At first I didn’t know where I was. I woke lying on my side, a shrill ringing filling my ears. My mind struggled to handle the complaints coming from across my body. I had clearly fallen on my right arm, which I could no longer feel nor move. I was winded, my diaphragm aching with every breath. The pain in my stomach was only eased by the greater pain coming from the base of my spine. It was as though something had hit me from both in front and behind. I used my left arm to free my right before pressing my hand against my back. Immediately the pain intensified as my hand applied pressure, but I persisted. I could feel blood under my shirt, and a number of skin scratches, but there didn’t seem to be anything more severe.
I tried to sit up, enough feeling having returned to my right arm for it to support some weight. My vision was foggy, my hearing impeded by a constant ringing, an incessant modulating wail drowning out every thought. As I sat up, the pain from my back intensified again, but no part of my body failed to move; no sudden stabbing attacks of agony. No broken bones, I thought to myself. That was something.
As I started to stand, breathing became much harder. There was a taste in my mouth; thick, particulate, with the taste of something in it that I hadn't experienced for many years. At the same time my eyes began to sting, watering heavily as my hand reacted to cover them, the other hand supporting me against a jagged stone surface.
I realised I was breathing smoke.
With a cold rush of fear, the reason I could neither hear nor see became clear to me. The ringing in my head was not in my head at all; it was in the room around me. An alarm, screaming out from some part of the ceiling. The room I was in was filled with smoke, which tasted distinctly of oil, something I had not smelled for a very long time. Seventy years, I reminded myself. The odour took my mind back to a visit I had made to an oil refinery on the sand planes of the southern continent seven decades earlier. A routine visit that had ended in tragedy. I thought of my son.
No time for that now, my conscious mind snapped, before my chest had time to turn cold in remorse. Pushing myself off from the wall, I stumbled forward, both hands arresting my fall against a wooden surface in front of me. It was the wood that told me where I was. I recognised its skilfully sculpted lines, the way it seemed to flow along its length as though it had been moulded out of a liquid form, rather than chipped and hammered into shape as was actually the case. What I was admiring was the edge of my table, turned through ninety degrees so the equally elaborate legs were pointing horizontally on either side of my own.
I was in my office.
The smoke made breathing almost impossible, but now that I knew where I was I could start to do something about it. On the floor next of the table was a half-burned flag that had clearly fallen during whatever event had befallen the room. It was the flag of the Kingston Administration: the government of Kingstonville, the whole of Weeping Cross, and several light-hours of space around it. I looked at it for a second, allowing myself time to apologise for what I was about to do, before tearing a section of unburned flag off from the rest and tying it around the lower part of my head.
Something was wrong with my face. I could feel the flag cloth against my right cheek and my mouth, but on the left there was no sensation of contact. I touched the skin with my hand, feeling an uneven surface harder and coarser than human skin should ever be. My cheek failed to register the contact at all.
Standing up fully for the first time, I got some sense of what had happened to my office. There had been an explosion, one large enough to burn most of the flammable elements of the room's interior before the fire suppression systems had activated. From where the burns were most intense it looked as though the explosion should have blown the table away, but instead it had fallen towards what looked to have been the epicentre. Then it occurred to me; had I been sitting at the desk when this happened my body would have suffered the same fate as the walls and I would not be experiencing anything. Clearly I had turned the table and used it as a shield, suggesting that I had possessed some forewarning of what was about to happen.
As far as I could imagine, only two things could have caused an explosion in the office. The first was some kind of technical failure; a ruptured gas main perhaps, or maybe even a rogue aircraft crashing into the building. But this didn't satisfy the oily taste of the smoke. Oil hadn't been used on Weeping Cross for seven decades; it was outlawed. That left only one other conceivable option: an attack by the Planetary Union. But my agents in the Union had not reported any activity regarding to the Weeping Cross system. Besides, any ship or message from the nearest Union planet would take at least three months to make the journey travelling in infraspace. The perimeter defences had not detected anything enter the area around Weeping Cross, either in infraspace or in normal space. Even if a Union agent had carried out an attack, the Union had outlawed the use of oil longer than we had.
Disturbed by the lack of an explanation, I pushed myself off the table and stumbled towards the door.
Anthony meandered into the laboratory, feeling the rough coldness of the steel tables as he ran his fingers along their edges. It was only when he came to the room alone that he could grasp fully what he and his associates had done here. His organisation was founded on a very basic fundamental principal: that all human beings, regardless of any discriminatory factors, were valuable. It was their core tenet that the loss of human life, irrespective of the individual in question, was to be avoided at any cost, except only the loss of a greater number of lives. The sorry truth was that on Weeping Cross, the value of an individual's life varied massively depending on their background, their allegiances, their physical strength or their intellect. It was this that the group had originally met in secret to oppose, over a century and a half ago, some decades before Anthony's birth. In the years since, it had come to stand for so much more. Anthony was still young by the standards of Weeping Cross' more successful inhabitants; only ninety years old, a veritable teenager in the eyes of many of his peers. Life spans of up to three hundred years were commonplace amongst those with the right resources and connections, with some even living to see in their sixth or seventh hundredth year of life. Furthermore, Anthony's rough brown hair and youthful complexion complimented his healthy build to give him a misleadingly youthful appearance.
Unfortunately, there had come a time where the group had needed to reappraise its position on the sanctity of human life. For the seven hundred years since Weeping Cross had first been settled there had been nine presidents, each choosing a successor towards the end of their natural lives, with reigns ranging between a single decade and over two centuries. This practise had meant that the presidents all broadly shared the original views of President Kingston, the initial founder of the regime. However, in the hundred and twenty years that President Rowley had been in power, his paranoid fear of a Union invasion had lead him to make drastic changes to the society over which he ruled. More and more people were recruited into the military, but these were not fit and healthy soldiers; these were the forgotten. They were the slum-dwellers that occupied so much of the other cities on Weeping Cross; those who had not been born into successful backgrounds, had not done something deemed worthy of respect by the regime, or had done something it considered worthy of its disdain. They were taken, one by one, to crew ships to forever strengthen the blockade keeping Weeping Cross isolated from the rest of civilisation. They served to push out the sphere of its control, further pressing against the edge of Union space. The only thing that was not clear was what would happen first: a complete eradication of the underclass or the inevitable retaliation of the Union after some threshold was crossed. The bottom line was obvious: Rowley had to go.
Many in the group had wanted to circumvent its founding principals in the name of the greater good, and Anthony had sympathised with their positions. The security around the presidential capitol in Kingstonville was impeccable and a direct military assault against it would have required the mobilisation of every last hidden asset in the group's possession, likely resulting in horrific casualties on both sides. Anthony and his fellow leaders had overruled the suggestion. "The guards are still citizens," his advisor Gabrielle Levesque had said to the assembly in one of the countless meetings that had lead up to the formation of the final plan, "they could just as easily end up in the mud, victims of the regime, as any other individual on this planet." Anthony had found himself deploying the same line on repeat occasions. "Our mantra is absolute," it always began, "no avoidable loss of life is acceptable." They had seemed to be at an impasse for many months, their usual subversive action continuing to be as ineffectual as ever, until one day a less senior advisor had invited a neuro-scientist from Kingstonville to speak to the assembly. He was a defector still appearing to work for Rowley's inner circle.
Rowley, it transpired, had also foreseen the eventual depletion of the underclass which he was slowly militarising. He had set his people working on the theft and retrofitting of the cloning technology used within the Union. In turn, the group's man had given them the means to construct their own. To Anthony and the advisors, the path had become beautifully clear.
Anthony looked at the grey machinery of the casket as it stood against the laboratory wall. Six months had passed since the plan had begun. Over those months, as the scientists and tacticians had worked impossibly hard to put the plan into action, a digital envoy had left Weeping Cross, powering through infraspace at the fastest speed achievable in it. After just under three months it would have arrived at Gloria, the nearest Union world to Weeping Cross. Keeping the signal away from the networks of the regime had been essential; the message had contained every slightest detail of the plan. Enough time had passed without incident to suggest that had been successful. Now, after six months, the crux point had come. The plan had gone into action, and now all the group's members looked expectantly to the sky for something that had, so far, failed to arrive.
A sharp jolt of pain sliced across my nerves as I kicked through the partially burned wood of the door. I had broken a toe. It made standing nearly impossible, but I bit my teeth, stumbling across the reception room that adjoined my office. There was very little evidence of damage here; the fire had worked under the door but the suppression systems had prevented it getting any distance into the room. It wasn't until I reached the first aid cabinet and injected intelligent viruses into my foot that I realised what was lying in the centre of the room. Three of my guards.
I clambered over to their bodies, feeling their necks for life signs. To my surprise, they were all alive, showing no clear signs of injury, yet they responded to no stimulus I could create. I administered viral injections to each of them, expecting the viruses to neutralise any toxin that may have been used against them. They were all members of my floor guard, the immediate circle of protectors whom I knew on a personal level. Peter, Helen and Herman. I sat back, overwhelmed for a moment by a sense of inability to help them. Then I thought rationally: nothing in this room could analyse them effectively, which meant I had to leave it. But the explosion had put the building into lockdown; my office and the reception were divided from the rest of the building by sealed doors blocking the passage of almost all forms of energy. In all likelihood there was a team outside trying to override the lockdown, but if it had not disengaged automatically, that meant there were still dangers elsewhere in the building.
The smoke from my office had permeated this room to a degree, but now I'd broken through the door more of it had swirled into the space. The smell hit me once again, sending me back into thoughts of seventy years previous. I remembered the refinery, standing tall on the horizon as my entourage flew across the desert of the southern continent. I remember sitting at my desk aboard the aircraft, my son sitting across from me, busy with his own work as a budding associate legislator, a promising future member of the Kingston Council. Occasionally we would catch each other's eyes, exchanging a glance or a smile as we waited to arrive at our destination. It was important to maintain a sense of family for the people watching and recording the visit. If his mother had been present that would have been even better, but she had decided her own fate.
The image of the refinery haunted me more than that of my son's eyes looking up at me from behind some tablet computer screen. He felt so impossibly distant. That place, that towering monstrosity of hellish forms and deafening sounds, had taken him from me. The refinery workers should have known their place; it was not for them to demand anything, to expect anything. They were a necessary part of the system, there for the reasons of their own lives. I felt no sympathy for them, only unadulterated hatred. Within one month of that day there were few men and women alive who could ever have claimed to have worked with oil.
Three hours had passed and still my three guards lay unconscious on the floor. I lifted my head out of my hands, noting that the smoke had largely cleared. In lockdown, the air recycling systems were diverted through complex filtering mechanisms, so it had taken them this long to filter all of the smoke and dust out of the room's air. Removing the flag cloth from my face, I noticed again how only my right cheek registered the change in sensation. With my left hand I felt the coarse surface of the other side of my face, it failing to respond to the contact in any way.
The sound of the lockdown doors retracting snapped me out of a trance. The wooden door they had concealed between them looked positively pathetic by comparison to the metallic shields that had surrounded it. The handle turned and several guards burst into the room. Before I could so much as lift myself off the floor, they stopped, staring down at me. I could see their faces through their helmet visors, a mixture of shock, confusion and fear.
"Are you going to help me or what?" I projected a sense of anger, but inwardly I felt just how they looked, scared of what it was that had made them react in such a way.
"Of course sir," the lead officer responded. She was older than most of them, clearly of senior rank as well, but she wasn't one I recognised. She turned from me and spoke into the communicator in her helmet. "Medical Wing, this is General Shukor. We have an emergency, floor twenty five, section fifteen." She turned to me again, holding a hand out as if to tell me to stand back. I felt angered by the insolence. "I think it's better if you remain here." Seeing my reaction, she added, "For your own safety, Mr. President."