Authors: E. J. Swift
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Fiction
He saw one boat forced beneath another. A man was crushed to death.
He saw a skad fall backwards with a knife lodged in his throat. Other skadi were pulling masks over their faces, launching canisters into the air. Gas. There was no way of avoiding it.
Drake was beside him. They were lying side by side on one end of a small fishing craft. The other occupants took no notice of them. They were engaged in their own vendetta, pointing and yelling at the skadi. Vikram and Drake exchanged no looks, no words. We’re idiots, Vikram thought. We’re bloody idiots.
He had been turned inside out in a day.
Breathing in chemicals, the gas worked fast. One by one his limbs seized until he lay, immobile except for his eyes.
Drenched, nauseous with the gas, Vikram finally allowed himself to look up.
He had landed up at the other end of the western crowd. Beyond the netting, directly across the square, rose one of the City towers. It was silver and fleeced in greenery. Two floors above the surface was a balcony, and on the balcony, watching, were the elite of Osiris.
He could see the man who had sentenced Eirik to death. Vikram knew who he was. Everyone in the west knew who he was. The man’s name was Feodor Rechnov, Councillor. Head of the first founding family in everything but name. His face was many metres away, disguised and protected by the faint shimmer of a defensive sonar shield. But Vikram knew those features as well as he knew his own.
Two younger men stood next to Feodor: the sons. They were slighter replicas of their father, well-dressed and rigidly postured. The daughter stood between them. Her famous red hair was covered, but her face was as white as salt.
Vikram wondered how Feodor Rechnov would feel if it were one of his own three children floating face down in the tank. Knowing, as every person in Osiris knew, the mechanics of drowning. Knowing that the body would be bloated. That if you pushed down on the chest, white foam would leak from the mouth and nostrils. The face would have swollen just enough to distort a memory that had been, until that moment, familiar as the skin on your own hand.
He wondered what Feodor would feel, unzipping the corpse of his son or his daughter. If he would grieve. If the man was capable of grief.
Sounds swept overhead—a whistle, shrill; the whoosh of a boat throwing up spray. Each separate noise seemed to arc through the air, leaving its echo like a sparkler or a yard of ribbon, so that the sky was painted in sound. Vikram sensed, throbbing distantly, just waiting for the gas’s effect to fade, the scrapes and bruises that caked his body. It was the same sounds, the same aches, the same red fog from three years before.
Time was unravelling. Keli was here. Eirik was here. Everyone was talking at once, past and present and future, a collision of time. With a final effort, Vikram wrenched his eyes back to the balcony.
The Rechnovs were leaving.
For a few precious moments, his head was clear. All we were was a breeze against a cyclone, he thought. The ideals argued and laughed over, the late-night plans laid so optimistically—they had really believed in themselves. He only saw it now, when it was too late. Because without a political platform, without visibility and words, they had nothing. The New Horizon Movement had never stood a chance.
Watching Feodor Rechnov turn away, Vikram felt a current shift inside of himself. A realization, distant but imperative.
This was where it had to stop. On a strange, pale skied autumn day, the City had crossed a line. And Vikram had woken up. Really woken up. The glass shards jostled in his chest, minute needles of memory and of pain. He knew that he would carry them now forever. Eirik was the first but he would not be the last. Everything they had been through, everything they had done—the starving winters, the riots and the border protests, his best friend’s death and Eirik’s execution—all of that was worthless unless they could convince one man to listen.
Then he thought: this is the west. There is no we. So it’s up to me. If I want to change anything, I have to start again. I have to rewrite the rules.
The chemicals in the gas seeped steadily through his veins with every breath he drew. Beside him, Drake lay inert. Dizziness overtook Vikram at last. His eyes closed, and his mind moved quietly away.
3 ¦ ADELAIDE
he had never seen anyone die before. Death was meant to be sudden. The condemned man clawed at the glass. He slipped and tried to get up and fell back down and the water erupted in bubbles as his hands smacked the water.
His panic was infectious. It made the air thick, the sea restless with cloud-capped waves. Overhead, colonies of birds formed dark helices as they swirled, some diving low over the crowd of western boats. Adelaide’s lungs tightened. She knew it was false; she could still breathe. In a matter of minutes that man would never be able to breathe again, and anyway his suffering should not affect her—if she felt anything, it ought to be satisfaction at justice being done. She knew all of this, but she stepped back, prepared then and there to leave.
A shoulder blocked her passage. She was wedged between Dmitri and Feodor, two solid boulders. Her eldest brother’s expression was inscrutable, even bored. On her other side, Feodor wore his usual faint scowl, intended to suggest burdens of responsibility far beyond the public imagination.
The man slipped again in the tank. How long would it take?
There would have been documents. Administration. The trial had been going on for years, so long that Adelaide could barely remember when it had begun. Somewhere along the line, a decision had been made to produce the showcase on the surface. Who had taken that final step—who had written
against the execution order? One of Feodor’s cronies? Was it her father himself?
The thought made her shiver; a chill that was nothing to do with the cold summer air. It was sickening. She wished she could faint, she would have welcomed nausea, but her legs continued to hold her up.
“You can’t expect me to watch this.”
She spoke quietly, but she knew they all heard.
“You can’t leave, Adelaide.” Dmitri was brusque. “If you leave now, that’s more of a statement than not coming at all.”
“But it’s monstrous,” she hissed.
“It’s not pleasant for any of us,” said Feodor. His lips barely moved as he spoke. “Public service rarely is. You should know that by now.”
“Then why isn’t mother here?”
“She’s not feeling well. And your grandfather, before you ask, is far too frail to stand for so long in the cold. You have no such excuse.”
“Think of what this man has done, Adelaide.” Linus’s voice was tight. He doesn’t like it either, she thought. But he’s still here. He contributed to this. “Think of the lives he has taken.”
“Yes,” she said. “I know. I know what he has done.”
She had seen the reports. Everyone in Osiris had seen the reports. Eirik 9968 had confessed to acts far more atrocious than what was being done to him today. He had killed people with bare hands and with knives; Eirik 9968 had not shown mercy. There were charges of false confessions eked from force-fed drugs; scarrings on the soles of feet.
There was a strange precision in the scene below: the four corners of the square, the buoys and the Home Guard speedboats cordoning the western crowd; a barge, solitary oblong in gunmetal water, its glass cube catching the light. The hooded figure stumbling within it.
He’s guilty. He deserves this. He must deserve it.
Except that his sentence had been orchestrated by her father. Glancing once more at his set, determined profile, she was suddenly certain that the method of execution was Feodor’s choice.
The Ngozis and the Dumays were grouped at the other end of the balcony. Each founding family formed a tight core. If one of them wished to leave, she could go with them. It only took an ally.
No one met her gaze.
A gun was fired and Adelaide jumped. The westerners were growing restless. The waterline was at the man’s neck.
She couldn’t watch any longer. She held her breath, trying to bring on a fit of dizziness. She waited for lines to split her vision, removing what was before her eyes, but nothing happened. She had to draw breath. When she exhaled, the air came out shakily.
“Adelaide?” Linus had noticed.
“I need to leave,” she said. “I’m going to have to leave.”
“Then do. If that’s really what you want.” Feodor’s voice was casual, but she heard the subtext.
You know the consequences.
She thought of the investigator and the transaction that had just been made from her bank account. She thought of the resources she would need.
I can’t abandon Axel.
The water in the tank rose. She focussed on the boat, counted the teeth of its shark face. They ran in two zigzag rows, thirty in the top, twenty seven in the bottom. But the tank drew her back. She watched it the way you walked in a ground-dream, observing the phenomenon but knowing, even as your foot brushed the grass, that the scene could not be real.
Adelaide had seen live fish pulled from the water in restaurants that writhed the way the dying man did now.
In his final moments she felt oddly absent, as though she were observing herself from a long way off. The man was drowning, and there were lines being drawn before her. She felt the chalk on her back. She felt very cold. She thought of the day of the Great Silence—the day they said the world had drowned. There were connections to be made, but she would not make them. One level of consciousness, the part that would allow her to sleep through future nights, the part that allowed her to breathe when the man down there could not, closed her mind quietly down. That was survival. Perhaps the condemned man had played the same trick, the night before, sitting in his cell. Had he wanted to remember everything or nothing?
The man was drowned. He floated to the top of the tank. Where his face would have been the zipped up hood pressed against the glass.
The frothing water subsided. He drifted. The tank looked serene.
She heard his name again on the loudspeaker. Eirik 9968.
What he was—
What he isn’t—
The birds circled and she shivered.
The medic pronounced him dead. She sensed a shift in the western crowd, their hostility sharpening.
A small rowboat ventured past the buoys. The rower was standing upright, shouting.
“What’s he saying?” Dmitri asked.
“He’s calling us murderers,” said Feodor.
A rippling movement ran through the crowd. The mass altered; as she watched, transfixed, the hundreds of individual figures turned into one vast contraction, heaving and surging towards the Home Guard boats. The Guards began to fire. At first they aimed into the air. Then they sprayed the water before the barrier with warning shots.
“Shit—” Linus swore. “Tell them to stop firing.”
Dmitri grabbed Adelaide’s shoulder and pushed her down. She got to her feet impatiently.
“I’m alright, Dmitri—”
She was pushed back.
“Keep down, Adelaide—”
Security formed a line in front of them all, blocking everyone’s view except Feodor’s. Linus, still standing, strained to see between their shoulders.
“Linus! Linus, what’s going on?”
“You’re perfectly safe.” The head of security spoke to Feodor. “The barrier is secure.”
“Then move,” snapped Feodor. “The last thing we want is for the terriers to think we’re afraid of them.”
The security reinforcements stepped aside and Adelaide got to her feet. In the chaos below, she began to see lines within the crowd. A man ran over the boats as though they were nothing more than an inconvenient obstacle course.
, she willed him. But there was nowhere for him to go. Others were making similar dashes—like rays returning to the sun, they were all set to converge on a point at the barrier. She followed, horrified but fascinated, as they drew nearer.
The Guards will kill them—
At the last moment, the man she had first noticed veered sharply to the left. He collided with another figure. They toppled into the sea and went under. She waited for them to surface, but they did not reappear. Water foamed where they had fallen. The noise of boats crashing together was punctuated by screams and gunshots.
“They’ll have to use gas,” remarked Dmitri. His hands, clasped behind him, were fidgeting. Adelaide could tell that he wanted to brush down his suit, but that would look indecorous. All three Rechnov men stood stiffly.
“They should have used it ten minutes ago,” said Feodor irritably. “Look at that rabble—and people question my judgement over today.”
The gas subdued the crowd. The Home Guard speeders continued to steam up and down the line. They had rounded up a few westerners on another boat and were systematically handcuffing them.
The mat of lifeless boats rocked as one. Vehicles at the edge gradually separated off and slunk back into the channels of drab western towers. A waterbus, tipping smaller boats aside, was trying to nudge a pathway out of the centre.
“What will they do now?” she asked.
“Don’t know. Don’t care,” said Dmitri. “Stars, it’s freezing out here. We must be done by now.”
Feodor glanced across at the Ngozis, who were being shepherded back inside. He nodded gruffly.
“Goran will take you back, Adelaide.”
“I don’t need an escort,” she said coldly. She hated Goran, and the way he crept about the family lodgings like a soft amphibian.
Feodor looked like he might hit her, but Linus stepped in. “Let her go, Father.”
“Thank you, Linus.”
A blast of wind hurried her inside. She collected her handbag from a carrier girl. She never came this far west; she would have to take the Crocodile shuttle line.
“Adelaide.” Linus caught up with her in the stairwell outside. His tone was stern but not unkind. She gave him a blank look. There was no point in offering words. Words were ammunition.
Linus hesitated before speaking again.
“Empty threats are useless,” he said at last. “I may not always agree with Father’s policies, but sometimes action is inevitable. I just want you to know that I wish it hadn’t been necessary.”
“And Adelaide.” His voice was different this time.
“Why should I need to be careful, Linus?”
Her brother did not answer, but she did not require a reply. Her thoughts were elsewhere. The dead were dead, but the missing were still out there, waiting to be found. The investigator she had employed was even now at work. In seven days, they would meet.
The shuttle lines were busy on her way home. As the pod skimmed east through its glowing chute, Adelaide leaned against the smooth fibreglass sides, watching her reflection flicker. She wondered who else on board had been watching the execution.
She wondered what Eirik 9968’s last thought had been.
I’d remember—I’d have to remember—
Axel, crouched in a myriad of broken glass.
Hiding behind a curtain, in the Domain with Axel, at the theatre with Tyr.
The Roof. The double-A parties.
She knew that from tomorrow she could not remember this day. She would relive it as she drank her late night voqua and watched without taking in a reel on the o’vis. If she slept tonight, the scene would haunt her dreams. But after tomorrow, today had to go. Today had never happened.