"Where is Jennifer?" Anthony walked at speed to keep up with Charlton Hinds as the two men moved between decimated buildings and around piles of mangled rubble. They were dressed like desert merchants to both conceal their identities and fight off the glare of the sun. Now that the resistance had gone public and the assembly members had emerged as leading figures, there was a need for secrecy when moving through the streets. The location was Agadir Sands, the largest city in the Fes Desert on the north-eastern shore of the Southern Continent.
"I last saw her when we were on the boat," replied Hinds, instinctively ducking as something exploded on a nearby street, "I can't believe she'd get cold feet after two months. This whole campaign was her idea... So that leaves two possibilities. Either she's become separated and she'll find her way back to us, or we've lost her." The thought of 'losing' another assembly member made Anthony want to drop to the floor and give up. Nine members had now been killed in a variety of unbecoming manners as they'd lead coordinated groups of rebels into attacks against sensitive targets. "They'll give us the new names we'll need for all our squares and roads" various people had said. Flippant optimism had once been a strong point of Anthony's, but these were not those days.
"Here we are." Anthony's voice echoed the exhaustion he felt, both physically and mentally. "Looks like our guys did a pretty good job." Before them stood the Agadir Sands Capitol, the fourth largest of its kind on Weeping Cross, behind only those in Belgravia, New Addis Abba and Kingstonville itself. The capitols resembled in many regards the pyramids of ancient Egypt with the top half cut off. Various indentations and adornments set them apart, as well as the protruding balconies emerging from all four sides which appeared as though a section of the wall had simply been slid out a certain distance from the rest. One extrusion came out further than the other three; in the case of the Kingstonville Capitol, this was where a disfigured Rowley had made his unexpectedly curtailed speech.
The Agadir Sands Capitol however no longer resembled its opposite numbers in other major cities. Over the previous two weeks, in an effort to accelerate the increasingly difficult progress the rebellion was making, the resistance had begun duplicating a cohesion bomb they had stolen from a facility they'd raided near Bostrom. The device was capable of stripping the charge from the subatomic particles in all matter within a certain radius of itself. The result was the complete collapse of all intermolecular bonds within any material inside that radius. They had chosen the Agadir Sands Capitol as the test site for the first duplicate weapon as the city was now the second largest stronghold of loyalists after Kingstonville itself. Officials from across the southern continent met in the capitol to plan offensives and organise plans for the reassertion of government power. Naturally, the resistance had given them a fair fifteen minutes' warning.
The weapon had taken a spherical chunk out of the side of the building, as though that area had simply been deleted from existence. There was no sound, no smoke and no flame. No sound, that is, until the structure left above the newly created hole collapsed under its own weight, taking more of the upper floors with it. Before long, half the capitol stood undamaged, the other half slumped in a mangle of smashed stone, twisted metal and a plethora of extraneous materials. Electrical fires were started as equipment was crushed and pulled apart by the force of the collapse. In accordance with their stated policy, the resistance forces positively assisted the emergency services as they accessed the ruined structure. Some had fled the building on hearing the warning, while most had remained, fearing punishment for desertion.
Anthony and Charlton both knew they had twisted, if not broken, the principles on which the resistance had been founded. They had violated their own moral code on a personal and political level. But they had also advanced the conflict by what would have been many months of fighting in one detonation of a single weapon. In some overly logical part of his mind, Anthony accepted the concept of the casualties in the capitol being a permissible price for the greater number of lives saved beyond it. The rest of his mind would have to deal with that at a later date.
General Shukor sat opposite the table to me, doing her best to respectfully ignore the mechanical spider standing on my cheek. The machine was discretely applying chemicals and taking samples of the damaged skin. After two and a half months some of the burned area had fully healed, whilst a skin graft was being grown to directly replace those deemed to be beyond healing. The spider was feeding back to the doctors in the medical wing who were putting together a plan for the reconstruction work. They had said that if I put off the meeting by a day, the spider would be able to finish its work beforehand. That was not an option, and the generals and council members present were just going to have to put up with the irregular visitor to the table.
"The last members left in Agadir Sands surrendered this morning." I was not saying this for anybody else's benefit; all those present were already well aware of this fact. "That leaves us with no official presence on the entire southern continent." I let the words hang in the dark confines of the room for several seconds. Nobody so much as moved. I could feel the anger welling up inside me. Too much anger for shouting. The time for that was long passed.
"I implore somebody, anybody, to tell me some good news." Again, silence. I looked across the table. "General Shukor?" She lifted her head and met my gaze, her blonde hair falling across her eyes, her mind too petrified to will her hand to do anything about it.
"Sir?" Her voice audibly quivered. Quivered a little too much actually.
"Would you care to deliver a report on the situation in Bostrom?"
The spider chose this moment to spontaneously leap from my face onto the table, scuttle along it with a furious tapping of metal on metal, drop to the floor, pause to wait for the door, then disappear through it. Doubtless it would return in a few minutes at an equally ill-chosen moment.
Shukor returned her gaze from the door to my eyes. "The... the shells... they couldn't penetrate the hulls of the boats, sir. We managed to land some on the decks... we estimate around two hundred rebels have been infected with the virus. Those boats have been quarantined by the others, which have now landed. Fighting has moved into the streets."
I allowed a moment for the news to settle. Fighting on the streets in Bostrom meant the rebels, at their current rate, were a few weeks away from Kingstonville's southern reaches. A tear tried to force its way out onto my eye. I held it back with all my strength before addressing the table.
"Will all those who opposed the use of the use of the Flash Virus, please leave the room." For a moment there was impeccable silence, then one by one, people began to rise from their seats and solemnly make for the door. By the time the door was sealed, only seven council members and two generals remained. I felt the anger building inexorably inside me. By the time I had finished I was standing on the other side of the room, panting heavily in a cold sweat, barely able to remember anything I had said. The room sat in silence as I returned to my seat.
"I will not let this society that we have built for seven centuries be dismantled by a group of malcontents and anarchists. Nobody, not even this 'Anthony', can be allowed to do that. The legacy of President Kingston will stand for a thousand years more." General Shukor was shaking in her seat, her face betraying the same silent shock as everyone in the room. I stood and made my way to the doorway. As it opened, I saw those who had left earlier crowded outside, joined by Doctor Carol.
"We will use every possible measure at our disposal." Without saying more, I put an arm over Carol and walked with him down the corridor. At the end of it I stopped and turned back, everyone still standing where I had left them. "Anyone who has any problem with that can consider themselves conscripted at the level of civilian defender." With that, we turned the corner and made our way to the medical wing.
Anthony looked down the skyscraper-lined boulevard. Three months had passed since Unit Three had done the job it was designed for; three months since history had changed. Now, at long last, and for the first time since his distant childhood, Anthony was standing in sight of the most heavily defended building on Weeping Cross. At the end of the road, three miles away and hiding behind the distortion of heat haze and smoke-polluted air, was the Kingstonville Capitol.
The occasional bang rang out across the buildings, but for the most part the city was eerily silent. People filled the streets, from where Anthony stood with a brace of other assembly seniors right down to the capitol itself. As the resistance had moved deeper into Kingstonville the fighting had died down as more and more government officers refused to engage the swelling crowds and more of their superiors refused to discipline them. There was a powerful sense of finality to the whole occasion.
Every so often, chants would erupt into being from various parts of the crowd, often being taken up by the larger mass. The sound was phenomenal. There were literally millions of people here; a thriving bulk representing every class, every race, every possible social stratum of Weeping Cross society. The sound of the chants would ring off the walls of the surrounding buildings:
"Weeping Cross: A Union world! Weeping Cross: A Union world!" The reverberation gave the already immense sound an added sense of scale. After many hours of little change, the sound of one chant died down suddenly and the crowd began to press closer to the capitol. Anthony and his associates moved forward, approaching the capitol one yard at a time. It was impossible from this distance to clearly make out what was happening further forward at the capitol's base, but from a mile away smoke was clearly visible.
"Take off the headgear." After waiting for his lead, the other assembly members cautiously removed the scarves that had been hiding their appearance. After wearing them for so long the heat felt corrosive on the skin. Immediately, members in the crowd began to recognise them.
"If an officer sees us..." one began.
"They'll do nothing." Anthony replied with a dishonest degree of certainty. "They won't dare now. They know the line's been crossed. Everyone knows there's no going back now." Now that the crowd knew who they were, it became much easier to move towards the capitol. As they came closer, speech began to sound from the various audio emission systems embedded in the surrounding buildings, or at least those that had survived the fighting. The image of a young man in a white lab coat appeared on one of the few surviving screens normally used for presidential addresses.
"Your President will shortly be making an address," the young man began. He couldn't have been older than forty; he still had the appearance of a teenager. "You are expected to treat him with the same respect and deference that has been afforded to presidents of this great world for the last seven hundred years. Any attempts at disruption will not be tolerated." The young man's picture vanished from the screens as Anthony and the other assembly members moved closer still. They were now less than half a mile from the capitol wall, and seeing up onto the balcony was becoming difficult. The few functioning screens showed images of the gate being opened and a line of surviving generals and council members slowly filing out in opposite directions.
By the time all the other dignitaries were in place on the balcony, Anthony and the others had reached the base of the capitol. They watched on the screen, fixated by the development, as the president walked out, accompanied by a female general and the young man from the earlier broadcast, who was now wearing a military dress uniform. Slowly, flanked by the other two, the president took his place at the podium.
"People of Weeping Cross," began the president, his words echoing out across the breathtaking expanse of the city, "Recent events have made it clear to all of us... that the time has come for certain things to change on this world." The crowd remained totally silent, dumbstruck by the ongoing turns of events. "Please do not misunderstand me. The indiscretions of the past few months cannot go unchallenged. There will be consequences. Order will be restored, one way or another..."
"What's he thinking?" Levesque whispered in Anthony's ear. He could hardly respond. The president's words at this stage were tantamount to asking the people to assist him in his suicide.
"This planet will be great again. President Kingston once said..." He was cut off, a firework shrieking up into the sky and exploding in a shower of purple and violet above the balcony. Before anyone could take any further action, officers hidden in surrounding buildings began firing gas canisters into the crowd. There was screaming. People running. Others were falling to their knees, covering their ears as the Flash Virus took hold in their system, creating false sensations of immense auditory stimuli. "Like a sound louder than the loudest the ear can hear, across all frequencies, for eternity, never abating, never ending." The brief summary of the virus's effect Anthony had been given a month earlier was a sufficiently frightening description. Anthony and the other assembly members made for the nearest capitol door. "We need this door open!" He bellowed into the crowd. It didn't take long for a few well-aimed fireworks to attract the attention of the officers inside.
As the door opened, a mass of crowd members surged inwards, overpowering those inside. Anthony feared that many would get trampled, beaten and otherwise injured, or worse. He wished he had the luxury to hold on to his principles at this stage. Just before entering the building, Anthony looked up and saw more officers start firing canisters from another building. For a moment his mind noticed something was different. These officers had removed the insignia from their uniforms. In the window on the floor above where they stood flew a makeshift flag of the Planetary Union. Defectors, Anthony realised, firing canisters of antivirus into the crowd.
Anthony entered the room after most of the crowd inside had moved on further into the building. He had braced himself for an unpleasant sight, but instead he saw three officers standing against the wall, holding their arms in the air.
"Are you with us?" he asked. The three officers nodded timidly, fear etched into every contour of their faces. "Better take off those insignia then, and help me make sure as many of your colleagues as possible end up being as fortunate as you've been. Do you know the way upstairs?"
"This action will get you nowhere!" I bellowed at the top of my voice, the microphones feeding back with the unexpected change in volume, the high pitched tone buzzing out of the speakers across the city. Shukor was desperately trying to get me back into the building, but I had no intention of backing down this time. I shouted into my communication bracelet,
"All officers, defend the capitol! Get these people under control!" Each time I repeated the order, fewer acknowledgement signals came back. First the bracelet told me over nine thousand officers had acknowledged the order. Then only eight thousand. Then six. Then four, three, two. Eight hundred acknowledgements.
Some kind of motion was happening behind me. I continued to face the crowd, threatening punishment for all those taking part. An area of my mind was telling me that was no longer the right thing to do, but it was the only right thing. These people had to pay, to have an example made of them.
The motion behind me died down, and then so did the crowd. The last officers stopped firing, the sound of chanting came to an end. There was silence. Slowly I turned around. Standing before me, pointing a laser cutting tool at my head, was the resistance leader.
"Hello... Anthony, is it?" It was the best I could manage.
"Hello Mister President", He replied. "Mister Rowley, perhaps, would be more fitting now. There is a lot for us to discuss, but let's start with the reasons for removing you from power, shall we?" All of the officers had moved to stand behind him, against me. Then I noticed; all but one.
"Drop it, Anthony," commanded General Shukor, holding a rifle towards the man. Several of the others aimed their weapons at her.
"You first, General", Anthony retorted.
"Oh no, but you see, young man," I began, "The General here is loyal. She understands loyalty. She understands what it means to be a respectable citizen on this world."
Another officer emerged from the gate and aimed at Anthony. Shukor swung her weapon round and pointed it at me.
"Listen closely, everyone!" shouted Shukor, adopting my position at the podium as several of her officers aimed weapons at Anthony and me, "There has been a change of government here today. For too long you've been ruled by the weak, hiding behind history, behind title. It's time for this world to be ruled by the strong!" A few individuals cheered, but the mass remained silent. More of her officers emerged from the gateway, weapons pointed at all else present.
"Jennifer?" Asked Anthony, as another officer came out of the gate. The woman broke from the others and approached him.
"Sorry, little leader." Her tone was condescending, like a schoolgirl teasing a less popular classmate. "Your pet insurrection was my idea after all. Or, should I say, it was Amanda's idea." Shukor smiled in acknowledgement. "I should thank you, really, for giving us the chance to take control. It was going to take us a lot longer before you came along, with your wonderful clone. How is the good general by the way? I suppose now we're in power and not you, that little ticket to Gloria to see his family you promised him after you were in charge can't really be guaranteed anymore." I felt the anger build inside me once again. That hadn't been Fitzwilliam on the security recordings after all, but he had still betrayed me.
"Listen everyone!" Anthony shouted, loud enough for the microphones to pick him up.
"Don't try it!" Shukor responded, before realising she too had been picked up.
"This woman will be no different to Rowley!" Anthony continued. "The man who takes people off the streets to crew warships. The man who splits every city on this planet into rich and poor, respected and disrespected. She offers you a stronger government? Do you want a stronger version of Rowley sitting behind that desk? Do you want another Kingston?"
"Those days are over!" Shukor shouted.
"Those days are just beginning if you let this go through! The time of dictators on this world is over. Weeping Cross must become a Union world!" A cheer erupted across the crowd. I couldn't take it anymore.
"I have made this world stronger! We are more powerful, more productive, more successful than we have ever been!"
"More productive!" Anthony retorted, "This, the man who rounded up the poorest, the most unfit, the disabled, the mentally ill, the most helpless members of our society... rounded them up and put them to work in dilapidated, filthy, vermin-infested oil refineries and drilling stations! Or had you forgotten? Do you remember the smell of the oil fields? The sight of one of those refineries? Oh of course not, because those of you old enough to remember were living cosily enough in the gleaming inner city. Do you know what powered your holographic adventures? Your warmed swimming pools? Do you know how many people were maimed and killed every day by faulty machinery, spillages, fires and riots? Any idea? Any at all? And all in the name of productivity."
"How dare you." My utterance was barely loud enough to register on the microphones. "I lost my son in one of those refineries. I made sure they were never used again!"
"You knew before!" Anthony exclaimed. "And you didn't just close them, did you? No, that wasn't enough for the mind of a tyrant. You damn near killed everyone who ever worked in one!"
"This is exactly the sort of thing that will never occur again," Shukor interjected, "Under our control, those serving the state will do so in safety." Again, a minor cheer from some elements of the crowd only.
"My son..." I could barely contain myself. "That damned hellhole took away my son! The world had to pay! Everyone had to pay!"
"You're right." Anthony took a step forward, eliciting a cautionary reaction from Shukor's officers. "That place did take your son, but not in the way you think." The crowd fell perfectly silent. He continued,
"Mister President... It's me... it's Jonathan."
My heart sank and I lost all control of my composure.