‘Civilization was rotting on the vine and barbarism was spreading. Nation America was almost obliterated in its attempt at world dominance. China and Russia nearly annihilated each other but came back from the brink, shadows of their former selves. Most Nations and continents lost all moral fibre and regressed to the darkness.
The only beneficiaries of the worldwide disintegration were the accountancy firms. Where the lawyers failed, the accountants prevailed.
Entering the 4th Millennium everything was falling apart and no one seemed to care a damn. Except for Lady Steingarten who was convinced she knew how to forestall the rise of barbarism.
Unfortunately she was dead.’
An extract taken from a social history by the accountant C. Silverfish, appointed chronicler of the era.
Chapter one BACK FROM THE DEAD
A couple of levels underneath the ruins of the British Museum two ebony hued behavioural scientists patrolled the corridors of a subterranean complex of the Steingarten Foundation. The scientists ticked off their charts and dimmed the lighting, initiating the evening, and discarded their surgical masks. Both women looked younger than their years. A primary benefit of working for the Behavioural Department of the Steingarten Foundation was a prolonged lifespan. Enclosed by research specimens, the scientists’ biggest fear was a power failure which unlocked the cages. On the last failure there was barely time to escape.
The hum of the air conditioners changed phase but the usual evening calm of the nocturnal mammals was absent. Unsheathing sedation weapons the two scientists raised their torches and scanned the banks of cages. They found nothing untoward, but the agitation in the cages continued. Something was setting the animals off. Something neither scientist could see.
A sound drew their attention. The central lift shaft had been activated, yet no visitor’s pass had been sanctioned. The one person with the authority to override the access system was Lady Steingarten who was last seen twenty years ago. The inquest recorded her as missing presumed dead.
The employees in the complex were not unaware of the illegality of what they were involved in but they were highly paid and rewarded with guaranteed body refurbishments. Employees who asked unnecessary questions disappeared.
In an adjacent room with a low ceiling and a putrid smell, the ground sloped towards a pool surrounded by rotted carcasses from experiments gone wrong. A scientist recognised a pair of spectacles on the ground and kicked them into the turbid water. She hurried out feeling sick.
A few nights previously, something or someone was heard rattling cages. On the surveillance disc covering a walkway between the feline cages were splotches of heat flares. Both scientists had a suspicion but took it no further. Contrary to Foundation procedure they had destroyed the relevant recording.
The animals in the cages fell silent. The lift doors slid apart and the imposing frame of Lady Victoria Steingarten silhouetted in a light pulsating behind her, stood with an unlit cigar in her mouth. The scientists exchanged a look which said it all. Their Director was back from the dead. The scientists stepped aside and followed her. It was as if she had never been away, and what had passed a couple of decades back seemed like yesterday.
The animals pressed against their bars as Lady Steingarten swept past; a large bulk but light on her feet. The two scientists watched as she snapped open locks and released the deadliest of enemies.
Lady Steingarten walked away pulling on a pair of pink surgical gloves, followed by a black panther. As it brushed against her thigh Lady Steingarten stroked its head. The animal purred as any loving domestic pet might.
In a cavernous emporium tiers of seats were packed. Academics, artists of various disciplines and bureaucrats waited patiently. All were drawn from the staff working on the social engineering project which incorporated The History of Slavery Unit, The Department of Neuroscience & Behaviourism and The Institute of Human Conditioning. They were all funded by the Steingarten Foundation.
Not within living memory (which for some was a particularly long time) had such a meeting convened. After years of waiting Professor Mogadishu, the albino from East Africa, had the temerity to try and pick up the reins relinquished by the assumed death of Steingarten, and called the meeting.
With the imminent collapse of civilization, Mogadishu thought his time had come. He had it all mapped out and had devised a sensational entrance.
Charlie Silverfish, accountant, was not happy. The demise of Victoria Steingarten had been a major blow in his otherwise lacklustre life, and the likelihood of her replacement by Mogadishu made him want to puke. To say he disliked the preening albino and his butch skivvy with huge balls was an understatement. On the few occasions they’d met since Lady Steingarten’s demise, the Professor had demeaned Charlie publicly. When Charlie had been with Steingarten nobody would have dared to be disparaging to him. With her he had been somebody. He vowed to some god he’d never believed in that if she came back from the dead she would not be disappointed in him
Only Steingarten could rescue Charlie Silverfish from his appointment as accountant for the ailing UN.alliance.com – the last major international complex left standing in Manhattan. The accountancy complex was surrounded by razor wire, and protected by a detachment of overmedicated armed guards. Charlie didn’t want to return to UN.alliance.com – but he had nowhere else to go.
There were no clues as to who was responsible for her death. Nobody had gloated over her disappearance. No organization had claimed responsibility. There were no apparent beneficiaries. Charlie had investigated thoroughly.
In the dim light the arrival of Mogadishu took a moment to register. With an ear piercing brass fanfare and a blaze of light shimmering across his albino features, Mogadishu’s entrance was spectacular. The auditorium shook with the vibration of drums. Sitting on an air-driven ivory chair he soared above the audience. The muscular Nubian, Charlemagne, was perched on a platform on the back of the chair wearing only a broad-brimmed cowboy hat and a skimpy jerkin studded with Strasbourg rhinestones and buckskin fringes.
The drumbeats receded and hovering to a standstill Mogadishu cleared his throat as a megaphone stopped in midair in front of his face.
Before Mogadishu could speak, a piercing whistle jarred him and the megaphone was whisked away as if by unseen hands. The Nubian gave an involuntary shudder, raised his binoculars and scanned the darkness until coming to rest on a sliver of light pointing to a corner of the emporium. Charlemagne hissed with incredulity, ‘Steingarten is not dead!’
Charlie watched the megaphone sweeping away and smiled. Across the auditorium on the edge of shadow a figure slid into a beam of light. It was Steingarten’s unmistakeable shape. Charlie raised his hand and wiggled his fingers till his rings caught the light. Steingarten saw the glitter of his rings and knew them for what they were but displayed no hint of recognition. That didn’t worry Charlie. He was euphoric, she was alive and his life would not be the same again. That went for everyone else, unless she was assassinated within the next few minutes.
The Professor and the Nubian drifted towards Lady Steingarten, slicing through the shifting beams of light and hugging the shadows as they floated to floor level. The market value of an albino was immeasurable and Mogadishu was painfully aware of the value of his parts. His balls were worth twice the price of a rhinoceros horn and a couple of elephant tusks.
‘What should I do?’ Mogadishu whispered. The Nubian said he had no idea, ‘and I’ve just spotted Silverfish,’ the Nubian fumed dropping his binoculars. Too late he tried to retrieve them. They floated away and the ivory chair reached floor level. The Professor groaned, as he saw Steingarten’s fleshy lips sucking an unlit cigar clenched between tobacco-stained teeth. She was gross, but then he was hardly a pretty picture himself.
Steingarten jerked the Professor out of his chair and with a backhand swipe knocked Charlemagne off his perch. She heaved her bulk onto the chair and ascended, putting on dark glasses as light focused on her. With her elbows on her knees and her hands clasped, she leant forward with a cluster of microphones hovering over her. Her sonorous laugh reverberated. She was like an old friend who had returned as if she had never been away. The years had not depleted her uncanny ability to exude warmth. She tore off the arm of the upholstered ivory chair and flung it aside saying what a cheap piece of shit it was.
Lady Steingarten purred, emulating her feline companions gathering in the shadows out of sight waiting for her to summon them. She smiled at her audience and spread her arms apart as if she was about to hug everyone. ‘Colleagues and old friends,’ she began with a catlike lilt; the artist of persuasion and the master of conviviality. Her words were velvet; a mother comforting her babies. A switch was adjusted and her tone altered. She segued into something more risqué, more edgy. She reminded the audience that her resurrection was no excuse for complacency. Comfort was not in her scheme of things. There was not enough time left for syrup. The eternal iconoclast was warming up.
Civilization might be on its uppers but Lady Steingarten would go to her grave driving humanity along the path to redemption, which was what she was leading them towards to save them from themselves. Her pedagogy was raising the dead. Steingarten had absented herself, she explained, because she had been researching how to penetrate the past to salvage the present. A pivotal moment in the past had to be un-warped and reconstructed.
Lady Steingarten pronounced the refutation of the 11th commandment, thereby advocating time travel, condemned for so long by banned religions and governments with equal fervour. Combined with social engineering it would have made anyone else a target. Steingarten, however, with the following she had generated over many life spans was unassailable. Only Mogadishu thought otherwise.
Steingarten’s experimentation had met with success and that was why she had returned to society and the Foundation. The historical rewrite was poised to begin.
A concave unsupported screen flickered to life engulfing the auditorium. Whether the images were moving or the audience rotating could not be discerned. The picture emerging was too textured and too all encompassing to be a cinematic confection. A stagecoach (circa mid 19th century) rattled across a barren cacti dotted landscape. A couple in the audience, flicked by the lash of the driver’s whip recoiled and glanced in wonderment at Lady Steingarten, but could not see her. Only a hint of her flabby jowls slipped in and out of view. She shifted into shadow and left the audience with the cloying taste of the dust churned up. The authenticity was irrefutable. It was a thorough achievement, though not entirely according to her instructions. She felt her heart skip a beat; something was amiss. She’d factored in every probability but there had been a possibility of feedback when timelines abutted. This was such a fanciful notion that Steingarten had given it not the slightest credibility. It was too frighteningly in the realm of the unknown and she, an avowed pragmatist had left no loopholes for magic or mysticism. Why should she? She had no intention of going as far back as the Dark Ages, or the medieval. So where did her feeling of apprehension stem from?
The arid prairie receded and the stagecoach entered a barren dustbowl. A western town filled the ceiling and wall areas. The constraint of screens vanished. It was the theatre in the round, writ large, writ real. The blistering heat, the dust and the reek of horse manure convinced the audience that what was unfolding was an actual step into the past. A time-shift had been generated; a certifiable crime and the hallmark of madness. Everyone present was corralled, caught and trapped in Steingarten’s mind.
Whether the audience was immobilized by fear or mesmerised by Steingarten was impossible to gauge. No one in the audience dared move. Tumbleweeds blew across a gravel surface. The dissipating dust revealed that figures clothed from frontier days were cardboard cut-outs. A storefront fell over exposing support struts – mere facades. Rearing coach horses stayed up, hooves in midair; two dimensional artifices like everything else.
Lady Steingarten, breathing heavily, tilted the chair to make her features less visible and eased back into darkness. She tried to halt the ongoing process but nothing responded. She could not switch off or disconnect anything. It was beyond her control.
Nonetheless, she spoke calmly, reassuringly as if nothing was amiss. ‘The town of Harmony disappeared from the map and was called fiction,’ she elucidated and continued, ‘the elements have been set into play and the participants in place.’
Steingarten recognised the characters in the cut-outs, historical figures she had incorporated from different environments and different time slots. She had not despatched anyone to Harmony which was a fabrication, a sort of wishful thinking. Her team had researched Harmony but glitches intruded and the territory was deemed unsafe, uncontrollable, if it did exist. So she’d steered well clear, or so she’d thought.
Lady Steingarten shut her eyes but a gasp from the audience made her look. The central cut-out figure had morphed into life and was staring at Steingarten. A hand was raised and pointed at her. It held a palm sized derringer. As the finger squeezed the trigger, a hand in a sleeve with silver studs and buckskin fringes, reached across and jerked a swaying cord. A bullet pierced the screen as the cord dropped obliterating the Western scene. Steingarten blanched as she felt the bullet whiz by her cheek.
Wraithlike the images dissipated in the rising of the auditorium lights. Unattended trays of champagne and canapés floated up the aisles. People grabbed at the refreshments ravenously as if fending off what they had witnessed, and what might be happening outside beyond the subterranean bulwarks and caissons protecting the Foundation, and the huge earth mound covering everything.
The Harmony backdrop was supposed to switch to the assassination of the anti-slavery President. Now the question was; had the President been prematurely assassinated? Her team was still honing their observational skills into the past but the indications had suggested that it would be fatal to delay intervention.
Steingarten was unnerved. She had spent far too many years alone. No one understood her except Charlie Silverfish who had the knack of connecting with her innermost sensibilities. During her prolonged absence she had followed his activities, powerless to stop his fall from grace without exposing herself. It would have been premature to break the 11th commandment earlier.
Then her researches indicated that something was moving faster in a timeline beyond her observational field. She could delay no longer, especially with that ambitious turd the albino getting uncomfortably closer to the heart of the matter.
Mogadishu brushed past Steingarten as she vacated the ivory chair. He directed the Nubian clutching the retrieved armrest. First he wanted it higher, then lower. He was too nonplussed to know what he wanted. Steingarten coming back to life had thrown him. Charlemagne squeezed Mogadishu’s arm. That gentle touch was as much as he was permitted in public. Mogadishu nodded and wriggled back into the ivory chair as it soared up.
Steingarten eased Charlie into a dimly lit corner. She glanced around to ensure they were alone. She needn’t have bothered; no one dared to get involved or cared a hoot about Charlie Silverfish. A few delegates edged away cautiously.
‘What!’ Steingarten exclaimed and pushed Charlie. He cringed and apologised, though he didn’t know how he’d offended her. She jerked him onto his feet. He fell into her arms blathering that it was so good she was back. He was weeping unashamedly. She was touched. It made her smile. Once again he was offering himself to her, completely. He ached with the pain of missing her every moment of every day since she got blown up on the riverboat. He nuzzled into her bosom and arm in arm they ambled into the stage footlights.
A bank of microphones glided around Lady Steingarten as she spoke: ‘What you witnessed was no contrivance.’ The chatter lessened and her voice resonated with a hint of echo. As she moved the airborne microphones followed. Charlie pulled away and kept a discreet distance. When she wanted him, he would be close at hand. He noticed something on the floor and picked it up. It was the bullet from the derringer. He’d soon discover if it really had come from the past.
‘Were the images functioning independently, or were you in command?’ A voice barracked from the back of the emporium. Beams of light shifted but the speaker had vanished.
‘Nevertheless,’ Steingarten replied, ‘there were minor glitches,’ she admitted, but that was to be expected. ‘Columbus hardly reached America without a broken sail or two.’ Steingarten cut a fine line between being humorous or serious. Some people laughed, most did not dare.
The social engineering was underway and fully operational. ‘History was about to be reshaped,’ she declaimed.
The Professor swooped down towards Lady Steingarten. Behind him the Nubian held out a platter with a long-haired brown caterpillar on it. Facing Steingarten, Mogadishu leered, squeezed the caterpillar and plopped it into his mouth. ‘Steingarten could never swallow a poisonous caterpillar,’ the albino whispered to the Nubian and winked.
Microphones sped from all corners of the auditorium to place themselves at the disposal of the foremost figures present. Charlie manoeuvred himself behind Steingarten, but not too close. His thumb was hooked into his belt as if he would reach into his trousers at a moment’s notice. It was a strange posture to assume, but Charlie often did things like that. However, no one noticed the ineffectual Charlie do anything. His innocuous presence made him perfect spy material, a virtue Steingarten had in the past benefited from.
‘I must inform you,’ Mogadishu began with an eye on the nearest microphone. Steingarten interrupted; ‘a biblical plague. a punishment for breaking the 11th commandment.’
Mogadishu gawped at Steingarten, who appeared to have read his thoughts. ‘I have not read your thoughts. That’s facile thinking,’ Steingarten sighed. Mogadishu gasped; was she about to strangle him there and then, in front of everyone? Could his muscular Nubian, Charlemagne prevent anything?
‘It’ll take more than a marching bed of inedible caterpillars to stop progress into the past to redeem the future. So your pigment deprivation is protective, well bully for you,’ Steingarten snarled, gnashing her teeth almost in his face. ‘You’re too late and it’ll take more than a plateful of worms to impress.’
Charlie led the approving outburst, and no one was slow to follow.
Mogadishu gave Charlemagne a withering look: Why had he not known she was a step ahead. He was tempted to slap Charlemagne for dereliction of duty, and worse than that, for being stupid and not knowing. What a pathetic lover he had acquired, Mogadishu whimpered.
Steingarten thrust two fingers between her lips, whistled and waving the microphones aside said quietly to Mogadishu, ‘you stupid prick be careful; if the caterpillar can’t kill you, I might.’ Steingarten slapped the armrest panel and sent the ivory chair spinning away.
Cloistered in close proximity with no evident means of restraint a vanguard of thick-skinned predators paraded across the stage past Steingarten. Charlie scurried behind her and the audience hurriedly took to their seats. More animals entered behind scientists in protective suits with helmets bloated with gadgetry. The first scientist was ensconced in a leather seat attached to the shoulders of a gray ape. The second scientist straddled a saddle strapped onto a lion. Further along the meandering column, packed on top of elephants, more scientists in protective suits followed with long handled brooms. The Steingarten platoons were en route to confront the approaching army of caterpillars whose poisonous hairs were lethal.
Additional screens dropped from the ceiling charting the animal’s progress en route to the ground above and the earth mound encompassing the Steingarten Foundation.
An air-driven platform, a ‘floater’ drew alongside Lady Steingarten. She stepped onto it and clutched a rail, scooping up the dangling straps and buckled on a leather waist harness.
Charlie clenched his teeth as a leopard loped past almost touching him. He prayed to any god within hearing distance to stop him from fainting, and closed his eyes.
Lady Steingarten squeezed the side of the rail. The floater tilted and swept towards Charlie. She held out a metal bracket which snapped shut around his midriff and she jerked him onto the floater tearing his shirt and lacerating his chest.
Pressed against Lady Steingarten Charlie clung on for dear life as the floater lifted and stopped in front of the largest screen. Charlie scrambled into the second set of straps and secured himself. Steingarten began to sway dancing to a distant sound. Animal noises drifted out of the audio system, drawing nearer and growing louder.
Blood seeped through the remnants of Charlie’s shirt. He felt he must look a sight. Charlie did not like that. Steingarten’s gyrations coalesced with the rumblings from the animals flickering on the screens. Steingarten thrust a hand forward. Onscreen a herd of wildebeest swooped through the British Museum Central Court leaving their prints in the sand and dust accumulated over a thousand years.
Steingarten scratched at the air and the animal roars resounded through the emporium. Above ground the animals stampeded out the entrances at the base of the mound. They drew to a halt and milled about.
The scientists dismounted and assembled to the rear of the animals closing ranks and advancing. In the sunlit distance waves of green swerved to meet the animals. The first pack wild dogs disappeared into the green deluge gnashing them to shreds. The elephants impervious to the caterpillars stamped through and the Wildebeest encircled the caterpillar like trail drivers herding cattle.
Steingarten, dripping with sweat, waved her arms slowly. The audience believed she had orchestrated the animals. The caterpillars were crushed and driven into circles, compelled to turn, unable to break out, nibbling every speck of grass, weed or plant in their path until the ground was barren. The cannibalism of the green worms began. Those in the lead fell into the jaws of those behind until no living caterpillar was left. Clouds of grit with flecks of hairy green covered the ground for miles.
In the settling dust, lines of scientists in protective clothing swept the caterpillar detritus into piles and set fire to them. The animals gathered at the entrances of the mound but when the scientists headed back underground the animals did not follow them. They moved away in different directions, as Steingarten had calculated.
Charlie’s tattered shirt flapped as they glided over the Thames snaking between rundown tower blocks and Georgian squares encircled by Victorian terraces. Squatters in parks were building fires. Blocks of high rise buildings spilt over with garbage and people. Steingarten was struck by how London had deteriorated. The once crowded skyline was desolate and the streets empty. Abandoned cars lay on their sides, burnt out husks. They coasted over a park surrounded by razor wire and patrolled by armed guards. Picnickers toasted Steingarten with the popping of champagne corks. Bursts of loud music marked their passing disregarding the noise abatement regulations.
Steingarten swerved across a dimly lit hillside. Stones catapulted against the underside of the floater. Steingarten told Charlie things looked worse than she had imagined and Charlie wondered where she had been hiding, and where were they going. Steingarten reached back and stroked his crotch as they rose opposite the top of a tall building; a fortress haven for those who could afford it, and the Foundation could afford anything.
A pair of sliding glass doors opened and they coasted inside. The floater stopped in midair. Steingarten stepped down, lifted Charlie and lowered him to the carpet. Charlie exhaled as his shoes sunk into the thick pile. It was many years since he’d last felt such luxury.
A team of decorators and technicians were putting finishing touches to the refurbishing. A few of them stared with disbelief on recognising Steingarten. ‘I am not a ghost,’ she announced curtly.
Silently, obsequiously, the work team squeezed onto the floater. Steingarten watched them suspiciously as the floater went off and pressed a code into her wristband. Charlie gasped as the floater tilted. ‘Please don’t,’ he pleaded, touching her on the elbow. She moved her hand away from the control. The floater righted itself and sped away. It was a reminder to Charlie that his great love was still the same person.
The glass doors slid shut. Lady Steingarten picked Charlie up, lowered him onto a floating sofa, and flung a package at him; inside were laundered shirts. She slid past a row of monitors and control panels, switching and adjusting some by hand, others with a fleeting gesture. Charlie rolled onto his side and gazed at vases stuffed with exotic stems starting to blossom. He could smell the scent and wondered if it was artificial. Soft lighting pulsated like a breathing entity, attuned to Steingarten’s heartbeat. Steingarten removed Charlie’s boots and unbuckled his trousers. She was about to say something but decided Charlie was the least of her worries as she reached into his trousers. Charlie opened his arms.
Dressed and showered as post coital decorum advocated in the 4th millennium, they lay in each other’s arms satiated; pleased it was sans medicinal aids or stimulants.
Both woke with a start. Steingarten rolled onto her stomach staring at the wall opposite. In its centre a glimmer of light was expanding in tandem with sounds drawing closer. Quietly she asked if Charlie had touched anything. He shook his head and reached into his crumpled trousers. He extricated a facsimile magnum with a hexagonal barrel.
A disembodied voice with a slow drawl boomed that it was coming for the Lady. Charlie shoved Steingarten, knocking her off the sofa, and blasted a stream of high velocity projectiles at the emerging image. The stagecoach burst out of the wall as the projectiles exploded in rapid succession.
When the debris had settled and the smoke cleared all that remained was a gaping hole where the wall had been. Lights blazed in from outside. An airship swept past and a high tensile plasticized skein sealed the gap onto which reinforced cement was sprayed. Charlie reloaded the magnum.
The glass doors opened and an official stepped off a floater accompanied by a team in opaque over-suits. The official demanded access to the computers and Steingarten threatened to throw him out. The official gasped, ‘I didn’t know it was you,’ saluted and withdrew.
Mogadishu appeared in a midair hologram. He told Steingarten that her experiment was as potent as any scientific innovation ever conceived but she had overreached herself and could fall victim to the past. However, with his Nubian necromancer and their arcane knowledge they could summon power undreamed of. In collaboration they could reconstruct the past with minimal residual feedback.
The prospect of any collaboration with Mogadishu and Charlemagne appalled Steingarten and Charlie equally but neither said a word.
* * *