About the Author
John Christopher was the pseudonym of Samuel Youd, who was born in Lancashire, England, in 1922. He was the author of more than fifty novels and novellas, as well as numerous short stories. His most famous books include The Death of Grass, the Tripods trilogy, The Lotus Caves, and The Guardians.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Guardians 1
THE PUBLIC LIBRARY WAS IN a quiet, gloomy street facing the park. It was joined on to rambling dilapidated buildings which had been council offices but were currently used as a warehouse. The library itself was almost as old—a plaque coming away from the wall told of an opening ceremony in 1978—and crumbling badly. There were several large cracks in the concrete surface, once white, now a dirty gray streaked with black.
The interior was not much better. The artificial light supplementing what little filtered in on this dull April afternoon came not from lumoglobes but from antiquated fluorescent tubes. They flickered and hummed; one was dead and another spasmodically blanked and brightened. The librarian, sitting behind his desk, showed no sign of being aware of this. He was a tall, stooping man with a high, domed forehead and a limp white moustache which he continually fingered.
He was a taciturn man, not talking to borrowers except insofar as was absolutely necessary. Once, a couple of years ago, he had engaged Rob in conversation—that was some months after Rob’s mother died. Rob had gone to the library in the first place along with her and then had continued on his own. The librarian had said how he had worked here since leaving school, nearly fifty years earlier, and had told him that in those days he had been one of six assistants. There had even been a project for moving to a new, larger building and taking on more staff. It was four decades since that had been abandoned and now he did everything himself. He was past retiring age but stayed because he wanted to. The council talked of closing the library and pulling the building down; meanwhile, they let things run on.
He talked in a half melancholy, half angry way of the virtual disappearance of reading. In his young days there had been no holovision, it was true, but there had been television. People had still read books. People had been different then; more individual, more inquiring. Rob was the only person under fifty who came to the library.
The librarian had looked at Rob with a hopefulness, a hunger almost, that Rob found alarming and embarrassing. To him the library was associated with memories of his mother. He read books because she had, though not the same sort. Both kinds were about the past, but she had liked love stories with country settings. Rob preferred adventures: excitement and the clash of swords. He had read The Three Musketeers and its sequels, Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne, half a dozen times.
He had responded awkwardly and unwillingly to the librarian’s remarks and the old man, discouraged, had returned to his customary silence. On this afternoon he stamped his books and dismissed him with a nod. Rob stayed for a moment in the lobby, looking out. The sky was darker than when he had arrived, threatening heavy rain. It was a short walk to the bus stop but a much longer one at the other end; their home was some distance from the nearest route. The stadium, on the other hand, was as near, and his father’s duty shift ended within an hour. He could wait and go home with him in the car.
So instead of going away from the park, he crossed it. It was a poor place. There were unkempt flower beds and battered, sickly looking trees around the edges, budding with unpromising leaves. The rest, apart from the children’s playground in one corner and a number of football goal posts, was twenty-five acres of scuffed grass and mud, crossed by half a dozen pitted tarmac paths. It did provide, though, a sense of being free of buildings. From the center one could see, above the lower near skyline, the high-rise blocks that stretched out across the sprawl of Greater London to the distant Green Belt dividing this Conurb from the next.
Half a dozen young children were playing and shouting on the swings and roundabouts. A few people were also walking dogs in the park. There were more in the short road leading to the High Street, and the High Street itself was fairly full. Not just with shoppers, he realized, but with the crowd beginning to come away from the afternoon session of the Games. They seemed reasonably orderly, and there had been no real trouble for several weeks—not since the big riot in February.
Rob turned into Fellowes Road, against the stream. It was not long after that he heard a shout from in front, followed by ragged chanting.
There were other confused, indistinguishable cries and he became conscious of a tremor, a change of pace, in the mob of people coming toward him. Someone broke into a run, then others. Rob looked for cover and found none. This was a street of old, terraced houses, doors opening directly on the pavement. It was not far to the intersection with Morris Road, and he made an effort to squeeze through that way. But from one moment to the next the crowd solidified, turning into a struggling, shouting battering ram of humanity that lifted and crushed and carried him away.
He remembered that the program that afternoon had been terraplaning. In this, electrocars raced around the high-banked sides of the arena, running almost to vertical directly under the stands, and were boosted by auxiliary rockets at intervals so that they took off and flew through the air. Accidents were frequent, which was one of the things that made the sport popular with spectators. And enthusiasm was roused to a point that could fan the antagonism always present between the four factions—Blacks, Whites, Greens and Reds—to fury. Greens had been dominant in terraplaning for some time. It might be that there had been an upset, or a particularly bad piece of fouling.
He had neither time nor inclination to think much about this. His face was wedged against a brown overcoat, the cloth rough and fusty smelling. Pressure was increasing and he found it difficult to breathe. He remembered that in the February riot eight people had been crushed to death, in the one just before Christmas more than twenty. He had a glimpse of a corner of a building and realized they had spilled out into the High Street. There was a crash of metal somewhere, people screaming, the bleep of horns. Pressure relaxed slightly; he could move his arms and one foot touched the ground. Then someone or something tripped him and he fell. Someone trod on his arm, someone else, agonizingly, in the small of his back.
Unless he did something he was finished. He could see, indistinctly, through a man’s legs, a car which had been brought to a standstill. He forced a way, getting a couple more kicks before he reached it. Then he slid under—there was just enough clearance—and lay there, numb and bruised, watching the torrent of legs and feet and listening to the wild screams and shouts.
Gradually it slackened and ebbed, and at last he could crawl out and stand up. There were several people in the road lying still, others moving and moaning. Two police copters were on the scene, one parked, the second hovering some distance down the street. There were a man and woman in the car under which he had sheltered; its front wing, he saw, had been bent in by pressure. The woman opened a window and asked Rob if he was all right. Before he could do more than nod, the man had set the car in motion, and it drove away, swerving to avoid bodies and other vehicles. Several cars had been turned over and a couple were in nose-to-nose collision.
A hospital copter arced down over the nearby roofs and more were approaching. Rob went to look for his library books which had been torn from his grasp in the rush. He found one in the gutter at the corner of Fellowes Road, the other ten yards farther up. It was open and had been trodden down: there was a heel mark deeply impressed on one page and another was torn almost across. He pressed it back into shape as best he could, tucked both books under his arm, and headed for the stadium.
• • •
The stadium was nearly half a mile long and rose three hundred feet in the air, an oval of dull gold unbroken on the outside. A few people were still coming away from the nearest exit gate and cars were issuing from the below-ground parking places, but the main rush was over. Rob went to a service entrance and showed his disk to the scanner. It was a duplicate which his father had obtained for him; strictly speaking they were only on issue to staff but the rule was not taken seriously. The door hissed open and closed behind him when he had gone through. He turned right along the panel-lit corridor, heading for the main electrical section. He would not be allowed into any of the control rooms, but he could wait in a leisure room.
Before he reached it, though, he saw someone he knew. It was at the point where several corridors intersected and the man crossed just ahead of him. Rob called, and he stopped and waited for him to come up.
It was Mr. Kennealy, a friend of his father, also an electrician. He was a stocky, slow-speaking man with a broad face and very black hair. He never showed much emotion but Rob thought he had an odd look now.
“Did they tell you, then, Rob?”
“Tell me what, Mr. Kennealy? I thought I’d go home with Dad.” Mr. Kennealy was studying him and Rob became aware of his dirty and disheveled appearance. “There was a riot over toward the High Street. I had to get under a car. . . .”
“There’s been an accident,” Mr. Kennealy said quietly.
“To do with . . . ?”
He did not want to finish the sentence. Apprehension made his throat dry.
“They’ve taken your father to the hospital, Rob. He got hold of a live wire by mistake. He was pretty badly shocked before anyone could switch off.”
“He’s not . . .”
“No. But he’ll be away for a while. I was wondering how to get a message to you. I think you’d better stay with us for the time being.”
They lived in a high rise overlooking the stadium and only a few minutes’ walk away. He had been there many times with his father and liked Mrs. Kennealy, a large, red-faced woman, strong armed and heavy handed. It was much better than the thought of going back on his own to the empty apartment.
“Can I go to see him in hospital?”
“Not today. There’s visiting tomorrow afternoon.” Mr. Kennealy glanced at his finger-watch. “Come on. I’ll take you back. I can clock off early for once.”
They walked over in silence: Mr. Kennealy did not say anything and Rob was not eager to talk either. He was not only shocked by what had happened but confused. His father had got hold of a live wire . . . but he had always been so careful, checking and double-checking everything. He wanted to ask Mr. Kennealy about it, but he felt that to do so would be a sort of criticism.
Two of the three lifts in the block were out of order and they had to wait some time to be taken up. Mr. Kennealy complained of this to his wife, who came out of the kitchenette as they went into the tiny hall of the apartment. Maintenance was terrible and getting worse.
“You’ll have to look at the HV, too,” Mrs. Kennealy added. “It’s gone wrong again. You’re back early. I see you’ve got Rob with you. Is Jack coming up later?”
He told her briefly what had happened. She came to Rob, put an arm across his shoulders and gave him a squeeze. He was aware of looks passing between them which he could not read, and was not sure he would have wanted to.
“I’ve got the kettle on. Go and sit down, the pair of you, and I’ll bring you some tea.”
In the sitting room the holovision set was blaring away, showing a soap opera. The figures were hazy, occasionally switching from three- to two-dimensional, and the colors were peculiar. Mr. Kennealy cursed and, after switching off, removed the back and started tinkering. Rob watched him for a time and then went to the kitchenette. There was barely room for anyone else when Mrs. Kennealy was there.
“What is it then, Rob?” she asked.
“I was wondering if there was anything I could mend this book with. There’s a page torn.”
“Books.” She shook her head. “What do you want with them, anyway? Well, I suppose it takes all sorts. There’s some sticky tape somewhere. Yes, on that top shelf.”
Rob put the torn edges together and carefully taped them. Watching him, she asked him how it had got in such a state, and he told her about the riot.
“Hooligans. There’s too much of it altogether,” she said. “They ought to put them in the army and send them out to China.”
The war in China had been going on as long as he could remember. Troublemakers were sometimes given the option of enlisting and going out there instead of to prison. It was all far away and unreal. She had said it perfunctorily, her mind more on making the tea. Now she gave him a tray, with teapot and cups and saucers and a plate of chocolate biscuits.
“Take this through while I wipe up,” she told him. “I’ll be along in a minute.”
Mr. Kennealy was still fiddling with the inside of the HV set. Rob put the tray down on a coffee table and went over to the window. The long-threatened rain had come and was sheeting down the chasm between this block and the next to the dark gloomy street hundreds of feet below. He stood watching it, thinking of his father and feeling miserable.
• • •
The apartment had a spare bedroom, once used by the Kennealys’ daughter, who had married and left home. Rob was put up there, in a pink bed patterned with roses. He read for a time and then, tired, thumbed out the light and was soon asleep.
He woke again, feeling thirsty, and made for the bathroom to get a drink of water. He went very quietly, imagining it was the middle of the night and not wanting to disturb anyone, but heard voices as he crossed the lobby and noticed a line of light under the sitting-room door. Men’s voices, three at least. They seemed to be arguing about something. Coming back quietly from the bathroom he heard his father’s name mentioned, and stopped to listen. He could only catch a word here or there—not enough to get the sense of what was being said. He realized how bad it would look if someone were to come out and find him eavesdropping, and went back to bed.
He did not sleep, though. He could hear the low murmur of voices through the wall and found that he was straining to listen to them. Then after what seemed a long time there was the sound of a door opening, and the voices louder and clearer in the lobby outside.
A man said: “There’s something wrong. I told him a week ago he needed to watch out.”
“Accidents happen,” another voice said.
“You can’t take chances,” the first voice insisted. “I’d warned him. You have to take account of the risks. This is a dangerous business. We’d all better remember that. Not just for ourselves but for the others, too.”
“Quiet,” Mr. Kennealy said. “The boy’s in there. And the door’s ajar.”
There were footsteps and the door was gently shut. Rob heard their muted voices for a few more moments before the two visitors took their leave and Mr. Kennealy went to his bedroom. Rob lay awake still, thinking about what he had heard. He was angry at the things the men had said, the first speaker anyway. He was not only blaming his father for what had happened, but suggesting that he had put others at risk. How could that be true, when it was just a matter of touching a wire ...
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