We milk the cow of the world, and as we do,
Science fiction ... speculative fiction ... alternative future ... robots ... talking animals ... aliens ... first contact ... telepathy ... download mind ... future London ... what does it mean to be human? … pornograph ... virtual reality ... virtual unreality ... artificial intelligence ... artificial stupidity ... 21st century ... epigenetics ...
Now I’m not going to try to tell you that Jeremy had intimations of mortality
as he described the Albert Bridge’s patient catenary. He was just thinking
about whether Daily Work System was a better term than Daily Management System,
then he had a stroke of inspiration: Daily Involvement System. He believed,
like his naked mud-smeared rock-throwing forebears, in the secret power of
naming things. He thought that by changing the name of something you could
also change its nature. He even believed that merely by naming a thing you
could bring it into being, but at the same time he did not think of himself
as a superstitious or primitive person. He was a man with great energy and
powers of concentration; he liked pleasant sensations and nice things; he
was steadfast and strong; he did not believe in destiny. He felt his own
life blowing against his face like a breeze but he moved with it or against
it or across it as it veered about the course he had laid to his destination
(Plan, Do, Check, Act). He was admired, he was loved, he was needed. Sometimes
he woke in the night afraid, but he was a train, a ship, on rails. You were
on the ship or oe the ship. If you do not live the values you will be perceived
as a negative asset. ‘Negative Asset’: there was a new name for an old thing,
like ‘Negative Equity’. Life is a game. Winning is everything. He wins who
dares, thrusts, grasps, holds his stake. In the middle of the bridge a ﬁlthy
drunk stepped out into the road in front of him, a man with the toothless
face and round shoulders of one who has failed to grasp, to thrust. Not a
stakeholder. Jeremy swung around him, accelerating and leaning on his horn.
He was pressed into the scented leather of his seat as the kickdown shifted
gears and the twelve-cylinder engine thrust him forward and up along the
curve of the bridge. He smiled with something like joy, and seemed to see
the sky brighten so that he sped along in a tunnel of light, at the very
centre of it all.
Then he was struck out of the world like an error and never seen again, not as such.
How do I know these things?
How do you think?
The island was uninhabited, as were lot of places in those days. It was a long way from anywhere and the world no longer had a good enough reason for making the journey. Most of the buildings had been neatly removed and in a few seasons the plants and the weather had covered over all traces of them. A lone, rambling, single-storey wooden house stood in the shade of the palms behind the beach on the southern side, protected from the heat of the sun by the trees and by the bulk of the extinct volcanic peak that rose behind, cloaked in greenery and alive with birds and ﬂowers. The house was of bare, weathered hardwood, pale as sand. Inside, the ﬂoors were varnished and the walls painted white. The ocean breeze blew gently in and out of the house through the many doors and windows, but the shutters were closed and the rooms were dark and cool in the aquarium light. The sun only ever entered in splinters and stripes. When it rained the sound and scent came into the house as easily as the wind, but the house was dry and safe. It was very clean, but there was no furniture. There was nothing in the house anywhere except the front room just to the right of the door, with its windows opening on to the broad veranda and then to the sea. In that room the naked, perfect body of a young man lay motionless, without any visible means of support, a metre above the immaculate ﬂoor. His eyes were open, but the expression on his face was non-committal in the extreme.
He was halfway down the crumbling staircase in the half light when he heard
the rapid click, scrape behind him, and the soft voice: ‘Hello, love. Would
you like to go for a walk?’
He turned, looking wildly about him for a weapon, but there was nobody on the stairs behind him, only an old dog on the landing above, panting softly and looking at him with watery eyes. It was a very nondescript dog, smallish, brownish, with a grey muzzle and no tail to speak of, a coat of greasy matted curls and an unmistakable odour. There was no sign of the woman; he guessed she must be hidden further up the staircase.
The dog stood and came down two more steps. Its breath was as rank as an open grave. ‘I’m hungry,’ it said, in its soft contralto, ‘would you like to go for a walk to the shops?’
‘I’m hungry, love.’ She came down the stairs towards him. ‘Hello, I’m your friend.’
‘What, what, who, who…what are you?’
‘My name is Boole. I am a Talkimal, Trade Mark Registered, a product of Lacuna plc, Technology in the Service of Humanity. Scratch my ears, love.’
‘Where’s your owner?’ He felt a fool, talking back to it. ‘Don’t you belong to someone? Where do you come from?’
‘I am a lost dog.’ She scratched violently with one hind leg, then the other. Then she backed up to the wall and crouched, writhing as she rubbed the base of her spine against the plaster, leaving a greasy stain. Her mouth fell open and her tongue lolled out in a horrible grin as she wriggled.
‘What’s your name?’ He was talking to a dog? ‘Who do you belong to?’
‘My name is Boole. My address is Blank. I’m hungry, love.’
‘Look, I’m the last person, this is, this is…what am I doing? I can’t possibly help you.’
‘What is your name?’
‘Mine? My name is Jeremy. My address is Blank, too, come to think of it.’
‘You are a lost man?’
‘Am I? Well yes, Boole, yes I am. A lost man.’
‘Are you hungry?’
‘No.’ It was odd, after all this time without food, but he was not hungry at all.
‘I am hungry. Would you like to go for a walk?’
The architecture of the late pre-millennial period made for lovely ruins. Once the oces were abandoned, sometimes only half-built, their pointless elaboration made them fragile, and time worked rapidly on them and their semi-destruction blurred the bloated fatuity of the builders’ vision. As the last three digits in the years wound up toward zero, a burst of greed had driven the city east into the wasteland left over from a recent war, and there, on a muddy plain turned into a vast puzzle by the projecting rectangles of blank water that marked where the docks had once been, people had begun to act out the ever-popular fantasy of actually building from scratch an entire city, of gleaming towers and broad spaces and glass castles that reﬂected the clouds as if they were all ﬂoating together in the sky; a whole brightly lit self-contained world smelling of joinery and carpet adhesive, where tens of thousands of people might be employed, fed, exercised and amused.
The two of them were already at the window. The man held Sky under his
right arm, while with his left he casually punched a hole through the glass.
Freezing wind blew through the gap, and the ﬂoor was covered with blown snow.
With quiet concentration he worked with his free hand to enlarge the hole
until it was bigger than himself, tugging the shards of glass free of the
frame. There was no blood on his hands.
Jeremy approached slowly. Sky was limp, inert, her eyes closed. He laid a hand on the tall man’s shoulder, but the man did not even glance at him. His body was like stone, and hot, really hot to the touch, the fabric burned his hand so that he had to let go.
‘Ray. Rupert! Whatever your name is!’
The tall man stood in the opening in the swirling snow with the tower of darkness below. The snow evaporated with a hiss as it struck him. Only his forearms and hands seemed to be cool; the snow clung to them where they held Sky, as you would hold a baby, cradling her head so that she was held up against the darkness like an example, eyes wide to the sky, still and limp as a sleeping child, bathed in a new silvery light that poured down on them from above.
The carpet under the man’s feet began to smoulder, the heat radiating from his body bathed Jeremy where he stood two metres away, afraid to move or speak. Somewhere in the distance an alarm began to ring, barely audible above the wind tearing at the broken window. Then the light from above faded, her eyes closed, and the tall man swung her back inside and laid her softly down. Her hair was ﬁlled with snow. He stood straight with his arms hanging by his side, his eyes staring at nothing. Jeremy stepped closer and gripped his arm. There was no heat at all radiating from him now, now he was cold, colder than the air streaming through the broken window. Ice formed on his forehead and down his cheeks, a white coat of frost that extended rapidly downwards as Jeremy watched, until half his body was frosted like a cake. Jeremy shook him, and the tall body toppled over, rigid as a statue, to lie next to Sky. The eyes were still, pointing in dierent directions.
At one end of the bay a line of rocks stretched out into the sea. When he
had climbed around them he found himself in a second bay, where umbrella
pines came down close to the water. The moon was rising. There was a house
with white plaster walls at the edge of the trees, with a wooden dock stretching
out into the water, a varnished clinker-built dinghy bobbing from a painter
at its end. The house had a veranda with a plain wooden table with a oil
lamp hanging from a beam above it. Inside was an almost bare room with another
lamp and a bed in one corner with clothes laid out on it: a simple cotton
shirt and trousers, clean and well-worn. There was a tray on the bed with
bread and cheese on a plate, fruit in a basket, a bottle of wine and one
of water. The bottles were cool and frosted with condensation. He took the
tray outside and sat at the table where he could hear the sea breathing on
the sand below. The bread was warm and sent up a bubble of ﬂavoured heat
as he broke it open. He heard music in the distance, and looking up he saw
that there was a town across the water. A little seaside town. Coloured lights
were strung in bright catenaries along the promenade and he could see the
shadows of people as they walked up and down, arm in arm, looking at the
lights and the bright shop fronts. In the centre of the promenade was a round
bandstand like a brilliant birdcage, and a band was playing inside, but the
music disintegrated as it ﬂoated across the water and reached him only as
single notes and disordered fragments. Above the sea front the white houses
of the town rose in a clutter of cubes up the hillside. The winding narrow
streets were lit by lamps at the corners, and all the houses had balconies
with wrought iron railings draped in jasmine and bougainvillaea. If he breathed
in deeply he thought he could even smell the ﬂowers. It was no great distance
across the bay. When the sun rose again he could take the dinghy at the end
of the dock and row over there and have breakfast in one of the cafes on
When he turned back, Sky was standing across the table from him, smiling easily as she always had, except that in places he could see right through her.