridge. Ramirez’s beat.
The Golden Gate.
Walt Ramirez had been an officer of the California Highway Patrol for fifteen years, all with the San Francisco Bay Area Command, ten of which had been in the Golden Gate Division, seven of those working out of Marin County station on San Clemente, twelve minutes from the Bridge. The chevrons on his sleeve had been there for three years.
Walt Ramirez looked like a thug in a uniform: a big, broad-shouldered and hard-faced man of forty with huge hands that appeared out of proportion with even his massive build. It was a physical presence that had served him well. In fifteen years as a CHP officer and outside of the Patrol’s firing range, Ramirez had unholstered his firearm twelve times in total and had fired it only once, and that had been a warning shot. Generally, when Sergeant Walter Ramirez told someone to do something in his disconcertingly quiet, calm way, they tended to do it.
Although Walt Ramirez might have looked like a thug in uniform, he was anything but. Popular with everyone who got to know the modest, friendly man behind the intimidating presence, Ramirez’s senior, brother and junior officers all liked and respected him. He was one of those cops who were in the job for all the right reasons: he cared about people – perhaps even a little too much given the suffering he had had to encounter over the years – and he had become a policeman to help others, not through some need to exert authority over them. With the public he was consistently courteous and respectful, but firm whenever the need arose. His fellow officers knew that he was someone they could rely on in a tight spot, someone who would always have your back. In fact, Walt Ramirez was exactly the guy you wanted to have your back.
And Ramirez’s beat was a small but iconic one. Ramirez’s beat was the Bridge.
As well as being the shift supervisor on all patrols that covered the Bridge and its approaches on both sides, Ramirez provided liaison with the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Administration District, which had its own security force, Marin County Sheriff’s Department, the SFPD and the US Coast Guard station at Fort Baker, Sausalito, one thousand feet from the Bridge’s north tower.
The west side walkway was permanently closed to pedestrians and Ramirez made the Bridge just after 5.30 a.m., when the automatic barrier on the east sidewalk opened. He noticed a group of about thirty people had just cleared the gates, and he guessed they had been waiting for them to open. Slowing down, he examined them across the safety barrier. They were all young people, no one much over thirty, and they were chatting to each other in a relaxed manner. That was something Ramirez, like all the cops who worked the Bridge, had learned a long time ago: to read body language. And to do the mental math of despair: where there were many, as now, there was no risk; where there was the individual, the solitary soul wrapped up in his or her own thoughts, you watched them. The Bridge authority watched them too, on CCTV. And counted lamp poles.
Ramirez called in on his radio and asked Vallejo to patch him through to Bridge security.
“What’s the deal with the early birds?” he asked.
“They’ve been waiting for about fifteen minutes for the gates to open,” the Bridge dispatcher explained. “Guess they’re just out for an early morning run.”
“They don’t look like joggers,” said Ramirez. “I’ll wheel round and take another look.”
Ramirez drove the length of the Golden Gate and then back, watching the group from across the carriageway. With the exception of a couple of semi-trailers up ahead, he had the Bridge to himself, so looped a U to come back alongside the group. By this time they were already past the first tower. They were walking together, not running nor stepping out with a particular sense of purpose, and again he noticed that they were all in good spirits, as if enjoying each other’s company as the sun came up over the Bay. But something still jarred. He pulled up, switching on his roof bar to alert other drivers. Some of the walkers spotted him and stopped, waiting for him to come over to the barrier.
“Morning . . .” Ramirez said cheerily and the walkers returned his smile.
“Morning officer,” an attractive woman in her mid-twenties, dark hair gathered up on her head, answered. “Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”
“It is that, ma’am. You all together? A group?”
“Yes . . . yes we are.” She frowned insincere concern. “Are we in breach of a city ordinance?”
“No, you’re fine. Are you some kind of club?”
“We all work together. I’m the CEO . . . we decided yesterday to take this walk together and watch the sun come up. Is that okay?”
“Sure . . . I didn’t mean to disturb you.” Ramirez examined her more closely: as a company CEO, the woman looked too young, too wrong. Wrong clothes, wrong type. “What is it your company does?” he asked, still smiling, still keeping his tone conversational.
“Computer games. We design them. These guys are my best teams.”
“Shoot-em-up games, that kind of thing?” Ramirez asked. The phrase sat clumsily in his mouth; it was something he’d heard his eldest say.
The woman laughed and shook her head. “No, nothing like that. Alternate reality games, mostly . . . We do stuff like this to remind ourselves that there’s a real world out there.”
“Like teambuilding, that kind of thing?” he asked.
“Something like. I didn’t think we needed to ask permission.”
The young woman looked right to Ramirez now. Dot-com-social network-type right. A world he didn’t have much time for and which had sneaked a generation gap in between him and his kids.
“You don’t,” he said. “Well, you enjoy sunup. Have a good day, ma’am.”
“And you, officer.” She smiled at him again.
Climbing back into the Explorer, Ramirez watched the group walk on. They all had a careless glow about them – of youth or of the sunrise or both – and he felt a pang of envy. Yet he counted lamp poles. Counting lamp poles was something you learned to do if you were a cop attached to the Bridge, but these were not the type you needed to count lamp poles for.
Shaking the thought from his head, Ramirez switched off the bar lights and started up the engine. As he drove past, the young woman who probably made in a month what he made in a year waved at him.
What was it? What was wrong?
The thought nagged him to another halt and he watched them in his side mirror. The clump of walkers had become a string that stretched along the sidewalk. They stopped. And lamp pole sixty-nine was at the middle. She was in the middle. She was standing at lamp pole sixty-nine. Sixty-nine.
The pole you counted most.
The Golden Gate Bridge was an icon. People from across the country, from around the world, were drawn to its strange beauty; and most of all they were drawn to the view from pole sixty-nine.
He got out of the Explorer and started back.
“Excuse me, ma’am . . .” he called and waved to the young woman. She waved back as, in unison, she and her colleagues climbed over the safety railing and down onto the three-feet-wide girder that Ramirez knew was just over the barrier, about two feet below walkway level.
Jesus . . . Ramirez broke into a sprint. Jesus Christ . . . there must be thirty of them. As he ran he could see the flashing lights of other vehicles, alerted by the Bridge authority, racing towards them. Too far. Too late.
The Golden Gate Bridge demanded a special kind of cop, because the Golden Gate Bridge was the world’s number one location for suicide. Every year, scores of people came to the bridge to cross over something more than San Francisco Bay. They came from all over the country, some from abroad, to walk out onto the Bridge’s span where death was always just a four-and-a-half-feet climb over the sidewalk safety barrier and a four-second, seventy-five-mile-an-hour drop. At that speed, impact on water felt like impact on concrete. Hardly anyone drowned: ninety per cent plus died of massive internal injuries, their bones and organs smashed. On average, the Bridge had one known jumper every week-and-a-half with more than thirty known deaths a year; and, of course, there were those who managed to jump without being spotted, their dust-covered cars found abandoned in the car parks.
Of the Bridge’s one hundred and twenty-eight lamp poles, it was pole sixty-nine that had felt the last touches of most.
He vaulted over the traffic barrier and onto the walkway. Trained in a whole range of strategies for talking to potential suicides, Ramirez also knew a dozen practiced maneuvers for grabbing and securing an indecisive jumper. But there were too many of them.
“Don’t!” he shouted. “For God’s sake don’t!”
He was near the railing, close to where the young woman stood looking down at the water. He could see them now, all standing on the girder, holding hands.
The young woman turned her head to look at him over her shoulder.
“It’s all right,” she said, smiling again, this time sincerely, kindly. “It’s not your fault, there was nothing you could do. It’s all right . . . we are becoming.”
As if by a wordless command, without hesitation, they all stepped off in unison.
Ramirez made it to the barrier just in time to see them hit the water. Everything seemed unreal, as if what he had just witnessed could not possibly have happened and he must have imagined the young people on the Bridge just seconds before. He heard his own voice as if it belonged to someone else as he radioed it in, calling for the Fort Baker Coastguard rescue boat. The Bridge security vehicle and the SFPD cruiser pulled up beside him, and the urgent, questioning voices of the other officers came to Ramirez like radio messages from a distant planet.
He turned away from the safety railing and looked at the Bridge, at the graceful sweep and arch of its back, at the red of its soaring towers made redder by the rising sun. For the second time that day he saw the Bridge for what it was, what it symbolized, saw all of its beauty.
And he hated it.
Excerpted from Biblical by Christopher Galt. Copyright © 2014 by Christopher Galt.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.