What would you do to protect your family if the world stopped working?
Not long from now, in a recognisable yet changed London, Signy and Matthew lead a dull, difficult life. They've only really stayed together for the sake of their six year old son, Jed. But they're surviving, just about. Until the day the technology that runs their world stops working. Unable to use their phones, pay for anything, even open the smart door to their flat, Matthew assumes that this is just a momentary glitch in the computers that now run the world.
But then the electricity and gas are cut off. Even the water stops running. And the pollination drones - vital to the world, ever since the bees all died - are behaving oddly. People are going missing. Soldiers are on the streets. London is no longer safe.
A shocking incident sends Signy and Jed on the run, desperate to flee London and escape to the small village where Signy grew up. Determined to protect her son, Signy will do almost anything to survive as the world falls apart around them. But she has no idea what is waiting for them outside the city...
Release date: June 24, 2021
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Print pages: 368
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This Fragile Earth
They cycled past the trimmed hedges of the park and on towards the Inner Circle. Jed was too big for the bike seat now, and she struggled as she stood on the pedals. His knees nudged uncomfortably at her hips; her body swayed but there was simple pleasure in moving at speed with her son.
The sun was bright. Shadows lay sharply delineated against the tarmac.
‘Hallo! Goodbye! Hallo! Goodbye!’ Jed’s hand waved back and forth, greeting his own shadow as it dipped in and out between parked cars.
The back of her neck felt hot; she should have brought sunscreen. They would head to the Fairy Island – Jed’s name for it – next to the Rose Garden to play tag. A red tan line would streak his nape. They’d throw stones in the water. They’d share a picnic on the grass by the fountain.
Later she and Matthew would be going out to that new restaurant in Kentish Town. She couldn’t remember the name. They’d be with friends so they’d have to get along, laugh at one another’s jokes. Maybe they’d have sex at the end of the night.
A couple of cars purred past, her bicycle protected in its own lane between the pavement and the road. She turned left to the Inner Circle, stopped by one of the car-charging ports and attached her bike to the Maglock.
Jed threw the safety-bar on his seat up and dragged his jumper over his head.
He held his arm out, the jumper draped across one narrow wrist like a waiter’s towel. She stuffed it in her rucksack. When she straightened, the sunlight made her squint.
‘Put these on.’ She hooked Jed’s UV sunglasses over his ears, then put on her own. ‘Come.’
Jed took her hand and skipped across the fibreglass road panels, grey and squeaky beneath their feet. He looked ridiculous in his UVs, the mirrored blue lenses too big for his head. Through the black and gold gates they went into the seclusion of Queen Mary’s Garden, the landscaping the same as when she had been a little girl, save for the scarcity of leaves on the trees, and the heat for March. Her parents used to bring her here on Sundays to watch the starlings homing at twilight. She lifted her face to the sky. Some things are past, and will not come again.
They turned left into the circular garden, the neat beds a cloud of clone-roses in full bloom. The previous year, the roses had blossomed in February.
‘Let’s have a sniff!’ Jed raced to a flower of darkest red. He stuck his face into its centre. These farmed varieties carried that synthetic odour, like acetone. It set her teeth on edge. Jed didn’t know any different. ‘Smells like that lady’s house we went to one time, with the biscuits and the potty. Where we sang “Good King When’s His Lass”.’
She giggled; voluntary service never sounded so inviting.
‘It wasn’t her house, love. It’s called a nursing home.’
‘But she did live there?’
They’d been only once, two Christmases ago. Matthew had strummed his guitar while she’d bashed out carols on the electric piano in the home’s main reception room. Jed had handed out tinsel, then sat in a plastic chair, bouncing on an inflatable cushion.
She looked at the red rose, its petals thick and lustrous like velvet, its heart unfurling lazily towards the outer leaves.
‘Deep Secret,’ read Jed from the black lacquer plate in front.
She gazed at the other roses: different shades of reds, pinks, oranges, mauves. Like sweets.
The advanced hybrids sat further off in a separate bed beyond the wooden pergola, wound with climbers. The petals of the hybrids flashed neon and electric blue and onyx through the gaps in a bench where two old ladies sat snacking on bananas. The odourless hybrids held no interest for Jed; this place was all about sniffing until he became light-headed.
She turned to some egg-yolk yellow blooms, around which the pollen-drones were busily doing their thing.
‘You know, when I was your age, Gamma and Grandpa’s kitchen walls were this colour.’ Jed’s eyes had glazed over. ‘Hey.’ She nudged his elbow. ‘You listening?’
‘I was thinking.’
‘The Golden Ratio.’
‘The what?’ She knew, but she wanted to hear his explanation.
He dragged her closer to the rose. ‘It’s where things go in spirals. The number is 1.618, and it goes on forever. Miss Yue said: “look for it in flowers”.’
‘Yeah. Like that. Except the Golden Ratio doesn’t really exist, Miss Yue said. She said Man made it up, to explain the existence of spheres mathematically.’
‘Are you sure that’s right?’
He frowned. ‘Not completely.’
‘You’re only six. How d’you know this stuff?’
‘Learned it in coding.’
‘Learned about the Welfare State yet? Have you learned what the Welfare State was and which Prime Minister abolished it?’
‘The what?’ He grinned, revealing two rows of white milk teeth before escaping to a different flower.
‘Music can be Golden too, Jed. Spirals exist in a perfect piece of music and bees hum in it. In the key of C.’ But he was no longer listening.
Her gaze returned to the yellow rose, thick thorns poking a warning from its stems. Her parents’ kitchen table had been too big for the room. The ridged oak top carried a particular smell, perhaps from the years of meals spilt, ground into the grain by a good scrubbing with a cloth. If she thought hard, in the far corner by the back door she could see the sun refracting off her father’s silver telescope.
A pollen-drone appeared, hovered by her chin, alighted briefly on her nose, then flew away.
‘Mama, come and smell these pink ones!’
Her GScope rang inside her rucksack: Matthew. She’d assigned him the ringtone ‘Lazy Days’, which was appropriate, if a bit mean. She swung the bag round to her elbow and found the GScope folded like a paper note in the front zip.
‘Matthew is calling, Signy,’ GQOS’ voice began, a little tardily, given the GScope was already ringing. ‘Would you like to—?’
‘Let me answer.’
Jed snatched the flexuous graphene sheet and flicked it upwards with a practised hand. A green circle of light flashed around the GScope’s camera lens. The Holoscreen appeared in front of Jed’s face.
Matthew’s head was suddenly there; three-dimensional, transparent. His image danced against the backdrop of roses.
‘Hey.’ She bent low, her face joining Jed’s in the tiny window at the corner. Why was her hair so flat? She fluffed it.
There was tutting from the old ladies on the bench. She swiped her finger downwards through the air to lower the volume.
‘Yes?’ he said.
‘“Yes”? You rang me!’
Matthew’s hand passed across his face, as if exhausted by the simple act of listening.
‘No I didn’t.’
There was a hiatus, in which they both checked their call logs.
‘GQOS must be getting old.’ His face creased into a smile.
‘Weird,’ she said. ‘We’re in the rose garden at Regent’s Park.’
‘I can see. Why are you whispering?’
‘Why are you still at work? It’s Sunday afternoon. They are aware you have a family?’
‘I’m leaving soon. Forgot to charge the car battery but I reckon I’ll make it back in a one-er.’ His shoulders sighed.
Jed elbowed her out of the way. He stuck his tongue out at the screen.
‘Oh, my tongue’s a funny colour, sort of blue. It’s the UV lenses, isn’t it? We’re busy – going to the Fairy Island. Bye, Dada.’
‘Bye,’ she said, but Matthew had already gone. They should probably dispense with talking altogether and communicate solely via V-mail.
Her screensaver, a photo of the family on holiday in Scotland two years ago, hovered in the air. Jed tapped her arm.
And she hadn’t had a chance to ask him to pick up pumpernickel. But then he’d have forgotten that too. Matthew forgot almost everything. She couldn’t decide if there might be something wrong with his brain, or if he just wasn’t interested in what she had to say.
‘You have one new V-mail, Signy. Would you like to see it now?’
GQOS’ voice from the GScope again. You could tell GQOS was an AI system because no human could sound that happy all the time.
‘No thank you, GQOS.’
The screen disintegrated. The park landscape stretched out uninterrupted in front of her.
‘D’you remember, Mama, when I asked GQOS how many bees there were left in the world and she said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know how many boobies there are left in the world.” That was funny.’
Jed rubbed his nose. ‘Why did the droid cross the road?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Because the chicken was controlling it.’
‘Did you make that up?’
‘Nope. Fairy Island.’ Jed marched on between the bushes, down the shallow incline towards the lake. Forty feet ahead, on a plinth in the green water, a bronzed eagle signalled the north point of the island. ‘Basically,’ Jed sighed, ‘eagles don’t exist here in Regent’s Park. There are only two golden eagles left in the world and they’re in a special massive cage. Miss Yue told us. It should be a statue of a heron or a pigeon – something more appropriate.’
‘That’s a big word for a small person.’
‘Is it lunchtime?’
‘Not yet. Let’s get to the island.’
She felt good today – as if she fitted into life and life fitted into her. The question that yawned somewhere around her solar plexus, the feeling that she might be always missing something, was answered by this day: spent with her son and full of light and memory – like an echo. Jed ran ahead, stopping at the short wooden bridge that led across the lake. She followed him, passing the fountain where she’d once gifted a Leatherman knife to a long-ago boyfriend. He’d taken it with shaking hands, saying no girl had ever given him such a masculine present, then burst into tears.
‘Go on!’ she called now to Jed.
Jed trip-trapped across the bridge and disappeared down one of the island’s small gorse pathways. She raced to catch him up.
The concrete playground behind Jed’s school had claimed another victim. A small girl of two with fat and bloody knees was being comforted by her mother. Or maybe it was her nanny; you could never tell.
Another day, another park. Not anywhere near as pretty as Regent’s Park and a tenth of the size. Signy stood in this particular one every weekday, watching Jed and his friends as they climbed the enormous slide from the wrong end, trainers squeaking on metal. They’d reach the top and tumble pell-mell, landing together in a heap. It would be Jed who always hurt himself – his chin, an ankle, a finger.
Today his friends had been dragged home already: to Kumon, coding, Mandarin. She glanced at her wrist, though she could almost always tell the time without a watch now. She thought without resentment that this was one of the premier skills learned from the routine school pick-up. Snacks! Playground! Holoscreen! Children’s lives, existing entirely in the vocative.
The asphalt around the fountains in the corner was dry. The fountains never worked, except for one solitary month in autumn when it was too cold. By summer, when hordes of sweating kids would stamp fretfully on the buttons, willing them to cool their hot little bodies, the jets would have given up.
The buzzing of a police drone above. Or one of those environmental ones, testing for any remaining trace of beetle-blight spores. She wasn’t sure which was more depressing. The buzzing went up in pitch as the drone flew near. There it was: small, blue, property of the police.
Nearly five o’clock.
Jed was sprinting the perimeter of the roundabout. He was a fast runner; she’d give him that. He came to a halt and put his hands on his hips.
‘Need the loo.’
She took his arm and led him to the dismal toilet by the railings. The exterior had been painted green, as if Conglomerate North’s decision to colour-match it to the few trees made it somehow less offensive. The lonely tolling of a church bell up the road. Monday: she wondered what time Matthew would be home.
He probably shouldn’t be driving today. They’d drunk too much sake last night at that disappointing new restaurant in Kentish Town with Aya and James. Matthew’s best friend and Signy’s best friend, together thanks to them. Aya had had lipstick on her teeth and talked on and on about their new baby, while James banged a drum for the reunification of Korea and how his stem-cell knee graft made him feel like the bionic fucking man. Signy had chosen the sustainable salmon because it said it came from the Orkneys. Who really knew what was or wasn’t safe to eat any more? The WaitreX robot had fiddled with the lighting all night and Signy’s tinnitus had been bothersome, especially when James leant forward to kiss Aya right in front of her. Signy had said ‘Get a room’ and no one had laughed. She’d grinned at everyone all night, crossing her eyes as heat built between her ears, finishing her boozy lychee dessert with a spoon that was too small for the job.
‘Hurry up, I’m desperate.’ Jed was tugging at the button on his jeans.
The playground toilet stank of pee. On the floor, matted balls of loo roll. Some things, she reflected, never changed. It was almost unbearably hot with the door closed. The light in the windowless cubicle made her face, tinted blue by her UV glasses, ghoulish in the scrubby mirror.
On their drive home after the meal, just the two of them, she’d joked about Matthew’s never wanting to marry her and resurrected the argument about a second child. He’d told her off for being drunk, flicked the car into driverless mode and stared out of the window with his arms folded across his chest, until the road told the tyres that told the car that told them that the tyres needed pumping, and they both shouted for the car to shut up.
‘Ugh, Mama, there’s nothing to wipe with again.’ Jed held up the palms of his hands. It was a gesture of comical hopelessness. He cantilevered himself off the seat. ‘And it’s not flushing.’
‘You don’t need to wipe, it’s only a pee. And why won’t you stand up to do it?’
‘Then it goes everywhere.’
She lifted the lever on the sink tap. No water. Odd. The tap’s silver plating was dotted with a suspicious white crust.
‘Broken,’ she said. ‘Fabulous.’
‘You’re being sarcastic.’
‘We’ll have to do without clean hands. We’ll wash them at home.’
Something thudded against the outside wall of the toilet. Again, then again.
‘What’s that?’ said Jed.
They re-emerged into daylight and followed the wall around its edges. The small police drone was bashing itself repeatedly against the breeze blocks.
‘What’s it doing?’
‘Covering more ground than a hundred beat officers, apparently.’
They watched it dash its own camera to pieces, its delicate leg-spindles splintering, dangling like snapped limbs, until the broken drone fell to the ground, lifeless.
‘Droney!’ Jed lamented, dropping to his knees. ‘Why did you kill yourself?’ He looked at Signy. ‘Why did it do that, Mama?’
‘I don’t know, love. A malfunction?’
The playground had emptied. Odd how she hadn’t noticed. She’d never make a decent spy.
Two other police drones – which didn’t look to be committing suicide any time soon, but fingers crossed, you never knew – hovered above three teenagers on the AstroTurf football pitch.
Clouds were moving slowly across an increasingly white sky. No birdsong. The city hung over the park as if disappointed somehow; at the balding trees, the absence of wildlife, the endless drones.
‘Time to go.’
She took Jed’s hand and began the slow trundle back. An electric bike whizzed past on the cycle path, nearly sending Jed flying as he tried to balance on the raised barrier. She called out but the cyclist was already far away.
They crossed the Holloway Road. Driverless cars purred silently up the hill. On the southbound lane, a phalanx of Magtrams and one of those mobile hologrammed car ads, all shining chrome and big wheels.
‘That H-car is sage!’
Jed craned his neck to get a last look as the hologram car accelerated, zooming right through the body of a tram and into the distance.
She chuckled. ‘Sage?’
‘Your lingo. It’s funny.’
‘No it isn’t.’ Jed was tapping each electric charging port along the street with his hand. He whipped his fingers away. ‘Ouch, this one’s hot.’
She loved his hands. They were soft and warm and fitted perfectly into hers. He was singing. She leant in closer. It was a commercial jingle she’d composed a long while back: ‘At Icestar check out faster, use your palm, it’s smarter!’ The melody was catchy but irritating. He was bang in the key of E flat major. She ruffled his head.
‘That’s my boy.’
‘I am your boy.’
‘It’s an expression. When are you going to start piano lessons?’
He sighed. ‘Mama, not again.’
They were on the other side of the A-road now; the street with the pastel-coloured houses, the original windows long gone. The solar-blue acrylic made her think of mirrored aviator shades. She missed being able to see into gardens beyond living rooms, imagining other people’s lives, greedy for ones she hadn’t lived.
‘I’m thirsty.’ Jed smacked his lips.
She brought out the bottle of water. She always carried one in her bag. Her mother liked to call her a ‘waterholic’; the phrase had been coined with a smile, but Signy had detected subtext. She handed Jed the bottle. It looked enormous in his arms. He unscrewed the cap and drained half.
Tinnitus whined in her ear. She shook her head.
‘That’s better.’ Jed had a water moustache.
She grabbed his hand. ‘Let’s have a race.’
They ran fast along the pavement. He was nearly quicker than her now, his legs scissoring back and forth like a film in fast-motion. Freeing his hand, he surged ahead, glancing back now and then over his shoulder. He liked to win. She couldn’t bear to disappoint him.
‘I was first!’ He gave a victory jump.
They turned into their street. Long lines of grey-brown terraced Victorian houses stretched left and right, reflections of clouds floating in uneven rows of more blue acrylic.
‘Nearly there now.’
‘Is Dada home? Can I do my palm?’
‘No. And yes.’
Palm-plates were touched, doors opened, coats dumped on the backs of kitchen chairs, UV glasses removed and piled with all the spares on the shelf above the sink.
‘I’m actually really hungry, Mama.’
He was always hungry. She hoped he’d grow to be taller than his two granddads, who’d both been dismally short.
She pulled out the brand new book of blank music manuscript from her bag, bought in town this afternoon on a promise to herself, and without knowing quite why, hid it beneath the piles of Mozart and Beethoven on top of the piano.
Jed shrugged his school bag from his shoulders and tipped it upside down. A muddle of pale sticks scarred with blight and shards of bark now decorated the living-room floor.
‘What? It’s for mine and Dada’s house! For the roof!’
They both glanced at the small wood-blight house, sitting on its own little worktable in the corner. It was more of a log cabin, a tiny circle at the front for a door, beautifully crafted. Matthew called it a work in progress, an eco-project.
‘You can’t argue with that.’
Jed picked up his sticks and carried them to the house.
She went into the kitchen. It smelled odd. She’d only been gone for four hours. Perhaps the bin needed changing. She hit the swing-lid and peered inside. Carrot peelings and an empty packet of biscuits greeted her. There were pumpernickel crumbs on the table, the remains of breakfast. She was a sloven. She wiped them up and dropped them, unthinkingly, into her jacket pocket.
‘Oh, for God’s …’
The pocket was already occupied by a piece of card. She pulled it out.
A flyer: a glossy rectangle of white paper with a moon-in-a-night-sky graphic. ‘A silent five-day meditation retreat,’ it promised, ‘in the beautiful Welsh mountains in sunny June.’
Vicky had invited her: a parent from school, one she actually liked. They’d bumped into one another, Vicky with her daughter Cassidy in tow, a few days ago. Signy had stared at the words on the card while Jed had stared longingly at Cassidy’s hoverboard. ‘A relaxing and restorative time for reflection.’ She’d wondered if she’d manage to not talk for that long. June: it was ages away.
That smell; she scanned the kitchen for an unwashed plate or other guilty party. Jed entered and opened the freezer. The mulchy odour of thawing frozen veg filled the room. He was undaunted.
‘Breaded prawn tails here. Can I have some for dinner?’
‘Oh God, no.’
‘They’ve defrosted by themselves, love.’ And should have been chucked because they were recalled by the manufacturer for mercury testing, she wanted to say, but didn’t.
The freezer drawers were swimming in water. A crashing sound of something hard hitting plastic made them both step away. A miniature iceberg calved itself from the freezer roof.
‘It’s broken. Let’s call someone.’ He looked at her. He reminded her of an owl.
She opened the door of the fridge; the light was off inside. Beads of water trickled down the walls, forming a small pool around an already-open box of synthetic chicken thighs and some rambutan on the bottom shelf. She pulled the synthetic chicken out and stared at the label on the side. Past its date by two days.
‘Pooh.’ Jed held his nose.
She chucked the packet in the bin, feeling guilty.
She wandered to the fuse box in the hall. The lighted panel of virtual switches had gone blank. She slammed the lid shut, wandered back to the kitchen. She clapped her hands.
Nothing. She tried the hob. She flicked the light switch on the wall. Jed was sitting at the kitchen table, crestfallen.
‘Power cut!’ she said.
‘So I can’t have any supper and I can’t use the VR.’ The corners of his mouth went down.
‘Let’s go to the shop at the end of the road, and you can have a real meat spring roll, and I’ll cut up some veg and you can have that raw.’
She grabbed her bag, their glasses.
On the street, an older man from the house opposite called to her from his upstairs window.
‘Have you got no electric?’
It was the first time he’d ever spoken to her. She longed to correct his grammar.
‘It’s probably the whole street. I’m sure it’ll be on again soon.’
The man went back inside.
They marched to the little Malaysian café at the end of the road. Ahead, pollution was visible in a sky turning milk-pink at the edges. She nudged her UV glasses further up her nose. The spindly branches of birch trees that once populated the whole of Whitehall Park poked at lonely intervals above rooftops.
Through the café windows, two women whispering behind the counter, heads together. They looked up when Jed and she entered.
‘There’s no electric,’ said one.
‘I just thought we could buy a spring roll or something?’
‘There’s only synthetic-meat spring roll now. Is that okay?’
Jed scowled. Signy ignored him. ‘Synthetic is fine. Two, please.’
They were wrapped in paper. The woman smiled at Jed but he was still sulking about the prawn tails.
‘Here.’ The other woman thrust some orange juice and yeast milk into Signy’s hands. ‘The fridge is broken. We’re giving it away for free.’
‘Oh, thank you.’
She left the shop thinking that Jed and Matthew would need to drink the yeast milk tonight or it would curdle. She hated all milk, animal or vegetable; even the smell of it made her gag.
She chopped cucumber and carrots into little sticks while Jed played upstairs. She’d better call Matthew, tell him about the electricity. She unfolded the GScope from her bag, swiped her fingerprint and flicked the screen on to the kitchen wall.
‘Matthew,’ she said.
Matthew’s profile photo appeared, all sunglasses and movie-star cheekbones. He was smiling; you could see the gap between his two top teeth. There was silence while GQOS tried to find a connection.
‘Hi. This is Matthew. Please leave a message after the tone.’
‘Hey, love, it’s me,’ she said into the empty kitchen. ‘Just wondering where you are – there’s no electricity on the whole street. Do you have any, wherever you are? Where are you? Call me.’ She added, ‘Please.’
He’d probably be on his way home in the car, enjoying the silent traffic, singing along to Radio G with the window down.
‘Track in GPRS. Matthew.’
‘Tracking in GPRS,’ said GQOS. A map appeared on the wall. The little blue dot hovered and pulsed over her location. ‘Sorry, Signy. GPRS is not available at this time.’
‘Track in Drone-Cam.’ At least they were good for something.
‘Sorry, Signy. Drone-Cam is not available at this time.’
Fine. She’d call the electricity board and find out when the power would restart. The battery life on her GScope read fifty-five per cent. What if she used it all up waiting on hold?
‘Electroscene, North London,’ she instructed.
She was patched through surprisingly quickly. A photograph of wind turbines popped up, morphing into the interior of a bee silo, thousands of farmed bees busy making honey out of sugar-syrup. Tinny muzak played. It was algorithm-composed, she could tell: the computers always left unnatural gaps between the end of one phrase and the beginning of the next. How noisy would it be to stand inside a bee silo? Like an extreme version of tinnitus, but deeper, louder. Thrilling.
An automated . . .
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