Table of Contents
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright Â© Kim Holt 1993
Cover illustration by Lauren Panepinto. Cover copyright Â© 2012 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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First US e-book edition: September 2012
Also by Tom Holt
Expecting Someone Taller
Who's Afraid of Beowulf?
Here Comes the Sun
Faust Among Equals
Odds and Gods
Paint Your Dragon
Wish You Were Here
Snow White and the Seven Samurai
Nothing But Blue Skies
The Portable Door
In Your Dreams
Earth, Air, Fire and Custard
You Don't Have to be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps
The Better Mousetrap
May Contain Traces of Magic
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages
For MY MOTHER
But for whose tireless encouragement And selfless dedication to the furtherance of my writing career (To the neglect and detriment of her own prodigious talent as a crime writer) I would now be the son and heir of a bestselling authoress Instead of just another Penniless Author
he sun rose. It was dirty. It was late. It was thirty billion miles overdue on its next service. There was a thin film of oil on its surface, the result of a sprung gasket. But it was up and running, and that in itself was something of a miracle, all things considered.
âOver to you, son,' said the Principal Technical Officer, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. âJust don't drop it, all right?'
The Assistant Technical Officer scowled. âYou always say that,' he replied. âAnd have I ever . . . ?'
The older official looked down at the great fiery disc and smiled in spite of himself. True, he could hear the distinct grinding noise and smell the burning oil, but it was still an impressive sight. They'd built things to last in those days, which was just as well. Of course, they had the funding, then.
âHere,' said the younger official. âThe gyro's packed up again.'
âGyro,' replied his colleague scornfully. âBloody modern
tat. You'll just have to fly it on manual, that's all.'
,' whined the younger official. âThat's no good. If I gotta do that I'll have to miss lunch again.'
âTough.' The Principal Technical Officer's soul passed a few observations about the younger generation, with particular reference to those members of it who wore earrings. âWhen I was your age . . .'
âYeah, yeah, you told me.'
âGiven anything, I would, for a chance to fly her solo.' He paused, remembering. âWe took a pride in our work in those days,' he added.
The younger official had a point. Things were different now, the Principal Technical Officer admitted to himself as he packed up his knapsack and put on his bicycle clips. Not quite so run down for one thing. The Great Bear wasn't held in its place in the firmament by three hundred thousand miles of insulating tape and a bent nail.
âYou should think yourself lucky,' he said without conviction, âthat you've got a job at all.'
His junior colleague didn't even bother to reply; he was leaning on the dead man's handle, eyes vacant, Walkman headphones on, staring down towards Betelgeuse. Something told the Principal Technical Officer that if humanity made it through to nightfall with nothing worse than a few hours of inexplicable darkness it should count itself lucky.
Still, he said to himself, as he hoisted himself on to his ancient bicycle and pedalled stiffly away across the sparkling freeway of the stars, if you're going to take a pride in your work, your work's got to be something you can take a pride in. And if the whole shooting-match is virtually derelict, what can you expect? No wonder the boy's demoralised. Where's the point in bothering when nobody else seems to give a damn?
His way home took him past the moon-sheds and, following this train of thought, he slowed to a halt, leaned on his handlebars and looked in through the great double doors. Inside, the moon was being winched back into dry dock for the day. From a distance, it never failed to take his breath away. Seen up close, it wasn't a pretty sight.
âStrewth,' the old official muttered under his breath.
Admittedly, it was quite some time - centuries, probably - since he'd taken the time to stop and look at it this closely, but there was no denying the fact that the old girl was in pretty poor shape.
âWhat have they been
to her?' he said aloud.
One of the maintenance engineers, an alarming-looking youth with a Mohican haircut and a ring through one nostril, looked round and stared at him. He didn't seem to notice.
âWhat's up with you, grandad?' the youth demanded.
âYou're not going to use sandpaper on her, are you?' the old official said, horrified.
No wonder, the old official reflected. No wonder the poor old bus has got all those great big pits and craters all over her once-smooth surfaces. He sighed; he knew there was no point uttering the words that were trying to squeeze their way through the gap in his teeth, but he said them anyway.
âYou shouldn't use that stuff on the outer skin,' he said. âFirst thing you know, you'll get pitting.'
So what indeed? Nobody cared, obviously; and as he cycled away, the old official couldn't find it in his heart to blame them. Where was the point in trying to keep it going when it was patently clapped out? They were going to scrap it soon in any case, they said, commission a brand new one. They'd been saying it for a long time now.
As usual, he stopped off at the Social Club for a tea and a bacon sandwich before going home. He parked his bicycle, chained it to a lamppost, and walked into the room, which looked like one of the more run-down East German railway stations. Another example, he couldn't help reflecting, of the way this whole operation is going downhill.
âWhat's happened to the pool table, Nev?' he asked.
âJammed,' replied the steward, washing glasses. âThey're sending someone later on.'
âOr at least,' the steward added, âso they told me.'
The steward made an indeterminate noise and put the bacon sandwich in the microwave. Another bloody innovation.
âLooking forward to the darts match tomorrow, Nev?'
The steward sighed. âCancelled, George old son,' he said. âDue to lack of interest. Hadn't you heard?'
Jane stopped what she was doing and looked out of the window at the sun.
This, she reflected, is what they call too much of a good thing. All very well looking fondly back on the long, hot summers of one's childhood, but when you're stuck in an office with a glass roof, windows that don't open and a heating system mysteriously jammed on, even in summer, you start thinking nostalgically about good, solid rain.
âI can remember rain,' she said aloud. âGosh, that dates me.'
Three weeks, give or take a day, and already the news-readers were smugly saying gloomy things about standpipes and hosepipe bans. What's wrong with a country where three weeks of sun turns the reservoirs into dustbowls?
She turned away from the window and tried to concentrate on the VDU in front of her. It was staring back at her with a sort of blank look, as if it had been sniffing glue. She picked up the phone.
âTrish,' she said. âWhat's wrong with the screens?'
âSystem's down at Reading,' Trish replied. âBack on after lunch.'
âGreat,' said Jane. âTell them we'd be better off with a card index and a notched stick.'
Never mind, there's plenty I can be getting on with till then, said Jane to herself. Staring out of the window, for instance.
Instead, she looked through her handbag, found her address book and dialled a number.
âApollo Staff Bureau,' said a voice like a lady Dalek at the other end of the line. âCan I help you?'
âYes,' Jane said brightly, âI want a new job, please.'
âWe could advertise it,' said the Chief of Staff.
The rest of the committee looked at him.
âWell,' said Personnel eventually, âit's an idea, certainly. Where would you suggest?'
âTricky one to place, don't you think?' Personnel continued, with the air of someone getting ready to ram a point into the ground. âI mean, it's not one for the
Exchange and Mart
, is it?'
âLet's try being positive for once,' Staff replied testily. âThat's the problem, really, we're all too keen to look at the disadvantages and not the . . .'
âAbsolutely,' Branch interrupted. âWith you all the way there. But I think Personnel's got a point too, you know.'
All God's children gotta point, said Staff to himself, it's just that some of them are bloody silly ones. He drew a spaceship on the agenda and tried to calm himself down.
âI still think,' he said, putting the tips of his fingers together as a means of stopping his hands clenching, âthat we should advertise it. I mean, why not? It's what they do in the private sector. They don't keep staff vacancies a deadly secret, like they were something to be ashamed of. They go out and they ask people to apply.'
âRight on,' said Personnel, with all the enthusiasm of a corpse. âSo where do we look?'
There was a silence.
âAll right,' said Staff, âwhat do you suggest? We need someone and we need someone quickly. You're the Personnel Officer. What's your considered opinion?'