Authors: E. J. Swift
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Fiction
“Ten? Fifteen at least.”
“No, not fifteen. Not as long as that.”
“I’ll bet you on it.”
A girl began to scream, a long and eerie sound, rising and falling. A skad lifted his rifle and fired a warning shot into the air. The scream stopped abruptly. The crowd rippled with alarm. He saw several people duck, some hunching protectively over their neighbours, but no one shouted; no one dared to protest. It would have to be Vikram. If he spoke up, he could incite the crowd—they must be angry enough to act—surely they must want to stop this—surely they didn’t believe, as Vikram had—
His body had turned to lead. Some part of his mind knew that this was self-preservation. That there was nothing he could do for Eirik now. He could only give Eirik the dignity of a witness. Someone to remember, to throw salt in Eirik’s name.
The skadi bent and straightened as they worked the pumps, first in time, then in an almost comical seesaw motion. One paused to wipe his brow before he bent to the task again.
“Get on with it!” a westerner shouted.
“Why don’t they just shoot him?” muttered a girl on Vikram’s boat.
The water swilled, a foot high.
The woman beside Vikram gasped and let out a long sigh as she fainted, her weight a sudden heaviness against his own too-light frame. The man lifted the kid off his shoulders to help Vikram support the woman and the kid climbed up onto the boat rail to see better and stared and stared.
The girl who had spoken before knelt to give the woman water. The woman’s eyelids were violet. Her lashes fluttered as she regained consciousness.
“Is she alright?” Vikram’s voice came out ragged. He cleared his throat. The noise sounded as loud as a slap.
“I’ll look after her,” whispered the girl. Her eyes met Vikram’s and for a moment held, whilst a slight frown creased her forehead. He froze, suddenly terrified that she had recognised him. Did he look like an insurgent? Could she ever have seen him with Eirik? He turned stiffly away.
“Dad, look, the water’s up to his neck,” said the kid. “He’s going to die now.”
“They’re killing him.” Vikram couldn’t stop himself. It was important that he said this, that this definition, at least, stayed with the kid, even if his father gave Vikram a peculiar glance and placed his hands protectively on the boy’s shoulders.
Eirik tried to stand but slipped and crashed back. He tried again. His legs could not support the weight of his torso.
“Well you know… if the NWO really had come back… maybe it’s better this way…”
“The skadi would have crucified us… if you were old enough to remember what happened after Osuwa, you’d know…”
“Please, don’t talk about Osuwa.”
The snippets of conversation drifted from all sides like small feathers. Vikram could no longer tell where they came from.
The water lapped at Eirik’s chin. He got clumsily onto his knees. The movement must be an exertion. Perhaps he was in dreadful pain. The black overalls hid his body; whatever previous tortures had been inflicted upon him were invisible. Vikram imagined the prison guards entering Eirik’s cell, taunting him, with words at first, the jeers giving way to cigarette burns, blows, worse. He winced.
Time was winding down. The two skadi at the pumps seemed to move in slow motion. What kind of man could kill another in this way? Vikram looked around at the crowd. Every one of them was complicit. He was complicit himself, because to do nothing was to aid in the working of the pumps.
Eirik floundered on his knees. His gloved hands slipped at the sides of the tanks. He fumbled to remove the gloves and they came adrift. Vikram saw Eirik’s bare hands slide against the glass, feeling to his left and right, reaching up to the top of the tank, finding this too blocked.
Vikram folded over the rail, his head buried against his clenched hands. He did not care now who saw. He wanted to cry. But his eyes remained obstinately dry, and even if the tears had come he knew that they would be for himself, for his own stupidity and his failure to believe in a friend, as much as for Eirik who in many ways was already dead. The impulse shamed him. He lifted his head; he would make himself watch the end. It was the last thing he could offer Eirik.
He heard the skadi at the pumps grunting with exertion. The water level rose and rose. It reached Eirik’s shoulders. Eirik was trying to undo the hood. His bound hands flapped ineffectually around his head. He didn’t seem able to bend his fingers.
The crowd, sensing a conclusion, were growing voluble. From all sides a chorus lifted, the voices louder now and more aggressive. Shouts and insults, wailing, overlapping. The skadi fired a barrage of warning shots into the water. A girl, perhaps the same girl, started screaming. This time no one stopped her. Vikram’s boat rocked; the crowd was pushing at the barrier, jeering at the skadi. The man beside Vikram pulled his kid roughly from the rail and told him to keep his head down. Skadi boats sped down the crowd barrier, whipping around, racing back again. Spray hid the execution boat momentarily. The boat in front moved sideways, blocking Vikram. He had to crane to see what was happening.
The tank was almost full, and Eirik was fully conscious. His body convulsed like a bird hooked in a net. His feet thrashed the water white. He was floating on his back, head half submerged below the last few inches of air.
he thought numbly.
Just stop now. There’s still time, the lesson’s learned. He could live—
“Oh, but there’s never enough time, Vik, that’s why you have to take it—”
Mikkeli was speaking. No, Mikkeli was dead. Her body limp and sodden on the decking. Frost already forming on her eyelashes.
“You have to take it from someone else!”
Mikkeli’s ghost laughed, that big, slightly dirty laugh. She cocked her head at Eirik and winked, once. Ice splintered in Vikram’s ribs.
“That’s right,” said Eirik. “She’s right. If you steal anything, steal time.”
In the tank, the last inch of air disappeared.
Vikram imagined Eirik’s mouth forced open as his lungs battled for oxygen. Water pouring in. Water like acid, water to burn away words. He had seen this in his dreams, his own body and those of friends, turning over and over. This was just a dream. It must be a dream.
Eirik’s limbs jerked in spasms. His hands and feet pounded the ceiling of the tank. He was asphyxiating.
The crowd fell silent. Vikram heard dry whimpers, or was it laughter? The girl behind him, crouched by her mother. The kid had gone quiet.
A gull wheeled overhead. Its screech trailed across the bleached out sky. Eirik threshed, knocking the glass of the tank with dull thuds.
Vikram could only observe. The waves moved, and the sun shone on the water, but time had finally stopped.
The body stilled.
What floated in a tank of seawater was no longer Eirik. Eirik’s spirit had been torn loose. He was out there with the ghosts now, a half thing condemned to the waves.
The body, face down, rotated half a circle, drifted slowly back again. It bobbed against the tank ceiling. The arms hung loosely down, Eirik’s bare hands indistinct shapes in the subsiding water. There was nothing but silence in the two crowds. The silence pressed on the space between Vikram’s shoulder blades. He hunched over the rail like an old man.
On the barge, a medic stepped forward. Two skadi slid open the ceiling of the tank with a grating noise. Some of the water splashed over and they stepped quickly back, as though it were poisonous.
The medic reached into the tank and lifted Eirik’s arms. He had to tip over the body first, and the movement dislodged more water. The medic rolled up Eirik’s sleeve. Vikram saw him examine a red band around the elbow. He nodded, looked at his watch, and said something to the officer wearing the sunglasses.
The loudspeakers crackled.
“The convict Eirik 9968 is pronounced dead, at oh-eleven hundred hours and thirteen minutes.”
Vikram stared at the body. He felt the steel band that had gripped his chest all day dissolve at last, and with it, the past three years. He was back on the decking, holding Mikkeli’s body. The pain was as sharp and as real as it had been on that day, but this time he knew that it would not disappear. It expanded in his ribs like a lungful of broken glass.
The City had won. They had won at the moment they arrested Eirik. They had won when Mikkeli burst into Vikram’s room, yelling, “Vik, get out, they’ve taken Eirik and we’re next!” He had found it so easy to believe in Eirik’s guilt. Underwater, that belief had manifested as rot, slowly eroding the will to survive—and for what? So that he could watch the New Horizon Movement die with a clear conscience?
Did he know himself at all?
The skadi had not replaced the lid of the tank. Their procedure from this point seemed unclear; they were standing about uncertainly. A seagull landed on the rim of the tank and a skad butted it away with his rifle. The medic had gone below deck.
The show was over. Vikram needed to get out. There were too many people. One by one, the other passengers came into focus, like ghosts emerging from the mist. The waterbus was hemmed in on every side.
“What will they do with the body?” the kid was asking.
Vikram crouched to see if the woman who had fainted was recovering. Some of her colour had returned. Recognising him, she gave a weak smile.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Do you need more water?”
“Thank you—I’m sorry, it was the crowds and so—so horrible—it’s over now?”
He wondered what were her reasons for coming today.
There was a scuffle at the front of the crowd. A man had pulled his row boat a little way out, past the barrier of buoys. He was pointing at the tank and yelling. Vikram could make out one word, over and over again.
Murderers! Murderers! Murderers!
Seagulls screeched overhead. Their cries merged with the man’s—
Another boat nudged forward. Others were urging the protestor to get back. Now the skadi had seen what was happening. Three of their own boats began powering towards the barrier.
A noise like scraping metal sheets came out of the loudspeakers, before the sound settled into speech.
“All westerners get behind the barrier. Get behind the barrier now.”
“Get back, you idiot,” Vikram muttered.
The skadi arrowed in. A shark-faced prow rammed the rowboat. The protestor clutched the rocking sides of the boat and managed to stay afloat.
“Murderers!” he yelled.
“Get back!” Vikram wasn’t the only one who called out. The shouts converged from every side. It was impossible to know who was saying what, whether they were yelling at the protestor to save himself or at the skadi to retreat.
Still defiant, the protestor raised his arm.
Vikram saw a parallel movement as the barrel of a rifle took aim at the man’s head.
There was a single shot.
A red fog filled Vikram’s head.
He never knew who made the first move. Maybe it was him after all. Maybe it was Nils or Drake, or someone else in the crowd. He locked his gaze on the speeder where the skad was now lowering his rifle. Vikram had only one intention. He was going to get to that boat. And when he got to it—
The red fog had him. He took no time to consider the ramifications of his actions. His movements seemed ahead of him as he leapt agilely over the rail of the waterbus, landing in the stern of a smaller rower. It rocked with the impact.
A hand grabbed his shoulder.
“What the fuck—”
Vikram was already gone. Scrambling from boat to boat, he bounded across the unstable carpet. Some tried to stop him. Others joined the push forward. The weight of the crowd was all around him, no longer dormant but a physical, surging force. Gaps of sea widened before his feet. He saw the waves surge as he jumped from boat to boat.
Boats crashed into one another. He was close. There were only three rows between him and the skadi speeder.
He could see the body of the protestor, slumped over the side of the rowboat. He clambered up onto the deck of a waterbus. Over the railings. He hit the deck rolling, vaulted over the other side, dropped onto the abandoned flat of a raft. He could see the skadi faces. He could almost see their eyes.
And then he saw another figure, someone making the exact manoeuvres that he was. Drake. She was headed for the same boat, and a skad had his rifle trained on her lanky figure.
Vikram almost lost his balance using the end of a canoe as a stepping stone. He took a flying leap onto a motor boat.
The skad’s rifle lifted.
Drake saw it. She faltered.
She was one boat ahead of him, on the buoy line between west and skadi. Vikram gathered all of his breath and jumped. He slammed into her. Her body flew sideways. He spun from the boat and plunged into the water.
Explosions boomed above. He opened his eyes underwater. Silvery bubble trails criss-crossed the water where the skadi were shooting freely. Drake’s face was a few metres away. Her arms arrowed as she dove towards him.
A man plunged into the water. His eyes were bared. A red flower bloomed in the water from a leak in his chest.
Stars, what are you doing, get out!
Vikram followed Drake’s lead, diving low, swimming underwater until his lungs were ready to burst.
They were under the boats. The dark was almost total, the occasional slice of light slashing weirdly down. His hands brushed hulls jagged with barnacles, slick with algae. They needed an exit. There was nothing. His lungs burned.
He felt a tug on his ankle. Drake, behind him. She jabbed her hand upwards. He saw the darker shadows of the hulls and understood. They were beneath two small boats, and there was a tiny gap where the sterns almost met. He contracted his body, wedged himself between the two slopes and pushed with his feet. Drake joined him. The space widened, marginally, then enough for her to slither up. He saw her boots exit the water. The boats knocked together once more.
His vision went fuzzy. The water was black.
A hand reached down and pulled his hair. He broke surface and gulped in huge draughts of oxygen. Water trickled from his nostrils. He grasped the sides of the two boats and hauled himself out. He managed to swing his legs free just as the boats collided once more. The crash resounded. His ears were ringing; above surface the noise was mayhem, gunfire, shouts, screams, crashes—