Meanwhile, here's how it begins:
1. Just Another Snake Cult
London, July 2nd
Four days till she was due to appear before the parliamentary select committee, Chloe Millar couldn’t take it any more. The rehearsals and group exercises, the pre-exam nerves and pointless speculation, the third degree about the New Galactic Navy . . . No to all that business. She banged out of there and minicabbed it down the A13 to check out a lead in Dagenham. Traffic glittering in hot sunlight, factories, housing estates and big box retail outlets, sewage works and power stations. A glimpse of the Reef’s dark blister and the river beyond. A welling feeling of relief with an undercurrent of guilt that she tried to ignore.
The minicab was negotiating the Ripple Road junction when her phone rang. Jen Lovell, Disruption Theory’s office manager, wanting to know where she was and what she was up to.
‘I’m chasing a lead. A good one.’
’We’ve all had to give up our Saturdays. Even you, Chloe.’
‘There’s a cult. Definitely turned, about to break out. They announced it on Facebook, a public meeting supposed to start at one o’clock. I’m late, but these things never run to schedule. I won’t have missed anything important.’
‘Preparing for the select committee: that’s what’s important.’
‘They haven’t shut us down yet,’ Chloe said. She wasn’t going to feel guilty. She was doing her actual job. ‘It’s probably just another snake cult, but I can’t be certain until I see it in action.’
Her destination was a displaced-persons camp at the eastern edge of Old Dagenham Park. A row of single-storey prefab barracks and half a dozen L-shaped stacks of repurposed shipping containers, built a decade ago for refugees from flooding caused by climate change and rising sea levels, privately rented now.
Chloe found a bench in the shade of a gnarly old chestnut tree, ate chips out of a cardboard clamshell, and watched people gathering around a makeshift stage where a scrawny old geezer in tattered jeans and T-shirt was setting up a microphone stand and a stack of speakers. Young children ran about, transformed by face paint into rabbits and tigers. A pair of policewomen watched indulgently. They were wearing new-issue stab vests, spun from tough self-healing collagen derived from a species of colonial polyp that rafted on Hydrot’s world ocean. The Met’s logo stamped in dark blue on the pearlescent material. High above, an errant balloon bobbed on an uncertain breeze, a silvery heart blinking random Morse code in the hot sunlight.
It reminded Chloe of the music festival where she’d first been kissed, seriously kissed, by a boy whose name she’d forgotten. She’d been, what, fourteen. A late-starter, according to her mates. She remembered a Hindu procession that wound through the streets of Walthamstow to the temple each year: drummers, men with painted faces in fantastic costumes, men animating giant stick-puppets of gods and dragons. She remembered one Hallowe’en, the first after First Contact, when every other kid had dressed up as a Jackaroo avatar.
The geezer bent to the microphone, dreadlocks hanging around his face as he gave it the old one two one two. And a shadow fell across Chloe and someone said, ‘Give us a chip.’