The MAD Doctrine
Notes: Stellar beta, as usual, by the very awesome beccatoria. Much useful discussion, throughout the years of this fic's gestation, was had with space_oddity_75. Official Bowie consultant: jazzymegster. Other musical advice: lozenger8. Also, thanks to anyone else who endured my ramblings about this story in the past five years.
This is a gen-y type of het/het-y type of gen.
Dormouse, dormouse, what have you seen?
You've been to London or what used to be.
Sam Tyler realises that the universe is broken when he is watching the news on Nelson's illicitly acquired colour TV, one evening in April 1974.
His colleagues don't understand why the untimely death of a member of Heath's shadow cabinet should distress him so badly. They remember him making the occasional remark about the woman, but they certainly wouldn't have pegged him for a Tory supporter. Still, there he sits, shell-shocked, hands white-knuckled on an empty glass.
Ray's leer - "What's the matter, boss? Fancied her?" - doesn't register.
Annie gently touches Sam's shoulder. When he doesn't react she gives it a squeeze.
"She can't be dead, Annie. She'll. . . She can't be dead." He looks up, existentially bewildered.
She tries to smile it away. Too many conversations sank in that morass, as has their attempt at a relationship. Her hand on his arm suggests a support that they both know he won't try relying on.
Pints later, he steps out of the pub's fumes into a night that tastes crisp and new. The ground supports him as it has always done but he is aware of the impact of his steps, kinetic energy transmitted sole to pavement, dispersing in undetectable concentric waves. With every step he is changing the world.
If Margaret Thatcher can die in a car crash in 1974, anything is possible.
Still, for the time being, the world seems unchanged. Things are beige, United are languishing in Second Division, and Sam still flashes back to memories of hiding in a cave built from kitchen chairs at every other song on the radio.
He begins to subscribe to newspapers, starting with the Guardian, then adding the Times, the Telegraph, the Mirror, even the Mail. Reading five daily papers takes time, so he stops attending the evening rituals at the Railway Arms.
He reads closely, taking notes. He rereads until he knows articles by heart. He learns about Ordnance Survey metrication, and the Flixborough factory explosion, and the Chinese anti-Confucius campaign. He learns about the discovery of a new moon near Mercury, and that polyester is the fibre of 1990.
Mostly it drives home the fact that his 1970s expertise is limited to Tonka toys and rock music. Did Watergate really take so many months to play out, from the first hints of scandal to Nixon's resignation? Did the IRA bomb Parliament in June, or was it July, perhaps - and were there fatalities or not? Who really won the 1974 Manchester Waiters' Race?
When he begins to run out of space to store his growing archive of history in the making, he cancels his subscriptions. It takes weeks to get rid of the yellowing stacks in unobtrusive portions. When the last bundle has been picked up, Sam's resignation is indistinguishable from relief.
He calls Annie and asks her out.
Anything is possible.
They marry in 1976. In a year of on again, off again flat sharing, a couple of substantial rows, they have worked out most of the bumps – mostly by learning to avoid them. He no longer mentions the future. She pretends to believe that that means that he has stopped believing in it.
The wedding is a small affair. Annie's parents and extended family, suspicious of a man without a past, leave soon after the service. Sam, for that matter, has no family, and few friends outside work. They celebrate at the Arms, with their colleagues, whom Sam, drunk and maudlin, declares family. Ray is designated "that distant uncle everybody thinks is a bit of a tosser but keeps inviting anyway because they pity him for being a bit of a tosser," and magnanimously refrains from socking the groom.
They move into a semi-detached, and Sam insists on painting all the rooms in "neutral colours." He does not object to Annie's Miró prints, though, and is thrilled to get permanent access to her record collection. She is still amused by his enthusiasm for rock music – he is a tad old for it, she thinks, and in the wrong line of work. Occasionally, very occasionally, she is spooked by his uncanny ability of always discovering the next big thing a little sooner than anybody else.
Sam has been making a point, since kicking the newspaper habit, of not following too closely the history that may or may not be repeating around him. Still, he can't help but notice that the Vietnam war ends perfectly on schedule. He remembers the date precisely, an accident of memory involving a birthday party and paper hats. Watching the news he feels as pleased as if he had negotiated the peace in person. For a moment he allows himself the illusion that history will proceed as it should now.
Yet when he starts asking around Manchester's record shops, eventually makes a trip to London to ask around there too, nobody has ever heard of the Sex Pistols.
In 1977 Sam finds his dreams invaded by X-wings and Tie-fighters. It has been more than a decade since he last watched Star Wars. He is surprised to become aware of a sort of phantom pain that has been with him since '73, he now realises - rising to the surface whenever he joked about the Force to a resounding silence.
He takes Annie to see the film on opening night, and within seconds of the scrolling marquee melts into his seat in pure, stunned joy. The film, and his delight in it, are as fresh as when he first saw it. Every scene feels familiar yet new, as if by watching it in the year of its first release he has somehow bypassed decades of growing up and growing jaded.
He could swear, though, that in the film he remembers, Han Solo shot first.
The 1979 elections bring to power a Prime Minister Sam has barely ever heard of. Commentators seem baffled as well, as if they, too, know that this year should mark the beginning of the Thatcher era. Annie notices that Sam is beginning to lose his knack for predicting chart toppers. When she teases him about it he looks far more deeply rattled than any forty-something has a right to be when discovering that he is no longer in tune with the tastes of people half his age. Annie adds popular music to the list of topics to be avoided.
In 1980, Ian Curtis doesn't die - or doesn't die famous enough for anyone to notice. John Lennon, however, does get shot. In 1981 Prince Charles doesn't marry Diana Spencer, and Sam, for a maddening week or two, wonders how that could possibly result from his presence, or Maggie Thatcher's absence, or the unexpected moral fortitude of Han Solo. In 1982, the Falklands War surprises him by not happening.
In 1985, World War Three surprises him because it does.
DCI Sam Tyler spends most of it in a makeshift camp sixty miles upwind of Manchester. He worries about fallout, but remaining in what is now Britain's second-largest city seems like an even worse option to him and many other Mancunians. On the third day, during torrential rains that may or may not be a result of the capital's dust seeding the clouds, Sam sits shivering in a shelter made from DC Robbins' spare tent, hugging Annie close. Chris is behind him, playing central support to a sleeping heap of wife-and-kids. Sam hears him move, feels the familiar jab to his lower back.
"Whoops. Sorry, boss."
Chris' attempt to rearrange his legs has upset the precarious balance of his little family. A child breaks into sleepy sobs. Annie presses closer to Sam. "I'm glad we don't have children," she murmurs into his shoulder. He feels her tears soaking into his shirt, spots of wet warmth.
Gene, Superintendent Hunt, is watching from across, eyes piercing, face impassive. He is chewing on a match, having run out of cigarettes the day before. The military blanket around his shoulders makes him look more than ever as if he should be sitting by a camp fire on the prairies. He removes the match and deposits it in his shirt pocket, carefully.
"Read about it in '45," he says. "Doomsday device, power of a thousand suns. Bloody science fiction, we thought. We had a neighbour, had been in Ypres; gloomy bugger. Said it would be the end of the world. I didn't think anyone would use it again. Certainly didn't think anyone would have the gall to use it on us."
Sam remembers sirens tests, the four minute warning; something lurking behind the friendly facade of the world, waiting to pounce. Later, films his mother tried to stop him from seeing: The Day After; Threads.
"I always knew this would happen," he says. Annie tenses against him, and it is this reaction to what she must believe a resurgence of future memories that reminds him: it never did.
The bomb on Manchester doesn't fall.
Washington, Moscow, London, Leningrad - 20 million dead shock the world into unprecedented, unlikely sanity. Leaders meet, treaties are signed in a place picturesque and idyllic, far from fallout. Papers print photos of men shaking hands, straining to smile.
It takes weeks after the official end of the hostilities for the city to repopulate. Sam, Gene, and other members of the police are among the first to trickle back. Somebody has to restore order, make the place safe.
They aren't needed. People walk the streets in a daze, talk to each other in hushed voices, touch each other gently, disbelievingly. Many, trying on their lives like shoes found in the attic, find they no longer fit.
For two days, three days, a week, A Division dutifully twiddle their thumbs at their desks. Then Gene gives orders for a skeleton crew to hold the fort, and sends everyone else home.
Annie suggests that they leave the car in the station's parking lot.
They walk. People sitting in doorways smile at them as they pass. Small groups aggregate without purpose. They pass a group of old men playing a solemn game of cards on a table carried out into the sun from some kitchen. They pass a man standing in the middle of the street, motionless, tears rolling down his face. The sky is blue, filled with silence.
Sam suddenly feels that in a moment when he wasn't looking, in the split second of a blink, the city has been torn down and replaced with an exact replica that is somehow, marvellously, more real than the city itself ever was or could aspire to be. Every line he sees is more crisp, every colour more vivid. It stops him in his tracks; stops Annie, who is holding his hand.
He lets her hand go. Turns – once, twice; slowly. Annie watches him quizzically. He finishes his survey; comes to a stop facing the building on their left, a school converted to an emergency hospital for refugees from the south.
Annie follows his gaze. Sees: flag at half-mast, hanging limp. Placards asking for volunteers, for donations of mattresses, bed linens, clothes, behind windows decorated in finger paint. A smaller sign solicits toy donations.
She has to repeat his name before he turns.
He steps towards her as if from a great distance, sees that she's crying. Holds her; strokes her back until she calms.
He walks her home. At the door he pretends that he forgot to buy a newspaper; he'll just pop into the newsagents' around the corner - back in a minute.
He walks around the corner, past the newsagents', takes a left turn and another, and heads back towards the station. When Annie calls there, three hours later, Chris tells her that he hasn't seen Sam since the two of them left, hours ago. Chris checks the parking lot from a window, sends a constable down to make sure, then listens to Annie's silence, her tightly controlled breathing as he tells her that the car is gone.
A military patrol finds Sam wandering in the evacuated outskirts of London, days later. As he doesn't carry identification and doesn't speak, it takes a while for someone to make the connection between him and the search bulletin from Manchester. By then he has been shipped off to Birmingham with a refugee contingent. Gene drives down with Annie, cursing all the way. When they find Sam, after a three-day odyssey through the tangles of mass relocation, military emergency, and bureaucracy, he is too ill to travel.
They take turns sitting with him in a converted school gym for the next couple of weeks - sleeping on the floor by Sam's cot, coaxing food and water into him, helping him to the loo when he's strong enough, or with the alternative when he's not. Gene reveals himself a grim but efficient nurse, and Annie, who at any other time would have felt ashamed at the thought of the Guv emptying her husband's bedpan, accepts his help with numb gratitude. Sam, for that matter, barely acknowledges either of them.
The skeleton they take home, nearly a month after the beginning of their search, bears little resemblance to the man who a few weeks earlier left his wife and colleagues for reasons still unknown. He climbs into the car with the aching slowness of the ancient and curls up on the back seat. Yet when Gene glances back to check on him, a while later, he is startled to find Sam awake, sitting up and fixing him with a gaze that is almost too alert. Gene is suddenly glad for the child locks on the car's doors.
Annie is asleep, exhausted, in the passenger seat.
Gene has to look back at the road. He thinks furiously; finds only the question:
The reply comes so late he barely recognises it as a reply.
"I wasn't here, first time around. . . Well, I was. But I wasn't. And London still exists. . . existed, in 2006. . . There never was a war. Butterflies flapping their wings, Guv. . . Least I could do was look at what I'd done."
Gene chews on that for a while but can't render it any more palatable. Eventually he grates, "The world. Does not. Bloody. Revolve around you, Sam." But Sam has already shut down.
It will be more than a year before he speaks again.
Colleagues take turns Sam-sitting while Annie and Gene go scouting for a hospital that is not overrun to the point of breakdown. A few days before Sam's fiftieth birthday they finally find a place that does not make Annie's skin crawl too badly. Sam packs his bag calmly; stares out the window as if in a trance on the two-hour drive north; gives them the carcass of an apologetic smile when they leave him there.
Months pass, and governments topple; then states, then political blocs. Sam, hair grown back, watches the beginnings of utopia on the day room TV. It is the calmest revolution the world has seen. Masses take to the streets in quiet, surprised unity, with peaceful obstinacy, on every continent and in every country. In less than a year the world reconfigures beyond recognition.
They watch the signing of the One World Constitution together: doctors and nurses, veteran patients and those whose sanity sustained blows during the apocalypse that wasn't. The solemn ceremony seems interminable, but for once the room is not disrupted by anyone ranting at the telly or going into a fit. The quiet lasts through the credits, and on.
Eventually, a patient gets up and switches off the set.
"Well," he says, "the world's gone sane at last. I suppose we can all go home now."
A few of them chuckle.
"Mad. . . " The voice is rough with disuse; none of them have ever heard it.
Sam clears his throat.
"MAD. . . They actually called it that. Mutually Assured Destruction. M. A. D. Truth in advertising."
The entire room is watching him now. He doesn't notice. He stares at the screen as if there were still something on it to see.
"But there can't have been a MAD doctrine, here. We wouldn't be here if. . ."
"Sam?" A doctor stands next to him. "Sam."
Sam looks up. "I'd like to go home now."
Over the next few weeks a psychiatrist spends long hours trying to unpick the fabric of Sam's delusions. Sam, who still does not speak much unless prodded, is scrupulously cooperative, and entirely unhelpful. His therapist eventually throws up his hands and decides that no matter what else he may be, Sam is no longer a danger to himself.
The hospital has been giddy with a sense of collective awakening, and a confused gratitude has attached itself to Sam, the first miracle recovery. A small gaggle of patients assemble to see him off as he waits for Annie to pick him up.
When Annie arrives she greets him with a hug that is awkward in ways he hasn't catalogued in a year of awkward embraces.
As he dumps his bag in the boot, a fellow patient claps him on the shoulder, says, "Y'know, if you're right, y'know, all's well's ends well'n all that. . . So maybe you jus' made the world right. . . An' we should thank you. Maybe."
Sam steps back, gives the man a stare of disbelief, perhaps disgust. "Twenty million," he says, and gets in the car.
The house has changed.
"What happened to the curtains?" Sam asks.
"I needed to let the sky in," Annie says. She puts on a tape Sam doesn't recognise, something that sounds. . . psychedelic? Central Asian? With a hint of punk? There is a vegetable patch outside the kitchen window; green things diamond-studded with drops from a shower just past. Sam sinks to his haunches beside the raised beds, touches rain-soaked soil.
"What about the fallout?" he asks.
"We have to eat." She bends to remove a weed from among the potatoes.
"Things got a bit. . . iffy, as the revolution got going," she says to the potato plants. "And there was talk about the war affecting crops. All that dust in the atmosphere. It never got quite bad enough for a famine. Still, it seemed... prudent, to become more self-sufficient."
Music, keening, sad, triumphant, is drifting from the living room, through the kitchen door.
"What is that?" he asks.
"The Beatles," she says, straightening. "With Yoko Ono, and guests from the former USSR. It's a bootleg. There'll be an album out soon."
They have always navigated difficult terrain, learning in mutual observation where not to step. Now, the borders have shifted; talk is perilous again. They go to bed early, and Sam lies watching the last light of the day fading on the walls for a very long time.
In the morning, Bowie is on the stereo - pre-74, no unexpected songs or absences. Sam wanders the rooms in his pyjamas to find Annie in the garden. He watches her silently, all through Life on Mars and halfway through Kooks. She moves among the beds, picking off browning leaves, then pulls a bunch of radishes from the loamy ground. When she rights herself and turns, her level gaze tells him she was aware of him all along. She does not wish him a good morning. He, likewise, says nothing.
They eat the radishes with their breakfast and Sam thinks about becquerels.
"These are delicious, actually," he says.
Annie frowns, suspicious.
It is true, though: they are.
He spends the afternoon going through the music collection, giving everything unfamiliar a spin. Annie, it seems, has been putting what energy she didn't need at work or in the garden into keeping up with post-nuclear fusion rock. Sam discovers an entire young genre on the shelves. It's unlike anything he has ever heard unruly and unlikely, a mix of styles, artists, countries and traditions. Punk is in there, distant and transfigured. He thinks he recognises some of the names in the fine print, on some of the album sleeves. Maybe. He had never been into punk, even when it existed; nor into world music.
This is different: New World Music.
He forgets to do the dishes; forgets to peel potatoes; forgets that he meant to prepare dinner. He doesn't notice Annie, who's been leaning against the door frame, for who knows how long. Watching him.
Whisper of her breath in the pause between tracks.
He turns; sees that it's evening.
"How was your day," Annie says.
Shutting him up.
When they talk it's about vegetables.
The garden, like the dishes, is his responsibility now - as long as he's staying home, Annie says. He quirks an eyebrow at that but doesn't comment. Perhaps she thinks he needs the fiction of his eventual return to work; perhaps she needs it.
They kneel in the soft dirt, side by side. Sam knows next to nothing about growing things. Annie's hands, calm and sure among leaves, do the teaching. There is dirt under her fingernails. A strand of hair falls across her brow and she pushes it away, leaving a smear of earth.
When he can't stand watching her any longer, he reaches out, gingerly. Rubs away that streak of dirt.
They are less tense going to bed that night.
He takes very good care of the garden. Perhaps it is only that he needs something to do, at first.
He installs loudspeakers in the kitchen, the better to listen to Annie's records as he weeds, prunes and harvests.
When it rains he sits by the kitchen window, watching raindrops splashing on lettuce. He switches off the music. He stops wondering how much radiation the rain might deliver.
One evening, as he puts the finishing touches on a casserole, Annie says, "You still believe it was your fault, don't you?"
He puts the dish in the oven; washes his hands thoroughly and dries them; takes a moment to just breathe before he turns and meets her eyes.
"We had a pretty good. . . unspoken agreement there. About not talking about these things."
She seems to ponder that. "I don't think that was such a good agreement," she says, eventually.
He says, "I think it was."
Later, peeling rhubarb, he talks.
"I don't think killing Maggie Thatcher did it," he says.
"I know I didn't kill her personally. Anyway. I don't think removing her from the picture could change things enough to revoke the MAD doctrine," he says. "And we would have heard. It would have been big news, the Cold War changing gears like that."
Rhubarb peel glistens pink, collects in a tidy pile.
"So maybe there never was a MAD doctrine, here," he says.
Annie watches him, chin in hand. "You could look it up. Ask an historian," she suggests.
He gestures a vague "maybe," with a stalk of rhubarb. "I should ask a physicist. This could be a parallel universe."
Annie's eyes are impenetrable. "Whatever you do," she says, "don't ask a psychiatrist."
"Of course," says Sam, "there's always the other option. The other explanation." It is days later. They're in the garden, on the ground, looking up into sky framed by hedges, brick walls. Small pebbles dig into Sam's buttocks, not unpleasantly.
"A dream. A nightmare. You imagined us all." Her voice sleepy.
He turns his head, watches an ant climb her side, her breast.
"But. . . why imagine the war?" he says.
There is a long pause before she replies. "Because it's less painful. To have only imagined it."
He leans on his elbow to study her, wondering if he heard her right, if she made the offer he understood her to make, if she meant it, if it matters.
"Could you still live with me?" he asks. "Would you still live with me, when you're not real?"
She holds his gaze. "I was never real to begin with."
He kisses her goodbye, then.
Manchester has a moderate need for a police force again, but Sam rarely regrets not having any part in the workdays Annie recounts at dinner. Sometimes he misses the companionship, yet he felt that pain more keenly years before, when Gene's promotion, finally inevitable, ended their long partnership.
In the spring of '87 Annie makes DCI, and Sam can't avoid the celebration at the Arms. He is almost surprised to find the pub unchanged; surprised also to discover that the bar stool next to Gene's never stopped being his. Ray vacates it without argument, without so much as a snide remark. Gene doesn't comment on the nearly two years of Sam's absence. Silence is comfortable, and they share it until Annie shanghais Sam for an excruciating round of reintroductions. Soon after, she has mercy on him and takes him home. She stops him for a kiss in the moonlight before they enter the house, says, "Thanks, for making me DCI." Eyes glinting. Laughing? "Though maybe I could complain that it took you fourteen years."
"It had to be plausible," he says. "Can't just promote random people against period prejudice. It would break the internal consistency of the world."
She draws him inside.
The world begins to grow marvellous at an alarming rate. As the eighties draw to their end, London rises from the ashes. Bold, aerodynamic shapes and pastel candy shades: it's the future of the past. Sam remembers it, from the past of the future.
(A collector murdered, his collection of old sf magazines their only clue. Sam, the new DC, got stuck with the task of thumbing through obsolete futures. Dull, dusty smell of somebody's life boxed up in an attic; decomposing pages making his fingertips feel dry yet sticky at the same time. At night, he dreamt of fantastic cities, flying cars.)
Annie is right. Only a world built in his head would be furnished in his incidental memories.
He isn't surprised when at the 1989 International Car Fair, several companies present affordable aerocars. Soon after, Japanese scientists declare their success in developing the first true A.I. Sam, who's never seen the appeal of Schwarzenegger's machine machismo, isn't too concerned about a Skynet scenario. Architecture, growing more flamboyant by the year, says that whatever the future will bring will be wilder, and stranger, than any 1980s technological dystopia. Besides, the world has already been through its requisite nuclear war.
In 1990 Gene retires. The city, he says, is perfectly able to take care of itself these days.
He takes a few beers or a bottle of whiskey to Sam's garden, on some afternoons. They sit on the bench Sam has installed in front of the kitchen window, taking a swig or exchanging a few words every now and then. Gene complains about the music, without much conviction. Sam has long suspected him of far wider horizons than he lets on.
Much of the time they are reminiscing about the seventies. Gene, when he attempts to stroll further down memory lane, finds Sam taciturn, noncommittal. He stops a rambling soliloquy about pre-1960s mores when Sam wanders off to pick snails off the plants. Sam doesn't look up but says, "You know, we really aren't old enough for this. You'd think we were a pair of eighty-year-old codgers, to hear us."
"Oh, I forgot," snorts Gene. "You were born in 1969, weren't you? That makes you what, 21 now?"
Sam doesn't reply, and for a while there is only the music, and the plok of snail shells hitting tin.
"He's dead, you know" says Gene, finally.
Sam looks up, eyebrows knitting.
"Your. . . younger self. It did occur to me to check on him. See if he looked a bit like you, p'raps. Not that that would have proved a thing."
Sam looks back down at the plants, as focused on a bug-eaten leaf as if it's a case report.
"Moved to London with his mum in '83. Still there when the bomb dropped, as far as anyone can tell."
There is the shortest delay.
"That's. . . neat," Sam says. He purses his lips; tilts his head a little. "You have to admit that's very neat."
Sam smiles. "No more evidence."
He upends the tin on the garden path. Grinds his heel down.
The 90s are good on rerun. The first time around, Sam was making his way up the ladder in CID, working and politicking hard. He remembers the period as a succession of draining slogs, frantic pushes, and sudden, heady successes, set to a soundtrack of Blur, Pulp, and Oasis. There seems little to remember beside this – a few girlfriends, one muddy weekend at Glastonbury, pub nights with old schoolmates petering out as the decade and his career progressed.
This time around, Sam finds himself settling into retirement, the calm rhythms of the garden shaping his days. Instead of a chain of girlfriends there is his well-worn marriage. Nights out have been replaced by easy afternoons at the Arms, lazy days in the garden with Gene, Chris, sometimes even Ray who, bizarrely, has taken to utopia like a natural and has turned oddly agreeable in the process.
Chris, spooked for a while by Sam's bona fide madman status, has finally decided that he doesn't pose any danger to his children, and makes up for lost time by inviting Sam and Annie around his house with increasing frequency. Sam rediscovers his good rapport with his godson, Chris' eldest, and introduces him to music, as well as the finer points of potato growing.
In 1995 Sam convinces Annie to attend Glastonbury with him. He half expects the remembered mud, but sun bakes the festival grounds into concrete. He thinks he recognises Noel Gallagher at the back of the stage, late one night, but can't get any of the stoned young couples surrounding them on all sides to even tell him the name of the band. Briefly, he misses the internet - then remembers that even in the original 1990s, Wikipedia wasn't around yet in 1995.
It is late in the decade when suicide catches up with him.
"I used to hate giving people the diagnosis," says the neurologist. A 3D image of Sam's brain floats in the air behind him, semi-transparent like a deep-sea creature, the tumour highlighted an aggressive pink. "But it really doesn't mean what it used to. Take the pill, wait a couple of days for the glioma to shrivel up, then come back for another scan, just to make sure. We may not be able to cure the common cold yet, but we can cure this."
He hits a key. Unseen machinery begins to whir and hum and click behind a wall, deposits a small plastic vial in the dispenser basket. The doctor scoops it up and hands it to Sam.
"Take this. Take it today. It's best to do it before you go to bed. It'll make you dizzy for a few hours."
Sam slips the vial into his pocket. He has his hand on the doorknob when the doctor says, "You will take the pill, won't you, Mr. Tyler? I know hibakusha sometimes refuse. But your death. . . it wouldn't bring anyone back. You know that, don't you?" There is a pause. "You are hibakusha, aren't you? A survivor?"
"No," says Sam, considering it carefully. "I'm Death, destroyer of worlds."
He closes the door gently on the man's frown.
Sam walks home on the green streets. As more and more traffic has taken to the air, people have begun turning roads into impromptu gardens, green gathering places for a populace that, like the world at large, has discovered a new sense of community.
Sam finally stops, on a bridge across a canal. He takes the vial from his pocket, holds it up to look at the pill inside.
1999, he thinks. It should be blue.
The pill is white, innocuous. He opens the vial, tips it into his palm. He stands, elbows on the bridge's guard rail, his hand closed lightly on the pill. A light wind riffles the canal's surface, dies and is reborn.
The water grows dark as the sun lowers.
Sam opens his hand. Holds the pill out over the canal. Thinks how easy it would be to turn his hand over, let it drop.
When he comes home, Annie is half asleep in the tub. She acknowledges his presence with a murmur as he stands by the sink to brush his teeth.
He spits, rinses, then fills the glass again; puts the pill in his mouth.
Annie begins to come alive behind him. "Mmmm. . ." She stretches, lifts a foam-flecked foot. "Hey. Didn't you have a doctor's appointment today? What did he say?"
Sam takes a big gulp of water. Swallows.
"Nothing to worry about," he says. "I'm fine."
He turns, knowing that she won't ask him another question. He bends for a peck on her cheek, and goes to bed.
The 2000s are exactly like Sam imagined when the number meant science fiction.
Manchester, like London, grows in the vertical. Shops, restaurants and night clubs open on top floors; roofs become parking spaces. Revelling architects add balconies and entire plazas on stilts, webbing the city with walkways and hanging gardens.
The United International Space Agencies establish their first base on the moon in 2001. Plans for a manned mission to Mars are announced soon after. A hotel opens in a near-Earth orbit in 2002.
Housekeeping robots become common, and Annie wants to buy one for Sam but he dissuades her, having grown attached to his daily routine. When Annie joins him in retirement, in 2004, he almost refuses to cede some of the chores to her but she is adamant. Nostalgic in his old age for songs and bands that only he can remember, Sam invests the freed-up time into an archaeology of sound.
He buys a guitar and takes lessons to revive what little skill he had some fifty years before, dabbling in music in his last year at school. Where Is My Mind resists his attempts at reconstruction, but he occasionally manages a decent Wonderwall. When he cobbles together something vaguely Pulp, Annie likes the result. He calls the song Disco 2001.
One afternoon in 2006 Annie, returning from town, joins him in the garden. She sits on the end of the bench, listening silently to Sam's latest attempt to unearth Fake Plastic Trees. He gets it almost right; stops and rolls his aching shoulders.
"Hey," he says. "I'm getting closer."
Her expression takes the smile off his face.
"I saw you," she says. "In the city." Her work voice, calmly stating an awful fact.
He sets the guitar down carefully.
"I was here all day, Annie," he says, finally.
She looks out over the rows of plants.
"He looked like you did. Like you used to look, 33 years ago."
Sam leans back against the wall and closes his eyes.
"So he was out of town after all," he murmurs, under his breath.
He shakes his head, weary.
"Sam. I need you to explain this to me. I need to understand what this means."
He sighs. "It means. . ." He laughs. "It means that I'm extraordinarily bad at killing myself. Even in my dreams." He thinks. "I suppose dropping a nuclear bomb on your younger self counts as a suicide attempt."
He knows that, if he were to look at her now, he would see the unreality she helped create tightening around her, trapping her.
She struggles against it.
"I saw him, Sam. He looked exactly like you." The indignation in her voice gives him a twinge of guilt, gone in a moment.
He laughs; bends down to pick up the guitar and starts strumming.
If I could be who you wanted
She gets up, stiffly.
If I could be who you wanted / All the time
He doesn't stop singing as she pulls the kitchen door closed.
The city celebrates the 20-year anniversary of the Constitution with paper lanterns on windowsills, picnic blankets on grass, a moon huge and round in a dark blue sky.
Annie and Sam drift with the slow ebb and swell of the crowd along Bridgewater Canal. Annie holds Sam's hand lightly, bobs away from him like a loosely moored boat. Sam wants her shoulder by his, wants to grip her hand tight, but doesn't.
Boats crowd hull to hull in the Castlefield Basin. People sit on cabin roofs, sharing food and drink and more. Sam accepts half a bottle of a surprisingly good red. Annie takes a joint offered by the occupants of another roof. She lets go of Sam's hand and sits on a low wall bordering the towpath.
Sam wonders if he should join her. In the end he lets his old legs decide. He sits, a bit too close.
"It's a shame this is imaginary," Annie says, almost too low to hear. "It would be a beautiful world to live in."
Sam looks at her moonlit profile. She is looking up at the building on the other side of the canal - too intently.
A woman's laugh drifts down from a balcony, stabs him with memory. A man murmurs in reply, less familiar. Of course: he rarely hears his own voice stripped of the resonance of his own body.
He resists the urge to look up.
He says, "You were wrong."
She doesn't react, so he continues. "All those years ago, on the roof. You said we don't jump, because we're not cowards."
She is looking at him now but it's too dark to see her face.
"I did jump. I left her."
Music wafts down from the apartment buildings that ring the basin.
"You didn't believe in her." She looks back up at the balcony.
"That seems to be a pattern," he admits.
Without a word she hands him the joint. He holds it for a moment, undecided; then takes a toke. The world grows vague around the edges, but no less fantastical.
He passes the joint back to Annie.
"I think I'm dead," he says.
Annie smokes in silence.
"I hope I'm dead," Sam amends.
Annie stretches extravagantly beside him. "Think I can pick him off the balcony? Maybe he makes more sense than you." She mimes reaching; then, suddenly, gives it up and slumps against him. He puts his arm around her shoulder, tentatively, and she doesn't draw away.
"How does that work, dreaming while dead?" she says, still a little sullen.
Yeah, how does that work, he thinks, idly. "Buggered if I know."
"My late husband," Annie murmurs.
"Woman of my dreams," he says, and she snorts, the way she'd snort at a suspect trying to sweet-talk her.
Sam and Maya, on the balcony above, have grown quiet – kissing, he imagines, remembers.
"I hope they're happy," says Annie.
 Becquerel: unit for measuring radioactive contamination of food.
 Hibakusha: Japanese term for the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Adoped by the post-WW3 world both for convenience and for symbolic reasons.