Story Excerpt Sunday: from Freeze Frames, by Katharine Kerr

Freeze FramesFreeze Frames

by Katharine Kerr

Author’s note: This excerpt is from the novella “Asylum,” which first appeared in Interzone in 1994. I incorporated it into Freeze Frames, and later it appeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, twelfth annual edition edited by Gardner Dozois. Although the political situation in America had improved somewhat since I wrote it, I still hope that the story doesn’t turn into prophecy one grim day.

‘I’ve always loved Britain so much,’ Janet says. ‘It’s going to be wonderful, this couple of weeks. I haven’t had a vacation in so long. Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, that’s what it’s been.’

Rosemary smiles. Ever since they met at Oxford, some forty years ago now, they’ve kept in touch across the Atlantic by phone calls and faxes, e-mail and bulletin boards, the occasional paper letter, the even rarer visit. They have shared their careers, their divorces, and their family news during those years, as well as this long standing joke about Janet’s lack of vacations.

‘Well, then.’ Rosemary supplies the punch line. ‘I’d say that you’ve finally got your jam today.’

‘Finally, yeah,’ Janet says, grinning. ‘And the view from here is an extra helping. It makes me feel all John of Gauntish. This sceptered isle and like that.’

They are standing at a window on the top floor of the Canary Wharf office building, rising among the ruins of the Docklands. Since they are facing west, London stretches out before them into the misty distance on either side the Thames, glittering in the bright sun of a warm autumn day. All along the banks the new retaining walls rise, bleak slabs of concrete, while the river runs fast and high between them. Janet can pick out the complex round the Tower and the new barricades round its ancient walls, protecting them from tides gone mad. Just east of the Tower, near what used to be St. Katharine’s Docks, huge concrete pylons, hooded like monks in sheet metal, rise out of the river. Boats swarm round, workmen overrun them, all rushing to finish the new barrier before the winter sets in.

‘Well,’ Janet says. ‘Maybe not John of Gauntish. Rosemary, this is really pretty awful, the floods, I mean.’

‘If the new barrier holds . . . ‘ Rosemary lets her voice trail away.

Janet considers her friend for a moment. In the glittering light Rosemary looks exhausted. Her pale blonde and gray streaked hair, carefully coifed round a face innocent of make-up, somehow emphasizes the dark circles under her eyes. Along with a handful of other MP’s, Rosemary fought long and hard to get the barrier built further east, just upriver from the old one, argued and insisted that the East End should be saved, that millions of people and their homes not be abandoned — but in the end, more powerful interests won. Engineers could guarantee the barrier if built at this location, and of course, it cost much less than her counter-proposal. As a sign of social impartiality, the Docklands, an embarrassment to British business for the last forty-odd years, have been left beyond the new barrier as well.

‘We’d best go down,’ Rosemary says.

‘Yeah.’ Janet turns, glancing round the lobby toward elevator doors that hang not quite at a right angle to the floor. ‘How long do you think this building’s going to stand?’

‘Well, we don’t get earthquakes here, you know, like you do at home.’ Rosemary smiles briefly. ‘The Free University will probably be able to use it for some years yet. After all, the predictions are vague — about the warming trend, I mean. No one can pinpoint the rise year by year. It may even have peaked.’

‘That’s true, of course. And if they get the embankment built up along here, well, that’ll hold for a while more.’

‘If they do. If, my dear.’

During the ride down neither woman speaks, both listen, rather, to every small creak and rattle that the cage and cables make. Ground water and shifting terrain have begun to damage the ever so delicate array of wires and power conduits upon which Twentieth Century buildings depended. When the doors open smoothly at the ground floor, Janet lets out her breath in a long sigh of relief. She’s glad, as well, to get outside to air that needs no artificial circulation.

On the small flagstone plaza students gather, chattering among themselves under the huge canvas banner, lettered in red, announcing the conference at which Janet has just been the featured guest. “Women’s Gains: a Century of Progress.” A century of crawling forward would be more honest, Janet thinks. Even on this lovely afternoon, the work to be done haunts her. She reminds herself that this is a vacation, that she has left all the files from outstanding cases at home, that her law practice will survive without her for two weeks and her new book will, as well. Besides, her assistant back home has her itinerary, and he can always call if he really needs her.

‘It was a good speech, you know,’ Rosemary says abruptly. ‘It was one of those that makes me think, my god, I know someone famous!’

Much to her own surprise, Janet blushes.

‘Oh now really,’ Rosemary says. ‘Sorry.’

‘No problem. And I have to admit, I wallowed in all that applause. But you should talk! Lately you’ve been in the media lots more than me.’

‘Only as a crank, my dear. Another Liberal party crank, flogging her unpopular ideas.’

‘Well, don’t you think that’s what I am? Back in the States, I mean. A small “l” liberal crank at best. A tool of Satan is more like it.’

They look at each other, grimace, shrug, and walk across the plaza. In the shade of the low embankment, near the steps up to the RiverBus dock, someone has set up a table and folding chair. A young woman lounges in the chair; a monitor and set of input tablets lie on the table. Nearby stands a man of about fifty, short and compact, his dark curly hair streaked with grey, his skin the light brown of Thames mud. At the sight of Rosemary he waves vigourously and grins.

‘Jonathan, hullo!’ Rosemary drifts over. ‘Have you met Janet? Janet Corey. Jonathan Richards.’

They shake hands and smile. Jonathan wears a stubbornly old-fashioned shirt, white and buttoning up the front, with long sleeves rolled up just below his elbows.

‘I’m manning the trenches today.’ Jonathan waves at the table and the monitor. ‘Petitions.’

‘Petitions for what?’ Janet asks.

‘Raising the banks round the Free University. I’m its bursar, you see, and I’m not looking forward to rowing to work every morning.’

‘Well, yeah, I guess not.’ Janet glances at the low dirt bank, topped with a thin layer of asphalt. ‘That won’t hold long, if the predictions come true.’

Jonathan nods, glancing at Rosemary, who sighs, reaches up to rub her eyes with the back of one hand.

‘We keep introducing the special requisition,’ Rosemary says. ‘Perhaps if you do get some show of popular support . . .’

‘Just so. Hence, the petitions.’ He grins at Janet. ‘I’d ask you to sign, but obviously you vote elsewhere.’

From the river drifts the sound of an airhorn — the hovercraft on its way to dock. Muttering goodbyes, fumbling in their handbags for pass cards, Rosemary and Janet hurry up the steps. Out on the water the hovercraft is pausing, backing, working its way through the crowd of small boats and barges, which are scurrying out of its way in turn. On the dock, down by the gangplank two men in the blue uniforms of the RiverFleet huddle over a portable media link. Janet can just hear the announcer’s midget voice say, ‘deteriorating situation in Detroit’ before music carries it away.

‘Er, excuse me,’ Janet says. ‘Could you tell me what that was about?’

At the sound of her flat American voice the officer nods agreement.

‘I hope you’re not from Detroit,’ he says. ‘There seem to have been more riots. Fuel oil rationing, I believe it was.’

‘Probably. It usually is. Thanks; thanks very much.’

As she follows Rosemary down the gangplank to the boat, Janet wonders at herself, that she would take the news of “just another riot” so calmly.

News, bad news, dogs her holiday. As she leaves London, heading north on the Flying Scotsman, she reads of riots spreading all through the Rust Belt, from Chicago in the west to New Jersey in the east. Pictures of the American National Guard quelling riots scroll past on the media screens that hang from the girders in the Edinburgh train station. By the next morning, British time, the news reports deaths; the waiter in the hotel dining room informs her, his voice grave, as she helps herself to whole grain cereal from a stoneware crock at the buffet. Seven young men, two young women, shot as they tried to loot — food in every case, he thinks it was.

‘How dreadful.’ I’ll never get used to this, at least. ‘How awful. Ohmigawd.’

He nods, hesitating, glancing round the nearly empty dining room, where a profusion of white linen lies on sunny tables. In a far corner two elderly men eat behind matching newspapers.

‘We had an American gentleman in earlier,’ he says at last. ‘He joked about it.’

‘No! Oh god, that’s really awful. What did he say?’

Again the glance round.

‘He said that in his day, young people had the sense to loot luxury items, like televisions. Said he didn’t know what was wrong with them, now-a-days.’

Janet cannot speak; she merely shakes her head.

‘I didn’t know what to answer,’ he says.

‘I wouldn’t have, either. You know, most Americans who can still afford to travel have, shall we say, rather right-wing leanings these days. The rest of us don’t.’

He smiles as if relieved, but she feels like a hypocrite, lumping herself in the category of “the rest of us” when she so obviously wears expensive slacks, a silk shirt, when she so indeniably is spending her vacation on expensive foreign soil.

‘Shall I bring tea to your table or coffee?’ the waiter says.

‘Tea, please. Thank you.’

For the next few days Janet tries to bury herself in problems of the past in order to ignore those of the present. She climbs up the rock of Din Edin, as she always thinks of it, where the Gododdin built their fortress. She knows too much about Mary Queen of Scots to romanticize her, finds herself avoiding the guided tour through the castle, and merely stands, looking down at the fang-sharp grey city below, while white stormclouds pile and build in the blue sky. That night, while she listens to the news on television, it rains. As an aside, almost an afterthought to the real news, the announcer speculates on how long the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne will remain above sea-level. The restored castle on its smaller version of Din Edin’s rock is safe, of course, but on the flat, villagers stubbornly cling to ancestral land which sinks into a rising sea.

On the morrow, guidebook in hand, Janet wanders through the National Museum of Antiquities. She spends much of her time there studying the Pictish standing stones. Across the marble floor of a vast hall, decorated with murals of the Highlands, the newly completed collection stands, tucked away from acid rain as the Highlands themselves cannot be. The present, it seems, cannot be avoided.

In her hotel bedroom that night, while she writes postcards to her only child, Amanda, to her nephew Richie’s family up in the Sierra Nevada, and finally, to friends, she flicks on the news out of habit and lets it rumble half-heard until American voices raised in anger force her to watch. Just a few seconds of footage make it plain that Congress has deadlocked over the question of imposing military law on rioting cities. Janet watches fat senators invoke God’s name until at last the screen changes to local news, good news: the child who wandered away from his family last night has been found, chilled to the bone but unharmed.

Janet windows the screen into four, then flips channels, finds at last among the meagre sixty-four available on British television an international news feed, which turns out to be devoting itself to the droughts in Central Africa.

‘Damn!’ She flicks the monitor off. ‘But really, you know, you are supposed to be on vacation?’

Yet, all too soon, America invades her holidays across the bridge of the media. At first the troubles at home appear toward the end of a broadcast and only in the evening programme, but slowly they pull ahead and begin appearing on the morning feed as well. By her fourth night in Scotland, they’ve taken precedence over the Parliamentary debates about preserving British farmland. On the night that she reaches York, American news — the spreading of riots into Sunbelt cities, where fuel oil shortages provide no excuse — has inched in front of the ongoing discussion of whether King William should abdicate. By the time she reaches the Lake Country, the lead story and the headline in the newspapers as well have become REGULAR ARMY UNITS SUPPLEMENT NATIONAL GUARD IN AMERICAN CITIES.

Military law declared, generals replace mayors all across the nation — and in many pulpits though not all, preachers and priests announce that God is punishing America for pride and sin. The TIMES runs a special feature on the situation, which Janet reads, twice, sitting in the lounge of a small hotel, at a diamond-paned window, under a wood ceiling certified Tudor. Janet stares at the pictures of torn streets, impassive soldiers, smug preachers, for a very long time. All at once, she finds herself afraid.

The outcome reaches her in Cardiff. She has just emerged from the National Museum and crossed to the park where Iolo Morgannwg’s gorsedd circle stands, a minature henge of reddish stone. The morning’s rain has stopped, leaving the pale grey civic buildings clean and gleaming, the sky a parade of sun and cloud, the grass between the slabs of Iolo’s fancy bejewelled with drops. By the kerb a small electric truck dispenses whipped ice cream, and Janet debates buying a cone, setting her ever-present fear of cholesterol levels against the girlishness of this day. Not far away a group of teen-agers huddle round a media kiosk — a newstand, she suddenly realizes, not a video viewer, and without really thinking she drifts closer, hears the announcer mentioning Washington D.C. and drifts closer still. One of the boys looks up; she sees a familiar face, dark bangs, blue eyes, the busboy from her small hotel.

‘You’re the American, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, as a matter of fact.’

Silently he steps to one side to let her have his place in the huddle. The announcer, mercifully, is speaking English.

‘. . . riots feared in San Francisco. Units of the National Guard, as it is called in America, are moving into the city’s centre in spite of scattered resistance.’

Earthquake. Her first thought is natural disaster, the quake hit at last, the waiting over, and looters in the street. The announcer drones on.

‘Although news lines are down all across the nation, it would seem that the only resistance to the coup does lie in California. Leaders of the junta report that the control of other major cities passed peacefully into their hands early this morning.’

Nightmare, not earthquake.

‘How well those reports may be trusted remains to be seen. An emergency session of the European parliament has been called for later today. Earlier, the prime minister made this announcement outside Number Ten Downing street. . .’

‘Ohmigawd.’ Janet hears her voice tremble and skip. ‘Ohmigawd.’

The young men are watching her, she realizes. One steps forward and touches her elbow.

‘I’ll flag you down a cab.’

She can only nod, not speak, merely stands and trembles until at last the compu-cab pulls up to the kerb . . .

************

Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, whence she fled to the San Francisco Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye, even those who true-believe in Science. An inveterate loafer, baseball addict, and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares time to write novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years and some cats.

The rest of this story is available in Freeze Frames.

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