Memories of the Ice Age
by David Barber
You don’t remember the days when soldiers got killed. Now there are proxy warriors run from virtualities in Fort Hood or Chongqing or Tehran or who knows where.
Anna was a child when remoting technology was new and difficult; the military was learning to hire local bodies then pour in their own professionals. The result wasn’t as good as the real thing — reflexes don’t travel — but skill and experience do, and the soldiers get to sleep in their own beds at night, whether the proxy trips a roadside or not.
She speaks about what she knows: growing up in the years when Arctic meltwater shut down the North Atlantic conveyor, turning the British Isles into tundra.
It must have been the U.N. overseeing the evacuation using gloved civilians, but all she remembered were armed and shabby men; somebody’s father or husband earning tickets for their families on overcrowded ships bound for Australia or Canada. In those days proxies wore big electronic helmets, like pilots, but held their weapons with familiar ease, their eyes searching, searching.
Did bitterness creep into Anna’s voice there? Those absent professionals kept the peace while Britain’s south coast became one vast refugee camp. In the end, where could fifty million vagrant mouths go in the post-oil world? To their surprise, it turned out nobody liked the Brits much.
She talked to her father about it, trying to understand. All our historical chickens coming home to roost, he shrugged, which she didn’t understand; and Payback time, which she did. English servants were popular in India for a while, and the Canadians were generous; there were rumours about the pom camps in Australia; soon there wasn’t even a choice.
Her father signed up for the proxy militia; a hard thing for such a gentle man to do. It didn’t buy a ticket out by then, just the approximate safety of an enclave, food stamps and warmth for your family.
She saw him on duty once, guarding an aid shipment. He was at the Southampton docks, where a long worm of cheap labour, erstwhile salesmen, middle-aged teachers and teenage boys bent under grain sacks, wound from ship to warehouse. A gift from the people of South Africa, declared each bag. Snow flakes whirled down on a bitter wind.
“Move along,” warned her father, his voice deeper and American-sounding. Casually, he pointed his M16 at a thin child, muffed against the cold. He carried a 3D of Anna playing in the snow, taken before it dawned on him that the snow wasn’t ever going away.
Not everyone approved of proxies, of being a “glove.” Some raised their own militias to protect neighbourhoods against the gangs and gradually became their own gangs. There were bombs and shootings, mobs and factions. The Brits weren’t good at it in the beginning, calling the new warlords “bosses.” They had only watched others do this on TV, but they learned; it was evolution in action.
One day her father didn’t come back. It took a while to find out why. It wasn’t a secret, just that no one cared. Some clash with Scottish refugees in the no-go zone north of London. The contract guaranteed a place for his widow in a U.N. camp.
Her mother was too civilised for that life. She gradually stopped talking; stopped trying, just turned her face to the wall. Anna was eleven. She would never forgive her mother for leaving her alone.
Summers were so short and cold, even in the south of England, cereals no longer grew. Root vegetables endured, though, and you learnt things about your fingers digging turnips from ice-hard ground. Worse things would happen to her in the camps.
Decades later, U.N. proxies still stand watch as ships dock with handouts. The situation has become an open sore, with no healing in prospect.
Kate is her daughter, born when Anna was fourteen, but no one mistakes them for sisters. Anna need only look in the mirror to see why. But Anna’s child was never abandoned; she carries a blade and defies anyone to take it away.
Why ask what was happening in the rest of the world? What would be the point? You hunkered down winter-long, eking your way through the dark months, tumbling the dead into lime-pits dug quickly when the ground thawed.
Travel was just possible in summer. London was a vast frozen treasure trove of things long gone; stuff caught by the freeze that outsiders would pay for.
Around then came the first “tourists,” proxy civilians from the U.N., or WHO doctors chasing new-strain TB. Later, it was academics, and collectors from places where the sun still gleamed on their wealth, greedy for the arctic cellars of London’s museums; the ice-bound cathedrals of England. Anna witnessed huge twin-rotor helicopters lifting Stonehenge, stone by stone, away into snow-filled skies.
Proxies just wear a silverlace now. Under a hat anyone could be a Brazilian tourist, a bureaucrat from the old European Union or thrill-seekers from the new Tex-Mex states.
The vans spluttered on sour fuel oil, donated by countries rich enough to spurn it. They slipped and skidded along what was once the M20 from Folkestone to London, trailing plumes of sulphurous smoke, as in the days when the skies were chalked by jets. The road surface was feet below the ice, but at least it was straight and level.
“Christ,” she hears the American in the back complain. “Look at my prox.” He holds out a pipe-stem arm. “Like Belsen, and I paid top dollar for this.”
His companion gloved a tall, fine-boned black man, Sudanese ancestry perhaps. So few blacks left; who would have thought the British would be so racist?
He was rattling the bolt on a fifty year-old Kalashnikov. “You’ve got a gun. You don’t need to arm-wrestle.”
“And he stinks.”
Who else but the hungry and the desperate would proxy, and who washes much when water freezes? That is what Anna would answer. Kate’s knuckles whiten on the wheel. Who knows what her daughter is thinking?
They are getting close; none of these eager “tourists” ever ask why time is wasted driving to London instead of using gloves already in the city. They ignore turnoffs, heading straight to the ambush. Kate’s expression sets hard and she jerks at the wheel.
Sometimes tourists ask Anna why she brings a kid. Anna was a mother by the age Kate is now. Is she supposed to leave her child alone in the camps?
At Dartford, at the old toll-booths for the bridge arching over the Thames, the convoy skids to a halt, sling-stones clattering off the windscreen mesh. Tourists are warned about the refugee gangs: Jocks; Yorkies; Brums. There is a scatter of shots, but the gangs won’t waste precious bullets without a clear target.
Even before the trucks are circled up, the proxies are out into the snow with a whoop, on full auto, blazing away at elusive figures, shattering windows, exploding pockmarks across walls. There is the distinctive donk of rounds striking metal, revealing snow banks to be rows of abandoned cars.
She crouches down outside, next to her daughter; the safest place is behind the engine block. The American slides in beside them, changes magazines and then pops up again. Cartridge cases rain down.
“I got one,” he yells excitedly, stink forgotten, his gaunt frame no hindrance to firing a Kalashnikov after all. “Winged another maybe. You get any?”
The attackers are Celts. There is a kind of deal with the Celts. Perhaps they lose one or two, perhaps not; Anna had seen it faked before. In return, liberated food aid gets left at Dartford.
A return shot wings off metal and Anna warns him to keep his head down.
“I’m on a corporate deal,” he grins. “Lose one, get one free. Don’t let dying spoil your fun.” He bangs away at everything.
This is why civilised nations have laws against proxies inside their own borders. You learn not to care; you just wake up at home the instant a lucky shot pulls off your glove.
Time to rev up the engines, to coax their excited tourists back on board, out of the tear-freezing wind, emptying their magazines to cover the retreat as they head back towards one of the safe-truce crossings over the Thames into London.
There’s more and more black market stuff. Sometimes it’s men wanting to glove up as women; or Ripper deals: loosing a proxy with a knife into the camps at night. Anna has nothing to do with all that.
She insists she’ll never be a proxy, though Kate and Zac just shrug. Just choose your deals, they say, what’s it matter? Anna encouraged him because he was weak and easy and not frightened by her daughter. There were lots like him in the camps. He takes each day as it comes, exactly what irritates her about him now. She knows she should find somebody else; she keeps saying that.
Her other deal is the one she keeps quiet about. All you need is a silverlace, a satellite link and contacts.
She leads someone who isn’t her daughter through the basements of London’s galleries, watching her excitedly point a torch at old pictures. From the way Kate walks, she guesses this client’s a woman.
“A Raphael!” Kate cries, snatching up a small picture of a mother and a baby. “The Pinks Madonna!”
She cranks the faltering torch back to life. “Wait, there’s black mould here.”
“Yeh, well, the rich just dropped everything and ran.” Zac props his shotgun casually on his shoulder; arrogant and careless.
Anna wonders what her father would have made of Zac. He would have said something wise and useless, like, you knew Zac was weak, that’s why you chose him, so you could make the decisions. She wonders what her father would have thought of his daughter now. Nothing that happened was her fault; she would tell him that if she could.
“I had qualms about this deal,” insists Kate in an American voice. “But it would be immoral to leave this canvas here to rot.”
The way it works, the client picks a painting and Anna gets paid to smuggle it to the coast.
So she had deals, a place in an enclave, a life. She had Kate. Then one day the strange thing happened.
Zac laughed it off as a tech fault. Anna thinks a weak, flabby mind met a hard, hungry one.
The youth is wearing a labcoat and has his feet up on the desk. He is playing with a tiny screen.
This glove is meaty and big. It actually has a belly. Now Kate knows what it feels like being a man. This can’t happen. You get switched off like a light and only wake up when the proxy pulls off the glove. Somehow she’s wearing him instead.
The youth looks up, surprised by a client standing at the desk, toying with a pencil. “Did you dead out? I didn’t hear the alarm.”
Around her, comatose figures lie on beds and are crowned with silverlace.
“Should I call tech support?” He reaches for a phone.
All it takes is a pencil into the throat. She’s seen it done. There’s a lot of blood, a lot of thrashing about. She thinks about it for a moment.
Outside, the light is blinding. And the heat... How do people live in such heat?
“Do you have any chocolate?” she asks in her man’s voice.
Later, when she takes off the glove, her mother is leaning over her, the scar livid on her face. Don’t do it again, she pleads, after they’ve talked it out. It’s not supposed to work backwards like that, the glove taking over the proxy.
It’s not possible, Zac argues, and then gives up with a shrug. But he’s right about one thing: however she manages it, they can’t touch her.
Mostly, she walks her proxies around in American cities. Around Melbourne once, which is in Australia. Even somewhere they didn’t speak English. She spends the money in their pockets on sweets, though their bodies don’t need it and it does her no good back home.
They just can’t figure out how to exploit it. Sometimes it ends when the system times out; usually Kate gets bored with sightseeing and pulls off the silverlace.
Figures emerge from the shadows. “Welcome back, girlie.”
The one with ginger stubble considers his gun. “No need for this, not now you’re one of us.”
Anna knows these. Politicals, who endlessly bomb and shoot each another back and forth across the camps. They talk endlessly too. How do they ever manage to kill anyone? Some argue Kate’s trick could open doors, liberate more guns and semtex for the struggle.
They weren’t careless or unlucky, Anna realises; Zac just thought of a way to cash in.
“Whose fault was it?” asks Ginger. That silences them. Wasn’t it the Yanks’? Wasn’t it the Euros’? Now it would be their turn.
His plan couldn’t be simpler or more stupid. Start in the U.S., where everyone has a gun. Or just drive a car. Drop as many by-standers as you can before they drop the proxy; do it again and again. Before long they’ll start shooting innocents, mistaking them for rogue proxies. The deal will collapse. Without gloves, they’ll have to get their hands dirty.
“And what the girl can do, she can teach us to do.”
Casually, he knuckles the scar on Anna’s cheek, always keeping his gaze on her daughter. “Isn’t that right, girlie?”
Eventually, in Houston, they grab her.
The men in blue with dark sweat-stains under their arms are police, with pistols, badges and belts heavy with kit. She screams and thrashes at the outrage of their hands on her, but can’t stop them fastening her wrists.
Standing aloof from all this is a man in a suit, even in this heat. “Stand him up,” he orders. “And for Chrissake put away the guns.”
He pushes a 3D of himself into her face. She would cut him, she would bite him if she could.
“I represent the U.S. government. You’ve broken Federal statutes on Proxy Use. You’re not Frank Hardy. Who are you?”
“Keep his head still,” the man adds, when he realises she’s not denying it, just trying to shake off the silverlace.
“And if you’re involved in the shootings then you’re wanted for murder.”
She’s left panting as the rage recedes. She’s a proxy and they can’t touch her.
“Listen. Listen. You’re a lucky man, because we’re prepared to negotiate.” He stares intently into her glove’s eyes. Does he imagine he can glimpse something there?
“We’ve followed the trail; we know you’re a Brit. We’ll get you eventually. Or we can deal. My government wants to know how you do this.”
Wearing a glove is like being herself. She spits in his face.
He wipes himself and gives her a fierce grin, but he doesn’t hit her. “Immunity, even if you did shoot all those people. Imagine that, and we’ll keep you safe.”
In a way Kate can’t put her finger on, he reminds her of somebody.
It wasn’t difficult, not if you had armed proxies and helicopters and had been told exactly where to go.
They’re still testing Kate. We don’t talk about it when I visit, but I doubt they’ll ever let her go. They keep her healthy, comfortable and safe from the world, all I wanted for her. These Americans don’t realise they’ve freed us from a worse prison.
Some sort of doctor talked to me, wanting to know about Kate’s upbringing. Called it her formative years. I asked who he thought was to blame. Antisocial behaviours get handed on, he said, off-hand. Things got heated after that and I got shown the door.
I can’t do Kate’s trick, but I’m kept around to remind her to cooperate. They don’t realise she doesn’t work like that, but I have somewhere warm to stay and a Federal handout. Does that sound bitter?
America has no laws against hiring proxies out-of-country so I’m saving up. I imagine finding Zac. I imagine finding some other men. I imagine what my father would say.
Who knows where the chickens come home to roost, how much payback really costs?
Copyright © 2012 by David Barber