Urbis Rising

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Chapter 32

Crispin returned to Vale in a helicopter, arriving in late afternoon amid the first intimations of a fierce autumn gale. The machine settled on the grass outside the fortifications, not far from where Granby and O’Rourke had landed when they had come to abduct the village’s women folk.

A crowd emerged from the village, armed to the teeth with household knives, clubs and a few hunting crossbows. Among the women, the memory of that other helicopter had not faded. But at the sight of Crispin, his familiar thatch of reddish hair blowing wildly in the rising wind, the warlike grimaces melted, and were replaced by smiles of welcome.

As he walked forward, Nold emerged from the chopper, and the enthusiasm of the crowd increased. Josie stepped down, carrying Karl in a thermal blanket in her arms. The rotor blades ceased turning. The reception committee gazed fixedly, clearly awaiting the appearance of Arne. Arne did not appear. A stranger, the pilot, stepped down and approached. But there was no Arne.

In the evening, the people of Vale gathered in their longhouse to hear travellers’ tales. Crispin let Nold give his account of his experiences first. Once again they heard from one who had visited Urbis for the first time, but it was a very different Urbis to that into which Crispin had first set foot. Nold told in moving terms of the battle in which Arne had died, and in giving voice to his own feelings for the first time, he also gave a eulogy fit for a hero.

Nold played down his own part in the whole business, modestly skipping over his days spent as Elizabeth’s hostage, but Crispin, when his turn came to speak, made sure the good folk of Vale were apprised of Nold’s own heroism.

To Nold’s surprise, and somewhat to the bewilderment of the other villagers, Crispin spoke at some length of the last days of Elizabeth Grant. They had known her as a prisoner in their midst, a resentful, haughty woman whom the other city people there had characterised as hungering for power while disdainful of the lower echelons of her society. Crispin portrayed her as a naive woman who had believed that others would accept her as their leader simply because she had stepped into her brother’s shoes, and had, at what she had perceived to be her moment of triumph, been betrayed, robbed of her symbol of office, and thrown into a dungeon to rot. There Crispin had found her during the last all-or-nothing raid on the fortress of sector one, severely malnourished and close to death. In a pitifully weak voice, so Crispin related, she had confessed that she had seen the error of her ways. Crispin had suggested to her that she might redeem herself for the history books by taking with her a few of her former underlings when she died, and had pressed a weapon into her trembling hands.

How many of the Security Commission forces Elizabeth had dispatched in that cell block corridor was unknown, Crispin had concluded, but he had seen to it that she was given an honourable funeral, and her ashes had been interred among those of other Leaders of the Presidium.

As the howling wind rushed over the thatch of the roof, and the inevitable draughts set the lamps hanging from the beams swinging to and fro, Crispin took another swig of ale to lubricate his vocal cords and turned from his attention from the past to the future.

“It is a fact,” he told his audience, “that things will never again be as they have been in the past. Some city people will probably come and live among you, believing that you have a better life to offer, and by their very arrival among you, they will ensure that life will henceforth be different from anything you have ever known. There will be strange new devices, wonderful machines, different ideas, and some notions which will be entirely repulsive to you as they were at first to me. It will be a time of enormous change, and of untold possibilities for you to enjoy lives that are easier and richer. But I come with a warning. The people of the city have had hundreds of years in which to adapt their lives to accommodate their machines. And there is a price to be paid for them.”

He sighed. How was he to convey his message to such simple folk? “Let me try and explain. It is my feeling that you should only take from the city that learning and those machines which are appropriate for a place like Vale. That is the key word in all this. Appropriate. There will be a temptation to embrace everything that the city has to offer, feeling that only by doing so will you become as good as the city people. This is not so. I will try and put it another way. Unlike here, where we barter, exchanging a bag of potatoes, say, for having a horse shoed, the city people use money. They have a price set in such and such a number of units for every item. So many units for a bag of potatoes. So many units for shoeing a horse. Except that they don’t have horses, but that’s another matter. And they are paid in units for the work they do. Now, even if we adopt their way of doing things - which is a possibility, for it seems an eminently sensible system to me - we are but simple farmers, hunters and tradespeople, and our produce would only earn us a small number of units. We would be hard pressed to pay for all the wonderful things city people have, and, I say again, we do not need them. But there is no doubt that many will be tempted to break their backs simply for the pride of owning them. Make no mistake, I am not saying that we need remain as we are, for we are backward, it is true. But we do not need to try and rival the city either. There is a middle way. For example, a typical village workplace, such as a potter’s wheel, say, might be valued at one unit. A typical workplace in the city, on the other hand, might, with its computer terminal and its viewphone and all the other equipment, might well be valued at a thousand units.” There was a shocked gasp from the audience. Crispin was relieved that at least some of what he was saying was making sense, though he feared that much repetition would be necessary before they got the full picture. “What I am suggesting,” he continued, “is that city people can teach us simple improvements to, for example, mechanise the potter’s wheel or improve the fuel efficiency of his kiln, so he does not have to work so hard, and is able to produce a surplus of pots which he may trade with. This will cost money, of course, but not an unreasonable sum: his one unit workplace may become a ten unit workplace, or, in certain instances, a hundred unit workplace. That is what I mean by appropriate. That is what I mean by the middle way.”

There was no cheering. Crispin looked across a sea of thoughtful faces. He was quite pleased, but it was only the first step.

When he returned to his cottage it was very late. In the light of his lamp, he beheld Josie asleep, with Karl cuddled against the inviting warmth of her maternal breast. He felt tired, and mildly jealous of his son, lying in that enviable position. But he also felt hopeful for the future.

All through the winter, Augustus Trencher laboured like a madman in his laboratory, racking his brains to recall all he could of the steps he had taken once before, the steps that had brought him to the brink of a dazzling scientific triumph. He worked day and night, often hunched over a terminal, while buckets arrayed on the bench around him collected the rainwater that seeped indefatigably between the plastic sheets forming the roof over his head.

Simone felt a little schizophrenic about her role. On the one hand she was his assistant, calling up and running programmes, overseeing the mysterious vats of goo that were lined up along one side of the room, developing smaller and smaller microprocessors, emptying the buckets, and making coffee. On the other hand, when the hour was late, when Gus was functioning solely thanks to caffeine, and when he was struggling to keep his eyes open, she saw it as her duty to draw him away from the task he was engaged on and onto the couch they shared in a neighbouring room.

She tried a number of different tacks when his “Just five minutes more,” turned into half an hour, then an hour, then two... She tried endless pleading and cajoling, pointing out that it would all still be there in the morning, and that he would not be able to function properly without adequate sleep. She took to wearing her most revealing clothes, and of coming to his side in various stages of undress.

Exasperated, she finally appeared in front of him naked. He looked her up and down with a wistful expression, and his hands ceased moving across the noteboard attached to his terminal. He appeared to be torn in two by indecision.

“I’ll be with you in just another few minutes, Simone, darling,” he murmured.

Simone moved swiftly to his side. Her arms closed round his torso, trapping his arms at his sides, and she dragged him from his stool. “You’ll be with me now!” she yelled.

Laughing, half willing, half reluctant, Gus let her heave him bodily across the laboratory.

“Be careful,” he warned, “you’ll put your back out.”

Unheeding, she wrestled him through the door to the adjoining room.

From being a city of forty million, Urbis had been reduced, according to the best estimates available, to somewhere between eight and ten million. From being continuously densely populated, it was now occupied around the fringe at the foot of the mountain, and in patches here and there, where small communities had banded together for self defence. Otherwise, groups based on a single building, couples, and the occasional defiant individual were scattered sparsely through a nightmarish desert, scratching through the brickdust for the means to survive.

It had Dolores Brophy’s planning committee tearing their hair out. They decided to start again from scratch, and build a new city, which would inevitably be much smaller. Being smaller, they concluded, would have enormous advantages, in that they could afford to be generous with open spaces; they would be able to build housing developments that were closer to the ground, which it was believed would have distinct psychological advantages for the residents; they would be able to restore the long forgotten bonds of neighbourliness and community spirit; and there would be far less demand for extensive freeways and public transport systems, linking residences with places of work.

But where to place this new Urbis? The first choice was at the shoreward end of the sector one bridge, but it was the most devastated area of all, with almost no population, while other areas already had a significant population which might not choose to be displaced after everything else they had been through.

“Why not,” said Mickey Fitzwinn, one of the more junior members of the committee, when they were still in the mire of indecision, “have a number of smaller cities instead of one big one?”

The other members of the committee looked at him as if he had gone mad.

“But... it wouldn’t be Urbis!” protested committee chairman Maxwell Harrington.

Mickey shrugged. He was a dapper little man, and determined not to be easily intimidated. “Does that really matter?” he asked. “When so much else has changed?”

“But this is quite revolutionary!” Harrington trumpeted, sounding like a mammoth on heat.

“Where have you been the last two, two and a half years?” Mickey demanded. “Revolutionary things have been happening all around us. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here, trying to decide where to put the new Urbis!”

Harrington looked at the young man, wondering if, by some faint possibility, his suggestion could be precisely what was needed. Then he looked out of the window, across the sparkling waters of the bay at the dishevelled mess that had once been sector two.

“Well, Fitzwinn,” he blustered, “you know what to do. Put something together, run it through the computer and bring it back to us. I suggest we meet again this time next week. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.”

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