The Revolution’s glorious promise of freedom has handsomely benefited a few, and deftly exploited the rest. In the City, history repeats itself, albeit in very different clothes. Subversives meet in secret to defy authority in pursuit of the truth.
Licking sticky crumbs off his fingers, Noam Shardan crumpled up the wrapper and dropped it down under the desk with the others. The problem was simple. The solution was not. The emitter wasn’t talking to the box and wouldn’t accept commands from the either the keyboard or the databoard. He was going to have to hack together some code and replace the emitter’s onboard programming so he could get it to respond the way he wanted it to. Otherwise, anything he fed into it would be picked up by any enforcer who happened to be listening.
Noam began opening multiple files on his Glass, snipping segments of code here and there and stringing it together in a new file. This could take all night.
“Noam, Mor Stelzak is here for his audio unit. Please tell me it’s ready.”
Noam shifted his considerable bulk on the stool, which was gradually becoming too small to comfortably support his backside, and made a gesture toward the waiting shelves. “Yellow tag. Invoice is attached.”
Rik breathed a grateful prayer. “I stay in business another day!” He collected the unit off the shelf. “How about the cooker control that came in last week? Have you had a chance to look at it yet?”
“Tomorrow,” Noam said, and scowled at the screen, hunting for an errant piece of punctuation that was messing up the string.
“I told the Chief it would be ready by tomorrow.”
“It will be. Tomorrow afternoon.”
“But if you haven’t even looked at it, how do you know? What if it needs parts?”
“It won’t. It’s the same fornikking thing. They all do it.”
“If you’re sure,” Rik said doubtfully.
“I’m sure. Go away.”
“I’m your employer! You can’t tell me to go away!”
“Your customer is waiting,” Noam reminded him reasonably. “And I’m busy.”
Noam fixed the string and ran a check on it, nodding with satisfaction when it came up clean. He reached into the cabinet above his head and pulled out a Sucrosluice. A couple of spare boards fell out with it, landing on his keyboard and typing random letters. “Scat.” He deleted the letters and picked up the boards, shoving them back into the cabinet. He popped open the Sucrosluice bottle and took a long drink.
Rik came back down the stairs. “Are you working on that contact project again?”
“Go away,” Noam said.
“Look, this is my shop! I’ve got a right to know what you’re doing down here.”
“I fix stuff and keep you in business,” Noam said.
“So what’s that?” Rik gestured at the pile of components strung together with cables.
“What I do in my spare time.”
“When you should be looking at that cooker control!”
Noam shook his head. “If I was doing that I’d be working. This is spare time.”
“This is trouble. You’re going to get us shunned.”
“Not if I do it right.”
“What if you don’t? What if you make a mistake?”
“I won’t,” Noam said.
“Rik, go away.”
Rik stood his ground, tucking a strand of thinning hair behind a large, protuberant ear well-suited to the task of holding back loose strands of hair. He picked up a fine-tipped pryer. “This work bench is a mess.”
Noam’s focus was on the string of code on the screen. He answered in a level, patient voice. “I know where everything is.”
“What if I had to do something down here? How would I find the tools?”
“You never do anything down here.”
“But what if I did?”
Noam ran a check on a string, swore, scanned it for errors, found one, fixed it, and ran the scan again. “You would give up and leave it for me to do, which is what you always do.”
“Look at that mess under there! We’ll get bugs if you don’t clean that up!”
“That’s something you could do down here,” Noam said, splicing in another string of code.
Rik glared furiously. “If your weird Pacideen friends come here again tonight, I’m not letting them in.”
“Then we’ll wait until you go home.”
“I forbid you to have those people in this shop!”
Noam took a deep breath and turned to face Rik. “I can find another shop easier than you can find another tech.”
“Don’t be too sure of that!”
“In this economy? With stuff breaking down more and more and new stuff too expensive for most people to afford? Techs as good as me can write their own ticket.”
Rik’s mouth tightened. “If this shop gets shunned, you’re out of a job, too! And it won’t be easy to find another shop then. You’ll have a rep!”
“Don’t worry. Look, it’s time to close. Just go count your receipts and think of all the money I made for you today.”
“Not that much,” Rik grumbled. “New repair stores opening all the time, owned by the Elite, with fancy advertising and credit plans.”
“But you have loyal customers who know if I fix it, it’s fixed right, and you won’t charge Elite store prices. You don’t get rich, but you stay in business and you stay independent. And that’s what you want, right? To keep your shop and run it like your father ran it and his father before him, right?”
“Uncle,” Rik mumbled. “All right. But make sure you lock up after your damn friends. And keep the lights turned out in the shop. Stay down here so nobody sees them. Don’t be attracting any attention!”
“That’s the plan,” Noam said, and returned to his keyboard.
Rik had been gone for more than an hour when Noam got a flag on his Glass. He clicked on it.
“We’re on our way. Be there in ten minutes.”
He waited nine before hoisting himself to his feet and going upstairs. The shop was tiny, with just the one door. There used to be a back door, but it got bricked up when the City put the new Quadro-Fight complex in. In an emergency, they could go up the back stairs, through the access door to the hallway where the bathrooms for the Exotic bar and lounge were, through the lounge and down the stairs to the street. Otherwise, all deliveries, customers, and after-hours visitations came through the front door of Rik’s Fix-All Shop.
The dim light that filtered through the displays in the front windows was sufficient to see by. Noam stood by the door, waited until he heard a voice outside, then unbolted the door and swung it open. “Did you bring the fries?”
“No, man, apples. They’re better for you.”
“Couldn’t make it. She sends her regards.”
They went downstairs, pulled out benches, boxes, and an extra stool, and sat around Noam’s repair room. Marc brought his own beverage, his trademark black ale, but his brother Gef accepted Noam’s offer of a Sucrosluice. Little May made a face and took one of Marc’s black ales. “Those things are poison,” she said, gesturing with the ale bottle towards Gef’s Sucrosluice.
“Hasn’t killed me yet,” Gef said cheerfully.
“Yeah, but you’ll grow up to look like Noam.” As a child, she’d been called “Little” May to distinguish her from her mother May, and the name stuck out of irony. Rangy and athletic, Little May was the tallest person in the room.
“Be nice,” Noam said, “or I won’t show you my new toy.”
“So, have you figured out how to make it work?” Marc asked, leaning forward.
“Almost. I’m working on modifying the signal that comes out of the emitter. I want it to be a tight beam, so when I direct it, there’s no signal leakage.”
“Good,” Marc said, “but no matter how tight the signal is, we still have the same problem. How do we get it out of the City? Where do we find a clear line of sight that is going to travel far enough without running the risk of being picked up by anybody on the inside?”
Noam grinned. “I figured that out. We don’t aim it out. We aim it down.”
“Down. Straight down.”
Comprehension dawned on Little May’s face. “The Subcity.”
“Wow,” Gef murmured. “You think there’s really anyone down there to receive it?”
“There’s supposed to be,” Marc said. “That was where the Elders retreated, right?”
Everybody looked towards Little May. She was the Pacideen with a pedigree, an expert on history and Elder lore. Her family were all direct descendents of the defenders of the City at the time of the Revolution, the loyalists who resisted the Liberation Forces of Hon Jermal. Over the years, the Liberationist version of history had taken over, creeping into the schools, into public discourse, original documents disappearing or turning up revised. The stirring, heroic battle to free humanity from Elder domination made a simple, wonderful story. It was what most people acknowledged as the truth.
The Pacideen kept alive a different version of history, one which painted the Revolution in much more ambiguous terms. Its cynical portrayal of Hon Jermal as a power-hungry opportunist cloaking his ambitions in idealistic rhetoric was not a popular one. Nor was it well received to argue that life under the Elders was really pretty comfortable, with a more equitable distribution of wealth and everyone receiving the basic necessities of housing, food and health care. To suggest that perhaps the Elders were not the enemies of humanity was to risk public disapproval. To try to argue, as the Pacideen did, that the City’s worst problems were on the inside, and the solutions lay in making contact with the outside, was to invite shunning.
“My understanding,” Little May said slowly, “is that the Elders that remained in the Subcity were the ones who resented most what was done to them in the Revolution. The ones who never forgave humanity for the atrocities and would never trust us again. The rest went out into the world to seek coexistence with the Freefolk.”
“But there’s like a whole big city down there, as big as what’s above ground,” Noam said.
“Maybe even bigger,” Little May said.
“So all we have to do is aim down, and we’re bound to reach somebody.”
“Yeah, but are they going to listen, that’s the problem,” Marc said. “It sounds like our audience down beneath us isn’t going to be too eager to hear what we’ve got to say.”
“But they’re Elders,” Noam insisted. “They won’t just ignore us. They’ll listen, even if they aren’t happy about it. Come on, they spared our lives, right?” He looked to May for confirmation. She nodded.
“Contrary to the history books, Hon Jermal didn’t defeat them. They withdrew. They had fantastically superior weapons and could have wiped us out completely, but they chose not to. They believed war was immoral and genocide was an abomination. They’d rather give up the City than be guilty of the atrocities that the Liberation Forces were guilty of.”
“Right!” Noam said. “Now, are beings like that going to just ignore a sincere plea for contact? To talk things out?”
“They won’t ignore it,” Marc said. “But they might just tell us to go fornik ourselves.”
“Still, it’s worth a try, isn’t it?” Gef said. “The worst that can happen is we get flipped off.”
“The worst that can happen is we get caught,” Marc said. “But I agree we ought to try.”
Noam slapped the work bench with vindicated approval. “Yes! I think I can have the emitter working in a day or two.”
“Great,” Marc said. “So once we get it going, what do we say? What message do we send down there to a bunch of Elders that likely hate our guts?”
A notorious and outspoken former musical performer turned political activist has just won an election upset. Jolt Barker has the charisma to make things happen. His old friend and former member of the band, composer Joh Zakjen, watches it all unfold, content to stay on the sidelines. But it cannot last.
Although there were three other districts up for election this cycle, District Seven effectively eclipsed them all. The unexpected upset in the race for Councilor Ren Torlis’s seat had taken over the news. Much to the consternation of the experts, the utter hysteria of the Council, the fury of the Elite and the breathless excitement of the news media, it looked like Jolt Barker was going to win handily. So handily that there would be no possibility of a recount, or any fiddling with the numbers. The great City Elite machine had been caught with its pants down. Joh chuckled and pulled over the keyboard. He keyed in Jolt’s link. He got campaign headquarters, and as he expected, it was chaos.
“Hey, Fearless Leader. You raped ‘em backwards and forwards.”
“Joh!” Jolt screamed into his handheld, “Oh, yow! Do you believe this? Forty-fornikking-three per cent! There’s no way they can invalidate this! We’re in! Hey, Joh, hold on, I got about twenty other calls coming in. Don’t close the link, I want to talk to you. God’s scat, this is in-fornikking-credible!”
Joh scanned the display, taking in the spectacle of the office, workers whooping, slugging back bottles of prime, slapping each other’s hands and hugging each other. Jolt was pacing around with his handheld pressed against his head, talking and gesturing wildly. A woman came rushing in and tackled him with a squealing embrace and he kissed her. Joh squinted at her but didn’t recognize her. Just Jolt’s squeeze of the week. Joh clicked over to the news report. They had Jolt at forty-two per cent, one point less than Jolt’s own tally, like one point would make a difference. Ren had a pathetic twenty-eight percent. Ro Marrose had polled a marginally more respectable thirty per cent. Joh took a sip of brandy, relishing the moment. A miracle like this wouldn’t happen again in a lifetime.
Another site was analyzing the reasons behind this astonishing upset, and brought up an image of Lael Torlis, stock footage of one of her speeches. They didn’t allow rallies anymore, citing safety and security reasons. But they couldn’t stop her from speaking in clubs without violating the Prime Directive, the right of a business to lawfully earn and keep a profit. Nobody could touch the Prime Directive; it was one of the first pieces of legislation pushed through by Hon Jermal after the Revolution. The Right to Profit was the cornerstone of their great society. As long as people would pay to hear Lael Torlis speak, there would be those eager to provide a venue and collect the gold.
And there were plenty of people eager to see her in person, willing to hand over plenty for the privilege. That long hair and a face to die for, body like a young elk that moved like a dancer, and the way she could make an audience feel her voice, catch and hold their attention like a bonfire. Everything she said rang with the purest pitch of truth, and soared with possibilities. People wanted to hear that; they wanted to hear that their world could be bigger, better, that they could aspire to great dreams. They wanted an alternative to the fantasies of the Glass and the cynical propaganda of the News. Lael spoke of the unspeakable, of reaching out beyond the City, beyond the borders, to explore the world, to cry out in friendship to those waiting outside. She made the City seem closed, a claustrophobic trap, crumbling and doomed, which was exactly how more and more people were experiencing it. She validated their dissatisfactions where the Authorities dismissed and denied them. It was a powerful message.
In this particular clip she was mentioning Jolt Barker by name, linking him with the brave dream she envisioned, inviting her audience to share that dream, to take a step towards it by voting for him. Then the image was eclipsed by two news commentators speculating soberly to one another about how much speeches such as this had influenced the vote.
“Take a wild guess, turkeys!” Joh murmured with a grin.
He clicked back onto Jolt’s campaign headquarters. Jolt was still talking animatedly on the handheld, his arm around the woman, stopping now and then to say something to one of his staff. Joh smiled at his old friend, but there was a certain sadness in his smile. It couldn’t last. This victory, this triumph of the good guys, was only temporary. It was a mistake, an aberration, and the Elite would quickly take steps to correct it. This was not, as the idealists thought, the beginning of great change, the time for justice at last at hand. There was no profit in justice. Those in power would not permit it. But for now, for right at this moment, it was glorious.
Jolt pressed a key on the handheld and turned to face the imager. “Joh! Hey!”
“Hey, yourself,” Joh said with a grin.
“I owe this all to you!”
“Don’t you remember? Last year! I was ranting at you about something or other, and you said, ‘Jolt, you’ve got such a big mouth, why don’t you run for office?’ So I did! Oh, yow, I am going to blow that Council apart! They aren’t going to know what hit ‘em!”
“I’m sure the Elite are wetting their chairs at the thought,” Joh said.
“What committee do you want to be on? Name it, Joh, I’ll get you on!”
“Oh, no thanks. I’d just as soon stick to music and leave the politics to you.”
“Look, we’re having a bash later at the Club Red. You’ve gotta be there!”
Joh smiled. After ten years playing keyboard for Naked Truth he had had his fill of wild parties. But Jolt never seemed to get enough. He was a juggernaut. “Thanks, anyway. Maybe I’ll catch up with you later. When things quiet down a bit.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing!”
“Yeah, I do. Give me a call. I’ll be watching for you on the news.”
Joh cocked his head a moment thoughtfully. He squinted at the Glass which, in its neutral mode, immediately began bringing up commercial announcements on the screen. Annoyed, he called up an image to cover it. Then he keyed in the code for another link. A message transposed itself over the image on the screen: “This is not a full service link. Recipient is using an obsolete digital unit. Please advise that an upgrade to smooth string is available for only–” Joh impatiently deleted the message. People who refused to carry anything more than an old-style digital handheld did so deliberately. They wanted no part of an upgrade. Another message stubbornly appeared. “Audio message only. Insufficient data to create visual image. This is not a full service link. Recipient–”
“Oh, go fornik yourself,” Joh muttered and deleted the message. Finally, the link went through and he heard Lael’s voice answering.
“Hi, it’s me.”
“Oh, hi Joh.”
“You hear the news?”
“Yeah, I did. I was over at Drell’s place watching on her Glass.”
“Amazing, isn’t it?”
“I really can’t believe it. Jolt must be dancing on the ceiling.”
Joh chuckled. “That he is. You know, you ought to give him a call.”
“I am. Congratulate him. He’d be delighted.”
“Oh, sure. Funny joke. Ha, ha.”
“Come on, it’s been long enough. Life goes on, right?”
“Joh, give it up. I’d be more likely to call up Ren to console him. The pompous ass.”
“He must be ready to jump off a building. This is about the most humiliating way to retire anybody could have come up with.”
“No scat. Listen, when is a good time to come by your place? I’ve got some big news.”
“Bigger than this?”
“Yow, I can’t wait. How about first thing tomorrow?”
“If I can get away. I’ll let you know.”
“I’ll be here.”
Joh checked a couple other things while he had the Glass up, then shut it down and closed the curtain over it. Getting up from the chair, he stretched, went to the bar and refilled his brandy. Then he sat down again at the keyboard–this time, a musical one. When Naked Truth made it big, he commissioned the creation of an enormous, hand-crafted, pounded-string resonator, completely acoustic. It was just like the ones made before the Revolution, the kind played by all those pre-Revolution composers when they wrote those very out-of-style and nearly forgotten masterpieces in the god forbid!–Elder tradition. It was still his favorite instrument. He turned down the lights in the room and turned on the lamp above the keyboard, and began to play, filling the room with rich, rolling chords and melodies. He closed his eyes, letting himself savor it, the pleasure of the moment, of Jolt’s triumph, of this marvelous, fleeting victory. The feeling flowed into his fingers and they found the sounds to express it.
That’s what life is all about, he thought. Finding a way to get from each such marvelous moment to the next, to endure the trough in between, to celebrate the swell of joy. This is the moment. Ah! Bright wings!
The lost sample of Apollodoria’s deadly weapon has been used by an Elder bent on vengeance for the slaughter of her people in the Bloody Revolution, and Jolt Barker was her vector and first victim. Nearly blind with grief, Lael Torlis has returned from the City with a single focus: save Joh.
By her instruments, Galamandria was about a mile north of the rendezvous site. So far, no signs of attack. She slowed, picking her way through the obstacle course of tree limbs, and then landed, cutting her engines to a quiet idle. Now she would wait.
I will cheat Dracomaya of this one victim. So much I cannot do. So much I cannot change. I can do this.
One life. Can one life make so much difference, when so many others are being lost? Perhaps it is precisely that hideous hemorrhaging of life into death that makes this gesture so critically important. One of our own has done this to them. We must prove with every possible measure that we share the horror they feel at this betrayal. Sansaramia betrayed us as much as them. This one life is more than just a single human out of many. This person must live. Dracomaya will not triumph here. This is my blow against her poison.
Two humans picked their way around fallen tree limbs in the road. They saw the transport and hurried towards it. One of them Galamandria recognized as Lael. The other must be the one she was here to save. Galamandria took stock of him as he got closer, this human she had risked this rescue for. He looked almost comical in that battered, oversized coat and shapeless hat, clutching a clothescase and limping along. Pale and thin, unused to the outdoors and the stresses of physical activity, a typical City human. But somehow significant.
“You made good time!” she called to them, stepping out of the vehicle.
“Finding our way through the woods is much easier during the day,” Lael replied.
“Did you have any trouble crossing the Frontier?”
Lael reached Galamandria before her companion, who was moving slowly, clearly exhausted. “Security spotted us crawling under the fence,” Lael said. “They shot at us, but didn’t bother to try to follow us into the woods.” She turned to her companion, limping up next to her. “This is Joh Zakjen. Joh, this is Mistress Galamandria.”
He was breathing heavily; his face was scratched and dirty. But he tried to muster what dignity he could, bowing respectfully. “I’m honored to meet you,” he said in a quiet voice. His attitude was shy, even timid. A very different person than Jolt Barker. Galamandria wondered what was so special about him. Suddenly he turned his head, unable to repress a sharp, hacking cough.
A rage of frustrated protest rose up in Galamandria. “He’s gone into second stage,” she said, cursing the truth of it.
“It doesn’t matter,” Lael said defiantly. “I want to take him back to the Subcity. They’ve got to try to save him.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” he said. There was such a mournful aspect of helpless apology about him. Even if she hadn’t already firmly decided the matter, she couldn’t have brought herself to leave him behind. She saw embodied in him all the ghosts of City folk who didn’t deserve this doom. His eyes reminded her of a hunted animal, trapped and resigned to its fate, exhausted from trying to escape and unable to run anymore. He knew he had little chance of survival. It was Lael who was behind this desperate attempt; her energy, her passion drove him to keep going, to stand here now. He wouldn’t fight for himself; he was obviously not a fighter. Yet his outwardly humble aspect concealed something within. Galamandria wondered what was in that clothescase he held with both hands, its weight evidenced in the way he held it, this odd, thin, homely human that Lael was so determined to save.
Suddenly a loud whistle cut through the air and the trees behind them exploded into flame. “Bloody balls!” Galamandria swore. “Into the transport! Now!”
Lael grabbed Joh’s arm and pulled him along. He was staring at the flaming trees in shocked fascination. “Come on, they’re firing on us!”
“Oh,” he said stupidly, stumbling and scrambling up into the transport. His fatigued arm finally gave way and he dropped the clothescase. He turned to retrieve it.
“No time!” Lael shouted, “Get in!”
“No!” he screamed, suddenly very much full of passion and fight. He jerked his arm away from her and bolted for the clothescase, grabbing it and hauling it up into the transport. Another whistle cut the air as Galamandria powered up the engines. The shock of the impact knocked the transport sideways. Lael held on to Joh to keep him from being thrown out of the vehicle. She was slammed against the door and she yelped in pain. The transport began to rise into the air, shuddering, off-balance. Galamandria fought with the controls to regain stability. She glanced over her shoulder to see whether the humans were in, and cursed furiously.
“I’ve got him!” Lael said between clenched teeth. But it was clear she wasn’t going to be able to pull him in. He was holding on to her with one hand, clutching that damned clothescase with the other, refusing to let go.
All or nothing, Galamandria thought. Bracing the stabilizer with one knee, she lunged over to grab the back of Lael’s backpack, jerking her in and Joh with her. There was another explosion, but further away, overshot. Galamandria slid back into the seat again and took hold of the controls. Lael pulled Joh’s legs in and slammed the door and locked it, then slid into the other seat, looking out the window. “Can they hit you while you’re moving?” she asked.
“If they are very lucky and I am not,” Galamandria replied. She glanced at the space behind the seat. Their passenger was curled up on the floor, his eyes squeezed shut, hugging the clothescase against his chest, gasping for breath. “What has he got in that bloody clothescase?” Galamandria demanded.
Lael smiled apologetically. “Music,” she said. “Disks and sheet music and manuscripts, mostly.”
“Music?” Galamandria echoed incredulously. “He is a musician?”
Lael nodded. She leaned over the back of the seat and reached down, touching his shoulder gently. “It’s going to be okay, Joh. We’re going to be all right.”
“Sure,” he mumbled, not moving or opening his eyes.