Nedforum: Eighth Tourmaline (part one)
First commentary box, first impressions.
Street scenes offering more to list under possibles, less of proofs. First view given in black and white. Anton detailed objects, people, relationships, left, right, upper; left, right, lower, instructing the software to cut and reassemble accordingly.
Reject narrative. Closer or largest person not the star. Coincidence of position.
Second view, natural color. A third view, at times, the daylight scene night after all.
His reports were expected to be not in the medium of list-making, but sensible, useful conclusions. His notes on paper occupied pages, nouns branching into sentences, passages highlighted. Who of importance might inquire after this cog of rare insight, the system prevented his guessing. But Anton wanted a number of things—Vonnie Swisshelm’s remorse (he would never take her back); Palma, at times forced to board in his house, come begging him for this and that; at other times, type his manuscripts, suffer his rejection of hers, answer his letters and phone. Herward, a visitor again, under orders again, to pretend offering an ear. In Anton’s friendless life, he had most wanted someone, a man, to walk about with.
Second job…first impression…
Three figures moving past the guarded entry, head down, each, long-strided. One, certainly, had got close enough, a pace or two, a body’s width…from the black, blank panel, the woman in commando sweater, biker-length pants, high socks and short boots, face obscured by her radio-helmet, nose under mirrored visor.
Anton did remind himself he knew this uniform; he knew the elastic tension, having worn it. The weapon under each cuff was a sonic lozenge, dealing collateral agonies if a bullet needed deflecting.
What was the guard to the passerby? Or the other two, outside the parked cars? The face was angled. A glance in curiosity could not be punished. Curiosity itself…no…
Or yes. He wheeled back, and the movement led to an eyelock with his tablemate. She had trained him; he could ask her a question.
“Work it out for yourself, Anton. But…” A smile, and she relented. “Keep still, please. Don’t go squeaking your chair over the tiles like that.”
The face he returned apology for the smile that never came. “Thinking with my arse,” he said, joking anyway. “Sulya. We don’t attribute. But there are underlying causes, emotional states…if I were sorry about life, mad at the G.R.A., and…”
She wheeled herself to a better view of his screen. “How are they syncing the bombings? What if the pic has nothing to do with it?”
“That was how Palma and Frederick planned. They could stage an act without communicating. A token passed from one to the next…the person being ninety percent of the meaning. Token me, I take it one way, token you, you take it another way.”
“Oh, I don’t care. Palma is with them now. If this is news…why would it be? You know they beat everything they wanted out of me. They should blame her, twist her arm, if she’s keeping secrets.”
The antic came over him, the tendency to be short of breath, when he talked of torture and vengeance.
Sulya said, “Anton.”
“They’ve been picking off the guards. I was a guard, you know…because, not valued. Poor bitch there, not valued.”
“Tea break for you.”
The canteen sat well away from their building. A walk of a few blocks, a park cut through; here, both blooming flowers and a dusting of snow. A holiday feeling to stir nostalgia, yet no holiday. He couldn’t say to Sulya, “Look, the lights are out.”
The blue and white fairy-lights might always be there, snapped onto deep branches, a thing you would not rationally have gone seeking…only, for G.R.A. reasons, turned on today. The sky was heavy and the pavements wet. Spring Dismal Day, he thought. Everyone snug in their coats, their shoes and trousers of equal prosperity.
He interested the G.R.A., whether or not his willingness to tell on Palma was helpful to them. She had a ministry job now, something Sulya had had under Jocelyn.
“Love, love, love,” he mumbled.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Who’s that, speaking?” He gave his melodrama a bit of oomph, of acted gesture, wishing he did scare Sulya, that his inconsequence were less apparent than his oddness. “A woman at fault, who caused all this.”
“Oh, you’re on about the Jocelynists.”
She tugged him by the sleeve, and they jogged together, spying a short queue through the huge yellow windows. Anton took a sugar cola and both pastries offered. Sulya took tea and toast. Anton was much the thinner.
Yes, he could still have a friend, if Sulya held patient. She, of course, interested them. They worked, and breaked, and were monitored, side by side.
And it was consciousness, of the hours and duties…consciousness often, of isolation…that the reformers had come to impose. Why the canteen was not in the building. You stood from your seat. Most staff alone, not having a mate as Anton did, for the pumping of her. Stood, and unracked your coat. Went down the stairs, not flights enough to warrant a lift, and walked. Exercise. Ministry money not spent on amenities, easy in the old days to laugh at anyway, like in-house gyms.
You walked, you ate, your watch told you, go back. Carrying your purchases. You might be hungry and not, having to finish what you’d been given that morning, entitled to a second break. This was to decide and commit. Not to drift with a group and give no thought to it.
The alliance had watched Jocelyn’s plunder, watched his posturing. Was he serious, was it another of his jolly jokes for now, the speech proposing to invade a neighbor, commandeer all that in the nation he’d squandered? Gluttonize the spoils, send an army of POWs to crawl under the fallout of his bombs, as he reached for more? The nation was too large…for all its self-cannibalism, too strong…not to threaten the rest of the planet.
On Deliverance Day, the nation had woken blanketed in a radio silence, that crippled the military, each base left incommunicado, with only resources on hand. A relaying channel (from safe-to-safe satellite preserved) guided G.R.A. drones beaming bursts of electromagnetism, destroying cables, shutting down city after city. The alliance had triggered the hack, much of the code in place when components of the satellites were built. It had purchased from the circuit boards’ country of manufacture this knowledge, in a separately brokered peace.
And having sewn up all exits, the alliance at once announced the nation’s currency void. All transactions, unless in the new unit, invalid.
The notam was not listed for exchange. Billionaire Jocelynists found themselves penniless at a stroke. They could not, nor could banking algorithms meant to have triggered at a crisis call, contact any outside nation. They could not escape by plane or boat. Some bunkered; bombarded then, with a constant quakelike rumble. Some, whose fuel arrangements failed them, effectively vanished, a wisp of smoke seen to vent from a hole in the ground. Some tried the borders, in sad family caravans…but the hopes invested in laundering money through art and jewels depended on a lone 300 kilometer stretch not Alliance Zone, not Hidtha. The Hidtha would take any amount of pretty-to-look-at objects, but cheerfully counted them gifts.
Before utterly subdued—years Anton’s nineteenth and twentieth—Jocelynist cells had done mad, hideous things. Palma’s stringers ferried stories, the G.R.A. willing to allow so much of news as was deemed discouraging to resistance, to reach the capital. The state of the Jocelynist brain was foreign to Anton, and to the circle he sat near in the cafés.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)