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Rainbow Bridge

an extract from the novel
by Gwyneth Jones


Rainbow Bridge by Gwyneth JonesThe codeword came to England in June. Only one man understood it, and he decided to do nothing. The man was Ax Preston, rockstar warlord, leader of the English people; icon of the embattled techno-Utopians of Europe. Ax took a gamble. He knew the price would be high, he believed he saw a chance of winning the game. His partners -- Sage Pender and Fiorinda Slater -- believed it too; and they were formidable allies. The Chinese had invincible military superiority. But they didn't have the secret of the superweapon, developed from the breaking of the mind/matter barrier: a feat first achieved by Sage Pender. Maybe they'd come to England to find it. Or maybe they'd come to obliterate the existence of the Neurobomb, write it out of history, at whatever cost --

In September the Chinese arrived, and slaughtered the innocents. By January the Triumvirate had turned themselves in. They were cultural icons again, the same as they'd been in the beginning, under Pigsty's monster regime: waiting for their chance, and still trying to discover the identity of Ax's "Fifth General". A winter journey to the drowned world, a propaganda rock tour in labour-camp land, began to show them the way --


The Water Margin

Norman's personal orderly rapped on their door before light, and brusquely told them to prepare for an early start. They breakfasted with Joe in the guesthouse dining room: hemp-seed cereal, shrivelled blackberries and rehydrated skim milk, dried tomatoes and the rolled patties of rabbit-mince known as 'campy eggs'; dandelion coffee. Around ten, Norman appeared in a seedy dressing gown, hungover. He announced he was off to have a bath, and to get his hair dressed.

'My bowels,' he complained, 'are behaving very strangely.'

The Triumvirate retired under the covers, leaving Joe to fend for himself. Fiorinda could not get online (surprise!), but she found Rainbow Bridge in her cached VI registry. Founded in Fergal Kearney's reign, built in an out of town shopping centre, associated with a defunct village called Eyot. Named by the inmates, who had a reputation as party animals, in camp-world. On the Waveney, moated, hard to reach in winter except by water or helicopter, twenty klicks or so from the Suffolk coast --

'Ouch. That's a long way from here, in modern money.'

'Wonder how they'll get us there if the waterways freeze?'

The tablet screen glimmered in their cave of blankets: they noticed that Sage had withdrawn from the discussion and lay curled on his side, brooding.

'Are you okay, big cat?'

'I'm fine. What if this turns violent on us? Do we have a policy on that?'

Now that's a question...

'I'll pick up a weapon,' said Ax at last. 'If I have to, in self-defence.'

'So will I,' said Fiorinda. 'I'll defend little shoot with lethal force.'

'Thank God for that,' said the bodhisattva. 'Tha's a relief to my mind.'

'D'you want to get sorted now, maestro?'

'Nah, that would be dumb. Wait 'til war's declared. We are so fucked if we're caught with weapons by our mentors. Jus' wanted to know.' He hugged Fiorinda, arms and legs, attack of the giant cave spider: 'How long do we have to go on calling this baby Shoot, my brat? Ain't you afraid a handle like that might warp a child?'

'It's a small green thing, growing.'

'Green? Oooh, that'll cause comment around the font.'

'If you're determined not to commit yourself as to sex,' reasoned Ax --

'Although we know you know,' said the spider, nibbling her throat.

'Fuck off, I do not know.'

'Well, anyway,' said Ax. 'What's wrong with Jocelyn? Or Hilary, or Esmé?'

'You think you're so funny. Listen, it's MY baby and -- '

Sage let her go. Both warm bodies retired, Fiorinda was left abandoned.

'I didn't mean that.'

'That's okay,' said Ax, distantly. 'I know where I stand.'

'Me, I've never been in any doubt.'

Ouch, fuck. Fiorinda trembled, terrified.

'I didn't mean it, I didn't mean it, you know I didn't, please, please -- '



'You bastards!'

Someone knocked. Sage went to open the door. A real soldier, not Norman's orderly, stood there. 'A call for Mr Preston,' he announced in English.

'Well, do come in.'

The soldier, junior lieutenant by his insignia, marched smartly into the room, laid a tablet in a slipcase on a small table, saluted, and marched back to the corridor.

Ax took the slipcase over to the windows, noting the protocol. He couldn't have anything placed into his hands by an inferior; we're getting very formal.

'Ah, Mr Preston,' cried General Wang. It was a different office, not the one in Reading: might be Whitehall. 'I wanted to consult you about my free range sheep farming. This is surely wrong. Wouldn't the animals be happier in cosy barns?' Inscrutable as fuck.

'General Wang, I'm not the expert. I'm repeating what I've been told in Select Committee. Soil fertility in the south and west of England has been strained past recovery, the sheep are muck-carts; they may win us back some arable, at the moment they're the best use of the land. I know it's hard to recognise local expertise. Africa and India are littered with fine-tuned farming and drainage systems wrecked by the British, meaning no harm, just convinced they were in Norfolk -- '

'Ah yes. Your little loess belt, the fertile bulge. The east must be recovered, or England will starve. This becomes very clear to me.'

'It's very clear to me, too. Since you ask, General, we're doing fine but I'm not sure it's a safe idea to go over to Suffolk.'

'Nonsense. Recalcitrant activity is on the Line, not in the hinterland. We are watching over you, rest assured. At the least sign of trouble we'll have you back in Peterborough in half an hour.'

'I'm glad to hear it. But -- '

'It's out of my hands, Ax. Ah, a call waiting. I must take this, excuse me.'

Blank screen. Ax returned the tablet to its slipcase and set it down: the lieutenant recovered it and departed. Sage and Fiorinda were staring at him --

'Shit,' he said. 'I didn't get onto the climate change crop shifting.'

It was two in the afternoon when they were summoned to the street. In a chill drizzle, soldiers were piling baggage onto the wind-up motor sleds, and arranging photogenic inmates for a happy farewell. Other soldiers, out of shot, held a rabble at bay; Toby Starborn stood aloof, hugging his fur. 'My God!' howled Norman. 'There you are! This is intolerable! Where's Joe? We should have been away by first light!'

It was petty, maybe, but a rockstar moment seemed called for.

'Excuse me. Remembered something I have to do.'

Mr Preston glanced at his partners in apology, and strolled away.

He found the learning resource centre, couldn't remember how to find the drinking club venue. He chose a door labelled 'book library', and walked into a big, quiet room. A group of primary-age kids were muttering; around a table scattered with paper and coloured pens. Grown-ups in a row, plugged into the Warren Fen datasphere (hey, no fair, that's not books -- ). Older children browsed the stacks or sat reading. And there was the black cat, curled on a chair. He squatted down to stroke it, looking around at the battered paperbacks, coffee-table remainders, musty bindings (the Volunteer Initiative's not proud); feeling the presence of a lonely little girl for whom books had been a refuge. Fiorinda made this haven.

'Can I help you, Mr Preston?' The learning resources manager had come out from behind her counter and was hovering beside him.

'Er, yeah. What's the cat's name?'

She bent for a careful look. 'That's Monty. His brother Winston will be around somewhere: they're both so black it's quite hard to tell them apart.'

Ah well. Winston or Monty, thanks. One of you did me a good turn.

The cat tucked its paw tighter over its nose. The woman, neither old nor young, waited there smiling. Something in her stance brought a puzzle to the front of his mind: jiejie. When Ax was at Reading, right at the end of that ordeal he'd heard Wang speak to Lieutenant Chu, the young aide de camp, calling her jiejie. The sliver of memory, lost and found, tugged at him unaccountably. Was that a joke? A convoluted family relationship that put her in a senior generation? Who does Wang Xili, Marshal of China, address as 'elder sister'?

'Is there anything else, Mr Preston?'

'No; no, thank you. You, er, you're doing very good work here.'

'I hope we can continue,' she said, biting her lip. 'I'm proud of our library.'

The lighters, linked together bowsprit and stern by rattling chains, made their departure from Warren Fen Quay an hour before dark; with four members of the Swamp MC as crew and native guides. Swamp's bright-painted gang of five lead the way. The gang Swamp had hired for the military escort followed behind. The night was cold, uncomfortable, but not too bad. There were hooped shelters, that could be raised like tents over the open boats. The Triumvirate and Joe bunked together, Norman and Toby had secured a boat to themselves. Pity the soldiers, their boats were working freighters: no provision for passenger comfort.

Over breakfast there were transports of fury, as Norman finally grasped that the journey of a hundred or so klicks was going to take days. This had not been fully explained! It wasn't in the least obvious! Joe Muldur's phone call villainy was revisited, and the Triumvirate's intolerable, insolent delay; but the kids got the worst. By noon they'd reached the Great Ouse basin, and the tow-horses had to swim for quite a distance: Norman, vengeful, refused to believe they could be taken onboard.

At the first dry halt Swamp MC jumped out and strapped rope around the braking posts, without waiting for permission. The gang jostled to a standstill: there were yells of panic from the PLA, coming up too fast behind --

Not much harm done. Fenland's lighters, river barges with sail and oar, modern take on an ancient design, were built for rough treatment. Fiorinda decided to stretch her legs, while the collision was post-mortemed. The river was higher than the flooded land, water on both levels; an eerie effect. Water over water, that's K'an, K'an, The Abyssal. What does the superior man (huh!) do in this situation? Something poetic and unintelligible... Large soft flakes of snow began to fall, vanishing when they touched. Frosty and her best mate (not boyfriend), a very hench black lad called Nel, former street kid from Nottingham, had also escaped, they were giving the horses a feed and a rub-down beside the halt-hut.

Rusty, the bay who pulled the soldiers, was a working stiff from Warren's horse labour pool. The iron-grey mare, known as Gator, belonged to Frosty; or at least, she would be Frosty's in a year or two, when Frosty's dad had finished paying for her. Not untrammelled property, since Frosty was not free, but good enough, and a much more reliable earner than the boats. She was the kids' pride and joy; money in the bank, liquidity on the hoof.

'Is she okay?'

'She shun'ter had to swim that far,' muttered Nel, eyes down.

'Miss.' Frosty was anxious to unburden her mind. 'We did tell him. We told Cyril Mao from the Unintelligence Office, an' we told Colonel Soong. We said four days, minimum. They paid for four days, in advance. It don't make sense!'

'People hear what they want to hear,' said Fiorinda, soothingly. 'It must be linked to a survival trait, because everybody does it, all the time.'

'Uhuh.' Frosty stared at a line of sails that moved along another waterway in the distance, pale brown winter butterflies. Silver-gilt hair escaped like froth from her parka hood. 'I'm getting out of this. I don't believe in God, I swear by you, Miss. I'm getting out of the camps, an' out of fenland, it's a dump. No one's going to speak to me like that. I'll have respect.'

(Maybe you should think twice about the music biz, kid -- )

'Never mind, he was really yelling at himself, not you. Hang your head and say very sorry, it's the Chinese version of smile and nod.'

Nel removed the feedbag and rubbed Gator behind the ears, almost cracking a smile, not sure he was allowed to laugh at a joke against the conquerors.

They were too young to have spotted that Norman had been furious because he was scared. The flooded emptiness was intimidating, health certificate or not. Read between the lines, it's the insurgents who dictate the terms for things like this Peace Tour, and Norman knows it. That's got to be hard on the nerves.

She looked up into the falling snow. 'Hey, what if it freezes hard?'

'It won't. The thaw's good for another week, my dad says.'

Nel rolled his eyes. 'Your dad don't know. It'll be okay, Miss. Mr Colonel Soong will send for a landship. I mean, this is for a video, innit? It's not real.'

Along a straight cut on the Little Ouse, Gator plodded the towpath, steady on the beat. Nel walked by her head, Frosty slouched astride, singing to herself, bare blue sections of leg swinging, between her baggy shorts and her wellies. Loryan, the oldest of the kids, maybe seventeen, stood in the bows of the lead boat with a long oar, which she occasionally poked at the bank or into the water, apparently at random. The nun and her missionaries sat up front, as of right, enjoying the marshy vistas. Sage and Fiorinda were taking turns to steer: the top job, and they were proud.

'What's that one?'

Fiorinda had the bird book, a veteran of their travels.

'Common reed bunting.'

'You're kidding, it's blatantly a cock sparrow, 'cept it can sing.'

'It says here sparrows are reed buntings, country boy. That went to town.'

A flight of ducks rose from the reeds with a superb rush of wings and a violent burst of quacking. One of the monks looked round, beaming, to share the pleasure; his pleasant face ageless under the dark cap, with the earflaps like turned-up wings. They had never been known to speak English; they rarely seemed to speak at all. Fiorinda and Sage beamed and nodded back.

Swamp MC bunked in the lead boat, Toby and Norman in the second; Toby had hardly been seen. They insisted on keeping their shelter up day and night, which was a grievance with the kids. If Gator had to pull harder she ate more, and spoiled her audit for the trip. The crude expedient of cooking the work-horse's logbook had not occurred to the kids, and God forbid Ax Preston should suggest it. The third boat belonged to Joe and the Triumvirate, also used as daytime common room. Joe and Bone, the fourth Swamp MC, were in there, feet up, eyeless, locked in some virtual game of blood-spattered hide and seek. Hey, c'mon, lads. Here we are surrounded by Mother Nature... He let them be. The tail boat was where the missionaries bunked; if they ever slept. The fourth was the one with the cabin conversion. The Daoist nun shared it with the Tour's baggage.

Ax ducked inside, and looked around. The low-roofed space was painted in peach and blue, glass windows along the sides above cushioned lockers. The famous 'floating studio' was choked off by Norman's airline cases: an old Behringer mixer, a cannibalised Conjurmac; other components worn to anonymity or homemade... A curtain concealed the nun's private quarters. He counted off the company in his head, making sure he knew where they all were. Why was he here? To see what he could find out... Who is she? Why is she with us, and what's her relationship to our Norman? Face and hands are readily disguised by tech: gait and silhouette not so much --

He drew back the curtain. The space beyond held a neatly rolled sleeping bag, and a small rug, smaller than a prayer rug, laid in front of a camphor-wood travelling desk; that had been set on one of Norman's cases. The desk was antique, eighteenth century? The rug was a work of art. A slipcased tablet lay where the blotter would have been on a European desk. It looked familiar. The nun was a calligrapher. A fine inkstone stood by the tablet: a brush case inlaid with flying birds and 'reed writing' in silver, a jade brush rest; and several sticks of vermilion ink. Ax looked at these things from where he stood, getting a strong intuition that he should take this no further.

He let the curtain drop.

Back in the third boat the game had broken up. Bone had gone away: Ax sat down by Joe, who was staring gloomily at the passing reeds.

'Hey,' said Ax. 'Did any of the monks take notice, when I was out of sight?'

'No,' said Joe. 'They're in the front. What have you been up to?'

'Spying on our masters.'

'Fuck!' Joe thrust his hands into his hair, so it stood up in greasy brown spurs. 'Are you crazy! We're already between the devil and fuck -- !' The mediaman went pink. 'Uh, shit, sorry Ax. I, um, didn't mean to speak out of turn.'

'It's okay. I got scared and decided not to bother.'

Doorflaps of their shelter tightly laced, the Triumvirate held a birthday celebration, having banished Joe to sleep with Norman and Toby for a change. They presented Ax with a mink-lined parka, loving gift from Warren Fen; and a willow-weaving from the children, appliquéd with animals and birds. Sage gave him a little hare, carved from a hazel root (in Chinese astrology the big cat was a rabbit; or hare). Fiorinda gave him an amber and gold dragon, no bigger than the first joint of her thumb. It was ancient, Inner Asian, and undoubtedly plunder. (The battered streets of London were littered with plunder-sellers; how else do you spend your Chinese pocket money?) They dreamed they were in Sage's cottage in Cornwall, a fire burning low in the hearth, sweet lost things. 'One day it'll happen,' said Fiorinda, darkly. 'There'll be no more hell dimension. We'll settle down to live happily ever after, and then we'll really fall apart.' The baby seemed to be trampling itself a clearing in the forest of her belly. 'Will somebody please, please take a piss for me?' The brutes would not stir, though Sage sleepily offered to fetch the pot into bed. Eech, I have my standards.

She crept out wearing Ax's jumper, touched the visionboard, touched the Gibson's case, clutched a handful of her bag to feel the saltbox. Ah, civilised values, a pisspot with a lid... Out there in the cold, a glimmer attracted her. She groped to the doorflaps and made a peephole. One of the missionaries was sitting outside their shelter, serene bulwark against a frieze of burning stars. He seemed to be reading a scroll, by means of a tiny light fastened next to his eye. Maybe that was a Chinese martial arts telepathy headset. Wonder what kind of weapons they keep under those robes? What if Ax is right, about who they are and why they're here? What the fuck would that imply?

The monk turned and looked her way; his head was Ax's head, a long dead Ax, with a hole in his dry skull. Nonsense, murmured Fiorinda, and crept back to the warm burrow. The inside world invades the outside; so what, I'm not impressed.

They passed through the broken road bridge on the A10, left the empty quarter and entered a populated countryside above the floods; where ordinary people were trying to live normal lives, and the Chinese invasion was a distant disaster. Swamp MC divided themselves between the gangs. The passengers and the military stayed out of sight: the soldiers crouched like potatoes under stretched tarps, Peace Tour personnel barricaded behind boxes in the night shelters. Norman handed over wads of money, and bitched about it. The Triumvirate reminisced about Volunteer Initiative labour on managed rivers like the Little Ouse; the waterways rescued from neglect. The Flood Countries Conference. The great sea defence works of David Sale's government, embattled by Gaians who wanted nature to take its course .... Brandon and Thetford were traversed, with no worse trouble than a few free enterprise 'checkpoints'. At Rushford junction they joined the Redgrave Cut, another Reich Years project, the missing link in the all-England navigable network. Ah, glory days.

Maybe the Chinese listeners were impressed. The Swamp kids, when they popped in for a warm, were indifferent. They lived in the world of now, where water was the normal way to travel, ten klicks an hour was racy, and energy audit was the unalterable law. 'Did you know,' said Nel, importantly, 'we're comin' up to a weird place where, when you get close to it, Diss appears.'

By the fourth nightfall they had reached the Waveney River. The kids strapped the lighters to the dead stumps in a stand of alders, made the horses comfortable as possible, and consulted earnestly with Chin, the pilot of the soldiers' gang. They had only a few words of common language, but he was a river man. Their almanac for distances, times, tides and marks had no entries for Rainbow Bridge, though the camp was there on the map. Norman and Toby hid in their shelter to eat delicacies (it was presumed). The rest of the company, including those monks, messed on ancient tinned food, heated up and served with sweet black tea: almost relaxed with each other in the camaraderie of the shared epic.

Sage went out to stretch his legs, not an idle expression on this trip. The long hours of being squashed like a bug in that shelter had driven him nuts. In the gleam of light from the boats he saw Toby, with his fur rug, crouched on a shelf of roots above the water. He would have retreated, not to intrude on a desolate privacy, but the attraction between the unlucky genius and the river was palpable. He went down and hunkered on his heels under the tree. I'm sorry, he thought, and I don't pretend I can help, but right now it would be fucking awkward if you went over the side.

'Hey, Toby.'

Toby looked round. 'What do you want?'

'Nothing, really. Mind if I join you?'

'I don't know why I'm here,' whispered Toby, his profile traced by the polished blackness of the water. 'Immix is all I lived for, I should have died.'

'You don't need immix. You can still be a digital artist, tha's not banned.'

'Fuck off. What do you know?'

You're absolutely right, thought Sage. He stayed where he was, however, offering a couple more inane gambits, until Toby grasped that he was not going to be left alone with his thoughts, gathered his rug around him and returned to the boats.

In the middle of the night, or so it seemed, Swamp MC were shaking everyone awake.

No, bad guys had not arrived. The tide was about to turn, with a breeze off the land. There was a free ride! The kids' urgency infected even Norman and Toby. Shelters were stowed, belongings secured, space cleared for the horses. Masts were shipped, tackle freed, lanterns hoisted; snowflakes blundered like moths into the light. Gator was led on board, and undertook the manoeuvre with calm. The bay resisted, soldiers hauling and yelling at him in Cantonese and putonghua that he surely didn't want to be left behind; he gave way in the end. Frosty cast off, Nel steered for midstream, the kids and Sage raised the square sails in the first two lighters; the soldiers were doing the same. A red sun rose in an ochre sky, scattering the veil of snow. Suddenly the river was alive, no longer passive as asphalt. They flew along, maybe breaking the ten klicks barrier, in a cacophony of rollicking chains.

Rationally it wasn't much of a return for the upheaval and the loss of sleep, emotionally it was a fine charge --

'Do they know how to stop?'

Norman was hopping at Ax's shoulder in the lead boat: hands tucked into his cuffs, the scarf wrapped round his raincape snood giving him a head the size of a pumpkin. 'What?' yelled Ax. 'Nah, the only way to put the brake on these things is by leaping onto the bank and hauling backwards, haven't you noticed?'

'But, but what are we going to do? We've passed the marker!'

'What marker?'

'There it is! There's another one! We'll miss the creek!'

Someone had installed a sign by the side of the Waveney: a hoop of coloured bands rising high above the reeds. Ax laughed. 'Far out, man! I don't know. I've no idea, Norman. You better talk to your native guides.'

Swamp MC had spotted the rainbows. Loryan galloped to the back of the gang, waving and yelling at the soldiers, some distance behind. The sails tumbled, Nel swung the lead boat broadside, Bone and Frosty raced up and down, clearing the thwarts like hurdlers, fending off.

The teenagers raised a cheer when the turn was made. The boats kept on moving fast, there was a current. The landscape had blurred into white. 'How far is it along?' shouted Frosty. 'Where can we strap, what do we do?'

Norman shook his pumpkin head.

'Oh, shit, there's a lock, the gates are open, fuck, it's a fucking weir!'

The lead boat tipped and fell as if it was falling over the edge of the world.

Nothing to do but fling yourself down and hold on, praying that nothing precious had been left loose in that pre-dawn scramble. A thundering, elephantine, white-water rafting moment, and they had survived. Shadow fell across them, the soldiers' gang poured down the weir: engulfing them, the boats sloshing with icy water, dismasted, fouling each other. The lower level of the creek was a fast-moving drain, and right ahead this drain was rushing under a raised barrier in a wall of concrete. They barely had time to register a painted rainbow, springing from cloud to cloud, or the merry welcome message looping over it: MAY CONTAIN NUTS. Darkness engulfed them. A clangour of metal and the light behind was cut off.



Giant laughter grew and echoed, disembodied faces bobbed about, luminous green and orange, flickering red eyes and mouths. Lights leapt up, big blazing white electric lamps that had to cost a fortune. They were in a channel cut through the floor of a blood-stained concrete cave: set with pillars, decorated with faded numerals. Ax took hold of his Gibson, and caught Sage and Fiorinda doing the same, getting a grip on the household gods. He glanced towards the tunnel entrance, yeah, the barrier had been dropped into place.

Monks, rockstars, teenagers stared at each other.

briefly -- ' His attitude was a credit to him, but it was far too late. The mad crowd seemed friendly, but they were in charge. Gator was led off, despite Frosty's frantic protests. Boxes and cases were tossed from hand to hand and vanished. The last that Norman's company saw of their soldiers, a huge character in a scarlet tutu, leather gaiters and a gimp mask was taking a fire-axe to Chin's bowsprit chains, his strokes guided by a screaming, giggling posse of gauze-winged fairies.

...continues in the print edition

© Gwyneth Jones 2006.

Gwyneth Jones's Rainbow Bridge was published in June 2006 by Gollancz (ISBN 0575077158).

Bold as Love Castles Made of Sand
Midnight LampBand of Gypsies by Gwyneth JonesRainbow Bridge by Gwyneth Jones
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