Volkhov’s monorail station crawled with commuters as George’s dad pulled into a space outside. In stark contrast to the one in Little England, the graffiti free walls, functioning signs and absence of any piss stink, gave the illusion it was newly built.
“Uh, dad…” George’s hand hovered over the door release; it was late summer but already the air carried an autumnal chill. Despite the warmth of the car, George’s breath fogged the plasti-glass window.
They hadn’t spoken since lunch at Café Caprica; George’s father was working the afternoon shift at the Assemblers and had reluctantly treated them both to dinner.
I hope he’s feeling better.
“What?” His tone had softened at least, but there was no hint at his mood.
George rescanned the newly arrived text in his Shift-Glass.
“Supreme Eltsina’s just messaged.”
George’s father dipped his head slightly to regard George through his eyebrows, the blast of stale breath through his nose prompted George to continue.
“She’s changed the field trip.”
“We’re going to Britain now.”
His father’s tone rose through gritted teeth, “What happened to Finland?”
George shrugged. “Don’t know.”
His father turned back to the windscreen, white knuckles strangling the controls.
“And… we’re leaving tomorrow.”
“Absolutely fucking not.”
George nodded, let out the breath he’d been holding without a sound.
Shaking fingers triggered the lock and George swung his legs out of the car, stood, hand on the frame, ready to shut the door.
“I’m going.” He bellowed, safely out of arm’s reach, the public place strengthening his resolve.
The driver’s window cycled down, his father leant through the gap, the vehicle reversed, “No. You. Are. Not.”
People on the pathway stopped, before remembering to not get involved.
“You can’t stop me.” George backed into the throng, cheeks burning and hands trembling.
“While you live under my roof, you do as I say.”
The car backed out onto the main roadway, the window sealed, yet it did nothing to hide the rage cascading from George’s father.
“Fish Chips, go home!”
George’s head spun at the broken English.
The speaker was short and overweight with a thick beard dashed with grey. Pedestrians avoided the man as if repulsed by a magnetic influence.
He stuck two fingers up at George and his dad, an imitation of the English gesture. Only he’d raised his hand with palm facing them, he was making the sign for peace.
The man stood with two others, a tall woman with a shaved head and another man with long hair in a ponytail that reached down his back.
All were dressed very smartly, all in late middle age.
No one else stopped; everyone had somewhere to go.
The woman’s hair had started to grow back since her buzz cut, she reached into her mane and snatched her Shift-Glass from its perch at the crown.
“Here, I buy you town back home and piss up!” The device jabbed at George between two skeletal fingers.
“Don’t stop ’til Channel!” The first man shouted.
George glanced from them back to the road, his father’s car thundered around a bend leading to the super-way.
The lion haired woman roared with laughter and George backed away into the crowd, commuters parted as if he were infected.
The long haired man took two long legged strides toward him and George bolted to the delight of his companions.
The man’s Shift-Glass joggled on his face, but his knees sprang awkwardly as he pursued, eager to keep the device as still as possible to not upset his recording.
Risking a glance, George stumbled and tripped, smashing his knees into the ground; they laughed even more, but the chase had ended.
Pedestrians streamed past George, a few disgusted faces turned his way, but no one intervened.
“But you do want to go to Britain?”
“Yes please.” George answered and behind Supreme Eltsina’s gorgon gaze and crocodile smile there was the briefest twitch of approval.
Her office, in the Science building of the University of St. Petersburg, had more floor space than the entire downstairs of George’s home, yet with the crowd of Conserved Specimens pressing down on them, they could have been huddled in the bottom of a wardrobe.
“What, what about Finland?” George stammered.
Eltsina paused, a look of disgust on her face.
“Supreme Eltsina.” George hurriedly added.
“We’re going to Britain instead. Schedules changed, an opportunity arose. I’ve learned that it’s always best to seize such things.”
The Supreme lifted a Jivaroan Shrunken Head, preserved inside a Null-Effect case and used as a paper weight, and picked up George’s report from a swollen pile.
“A diesel engine used to evacuate the population of the British Isles during the first stages of the Invasion should be the object, above all others, to be saved from Europe…” She read from the front page.
“Yes,” George said, sitting on his hands to stop them fiddling. “Supreme Eltsina.” It had been his first week’s assignment; he’d already received the feedback.
She made a show of flicking the pages in her hands, a bored expression on her slate face.
For a moment George wondered if it was all a trick.
He’d messaged her from the Monorail, gotten to her office late and had burst in after the briefest of knocks.
The Supreme’s companion looked annoyed at the interruption. Was Eltsina toying with him?
But then, why print his report on paper?
No one did that.
“Mile long trains, weeks long journeys, days spent in crowded, over heated carriages, nights pulled up on sidings in the arse end of Eastern Europe. No food, no news.” She said, summarising George’s hard work.
“Before arriving here, safe in our Glorious Federation.” Impossible to read, but George fancied he detected a tiny snarl as the Supreme spoke, as if her words were for the benefit of others.
The four pointed star of the Federation hung pristinely on a clutter free wall, the red as bright and bloody as the day it was printed. Supreme Eltsina paused briefly to turn her head to it and involuntarily so did George and the Supreme’s companion.
“And then an excellent account of the degradation such an artefact could face, a superb analysis of the appropriate forensic analytical work the conservator could use to identify problems; followed by a masterful run through of remedial actions and preservative processes.” The superlatives difficult on her tongue, but she fixed George with her granite eyes once again, the only sound the hammering of his own heart.
Why is she bringing this up? Does she doubt the work is mine?
His mind raced back to the first day, the pictures of all the students in the Supreme’s new cohort displayed on the screen behind her. At the bottom of every picture a number; the Supreme’s ranking of every student, by her own algorithm, based on the result of every assessment from nursery to Advanced Mark.
“I know the quality of work to expect from each and every one of you in this room.” She had said in that Lecture Theatre. “Your work will improve during our time together and your ratings will increase. They can also go down. If they do, you’re off the course.”
George ranked a 78, not a particularly high score, but not the worst either. He’d never worked harder on any report before, surely it met with the Supreme’s expectations. Or maybe it was too good, the way she’d described his work, maybe she didn’t believe he’d written it.
“Why did you pick my course?” She asked
“Um. Because, um, it was the best?” His hands had gotten loose and were fiddling. “Supreme Eltsina.”
“Are you asking me or telling me?”
“Telling you? Supreme Eltsina.” He opened and closed the arms of his Shift-Glass; click, click.
“No, it’s not the best. You want the best you move cities, move Universities. Study something that will give you a job in Government or Space. The Federation is not run by Forensic Conservators Mr Clark. Why did you pick it?”
“I, I, I…” The Shift-Glass was tumbling around in his hands now, a blur if anyone cared to look.
“I don’t know… Supreme Eltsina.” Thud. The Shift-Glass hit the floor, George scurried to get it back, lest it be lost in the forest of boxes and folders nestled around their ankles.
“You don’t know.” She said, the Absolute Zero smile carved itself on her face, she stood and shuffled through the box colony. “You don’t know.” She repeated and stopped by one of the herd of tables in the office, casually picked up a Twentieth Century machine gun, as one might a favourite cat, lost in thought and seeking some form of reconnection with their surroundings.
It was a British made light machine gun, used in the Second World War. The weapon looked heavy and cumbersome, but Supreme Eltsina deftly checked the sights, examined the trigger and folded up its supporting bipod legs. She ejected the magazine before noisily slapping the curved box back in.
Its conserved parts and areas of restorative work clear for all to see in an effort to maintain its integrity of a real document of its time period. The observer could appreciate the invasive actions taken on the piece, while still retaining an insight to the history of the item through its pre-conserved form.
“You don’t know!” She shouted, slamming the weapon’s stock on the table. “Why are you even here then Mr Clark? Why has your father paid the University a stupid amount of money? Do you love the Federation?”
“Of, of course… Supreme Eltsina.” The device threatened to launch itself from his grasp again.
“So you only want your Paragon Certification so you can get a job a little more highly paid than a driver or an assembler?”
A Smirk sprouted on her companion’s face; seeing balls broken seemed like a perk of the job for him, George guessed jabbing a finger nail into the soft flesh between thumb and finger on the opposite hand.
“Because I’m British, Supreme Eltsina.” His hands stopped fiddling; there was a relief in being able to say that out loud, even if it was in flawless Russian.
“And proud of that?”
“I suppose you cou…” An arched eyebrow cut him off. “Yes, I am Supreme Eltsina.”
“Good. So, why the diesel engine?”
“My parents were on one. Supreme Eltsina.”
“How old were they?”
“My mum was a baby, I think, but dad was about four. He still remembers it. Supreme Eltsina”
Usually most nights. After a drink.
“The challenge for the Conservator is to understand and recognise the significance of every object. ’Why should this be conserved?’ must be a question every Conservator asks herself. Mr Clark, I think you’re thinking like a Forensic Conservator already.
“As promised, the three students who improved their ratings the most on this assignment would accompany me on my next field trip. You are one of my three students, Mr Clark, Britain will be a challenging and an exciting opportunity.”
“Yes Supreme Eltsina.”
“We leave tomorrow morning and we will be absent for a week. You will be excused from next week’s assignment, but on your return you will be expected to review all the content you will miss in preparation for the First Term Assessments after autumn break. There is a lot of work to do Mr Clark, but I expect you to be up for the task.”
“Yes Supreme Eltsina.”
“Have I made it clear how important the field trip is, Mr Clark?”
“Yes, Supreme Eltsina.”
“I expect to see you tomorrow morning, Mr Clark, you need to convince your father. It will jeopardise your place on my course if you do not attend.”
“Yes, Supreme Eltsina.” George’s face sunk even lower to his chest,
I’m off the course…
She abruptly stood, Bren still in hand and picked her way past the floor detritus and left via another door.
Eltsina’s companion relaxed back against a cabinet, his arms folded and a frown snaked across his bearded face.
“I can handle your dad.”
George hesitated mid stand, and froze, unsure whether to sit back down.
“No, I, um, I’ll talk to him.”
“Make sure you do.”
“Go on, you’d better get to class, you don’t want to piss her off any more.”
George hustled after Eltsina, her strides were long and fast and George was soon hot from chasing after her.
Students and academic staff alike parted as Supreme Eltsina approached. A fresh faced and still smiling Advanced wasn’t quick enough and her ankle was crushed under the Supreme’s foot. Her peer pulled her clear to prevent further trampling.
The Supreme’s momentum didn’t waver, George doubted she noticed.
The University’s refectory was cavernous, students from different cohorts flocked together in easy groups around tables and easy chairs and sofas. The multi-lingual conversations drowned out the music blaring from the speakers. The floor was black with the blood red cross of the Federation emblazoned through it; coated in a tough resin to protect it from spilled drinks and scrapes, it gave the sensation of walking across a sheet of rubber.
The bar at the centre was crowded with thirsty students, Advanceds mostly, already finished for the day.
The food court held long queues of students with plastic trays. Paragon students, mostly, George matched the red eyed, exhausted lurch to the payment hub, freshly dispensed food in front of him.
Through his Shift-Glass, George obeyed the stickered instructions and stared hard at the obelisk at the exit; his food order blossomed, virtually, from the metallic shaft in a pink bowl that looked sickeningly too cheerful. Tarantula burrito, apple and pomegranate smoothie and a bag of kelp bites.
The exit barrier whipped open once George shunted the Feds across, and staggered into the bustle of drunks and dinners. He flicked his head to send the Shift-Glass atop it and scanned the furniture.
“Looking for somewhere to sit?” A student appeared at his side.
“I’m Jian.” She said and held out her hand. She’d been selected for the field trip too.
George reached to shake it and his Shift-Glass dropped from the top of his head. Jian darted like a snake and plucked it from its descent. She stood, looking bemused at the battered, worn pair.
“It was my dad’s.” George said. The Shift-Glass hummed.
“You’ve got a message.”
“Thanks.” He said, and, balancing his tray in one hand, he took the glasses back and settled them onto his face; just a flyer from the Refectory’s Core about upcoming events.
“It’s a bit slow.” He finally said and she smiled at him.
“Are you not eating?” He asked, noticing her lack of food.
“Okay.” She didn’t say anything else and neither did he. Desperately George searched for a dark corner or an excuse to rush away.
“You’ve forgotten to salute.” Jian said.
Jian swept her hand through the air to the cross on the floor.
“Uh.” George hastily looked around and snapped a weak salute. Jian nodded.
“I think I’ll find the library.” She said. “Do you want to come?”
Jian shrugged and left.
“Idiot.” He whispered to himself. But then, luckily, a table cleared, he rushed and claimed it with his tray. Small groups of students drifted from the press of people, but altered course when they spied George.
George opened up the itinerary data package for the field trip and forlornly scrolled through the contents as he started to eat.
“George!” He searched the crowd, while he yanked the Shift-Glass onto the top of his head with a free hand.
“George, there you are!” Galya fought her way through the masses. “What are you doing over here?”
“Not a lot.”
“We’re all over here, come on.” She snatched up his tray and threaded her way back through the throng, he had no choice but to follow.
Most of his cohort had taken up a whole wing of the Refectory, moving chairs and sofas into bunches of rough circles. Galya climbed over furniture and ordered others to move along and made space next to her for George.
There were smiles and hellos and then the buzz from forty different conversations resumed around him. George settled the tray on his knee and pulled his Shift-Glass down again.
“You ever been to Britain before?”
“What, because my parents are British, you automatically think I’ve been back?” George said, a smile caught in the corner of his mouth. Galya playfully hit him on the arm.
“No, but, Demyan’s mum is French, or Belgian, or something, and they all went to visit when he was thirteen, I think.”
“Oh. Well, we’ve never been. I don’t think anyone wants to anymore.”
“Demyan’s mum is always cooking him French meals and they only ever talk in their language. I can never understand a word she says, not that she talks to me when I’m there. She’s always jabbering on to Demyan though. I hope she likes me.”
George pushed his Shift-Glass up away from his face, “I’m sure she does.
“Do you think your parents will be okay about you going?” George added.
“They’re fine with it. Just Demyan I’m dreading telling.”
“I’m sure he won’t mind.” George folded his arms, and pressed himself further against the back of the seat.
“What do you think about Chigrakov?”
“He’s coming along too. Got a beard, bit grumpy.”
“Think I saw him earlier.”
“Don’t you think he doesn’t, you know, fit?”
“Not, um, really thought about him that much. Seems a bit creepy.” George shifted uncomfortably in his seat, opened the kelp bites and offered the bag to Galya first. “What does he lecture in?”
“Don’t know. He hasn’t got a title.” Galya crunched through a big handful.
“Probably only a Paragon then.”
George laughed and so did she. The sound was infectious, he laughed harder. She slapped his leg playfully and rocked back in her chair.
“Bitch!” She said and leaned forward, her hands coming up to his head. George’s heart raced, was she about to kiss him? Here? In front of everyone? Not quite how he imagined it, but then this was Galya.
She pulled his Shift-Glass back over his eyes.
“Look at this.” She said, pulling her own on.
George felt his cheeks flush. How could he have been so stupid? Of course she wasn’t going to kiss him.
“It hasn’t come through yet.”
“You really need to get yourself a new pair.”
“Yeah, yeah.” While they waited, George watched Galya type in the air; the keyboard and message would have only been visible to her.
A private communication, George thought to himself, probably something for Demyan.
Galya’s gifted clip icon surfaced in his peripheral.
“Got it.” George said as he eyed it open.
Images burst around him in the Refectory, accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets and the lullaby of a harp.
A twentieth century warship rested in front of him as fish swam around his head, it disappeared and was replaced by a sand drenched tomb, then medieval roof timbers riddled with holes, monitoring equipment erected in an art gallery.
The images sped up: stone busts, churches, vellum documents with red wax seals, antique data recorders with slimy removable media, clothing and then an A-10 Thunderbolt jet rocketed past the camera, the noise from the engines rattled the Shift-Glass’s speakers before George’s Smart Guide halved the volume.
The shot jumped to the viewpoint of the pilot as outside the cockpit sky alternated with land and then sky again as the aircraft was taken through a dizzying set of barrel rolls.
“That’s Supreme Eltsina in that plane you know.” Galya said.
“She discovered it, dug it up and then conserved it. The replacement parts are all visible and reversible, but to make sure it all worked she took lessons and flew it.”
“Wow. That’s, that’s…”
“That’s extreme, huh? She’s in most of the clips too. Watch again.”
The flick played on the first day the cohort gathered in the Lecture Theatre, but George hadn’t paid enough attention.
Watching again, Galya joined the session and shouted out parts he’d missed: a diver on the ship wreck, a figure suspended from the ceiling of the tomb, someone inching along rotten timbers.
“Supreme Eltsina?” George asked.
“Yep! Told you. Extreme.”
He stayed quiet and reached for his food. Galya watched him eat, it was a little unnerving.
“My dad’s being difficult about the field trip.” George put the burrito aside.
“Thought he’d be alright about it. He was fine when it was Finland.”
“It took a while, but he came round-”
George left the rest of his sentence unfinished, Galya’s eyes flittered, fixed on something virtual. They hovered left to right: reading.
“Yeah, sure.” She lifted the device away from her face, “sorry, got to dash. See you later.”
Galya stood on the sofa, turned around and jumped over the back, skidded and stepped around tables and pockets of students deep in conversation and was swallowed up by the crowd.