Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2004, 2010, 2015.
The deep-sea submersible Melvin had just reached its planned exploration depth – 1,559 metres below the surface of the Tasman Sea and 4.2 metres off the bottom of the eastern flank of the Lord Howe Rise – when the underwater telephone belched. The mother ship was trying to contact them but, like every other bit of technology except that used for spying on people, the phone was decades past its use-by date.
Irith Hardey didn’t move from the viewport; if she had, claustrophobia would have overcome her. Besides, she’d been waiting two years for this dive and no intrusion from the dismal world above was going to distract her. Her research was her life, her friend, her lover and comforter.
It could not turn her mind off after she collapsed into bed, though. Nor could it keep the recurring nightmares at bay.
The submersible’s floodlights illuminated grey mud between the knobs of tubeworm-encrusted basalt. A white fish swam by, long and thin, like a length of squashed plastic pipe.
‘It’s for you, Dr Hardey,’ said Fred, the pilot.
Irith swore. ‘What now? We only left the surface an hour ago.’
Fred passed her the receiver. ‘It’s Jacques Cuvier.’ The expedition leader, on the RV Thor Heyerdahl, above.
‘It’d better be important!’ She took it. ‘Irith here.’
Jacques came on the line, his normally mellow voice made adenoidal by the ancient instrument. ‘You are to come up, please.’
‘Is it an emergency?’ Hardly likely, or the surface controller would be talking the pilot through it.
‘No. Come up at once.’
Irith’s co-observer, Jason Slythe, spun around. ‘What’s the matter?’
She put her hand over the mouthpiece. ‘Surely he can’t mean now? I’ve been waiting years for this.’ Not to mention writing fifty-three research proposals, and begging and scrounging every cent of the $65,000 per day it cost for the sixty-year-old submersible, all her equipment and the rusting seventy-metre research vessel required to support it.
Jacques said something she didn’t catch as the underwater phone gurgled like a toilet flushing. It was always causing trouble; the maintenance budget was totally inadequate. It gave her an idea.
‘Hello?’ she said loudly. ‘Jacques? Jacques?’
‘Lost him,’ she said, then covered the mouthpiece again. ‘Go down to Station One, Fred.’
He adjusted the trim by pumping mercury from the aft tank to the forward one. ‘But …’
‘Jacques hasn’t told you to come up.’
‘And it’s not an emergency.’
He grinned. Fred was the dependable type, as pilots had to be, but there was enough rebel in him to enjoy someone else breaking the rules.
Irith put the receiver into an empty Milo tin used for storing odds and ends, and taped the lid on over the cord. ‘I couldn’t make out what he was saying, so we go on with the mission.’
‘You’re going to be in the shit when we surface,’ Jason fretted. He was the worrying type.
‘You don’t have to worry. You’re not in charge.’
The Melvin proceeded downslope to 1,642 metres, keeping above the bottom so the wash from the thrusters did not stir up the mud. Irith watched the echo sounder with one eye while using the external video and still cameras with the other. ‘We must be nearly on station, Fred.’
‘The canyon should come into view any minute. There it is.’
‘Ease down into it so I can image the walls.’
The Melvin dropped into a gully eroded out of clayey sediment. The lights revealed wavy layering in the walls, dark and light, and occasional lenses of white.
‘I knew we’d find it here,’ Irith said. ‘The hydrate signature was as strong as I’ve ever seen.’
Further down, the brown sediment was thickly layered with glistening bands of the white material. It looked exactly like ice.
‘Follow it down,’ she added. ‘I want to ground-truth the traces as best we can. Is everything recording?’
‘Of course,’ Fred said.
The white bands continued to the bottom of the canyon, twenty-seven metres below the sediment surface. The submersible tracked along the bottom for about two hundred metres, then hovered, neutrally buoyant, while Irith tested the water chemistry with her external instruments. She checked that the data was recording, took water samples and sediment cores with the manipulator arms, and stored the sealed containers in the science sample basket outside.
‘I’m finished here. Can we track back along the other side?’
Fred was rocking on his seat, gnawing his lower lip.
‘Something the matter?’ she said.
‘The canyon walls don’t look very stable, Irith, and the operating regs specify –’
‘Of course,’ she said. At the bottom of the sea, safety always took precedence. ‘Take her up whenever you’re ready. I’ve done everything here I have to do.’
Back at the place where they’d first seen the white material, Fred worked the manipulator arms to break off a chunk of layered sediment and put it in the pressure chamber within the sample basket.
‘Another piece, please,’ said Irith. ‘Since we’ve come all this way.’
That proved more difficult than she had anticipated. As soon as Fred closed the grips of the starboard manipulator arm, the white material decomposed in a little explosion of bubbles.
‘What about just there?’ Irith pointed over Fred’s shoulder through his viewport at another icy lens.
He sampled it and worked the remotes to seal the lid of the pressure chamber. It would keep the samples at the same pressure and temperature until they reached the surface.
‘Excellent,’ Irith said. ‘Now, if we can just get a core or two.’
Fred used the sediment corer to extract a two-metre-long horizontal core through the white material, then a vertical core from the top.
‘Where to now?’ His chilly stare suggested that it was time to obey orders.
Irith heaved a heavy sigh. ‘I love it down here. No one has ever dived on the Lord Howe Rise before – it could be a new planet for all we know about it.’
‘It’ll change if they find a use for that stuff.’
‘Methane hydrate,’ she said absently. ‘Methane gas formed in the sediments over millions of years and frozen into ice crystals. There’s billions of tonnes of it here.’
‘And it’s a greenhouse menace,’ said Jason.
‘See that?’ said Fred. Trails of tiny bubbles were streaming up from the exposed hydrate surfaces. ‘It’s two degrees outside, yet our lights are making it break down. Let’s go.’
‘All right.’ Irith removed the tape from the Milo lid. ‘Hello, Jacques,’ she said wearily, as though she’d been calling for hours. ‘Melvin here, come in please.’
‘Dr Hardey!’ Jacques Cuvier snapped. ‘Come up immediately.’
‘We’re on our way. But why?’ The weather had been good when they’d left the surface, and the cyclone season didn’t start for months.
‘Someone wants to see you urgently.’
‘The Department hasn’t bothered to inform me.’
‘Is someone flying out?’
Irith could not imagine why. Thousands of scientists were doing research on climate change and most had more experience than she did.
‘They’re sending a helicopter to take you back to Sydney, and it’ll be here in half an hour. You’d better not keep them waiting.’
‘Where am I going?’
‘I have no idea, Dr Hardey, but whatever you’ve done, I’m not happy about it. This mission has been years in the planning, and it’s most inconvenient.’
‘It’s a damn sight more inconvenient for me! It’s my research time that’s being lost.’ She told Fred to ascend to the mother ship.
‘What the fuck’s going on?’ said Jason, as if it were her fault. His precious underwater time was also being wasted. ‘This is a real pain, Irith.’
‘It certainly wasn’t my idea,’ she snapped.
At 11 am she wriggled out of the hatch of the Melvin and climbed down onto the deck of the Thor Heyerdahl. A huge helicopter sat on the pad on the forward deck, its blades spinning. It was an ancient, two-bladed Sikorsky, kept running long past its designed life. There were oil stains down the metal skin, which had been repaired using parts from a machine with a different paint job. It wasn’t a comforting sign.
Jacques Cuvier marched across, natty in suit and bow tie. He looked out of place among the casually clothed scientists and technicians.
‘Hurry up, Irith,’ he fussed. ‘The Department’s been on the line three times in the last half hour, wanting to know why you’re taking so long. They have power over our funding, you know.’
Irith had asked Fred to come up as slowly as possible, making the most of the time she had left. Jacques must have known what she was up to, since the mother ship’s sonar logs could locate the Melvin to within a few metres, but he merely took her elbow and ushered her towards the helicopter.
‘How long will I be away?’ she said.
‘I don’t know. Days, certainly …’
‘What is it?’
‘The helicopter costs $8,000 an hour and it’s well overdue for an overhaul. They may not bring you back at all.’
‘But my research …’
‘We’ve got the plan. It’ll get done.’
‘It’s not the same, Jacques!’ she said furiously.
He took two steps backwards. ‘I do understand. I’ve done my best but the Department wouldn’t budge. The order comes from higher up.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘They wouldn’t say.’
‘Well, fuck the Department,’ Irith muttered. She rarely swore but the situation seemed to require it.
‘I’ll have to pack.’
‘There’s no time. You’ll have to go as you are.’
‘What’s the hurry?’ She looked up at him. Jacques wasn’t a tall man but he was a lot taller than her.
He jerked at her arm, uncharacteristically anxious. The Departmental Secretary must have given him a roasting. Serves him right, Irith thought, but that was unjust. Jacques was a fussy little man but he knew talent when he saw it and he’d always supported her.
‘I’ve got to go to the toilet,’ said Irith.
‘Five minutes!’ he said hastily.
‘Not a second more.’
In her cabin she threw off her overalls and put on the best pants she had here, a pair of jeans that were uncomfortably tight across the backside. Must get back into exercising, she thought. Brown boots, a grey blouse and a cotton jacket that made her look like a bushwalker. Irith gave her cropped brown hair a quick brush, which failed to tame it, and her teeth an even quicker going-over, by which time Jacques was rapping on the door.
‘Coming!’ She threw a spare blouse into her backpack, a couple of changes of underwear, passport and ID cards and, lastly, her battered old laptop. If she wasn’t coming back, at least she could get some work done.
In another five minutes Jacques was handing her into the chopper which, she noted, had been fitted with long-range tanks. The Thor Heyerdahl was over a thousand kilometres out from Sydney.
‘Good luck!’ he said as the co-pilot pointed to the rear left seat and slid the door closed.
‘Thanks,’ she muttered inaudibly.
Three hours later she was in Sydney, but no wiser. A car was waiting at the heliport. A uniformed woman checked Irith’s ID with a portable terminal that she took directly from the manufacturer’s packaging. In a world dominated by refugee-sponsored terrorism, the security services had the best of everything.
‘Would you come this way, please, Dr Hardey?’
‘I’d like to know what’s going on,’ said Irith.
‘You’ll be briefed on arrival in London.’
‘That’s right. Let me take your bag.’
Irith held onto it. ‘It’s not heavy. What’s happening there?’
‘I don’t know.’
Irith shivered, for it reminded her of her first trip to London, eight years ago, and the subsequent horrors: a blood-drenched hunt through flooded tunnels under the London Docklands, an insurgency school in mosquito-ridden Minnesota, and then the catastrophe in New Orleans –
The faces of dead friends and foes exploded into her mind and for the past eight years only relentless work had kept them at bay. Irith took deep breaths and bit down on the memories.
At the international terminal, Irith was taken through Customs and Immigration and led into the business class section of a Qantas flight. The hatch was closed immediately, as if the flight had been held for her.
Since she had trouble sleeping on planes, she worked for the first half of the trip and watched a series of indifferent movies for the rest. She normally avoided watching the news, which was a repetitive catalogue of human misery – the same crises in the same countries that she’d been seeing all her life.
However a few hours out of London she was drawn in by a documentary on the Bangladeshi refugee camps, which now stretched for sixty-five kilometres along that unfortunate country’s border with India. Three-quarters of Bangladesh had been flooded by the six-metre sea-level rise when the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed, and most of its best agricultural land was now under the sea. Now the Greenland ice sheet was melting too, doubling the rate of sea level rise and making things immeasurably worse.
Half the population of Bangladesh was homeless and the border camps formed a mega-city housing seventy-five million people, the most overcrowded, polluted and dismal slum in the world. The refugees had nowhere to go; no country would take them in. Twenty years after the ice sheet collapsed – a disaster that Irith’s father had forecast before she was born – the camps were an incubator of hate, misery and the worst excesses of terrorism that the twenty-first-century mind could come up with.
The rising seas had displaced another hundred million people in India and Pakistan, two hundred and twenty-five million in China and fifty million in Egypt when the lower Nile valley became an estuary two hundred kilometres long. No country with a coastline had been unaffected: even in Australia a million homes had been flooded, the sea was only kept out of London by the immense Thames Dike, and Venice was just a memory.
Refugees had been streaming into Europe, the Americas and Australia for two decades, but in the past three years the flood had become an unstoppable deluge. With unemployment approaching Great Depression levels, even the most tolerant nations had had enough.
Irith flicked away from the haggard faces and staring eyes. The problem was insoluble; there was nowhere for them to go.
The refugee crisis grows ever worse, and ever louder the clamour of those who want to send them back where they came from. In Berlin yesterday, an anti-refugee rally drew three-quarters of a million Yellow Armbands.
In the background, footage of the rally was replaced by black-and-white film of the Nuremberg rallies. The parallel did not need to be drawn.
In other news, the Minister for Rationing announced that food rationing will be tightened in Britain before the end of the month, due to continuing bad weather which has led to the worst European harvest in eight decades.
In the United States, the Department of Agriculture has downgraded its grain forecast for the fourth time in a month. The US may have to import grain for the first time in more than three centuries. Wheat, corn, barley and oat futures are at the highest levels ever recorded.
In London, after Customs and Immigration, Irith was taken to the VIP Rationing Centre and issued with a ration smartcard.
‘You must present this with every purchase,’ said the bored woman behind the counter.
‘What if I run out of points?’ said Irith.
‘You won’t be able to make any purchases until the fifteenth of the month, when the next month’s food and energy points are awarded.’
‘For anything that needs energy! Lifts, taxis, buses, trains, heaters, household appliances –’
‘I get the picture,’ said Irith. ‘So if I have no energy points left, I have to walk.’
‘You learn fast. The card also contains your water ration points.’
‘What about air?’ Irith said sarcastically. ‘Are there ration points for breathing too?’
‘Air is free,’ the woman said. She looked over her shoulder and added, with a faint smile, ‘the air quality we have in London, it’d want to be.’
Irith was ushered to a limousine. She presented her ration card to the driver but he waved it away.
‘This one is taken care of.’
The limousine turned out of Heathrow towards the city. Shortly, trapped in a snarl of traffic, she saw a line of ragged people standing just off the road. Shabbily dressed and gaunt, they carried hand-printed signs: WILL WORK FOR FOOD. They did not look like refugees.
A woman carrying a tiny baby approached the car, holding out her hands. Irith, moved, pressed the down button on her window before realising that she had no English money. The driver, a thin-faced black man with a close-cropped steel-grey beard and a shaven head, wound her window up again. The woman began beating on the glass. She couldn’t have been more than twenty but was emaciated and had lost half her teeth. Irith was profoundly shocked.
‘Open the window, please,’ she said to the driver. She took off her watch. It was the only thing she had to offer.
‘Don’t encourage them, lady. It doesn’t do anyone any good.’
Irith was about to open the door when the car jerked forward and the woman fell to her knees beside the road. ‘Why did you do that?’ Irith snapped.
‘Open the door and twenty of them would tear you out of the car and strip you of everything you own.’ His jaw muscles were clenched. ‘They’re not human.’
‘Who are they?’
‘Reffoes, and someone should do something about them. They’ve got no right to come here, eating our food and taking our jobs.’
After thirty-six hours without sleep, Irith was too exhausted to respond. She closed her eyes and was dozing when the limousine screeched to a halt in a line of traffic. The street was narrow, several shopfront windows had been smashed and the pavement was littered with timber, glass and rubble.
The driver swore. A handful of people were pelting their way, only hundred metres ahead of a mob. It was dark now and half the streetlights were out. A shiver passed up Irith’s spine.
‘What is it, driver?’
He looked over his shoulder, gauging the space behind the limousine. His forehead was coated with sweat. ‘It’s a BFB rally. But this route was supposed to be safe.’
‘Britain for the British. They want to get rid of refugees and foreigners.’
Irith tried to digest that. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Could you open the window, please? I can’t breathe.’
He unlocked it and she wound it down. The traffic behind the limousine hemmed them in; the car ahead had stalled and would not start. Nigel reversed until the bumper touched the car behind. He revved the engine, pushing the other vehicle backwards until it touched the car behind it. Its driver’s invective was barely audible above the roar of the mob.
‘What are you doing?’ Irith cried.
‘You know what they’re like, Marm.’ He eased forward, then back again, but still lacked clearance to swing the big vehicle out of the line of cars. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck.
‘I’ve only been in the country a couple of hours.’
‘It’s a rally against foreigners. If they catch me, I’m done for.’
‘You don’t sound like a refugee.’
‘I’m fourth-generation British, but if your skin’s the wrong colour, or you talk funny, they go for you. You’re not safe either. Australian?’
‘Yes,’ she said faintly. How had everything got out of control so quickly?
On the other side of the two-lane road, a line of stalled traffic prevented the driver from making a U-turn, though there was a small gap a car length behind them.
Nigel spun the wheel onto full lock, slammed the vehicle into reverse and stamped on the accelerator. The tyres smoked and the long vehicle shot round in a tight curve, just clearing the car behind. The rear wheels mounted the kerb, bounced over an obstacle and crashed down.
He cursed and lurched forwards, but the wheels hit the obstacle and stopped, the tyres screaming
Irith tried to open the door.
‘Sit tight, please, Marm. We’re not done yet.’ He kept going forward and back until the reek of overheated metal merged with the smell of burning rubber.
The mob pulled down one of the fleeing stragglers, a short, tubby man. Clubs rose and fell. Only then did Irith understand her own peril.
‘They’re killing him!’ she gasped. This couldn’t be happening. ‘Call the police.’
‘They won’t come. They keep well clear of BFB rallies.’
‘It’s happening all over the country, Marm.’
Two more people were clubbed down. Irith put her knuckles in her mouth to prevent herself from screaming.
The mob engulfed the fleeing group, one by one. Further back, people were smashing shop windows and passing goods out, but the leaders of the mob kept coming. The motorists ahead of the limousine were abandoning their cars and running for their lives.
Nigel kept jerking the car back, then forwards. Metal screeched underneath but the wheels did not clear the obstacle.
The mob was now near enough for Irith to make out individuals brandishing cricket bats and pieces of pipe. All were dressed in shiny black boots and brown workmen’s garb, and had stubbled heads. Everyone wore a broad yellow armband, half the length of a sleeve, with a device in red on it.
Only three of the fleeing group remained on their feet: a middle-aged man and woman, and a girl in her late teens, all of Indian appearance. The leaders of the mob were closing on them rapidly and Irith could not stand by. She groped for the door handle.
‘Stay put!’ Nigel snapped. ‘Please, Marm.’
He was still jerking the car forward and back. Irith put her head out the window. The obstacle was a concrete beam, broken on one end to expose the steel reinforcing.
The running man stopped suddenly and faced the mob. He was stout and bald, an unlikely hero. The older woman extended her arms toward him, begging him to keep going. He thrust her and the girl behind him, urging them away, then picked up a length of timber and walked towards the mob. Its members all looked Caucasian.
The older woman ran after him, took his free hand and they stood together, facing the rabble. The girl wailed, then turned and bolted down the middle of the street, between the lines of stationary cars. The mob hesitated for a minute, but came on. The bald man awkwardly swung his length of four-by-two, then let it fall and stood there with his hands outstretched. The leaders of the mob raised their clubs and lengths of pipe. The man and woman were struck down.
Nigel dropped the clutch and, with a rending of metal, as if the muffler had torn off, the rear wheels spun over the obstacle. The limousine skidded round in a semi-circle, through the gap in the other lane and onto the pavement on the other side of the narrow street. It was littered with broken concrete, so he had to reverse again.
Irith had her window down and her head out. The girl was running for her life but the mob was only fifty metres behind. Irith threw the door open and screamed, ‘This way!’
‘Shut the door or we’re both dead,’ roared the driver, rocketing backwards.
The girl altered course towards them but she wasn’t going to make it. One of the leaders, a black-booted skinhead, was swinging a length of metal railing above his head, preparing to bring her down. The red device on his arm was a triplet of whirling sickles.
Years ago, Irith had been trained in violence by an expert. As the limousine stopped she leapt out, snatched up a piece of pipe lying on the pavement and sent it spinning straight towards the black-booted man.
It caught him in the mouth, scattering teeth like corn from a cob and taking down the thugs behind him as well. The crowd hesitated for a second. Irith heaved the girl in and leapt in after her.
The mob let out a roar and Nigel took off, the vehicle smashing an upturned office chair to pieces. Irith reached for the open door but it struck a pole and tore away.
The limousine rounded the corner, still on the pavement, turned into a wider road and shot away. Irith let go of the girl, who might have been eighteen. She had a small, heart-shaped face, big moist eyes like glazed chocolate and windblown black hair.
‘I’m sorry,’ Irith said, knowing that the words were hopelessly inadequate. ‘Were they …?’
‘My uncle and aunt,’ the girl said, formally. ‘I thank you for your courage and your kindness. They … they would thank you too.’
The car stopped at a set of traffic lights and, before Irith knew it, the girl had pressed something into her hand and slipped out the gaping door hole.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s all I have.’ Within seconds she had vanished into the crowd.
Irith slid across to the other side of the limousine, as far as possible from the cold wind, and clipped on the seat belt. She was shaking.
The driver was staring straight ahead, gripping the wheel so hard that his knuckles stood out.
‘Aren’t you going to the police?’ Her voice sounded unreal. So controlled, so untouched, while she was dissolving inside.
The lights changed and the limousine moved off. Nigel glanced in the mirror and his eyes were as empty as the girl’s had been. ‘They’re the first group the BFB infiltrated.’
‘But surely …?’
‘The officers would write everything down. They’d look shocked: “What is Britain coming to, sir?” And in the middle of the night my flat would be firebombed or my wife beaten to pulp.’
‘But people were murdered right before our eyes.’
‘Not “good British people”. Just refugees who had no right to come here.’
His voice was so flat, she couldn’t tell if he believed it or was being sarcastic.
‘The girl had an English accent,’ she said.
‘She didn’t look British. Why couldn’t you have stayed in the car?’
‘I couldn’t stand by.’
‘Suppose you don’t know any better, being a foreigner. Pity. You seem nice.’
The shivers crept all over her. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘You helped an alien. As soon as the Yellow Armbands have disposed of me, they’ll come for you.’
Irith stared at him. ‘Disposed of you?’
Tears were leaking from his eyes. ‘You’ve doomed me, Marm. If I go home, they’ll destroy my family. Wherever I go, they’ll find me. They’ll turn on you, too.’
‘I don’t believe this,’ said Irith. ‘But I’m …’
‘White skin won’t save you, Marm.’ he said, shaking his head sadly. ‘Your accent is wrong and your eyes are the wrong shape.’
He turned into the driveway of a five-star hotel. ‘Here you are. Someone will call for you in the morning.’
‘Not you?’ she said, unable to take in what he’d said.
He glanced at the battered limousine, the missing door. ‘Not me.’
Irith withdrew a wad of cash from her account and headed for the lift, which refused to budge until she had inserted her energy ration card. It cost ten points but she was too traumatised to care. She kept seeing the resignation on the couple’s faces as they had turned to confront their pursuers, the hate on the faces in the mob as they’d beaten them to death, and the blank look in the eyes of the girl – a tragic fatalism that hinted at seeing worse in her young life.
It reminded her of the little gift and Irith got it out – a gold chain, not expensive, with a peace charm hanging from it. She went to drop it into her bag, but that would devalue the gift. She fastened it around her neck as a reminder of life’s fragility.
Showering cost fifty energy points and a hundred water points. She put on a dressing gown, made herself a cup of tea – three energy points, one water point – and crawled into bed.
Eventually she slipped into a restless doze where the day’s traumas blurred into those of long ago. She was running through a dark room full of obstacles and a hurricane was screaming outside, though not loudly enough to cover the sound of someone shooting at her. Windows burst under the pressure of the wind, spraying glass everywhere. A crash woke her.
Her empty cup lay broken on the floor. Irith sat up, willing the nightmare away, but the past kept knocking. Someone rapped on the door and she caught her breath, remembering Nigel’s warning, but there was no other way out. She had already checked.
Another knock; careful, polite. It did not sound like a mob. She went to the door, made sure the chain was attached, and opened it.
A young woman stood there, wearing a chauffeur’s uniform. She was thin and freckled, with sandy hair and a big nose. ‘Dr Hardey?’
She held out an ID card. ‘I’ve come to take you to your meeting. I’ll be in the lobby when you’re ready.’
The card looked genuine, not that you could tell these days. Irith put the paranoia away. ‘I’ll be ten minutes.’
The car proceeded east along Marylebone Road, then turned right before a rusting metal wall, a good six metres high with coils of razor wire along the top, that ran along the far side of Baker Street and to the left, up past Regent’s Park. Signs were stencilled in huge letters every fifty metres along the wall: VX EXCLUSION ZONE. CHEMICAL HAZARD. KEEP OUT.
‘Must be good for tourism,’ Irith said ironically, vaguely remembering the horrific attack last year. ‘How far does the wall go?’
‘It encloses most of St John’s Wood, South Hampstead, Hampstead, Tufnell Park, Camden Town and part of King’s Cross,’ said the chauffeur, reciting the names with a zest that Irith found unnerving.
‘I thought it would have been cleaned up by now.’
‘The terrorists used a form of VX that sticks to everything. It’s the most deadly chemical in the world, you know.’ She sounded like a tour guide extolling its virtues.
‘How are they cleaning it up?’
‘No idea. They were aiming for the Palace, you know.’
They zigzagged through Soho before pulling up at a new concrete building of five or six floors. The guards checked Irith’s ID twice and a uniformed attendant ushered her upstairs into a small office.
‘Wait here,’ said an elderly attendant so tiny that Irith felt like a giant.
‘Could I have some tea, please?’ Irith handed her the ration card.
‘Certainly.’ The attendant went out.
Irith leaned back, closed her eyes and slept at once.
‘Oh Irith, I’ve missed you.’
It took a long time for the soft voice to penetrate, then she sprang up, stumbling in her eagerness. ‘Mum! I didn’t expect to see you here.’ With Jemma working in the Administration in Washington, and Irith living in Sydney, they had not seen each other for a year.
Jemma put down a tea tray and threw her arms around her only child. ‘I keep thinking I’m going to get home but something always comes up.’
‘We’ve both been busy,’ said Irith, stepping back. Jemma was in her early sixties now and her thick hair, once so dark, was silver. She looked thinner than before and Irith wasn’t sure it suited her. ‘You look as though you’ve been working too hard.’
‘Coming from you,’ said Jemma, smiling, ‘that’s a tad hypocritical.’ She poured two cups of tea and handed one to Irith, along with the ration card she had given the attendant. ‘I’m doing something that matters. That’s why I brought you here.’
‘You brought me here!’ Irith cried, her mood changing in an instant. Tea slopped onto her blouse and she banged the cup down. ‘Why?’
‘I need you.’
‘Why didn’t you call me? Why did I have to be snatched off the bottom of the sea?’
‘It came up in rather a hurry,’ said Jemma, tapping a finger on the side of her cup. She wore the slightly evasive look that Irith knew well.
‘I spent years cadging the money for that expedition, and it’s all been wasted.’
‘You’ll still get the data. The work will still get done.’
‘But it won’t be my work or my data, will it? That’s the reward of doing research, Mum. Doing it myself!’ Irith knew she sounded petulant.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Jemma. ‘There was no other way.’
‘Couldn’t you have waited? In two weeks I would have been back in my lab.’
‘Even this delay was too long for –’
Someone rapped at the door.
‘Come in,’ said Jemma.
The rapping came again. Jemma went to the door. A man’s voice, low and urgent, said something Irith didn’t catch. Jemma went out and closed the door.
Irith leaned back and closed her eyes. The door slammed. Jemma was standing above her, her lips pursed.
‘Is something the matter?’ said Irith.
‘You encountered a riot last night.’
‘It wasn’t a riot – it was a murderous mob and they beat people to death right in front of us. How long has this been going on?’
‘A year or two. Surely you know about the refugee crisis?’
‘Yes, but I don’t watch the news. I hadn’t realised things were this bad.’
‘They weren’t until last year, when the floodgates opened and nothing could hold the refugees out, short of a wall around the continent. Forty million people in Europe have lost their jobs to refugees who’ll work for pennies, and they’re fed up. It’s turned the lunatic far-right into a credible political organisation and their catchcry is, “No more refugees!”
Irith sat there, shaking her head. How had she not known? Because she had not wanted to know.
‘But the refugees keep coming,’ Jemma continued, ‘and the continent is tearing itself to pieces; it’s like the 1930s all over again. Now Britain is going the same way. It makes no difference how long you’ve been here. If you don’t look British, you’re a target.’
‘Even you, Mum?’ Jemma was eighth-generation Australian but, ethnically, Chinese. It showed on her face but not on Irith’s.
‘I work for the US State Department. I’m well looked after,’ said Jemma. ‘But …’
Jemma went to the window and stared out. Her back was as straight as a poker. ‘You rescued a girl last night and the street security cameras caught it. The Yellow Armbands could have your name already.’
Irith’s mouth was dry. ‘I don’t suppose I could get something to eat?’
Jemma put her head out the door and spoke to someone.
‘Do you need my ration card?’ said Irith.
Jemma snorted. ‘The State Department doesn’t hold with such nonsense.’
Shortly the attendant wheeled in a tray with coffee and sandwiches, and a plate of biscuits. Irith fell on the sandwiches.
Jemma said quietly, ‘I shouldn’t have brought you here.’
‘Why did you?’
‘I needed someone I could trust, but … I’m afraid it’s too late.’
‘Too late for what?’
‘Italy’s gone to the Yellows. The German Government is set to fall, France will follow, and that’ll set off a chain reaction across Europe. Moderate governments are being replaced wholesale by xenophobic ultra-nationalists – neo-fascists, if you like – all rattling swords and blaming their neighbours. War in Europe is no longer unthinkable.’
‘War?’ Irith whispered.
‘The new generation that’s grown up in the Asian refugee ghettoes wants out at any price. Thirty million refugees forced their way into Europe last year, and this year it’ll double. Unemployment is twenty-nine percent and rising, and now that refugees are coming down from the north as well –’
‘The north? What are you talking about?’
‘Where have you been the last couple of months?’
‘Working obsessively and avoiding the news,’ Irith muttered.
‘Obviously! Despite global warming, Europe has had the coldest summer, and the worst harvest, since 1816. People are starving in Scandinavia; winter came back in midsummer and boat people are coming south every day. In Britain, food rationing is going to be tightened again, more MPs are going over to the BFB every day and the PM will soon have to call an early election. The BFB will win it, and then, God help Britain!’
Irith, thinking about rationing, finished the sandwiches and savoured every crumb. ‘What about America?’
‘Nearly as bad. Northern Canada has frozen solid and Canadians are coming over the border by the millions. And then there’s the militia problem.’
‘I thought they’d been disbanded,’ said Irith.
Jemma shook her head in disbelief. ‘They’ve reformed, and they’re anti-government and anti-foreigners. There are parts of the Midwest – Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico – where the Feds don’t dare go. They’re like separate countries and no one knows what to do about them. President Woolley was trying to bring them to heel but Congress has gone feral. If his opponents can cobble together a two-thirds majority, they can override the Presidential veto and pass whatever legislation they want.’
‘What do they want?’
‘To shoot illegal immigrants – even Canadians – on sight.’
A chunk of biscuit stuck in Irith’s throat. She washed it down with tepid coffee. ‘What are you doing here, anyway?’
‘I’ve had a … promotion,’ said Jemma.
‘I’m keeping an eye out for US interests here.’
‘Even coming from you, Mum, that’s an uninformative statement.’
‘Are you going to tell me what you want me for?’ said Irith.
‘A scientific panel that’s trying to make sense out of conflicting climate research. The State Department sponsors a lot of international work on that but the scientists can’t agree. I think some of them have been got at …’
‘But?’ said Irith.
‘After saving that girl yesterday, you’re an enemy of the people trying to grab power here.’
‘Then send me home; let me get on with my real work.’
‘An airliner was shot down off the coast of Naples last night. It was in international airspace and no one knows who did it. Most of the airlines are grounded for the foreseeable future.’
‘Then what am I supposed to do?’ said Irith.
‘You’ll stay with me. My flat’s not far from here.’
‘Last I heard, you were living in Washington,’ said Irith.
‘I am, but the State Department has made a place available for me here.’
‘It’ll be nice to spend some time together,’ said Irith.
‘It will,’ said Jemma, ‘though …’ She paused, looking slightly embarrassed.
‘Will I be coming between you and some lover I don’t know about?’
‘Of course not,’ said Jemma hastily. ‘But it may cause me some problems at work.’
‘If they discover I’m your mother.’
‘Surely that’s obvious. We have the same name.’
‘Er … before I took the State Department job I went back to my maiden name, Jemma Wong. Jemma Hardey was too well known. My bosses know, but no one else does. I wanted to hide the old me, especially from groups like the BFB.’
‘So I’ll be putting you at risk?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
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