Today, in honor of the 50th post on this website, I’m going to take a break from the barrage of archived blog Goodies to present something remarkable and of great interest to long-time fans of the series. Before there was Son of Heaven, there was The Day the Future Came, the Chung Kuo proto-prequel. This is the first-person story of Jake John Reed and the coming of the Jiang Lei and the Chinese into England. In Mr. Wingrove’s own words:
This was written early in 1992 (yeah, 19 years ago) specifically for a writing workshop, WRITERS BLOC, to which I, Rob Holdstock, Gary Kilworth, Chris Evans, Lisa Tuttle, Dave Garnett and Geoff Ryman attended. I’ll try and dig out comments, but this was a genuine uncorrected first attempt at the subject, and I think it has real archeological value. Not a very good story at all, but interesting for its ideas. I also love seeing just how many wrong choices I make in terms of how to present information. SON OF HEAVEN is so much more elegant, so much better paced and far far more interesting. But here it is. […] The very fact that I didn’t then write a corrected second draft says a lot about my attitude to this material at the time.
Keep in mind that The Day the Future Came is absolutely non-canon, but is certainly an interesting look into the ideas preceding the new Book 1. Here it is, complete and unedited…
THE DAY THE FUTURE CAME
David Wingrove June 1992
I can remember the day the future came. He was short, Chinese, and wore a pale green uniform. He stood there at the crossways between the empty fields, waiting for us to come along the path. In one hand he held a machine. A small thing, no bigger than a book. Inside that machine was stored all that was and is and had ever been.
The old man turned to me, grinning toothlessly. “There,” he said. “What did I tell you?”
Inwardly I shrugged. Maybe, I thought, meeting the official’s insolently superior stare with what, I hoped, was due deference. Like the old man, I had heard the rumours – tales told by the constant stream of refugees heading west through the village – and was taking no chances.
“Name?” the official asked, with just enough of a hint of command in his voice to suggest it was more than an idle request. I looked past him. There was no sign of armed guards. Not yet. But they’d be along. It was only a matter of time. Even I knew that much.
For a moment I considered giving him something false. Then, recalling what the travelers had said, I bowed my head and, mumbling, gave my name.
“Ah,” he said, and pressed some of the buttons on the machine. I saw the screen light up. My face. Even upside down and across the space of fifteen years, I could recognize my own face.
“Good,” he said, looking up. “Cooperate and all will be well. Remember, such as you have nothing to fear. When the unit comes you will register and have the examination. Until then, stay in your home and wait.”
I nodded, but I was already thinking, Register for what? And, What kind of examination is he talking about?
When he was gone the old man nudged me. “See?” he said, giving a deep, throaty cough after the word. “Didn’t even glance at me. What did I say?”
“Yes, yes,” I said, tired of his babbling. “So he didn’t look at you. So what? You’re not a handsome sight, after all.”
He trotted along beside me, tugging at my sleeve every so often, then stopping to cough savagely before he caught up again. At the inn he followed me inside and, without invite, sat beside me at the trestle table.
“Well?” he said. “Do you believe it now?”
“Believe what?” I said, turning to look at him for the first time that morning. “You’ve told me so many things. How am I supposed to believe them all?”
I took the ales the barman had poured and set one down in front of him, then walked across and stood at the window, looking out down the High Street. The official was out there already, stopping anyone who came near and checking on names and faces. I frowned and turned away, a vague unease stirring in my belly.
“You’ll see,” said the old man, wiping the froth from his thin and wrinkled upper lip. He had drunk half his beer already and was looking enviously at my own full pot. “A week… that’s all we’ve got. Then they’ll be here.”
I looked at him sharply and he fell silent, but his eyes watched me restlessly, as if to discover what I was making of it.
“A week?” I said finally, sitting down across from him.
“You’ll hear them before that, so they say. Two, maybe three days beforehand. The whole ground shakes… they say…”
I’d head it before from him, but it sounded different now. “Shakes?”
That’s the big machines they use. Taller than the spire of St. Matthews they are. Huge big things like spiders, so they say.”
They said rather too much for my liking. I looked down at my untouched beer, then, with a sudden, decisive movement, picked it up and drained it. Beer had been better back then, fifteen years ago, but it was still beer. Soon – in a week, if ‘they’ were right – there’d be no more beer. Not like this, anyway.
I looked around me. Things hadn’t changed much since I’d moved out here from London. There was more dust, more decay, but that was how things were. Or had been. Now the future was here. Or would be, in a week.
“Old blackie’s off,” said the old man, putting one boney hand into his pot and retrieving what looked like a small fly. “Must have had a whisper, that’s what I reckon. Heard all them rumours and thought he’d not stop to see if they was true.”
Old blackie was his name for Johnson, a black man who’d been living with the Higgs woman up at Blaythorpe Farm. He’d been there long before many of us had come out from the town. So long, in fact, that it was said he had the broadest accent of any of the locals. He was a good sort, and harmless enough. I was sorry to hear he had gone.
“Rumours,” I said. “That’s all they are. These things get out of hand. Blown out of all proportion.”
The old man laughed. “So you think, boy. Me, I says rumour’s truest when it’s darkest.”
I nodded vaguely, but I was thinking of the Higgs woman. Now that Johnson was gone she might be needing a hand. Maybe more than a hand. I’d go up there later and find out. See how things stood. “The man said to wait,” I said. “Said I had nothing to fear.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on what you want, really.”
I laughed at that. “And what do you want, old man?”
He looked down and was silent a moment.
“To be left alone,” he said at last. “And not to have things change.”
“They’ll not harm you,” I said, getting up. “They’ve got no reason to harm you.”
“Reason?” He laughed cynically. “You think they need a reason?” For a moment his watery blue eyes stared at me, and then he shrugged. “Anyway, you saw how it was. They don’t even see me. I don’t exist for them. I’m the past. What do they want with the past?”
“The past…” I shook my head, thinking of what lay ahead. “If this is your past, you can keep it!” But at the door I turned and looked back at it all, as if to store it in memory. Dirty, squalid, coated with the dust of long years of neglect as it was, it was still what I knew.
“A week?” I asked, looking across at him.
He nodded. “Of course… the guards will be here long before that. So they say.”
“We’ll see,” I said. But I knew he was right. I’d heard it too many times, from too many lips. It was how the future came. First the official in his pale green uniform, then the guards. And last… well, none of them had stayed that long, and those that had never passed through the village.
“I’m off,” I said, making to turn away.
“Hold on… I’ll come along,” he began, but I shook my head. For a moment he stood there, watching me, then he sat again, his old face shrinking in a smile that seemed to say, ‘I know what you’re up to, boy, see if I don’t.’
As if I’d not seen that look, I looked past him at the barman and nodded. I’d regret it later, but at least I’d have peace for a few hours. Then, without further hesitation, I turned and left.
* * *
Blaythorpe Farm was up off the old Lees Road, a little over a mile north west of the village. Even at the slowest of paces I was there in twenty minutes. It was a pleasant, late summer day and I sat on the wall beside the drive for a while, lounging, thinking back to the old, mad days before the collapse. It was some while since I’d last thought of it, but now it came back strongly, vividly.
I had seen it coming weeks before the end. In fact, I was one of the first to see how bad it was really going to be. Markets had been falling for some time and ‘uncertainty’ – that Market euphemism for blind panic – had been the normal state of things for months. I had been working for Philips & Drew, one of the leading brokers, as a Futures Specialist. How apt it was, then – how ironic – that in the sudden sharp decline of a single small group of stocks and shares I’d read the final economic collapse of Western Civilization.
Plastics. The Chinese had begun to sell all of their interests in plastics as if they were valueless. It began at nine one Monday morning. By half eleven I was home, packing my bags. This is it, I’d thought. They’ve blown the whistle at last. Now it was only time. I wanted to get as far from London – from the madness that was sure to follow – as I could. Somewhere safe. Somewhere I could buy a house, a gun, and enough food to ride out the times to come.
I picked a leaf from the bush and chewed on it, smiling. That had been fifteen years ago. And in the years between I had come to see it differently. The time before – that had been the madness; that hectic, unreal scramble to make a living out of juggling figures and anticipating trends. It was as if all my values had been wrong – had been twisted out of kilter quite insanely. This – the past, as the old man liked to call it – was real, for all its shabbiness. The other was a dark dream, a kind of aberration that had seized and shaped us all.
But now the future had come, and the past – so dearly won – was under threat again.
“Are you coming in, John?”
I turned lazily and smiled at her. She was standing by the gate, an apron about her waist, her dark hair with its white strands tied up into a tight bun behind her head.
“If you’re asking.”
I went inside, into the cool shadowy coolness of her kitchen. It was a neat, well-ordered place. A fresh-cut stack of wood stood in one corner, in the space beneath the worktop. Beside it, the old-fashioned aga, bought before the collapse, showed a rust red polished surface to the world. All the cupboards were scrubbed pine, as was the table that rested, huge and solid, in the centre of the room. I took a chair beside it and sat there, watching her as she filled the old kettle from the pitcher by the sink.
“He’s gone then?”
She half turned, hesitant, then turned back and set the pitcher down. “Yes,” she said, but it was off the way she said it. As if there were some element of doubt.
“I heard he’d run.”
She shrugged, then took the kettle across and placed it on the stove. There was a large bottle of calor gas on the floor underneath the stove. It was said that Johnson had a whole lot of them hidden away somewhere, along with much else he’d bought before the collapse. We had tried to follow him sometimes and find out where, but he had always been too quick for us, too cunning. But now that he was gone…
“You need anything?” I asked, studying her.
Jenny Higgs was an attractive woman, and knew it. Though well into her fifties, she had kept her figure. Or so it seemed. Nowadays there was little to make comparison with.
“There’s… things,” she admitted, not quite meeting my eyes. I watched her hands. Saw how she struck the match, then turned up the gas. Good, strong hands she had. I imagined them gripping my arse tightly. Imagined her good, strong knees up there beside me shoulders as I lay between her legs.
Time, I thought. Take your time.
“A week,” I said. “They say we’ve got a week.”
She stood there a moment, perfectly still. Then, as if coming from a trance, she came around and stood there next to me.
“What will they do?”
I looked up at her and put my right hand on her hip. She made no attempt to move it. “You’ve heard the rumours?”
She looked down, smiling sadly, then reached out to touch my hair. “Yes. The rumours. But what’s real, John? It all seems so… so fantastic.”
She was right. The picture of things the old man painted was hard to believe. The machines. The shaking earth. And then, last of all…
I pulled her down into my lap. It was a long tiume since I’d had a woman sitting in my lap and for a moment or two I simply enjoyed the sensation of it. Then, very gently, I drew her face closer and kissed her.
“They say there’s tests,” she said, meeting my eyes. “To see who’s fit and who’s not.”
I recalled what the official had said. But said nothing. “Rumours,” I said. “Anyway, there’s nothing to fear.”
She put her arm about my neck and leaned closer. Smiling, I let my hand lay on her breast, feeling how firm it yet was beneath her jumper.
“Here?” I said. “Or upstairs?”
* * *
The barman was waiting for me in my living room when I got back.
“Where is he?” I asked.
The barman raised his eyes to the ceiling.
“Thanks,” I said, and went to the old mahogany desk in the corner. “What do I owe you?”
“Ten shillings’ll see to it,” he said tightly.
I turned, staring at him, then turned back and took the coins from the drawer. “Here,” I said, handing them to him.
He stood there a while, looking down at the worthless coins, then looked back up at me. “Is it true? You know… what he says. Is all of that true?”
“What’s he been saying now?”
I saw the faint colour come to his cheeks. “You know. What they do…”
I sighed. I could just imagine what he’d been saying. “I don’t know,” I said. “And nor does he. It’s all rumour. That’s all.”
I could see the hesitation in him. He wanted to ask more. Wanted reassurance that it would all turn out for the best. But I didn’t know. I simply didn’t know.
“Look, I’ve got to go up. See how he is.”
Again, he hesitated. Then, with a terse, almost savage nod, he swept past me and out. I turned, staring at the door, feeling sorry for him. For him it was not the future but the past that was now catching up with him. If the rumours were true, that was.
I was okay. I had always toed the line. Even at the end I had done things properly – giving them a month’s notice and taking sick leave. There were no blemishes on my past record; not even a parking fine unpaid. For him, I knew, it was otherwise. He had been political. Had even done time before the end. In one of the camps.
Shrugging, I turned back and went upstairs. The old man was asleep and snoring, sprawled across my bed. I stood there, looking down at him, wondering what he made of it – what he really made of it all – behind the constant stream of words, the endless re-telling of rumour.
Was he afraid?
I bent down and, careful not to wake him, took his arm from his coat, then rolled him over and pulled the coat from him. From the cupboard I got a blanket and threw it over him. Then, yawning, I sat in the old armchair in the corner and closed my eyes, thinking on what Jenny had told me.
It was after I’d had her the second time. I’d wanted to go down into the cellar and get some of the wine I knew Johnson kept there. Unexpectedly, she’d stopped me.
“No, John, I…”
I’d looked at her and understood at once. “He’s not run then. He’s hiding. That’s it, isn’t it?”
She sat there, looking away from me, her whole face suddenly bitter. “Why’d it have to happen now? Why now, just as things seemed settled, once and for all?”
I reached across and pulled her to me, feeling her warm nakedness against my own. As before, there was no reluctance in her. It was not me she was angry with, it was them.
“It always happens that way,” I said, stroking her hair. “Just when you think it’s all fine. But it’s how things are. A basic design fault in reality.”
She shivered and looked up at me. Her deep green eyes were moist.”They’ll find him, won’t they?”
I thought about it a moment. “Here, yes. But maybe there’s a way. They can’t check everywhere, after all.”
It seemed to give her hope. She dropped her eyes and then rested against me, the rise and fall of her breasts growing calmer.
“What about you?”
She moved slightly against me. I put my arm about her, feeling the smooth warmth of her back, enjoying the simple pressure of her against me.
“Me?” she answered, after a moment.
“Yes. What will you do?”
She took a deep breath. “I… I wondered…?”
“Yes?” But I was ahead of her. I had already guessed. Johnson had always been the realist among us. He had suffered most before ‘the end’ and knew how things really were. He’d have told her what to do. Would have told her to find a man – a white man of the right age – and take him for her protector. Someone solid and reliable. Someone who with her, would have nothing to worry about when the future finally came.
She mumbled the words, embarrassed by the need for them. “I wondered if you’d have me?”
After what had happened between us, I laughed. But I held her tight to me and answered her.
“I’ll have you, Jenny. If that’s how it’s to be.”
And that was it. No talk of love. Nothing of the years we’d fancied each other and done nothing for fear of hurting Johnson. This was necessity.
We lay down again after that and made love a third time. That was good. The best, perhaps, I’ve ever known. And when I’d left her, I walked along, thinking Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe the future will be alright. But I kept on thinking of Johnson. TGry as I might, I couldn’t shift him from mind. Because there was no room in the future for Johnson. No place for him at all.
* * *
“Wake up, boy! They’re here!”
The old man was leaning over me, his hoarse whisper loud in my ear. “Who? What are you talking about?”
And then I heard. It was a sound I hadn’t heard in almost fourteen years. A vehicle. A power-driven vehicle. I went to the window and looked out.
It was a half-track, parked out in front of the inn. It had stopped, but its engine was still running. Two men had climbed down from inside and were talking between them in a high-pitched sing-song.
“Guards,” said the old man, pushing up close beside me to get a better view of things. “There! What did I say?”
His breath was foul from the beer he’d drunk the day before. I pushed him aside and turned away from the window, wondering what to do. I thought I’d have more time. Now it would be difficult. Johnson would have to stay where he was and take his chance. I picked up my jacket and looked across at the old man.
“Stay here,” I said. “I’m going down to see what’s happening.”
“I’ll come along…” he began, taking a step towards me.
I shook my head firmly. “For once you do what I tell you, okay?”
He looked at me through half-lidded eyes, then huffed impatiently and went back to the window. “It’s just as I said.” He laughed briefly, savagely, then grew still. “God yes, boy, you’ll see soon enough if it isn’t.”
* * *
The official stopped me at the door to the inn. Two guards, each a head taller than him, stood at his back, their guns raised but not aimed.
“What do you want, Mister Reed?”
He was polite. He even smiled. But his voice was cold, uncompromising.
“I want to go inside,” I said. “I’d like a drink.”
The official shook his head. “I’m afraid that the inn is closed, Mister Reed. We have had to…” he sought the correct word, “…to terminate its function.”
He spoke English with a beautiful fluency. It was what, back in the old days, they had called BBC English. Unaccented. Colourless. Sounds learned from a tape.
I tried to look round him and see inside, but the guards blocked my view. “My friend…” I began.
“Your friend?” The smile was cold. “I am sorry, Mister Reed, but I think you will find you have no friend inside the inn.”
I opened my mouth to say something, then closed it.
“I see you understand. Good.” He gave the slightest bow, then turned to one of the guards and gave him brief instructions in Mandarin.
What did you tell him? I wanted to say. But I was silent. Somehow I knew what was going on. It was not just the rumours, not just the things I’d heard, but something in the atmosphere that surrounded the official. It was as if he stood in an invisible doorway, and from the space behind him blew a strong, chill wind. What’s it like? I wanted to ask. What kind of place is it that you come from?
He looked back at me and smiled again. “Go home now, Mister Reed. The unit will be here tonight. Until then, stay in your rooms. We’ll come for you when it’s time.”
It sounded ominous, but I nodded and turned away, retracing my steps back up the High Street. Looking up, I saw the curtains to my room twitch back. He’d have seen it all. Heard it all. ‘What did I say?’ he’d say as soon as he came down. ‘What did I tell you?’
I went straight through. In through the front door and out through the back. For a moment I stood there in the tiny cobbled yard, looking about me. Weeds grew everywhere, sprouting between the bricks on the old and crumbling walls, pushing up between the cobbles. There were no weeds in the future, so they said. Nothing that wasn’t neat and orderly.
I lifted the latch quietly and slipped out. The alleyway was empty. I turned left and went quickly along it to the end. There the fields began. I turned left again. Moving along the blind wall of the end house in the row, then peered round the corner.
The sleek half-track obscured me from their view. Quickly, my heart racing, I crossed the road and slipped into the shelter of the facing houses. For a moment I stood there, looking out across the fields. Would they come from there? I wondered. Or would they come from the east, their huge machines silhouetted against the rising sun?
I shuddered and ran on, following the path that edged the fields until I came to the wood. It was damp and overgrown but there was still a way through. I could pick up the old Lees Road on its far side.
I hadn’t thought it out yet. Even now I didn’t really want to think about it. But the future was pressing close. Every second brought it nearer.
* * *
Jenny stood behind me on the dark steps. In front of me the door to the cellar was locked, bolted from the inside.
“Go on,” said Jenny, touching my arm. “Call him.”
“Johnson! It’s me! John Reed! I want to talk to you!”
There was silence. He would have heard us coming down. Would suspect some kind of trap.
I turned to her and whispered. “Is he armed?”
She hesitated. “I don’t know.” But she was a bad liar. I could tell from her voice that he had a weapon.
“Speak to him,” I said… “Tell him it’s okay.”
I could sense how hard it was for her. Parting from him must have been hab enough, but to have to go through it all again… She put her arm against my back, then called out to him. “Andrew! It’s me… Jenny! I’ve brought Mister Reed. He says you’re in danger here. Says you’ve got to hide somewhere else!”
There was laughter from within. A rich laughter, muted by the thick walls of the cellar. “Tell him not to bother!” he shouted back. “If they really want me, they’ll find me! If not, this place is safe enough!”
I wanted to argue with him, but Jenny gripped my arm fiercely. “There!” she whispered harshly. “Leave him be! He’s made his choice!”
Her anger made me think. Maybe I’d read things wrong. Maybe it hadn’t been so good between them. Or maybe her love for him, her fear for him, made her hard-hearted now. Whatever, I let her lead me back upstairs. “What now?” I asked.
“They’ve been here,” she said. “Earlier. Said I was to go in for their tests. They said they’d send someone.”
I nodded. I could see how frightened she was.
“You’ll be alright,” I said. “You’re fit and healthy. And there’s nothing in your past to be frightened of.”
“And I’m white,” she said, and shivered violently.
“Yes,” I said. But I left it at that.
There were faces missing in the queue. Johnson. The barman. Two of the Tressell boys. In all there were three dozen of us. The whole of our village and the surrounding farms.
“Is everyone here?”
The official stood to one side of the queue, looking on. He had clipped the machine to his tunic pocket. I stared at it a moment, wondering how much it told him about us, then looked away. Everyone you asked for, I answered him in my thoughts. All those you wanted, anyway.
At the head of the queu was a silver caravan with black glass windows. A small set of steps led up into the interior. The people in the queue looked at it apprehensively. Tests. The word held a hidden menace. What were they testing for? And what if you failed?
“Johnson,” the official said. “Is Andrew Johnson here?”
I felt Jenny tense. Her hand clasped mine tightly. He knew. All along, perhaps, he’d known. From the deeds to the farm, maybe, or because someone – the barman? – had told him.
“He’s dead,” said the old man. “Been dead five years now.”
The official walked across to where the old man stood and slapped his face hard. “Shut up,” he said.
I looked down. “He’s gone,” I said. “He ran off three days back.”
The official looked across at me and smiled. “Run, you say. Why should he run?”
I met his eyes a moment, then looked away. “I don’t know…”
A figure appeared in the doorway to the caravan. A doctor. He was Chinese, like all of them. It was their world now.
The official turned and looked across at him. “Ready?”
The doctor nodded and went back inside. The official smiled to himself and walked back up the line until he stood beside the guard. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”
* * *
We filed in, one at a time, five minutes between each person. When it came to the old man they turned him away. “Go home, old man,” said the official, baring his teeth.
When it was my turn, I went inside and sat there while they took samples of my blood, then stripped off and let the doctor examine me thoroughly. At the end of it he gripped my arm and took what looked like a large stapler from a hook on the wall. There was the feeling of sudden pressure about my wrist, then a sharp snapping sound. I looked down. There was a simple band of white about my wrist. It felt like plastic. Turning my wrist I looked for the join, but there was none. It was seamless.
“Okay,” said the doctor, his accent awkward, unpolished. “You done. You go now.”
Outside I went across and stood there with the others. Most of them had bands like mine. One had a band of green. For three of them there was nothing. For a while they stood there with us, then, later, they went off alone. It was the last we saw of them.
I waited, anxiously, for Jenny. She had gone in after me. When she came out I went across to her and took her wrist. She had a band. White, like mine. I smiled and held her a moment. Then, putting my arm about her shoulders, I turned and led her away. The old man feel in alongside us.
“You’re safe, I see,” he said.
I glanced at him. “It’s what the man said.”
He was quiet a moment, then. “So what about me?”
“What about you?”
Jenny was silent, but I could feel how tense she had suddenly become. She looked away from him, embarrassed by his question.
The old man stopped. “You still don’t see it, do you?”
We had stopped with him. “I see it,” I said. “It’s like you said. There’s no room in the future for you.”
He stared at me as if he didn’t recognize me. “You’ll get old,” he said. “Everyone gets old.”
I looked away. He was right, but it made no difference. He was old now. And the future wasn’t for the old. Nor the blacks. Nor radicals. I held Jenny tighter and turned away from him. Go home, old man, I heard the official say again. Go home.
Back in my room I locked the door and sat there on the bed, trying to think. Jenny sat in the armchair, staring at nothing. It was a bad moment. Perhaps the worst, even with all that followed. The past was dead and the future was yet to be born. It was an awful feeling – a kind of spiritual weightlessness. Limbo, if it exists, must feel like that. Eventually I got up and went across to her, then lay her on the bed and fucked her. But it didn’t help. It was as bad as before. Worse, maybe, because I felt guilty about it. Guilty because she was Johnson’s woman. Guilty because I had no more room in my life for the old man. Guilty because I felt so impotent before what was happening and because it ought to have been different.
“Why don’t we fight them,?” I said, but she looked away. Even I knew how pointless, how stupid a question it was. It wasn’t ‘them’, it was the future, and you couldn’t fight the future.
* * *
Somewhere in the early hours there was a rapping on the door, not loud, but loud enough to wake me. I sat up and looked around. A full moon shone through the threadbare curtains on the far side of the room. By its light I could see Jenny on the bed beside me. She lay on her front, one leg above the covers, her naked back exposed. I nudged her awake, then went across to the old oak sideboard and lit a candle. I turned, holding it up, pausing a moment to watch her dress, then went across and unlocked the door.
It was the old man.
“What do you want?” I asked, barring his way.
“I’ve got some drink,” he said. “Whisky, from MacCready’s cellars.”
I stepped back, letting him pass, astonished by the sight of the tall, golden whisky bottles tucked into his coat pockets.
The old man cackled. “Devious bastard, MacCready. He had a whole crate of it down there. Twenty bottles of the finest Laphroaig. Only three full ones left, mind. Must have drunk the rest himself. And never a word, eh? Never a drop for the likes of us. No, just that putrid beer he brewed.”
I wanted to shut him up. Wanted to remind him that, in all likelihood, MacCready was already dead. But the old man was drunk. It was best to let him talk. Best to let him get it all out of his system. Besides, it was probably the last time.
I watched him stagger across the room and plump himself down in the old horsehair chair in the corner, the half-full whisky bottle clutched to his chest. The chair was like himself, ragged and bearded, well past its best, but I was fond of it all the same. It would be a wrench to leave it behind.
“Why are you here?” I asked. “I thought we’d settled things.”
“Settled?” He laughed, as if what I’d said was absurd. “You think things are ever settled? Solved, maybe. But settled…” He shook his head, then took a long slug from the bottle.
I watched, enviously, trying to recall the taste of whisky. How long had it been since I’d tasted whisky? Ten years? Twenty?
“Twenty years,” the old man said, as if reading my thoughts. “D’you remember, boy? Seattle, it was. The Conference for Hyperstatial Styudies. I was lecturing there, remember?”
I saw how Jenny looked at me. How her face creased up, trying to make out whether it was true or just the ramblings of a drunk old man.
“The whisky,” I said, impatient suddenly.
He stared at the bottle a moment, then thrust it out at me, his bony fingers clutching the bottle’s neck./
I took it and wiped the narrow mouth, sniffing at it before I drank, savouring the honeyed smell, the dry, burning taste of it.
“All gone,” he said sadly. “All of it lost. There were marvels in the world back then. Real marvels.”
I stared back at him, the whisky filling me with warmth. “The world was sick,” I said. “What were we, after all? Nothing. Schoolboys, playing with our toys. We deserved it. We deserved to get fucked.”
The look of pain in his face was unexpected. “No, boy. It wasn’t like that. It was…” he looked down, his hands trembling as he tugged one of the bottles from his pocket and unscrewed the lid. “It was a good world we’d built.”
“Lies,” I said. “Every night they fed us lies. While billions were dying, of starvation or in wars. And you talk of marvels.”
“No,” he said softly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, his watery eyes meeting mine again. “It wasn’t like that. We were so close. So close to solving it all.”
Solutions, I thought, and took another swig of the whisky before handing it to Jenny.
“It was a good job it ended when it did,” I said. “You were close, all right. Close to destroying it all. You wanted to be gods, didn’t you? You wanted to usurp Him.”
I laughed, coldly, witheringly, allowing him nothing.
“Spaceflight. Nanotechnology. VR. Genetic engineering. Tampering, that’s what it was. Tampering, on every side. It was the sin of babel. You over-reached, old man, and you were punished for it.”
He set the bottle down, then came across, standing there unsteadily, looking up into my face, angry now.
“Babel, is it? Well, that’s rich, coming from you! When were you ever moved to enter a church? Besides, I don’t recall you objecting to your toys back when you had ‘em. No, and you weren’t too forward about the starving billions back then, either!”
“You didn’t know me.”
“Know you?” He laughed. “Who do you think created you, boy? Who do you think gave you your ideas, your ethic – right down to that cynical, self-contained pose you present to the world? Who d’you think tried it out first? Who d’you think road-tested it for you?”
“You were never there,” I said. “You were always somewhere else. At some conference or other.”
There was a sudden noise. A loud, mechanical coughing sound. I turned, surprised, then understood. It was the sound of the half-track starting up.
I doused the candle, then went to the window, drawing the curtain back the tiniest bit and looking down into the High Street. There was activity outside the inn. The soldiers were hurriedly pulling on their gear, buttoning tunics and strapping on helmets before climbing up into the half-track. Behind them, in the doorway to the inn, the official was talking to a taller man, taking instructions, it seemed, for the top half of his body was bent forward stiffly in a bow. The tall man had his back to me; even so, I knew I’d not met him before.
“What’s happening?” the old man hissed.
“I don’t know,” I said, yet even as I said it I had an inkling. I drew the curtain back and turned, facing them. Jenny had sat down on the edge of the bed. She was looking down at the floor as if she understood. The old man was simply staring at me, a certain dog-like obedience in his face that was odd after the words we’d exchanged.
“Wait here,” I said. “I’m going to find out just what’s going on.”
* * *
I heard their voices long before I saw the outline of the half-track in the darkened yard. They were searching the outhouses, the light from their flashlights flickering in the darkness as they moved from one to the next with an efficiency that seemed part of their nature.
Like machines, I thought. Or like some alien species come down from the stars to wipe us all out.
Crouched there by the gate in the stone wall, I thought back over all the things I’d heard about them. They said that the Chinese were crueld, that they valued individual human life far less than us in the West, but just how true was that? No. The old man had been right. I hadn’t given a toss back then. So what if billions were starving? That was Africa, or Asia, or South America. It wasn’t happening here. Besides, they weren’t English, were they, so why should I worry my head over them?
Another world, I thought. Thank god it’s gone. But was that what I really felt? Deep down, wasn’t I every bit as scared as the old man? Wasn’t there a part of me that hankered to have it all back again, warts and all? Because, however bad it had been, it was better than the future. Whatever the future was.
I eased the gate back slowly, soundlessly, then made my way up the path, keeping low to the ground. The half-track had got here some time ago,, so it was possible that they’d searched the house already. Possible, but not likely, because if they had they’d have found the bolted cellar door and broken it down. Unless Johnson had already gone.
I knelt there a moment, in the darkness beneath the eaves of the porch, wondering what in god’s name I was doing. There was nothing I could do to help Johnson now, so why was I there? If the Chinese found me, I’d be in serious trouble. It was not inconceivable that they’d simply shoot me out of hand.
Maybe. But I had to know if the rumours were true. If what they’d said had happened in Africa had really happened.
There was a shout, much closer than before, coming towards me. A flashlight played over the trellis just overhead and to my right, then settled on the coloured glass panel of the door.
I edged back, feeling my way blindly, trying not to make a sound. If I’d had any sense I’d just go. Get back to my room and lock myself in. There was whisky there and Jenny. Here there was nothing.
I waited, my heart pounding, my throat constricted with the fear of discovery. Where the torchlight touched the glass, it illuminated a picture of a whitewashed farmhouse, its red-roofed perfection embedded in the rounded greenery of hills. I looked away. The moon lay low over the fields. In less than half an hour it would be light.
For a moment there was silence, that perfect, almost liquid silence that comes only before the dawn, and then there was a loud crash, the sound of booted feet thudding across hard ground.
Almost immediately a shout went up; an excited babble of voices. The flashlight twitched away. From the far side of the yard came the sounds of pursuit.
I stood, watching the torchlight recede, then walked out into the yard. In the space between the cowshed and the barn I could see out into the field. It was dark out there, a darkness that stretched out to the horizon, where, above the distant shape of the hills, the sky seemed pale. There was the flicker of torches in that darkness, the breathless shouts of men. And then a shot.
I felt my chest constrict. Again there was silence, but this time it was different. This time it seemed brittle, inimical. A silence that was swiftly shattered.
“Stop where you are!”
I began to walk, my legs drawing me slowly on, past the half-track and into the gap between the cowshed and the barn, until I stood there at the edge of the field, looking across.
They had surrounded him. They had formed a circle on the far side of the field, the ligt from their torches like the seven spokes of a wheel, focusing upon Johnson, who knelt there dismissively, his head lowered, his hands resting on his knees.
Where’s your gun? I thought, cursing him silently for giving in so easily. Why didn’t you fight them? Why didn’t you wait there in the cellar, like you said you would, and blast them as they came through? Why go down so meekly before them, like a slave?
Because he’d heard, maybe. And because he was a good man, unaccustomed to take a life for no reason.
I shivered. So the old man had been right. The rumours were true. They really were tracking down and killing all the blacks. It didn’t matter whether Johnson was a good man or not. He was black. And to be black was not permitted in the future.
There was a bark of command. At once, three of the beams of light died. In the silence that followed there was the clicking of rifles being prepared.
Johnson raised his head, turning it slowly from side to side, as if he could see beyond the dazzling light into the darkness where the men stood.
“Nomzamo,” he said clearly, his neck straight, his head raised proudly. One arm came up, the first clenched. “Nomzamo!”
The volley of shots rang out abruptly, followed, a moment later, by a second. Then there was stillness, silence.
Slowly I backed away.
Nomzamo… Where had I heard that word before? What did it mean?
I stumbled and caught myself, my hands pressing against something cold and hard and metallic. The half-track. Turning, I began to run, out of the yard and back down the road toward the village. The moon was low now, resting, it seemed, on the distant crest of the hills. And as I ran I began to understand why he had not fought back; why he had let them find him and kill him.
He had done it for Jenny.
* * *
In daylight the farm looked different. Calmer, less threatening than it had seemed in that hour before the dawn. While Jinny was inside, getting her things together, I stood there on the porch and looked about me, trying to come to terms with what had happened.
After a while I went out to the fields and stood there, where the body had fallen. The grass there was flattened, the earth beneath it dark with Johnson’s blood, but I was determined to say nothing of that to her. As far as she knew, he had escaped.
At least, that’s what I’d said to her when I’d got back. And the shots? Rabbits, I’d said. The guards had been out after game. Something to add a bit of flavor to their rations. She seemed to have believed it, or at least, something in her had wanted to believe it, and that was almost the same. But now I felt cold and drained. Worn out by all the lies.
I was still standing there, the memory of that bright circle of lights vividly in mind, when she came out and called across to me.
I went and took the tiny bundle from her, then took her hand.
“Come on,” I said. “There’s not much time.”
The bundle weighed little, but then the list they had given each of us that morning had little on it. A cooking pan, a blanket, a cup, eating utensils and a small towel. There were to be no books, no photographs, no clothes, other than what we wore. All else would be provided within the City, the official had said, a cold smile lighting his features. We were never to want again.
“Look,” she said, stopping in the lane and releasing my hand to point across the nearby field. “There, look. Rabbits…”
“We’ll be late,” I said, not looking. “And if we’re late…”
I saw the expression in her eyes – of regret, of surprise too, perhaps, that I didn’t want to look – but she did not argue. With one final, wistful look, she took my hand again, then hurried on. It would not do to be late. Not now, when the future was so close.
* * *
The Envoy was a tall, distinctly elegant man, his long hair gracefully tied at the nape of his neck, his nails immaculately manicured. He sat behind the trestle table in the tent, as if holding audience, the official silent at his shoulder. I recognized him at once. This was the man who had been standing outside the inn in the early hours. The man to whom the official had bowed so deferentially. Now, seeing him face to face, I understood. This was the other China, the one we Westerners rarely saw. Cultured and dignified beyond mere human years, this other China summed me up at a glance, its face a mask, its dark eyes expressionless. Beside this, the other China – the China of the official – was a crude, barbarian thing.
On the desk in front of the Envoy was a file. Even from where I stood, four paces from the table, sandwiched between two guards, I could see the photographs, the name in block capitals that headed up the page. It was my name. My file.
“Mister Reed,” he began, and his voice, like his whole manner, had a refinement that was almost lulling after the harshness of the official’s. The soft Han lilt was still there beneath it all, yet the words were pronounced with a clipped precision that spoke of an Oxbridge education. “Forgive me for summoning you again, but I was looking through the files this morning and yours interested me greatly. I wondered if you would allow me to ask you a question?”
And if I didn’t?
For the briefest moment I almost laughed, then I remembered that his politeness was merely part of the educational patina he had received. If he wished, this man could have demanded answers of me; could have drawn them out of me with hot irons and taut wires. But that wasn;t his way. He did not need to threaten. He had only to ask.
“Of course,” I said, bowing my head, aware that I was mimicking how I had seen others respond to him, and realizing that, from here on, I would be doing a lot of bowing.
“Good,” he said, leaning forward slightly, as if relaxing. “My name is Jiang Lei, Envoy to the Han protectorate of Yin Kuo, formerly known as the United Kingdom. I am here to meet one of your countrymen, a man you might possibly have heard of. Augustus Shepherd.”
Shepherd… For a moment the name escaped me, and then I understood. I met the Envoy’s eyes, surprised. “He lives here?”
“Not far from here. But tell me, Mister Reed, how did you know? It says here that you left your job in the City two weeks before the collapse. That you sold up and got out the very morning that we began selling plastics on the world markets.”
I swallowed. So they knew that too. But of course. What didn’t they know?
“I knew,” I said. “I’d heard rumours long before, of course, about Shepherd and the new super-plastic he’d been developing. A lot of us knew about it. But not many of us understood what it meant. They didn’t understand what changes it would bring about. A lot of analysts thought that the new substance would simply be an alternative to traditional building materials – a competitor, certainly, but not a major one. They didn’t understand how radical a change it would mean. Overnight everything else was obsolete. Brick, cement, steel, glass. Machines and tools. Whole industries, in fact. Who’s want all of that anymore? Not when you could build things at a tenth, a fiftieth of the price. That wasn’t competition, it was economic genocide. But they didn’t know that. Not at once. It took days, weeks even, for it to sink in. And by then it was too late. By then it had happened. The West had fallen.”
“Yes.” He said it softly, dispassionately. And you think Shepherd knew that that would happen?”
I nodded. “If I could see it, then I’m sure he could. He’s a clever man, I’m told. I hear his son designed your City.”
Even as I said, it, I realised that I had, perhaps, overstepped the mark. But Jiang Lei did not react. He merely looked down, closing the file.
“Good,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to know. Thank you, Mister Reed. I hope…”
I couldn’t help myself. Knowing he was about o dismiss me, I moved forward a pace, interrupting him.
“Forgive me, Envoy Jiang, but there is a matter I wish to raise…”
Behind him, I saw the official bristle with anger. The small man started forward, his hand raised, as if about to strike me for my impertinence, but the Envoy calmly waved him back.
“What is it, Mister Reed?”
“The old man,” I said. “I wondered if there might be room for him. You know…” I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry, “…inside.”
He stared back at me, then turned and uttered a few phrases of Mandarin to the official. At once the official answered, his voice hard, a definite edge beneath the surface politeness.
The Envoy turned back. “I am afraid that the person you are talking of does not qualify to be relocated. His age, his past record… these things count against him. Nor can we make exceptions. You must understand, Mister Reed. We are not brutal by nature, but necessity forces our hand. Mankind must take a new direction or go under. We are here to make sure he survives.”
I understood, all right. For the first time I understood it all, far more clearly than I had on that morning when it had all begun – when I’d seen the blip on the trading screen and ran for cover. It had taken fifteen years for the truth of it to find me, but now it was here. The Future. For good or ill.
“I understand,” I said, bowing low. “Forgive me for raising it, Envoy Jiang.”
I turned, making to leave, to let the two guards escort me out of the tent and away, before I said something else I might regret, but he called me back.
“As you’re so interested, Mister Reed, why don’t you come with me? Usually you wouldn’t get to see it, but this time I’ll make an exception. Besides, it would interest me to hear what you think.”
I turned to stare at him. See? See what? More deaths? More firing squads? But his face was still impassive, unreadable, and as he stood, the rustle of his silks said much more than his expression.
“Come then,” he said, beckoning top me. “It won’t take long.”
* * *
We flew to a spot ten miles to the east of the village. There, on the ridge overlooking the ancient Heath, I watched the City come.
“Well?” he asked. “Is it how you imagined it, all those years ago?”
“No,” I said, subdued by the sight of that vast whiteness, filling the land to north and east and south. At first I had mistaken the scale of it: had looked and failed to comprehend what I was seeing. My eyes had insisted on seeing the long-legged, spider-like machines as being somehow much smaller than they were. But now I understood. They were colossal. Mile-high titans. The biggest things I had ever seen.
Slowly, piece by piece, the countryside was being swallowed up: towns and villages vanishing beneath that perfect whiteness. Erased for all time, as if by a giant hand.
“Why did you build over it?” I asked, watching in astonishment as another vast section of the City was spun from the airy nothingness between the machines.
The Envoy smiled, more relaxed now that he was on his own with me. “That was Shepherd’s idea. We wanted to destroy it all, but he had already worked out what that would cost. It was a phenomenal sum. No, it was cheaper and much quicker simply to build over it. And just as effective. It’s dead, that world. As if it never was.”
His tone seemed strangely regretful. Yet when I turned to look, nothing had changed about him. He was as before, impervious to emotion. The future was. There was no point looking back.
“That’s where you’ll live,” he said. “That’s where we’ll all live, from now on. Until we die.”
There, I thought. In there. But it didn’t really register. Not then.
* * *
The rain was falling, misting the darkening fields. Halfway up the ramp of the security cruiser, I turned, looking back at him. The old man was standing at the edge of the wood, beneath the ancient elms, looking across to where we were loading.
Despite the rain, the distance, I could see his face clearly. There was fear in those features. But for whom? For me, or for himself? What would he do? I wondered. Would he keep oin moving West, as so many of the travelers were? As, indeed, the Celts had done two thousand years before. Or would he stand here and await the darkness?
For a moment I simply stood there, watching him. Then, as I made to turn away, he called to me.
“Jo-oh-hn… John, boy!”
There was such pain, such loss in his voice, that for a moment I found myself torn, my resolve gone. I had meant to end it cleanly. To forget the past and embrace the future without doubts. But now…
The guard prodded me with his rifle. “Move on,” he said tonelessly. “There is no time.”
I moved on, into the craft, the old man’s parting shot cut off abruptly by the hiss and clunk of the doors closing.
We were packed in tight inside the craft, the guards in the front, separated from us by an iron grill. Jenny sat across from me, our knees touching across the narrow space. For a moment I was silent, brooding, listening to the engines judder into life. Then, as the craft lifted, I leaned towards her. “Nomzamo,” I said quietly, staring into her eyes. “What does it mean?”
She stared back at me, a startled bewilderment in her eyes, then shook her had. “No,” she said breathlessly. “You couldn’t have known.”
“What does it mean?” I said, a strange tightness in my stomach. We were in limbo now, halfway between the Future and the Past. “What did it mean?”
She looked down, her face distraught. Her voice was a whisper now. “It was a slogan,” she said. “In South Africa, where Johnson came from. A relic of the old race wars. Nomzamo…” she shivered. “Resistance. Peace. Freedom, I guess. He explained it to me once, but I never really understood it.”
She looked up, meeting my eyes directly, perhaps for the first time since I’d walked into her kitchen that day, a sudden hope in her face. “You met him, didn’t you? Before he went.”
I nodded, unable to tell her the truth, even now; steeling myself against the smile she gave me.
“What did he say?” she asked, leaning closer, her hands gripping my knees.
Lies. Everywhere one turned. Lies.
“He said not to worry,” I said. “He said he would be alright. It was you he was worried about. You.”
“Yes,” she said, releasing the pressure of her hands. “Yes…”
* * *
And how long ago was that? Thirty years? No. Thirty two, this year. But I can recall it as thought it were yesterday. Years, I say, yet time here passes without real measure. The rising and the setting of the sun, the nightly passage of the moon; these things, like the old man’s “wonders” are lost to us now. We see only whiteness, walls, wherever we look. In a while I shall put this aside and go and queue with my shit-pot at the waste collection point. The past is dead. That’s official now. There’s a Ministry, they say. The Thousand Eyes they call it.
But you don’t want to know about that, do you? What happened next? That’s what you really want to know, isn’t it? That’s what story is about, after all. Well, Jenny left me, eighteen months after we’d re-settled. Why? Just because, I guess. Because I wasn’t Johnson. And because I was useful to her, and then suddenly I wasn’t. There wasn’t another man. No. It’s my experience that it’s rarely another man. It’s usually this man that drives them away.
Of late I’ve been dreaming. Dreaming of the old times. That’s why, I guess, I’ve written this. To try to get it straight in my head. To try, somehow, to understand what I did back then, abandoning him. I often see him crouched there at the edge of the woods, and sometimes he smiles and beckons to me to come with him. But I never go. No. Always, in my dreams, I turn and walk into the craft. As if, even in my dreams, I can’t betray the truth of what I did. As if the dreams were punishment somehow.
It’s odd, because when I was a child he couldn’t be bothered. He was never there for me. He was always somewhere else, or too busy. There were always other things cluttering his life – other woman, other tasks – and no room for me. He never held me, kissed me, cuddled me. So why do I feel guilty now? Why should I feel guilty? And yet I do. And I’m not alone. I know that now. There are plenty more like me within these walls, victims of the past.
Sure. But what is it like to have abandoned one’s father? To have turned one’s back on him and walked away, leaving him to the darkness? What is that like?
For a long time I repressed it. For a long time I distracted myself, trying to fit in, to be a good citizen and play by their rules. But ultimately it doesn’t work. Ultimately the past comes back to haunt you. They knew this. Knew it all along. That’s why they created the Ministry; for the moment when we ceased to be distracted and turned to look back at where we’d come from. They knew we would. Knew, better than we, what we were.
Ghosts, that’s what we are. Memory-haunted. Guilt-ridden. The last of a slowly fading breed, while all about us the future is taking shape, strong-limbed and clear-eyed, solid in flesh and bone, untroubled by memory.
You see, I understand it now. When they built over the past, it was not just the buildings – the bricks and mortar – that they closed off from us, it was ourselves. The past, it’s been rotting away inside us all these years, decaying down there in the darkness, until now there is no way to speak of it any more. No way but this.
Just before Jenny left me, she reminded me of one moment on that final day; something I’d quite forgotten until she mentioned it. It was when we were coming away from the farm that last time. She had turned in the narrow lane to look back.
“There were two rabbits,” she said, “there on the far side of the field beside the hedge. They were playing, chasing each other round and round, their tiny scuts flashing in the early morning sunlight. It was a simple scene, something I’d seen a hundred times before, yet on that morning it seemed different somehow, transformed; as if I’d never properly seen it before that moment. I called on you to look, wanting to share that moment with you, but you wouldn’t. You hurried me on. It was like you didn’t understand. As if you really didn’t know what you were leaving.”
That’s true. I didn’t understand. Not then. But now? Now I would give anything simply to be there in that narrow lane again; to be able to turn and look and see, there, on the far side of the field, those rabbits playing in the early morning sunlight.
Sometimes I wake in the early hours, tensed in my bunk, my body damp with sweat, waiting for the rapping on the door. But it never comes. And afterwards as I lay there, I wonder which one of us it was went into the darkness that day – him or me?
Yes, and as I slip slowly towards sleep once more, I hear his voice sound clearly in my head.
There, he says, What did I tell you?
David Wingrove – first draft 1992