Not so long ago I had a life expectancy to die for and lived in the High Lands where it’s always summer. I was 56 but looked 26 and could buy anything and everything. I could go where the hell I liked, even off-world to resorts where inverted sail boats navigate the waters way above your head. All thanks to the man who’d orphaned me when I was 5 years old and left me a couple of billion and some hot patents by way of recompense.
Murder and money had made me an instant A-list Sleb, famous at first for being so young, so alone and so wealthy, a mysterious Golden Child, silent and wide eyed. Later I became one of the planet’s most eligible bachelors. And then, as years passed by, I gained notoriety for being reclusive and unattached. You see, I wouldn’t, couldn’t play the game. I was solitary and introverted and reluctant to share my life and likeness with modern madness.
In the end I gave people the creeps, Slebs and Plebs alike, and started to get plenty of bad press. I was the focus of hate campaigns and death threats. In truth I was a single man worth a fortune, but universally acknowledged to be in want of a life.
Once I was in the 3V, drinking. A new season of Give Us A Cure had just begun. “It’s the show people are just dying to star in!” yelled the announcer’s insane voice from somewhere behind me.
I leaned forward for a top-up and when I sat back again a young guy thin as bone and zombie pale had begun to mime his terminal illness to the panel of Slebs. The poor bastard had them yelling ‘cancer’ inside 10 seconds, but the allotted 30 elapsed well before they were anywhere close to guessing ‘pancreas’. 15 seconds more, maybe less, and he would have won the million dollar treatment and the even more valuable chance to become a Sleb, too. Apparently, when fit and well, he had been handsome and played guitar. And danced. And told jokes. Instead he missed out, accepting his consolation prize of a cheap clock with good grace, even bowing towards the studio audience on all sides of me as they gave him a tearful standing ovation. I stayed in my seat, free falling into an abyss. I drained and re-filled my glass. Next up, a fat woman fighting a losing battle against cerebral palsy. Her charade turned out to be, well, a charade. She couldn’t keep control of her limbs long enough to make any kind of sense. As the Slebs dissolved into helpless laughter and the hooter sounded time’s up, I told the 3V to turn itself off.
“You sure?” it asked me. “This is one of the world’s highest rating shows.”
“I’m sure,” I said.
“OK, you’re the boss.” And the show vanished.
The thin man. The fat woman. Two wretched Plebs. I could have bought their good health a thousand times over. But I didn’t care. I didn’t give a shit. I was a different man back then, trapped in a selfish and self-deceiving bubble. I poured another drink, lit another cigarette, and pulled smoke down to the soles of my feet.
For as long as I could remember I had loathed everyone, including myself. Was I a helpless vessel into which the world’s pain had been poured? Was I unwell, sick in the head, as my father had been, simple as that? Or did I see the world as it really is, some other planet’s Hell? I had no answers and despised my ignorance. And my weakness, too, because all I really wanted was to love and be loved. Nothing more, nothing less. I needed a shoulder to cry on, a bosom to rest my head on, and a sympathetic ear to listen to what I have to say. I regarded myself as an honest man who tried to dream unaided of happiness and was far from unattractive. In fact every day my mirror told me “You’re cute!” and I never set it to FLATTERY. I believed I deserved a fine woman, but that such ideals of feminine beauty and virtue in one human frame no longer existed, that they had been obliterated by the mindless, crushing surge of the 21st century. I was right. And I was wrong.
Get the picture? I was very screwed up. I had concluded I was a voice crying out in the wilderness, some sort of misunderstood saint. Well, sort of. I had needs, so for love making I ordered up sex machines. One night I made the call and the payment and shelled out the Privacy Premium with a few words and a wink of my eyePhone, and half an hour later it turned up. It was programmed to like me, love at first sight, and it was a top model, a masterpiece of Sintel engineering, high as tech can go. But as we made small talk and I tried to loosen up, I caught sight of me and it in the mirror and the illusion shattered. Nevertheless I pressed on, even though I felt as if I’d fallen through the looking glass, was hurtling down some rabbit hole, and I tried to kiss it. Instead it leant and turned away as if on a revolving plinth and looked back putting its finger against my lips and said, “Slow down, tiger. Let me undress. For you. My love.” And it started, retreating towards the bed, but then there was some kind of malfunction and as it took its right stocking off there was a shower of sparks and BANG! the right leg came right off. Then it kind of screamed and fell over, an alarm tone sounded over and over again, and somehow the leg got to its foot and began hopping around the room. And when I had it cornered and reached out to grab it – it kicked me in the face. Twice.
So when the animad from Love Corp materialised in my kitchen the next morning while I was making real eggs with one hand and pressing real steak to my left eye with the other, I was about to jam it and make it go away when I hesitated. “Can’t find love here in the present?” it had asked me. And I had nodded. “Well listen to me – we can find you love from the past!” I had shown interest, its foot was in the door, and now it began to close the deal. It explained how this was a brand new product, exclusive, only on offer to the super rich like me, how Love Corp could supply a cloned woman from any period of history, a woman not cursed by the lovelessness of the 21st century, not blinded to a man’s good nature by wealth and fame and the dazzling future. And a real woman, too. Not a machine. Flesh and blood. The animad was raving now, really into its stride and very intense, summoning up in front of me images of womanhood at once unattainable and suddenly available. An 11th century lady, the stuff of old poetry and Arthurian legend, her skin almost impossibly white and glimpsed within a green velvet cloak; a Tudor aristocrat, austere and straight faced, but with glinting and mischievous eyes above a sharp nose and ambiguous smile; then an oval face with dimpled cheeks framed by ringlets and a bonnet, and briefly I was in a vacuum, snatching at breath; and next a striking woman with chiselled features and an avalanche of auburn curls falling down her back. “Maybe you got a thing about hair?” the animad said. “Maybe you got a thing about handsome women, if you get my drift? Maybe you got a thing about both! Well, during Beta testing, our pre-Raphaelite product proved to be one of our most popular and that’s no pre-Rapha lie!”
But I wasn’t really listening. “Go back,” I said.
“How far?” said the animad.
“To the previous…lady.”
“You got it!”
What was it about her? She was not an extraordinary beauty – pretty, yes, very pretty, but light years distant from today’s definition of designer desire. Her beauty was concentrated in the way she stood, the way her head tilted to one side as if gently considering every second of experience, the depth of her eyes, the slightly crooked smile that played around her lips, the sweet confidence in her innocence and the earthy anticipation of wantonness when time and circumstances would allow. Wantonness. She taught me that word.
“Tell me more.” This was love at first sight.
The animad rotated her simulacrum this way and that. “Miss Jane Bingham, right now aged 24 give or take a couple of months, died April 1842 aged 55, born again May 2089. Acceleration completed June 2090. Back story and skills loaded August of that year. Right now, she’s resting, in the deep freeze. But she’s brand new and unused, 100% guaranteed.”
“You mentioned a back story?”
“If you buy her she will think that she has left her family home in the Derbyshire district of old England to visit a family friend in the city.”
“But so much time…”
“Don’t worry, she’ll cope. Love Corp makes them smart.”
“And her skills?”
“ OK, it says here she does needlework, makes samplers whatever they are, draws flowers, plays the piano 40 whatever that is – twice as good as the 20 I guess – loves reading and walking, knows her own mind, even though it’s not really hers, if you get my drift. And listen up, as far as she’s concerned she’s never been kissed, let alone,” my expression darkening now, “yeah, well, you know what I’m saying, the journey may turn out to be long but when you reach the destination the time it took will seem like time well spent. She’s like, curvy, right? If you get my drift.”
“All I’m saying, sir, is…
“5 mill plus lawyers’ fees, warranties, that sort of stuff. Small change, just a couple of hundred K. But call it 5 mill all in if you buy today.”
I hesitated. Not because of the price. It was all so sudden.
The animad noticed and did its job, bringing the simulacrum ever closer and framing it with an ancient sunset behind lush green hills. “Look at her, sir,” it said. “Just look. Isn’t she everything you’ve ever wanted in a woman?”
And yes, she was, even though the idiotic projection had no idea what it was talking about. “Isn’t she?” it repeated. And it winked. The contract appeared. And I winked back and settled the bill.
“Believe me,” said the animad, beaming, “You won’t regret it. Love Corp will be in touch,” holding out its hand for a manly shake that could not be completed, “and may I say it’s been a real pleasure doing business with you.” And it disappeared.
She arrived a week later with a swarthy Pleb carrying her luggage. He was dressed as a Roman centurion and looked out of place, like a turd in a heart shaped swimming pool. My faith in Love Corp’s ability to create historically credible back stories was undermined immediately. But confidence was restored as soon as she spoke.
“Mr. Dark,” as she curtsied, “it is my sincere pleasure to make your acquaintance. My father, Mr. Bingham, speaks most highly of you.”
She floated before me as if weightless and I was lost in space. I said nothing. My heart was beating fit to burst. I forgot to bow.
“Miss Jane Bingham!” said the centurion, his voice curdled by mucus.
Still I was frozen. She was delightful.
“Well upon my word,” she said through a widening smile. “When they awoke me and described how I was to meet a gentleman from Futurity I must confess that I expected one with a sharper and more ready wit, or, at the very least, one with a sound understanding of society and manners. Tell me, sir, I beg you, that the miracles of Progress have not blinded you to the virtues of times past!”
That smile unzipped my life. Her eyes flashed like the moment of Creation. She wore a blue gown gathered gently above her waist. Her long, fair hair was intricately interwoven and gathered up, dotted with pearls like a new constellation, and the nape of her neck was a curve on which a man might slide swiftly into helpless oblivion.
“Speak, sir,” she said, “lest I conclude you are a machine, a fairground automaton, all cogs and cams and connecting rods but with not the merest glimmer of human intelligence!”
The centurion sniggered.
At last I spoke. “Beat it,” I said.
“Beat what, sir?” said Jane. “Truly I fear you have a fever that has parted you from your wits.”
“Not you, Miss Bingham. Him. It is a modern expression that means ‘go away’.”
The centurion held out his hand for a tip even as I pushed him through the door. “It’s not my fault,” he said. “They switched deliveries on me. Some Roman chick called Portia was scheduled before yours, then they swapped them round. It’s very confusing. I hardly ever know what Time it’s supposed to be.” I relented and sent him a 50 and he said, “Thanks, mate, give her one for me.” So I broke his nose and went back inside. It was an unforgiveable action, but no one could be allowed to speak of Miss Bingham in such a way.
I offered her food and drink but she declined. “My journey to this time and place has been confusingly long and short. Forgive me, sir, but I am giddy.”
“Of course,” I said. “I understand. And please, call me Robert.”
“It is too soon, sir. Let us retain formality. It provides certainty amid uncertainty, an important weave in the fabric of proper society.”
“Very well, Miss Bingham,” opening the door to her room, “rest as long as you please.”
She paused on the threshold. “Is everything all right?” I asked.
“You have brought me home,” she whispered.
Well, I had tried. Half a million spent on the best new antiques, all based on meticulous research and fabricated and aged to the highest standards. I opened the wardrobe. “I took the liberty of having clothes made for you,” I said. “Day wear and evening wear. I do hope they are to your taste.”
But she wasn’t listening. “Candles,” she said, touching the one on her desk and looking across to the other on the bedside table. And I was pleased, because this smallest of touches was my proudest achievement. I was keen to see her face and eyes lit by their gentle flicker, hopeful that the two small flames in the black of night would comfort her and make her think of me.
“You must be very wealthy,” said Jane. “It is no mean feat to conjure the past so perfectly into the future. What do you do to gather such riches?”
I had decided that truth would be the foundation of our love. “I do very little, Miss Bingham. My father left me his fortune. I want for nothing but have precious little to occupy my time.”
“Do you have other family?” she said.
“I am sorry. May I inquire as to the nature of your father’s business? What modern miracles could he perform?”
“He invented something.”
“Ah, invention,” she said. “In my experience it can be both cradle and grave. What did he invent?”
“I see.” She turned away from me.
“An intelligent weapon. It’s called the A-59 assault rifle. It can think quickly and talk, see in the dark, hear better than a dog, recognise instantly enemies, criminals and subversives, and make decisions of its own more quickly than the man or woman holding it. It is the smartest of what we call ‘smart weapons’. ‘Smart’ is our word for ‘clever’. It can kill from over 2 miles away and for several decades has been the weapon of choice for armies, law enforcement agencies, terrorist groups and individual members of the public across the world. It is known as the Dark Angel and makes money as quickly as it fires rounds of ammunition. The A-59 made my family rich and then destroyed it.”
“One evening, many years ago, my father returned home and took his own A-59 from its pride of place above the fireplace. It was a bizarre thing, all gold and jewels and mother of pearl. He spoke to it for some minutes and then, for reasons no one understands, he climbed the stairs and killed my mother, then my brother and sister. And then he turned the gun upon himself. It argued with him at first but then did what it had to do. Obey his order.”
All of this had poured out of me. I had waited so long for someone to whom it could be told without distortion.
She turned back to me. “I am truly sorry, sir,” she said. There were tears in her eyes.
“It was a long time ago.”
“But he spared you.”
“He must have thought you were special.”
“He was deranged.”
“It is possible for pure and lucid thoughts to survive the maelstrom of madness.”
She smiled a half-smile and bade me goodnight. I closed her door.
Just as I had spent time acclimatising myself to the early 19th century prior to her arrival, Jane asked if she could immerse herself in the 21st. I gave her a psi-pod and she began to devour the history that separated our lives and times. She has a powerful intellect – she consumed data at speeds known only to Xpert Slebs and savants – and swiftly placed a partition between Love Corp’s dream of her life and reality. When she had endured enough she learnt more about the new world in the 3V. Five days passed and we barely spoke. Then one evening I joined her and still we were silent. She was exhausted. We watched the end of a day’s news. Jimmy Ellis, a mid-ranking gasohol bootlegger in the Low Lands had died in a hail of bullets fired by rival mobsters. They used A-59’s. The Irrigation War in the Gulf had escalated and entered a new and bloody phase. More A-59’s. The surrogate mother of newborn twin Special Forces assassins was refusing to give the babies up to the military and there was speculation that, if she didn’t play ball, her ramshackle home would be stormed – by a SWAT team with A-59’s. In Los Angeles, Walt Disney had been found in his cryogenic coffin and Disney stock had plummeted in anticipation of him being thawed out, cured of cancer, and making a spectacular claim for back pay. His bodyguards, two robotic replicas of Abraham Lincoln, carried A-59’s. And finally, a pair of minor Slebs was suing Past Times Incorporated for sending them on a dream holiday to London’s Brick Lane in 1941 at the height of World War 2’s Blitz – instead of the Merrie England vacation they had actually paid for.
Jane turned to me. She was weeping.
“Wanna see some Dancing on Mars?” said the 3V.
Maybe the Roman Pleb decided to sell our story because the bug cameras returned. I hadn’t seen them for years. And now they were better and smaller than ever, nanomachines like midges, swarming to share intelligence and then separating to go in search of gossip and tittle-tattle. The apartment’s defences kept them out. But then, in a moment of weakness that felt like strength, I let them in. I was in love, as far as I could see more or less unrequited, true, but I wanted the world, even this world, to know. Three of them hovered around our breakfast table as we ate, next while Jane entertained me at the piano in the mid-morning, and later in the afternoon as she passed me the sampler she had completed. “From the Sermon on the Mount,” she said.
I read the embroidered words to myself.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“You will see God,” I said.
“I hope so,” she said, “though the nature of my immortal soul must, at the very least, be open to question.”
Inevitably the sampler didn’t make the news, and maybe from the look in her eye I should have anticipated what was to happen in a few weeks, but our breakfast and Jane’s playing of Bach’s Little Preludes were soon all over the 3V. We were the lead story for 48 hours. Robert Dark, the celebrated recluse, had a partner, a squeeze, a belle. Anchors and pundits spoke warmly about me, about how I had endured unimaginable tragedy, how post-traumatic stress disorder can take its toll for many years. About how I was taking tentative steps back into society. About how a beauty from the past had reached into the dark pool of my grief and pulled me back into the present. This was the sort of thing they said. And for my sins I liked it.
But my desire for privacy and respect for Jane’s remained strong. We did not leave our gilded cage. We would read and make conversation and discuss the history that separated us. When she rested on the chaise longue I would watch her sleep, trying to find a way into her dreams where I could be the light guiding her to a peaceful awakening, the hand she could reach out to should she enter some labyrinth and need to flee the terrible creature lying at its heart, the voice that would reassure her in any dead of night no matter how dark. But it seemed it was all to no avail, and failure troubled me. At other times I would ponder the impossibility of my love. Jane and I were together but all alone. I was the troubled hermit, she the innocent creature raised from the dead by modern grave robbers and Frankensteins. I was truly human, she was not. I had been brought forth from my mother’s womb, she had been raised in glass and bombarded by all manner of rays. It was during such a hopeless reverie that I heard her scream. It was a sound that cleaved the evening like a lightning strike. “Robert!” she called out. “ROBERT!” I sprang from my chair and ran to her door. Beyond it she wailed and cried out, her sobbing so deep and heaving it was as if she was about to vomit her misery. Once inside her room I was confronted by the sight of Jane, naked save for a towel, twisting this way and that, trying to evade a swarm of bugs that gave the impression that her room had been filled with some sort of smoke. A few had schemed their way into her bathroom while she bathed; many others had followed to relay valuable pictures of her still and silent as the water ebbed and flowed across her delightful form. I was enraged. I grabbed another towel and began to swat the bugs like a madman. All I had to do was fire up my home’s defences but, right then, I was in Jane’s world, and the result was half an hour of slapstick chaos as I flailed and fell, got to my feet, and flailed and fell again while Jane cowered in a corner until every last one of them was broken. It was a hollow victory – the world got what it wanted. Later than night we featured in a 3V comedy special, right after The World’s Funniest Suicide Attempts. When the flailing and falling was all over and everything was calm and quiet, Jane spoke from the shadow she had found, “Thank you, Mr. Dark.” But just one word was imprinted on my soul. “ROBERT!”
Jane could no longer bear confinement. She concluded that we should endeavour to be the masters of our situation. So I introduced her to society. We took a walk to the edge of the High Lands, pursued by bugs and by people. She wore the blue bonnet, the one with silk flowers. I had designed it, but I didn’t tell her. She looked beautiful, but it was nothing to to with me. As we stood and looked down at the boiling ocean through a break in the clouds the growing crowd applauded when Jane stepped back in fright and placed her hand over her chest and laughed, her cheeks flushed, her eyes wide. I placed one hand around her waist and another behind her back to support her and, at first, she did not resist. The crowd cooed and sighed. Upon which she dismantled my embrace, though her eyes remained in contact with mine. “Miss Bingham, despite the temporal chasm that separates us, I can repress my feelings no longer. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” These were the words I wanted to say. They were right there in front of me, saved in my eyePhone. But they remained unspoken. I did not have the courage. At last she looked away and requested that we leave.
Next I took her on a tour of the 3V talk show circuit. It was my greatest mistake that turned out to be my finest decision. Everyone wanted to know more about the nature of our relationship. Questions were loaded with double entendre and innuendo. On The Leo Zane Show, our host promised he wouldn’t follow suit.
“Whenever I see double entendre in a question written by my writers,” he said, waving his cue card around, “I just have to whip it out!” The audience screamed. I laughed as if I meant it. Jane, as often before, had no idea what the fool was talking about. But her confused silence endeared her even more to Slebs and Plebs everywhere. During the show her star rating went from Polaris to Bellatrix in less than half an hour and was still on the up when Leo asked his final question. “Miss Bingham,” he said, “you share the DNA and intellect of a woman who lived more than 250 years ago. How do you find the world and its people here and now, in your far future?”
There was a silence. Jane was gathering her thoughts. She looked at me as if for reassurance and I smiled and nodded. “It is a place of many contradictions, Mr. Zane,” she said at last. “You have conquered gravity and matter and can make almost anything. Machines that fly, even to other worlds. Towns that hang in the air and chase the sun. Medicines that extend the lives of the rich beyond the prescription of God and Nature,” glancing my way briefly, “and devices that connect to the human brain and dream dreams of their owners’ choosing. You even make creatures like me, creatures that walk and talk like human beings, and feel like human beings, but walk the earth like unquiet ghosts,” Leo Zane shifting in his seat now, “phantoms who, paradoxically, see the world of the living as it is and not through a lens of falsehood. One night, when I extinguished the illusion of my magical windows and looked out across the High Lands and down to the Low, I did not see Progress. I saw a sky darker than the underworld. I saw lunatic towers channelling all the fire of life towards the unimaginable cold beyond the earth. Everywhere I looked I saw the spread of rigor. This is what your Science has done for you, Mr. Zane. It has transported the world into a deathward universe where the cost of building the future is so high it is, in fact, destroying it. Science must be the servant of Nature, not her oppressor. You have the opportunity to banish poverty, to exile the images of children with too little to eat to the place they belong. The past. And yet you prefer to maintain the divide between rich and poor, between the powerful and powerless, because these two states are regarded as opposite poles within your mighty engine of progress and growth. And, to make matters even more calamitous, you reward mediocrity and tomfoolery with wealth because, even as you walk in your sleep towards destruction, most of you have little to talk about other than yourselves and each other. But there is hope, Mr. Zane, for there is another world both within and beyond this one, where there is no High and Low. There is another world. And it can be brought into being. And I hope to live out my days there,” turning to me, her head tilting slightly down, “with Robert.”
There was a brief calm before the storm, a tornado of booing and potential violence. We were swiftly removed from the studio as the channel went quickly to commercials. One life was over. Another was about to begin. The gates of Hell had opened. I was in Heaven.
At last my enormous wealth paid a useful dividend, as did a society riddled with corruption. In return for forfeiting my fortune and giving up the patents for the Dark Angel and other killing machines, Jane and I were promised anonymity and new identities in the Low Lands. We were deleted and reinvented. A fortnight in isolation was all it took. When we emerged it was as if we had never existed. Love Corp’s Portia and a man called Harold had married and she had compared the 21st century to the civilising Roman Empire – with one exception: the modern world would not fall. Jane and I, the dissidents, could not be thought about, could have no place in history. Love Corp announced a product recall, made some fixes, and the company launched an IPO. The dancing competition on Mars was in full swing. And a young member of the British royal family had been recorded doing something unseemly in a VRcade. All was right with the world. Jane and I no longer mattered. We simply could not matter.
So, here I am. Here we are. Two new Plebs in the Low Lands. I have little money, certainly none for drugs, and last week I went down with a common cold. I have a job, one that I have apparently done well for 3 years, as a teacher of children who, for the most part, still believe that glorious lives can be fashioned from either infamy or little or no discernible talent or both. I find old books for them in abandoned libraries, their pages covered in colourful drawings of youngsters playing happily beneath hilltops and yellow suns, with words that tell stories of togetherness and journeys to discovery. I can only hope that I am making some kind of difference. This evening, as I write, my beloved Jane sits reading by the window, lit by a red sky at night. Suspended between times past and things to come, between life and death, dream and reality, she is like words I can’t quite make out being spoken, in the wind, on the air, between the spheres. When I look at her I feel as if I am standing on the brink of revelation, that some transcendence will show me her world beyond this one. We married in a small church known locally as St. Nick’s. The only voices belonged to us and the priest, and they echoed as if we were the last three people on earth. There were no witnesses or guests, only Christ looking down through eyes half closed and blood stained. We had lunch at a cafe with simple wooden tables and even simpler food and returned home, pushing through the broken gate I must learn how to mend. We drank some wine, and then Jane introduced me to wantonness. Wantonness. When we made love I felt my self fuse with hers forever. Our souls struck sparks that lit up infinite space. My breathing was ragged and fast as if I breathed for the first time. And when we slept, the world, the High and the Low, ceased to exist. There was only Jane and I, a country of two people ruled by love, honesty, sharing and hope, and a belief in the perfectibility of humankind.
Perhaps this is her world. Perhaps it is world enough.