The Gone-Away World
The lights went out in the Nameless Bar just after nine. I was bent over the pool table with one hand in the bald patch behind the D, which Flynn the Barman claimed was beer, but which was the same size and shape as Mrs. Flynn the Barman's arse: nigh on a yard in the beam and formed like the cross-section of a cooking apple. The fluorescent over the table blinked out, then came back, and the glass-fronted fridge gave a low, lurching hum. The wiring buzzed—and then it was dark. A faint sheen of static danced on the TV on its shelf, and the green exit lamp sputtered by the door.
I dropped my weight into the imprint of Mrs. Flynn the Barman's hams and played the shot anyway. The white ball whispered across the felt, came off two cushions, and clipped the eight cleanly into a side pocket. Doff, doff, tchk . . . glonk. It was perfect. On the other hand, I'd been aiming for the six. I'd given the game to Jim Hepsobah, and any time now when the power came back and everything was normal in the Nameless Bar, I'd pass the cue to my hero pal Gonzo, and Jim would beat him too.
Any time now.
Except that the lights stayed out, and the hollow glimmer of the TV set faded away. There was a small, quiet moment, the kind you just have time to notice, which makes you feel sad for no good reason. Then Flynn went out back, swearing like billy-o—and if your man Billy-O ever met Flynn, if ever there was a cuss-off, a high noon kinduva thing with foul language, I know where my money'd be.
Flynn hooked up the generator, which God help us was pig-powered. There was the sound of four large, foul-smelling desert swine being yoked to a capstan, a noise pretty much like a minor cavalry war, and then Flynn let loose some of his most abominable profanity at the nearest porker. It looked as if it wanted to vomit and bolted. The others perforce followed it in a slow but steady progression about the capstan, and then pig number one came back around, saw Flynn ready with another dose and tried to stop. Lashed to the crosspiece and bundled along by its three fellows, it found it couldn't, so it gathered its flabcovered self and charged past him at piggy top speed, and the whole cycle accelerated until, with a malodorous, oinking crunch, the generator kicked in, and the television lit up with the bad news.
Or rather, it didn't light up. The picture was so dim that it seemed the set was broken. Then there were fireworks and cries of alarm and fear, very quiet but getting louder, and we realised Sally Culpepper was just now turning on the sound. The image shook and veered, and urgent men went past shouting get back, get clear, and ohshitlookatthatfuckerjesus, which they didn't even bother to bleep. In the middle distance, it looked as if maybe a figure was rolling on the ground. Something had gone absolutely, horribly awry in the world, and naturally some arsehole was present with a camera making himself 10k an hour hazard pay when he could have been rolling up his arsehole sleeves and saving a life or two. I knew a guy in the Go Away War who did just that, dumped the network's prized Digi VII in a latrine trench and hauled six civilians and a sergeant from a burning medical truck. Got the Queen's Honour back home and a P45 from his boss. He's in an institution now, is Micah Monroe, and every day two guys from the Veterans' Hospital come by and take him for a walk and make sure the medal's polished on its little stand by his bed. They're sweet old geezers, Harry and Hoyle, and they've got medals of their own and they figure it's the least they can do for a man who lost his mind to giving a damn. Harry's kid was in the medical truck, you see. One of the ones Micah couldn't reach.
We stared at the screen and tried to make sense of what was on it. It looked, for a moment, as if the Jorgmund Pipe was on fire—but that was like saying the sky was falling. The Pipe was the most solidly constructed, triple-redundant, safety-first, one-of-a-kind necessary object in the world. We built it fast and dirty, because there was no other way, the gone-away world and then after that we made it indestructible. The plans were drawn up by the best, then checked and re-checked by the very best, and then the checkers themselves were scrutinised, analysed and vetted for any sign of fifth columnism or martyr tendencies, or even a serious and hitherto undetected case of just-plain-stupid, and then the contractors went to work under a scheme which emphasised thoroughness and adherence to spec over swift completion, and which imposed penalties so dire upon speculators and profiteers that it would actually be safer just to throw yourself from a high place, and finally the quantity surveyors and catastrophe experts went to town on it with hammers and saws, lightning generators and torsion engines, and declared it sound. Everyone in the Livable Zone was united in the desire to maintain and safeguard it. There was absolutely no chance that it could imaginably, conceivably, possibly be on fire.
It was on fire in a big way. The Pipe was burning painful white, magnesium, corpse-belly, nauseating white, and beside it there were buildings and fences, which meant this wasn't just the Pipe, but something even more important: a pumping station or a refinery. The whole place was wrapped in hot, shining smoke, and deep in the heart of the furnace there was stuff going on the human eye didn't know what to do with, weird, bad-news stuff which came with its own ominous soundtrack. On the screen something very important crumbled into noise and light.
"Fuuuuuuck," said Gonzo William Lubitsch, speaking for everyone.
It was a funny feeling: we were looking at the end of the world— again—and we were looking at something awful we'd never wanted to see, but at the same time we were looking at fame and fortune and just about everything we could ever ask for delivered by a grateful populace. We were looking at our reason for being. Because that thar on that thar screen was a fire, plus also a toxic event of the worst kind, and we, Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together, were the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County (corporate HQ the Nameless Bar, CEO Sally J. Culpepper, presiding) and this was the thing that we did better than anyone else in the entire Livable Zone, and therefore anywhere. Sally was straightaway talking to Jim Hepsobah and then to Gonzo, making lists and giving orders.
She set Flynn the Barman to brewing his chews-through-steel espresso, and at last even Mrs. Flynn was up off her on-board cushions and moving at flank speed to make provisions, prepare tallies, and take letters for loved ones and estranged ones and people glimpsed and admired across the floating ash of the Nameless Bar. We ran to and fro and bumped into one another and swore, mostly because we didn't have anything important to do yet, and there was hubbub and brouhaha until Sally jumped up on the pool table and told us to shut up and get it together. She raised her phone above our heads like the thigh bone of a saint.
Sally Culpepper was six feet tall and much of her was leg, and on her right shoulder blade she had an orchid tattoo inked by some kid a quarter-inch shy of Michelangelo. She had strawberry lips and creamy skin and freckles across her nose where it'd been rebuilt after a bar fight in Lisbon. Gonzo claimed to have slept with her, to have had those legs wrapped around his hips like conjoined Italian calf-skin boa constrictors. He said she left him all but dead and grinning like a crescent moon. He said it happened one night after a big job, beer running from the rafters and everyone shiny as an egg yolk with success and soap-scoured skin. He said it was that time when Jim and Sally were trying not to be a thing, before they just gave in to the inevitable and got a place together. Every time we all met up, me and Gonzo and Sally and Jim Hepsobah and the others, Gonzo'd throw her a wicked grin and ask her how her other tattoo was, and Sally Culpepper would smile a secret smile which said she wasn't telling, and maybe he knew what that other tattoo looked like and maybe he didn't. Jim Hepsobah just pretended he hadn't heard, because Jim loved Gonzo like a brother, and love like that recognises that your buddy can be an ass, and doesn't care. We all loved Sally Culpepper, and she ruled us with her transparent lashes and her milkmaid's face and her slender arms that could drop a punch on you like a steam hammer. So there she stood, and there was a reasonable facsimile of calm and attention, because we knew that if the call came it would come on that phone, and we knew she had five-offive reception here, and that was one of the reasons why the Nameless Bar was our place of business.
So we stopped hunting for lost socks and packing bags, and fretting that we'd somehow miss the starting gun, and settled in to Mrs. Flynn's provender. After a while we got quietly chatty and talked about small domestic chores, like cleaning gutters and chasing bats out of the loft. When the phone did ring (any time now), we could go and be heroes and save the world, which was Gonzo's favourite thing, and perforce something I did from time to time as well. Until it kicked off, we might as well not fuss. And then the Nameless Bar went quiet again; in little groups and one by one we fell silent as we beheld a vision of awful destiny.
The vision took the form of a small child carrying a snot-crusted and elderly teddy bear. It marched out into the room with much gravitas, surveyed us all sternly, then turned to Mrs. Flynn the Barman to gather in details for the prosecution.
"Why was it all dark?" it demanded.
"The power went out," Mrs. Flynn the Barman said cheerfully.
"There's a fire." The child glowered around the room.
"These are loud men," it said, still annoyed, "and this one is dirty."
It indicated Gonzo, who winced. It considered Sally Culpepper.
"This lady has a flower on her back," it added, having found conclusive proof of our unsuitability, then sat down in the middle of the floor and helped itself to a cheese and bacon roll. We goggled at it, and tried to make it go away by rubbing our eyes.
"Sorry," Mrs. Flynn the Barman said to us in general. "We don't let him in here normally, but it's an emergency." She eyed the child without approval. "Sweetie, you can't eat that; it's been on the floor near the dirty man."
Gonzo would probably have objected to this, but he didn't seem to hear her; he was still gazing in mute horror at the kid in front of him, and so was I, and so was everyone else. It was unquestionably a human toddler, and from the context certain conclusions had to be drawn which were uncomfortable and even appalling. This infant, swaddled in a bath towel and presently attempting to jam a four-inch-diameter granary bap into one ear, was the Spawn of Flynn.
Now, the fire on the Jorgmund Pipe was deeply unsettling. It represented danger and opportunity and almost certainly deceptions and agendas and what all. It was, however, well within our common understanding.
Things burned, things exploded, and then we came along and made them stop. A breeding population of Flynns was another proposition altogether. We looked on Flynn as our personal monster, a safe, disturbing ogre of corrosive profanity and sinister glassware. He was ours and he was mighty and we grew great by association with him, and proof of his dangerous overmanliness was to be found in his fearless sexual trystings with the vasty Mrs. Flynn, but we didn't really want to live in a world entirely composed of Flynn-like beings in their serried ranks, vituperative and grouchy and unwilling to take an IOU. That was a new order even the bravest of us would find inhospitable, and the glimmer of it, the Spawn of Flynn, was even now throwing pieces of mushed-up cheese at Gonzo's boot. Mrs. Flynn the Barman, oblivious, finished whatever domestic task she was about amid a flurry of folding cloths and wiping, and trotted out. The Spawn of Flynn blithely ignored his mother and took a chomp from the side of the soiled roll.
"Crunchy," said the Spawn of Flynn.
Sally Culpepper's phone made a little chirrup, and everyone pointedly didn't look.
"Culpepper," Sally murmured, and then, after a moment, snapped it shut. "Wrong number." We all made faces to suggest we weren't fussed.
For a while, the Nameless Bar was filled with the sound of a small child eating and a lot of rough and tough-talking men and women thinking perturbed and unfamiliar thoughts about time and mortality and family. Then the quiet was broken, not by a phone call but by a sound so deep it was very nearly not a sound at all.
You heard it first as a kind of aggressive quiet. The whoosh and snarl of the desert all around us was still going on, but somehow it was subsumed by this deep, bass silence. Then you could feel it as a coldness in your knees and ankles, an unsteady, heart-attack feeling of weakness and vibration. A bit later it was audible, a thrumming gnognognogg which echoed in your lungs and let you know you were a prey animal today. And if you'd ever heard it before you knew what it was, and we all knew, because when we'd first met it was the noise we'd made together: the sound of soldiers. Someone was deploying a decent-sized military force around the Nameless Bar, and that meant they were emphatically not kidding about security. Since it seemed unlikely that they were deploying in order to arrest us, and since in any case if they were there would be absolutely nothing we could do about it, we all crowded through the big pine door of the Nameless Bar to watch them arrive.
Outside, it was cold and dry. The night had set in, witching-hour black, and the sands had given up their heat, so a chill wind was gusting across the wooden rooftops of the bar and the outbuildings, and the gloomy shacks and clapboard homes which made up the no-hope town of Exmoor, pop. 1,309. Off against the brow of Millgram's Hill was our section of the Jorgmund Pipe; a single shadow-grey line lit by Flynn's bedroom window and the work light in the paddock, and every now and again by the gleam of another lonely little house along the way. It ran in both directions into the dark, and somewhere on the other side of the globe those two lines met and joined, surely at a place which was as vibrant and alive as Exmoor was not. On the top of the Pipe, every few metres, there was a little nozzle spraying good, clean FOX into the sky; FOX, the magic potion which kept the part of the world we still had roughly the same shape day by day. No one quite knew where it came from or how you made it; most people imagined some big machine like an egg with all manner of wires and lights condensing it out of air and moonshine, and drip-drip-dripping it into big vats. There were thousands of them, somewhere, vulnerable and vital, and let them never stop. I'd once seen some of the machinery involved: long black lozenges with curved sides, all plumbing and hoses, and rather eerie. Less an egg than a space capsule or a bathyscaphe, except this was the opposite; not a thing for journeying through a hostile place, but a thing which makes what is outside less hostile.
Most people tried very hard to avoid noticing the Pipe. They had euphemisms for it, as if it were cancer or impotence or the Devil, which it was. In some places they painted it bold colours and pretended it was an art project, or built things in front of it or even grew flowers on it. Only in pissant remora towns like this one did you get to see the thing itself; the rusty and despised spine of who we were, carrying vital solidity and safety, and the illusion of continuance, to every nook and cranny of the Livable Zone.
In truth it was not a loop at all, but a weird bird's-nest tangle. There were hairpin bends and corkscrews, and places where subsidiary hoses jutted out from the main line to reach little towns on the edges, and places where the Livable Zone pulled close about the Pipe like a matron drawing up her skirts to cross a stream, where the weather and the lie of the land brought the outside perilously close; but taken all together it made a sort of rough circle girdling the Earth. A place to have a home. Get more than twenty miles from the Pipe (Old JP, they called it in Haviland City, where the Jorgmund Company had its headquarters, or sometimes the Big Snake or the Silver) and you were in the inimical no-man's-land between the Livable Zone and the bloody nightmare of the unreal world. Sometimes it was safe, and sometimes it wasn't. We called it the Border, and we went through it when we had to, when it was the only way to get somewhere in any reasonable length of time, when the alternative was a long drive around three sides of a square and the emergency wouldn't wait. All the same, we went in force and we went quickly, lightly, and we kept an eye on the weather. If the wind changed, or the pressure dropped; if we saw clouds on the horizon we didn't like, or strange folks, or animals which weren't quite right, we turned tail and ran back to the Pipe. People who lived in the Border didn't always stay people. We carried FOX in canisters, and we hoped it would be enough.
"It's time to eat," Ma Lubitsch says, a broad expanse of apron topped by a summit of greasy peanut-coloured hair. Old Man Lubitsch doesn't hear over the buzzing of his hives, or he doesn't care to join us, because his baggy white figure remains out in the yard, tottering from one prefab bee house to another with a can of wispy smoke. Ma Lubitsch makes a noise like a whale clearing its blowhole and sets out knives and forks, the delaminating edge of the table pushing into her belly. Gonzo's mother is big enough that she takes up two seats in church and once near-killed a burglar with a rolled-up colour supplement. Gonzo himself, still able to count his years without resorting to two hands, has his father's more sparing construction.
One of my first memories, in all the world: Gonzo, only a few months before, staring into my face with a stranger's concern. He has been playing a game of indescribable complexity, by himself, in the corner of the playground. He has walked from one end of the sandpit to the other and rendered it flat in a particular place, and he has marked borders and bridges and areas of diffusion and lines of demarcation and now he needs another player and cannot find one. And so he turns to look about him and sees a small, lost child: alone in a moment of unfathomable grief. With presence of mind he directs his mother's attention to the crisis, and she trundles over and asks immediately what is the matter and am I hurt and where are my parents and where is my home? And to these questions I have no answer. All I know is that I am crying.
Gonzo answers the disaster by approaching the white ice-cream truck at the far gate, purchasing there a red, rocket-shaped ice with a sticky centre, and this he hands me with great solemnity. Ten minutes later, by the alchemy of sugar and artificial flavours and the security they represent, I have joined Gonzo's incomprehensible game and am winning—though perhaps he is going easy on me—and my tears are dry and crusty on my smock. During a momentary ceasefire, Gonzo informs me that this afternoon I may come to his house and meet his father, who is wise beyond measure, and partake of his mother's cooking, which is unequalled among mortal men, and even feed biscuits to the Lubitsch donkeys, whose coats are more glossy and whose eyes are more lambent than any other donkeys in all the wide world of donkeykind. Ma Lubitsch, watching from a small distance, recognises by the instinctual knowledges of an expat Polish mother that her family has grown by one, and is not perturbed.
In her oven gloves and enveloping apron, Ma Lubitsch gazes through the French windows a bit longer, but Gonzo's father is now chasing a single errant bee around the hives with the smoke gun. Political dissent among the bee houses is not permitted. Ma Lubitsch makes a seesaw turn, stepping from one foot to the other once, twice, three times to bring herself back to the table to dish up, swearing the while in muttered Polish. The infant Gonzo, mighty with filial affront, dashes out to rebuke and retrieve the Old Man; I follow more slowly, five years of age and cautious with brief experience; appearances deceive. Honest faces lie and big boats sink where small ones ride out the gale. But ask me how I know, and I will not be able to tell you.
"Ma says lunch," Kid Gonzo says firmly. Old Man Lubitsch holds up a single gloved hand, a sinner lost to apiarism, requesting indulgence. The bee is on the flagstone in front of him, presumably coughing. It appears for a moment that Gonzo will stamp on it, rid himself of this impediment to family harmony, but his father is fast for all that his face looks like faded wool, or maybe it is just that Old Man Lubitsch understands the value of strategic positioning: he swoops, his body blocking Gonzo's line of attack, and, lifting the bee in gentle fingers, he pops it into hive number three.
"Lunch," Old Man Lubitsch agrees, and for a moment I believe he smiles at me.
We return to the house, but Gonzo's mother is not mollified.
Things are strained. They have been strained since before I arrived, since Gonzo's older brother Marcus went to soldier, and neglected to duck on some forgotten corner of a foreign field that is forever Cricklewood Cove. Lunch is Ma Lubitsch's small white witchery, her article of faith—if she can provide Gonzo with hearty nutrition and a solid, dependable centre, he will be well-fitted to the world. He will conquer, he will survive, he will feel no need to seek adventure. He will not leave her. For Ma Lubitsch, lunch defies death. Old Man Lubitsch, however, knows that sometimes, for reasons which are obscure even to bees, the hive must disgorge its children and see them set upon the wind. And so he prepares for the moment when this son either finds a queen and starts a family, or flies and flies until he cannot continue and falls to the dirt to become once again a part of the mossy meadow carpet all around.
Ma Lubitsch doesn't speak to her husband during the meal. She doesn't speak from the first potato to the last flake of chocolate icing, and she doesn't speak over coffee, and she doesn't speak as Gonzo removes himself to the creek to fish. It seems that she will never speak to him again, but when I return unannounced for a forgotten tackle box, I glimpse her, the enormous body racked with sobs, cradled in the arms of her tiny mate. Old Man Lubitsch is singing to her in the language of the old country, and his shadowed, sharp little eyes lay omertà upon me, dark and deep; these are secrets between men, boy, between the true men of the heart. I know it. I understand.
It is this image which comes to mind later whenever Gonzo is about to embark on some act of unconsidered heroism: a bird-like man in white overalls lending his strength to a shattered mountain. Gonzo fishes. He catches two tiddlers of uncertain species, and throws them back when they appear unhappy. I never tell him what I have seen, and when I turn around, five years have passed.
Excerpted from The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. Copyright © 2008 by Nick Harkaway. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
From the Hardcover edition.