Our rescue from the wreck of the Endeavour had marooned us in a different way: all of us, the whole crew, were stranded several hundred years in our own future.

It had been a shock for everybody. No matter how long-awaited, how much hoped-for and privately anticipated an event our rescue was, somehow nobody - not even me, and I had suggested the idea of a Message in a Bottle in the first place - had really considered the implications of actually being recovered and the technologies which had to be available to anybody who was capable of effecting such a feat.

Our craft had been cobbled together from a vast lump of ice from Earth's Kuiper belt and held together - inadequately, as it turned out - by a network of carbon fibre cables and equipped with fusion reactors which powered both an array of plasma rockets and a set of inertial field generators.

We had sped away from the outer reaches of the Solar System at the highest acceleration our technology could manage in order to escape any possible pursuit, quitting in the aftermath of a war of attrition which had led to the extermination of so many of our fellows.

A vast and unsuspected flaw in the ice shell had prevented us from decelerating at the same rate, preventing us from achieving our original rendezvous with a likely-habitable system and abandoning us at some highly relativistic fraction of the speed of light. It would have taken a lifetime for those on board for our ship to slow to the point we could have targeted another star, a period measured in millennia for those stuck in the frame of reference of Sol and its environs.

It had been a long shot, both in terms of its technical success and whether those back on Earth would care to remember the losers from a war long ago. Still, we had found a way to send a message back to Earth, to report our status. Those who acted on our message which, it has to be said, extreme rapidity, seem to have treated it as an opportunity to, if not remedy the past, at least ameliorate one tiny part of an episode which now seemed like the unruly squabbles of boisterous children.

*

Waldo was waiting for me. At least this was what he suggested I called him. It was not his real name, he assured us; apparently, in this age, people didn't really have names in the sense I understood them. Instead, they had unique identities which were somehow intrinsic to their being and always could be communicated in an entirely unambiguous and, more importantly, non-fake-able fashion. These identities absolutely could not be duplicated; their guaranteed non-repudiation relied on quantum effects and coupled-spin entangled photons rather than antique cryptographic key exchanges. The net result was that one could be sure, I had been told, that a communication in any form could be relied upon to be from the real person.

My problem was that I was not sure that Waldo and his colleagues were actually real people at all. Compared with the crew-cum-refugees from the Endeavour, they could just as well have been aliens from the planet Zog. Some of the others from the old crew felt the same, I was aware, but as far as I knew, nobody else had quite taken the same steps as I had to find out the truth of the matter.

Waldo was, at least, almost entirely human-shaped. He was a fit-looking and muscular young man with a rugged chin and shoulder-length dark locks. He habitually dressed in grey cargo pants and a sleeveless t-shirt which displayed his broad shoulders and bulging pectorals to good effect.

I would have considered him extremely handsome - a view confirmed by several of the female members of the Endeavour’s crew after a certain amount of very down-to-earth discussion - if it were not for his right arm which, from the shoulder down, flowed seamlessly from tanned skin to a silvered collection of skeletal sections. These components were capable of forming any of a bewildering array of shapes and functions, although most of the time his arm terminated in a perfectly ordinarily-shaped hand, even if it was apparently formed from polished mercury.

I had watched astonished - and with a growing sense of macabre horror - on early acquaintance when I had seen Waldo form a telescoping rod and casually reached right the way across a room to pick up some minor item from a desk. He had apparently acted instinctively, without conscious thought. When he caught sight of my face, he apologised profusely before launching into a lengthy explanation.

In this age, everybody had extensive - well, I would have called them embedded systems, surgically inserted in brain and body, although Waldo assured me that this was a far too crude and oversimplified view of the process. Rather, everyone was some amalgam of flesh and machine, although he was at great pains to emphasise that, in his view, there was no real distinction between the two.

Introduction Part 2