I felt ill as the walls sped past my face, the ceiling changing nauseatingly before my eyes, the hoverbed tilting to uncomfortable degrees as the hurried medics tried to manhandle it around corners at excessive speed. I wanted nothing more than to express my dissatisfaction in the most overt manner possible, but the oxygen mask they had adhered to my face made that impossible. They had also painted some kind of chemical paste onto my unresponsive cheek, the substance visible at the bottom left of my vision, giving off a vapour that made my eyes and lips sting in unison. The worst part was that I felt completely fine; I was concerned about my cheek, but it didn't constitute an emergency situation to my mind and every other pain had been taken care of by the viruses.
I thought of President Kingston, and how unlikely it would have been to see him in such a situation. The ships that colonised Weeping Cross had been launched simultaneously by three of Earth's most powerful nations at the time: India, the East Asian Union and the Brazilian Bloc. They had been engaged in a state of cold war in that period, divided along lines of political philosophy, religion and, more than anything, military power and national pride. The three fleets launched towards Weeping Cross had carried these divisions with them as they raced each other to the planet, as so many similar sets of ships had done before that point. Usually, at the end of the journey, a small battle would erupt ending with a society more fractured and dangerous than the one they had launched from. This was not what happened in the case of Weeping Cross.
Johann Kingston himself had been a European. Europe itself had emerged as a powerful, if fractured, superpower, more than capable of holding its own on a local level but not competitive in the realm of colonisation. Kingston had moved to South America and worked his way onto one of the Brazilian ships, determined to escape the discordance of Earth's political situation. As the ships all raced through infraspace towards their destination, he had quickly tired of the fighting that took place between the three fleets. Slowly, over the four years the voyage took, he subverted his way through the Brazilian fleet, using contraband technology to influence the minds of senior individuals, eventually extending tendrils of influence out into the other ships. His takeover was masterful in its ruthlessness and ruthless in its efficiency. Nobody with the mental strength to resist had survived. By the time the ships arrived around the newly renamed Weeping Cross, they were but a single fleet under one man's control. Later events had seen the situation on Earth change radically, but by the time ships from the newly formed Planetary Union had arrived at Weeping Cross three centuries later, they had found a world capable of defending itself.
After thinking further of Kingston's masterplan and the society he created, I passed into sleep. A few hours later I awoke to find myself surrounded by a bizarre mixture of doctors and members of the Kingston Council. The politicians all wore faces of exaggerated worry; clearly they were genuinely concerned, but their faces looked as though they had all been set to a carefully pre-designed expression of abject fear.
"Mr. President," began Roberto Pla-Miro, the chief Council member for security and a descendent of one of the few successful families brave enough to retain a name from one of the three powers, "We have discovered General Fitzwilliam was the perpetrator of this attack." My mind almost shut itself down in disbelief. Fitzwilliam was one of my most trusted generals, a man who believed so passionately in Kingston's society I had him in mind to succeed me should anything happen to my currently planned successor.
"Fitzwilliam... he would never turn." I steeled myself against any further shocks. "Are you sure it was him?"
"The footage and the computer records are conclusive," said Pla-Miro. "There is also... another matter." He sounded uneasy, like a child admitting to a minor misdemeanour. He gestured for one of the doctors to step forward, a man with the looks of a teenager, who was probably in his forties.
"The explosive device used included a quantity of refined oil," began the man, drawing expressions of awkwardness from the Council Members at the very mention of the substance, "Most likely intended to adhere to surfaces and cause further fire damage. The fire suppression systems in your building weren't designed with that in mind." The man looked like he would rather be on a sinking boat in the middle of the ocean.
"What are you trying to tell me?" I kept hold of my temper for the time being.
"The oil came into contact with the chemicals in the suppression foam. On the surfaces the foam did its job, stopping oxygen reaching the flames, but a small quantity of the two substances landed on your face." The man's apprehension seemed to be building to a crescendo. "We don't entirely understand the reaction that happened yet, but the three seemed to combine, producing an acidic fluid that then coagulated with the lower epidermal layers." Before I had a chance to ask for a simplification, one of the other doctors held up a mirror.
Almost a third of my face looked as though it was made from tar.
Another week with no response from Gloria. Anthony stood in the Assembly, which this week was occupying a disused aircraft hangar in Bostrom, a city made mostly of slums with an aristocratic core, typical of so many provincial cities on Weeping Cross, located two hundred miles south of Kingstonville on the southern coast of the northern continent. The process of relocating the assembly on a weekly basis was a titanic one; the group operated behind the facade of a shipping company enabling them to mobilise all of their equipment on short notice. For every day they remained in the same location the risk of discovery by the regime's forces increased exponentially.
"We must not assume anything until we hear an official statement from Kingstonville!" The voice of Gabrielle Levesque was as authoritative as ever, and her arguments were so well constructed that they gave Anthony a rare chance to sit down and catch his breath.
"If we don't act now we may never get another chance," responded Charlton Hinds, another senior advisor with a trimmed beard and long, grey hair, his debating style calmer and more constructed than anyone Anthony had met, "We all saw the footage from Unit Three. The regime is the weakest it's been since the day of landing... it's up to us to make the next move. We are not going to achieve anything waiting for a response from the Union, an organisation that has never shown the confidence or the strength to so much as gesture in our direction." Somehow Hinds had the ability to sound angry and impassioned without ever altering the tone of his voice.
"The Union has principles!" Retorted Jennifer Lorenz, like a falsely accused friend insulted by the suggestion of betrayal, "They won't take an action they believe will cause more suffering than it will alleviate. Everybody in this room knows full well that the Union would walk in tomorrow if they could, but Kingston made that impossible without unthinkable bloodshed on both sides."
"We're getting away from the main issue," Anthony said, before anybody had the chance to respond further, "We don't know how long it's going to take the Union to react to our message. Doubtless they spend as much time debating the next course of action as this assembly does." There were muffled mutters throughout the hangar; Anthony knew his point was weak; the message they'd sent had made clear the time constraint on the group's plans, but nobody would challenge him on that point for another few weeks until the absence of a reply became definite. "The main question we're facing is did Unit Three achieve his objective? Are we in a position to move? Any of you who are more than a few decades older than me will know first-hand that the new President is positively paraded in front of the people within hours of taking office. That hasn't happened. The Government are silent, which worries me more than any action on their part ever could."
Anthony felt ill using the name 'Unit Three'. That was the thing they had created to accomplish their plan, the joker they had played to circumvent the definition of a sentient being. He found it abominable.
"We're already seeing the consequences of that Anthony," began Hinds, he being one of the few Assembly members confident enough to address the chair on first name terms, "There is discord in New Bucharest, activity on the ground in Belgravia... I've even seen things written on walls here in Bostrom. The people are worried and they're reacting, and the regime isn't responding in their normal manner. They're not responding at all, and this is all happening without our involvement on any level."
The sessions continued for another two days with no true agreement being reached. There was disagreement on why the regime wasn't cracking down on the anti-Government voices in the provincial cities, disagreement on whether or not they would do before long, and disagreement on the reason for the regime's protracted silence.
Had Unit Three done what it went to Kingstonville to do?
The Government was clearly in a state of confusion, suggesting that the group's actions had in some sense distracted them. But if the president was dead, his successor would already have been publically inducted. If he had been injured, he would have concocted some story explaining his absence and controlled the regime from behind the scenes. It was only at that point that another thought occurred to him.
Perhaps there were parties that wanted the president removed from power for entirely different reasons.
"Sir, the public won't know how to react," protested General Shukor, running to keep up with me as I walked with intent down the Capitol corridors, a line of Council Members trailing me like the wake of a passing ship. "It's political suicide, Sir. We need to show them a president… a government, that is beyond attack, beyond damage. That's always been the core of Kingston's society. If you go out like this, confidence will fall and we'll be forced to take measures to protect society."
Three weeks had passed since the failed attempt on my life. The Doctors had come to the conclusion that the skin on my left cheek had been chemically transformed into a kind of hydrocarbon mixture; in short, the only way to restore my appearance was through a full skin graft using newly grown material. The operation would take weeks, they had said. Time to grow the new skin, time to examine the damaged area, time to operate and time to recover. In total it added up to over two months. What Shukor didn't realise was that the longer the public waited for an explanation, the less confident they would become.
I had met with some of the Council Members to discuss a possible cover story for my absence, which many of them wanted me to employ, but I had decided that appearing in public in spite of my injury would be the greater show of strength. Shukor seemed to have become the default spokesperson for both the Council Members and my military advisors. Her presumptuousness would need to be dealt with in time. Right now, the more pressing matter of re-establishing order on Weeping Cross took priority. Assaults on military officers, graffiti slogans on public buildings, demand for 'social equality' from the slums of Belgravia to the farming grids of the southern plains. Three weeks of my absence had led to a disgusting abandonment of the most basic order. It was a miracle the planet had ever survived before my succession.
"Measures?" I demanded. "Tell me General, what measures have you been taking whilst I've been staring at the ceiling, whittling away the hours examining the finer details of bioluminescent lighting in a state of artificially induced paralysis whilst the nineteenth mechanical spider takes an exploratory stroll across the surface of my face? Those are, of course, the hours I was even awake for! Whose idea was it that I couldn't leave the examination table until this disfigurement had been addressed? Why was it left to me to point out that I'll do what I see fit, when I see fit, especially when the ailment in question is not a significant threat to my health on any level?" With my chest pounding and my mind racing, I made the mistake of pausing for an intake of breath.
"The doctors were acting on the orders of the council," Shukor replied, with a calm that angered me further still. She seemed entirely untroubled by my outburst, reacting as though I had politely phrased a problem of interest. "It was our belief... their belief, that all possible resources must be invested in treating you; overriding any other priority. The people need to be shown a strong President: one who survived a foolhardy attempt on his life and went on a personal quest to find the perpetrator of this unconscionable act."
Barely holding onto my rage, I began my response with a degree of calm and control that left even me chilled. "If Doctor Carol had not... come to me this... morning..." It was as much as I could manage. I had work to do. Making a mental note to decide her punishment at a later date, in a more rational mind-set, I held up a hand, increased the speed of my walk and hit the control of the next doorway I passed through with all the zest I could manage. For a moment, I allowed myself to imagine the sound of bodies colliding with metal under the sound of the closing mechanism. It gave me the first smile of the last twenty three days.
Doctor Carol met me at the gateway onto the platform on the south face of the capitol. This was on the seventeenth floor, and beyond the gateway stood a balcony large enough to hold several shuttlecraft. From it, I would address the people, some literally gathered before me, two hundred feet below, others by mandatory video relays and holographic recreations. Behind me would stand the council, the generals, and selected esteemed citizens. Carol would also stand to my side. His usual white lab coat had been swapped for a rankless military dress uniform; his young, slim physique and boyish complexion juxtaposing absurdly with the powerful psychology of the uniform.
"The screen is up sir," began Carol, bowing minutely as he spoke in a probably subconscious gesture of inferiority that warmed me greatly, "We are ready to proceed. Is there anyone you wish me to call for you, or would you prefer to rehearse alone?" I centred my eyes on the young man without turning my head. He looked back at me respectfully, and for a moment all of the troubles of the past few weeks seemed to pass away. I felt a sense of support I had not known for seventy years.
"Just yourself, son" I replied. "After our conversation this morning, I am confident you can support me better than the council and the generals combined." Normally, I would have ordered whoever was present to open the gate, but for some reason I felt compelled to do it myself. It was a fantastically antiquated mechanism; a physical wheel with nine handles, spun to work a system of cogs and levers that would work in turn to lift the bulk of the gate. All for show, I thought. In this time of programmable viruses, spaceborne gunships and citywide holographic surveillance, nothing intimidated the people more than a manually operated portcullis.
I walked out onto the balcony, the grey screen around the edges and overhead lending it the feel of a disused warehouse. The screen could simulate the appearance of the outside on the day of my speech, barely five days away, but for now I was content to feel like this was just a rehearsal. I walked over to where the podium would stand, waited for Carol to join me on my left, then looked back at the two lines of non-existent officials standing further back on either side. Then I stepped forward, placed my hands on the imaginary podium, took a breath and addressed the blank wall.
"People of Kingstonville," I began, "and of all Weeping Cross. I am here to inform you that, a month ago today, an attempt was made on my life."
The people stood in silence, reaching back into the core of the city as far as the eye could see. Five days after the rehearsal, I had stammered through the first few words of my address, taken aback by the faces of the people below, the mixture of expressions. Some seemed shocked, some seemed confused, some seemed proud, but many seemed disturbingly resolved. I saw distrust in their eyes. I was used to obedience; I was used to a people who looked to me for guidance, and looked up to me as their rightful leader. I could still see that in many. But it was far from all.
"This attempt, for that was all that it succeeded to be, was an attack on you as much as on me. It was an effort to challenge the security of our society. It was an absurd attempt by a petty individual to challenge an indomitable world that has stood strong for seven hundred years." A petty individual, I echoed within my mind. The lie sucked what little passion remained in my heart into the emotional vortex that seemed to be swirling within me. For the first time in my life, I felt cold, hard vacuum where my stoicism normally resided; emptiness where my endless reserves of passion and determination had always been harboured. I glanced over my left shoulder and looked at Doctor Carol. He seemed to acknowledge me without ever taking his eyes off the crowd. The contact was like a quick-fix drug; the coldness inside me was temporarily replaced with a sense of completeness that had been seven decades absent. It was enough to empower me to continue.
"My face may be temporarily scarred. The history of our world will not forget the four weeks I was hidden from your view. But I tell you this with all the resolve in my being: I will stand undefeated!" For a moment I thought the microphone systems were not working. I had intended to shout much louder; to sound far more powerful and determined. I composed myself, straightened my uniform, and went to continue. I got as far as opening my mouth and drawing some air.
The crack echoed within my head for several seconds. It had not actually been much of a sound, not the resounding bang or growling rumble one typically associates with a violent event. It had been short, distant and unthreatening. But the silence of the proceeding moment, the stately nature of the event and the sheer audacity of its occurrence at such a time and place lent it an altogether stronger sense of power.
The smoke from the sound source was equally uninspiring. It straggled over the edge of the parapet in disjointed whiffs that dissipated as soon as the winds caught them. Nevertheless, its presence was a sign that the entire planet could now plainly see. I felt General Shukor's hand on my shoulder; her concern for my wellbeing was touching. Perhaps her earlier presumptuousness could be put down to inexperience. A less severe punishment when the time comes, if she continues to act well. I turned to her and, placing my hand on hers, spoke, loud enough for the microphone systems to pick up:
"I will remain here, thank you. And thank you to the one person launching the one firework harmlessly into the wall! You've certainly added an unexpected flare to my speech." I expected laughter, but none came. I heard my own voice echo down the streets as it was relayed to a network of emitters, painfully counterpointing the absolute silence of the crowd. Somewhere down below me, officers forced their way through the crowd towards the estimated source of the firework launch.
Reaffirming my grip on the podium, I returned to the script. "It is with pride that I take this opportunity to tell you that those responsible..." I paused, distracted by a shuffle in the crowd below. The officers were holding someone to the ground. It could have been two people. "That those responsible for the attempt on my life have been identified and will be brought to justice!" Something punctuated the end of my sentence; a scrape of metal on stone. An object made an array of sounds as it bounced down the sloped wall. As I stood silently, trying to maintain a fixed expression, the crowd began to move. Elements were repositioning themselves through others that attempted to remain stationary. Another crack; this time smoking fragments arched down from a central point in the air a hundred feet or so above the balcony. The crowd was muttering now, creating a tremendous roar by virtue of the sheer number of voices.
"Sir..." began Shukor. I swayed on the spot like a lamppost in the wind but did not turn towards her. Another bang, this time with colours in the sky for a moment. Security personnel started breaking up the crowd. A wooden stick clanged as it hit the surface of the balcony.
"Order!" The automated announcement rang out as several officers tried to get my attention and politely pull me away from the podium. I was transfixed. I caught sight of something fly over my head on a parabolic trajectory, travelling too high or fast to have been thrown by a human hand. For a moment I thought it was a champagne bottle being thrown against the hull of a new ship.
The smash of glass and the roar of erupting flames sounded simultaneously. "Fire on the address balcony!" shouted an older-looking male officer into the communicator on their wrist. "All fire suppression teams to floor seventeen, section three!" another commanded into their own bracelet. I felt a hand on my shoulder again; this time it was on my right.
"Mister President." It was Doctor Carol. That was enough for me. I stumbled back towards the gateway amid a throng of security officers as hazmat-suited fire-fighters erupted through concealed doors onto the roof. Smoke filled the air as additional Molotov Cocktails arced through the air, exploding as they smashed into the wall. Somebody screamed; I couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. Various gas mixtures hissed as they rushed out of fire-fighters' hoses. As we crowded through the gateway I heard a voice cry out from the street below.
"Long live the Union."
"I say once more, this is our one and only chance!" Jennifer Lorenz stood on the stage like a solo comedian tackling a venue too big for their act. Anthony leant back in the reclining chair. They were meeting in a theatre, ostensibly closed for structural repairs to the floors holding up the seating tiers. Lorenz, having completed her thirteen minute argument, walked off to the side and joined the rest of the assembly, who were dotted around the front ten rows of seating. At this point anybody was free to stand and make a rebuttal, but nobody did. This meeting had not been like any other. After each speaker had ambled through their half-planned address, the room had fallen silent with contemplation as each member thought through the ramifications.
Lorenz had made a convincing case for making the resistance public. Weeping Cross was in disarray; too many people had taken advantage of the lapse of security during the President's absence for the regime to mount an effective suppression operation after his disastrous return. She had argued that providing the rioting population with an alternative government, a clear organised leadership around which to rally, would strengthen their resolve and weaken that of the regime. Sadly, too much of the population had become ensnared on the idea of Union interference. Throughout the regime, lies and deceit had been used to paint a negative picture of the Union in the consciousness of the people. Now that the government had been proved weakened, many people were ready to question and the resistance had taken the chance to covertly publicise the truth. It had somewhat backfired; most of the assembly was now convinced that the Union was not going to intervene at any stage. It would rather allow the planet to destroy itself than have Union citizens accuse their government of directly causing a single innocent death in any intervention scenario. Nevertheless the rebellious elements of the population had rallied around the idea.
Then there was the matter of those parts of the population still loyal to the regime. Some of the aristocrats and government beneficiaries had turned, using their power and influence to aid the uprising, but most stood by the system that had advantaged them so greatly. Similarly, many of the slum-dwellers across the major cities had rebelled, wilfully resisting security and crossing into the cities' central zones, whilst a minority had chosen to remain subservient, either out of fear or ongoing loyalty to a regime that had persistently downtrodden them. Society was trying to fracture along a dozen different seams, with no clear stratification emerging, whilst all the time the government was increasingly unable to impose any kind of order. Many in the assembly had made good cases for remaining undercover, saying the resistance would expose itself to destruction when the government inevitably regained full control, and that supporting this kind of rebellion would lead to unacceptable civilian casualties. But Anthony's mind was made up.
"We move." He didn't even get out of his seat. "We draw up a plan today, then tomorrow, we unite these people, and we take this fight to the people who started it seven hundred years ago. We have a chance to free this planet. We created that chance. If we don't take it, I'll never forgive myself."