How Soon is Now?
‘…the essential significance of a pea is not, that I know, greatly affected by the fact that it lies in a row of similar peas. But each swing of the pendulum owes the extent of its movement to the previous swing.’
John William Dunne, An Experiment with Time
Blink. Blink. Blink. One by one, the gas lamps go out. From the impenetrable darkness, a tumult, a roar, building to a crescendo rushes towards me. It is coming.
Then I see him. He nods at me slowly.
I look at him, then up to the destroying angel above us. I understand. This is the end of days and it’s all my fault. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…
The first time it happened, it was nothing more than a passing thought, a scintilla. It wasn’t even a real dream, a half-remembered thing between sleep and awakening. Such a small thing. On the glider back to the barracks, I leaned my head against the window, watching the smog-filled streets flash past. As we slowed to pass through the security check, I saw her. An old woman making her way slowly down the street, using her umbrella as a walking stick. But she was holding it upside-down, the point of it digging into her hand, the handle pressed hard against the pavement. It seemed so self-defeating, the polished wood sliding against the asphalt, no anchor at all. The woman met my eyes and smiled. Then it hit me – I remember this. I searched my memory and could come up with nothing more than a ghost of an idea.
The moment passed and we were back in the barracks. I should introduce myself. Major Billie C-. Don’t be too impressed by the title. Since The Corruption, since conscription, we all went by rank and Major was only one rung above Subaltern. We patrolled the streets together and the only difference was we got to arrest a better class of looter.
The Corruption came without explanation on a summer’s day, seventy-three years ago. A band of impenetrable smog settled high in Earth’s atmosphere blocking out the sun, the stars. The temperature plummeted; the world’s population went with it. Governments fell. The only chance man had for survival was to utilise the Earth’s finite gas supply – the dissemination of which meant that martial law was inevitable. Every man and woman were conscripted the day they left high school. Those of us deemed to be of above average intelligence were automatically made up to Major – an arbitrary process which set friend against friend and caused unnecessary friction in families. As Majors, we were privy to the reports and forecasts, all of which agreed on the same thing: mankind was dying and there was nothing we could do about it.
I pulled off the regulation goggles and gas mask and threw them onto my bed in the dorm. Another routine patrol through the dank streets. Looting was on the decline – because no-one had anything left to steal. Furniture was a luxury now, most of it going into the fireplace. The endless chimney smoke was kept low in the cities by the Corruption, poisoning everyone and everything. The dirigibles were our false suns now, gliding silently, glowing from some chemical luminescence. Occasionally one would explode with a muted ‘whoomph’ and we would watch it as it fell.
I stretched out on my bunk and closed my eyes. It seemed only a beat later when I was shaken awake. Grumbling I opened one eye to see my best friend, Dash, hopping about in excitement. I glanced at the window. Black. Night.
‘Wake up, loser.’ Dash took annoying to another level. Cursing at him I sat up, trying to shake off sleep.
‘Guess what we’re doing tomorrow?’
Really not in the mood for games, I scowled at him. Dash took in my expression and continued.
‘We, that is you and me, are on Royal protection duty.’ I was awake now.
‘We got it at last?’ Dash and I had been petitioning for this duty for years. Dash grinned. I blinked and then smiled. The thought of a day devoid of the boredom of patrolling was too good to be true.
‘We’re to be the Queen’s personal escort when she tours the university. Six a.m. sharp so get back to sleep. We have to be up at four to clean the glider – apparently her Majesty has always wanted to ride in one.’
I harrumphed. ‘I had better steer then, would be embarrassing if we killed the Sovereign.’
Dash kicked my leg, then used the edge of the bunk to hoist himself onto his own bed.
‘G’night, Bills, get ready for world domination.’
‘Ha! Night, Dashiell.’
‘Don’t call me that.’ And a moment later he started to snore.
I felt sleep wash over me again. Despite the gas masks we were all required to wear, the sheer volume of poison in the air was so overwhelming that some invariably got into our systems. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t feel tired.
The dream had me in its grip. A swirling mess of images that melted into a more cohesive scene. I was with her, the Queen, her mourning dress, her hair twisted up into the severest bun, her sharp intelligent eyes looking gravely out onto her audience. She was greeting her people, despite her austere appearance, her warmth giving comfort to her subjects. Then from the grey masses stepped a man. He was thin in the extreme, tall, limbs spindly. He wore goggles, a gas mask, the same as the rest of us. A top hat, long coat and his legs were wrapped in red and white striped hosiery. As I looked at him, I knew, without any doubt, that nothing human was behind that mask. It happened very fast then. He turned his face to me and grinned. The mask fell away. Underneath was a mess of machinery, grotesque, cogs, clockwork, all twisted into a terrifying rictus. He bent forward, a mocking bow to the Queen and held out a pocket watch. Powerless to stop it, I watched as he sprung the catch. A blinding light and pain, so much pain…
‘You’re subdued.’ Dash and I were on our way to the Palace, the glider sliding smoothly through the smog.
‘Didn’t sleep well.’ I didn’t want to tell him about the dream, didn’t want to face his ridicule.
‘Loser.’ Dash was unfailingly juvenile. Another reason not to share. I steered the glider to the Palace gates, flashing our identification at the Guards. They waved us through and then we were setting the vehicle down in the courtyard. An equerry greeted us formally. We weren’t invited in. We stood, silent, I ramrod straight, Dash shuffling nervously. I gave him a surreptitious kick.
Then she was there. Sweeping out into the courtyard, she led her staff towards us. A stiff nod to us, then she was helped up onto the glider. On the ride to the university, she said nothing, Dash and I too awed to try and make conversation. When we reached the school, the Chaplain greeted her and helped her from the craft. She turned then and nodded once towards us. Her equerry approached us.
‘The Queen would like you to escort her to the hall. It is a very great honour.’ I wondered if Dash felt as young and awkward as I did at that moment. We moved like automatons to her side and the whole party moved into the hall.
A wave of applause and huzzahs hit us. The Queen barely blinked, Dash and I recoiled for an instant then pride washed over us. We recognised the surprised faces of some of our friends and our chests puffed out, our heads rose. The Chaplain introduced the Queen and she stepped forward. She spoke, all grace and eloquence and when she finished, the roar of appreciation was humbling.
That’s when I heard it. Tick. Tick. Tick. My heart stopped. I looked around, head snapping back and forth in panic. He slid from the crowd, as reptilian as I had dreamed him. He slithered forward – and I reacted. I shoved the Queen away and leapt at him. He snarled as I twisted his arm up to reveal the pocket watch. I tore it away and threw it as far as I could. It spun, high in the air and exploded. Screams. Tiny pieces of the watch-bomb rained down on us – but the Queen was safe. The assassin had me by the throat, his mechanical fingers unrelenting. Black spots danced in my eyes, one hand pulling at his grip, but with the other, I reached forward and tore off his mask. Yes, yes. As I faded in unconsciousness, I felt a strange satisfaction. I knew him, I had dreamed this…
To be continued…