Tourmaline: Nedforum (part two)
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. Stood, and unracked your coat. Went down the stairs, not flights enough to warrant a lift, and walked. Exercise. Ministry money was not spent on amenities, rubbish like in-house gyms, easy to laugh at anyway.
You walked, you ate, your watch told you, go back. You scrambled to gather your purchases. You might be hungry and not, having to finish the work 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, 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 here? 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, they 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. In a separately brokered peace, the G.R.A. had purchased this knowledge from the circuit boards’ country of manufacture.
And having sewn up all exits, the alliance at once announced the nation’s currency void. All transactions, unless in the new unit, were invalid.
The Unit 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, to be bombarded with a constant quakelike rumble. Some, whose fuel arrangements failed them, 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 of the Alliance Zone, not Hidtha. The Hidtha would take any amount of pretty-to-look-at objects, but cheerfully counted them gifts.
Before they were utterly subdued, through Anton’s nineteenth and twentieth years, 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.
“Odd thing about them… You don’t call it nihilism. They hate nihilism. No, they actually want us guilt-ridden, as far as science can determine. They kill their own children, that’s our fault. We’ve failed our Jocs.” Laugh. “Forced them to it.”
The circle discussed; Anton audited.
But at times, he tapped a shoulder. “Frederick, if someone is arrested, send me.”
“Shut up, Anton.”
“I know Palma…”
“Oh, that’s right, is it? Knowing and being a bloody nuisance, not the same. If you knew her, you’d keep well away. Scribbling poetry! Can’t help it. She feels bad not finding some errand for you, and she feels bad not… You’re a stupid little git, that’s what. Don’t make a woman who has a thousand things to do, worry about killing you. Go kill yourself.”
The last, not so unfriendly as to feel meant. Frederick, among them, was Anton’s most-admired. He had left the table that day with his coffee paid for and the warm pleasure of Frederick’s knowing his name was Anton.
Yet he felt no shred of grief, today, that Frederick was dead.
Why not have said they were lovers? It would not carry back to him quite the humiliation, his memory of her visit to Cadwilliam, of cavorting at Palma’s feet, imagining her say it…
“I love you, Anton.”
If he’d known. If Frederick had thought of him as a human being, had told him a simple truth.
“Anton. Is this a difficult day for you?”
“What am I doing? Tell me what I’m doing.”
“You’re throttling that soda cup. And you haven’t had so much caffeine your hands ought to shake like that.”
“Ignore me. I’ll go back to work. That’s what they want me to do.”
He got to his feet, hands in his pockets, gave an irresolute twist towards the counter, reminded that he’d wanted several pastries to take back for afternoons, to take home. He was happy to punish Mrs. Leonhardt by not eating what she cooked. The mood came and went; this minute it came strongly. At no time did he much care for the woman. But the voice reached by telephone, when quieting down felt essential, repeated: “Anger arises when you’re jealous. When you’re afraid she will find some other Anton and you won’t have a mother any longer.”
The voice made him feel it was all true. It did not suggest this was his fault, but that he could bear it…that others bore it. “Sulya, can I buy you anything? Only one of us stand in line.”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)