It was dark when he got home. Home after travelling a new journey. A journey that was baulked by diversions, slow drivers, an old man who wasn’t able to judge distances and so, frustratingly decelerated every time a wagon came in the opposite direction; a woman in a SUV who had blazed past them both, leaning on her horn; traffic signals that stayed annoyingly red for his lane of vehicles – whichever lane he was in. The radio traffic updates had been no help: warnings coming on too late once he was in the serpent of dying motors. That or not at all. The GPS system was malfunctioning, the map keeping spinning and – at best – recalculating.
He took a beer from the fridge, suddenly needing it as the intense concentration of rush hour driving began to ebb away. Passed straight through the house with a grunt to his wife (sitting watching some detective repeat on the large TV). He had made it home. Now just needed to relax. A fraught day. Computers at work locking him out. Share prices falling. The kidnapping of hostages in an out of the way café half way around the world. At least some of them, he was certain would end up dead: when, inevitably the forces of law and order decided to free them. That they would not, could not, could not afford to negotiate. The precedent it would set.
In Eastern Europe political tensions were raised, some territorial dispute spreading; involving more and more nations. In the Middle East a religious kind of war was doing the same – but so, so different. He couldn’t begin to imagine how a religious ruled state could operate in the twenty first century. There was no logic. He recalled the story an international contractor had given him. About the refusal of the Emirates to allow mobile phones into their kingdoms. Practices PR men had gone in. It was explained to them that in the Holy Books it was written that the Devil would speak through metal to man on earth. The PR men had gone away. Gone back. Could the Devil read from the Holy text, the leaders were asked. Of course not. The answer came back slowly after consultation.
An interpreter was sent into another room with the holy text. Not an infidel, a man of no faith but a believer from a western country. He had telephoned the delegation. Read from the scriptures. Cell phones were admitted. Companies made money. The world spun on, though perhaps a little faster.
The garden was cool, it was the end of February. The skies were high, thick and dark. Stars were beginning to wink on and into permanent view. Stars that travellers must have looked at long ago: mysterious. Stars that had once been worshipped perhaps.
Then the noise came into his consciousness. Maybe not the sound first, perhaps just the perception of something powerful that became sound. War planes passing overhead. Again,. The fifth successive night. Recognisable by the expensive volume. No self-respecting airliner could growl like that. They flew on budget technology, making just enough power to carry tourists, businessmen and luggage from place to place and squeeze a small profit each time. War planes had a majestic, carefree howl. That intimidated, even at air show manoeuvre status.
The grumble lasted on and on. Two planes perhaps three or four. Their thunder echoing down the cliffs of stars to fall around his ears, his family. No identification lights visible. Where had they been? He wondered, swigging from the can. Across the desert, high and invisible in stealth mode? Low over north-frozen seas? Challenging possibly hostile surveillance planes on the fringes of space, from where it was possible to see the curvature of the earth? All of the above?
He didn’t know, he realised. He only knew that it shouldn’t be necessary. None of it: training or genuine. Training for what should never be imagined, let alone become reality.
But he was also sure that, since those long-ago days when a few apes had ventured fearfully from the trees, standing upright to see better, his race had learned so unimaginably quickly. Learned such a lot of things. One discovery – the fact that waving a branch or shaking a broken, dry thigh bone got you what you wanted, for example – leading pell-mell to a thousand others.
Had learned so much. But not how to manage the responsibilities of power.