by David Redd
in this issue.
|part 1 of 3|
For the first time in thirty years I stepped out onto solid English ground. I tried to love the view, but I couldn’t.
Under grey clouds I saw the weed-grown tarmac and ruined terminal buildings which had been Manchester Airport. Only a dirty black container lorry looked viable. Gun-carrying unknowns were trudging forward, all identical in mottled camouflage gear, ammo belts and blank white face masks. The leader nodded, not to me but to Spiro behind, and they went past me pulling handcarts full of crates into the USAA jump-jet which had brought me. Clearly, to these guys I was just more cargo.
I shook my head. “Spiro, this is home — but I really didn’t want to come back.”
The old bastard laughed. “Timmy boy, did you have any choice?”
* * *
Yesterday evening the jump-jet had descended on my latest fossil site in the Great American Desert. I was digging further north than my preferred Georgia, but as a palaeogeneticist in a shattered world I had to go wherever money called. My current boss was an arms baron with Jurassic Park dreams; he was collecting megafauna relics to help him reconstruct the mammoths and sabre-toothed cats hunted by the first Solutrean incomers. A nice contract. The campsite was well guarded, the ground radar was locating plenty of fossils, and the food was good. Which was why I got really pissed off when Spiro flew in to snatch me away.
“I can’t leave now! Spiro, this is my best site in years!” He just stood grinning at me across the cookfire flames, this little bearded prehistoric-looking figure in cowhide and shorts even grubbier than mine. “After the digging here I’ve got three months’ work lined up for Himself at his private lab. A real cushy number for my old age, y’know? Nothing like the hell-holes we battled through way back!”
“I am truly sorry, Tim,” said his gap-toothed mouth, while his wicked old eyes said something else. “The deal’s done. Come back to your fossil DNA after this little English trip. Only eighteen hours each way plus a couple of days there, They’ll keep your camp open!”
The ultra-rich liked expensive toys, and we freelances were mere accessories to be traded. Already the baron’s right-hand man was reprogramming my guards, dark silhouettes with heads together under the flaming dust-laden Kansas sunset.
“Spiro, why pull me to freezing bloody Manchester?”
I’d heard that the Cumbrian peaks now had permanent ice. Typical contrary British weather: when deforestation and CO2 sent the climate into a phase change the whole world hotted up, except us. That was why I’d stayed well south all these years, except when powerful Americans or Russians tempted me elsewhere. The Gulf Stream had shut off overnight — for once Hollywood had been right and the scientists wrong — and the mild Brit climate had regressed to its natural state, colder than Labrador.
“Don’t worry,” said Spiro. “It’s still summer here, near enough, so it’ll be summer in England, right? You’ll only need one thick parka.”
I borrowed an old movie phrase. “I need a thick parka like I need a hole in the head.”
Spiro liked the old chips too. “Your choice, Timmy boy, but I’m making you an offer you can’t refuse.”
He passed the Jack Daniels. All I could do was take a last swig with the boys, grab my holdall and head into the jump-jet for England. Where I’d lived long ago, before the world changed.
* * *
In the chilly evening, beside nettles and brambles that stank of urine, I saw our armed escort return. Only two carts carried exchange goods; the rest were empty. My passage over had been expensive for someone. We all tramped across to the container lorry where the masked squad and their gear disappeared inside. As Spiro guided me to the cab I gestured at a fish-symbol under the grime. “Christian fundamentalists, huh? Good clients.”
“Only taking care of us overnight, Timmy boy.” The eight years between us had been a big gap, once. He rapped the side door; it opened. “They’re good middlemen too. The handover tomorrow ought to go smoothly.”
Ought to. Spiro was as comforting as ever. He’d never got me killed yet, though, and once he’d delivered me to my new boss I might learn what this was about. No legitimate use in third-world Manchester for my palaeogenetics, I was sure.
In the cab, our driver wasn’t masked. He aimed a handgun plus his helmet lens at me and Spiro, then relieved us of our shoulder pistols. My other armament remained hidden. His earpiece buzzed. “Okay. Bring ’em in.” The driver grunted, stowed our guns under a dashboard crucifix and started up. I’d had worse welcomes.
We gathered speed along the old feeder road, bouncing across pot-holes and subsidence. I reviewed my prospects. What Spiro had told me wasn’t a lot. Some client in the old Uni area of Manchester needed a troubleshooter with wide experience of different genomes. Urgently. Who could have suggested Dr Timothy Stedding? Only my good friend Smiling Spiro. I was still too sore at him for polite chit-chat.
Returning home was like visiting a cemetery. Roadside trees whipped the lorry sides where I remembered mown grassy verges. Several overhead sign gantries remained, although stripped of all metal and electronics. I had time to observe such details because there was no other traffic to distract me. The clouds over Manchester were darker than ever; no more city lights.
Past the ring road at Princess Parkway I saw buildings, some only bombed-out shells. Around them were cleared areas and rubble heaps, and a few high newish-looking walls. This arrangement of neighbourhoods as defensible territories was common worldwide, but it still shocked me to see the modern social organisation where I remembered normal suburbs and estates. Only our disintegrating dual carriageway seemed to be neutral ground.
Spiro nudged me as the lorry headlights came on, their glare reducing my surroundings to tarmac and shadows. “We’re nearly at our overnight stop, Timmy boy. Don’t worry, remember? They’re okay people, they just don’t like doing business after dark.”
“No need. Nobody goes out.”
Confirming that, our driver radiated anxiety to get home. He hammered his engine hard up the long straight through Moss Side. Now the occasional roadside buildings appeared semi-derelict and far fewer in number than I’d expected. This area in particular would have converted from the black economy to independence immediately the climate change hit, so the drug gangs would have policed it tightly from Year Zero. It still wouldn’t be a good place to get engine trouble. I was glad to see a surviving sign for the Mancunian Way bearing the skull and crossbones of the Greater Manchester Council, but the old elevated motorway was now a jagged rampart of concrete debris. In the dusk our driver stopped at a bulldozed gap and muttered into his helmet mike.
I’d crossed checkpoints too often to get excited by this one. No warning shots, no guard showing for kickbacks. As the lorry squeaked through a gated wall to our night stop I could see that somebody’s grip on the area was ominously efficient.
The cab door clicked open. Guys in white robes smiled and waved, and came for me.
We got out. Our Christian hosts proved to be basically squatters in a former BBC complex which they’d patched up and fortified. Their formula for survival was to live and let live. Unless they were attacked, in which case they called up reinforcements and went retaliating on a scale of ten deaths for one, no exceptions. They hadn’t had to remind the neighbours of this for years.
Introductions over, they sat me and Spiro in a contemplation lounge between murals of Jesus, angels and Noah’s ark. A woman prayed low-voiced for our souls. Crazy world: I could jet across half the planet in hours, but I couldn’t cross the street until tomorrow. So what kind of trap was I in this time? Spiro was saying “don’t worry” rather than “trust me,” which must mean something. Luckily the prayers ended before my wandering thoughts could develop into paranoia. The woman smiled us out.
We met the other residents. Behind their smiles and nightshirts lay zero tolerance for adultery and gays and general coveting, but I couldn’t dislike them as individuals.
They loaned me a bedroll beside Spiro’s in a male dormitory, then took us up to the hydroponic tanks to sample fresh fruit and nuts. (Much tastier than endless GM desert-corn patties in America.) They showed us how the indoor gardens flourished under sun-lamps from a generator, the same city-tech used by generations of Moss Side druggies. I saw some guys tramping inside treadmills to keep the water circulating, chanting prayers as they went. Like most urban communities they had roof rainwater traps, and waste pipes helped manure crops in walled ground plots. Their life-style was far more sustainable than mine, but I couldn’t share their love of constant Bible stories, gospel songs and prayer filling up their time.
I heard a lot of prayer that night. Numerous children joined in the general thanksgiving, even some with obvious learning difficulties. And so to bed. Goodnight, Spiro. Tomorrow had better be good.
General snoring began, and as I tried to sleep the thought came that their fundamentalist life reminded me of something. Summer camp for kids. Everything was taken care of, simple and understandable; they simply followed the system, did the chores, and had fun. Here was Dr Tim Stedding, grown up and hustling across the globe for decades, on a sleepover with a bunch of big kids. Kids with Kalashnikovs. They’d evolved a society which worked, but it felt strange.
Eventually I slept. They’d only found one of my guns.
Copyright © 2007 by David Redd