“Wow.” Vicky’s face was bronze in the rays of the setting Sun. Her head strained up, basking in its glory. Jack Smith was slumped at her feet in the base of the boat, where he had hidden in the shade for most of the afternoon. She leant gently against the oar handle that was trussed up as a rudder. He clambered up to sit beside her. The two leaned close, shoulder to shoulder, eyes closed, and their faces pushed up to the west.
They were a half-mile away from the southernmost and largest Severn bridge, the old M4, and the current took them towards the right of a large rock outcrop in the middle of the water. It had been exposed as the tide went out, and the highest points had already dried completely. The rufous, flat slab was textured with bumps and pools. The temperature was high, and the Sun bright, so only the rock pools remained wet. The rest had dried off to leave a heated stone field in the river. Even from a distance of several yards, the heat emitted from the stone was perceptible on the skin. Jack could feel it, warm on the back of his neck, although the direct sunlight on his face was hotter. Their course aimed under the central bridge span connecting two vermicular viaducts.
“From my desk, I’ve watched virtually every sunset over fourteen years. But in that air-conditioned constancy, you never get the beauty of it. You can’t feel it.” His eyes spent their time flitting from the Sun to Vicky’s features and back again. Her face moved downwards, to see that they were holding hands, and then looked back into Jack’s face. He gave a wan smile. They stared at each other for several seconds; neither spoke.
Vicky’s eyes suddenly widened. Before he could worry, he spotted that she was looking past him. Vicky loosed her hand from his, stood up and pointed upriver. “Is that them?” she squealed. The pitch of her voice surprised them both, and she pulled her hand back to cover her throat.
Jack held his left hand up the side of his face for shade. He saw the dark shape she had pointed at. There was definitely something in the river a mile or two behind them. He felt Vicky pass the shared hat onto his head, and dropped his hand. He could not be sure what the object was, but the size could easily be that of the narrowboat of their pursuers. She wrapped both hands around his upper arm and leant close. “Do you think they’ve found Bailey? Do you think he’s alright now? They wouldn’t come for us otherwise, would they?”
Jack could not answer. He stared at the little silhouette and wondered many things. He turned 180°, his back to Vicky, and looked down the Bristol Channel. To the south, the shore jutted into the estuary, but the other bank sidled away faster, so that the river widened dramatically in the visible distance. They were headed for the sea. He looked back to the shape, and ahead again.
The eastern shoreline was illuminated beautifully. Although the boat was drifting towards it, he fully expected the flow to move further west. They would be kept in the middle of the huge channel. For the first time, he considered the possibility of being marooned in their little boat. Thirst tickled Jack’s throat. He took another look at the boat behind and then turned back to Vicky. She watched him and her forefinger turned little circles at her temple. He noticed that she sometimes caught a strand of mousy hair, dislodging it from the yellow scarf headband. She must have spent her life repacking her hair and then slowly stripping locks back out, before resetting the whole lot again.
“I can’t promise they’ve found Bailey; but you’re right—their coming after us is a good sign.” Jack put his hands on her upper arms and squeezed. “Everything will be alright.” He gently turned her to face downstream.
The bridge hovered high overhead, with the brutal white columns at each end rising a further five hundred feet. The cat’s cradle of cables hung down all along the bridge deck, connected to the edge every ten feet. They approached the shade of the overpass and Jack looked through the picture frame it created to the open water beyond. “Where are the islands you told me about? You said they were after the second bridge, right?”
Vicky put both hands on the rear rail and leant forwards. She peered into the distance, and scanned across the river. She looked at Jack briefly, and then scanned a complete circle all around the boat. She moved a hand upwards and Jack caught it in mid-air. “The islands?”
A brief look of fear crossed her face, and the other hand rose to trace circles on the side of her head. She looked again at the southern vista between the bridge stanchions. They were almost passing underneath and heading into much more open water on the other side. She faced Jack again, her expression had become perplexed. “I’m not sure exactly. I don’t think it was these rocky patches I was thinking of. I remember two really green-looking, proper islands. Classic islands, maybe a kilometre across. There was grass and trees and seabirds and cliffs.” Vicky’s hazel eyes disappeared behind ochre eyelids for a long couple of seconds. “There were buildings. Definitely buildings. Although maybe only on one of the islands.”
Vicky closed her eyes again. This time she scoured her memory for many seconds. Jack was still holding her left hand in mid-air and he squeezed it to bring her back. “The drone flight view I watched came past this bridge. I remember all those pillars on each side. And the islands were the last part of the story. There are definitely two, near each other—it looped round the edges of each, one after the other. So they must be further than here. You couldn’t see any mainland shore in the images of the islands. But the view was quite low, so that doesn’t mean they’re right out at sea. I’m sure it can’t have been much further than here. But we’re definitely going the right way.” Jack nodded slowly, his face serious.
In the distant sky, maybe a hundred miles south, Jack watched billows of cloud burn rusty. Giant wallowing sheep, dipped in watery blood and meandering above the ocean. They continued to glow like embers only for a short time after he and Vicky could no longer see the Sun behind the hills. The darkening night approached from the east, and the clouds moved steadily north towards them. The sky became grey, the clouds black, and Jack felt the stickiness in his clothes. A day of sweat, and the salt from his bath earlier, with the increasing humidity, all combined to create discomfort. Vicky watched as he tugged slightly at the lower back of the T-shirt. She looked back in the expected direction of her islands, and bent lower to look at the sky emerging above the other side of the bridge deck.
“If it rains, we need to catch as much of the water as possible.” She stepped away from him to open the storage lockers. The lids had a depression in the undersides, so she upturned them onto the floor of the boat, next to the bucket, to catch any rainfall.
The rain came quickly and heavily, carried on a strong and swirling wind. There was thunder but they did not see any lightning. For an hour, the water gushed from the sky. The southerly wind was hot, but the falling water absorbed much of the heat. The rain refreshed: it directly cooled everything, and the air temperature also dropped. The wind blew raggedly around them, whipped through Vicky’s hair, and ruffled their clothes. Although the air spun wildly, the storm was only a small size—it dragged water off the river surface, but generated few real waves. The squall also brought dark night. The lighter outlines of the bridge structures began faintly visible, but faded quickly into the murk. Land, sky and river became united in blackness.
Using light from their armulets, Jack and Vicky bailed the collected water from the bench lids, and from the storage lockers into all the containers they had. Both also drank a large amount as they worked. The sweat of the day was washed off their skin, and was replaced internally. The deluge halted as sharply as it had started. They finished up sitting together, wet, at the stern of the boat. Neither held the rudder, but they were in position to take hold if necessary. As the night was pitch black, and the rudder mostly ineffectual, this preparation was more for bolstering their confidence than any actual purpose.
“Are we going to be OK travelling in the dark?”
Jack assumed that Vicky knew there was nothing they could do about this situation even if it had been a problem. He guessed she was either simply chatting, or perhaps further reassuring herself. “Yes, the Moon will be up in another hour, and it should still be bright, as long as those storm clouds move on. We won’t have gone further by then than what we could see before, so we won’t miss the islands.”
Vicky leant her arm on his shoulder and her elbow oscillated gently against his neck. “Are we going to be able to land on the islands?”
“Well, I’m hoping we don’t have to swim for it, or we’ll lose all our stuff. Fingers crossed we’ll see them far enough in advance to navigate the boat to one of them. We haven’t got much control, but I reckon a little bit of steering over a long distance should work OK.” Jack felt Vicky wrap her hands around his upper arm, and move in close again. He leaned back slightly and stared over the rail trying to distinguish the water from the air. They were still seamlessly opaque. “This black night reminds me of the death of my grandfather.”
“What?” Her voice was a case study in confusion.
“Sorry, what I mean is, it reminds me of the story that Grannie Ellie used to tell me about it. He was a militiaman in Brighton, and was killed in fighting on a boat on the sea there. The story has a lot of blackness in it—I usually picture the scenes looking a bit like what we can see now.”
“You mean nothing at all?”
Jack smiled into the gloom.
Ellie’s histories of the Times of Malthus included some portrayals of grandfather Wayne’s exploits for the Brighton militia in defence of their seafront part of the town. Jack had never known how much to believe of her narratives of these combat clashes. She had recounted the things her husband had told her, and the opportunities for exaggeration, or indeed simple error, were extensive. He was killed in 2030, before the invention of the audiopt feeds, so Jack could not check on the facts directly by watching the feed annals. Although the audiopt technology had been invented in 2035, universal recording and publication had only become mandatory after the signing of the Covenants of Jerusalem in 2040. Some records existed from earlier but they were often fragmented. Many had never existed, and many had been deleted. The software no longer offered any option to delete. The Covenants heralded the end of most hostilities, so the depictions of the earlier fighting relied on the accuracy and depth of Ellie’s original knowledge, and then on her memory.
She had not liked to remember the horrors of the Times, and would only tell junior Jack these stories when he coerced her with a request to hear about the heroic deeds of his grandfather. She had always insisted that Jack confirm his understanding that violence was abhorrent and that she was only telling him the story in order that the family history should not be lost. He had to swear that he would only ever re-tell the story as an example of the reasons why people should be constantly vigilant against the incipience of aggression. Jack would make a solemn promise, but their classified nature merely heightened the excitement of the chronicles. He began to relate the story to Vicky as they cuddled together, rain-soaked in the warm night.
“Wayne Smith had been a corporal in the Brighton Defence Force, and as a lifelong seagoing fisherman, he was usually placed in charge of a boat squad. Wayne was a squat man with a big, ginger beard. Generally, operations involved seeing off seaborne raiders before they were able to land on Brighton beach. Few large vessels were functional at that time. Fuel supplies had run out quickly after the corporations were targeted by revolutionaries. It was possible, but difficult, to produce vegetable-based oils that would run diesel engines. Thus most piratical raids were launched using rigid inflatable boats with either small or solar and battery-powered outboard motors.
“These had to approach from east or west along the coastline, so the BDF set up sentinel positions on the Palace Pier, Brighton Marina seawall, and halfway up the sixteen storeys of the Holiday Inn. This gave a warning system along a stretch of about two miles of shore, and the community protected by the BDF inhabited that stretch. Most of them also chose to live away from the beach, sometimes as much as a mile back. Ellie and Wayne’s beach hut was an unusual place to live but, with his work in the defence force and his fishing, it was the perfect location for them.
“The militia’s little fleet was based in the Marina, and Wayne’s squad would speed out and back, repelling marauders on a weekly basis. As the national famine worsened through 2029, the frequency of attacks dropped. Looting bandits were not very successful and, as they died, or at least weakened, they became less and less capable of launching missions against the citizens of Brighton. Although the resident population were also weakening in both numbers and individual strength, a defending force always holds the upper hand against insurgent attacks. The defence force requested those they protected to move their abodes, and their stores of supplies, at least fortnightly or, preferably, every week. Returning raiders could then be caught and killed or repelled before they found the new hiding places.
“As Wayne’s final year went by, he told Ellie that the BDF were always ahead of their enemies, and he looked forward to a time when the raids would stop completely. He would never hide battle details from his wife; grandfather Smith believed this would ensure she found it easier to grieve if he should ever be killed. This preparation for his own death had always unsettled Ellie and, when it finally came, she blamed him for accepting death too easily. His entire squad were lost that night, and she never received a detailed report of the exact circumstances. Perhaps as Wayne had intended, she imagined what must have happened based on his previous accounts.
“The boat squad would all dress completely in black. There were no specific uniform elements, except for the hat. The six militiamen would all wear identical hand-knitted black hats. Two of them carried handguns but much of the fighting occurred at night, and accurate shooting at sea was almost impossible. Wayne would tell Ellie of hand-to-hand fighting on board the small boats that each side used. Whilst there were a lot of close quarter shootings and stabbings, most deaths occurred when people were knocked unconscious and overboard.”
At Jack’s mention of this in his recounting of Ellie’s tale, Vicky gasped. He paused, realised his insensitive mistake, and tried to twist his head to see Vicky’s mood. She pressed her face into his bicep. Even with a little eye accommodation for the darkness, he could only make out a dark circle of her head. He could feel her face on his arm and knew her expression would be hidden, even in the full light of day. Vicky made no noise, but she clung on tightly. Jack wanted to help but his arm was pinned. He used the other hand to touch her head gently. Without any vision, this became a patronising pat on the head.
He put his hand back down and waited a minute. Gently, he whispered, “Vicky?” His already wet sleeve felt a little warmer.
She snuffled, dragged her eyes across the arm of his T-shirt, and croaked back, “I’m sorry, go on, I do want to hear.”
Ellie Smith had often admitted to her grandson that she did not know the exact details of Wayne’s final battle, but she had proceeded to tell a swashbuckling story of bare knuckle fighting on the foredeck of a BDF boat. Jack gently pushed Vicky back far enough that he could stand up. The uppermost arc of the Moon was pushing up from the eastern horizon and he could make out the outline of the foredeck. He slid carefully up on to it and stood to take a pugilist pose. “Imagine a night like this, my granddad dressed all in black, standing on the front deck of their boat, punching the lights out of a nasty piece of work, bent on stealing the boat and then invading to take everything they could find in the homes of Brighton.”
Jack related a version of the history Ellie had told his younger self many times. “Shot in the thigh, Wayne Smith repelled boarding members of the Essex Raiders militia. Despite a bullet-shattered femur, he knocked the first and largest Essexman back into his dinghy, with a single knockout punch square on the nose.” Jack hurled a fist out at the air ahead. “The big man was immediately replaced by two screaming women who leapt up, either side of Wayne. One had long and wild black hair and waved both arms around with a short knife in each fist.” Jack imitated the woman in the story, whooping loudly as his arms circled vertically.
“The old man in Wayne’s squad crouched in the middle of their boat, and shot her through the side within a second of her boarding. She slumped to the floor gurgling, the mess of dark hair dangling over the side. The other woman was tiny—short and petite—but she was lightning quick. She wore a blood red Lycra bodysuit, and a wide, black plastic belt highlighted the tininess of her waist. She also carried a blade in each hand, bound in place by studded dog collars wrapped around each palm. Almost too fast to see, she had sliced across Wayne’s forearm before her partner even hit the deck. She left Wayne briefly, bounced down into the centre of the vessel to slice the old man’s neck artery and leapt straight back up. He turned as fast as his damaged leg would allow, but she had already stabbed into his left kidney. Wayne crumpled under the pain and attempted to roll onto his back to be in a position to protect against raining knife blows.”
At one moment Jack was his grandfather, holding his thigh and collapsing onto the flat cabin roof. An instant later, he had switched to be the stabbing female warrior. “Like a lizard’s tongue, her right hand repeatedly flicked out and back again. Wayne struggled to follow the speed of movement, but felt every thrust with a new spike of pain in another part of his body. The remaining members of his squad were each involved in a skirmish in their own corner of the boat, but on that night every Brightonian out there lost the fight. The iron tang of blood filled the salty air. Before he had expired, the little assassin rolled my grandfather to the edge of the deck, and gave him a vicious kick to send his bloodied body into the black water.”
As none of the BDF ever returned that night, Jack knew Ellie had invented this fight scene. But it was as good a history as they had; any story was better than none. An empty not knowing would surely have sent the young wife Ellie into harrowing despair. So many people simply disappeared during the Times of Malthus. Jack had always been willing to suspend his disbelief when she claimed that the little knifewoman had later been captured and spilled this story.
He returned to Vicky who was sitting up straight. The sky had cleared again as quickly as the storm had come, and she looked pretty in the bright moonlight. The illumination whitened her skin and, with her hair drawn back into its ponytail and accessorised with the yellow scarf, her oval face was beautiful. Jack paused, checking on what appeared to be an aura or halo around her head. He dismissed it as an illusion, but the pause pushed Vicky into action. She stood up quickly and threw her arms around his neck. She gave him a big kiss on the lips and leant back. “What a great story. Horrible and frightening, but thanks, your acting has cheered me up no end.” He was taken by surprise and just shrugged. She moved around him and walked towards the cabin, but stopped and turned back. After a moment, she said, “I’m going to get some sleep.”
Jack took a step towards her and then stopped. “OK.” With the Moon behind, he could see only a silhouette. Her arm formed a sideways triangle up to her head; she looked like a pointy letter P. “Um, one of us had better watch for the islands. Hopefully I’ll be able to see them in the moonlight, but we definitely don’t want to miss them.” There was silence. Jack continued, “You get some sleep, and I’ll wake you later to give me a turn in bed.” He looked at the time on his armulet but, when he looked back, the letter P had been erased, the deck was empty. He heard a couple of noises from the cabin as Vicky re-arranged the equipment to make a bed. Jack took a deep breath, and turned to the rear of the boat. He looked out at the dark and uniform vastness of the river. He could distinguish the charcoal of the banks from the ink of the water, but there were no discernible features in either. No visible islands.
Jack woke and felt her hand on his cheek and looked up. Shadows showed the position of her eyes, but the light behind was too weak for him to make out Vicky’s expression. “Go on. You get some sleep, and I’ll wake you up later.”