1 The Best and Brightest Scientists
DAY ELEVEN: Thursday, 2 December 2055, London, England
“Eva Aslanova!” he shouts. “Eva, if you can hear me, I badly need a door!”
A roaring column of furnace-hot flame blasts the tree for five, ten, fifteen, twenty seconds – leaves, bark, branches, and trunk all igniting and burning ferociously. Mathew, scrabbling and clinging precariously to the higher branches, feels the heat blast towards him, toasting the soles of his dangling feet. The tree slumps and gives beneath him. He’s falling. Then somehow he’s on his feet. Yet another in a series of near-death experiences survived, he knows, only due to the fact that in this world his body is an avatar. Presumably, Eva doesn’t see the need to program into him the means to die a hundred horrible different ways, mostly by fire. She thinks his project childish. She wouldn’t have put that much effort into it.
Or so he hopes.
He gets up from the scorched and smouldering earth beside the tree and gives himself a moment to glance back.
Two dragons, as tall as London double-decker buses, shift on their feet, flex their claws, and flick their long, serpent-like tails ridged with spikes and plates. The power of a tail-swipe brings another tree crashing to the ground. It gets skewered by a cluster of spines, and the dragon thrashes its tail around until the tree, now uprooted and spraying earth and rocks and birds’ nests, is pulled loose.
They are trashing Eva’s world.
The larger dragon belches, and smoke billows out of her enormous nostrils. The male yawns, displaying a mouth full of splinter-sharp white teeth the size of large bottles and the blue tongue Mathew had been particularly proud of when he’d designed them.
They have grown enormously. They are huge. And now, completely oblivious to the fact that he created them in the first place, they think he is dinner, and they are very hungry.
He is fairly sure that he can’t die in Eva’s world, but just in case, he runs.
He is dodging trees as he goes, stumbling over tree roots. A hot blast of air funnels past him with such force that it blows him sideways. He dares not stop to look, but as he steadies himself, the rough bark of a redwood scraping the skin on the palm of his hand, out of his peripheral vision he catches the image of a red glowing cindered tree crumbling into a pile of charcoal and ash.
Up ahead, on the crest of a small bank, is an unusually large trunk, the width of several men standing shoulder to shoulder. In front of the tree he sees a young woman with very straight, thin, white-blonde hair and paper-white skin. She’s small anyway, but she seems tiny, dwarfed by the giant conifer. Behind her is a door.
“Eva!” he gasps, lurching forward.
He scrambles up the bank, yanking at saplings to pull himself up, his feet slipping on the loose earth and stones. His leg muscles are burning.
“Thank god!” he wheezes, bent over double before her, grasping his knees.
She grabs him, pulls him inside the tree, and shuts the door.