Authors: E. J. Swift
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Fiction
4 ¦ VIKRAM
ikram woke to a morning that was almost colourless in its brightness. He stretched, gradually persuading his reluctant limbs to leave blankets that were warm with body heat. The window-wall was wet with condensation and he wiped a patch clear. His hand came back dirty with grease.
In a couple of months, ice would freeze the window-wall shut. Days would come when he barely left the flat. He had let the place go. Mould sprouted in a corner of the ceiling and meandered down the walls. The tiny room pressed on his sanity.
With a jolt, he remembered that today was different. Today he was going east. Into the City.
His heartbeat quickened even as he tried to relax.
Can I really do this? Do I even want to?
You don’t have a choice
, he told himself firmly. He’d screwed up the order when it was delivered by hand—reading its solid formal prose had filled him with rage. But later he’d smoothed the letter out, read it again, thought about the implications. He’d wanted a political opportunity and here it was. Clearly it was no coincidence that after twelve months of writing letters, he had been granted an audience with the Council less than a week after the execution—but that did not give him an excuse.
The mayhem surrounding Eirik’s death must have struck a chord with the City as well as the west. Vikram—what was left of Horizon—was finally being taken seriously.
He made himself as presentable as he could, washing with cold water from a bucket and pulling on the best clothes he possessed. He used his knife and a sliver of mirror to shave. Brown eyes glanced back at him, a tiny scar above the right. Wariness was their resting expression. Couldn’t change that if he tried. His coat was a shapeless affair that would not impress anybody, but he was damned if he would sacrifice warmth for appearance. In any case, the coat came with Vikram, or Vikram had come with the coat. Somebody once told him it belonged to his father, and it might have done, but it might have belonged to some anonymous figure who had no connection to him at all.
He wound a scarf around his neck and rooted through his bag for gloves. He found only one. It seemed impossible to have lost the other amongst so few belongings, but time was tight and he had to leave without them. On the way out, he noticed again that the lock was weak.
It was a long trek downstairs. The lower lift had failed last month and so far nobody in the skyscraper had managed to lure out an engineer. The stairwells and corridors were busy. People sat smoking on the stairs and lounged in empty door frames, idly reiterating yesterday’s conversations. He smelled the distinctive aroma of manta. Eyes grazed Vikram as he passed. He kept his watch hidden beneath his sleeve. He could have flogged it for several hundred
or a few City credits, but he loved the watch and he wouldn’t give it up until he was desperate.
Ten floors down, he banged on an even less secure door. There was no response. He banged again, and this time heard an answering curse and someone staggering across the room. The door opened and Nils peered out. His eyes were bleary. A week-long beard shadowed his jaw.
“Vik. What are you doing here? It’s morning.”
“I’m going to the Eye Tower,” Vikram said. “To speak to the Council. The order came through two days ago, remember?”
Nils looked surprised. “I thought you weren’t going to go… I mean, after…”
Neither of them said Eirik’s name.
“I changed my mind,” said Vikram shortly.
Nils yawned. “Think you might be better off on your own.” There was a crash from the floor above. Nils winced and roared, “Shut the fuck up!” He turned back to Vikram, forced a laugh. “Floor twenty-six. I’m moving to twenty-nine, I hear they’ve got a working shower. Anyway, good luck, I suppose. You nervous?”
“Not exactly. What can they do to me?”
“Wouldn’t like to guess. Send you underwater?”
“Tried that already.”
The light-hearted tone fell flat. Nils’s fingers curled around the doorframe.
“Well, let me know how it goes. I’ll catch you later.”
The door shut. Another crash came from upstairs, followed by a yell. Vikram jogged down the remaining twenty-five floors to ocean level. He thought about Nils’s reaction. He wasn’t sure that his friend was entirely happy with Vikram’s decision—he hadn’t said so, not outright, but there had been an ambivalence in his eyes that was unlike Nils.
Outside, the cold punched him like a Tarctic wind. He cinched the belt of his coat tighter; the buckle was broken and it kept slipping. The floating deck that encircled each tower shifted beneath his feet. A man was shouting that his boat had been blocked in, but nobody could find the owner of the vehicle responsible. Squinting in the bright light, Vikram made his way to the east side of the decking, where a vandalized signpost marked the waterbus stop.
The queue jostled around him. As the decking rose and fell on the swells, those waiting kept their balance as one. He found himself looking at other people more carefully than usual. They were all ages and all heights, because the majority of westerners were unemployed, surviving on handouts from the City and their wits. Under hats and hoods the odd Boreal face stood out amongst the southerners, but they were all dressed the same, bulked up with as many layers as they could beg, borrow or otherwise acquire. Could he tell the Council that people had to steal clothes in order to keep warm, or would they assume that everyone in the west was a thief?
A cry went up as the waterbus was sighted. The surge forward knocked him off balance. He suppressed the desire to shove back and used the momentum to inch his way past a mother clutching a child in each hand.
The ticket collector stood wide across the boarding gate. The waterbus pulled in with tantalizing slowness. Vikram saw a girl in a yellow scarf duck under a man’s arm and sidle around an old woman. His heart jumped with the thought that it was Mikkeli, before he remembered, again, that it was impossible. The ticket collector braced himself as he unlocked the barrier.
Vikram pushed a few
into the ticket collector’s hand and fought his way into a place at the prow. On the landing stage, a squabble broke out among those left behind. As the waterbus angled around the circumference of 221-West, Vikram saw the man who had complained about being blocked in, crouched in his own boat, in the process of setting loose the offending vehicle. He was striking at the chain with a pickaxe.
The waterbus nosed into the main channel of the waterway. Vikram huddled over the rail watching the spit of spray. The western quarter of the city had never been finished, and when he glanced up he saw clumsily made, open bridges connecting building to building. Many of the graffitied towers were ringed by boats, homes to the very poor. On the outskirts, boats lined up like dominoes. Nobody could say for sure what was concealed within the rotting hulls. People went to the shanty-boat towns for drugs or women. They didn’t always come back.
He had to find a way to describe all of those problems. For months, he’d been composing a speech in his head. Now the carefully arranged lines were void. Events had overtaken him. He had to focus on the things that could be changed. He had to ignore what they had done to Eirik.
It was Drake who had told him to start writing again.
Gotta have a purpose, Vik. Gotta have something to do.
The subject of most of Vikram’s letters, and his primary focus today, was to ask for a winter aid programme. The most important thing he could secure would be repairs and insulation in the worst of the buildings. In winter, cold killed as many people as starvation. The last riots had been sparked by the City holding back food reserves. He would ask for kitchen boats too. And for restoration work to begin in the unremembered quarters.
How would the Council react? Would they deny the situation, pretend it was less severe? He was ready to argue.
He tried to recall Eirik’s advice, so readily available at the time, now distant through time and suppression. Eirik would have known exactly what to say.
At Market Circle, the hub of the western quarter, the ocean was almost invisible under its cover of boat traders and traffic. Vikram ducked as a gull skimmed low overhead. It came to rest atop a fry-boat selling hot squid, where many of the birds gathered, shuffling. Their cries pierced the clamour of human voices—selling, haggling, shrieking—that pursued the waterbus as it barged a way through the congestion.
People carried on. They had no choice.
On the other side of Market Circle, the waterbus began to lose passengers. It chugged past greenhouse towers and a recycling depot. Down a waterway clustered with rusting houseboats was Desalination Plant W-03, around which the decking bobbed quietly, as though nothing had ever happened. Still Vikram imagined he heard the splash, and he kept his eyes forward. They were approaching the border.
By the time the waterbus was in weapon range, only five people remained on board. Nervously, Vikram felt in his pocket for his day pass and the letter detailing his appointment with the Council. His ID had stood up to previous scrutiny, but he could never feel quite safe.
A narrow gap in the border mesh, barely wide enough to squeeze a waterbus through, allowed a clear glimpse of the glittering City. The checkpoint jetty ran out from the base of 774-West. Skadi boots rapped the decking. The skadi cradled their rifles with the loose, easy attachment one might assign to a fifth limb. They laughed and joked amongst themselves, but when their attention went westward, their expressions lapsed into something between inscrutability and a strange taut hunger. Vikram glanced quickly around and saw that the other passengers were trying to look as blank and dull as possible.
There were two inspecting officers. The first vaulted the waterbus rail and strode across the deck. His coat, heavy and black, swung deliberately free, revealing both a hand pistol and patches of storm-flecked camouflage. He checked the driver’s licence first. The rifle muzzle fell lazily at his side. Vikram was intensely aware of it. When his turn came, he held out his ID and the letter in silence.
The officer read it, his eyebrows raised. He let out a fat laugh.
“What the hell d’you think you’re doing there?”
Vikram was not sure if it was a rhetorical question or not, and judged it best to keep quiet. But one of the passengers gave him a tiny nudge, and when he looked up he found the officer still staring.
“I’m giving a presentation,” he said.
The officer laughed again, but with less humour this time. “Fuck presentations,” he said. “And fuck the Council. Or maybe that’s what you’ll have to do. Fuck them.” The idea clearly amused him, and this time his mirth was shared by a couple of men on the jetty. “You’re wasting your time, terrier,” he declared, and offered Vikram a jab in the thigh with his gun before ambling on to the next passenger, a young girl. Vikram had passed.
But there was a dispute over the girl’s papers, and they were delayed for twenty minutes while the officer sent one of his subordinates to make a call. He filled the time by pointing out targets for his men—a floating crate, a resting seabird. Shots crackled sporadically. The bird rose with a squawk of alarm. The skad who’d missed swore. It was typical of a skad to shoot birds for entertainment.
Vikram tried not to look at the men too closely, wary of recognising or being recognised. There was a large part of him that wanted to. The part that did idiotic things. The part that followed naked impulse.
Witnessing the execution had been more than stupid. It had stirred up old grievances that he had barely begun to control. He folded his arms, squeezing with his fingers until it hurt. He had a chance with the Council. And they had to listen—now, they had to listen.
The man came back with the order for clearance. Frowning, the second officer, still seated in a deckchair on the jetty, beckoned him over. The two conferred. Then the second officer pointed.
“You. Over here.”
His target was unclear, and the five passengers looked nervously down. He beckoned.
“You. Woman in the green scarf. Here.”
“That’s you, gullhead.” The officer still on deck hauled the woman out of the line. “Off the boat.”
“My papers are in order,” she protested.
“That’s for us to say.”
Vikram kept his eyes on the deck.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Get off, bitch, and you’ll find out. Or do you want me to throw you off?”
The woman’s face crumpled. As she climbed over the rail Vikram saw her hands were shaking. The officer followed her onto the jetty and waved the waterbus on. As he turned away, Vikram saw that his scarf was deliberately wrapped low to reveal the eye tattoo on the back of his neck.
The driver let out a ripple of curses as soon as the boat was out of earshot, whilst the other passengers grumbled. Vikram watched the forlorn figure of the woman left behind growing smaller. She was arguing with the officer. He hoped they wouldn’t hurt her. They always had that hunger in their eyes. As the waterbus crossed over the border, he had to fight back creeping tendrils of fear. The last time he had been at the mercy of Citizens, they’d put him underwater.
The old song came to him:
They’ll put you underwater where the sun will never rise
And the mud will take your tongue because you’ve told too many lies
The mud will eat your fingers and your toes and then your face
And then you’ll lose your head and disappear without a trace.
He knew what it was like to disappear.
“I’m half an hour late now,” one man said irritably. Yet again, Vikram checked his watch.
The passengers retreated into silence. Trust was a risk: best stick to your own problems. Vikram returned to the rail. The morning’s brightness had already dissolved and a fine rain was beginning to fall, dampening his clothes. The cold burrowed deep into his gloveless hands.
He watched a covered ferry glide past. The boat was in good repair, but passengers looked cross and miserable with their lot. Glancing up, Vikram saw the preferred highways: shuttle lines weaving from scraper to scraper, another network every twenty floors, all interlinking to form a vast, complex web. Within their translucent skeins, shuttle pods moved like beads of mercury on a string. He tried to imagine what it must be like to cross the city in one of those tubes, the feeling of enclosure, of privilege.