All true fairytales are spun from the golden thread of a young girl's beauty, at that precious moment when she has just become a woman . . . It was a pity, thought General Wang, that the heroine of the tale he had entered was now far past that perfect moment. He would have liked to meet Frances Slater, known as Fiorinda, when she was the fiery teenager of legend, in all her angry pride. He had no complaints, however, about the grown-up woman with him tonight: white skinned, divinely tall, with the most amazing emerald eyes. Her blatant use of cosmetic 'enhancements', one of the pernicious habits he was here to root out, didn't worry him. She was splendid.
An array of supper dishes covered the low table between himself and his guest. She had eaten hungrily, when she'd recovered from her awe at the spread - which he found promising. Wang liked a woman who could eat. He sat at his ease, his arm along the back of the sofa. He'd seen her eyes widen when she took in the pictures of Fiorinda which lined this pretty little room, but she had made no comment.
'Do you like my place?'
'Oh yes,' she said. 'It's very cool.'
'I like to think it has the air of a haven given over to secret pleasure.'
He smiled, and she smiled obediently. 'But I interrupted. Please, go on.'
Dian Buckley had been England's top rock music journalist at the time of the invasion. She was the author of best-selling books on the phenomenon of the Rock and Roll Reich. She'd known Ax Preston personally, intimately . . .

The General was well aware that Dian's part in the lives of the radical rockstars had been smaller than she told it; but fact was immaterial this evening. He could get the facts anywhere: he was collecting impressions.

'What you need to understand-' said Dian, earnestly, alight with wine. 'Is I was a total insider, most favoured media-person, I saw it from the beginning. What you need to get is that it wasn't hype. They really were our good luck mascots, ever since Massacre Night. You know? When the hippies took over, our violent green coup?'

'I know.'

'Whatever happened, however bad it got, people felt that if the Few were okay, we'd all be okay. It was totally genuine. They were totally genuine. When I had my own tv show, which I did, very young, and it was essential viewing, I wouldn't talk to anyone, no matter how big they were, if I knew they were bores. You'd dread spending five minutes with some of the megastars, trust me. They were incredible. All of them, the Triumvirate, and Allie, Dilip, Rob and the Babes. Chip Desmond, Verlaine. And George Merrick, Bill Trevor, Cack Stannen - that's Sage's band.'

Wang's tame goddess counted on her fingers, listing her totems.

'Ax's band, the Preston family band, he left behind a long time ago. You don't have to worry about them. Fiorinda never had a band of her own, of course. Those names, those names I just told you, they were the core. If they talked to you, everything sparkled. The world had fallen apart, but the Few were still hot. You wanted to look like them, be near them, be in the gang-'

The General had a malicious impulse to inquire if Fiorinda Slater was included among the wonderful, light-the-room people . . . Dian was careful. The Chinese had made it clear that Ax and his partners were not war criminals and were not to be vilified. But he'd noted a certain reserve towards the young woman whose harsh fairytale had been so strangely woven into Ax Preston's utopian dream.

The psychology of the Dians of this world, women of pleasure, is the same in any culture.

'Tell me about the Triumvirate.'

Her eyes darted to the photos (framed publicity stills) and to Wang's face, checking guidance. 'Ax was lovely: a total star. So unassuming. And S-' Dian laughed. 'Aoxomoxoa: we were once very close, you know?'

'I can believe it.' Aoxomoxoa: 'Sage Pender', also known as 'The Zen Self champion'. A violent bully, involved in highly suspect 'spiritual technology', a notorious womaniser; and a hero tortured by the evil régime. An interesting character!

Dian blushed. 'I had to tell him to cool off. Fio's so possessive.'

'You were not entirely smitten with the rock and roll princess?'

Another wary saccade. 'Some of us saw through her a little. She was an operator. Like, that "unknown teen waif, coming off the streets"? Everyone in the biz knew who she really was-'

The General raised his elegant brows. 'She traded on her father's name?'

Dian affected to be horrified. As well she might, considering what Fiorinda's father had done to her, in this very room no doubt, when the girl was twelve years old.

'Oh. God, no! But she knew how to use the system.'

Wang felt kinship with the child of rotten privilege (untold generations of it, on the mother's side). It's a difficult burden. But his heart was touched by this other Englishwoman: thoroughly immoral; so gallantly determined to make the best of things.

The press release folder that he'd provided for this 'interview' lay in her lap, like a last scrap of decency. He saw her glance at the cover page, and shiver away.
In the cities, flower gardens; in the countryside, cultivated land.
The characters would mean nothing to her, she was no scholar. Nor the translation: she was no analyst. But not even a superstar journalist, about to become a courtesan, likes to face the fact that her country has been conquered.

He refilled Dian's glass with the Pouilly Fumé, and she continued to chatter. Dilip the mixmaster, Allie the administrator, Sage the . .

By "Sage", you mean Aoxomoxoa?'

She giggled and covered her mouth as if trying to push the forbidden name back into her throat.

'I meant Aoxomoxoa. Sorry . . . Dilip's responsibilities? That's not how it worked. The Few were called "Ax's rock and roll Cabinet", it's misleading. They had no c-conventional posts, except hahaha, Aoxomoxoa was called the Minister for Gigs, but that was more or less a joke-'

A pause, Wang giving no clues. Dian reached her chopsticks, with careful bravado, for a piece of lobster meat.
'Do you mind if I ask a question?'
'Please do.'
'What did you really come here for? Why England?'

Ah, he thought, she's quick. She has realised she already knows how to please and intrigue a powerful man. Be bold, Dian; but not too bold. He laughed, so that Dian had to laugh too.

'We came for your gold,' he said. 'We have an insatiable lust for gold, in China.'

Dian licked fiery, sticky sauce from her chopsticks. 'But British gold's in Ireland and Wales, and there's not much of it.'

The Celtic nations had not yet been touched.

'Ah, but we are connoisseurs. Small amounts of a distinctive, native gold can be very precious.'

'Now you're teasing me.'

A cheeky, coquettish grin, a weapon from the armoury of a tv journalist, turning the interview into a flirtation. Her face changed. The English roses fled from her cheeks, leaving her chalk-pale, in panic.
'Excuse, sorry-'

In the space-capsule bathroom Dian threw up briskly, rinsed her mouth: applied breath spray and sat on the toilet seat looking at her watch. Two minutes for recovery time, it's always worth the investment. She had eaten as much of the show-off food as her stomach would bear. Unbelievable, the seafood especially. White flesh of squid and abalone, swimmy pools of oysters in the shell on crushed ice, all sprinkled with yellow glitter, Hong Kong millionaire chic. She'd been hoping for fragrant rice, or bread. Everybody longed for bread. Instead she'd been eating metal. And now she'd lost the lot, fuck, fuck. She could not afford to be thin in post-invasion London. It would brand her, it would make her look a failure.
Could he be serious about the gold? She imagined Snowdonia strip-mined, ground to dust. Isn't there some gold in Cumbria? Ireland and Scotland were supposed to be safe, they'd capitulated to all the Chinese demands. Some of Dian's friends had fled there, but she hadn't seen herself as a destitute asylum seeker.

I was right to stay put. Nowhere is safe now.
I am going to survive.

They measure famine differently in China. There was something people had started to say, at the height of the invasion. And then something else: one of those mystery expressions that comes from nowhere, then suddenly it's everywhere, and everyone knows what it means. Is China going to take a card? The Chinese had leapt around the world, with the tech they'd been nurturing in secret through the years of chaos. Within a week they'd had Europe in a box, England and Roumania overrun.

Almost at once the English had known that their only hope was if the rampage went on. If China attacked again, at once - say France or Ireland - the world would've had to muster some kind of protest, some kind of resistance. That hope was gone. China had taken a card. Fred Eiffrich, the same US President who'd compelled the English government to accept Ax as Head of State two years ago, had given the rape of England his blessing. And for their next move the Chinese would take over the world.

The whole, entire fucking planet. It was horrific, a nightmare, your brain couldn't take it in, yet it was going to happen. There was nobody left to stop them.

But I am here, thought Dian, watching the seconds. With the Commander in Chief . . . Wang had been the public face of the invasion; the sexy one you saw all the time. He was tall and handsome (a man's height was important to Dian). He looked just as good out of uniform; and the Four Commanding Generals were supposed to be equals, but it was obvious that Wang was top dog. The so-called General of the Capital, Hu Qinfu, was nowhere when Wang came to town.
As a journalist she was dead meat. It didn't matter how close she'd been to Ax Preston once upon a time. At the end, Dian'd been the willing servant of the ruthless occult junta the Chinese had deposed, and everybody knew it. She couldn't get a job as a toilet cleaner . . . But I can still follow the money. It's what I do best. Recalibrate, recalibrate (that's such an Ax Preston word). Survival is the new success.
Time's up. Most of her make-up was permanent: the face in the mirror above the basin looked back smooth and bright, thank God. She added a dash of gloss to her lips and adjusted the neckline of her glittering tunic, worn over narrow quilt-stitched trousers, Allie Marlowe style. Looking good. No man can resist a superb pair of boobs. A row of photos on the wall behind her, reflected in the mirror. Fiorinda again? She turned, in the narrow space, with a strange tug of dread: looked closer, and saw a child. In school uniform. It was Fiorinda, but she was about twelve years old. The room was differently decorated, but it was the one Dian had just left.

'Oh my God,' she whispered. 'Oh my God, where am I?'

The space capsule walls pulsed, black waves rippled across her vision. She found herself sitting on the side of the bathtub: clutching the silver charm of the Three locked in congress that she kept on her keychain. She stuffed it into her bag, horrified. I must chuck that. My God, why haven't I thrown that away?
Now she must go back to Wang. It felt like the most terrifying thing she'd ever done in her life. But food and shelter were at stake, comfort was at stake.
She didn't hesitate.