This novel won the Urania Award in 2012, and was published (in Italian) by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore.
(Translated from the Italian by Sarah Jane Webb)
Milan, 2061. CEPS, the leading European research institute, holds a public experiment of quantum teleportation. The demonstration fails, and the frozen body of professor Jan De Ruiter, Director of CEPS, is found inside one of the quantum machines.
The case is assigned to European Police Detective Dick Watson. After various predicaments, Watson discovers that strategically important scientific information is being smuggled out of CEPS to a mysterious Chinese mob boss. Evidence suggests that one of CEPS’ scientists is using a quantum computer to personal ends. All Watson knows about his adversary is his online avatar: a faceless monk who signs himself Behemoth. In order to solve the case, Watson is forced to seek the support of John Silver, a doyen among computer hackers worldwide.
On my flight from London to Milan I had time to recap the essentials of my case. Not that I hadn’t followed the affair, of course. The media had been talking about it for months, and there wasn’t a single person on Earth who hadn’t heard of De Ruiter, or of quantum teleportation. Yet no-one could have imagined how it would all end up; and until that moment my own interest in the matter hadn’t been professional. I had but a layman’s knowledge of the facts, and before meeting Stauder I wanted to go over them thoroughly.
I activated my expensive Rolex watch (a present from Jasmine), donned my 3D specs and connected to the net.
First of all I wanted to take another look at online footage on the Stelline building, which had been aired for hours, non-stop, on the interactive news. It was just possible that I’d missed something.
The video was in all the media archives on the 3DWeb. It showed a rectangular hall with a vaulted ceiling, awash with yellowish morning light. Along the side wall, six large windows framed a garden enclosed by a brick wall. The garden was also visible through the arched doorway in the far wall of the room, leading out of doors. Through this, a romantic glimpse of a wrought-iron gate partly covered in ivy contrasted sharply with the bulky technological equipment cluttering the space indoors.
I peered attentively at the small crowd thronging the room. All I could gather was that the air conditioning must have been running at full capacity, judging from the profusion of jackets. Along one wall was a wooden platform, in the center of which a tall, stout man smiled as he addressed the audience. That was Goldbach with the heavy blond plait falling softly on his right shoulder. Once again I tried to study his expression. Nothing indicated that he knew what was about to happen.
Next to him, a man and two women were busy carrying out some final tests. Over their clothes they wore short light-blue coats. I’d been told these were commonly used by CEPS (Centre Européen de Physique Supérieure) technicians. They, too, gave no sign of unease or worry.
I turned my attention to the equipment at the end of the room. The device near the arched door looked like a cupboard of polished metal, whose truncated-conoid hatch bore two noticeable diagonal black bands. Under these bands, inside an evenly-lit niche, a small gray sphere could be perceived. The equipment on the opposite side resembled a huge black insect, ready to grab its prey. The cupboard was a little taller than Goldbach: the insect grazed the vaulted ceiling.
I wound the holographic film fast forward until the point where Goldbach started to illustrate the experiment’s scientific details. He seemed calm and relaxed, his voice soft and low, his English perfect.
“As you all know, we are here to witness an epoch-making event whose outcome could influence the future of mankind as a whole. I’m talking about the first-ever demonstration of quantum teleportation of an object of macroscopic size. The sphere you see in that niche in the machine on my left will be transferred instantly to this other device. And I mean instantly, not at the speed of light…”
I wound the recording forward. Goldbach’s explanation lasted a good twenty minutes, and I had no intention of listening to it again. While the film sped forward, with the scientist moving ultra-fast, the scene in 3D appeared surreal.
I reached the point where the lights were dimming, the insect was emitting a menacing drone, and the small sphere was lifting itself a few centimeters. Instead of teleporting, the machine started to produce strange rhythmic sounds – like someone sneezing.
Goldbach frowned. I’d already noticed his expression during the live broadcasting: it seemed entirely genuine. Having switched off the machines, the technicians set to work. With their quick, precise movements, they transmitted a hasty calm. While they shifted levers and checked readings on measurement tools, Goldbach invited the audience to be patient.
I wound the film fast forward again. I remembered that at least ten minutes had passed from that moment to the opening of the cupboard. Returning to normal speed, I located the point where one of the girls in the light-blue coats pressed the large red button on the front panel of the device. The insect was immobile, as if lying in wait. The conoid hatch lifted itself ten centimeters, then glided soundlessly to one side, revealing two metal bulkheads, one above the other. The girl turned some dials, while Goldbach invited the onlookers to stand back. The hatch on the lower bulkhead opened.
This, of course, was the point that interested me most. A dense vapor escaped from the device, as if it had been filled with boiling water. In fact, as everyone knows, it was ice-cold: one kelvin, i.e. just one degree above absolute zero. Through the vapor, the stiffened figure of a man was distinctly visible. The vision lasted but a few seconds, before the body transformed itself into a frozen bas-relief.
The background murmur suddenly stopped. Among the bystanders, those closer to the machine on the right stepped backward. A man on the side of the insect drew himself up to get a better view. Goldbach was petrified. The technicians looked on, transfixed. Had anyone realized that what lay before them was the corpse of professor Jan De Ruiter? Based on questioning conducted forthwith by the Lombardy Police, apparently not.
I continued to scrutinize the scene with the utmost attention. Goldbach’s eyes were half-closed. He moved closer to the machine and stared at the frozen body, then lifted his gaze to observe a row of LEDs blinking indifferently on the front panel. I had the impression that, for a moment, his gaze had focused on a point of the bodywork, unremarkable except for a metal plate with the serial number of the device.
I rewound and manipulated the holographic film, shifting the angle of vision and zooming in. Naturally my Rolex couldn’t project a real hologram, but my glasses afforded the identical vision as that obtained by a stationary holographic platform, had I used one. The position of my hand was deciphered by sensors in the strap, which registered movements of the tendons in my wrist.
The corpse of professor De Ruiter was crammed inside the cubbyhole of the device, facing forward. Eyes closed, arms hanging inertly down his sides, he was huddled up unnaturally, like a sack hanging from a nail. There was a dark mark on his right temple: but even by tilting the visual angle as much as possible, I couldn’t see any better.
After rewinding several times to look at the faces again and to study the movements of those present, I concluded that I wasn’t getting anywhere. I gave up, and decided to focus on the problem of De Ruiter’s replacement.
CEPS had announced the Stelline experiment on March 12, 2061, during a press conference held by Goldbach himself as head of public relations. The official promulgation stated that the actual experiment would be conducted personally by Jan De Ruiter, director of the Parisian research institute.
From then onwards, the media had done nothing but talk about this event. De Ruiter had become a worldwide star, and quantum teleporting the subject of numberless debates, interviews to scientists, and even comic strips. The better-informed commentators maintained – probably rightly – that this couldn’t possibly be the first-ever teleport experiment. Obviously, they said, CEPS knew what was what, or they wouldn’t have risked failing in public.
I could clearly remember the questions that had bothered me in the days when the frozen professor (as later dubbed by the media) was still very much alive and kicking. Why choose Milan? Why transform a scientific experiment into a worldwide media event? Observers all agreed that the reason was political. At the time, the Cold War on Trade was in full swing – which, for the Western world, meant flexing its technological muscles. Teleport was very promising in theory, but still far from feasible applications. Even the location seemed to have been chosen for political reasons. In the last fifteen years, lingering clouds of the Long Crisis witnessed in the early part of the century had been dispelled by the warm sun of economic recovery. Belgium and Spain had made it back into the Eurozone, and Northern Italian regions also seemed ready. The choice of Milan was generally thought to be associated with the growing importance of Lombardy in the Continent’s economy.
When Goldbach appeared on the platform instead of De Ruiter, everyone was taken by surprise. Only later was the course of events made known. Questioned by the Lombardy Police, Goldbach himself had declared that he hadn’t the least idea what had prevented the professor from being present at the Stelline. De Ruiter had got in touch with him on the evening of June 13 on the 3DWeb, not in person but through his avatar. This wasn’t unusual, according to Goldbach: the professor had spent hours on the 3DWeb, and had been known to communicate in the same way with Institute staff. In any case his avatar was certified, so it was difficult to question his identity. During their conversation, the frozen-professor-to-be had mentioned health problems; it had occurred to Goldbach that, for some reason, he hadn’t wanted to show his face. But this was merely speculation on his part.
The conversation had taken place in Goldbach’s virtual room, within the space reserved for CEPS. The recording of that conversation is still available on various sites.
For those who haven’t seen it, this virtual space resembles the inside of a Renaissance church, with two aisles of different depths leading to rectangular windows revealing a landscape of green hills. The aisles are surmounted by cross vaults, with two-light mullioned windows framing a sky of perfect blue. Between the aisles at the center of this virtual space is a sort of raised sitting-room, mounted on a wooden platform. On this, there are a table and a book-case, with books, vases, and other objects. Two agents, represented as a peacock and an owl, strut beneath the platform on a floor of multi-colored tiles.
The identities of Goldbach and De Ruiter are both certified by the system, as indicated by the Verified label appearing alongside their respective avatars. Throughout their conversation, Goldbach’s avatar manifests a complex mimicry of facial expressions and gestures. Instead, De Ruiter’s remains immobile. The effect is bizarre, and gives the impression that the professor is part of the decor.
It was only later that I learned that De Ruiter had always refused to use mimicry controls when connecting to the 3DWeb: he couldn’t stand them, according to some; he didn’t know how to use them, according to others.
De Ruiter: “Goldbach, I have a problem. A serious one. I won’t be able to do that presentation the day after tomorrow for the teleportation show in Milan.”
Goldbach (after a moment’s pause): “I don’t understand, professor. What sort of problem?”
De Ruiter: “It’s a personal matter. I’m in poor shape, I need you to stand in for me.”
(Another, longer pause.)
Goldbach: “I would be honored, of course. The media have been talking about this for months. What’s the matter, professor? Are you unwell?”
De Ruiter: “I’d rather not talk about it. All I can say is that I’m well aware of the importance of the event, and also of its very positive impact on the media. If at all possible I’d do the presentation as planned. I’m only asking you to replace me because it’s absolutely impossible for me to be there. Goldbach, believe me: there’s no other way.”
I started to think things over. Questions – mainly without answers – were piling up in my mind. What had really happened to the professor? Where had he been from June 13 to the moment his frozen body had shown up inside that device at the Stelline?
I glanced outside the aircraft window. We’d passed the Alps, and stretching ahead of us was the endless, milky, murky plane of the Po valley: the megalopolis was nearby. I had just enough time to study the reports of the PRL (Regional Police of Lombardy).
For reasons of territorial jurisdiction the local police had immediately launched an investigation. The media had broadcast the severe visage of Luciani, Commander of Milan’s PRL, who had pledged that his patrols would identify the culprit without delay. However, as the victim was a senior European executive, official protocol required the intervention of the European Police Department (EPD). The Big Boss in person had summoned me at eleven o’clock and ordered me to reach Stauder in Milan. He’d called while I was still watching, nonplussed, the live holographic news service on Europe Press.
I started to study the holographic reports of the first interrogations, received during my flight.
Goldbach maintained that his plane had landed at five p.m. on June 14; he’d picked up a rented car and had gone straight to his hotel, the Excelsior, in Piazza della Repubblica. At nine in the evening he’d asked for a snack to be brought up to his room, and at eleven he was asleep. His statements were easy to verify, and no doubt PRL’s bloodhounds had already done so. Throughout the interrogation, Goldbach had seemed tense and concerned – but this was only to be expected, after the Stelline affair.
The Police had also interrogated CEPS’ technical staff and the convention center’s employees. All statements were in agreement. The machinery had been delivered and assembled on-site on June 1 and 2. The teleport modules came from Paris; while the cryogenic devices – including the one that had become De Ruiter’s icy burial chamber – had been manufactured and transported to the congress hall by CrioGen of Sesto S. Giovanni, a Milanese suburb a few kilometers from the city center. The cryogenic devices, which had arrived on June 2, were the sealed compartments inside the cupboard’s belly. The engineers claimed that these weren’t highly technical objects, but simple cooling stages capable of reaching the temperature of liquid helium (approx. 1 K, as it happened). Both devices had been activated on the morning of June 13. Witnesses were ready to swear that up to that moment there were no dead bodies in the devices.