An essay by E. E. Malatesta, as provided by Nicholas P. Oakley
Art by Katie Nyborg
“Imagine a drug. A virus, actually. One so powerful, so clever, that you could release it inside a dome or on a station full of hundreds, thousands, of people and it would go undetected. And imagine that this virus would only infect a very specific set of people, a group that you yourself could determine, and that it would kill them–and only them–completely painlessly. Everyone else would be safe. Now, imagine you had a pathogen like this in your possession. What would you do?”
The man stopped talking, taking a long gulp from a tall glass, his eyes locked on mine. He’d been talking quietly, almost whispering, but I’d still heard every word over the noisy crowd.
“I’d use it,” I said, returning his stare.
His eyes crinkled into a smile over his drink.
I’d met him three months before. I’d been on the station nearly a year, and he’d been the first person I’d spoken more than three words to outside of my work shift. I was young, my forehead bare, another anonymous drone. My type weren’t worth making friends with. Shareless, doing the dirtiest of jobs, we’d be transferred, conscripted, or dead in less than six months anyway. And who talks to a dead man?
This guy was different. Ajura was his name. I first saw him loitering outside the shuttle drop-off, his eyes drawn and shoulders twitching, the familiar stimhead nervous tics immediately apparent even from a distance. I tensed up. I’d already had a few brushes with people like him. I made a mental note of his facial tattoos and the contents of my pockets, and squeezed my fists in anticipation.
Instead of the shiv I was expecting, I was met with a smile. It caught me off-guard, and my expression must have given me away. His smile broadened into a toothy grin, a cackle escaping his lips.
He bought me a drink. The first time I can remember anyone ever giving me something for free.
“What’s your debt?” he’d asked.
“70 standard,” I said, cautiously. It was actually a bit more than that–90 years–but everyone always lied about it, and I was no exception.
He whistled. “How you feel about that?”
“Figure I’ll be dead way before then anyway. Try not to think about it.”
He nodded sagely. We didn’t talk again for the rest of the night, just sat playing cards and eyeing up the others, just as they eyed us back.
After that it became a regular thing. The shuttle would drop me off, and he’d be there, waiting for me. We’d usually go for a few drinks, drop a few shares into the slots, or tool up on some dodgy looking stims that he’d hand me under the table. Occasionally we talked, most of the time we didn’t. I appreciated Ajura’s company. His burly physique and stimhead tics were enough to scare off troublemakers, and I got a familiar face to have a drink and lose some cards with.
Of course, I asked a couple of my shiftmates about him. You can’t be too careful, right? But they’d just stared at me blankly, probably figuring me for an enforcer or a stimhead myself, so I stopped asking. I’d managed to keep the tics I’d begun to exhibit from using hidden most of the time, and no-one had said anything yet, but it couldn’t hurt to be cautious. Stim use was usually tolerated, but I was working maintenance on the upper decks, so I was on show, and the syndicate had an image to maintain even with grunts like me. Working so close to the shareholders had advantages. Clean clothes, soap in the showers, that kind of thing. But it meant I had to be presentable, and the tics might earn me a reprimand, reassignment, or worse, if they caught me. So I tried not to go overboard, and Ajura had just smiled his sly grin when I’d refused on a few occasions, apparently unoffended.
Then he disappeared. One day he was there waiting for me as usual, the next he was gone. I waited for a while, hanging around the drop-off point, then checked our usual haunts. But he’d vanished, and he didn’t show up the next day, nor the next. I tried to think back, to see if he’d dropped any hints, but there was nothing. I wondered if I’d said or done something. I couldn’t think of anything special.
I have to admit it, I missed his company. We might not have had much in common, but he’d quickly become a big part of my life. He was pretty much my only friend, and for him to drop out sent me into a bit of a depression. I took too many stims, and got into a couple of fights and submitted way too late for my own good.
The usual scenarios passed through my head. An enforcer had taken him, stim debts being collected, or maybe he’d just got bored and hitched a ride to another station. For some reason he seemed the type to have connections that made that a possibility.
And then he just showed up again one day about a month later, waiting for me in his usual spot, looking the same as ever. He didn’t offer an explanation. I didn’t ask. We just picked up from where we’d left off.
It was nearly a week before he really starting to talk to me. We’d chatted a bit before, about life on Kaiin before I got recruited, or my shifts, but never for long periods or in much detail. The stims and the noise of the bars we visited cut out most of that. But he started taking me to smaller, quieter places, smoke-filled rooms where the lights were low and the tables occupied by solitary figures. I’d always avoided these on my downtime, preferring the jostling and rowdiness of the main deck bars to these morbid, lonely hovels. As I was there with him I didn’t complain, though. I found that once I started talking I quite enjoyed having someone to listen to me.
A captive audience.
Ajura didn’t say much, but even from his rare contributions–little more than one-liners said into the bottom of a glass–I got the impression that his distaste for the syndicates ran deep. What had previously been throwaway remarks and humourless scowls had, since his return, become more obvious. They painted a picture of his resentment, of his hatred and bitterness towards them. When I spoke about the job or my debt, or the shareholders I’d sometimes see from a distance on the job, his remarks were cutting and frank. I soon realised that this wasn’t merely the bravado or juvenile rebellion I had seen before, where turning up three minutes late in an unwashed shirt to a shift was considered the summit of insurrection. With Ajura it was different, this was personal. He detested them.
I’d heard about people like this before, on the dark feeds. They were mentioned in the same breath as the saboteurs, the syndicate-backed assassins, patent-thieves, the narcs, and the unsyndicate. A hazy world of subterfuge, rivalries, and terrorism that I had never really understood or managed to distinguish between the players.
When Ajura spoke, he sounded more and more like the unsyndicated that I’d heard vaguely about. Men who believed in a world outside syndicate and corps rule, a world of chaos and hunger. After perhaps one too many stims, I repeated this to Ajura. I immediately regretted it. It was the first time I’d ever really seen him angry, and I was suddenly aware of how few people there were in the bar.
“Chaos and hunger?” he’d said, his voice frighteningly intense. “Where you hear that, boy? Some stupid propaganda feed, no doubt. I don’t believe in that, I can tell you. And I ain’t no narc, either. Bunch of cowards and freaks. But you got me all wrong. It ain’t chaos nor hunger I’m interested in. The way I see it, we got plenty enough of that as it is. No, what I’m after is a different way of living, a whole new outlook on life. One where a man can raise his head and be proud of what he is, what we all are, or what we can be. The slave of no man, no syndicate, no corps, with no enforcer’s baton up our arses or corps gun in our face. Is that really so much to ask?”
This was one of the longer speeches I’d ever heard from Ajura, and his gruff, gravelly voice carried across the bar, causing a few heads to turn. They didn’t seem to bother him, and he returned to his drink.
“Between you and me kid, I’m not sure this way of things is going to last much longer. And I want to be on the right side after the dust settles, if you catch my drift.”
I spent the rest of the night trying to tease out whatever drift he was riding, but he went quiet after that, and refused to answer me. I went to bed that night with my mind racing, even over the buzz of the stims.
I couldn’t sleep. I got up and grabbed my data bracelet and starting flicking through the feeds. Most of the dark feed frequencies had changed or were scrambled since I’d last accessed them, but I managed to find one that was audible and only skipped one in ten words or so. I sat up listening for a long time that night, but whatever it was Ajura had been hinting at, the dark feed didn’t offer me any clues.
I began to wonder whether Ajura was crazy, whether the stims had turned his brain to mush like in all the stories. Yet whenever I was around him all these doubts disappeared in an instant. He had something about him. Something that made me feel safe.
I’ll admit, it didn’t take long for me to fall for it. Perhaps I was already receptive to the ideas, perhaps it was his way of hinting that made me think that it was my opinions rather than his that I was reciting. Perhaps he took advantage of that, but I was as much to blame. I was the one doing all the talking, after all. He’d just smile and sip his drink as always, letting me work myself up with the aid of a stim or two.
At first I was nervous, convinced that I’d feel an enforcer’s hand on my shoulder at any moment. But Ajura never seemed bothered, and, apart from a few curious glances when I got too animated about the shareholders or my working conditions, nobody seemed to take any real interest in us. They must have thought I was just a young kid spouting off after too many stims.
And at first that’s just what it was. A chance to let off some steam to a friendly ear. And maybe impress him, too. There was definitely an element of that, I can see that now. Somewhere at the back of my mind was the constant worry–no, fear–that he’d leave again, that I’d be left on my own with nobody, at a time when I was just realising quite how awful my situation was, how much crap I had to take, how little control I had over my life apart from these few hours after a shift that I got to spend with Ajura. That was probably the driving force for most of what happened next, that fear of being alone, of becoming one of those men sitting at tables on their own, living out their miserable lives without company, without hope.
“I just wish there was something I could do about it, you know? But what can one guy do about them? They’re so big.” I’d been mixing stims with drink, and I was still riding the high. My voice trembled when I got this excited, but Ajura didn’t ever comment on it. “We do all this talking, have all these ideals, but what do we do about it? Just go back to our beds and wake up the next day and go straight back to it, working for them like drones.”
Ajura raised an eyebrow, normally the precursor to one of his contributions.
“There’s plenty we can do. I’m doing it right now, as a matter of fact.”
“Huh?” I said, no doubt with a gormless look on my face.
“Why do you think I’ve been hanging around with you these past few months, kid?”
A knotty feeling tugged at my stomach.
“I dunno,” I said feebly.
“You’re right. There ain’t much just us two guys can do about the whole lot of them. But we ain’t just two guys. Not really.”
I looked around the bar sheepishly.
“Not here,” he laughed, my face turning pink. “Out there, kid. There’s plenty of us. And maybe it’s about time you got in on it too.” He gave me a long appraising look. I tried to imagine what I looked like through his eyes. Sweaty, pale, gaunt–not exactly the picture of an unsyndicated rebel. Whatever he saw, though, must have been enough. He gave a small nod as if to himself.
“Come with me,” he said, throwing some shares onto the bar for the drinks. I followed him out.
We didn’t talk. We seemed to be heading towards the docking deck–and I wondered for a moment whether he was taking me off-station to some rebel base. But we turned at the last moment, dashing my hopes, heading for one of the more popular entertainment decks, the kind of noisy, crammed places we’d frequented in the days after we first met.
It took nearly an hour to get served, and there was never any chance of getting a seat. Instead we hovered by the bar, and I discreetly tried to make myself as compact as possible to avoid getting elbowed or shouldered to the floor. Ajura, of course, had no such problem, and I saw him elbow more than his share to the ground. I wondered for a moment about what the unsyndicated would say at such an uncomradely bit of force against a fellow worker, but then someone dropped some smouldering ash from a joint on the back of my hand and my elbows promptly loosened themselves.
Somehow Ajura had managed to keep his drink upright–mine was long gone–and he took a long swig from it.
“So you hate the shareholders, right?”
I nodded, the question taking me by surprise, still distracted by the crush of bodies around me.
“What do you think would happen if they just disappeared?” His eyes glistened, as if daring me to give the ‘chaos and hunger’ line I’d said just a few weeks before.
“The non-shareholders, the workers, will take control of all the stations and factories. We’d run them fairly,” I managed to shout back. “No-one will go hungry or go without medicines, and we’d use automatons for the dangerous jobs they make us do now.” I said, reciting things I’d heard from the feeds and from Ajura himself.
“We’d be free men?” he shouted.
“Free men. No syndicates or corps, just Kaiin working with Kaiin. No shares, no debts, either. Or enforcers.”
“And what’s stopping us from having all that?”
“Well, no-one is organised. Nobody is angry enough. They’re too scared. We still fight one another over the scraps that fall from the masters’ table,” I said, digging an elbow into someone bawling something into my ear.
“No, kid. That ain’t it. What’s stopping us is those damned shareholders. We can educate or organise a million men and we’d still be in the same position. They’d still crush us like ants at the first sign of trouble.”
I stopped to think about this. “Then I guess we need to get rid of the shareholders. Once they are gone we can figure it out from there.”
“Precisely. We trim the fat. OK, kid. Imagine a drug. A virus, actually. One so powerful, so clever …”
My hand wouldn’t stop trembling.
It hadn’t taken long. The last week had gone by in a blur. I remembered Ajura’s face the night before, his eyes warm with feeling, the pat on my shoulder and that last, brief embrace, his hulking body engulfing my wiry frame. He’d seemed genuinely moved. I had a moment of doubt, then, my first proper reality check. The realisation that I might fail, that I might never see him again, but he must have seen it because he slipped me another stim.
“I’ve told you, you’ll be fine. It’ll only infect those with the sequencing, remember. Only shareholders can afford that treatment. Everyone else, everyone important, including you, will be perfectly fine. And if you follow the instructions you’ll be off-station and somewhere safe by this time tomorrow. We can sit and watch from there.”
He’d been a lot more talkative in that final week. He’d told me more about the others, about the plan. He explained his own role, too–he was overseeing five men like me, five orbital stations and platforms that would be cleansed at precisely the same time. The start of the revolution. I was the final piece of the jigsaw, he said, his final recruit. The culmination of decades of research, experimentation, and planning.
I tried not to fiddle with my data bracelet. It felt heavier, but I knew that was ridiculous. Ajura had showed me the capsule; it was smaller than my fingernail. Still, I struggled against the urge to adjust it.
The security seemed far tighter than I ever remembered it being. Every scanner, every camera, and every eye seemed to be pointing my way. The enforcer pulled my arm into the machine, and I could feel my fingers twitching nervously. He looked up at me whilst the scanner read the bracelet for my ID, and he held onto my wrist for a fraction longer than normal. I began to count backwards in my head, just as Ajura had advised me.
“Fucking junkie,” he finally said under his breath, letting my hand go, which fell limply to my side. He pushed me through the rest of the scanners, where, despite Ajura’s assurances, I was certain the capsule would be identified. But no lights flashed, no sirens or klaxons or shutters or electric shocks came. I stumbled through and onto the deck beyond, letting out a small sigh of relief.
The shareholder deck was stunning. It was filled with a warm artificial light as if in perpetual sunset. Vast, blossoming trees reached up to the roof overhead. Running water, blaring music, and bright flashing lights mingled to fill the huge space. You could easily fit three or four ice freighters end-to-end in here. Maybe more. And this was just one of the many public areas. The bloody lobby. I’d never worked out whether the view above was real or simulated, but Kaiin dominated as it looked down on the shareholders’ luxurious, lecherous lives, the oranges and reds of the planet breathtaking against the blackness of space.
I had no eyes for that now, though, nor the milling shareholders I could see in the distance from the submerged maintenance gangway. I knew that I’d soon have all the time I wanted to enjoy this paradise that they kept for themselves.
Ajura had advised me to go on foot, so it took me nearly an hour. I detached the grille with little effort. I checked the time, then peered down into the ventilation shaft. I knew that it was bristling with anti-tampering devices, and that if I were to as much breathe too close to it I’d have an enforcer’s knife across my throat within seconds.
I was on schedule, so I unbuckled my bracelet and released the capsule. I held it in the palm of my hand and closed my eyes. I thought about Ajura, about the syndicates, about my debt and the flowering trees and my dank quarters I shared with five others.
I gritted my teeth and squeezed, hard.
The lining broke and the liquid oozed out under my fingers, reacting to the warmth of my hand with a hiss. I opened my eyes again and watched the vapour drifting down into the shaft below. No alarms went off. No enforcer’s needlecrafts came squealing my way. In less than a minute nothing was left but the thin plastic coating. It was done.
I would be a free man soon enough.
It took just three hours. Three hours for me to realise that something was wrong. Terribly wrong.
I was working on the other side of the deck, fixing a broken spa unit with a small group of workers. We had an enforcer with us–we were close to shareholders, after all–when it started happening.
I’d counted backwards from ten thousand five times, trying desperately to keep myself from throwing up. I was absolutely useless, but the other guys soon saw that and were happy to just let me pretend to help. I handed them a tool every now and again, glancing around nervously.
That’s why I saw her first. She was in the next pool, some shareholder’s wife, mistress, slave. She was elegant, graceful. Her naked black skin shimmered, the elaborate whirls and dots of her golden tattoos covering her from head to toe, glinting and dazzling in the light.
I saw her slip as she went to get out of the spa. The shareholder had grown bored with her, and his head was now nuzzled some other woman’s crotch. She seemed embarrassed, but then she slipped again, falling heavily this time. I heard a scream somewhere in the distance, and a commotion behind me. Somebody jostled me, but my eyes were transfixed on her. She tried to pick herself up, looking around for help. My skin felt prickly and my eyes began to water. My breath grew shallow and laboured. I watched as her eyes began to weep blood, crimson stains coating her cheeks, and her still-wet, obsidian-coloured, aureate body began to convulse and thrash.
This wasn’t supposed to be happening yet. It was supposed to take days. It was supposed to be painless.
Somebody fell against me. I looked down. It was the enforcer. Behind his visor I could see his eyes, his terrified expression, his hands grasping at me. I shrugged him off in horror, and finally looked around me.
Everyone was dying.
Not just the shareholders. The women, the enforcers, even the workers. Everyone. They writhed around on the floor like snakes, their ghastly cries suddenly registering with me, echoing around the colossal deck. I fell to my knees, feeling the squelch of blood underneath me.
Ajura lied to me.
Ajura smiled. He found me trying to get off the shareholder deck. But he wasn’t Ajura any longer. Gone were the stimhead tics, the slightly hunched posture, the grubby clothes. When he spoke his voice, even his dialect and gestures, were different.
“You did a good job, kid.”
I was stunned by the transformation. I stared at him for a long time. “Why?” I managed to stutter.
“Why?” he asked. “Why what? Why are you still alive? Don’t worry about that, you won’t see tomorrow morning. But I had to keep you alive for the feeds, you see. The last few stims I gave you contained the vaccine. Sure, I could have just faked it, got some hologeek to cook something up or whatever. But between you and me, I quite like the authentic touch.” He squeezed my shoulder and let out a laugh. Even that was different.
“Who … who are you?”
“Does it really matter?”
“Yes. It does to me.”
“OK. I work for the syndicate.” His voice changed, making him sound like a shareholder. “No, no, the other syndicate, no, actually that one.” His voice changed again, a SHN dialect, then a PLRO one. “No, I’m an enforcer,” he said, his voice a deep bass. “No, I’m a mad scientist trying to sell my vaccine.” He gave a high-pitched laugh. “No, I’m secret corps trying to get my budget expanded. No, I’m unsyndicated, a working class hero. No, a narc secret agent. No, a Kaiinish patriot. No, just a crazy bastard with a grudge and a lab. Take yer pick, kid,” he said, with his old drawl. “Like I said, what does it matter? You are screwed either way.”
“You killed all those people.”
“No. That was you.”
“I thought …”
“Yeah, yeah, I know what you thought. Chaos and hunger and all that. Tough luck, eh? Anyway, I better be going. Clean-up will be here soon, and I’d rather not be around when they arrive. Just wanted to drop by to extend my thanks,” he said, stepping over a pool of blood. “They sure didn’t die quietly, did they? Be seeing you, kid.”
And with that, he turned and was gone, leaving me alone once more, covered in blood and vomit, the familiar knot in my stomach returning.
Dr. E. E. Malatesta is a Distinguished Professor of Biosecurity at the University of Zetti, KL-235b. His research has been published in numerous respected journals on topics as diverse as clinical virology, to dome security procedures, to bioterror. He also edits the biennial Journal of Pandemic Research, where an expurgated copy of this testimony first appeared in Vol. 214, No. 5, pp.102-113.
Nicholas P. Oakley is a science fiction author from the UK.
Nicholas was born in Solihull, England, and now lives with his partner in Inverness, Scotland. His first novel, The Watcher, is due out in 2013 from See Sharp Press. Details of this and his other stories can be found at his website, http://www.nicholaspoakley.com
Katie Nyborg’s art, plus information regarding hiring her, can be found at http://katiedoesartthings.tumblr.com/