Witness–Snippet

11 May

For those who remember Fall of Night, this is set in the same universe

Chapter One

I did not intend to write this brief account of what happened in London and England during those dark days of 2025. I was a naive child, for all that I was twenty-five, and so much of what happened passed me by until much later. But those who want a full record have requested that I do so, even though it will be a very angry account indeed. The French, I am told, asked in 1940 who had betrayed them. After 2025, we were asking the same question.

My name is Flora, my parents both Scottish from the Highlands. I grew up in Inverness, but when the time came to go to university I went to London. It was expensive as hell – I had to take out a sizable loan – but I was assured that there were enough jobs for graduates in London to ensure that I repaid everything by the time I was thirty. Needless to say, that assurance was completely in error. I graduated in 2023 and spent the next two years looking for work. Respectable jobs were not easy to get, unless you had experience or contacts and I had neither. I moonlit as a barmaid, had my bottom pinched enough to leave permanent marks and found myself tempted into prostitution. There were times when I considered suicide. My parents had advised me against moving to London and I could have gone back to them, yet that would have meant swallowing my pride. Would that I had gone back to them before London came under attack.

The London of 2025 was not the London of 1940, or even the London of 7/7 when suicidal morons decided to blow up parts of the city because they were protesting something. Endless cuts in government funding had crippled the police, turning entire suburbs into no-go areas where strangers ventured only if they were willing to take their lives into their own hands. I – and millions of others – fell into an underclass that had some of our needs met by the state, but not the ones that really mattered to us. We wanted jobs and dignity and we had neither. Is it really so surprising that the riots of 2011 were only the precursor to more and more uprisings several years later? Some of us were so heavily indebted that we literally couldn’t take up a job, knowing that our creditors would take everything.

I had barely been in London for five years and I could tell that the city was breaking down. Every day, there were new delays on the Tube, or endless traffic jams in the hundreds of roads that led into the city. I had heard that everyone who could was trying to leave the city, hoping to find somewhere where the police weren’t hopeless and the neighbours weren’t surely untrusting bastards who would gut you as soon as look at you. There was no hope that I could leave the city, of course, not unless I went home. And I told myself that it would get better. Maybe it would have done, but I doubt it. The Russians never gave us the chance to find out.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Yes, I was part of the protest scene; I admit that now, even though I know that American readers will snort in disgust. How can I blame them? But we told ourselves that someone had to take the blame for what had happened to us and why not the Americans? It was the Americans who had invaded most of the Middle East after terrorists devastated San Francisco. Our lives were filled with endless broadcasts of American soldiers shooting down kids, raping women and stripping men of their dignity. It rarely occurred to us that most of those broadcasts were faked, while others were taken out of context. What did we have in common with the American boys in the Middle East? None of us knew a soldier, even a British soldier, apart from the handful forced to live on the streets after the government stopped paying their benefits. It never occurred to us spoiled children that there was something shameful in treating your fighting men like dirt. Our peace and security came at a price we were no longer prepared to pay.

It was an American serviceman who finally triggered the crisis that led to the removal of American forces from Britain and the effective collapse of NATO. Everyone agrees that he was responsible for the rape and murder of a pre-teen British girl. What no one agrees on is what happened next. The British Government wanted to try him in Britain, some said; others suggested that the Americans would hand out a much heavier penalty to the bastard if he was tried in an American military court. And then the media got hold of it and demonized the Americans. They were willing to allow a rapist to escape punishment, the media claimed, because they thought that Americans were special. A rational look would have shown that that wasn’t true, but it was already too late. No politician in England dared push for retaining the American military presence. Six months later, most of the Americans were gone.

The next pebble to fall was the disaster in Sudan, two years after the crisis with the American serviceman. Again, little I heard at the time made sense. I learned afterwards that a multinational European force had been dispatched to the area to protect the locals from militants who wanted to slaughter them. It worked perfectly until the militants actually tried to slaughter their targets. The politicians had insisted that the soldiers had to abide by strict rules of engagement, which meant that they effectively had to allow the killings to go ahead. A French General – I forgot his name – shot up the radio, ordered the troops into action and carried out a massacre of his own. The militants got a bloody nose – and as European troops pulled out, the General handed their would-be victims enough weapons to defend themselves over the coming years. But it wasn’t enough to satisfy the politicians. The General committed suicide and the upper echelons of EUROFOR were purged. After that, many European soldiers enlisted in the American Foreign Legion, seeing the writing on the wall. The European Union was doomed.

After that, there was the civil war in the Ukraine. The EU had accepted the Ukraine as a member state, but the Russians living there didn’t accept it and wanted independence; they were backed by Mother Russia, of course. And the Russians reacted harshly when EUROFOR attempted to contain the chaos. They moved troops into Belarus and made endless political and economic threats. The same thing happened for the next three years. Very few of us – if any – realised that the Russians were trying to lure us into a sense of security. Suffice it to say that as 2025 rolled around very few of us took the deployments of British – and French, German and other European – troops to Poland very seriously. The Russians benefited more by selling their oil and gas to us than by fighting, we were told, and there was no need to fear as long as we recognised their legitimate security concerns. Chamberlain could hardly have done a better job of ensuring catastrophic defeat ahead of the actual declaration of war.

I wonder now that I didn’t notice anything. Did I sense, somehow, that nemesis was approaching? Was that why I flung myself into an endless series of drink, dancing, drugs and boys? We partied heavily and it was a rare night when I didn’t find myself sharing a different boy’s bed. I had no permanent boyfriend, not even a casual friendship that might have become something more. Why should I have had? I was completely irresponsible and didn’t even know it. Anything could have happened to me, because I took almost no precautions at all, but I didn’t care. I had been wrapped in a safety blanket for my entire life.

On the morning of the 1st of May, 2025, I found myself in company with a friend from France. (He wasn’t a great lover, despite all the rumours you may have heard about Frenchmen.) Claude had come to London to meet up with his girlfriend, only to make the mistake of leaving incriminating texts on his mobile phone. She threw a fit, ordered him out of her flat and – to add insult to injury – smashed his laptop and camera. I found myself trying to cheer him up and finally suggested that we go visit the London Eye. He’d never been before.

For those of you who don’t remember the London Eye, it was built in 2000 (I think) as part of the celebrations for the millennium. I think it was actually the only one of them to turn a profit. The Millennium Dome was a waste of money from start to finish. Guess how many politicians got sacked over it? None. It was a giant Ferris wheel, rising up over London and up into the air over the Thames. Even at dawn, there were already giant lines of people waiting to go on it. The counter assistants didn’t seem to speak English and glared at anyone who suggested that perhaps it would be better if they found someone who could. I hated people like them because they always took all the jobs, even the menial ones – and could never be sacked for fear of someone accusing them of racism. By the time we got close to the wheel, it was apparent that it was decaying along with the rest of the city. A number of people seemed to be having second thoughts and retreated from the lines, leaving the rest of us to wait patiently until it was our turn to board.

There was no hope of getting our own capsule. Each capsule could hold upwards of ten people and the staff seemed determined to stuff as many people as they could into each section. We shared one with an elderly American couple, a family with five scrabbling children and a quiet-looking Asian girl who was chewing her black hair in a manner that suggested that she was deeply worried. I understood exactly how she felt the moment the wheel lurched into life. It swung backwards and forwards so alarmingly that I was convinced that it was about to topple over into the Thames. Inch by inch, we crawled upwards until we could finally see some of London. Smoke was rising up from the direction of the north, where there had apparently been a clash between policemen and one of the hundreds of anarchist groups that infected the inner cities. I’d heard about it on the TV, but I really hadn’t paid much attention. If I’d had any inkling of the disaster about to befall us, I would have stayed at home – or fled the city and hoped that I made it to my parents before the hammer came down. But I didn’t and so I didn’t.

The American couple clearly remembered London from thirty years ago and twittered away about it, ignoring the British citizens in the capsule. I thought that the old man was nice, even though he had a tattoo on his arm that suggested military service of some kind – I didn’t know, then, what SEMPER FI meant or who used it as a motto – but his wife was completely gaga. She had a streaming camera people used for uploading live footage to the internet and was filming her husband waving like an idiot to the people on the far end. Judging from the half-tired, half-amused look on the husband’s face, he didn’t think that anyone would be watching the streaming movie live. The woman didn’t seem to care and, when the children came up to her, happily filmed them too. Americans. Filming children in Britain before 2025 could get one in hot water, even if their parents had given permission. No one realises how much social engineering shapes one’s worldview until the world is suddenly turned upside down, or shattered beyond repair.

I winced as the London Eye lurched again and came to a halt, leaving us about halfway to the very highest point on the wheel. Claude pointed towards the east, where the Thames ran down to the sea, but I didn’t see much of value looking at it. Some large boats were heading away from London, carrying refugees heading to New Zealand, Australia or even America, although the Americans were careful of whom they let in. I didn’t have it in me to do four years of military service for Uncle Sam, while I found the New Zealanders faintly disgusting. Anyone could apply for an entry permit, provided that they were white and spoke English. No others need apply.

An hour passed slowly as we climbed towards the top of the wheel. I kept hearing little creaks in the metal – or so I supposed – running through the superstructure, causing me to wonder if the entire edifice was on the brink of collapse. Claude didn’t say anything when I took his hand – perhaps he’d had the same thoughts – and tried to look out towards London. The London Eye had stood for twenty-five years – as long as I had been alive – and surely it would last long enough for us to get round the hoop and then get back down to the ground.

Just as we were almost at the top, a terrifying screech ran through the London Eye and the entire structure seemed to jam to a halt, as if someone had put a stick though the wheel. I found myself clutching Claude tightly, no longer caring about my dignity or anything else; I’d been right all along. We were doomed! International Rescue wasn’t going to save us and the London Fire Brigade wasn’t what it had once been. The Eye was going to topple over and we were going to die.

I was wrong, it seemed. The London Eye actually seemed to steady. Something had gone wrong with the mechanism, the American guessed, and it would take time for them to fix it and start us moving again. I resigned myself to a long wait, cursing the fact that I hadn’t decided to bring any water or soft drinks with us. All we had to eat was a pair of Mars Bars and a single Snicker. The kids were making a terrible fuss so I gave them all of the sweets. In hindsight, that was probably a mistake.

“Look at that,” Claude said, suddenly. He was still peering north. “What the hell is that?”

It looked like a small aircraft, perhaps one of the military fighter jets we saw in Armistice Day flybys before they were banned on the grounds of political correctness. I realised, a moment later, that there were actually two of them…and they were both blazing through the sky at terrific speed. Behind them, a colossal explosion rose up from the ground, far larger than anything I’d seen outside the video footage from the Middle East. It looked so much like a mushroom cloud that I was convinced that London had been nuked.

“Jesus Christ,” the American said. “Those are missiles!”

Time seemed to slow down as the missiles raced towards Central London and dived towards their targets. I watched in horror – somehow, I forgot to be afraid – as the first missile plunged down into Ten Downing Street. The resulting explosion sent out a flash of light, followed by a massive fireball; seconds later, the shockwave struck the London Eye and it rattled violently. Flames and debris seemed to be billowing out all over where Ten Downing Street had been. It should have dawned on me, right there and then, that the Prime Minister was probably dead, but it didn’t make it through the numb shock that had gripped my mind. I thought it was hours later when the second missile slammed into its target. The Houses of Parliament blew apart in a blinding fireball.

“Jesus,” the American said, again. He pulled an Iphone 10V out of his pocket and started scrabbling with the smart-screen, only to curse as he realised that there was no signal. My own mobile phone wasn’t working either. “They were trying to run…”

I saw what he meant and wished that I hadn’t. Someone had clearly sounded the alert and the MPs – worthless bastards to a man, voting themselves expenses while ordinary Britons scrabbled to put food on the table – had been running out of the building, only to be caught in the colossal fireball that swept out from the missile’s point of impact. The remains of the Houses of Parliament – and the buildings near Ten Downing Street – were blazing merrily. It didn’t seem possible that anyone could have survived in the inferno.

They hadn’t been the only target. I could see fires blazing up from a dozen points of impact within the city. A couple of them were understandable – I did have a rough idea where the London Garrisons were housed – but others were stranger. Why would anyone want to bomb the railway stations? (It wasn’t until later that I was informed that it would make it harder to move supplies in and out of the city.)

“Flora,” Claude said. He sounded terrified and I didn’t blame him. I was terrified. “What the fuck is going on?”

I had no answer. The American had one. “This city is under attack,” he said. “Listen.”

Now that the London Eye was silent, I could hear what he meant. There was gunfire and explosions coming from all over the city. The area below us was strewn with bodies, all helpless citizens caught up in the midst of a terrorist attack…

“It’s a war,” the American said, grimly. “Someone is attacking your country.”

I couldn’t believe it, not until I looked back at the burning remains of the Houses of Parliament. In the space of a few minutes, two of London’s most famous buildings had been utterly destroyed. The American was right. That was no mere terrorist attack. It was an act of war.

I didn’t know it then, but it was the start of a great many strange and terrible days.

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