By Jack Swan
The meeting room was a small and intimate affair, the lights dimmed, the air recycled. Outside the wide bay windows, the lights of London twinkled unsurely. Somewhere out in the distance, red and blue lights strobed as riot police descended on yet another disturbance somewhere near Parliament. The penthouse-turned-conference room was located on the Isle of Dogs, looking out over the broad meander of the Thames, where ferries swung between the orange lights of the night-time city.
Only one of the guests knew this part of the city well – the Prime Minister. Despite what the press and the opposition said, he wasn't out of touch with the world outside of Downing Street and he was familiar with the streets of this part of the city, five miles from his office. Granted, he was used to coming here for dinners with his rather wealthy fundraisers, but the point was that he was better than the papers would have him believe.
But this wasn't a dinner with a millionaire friend; it was something of a wholly different manner. The other guests to this elite meeting had been ferried, in secret, via London City Airport and up to this room for this mysterious meeting. None of them knew what it was about, only that it was a solution to the Crisis – and that was what everyone needed right now.
The President leaned over to the Prime Minister. "You got any idea what this is about?"
The Prime Minister smirked. "You have the CIA to help you find this stuff out, surely!"
"They've got almost everything they have into putting down the preachers and cultists we've got crawling all over the States..." The President sighed. "I know you Europeans are sceptical of how religious the States are – trust me, I envy every one of you that leads a nation not swarming with Deep South doomsayers shouting 'repent sinners'..."
The Prime Minister nodded sagely; he'd seen the news of the huge crowds marching through New York City led by, as the President had described him, 'some jackass thinking he's Jesus'. Where people weren't rioting, they were turning to the most radical parts of religion. Luckily that wasn't too much of a problem here in the UK. So far.
There was a buzz of activity at the end of the darkened room and, at the end of the long table rounded by world leaders, a short and bearded man stood before them. Next to this young newcomer, who couldn't have been much more than thirty, a tall and sharp-cheeked man in an equally sharp suit stood – well, sharply, was the only word the Prime Minister could bring to mind to describe him. He looked completely in control – even aloof. The young man by his side was shuffling awkwardly in his suit and sweating, rubbing his hands nervously over. The Prime Minister leaned forward, trying to avoid the thought that these two were just some radicals who had decided to gather all the world leaders in one spot to take them out, and sow the seeds of yet more chaos in these dark days.
Unsurprisingly, the calm and collected figure spoke first. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said in a Canadian voice, and around the room the translators for the foreign leaders turned the greeting into their own languages. "Meine Damen und Herren," the aide to the German Chancellor whispered, and then looked at the sharp man expectantly. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Professor Mitchell Crow, from Imperial College, and I stand before you in these dangerous times to offer you all – and through you, the entire world – a solution to the Crisis."
He waited for the translators; by the time he had heard 'Crisis' translated into a dozen different languages and expectant silences follow, he continued. "As you all know the Crisis we are facing is of unparalleled magnitude in the history of humanity. Our sun is entering an interstellar magnetic field that will drastically alter its nature and lead to solar storms that will cause massive damage to our infrastructure and to life on Earth. I'm sure you have all heard of the predictions that as many as four-fifths of us could die simply due to the destruction of our farms and the ensuing massive starvation. Add to that the social chaos that will follow and it is not unrealistic that humanity could number less than a billion a decade from now, by the time we are safe again. And I'm sure that none of you would want to have to carry the burden of declaring martial law and all the horrendous moral decisions needed to survive the Crisis on your shoulders." He paused; the Prime Minister recognised that this Professor Crow was an accomplished public speaker, and was thankful that he wasn't the leader of opposition during Prime Minister's Question Time.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I come to you with a solution. Avoid the bloodshed and death that is beginning to engulf our world by storing our populations safely away from the Crisis."
There was a ripple of confused interest. The Prime Minister saw his Japanese counterpart raise an eyebrow.
"I'm not talking about cryogenic freezing – which is, to put it crudely, freezing people. The technology required for that – let alone the storage space – would be impossible to procure in these times. No, I have an alternative, something I have been working on for many years, and now, thanks to partnership with this young man here, we have a solution. Digitisation." He waved a hand and a whiteboard flared into life, displaying upon it the schematics of a strange device that was not entirely unlike a futuristic dustbin, studded with exhaust ports and screens and crowned on the top with something that resembled a blocky trumpet.
"This is the Trans-Heuristic Analytical Nexus Engine – the THANE. Quite simply, it is a device capable of transferring real-world objects and processes into digital equivalents." There came a scoff of laughter from Australia's sci-fi-inclined Prime Minister; Professor Crow stared her down with a gaze as sharp as razors. "In simple terms, it turns things from the real world into something on a computer. Up to, and including, human beings. It does this quickly, efficiently, and with a proven track record. At this stage, I shall hand over to my colleague, Markus Persson."
The younger man stepped forward, wiped a hand over his sweat-glazed brow, and broke into a nervous and hurried speech in a Swedish accent.
"Good evening. Basically, ah, my name is Markus Persson and I'm a computer programmer for the company of Mojang. I've produced a wide variety of games but the most famous and successful is, ah, Minecraft, which has sales of over – of over six million copies." The Prime Minister was perplexed and slightly irritated that the Australian Prime Minister's eyes were twinkling with delight; she knew what was about to be said. "The game involves the random generation of, ah, a world composed of blocks that can be created and destroyed to create various... creations." Persson cringed as he realised he had overused the word. "It is a very, ah, versatile platform for artistic... creativity, as the fans constantly demonstrate. But its relevance today is that the world can be up to eight times the size of planet Earth... and with the THANE technology demonstrated by Mr – sorry, Professor Crow – we could use Minecraft as a... well, as a refugee site for humanity during the Crisis."
Professor Crow stepped back in before the gathered global leaders refused to believe what they were hearing. "The THANE technology is simple and replicable. Shared between your nations the cost of mass-producing it in sufficient numbers to efficiently save humanity will be easy. In the same way, constructing a server farm to host Mr Persson's game and the processing power needed to store human consciousness will be fractional compared to the cost of, say, a new Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Naturally there would be backups and the whole system would be very safely stored, but it would be doable, achievable, and, considering the magnitude of the Crisis, the only possible option."
He looked at the room of transfixed world leaders and leaned back. "Any questions?"
Australia's Prime Minister leapt at the chance to speak her mind. "I'm sorry," she said, grinning, "But isn't that the whole point of the film Tron?" She gave out a giggle.
"It is, ma'am," said the Swedish man – who clearly found talking about 'geekier' things something more relaxing than standing before world leaders – "but I think that goes to demonstrate that there would at least be public understanding of the concept." His stutter had gone, he seemed to be in his element, and the Prime Minister saw a quietly excited sparkle creep into his eyes. "The public knows the idea. Many of the public, especially the younger people, will be aware of Minecraft, and of course these will be the people on the internet who can spread the news and the understanding the fastest. And after all –"
The President of the United States brusquely interrupted. "Mr Persson," he said, "I'm sure you're as well aware as I am that half of the civil unrest troubles in the United States are magnified, if not straight-out caused, by madmen on the internet. The chances of you successfully convincing people via the internet are miniscule compared to the likelihood that the whole story is going to spin terribly out of control and rally people against you."
The Prime Minister broke his silence and leaned forward. "I think I should say, though, that the President here knows that the internet can harbour a lot of crazy theories. After all, I'm told there are too many websites denouncing him as a communist to say!" He brought a low round of laughter from the other world leaders (except the Chinese President). "But... I must say, it's an intriguing idea." The laughter turned to raised eyebrows. After all, the Prime Minister was Conservative. "This could be the only way for us as a race to survive, and certainly in any form resembling civilisation today." He spoke with open hands and a tone as if he needed to justify himself. "It's radical but I haven't heard anything better from anyone else in my cabinet."
"Ich bin damit einverstanden," the German Chancellor said. Her aide promptly translated: "I agree."
"The President of Russia wonders how long this 'digital exodus' will last," the Russian translator said.
"The Crisis is predicted to last around a decade, so I would – tentatively – suggest that humanity would spend at least ten years digitised," Professor Crow said.
The Russian President spoke, and his aide followed up, matching his tone almost flawlessly. "Ten years? Ten years! That is quite a long time to go. Roads, tractors, buildings; they would be hopelessly decayed after ten years, especially with all this strange magic of the Crisis damaging them. It is insane."
"I disagree," Professor Crow said, instantly drawing a glower of pure hate from the Russian President. "I am sure there are people who will not want to go in, and people who, presented with the opportunity, will volunteer to stay and maintain things. Many millions, in fact."
"How many of them will be thieves? How many will be those wanting to make themselves the new power players after the Crisis? I doubt you would want the Taliban in your game-world, no? Then how will you stop them from raiding my nation's military bases, our nuclear storage facilities? They could position themselves with a nuclear arsenal ready to blackmail us when we emerge!"
More like you'll be the one raiding our nukes, the Prime Minister thought as he looked at the balding and vitriolic President, whose ambitions no one could trust. Still, he thought of all the hopelessly depressing reports of the damage the Crisis would do to the world and he thought he'd rather have a world of an even-more boisterous Russia than a world with six billion starved and rotting corpses on it.
And he thought of the world that would be their refuge. He wondered what it would be like living in a game – assuming the rest of the leaders here in this tiny London penthouse agreed that it was the only way to be safe. It sounded bizarre and surreal but anything was better than the impending Crisis. He supposed that they'd have to find a more romantic name for it, though. 'New Earth', 'Digital Earth'; because the hiding place of humanity simply couldn't do with a name as tacky as 'Minecraft'.