The Electric Messiah

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Chapter 15

The workers at Goldwater's Pharmaceutical industries were given a day off each week, and Jenner decided that Malone should spend his first day off being shown around the city. Every day so far, they'd been so tired after a ten hour day that all they’d been able to do when they got back to their rooms in Drocker’s Block was collapse into a pair of threadbare armchairs until they'd recovered enough strength to make their evening meal, then climb into their cots, where they fell asleep almost instantly. Today, though, was theirs!

Not having to rush to the factory to begin their work shift, they were able to enjoy a lie in, and Malone luxuriated in a half asleep state as he let his brain think whatever it wanted to think. Mostly what it wanted to think about, it appeared, was how the bedsprings were digging through the thin mattress into his skin. He could have eased the discomfort by turning onto his other side, but moving would have taken too much energy and the sheer luxury of being able to just lie there as the sun rose and shone a beam through the window onto the opposite wall, well past the time when he would normally have been heaving sacks of bicarbonate around, was so great that the feel of iron digging into his skin was nothing in comparison. He just lay there, therefore, while he waited for his brain to think of something more interesting.

He must have dozed off again, because he was awoken by the sound of hammering on his door. “Come on, Fido! Time to rise and shine! Day's getting old!”

“What time is it?” asked Malone. He managed to summon enough energy to open his eyes and turn his head, to see that the sunlit patch on the wall had dropped much lower than it had been seemingly just a moment ago. Another hour must have passed! He gave a muttered curse and kicked the bedsheets off, then winced as he rose to his feet. Those bedsprings really dug in! As soon as he had the money, he’d have to see if he could get another mattress. Even sleeping on the bare ground while on one of the Brigadier’s missions hadn't prepared him for this!

The first morning they'd risen together, Jenner had stared curiously at Malone's bare body, trying to spot his few remaining dog features. Malone's body was now almost fully human, though, with only his covering of fine, downy hair left from his quadrupedal days. It was his face and hands where most of his dog features remained, those parts of him that, by unlucky chance, were on view to the world even when he was dressed, and the other man had felt strangely cheated when he could see only the normal human curvature of his spine and his completely human pelvis and thighs. Jenner himself, who'd been raised from an urban fox, had been declared completely human some years before, and there were no remaining animal features on his body to attract Malone’s attention. Now, some days later therefore, they scarcely glanced at each other as they took turns to use the toilet, washed and got dressed.

Ten minutes later, they were sitting at the kitchen table eating their breakfasts of sausage and beans, and Malone looked out the kitchen window, where the towers of the inner city could be seen over the city wall. He was going to have to go in there sometime during the day. This was the day he and the Brigadier had arranged to meet, to compare notes and progress reports. That meant he was going to have to get away from Jenner for a couple of hours. That was a complication they hadn’t anticipated, that he’d have a companion who intended to spend the whole day as his tour guide. He'd have to find some excuse for wanting to go off alone for a while, something that Jenner wouldn't want to tag along for. He searched his mind trying to think of something, but nothing came. Maybe Jenner would want some time alone. He'd lived all his life in this city, he must have family somewhere. Hopefully, he’d want to go off and visit them at some point.

“So, what's the itinerary for today?” he asked.

Jenner looked up and spoke around a mouthful of sausage. “The what?”

“Where are we going today?”

“Well, you can’t come to Traclow without seeing the dog racing... Oh! You're okay with dog racing, aren't you?”

Malone chuckled. “So far as I can remember, I wasn’t a racing dog. No, I've got no problem, so long as you don't expect me to gamble all my wages away. I'm hoping to be eating now and then between now and next pay day.”

Jenner grinned. “Don't worry, they allow spectators, but we can have a little side bet between ourselves, perhaps. The one who picks the first winning dog, the other one cooks for the rest of the week.”

“You're on! So, dog racing. Then what?”

“They have cock fights in The Fat Owl every other Sunday. Not strictly legal, we have to watch out for the guards, but even if they catch you the worst that can happen to you is a night in the cells. They always let you out in time for clocking on next morning. Today's main fight should be a good one! Glover's fielding One Eye Pete, he's a bit of a legend in these parts. Baddest, meanest bird we've seen in this city since Claw’s career came to a glorious end against Storm Feathers three years back.”

Malone tried to conceal his lack of enthusiasm at seeing poor, dumb birds being made to tear each other to pieces. He had to fit in, be one of the lads! “Never been to a cock fight!” he said, trying to sound excited. “They don't have them in, where I come from.”

“Then you’re in for a treat! There's boxing too, and cage fighting. That's always good for a laugh, especially when there’s new people in town and one of them fancies his chances against Ripper or The Beast.”

“Ordinary people are allowed to compete, then?”

“Oh yeah! There's a huge prize for anyone who can last five minutes against the house champions! Only declared humans are allowed to take part, though, so you wouldn’t be allowed to, I'm afraid.”

“I wouldn't want to!”

“You’re wise, then. There's some who say The Beast is still part bear. Quite a scandal if anyone could prove it, but when there’s that kinds of money involved, bad things are likely to happen to anyone who stirs up trouble.”

“I try to avoid trouble if at all possible. The dog racing sounds good. Perhaps we could go there first, see how we feel later.”

“The dogs it is, then!”

Half an hour later they were walking along the street together past half raised animals kicking balls against obsidian walls and opium addicts slouched in doorways, staring at passers by with drooping, unseeing eyes. “I've seen a lot of them since I've been here,” said Malone quietly.

“You don’t have poppy heads where you come from?”

“No. Why do they do it?”

“Pray you never find out. No-one starts out wanting to end up like that, but you have a run of bad luck, you find yourself in a hopeless situation, you see no way out, nothing but blackness and despair ahead of you, well, the opium den starts to look very attractive. Just as a way to forget for a while. That’s how it starts, anyway. The den managers spread stories of people who get their lives back together afterwards, that the opium helped them to see the way out of the mess they were in, and there’s always people who believe it. Enough to keep the business going, anyway.”

“I wonder if, do you think Bracker will end up like that?”

“You still feeling guilty about that? If he does, it's his choice. There are other options open to him. What he does is his choice, no-one else's, so forget about it.”

Malone started to say that forgetting about it wasn't that easy, but a commotion up ahead took his attention. A crowd of people, completely filling the street they had to go down to reach the dog racing track. Loud and riotous, with guardsmen crowding around them waving batons and dragging people away in handcuffs to be bundled aboard horse drawn paddy wagons. Normally, Malone would have immediately looked for another route to his destination, wanting to avoid any trouble, but he had a job to do and this was a heaven sent opportunity he couldn't turn away from. “What's that?” he said therefore.

“The gas workers,” replied Jenner. “Protesting the electric company, saying it'll take all their jobs. Come on, we can go down Lavender Street.”

“The guards are being pretty rough with them,” said Malone. “Look, that guy's got blood all over his head! They're still hitting him! He's not doing anything, he's just sitting there, and they’re still hitting him!”

“Yeah, the guards like to dish it out these days. They were always bad, but they never used to be this bad. Come on, let's go.”

“That's how my parents died!” said Malone, though, trying to make himself feel anger. His parents had died from plague. He'd been with them at the end and had held their hands as they gently slipped away, their bodies already breaking apart into swarms of globs before they'd even stopped breathing. It had been heart-breaking for him, but peaceful. Now, though, he had to summon up a realistic imitation of anger as he perpetrated the deception that they had died from violence. Violence at the hands of guards like these ones. “Bastards!”

He lurched forward and Jenner grabbed his arm. “No, you idiot! Don't get involved! There's nothing you can do!”

Malone turned on him angrily. “That's how my parents died, because people didn't want to get involved. The whole village was there! They just watched as they...” He shook his head as if trying to drive out the awful images while hoping he wasn't overdoing it. “Not one of them tried to help! They just watched!”

“They're just arresting people! Nobody's going to die here! Come on, please!”

“I want to get a better look.” Malone pulled himself free from the other man and hurried down the street towards the crowd, Jenner running to keep up. “Malone! For Pete’s sake!”

Closer, Malone could see that many of the protesters were waving placards and shouting slogans. They were in front of a half built building similar to the electricity generator houses he'd seen from the carriage on his first arrival at the city. A small group of workmen were standing nearby looking unhappy, and Malone guessed that they would lose pay for every day that passed with no work being done. Protesters and guards were shouting at each other and pushing back and forth, but there were twice as many guards as protesters and they were armed. Not just with cudgels but with pistols as well, although none of them had yet drawn their sidearms. As Malone watched, another horse drawn carriage pulled up and half a dozen more guardsmen leapt out, making straight for the nearest protester.

The protester with the bloodied head had been handcuffed and was being bundled into a prison wagon by two guardsmen while other protesters shouted in outrage. There were other spectators standing nearby, attracted by the spectacle, and Malone stood among them, Jenner puffing at the unexpected exertion as he joined him there. “This is supposed to be our day of rest!” he said.

Malone was examining the protesters closely, though. If this was an organised campaign, as the Brigadier suspected, there should be ringleaders. People who saw the gas workers as nothing more than tools to be used and sacrificed as needed. Remembering what the Brigadier had said about the severity of Kelvon justice, he guessed that these people wouldn't want to be arrested themselves, and so he concentrated his attention on the protesters furthest from the guardsmen. His attention was immediately attracted to a large man with a bushy black beard wearing the stained apron of a brick worker. Even from this distance, Malone could sense his charisma, the power of his personality. He was shouting and gesticulating more than anyone else, and whenever he raised his voice the protesters around him shouted with him, adding their voices to his, but he made sure to keep well back from the action so that there was always a buffer zone of sacrificial followers between him and the guardsmen.

“Who’s that?” Malone asked Jenner. “The guy with the beard?”

“How should I know?”

“He looks like the kind of person people talk about. I thought he might be some kind of local hero or something.”

“He's no hero of mine. I just want a quiet life. That guy's a troublemaker.”

Malone agreed completely, but troublemakers were what he was looking for. He began asking other people in the crowd and eventually found someone who told him that the bearded man was called John Martin. “He works in the brick factory out in Lundy Fields,” a dumpy woman with flour dust in her hair told him. “He led them out on strike when they tried to lay off half of them.”

“Did it get as violent as this?” asked Malone, indicating the riot ahead of them.

“That's what they say, and Black John Martin right in the thick of it! Now he helps anyone who needs him, like the leatherworkers. The bosses wanted to cut their wages, and there was nothing they could do about it. There's always people willing to work for chickenfeed. Anyone raises a voice in protest, they just sack them and hire someone else for half the wages. They thought there was nothing they could do so they just sucked it up, but then Black John turned up. He talked them into going out on strike all at once. The bosses couldn't sack everyone, they needed skilled workers to teach the new men. They had no choice but to back down. Now he's doing the same for the gas workers! Those Above bless him, I say! The bosses think they can do what they like. Black John says no you can't! He says we're strong if we all stick together, and he's right!”

“Reckon the guards'll want to get their hands on him, then.”

“Right! The guards work for the bosses, everyone knows that! It's us against the establishment, that’s what Black John says, and he’s right!”

The guards didn't seem to be paying him any special attention, though. They were grabbing anyone within reach, wrestling them to the ground and handcuffing them, but they didn't seem to have any special strategy other than breaking up the mob picketing the generator house. As protesters began drifting away, not fancying a night in the cells, the guards let them go until all that was left was a small group of hardliners including John Martin himself. “All right!” he shouted, raising his hands. “We're done here! We've done what we came here to do! Made our voices heard! Showed them we can’t be pushed around! We depart in victory! In victory!”

His small group of followers cheered, and the watching crowd joined in enthusiastically, waving and shouting their names as they walked away from the half completed building. They also cheered at the men being loaded aboard the prison wagon, and the guards glared angrily, their hands going to the pistols on their belts. “Disperse!” shouted the Captain of the Guard. “Disperse or be arrested for disturbing the peace!” The crowd began to break up, moving away in twos and threes, but they were in high spirits and Malone heard the name of John Martin being spoken in glowing terms.

“Can we go now?” asked Jenner. “We can still get there in time for the ten o’clock race.”

“You go,” replied Malone. “I’ll join you there. I want to talk to John Martin.”

“You can't!” hissed Jenner fearfully. “If our bosses find out you’ve spoken to him, they'll sack you just like that!” He snapped his fingers to show how fast.

“I thought you'd never heard of him!”

I haven't, and neither have you if you know what's good for you. Do you know how lucky you were to get a job at Goldwater's so fast? If you want to keep it, come with me now!”

“You saw what the guards were like! That guy with the bloody head, he was hurt bad, and they just shoved him in with the rest! He needs medical attention! Do you think he's going to get it? They can't be allowed to treat people like that!”

“What do you think John Martin's going to do about it?”

“He's getting people organised! That's what we need to do, get organised!”

“That's sacking talk! The bosses hear you talking like that, you're not just sacked, you're blacklisted! You'll never work in this city again!”

“They can't sack everyone! What'll they do if everyone starts talking like that? Individually, we're nothing to them, but together we're strong! Together, they can't ignore us!”

“You just want revenge for what happened to your parents!”

“Yes, and what's wrong with that? If the people of my village had all stood together, they might still be alive! Suppose our bosses decide to lay people off. What're you going to do? Just take it lying down?”

“Come with me, now! This is your last chance!”

“I just want a quick word, I won't be a minute. Don't worry, the bosses won't find out. See you at the dogs.” He moved away before Jenner could speak again and followed in the direction John Martin had gone.

There was a carriage waiting for him a few dozen yards down the street, a finer carriage than most brickworkers would normally travel in, and John Martin got into the passenger seat. Malone was a long way behind and his heart sank with the certainty that he would lose him, that the carriage would clatter off down the street leaving him behind, only able to watch as it shrank in the distance. John Martin spent a few moments talking with the people he'd left with, though, and Malone broke into a trot, his hopes rising again. He was still a dozen yards away when John Martin pulled the door closed with a slam, but Malone cried out and one of the men still standing on the pavement leaned forward to say something through the window. Malone saw John Martin's black bearded head emerge through the window to look back at him, and said something to the driver. The carriage stood motionless, therefore, while Malone closed the remaining distance until he found himself looking at the man through the open window.

“I just wanted to say what a wonderful thing you're doing!” he said. “Helping people like that! You're such a great man, this city needs a man like you! Thank Those Above for you! I know you're very busy, you're probably on your way to help some other people, but I just had to say that!”

“I couldn't just stand by and watch good people being betrayed by the bosses,” replied John Martin, smiling as he stroked his beard. “Someone has to take a stand. If it wasn't me, it would be someone else.”

“No! No-one else would be brave enough! To stand up to the guards the way you did...” He remembered the way the man had hung back while other men went forward to face the guards directly, the way he and his small band of cohorts had slipped away to freedom while others had been arrested. “You're an inspiration to the whole city! You give hope to everyone!”

John Martin's smile broadened. “You're very kind to say so,” he said, “but I'm just a man trying to help people. Thank you for your kind words.” He sat back in his seat and the driver picked up the reins.

“I want to help!” blurted Malone before the carriage could pull away. “The next time you help people, I want to be there with you! I'm not afraid of the guards! My parents were killed by guards! I want to get back at them! Teach them they can't treat people this way! Please, let me help you!”

“You can help,” said John Martin. ‘Tell people they don't have to blindly obey the bosses. Tell people they can be strong if they stand together. Spread the word.”

“But I want to help you! I want to stand beside you next time you face the guards! Please, I’m strong, I can fight! I know there's...” He paused, glancing around to make sure there was no-one close enough to overhear. “I know there's a war coming, between us and them. Between the workers and the bosses. I want to help!”

Malone saw a suspicious look flit momentarily across the other man’s face. Could this be a spy working for the bosses? But he was still half dog! Surely the bosses wouldn't trust a half raised animal with such a dangerous mission, a mission in which a single careless slip of the tongue could get him killed! Malone saw the man come to a decision. He was trying to work people up into a rebellious frenzy, why should he be surprised if he succeeded?

“There's going to be a meeting in three days, at ten in the evening in warehouse twelve on Bramble Road. If you want to help, be there.” He spoke to the driver, who slapped the reins and the carriage began to pull away.

“I will!” Malone called after it. “I’ll be there! I promise!”

“What's your name?” asked one of the men who'd walked with John Martin.

“Malone. I'm from...” He cursed himself as he realised he forgotten the name of the province he was supposed to have come from again. “From down south,” he finished lamely. “The guards killed my parents. I thought it would be better here, than this was a place where an honest man could make a fair living, but...”

“There is no such place, Malone,” said the man, “but perhaps we can make such a place. Right here, in the heart of the Empire. That is John Martin's dream. That's what we're fighting for.”

“That's what I want to fight for as well!”

“Have you never used a weapon, Malone?”

Malone almost said yes, stopped himself just in time. “No, but I'm willing to! If that’s what it takes, if that’s what it comes to, then I'll fight with whatever weapon I can find!”

“Good, good,” said the man, patting him on the shoulder. “See you on Wednesday then, but don’t tell anyone! The bosses would surely like to find out about the meeting! They'd send every guard in the city to break it up!”

“They won't find out from me, I promise!” Malone grinned broadly, hopping on the spot in excitement. He stopped himself hurriedly. Don't overdo it, he warned himself. They'll get suspicious!

“Good lad. Off you go then, before someone sees us talking.”

Malone nodded and trotted off down the street, back the way he'd come. Reckon I've got something to tell the Brigadier now, he thought proudly. Now, which way is it to the dog racing track?

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