Authors: E. J. Swift
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Fiction
“May I request we open to the floor, Speaker?”
They don’t like dealing with Adelaide, Vikram thought. She disarms them; she knows the language. He looked for Linus. Adelaide’s brother’s face was serious, but Vikram had no doubt that beneath the calm exterior lurked a satisfied smile.
“Granted,” said the Speaker’s voice overhead.
This time, there was no rush to stand. Then the woman Linus had been speaking to earlier rose.
“It seems a reasonable request,” she ventured.
The word reasonable was the spark. At once the left side of the crescent were on their feet, arguing over what could be considered reasonable, questioning the criteria for the demand, the lack of available resources. It was difficult enough to keep the City in good repair. Where would the money, or the materials, come from for the west? The liberals jumped up in response. Dmitri Rechnov said nothing. Linus was vocal. The demands, he argued, were so basic as to be almost unreasonable in their conservatism. They should be doing far more. Through the debate, the voices of the first generation Councillors sounded like thin, disconsolate reeds.
An elderly woman turned to the podium.
“Mr Bai, I recall that the last time you were here there was some incendiary talk of demilitarization. May we assume you have dropped that aggressive stance today?”
Vikram leaned both hands on the podium. “I hardly consider it an aggressive stance,” he replied. “Rather the opposite. I won’t say that my opinion has changed, but today I am here purely to request funding for a winter aid scheme.”
“You have not mentioned costs in all of this, Mr Bai,” said a balding man who Vikram recognized as the Minister of Finance. “I assume you have some form of budget in mind.”
“A figure of fifty thousand credits would comfortably encompass the schemes I have mentioned. Thirty-five thousand would be the absolute minimum required.”
Exchanges fired through the ranks of the Executors. Vikram exchanged a glance with Adelaide. They had agreed the asking price should be high, but now he wondered if they had pushed too hard. Adelaide clasped her hands and brought them to rest upon the podium, her white cotton sleeve brushing against his arm.
The Chambers quietened. Feodor Rechnov was rising. His eyes were riveted on Vikram. He did not spare his daughter a glance.
“Mr Bai,” he said, and the Chambers hushed further. “You have made an impressive case, an—emotive, case. I congratulate you on the almost inconceivable improvement. You must realize, however, that you are asking this Council to supply you with a large sum of money on the basis of your word—and your word alone.”
There were murmurs of approval from the reactionaries. The Councillor of Finance was nodding.
“I take your point,” said Vikram calmly. “The reason I am standing here today, is, very simply, because there is nobody else to represent my side of the city. There are no westerners, ladies and gentlemen, in your assemblage. The labyrinth of administration with which this Council surrounds itself makes it almost impossible to gain a hearing. As to my qualifications—I can only tell you my own experience. I am, however, happy to escort any Councillors who wish for further proof on a tour of the west, and there I can show you all of the disease and poverty of which I speak. I’d advise you to wrap up warm.”
A ripple of laughter from the liberals.
“Perhaps you’d like to go, Councillor Rechnov,” called out a girl from the balcony. Vikram recognised the voice as Adelaide’s friend, Jannike Ko. Feodor’s face remained impassive, although Vikram thought that the red spots in his cheeks intensified.
“I believe the Council would prefer a more scientific assessment of the situation,” Feodor countered. “Rather than the rhetoric of a westerner.”
There was a collective gasp from the balcony, purely theatrical, as Vikram doubted there was a single person in the room who was not secretly thinking what Feodor had voiced. Vikram crushed his own anger. He even smiled. Adelaide had already supplied him with all the ammunition he needed, and now Feodor had given him the incentive to use it.
“Councillor Rechnov,” he said. “Forgive me if I have my facts wrong, but didn’t your own father, the Architect, remarry a refugee? Surely you feel a degree of responsibility towards the west, even if you do not feel compassion?”
Uproar followed. Vikram saw Feodor’s jaw clench, and the red spots burned brighter for the paleness that infected the rest of the Councillor’s face. Vikram did not take his eyes off the man, but sensed, at his side, Adelaide’s initial surprise melting into expectancy as she, too, sniffed the resolution that had to follow.
The Speaker asked for a vote. Vikram watched the hands raise and hover in midair, swaying in an impossibly complicated semaphore whilst the Speaker took his count. There were too many hands, a hopeless number. The hammer rapped. In the commotion from the balcony, the Speaker’s words were swallowed. Councillors were on their feet, imperial surcoats swinging. Vikram’s heart went numb. We’ve lost, he thought.
As he stepped down from the podium a surge of people gathered around. Hands clapped his back, pummelled and tugged at him. He was aware of voices, offering congratulations, hollering questions through the clamour. He blinked in a barrage of camera flashes.
How did you meet Adelaide, Mr Bai? Adelaide, why are you helping the west?
He heard his lie of a surname repeated over and over, and thought dizzily that in the last half hour he had managed to become someone he was not.
Vikram turned to his accomplice. Her face was ablaze. He realized, finally, that they’d won, and he felt his face split in an answering grin. A wing of pure joy trembled in his chest. It rose to his throat, filled it, had to fly out. He grabbed Adelaide and lifted her shrieking off the ground. As he spun her around she was pressed against his smart new jacket and her brother’s letter. He put her down. Her smile was a solar beam. Then, in full view of the Chambers and the krill, she kissed him.
27 ¦ ADELAIDE
er eyes opened. It was not yet light, and she was very still. At first she thought she’d had a nightmare that had frozen her muscles. But then her lungs expanded and she realized the restraint was physical. A pair of arms wrapped around her upper body, pinning her against the hard heat of the man’s chest. Her heart beat faster, in confusion, and anger, that she had allowed this to happen. The hands that were not hers were nonetheless familiar; she had seen them manipulating her Neptune, peeling an apple with a penknife in one long strip, unfastening the strap of a watch. And now they were warm on her skin.
Vikram’s breath fluttered on the back of her neck. She shifted, hoping the movement might dislodge him. He only paused between inhaling and exhaling, and his grip tightened as his breath trickled out. Adelaide thought back to yesterday. She remembered the victory afterparty, the Haze running rampage over the Red Rooms, the dancing and the octopya. She remembered kissing him at her bedroom door. She remembered locking the door. After that, memory failed her.
She twisted her head to look at Vikram. His head, pressed against the top of her spine, fell into the alcove just below the pillow. She prised his arms away and turned to study him properly. Dim light and sleep had softened him. Tiny veins tracked the half moons of his eyelids. His lashes shivered, betraying his subconscious, active in dreams. She traced a finger down the length of his back. His mouth twitched. She wondered what he was dreaming.
Fuck. They must have had sex.
She sat up and pulled the sheets around her shoulders, exposing more of his naked body. He was so thin. There was nothing beneath his skin but lean muscle and bones. She examined every blemish, every flaw, as though she could read last night’s actions in the history of his skin. There was a nick above his right eye. A long scar bisected his side. The white streak ran beneath the ribcage and into the shadow where his stomach met the sheets. She could not help imagining the quick silver slice of the knife and her eyes widened with the shock of the idea. She reached out to touch, but withdrew. She’d probably done that already.
Her head heaved with recollection. Stars only knew how many people remained in her apartment. She cast aside the sheets and got up to find out. At the door, she stopped. She did not want to know. She stood there, fingers on the handle, her next move perilously unclear, when the man on the bed moved. He yawned, stretched, and rolled onto his back.
“What time is it?”
The question threw her completely.
“Come back to bed then. Nobody else will be awake.”
Adelaide complied, to the point of coming to sit on the end of the bed. Vikram scratched at the stubble just beginning to darken his jaw. His eyes were bleary.
“You’re not meant to be in here,” she said.
“You didn’t leave me much choice.”
She glowered at him. He met her scowl with a smile. She opened her mouth to tell him not to, but he pre-empted her.
“You fell asleep on me.” Now he sounded smug.
“You fell asleep,” Vikram repeated. “You were very tired. And exceptionally drunk.” And when her lips parted again he added, “I’ve got no reason to lie.”
“I never sleep,” she said.
“Alright. You passed out. Drunk, a dead weight, soon as we lay down and your head hit the pillow.”
It was possible. It explained, at least, the lack of memory. Adelaide felt the cold sting of humiliation.
Vikram yawned again, and flopped back onto the pillows. His face was unlike any man she had ever known. There were lines in that face that would never be erased, lines made by the early tiredness of poverty. But they had faded beneath the light of a new expression.
“You look happy,” she said accusingly.
“I am happy. We won.”
She had almost forgotten the events that had lead up to last night’s fiasco. They came back in a flood of sound and image. She saw Vikram standing in the Chambers, his face arrested, his voice pooling into the basin of their scepticism. Suddenly she smiled.
He reached out a hand, and when she took it, he pulled her back against him, hugging her. They lay in silence. The windows were tinted with violet, the world outside a shadowy place, as though without the distinction of time it must remain embryonic. She thought of another face and another man. Possibilities gathered on the edge of her brain, things that could or might or should have been. She thrust them away from her.
“How did you get that scar?”
Adelaide turned over, resting her arms and her chin on his chest. She traced a tentative finger along the disfigurement. It felt like embossed lettering. “This one.”
“My friend—Mikkeli—she used to take these deliveries to people.” His voice was low and reminded her of summer rain. “She worked for a dealer called Maak. It was dangerous work. The sort of thing where your luck only holds out for so long. One of the jobs went wrong. The buyers came after Keli at home. There were four of us living there. Only two of them but six people with knives in a small room… it was messy.”
It was the most information about himself he had ever volunteered. She kept her eyes on the scar, away from his face, not wanting to discourage him.
“Why did only two of them come?”
“They didn’t think we’d protect her. Loyalty in the west is—pretty easily compromised.”
“And you didn’t compromise.”
“So what happened?”
“We killed them. Then we left the tower and we never went back.” He gave her a twisted smile. “This is my souvenir from that night.”
Once more she heard the whisper of knives in the dark. She bent her head and gently kissed the scar. She left her face buried. How much time passed whilst she stayed there, she could not tell. Vikram’s lips brushed her shoulder. She met his mouth in sudden haste, overcome by pity, and her need to block out that other face.
28 ¦ VIKRAM
he waterways were quiet. It was an achingly cold but clear night, and Vikram could hear the motor hum as his boat cut through the waves, uninhibited by other traffic. He ran a hand over its sides. He’d had the boat for six weeks and he still felt a frisson of ownership with the touch.
As he steered through the western quarter, graffiti-covered slopes loomed and receded, the vivid images bluish in the moonlight. From the far side of the city a cheer went up, followed by the crackle of fireworks. Vikram looked up, trying to find the umbrellas of light amidst the sky’s star-studded pane, but he saw only a fading glimmer over to the east. The race must have begun.
He fumbled in a pocket for his Sobek scarab. It was slippery in his glove as he switched it on and spoke Adelaide’s name for the second time that evening.
“Hey, it’s me. Look, sorry I can’t make it—but enjoy the show.”
These small appeasements had become regular. They were for him, not her, although she did not know that. Axel’s letter haunted him. Right now, it was concealed beneath the lining of a locked drawer, and Adelaide, unaware of its contents, unaware even of its existence, was urging on her favourite glider with no notion that her brother waited for the white horse to speak.
He would tell her. When it was right.
The quiet struck him again. A lone gleam of light in the distance became a single tower, lanterns glowing at the window-walls. Vikram peered ahead through the shadowy maze of scrapers, and found what always followed such a display: fire on the water surface. They were committing the tower’s dead to the deep.
He switched the motor off and let his boat drift. He could see the bodies piled upon rafts, some already ablaze, others drenched in oil, their foreheads banded with salt so that the ghosts would recognize them as Osiris’s people. There must have been a power-cut, or a flash epidemic.
The mourners threw torches onto the pyres. Flames leapt high. When they were all alight, boats would tow the pyres to the ring-net and cast their cargo out to burn. Vikram had always thought that would be the most terrible of duties, escorting your loved ones to their unsettled grave, the stench and smoke of their passing rich on your tongue.
Now a chorus of voices echoed over the water, keening their grief without words. Heard from afar, the singing did not sound entirely human. The wind was in it, the waves. Out at the ring-net, the ghosts would be gathering.
The pyre blaze grew smaller. Vikram let out a breath he had not realized he was holding. He switched on the motor, welcoming the mechanical hum.
The shelter covered three floors of 307-West. The bunks were eight or ten to a room, narrow with thin mattresses, but they had pillows and blankets, and the rooms were warm. The second floor housed a medical room and the canteen. When Vikram arrived, no one was eating, but the lights were on and he could hear dishes clattering behind the serving hatch.
He found Shadiyah sitting on the end of a bench, both hands around a steaming mug, talking to their single security guard. The Resources division said they could not spare anyone else, although Vikram had noticed an increase in the skadi on the border over the last month.
“What are you doing here?” Shadiyah said. “You’re not on call tonight.” He thought she looked pleased to see him nonetheless.
“Nothing better to do,” he joked. “How’s things?”
“Alright. We had to break up a fight earlier and that raving old dear turned up again. Took offence to one of the nurses, decided she was a Council spy. Calmed down now. We’re full for the night but we just had two kids come in. Brother and sister, I reckon. Boy’s got a nasty knife wound.”
“Likely as not. I’m going down to the med room now, want to come?”
They walked down the corridor together, filling one another in on the minutiae of the day. The corridor walls had been painted pale yellow. They were still peeling, but they were cleaner and brighter. Disinfectant masked the underlying stenches brought in with the very poor.
A door to one of the dormitories opened and an old man shuffled out. He had rags wrapped around his feet.
“Osuwa,” he mumbled. “Bright lights—over again. Was the searchlight caught him in a dark hole.”
“Alright, Mr Argele?” called Shadiyah. “Are you looking for someone?”
He peered at them from under bushy eyebrows. His face was a garden gone wild; hair, beard, even his eyelashes seemed overgrown.
“Turn off the searchlight, young woman,” he ordered Shadiyah. “They’ll be here soon. Don’t you know your discipline?”
He retreated and shut the door. Vikram and Shadiyah paused, listening for signs that he might have disturbed the other men. But there were no sounds from inside. Just the muffled rumble of the laundry room a few doors down, as the dryers turned in their final cycles.
“Young woman,” echoed Shadiyah. “First compliment of the day.”
Vikram had found his colleague on a boat frying up kelp toast for hungry kids. It was her hands that struck him first. She had been wearing fingerless gloves. Her fingertips were rough skinned, their nails short and slightly yellowed, a blister on her left thumb from the spitting fat. Her hands brought back a jumble of memories: hours spent in line at soup kitchens or fry-boats, waiting to beg for scraps at the end of the day.
Shadiyah told Vikram her story whilst smoke from the grill drifted out of the boat window. She received a negligible amount of funding for her tiny charity. It was a tough business. Her fry-boat was raided every month for its stock. Shadiyah had a sharp mouth and a discerning eye; she was able to distinguish the hungry from the starving.
“And sometimes it’s a fine line,” she’d said, leaning out to hand down a sizzling, paper-wrapped kelp square to one of her beneficiaries. “After all, who this end of town ain’t hungry?”
She turned down his offer of a job instantly. He hadn’t thought that his exposure to the City would show so soon, but perhaps it had already begun to tint him. He came back the next day, and the day after. It took time to persuade her.
It was time well spent. Once she had agreed, Shadiyah took practical charge of the shelter, creating a model on which future projects would follow. Walking through their allotted floors, they had planned everything together from the layout of the building to an information campaign. They printed flyers and people handed them out on the aid scheme boat kitchens.
Shadiyah knocked before entering the medical room.
“It’s only me and Vikram,” she said briskly.
The children’s heads snapped up. Their faces were wary and hard as ice. The boy was perched on the single bed, his toes grazing the floor. In one hand he clutched what looked like a bundle of rags. Vikram realized the medics had cut his jumper away. A clump of t-shirts were peeled back and one of the doctors was applying stitches to a ten centimetre gash across his shoulder, whilst the other held a tray of needles and gauze. The sight of the pinched flesh brought back Vikram’s own knife injury in a flash; he struggled not to avert his eyes.
The girl slunk back against the bed curtain. Her hair was chopped as short as the boy’s. She had a bowl of soup at her mouth and her tongue poked out, mid-lap. Her eyes darted; Vikram, the doctor, the door, the needle, the door, the boy. There was a fading bruise on her cheekbone and scratches on her neck.
“Hey,” said Vikram. “Everything okay?”
At the sound of his voice the girl jerked backwards. The soup slopped in the bowl.
“We’re alright,” said the doctor holding the tray. “It’s a nasty cut, but it’ll heal. Just make sure you keep it clean,” she told the boy. “We’re going to give you some pills and an antibiotic spray. I want you to use it twice a day. Okay?”
There was no reply. All of the muscles in the boy’s shoulders were tense as the other doctor hooked his needle in and out, gradually knitting the exposed flesh together. Anaesthetic must have curbed the pain but not the desire to bolt. Vikram could see the outline of a knife at the boy’s hip. He knew that if anyone tried to take it, the boy’s hand would snap to his side in a second.
“You give it me,” said the girl suddenly. Her voice was a tiny rasp like a match being struck.
“What’s that, puffin?” said Shadiyah.
“Gimme the anti-whatsit. They won’t find it on me.”
Vikram caught the subtle interplay between brother and sister; the boy’s quickly masked glare, the girl’s concealed shrug.
The female doctor, Marete, spoke to the girl. “It’s very important. Don’t give it away, you understand? And don’t sell it. Not to anyone. Or your brother will get really sick.”
For answer, the girl held out her palm. Marete hesitated a moment and looked at the other doctor, who gave a curt nod.
“We’ll go get it,” said Shadiyah. “Standard issue, Hal?”
Vikram and Shadiyah went next door and swiped into the medical supplies room.
“How old do you reckon they are?” he asked.
“The boy says thirteen but I reckon ten or eleven.”
“Did he say how he got the cut?”
Shadiyah raised her eyebrows to suggest what a ridiculous question this was and Vikram nodded. She was right. He could guess—he could even ask, but he would not find out. They were shanty town kids, by the half-starved look of them. Somebody owned them—one of the dealers, one of the pimps or the gangs. They were lucky to have survived this long.
Vikram opened the medicine cabinet but did not immediately take out the prescriptions.
“I saw a funeral, on my way here.”
She nodded. “Bad business. The skadi raided a tower last night. Suspected insurgents, you know the lines. People resisted. It got messy.”
“No one told me.”
“They wouldn’t, would they.”
He checked the list supplied by the doctors.
“Do you remember Osuwa, Shadiyah?”
She gave him a quick, measured glance.
“Of course I do. I was twelve, I was on the waterbus. I heard the explosion first. Then boats started speeding past. By the time I got to Market Circle everyone knew what had happened.” She sighed. “And that it was only a matter of time before the reprisals. I’m not surprised Mr Argele raves about it, a lot of people went mad after those few weeks.”
“Worse than the last riots?”
Shadiyah leaned against the work surface, her hands wrapped awkwardly around the edge of the bench. “Different. Because it wasn’t just the skadi, and it wasn’t just violence. To give citizens guns, that was a terrible, awful vengeance. The corpses we saw hadn’t just been killed, they were barely people.” There was a brief silence. “I suppose you want to know if I agreed with Osuwa.”
The room seemed a little darker, a little narrower.
“No, Vik, I don’t condone arbitrary killing. But I won’t deny that there was a part of me, whilst they were hunting us like rats, there was a very large part of me that said they deserved everything they got.”
She straightened, adjusting her headscarf with her usual deft touch.
“They is such an elusive term,” she said.
Vikram found the prescriptions and made a mental note of what they were running low on. After they had delivered the medication, Shadiyah made up two bedrolls in the laundry room whilst Vikram checked the dormitories. In each bunk he made out the hump of a sleeping body. Snores and rattling breath filled the rooms, but tonight everyone was still. Vikram heard Mr Argele mutter a few blurred words in his sleep. He was one of the shelter’s regulars.
They left the children alone to settle in their bedrolls. In the canteen, Vikram reconvened with the doctors. Marete was filling in the record book. He peered over her shoulder.
“You can’t record them as brother and sister.”
“Population control laws,” said Shadiyah.
“Shit, yes of course.” Marete tore out the page and started again.
“Only one of them is legally entitled to aid,” Vikram reminded her. “We’ve got to be careful. They’ll slash our funding if they know we’re supporting multiple offspring.”
/ / /
When he left the shelter, the sky was pitch dark with cloud. It felt late, but his watch told him it was only twenty-two thirty. The tarpaulin over the boat was covered in frost. It shimmered like a half-submerged iceberg. He hauled off the tarp and folded it, noticing a man observing him from the window of a tower across the water. The surveillance was unapologetic. He sensed other eyes too, hidden in the darkness of waterways and decking. He knew in that instant that he had become that incalculable thing: an airlift. Something to be watched.
As he turned the ignition key and the boat purred into life, he decided to do something he should have done a long time ago.
/ / /
The decking around his old tower was thick with boats. He circled until he found a gap to park, secured the boat and because he did not intend to linger, stuffed the tarp into the storage space under the seat. The tower doors parted and a man staggered out, holding his arm and cursing. Two others followed.
“Want to say that again, mate? To my face?”
Vikram slipped past them into the unlit passageways of the building. The shouts and blows of the fight were cut off as the doors slid shut.
Inside, a rancid stench crawled up his nostrils. He tried the lift. There was a clanking sound. He thought at first that it had been fixed, but realized the sound came from another lift much further up. As he began the familiar, gruelling climb, he felt the hierarchy of his senses shifting. He had become too dependent on sight. The smell separated into parts: fish, wet kelp, cigarettes and manta, dirt, mould, old blood, placebo chemicals. Every couple of floors he passed a shadowy form going in the opposite direction, or the backlit tableaux of two people talking in an open doorway. Kids shrieked as they chased one another blind up and down the steps. Vikram moved instinctively, one hand brushing the walls. He could not tell if the bodies he stepped over were catatonic or dead.
Floor thirty-five was dark and quiet. He stepped up to his old door with the key, before he realized that it was ajar.