The Country/The Country

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39. 'All Voting Is Suspended'

“Gentlemen,” said the man with the finely coiffed silver beard. Then with a slightly embarrassed nod at the sisters in spirit who sat at the end of the conference table, keeping a small, but distinct space from the men, added, “and gentle women, we have been misled.”

“The whole country has,” a colleague commented.

The room was full. Only one of the commission members was unable to attend. He was recovering from a hospital procedure and watching by seeing-phone, an innovation adopted by the group after some considerable self-questioning, that would allow him to see and hear all that transpired in the meeting room and buzz in with occasional comments.

The man with the pointy silver beard, Beck Norman, who chaired the meeting (or ‘facilitated’ it as some members preferred to say), was known for avoiding a heavy hand in guiding the group’s deliberations. He had been chosen for the Adjudicator chair because of the nicety of his judgment on how much leeway he gave to the group’s more assertive voices.

But today he needed both to set the agenda and stick them to it.

“The information we have been receiving from the districts on Voting Days,” he continued, ignoring the colleague’s interruption, “and in turn communicated to the public, while not inaccurate, or at least not wholly so, has been... incomplete.”

“How so?” another voice demanded. This was Bolster Quade, a middle-aged man with a bluff appearance and a loud voice.

A few of the other commissioners shared glances of disapproval over the interruption by Quade, a man for whom most had little sympathy.

“We have relied on the usual sources for information on the conduct of the voting itself,” Norman resumed, persisting in what sounded like prepared remarks. “In the past these have been reliable.”

“The networks?” Quade queried. “The nooz-sheets? These are the usual sources, aren’t they?”

“Let the Adjudicator finish,” chided commissioner Bedo Marek, a close ally of the chairman.

Other voices piped in with agreement.

“Yes.”

“Indeed!”

“Well, what’s wrong with the nooz sources?” Quade persisted.

“They’re not telling the truth,” someone snapped.

“Gentlemen, please!” The Adjudicator’s now familiar nod: “Ladies.”

“Don’t look at us,” Mz. Farmer, black-haired, big-boned, more fit and probably a good deal stronger than most of the men here, replied wryly. “We’re quite content to sit here quiet as rodents waiting for you to spit it out, Norman. If the others will let you.”

The Adjudicator frowned at the use of his first name and then, seizing the moment, expelled a quick sentence. “The nooz sources are not telling the whole story about the conduct of the Vote. There have been attempts --”

“Blatant attempts,” a voice reinforced.

“To intimidate,” another voice concluded, glaring around the table at the faces of his peers.

“What evidence of this is there?”

“Gentlemen! Please! If I may!”

The chairman stared at the interrupters, and peace ensued.

“I have received credible evidence, with written statements by observers from various districts in the Commonhope, in fact from every single one of the districts which has so far conducted Voting Days, of blatant attempts to discourage voters likely to be unfriendly to the Leading Candidate.”

“You mean Pig,” a commissioner stated.

“The Pigglies,” his neighbor agreed. “They’re the offenders here.”

A chorus of voices offered variations on this theme until Norman again intervened, asking each of the members (including the voice on the phone) to wait for their turn to comment.

“Why have there been no public reports of such matters?” Quade asked skeptically. “If as you say these incidents were common and widespread.”

“You mean nooz?” asked Briney, a neat, gray-haired man given to curt remarks.

“‘Incidents’ you call them?” his neighbor and ally Jonas followed. A red-faced, sharp-tongued representative from one of old districts in the North Country, he was not especially popular with his peers. “Why does everything have to be an ‘incident’? What happened to good old ‘crime’?”

The Adjudicator frowned and looked about the room, asking his members to continue to speak in turn.

His glance paused at Jenne Roe. A slender, sharp-featured woman with a deceptively patient air, as if she were quietly knitting the names of the condemned. No knitting took place at commission meetings, but her perspicacity was known and respected.

“I believe Commissioner Roe has something to contribute.”

“I think I can answer the question of why these attempts to influence the Voting have not been widely known,” Roe said in her contained, and at times rather droll manner of speech. “One of the contenders -- or his followers, I suppose -- has used some sort of back-room influence to infiltrate and, apparently, contaminate the ordinary communication channels. The networks, the sheets. The ‘usual’ sources of public information are under the candidate’s sway.”

Commissioners shared looks of consternation.

“Infiltrated?” Norman asked.

“I am led to believe, Adjudicator,” she replied, “that money has changed hands. Promises were made. And perhaps, some parties allege, arms were twisted.”

This accusation proved still more disturbing to her fellow Commissioners. Their

reaction was volatile.

“Why, that’s outrageous!”

“Ridiculous!”

“Surely, you don --?”

“Believe it?” Jenne Roe cut off the interruptions. “I am afraid that I have heard evidence that would convince any open mind in this room.”

“You are telling me,” a new speaker interposed -- Nevin Welsh, the precise, quiet-faced commissioner from Norkee, the wealthiest of the country’s districts; known to his peers and to any of the general public aware of his elevated status as the advocate’s advocate for his sound, fair-minded intellect and upright character -- “that not only have the supporters of one candidate driven supporters of other candidates from the polls on Voting Days, but that these same partisans suborned the country’s entire nooz services to cover up their crime?”

Roe had her own unstated query: Had the stellar advocate’s advocate Welsh truly received no inkling of this nationwide conspiracy?

“Indeed, Commissioner Welsh,” she replied, “that is precisely what I am telling you. And I’m surprised that you don’t know it already.”

“Excuse me?” more than one shocked voice responded, utilizing the commissioners’ time-honored formula to demand a retraction.

“Jenne,” the Adjudicator intervened, her given name escaping his ordinarily well-governed lips, “this is really too much. Perhaps...”

But his words dried, as the potential enormity of the brazen challenge to the norms of Legitimate Voting his body was facing if these reports were accurate. Beck Norman felt his world spin wildly. He was the dupe, his face reddening at the intimation, of a vast conspiracy to pervert his country’s ancient rules for fair choice of leaders. And until very recently he had known nothing about it.

“Fair choice by Honest Vote,” Norman said, gathering himself. “Isn’t that what this body is created to ‘preserve and assure’?”

A half dozen voices contended for the floor, among them commissioners who had not yet said a word. Outrage was the prominent theme. Only Quade pushed his chair back from the table, removing himself from his colleagues with an air of disdain.

Roe held back as well, allowed the others to carry the arguments one way or another; offered corrections or further explanations as needed. By the time the meeting broke up, hours later, small subgroups had been formed to pursue given lines of inquiry.

Quade, a Pegasso supporter, stood outside the meeting room with his short legs set apart, buttonholing whoever would listen to him. The words “strong hand” and “vigorous leadership” could be heard among his mutterings.

The block-print headlines on the nooz-sheets filled an entire page.

The Sacred Commission had announced, in a brief statement read by Beck Norman over all the networks -- the broadcast time demanded by the body’s sacred authority, not requested -- that it was suspending the Voting and reconsidering the status of Leading Candidate. The proclamation mentioned the Leading Candidate by name. It did not refer to the exposure of Pig’s horns.

It did report that members of the Commission had received information concerning alleged irregularities in the Voting Days already conducted in various districts, with results already certified by the Commission itself.

The Commission, Norman stated, peering over his dark-rimmed lenses at the unseen millions of screen-viewers as if to suggest that some of them may have been naughty children, was now considering re-opening those certifications.

He then read the list of districts in which the voting certifications were undergoing review. It was a long list. A savvy, nooz-hound voter keeping count at home on the couch would have realized the list included every district in the country in which voters had already gone to the polls.

That hypothetical ‘concerned voter’ at home might have dropped his nooz-sheet or his fork, or his network-selector and stared opened-mouth at the screen.

The entire election was under review.

“Until the Commission completes this review,” Commissioner Norman stated, in a bland voice wholly contradicted by the rigidity of his features -- looking to Keel like a man prepared to chew his way through a wall -- “... all voting is suspended.”

Howls from below.

Keel heard them from his cell-room as he sat on the bed staring at the screen. Survi lifted her head in concern from her perch at its foot.

“By order,” Norman added, formulaically, “of the duly sworn Sacred Commission of The Commonhope of UZ.”

Keel had been watching his monitor, some nervous tickle rising in his gut for no discernible reasons (though residing in the same building with the sacrificer-in-chief might be reason enough) when the image of the Adjudicator appeared, dour, precise, and wholly unrecognized by anyone who had not heard the news-reader’s introduction because that face, in its sworn national role, had never appeared on the nooz-screen so publicly before.

But he was also watching at that precise moment because Mrs. Nathan had told him to. Listen for me, she told him. Listen for my voice.

I am inside your mind. You can find me when you listen hard enough. And I will not the only one who is inside there... So much virgin territory in there, Keel! Where are the people? You need more people! We will put a few of the others in there as well.

He could hear Keven of the night-watch, the Keven he’d rescued from captivity in the Lodge simply opening an unlocked door, if he stilled his thoughts carefully enough. ‘Hi!’ he heard a female voice; tiny, distant. Fama? The woman who walks on walls. And another voice, also female, of whose identity he was uncertain.

Someone must have tipped off the Pig Campaign as well, since judging by the reaction from the dining area scores of the soldiers and other aides were camped down in the spaces where the monitors were always on.

“You bastard!” a low voice bawled. “You stinking bastard!”

“Double cross!” someone else bellowed.

“We know what to do with weasels like you!”

Voices overlapped one another. Boos and shouts greeted the culmination of the commissioner’s remarks and the return of the blandly inexpressive face of the nooz-reader, who seemed to be fishing for something to say. Or, better, someone else to say it.

Attending, apparently, to his prompter, eyes bugging, hoping to hear that ‘some informed comment’ would quickly be coming his way from an on-screen ‘expert’ either better prepared or more astute or, perhaps, simply ballsy enough to react publicly to a nation-rocking announcement from the country’s highest authority. The archon (the ancient term for the country’s Chief Xec) was the country’s chief ruler, administrator, commander, law-maker in most matters, executor in all the rest -- but archons were powerless to interfere with the judgments of the Sacred Commission.

Everyone knew that.

It was taught in the schools as soon as pupils had learned to read a printed script. The Sacred Commission was so-named because their country, its polis, its society, was itself the Sacred Bond uniting all its people. Their country was a realm of laws and justice and goodwill, each one to each other, throughout the Commonhope of UZ. ‘We are bonded together,’ citizens were taught, ‘by sacred ties forged long ago through hard work, sturdy commitment and, yes, some blood.’ No one looked fondly back to the bad old days when tribes and alliance battled among one other. To the troubled adolescence of the race of People of Our World (scientific name: Anthroschmertz.)

The Sacred Bond had put an end to all that. Its chief institution, its guarantor, its protector and ultimate rule-setter was the Sacred Commission. Privately convening and proceeding, shunning publicity, popularity, public opinion, and the wills and desires of rulers or their appointed functionaries, the “SC” held the ultimate say over laws, practices, and elections. No ruler could choose a successor. No ruler could stray from the reasonable, just, well-understood premises of law or policy without experiencing a biting reproof from the Commission, which could cancel any government decree at any time. No ruler could turn the nation’s military or police power against the Commission, because each commissioned officer in that power was legally, morally, and spiritually bound to the Commission.

The Commission whispered, but seldom spoke. The Commission was consulted when something ‘new,’ something that strayed from precedent, was under consideration by government. It did not need to raise its voice when a firm, entirely private statement of opinion, approval or categorical rejection could easily be delivered. The Commission did not speak to the public. It spoke to the ruler, and all his government, at need. Its word was law.

But tonight that foremost body had spoken to all the citizens of the realm in the most public way.

“Damn it to blazes!” Keel heard.

“What the hell does the old buzzard think he’s up to?”

They were betrayed. That was the note Keel heard in the voices resounding from below. From which it could be inferred, he reflected, that the erstwhile Leading Candidate’s campaign believed the country’s most powerful body was in its corner.

How could such a belief have arisen?

Keel stood up from the edge of the bed and began to pace his room, his heartbeat rapid. After a dozen or so circuits of the room, a space marred by the bed, a chair and the other low furnishings typical of such rooms, he looked down and smiled at his dog.

Who did not know whether to wag her tail or put her paws over her ears.

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