Today's Reading


Now, thirty years after it all ended, the Slow seemed the most natural thing in the world. It felt quaint to imagine people reacting to it with shock.

Hopper knew she was one of the last "before" children: born four years before the planet's rotation finally stopped. She was a rarity.

There had been plenty born since, of course, but the birth rate had plummeted in those final years. The world had paused, waiting for the cataclysm, and those children already young had been treated like royalty—fed well, treated whenever possible, as if in premature apology for a ruined planet their parents could not mend.

But during those years, new children were perceived at best as an extravagance, at worst as a cruelty. Why bring a child into a world winding itself down? The chaos and shortages at the end of the Slow had kept the planet's libido in check. Many pregnancies had been brought to an end, prematurely and inexactly.

The imprecision of timekeeping toward the final sunrise meant no child was formally identified as the last one to know the old world: the world of dawns, sunsets, and cool, clear evenings. Even if some great clock had been stopped exactly with the planet's spin, and the hospitals of the world scoured for the final birth, it would have been a pointless endeavor. Whoever the child was, the odds were it was now dead.

Hopper's generation, consequently, was smaller than those on either side. Things were better now, on the mainland: more babies, more families, more weddings. In the old days there had been whole magazines devoted to weddings. Hopper had seen one in her father's house, annotated in her mother's beautiful handwriting—asterisks here, flower arrangements ringed elsewhere. It was hard, now, imagining having that much paper to waste. As she thought of her mother, she felt the customary stab of pain: dulled by time, still unbearable.

Regeneration. A new factory each month, she read in the bulletins. Each week more farmland under the harrow, each year more schools, more roads, more food. Two years ago, a new railway line. The Great British Resurgence was well under way. Sometimes, from a rust-bitten rig frozen in a permanent autumn morning, it was hard to perceive. But the dispatches remained optimistic.

They weren't strictly true, of course. Everyone knew there were patches of the country where governmental control was more honored in the breach than the observance: up north, in the huge new grain belt across Scotland, in lots of places outside the big cities. There were riots, wearily suppressed; every so often the corpse of some blameless agricultural inspector might be left in a public square with a sign asking for collection by the authorities. None of this was officially acknowledged, of course, but it was remarkable how much could be known despite never appearing in either newspaper.

And now, appearing from nowhere, a helicopter. Its body was thick, squat, the glass bubble on its front resembling an insect's eye.

The rig had a helipad, but this was the first time it had been used in Hopper's time here. Fuel was scarce, and was used for important governmental work only. The soldiers had spotted the aircraft too, nudging one another and gesturing. Hopper felt an unaccountable hostility toward it.

For a moment she wondered whether they were coming for Harv, because of the sirens thing. Then she managed to laugh at herself. Last month, Harv had managed to discover that Schwimmer's birthday was coming up soon. So on the day, as the soldiers had lined up on deck for morning inspection—just as Schwimmer was about to open his mouth—Harv had triggered the rig's sirens to play a strained electronic "Happy Birthday," off-key and wailing. Hopper had laughed as she watched from the mess: the soldiers singing, Schwimmer's face purpling as anger and amusement fought it out within him.

As Schwimmer's adjutant, Harv could have been punished severely, but he had talked the CO around. That was Harv. Always charming.

If the government could spare enough helicopter fuel to fly out and talk to Harv over something like that, England must be a more peaceful and better-governed place than she had imagined.

The Rig Rocket had almost passed beneath the iron entryway into the dock, where it met the water. Just as it did, a figure appeared by the helicopter—in dark clothes, with the smudge of a white band on its arm.

The boat puttered to a stop, coasting into the little bay, and the soldiers jumped out and started hauling it up the slipway. Hopper climbed onto the platform and watched them.

What merited a helicopter? A change of commander? The new one would surely just come out on the supply boat. A medical emergency? It would have to be something really bad, and she'd heard nothing of that. Then again, she realized with a lurch, they could have come because of the letter.

Harv spoke in her ear, startling her. "You'll find out soon enough."

"Find out what?"

"Who's come to play."

She took a breath. "I'm sure it's nothing."

He grinned. "Suit yourself."

This excerpt ends on page 18 the hardcover edition.

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