In the future, the world has been divided into two societies. One is the Conurb—a sprawling, modern city where technology rules and people live with only the bare minimum they need to survive. The other is the County—a land of green fields and beautiful mansions, where the people have turned back the clock to a pristine past.
Rob has always lived in the Conurb, but after he is sent to a terrible boarding school, he decides his only option is to take a chance and cross the Barrier into the unknown world of the County. There he meets another boy who introduces Rob to the very different society, and all the wondrous things that come with it.
But even though Rob wants to believe that the County is a utopia, he begins to learn about the darkness that lurks beneath the smiles of his new family and friends. And when sinister secrets are revealed, Rob is forced to make a choice: stay in the County, where everything is a perfect lie, or return to the Conurb, where life is hard, horrible, and real.
About the Author
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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 that was live when he thought it was insulated?
And Mr. Kennealy . . . he had stopped the man, but only because he had thought Rob might hear. He had not stood up for his father as he ought to have done. Rob was hating him, too, as he finally fell asleep.
• • •
The hospital was a fairly new building, more than forty floors high, its exterior in pale-green plastibrick with anodized aluminum trim on the windows. The windows gleamed brightly in spring sunshine—the sky was blue except for a few white clouds in the west. At the very top was the balcony ringing the roof garden and heliport, toward which an ambulance copter was at this moment dropping. The doctors also parked their copters up there, coming in from the County, but there would be few at present. Only a skeleton staff remained on duty on Sunday.
The Kennealys and Rob joined the queue of people waiting for the lifts, which did not operate until the start of visiting hour. At least, this being a hospital, they were all working. They were whisked up quickly and into a second line of people waiting outside the ward door. A bored medical clerk, his head tonsured in the latest fashion, checked off names on a list. When they reached him, he said, “Randall? Not down here. You must have come to the wrong ward.”
“We were told F.17.”
“They’re always getting things wrong,” the clerk said indifferently. “You’d better go and ask downstairs.”
Mr. Kennealy said in a quiet but hard voice, “No, you call them up. We’re not wasting time going all the way down there again on your say-so.”
“The procedure . . .”
Mr. Kennealy leaned over the desk. “Never mind the procedure,” he said. “You call them.”
The clerk obeyed sullenly. He did not use the visiphone but his handphone. They heard but could not make out the tinny whisper of speech at the other end. The clerk asked for a check on Randall, J., admitted the previous afternoon. He said: “Yes, got that,” and replaced the phone.
“Well,” Mr. Kennealy said, “where is he?”
“In the morgue,” the clerk said. “He was taken into Intensive Care this morning and died of heart failure.”
“That’s impossible!” Mr. Kennealy said.
His face was white, Rob saw, while the shock hit him too. The clerk shrugged. “Death’s never impossible. They’ll give you particulars at the office. Next, please.”
• • •
Mrs. Kennealy came with Rob to help sort things out. She clucked over the untidiness and set about putting the place to rights while Rob packed his clothes and belongings. The furniture, he supposed, would be sold. He wondered if it would be possible to keep the saddle-backed chair in which his mother used to sit in the evenings. He would have to ask Mrs. Kennealy if she could find room for it, but did not want to bother her at the moment.
He left her cleaning and rearranging the living room and went into his father’s bedroom. The bed was made, but a towel had been left lying carelessly across the foot, and two bedroom slippers were at opposite ends of the rug. There was a half-empty pack of cigarettes on the bedside table, a glass with a little water in it, and the miniradio which his father had sometimes listened to at night. He remembered waking and hearing the sound of music through the dividing wall.
He still could not properly grasp what had happened. The suddenness was as shocking as the fact. His mother had been continuously ill for a long time before she died—he could scarcely remember a time when she was not ill. Her death had been no less horrifying for that, but even then, when he was ten, he had known it to be inevitable. His father, on the other hand, had been a strong, active man, always in good health. It was impossible to imagine him dead. He could not be.
Rob opened the wardrobe. The clothes would probably be sold, too—they would fit Mr. Kennealy. He felt his eyes sting, and pulled open one of the drawers at the bottom. More clothes. A second drawer. Folded pullovers, and a cardboard box. On the outside was written “Jenny,” his mother’s name. He took it out and opened it.
The first thing he saw was her photograph. He had not known one existed: he remembered his father once trying to get her to have a photograph taken, and her refusal. This was an old-fashioned 2-D print, and it showed her as much younger than he had known her—scarcely more than twenty, with brown hair down her shoulders instead of short as she had worn it in later years.
He looked at it for a long time, trying to read behind the slight, anxious smile on her face. Then he heard Mrs. Kennealy calling him. He had time to see that there were other things in the box—a curl of hair in a transparent locket, letters in a bundle held together by a rubber band. He closed the box and put it with his own things before going to see what Mrs. Kennealy wanted.
• • •
Rob was called from geography to the principal’s office. They were without a master at the time, though of course under closed-circuit TV observation at the main switchboard; and the holovision set was taking them on a conducted tour of Australia, with a bouncing, breezy commentary full of not very funny little jokes. The voice blanked out though vision continued, and with a warning ping a voice said, “Randall. Report to the principal immediately. Repeat. Randall to the principal’s office.”
The commentary came up again. One or two of the boys made their own even less funny jokes about possible reasons for his being summoned, but Mr. Spennals was on the switchboard that morning and the majority kept their attention firmly on the screen; he was not a man to trifle with.
Assemblies apart, Rob had seen the principal twice before; once when he joined the school, the second time when they met in a corridor and he was given a message to deliver to the masters’ common-room. He looked at Rob now as though wondering who he was. This was not surprising since there were nearly two thousand boys in the school. He said, “Randall,” tentatively, and then more firmly, “Randall, this is Mr. Chalmers from the Education Office.”
The second man was broad where the principal was thin, with hairy cheeks and a quiet watchful expression. Rob said, “Good morning, sir,” to him, and he nodded but made no reply.
“Mr. Chalmers has been looking into your case, following the regrettable death of your father,” the principal said. “You have only one close relative, I understand, an aunt living in”—he glanced at a pad in front of him—“in the Sheffield Conurb. She has been consulted. I’m afraid she does not feel able to offer you a home. There are difficulties—her husband is in poor health. . . .”
Rob said nothing. It had not occurred to him that this would even be suggested. The principal continued, “Under the circumstances it is felt that the best solution to your problem—in fact the only solution—will be to have you transferred to a boarding school where you can have full care and attention. We feel . . .”
Rob was so surprised that he interrupted. “Can’t I stay with the Kennealys, sir?”
“The Kennealys?” The two men looked at each other. “Who are they?”
Rob explained. The principal said:
“Yes, I see. The neighbors who have been looking after you. But that would not be suitable, of course, for the longer term.”
“But they have a spare room, sir.”
“Not suitable,” the principal repeated in a flat, authoritative voice. “You will be transferred to the Barnes Boarding School. You are excused classes for the remainder of the day. Transport will be sent to pick you up at nine o’clock tomorrow morning.”
• • •
Rob took the bus to the stadium where he knew Mr. Kennealy was on duty. On the way he thought about the State boarding schools. Some were supposed to be not quite so bad as others, but they were all regarded with a mixture of contempt and dread. They catered to orphans and the children of broken marriages, but also to certain types of juvenile delinquents. There were ugly rumors about the life there, particularly about the terrible food and the discipline.
Rob sent in a message asking for Mr. Kennealy, who came out to the leisure room ten minutes later. Rob had been watching the closed-circuit holovision which showed what was happening in the arena. It was gladiators in high-wire combat. In this, men fought with light, blunt-ended fiberglass spears from separate wires that approached each other at differing heights and distances. The wire system was complex and changed during the contest. The drop could be into water or onto firm ground, which in this case was covered with artificial thorn bushes, glinting with murderous-looking spikes. A loser always got hurt, sometimes badly, occasionally fatally. There were three men in the present fight and one had already fallen and limped away with difficulty. The remaining two swayed and probed at each other in the bluish light cast by the weather screen which at the moment covered the top of the stadium.
“Well, Rob, what are you doing away from school?” Mr. Kennealy asked.
Rob told him what had happened. Mr. Kennealy listened in silence.
“They said I couldn’t stay with you, but it’s not true, is it?”
Mr. Kennealy replied heavily, “If that’s what the regulations say, there’s nothing we can do.”
“But you could go and see them—you could apply for me.”
“It wouldn’t do any good.”
“There was a boy at school last year—Jimmy McKay. His mother went off and his father couldn’t manage. He went to Mrs. Pearson in your block and he’s still living there.”
“The Pearsons may have adopted him.”
“Couldn’t you? Adopt me, that is?”
“Not without your aunt giving consent.”
“Well, she won’t have me herself. She’s said so.”
“That doesn’t mean she’d be ready to sign you away. She might be thinking things will change later, that she can take you then.”
“They could ask her, couldn’t they? I’m pretty sure she’d say yes.”
“It’s not as easy as that.” Mr. Kennealy paused and Rob waited for him to go on. “What I mean is, this may be the best thing for you. You’ll be safer there.”
Mr. Kennealy started to say something, then shook his head.
“Better looked after. And with boys of your own age. Mrs. Kennealy and I are too old for a boy like you to have to live with.”
“You said ‘safer.’?”
“It was a slip of the tongue.”
There was a silence. Mr. Kennealy was not meeting Rob’s eyes. Rob felt he could see the truth of the matter. All these were excuses, attempts to conceal the central fact: the Kennealys did not want him. He felt a bit as he had when Mr. Kennealy had not spoken up for his father against the man who had said that he was to blame for getting killed, but now it was more a feeling of desolation than anger.
“Yes, Mr. Kennealy,” Rob said.
He had turned away. He found himself grasped by the shoulders, and Mr. Kennealy stared into his eyes.
“It’s for your good, Rob,” he said. “Believe that. I can’t explain, but it’s for your good.”
Inside the holovision screen one figure lunged, the other parried and struck back and the first dropped ludicrously on his back, into the thorns. Rob nodded. “I’d better go back and see about packing my things.”