In this world there are servants who ride horses;
while prince’s walk.
Reykjavik: Summit Centre
10:00 hrs July 4.2026
The first to touch down in Iceland by almost two hours, Mair was the last to arrive at the centre. Forsaking the usual route via embassy and breakfast, he'd stayed on the plane to get the reaction from the television release and study Strat-Coms updates. The carnage was rolling remorselessly on and America could claim its first scrape based on reports from Hawaii. Eventually there would be other flesh wounds along the southern coasts and parts of Florida. The rest, isolated pockets that could be explained by shipping or distribution.
Had they declared war, round about now they'd be weighing the messages of abject surrender against those still stubbornly defiant. His gut feeling was that they were already ahead. But they'd used guile, a strategy that needed patience, and when developed to a fine art, easily gulled man. You could fool all the people. Trick was to make sure the pain was enough to gain the time and win the prize before anybody knew a prize existed.
He'd taken another message. One that de-coded, caused no more than a shrug of inconsequence. Val confirming that Stannought was now permanently domiciled in Washington State. A combination of nibbling fish and his chest high waders would guarantee his ultimate sacrifice to the environment in Lake Flut Head. Very little mattered now that the critical mass had exploded; all that was left to be done was to package the aftermath.
The five barely acknowledged one another as one by one their security men reported the room clear of bugs. The silence continued until the light above the door shone green telling them it was sealed and wouldn't function until activated by one of them. It was Alexei Varbagin who pressed the lock while the rest eased out of jackets and loosened neckties and collars, in the process becoming mortals, mere proxies of the power they held beyond the door. Except for Lien Chan: rumour had it, he’d the fur of a Yak beneath his linen tunic. Looking at the three conspirators, Jim decided there wasn’t one he’d bring home for dinner.
Chancellor Gnauck started the proceedings. Dropping the nail clippers he'd been using to scrupulously prune back eighteen hours growth back into his pocket, he produced a cheap paper map of the world, positioned it centrally and asked for it to be weighted at each corner. Mair and Varbagin noted that though they were seated next to one another, the map had been positioned for their ease of reading. The others seemed perfectly happy to read it upside down.
Gnauck donned his glasses. 'Slightly crude, gentlemen, but we are not well invested with visual aides. More importantly, this can leave with us.'
Glancing towards Alexei, Jim got no reaction other than that he seemed preoccupied by an itch in his left ear. Both left the floor open to the German.
'We are all aware of the increased scope to our original objectives. Since we have seized the opportunity, we must act quickly and decisively to maximise and consolidate our gains. Alexei, if I may, I would like to outline my proposal to you first.'
Varbagin, his expression bland, merely shrugged. 'Are you not being premature Walter? Or can I take it that you already have a majority round this table?'
Chan inclined his head slightly and smiled towards Nakao. 'We have discussed it in outline and are agreed on the need for swift consolidation'
Nakao gave a confirming nod. Mair, looking concerned, kept his eyes on the map. Alexei gave a second shrug then leaned forward to see the details better. Gnauck, his tone soft as snow falling on diamonds, with a trembling finger started to trace a path on the map. 'I would suggest our southern border Alexei, should be the old western border of the Ukraine to Kosice in Slovakia then following the river Wkra to Gdansk Bay. To the north we continue our existing border between Finland and Sweden then you retain the existing border with Norway.'
Nodding affably, Alexei was trying to think where the Wkra was, and what was meant by the retention of borders to the north; a finger covered a lot of detail on a map. 'Seems reasonable Walter. Can't imagine why they'd all the procrastination after earlier conflicts trying to sort borders out.'
'Perhaps Alexei they didn't have the vision we have. Or maybe with less to share they squabbled over pickings.' Looking to see if his comment was appreciated he reverted to a serious overtone. 'It would be petty were we to be reduced to squabbling over industries or natural assets.'
'True Walter, in fact….' Taking out his pen, Alexei extended the Finish Swedish border due north through Norway. 'We could do it like that. Makes it much tidier.'
Gnauck nodded to concede the point.
'And where will your western border be?'
Borrowing Alexei's pen, Gnauck drew a line from the Faeroe Islands, free wheeled down the Atlantic to loop round the Azores and the Canaries, then back through the Straits, basketed all the Mediterranean islands, veered up the Turkey, Iraq border, then made a hesitant line towards Odessa.
Alexei peered through his glasses then over them at the Gnauck. 'Not happy with the Odessa border Walter. Too convoluted, topographically, demographically and historically. Why do we not go for something simple and arbitrary like this line that's marked as eighteen degrees east? I mean where it goes through the heel of Italy, of course we concede that to you. Then, if I can just make the point, there is Greenland, which I believe is nominally Danish. Does that become yours as well? I think the point I'm trying to make, gentlemen, is unless the borders are existing ones between us, we must forget the archives of history and go for a sensible division. Another point that has surprised me, Walter is you have made no claim for any part of the Middle East?'
Releasing a nervy cough, Gnauck played his first ace. 'We propose the Middle East be regarded in a similar way to Africa and India - treated as a joint protectorate. After all, once its oil and gas are depleted?' he gave a dismissive shrug.
Chan didn't bother to look at the map. 'That would go as far as the Iranian border. The border of India will be re-drawn roughly with the tropic of cancer to Burma, whereupon our territory will extend down and include Sumatra, round to Taiwan and to our existing border, Alexei, in Manchuria.'
'I'm glad you and I can at least agree on the use of arbitrary borders, Lien. I take it you expect to retain our existing east west border?' Alexei quickly added 'I mean by that the old Soviet Republic border?'
Chan bowed his head in assent.
Alexei continued, 'That leaves Mongolia. My intelligence tells me they're suffering badly. What is it you propose there?'
Chan almost smiled. 'There we must negotiate. We were not quite sure whether the locusts would be up to the Mongols, or if they'd simply regard them as a feast from the gods. However I think we can safely assume their barbarity has not provided them with immunity. There is little there. Why do we not simply agree to an equal share, the border to be drawn in later?'
Needing a distraction Alexei glanced at his watch. 'I must say the equity of these proposals seem balanced. Ando, what divisions are you looking for?'
'Very simply, all to the west of Premier Chan, down to Java, Australia, New Zealand to the line of longitude 180.'
Screwing his eyes to focus on the print, Alexei asked, 'What about Islands like the Pitcairn’s?'
Nakao shook his head. 'Alexei, for now, islands like these are of no importance. All together they would not constitute a threat. Detailed appropriation can be decided later. I thought you would appreciate our application for a straightforward segment as it were.'
'Hawaii! Does Hawaii come within the longitude?' The question exploded from Mair.
Nakao gave his benign smile. ‘Of course not, Jim.'
'New Zealand. We'd like that as well.' Mair agitatedly wiggled his pen and three pairs of eyes waited for the top to flip off, as its owner seemed to be doing. Glaring at them, Jim waited to see how the impasse would be broken.
Surprisingly it was Chan who tried to seal the breach by turning to Nakao and saying. 'If you find the concession difficult we can agree to part of Sumatra being in your territory.'
Bowing his head in acknowledgement of Chan's offer, Nakao turned to Mair. ' There is no need. We concede New Zealand to the United States.'
Mair wasn't oozing grace. 'Fine, I take it we naturally get all of the American continent?'
Gnauck smiled, pleased to be the harbinger of largesse. 'Of course, Jim. You are the natural and topographical leader for the area. You realise, even without New Zealand, we have given you the largest gain?'
'Maybe, but another thing, you can forget Greenland. That's America from now on.'
Gnauck looked at Chan and Nakao before trying to diffuse Mair with diplomacy if not logic. 'Jim we have to appease and control our partners in the Union. Probably the most difficult role of all given they’re the most sophisticated in government and diplomacy. We need to argue for our role in all of this and retaining Greenland is a major asset for us and a small concession from you.'
Mair wondered whether he should take a leak and check his reflection in the bathroom's mirror, see if he had overdone the neurotics and a cuckoo had nested on his head. No question of why he'd want New Zealand, though the easy answer was Caucasian. Anyway, tie that in with the heavy petting by the three and it was like watching an orgy between a shark, a crocodile and an alligator - lot of smiles, big white teeth and not a lot of tenderness.
'All right, we have a lot to get through. It might be better if I just listen, for now.'
Unsure if the concession had been made or left open, Gnauck tried to press home any advantage on the salient points. 'We must establish our dominance, by the transfer of military personnel under the guise of maintaining order and establishing medical centres. I would like to request, Jim, since America has been the predominant ally with Europe, that you allow your troops to back us. Alexei your troops will be dominant in Africa along with Lien's. In India you will share with Ando's troops. Middle East we split five ways. Lien will help look after Japan's interests in Oceania and we all have a sprinkling in South America. We must show a combined front wherever we are. Any areas of resistance must be quickly suppressed, encouraging the rest to accept our control.
'Our suggestion is that we convene a full session of the UN using damage assessment, possible methods of restoration and aid as the excuse. Once we have collated the information and agreed on our joint actions and controls we inform all of them that we will rule as a supreme world government.
'Friendly governments would remain as satellite administrations for their historic boundaries until such time as we rationalise them as regions, unless we consider it unnecessary; as in the case of Poland for instance. The military forces of those satellites would have their hardware reduced to the level needed for civil control only. World trade, quotas and prices would be fixed by us, and based on sustainable consumption. Predominant natural attributes or the lack of them, will decide an area's function as either, industrial, commercial, agricultural, vocational or wilderness.
'Population control will be enforced. Areas out of balance will be corrected by transferral.'
Gnauk’s hesitation had Alexei looking up from his notes. 'Is that it?'
The Chancellor allowed himself a slow smile. 'Not quite, Alexei, these are just the broadest terms.' He shrugged before cooing on, 'Of course there will have to be detailed analysis and discussion but, since we didn't keep records and had to careful with our use of specialists and the briefs we gave them, we can only agree to the basic principles and leave the detail until we have firm control. After all, so far our collaboration has provided excellent results.'
'Assuming this proposal is acceptable. I take it this is a proposal?'
All three smiled their assurance.
'All right, assuming your outline is acceptable, what do you propose the voting procedure to be for this supreme body?' Varbagin's concentration was back on his pen, heavily crosshatching part of Eastern Europe.
Nakao answered, 'Simple majority, Alexei. We must lay the foundations of trust.'
'Huh!' Mair swung back in his chair. 'Lot to go on there, considering what I'm hearing so far.'
Alexei, vigorously rubbing his troublesome ear, looked at Mair as though he wished he'd shut up. 'Go on Ando, you were saying.'
'I understand Jim's annoyance. He was after all, the initiator of this project and we have expanded it. But for my part it was never my intention, and never will be, to create factions among us. It just seemed the most sensible thing to do.'
'If that was the case, why not raise it then?'
'Jim, you seemed to be at your limit.'
'Balls! You wanted to get one over on me.'
Alexei went to chill it. 'Jim for God's sake, this'll get us nowhere. I wasn't informed either, but done is done. Let's get it together. Suppose we vote on this now Ando and suppose Jim and I were against it, would it be passed?'
'You know it would, Alexei. Why be disingenuous with me?'
Alexei turned to Jim. 'What does that mean?'
'Sort of sly, not straight.'
'My apologies Ando. Anyway, Jim, what do you think?'
Stifling a yawn, Mair slowly let his legs relax so his chair was back on four legs. 'Some points aren't too bad. One I'd go as far as saying I liked, a couple of minor details might be necessary. But overall, I reckon your five commandments have less chance of success than the ones we've been claiming to work with for the last three thousand years. But before we take this vote, I'd like from each of you your estimate of the population we're going to be left with. Best you can, to the nearest one hundred million or whatever.'
Collecting the figures he came up with the total. World wide they expected around three point three billion.
Jim gave a bemused whistle.
'Well folks, according to this we're going to have around forty million Europeans, one hundred and twenty, maybe forty, Latinos, around eight million Australians. New Zealand will have difficulty forming a football squad. Impressive, and you're proposing we march in and tell them to bow to their masters. There isn't a hope in hell of that working. Or maybe I should say, there's a lot of hope in hell of it happening.
'Walter, you mentioned sustainable consumption. What's your analysis for sustainable repression? One year, five, ten? What's the supreme council going to do when one of us, or two of us fall out and start recruiting allies amongst these satellites as you call them? And you, as Chancellor, are going to control around ten million Brits, about the same of French, a couple of million Scandinavians, maybe slightly less in the Mediterranean. How long will it be before your own people are pole-axed by the hassle of keeping them in line?'
Gnauck protested, 'Not so. You are arguing as though we are going to use the techniques of the last century. Towards the end of it most of the community's countries had to contend with rising unemployment and a lessening in real living standards. We managed to keep it under control. It is always a question of division and selective information: of making sure there’s not enough truth for dissenters to form a cohesive power base.'
'How can you argue for that? I thought this concept was to give us another chance to get out of it. Christ! Assuming these figures have some degree of accuracy we've only turned the clock back less than a century, and you want to adopt the methods of bastards like Genghis, Attila, Hitler and Stalin. This will nail our colours to the mast as the perpetrators. Have you thought of that? Or do we leak a cover story. God's taken over the chair of the World Bank and he's unhappy with all his defaulters?'
'No need to be facetious Jim.' Chan swept his hand over the map. 'We consider our proposal is not only viable but gives us the best chance to make it work. Dominant leadership is needed; until the reforms are regarded as normal then simply accepted as the way of life. Not an altogether new position for your country to adopt since we’re all aware its policies in the recent past have outstripped the feeble efforts of the gentlemen you mentioned'
'Can't believe I'm hearing this Lien. This is a triumph of tyranny over opportunity. We're still going to have three odd billion people, all with minds and memories. Most of them grieving, frightened and confused and the only way to ease any of that is to make life better for them.' Keeping eye contact with Chan, Mair then addressed his argument to Gnauck. 'There is a better way, Walter. One that allows all the benefits of your proposals without the costs of implementing the straight jacket of repression. One that might allow us to see this through to a worthwhile conclusion without having to watch our backs through reprisals. It's an old strategy called consensus.'
Genuinely amused, Chan leaned across to pat Mair's hand. It felt like a caress from a wet fish. 'Jim, you may be the nearest thing to a messiah in your part of the world but I doubt if you and him together could pull that off. Your motives are no doubt admirable, but that is naive, childlike.'
Mair looked pleased rather than piqued by Chan's comment. 'Good, children have been telling us for years what needs to be done. Maybe now's the time to appear to action their thoughts.' Spreading his hands over the map before them he leaned forward to emphasise his words. 'We have the world reeling and the only people they can turn to for help is us. In one sweep we have just about bankrupted every political and commercial interest that kept the pressure on us. And, apart from one, we don't want them back. That exception is the political leaders. Most will have holed up to ensure their survival. All of them will want to cut their losses and maintain their own positions and they'll quickly spot the need for our support. Doesn't matter if it's a farce, as long as it has the title and trappings to say it isn't. Get them roped in and we've maybe a couple of dozen critical leaders to deal with and the others will handle the millions.
'You see, gentlemen, I'm not in disagreement with the essence of your proposals, only the methods for their adoption. The carrot's more edible than the sword and a damn sight more digestible. We offer a carrot, and they'll know the price of refusal. World Government, yes. Control of trade, commerce, the environment, yes. We as the controlling government, yes. My argument is simply this; the best way to convince humanity to vote for it is to convince them they have a second chance to create paradise. Call that naive if you like but it's the only way it'll work. Ask any advertising exec; they've been using it for decades. That's my proposal and we can vote on it if you like, but I do think we’ve more pressing matters to discuss.'
Chan shook his head. 'No we vote on this first. It's too fundamental to let other issues push it to the background.'
'Well, since we're being so democratic, how many want to vote?'
Four hands went up, Gnauk’s the last.
Mair shrugged, 'Give me ten minutes and a coffee to consider my position.'
'Good idea. I'll get the coffees.'
Thanking Alexei, Jim reached into his brief case and selecting a folder slid it across to Gnauck, giving the briefest of nods to Chan and Nakao. The file was titled and written in German, a language neither could read.
'What is this?' Gnauk’s face showing doubt and suspicion.
'It's a report from your chief scientist Kench. Read the first page, makes it all clear.'
The page wasn't part of the report but a precise statement of the use the report would be put to. Quickly glancing at Nakao and Chan, Gnauck faced Mair.
'Kench is dead.'
'Not when that was written.'
Gnauck flicked through the report's pages, noting government and institute papers and seals. The institute could conceivably be argued as being at arm's length, but not enough to separate it from the government that funded it. The eyes that flicked towards Chan and Nakao were too anxious to inspire confidence. 'This is entirely deniable.'
Mair seemed to relax into a slump in his chair. 'The fuck it is Walter. Not when it's tied in with your Erfut Lab it isn't, and with the correspondence between you and Schultz that's waiting in his apartment.'
Gnauck chuckled. 'There's no correspondence between Schultz and I, nothing of this nature. And, how will you or Alexei explain the labs at Lubbock or Irkutz?'
'Don't know about Alexei, but given the very remote chance that we are asked to explain the functions of Lubbock then surely it was only co-operating with WREC. I thought we were busy creating a super predator for pests. The toxin was introduced in WREC's packaging and distribution set up and the report rings all the warning bells as to just how toxic and uncontrollable it would be.'
'It isn't true. Nobody will believe it.'
Mair shrugged. 'Truth's got nothing to do with it Walter. It mightn't be totally believed but they'll swallow it. It's just human nature to look for a scapegoat. And who has the track record and is the weakest amongst us? Think about it Walter, and you Ando. Your powers commercial, not military, and the way things are now, that's a easy prize to take.'
Swinging round towards Alexei, Gnauck asked, 'Are you in on this?'
'I'm listening Walter. Keep forgetting, is it cream in your coffee or black?'
Alexei's smile was papal. 'Irkutz Walter. Irkutz, ah yes, it's coming to me now. Yes we do have a lab there but as far as I know, though I could be wrong, it's been fully committed to the production of a malaria vaccine; certainly for the last six years. Can't see them having the time. Mind you, we have been busy developing the new strain, but not at Irkutz.'
Placing his hand on the Gnauk’s shoulder, Chan eased him round. 'I think Jim has miscalculated. He's trying to force you into his corner when in fact all he has done is confirm you must stick with the proposal.'
'Not so Lien. I'm simply trying to persuade Walter that he would be better seeing my side of the argument.'
'What would you call yours Lien, persuasion?'
Chan's smile drained from his eyes. 'No Jim, I call it realism.'
'Well Lien, if it's realism you want, think on this. Both of your partners are in very similar positions. To be blunt neither of them have much of a pot to piss in. Which is probably what attracted them to you in the first place. I'll bet you haven't been too worried about your people being a billion or so less than at your last census. So, having eased that situation yourself Alexei and I have no worries whatsoever.'
Alexei didn't seem bothered by the sparring. Sliding the tray onto the map he continued handing out the cups. The coffee was the excuse for brains to race, arguments to be mentally checked and countered, and weighed for response. Ando Nakao, by logic and inclination wanted to be with the American, but only after the spoils had been agreed and ratified between them. He swilled down his coffee and couldn't stop the grimace on his face as he asked Alexei, 'You said the new strain. What did you mean by that?'
'Ah, my friends, it was my intention to inform you earlier but you did railroad us with this proposal. We have further developed the toxin. Completely new strain; exceptionally virulent. Too powerful for the anti-toxin incorporated in the malaria vaccine. It still gives some protection – no, protection's not the right word - it keeps you functioning for one perhaps two days. In a debilitated sort of way, you understand. After that the result is the same, just more protracted. But, and here's the good news.' Alexei smiled, knowing he'd kept the best for last. 'As soon as the new vaccine is injected, recovery is only a matter of hours.'
Jim Mair felt he should clear a point. 'Provided they're still breathing.'
Alexei inclined his head. 'Of course.'
Nakao glowered. 'And the vaccine we have used?'
'That's the old. We have plenty of the new in stock. It's only a matter of distribution. Jim?'
'Plenty, just waiting shipment.'
Nakao had his face back under control. 'I take it we have been targeted with this new strain.'
Alexei felt he couldn't allow the implied slight to go unanswered. 'Absolutely not Ando, not intentionally. But with all these increases in the distribution you've sprung on us, we can't really say what's gone where. Most of our nationals have only been immunised with the old, only the military and key personnel have had the new. Field trials if you like, normal procedure.'
Chan's English developed a colloquial bent. 'You bastards have set this up.'
This time Mair sprung to the defensive. 'Not true Lien. It's just the way the timings panned out. Might not be a bad move; this way we will all be seen to suffer and the happenchance connection between the immediacy of the new toxin and the old, which merely delays things, will give us a chance to be selective about who gets the new.'
'And that selection process starts here?'
Jim shrugged, 'Put it that way Lien, I suppose I have to say yes.'
Nakao asked, 'Do you have some with you?'
'Don't know about Alexei, I thought it better not too. Alexei?'
Alexei shook his head. 'Afraid not. Though I've got some samples of the new strain.' Reaching in to his bag he pulled out a clear plastic container about twenty centimetres square by seven deep. 'There's a dozen in here. That's four each for analysis.' About to slide the lid back he saw their faces drain. 'It's all right, they cannot do you any more harm.'
Scrabbling for his handkerchief Gnauk’s voice cracked. 'Stop Alexei! This is madness. How will you explain their presence here?'
'Who brought them in Walter? Which plane sprinkled enough to infect our host country? Who's going to be believed, the ones with the cure or the ones screaming foul, but without?'
Nakao, his face taking on the colour of the porcelain coffee cups turned to Alexei. 'You said it couldn't do us any more harm.'
'You have already drunk enough.' Shrugging, he added, 'It's an old Russian trait.'
Chan leapt to his feet, crashing the heavy chair onto its back and stretching for the door release. Alexei already had the container over it and was slowly pulling back its sliding lid.
'Sit down, Lien.' said conversationally, it was still a command. Mair kept his gaze steady in spite of the visceral hate lasered at him by the Chinaman. 'I went into this to win. That doesn't mean I expect not to be destroyed, only that I will not allow my country to be destroyed. Creating a nuclear war because you feel a loss of face is not tenable. I won't even try to kid you Star Screen will be ninety-nine or even ten percent successful. We think we will survive but that's not the same as knowing, and candidly I don’t want to find out. I don't think your partners want to either, especially when you will be up against two.'
'The Russian missiles are old. Dustbins, most of them won't fly.'
Alexei smiled. 'They'll fly. The dustbins, as you call them, have been revived; with, how can I put it, if not by the latest I think it would be ungracious to call it American scrap.'
'Friends,' Gnauk’s interruption was a plea. 'This is out of hand. What is it you demand in order for us to get back to some sort of civilised behaviour?'
Jim Mair smiled at the irony of the word "civilised". 'Demand Walter? We only ask that we keep to the purpose of this whole sorry exercise and not be railroaded into power vendettas. I’ve already outlined our proposal and the methods we can use to have it adopted. We think we could be in a position to have a draft agreement signed within one week by all surviving political leaders. Which is when we press for the world government forum and, at the same time, we inform them of the vaccine that will eradicate the plague. Soon as a country has stepped in line we'll distribute what we can of the vaccine.'
'You realise of course they will try and haggle over the agreement and stretch the negotiations out for weeks, months even?'
'No, Lien. Each has instigated a state of emergency. The leaders will have full power to ratify there and then. We will make it perfectly clear what we require from them. I for one am not having our aims watered down at all.'
'And this?' Gnauck held up the file.
Mair shrugged. 'Do with it what you like, Walter. Not much use to anybody if we're co-operating, which surely is what all this is supposed to be about.'
'Yes, but Schultz, does he know?'
'He knows nothing. WREC is our blind, the concept that went diabolically wrong. Having engineered the locusts as predators they became hosts to a previously unknown bacillus. Unfortunately, because of earlier reversals in trials the numbers distributed were increased and their effect proved disastrous once they acted as host for the bacillus. Fortunately the locusts and their larvae were all females. Identical clones, incapable of reproduction.'
'How do we know all this and why shouldn't this bacillus use natural locusts as a host?' Nakao asked.
Alexei let Jim answer. 'I suppose the answer to the first is because they'll want us to have some sort of preliminary answer, which we can firm up afterwards. We can be selective in what we find in Schultz's department and the files in Brussels have already been replaced. Second point, it kills them just like everything else only the engineered strain is immune. Now can I take it all the scientists are being dealt with?'
Three nodded, Gnauck fidgeted. 'I'm afraid we haven't picked up Morice or Carter. Morice has just disappeared and Carter's heading up to Scotland in his boat.'
'Do your best Walter. I have a similar problem with Shafner. We have a week while the world's reeling, possibly slightly more, before there will be too much interest into why this has happened. In that time we have to make our position rock solid and our cover acceptable. Truth doesn't matter. If we make it look like fact, the majority will accept it and get on with it. By then the smaller issues will be forgotten or have sorted themselves out. Gentlemen, if you want to vote let's get it over and done with. Otherwise we should move on to our joint statement on humanitarian aid and practical measure such as instructing our forces to start the clean up. Filling the nuclear dumps with corpses should give us a power source for the next century. Pity we weren't able to construct more than two in India. I suppose with the escalation you have sprung on us, we’ll have a huge waste problems to solve.'
'And us,' Nakao asked.' When do we get the vaccine?'
Alexei took his glasses and cleaned them with his tie. 'Perhaps we should vote first.'
They all agreed there was no need.
Sliding the base back in the container Alexei looked straight at Chan. 'I said it couldn't do you any more harm. The coffee you drank gave you the antidote orally. This one doesn't need to be administered intravenously. We came as friends, even after you had increased the effects behind our backs and infected Stannought with your greed.'
'He didn't need persuading. It was Stannought who first approached me with the suggestion.' Nakao and Gnauck confirmed Chan's words.
'Then obviously none of you needed much persuading.'
'You kept the development from us,' Chan shouted.
'True,' Mair conceded before adding, 'I wonder why?'
There was no small talk as briefcases were packed and snapped shut, ties were tidied, jackets slipped on, and suitable countenances adopted before the door opened. Chan was first to leave, formal and friendly enough not to be believed. Air Force One left next, carrying a president who knew there was still a lot of work to be done to get the playing field level. Alexei almost acted as host, seeing Gnauck and Nakao off, and even then seemed reluctant to follow. The almost imperceptible nod he'd given Mair as they left the conference room developed into an hour's consideration after take off. At the end of the hour he stopped twirling his glasses by their arm and sent the coded message to Orsk. They’d almost four days before the plane would leave, its fuselage loaded with boxes of the vaccine. Boxes that would gently scuff against a new bulkhead on the way to offering hope to Mumbia. A quick turnaround and it would be back to Russia for another transformation and mercy flight.
Alexei was in reflective mood for the rest of the flight. Absorbing incoming updates and issuing directives in his usual precise, almost turgid manner. He tried to let some feeling of apprehension enter into him, some scratch of damnation that would grow proportionate to what they had done. He felt nothing, certainly no remorse. Perhaps he would, they’d yet to make the most difficult decision of them all.
Mulk was the first to go. They'd known it would happen as soon as they'd managed to push the door open and their feet started to crunch through the carpet of dead and dying locusts, some trampled beyond recognition, or stuck on steel or concrete in a grotesque mural, depicting the impaled larder of the Mocking bird. Only there was no bird to mock, not even a chirp to taunt them. For Mulk, hope became no more than effort.
Malik's efforts gave out half way along the track, when his night turned a deeper black and he could no longer sense the vomit or feel the shit running down his legs. He sensed more than felt Mulk try to lift him, and managed a dismissive hiss through a clamp tightening in his throat. He wanted to tell Mulk, to assure him there was no pain, only a sense of collapse. Something that confused the brain but seemed to free the mind. He tried to reach him, to ease his concerns for his family but Mulk's brain still had control. Enough at any rate to lay his friend gently by the track and place an empty plastic bottle as a pillow for his head.
Mulk already had the first of the major symptoms, the dimming of his sight. By the time he made his way under the airport's approach lights he could barely see their outline. Sometimes bodies tripped him, at others he thought they had but there was nothing when he rose again to his feet. His feet sensed their path, as though every undulation of the earth let him know he'd the right to be there; to be on his way home. Gulping great gobs of air he pawed his face like a dog to clear the mucus and sweat from his eyes and the vomit crusting the corners of his lips, while a fog he could do nothing about, shrouded him in its dust. He closed his eyes to find the path, to find the mark of tin, tarpaulin and cloth that had been his invisible sign towards the doorway he knew was his own. Slowing his breathing he concentrated, waiting for the vision of Malik with life melting out of him to pass. Back to the carnage they'd passed through, the airless pit of the shed and the brain piercing shattering whine. The negotiating, the Sikh's ten rupees. Back to the morning, through the night to the meal with Ronila, Gita, and Raj - a name he'd have to change- Little Mulk and Anahita. Back to his homecoming, through the shacks. Back to where he was now, and freeze. He had it, the mark, had seen it a thousand times when it had no purpose. Tin diamond King and Queen looking into each others eyes promising eternal love, uncaring of their kingdom's reduction to a patch on a shack in a rubbish heap of humanity. He made his way forward giving instinct free reign while his peering eyes saw nothing but doubt. Find the picture and the rest would be easy. The paths he'd walked side by side with other beings, the alleys to sidle through, the turns, the dead end, the stench, and the background hum of whispered lives. He found the tin picture, nothing else.
It was lying at his feet. Having stepped on it and heard its tinny crackling protest when his weight bent the lovers over the branch they’d once hung from. The rest was flattened. Mangled flat by a screaming current of human panic. To him it looked stockpile neat, ready for the next beggar's dream hovel. Mulk tore at the scrap, heaved off bodies, pulling, rolling and heaving until he didn't know where he'd pulled from and what he'd piled up. Then he sat down to cry, only to find he already was. Propped with his unfeeling back against knife-edged tin and a cool cushion of strange flesh he hadn’t the strength to move, he watched the lights begin to dance with the stars.
He would have liked, just once, to be able to say to Ronila, exactly how he felt for her, and, if it wasn't asking too much, to say the same to his children. Just to tell them, without care or doubt making his words sound false or his promises empty. Perhaps he didn't need to. Perhaps they already knew. His lips couldn't smile, but his mind did. Ah, the Gods were good.
Rab Thurrock lay behind the sleeping Fay watching the sun highlight the blonde down of her rib cage and the arch of her hips. Last night they'd used the last smoke, thanks to that sniffling cunt Awkright. He'd knobble the bastard good when he got home; deduct the bastard's dick. Maybe Gemma had got some back with her. What wouldn't change would be her old folks watching her like a hawk. Shagging time with Gemma was always long in the waiting and too often short in the taking, because of their bloody ghost fingers tapping out the time she had to be in.
.He lay reviewing his fantasy and felt his cock harden. He'd tell Fay, Gemma was his sister. Once they were back she could go fuck herself or share with them, maybe teach Gemma how to turn her box into a gulper. The thought gave him a picture that urged him to fuck. There was no rush.
Hearing the announcement, Dick wished he hadn't bothered switching the radio on. He'd searched for something bright’n breezy, some pop so he could listen to the inane chatter telling him all was well in the world. Problem was, he didn't know their frequencies and often when he danced between two or three the resulting noise was beyond endurance. In the end he left the radio to seek out the signals and wasn't disappointed when Elgar's Nimrod came through free and clear. That was probably why he heard and registered the announcement. He knew he'd been right, had felt it this morning when for no apparent reason, he’d gone on deck and hauled down the radar reflector pod. Bob had raised a questioning eyebrow but said nothing as he stowed it for him in the locker.
The pending announcement started a flurry of activity. Mary went down to make coffees and ended up adding drinks and sandwiches. Deek learning to hold a course, and asked by Bob if he wanted to listen, was already struggling to keep one eye on his course, while the other wandered towards his bunk. Bob, seeing Deek’s eyelids droop, threw the autopilot in and suggested he get some zeds.
The broadcast lasted ten minutes and gave the merest hint of surprise that a twenty-mile ditch hadn't been effective. In the end it was nine minutes of assurances with sixty seconds of pathetic advice. Similar to the warnings of the cold war- in the event of a nuclear strike, pack your family under tables, under the stairs- keep it tidy: build your own coffins.
Mary broke the spell. 'Is this why we're here?'
Dick shrugged. 'Can't see any other reason. I thought it would be something quicker, more controllable than a plague. Glen or Anthony may be able to come up with a connection.'
'You're still intending to collect them? Even when the PM's just said France has suffered badly and all the community countries have declared states of emergency. It could mean they haven't been able to leave?'
'I'll ring the flat and if there's no reply we'll give them the benefit of the doubt. I'll set off a few degrees so our track's nearer Ireland and we'll motor so we present a smaller target. Other than that I can’t think of anything else we can do.'
Bob, trying to close his mind to fantasies, looked for practicalities. 'We could set up the deck hose and keep it ready in the deckhouse. Fit the storm boards to the ports and have the bungs to hand for the vents in case we do get a visit. Other than that we have one problem.'
'What's that Bob?'
'Deek. How's he going to feel knowing his family is being blitzed by bugs? What if he wants to get home?'
'Nearest port's Fishguard Bob and that entails heading back. Trouble is, will they let him travel? Military and emergency traffic only, and all the rigmarole of curfews. I doubt if his getting home will be regarded as an emergency and they could hold us.'
Mary took his hand in hers. 'Maybe so love, but the decision has got to be his.'
Looking at Mary, Dick no longer had any doubts how right his decision had been. 'All right, ask him now before we add any more to our offing.' His voice was not entirely gracious as he added, 'And while we're at it I'll try Adam and you can ring Jon and see if we can get a picture of what it's like back there.'
Deek had a problem. Not the "sod em" he had answered with when his sleep had been broken. That related to his dream and said in the labyrinth between sleep and awareness. A dream of mash and sausages, sticky plastic tables and matching chairs; the smell of age and the smog of endless boring routine where familiar voices yawed through their honeyed smiles to coax him back to their clawing pot He struggled to take in what Bob was telling him about national emergencies and bugs. Why should he go back to a place because of bugs when he'd buggered off because of the bugs they already had? He didn't want to go home, full and final stop, but it might look bad if he told them that. It’d look like he didn't care or something and that, though he didn't know if he did or not, could look bad. The answer came as he dialled, sticking another five on the end he waited while the clicks and clacks were reduced to a moaning whine. He let it moan before hanging the handset back on the cradle. 'Must be out, there's no answer. I'll try again after you've made your calls.'
It was too early for Bob to worry, giving a nod he went up on deck to give Dick a hand fitting the storm boards. 'Deek can't get an answer and I've been thinking it might be wiser for us to find out how things are, before we try to get him ashore.'
'Sound thinking, Bob. You try Jon. I'll try Adam on the mobile.'
Bob found sleep had left him. Going down below he rang Jon’s and got the busy tone. He kept trying till a voice sharp with anxiety and brittle with static answered.'
'Oh, it's you Bob. I was hoping it was the Doctor.'
'What's happened Jon?' Hoping for the best Bob feared the worst.
'It's Simon and Ralph. Went out early this morning cause the beasts were restless, so we thought we'd get them milked and out before Simon and me went up to your place. The sodding shed, every sodding place was hiving with these bug things. We're practically barricaded in here. Locusts they are seemingly, about the size of a sparrow and enough to fear the flies off cow shit. Anyway, they were driving the beasts crazy and there was no chance of milking them, so we decided to let them out. Give them a chance to let off steam and maybe they'd calm down enough for us to bring em back in.
'Simon got caught behind one of the gates. Christ they mangled it as though it was rubber and brought down part of the block wall, it was only the post that saved him. As it is he's got some cracked ribs, his arm's definitely broken, and I think the buggers got his kidneys. It's difficult to tell, he's vomiting a lot and there's blood mixed in with it. Now Ralph's got dicey guts and Rhoda say's she's fine but doesn't look it, and she hasn't been out of the house.'
'How're you feeling?'
'I'm all right. Just worried sick about the lad.'
'I'll get off the phone in case the doc's trying to get through.'
'It's all right Bob, I was panicking a bit. He'll come through on the other line. If he ever does that is, I've been waiting two hours already.'
'Can't you fly Simon straight to Stoke. Get him into hospital?'
'Bob, I've been on to every bloody hospital between Birmingham and Liverpool. They all say the same thing. They're full, absolutely over the top, brim packed full with emergencies. Nobody's telling us not to go, or playing silly buggers they're just telling us how it is. Even dialling emergency doesn't get you through now.' He heard Jon choke back a sob. 'We tried to move him. I thought I could strap him to a door and set it across the chopper's skids and then land on one of their roofs if necessary. Thought if I got him there they were bound to do something. Christ, the screams Bob, I just couldn't do it.'
Bob waited, not knowing what to say that made any sense. He was still searching when Jon broke the silence. 'Sorry about your place, I did ring Alf and ask if he could get over. Said he wasn't moving. If he couldn't do anything for his own beasts, didn't see what he could do for yours.'
'He's right Jon. Shit, I'm sorry I'm not there to help you.' The words sounded useless no matter how true they were. He was about to find out just how useless they were.
'Don't be Bob. God knows what caused all this but I'll tell you what I've done. I've been out and got the vet box and given Simon a shot. Please God it's just enough to stop the pain. But there's more to this because Ralph wasn't hurt and he's as sick as a dog. If it gets worse, if Ralph goes the same as Simon I'll give each of them enough to drop a bullock.'
Still trying for words, Bob heard the second line ring. 'That'll be the doc Jon, I'll hang on till you talk to him.' The hanging lasted seven minutes. Hearing the clatter as the handset was lifted he asked, 'Was it the doctor Jon?'
'What's he said?'
'Nothing Bob. Can't do anything. Bye.'
Bob couldn't believe it. He waited for seconds before slamming the handset back on its cradle. Gritting his teeth, he dialled again. It was busy. He tried again and again and again. Not Jon. He'd have used his leg as a crutch if it was ripped off him. Dick found him, still hunched over the chart table, ten minutes later. Seeing the tears on Bob's face brought tears welling in his own eyes. There had been no reply from the Morris's. The rest of the day was spent in dismal silence: apart from heaving a sigh of relief when a cloud proved it's innocence by passing them by. Deek wasn't going home.
The idea had come to Antony as they passed the twenty kilometre sign for Rennes. Glen had declined to drive, saying he'd do the leg from Plymouth to Penzance. His excuse being he didn't mind driving on the left when he was on the right, but it confused him driving on the right and sitting on the right. Besides, what did a Frenchman want with a British car that passed everything but gas stations, noise and pollution controls? Anthony had accused him of being soulless and with even less appreciation of a classic. Now, by the sounds rasping from Glen, he’d fallen asleep. Stretching across, Antony woke him mid snort.
'Sorry, was I snoring?'
'Enough to wake the dead, but that isn't the reason I woke you.'
Cranking his backrest up and turning the radio off to hear better, Glen looked around and saw nothing of interest. 'So?'
'We've just passed the twenty kilometre sign for Rennes. Shortly we must turn off to make the ferry at St Malo. It came to me, since we are supposedly travelling incognito why don't we head for Brest instead? They get a lot of the Cornish and Irish fishing boats in there, and with luck we can hitch a lift off one of them to St Mary. Probably cost more than the ferry, but if anybody is interested in us then it won't be as obvious where we've gone as it would from Penzance.'
Stretching and yawning at the same time Glen waited for his yawn to finish. 'Or we could leave the car at St Malo and hire one to take us to Cornwall.'
'Hire cars are easily checked, Glen.'
'All right. I'm not into this public enemy stuff. How sure are you of getting a boat to take us?'
'Pretty sure. If they're anything like the Scandinavian fishermen they're all pretty strapped for cash and I've never any bother getting to Spitzbergen. Rule is not to expect cabin service or even a cabin and don't moan if they're lucky enough to come across a shoal. Besides, if we can't get a lift it'll only take us a couple of hours to get back to the ferry.'
By seven they were aboard the trawler Sea Harvest out of Wicklow. Seamus Quinn the skipper, having searched their luggage and practically dismantled tripods, cameras and any other gear that to him looked faintly suspicious, told them he'd take them anywhere they liked provided it was near enough where he wanted to go and they weren't landing with arms, drugs or chips on their shoulders. 'Only thing worse than somebody with a chip on their shoulder,' he said. 'is somebody with gold braid on their hat.'
Anthony and Glen were just nosing into the Atlantic on the Sea Harvest when Klaus and company were gliding into the middle of it. Down with them went the software programme that made their fuel gauges read full when only a quarter of that amount had swilled round carefully baffled tanks. Wiemar tried the technical response of smacking his fist into the read out and got nothing but a split knuckle. He tried again with his heel and got more satisfaction from cracking plastic but no change on the read out, still three quarters full. He felt he'd done all he could; all that was left was panic.
Down they went, Wilcock struggling for a glide and hoping for a miracle. Klaus, knowing it was coming, or something like it, struggled to find a sense of destiny and found Gamadran grasping his hand. Strangely he didn't mind, not even when she pressed against his chest and he felt their hearts pound together while her breath and tears mingled on his neck. In some ways they were lucky. Both had probably reached their pinnacles, he in career and she, though she wouldn't appreciate him saying it, of her looks. From now on it would have probably been down all the way; he chuckled inwardly at the pun. She'd be saved all the shrewish desperation trying to cover the wrinkly foibles of vanity in its battle with old age. No more Cartier, Gucci or Prada. There was nothing they could do for her now. He undid her seat belt and pulled her to him to comfort her better, giving her all the kindness he had.
Links to previous chapters are here.