The Electric Messiah

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Chapter 18

The Hedgewell Warehouse Estate was a quiet and lonely place at nine thirty in the evening. Most of the labourers had ended their day and gone home just over an hour before, but there were enough still hanging around for one reason or another that one man wandering the streets, looking at each street sign as he passed it by, didn’t look unusual. Malone spotted an urban fox rooting around in a pile of rubbish someone had flytipped in a side alley, and a few bats were already flitting around overhead even though the sun was still visible, red and bloated, on the western horizon, or would have been if not for the intervening buildings.

He knew he was approaching the right area when he began to see men loitering on street corners, trying to look inconspicuous but keeping a wary eye on everyone going in the direction of Bramble Road. He saw one of them following him with his eyes as he passed by, but the man lost interest in him before long. Malone guessed he didn't look like a government spy, or perhaps they'd only been told to look out for uniformed guardsmen coming to arrest someone. The capital hadn't yet set a curfew or passed any laws banning public gatherings, but that probably wouldn't stop the guard from finding some excuse for interfering anyway if they knew the meeting was taking place. If all else failed, there was always that favourite catch all for security forces everywhere, the claim that the offenders had been ‘disturbing the peace’.

One of the warehouses on Bramble Road had a pair of men standing by the large sliding doors, and so Malone made for it. As he approached he heard the murmured conversation of a large number of men inside, and he entered to find that quite a crowd had already assembled. Working men and women of all occupations, to judge from their clothes. Most of them bent and aged prematurely by the hard working conditions they had to endure. Most of them with grim expressions on their faces, carrying grievances and injustices that they shared with everyone around them. Nothing had happened yet, the organisers had yet to arrive, but the room was already filled with an explosive atmosphere, an energy, that would only take the smallest spark to set alight. Malone shivered with the tension that suddenly filled his body. What would they do to him if they found out why he was here? They wouldn't care that he was trying to save human civilisation. They would only see him as a spy for the bosses and would probably leave his broken, lifeless body lying in a ditch somewhere.

He took a deep breath to steady his nerves. There was no way they could possibly find out. All he had to do was keep playing the role he’d set himself and he was perfectly safe. He wandered around the room, therefore, trying to mirror the look they all had on their faces. Trying to make himself feel anger at the fictitious fate of his fictitious parents, trying to make himself feel hatred towards the Kelvon authorities. It must have worked because those who looked at him nodded at him, acknowledging his right to be there, their shared grievances, and he nodded back, savouring the camaraderie of shared suffering, false though it was.

There were a number of conversations going on, mainly people telling each other how much they'd suffered at the hands of ‘The System’. “I was still half donkey the first time I was handcuffed,” someone was saying. “I remember how much it hurt, my arms weren't human enough to pull behind my back yet, but they did it anyway. Nearly pulled them out of their sockets! They laughed while they did It! Inflicting pain, having power over people... That's what they like doing best!”

“Used to be, the guards were on our side,” the man's companion replied, nodding. “They would help people, even people like us! They were friendly!”

“Hasn’t been like that for a long time, Ben.”

“You're wrong, it wasn't that long ago! When my sister's daughter flew up a chimney and got stuck, a whole bunch of guards came round to get her out. They were filthy with soot by the end of it, but they were cheerful and joking. They were genuinely happy to help, and that were less than five years ago! What's happened to the guard, it’s happened since then! It's happened fast, and that’s what's scaring me!”

“There's always been bad guards, Ben.”

“Course there have, but they were always in the minority. Nowadays, most of them are bad! Even today, there's still a few good guards!”

“No such thing as a good guard, Ben!”

“Yeah, there are! Even today, there are a few good guards! You have to look long and hard to find them...”

“I'll believe there are good guards when they do something about the bad guards!”

“They can't do anything about the bad guards because there aren't enough of them left! The good ones, the ones with ties to the community, get transferred to the provinces.”

“The guards are just the symptoms,” someone else put in. Malone wandered closer and saw that it was a red faced man in a train company uniform. “The real problem is the politicians! They think they can just push us around and we’re too afraid to strike back! We have to show them that we're not afraid! If we hit back hard enough...”

“Hit back with what?”

“Benjamin's buying guns! He's...”

“Shush, you idiot!” Someone else said. “There could be government men here! Right here among us!”

Malone felt an icy spike of fear running up his spine and concentrated on not looking guilty. Even though he wasn't a spy for the Kelvon government, how much good would the truth do him if they found out he wasn't who he said he was? He tried to edge closer to the train company man, though, in the hopes of hearing more about this Benjamin, but he’d fallen silent, no doubt fearful of angering his fellows with more careless talk, and the other men returned to exchanging anecdotes of bad things the guards had done to them, or to people they knew. Malone wandered away to eavesdrop on other conversations, but they all turned out to be more of the same. Everyone here was angry, and they were all angry at the same thing. The guards, the government, the Bosses. Mainly the Bosses, to judge by how often they were mentioned. They were working them too hard, they weren’t paying them enough, they were growing rich on the sweat and blood of honest working men. After only a few minutes, Malone decided he wouldn’t learn anything new that way, and resigned himself to waiting for the meeting’s organisers to arrive.

He didn’t have long to wait. There were still people entering the warehouse in ones and twos, but then a large group of people entered, all talking together in low voices. They were wearing suits, like bosses, which made some of the people in the room stare suspiciously at them, but they were poor quality suits, scuffed and worn and with seams torn open in places, and as people saw this they relaxed, accepting them as labourers, like them, even if one rung of the ladder further up, at the level of foremen and chargehands. Malone didn’t relax, though. Something about these new arrivals was bothering him, and after a few moments of further thought he realised what it was.

They weren't angry, or at least not angry enough for it to show. They were calm, businesslike, professional, and that scared Malone more than all the anger in the room had. These men hadn't come here just to complain about how awful things were. They were here to take charge, to take all this aimless anger and focus it, direct it. Turn it into action, probably violent, deadly action. It was there, in the set of their bodies, the deadly calm expressions on their faces, the matter of fact tones of their voices. They weren't interested in peaceful protests or petitions or even strike action. As soon as they walked into the room, Malone saw violence in the days ahead. Maybe just acts of sabotage, but from the looks in their eyes he didn't think they'd be too upset if blood was spilled in the days to come.

Do they see it as well? he thought, looking around the room at the massed labourers. Maybe they did and just didn't care. Maybe they also thought that nothing less than violence would get them what they wanted. Maybe it was even true. The history books were full of examples of people only gaining greater freedoms after they'd fought for it, in fact it was hard to think of an example in which freedom had been won in any other way. Even Helberion had been born from violent revolution. The difference was, though, that this time, someone saw the violence as an end in itself, rather than just as a means to an end. Someone saw this as a key step in the systematic dismantlement of human civilisation.

Were any of those people among the suited men who had just entered? How would he be able to tell? He edged forward, to get closer to the new arrivals, but most of the people in the room had the same idea and he was only able to make a little headway before he was stopped by a solid wall of sweaty shoulders, most of them taller than he was. He edged sideways, therefore, until he found himself by the wall, not far from one of the doors, where there was a discarded packing crate he could stand on.

Most of the conversations in the room were stopping as people realised that the meeting was about to start, and those few people still talking fell silent one by one until only one voice could still be heard, telling someone about a place where he could buy the very best spiced clamcakes in the city. The voice droned on and on as the suited men arranged themselves at one side of the warehouse, seemingly unaware that nearly two hundred people were now listening to him in growing amusement, until he suddenly fell silent in mid word, probably at the not too polite suggestion of a neighbour. Near silence then fell, broken only by the shuffling of feet and the occasional stifled cough and cleared throat.

“Thank you all for coming,” said one of the suited men, stepping a couple of paces in front of his fellows. His voice carried well in the warehouse and Malone was able to hear him clearly, despite being made slightly echoey by the huge, empty chamber. “My name is Henry Kipling. Some of you know me. For those of you who don’t, I'm works foreman at the Carters shoes and curtains factory on Greenwater Road. These gentlemen with me are John Martin from the brick factory in Lundy Fields, Frank Ollerinshaw, foreman of the glue works on Estuary Lane, Bill Overdyke of the Highways and Waterways Guild and Oliver Townsend, foreman of the glassworks in Swinton Hill industrial estate.”

“How you doing, Ollie?” called out a voice in the crowd.

“Who let you in here, Peter?” called back Oliver Townsend with a smile. “I gave the spotters strict instructions to keep you away! Can't have some bloody hedgeman lowering the tone!”

There was a ripple of laughter, but Malone sensed impatience and annoyance as well, as if they were making light of a situation that they took very seriously. Henry Kipling evidently sensed it as well, because he waved his hands in an attempt to bring the meeting back under control. “There'll be time for humour later,” he said, and a number of ‘Ayes!’ rose from the crowd. “We all know why we're here. There isn’t a single man here who hasn't suffered from the brutality of Tyron’s regime. Not a day goes by without another new atrocity being committed, another innocent victim suffering for daring to stand up for his fellow man!” More ayes and Hear Hears rang out. “There's no need to list the outrages, we all know what we're talking about. We're gathered here to decide what we're going to do about it!”

“A general strike!” Someone shouted out. “Bring the whole city to a standstill...”

“They'll just sack anyone who strikes!” Someone else replied. “There's no end of people lining up to take the jobs!”

“You can't replace skilled men so easily...”

“And how many skilled men are there among us? How much skill does it take to carry a bucket? We're not all as fortunate as you, Ben!”

“If we picketed any firm that sacks strikers...”

“They'll send guards to break up the picket lines!”

“How many guards are there in this city? Suppose the picketers just pack up and run off the moment the guards arrive. The guards go off to break up another picket line, and the picketers get back to work the moment they're gone. We can keep the guards running in circles for days!”

“What's Benjamin doing?” shouted a man not too far away from Malone. He looked around and saw a red bearded man with a rash of broken blood vessels around his face.

“Benjamin’s busy, doing important work in Castletown,” replied Henry Kipling. “He's with us, though, and he'll be there when we need him!”

“What we need are guns! If we had guns, we could take the guards head on!”

“If you do that, they’ll send the army in!”

“Then we'll take them on as well!”

“Let's not get ahead of ourselves!” said Henry Kipling, and Malone noted that it wasn't an outright refusal to contemplate the idea. “We take up arms only to defend ourselves! We won't start anything, but we need to be ready if they start something.” A cheer rose from the crowd at this, and Malone cheered as well, just to be seen to be joining in.

“We on the Justice Council have been considering various courses of action,” Henry Kipling continued. “We would like to present our ideas to you, then have a vote on which ones we should follow, here in the Lewis Hill area.”

“What are the other districts doing?” asked a man at the front.

“That's not relevant to us...”

“Of course it is! If we all unite, present a united front, we'll be able to speak with a much stronger voice! If every worker in the city stands together, they’ll have to listen!”

A great many people cried out in agreement. “If one of the other districts is taking up arms, we have to stand with them!” someone said. “If every district stands alone, they'll just pick us off one by one!”

“We have to form a united workers front!” the first man added. “Strength through unity!”

“Co-ordinating with the other districts is one of the ideas we were going to present to you,” said Henry Kipling. “Perhaps we should hear the other ideas first, then we can have the vote. If the majority vote for united action, then that’s what we’ll do.”

He called for Frank Ollerinshaw to come forward, and after introducing himself he began outlining a plan to disrupt the Empire's commerce by blocking roads and rivers to prevent trade goods from passing. “We have access to explosives,” he said, “and a relatively small charge can blow a hole in a road that would take several days to repair. This city only has enough stored food to last for two or three days. If we prevent just twenty or thirty percent of the food from entering the city for a week or so...”

“No!” Someone cried out angrily. “We'd be hurting the poor, ourselves! The rich can always get food, it's the workers and their families who'll be starving!”

“Yes, and I can think of no better way to get them out onto the streets, rioting. That's what the Emperor fears most, mobs on the streets. We use hunger to get people rioting, we tell them that the bosses have stores of food in their homes...”

“Or they’ll just leave the city, head out into the countryside.”

“That works for us as well. The bosses have always had the whip hand over us because there’s a ready supply of manpower, huge numbers of people without jobs. They can sack as many people as they want and know they can replace them before the end of the day. If thousands of people flee the city, though, those of us who remain will be much harder to replace. We'll be the ones holding the whips.”

Malone was horrified. Would they actually do that? How many people would die as the guards tried to control the rioters the only way they could, with guns? All around him, though, people were nodding to themselves as they considered the idea, some of them with gleams of enthusiasm in their eyes. The amount of anger and hatred in this room terrified him. The Radiants must have been working at this for years, and if it was this bad here, in the capital, how much worse must it be in the outer provinces, where the workers and the authorities were already at each other’s throats?

“The blowing up of roads would have to take place miles outside the city,” he heard a man musing to his neighbour, somewhere close by. “Where the road passes through land impassable to vehicles and there are no other roads the wagons can detour through.”

“Won't they just use trains?”

“Eventually, but rail tracks can be blown up too, and they take much longer to repair. The real deciding factor is how much gunpowder we have. Also, it’ll take quite some time to dig a hole deep enough. After the first two or three, the guards will start patrolling the roads, looking for people digging holes.”

“Then we take them out.”

“I don't know. Blowing up roads is one thing. Killing, though...”

A low murmur filled the warehouse as other people had similar conversations, and the suited men waited patiently for it to die down. Then Henry Kipling introduced John Martin, who suggested a series of strike actions to disrupt the refuse collection services, especially in the inwall districts where it would affect the nobles and the wealthy. “They'll bring in the army to clear the garbage, which will make them angry and irritable. We'll be able to provoke them into hurting people, which we can use for propaganda purposes. Generate sympathy for ourselves, anger towards the army and the authorities in general.”

“What if, despite the provocation, they don't hurt anyone?” someone asked. “These aren't guards, former school bullies putting on uniforms so they can carry on bullying people in adulthood. Soldiers are trained, disciplined. They may show restraint.”

“Then we provide the victims,” replied Black John with a perfectly straight face. “There are always informers, blacklegs. We shoot them with standard army pistols and provide witnesses to say the soldiers did it.”

“Er, we’re supposed to be the good guys,” said someone doubtfully.

“I know it seems harsh and unjust, but we are working to create a better world for our children. We all remember the injustices we have suffered at the hands of the bosses. Informers and scabs are accomplices in those crimes. This is a way in which they can, in part, atone for their crimes.”

“My brother's in the army!” the same man complained. “They're good people! They protect the Empire! They are the Empire!”

“If they were good people, they would be standing beside their families in this struggle. No matter how good you may think they are, they are working for the authorities.” He paused as a thought came to him. “Perhaps those with you with family members in the army can persuade them to come over to us. They have training, they have weapons. They could be of great use to us.” He looked directly at the man who had spoken to him. “Do you think you could do that?”

“He's on assignment, in Luria. We're not expecting him back for months.”

“But when he does come back?”

“Yes, yes, of course. I’ll speak to him...”

Malone became aware of a disturbance in the crowd nearby. One man was grappling with another, who pushed him away and then shoved his way through the people around him, towards the nearest entrance, which was the one beside Malone. “Stop him!” The other man cried, and hands reached out to grab him, but there was a cry of pain and he was free again. “He's got a knife!” the injured man cried. “Watch out!”

People made way for him after that, although they kept shouting for someone else to grab him. Malone saw his chance to bring himself to the attention of the suits, though, so when he got close enough he leapt at him, one hand going for the wrist of the hand holding the knife, the other grabbing him by the throat. His momentum bowled the man over and he gave the wrist a savage twist to make him drop the knife, a move he'd learned in the army. The man bucked under him in an attempt to throw him off and jabbed towards his eyes with his other hand. Malone jerked back instinctively, and the man took the opportunity to wrench his right hand free from his grip. He snatched the knife back up and thrust it at his heart.

Malone jumped away, the tip of the knife tearing a rip through his shirt and drawing a thin line of blood on his chest. The man jumped to his feet and ran towards the door and, after taking a moment to gather his wits, Malone ran after him while noting that everyone else was just standing there watching. Too entranced by the battle to help him.

He threw himself at the fleeing man, wrapping his arms around his legs, and the man fell forward like a toppling tree. There was a heavy thud as his head hit the door frame, and then he was lying still. Malone picked himself up and looked for the knife, found it lying on the floor next to his open hand. He picked it up and threw it across the floor, people stepping hurriedly aside as it skittered past their feet. Then he checked the man. He was groggy, but still alive and Malone sat on him until someone could decide what to do with him.

People gathered around, staring curiously, and then drew back as the suited men approached. “What did he do?” asked John Martin.

“He was writing down names,” said the man who'd first raised the alarm. “And descriptions. All you people in suits.” He produced a sheet of paper the man had dropped. “Reckon he was working for the bosses! He was going to turn you in!”

“A damned company spy!” Someone snarled. “Kill him!”

“Kill him!” others agreed, and the cry went up from everyone in the crowd until the whole room was thundering with it. Malone felt the man under him trembling with fear. “Let me go!” he whispered, twisting his head to look him in the eye. “In the same of Those Above, let me go!”

The door was right beside them, but the whole crowd was gathering close and the lookouts left outside were looking around to see what all the noise was about. The man was still groggy, he'd be unsteady on his feet, unable to run very fast. Even if Malone got off him, he wouldn’t get far. The man was as good as dead already, and from the look of terror on his face, he knew it. Malone couldn't save him, and any foolish attempt to do so would only get himself killed as well. Might as well make the most of a bad situation, then, he thought, and he joined in the chant to kill him, using the opportunity to improve his own standing among the activists. The man began struggling to free himself, and Malone put his hands around his throat, began to squeeze, confident that someone would stop him. They'd want to question him first, find out who he was working for.

Nobody stopped him, though. Instead, he heard the chant changing to “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Malone hesitated, suddenly realising that he might be trapped into actually having to kill a man. How could he get out of this? He could just stop, of course, but that wouldn't save the man. Someone else would kill him, and Malone would have lost his chance to bring himself to the attention of the suits. The man was struggling ever harder, more desperately. Malone could pretend that he'd succeeded in freeing himself... He dismissed the idea in desperation. It still wouldn’t save him, and they‘d be able to see that he'd let him go. Chances were they’d think he was a spy as well, which he was, of course, although not for the Kelvon authorities and he doubted they’d appreciate the distinction. No, he could see no alternative. He was going to have to actually kill this man.

He’d killed before, of course, in battle, but that had been against the enemies of Helberion, people who would have killed him, given half a chance. This was different. How could he do this? What would the Brigadier think? He got a grip on himself with an effort. If this man has to die, it might as well be me, he thought. That way, I can make it as quick and painless for him as possible. Summoning his military training, therefore, he twisted his throat and snapped his neck, killing him instantly.

A great cheer went up from the crowd, sickening him, and he felt gentle hands on his shoulders, lifting him back to his feet. “Well, if it isn't my friend from the electric works,” said John Martin, recognising him. “Well done, young man. You’ve struck a great blow for the cause!”

Another cheer went up from the crowd, and hands were slapping him on the shoulders and back. That man gave his life for this, Malone thought. I mustn't waste it. “I just want to help,” he said. “I want to help you.”

“That was a military move you used there, wasn't it? Where did you learn it?”

Where did you learn to recognise military moves? wondered Malone. “I wanted to be a soldier,” he said. “I got the soldiers from the barracks to teach me some moves. That was before the guards killed my parents.”

“Guards aren't soldiers, though.”

“They're all the same. They all help to uphold the system.”

“Quite right. You'll go far in the cause, young man. Well done.” He began to turn away.

Malone hurried after him. “I want to help!” he said. “I want to help you! Please let me help you! I'll do anything!”

“Me? Me personally?”

“You're a great man, sir! It would be an honour if you let me help you! Please, Sir, I'll do anything!”

“Seems you’ve got an admirer, John,” said Oliver Townsend with a chuckle. “And you did say you needed a new assistant. You can hardly suspect him of being a company spy!”

“I'd prefer someone I know. I had my eye on young Jamie Fry...” He looked at Malone thoughtfully, then sighed. “Okay, I'll give you a try. It'll mean leaving your job. If I decide you’re not right for me, you’ll be left unemployed.”

“I won’t let you down, I promise!”

“What's your name, young man?”

“Malone. Just Malone. My parents died before, well, you can see.”

“We don't care about that, young man. We care about what’s in your heart, not how human you are. Come with me when we leave.” Malone nodded eagerly, then followed as the suited men returned to the front of the warehouse to continue the meeting. He looked back at the dead man one last time, then put him out of his mind forever.

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