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Here Comes the Sun
By Tom Holt
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Format:ebook (Digital original) $2.99
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 4, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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The sun rose. It was dirty. It was late. It was thirty billion miles overdue on its next service. There was a thin film of oil on its surface, the result of a sprung gasket. But it was up and running, and that in itself was something of a miracle, all things considered.
‘Over to you, son,’ said the Principal Technical Officer, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. ‘Just don’t drop it, all right?’
The Assistant Technical Officer scowled. ‘You always say that,’ he replied. ‘And have I ever . . . ?’
The older official looked down at the great fiery disc and smiled in spite of himself. True, he could hear the distinct grinding noise and smell the burning oil, but it was still an impressive sight. They’d built things to last in those days, which was just as well. Of course, they had the funding, then.
‘Here,’ said the younger official. ‘The gyro’s packed up again.’
‘Gyro,’ replied his colleague scornfully. ‘Bloody modern tat. You’ll just have to fly it on manual, that’s all.’
‘Oh no,’ whined the younger official. ‘That’s no good. If I gotta do that I’ll have to miss lunch again.’
‘Tough.’ The Principal Technical Officer’s soul passed a few observations about the younger generation, with particular reference to those members of it who wore earrings. ‘When I was your age . . .’
‘Yeah, yeah, you told me.’
‘Given anything, I would, for a chance to fly her solo.’ He paused, remembering. ‘We took a pride in our work in those days,’ he added.
The younger official had a point. Things were different now, the Principal Technical Officer admitted to himself as he packed up his knapsack and put on his bicycle clips. Not quite so run down for one thing. The Great Bear wasn’t held in its place in the firmament by three hundred thousand miles of insulating tape and a bent nail.
‘You should think yourself lucky,’ he said without conviction, ‘that you’ve got a job at all.’
His junior colleague didn’t even bother to reply; he was leaning on the dead man’s handle, eyes vacant, Walkman headphones on, staring down towards Betelgeuse. Something told the Principal Technical Officer that if humanity made it through to nightfall with nothing worse than a few hours of inexplicable darkness it should count itself lucky.
Still, he said to himself, as he hoisted himself on to his ancient bicycle and pedalled stiffly away across the sparkling freeway of the stars, if you’re going to take a pride in your work, your work’s got to be something you can take a pride in. And if the whole shooting-match is virtually derelict, what can you expect? No wonder the boy’s demoralised. Where’s the point in bothering when nobody else seems to give a damn?
His way home took him past the moon-sheds and, following this train of thought, he slowed to a halt, leaned on his handlebars and looked in through the great double doors. Inside, the moon was being winched back into dry dock for the day. From a distance, it never failed to take his breath away. Seen up close, it wasn’t a pretty sight.
‘Strewth,’ the old official muttered under his breath.
Admittedly, it was quite some time - centuries, probably - since he’d taken the time to stop and look at it this closely, but there was no denying the fact that the old girl was in pretty poor shape.
‘What have they been doing to her?’ he said aloud.
One of the maintenance engineers, an alarming-looking youth with a Mohican haircut and a ring through one nostril, looked round and stared at him. He didn’t seem to notice.
‘What’s up with you, grandad?’ the youth demanded.
‘You’re not going to use sandpaper on her, are you?’ the old official said, horrified.
No wonder, the old official reflected. No wonder the poor old bus has got all those great big pits and craters all over her once-smooth surfaces. He sighed; he knew there was no point uttering the words that were trying to squeeze their way through the gap in his teeth, but he said them anyway.
‘You shouldn’t use that stuff on the outer skin,’ he said. ‘First thing you know, you’ll get pitting.’
So what indeed? Nobody cared, obviously; and as he cycled away, the old official couldn’t find it in his heart to blame them. Where was the point in trying to keep it going when it was patently clapped out? They were going to scrap it soon in any case, they said, commission a brand new one. They’d been saying it for a long time now.
As usual, he stopped off at the Social Club for a tea and a bacon sandwich before going home. He parked his bicycle, chained it to a lamppost, and walked into the room, which looked like one of the more run-down East German railway stations. Another example, he couldn’t help reflecting, of the way this whole operation is going downhill.
‘What’s happened to the pool table, Nev?’ he asked.
‘Jammed,’ replied the steward, washing glasses. ‘They’re sending someone later on.’
‘Or at least,’ the steward added, ‘so they told me.’
The steward made an indeterminate noise and put the bacon sandwich in the microwave. Another bloody innovation.
‘Looking forward to the darts match tomorrow, Nev?’
The steward sighed. ‘Cancelled, George old son,’ he said. ‘Due to lack of interest. Hadn’t you heard?’
Jane stopped what she was doing and looked out of the window at the sun.
This, she reflected, is what they call too much of a good thing. All very well looking fondly back on the long, hot summers of one’s childhood, but when you’re stuck in an office with a glass roof, windows that don’t open and a heating system mysteriously jammed on, even in summer, you start thinking nostalgically about good, solid rain.
‘I can remember rain,’ she said aloud. ‘Gosh, that dates me.’
Three weeks, give or take a day, and already the news-readers were smugly saying gloomy things about standpipes and hosepipe bans. What’s wrong with a country where three weeks of sun turns the reservoirs into dustbowls?
She turned away from the window and tried to concentrate on the VDU in front of her. It was staring back at her with a sort of blank look, as if it had been sniffing glue. She picked up the phone.
‘Trish,’ she said. ‘What’s wrong with the screens?’
‘System’s down at Reading,’ Trish replied. ‘Back on after lunch.’
‘Great,’ said Jane. ‘Tell them we’d be better off with a card index and a notched stick.’
Never mind, there’s plenty I can be getting on with till then, said Jane to herself. Staring out of the window, for instance.
Instead, she looked through her handbag, found her address book and dialled a number.
‘Apollo Staff Bureau,’ said a voice like a lady Dalek at the other end of the line. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Yes,’ Jane said brightly, ‘I want a new job, please.’
‘We could advertise it,’ said the Chief of Staff.
The rest of the committee looked at him.
‘Well,’ said Personnel eventually, ‘it’s an idea, certainly. Where would you suggest?’
‘Tricky one to place, don’t you think?’ Personnel continued, with the air of someone getting ready to ram a point into the ground. ‘I mean, it’s not one for the Exchange and Mart, is it?’
‘Let’s try being positive for once,’ Staff replied testily. ‘That’s the problem, really, we’re all too keen to look at the disadvantages and not the . . .’
‘Absolutely,’ Branch interrupted. ‘With you all the way there. But I think Personnel’s got a point too, you know.’
All God’s children gotta point, said Staff to himself, it’s just that some of them are bloody silly ones. He drew a spaceship on the agenda and tried to calm himself down.
‘I still think,’ he said, putting the tips of his fingers together as a means of stopping his hands clenching, ‘that we should advertise it. I mean, why not? It’s what they do in the private sector. They don’t keep staff vacancies a deadly secret, like they were something to be ashamed of. They go out and they ask people to apply.’
‘Right on,’ said Personnel, with all the enthusiasm of a corpse. ‘So where do we look?’
There was a silence.
‘All right,’ said Staff, ‘what do you suggest? We need someone and we need someone quickly. You’re the Personnel Officer. What’s your considered opinion?’
‘I think it needs thinking about.’
Another silence; during which Staff noticed that the burning thrones they sat on, as a mark of their superior executive status, didn’t burn any more. They just glowed intermittently and hummed.
‘Have you thought yet?’ he enquired.
‘Not yet, no.’
‘Fine,’ Staff replied. ‘You take your time.’ He crossed his legs and started to doodle ostentatiously.
‘Why don’t we use the usual procedure?’ asked a voice from the other end of the table.
‘Because . . .’ Staff started to say, but checked himself. There were times when his paranoia slipped the lead and got mixed up with his angst, when he sincerely believed that Finance and General Purposes was a management plant, deliberately seeded on to this committee to make sure that nothing ever got done. Since it was very probably true he invariably dismissed the idea from his mind; it is not just mankind who cannot bear too much reality. ‘Because,’ he went on, ‘there’s three feet of moss growing in the usual channels and something’s got to be done.’
‘Oh, we’re all agreed on that,’ Branch said. ‘No question about it, something’s got to be done. On the other hand, we don’t want to rush into something without having worked it carefully through. I mean. . .’ He made a slight but expressive gesture and went back to impersonating a doorstop. Staff took a grip on himself, straining something in his integrity, and tried to sound conciliatory.
‘All right, then,’ he said, ‘what about an agency? I gather they’re very good at this sort of thing. You know, head-hunting. ’
‘Which agency had you in mind?’ said Personnel.
‘Look,’ said Staff, ‘this is supposed to be an ideas session, right? We’re supposed to be a think tank, bouncing ideas off each other. Has anybody got any ideas at all?’
There was a slightly embarrassed pause; and then Personnel, judging his timing to perfection, smiled and cleared his throat.
‘I’ve got an idea,’ he said. ‘I’ve got an idea that this needs thinking through carefully.’
‘Me too,’ said Branch. ‘Looking at it in the round, I mean.’
‘I think,’ said Finance and General Purposes, ‘that we should go through the established procedure.’
Staff closed his eyes. ‘Good God, Norman,’ he said to the ceiling, ‘what an absolute stroke of genius. Yes, let’s all do that, shall we? Well, thank you very much for your time, gentlemen. I honestly believe we’ve all made very real progress today. Same time next week then?’
Instead of going back to the main building, Staff turned left down the corridor, walked briskly on past the post room, turned right by the file store and pressed the button for the lift. Two minutes later, he swore at the lift-shaft and started to climb the seventeen flights of stairs that led to the DA’s office.
‘I’ll show the bastards,’ he muttered, rather breathlessly. ‘Just for once, I’ll damn well show the . . .’
The further up he went the dustier it got. There was something about the decor, something very subtle which you couldn’t put your finger on, that suggested that nobody had been this way in a very long time, and that there was probably a very good reason for that. Perhaps, Staff said to himself, it’s the fact that all the treads on this staircase are rotted half through.
At last, breathless and sweating, he found himself at the top of the building. It was dark here (no light bulb), and cold, and ever so slightly spooky. It was years since he’d been up this far. It was a fair bet that there was nobody here any more.
In front of him there was a glass door so grimy that he had to wipe it with his sleeve before he could read the lettering on it. But there was a light behind it, implying the presence of sentient life. That, as far as Staff was concerned, would make a pleasant change. He screwed up his eyes and read the inscription on the window.
it said, and in smaller letters underneath:
‘Oh well,’ said Staff to himself, repressing a shudder, ‘I’m here now.’
He knocked smartly on the door and turned the handle.
‘Try a bit of silver paper and some gunk,’ said the Technical Adviser into the receiver.
The voice at the other end crackled at him. ‘Will that work?’ it enquired.
‘Dunno.’ The Technical Adviser leaned back in his chair and put a peppermint in his mouth. ‘Might do.’
‘Look,’ said the crackle. ‘I’ve got a bloody great disc of helium broken down over East Africa. Things are starting to get burnt. Suggest something.’
‘Not my fault,’ replied the Technical Adviser automatically. ‘I told ’em at Depot it needed a whole new gearbox, but would they listen? Nah.’ He crunched the peppermint into the mouthpiece, sending a noise like the end of the world down the wire. ‘Look,’ he said, after he had cleared the shrapnel off the roof of his mouth, ‘tell you what I’ll do for you. I’ll send out Maintenance with the van. They’ll have you back on the road again, no worries.’
The crackle reminded him by way of reply that the Maintenance Unit had been disbanded two years ago as part of the cutbacks programme, and its staff reassigned to Oceans. ‘What about the backup team?’ it suggested.
‘Nice idea,’ replied the Technical Adviser, thumbing through a roster. ‘Trouble is, they’re down at the Social Club at Depot fixing a jammed pool table.You want them, you got to fill in a Yellow at least forty-eight hours in advance.’
‘Then what do you suggest?’
‘You could get out and push.’
The crackle considered this, gave the Technical Officer some advice of an intimate nature, and disconnected itself.
The fish in Lake Victoria were finding that the ceiling was rather nearer than usual.
Rather to Staff ’s surprise, the door opened easily. He blinked.
It wasn’t quite the way he’d expected it to be. For one thing, it was clean. Cleaner, in fact, than the rest of the building. It was newly decorated. In one corner there was a highly advanced fax machine, flickering quietly, bringing up its lunch, while in the other stood a computer terminal which looked like the sort of thing George Lucas would have dreamed up if possessed by devils. There was also, Staff noticed, a substantial potted plant. Real, not plastic.
‘It’s because we’re separately funded,’ said a voice behind him. ‘The benefits of decentralisation and all that. You’re Chief of Staff, aren’t you?’
The figure standing behind him was almost as disconcerting as the environment. It looked young, vibrant, full of energy. More amazing still, it looked like it was capable of enjoying itself.
‘You’re . . .’ Staff said. The figure grinned.
‘My name’s Ganger. We haven’t actually met, but it’s my job to know things.’
By way of a disorienting remark, said Staff’s soul to any part of his brain that happened to be listening, that’s got to be in the running with Are you sure you’re feeling all right? and Excuse me, there’s a bomb inside this banana. Throwing people off balance was probably part of the job, too. Staff forced himself to relax.
‘Sorry to barge in like this,’ he said, ‘but have you got a moment?’
Ganger nodded. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Carol, I’ll be engaged in the back office. Anyone calls, take a message.’
Staff’s head swivelled like a windmill and he caught sight of a blonde head between two earphones. Laid-back nonchalance is all very well but there are limits.
‘You don’t mean to say,’ he whispered, ‘you’ve actually got a secretary?’
‘Two,’ Ganger replied, and Staff gave up the struggle. This was the sort of man who had a My-other-car’s-a-Porsche sticker in the back window of his Maserati. ‘Come with me. Coffee?’
Staff made a little noise without opening his lips. ‘I suppose your secretary will bring it through to us?’
Ganger raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, yes,’ he said.
‘One of your two secretaries?’
‘That’s it. If that’s all right with you, that is.’
‘That’s fine,’ said Staff. ‘I think I’ve come to the right place.’
It seemed like a very long walk through to the back office, until Staff realised that it was the effort of walking through the carpet. You could easily lose a Mayan city in the pile and never know it.
‘So what can we do for you?’ Ganger said, waving his arm at a chair. Staff looked at him carefully. Perhaps it was an invitation to sit on it, but it seemed unlikely. It had the appearance of the sort of thing you pay money just to look at.
‘Sit down,’ said Ganger, ‘please. We don’t stand on ceremony here.’
Maybe not, but you sure as hell sit on luxury. Staff sat back, panicked for a moment until he got his bearings again, and cleared his mind.
‘Actually,’ he began to say, ‘all it was . . .’
His lips froze. Ganger followed his line of sight and raised an eyebrow.
‘It’s a photocopier,’ he said. ‘You know, you put pieces of paper in one end . . .’
‘I’m sorry,’ Staff muttered. ‘Like I was saying, I’m in a bit of a quandary, and I thought, you know, a fresh angle on the problem . . .’
Ganger nodded. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘Do you advertise or do you go to an agency? Good question.’
‘Look . . .’ Staff tried to sit up, but the chair wouldn’t let him. He struggled. Self-esteem wasn’t the most significant part of his personality, but he was damned if he was going to end his career by slipping down the back of a chair.
‘How do I know all this?’ Ganger said. ‘Simple. It’s my job.’ He paused, then smiled gently. ‘Try straightening your back,’ he said. ‘It’ll push you forward out of the cushion.’
Staff did so, then he scowled. ‘You’re a . . .’
‘No, I’m not, actually,’ Ganger replied. ‘It’s possible to read mortal minds, of course, but not ours. Jamming devices, you know. Really, it’s just intuition and psychology.’
‘And microphones too, of course.’
The door opened, and a female person brought in a tray with two cups of coffee. With saucers. Saucers that matched. I’d honestly believe I’d died and gone to heaven, thought Staff . . .
‘Only that’s not possible in the circumstances,’ Ganger said, and laughed politely. ‘Thank you, I’m flattered. All it takes really is good taste and careful management.’
‘And separate funding.’
‘That helps, certainly.’ Ganger looked at him over his cup. ‘My money’s on an agency.’
Ganger nodded. ‘Every time,’ he said. ‘Saves time, and in the long run money. Neither of which, if I’m right, you’ve got a great deal of.’
Staff tried unsuccessfully to balance his saucer on his knee, but the chair seemed to be breathing. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘And what do I tell the rest of the committee?’
Ganger looked surprised: probably a whole new experience . . .
‘Not at all,’ he said abruptly. ‘Things surprise me all the time. Who gives a toss what the committee thinks? Anyway,’ he added, ‘if you’re at all bothered about it, don’t tell them.’
‘But I’ve got to tell . . .’
Staff was shocked; it was like being asked to justify breathing. Then the penny dropped. Different rules . . .
‘You tell me,’ he said.
Jane was not a naturally discontented person; or at least, that was what she’d always led herself to believe. It was just that there were certain things that she found hard to put up with. These things tended to change their shape depending on circumstances, just as clouds can sometimes be great fluffy dragons and sometimes wisps of low-quality cotton wool; sometimes it would be the plight of famine victims, sometimes it was the incredibly feckless way the stationery supplies were managed at work, and sometimes - quite often, and in point of fact, right now - it was the punctuality of the 42A bus that really managed to get to her. If there was a common factor, it was probably sloppiness.
The weather could do with sorting, too.
The British Nation, she said to herself, and its unique relationship with water: we either sail over it or stand under it. It took the Chinese, though, to invent the umbrella.
Since the 42A had patently been ambushed by the Hole in the Wall Gang, set on fire and abandoned somewhere further up the line, she decided to walk the mile from the office to the station. She splashed resolutely up the road, trying to avoid the larger puddles and speculating as to whether ditching fins and growing legs had been the evolutionary breakthrough everyone reckoned it was. She was coming to the conclusion that the really smart move would have been wings and floats, like the Spruce Goose, when she bumped into a fellow-pedestrian and nearly knocked him over into a puddle the size of Lake Van.
‘Sorry,’ she said.
The man, who was so sharply dressed you could have used him for open-heart surgery and, despite the lack of hat or umbrella, as dry as a bone, smiled at her.
‘Not at all,’ he replied. ‘But you’re wrong about the wings, you know.’
Jane’s jaw flopped down like undercarriage. ‘What?’ she said.
‘Wings,’ the man replied, still smiling. ‘If the ancestors of mankind had grown wings, they wouldn’t have needed to develop manual dexterity and the use of tools. That way, their brains wouldn’t have adapted and become what they eventually did become. Result, you wouldn’t be a human, just a big pink bird, and the chimpanzees would be feeding you breadcrumbs in Trafalgar Square. Think about it.’
He nodded, side-stepped into the puddle (which divided on either side of his foot) and walked on, leaving Jane standing in exactly the right spot to receive the full force of the spray when a 42A bus went neatly through the puddle a few moments later.
Staff was reading a letter.
It wasn’t easy going, because the script - and, indeed, the language - it was written in had died out centuries before; but he could understand that. The writer of the letter probably hadn’t found the need to put pen to paper for a very long time.
Dear Sir, it said, translated:
I have to inform you that I resign.You probably don’t remember me though I saw you once at one of those receptions over the top of someone’s head, you were shaking hands a lot and opening something. I’ve been raising the Sun for 777 years, 7 months and a week Thursday, but this is too much and I’ve had enough. It’s a scandal, that’s what it is, and they ought to do something about it. I have the honour to remain, etc.
Staff sighed, and put the letter face down on his desk.
They ought to do something about it.
Too right, he said to himself, and they will, just as soon as they find out who they are. And normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. And, naturally, we apologise for any inconvenience in the meantime.
‘Hell,’ he said aloud.
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2012
- Page Count
- 288 pages