Authors: E. J. Swift
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Fiction
Ahead, the terminus was in sight. Vikram took a second waterbus, and within minutes found himself walking up one of the ten platforms which extended from 900-East like the points of a star.
The Eye Tower was the tallest skyscraper in Osiris and the most magnificent. Vikram had only ever seen pictures of it. Upon entering, he was thoroughly scanned and searched. Vikram showed the letter once again. Released into the building, he climbed two empty floors. It was a standard flood control device, although he saw no signs of water intrusion.
At the lobby, he stopped.
The riot of colour before him was giddying. Sunk into the floor was a vermilion mosaic, reflected many times over in the gigantic, gold-hued mirrors. Coniferous trees stretched up into the open core of the tower. Vikram stood on the mosaic tiles, under the trees, gazing up at the rough patterns of their bark, the slender needles that looked like tufts of hair. He touched one. It pricked his finger. It was real.
Surrounding the central lifts was an aquarium, two metres thick and fat with wildlife. As high as Vikram could see, the spiralling stairways and balconies looked in upon its undulating creatures.
He stepped into the lift with a bundle of people. He was the only one dressed in outdoor clothes. After initial glances at him, the Citizens averted their eyes diplomatically, one woman patting down her pale pink blouse as if it might have been dirtied by their brief proximity. As the lift swept upward he watched the fish floating in their glass jail. They were every colour of the rainbow: beautiful, darting things, but Vikram had an instant antipathy to the aquarium. It was still a cage.
He checked his watch furtively. In just under an hour he would be delivering his statement, persuading the Council that west Osiris was not just a convenient scrap heap, but a valid part of the City’s society. Could he describe the daily life of westerner? How could he explain freezing to death to people who had never been cold? The question occupied him all the way to the hundred and eleventh floor, through further security checks, into reception and within eyeshot of the vast doors to the Chambers, which were flanked by four uniformed guards.
He waited for nearly two hours before they admitted him. A receptionist told him that talks had been going on since ten o’clock, but offered no explanation for the delay. She showed him to a quiet room with a bowl of fruit piled luxuriously high and a machine that pulped the fruit to a juice. He peeled an orange. Its scent filled the air. He ate the fruit slowly, remembering that the few times Mikkeli had been able to get an orange, she insisted on removing the peel in one long coil whilst they all waited for a share, intoxicated by the scent.
“They’re ready for you.”
The interruption startled him. A woman stood in the doorway, looking expectant. She took his arm and steered him carefully, as if she expected him to break and run.
“The speaker will announce you,” she whispered. “Then you can speak. You have a presentation prepared?”
Vikram nodded. Of sorts. “I wasn’t given much notice—”
“I hear you’ve been writing letters for quite a time! I’m sure you have plenty to say. Turn and smile, will you?”
She swung him around. There was a flash. Vikram realized he had been photographed. He winced instinctively.
“That’s great, Syrah,” said a young man with floppy hair. They moved on.
“After your presentation, do not speak. The Council will debate. You don’t speak. Understand?”
“But what if I—”
“It’s protocol. Understand? It’s very important that you understand before I let you in there.”
He forced a smile. “Don’t speak. I get it. Thanks for the briefing.”
“You’re welcome.” She brushed his jumper down. He was acutely aware of its fraying edges and the grease he couldn’t wash out. “You look—oh well. You first.” She gave him a little push.
When he walked into the Chambers, his shoes cast hollow echoes. The room was round and windowless, formed entirely of pale stone with a smooth, polished texture and darker capillaries. Slender columns supported an empty balcony running its circumference. The ceiling arched up and up into a perfect dome. There were paintings on its panels, of sirens and dark-finned fish. He had never seen anything like it, and the thought that he might never again made him sad in a way he did not recognize.
The woman hassled him forward. He was taken to a podium. Now he saw the austere faces of the Council, assembled in rising crescent rows. The Speaker’s voice boomed from somewhere above and behind him.
“This is Mr Bai, who has requested to address you on some of the issues concerning west Osiris. He speaks on behalf of pressure group Horizon.”
It annoyed Vikram that they labelled it a pressure group rather than a reform group, but as Horizon’s sole remaining representative, he was hardly in a position to argue. From Eirik’s lessons, Vikram knew that the last group to be granted a hearing with the Council was the now dissolved Osiris Integration Movement, and their history was blemished.
As for the title, Vikram had no surname as far as he knew. He had made one up for his previous communications and for the purpose of today. In jail, like Eirik, he had been allotted a number.
“Please begin, Mr Bai,” said the Speaker. Vikram resisted the temptation to turn around.
“I’m not going to speak about Eirik 9968 today,” he said. When he spoke Eirik’s name a flicker of distaste ran around the Chambers, but Vikram’s voice remained steady. That gave him the courage to continue.
“Our opinions will hardly be the same and it seems pointless to resurrect a debate which has already been decided. Instead, I’d like to tell you about the real west—the west you know nothing about.”
He found that the acoustics of the Chambers carried his voice well. After a few minutes he almost forgot that he was addressing the Council, Osiris’s ruling elite. As their faces separated into individual imprints, he tried to force them out of their aloof curiosity. Primarily he spoke about poverty. He told them of diseases that scurried through the shanty towns and raced up the towers, claiming children and adults alike. The people he had seen coughing up their lungs with tuberculosis. The shortages of food and clothing. He described how a man looked when he froze to death. He told them of the hospice that struggled to care for those who had lost limbs to frostbite. He didn’t linger over crime, but told the Council what they already knew, that it was fuelled primarily by the needs of people who had nothing, and would not decrease until they had something. Then he laid out his arguments: what was needed now. An emergency winter aid programme. More accommodation, repair works and insulation for the uninhabitable buildings.
Then, because Eirik and Mikkeli had taught him that unless you demanded everything you got nothing, he tossed in his firework.
“Finally, Councillors, I would like to propose what some of you might think of as revolutionary.” There went the understatement of the year, he thought. “West Osiris is cordoned off from the rest of the city. We are separated from your facilities and your people by a military border. We are practically quarantined. I think the border has been here long enough, and I’m not the only one. It has to go.”
The cries of outrage were rising even as he uttered that last incendiary sentence.
“Is that all, Mr Bai?” the speaker nudged. Vikram heard a few sniggers from around the Chambers.
“And as soon as possible,” he shouted. He glanced back at the speaker. “That’s all for now.” His heart was beating fast. He sat down with no small sense of exhilaration.
“Open to the floor,” declared the speaker.
Furious debate was already under way, but the Council appeared to have certain rules and now one woman stood up to speak officially.
“The very notion
of demilitarizing the border is preposterous,” she said. “Mr Bai may not wish to speak of Eirik 9968—indeed I am surprised he dares mention the name—but I shall not flinch from it. The execution was a warning. Why was a warning necessary? Because the west have grown out of control. They cannot maintain order within their own quarter, never mind letting their violent antics rampant on the City.”
Vikram was ready to retort, but she raised her hand and her voice.
“I think one word is enough to reinforce my argument—Osuwa. Two skyscrapers blown open to the elements. And targeting the University—a place of learning, of mutual respect, not to mention those people trapped in the shuttle line where the explosion was set…”
“That was twenty-nine years ago,” argued someone else.
“We learn from history,” she snapped. “It has a clear enough line for us to read. First the greenhouse. Then Osuwa University and the New Western Osiris Front. The one occasion we did lower security, what happened? Alain and Helene Dumay were assassinated in broad daylight at the gliding race.”
“Grete Kaat was a rogue sympathiser.”
“Then we are even more at threat. If a rogue can murder a member of a founding family, just imagine what organized terrorists can do.”
“What about three years ago? You can’t say security was lax then, but it didn’t prevent riots.”
Another man stood up. “The June riots are precisely the reason we have to remain on our guard. Those attacks were completely unprovoked. Civilian lives were lost. We cannot allow any further incidents.”
Disregarding his instructions, Vikram leaned forward, his hands clenched together to stop any other physical movement that might betray him.
“People were starving that winter,” he said quietly. “They were desperate. They’ll be desperate again if you don’t help them. And Horizon is not another NWO, if that’s what you’re implying. Ninety-nine per cent of westerners completely condemn the NWO. So don’t insult us.”
“Mr Bai, you have had your chance to speak. It is now the Council’s turn.”
The Councillor who had spoken gave Vikram a cursory glance. “The westerner seems to be implying further violence is not only possible but probable. And he suggests we open our borders?”
“It’s worth considering the root causes of the June riots,” another voice said coolly. Vikram couldn’t locate the speaker.
“The rioters were westerners,” shouted the first woman. “What more do you need to hear? And they’ve had enough help from us. We have more important problems. The mining station on the north shelf, for a start. I’ve heard reports of serious machine malfunctions.”
“Greatly exaggerated reports—”
“Not from what I’ve heard—”
“The west is under our jurisdiction,” argued someone else. “We have a responsibility—”
“We have a responsibility to our own people, not to put them
“Exactly, do we want a repeat of three years ago?”
“I hardly think an aid programme is going to incite riots.” It was the cool voice, cutting across his colleagues again. Vikram searched for its origin. The speaker was a young man sitting several rows back. He leaned forward to emphasize his point. As he did, the light caught a hint of red in his hair, and Vikram suffered a shock of recognition. He had seen this man at the execution. He had been standing next to Feodor. It was one of the Rechnov sons.
There was a brief silence.
Then someone said tentatively, “There’re no spare resources for that kind of programme.”
“It has nothing to do with the border anyway.”
“Actually, it has everything to do with it,” the young Rechnov said. “I happen to agree with Mr Bai. The border should be demilitarized. However, I would be a fool to imagine that such a move might be taken today, by this Council. Nor do I think that the time is right. First the west needs development and support, and that is where the proposed winter aid programme through Mr Bai’s group comes in. Otherwise we will have another angry mob on our hands—no, Hildur, I am not talking about the NWO, seeing as we have zero evidence to support any current underground activity, I am talking about ordinary people growing angry—angry enough to act—and who can blame them?”
“And where do the resources for this aid programme come from?” A new voice, strong and powerful, spoke up from the opposite side of the room. This time it was easy to locate the speaker. All heads turned towards him. Vikram followed their direction and recognized this man instantly.
Nausea rose in his throat. Had he known, all along, that Feodor Rechnov would be here today? Probably. He hadn’t permitted himself to think about it.
Feodor was an imposing figure; Vikram had seen that before. Now, so much closer, he could see the grey threads in the thick hair, the slightly sallow complexion, and eyes that settled comfortably, with a keen relish, on any opponent, daring them to outstare.
But he doesn’t know me
, he thought.
I’m an alien to him.
“A simple case of reallocation,” said the son again. “The resources are there, we require only a good mathematician and a little imagination.”
“I see. And may I ask if you envisage the west developing further—perhaps to the same standards as the rest of the city?”
“Is there a reason why not? Is it Osiris doctrine to promote starvation and hypothermia?”
“I take your point,” said Feodor. The chambers had hushed for this debate between Rechnov and Rechnov. If he hadn’t known who they were, Vikram would have suspected he was observing a pair of regular antagonists. It made no sense. “Clearly we are not advocating poverty. Our city was not built with that intent—far from it. Nonetheless, Osiris has changed. We have been stretched beyond our resources, and we cannot offer the west the lifestyle of the City. False hope is a dangerous tool to employ.”
“You’re a defeatist, Feodor,” said the young man. His tone was dismissive, and Vikram allowed himself a small smile.
“I am a realist,” the other replied. “That is our job, to be realistic. To implement the feasible. East and west can never be integrated. Draw up your aid programmes if it appeases your conscience, but I guarantee the consequences will be more problematic than you imagine.”
“Consequences are always problematic. That doesn’t mean we should shy away from action. I tell you, we may choose to forget history, but it has not forgotten us, and nor will the west if we persist in flaunting our ignorance. We have executed one man—the threat, as some would say, has been eliminated. Now is our opportunity to show the west we can be generous.”