Tuesday, 29 September 2015
Yellow streetlamps swim amid waves of fog. A cold chill seeps slowly out of nowhere and mingles with gaseous twilight. Misted breath sweeps effortlessly along the dark street.
In daytime, the road is a gushing river of people; by night, only a few droplets remain. One such droplet stumbles erratically down the street now. In the dark fog he is just a shape clad in a huge shaggy coat. A tall black hat perches on his head precariously, like it can scarcely contain the secrets crammed in his head.
Gaunt buildings draw themselves up on either side of the road as if awaiting inspection. They look old, these structures; but they were only built in the last decade. The paint is peeling at the edges of the balconies and on the sides of door-hinges – but that was the design. The doorknobs were made dusty; the wooden beams were made mottled and covered in grey lichen. Attics were built in ruins and chimneys painted with layers of soot in days gone by.
The sky is black and there are few stars. What light there is seems to come from the buildings themselves, a soft glowing which complements the flickering gaslight of the street-lamps. The fog blows like soft halting breath, swooping amid the peeling paint, turning and twisting, rising to the grey and secretive chimneys and rooftops far above.
The shape is ambling still; his tall hat bobs up and down to the rhythm of his feet on the cold hard cobbled stones. He is lame, but walks swiftly and with purpose. As he walks, he passes a manhole, sounds of folk ballads from other worlds trickling out of the cast iron top. A horse and cart trundles past him, and the thickset red-faced driver raises a hand in greeting.
The coming dawn yawns silently, turns over in its grey-gold slumber. It is not ready to rise.
The shape has a name, and it is Gibbons. Tonight he is thinking to himself, which is not his customary habit. His mind is usually occupied with facts and figures; this night, Gibbons thinks of the coming Haven Point Two. He is confident he will secure a place, for he has spoken to the Ministration and luckily for him, they were impressed.
He paces, with his unimpressive eyes screwed up against the gloom. Walking slower now, he reaches one of the peeling buildings and examines the plastic house number. It is tiny, so as not to bring too much disturbance to the Victoriana. Having decided the number is not the one he is looking for, he moves on, proceeding with the same actions for each building along the street.
His face is small and bearded, his crafted hair thinning from black to grey. His nose is crooked and aslant the symmetry of his cold brown eyes. His mouth is a tight thin line, more lips than teeth; and his sharp ears are little, deceptive things, which wield more power than it looks.
Gibbons comes to a halt with a sharp gasp of breath. He has arrived.
Peeling his thin gloves off his thin hands, he limps towards the door and prises it gently open. Thumping music escapes immediately, like toxic gas, and swoops into the distance to explore a new world. A little smile of delight finds its way onto Gibbons’ face, although his teeth remain hidden behind lidded lips.
He removes his long dark coat and steps over the threshold. A filament lamp is fizzling in one corner, illuminating every other second a long staircase winding down. Gibbons follows it, one hand on the wall and the other clutching the heavy fabric of his coat. As he descends the disco music grows louder and louder in his ears: it is David Bowie’s Jean Genie, played at an impossibly high volume. This is the kind of scene Gibbons often heard his grandfather talking wistfully about; now, thanks to Haven, it is his to enjoy also.
But the music is not at its loudest yet; it does not drown out everything. Faintly, faintly, spilling down the snaking staircase towards Gibbons’ ears, comes the soft sound of sibilant bells. There are church towers on many street corners in Haven, as Gibbons well knows, but in the Victorian London Sector you are more likely to find them than anywhere else. Clearly the bell-ringers are at it again. He glances at his watch: eleven p.m.
But as the eleventh chime comes to a crashing end, he hears more. A twelfth, then a thirteenth and fourteenth peals sound outside. The discordant notes fade away, and Gibbons is left musing over the chimes on the staircase.
He looks around him, glances at his watch to make sure of the time, and hesitates; but his curiosity gets the better of him and he quickly heads back up the stairs. Footsteps rapping on the hard stone, he reaches the front door and steps outside.
Gibbons emerges into the cool night air, still carrying his coat over one arm. The fog is slowly dissipating, as if it has been summoned somewhere else and is retreating reluctantly. The stars are brighter than ever, as if they know of the coming dawn and are giving out their light more strongly as a result. The street is just as deserted as it always was. There is no one around for a good mile, no doubt; the Victorian London Sector is always abandoned at this time of night. If Gibbons had walked just a tiny bit faster down the staircase and into the disco, there would have been no one to hear the mysterious fourteen chimes.
He stops. “Hello?” he calls into the fog. His voice sounds reedy and thin. He swallows. Over the road there is a church, as he had expected. In the dark there is little detail to be made out, but he can see the spire stretching far above his head, blotting out stars. “Hello?” he asks again. “Is there anybody there? I heard fourteen-”
A shape leaps from the darkness and advances on him, black and ghostlike. Gibbons stumbles on the uneven paving as he tries to flee. Another shape runs up behind him and seizes him by the hair, yanking his head back violently. Gibbons scarcely has time to scream before a blade is jerked unevenly across his throat and he falls, splayed wide over the cobbled stones. A warm darkness seeps out of him and trickles away.
The street is silent once more, and the ancient-but-modern buildings are slightly tinged with the soft yellow of the sunrise.
“Who was he, Col?” asks the taller of the two shapes, turning the body over with his shoe.
“Some kind of businessman, I suppose. Nothing to do with us. But he came here asking about the fourteen chimes so that was the end of him.” Col whispers the words, bent over the body and examining Gibbons’ face. “Where’s the boy?”
The taller man whistles and a third shape emerges from the shadows: this one much shorter and thinner. Col nods at him. “Let’s go. Find the next Sector.”
The silence of death hangs thick in the morning air as the three of them leave behind the brutal handiwork and melt into the shadows once more.
The two men stride fast. The boy tags along behind them, undersized, dark and shabby. He looks out of place amid knives and murderers, like a timid mouse beside a motorway. Through the dank puddles and muck of Haven’s multitudinous streets and waterways they weave, sometimes heading directly, at other times taking back streets and alleyways.
Col and his friend stop at irregular intervals in areas as deserted as they can find, locate the nearest church and swarm like locusts up to the steeple. Both have been official bell-ringers ever since Haven was built, and now they proceed throughout its roads sounding the fourteen chimes. Shapes leap out of the sides of walls and follow them, taking different routes and diverting at crossroads wherever possible; but following nonetheless.
From the Victorian London Sector the three make their way beside the canals of the Venetian Sector – no shortage of churches there, either – and up the slope of the Royal Mile in the Edinburgh Sector. Few people look at them; it’s a cold time of year and the wind is blowing in from the east, so their huge shaggy coats pass unnoticed. And if they are questioned, to say that they are bell-ringers is sufficient; the post is a known if not an official one. But nothing in Haven is official; there is no civil service, no emergency services: not anymore.
The boy starts to tire. He is only twelve, but looks younger. He has no parents, and the bell-ringers are the only people who’ve ever looked after him. They found him somewhere in the Belarusian Sector, shivering in the cold, years ago. Until today he has always stayed at one of their houses day in, day out – but now he is joining them on their first Summoning. He is excited and nervous, although he cannot express it: a freak accident, which no one can remember, destroyed the biological tissue in his tongue when he was eleven months old.
Col is a man of about forty, grim-faced and grim-voiced, with greying hair and a solid build. His hands were mangled in some kind of engineering accident when he was an undergraduate; he wears special metal gloves which enable him to grip objects now, but it’s a difficult and strenuous existence he leads. The other man is called Rouri. He’s about the same age as Col, but few people can be sure, because he is quick as lightning and avoids open streets. He is a being small but strong and always more comfortable with a knife in his hands.
Rouri and Col quicken their pace, and then wait for the boy to catch up. “Come on,” says Col as gently as he can, and Rouri grabs the boy’s hand. The three of them proceed.
Soon they cross the barrier of the Edinburgh Sector and pause, as if about to enter some new part of Haven where the shadows were less accommodating. There is no official security between Sectors, and there never has been: the powers that be in the Ministration refuse to have security for fear of unrest. But there is nevertheless a sense when one Sector ends and another begins that: be careful. You don’t know what’s ahead. Things may happen in here you don’t know about. They become aware of a whirring noise, the type you might hear whilst travelling on an aeroplane: it is more noticeable in some parts of Haven than others. Here it is strongest.
“Right,” says Col warily. “This is some kind of Mediterranean city. I’m told there’s a good view from the top of the bell-tower. So what we’ll do, lad, is go up there and ring the bell, then have a quick break and take in the view? Does that sound good?”
The boy looks solemnly at Col’s face. There is a curious contrast between them. Col is the man with strength, with meaning, a job, a family and, what’s more, the ability to speak. This boy is homeless, nameless, dumb, with not a penny in the world. And yet when Col bends down to speak to the boy it always looks to Rouri, standing to one side, as though they are two men sitting down to talk face to face. Not idle chatter in a pub, but neither the formal talk of a business conversation. It is as if these two people – the one looking anxiously into the cracked brown eyes of the other, who stares silently back – are speaking to one another. Not talking, but speaking: and speaking words as they have always been meant to be spoken.
Slowly, the boy nods. Col smiles. “Come on.” And with that they cross the barrier and enter the next Sector.
Ahead of them is part of a city. It is lit with gold, although it gives the impression of something which would always be that colour: part of the gold lies within it. Tier upon tier of sun-draped, mud-baked dwellings swarm like tumbling rocks around a wide expanse of azure harbour. The collection of open squares, historical buildings, al fresco restaurants and narrow streets lie displayed for all to see – separated from the public merely by a scarcely noticeable, membranous sliver of copper dust. Boats glimmer like jewels on the vastness of rich clear blue and somewhere, somehow, an imperial cannon resounds like a nationalistic thunderclap.
But not all is in harmony. To one side the brickworked head of Fort St Angelo rises from the harbour and squats glowering on rocky foundations like a sullen announcement. It is recognisably old, yet younger than the other buildings; for the time inside Fort St Angelo is 1693. Sounds of clamour, the harbingers of the Grand Masters and the Knights of Malta – escape into the afternoon air. The fort strands proud, a reminder in starkest form that here, history is temperamental.
“I’ve never been here before, but they call it Valletta.” Col’s whisper winds its way into the boy’s ear. “Have a proper look, go on.” Gently, he pushes him forward.
The boy stumbles out among weeds and tarmac. Behind the brick wall in front of him is another world, of roaring roads, of aged mud-brick, rocky plateaux, of the bright yellow sun and the spiralling birds. But as in the architecture, so too in the weather: not all is in harmony. There is an amassing army of stormclouds. Some are suspended heavily over the city, whilst others over the marble parapet are tinged at the edges with crimson. And there! And there! The swirl of dark matter breaks up, into chunks of fiery red beauty. Amid the gloomiest hurricane of cloud there is yet a tiny growth touched with light.
“This way,” says Rouri, and together the two men guide the boy. His mouth is still hanging open. But he does not need to speak; they know what he means.
They wander through the city for only minutes, but to the boy it feels like glorious hours. He has fallen in love with the place. Seconds last as eternal spans. Everything becomes both brand new and ancient at the same time.
But eventually, of course, they come to a halt. Towering above the young boy is a Catholic church. A bell-tower soars into the distance on the right; the body of the church sprawls away to the left. The brick is bright yellow but grimied and muddied, sooted by time not pollution; as if the inhabitants of the city have so many buildings as beautiful as this one that they do not care if one or two fall into disrepair. Plaques and the odd palm tree added interest to the church’s walls; a marble statue of a saint or pope stood in front. Through semicircular arches one could see through the church to the sky beyond. In the impressive and ornamental bell-tower a sizeable grey-green bell swung rustily in the breeze: their destination.
“Up we go,” says Col. “We’ll show you and tell you a lot more when we’re at the top.”
Birds flap away from the swinging bell like a boy tries to escape a particularly brash uncle.
The city is held in the grip of sunny silence inbetween each sonorous chime: the kind that is slightly unnerving simply because the scene is so joyful. It should not terrify; therefore it does.
And the now traditional two extra rings also sound – Dong. Dong. All across Valletta people marvel at the stupidity of the bell-ringers. “Damn people don’t have a watch between them. Needs some real workers and a real salary, I tell you.” They look up at the bell-tower and scowl; then move on their way.
High up in the bell-tower, very different thoughts are raging and ebbing and fighting for importance.
The boy stares. There is no description for his amazement. His jaw hangs like a limp cloth that no one has any use for and his eyes are so open it is as if they are trying to take in everything. That’s one thing he’ll never be able to do.
The view from the bell-tower looks like several different photographs superimposed on top of one another. The first photograph is the mortar blanket that is Valletta, with violent yellow sun upon every porch and a blue sky flecked with small fleecy clouds lounging behind: the giants of earlier have already moved off. The sky looks like it keeps going, as if there is no horizon. Technically, the boy knows that of course there is no horizon, but that doesn’t make it any less incredible. The swirling white cloud seems to mesh the blue background into pieces and chunks. These in turn look like privileged glances into somewhere the people of Haven long for but to which they have never been.
The second photograph rises majestically above the first, like a sailing ship rises above a tall wave on a stormy ocean. In the midst of the undimmed blue there is a pale disc. It curves like a spinning golf ball, fading on the nether side to darkness and obscurity. Its surface is shadowy, wispy, a sallow brown, like that of poorly made chocolate. To the boy it seems like there are clouds on the disc as well as above Haven: streaks of white and whirls of lighter and darker patches etch their way across the disc’s surface. Suddenly it becomes clear: he is looking at Venus, the Morning Star. He has always guessed that a planet could never be seen in daylight and that you need the blackness of space to appreciate it. But this sphere of feeble russet seems to suit the waves of Earth’s blue atmosphere: it looks like it is swimming in it, like it has come closer and has been made to feel at home by the humans beneath.
Rouri says knowledgeably, “That is the nearest humankind has ever got to Venus.”
Col taps the astonished boy on the shoulder and points upward. At first the boy supposes that he is meant to look at some mosaic on the roof of the bell-tower standing behind them. But gradually he becomes aware of a third photograph which looks as if it has been printed over the top of the first two. Far above Venus’ wispy chocolate colours, the boy can see a cathedral-like space, of blackness teeming with bright lights. He becomes aware of a breeze on his face but he has suddenly forgotten Valletta. Space endures in all directions above him. Bright lights, white and blue, shine like fire and glimmer like electricity. There are not just brighter and dimmer stars: far off he can see glowing spheres, planets of which he knows nothing. What a myth it is, he thinks now, that space is black. Between the stars he can see waves of deep blue, and a belt of rich green, and lustrous purple to the far right. The colour is a richer tapestry than anything he could have imagined.
The boy is running out of stunned silence, but silent he must stay. Impatiently he grabs at his rags and fishes out a notebook and pen. It is too much for him; he simply has to express himself. He scrawls Whoa! You can see other worlds! Col and Rouri exchange a dark glance but say nothing.
The boy meanwhile has moved round to the other side of the bell-tower. Here: a different view of Valletta, of the built-up hills and villages lying beyond, of cathedral spires and long dusty roads. But the boy stopped looking at the city minutes ago. He is examining yet another planet, this one even closer at hand. It is not brown like Venus; it is hard to pin it down to any one colour. Parts of it are brown, certainly, a dark, scorched brown; bits of it are an impassioned orange-yellow colour. Some of it is deep, vivid red. Still other parts of the globe are a charred black: the boy can almost imagine the smoke escaping into the sky. It coalesces like one melting pot, a cauldron of colours, a vibrant crimson and a deadened charcoal.
That is a strange world, scrawls the boy on the pad of paper and holds it up for the others to read. What is it called?
“That,” says Col, “is the Earth.”
The boy moves his hand to the pad to ask more questions, but he finds he cannot write. He can only stare.
The misshapen orb hangs like a chandelier from the roof of the heavens. It looks both deadly cold and sickeningly hot. He can make out trenches, gashes that run to and fro across the planet, spitting fire. The fact that he can see them gives some indication as to their incredible size. Another thing he notices is that there are no clouds. No wisps, no streaks, nothing. And there can therefore be no water: not a drop of it, amid all that fervid mass. Venus looks more like a home should than this igneous fiend.
The boy’s hand shakes as he traces the inky letters. What happened?
Col sits the boy down on a ledge beside the parapet. The two spheres still sit above them, one on either side. Col and Rouri join the boy.
“A long time ago-” begins Col.
“Not that long ago,” says Rouri. “He needs to know it was only the last generation that did this.”
“In the past,” Col continues, “there was only disaster after disaster. The different countries – they are bits of land that belong to different people – fought one another over silly things like land and trade. More and more of Earth became just like you see it now. The planet became fire and mud and all the animals died.”
He stops speaking and looks at the Earth. A quiet tear trickles down his cheek. “Some of us just wanted to be left alone,” he says. “We wanted to leave her alone. The planet, that is. But others were having none of it. ‘I know,’ said one man, a very clever politician. You won’t have heard of him. ‘We’ll leave the planet. Branch out into the stars. I’ve got an idea.’ And he went on and on in great speeches about this idea he had and everybody cheered and got drunk while on the other side of the world, thousands of people were engulfed in lava flows because there were no emergency services to help them.
“This politician, he said he could solve everything. For months we waited and fire and ash rained down on more and more people. And then – fifteen years ago, now – we found ourselves here in Haven. A huge, complex space outpost, they called it. Our stepping stone to the stars. ‘Don’t worry if it’s uncomfortable’, they said. ‘It’s only temporary. There’ll be a Haven Point Two in a few years.’ How they did it I don’t know. But they carved up with bulldozers huge chunks of land and melted it and constructed this thing: steel and glass and everything. To make it look nice, they spent billions of pounds on reconstructing classic landscapes in each Sector. There are about 2000 Sectors, with every country on Earth represented. But they’re all replicas. None of it is the real thing: the real Valletta is on fire down there, just like the rest of it.”
Afternoon is wearing on. The change is unusual: for the city and the sky, you can see it – the slight tinge of evening on its way, the lengthening of shadows in the streets. But Venus, Earth and the multitude of stars seem indifferent. Night and day don’t pass outside of Haven.
Do they know they’re in space then? the boy writes, pointing to the tiny blobs walking about below.
“Do they know?” repeats Rouri. “’Course they know all too well. They voted for it. ‘Oh,’ insisted the politician, ‘it’ll all be different when we’re in space. No Tory or Labour. No communism or nationalism or anything else. We’ll have no political system.’ They’ve got a political system all right – all this is its own political system. It just doesn’t work and never will.”
“That’s the terrible truth of it. How many people do you think Haven houses, boy?” asks Col. No reply. “2000 Sectors, each with about 10 000 people in. That’s still only 20 million people. When Haven was first thought up, the planet’s population was about 10 billion. Where did the rest go, you ask?” He looks sadly up at the Earth. “There’s still down there,” he says. “If there are any of them left. That’s just it. They were left to burn.” The wind tugs at the grey strands on his head and he sighs. “Billions of them. There was – there was a kind of election process. Which humans get to go to Haven and which have to stay behind. They selected it based on the ‘flawless human’: no disease, no imperfections and no criminal record. It – I – no one talks about it now.”
How do all these people feel that so many people had to die?
Col sighs. “How does anyone feel about something they’ve done wrong? They can’t undo it now. At the time it was such a frenzied grip, everything was so much about “if we get on board Haven, we’ll be fine”, that no one really cared what happened to anyone else. But now... They say there’s no religion on board Haven; they say the church towers are just for show. But they all end up believing in something. For most it’s the expansion of Man. Man as God.” He shivers.
How are there birds and things? I thought you said the animals died.
“Oh, they’re not real,” says Col with disinterest. “Artificially controlled. There’s no nature of any kind on Haven. The water in that harbour’s fake. The politician said it was because they would damage the infrastructure of, say, a rainforest if they tried to “move” it, but...”
“Utter crap,” states Rouri. “He could have done it if he’d tried. There’s nothing worse than this. All this preoccupation with Man. Man did this, Man did that. Nature can go and burn, we’re fine, we can parade through space and look at us, not a scratch, aren’t we clever? Idiots. They don’t know anything. This entire system is supposed to represent ‘Man as he should be’. Well, I’ll tell you how it works. Here on Haven, there’s no official anything anymore. No state. Everything is independent. It’s try and earn your money, try and survive yourself. We work for an independent company but even companies are becoming rarer. It’s basically: if you want something done, do it yourself. If you can’t do it, screw you. Although they call it “the enlargement of the welfare, survival instinct and natural intuition of a community”. It’s tyranny. Flawless humans! Ha! Look at Col’s hands. Injuries aren’t something to be stamped out so we can become a master race, you just live with them as best you can. The only person flawless around here is a newborn child, and they don’t stay like that for long.” He snorts and resorts to silence again.
Evening has long fallen. The patchwork of rooftops and streets down below has grown silent and there is only the occasional snatch of live music, the murmur of voices and the screech of a car’s wheels which drift up to the bell-tower. Venus still revolves in its orbit, but to human eyes it looks the same as ever. Space also: some stars have shifted, but the depths and inner workings of aligned bodies and flickering light contains so much that one cannot notice when it changes very slightly. Earth floats along to one side, the ghost world.
Col and Rouri intended only a quick stop in Valletta but the child has fallen asleep. They won’t wake him for the world, and so they’ll just have to turn up late at the Summoning.
“He doesn’t understand what we’re doing, though,” Col says suddenly. “We haven’t considered that; we ought to tell him before we go.”
“Let the kid sleep. He’ll find out soon enough.” Rouri picks his nose and flicks the result away. “It’s not easy to explain, anyway, is it, Col? That we’re rebels, on the run? That we move from Sector to Sector on specific years – years apart, that’s how careful we have to be – ringing bells a couple of extra chimes to summon the other rebels? That the people down below have always looked up and scowled and assumed that some idiotic independent company’s got the time wrong again? Members of the Summoning are classed as anarchists, Col. You know it. How would you explain the knives and the deaths we’ve had to cause to a twelve-year-old boy? He didn’t see what happened back in Vict Sect, did he?”
Col shakes his head. “I don’t think so; he was in the shadows. He assumed we just hit the man. But we can’t hide everything from him. The few people we’ve had to kill are nothing next to the billions down there.”
A silence falls between them. After a few more minutes pass, Rouri glances at his watch. “We’d better go,” he whispers. Quite why he suddenly feels the need to be quiet he doesn’t know. “We’ll miss the whole Summoning altogether otherwise, and who knows when the next one will be. Let’s carry the lad.”
Col nods, and they get up, stiff and worn. Like scarecrows they stretch their arms and yawn for a moment, then all is furtive calm. Bending down, they lift the boy, one at his legs, one at his head, and with an awkward shuffle, they move off down the cold stone staircase of the church.
All is quiet atop the bell-tower when they leave. The darkening sky winks and flickers, but there are new terms in the equation. A whole belt of distant orbs has appeared; just this once, at this precise moment in time, the orbits of the other planets orbiting the Sun coincide so that all are visible from Haven. Call it providence, or chance, or faith, or what you will.
To one side is Mercury, small and concentrated, like silver and jewels melted down and formed into a globe. In darkness Venus looks more gold than pale brown, its edges hazy and shimmering like a mirage, clouds dispersing lazily in ridges of auburn. There is something quietly young in the planet, something sweet and warm and fresh. On the far right drifts Mars, radiant red, the colour of cold fire which flickers in hidden places and sees things man does not know. A brilliant belt of asteroids and then vast Jupiter, tempestuous, multicoloured, awash with moons of many colours; haloed Saturn, the long, sweeping rings enclosing what seems from Haven to be a frosty and almost sorrowful face; still further behind, the twin orbs of Neptune and Uranus, bluer than blue and greener than green, the colours so deep that together they look to redefine colour just for this evening. A huge distance of empty waste, then a pinprick of light which must be Pluto, and further glimmers behind. Closer at hand, Earth still looks like it will erupt liquid fire at any moment, spew forth smoke and give out ash.
The stars which line the empty space are cold and distant, most white or blue, some red, some green, shimmering and wavering like they are on the brink of talking but always drawing back from conversation. Galaxies of clouded, flickering light crawl across the wilderness. A fleck of light millions of miles away is where they plan to build Haven Point Two; a different spot, somewhere in the Kuiper Belt, is no doubt the site for Haven Point Three; and then countless Havens until the word’s meaning is forgotten and the inhabitants no longer creatures of reason such as they pretend to be.The gaping void, lit with billions of unknown celestials, gazes unerringly down. It does not like what it can see.