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Light on a Hill

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I.

It turned out that the way to survive an apocalyptic event came down to blind chance, not training but – as Malcolm said – that was only what they should have expected.

Tom hadn’t exactly volunteered to go to the meeting in Sheffield, or drive, for that matter, but as orders went, he’d had worse. Malcolm (who believed these things were a waste of time in most cases) had planned to send Colin but fate in the shape of a bout of ‘flu had overridden him. Ruth, on the other hand, hadn’t actually said, “What fun, a day out!” but she might as well have done.

Even then, if they’d been on the motorway where they were meant to be, it would have been a different story, but about an hour and a half down the A1 Malcolm had pointed out that they were well ahead of schedule, that the conference had indeed been a complete waste of time and the food practically indigestible, the tea indescribable, and he knew a small place only a mile away from the next junction where they could get a proper cup. Tom couldn’t be bothered to argue, mentally said sod it, and wound up shortly after looking out of place in an aggressively olde-worlde tea shoppe with low beams and small tables. The tea had been good, though, and Ruth bought him a cake in thanks for the driving.

It was half an hour later that it happened, or at least when they first noticed anything. They were lost down some bloody B-road (though Malcolm, armed with the map kept assuring Tom they could rejoin the motorway at the next turning) when there was a sound like thunder that only grew louder and didn’t fade away until they’d seen a large, unfamiliar shape pass overhead.

Tom pulled over and tried the radio again; its refusal to work since they’d got back in the car suddenly taking on more sinister significance. Ruth tried her mobile. Still nothing. They looked at each other. Then in wordless agreement, Malcolm swapped with Ruth in the back; she conquered the recalcitrant road atlas in moments, and they drove towards the coast.

 

II.

They sheltered in somebody’s beach hut and watched the progress of the ominous clouds of yellowy-grey smoke moving across the sky. For the moment, the wind was blowing in the right direction, but if it changed, Malcolm said, that’d be it. Probably.

Tom kicked pebbles about and tried to work out what to do next. Ruth divided up sandwiches she’d brought in case of emergencies (though, she said, she’d been thinking more of the car breaking down than the world ending).

“Typical, isn’t it?” said Malcolm, eventually.

Tom reflected on the fact that, as far as they could tell, England had been demolished by aliens, and didn’t feel that it was in any way typical, even for MI5.

“We spend our whole lives working out where the next threat is coming from,” Malcolm continued, “and then it drops out of the sky without warning.”

Ruth stared out into the ocean. “Maybe there were warnings. Maybe we just missed them. The one direction we weren’t looking.”

“The UFO-ologists have been getting a bit excitable lately,” said Malcolm. “Mind, that’s not unusual.”

Tom had been trying his phone again, but with no luck. Obviously, because the networks went down when everybody was panic-ringing everybody else. He wasn’t falling for the end of the world a second time. He glanced up to see Ruth and Malcolm watching him. “What?” he said, and then walked away and back again in frustration. “We should be – we should be bloody well doing something!”

They both looked at him again.

“I am,” said Malcolm eventually, and held up an old radio he’d found in the beach hut. “I’m fixing this. First thing we need is information.”

Tom shrugged. “We don’t even know anything has happened. Maybe it was an experimental plane crashing. Anything. How the hell would we know?”

“We saw a space ship,” said Malcolm. “If it had been an experimental plane or even a rocket, I would have known.”

Ruth had been sitting on the ground, her skirt tucked around her legs. Now she got to her feet and went to stand next to Tom. She nodded over at the dirty-coloured smoke on the horizon. “Tom,” she said. “You can’t see the end of that, can you?”

“That doesn’t mean –” Then he turned his head towards her. “All right. We wait. Unless Malcolm has no luck with the radio.”

 

They managed to pick up some brief, often cut-off broadcasts, but it was enough to get the idea and confirm something of what they’d seen. The ship, or ships, had flown the length of the country, leaving in their wake a broad line of destruction through Britain. Cities, towns and woodland burned and poisonous smoke choked the life out of the survivors.

They watched the smoke on the horizon, wondering when it would be their turn, or if the effects would have been reduced by the time it reached them. Before it did, it rained. The main problem with that was, it didn’t stop. Blame the climate and bad timing, or a side-effect of the alien attack, but for whatever reason, the heavens opened and the rain poured down, the flood-waters rising.

 

“We can’t just stay here,” said Tom eventually. He’d accepted the end of the world now, but he wasn’t going to comment on that. “We’ve got to go somewhere – find people – collect them together. Do what we can.”

Malcolm thought about that for a while, and then said, “We’ll need something bigger than the car for the sand bags.”

“I wasn’t thinking of that,” said Tom. “It’s not a bad idea, though. Ruth?”

Ruth lifted her head. Her eyes glinted green in the light. “I know a place,” she said. Somehow he’d known she would.

 

III.

By the time they reached it, Durham was almost empty. The outskirts had taken a direct hit. If you stood in the right place in the hills, you could see the black line across it. And for a day and a half after, the smoke and fire had poisoned and burned everyone left. On the other side of the river, though, the heart of the old city remained, built into the hill, with the castle and cathedral at the summit. It was a clear landmark, and people would creep back towards it.

They’d need light, of course, Ruth had said, to encourage people to do so, once they were sure it was safe again. Next thing, Malcolm started working on finding ways to generate energy – solar power, he said, if he could salvage some panels, and wind and water power the old fashioned way, if not.

Ruth salvaged paper from the university buildings and started collating information gathered from any radio transmissions they had picked up.

Within a week or two, they were in effect a beacon burning on a hill (a light against horrid night, the child of hell) and Ruth could tell Tom that a frightening amount of the south was underwater, and that there were very few people left, most on either side of the lines of destruction – Malcolm was pretty sure now there’d been at least two ships taking two slight different flight paths – and there was no government, nobody but them. As if by playing their apocalypse game they’d tempted fate, and made it real.

It was almost like magic, here in a burned, drowned world in isolated medieval splendour. It would be easy in time, Tom thought, to turn them into myth and legends; they could be Merlin and Morgan Le Fay, perhaps. Something like that. Then he abandoned that train of thought, because if you followed it through, what did that make him? They had more than enough problems without him getting delusions of grandeur.

 

IV.

Ruth was studying a large map of the world, rolled out on the cathedral flagstones, and marking in known areas of destruction.

Tom crouched down beside her. Northern Europe hadn’t come out of it well, if her information was reliable, but it was mostly patchier than Britain which was now nothing but a big black spot on Ruth’s map.

Ruth rubbed a hand across her eyes and pushed a strand of hair back behind her ears before flickering a quick glance over at him. She gave him an uncertain smile. “Sorry. But look at it.”

Tom nodded.

“I mean, it’s not that I’m sorry it’s probably not this bad everywhere else,” Ruth said. “I haven’t got my heart set on total global destruction. It’s just –” She looked back down at the map again.

“I know,” Tom said. It was like coming home to a row of houses to find a sudden gap where yours had been. It was a gut punch, and it wasn’t as if you wanted your neighbours to have had the same bad luck; it just seemed unfairly personal, as if God had looked down from heaven and decided to punish you alone. He sat down beside Ruth.

She leaned against him.

“Why?” Tom said.

Ruth gave a tiny movement, not quite a shrug. “Well, there’s no logic to any of it. I wonder if it was even deliberate. Maybe it was the interplanetary equivalent of World War II planes offloading bombs on empty fields as they went back home. Maybe we were unlucky.”

“We’re not unlucky; we’re alive.” (Be the leader, Tom; always refuse to accept defeat. We few, we happy few.)

“I don’t know about that,” said Ruth darkly, and he didn’t ask her to explain.

She said, after a while, and still muffled into his shoulder. “How many people per square mile, on average?”

“You’re the analyst,” he said. “I don’t know. You can’t think about it like that, can you? Not if you want to stay sane.”

Ruth moved away, and faced him. “There are worse things. I haven’t seen almost any sort of reaction out of you.”

“Oh?” said Tom. “I thought leaders weren’t supposed to have feelings?”

“That was different! It’s been nearly two weeks, not two days!” Then she shot a glance at him. “‘The king is but a man; his fears be of the same relish as ours.’”

Tom looked down for a moment, seeing the map beneath him only blurrily. “And what would be the point, Ruth; what would be the bloody point? The whole country, half of the world, millions – no, billions of people dead! Where do you begin?”

“I don’t have a cat,” said Ruth with a tremulous attempt at a smile. “I’m pretty sure about that, although I suppose you never know with cats. What about you?”

“God, Ruth, don’t.”

“Well, otherwise you will go mad in the end, and then where will we be?”

“I might have known. You wouldn’t be concerned about me.”

“Just one thing, Tom. One small, particular loss. Say it.”

It wasn’t a small loss: Tom thought about London, about standing on the river’s edge, about tube stations, and that black grime that got everywhere. Park benches, buses. All silenced and gone and for good measure drowned. The names followed with it: Harry, Zoe, Christine, Danny, Maisie, Ellie, even Vicki. He closed his eyes as if that could shut it all out, and when he opened them again, without having moved, he was leaning against her.

Behind them, there was a polite cough.

“I, er, just came to say,” said Malcolm, “that I think I’ve finally cracked it with regards to the solar power, but perhaps this isn’t the best time. I can come back later.”

 

V.

The first other people who’d turned up had been a man and a girl, a father and his daughter from a farm a few miles away. They’d seen the light and come to investigate. Ruth greeted them with a smile, and held out her hand. “I’m Ruth Evershed,” she said. “This is Tom Quinn, and – well, Malcolm is somewhere about. You’ll meet him soon.”

Tom caught his breath at her carelessness in handing out their real identities, before he realised that it didn’t matter. There was no reason to hide his name any longer. He could be Tom Quinn; he could even say aloud that he was Tom Quinn and he was a spy and jeopardise nothing except people’s good opinion of him. There was no government, there was no MI-5, there was barely any country and everyone left in it could know who he was and what he did.

Thames House was underwater. It had been buried, but not them; not him and Ruth and Malcolm, somehow they’d floated when everyone else had sunk.

“Tom?” said Ruth, waiting for him to say something. The king should address his people, was that what she thought?

Tom thought again about dumb trust and dumb hate he didn’t want, and felt a shiver of fear that those things came with the name and not any of the legends. But he stepped forward to Ruth’s approval and held out a hand: firm handshake, equally firm voice. “Thanks for coming. We’re going to need everyone we can get together if we want to get through this.”

And to his dismay, he was sure they both looked relieved.

“We will,” Ruth added, and put her arm through his, her fingers digging in through the material of his jacket. It was a supporting gesture, though, even though it wouldn’t look that way to the newcomers. Tom knew.

When he glanced down at her, after the other two had walked away into the courtyard, she merely shrugged back and said it was better for people to believe in something.

“I’m beginning to think,” said Tom, “that there’s a very real chance I might have to kill you before we’re done.”

Ruth patted his arm before moving away from him. “Don’t be silly. You need everyone you can get – especially me.”

Tom laughed for the first time in weeks.

 

VI.

“What are you doing?” said Tom, coming into the chapel at the far end of the cathedral. Ruth was in there, sitting against a pillar, staring upwards.

She gestured for him to join her, which, after a pause, he did. “Look up there, at the wall, that pillar and the ceiling.”

Tom did, but without any enlightenment. “Why?”

“If you look, you can still see the painted figures. It would have been like this all over the cathedral before someone got rid of them. All those patterns were different colours.”

Tom looked at her. “Yes, but – why?”

“Reassuring myself that some things stay the same.” Her voice wavered slightly. “Just one or two.”

“Well, talking of things that don’t,” said Tom, “we’ve had another group arrive today. What’s your plan, Ruth? What are we doing here? What the hell can any of us do? If we don’t die of the after-effects or of disease or deprivation, what do we do when and if these aliens come back and have another go?”

Ruth turned. “Well, for a start, we bloody well hope they don’t. And gather intel in case they do.”

“Right, but what exactly –?”

“Malcolm’s got that chemist trying to analyse the water, see if they can work out anything about their weapons that way.”

“And what use will that be?”

“Get it out to some other country that’s not in such a bad shape,” she said. “Better than doing nothing. Might help us save lives. Isn’t that worth doing?”

Tom nodded. “Yes. And what am I? Just the figurehead, while you plot?”

“Why not?” said Ruth, flashing him a quick smile. “Anyway, you know you’re not. You’re the leader. You can pull rank on all of us.”

What if he didn’t want that? He thought, and realised that it didn’t matter. He’d do what he had to do to give them a chance, because it was part of his training; it was encoded onto his core. And Ruth would find things out, and put the pieces together even in a broken world, because that was what she did. And Malcolm was always the technological wizard. Tom thought again of Merlin, and grinned.

“We’ve got to mend things,” said Ruth. “Not defend the status quo. Mend what we can. The scabbard’s worth ten of the sword.”

Tom gave her a startled look.

“Because it’s for healing,” said Ruth, tilting her head slightly, as if puzzled at his slowness. “The sword is for fighting, the scabbard is for healing.”

“Yes, yes, I got it. I was just –” He laughed. “Coincidence. Forget it.”

“Anyway, what’s your plan?”

Tom looked at her. “Implementing yours. For the moment.” He was the soldier, after all; he followed orders. Leader of the other soldiers, not the politician. Ruth might be that if she tried; Ruth might be anything. He reached out a hand to touch her hair almost without thinking, to make sure she was still real, much in the same way as she’d been fixating on the remains of the paintings.

“I always did think I made a good Lady Macbeth,” she said, with a glint in her eyes. She didn’t move away from him.

Tom gave a lazy grin. “Actually, I was thinking of Morgan Le Fay.”

Ruth’s smile widened as if she thought that was a compliment. Tom only hoped that her plan was a plan and not an excuse to die next to the Venerable Bede, or something even worse, because with Ruth you never knew. He found he wanted to know now; to know Ruth. He edged in nearer and kissed her, briefly but deliberately.

Ruth said nothing for a moment, and then she said, “God, Tom, your timing’s awful. Probably not the most appropriate place, either.”

“And there’s work to do,” said Tom, and realised that there was, and it felt like a good thing. He helped her to her feet. “I came to ask you something. Bugger if I know what now.”

Ruth drew in her breath and gripped his hand before he could make away. “On the other hand,” she said, with more of her old fluster. “What other sort of timing is there these days? And everybody else here is long dead, so I don’t suppose they care.” Then she looked up, breathless and nervous, his well-intentioned Lady Macbeth.

Tom kissed her again, up against a mediaeval pillar, and then – eventually – she told him to be more careful of the paintings.

“Ruth,” he said, and then said it aloud again, because he could: none of it was secret any more. All of the secrets were worthless and their names were their own.

She gave a small, well-satisfied smile, and said, as if it was a complete reply, “Tom.” Then she shook herself. “Didn’t you say there was work to do?”

“Still got to save the country,” said Tom. “Run it, maybe. Such as it is.” And they would, or die trying, because some things never changed.