The Electric Messiah

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Chapter 6

It was evening as they finally drew near to the city of Farwell, and the first thing Malone noticed, as he leaned his head out the carriage window, was a glow on the horizon where the light from thousands of streetlamps and electric candles, shining our from the windows of a thousand buildings, were reflected from the underside of the low cloud that covered the darkening sky. It was the first time that he had ever been to the capital of the Kelvon Empire, and he felt fear stirring inside him at this flagrant demonstration of wealth, apparent to the travellers before a single building of the great city was visible beyond the low hills that rose ahead of them.

Arwin Tsocco felt a little guilty at the pleasure and satisfaction the younger man's awe was giving him, but only a little. This was his city they were approaching, after all, and he felt a proprietorial pride at his guest's reaction, as if he had built the city with his own hands, brick by brick. “Farwell” he couldn’t resist saying. “The greatest city in the world! Heart of the greatest empire in the world! They say that even Kings and Presidents feel humbled and overawed by their first sight of it!”

“It looks like a great forest fire ahead of us! That's just the lights of the city? What must the city itself be like?”

“It's unfortunate that we’ll be arriving after dark. If you were to see it in the full light of day you would be even more impressed, I expect. I’ve been to many distant parts of the world, and everywhere I go people have heard of the Black and Gold towers of Farwell.”

“Gold?” said Malone in astonishment. “They say the streets of Farwell are paved with gold. I thought it was just a saying.”

“Well, it is,” admitted the former ambassador. “And the gold stripes on the towers are just paint, but there’s plenty of genuine wealth in Farwell. The streetlights are just the most visible manifestation of that.”

“Marboll has streetlights as well. Kings Street, Parade Street.”

“Gas lamps,” said the Brigadier, speaking for the first time all day. He was a man of great, long silences, and it wasn't unusual for whole days to pass without him speaking a single word. “Those are electric candles. Every street has its own generator, providing electricity. There's a whole profession in that city. The generator men, whose job is to man and maintain the generators. Hundreds of them.”

“Wouldn’t just one big generator be better?” said Malone.

“Theoretically,” replied the Brigadier, “but electricity can only be transmitted a few hundred yards through copper cables. It gets weaker and weaker the further it goes until there’s nothing left of it, so every street has to have its own generator. It seems to be a fundamental limitation of electricity.”

“I had no idea you were knowledgeable in the physical sciences,” said Arwin, impressed.

“You pick up a thing or two as you go through life. A wise man keeps his eyes and ears open at all times.” He gave Malone a meaningful look and the younger man nodded, trying to hide a smile of amusement.

“The street lamp programme was a reaction to the rise in violent street crime,” continued the Brigadier. “Muggings, murders. As the heart of the Empire, many of the citizens were fabulously wealthy, and although they went most places in carriages with guards, you never knew who might be lurking in the dark shadows when you reached your destination and stepped out onto the pavement. One thrust with a knife and you might be lying dead on the ground and the culprit running off with your purse before your guards had time to react. The gangs were running wild, becoming more and more powerful. Huge areas of the city became no go areas for the city guard. Members of the Constituent Assembly started hiring their own private security forces, it threatened to become open warfare on the streets. Eventually the Emperor embarked upon a massive reform program. He doubled the size of the guard, increased the number of crimes carrying the death penalty, and he ordered that the streets be lit. It cost a fortune, but it was either that or watch the capital's wealth ebb away to the provinces.

“Your knowledge of my city's history is impressive,” said Arwin, a little testily.

“As I said, you pick things up. My first visit to Farwell was as a member of Minister Spordell's escort, back in my army days. The city was pleasant enough in the daytime, but at night the streets were dark and empty. No-one dared go out after dark, except the criminals and the truly desperate...”

“But that was then,” interrupted Arwin irritably. “Now, the streets are safe and well lit, the city is happy and prosperous, a shining beacon to the world.” He stared at the Brigadier, as if daring him to contradict him. The familiar ghost of a smile appeared on the Brigadier’s face again, and he nodded. “Yes, of course,” he said. “Please forgive me, I forget myself sometimes. I didn’t mean to disrespect your home city.”

“You didn't. I’m sorry, I just have this bad habit of taking any criticism of my country personally, but what you said was the truth. The Empire has had serious problems in the past. Indeed, it still has problems today. We learned that back in Invermirren.”

Malone, only half paying attention to the conversation, was still looking out through the carriage window as it clattered and bounced its way along the road, and the two older men heard him give a gasp of awe as they created the hill and he saw the city ahead of them for the first time. On the other side of the carriage, the Brigadier leaned against the door to get a better look ahead. Arwin, sitting on the front seat with his back to the city, couldn’t see it, but he’d seen it many times before and smiled to himself at their reaction. Say what you like about its history, he thought, but It’s still the greatest city in the world.

Farwell was a walled city, but it had been over a hundred years since there had been a serious threat of invasion and the city had expanded beyond the walls creating an urban sprawl that spread for over a mile across what had once been good Farming land. The outwall districts, as they were known, were mainly inhabited by the working classes and mainly consisted of unattractive brick dwellings with the occasional shopping area, school, hospital and drinking establishment. These areas were not lit, except by the glow of candles shining through those windows whose curtains weren’t drawn, and so the whole area was cloaked in the darkness of the night. Malone was aware that they were entering a built up area, but he could barely see it and so he ignored it. What held his attention lay beyond, on the other side of the impressively huge city wall.

Towers rose into the sky. They must have been over five hundred feet tall and would have been almost invisible against the night sky except that windows blazed with electric light. It spilled out to illuminate a patch of the outer wall and the gold stripes that adorned the towers around them, so that the entire centre of the city was lit up like some impossibly huge abstract sculpture. More than two miles across, with the taller towers in the centre, the spectacle stretched across their field of view ahead of them, constantly changing as people moved around, turning on lights as they entered rooms, turning them off as they left. A living city, as active at night as during the day, and all around, drifting around and between the towers like fish in a coral reef, were Radiants. Dozens of them, more than Malone had ever seen in one place. Looking from this distance as if some of the brilliant windows had separated from the towers to which they had previously belonged and had taken on an independent life of their own.

“It's incredible!” The batman breathed in astonishment, while the two older men shared glances of amusement. “It's beautiful! It doesn’t look like something that people made! It doesn't seem possible that people could have made that!”

“I suppose there are advantages to getting your first sight of it at night after all” said Arwin. “It's not quite as impressive as in the daytime, but at night they have a certain ethereal quality that’s appreciated by people with a more spiritual disposition. I'm sure that Marboll would be almost as impressive at night if you used electricity as much as we do.”

“King Leothan has other priorities,” replied the Brigadier. “Crime, employment. Defending the Kingdom against Carrow. He is a passionate supporter of the sciences, but believes that widespread use of electricity is a luxury that Helberion cannot yet afford.”

“A strange attitude for the monarch of a country that relies so much upon the manufacture of weapons and machinery for its economic survival. And isn't it true that some of the foremost pioneers in electrical research live in your country?”

“Yes, and he takes a keen interest in their inventions and achievements, but he still believes that using electricity to illuminate a building when gas and candles can do the job perfectly adequately is not a priority.”

“Even to the point where his own palace is still lit with candles.”

“Indeed. He likes to set an example to his people. He shows them that he is spending the Kingdom's money in ways that benefit the whole Kingdom, not just himself.”

“He has a very splendid carriage for a man who spends money only to benefit the Kingdom. And a fine collection jewellery and artworks.”

“Most of that dates from the days of Carrow rule, before Helberion even existed, as you well know.” The former ambassador nodded to concede the point.

“Why are the buildings so dark?” asked Malone. “The gold stripes show up splendidly, but you can hardly see the brickwork of the buildings themselves.”

“That's not brickwork,” said Arwin. “Brick isn't nearly strong enough to support such tall buildings. They're made of basalt.”

“What's that?”

“A kind of rock. You find it everywhere, if you dig down far enough. Everywhere in this part of the world, anyway. You have to go a long way to find a place that hasn’t got basalt under it.”

“Including Helberion?” asked Malone.

“I believe so. I vaguely remember talking to a geologist once, years ago. At an Imperial garden party of some kind, I think. He was there because they’d built a fort in one of the southern provinces out of basalt. Yes, I remember now. They’d brought him in on the project because they wanted to know whether there was basalt in that part of the country. It saved them having to bring it in at huge expense, you see. Making money for the Empire, or saving the Empire money, which is the same thing really, is a good way of getting invited to garden parties. Anyway, he told me there was basalt across half the known world. A lot of it! Some of the deposits are over a mile thick!”

“Basalt is a volcanic rock, isn't it?” asked the Brigadier.

“Yes, I believe so. There must have been some kind of really huge volcanic event some time in the past. A long time in the past. The basalt is buried under a lot of younger rock.”

“A reassuring thought,” said the Brigadier, but there was a look on his face that said he wasn't reassured. Malone looked at him, the Brigadier looked back, and a moment of silent communication took place between them. He's thinking of the volcano in Mekrol, the batman realised. The one the Radiants made erupt, to destroy Tollbine. But the volcanic event that made all this basalt must have been thousands of times bigger, and if the Radiants could do something like that, they wouldn’t fear us the way the Brigadier thinks they do. The Brigadier nodded as if he’d read the thought out of Malone's head, and this time he did look reassured.

The road through the outwall districts was almost deserted at this time of night, but they passed the occasional wagon carrying goods and people as they trundled past the bare brick buildings, and the drivers stared curiously at the garishly decorated carriage and its escort of armed men. The Brigadier watched their expressions carefully. Were they expressing fear or anger at these representatives of power and authority, or did they have the amused contempt that people living in a free, fairly governed country almost always had for those in power? Had the troubles afflicting the provinces spread to the very core of the Empire? For the most part it was too dark to see their faces, but as they passed a squalid building set a little way back from the road that the Brigadier suspected might be an opium den, to judge by the small knot of grimy, pitiful looking men standing just outside, the door opened to allow a man to exit and gas light spilled out to illuminate the driver of a hay wagon. The man’s expression was difficult to read, but there was a hardness in his eyes that disturbed the Brigadier and made his heart sink. Don't read too much into it, he told himself. It was just one man. You'll have plenty of time to gauge the mood of the city during our time here.

Other figures lurked in the darkness. Criminals, almost certainly. Either waiting for a hapless victim to pass by or just taking the air while choosing a likely house to burgle. This didn't bother the Brigadier, though. All large cities, including Marboll, had criminals, and their absence would have bothered him far more than the most dangerous, most ruthless criminal. A rich city that had no crime would have had something seriously wrong with it, and only serious, important business would have enticed him to remain within its bounds.

“Don't stare,” he heard Arwin tell Malone. “It makes them feel like animals in a zoo. You'll get bricks thrown at us, and then the guard will chase after them. Arrest them, maybe kill them if they resist. All kinds of unpleasantness. You can look, but don't be obvious about it. Watch them out of the corner of your eyes.” He sensed his batman nodding his reply.

A few moments later, though, they reached the gate in the city wall. The gates were closed, with a small crowd of travellers camped in front of them, waiting for morning when they would open again, but two of their guard escort shooed them out of the way so that the carriage could get past. The driver then got down from his seat on the front of the carriage and rapped on the hatch beside the door. Malone watched in fascination as the hatch opened and the driver had a conversation with the face on the other side. The driver passed some papers through, the face looked at them, then nodded, handed the papers back and closed the hatch again. The driver re-took his place on the carriage, and when the gates creaked slowly open he slapped the reins and the horses pulled the wagon through.

The wall turned out to be twenty feet thick at the base, and the gate led into a short tunnel through to the other side. The first thing they noticed as they entered what most Empire citizens considered the city proper was light. The harsh, actinic glare of hundreds of arc lights standing on top of tall poles in the streets and shining out through windows in the low buildings that lined the street. Many more people walked the streets here than in the outwall districts, striding confidently along the brilliantly lit streets under the watchful eyes of the smartly uniformed guardsmen who stood on every street corner. People came and went from the buildings, some of which were shops doing some late night business before closing, others of which were drinking establishments from which kaystring music came drifting, enticing any passer by to enter to enjoy the friendly atmosphere.

There were no towers in sight, which confused Malone for a moment until he realised that the lower buildings that formed the bulk of the city were hiding them from view. On a hunch, he opened the carriage door and stood in the doorway as the vehicle continued to clatter along the street of crushed gravel. From this vantage point, he was able to see the top of the nearest tower ahead of them, above the tiled rooves of the intervening buildings. There were taller towers behind it, further ahead, and the batman realised that they were all in the very centre of the city. Even the region within the walls was divided into areas of greater and lesser wealth, it seemed. They were currently passing through what he now presumed must be the middle class district.

“Please sir down, Malone,” chided the Brigadier gently. “We have to give a good impression.” The batman nodded, closed the door with a slam to engage the catch and re-took his seat.

The Brigadier saw that the streetlights running along each side of the street were connected by a thick wire that dangled in long arcs above their heads. He followed them with his eyes and saw that they led to a building of black basalt at the end of the street. There was a hatch in the side, for the delivery of coal, be presumed, if the sooty black stains around it were any indication, and smoke, or possibly steam, rose from a chimney in the roof. The generator building, he presumed. He heard a loud hum coming from it as the carriage passed, a magnet spinning within coils of copper wire, driven by steam from the coal fired boiler which added its own loud hissing. He wondered how the engineers who operated and maintained it tolerated the noise, not to mention the people living in nearby buildings. Property prices must be lower around here, he mused, and this is just one generator building. One among hundreds.

The carriage turned a corner into another street, giving Malone a better view of the towers, which were now to his left, clearly visible through the window. “Where are we going?” He asked.

“My apartments,” replied Arwin. “The place where I live when I'm in the city. It's in the Green District. Not the richest part of the city. The pay of an ambassador is not that great, I'm afraid. You’re welcome to spend the night with me, I have a couple of guest rooms. Then you can go to the embassy tomorrow morning, freshly rested.”

“The embassy?” asked Malone.

“The Helberion embassy. They have apartments for visiting dignitaries, like all embassies.”

“I thought we were going to the palace, to see the Emperor.”

Arwin laughed aloud, earning him a disapproving frown from the Brigadier. “I apologise,” he said, “but you don't just turn up at the palace and expect the Emperor to come to the door to welcome you in. You have to apply for an audience, and it might be weeks before you're granted one.” He immediately regretted the mocking tone of his words when he saw the look of hurt and embarrassment on Malone's face and tried to make amends. “Of course, the two of you enjoy a special relationship with King Leothan. The Brigadier is a close personal friend of the King, and has been of immense help to him on many occasions, most recently with the affair of Princess Ardria. As his batman, you share in that close relationship, and that may have given you an unrealistic idea of the availability of monarchs to commoners. I shouldn't have laughed. Please forgive me.” Malone nodded in reply, but the truth was that the apology had embarrassed him twice as much as the original comment and he stared out the window until the moment was well and truly in the past and forgotten.

“In the meantime,” said Arwin, “you can enjoy the sights of the city. We get tourists from all over the Empire, and beyond. All come to see the greatest city in the world! Think of it as a well deserved holiday from your adventures.”

“There are a number of other people we would like to see,” said the Brigadier. “Minister Skelby chief among them. I shall have to think of a suitable, acceptable reason for wanting to see him. He certainly won't want to see me if he knew the real reason.”

“The new men in the provinces’ guard forces,” guessed Malone. “The rise in taxes.” The Brigadier nodded.

“The minister is going to maintain that the internal affairs of the Empire are no business of foreigners,” said Arwin.

“If I'm right about what’s going on, it is everyone's business, and even if I'm wrong, the destabilisation of the Empire is of the very greatest concern to Helberion.” He paused for a moment, looking thoughtful. “How would you characterise the Emperor?” he asked at last.

Arwin thought for a moment. “Dutiful,” he said. “Diligent. He tries to be a good Emperor, to be fair and moderate, but in my opinion he relies too much on the advice of his ministers. He sees the Empire through the eyes of his experts and advisors, and they all have their own agendas.”

“So, weak. Easily led.”

“I wouldn’t use those words!”

“You just did. You were just being diplomatic. I am not a politician, ambassador. I am a soldier, and I'm accustomed to speaking plainly. I suspect that someone who does not have the best interests of the Empire at heart has gotten close to him and is leading him astray.”

“I'm confident the Emperor would spot such a man very quickly. He may be, well, yes, I suppose the word weak could be used, but he is also very shrewd, very intelligent. I’ve met him on many occasions and I can tell you this from personal experience.”

The Brigadier nodded, accepting the assessment. “Will the allegations made against my country influence his readiness to see me, do you think?”

“It may make him more eager to see you. If he believes that Helberion is trying to steal the Empire's export markets, he may want to challenge you on it. He's certainly been giving your ambassador regular tongue lashings on the subject.”

“Good. The sooner I can tell him the truth, the better. I would be grateful if you could use whatever influence you have to speed things up.”

“I imagine he'll summon me the moment he learns I'm in the city. He'll want my assessment of Helberion. The kind of conversation you can’t have over a telegraph wire. I’ll advise him that he should see you at the earliest possible opportunity.”

“But don't say why, unless you find yourself alone with him. We don't know who might be working for the Radiants. I'm particularly suspicious of Skelby. If the Radiants find out we're on to them...”

“Arwin nodded, and his eyes drifted to the carriage window, where a pair of Radiants were visible even now, drifting serenely and majestically among the towers of the city, their tentacles twisting and twitching as they dangled below. “I understand,” he said. “I'll do what I can.”

The carriage turned another corner, and they saw a tall brick wall running along the side of the road beside the three foot wide pavement. On the other side of the wall was a large, impressive looking building two storeys tall, with lights shining from some of the windows. “Ah, here we are,” said the Brigadier. “Our lodgings for tonight.”

“Are you sure you won't accept my invitation?” asked Arwin. “I can promise you a fine steak supper, soft beds and a heart attack on a plate for breakfast.”

“Thank you for the offer, but I want to get news from home as quickly as possible, and then I need to confer with the King by telegraph. I suspect it'll be a couple of hours before I retire for the night.” Arwin nodded his understanding.

The carriage came to a halt in front of a large double gate of iron bars that stood in the wall. Two men dressed splendidly in Helberion army dress uniform stood on guard beside it and watched warily as the Brigadier opened the carriage door. “Thank you for the pleasure of your company during the journey,” he said as he and Malone disembarked. He indicated the chest of Hetin artefacts. “Please keep them safe somewhere until we can deliver them to the Emperor.”

“I will, and the pleasure was mine. I'll see you as soon as I can.”

Malone also bade his farewell, and then the former ambassador closed the door again and the carriage clattered off down the street. The Brigadier walked up to one of the guards, pulled an envelope from the inner pocket of his jacket and handed it to him. “Brigadier Weyland James, here on behalf of his majesty King Leothan. And this is Malone, my batman.”

The guard pulled the letter from the envelope, examined it for a moment by the light of the electric street lamp, then handed it back. “Very good, Sir,” he said, and opened the gate for him.

“What news from Helberion?” asked the Brigadier as they walked through. “How goes the war?”

Malone was possibly the only person in the world who knew him well enough to see the tension in his body as he asked the question. Would the guard reply that Helberion had been overrun by Carrow troops? Would he tell the Brigadier that the King and his family were even now fleeing the country, to rule in exile from this very building? Anyone else would have thought that he cared as little about the war as he did about the weather, and there was a strange look in the guard's eye, as if he wondered whether the Brigadier really was as devoted and loyal as the stories said he was. He shared a glance with the other guard, but he was pretending not to listen and kept a watch on the street, just as he was supposed to, in case the Brigadier was just a distraction, ahead of an attack.

“Glorious victory, Sir!” He replied, watching the Brigadier carefully to see his reaction. “The King sent an army into Carrow to attack their garrison cities and capture their soldiers. They captured or killed fifty thousand of them! It'll be years before they can threaten us again!”

Malone gave a whoop of joy, but there was no change of expression on the Brigadier’s face to reveal the vast relief he was feeling. “Very good,” he said. “Come on, Malone. Let’s go see the Ambassador.” He strode across the courtyard towards the main entrance of the building, and Malone had to almost run to keep up with him, while the two guards stared curiously after them.

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