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Authors: Edmund Cooper

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BOOK: Five to Twelve
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Victoria, still a fine-looking dom in her late eighties, was bored. She was bored with the routines of monarchy, the routines of state, the sports and infras of the bed-chamber, the prospect of another sixty glorious years and especially with the fragments of protocol that still clung tenaciously to her existence like cobwebs from the Dark Ages.

“Darlings,” she said, quaintly affecting the novelese of the late twentieth century, now once again coming into fashion, “what the hell?”

“Sweet, is that a statement or a question?” asked the Neo-Soviet ambassador. Anastasia was a wide-eyed, black-haired, breathtakingly bouncy thing on the juvenile side of fifty. She subscribed to the quite disarming and simple philosophy that politics are love—and consequently devoted all of her extra-sexual energies arranging treaties with everybody.

“Both,” said Victoria. “I’m bored. In the doldrums. Life is a Möbius strip.”

“Your Majesty,” said Eleanor, “how about dinner at the White House? You haven’t been to Brasilia since the
President’s coronation. Besides,” she added significantly, “they serve the most excellent caramel dessert.”

Victoria shook her head. “We are not amused.” Then, recalling that the American ambassador was a very sensitive dom, she added placatingly: “Sorry, love. I know it’s the greatest show on earth, but I’m just not in the phase for big hellos. Also I don’t go a megaton on having my arm shaken off and my hand kissed to the bone before the booze-up starts. I hope Sammy wasn’t expecting me?”

“No, Your Majesty. But the Queen’s suite is permanently ready, and the President has asked me to renew her standing invitation… You could always make it an incognito.”

Victoria laughed grimly. “I had an American incognito about fifteen years ago. It rained Daughters of the Restoration, Maidens of the Plains and the Hollywood State Choir… Don’t think I don’t like that sort of thing, Eleanor. It’s all a question of phase.”

Josephine, Proconsul of the Grand Federation, scratched her legs (thus calling attention to what a scribbling sport had once defined as France’s greatest assets), poured some more coffee and yawned. “You are righter than right,
chérie
. It is all a question of mood. And on this last day of October I am in the mood for a new mood. Something different is required… Quaint, perhaps, but different.”

The ambassador of the Sino-Indian Empire suddenly had an idea. “I have it, Vicky,” she said. “Let me call home and get them to freeze the waters below the Taj Mahal. Then we can jet over late this afternoon, electro-roast an ox and have an olde English skating party complete with paper lanterns, Johann Strauss and half a regiment of big virile Pathans.”

“Darling Indira,” said the Queen gently, “you read too much. Also we had an Indian evening-or was it an
Indonesian evening?—about ten days ago… But somewhere… somewhere there is the virus of an idea.” She turned once more to the Federation Proconsul. “What day did you say it was, love?”

“The last day of October.”

“Ahah,” exclaimed Victoria triumphantly. “Ace, king, queen, jack. Hallowe’en! I knew there was something at the back of my libido. Olde Anglican custom. We’ll have a witches’ sabbath.”

“Joy—squared and cubed,” said Eleanor.

“Hallowe’en?” enquired Anastasia dubiously.

“Hallowe’en,” confirmed the Queen emphatically. “The Eve of All Hallows, when sports go bump in the night. We’ll have witches and warlocks and demons and devils, We’ll have skeletons and virgins and fireworks and black magic.” Then, as an afterthought, she added: “We will also have the Commons, the Diplomatic Corps, the Peace Corps and senior civil servants… The A list, I think. The B’s are too bloody stodgy for words… And everyone is commanded to arrive by jet pack and broomstick… Ha, that should be a bright little kick—particularly if we lace the booze.” She patted Anastasia on the arm. “Be a dearie, and hit the go button. You’re nearest. We’d better programme the serfs to lay on something special.”

Anastasia rang for the private secretary.

Indira, still saddened a little by the royal rejection of the Taj Mahal, said somewhat petulantly: “But where can one hold this—this witches’ sabbath?”

Victoria grinned. “Where else but Stonehenge, you beautiful brown beast?”

Twelve

At the end of the world

wrote Dion,

the sky stole blood from a rose.

He gazed hypnotically at the ancient writing pad, chewed the end of his century-old pencil for a moment or two, then reached absently for the bottle of vodka. He didn’t bother to pour any. He just raised the neck of the bottle to his lips and drank.

Presently, he hiccupped. Then he began to write once more:

And where darkness grows

in the hollow light of twilight,

a white island lay,

sear-like in darkness.

There was left no sensation,

only the heaving stillness

of night’s last sickness.

Continents flickered;

silent sea-beds spoke

in forked-flame play

and a mime of forgotten birds.

There was another long pause, and further consultation with the vodka. At last he received enlightenment and the pencil whispered quickly across the page.

Wind, the smothered wind heard

too much of a tale for the keeping;

wept and swept from the planet,

as only the dying hurry

to canyon or cave or valley

where no light grows.

Finally, as an afterthought, he added:
Dion Quern, October 31, 2071
. Then he threw the pencil down and reached for the vodka.

Juno was sitting at the chess board, plugged in to a game with the domestic computer of London Seven. It lived two hundred and fourteen floors below in the basement of the tower and was simultaneously playing two hundred and forty-seven games of plane chess, five games of tri-di chess, eighteen games of Go and nine games of Hokusan. It was also programming the air-conditioning, the high speed lifts, the restaurant service and room service and delivering its daily report to the Greater London Computer on water and power intake.

Juno had just typed her seventeenth move. She was two pawns down, and the computer would probably mate—as usual—before the twenty-fifth move.

She saw that Dion had finished writing.

“How goes it, love?”

“Ferkinorrible.”

“What were you writing?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“If you want a label,” he said irritably, “let’s call it ‘Footnote to a Monograph on the Possible After-Effects of Armageddon’.”

The computer replied to the move as Juno had expected
it would, and the R5 square on her chess board glowed where the computer had just eliminated her bishop with its knight. She took the knight with a pawn and some resignation. The computer had its rooks doubled.

Juno turned to Dion once more. “There will be no Armageddon,” she said confidently. “Because the affairs of the world are now virtually controlled by women.”

“You stupid, big-breasted bitch.”

Juno stood up. As an afterthought she signalled her resignation to the computer. Then she faced Dion, arms akimbo.

“Don’t mix it with me, little troubadour. Otherwise, I may have to snap you in two.”

“Stupid, big-breasted bitch,” he repeated calmly. “What the Stopes do you know about anything, you arrogant cow?”

“You’re trying to needle me.”

“Ah, the dawn of intelligence in the master sex… No Armageddon, quoth the dom. And, lo, the
pronunciamento
becomes graven on a stone tablet… Armageddon arrived some time ago, dear dim playmate. It started with a Hollywood musical called Hiroshima and worked up to a genetic climax with the usurpation of the human female.” He hiccupped once more. “People got burned at Hiroshima, but by Stopes the rest of us got fresh-frozen when you shrivel-wombs became pill-happy.”

“I think I should order some coffee,” retorted Juno with dignity.

“Do that thing. It indicates the limit of your imagination.”

Juno lost her temper. She lunged across the room. Dion met her with what he hoped would be a devastating blow to the solar plexus. It never arrived. Juno snatched at his
arm, translated the movement into a whip and side-stepped. He somersaulted over the bed.

“Try again, playboy,” she taunted.

With an angry growl he leaped back across the bed. Juno hit him once. He fell, retching.

“Little one,” she murmured, cradling his head. “Oh, my little lost one. What is it?”

“Life,” he said, when he could breathe freely. “Life and vodka. Poetry and lack of hope… I’m sorry, shrivel-womb. This one is on me.”

“Read me your poem—please.”

“There isn’t enough time. Kismet, via the royal command, calls us to Stonehenge.”

“Victoria can wait. Besides, I doubt if we shall be presented. I’m only a second grade… Read me the poem.”

Dion took the piece of paper. “You won’t like it.”

“Read it—please.”

“You won’t understand it. I’m damned if I do.”

“Read it.”

When he had finished, he was amazed to see that Juno was crying. There were no sounds, but the tears flowed freely down her face.

“What is it?” he asked. “Surely not recognition of genius at my time of disintegration.”

“Love me,” pleaded Juno. “For Stopes sake, love me… It’s the damned ticking of the clock.”

Dion shook his head. “Start learning, Amazon,” he said. “I’ll do it in my time—not in yours.”

Thirteen

F
ROM
an altitude of five hundred feet, Stonehenge looked like the wreckage of some monstrous Christmas cake. The whole area was covered by a high transparent tepee through the top of which the smoke from a butane-fed bonfire and a hundred torches rose like a solid column in the still air. The megaliths were covered with sheets of iridescent metal foil pressed hard against their contours so that metal and stone seemed as one. In the great circle, witches and warlocks seethed like a colony of disturbed ants. Victoria had evidently not yet arrived, for the royal standard was nowhere to be seen.

Dion and Juno were riding separate broomsticks. Their night sky suits glowed dully green against the star-pricked darkness. Juno’s witch hat tilted precariously on the back of her head, held in position only by the band from her headlight.

The jet packs whistled softly behind the two of them as they slowly circled the area. They dipped their headlights so that they would not blind other guests.

“What do you think?” shouted Juno against the whistle of the jets.

“I don’t think,” returned Dion. “Thinking is bad medicine.” He glanced up. “I’ll race you to the stars.”

She laughed. “Not tonight, stripling. The Queen commands us.”

“Coward, flat-belly, sycophant,” he called. “Follow me.”
He switched off his headlight and opened the vertical jet throttle wide. He fell upwards like a crazy stone.

Juno called: “Dion!” But he was already away, a hundred feet above her. She switched off her own light and followed him.

They both fell giddily, insanely towards the dancing stars.

At one thousand feet, the chill and rushing air made their faces tingle.

At two thousand feet frost formed on their eyebrows.

At three thousand feet they were level once more.

“Stabilize!” gasped Juno. “For Stopes sake, stabilize.” The words hurt as the freezing air ripped into her lungs.

But Dion would not or could not hear. On and upwards he fell, the rush of air singing louder than the straining jets.

At eight thousand feet, Juno could go no higher. The pain in her ears, the numbness in her face, the frost on her sky suit and the deeply penetrating cold that sank through the rubber into her limbs—all these told her that she could go no higher.

“Stabilize!” she mouthed vainly. “Stabilize!” But the words had no substance, the air was too thin, and Dion had already left her behind—a sad little, mad little troubadour bent on falling upwards to his fresh-frozen death at the threshold of the stars.

Juno tried to hold it at eight thousand feet. But she could not. The cold was too intense and the air was too thin. With a despairing upward glance at the shrinking speck of luminous green, she lowered slowly to five thousand feet and waited.

Dion was drunk with pain and ecstasy. His wrist altimeter showed nine thousand five hundred feet. He could hardly feel his hands; but he didn’t care. The blood that had begun to flow from his nose froze on his lips; but he didn’t care.

The stars were dancing. And the dance was such that a man might aspire to join.

He held for a while at ten thousand feet. Indeed, he had to; for the jet pack had a built-in pressure safety device and would take him no higher. In the past, too many people had jetted up to the high reaches until the atmosphere became so thin that they lost consciousness. For a decade, it had been one of the favoured forms of suicide.

So he remained poised at ten thousand feet, watching the stars dance gently as the servo-jets rhythmically trimmed his attitude to the vertical. He let the cold eat through his sky suit, probing flesh and bone until it seemed to reach the very core of his personality.

The pain—the dull dead stinging of blood and nerves that were trying hard not to freeze—pleased him. He was purging himself by cold. He was confessing to the void, receiving absolution from the stars, demanding a sacrament from the great black deeps of space.

His face became a stiff mask. White crystals proliferated all over him, building a shell of ice. But still his eyes burned, translating the starlight into reflected fire.

And presently, there came a satisfying sleepiness. He knew it was dangerous and played with the danger, skating deliciously along the edge of oblivion. Then, vaguely, with no great feeling of urgency, he remembered Juno. A dom of great sense—and nonsense. A column of warm and pliant flesh several thousand feet below. He realized that, for no reasonable reason, he wanted her. Now. In his time… If only to savour the knowledge that he had been where she dared not follow… If only to see the look in her eyes…

BOOK: Five to Twelve
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