Mark writes in England where he gets his inspiration from the wind and the rain. He has many other stories, some of them published. He is currently working on a novel.

 

Valentine’s Dilemma

by Mark Bilsborough

 

Rena looked out over the devastation. Below her, East London’s streets burned again, a pungent mix of fire and decay, threatening to overwhelm the dome’s sensitive recycling systems.

Back in the old days she’d have put this down to plain and simple racial tension. She’d only just started her semi-regular visits to the area when the riots reached their heights, when whole rows of properties were firebombed. But that was a long time ago, before the weather got so bad that people had to start hiding underneath vast protective bubbles, safely watching in stunned amazement as the storms outside got ever more apocalyptic.

No, not race riots. This wasn’t as focused as that, more an animal expression of frustration rather than fighting for a cause. The militia station had been the key target, which was just plain stupid. The response had been predictable: swift and brutal. The remaining rioters had then spent their time picking off easier targets—mainly each other.

Her companion turned to her. “This must be what the end of the world looks like.”

Rena’s crimson overalls were getting soot-blackened. She looked over at Valentine’s still immaculate powder blue tunic and wondered how he did it. “That’s a curious sentiment coming from you, Valentine. I thought you diagnostics took a slightly more measured view of events. I can fairly confidently say the end of the world is not yet nigh. Just a bit closer than yesterday.”

They were standing on the roof of a tall building overlooking what used to be the East London Mosque, now the nerve center of the dome’s local government and militia. The rioters had attempted to overwhelm the building’s force shield with a sustained beam attack, probably using weapons they’d put together on their kitchen tables. She could see some of them next to a scattering of blackened corpses. A couple of medium sized craters suggested someone had found something a lot more powerful to throw at the building, but the shield had held. That was predictable. Valentine was a diagnostic analyst. His job was to work out why the riot had happened. Rena’s job, though, was to work out what might happen next.

Rena shivered. “Can we get back now?”

“With pleasure.”

*

Rena and Valentine went straight to the coffee bar in the basement. Valentine winced as he took his first sip. “Don’t know why I still drink this stuff. Never been the same since they started growing it in a cavern under Kew Gardens.”

Rena looked at him closely. He was more nervous than usual, clearly dying to tell her something. “Something on your mind?”

Valentine shuffled in his seat and pulled at his ear. Rena had worked with him long enough to know that meant trouble. He took another sip. “Um, nothing. Probably. Look—you doing anything tonight?”

“You asking me out?”

Valentine gave a look which suggested the thought had never occurred to him. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but no. I just want to take you to meet some people. A few things have happened that I need to get straight in my head.”

“And I can help?”

“Let’s just say I’ve learned to trust your judgment.”

*

Rena was intrigued. Valentine dropped by her desk at seven o’clock and guided her out of the building. Twenty minutes later they were in a dingy Victorian bar near London Bridge. They were very close to the outer perimeter of the Westminster dome and she found the distorting effect of the bubble at such close quarters unsettling.

Two men watched them from the other side of the bar, trying to look inconspicuous but failing badly. “Your friends don’t seem very sure of us, Valentine.”

“It’s not me they’re not sure about.” Valentine strode off, returning a couple of minutes later and gesturing that they should move to a side room. The two people they’d seen at the bar were already there, together with a scruffily dressed woman with bright red hair.

“You sure about this, Valentine? We don’t want any trouble,” the shorter of the two men said. He was thickset, unhealthy looking.

“I’m vouching for her, aren’t I? Rena, this is Evans.” He pointed to the man who had spoken. “And this is Price.”

They sat down. The woman spoke first. Rena noted no one had introduced her. “You’re with Valentine? Didn’t figure someone like you’d be his type. Too soft.”

Rena’s eyes narrowed.

“Well actually I’m an…”

“…old friend from college who used to get me to do outrageous things,” Valentine interrupted  “Still does.”

Clearly they were undercover. Rena looked at the woman with growing curiosity. Something about her looked very familiar.

Despite her initial directness, the women orchestrated the conversation along slow, casual lines until, clearly having come to a decision, she leaned forward and abruptly changed the subject. “Tomorrow night, pub we were in last week, same time.”

She pushed back on her chair, stood up and left. Evans and Price looked at each other, shrugged and followed, leaving Rena and Valentine alone.

“Valentine, was that who I think it was?”

He nodded. “Keris Edge. Thinks she can disguise herself with all that hair but she only has to open her mouth and she gives herself away.”

 “The urban terrorist Keris Edge?”

“The very same.”

Rena sipped her beer quietly, taking it all in. “Then you’re an urban terrorist too?”

“Do I look like an urban terrorist to you?”

“How would I know? Evans and Price looked like accountants. Talk.”

And he did, in a roundabout way. But first they took a stroll along the South Bank, the Northern side of the Thames opposite them glowing gently with its subdued evening lighting. The air was, as always, calm and still and the ambient evening-controlled temperature ensured the embankment walkway was full. The crowd meant that the audio surveillance hookups would have difficulty making out what they were saying. Nevertheless, they kept their voices down.

“I came across her at a dinner party a couple of months ago. I recognized her straight away. She really does believe what she says, you know. That we’re all going straight to hell.”

“Lots of people believe that, Valentine. But most of them don’t circulate a seditious underground newspaper.”

He nodded. “But where she differs from all those people rioting in East London today is that she actually thinks our destiny is still in our hands. That we can do something about it.”

“You’ve read it?”

“If you want to understand what’s going on you have to ask questions and read some things the authorities might not like people looking at. Doesn’t mean I have to agree with what’s written.”

“But you do, though, don’t you?”

He nodded. “Some of it, yes. The bits about how we’re all got our heads in the sand, pretending it’s all business as usual.”

“We prevail. We always do.”

At that point they were passing the Tate Modern, brightly lit and very much open.

“It’s easy to think that if you live and work in the Westminster Dome. Apart from the sky this place has hardly changed in decades. We’re still got bars, restaurants, parks, museums and theatres. We can still go for a stroll at night and we can catch fish in the Thames. We’re insulated from the nasty stuff outside.”

Rena recalled that you never used to be able to catch fish in the Thames, back when it was a proper river flowing in from the outside. This walk always disturbed her, passing the site of Shakespeare’s replica Globe Theatre before heading on to the Royal Festival Hall and the Ferris wheel outside the magnificent granite City Hall complex. The timeless permanence of this walkway contrasted sharply with her knowledge of the world outside. And the bomb crater across the river where Portcullis House used to be always brought her back to reality.

“But Keris doesn’t think like that,” he went on. “She’s got a much clearer perspective. She grew up in the Central Manchester dome. Was there right up until it collapsed.”

“So, excellent source material for a diagnostic analyst like you.”

“Exactly. I can learn more in one conversation with Keris than I can do in weeks talking to half dead rioters in East London.”

“You’ve slept with her, haven’t you?”

“Not the point.”

“But it explains why she wasn’t too keen to make friends with me back there.”

“Don’t get paranoid or take it personally. I should have realized she’d be spooked by anyone she hadn’t personally vetted.”

“How did she get here? I thought we’d completely cut Manchester off before the end.”

No one quite knew what had happened in the Central Manchester dome, only that it wasn’t very pleasant. Rena realized Valentine would have been so intrigued by the prospect of talking to a survivor of that disaster that he would have completely disregarded the thought that there might be consequences of hanging out with a known and very wanted criminal.

“She survived in a sealed bomb shelter under militia HQ just before the final firestorm. She’d been one of the first to be arrested when the rioting started—any later and they’d just have shot her—and she was locked up in a holding cell in the basement when they sealed the floor.”

“Rioting?”

“Claims she tried to stop it. Actually I believe her. After the smoke cleared and the rescue teams arrived from the neighboring domes she was brought down here for questioning. They let her go when it became clear she wasn’t really any part of what was going on.”

“So what did happen?”

“Official report says a spontaneous dome breach let in a firestorm. But my best guess is a bomb. A big one. The dome ruptured in three places around the western edge and Keris’ theory is that someone deliberately tried to tear the thing down. But before that all sorts of unpleasant stuff happened.

“Keris told me things had started to break down badly, coming to the end of their natural life. We hadn’t got as far as we have now with hydroponics and underground farming when we put that dome together and Keris says the food began to run out. Then the temperature regulators started to fail. Keris told me the air got pretty stale by the end.”

“So, classic end of the world riot.”

“Something like that. Which is why I got so spooked in East London.”

“And why you should know that we’ve got a long way to go yet. We’ve still got food, the air’s still fresh and clean and providing you don’t go around attacking militia stations life can be pretty good.”

“Yes but it’s not, is it? Ever so gradually, we’re contracting in on ourselves. Fifty years ago there used to be sixty million people in this country, all arguing about whether global warming was real and driving their huge carbon-powered cars. Now there are fewer than a million, all penned into these perspex prisons. Thanks to the war we have a police state telling us what to think and what to do. Our work is assigned to us, our food is provided for us and our opinions are completely disregarded. You’re the predictive analyst. You tell me which way things are going.”

Rena shivered. “You know we need some discipline at the moment. Things were falling apart.”

“Well self-interest was certainly destroying the planet. Trouble is, I’m not sure whether it was the self-interest of people trying to put petrol in their tanks or of politicians trying to justify their fancy positions.”

They reached Westminster Bridge. On the other side of the river they could see the new Parliament building, more or less a replica of the one which was destroyed during the war, but with added gun turrets and an impenetrable security fence. Parliament only met twice a year these days, once for the King to open it and once for the MPs to sign everything off. Not that there was any real pretense at democracy any more. But still the building was majestic, a reminder that what was destroyed could be rebuilt, bigger and shinier than before. She was in no mood for Valentine’s cynicism.

“Why did you bring me along tonight?”

They were halfway across the bridge before he answered. “Because I’m not quite as sure of things as you might think. I see bad things happening all around us and I dig down into the causes of those tragedies. And it’s not hard to find them. A diagnostic analyst is basically a historian so I’ve seen this sort of thing many times before. It was easy for the authorities to justify this sort of suppression immediately after the war, but that doesn’t make it right.”

Rena was about to say that you could get in trouble for thinking thoughts like that but decided that would just make his point. “So you’re saying politics is to blame?”

“Not entirely. Greed, ignorance and over consumption had something to do with it as well. Plus an absolute myopic refusal to admit anything was wrong until it was too late. And now we have to make the best of it.”

“Do you really think that?”

“About the past? Absolutely. About the future? I’m less sure. Keris has lived through the kind of destruction it seems we’re all headed for but she’s got this insane belief that we’ll all be okay somehow. If only we’d all wake up.”

“So you wanted me for a second opinion?”

“Something like that.”

“Well my opinion is that you should forget about the exotic Keris Edge and get back to work.”

“I am working. There are reasons why we’ve got to the point we’re at and I need to understand them before I make my decision.”

“I understand you’re not making much sense. Valentine, you’re not going to do something stupid, are you?”

“That’s what I’m very much trying to avoid.”

*

She wasn’t surprised to see Keris Edge lounging on a sofa in her apartment, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other. She wondered if she was more bothered by the breaking and entering or the narcotics violation. Neither, she concluded as she silently got a beer for herself from the refrigerator.

“So, Valentine’s new girlfriend is the famous Rena Lalgi, master predictor.”

“And Valentine’s old girlfriend is the infamous Keris Edge, terrorist agitator. Not that I’m Valentine’s new girlfriend.”

“And not that I’m a terrorist agitator. Cheers.”

Rena sat down in an armchair and looked her up and down. Without the wig she was actually quite pretty. Even relaxed she was much more alive than most of the people Rena normally met. She could see what had attracted Valentine.

“I’m surprised you managed to track me down so easily, or so quickly.”

“In my line it pays to be ahead of the game. You weren’t difficult to find.”

“Does Valentine know you’re here?”

Keris shook her head. “To tell you the truth, I half expected him to walk through the door with you. Where’d you meet him, anyway? You got him under surveillance or something?”

Rena realized that Keris had no idea who Valentine was.

“Heard he’d been keeping some unsavory company. Figured I’d check out who.”

“Well here I am. Truth is, I’ve wanted to meet you for a while. “

“Me?” Rena looked startled.

“Yeah, I’m intrigued. You’re the best predictor in the Bureau, get it right ninety nine times out of a hundred. You’re a legend. And yet everyone around here thinks we’re all on borrowed time. I don’t. And you don’t either, otherwise you’d never be able to do your job.”

“I could have you arrested for breaking in here. Especially given who you are.”

“Yes but you won’t. And that’s interesting as well, isn’t it?” Keris walked over to the refrigerator and brought over two more beers.

“Keris, I’m not just a predictive analyst, I’m also an optimist. There is never any one inevitable course of action. There are too many uncertainties for that.”

Keris dismissed that. “A 99% success rate tells me you don’t believe that.”

“It’s only 94%, actually. But broadly you’re right.” Rena knew she shouldn’t be talking to Keris about this, that what she said would inevitably end up on the streets as propaganda, but right then she didn’t care. “The human race has been around for a long time. We’re good at surviving.”

“Tell that to the people in the Manchester dome.”

“You survived, didn’t you?” Rena knew that was the wrong thing to say as soon as she said it. They drank in silence for a while.

“Yes, well plenty of people I knew didn’t. But I get your point. And what’s more, I agree with it. Oh sure the Manchester dome may have failed, but this one’s looking in pretty good shape. Sure the atmosphere outside’s beginning to get a bit grim, but so long as we’re tucked up tight, we’ll be okay.”

“So why have you been kicking up such a fuss then? Why don’t you just carry out your assigned job and keep smiling like the rest of us?”

“Well partly it’s because my assigned job is boring and pointless and designed to keep me just tired enough not to cause any trouble. And partly because I don’t believe our survival is anything like inevitable.”

Rena laughed. “So you want to save us by destroying us?”

“You got it. As long as we’re controlled by the urban militia we’re just passing the time until everything finally falls apart.”

Rena took another swig. “It won’t make any difference you know.”

“The newspaper? Probably not, though it’s worked in the past. Poland, last century, for instance.”

“Valentine would be impressed. You know your history. But the Solidarity movement was going with the revolutionary grain and things had already started to soften in eastern Europe. Communism would have fallen anyway. Those regimes collapse under their own weight eventually. They decay inside and normal life resumes. Entropy.”

“Entropy?”

“Long term everything smooths out in very predictable patterns. As a race we’re aggressive, curious, bloody minded, fundamentally moral but quite selfish. It’s not hard to predict how things are going to turn out when you slosh all that into the mix.”

“Can you predict whether we’re going to have another beer then?”

“You can’t be precise short term without knowing all the variables,” Rena said, walking to the fridge. “But that was an easy one.”

*

Rena didn’t notice the crowd standing on the street corner until she bumped into a man so hard he spilled his latte. Rena looked up to apologize but the man had barely noticed. He was looking up at the sky.

“What the hell is that?”

Latte man took a sip of what remained of his coffee.

“Looks like a man on a rope to me.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Abseiling. From the roof of the dome.”

Rena was astounded. “Why?”

“I have absolutely no idea. Impressive, though.”

If she peered hard, Rena could almost make out the man’s face. The dome was about 500 meters high, more or less. Somehow the abseiler had managed to get up there and attach his ropes. The dome was made out of some super thick, super strong perspex, sheathed on both sides with a viscous membrane which made it very difficult to cling on to. Yet there he was, preparing to descend. He was directly above the middle of the dome.

He was wearing a superhero costume, the traditional uniform of protest. As he slid gracefully down the rope his cape was caught in the wind and made it look briefly as if he was flying. Then, suddenly, a gunshot cracked and he stopped, abruptly, hanging in the air like a puppet.

The crowd sighed in unison, then started to break up.

“Shame,” Rena ventured.

“Damndest thing I ever saw,” added latte man.

Rena was appalled that the man had been shot. But the whole incident had left her enervated. Impossible feats and daring courage were the sort of things the regime was supposed to suppress, so seeing something so spectacular on the way to work was just a hint that Keris’ time might have come after all. She hoped so.

*

Valentine looked gloomy as Rena entered the office. He was staring at a copy of their report on the East London riot.

“The boss didn’t like it?” He tossed the paper to Rena, covered in red ink. She read it quickly. “But that’s…”

“Not what happened. Right,” he said.

“No, more to the point, it’s not what I said would happen,” she replied. “I said the riots would keep happening until the dome’s air circulation system was upgraded. And I said it was vital that we overhaul the militia’s approach to policing there. I can’t believe they needed to shoot those rioters.”

“Shot with their own weapons, apparently. Temporary madness, caused by something in the water. All sorted now. Business as usual.”

“But that’s…”

“Dangerous nonsense? Sure. So I asked the boss about it. Apparently we don’t get the bigger picture. He thinks that if we tell the Cabinet this was all about overzealous policing and penny pinching maintenance they’re more likely to shout at the people who gave them the bad news than they are to sort out the problems, because that would be easier.”

“That’s never happened to me before.” Rena was fuming.

“You’ve never openly criticized the regime before, though.”

She’d written her report after Keris had left her apartment, emailing it early in the morning. Had she never submitted a report with a political edge before? “So they want me to stick to nice safe predictions. Keep clear of anything controversial.” What was happening to her? Keris must have shaken her more than she’d realized. She’d been trained to couch her predictions in a politically neutral way, to convey the sense of the inevitable and to edit out any sense of blame or responsibility. Why had she forgotten her instincts? But there was something else. “Valentine, last night?”

“Yes?”

“You were about to tell me something. About a choice you had to make.”

Valentine grabbed his jacket. “Let’s walk.”

*

Valentine led them to the southwestern edge of the dome. Rena could see the old Chelsea Bridge lying, battered, beyond the perimeter. “I was born over there, in the old Chelsea hospital. Not much left now.” He looked sheepish. “Nothing here for me anymore. Time to move on, don’t you think?”

Rena looked at him. He was carrying himself differently, as though he had new purpose. He went on. “I’ve been offered a place on the third Explorer mission. The third escape craft.”

Suddenly Rena knew what he wanted from Keris. And from her. He wanted them to talk him out of it.

“It’s all hopeless,” he continued. “And the authorities are in denial. You saw that today. The East London dome is finished. And after that, where next? How long before the riots start here too?”

“That’s not going to happen, Valentine.”

“Is that a prediction?”

She ignored the question. “Which mission is it?”

“Third ship’s going to 51 Pegasus.”

She frowned. “Do you know what you’re going to find when you wake up—if you wake up—in a hundred years? A planet that’s slightly too close to its sun to be comfortable, full of active volcanoes and violent weather events. You should feel right at home.”

“At least I’ll be free.”

“Will you? Free to do what, exactly?”

“Free to expand. Free to grow. Free from this sense of defeatism everyone round here seems to have.”

Rena looked round at the devastation beyond the barrier. It had a grey infectiousness about it, an encroaching sense of dread and foreboding. She could see why people clustered in the middle of the domes, away from the ominous portents at the edge. It was a vision of hell, and a reminder that damnation was just around the corner. If you believed in the inevitable onrushing of the night, she reminded herself.

“Valentine, you trust me, don’t you? And you know I’m usually right about the way things are going to turn out. Well I agree with Keris. We’re too resilient for all this. It’s our job to keep things together until it gets better. And it will.”

“In our lifetimes?”

“It doesn’t matter when it happens. It just matters that it’s going to.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Then we aren’t the stubborn, cussed survivors I think we are. The trouble with you, Valentine, is that your predictions are all wrong. You’re so used to looking at things after the event that you see potential disaster in everything. You see a bomb, you predict an explosion. You see disaster happening in one badly built dome the other side of London, you predict it’s going to happen here. It’s no wonder you’re a pessimist.” They began to walk back along the embankment. “When do you have to make your decision?”

“Next week. Ship leaves the week after.”

“I can’t believe you’re even contemplating this. You get travel sick on the top floor of the bus, so how you’ll cope with 50 light years is a complete mystery.”

“I’ll be asleep, don’t forget.”

“You’d better hope so.”

*

They met later that evening in a pub round the corner from Blackfriars Station, another old Victorian with low ceilings and oak panels and real, working gas lanterns. Valentine hadn’t argued when Rena insisted on coming. Rena hadn’t told him about Keris’ visit. Keris embraced her warmly.

“Something I missed?”

“Later, Valentine,” said Keris. “Let’s just say she’s more than welcome here.”

Evans and Price showed up, with beers. The bar was crowded, but they managed to squeeze in to a table. Over the next two hours Keris sketched out her plan, which, basically, was to break in to the TV station and replace the usual programming with some alternative footage of their own. Rena knew that Keris probably had the skills to do that remotely, but where was the dramatic flair in that?

The next day was a Saturday and Rena got up late. If things had gone according to plan there should be something on the TV and that something should be Keris. Rena scratched her head as she shuffled into the kitchen for some coffee. The TV was showing the usual stuff. Perhaps she was early. She checked her watch. Actually, she was late. That meant the plan hadn’t worked.

 It was late afternoon before her phone rang. It was Keris.

“Apparently I get one phone call and you’re it.”

“You’re in jail?”

“Militia station. Bet you didn’t predict that one.”

“What happened?”

“Later, later. Just get down here, okay?”

*

Keris sat glumly on a hard plastic chair in a holding cell, hands cuffed. She clearly hadn’t slept.

“You okay?”

“Been better. Good to see you, though.”

“Want to talk about it?”

Keris’ cockiness had evaporated. “Militia bashed the door in about two o’clock.”

“What do they know?”

“Just about everything. They knew about the TV station plot, knew about the newspaper. Didn’t know about you and Valentine, though. That’s why it’s good to see you. Had to be you or Valentine, I figured. Glad it wasn’t you.”

Keris was in line for some public humiliation, and she knew it. Rena dashed from the militia building in a hurry. She had to find Valentine, find out what he’d done. Find out why. It was deep into the evening before she tracked him down, staring out over the ruins of Chelsea Bridge watching the crimson sun sink below the jagged remains of the West London skyline.

“Have you got anything to say for yourself, Valentine?”

Valentine turned. She could see he’d been crying. “I wasn’t entirely straight with you before, Rena. About the escape flight. Didn’t you stop to wonder why they’d offered me a place on the ship?”

Everything had always come so easily to Valentine that she’d simply assumed that that sort of offer was commonplace to him.

“I had to trade, Rena. I had to trade Keris.”

Rena stared at Valentine, too shocked to speak.

“Don’t you see?” he went on. “We have to survive. I have to survive. I have to go.”

“And Keris?”

“I had to choose.”

She looked at him closely for the last time.

“Well I sincerely hope it was worth it.”

She turned away. There was no more to be said.

*

She didn’t see him again. Not in the flesh. But she saw the launch on TV. He was back to his old handsome self on the news shots, the old swagger back, the tears gone.

Valentine had cut a better deal with the authorities than he might have. He’d presented Keris as an unwitting dupe in the whole operation, laying most of the blame on Evans and Price. And he’d made it clear that she was to be let off lightly. He was one of the most photogenic of the new astronauts and the authorities badly needed his continued co-operation. So Keris got let off with a stiff fine and a stern warning, providing she could get a responsible citizen to vouch for her. So that’s how she ended up at Rena’s place.

Two years later they set off on their great expedition. They left the dome in a heavily armored secure vehicle and headed to Portsmouth, to the nuclear submarine still moored there. Rena had official sanction for this trip: she had predicted a need for some first-hand information on what was going on in the rest of the world and had risen sufficiently highly in the Bureau to make the whole trip happen. No one in her group had ever piloted a submarine before but they had the manuals and they had the enthusiasm.

And more importantly, they had hope.

 

Copyright 2017 by Mark Bilsborough