The Utopians

They were sleeping on rock, in a cave. It was very cold. Ax got out of his sleeping-bag and went to the entrance. We are on the slopes of Mount Elbrus. I am in the ancient world. Far into the distance below, the Caspian basin was on fire. Eco-warriors had set gas and oil reserves alight a year ago, and no one had yet managed to cap the flames. The landscape, under a reddish, Martian dawn, looked like fucking Mordor. But the strangeness of it gripped him, and he intensely wanted Sage to see this. A stab of pain, a glimpse of what was waiting for him, when he let himself feel his loss. But not now. He spoke aloud, quoting from the Odyssey: 'For in my day, I have had many bitter and shattering experiences in war and on the stormy seas-'
A voice behind him joined in, also speaking Homer's Greek.
So let this new disaster come. It only makes one more.
'You know the Odyssey?'
The older of his two minders grinned, his seamed face and the gaps in his teeth reminding Ax of Fergal Kearney. Lalic. 'I'm a Macedonian. Come and have breakfast.'
With Serendip on his chip, a facet of Serendip, that is, Ax could speak and understand any language that hit him. It felt somewhat like demonic possession, but he could handle it. He was afraid it meant he was behaving as if everyone he met belonged to the same tribe: luckily the eco-warriors didn't give a shit for national identity. Murderous factions yes, borders no. This war is everywhere. He'd met Lalic and Markus, the younger minder, in the last days of the dambusting tour. They'd said come with us, and here he was, on a pilgrimage. The small plane took off from a boulder field. They flew north, over the flames, with the cinder-grey pans of the Caspian sea floor in the east; a sullen gleam of water in their distance. What's that great wen down there? Oh, fuck, that's Stalingrad. Volgograd. They landed in marshland. (Lalic and Markus flew by sight, since most of their instruments were bust. They treated their little plane like a motorbike; they'd park it anywhere.) Walking through reeds, they came to a stretch of water, like an arm of the lost sea. There were hippy guys with rifles, who provided a boat. 'What's going on here?' he asked, expecting another apocalyptic environment-damage story.
'Sssh. Wait. She'll come.'
Something very large glided up. He saw an eye. He'd never seen such a big fish. He'd never been near to such a big, living wild thing in his life.
'She is a sturgeon,' said Lalic softly. 'We think she's two hundred years old.'
'Not such good caviar,' said Markus. 'Beluga. But okay when there is nothing else left. This is our reserve, it's what we do: but they are too few to recover; all the sturgeon will go. She is our partner, mascot, wife, you could say. Magic fish.'
The magic fish, which looked to be fifteen, even twenty feet long, had the muzzle and barbels of a bottom feeder. She cruised around, seeming gravely interested.
'The war is already lost,' said Lalic. 'In the west you hear rumours: running out of water, no more fertility in the soil, and you start fighting in the streets. We go on fighting too, with bombs and guns, but we know. We are losing, it is too late, it's finished.'
'You can't say that,' said Ax. 'We're not losing. This isn't the end of a long campaign, we've only just begun. We can turn it round.'

He was thinking of Lalic and Markus, and the magic fish, when he set out for the Floods Conference venue, in Amsterdam one January morning, in the different cold of the North Sea coast. The city had reliable mains power, wave power mostly. Good for them. The sky was clear of smoke and the air clean, which made a pleasant change from Bucharest. Or London. He walked by the Singelgracht, looking at the buildings, taking in the atmosphere: a dark shape swimming up through his mind, like meeting life itself, life with eyes looking back at you. He was thinking that none of the mistakes he'd made in England mattered. Spend time with Utopians whose concept of the Good State is that everyone eats meat once a month and we never run out of ammunition (and Lalic was a Doctor of Philosophy once, by the way), and you learn to respect the scale of this task. You make a mistake, you move on. Don't waste time on it.

Just as well the distances in Amsterdam were small. Ax hated bicycles, and he couldn't buy a bus pass. He'd had a ridiculous conversation with a young woman at the Metrostation: no I can't sell you a strippenkart, Mr Preston, because you're an eco-warrior, but could I have your autograph? At least she'd had the grace to produce Put Out The Fire, and the 'Miss Brown' single. New Year's fireworks piled in funeral pyres, a flotilla of drab, icebound houseboats, white-faced coots pattering across the grey ice . . . he almost ran slap into someone standing in his path. It was Arek Wojnar, Polish music publisher and radical computer geek: a stocky bloke with a stubble of dark hair, slightly mad-looking pale blue eyes and a light-the-sky smile.
'Ax! I said to myself, that's the amazing Mr Preston, and I was right! Striding along,
thinking world-changing thoughts. Which hotel are you at?'
'No hotel. I'm dossing in the Tarom building.' The block that had housed the Romanian Airlines office was providing unofficial accommodation for a raft of Eastern Europe hippies, who had no money at all.
'Oooh, is that where the English are?'
'No, just me. I'm here on my own.'
'I see,' said Arek, looking pleased. 'Travelling light. Good! I was worried for you. You have been spending so much time among the suits.'
Arek was no mean suit himself when it came to wheeling deals and preying on hapless artists. But he reserved the right to be a wild and free idealist in his spare time.
'Yeah, me too.'
By the time they reached the Lyceum, and the gabled, turreted Tropen Institut, the winter pavement was awash with dreadlocked outlaws, sober hippies, adventurous suits. They met Alain de Corlay, and moved through the day in an enclave of techno-greens-with-music-biz-connections. Debates, seminars, posters: how much new bad news can you take? The conference was far bigger than had been planned; much of the programme had been moved to university halls, but the museum remained the centre, its tropical dioramas making a very fitting backdrop. These jewel islands that are drowning; this colourful Southern poverty, choking on its own shit. This showcase of human diversity which has become a relentless casualty list . . . On bilingual placards Ax read the Netherlanders' core interpretation of what goes on, the same from Aleppo to the Philippines, in times of trouble, the people will cling together and support each other. My bus pass would seem to be an exception, he thought. But it's a good sentiment.
In the afternoon there was an angry debate in the glass-roofed Light Hall, which was the main museum venue. The topic in the programme quickly became irrelevant; it was a slanging match between the techno-greens and the pan-European Celtics. The media people had turned out in force, and it was heartbreaking to see their pleasure and relief. Aha! A binary opposition! Now we get it! Hold the front page! But what can you do? At the end Ax had to duck out to escape being mobbed - the classic rockstar experience, which he'd never had before in his life. He was outraged, and even a little frightened. He'd been living in a hothouse where there wasn't a media person, or a punter, who would say boo to Mr Preston. Back at the Tarom (having spent a while in a stockroom full of Javanese puppets and carved totem sticks, guarded by some kindly Tropen staff), he found Arek and Alain and a bunch of other techno-greens, making themselves at home. 'Ah, here he is,' said Alain, maliciously. 'The man of the moment. It was those dams, Ax. You are feared!'
'I didn't do anything. I was just holding the coats.'
'Of course! You didn't do anything. Nothing is going on in the Danube countries but a lot of running around, gang shootings and knife fights. Along comes Mr Preston and, so quietly, so gently, tells the suits, now let's be reasonable, this is going to happen, let's see if we can have it happen in a controlled way. And . . . KABOOM!'
'Come off it, Alain, you can't call me violent. I am getting stigmatised as the moderate around here, just because I don't like bloodbaths-'
'Our US correspondent is looking for you, Ax,' said someone in Alain's party.
General laughter.
'Yeah,' said Ax, accepting a paper cup of coffee from Alain at the hot drinks station. 'Anyone here from the English Counterculture and speaks English? I caught that.'
Alain's eyes narrowed. 'Oh yes. What's this, Mr Phrasebook? I have been wondering all day. When did you learn to speak French like a human being?'
'He was speaking Polish earlier,' said Arek, acutely. 'I think it's his chip.'
'Nah, evening classes.' However, the truth would be more annoying, and even in this empty world, annoying M. de Corlay remains a worthwhile project. 'Oh, okay, it's Serendip. I have a facet of Serendip on my chip, that's who's doing the ST. And it feels bizarre,' he added, unaugmented, 'so I'm going au naturel for the evening, if you don't mind. English or nothing,' A feeling like gentle claws withdrawing their grip.
'Nom d'un nom,' said Alain. 'Possessed by the machine. Ax, what are you doing to us? You realise how the Celtics, those savages, how they'll love this?'
'Nyah, you're just jealous.'
They went out to a big mass-market bar on the Leidesplein and argued about techno-greenery until Alain decided he had better things to do. Arek stayed with Ax, eyeing up the non-revolutionary pre-clubbers through a haze of cannabis smoke and complaining of the dullness of life in Kracow, where Countercultural violence and Crisis panic had never taken off - just endless bitching about the Data Quarantine.
The music loop in the bar featured the dancemix of the Heads' current single, 'Heart On My Sleeve'. Also Fiorinda's 'Chocobo'. They came round incessantly.
'How familiar it is, how Polish, this pointless factionism. Did you know, Ax, I am a Celt! The Ancient Celts were everywhere, a truly European phenomenon, I know I must not say race. My eyes are typically Celtic! I can be on both sides of the bloodbath! But who would have thought Western Europe would be the first to go? It's unreal.'
'Anyone who looked at a population density map, that's who,' said Ax.
'Huh? You think it's that simple?'
'I think when the shit hits the fan, suddenly things get very simple, and that's the worst fucking shit of all. The challenge is to keep things complicated.'
Here comes 'Heart On My Sleeve' again. Arek propped his chin on his hand and gazed at Ax, soulfully. 'How did you do it, Ax? I have been trying to get Sage into bed for years and years. He has just laughed at me. Held me off with one hand, you know-'
Ouch, ouch, ouch. Ax shrugged. 'Try getting him killed a few times. Wreck his career, steal his girl, make him into a murderer. Worked for me.'
'Oh dear, don't tell me you two have fallen out. My perfect couple!'
Ax would have to find the right tone for answering questions about his lovers.
'Nah. Nothing's wrong. We're fine.'
Arek shook his head. 'It's the girl. You should ditch the girl. She had made trouble between you, of course she has. Women always make trouble. But my God, you must not part with Sage. He is your Charioteer. Your hero-companion, your guide in battle. That's very Celtic!'
'Arek, I wouldn't mind just not hearing the word Celtic for a few hours.'
Someone came up. It was the US Correspondent. She wanted to introduce herself, which, at this juncture, Ax found extremely welcome.
Arek grinned and winked. 'Now I'll go and find some other conversation for a while. You want to come along to the darkroom at De Olifant later, Ax? It might be fun, huh?'

The US correspondent was a futuristic-Utopian who'd often been around in the chatrooms, before Ivan/Lara. She'd usually been dressed (so to speak) as the Addams Family butler. He tried not to look taken aback. He'd had 'Lurch' down as a female teenager, shy and bold, full of naïve enthusiasms, which appeared to be right. He hadn't envisaged her weighing-in at sixteen stone (or thereabouts; and she wasn't tall), with a sparse thatch of straw hair, a slab of whey face and tiny eyes almost devoid of brows or lashes. He offered her a cigarette. She looked at the pack with alarm and said earnestly, 'I think it's great, the way you're the eco-warrior king of England, and, but, but you smoke cigarettes and you take drugs and you drive a sports car. That's so cool.'
Americans won't say 'Dictator'. They just won't buy it. It pissed Ax off no end to be associated with the departed royals, but he knew there was no use arguing.
'It's not a sports car. Let me buy you a drink, then.'
'Oh no. No! I'll buy. It's wonderful to meet you, er, Ax-'
They chatted. Her real name (sorry, her original name) was Kathryn Adams. She was a
journalist, kind of, by profession. She came from Maryland, and she was a designer baby. She had been born a trisomy, a Down's Syndrome. 'My parents had the learning difficulties fixed, but they didn't give me the cosmetic therapy because they're Christians, and now I'm grown, I don't want it. I like being, you know, invisible.'

Invisible wasn't the term Ax would have used, but he soon understood what she meant. Lurch is a smart cookie, and nobody to look at her would ever guess it. What a decision to take. Ax did not think of himself as vain, but he couldn't imagine it. (After talking to her for a very few minutes, he didn't doubt that doing without the cosmetic changes was voluntary. She smelled of serious money.) She had to get back to her hotel. He went to find Arek, who had got himself totally smashed, and hauled him out of a fracas with some Belgian hippies - something to do with the European Flag, and the good name of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The days passed. The European Crisis opened up before him. There were scuffles between technos and Celtics that led to conference-goers being banned from every decent club round the Rembrandtsplein. There was a live album recorded at the Paradiso, with Ax playing guitar in a Floods Conference supergroup: a very mixed bag. The Van Gogh Museum was stormed by art-for-a-cause locals (street theatre, no damage to a major tourist attraction). Ax managed to avoid seeing much of the English contingent, or the rest of the British nations, by the simple expedient of becoming the spokesperson for the techno-greens, a role that everybody seemed to think belonged to him anyway.
He felt like a visitor from another planet, because no one knew what was going on in his head. No one knew that in his heart he had quit the job that made him famous. Maybe his secret freedom made it easier for him to take on the Conference. He knew he was doing well. The quarantine debate went like a dream, and yeah, he was aware that the US correspondent was in the audience . . . Alain jeered at Ax's 'tendresse' for the Ugly American (and his general sucking-up to Uncle Sam), but Ax ignored him. The kid was interesting, whoever she was; and he liked her.
One freezing night, alone for a change, he met a music-biz delegate from Dublin who
told him that Feargal Kearney, who'd vanished from the Irish scene about two years ago, was rumoured to be dead, died in a rehab clinic somewhere on the wrong side of the Quarantine. Ax was guilty of not liking Fergal much. When someone 'accidentally' shafts you, every time you talk to him, then on some level he's hostile, even if he did save your life. But he didn't contradict the story - just in case Fergal really had faked his own demise. They'd never got to the bottom of how their defector had acquired the David Sale evidence. It was always possible that he'd left serious enemies behind him in Ireland.
Another day he went with Arek to the Stopera, to see one of the stranger signs of these times. In the underpass between the Town Hall and the Musiektheater, the Amsterdammers kept an exhibit showing Netherlands sea-levels. There was a woman standing by the plaque representing 'Normal Amsterdam', the basic sea-level of Europe. She was swathed in grey, she wore a wreath of dead flowers and birds, her face was blurred: she was about three metres tall.
'Can you see her?' asked Arek.
'What do you think? Is it a hoax? Another art-for-a-cause stunt? A trick of the light?'
'No,' said Ax. 'I could be wrong, but no.'
No one knew what she meant. The grey lady had simply appeared. She had become the Conference mascot, but no one had claimed responsibility. She was insubstantial, but unlike a traditional ghost she turned up on photographic film and other recording media. Ax thought of the unpleasant apparition he and Sage had once met in Yorkshire. This was broad daylight but the feeling was the same: a compelling presence, a bending of reality.
'She's crying for us,' suggested Arek, sentimentally. 'She is Gaia, weeping for us.'
'More likely she's crying for herself. I don't know that she's, er, on our side.'
'But why now? Ax, what is happening to this stupid world? An economic crash and pouf, there are ghosts in the streets. I don't think I like it.'
'You don't have any problem with the Blessed Virgin Mary.'
They turned and made their way through the grey lady's small, permanent crowd. So far people just came and looked. Maybe if she stayed she would become a shrine. 'Ach, you're right,' said Arek. 'But the spiritual should be spiritual. Visions are supposed to be in the heart. This is wrong, it feels dangerous. You keep telling me our crisis is a normal adjustment, Ax, but this is not normal. Serious laws are being broken!'
Ax shrugged. 'It has to happen occasionally. A new model will come along.'

The Conference came to an end. The grey lady might remain until deep waters drowned her, but the cheap hotels were emptying, the hippy caravanserai were being dismantled. All the coverage was retrospective now. What do you think, Mr Preston? Who came out on on top, the Celtics or the technos? Where's the next round going to be held? What has the Conference achieved? Where are we going? At six o'clock one morning, in the rain, Ax sat looking up at the house where Rene Déscartes had once stayed, in hiding from the world. Everyone in this town except me is thinking about business. . . But Ax had no philosophy to fill his empty head. Throwing the Sweet Track Jade into the sea had been a childish gesture. He knew he had to go back to England and make it official. He had to resign, and then what?
He had no plans.
I'm over, he thought. I'm finished, and this is how it feels.

Later he met Lurch for breakfast in the Ekeko café at the Tropen. The US Correspondent was staying at the Amstel Inter'Continental, a fact she had touchingly tried to keep from her impoverished European pals. The Light Hall was being prepared for a new exhibition. They took a nostalgic stroll through the dioramas, this entrancing giant dollshouse so haunted by the great dying: the rainforests, the corals, the eroded soils. The dancing, the funerary rites: everything must go.

'Where did you think you were heading, setting up the Rock and Roll Reich?'
'Lurch, to tell the truth, a lot of things happened by chance.'
'But you did have a ground plan?'
'Are you recording this? I suppose you are, since you record everything. Look, why don't you give me a list of the questions, and we'll work something out.'
Takes one to know one. He had spotted on the second day that she had an eyesocket gizmo of some kind. 'I'm sorry,' she said, crestfallen. 'I should have asked.'
'Well, it's customary. But don't worry about it, I don't mind.'
So Ax talked - about the Rock and Roll Reich, and the poisoned world, and the music, how rock and roll is about expressing yourself, and it's the only way to go, the only kind of Utopia that will work, and luckily people need to be good to each other, it's as natural to us as greed and murder - arguably more natural, by a small but vital margin, or we wouldn't be here . . . They settled at last in the Yemen exhibit, a peaceful little upper room with dark red velour couches around the walls. Ax turned the ring on his right hand, wondering if this inteview would ever be published. He didn't see how. 'No, I don't expect the Reich to last for a thousand years. An idea doesn't have to be a lasting success to be worthwhile. Nature is profligate, a lot of wonderful things are ephemeral, and that's the way it will always be.'
He was thinking of his love affair. The American girl nodded respectfully.
'What will you do with this? I thought you weren't allowed to re-import any kind of digital device once you've taken it out of quarantine. Won't your gizmo be spotted at immigration and destroyed, with all your records?'
'Not if I declare it. I plan to do that, and have the recording bonded until it can be
cleared for downloading. It won't lose value . . . Where are the other musketeers this morning?'
'The other musketeers?'
'Arek and Alain,' explained Lurch, with a shy grin.
'Oh yeah.' Ax smiled at her. 'Then I suppose I'll have to call you D'Artagnan.'
She blushed with pleasure, and looked sweet - a triumph of the human spirit. She's a good kid, and when you get to know her you can see it, no matter if she's, er, not conventionally attractive. He'd had to put some effort into protecting Lurch from the ribald cruelty of the techno-greens (both male and female). But he hadn't had to make a big deal of it, even with those who most hated and despised the USA. People liked her.
'The other musketeers are coming down from this,' he said.'They have things to do, places to go. They are packing.'
Lurch drew a deep breath. She gazed at him so nervously and solemnly that for a frightful moment he thought he was going to have to deal with a sexual proposal. The US Correspondent wants me to take her virginity (no question she's a virgin). Oh, great.
'Ax, would you come to America? I mean, to the USA?'
He grinned. 'Yeah, I'd probably come to America. If anybody asked me.'
'I'm asking. I'm, um, the truth is I'm here for the Internet Commission. I'm empowered to ask you to come back with me and talk about ending the data quarantine. Under cover, but they want to meet you in person. You're the one they trust.'

from "Big In Brazil", Castles Made Of Sand