At the end of the passage a line of light shone from the solar, as if the boy had left the VR console on again. That young man was too used to the mansion’s steady supply, that was his trouble, too long away from the power cuts. The Governor shook his head and opened the door. The curtains were drawn against the sunset, but none of the lamps were lit. The console was paused on its start screen, casting a blue and green haze onto the huddle of food wrappers around its base. The chair in front of it was empty; so was the sofa, the rug in front of it rucked as if someone had got up in a hurry. On the wallscreen, the new message alert blinked. The air was close, and still, and quiet. There were no sirens here at the back of the mansion, no smoke or shouting, just the hum of the heat extraction system, in and out like breathing. Then the shadows shifted, and clarified, and there were three men there.
Three men, looming in the dimness in the white uniform of the streets; the tunics and tight, half-length trousers glimpsed from a glider window; muscles slick in blue-black arms; raised chins and that challenging, powerful, powerless gaze. Three of them, here where they had no right to be, no reason to be, where their existence was so out of the place he could almost think that they must be VR. But no VR could capture the scent of them, the hint of spice that was the smell of narrow alleys, overlain with cheap body spray and sweat.
He blinked, taking them in. They were an odd embassy, from the riots to the government of New Rome, but perhaps there was no one else to send. He would say that the youth were manipulated by shadowy elders when it suited the speech, but he had never necessarily believed it. Behind them. the boy was leaning against the back wall with his sullen face on, lower lip pouting like a child wanting punishment. He tried to catch his eye, at least look the question of what they were doing here, how they had got in, but the boy kept his gaze on the floor. The three men were silent. Was it a message? An attempt to negotiate? A surrender? They would hardly put themselves in his power for anything else, yet there was the faintest prickle of unease, like sea spray landing on his skin. He looked at them and realised that he would have to think of something to say.
It was not usually a difficulty of his. Born to the lectern, his family used to call him, as thousands of years ago they might have said, to the purple. At school, on the island before the war, he could always win debates, always see the right words stretched out in a glimmering thread between him and his victory. Afterwards, homesick and cold at the Academy in Heidelberg, it was no longer effortless, but with a lost year to make up he was working harder in any case. He had still been one of the handful of stars, the ones who were going places, who would have been the future leaders of the empire if there had been any empire left to lead. In Des Moines once, in his first job in the capital, one of the Three Hundred ruling council praised him, in public, for an excellent speech, and that was before he had aides to write it for him. Of course, there wasn’t so much call for speeches in New Rome in these days, now it was no longer the centre of the Terran Empire; now that there were no longer any people here who mattered.
They were standing very close together, grouped as if for defence. The tallest was in the middle, the other two flanked him where bodyguards would have been, if they’d been professional or disciplined. The closest one was very young, the childish roundness of his face accentuated by the puffiness of bad food. The tattoos swirling up his right arm looked new enough for soreness, pink outlining the black on the dark brown of his skin. His soft features were contorted into a ferocious scowl; weakness, trying to look tough. In the dimness he couldn’t see the other as clearly, only that he had what he thought of as a North African nose, and that despite the heat he was wearing a woolly hat, pulled down low over his forehead.
The middle one was a little older than his acolytes and bulkier, with the bulkiness of muscle, not fat. The leader, he supposed, although he wasn’t sure the rioters even had them. He looked at him, sternly, scornfully, who were they, to think of coming here? He put all of that into his tone and still, when he broke the silence, it felt like a surrender.
‘What is this? A deputation?’
He would have expected shuffling and mumbling, the sullen refusal to engage that he got from the boy when he told him off. But the middle one met his gaze, with those wide, black, unknowable eyes. His voice was surprisingly high-pitched, slurring over the rapid street patios that was English mixed with little bits of governmental Latin, but so deformed and confused he could hardly understand it as either.
‘Na, na, frat’ the middle one said. His hair hung in long ropes over his shoulders. He flicked it back and folded his arms in front of him, gripping his elbows in a gesture that shouldn’t have been threatening. ‘Na, you got it wrong.’ There was a shade of amusement, incredibly, in his tone, as if he was the equal of the Governor, as if he were winning. ‘We jus’ lookin’ around, ent we?’
‘Looking around?’ He put all the generations of patrician disdain into his voice, sounding the ‘g’ the young man had dropped. ‘Do you have business here, or are you just trespassing?’
The middle one smiled, and the curtains behind him bellied out in the breeze. Past the terrace, beyond the gardens, the sea muttered against its wall like a distant crowd. If the wind got up it might overtop it tonight, the tide running through the lower garden, sowing the ground with salt. It wouldn’t get into the upper garden, or anywhere near the mansion itself, but it was still a reminder, a down payment on the greater storm that was coming. A promise that one day, indeterminate but inevitable, the waves would break over the island for a final time and cover it for good.
It was the battle that did the damage, in the civil war when the officers who would become the Three Hundred overthrew the imperial government and brought the Terran Empire down. He remembered the shelter beneath the big house, the plumes of concrete smoke floating out every time it shook, his aunt clutching him and screaming. Among the noise and the dust, they hadn’t known then that one of those blasts destabilised the pilings that fixed the island to the sea bed. Or that unseen, it would start to give way, so slowly that it would be years before they realised that they were slipping into the Med, with repairs beyond their resources the only possible remedy. He didn’t know which blast it had been, nor even if it had been one of the strafing runs or the depth charges that had done the damage. His memories of the whole campaign were confused, shattered into fragments of recollection like the flakes of wreckage that still washed up on the beaches after every storm. He remembered Aunt Livia shrieking, the house shaking, and one, calm moment before it started, himself on the dock behind the house, the siren drowning in the drone of the government flyers as they fled away north over his head.
He checked the reports on the levels every day, not because he was hoping that they would tell him a different story, but because it was his responsibility. His ancestors had been among the first to come here to work for the Terran imperial government, two hundred years ago when the island was first built to be the capital of the great Terran Empire, the ancient centre of the Terran power that stretched across the stars. They had come and they had stayed, and even though others had come and gone, even though the Empire had fallen, the colonised planets set free to go their own way and the Terran government reformed in Des Moines, he had come back. He was still at his post, doing the honourable thing; holding the island up.
The rioters, the people of city slums, they didn’t have the same connection to the place. How could they? They’d come across from Africa to work and though they’d stayed too, they didn’t understand what it stood for. It was like the boy. Tell him about the Terran Empire, about human civilization standing equal to the great races in the galaxy, about Latin ringing out across the light years, and he’d yawn and slope off to the VR console. They filled the alleys with their African music and the smells of their African cooking, clinging to the traditions of places they’d left generations ago, that many of them had never seen. He was sure the boy had never left New Rome in his life, how could he ever have afforded to? They didn’t understand what New Rome meant, what it had stood for, what it could mean again. They were just barbarians, vandals, destroying mindlessly, because it was there, because they hated what they didn’t understand.
The middle one was smirking at him, slouching. Behind them, the boy was looking away, pretending to be bored, pretending he could be in control of any situation, if only he could be bothered. Such effort he put in, to save his face. He supposed the closer you were to shame, the more you had to fight against it.
‘Well’ he said, ‘if you’ve come here with nothing to say…’
The only way to end that sentence was ‘I will call security’ but he was suddenly aware that he didn’t want to, that it felt like weakness, a misstep, like standing on a dock that felt solid but then starting tipping and sliding beneath his feet.
With the riots of the last three days, the city police had had more calls, he was told, than they had ever had before, so much he’d had to order them to stop responding. There were just not enough of them to protect the housing and the remaining commercial districts, and they had to be practical. They had few enough corporates left, the prestige of the New Rome heritage seemed to mean less and less, and if they lost them, what would he have to bargain with? What case could he make for any funding at all, never mind his plans? People had to understand that hard choices had to be made, and he, who did understand, had to make them for them. Yet, he had a swift picture of a sweating householder, yelling ‘I’ll call the police’ from an upstairs window at a mob of grinning, rope-haired youths, craning up a dirty street for help that never came.
‘Trespassin’!’ The youth on the far side pushed up his cap, turning so that the dim light fell across the pimples on his forehead. He giggled. ‘Yeah, we trespassin’!’ His eyes under the woollen brim were wide and unfocused, as if he were high. He bent to the table in front of the sofa, picked up the controller. ‘You got some good shit here, frat!’
He waved in wild circles in the direction of the screen, fortunately so fast that the sensors couldn’t react.
‘Put that down!’ He didn’t mean to say it but he couldn’t help it, it seemed so egregious, so ridiculous, that this youth, this yob from the streets should be here, in his mansion, brandishing his tech like it was a weapon. He glanced at the middle one, as if expecting him to control his minion, but he didn’t. The one in the hat swung the controller round again, giggling. ‘Wooooo!’
‘I said, put that down!’
He took one angry step towards him and stopped, looking at the middle one’s hand flat on his chest.
‘Better not, frat’ the middle one said.
He was almost exactly his height, standing so close the Governor could feel him breathing. The skin of his throat between the open neck of the white tunic was beaded with sweat, his nose and cheeks shiny with it, but his breath was even and regular, the breath of a young man, in control. He had a scar just above one eyebrow, curving down the line of his eye socket, tightening the skin at the corner of his eye, pulling down the lid like half a wink. He smelt of cloves and of the dark brown reek of the drug they all smoked, seeping from his hair and his skin. The pressure of his fingers against his shirt front was steady, a little damp. The Governor met his gaze and for a moment it was as if he stood outside himself, looking down, wondering that all the choices and all the chances in Des Moines had brought him here, to a windy night on New Rome and a young man’s hand on him.
It wasn’t very surprising, really. He had worked hard for his positions in Des Moines but it had never been his place, the ideology of the Three Hundred had never been his. Much of what they stood for was right: the primacy of humans on Terra over the colonies, let alone aliens, the importance of stability, respect, order. Democracy only worked after all if you had good enough communications to make sure people voted the right way, and after the chaos of the civil war no one could disagree with the need for strong government. But the way they turned their backs on the Empire, refused to rule the colonies, refused to take up the tradition and responsibility of all that glorious history; that he couldn’t accept. It was dishonourable, when it came down to it. He couldn’t set aside his love of the Empire so easily. And so he’d watched the promotions, the plum assignments go elsewhere, until the Governor of New Rome had had enough of the island and they needed someone to fill his place. He would, after all, really understand the culture of the place, they said, and there it would matter much less, that he didn’t have, and was never likely to have, a wife.
At the back of the room, the boy moved, shuffling to one side so that he was half hidden in the doorway, like a creature come in from the sea.
‘So’ the Governor said to the middle one. ‘You’re trespassing.’ He kept his voice calm, just tinged with sarcasm, as if he were secure on an Olympian height they would never reach. ‘What do you expect to get out of it? Is it for bragging, or is this just a robbery?’
The young man stepped back a pace. He held up both hands in surrender, as if acknowledging a mocking hit.
‘Hey, we might jus’ rob your shit, but na’…a shrug…‘this is about sendin’ a message.’
The Governor looked around the room, mimed the absence of hidden multitudes. ‘A message? To whom?’
‘To you, frat!’
That had nettled him, he could tell, and he was fleetingly pleased to have got to him, to have scored a point, however unwise it might be. But then, he’d never been much of a believer in conciliation.
‘To you, an’ your security, an’ your cops, an’ your ministers, an’ everyone else who think they c’n push us around. We ain’t takin’ that no more. We stand up. We’re the ones in charge now, frat, an’ you work f’r us. This? This shit here? This is us showin’ it.’
At that, he was angry as well. How dared they? How dared they? In his mind’s eye he saw himself, denouncing them from a great height, as if he’d grown ten feet tall, every word ringing out as clearly as if he had spoken.
Three days of breaking into buildings and burning flyers and you think you run the island? You think you have the skills? The only way, the only way this island stays above the tide is if we convince the government to pay for it, and the only way we do that is if enough corporates are interested in siting here that it might, just might pay them back some day. Do you think you and your little friends here can negotiate that? Do you have a better plan? You demonstrate for better wages, for free doctors, for a new school, precisely because you don’t understand that if the corporates think they will have to pay for these things then they won’t come, if they think they won’t have a compliant workforce, they won’t come, and then there will be no wages, no food, no dry land for anybody. You riot because you say security fired on you, but what do you expect? What did you think was going to happen? I have to do what’s best for the city, whether you like it or not.
They would slink out, abashed; the riots would be over; he would have saved the city. He felt the pride of it expanding in his chest, pushing out his rib cage like a deep breath, rooting his feet on the floor so that he felt that he was indeed growing taller. He would be powerful, he would have proved it. Everyone would see it, from the government in Des Moines to the boy. And the boy…the boy would come out from the curtain, he would meet his eyes, and give him the awed expression he deserved, but had only ever seen once, on the night they met.
It had been one of the evenings when he’d dismissed his aides and had the driver take him alone into the town. He liked to get the feel of the place, take the temperature of the streets, he said. He had never known what they thought it meant, though the driver knew better than to talk. They’d cruised slowly through the shopping district and turned into the Via Centrale, the long road that had once been the artery of the artistic district but which now bisected the worst of the slums. The boy had been hanging around with a little knot of others on a corner, under a billboard light. He remembered how, while the others had hung back in the shadows, the boy had been balancing on the broken kerb, the light shining beatifically on his white tunic and curled black hair. He’d flung his arms out, gesticulating, laughing at something one of the others said, and as he had turned towards the glider his face had been lit for a moment, as if by a halo, with the fading echo of that smile.
He’d told the driver to stop, opened the window as the boy slouched over. He hadn’t been as practiced in his lines as many of the others, his ‘You lookin’ f’r comp’ny’ came out more like a challenge than an invitation. He didn’t know how long it had been since the boy’s first trick, they didn’t tend to talk about his past. But when, in the glider on the way back to the mansion, he told him who he was, his ‘No shit!’, that was real. It was more than a year since he’d moved in, he was hardly really a boy any longer, although with his sullenness and his little ways, he still seemed like one. The Governor hoped the boy wasn’t too alarmed by the trespassers; he didn’t need to be. He would handle it.
He took a breath to begin, chin up, feeling the clarity flowing through him like the start of a good speech. Then he thought that perhaps, after all, he wouldn’t lower himself to talk to them; they wouldn’t understand, and what was the point in bandying words with rioters? They might argue back, and that would be unfortunate. It was better to be direct.
‘I don’t care what you think you’re doing here’ he said. ‘You have nothing to say. It’s time for you to leave.’
He unclipped his communicator from his belt and held it up. He was expecting them to leap at that, to try to stop him, to run out. He had his finger curled on the panic button, ensuring he could get his message out regardless of how quickly they moved. He was ready, but they did nothing. The middle one just went on looking at him with that knowing expression, that air of waiting for him to discover something that they already knew. But there was nothing that they knew. He flipped the communicator on and pressed for the head of mansion security.
There was a faint hum from the communicator, like the beginning of a connection when the comms system was slow, then nothing. He tried again, trying to keep his face authoritative.
‘Marcus, come in.’
In the silence, a wave splashed onto the sea wall and fell back, hissing.
‘Security? Security, come in.’
He found himself looking at the middle one, ridiculously, as if he had answers, as if he could explain what was happening, even while he was still calling.
The middle one reached out and plucked the communicator from his hand.
‘They ain’t comin’, frat’ he said. He sounded almost sympathetic, as if he understood how it was to be let down by your subordinates. Perhaps he did. ‘They ran away. They’ll tell you they had to respond to some call or some shit, but they ran away from us. Did you not think how we got in? It only left the surveillance an’ the locks.’
There was a missing piece there, an element of explanation left still unexplained. Only the surveillance and the locks? It didn’t make sense, but more urgent was to impose his authority. They had got one up on him, he had to acknowledge, with the absence of security. He had to get it back.
‘Security may be out of reach now, but it’s only temporary. They will be back and I will restore order, I promise you that. You’ll all be caught and you’ll all be punished. If you think this is more than a…’ he’d said ‘temporary’ already, but couldn’t think of a synonym. ‘A…a temporary upset, you’re kidding yourselves.’
The middle one nodded, considering.
‘Yeah, that may be. But they ran away fr’m us. They won’t forget that, an’ neither will we. So maybe we’ll win, an’ maybe we’ll sink, but before we let you turn our home into some outdoor work camp, you’ve a fight on your hands.’
He pushed a rope of hair back over his shoulder.
‘Alrigh’, let’s go. C’m on.’ He gave the one in the hat a shove towards the door, relieving him of the controller at the same time. ‘Present fr’m the Governor? I’ll hold onto that.’ Then he looked over the back of the room, where the curtains fluttered in the breeze from the sea. Where the boy was.
‘What about you, frat? he said to the boy. ‘You c’ming?’
Outside, another wave broke over the sea wall. The boy was still in shadow, his expression invisible. The Governor waited for him to ask what he meant, deny any suggestion that he would leave his home, his comforts, everything he gave him. Him. If he would only look at him, if he could only speak to him, but there was only the sound of the surf, drowning everything else like static.
‘Yeah’ said the boy.
He walked across the room, past the VR console he’d bought for him, the detritus of the snacks he’d shipped in for him, wearing the trousers and the fitted shirt he’d given him only a week before. He stopped beside the middle one and the middle one clapped him on the shoulder. ‘D’you wanna do it?’ The boy shrugged. He still hadn’t met the Governor’s eye. There was a pause, then ‘alright. Get goin’’ the middle one said. ‘There’s jus’ this one las’ thin’’.
‘It’s not personal’ the middle one explained to the Governor. ‘It’s jus’, well, we know this is our island now, we know there ain’t nowhere we can’t go, but we gotta send that message, ain’t we? Everyone’s gotta know. It’s like, all that imperial shit you like so much, innit? Power of symbolism, an’ stuff. You make like you’re the Roman empire, and we’re like the people that sacked the city. So, it’s gotta be done.’
He leaned back a little, as if taking a run up without moving his feet. The muscles of his shoulder rippled as he brought his arm back, slow enough that the Governor could admire the curve of his elbow, and the grace of his fist as it drove towards him; slowly, slowly, and then not slowly at all.
The blow landed square on his chin, snapping his head back, rocking him on his heels so that he lost his balance and fell heavily onto the floor. In the sudden change of perspective, he found himself noticing the dust on the rugs underneath the furniture where the cleaners must have been skimping, a discarded drink bottle, an empty packet. There was also the spare screen controller, solid and heavy. Heavy enough to be a weapon. Carefully, through the throbbing in his face, he started to edge his arm towards it. A sandled foot appeared in his vision, just above his hand. He stopped moving it and turned his head so that he could look upwards. The middle one’s face was blurred, little more than a dark shape over him. The voice when it came was clear and far away.
‘Don’, or we’ll really have to hurt you. You stay down, old man.’
He lay on the floor for a long time after they’d left. The VR console switched itself off after a while and the room was very dark, with only a line of dimness between the curtains where the wind had blown them apart. Soon security would creep back and pretend they had never deserted him, that it had all been a horrible accident. They would round up some youths that they would call the ringleaders of the riots, and they would punish them, whether they were actually guilty or not. He would go on fighting for corporate support, for government funding, and maybe he would get it. They might repair the pilings, as a cheaper alternative to a new flood of refugees. He would pretend he had forgotten this, that it was unimportant. He might even, once everything had died down, have his driver take him down again to the streets.
It was unimportant, whatever the young man had said. There were no cameras here that they could get at. There were no images, no proof. No one would ever be able to boast of it, that they had sacked New Rome, but they had done so all the same. He knew now that it would never be great again; that he would never be more than the governor of a poor, neglected shanty town that had once, before his time, been a wonder of the world. They would come and get him up, and bandage his head, and fuss around him to make up for their weakness. They would never know that there would be some part of him felled here forever, that even when he was retired to some continental retreat, safe and dry with a view of the mountains and soft-footed, deferential aides, he would still be here. He was always going to be here now, preserved like an ancient relic, fixed as if in amber on the dusty rug, with the bruise on his cheek and defeat breaking over him like waves.
Published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction 59.