Seen from the passenger’s compartment of the groundcart, the walls of Golden City glowed in the evening sunlight like a tiara flung across the hillside.
The fat young woman sitting on Komar’s right leaned across him for a better look. “It’s so beautiful,” she breathed. “I’d heard it was pretty, but I never thought it would be like this.”
Komar leaned back to get his face as far from her pitted cheek as possible, and grunted. “It’s all right, I suppose.”
“All right?” the woman replied indignantly. “It’s beautiful. It’s like one of the cities from old times, brought alive again.”
Komar said nothing. The young woman was still leaning across him to look, her heavy breast nudging his arm, which he was perfectly sure was no accident. She’d been coming on to him all day, ever since she’d got on at the station they’d stopped at for lunch. The rest of the cart’s occupants, yokels from the villages, didn’t seem to care either way.
“You’ve been to Golden City before?” the woman said, finally leaning back. They’d passed into the dark smudge of forest that clothed the foothills around Golden City, and the glowing walls were lost to view. “It’s my first time.”
“My first time too,” Komar said shortly. Inside the forest, the shadows were dark and thick, and the air was chill enough to make the hairs rise on his arms. The young woman shivered theatrically, her heavy, greasy hair flopping.
“It’s like winter,” she said. “I’m Maia, by the way.”
“I know. You told me already.”
“And you are?”
“Komar.” His papers had the name on them, and there was no point in risking suspicion unnecessarily. He kept his tone as curt as possible, hoping that it might put the girl off. It was a forlorn hope.
“So, what are you going to do in the City? I’m visiting my sister. She said she can find a job for me. She works in the Supreme Council’s administrative service.”
“Does she?” Komar replied, without interest. The metal horses drawing the cart were beginning to lean against the yoke as the road began to rise into the foothills. “She’s lucky, then.”
“Yes. She always wanted to live in Golden City, and so did I, ever since I was a girl.” Maia bit one forefinger in an attempt to demonstrate what she’d been like as a girl. There was a scar on the finger, pink and vaguely resembling a fish. Komar wondered how she’d acquired it. “What about you?”
“What about me?” Komar asked.
“What are you going to do in Golden City? Just visiting, or on work?”
“I’ve got business. I’m a grain wholesaler, and I’ve got to arrange market contacts.” That was the cover he was using, and it was a good cover. It wasn’t even a lie. He’d been a grain wholesaler once, though that had been a long time ago.
“How long are you planning to stay?” Maia’s bovine eyes glittered with lust, or maybe it was just the waning evening light. “Maybe we could get together once your work is over.”
Lust, then. Komar felt almost sorry for her. She was very unattractive and obviously very desperate. He edged away as far from her as he could in the cart’s limited space. “We’ll see,” he said. “I’ll probably be very busy.”
“Where will you stay?” she persisted. “If you let me know that, I can find you.”
Komar suppressed a shudder of annoyance. “I’ll find some hotel near the wholesale market,” he said shortly. “There are always several catering to farmers.” It was the one place in the City he was perfectly certain he wouldn’t need to visit, and so was quite safe. “There are the City gates. We’re almost there.”
The heavy young woman craned her neck to look. There was an odour about her too, a sour reek that came off her rough brown clothes. “Yes,” she said. “We’re almost there.”
The gates were guarded by statues of ceremonial beasts, painted red and green, with enamelled teeth and glittering eyes. Komar was absolutely certain that there were surveillance cameras hidden in the eyes. A couple of City policemen, their dark blue uniforms almost black in the gathering dusk, trudged out from their posts near the statues. The metal horses, in response to programming or to an electronic signal, halted.
“Papers,” the nearer policeman said, his square face filled with boredom and contempt. He hardly glanced at Komar’s documents before handing them back. His colleague didn’t bother to ask for Maia’s papers at all. The cart rumbled forward again.
“Do they check everyone who comes in?” Maia asked, as cart neared the statues. Her eyes were wide with wonder. “They must take great care of security.”
“It is the Golden City, you know,” Komar said drily, “the capital of the Supreme Council. There are going to be many layers of police beyond this.”
The walls of the Golden City, from close up, did not look nearly so golden. Even in the twilight, the pale stone blocks looked rough and worn, and Komar noted a couple of places along which it might be possible to climb down from the parapets, in case he had to make a rapid getaway. Of course, if he did that it would mean that the mission was wrecked anyway.
“What are you looking at?” The fat young woman followed his gaze. “Pretty walls, aren’t they?”
“Very.” Komar bent to take his bag out from under the seat. He only had the one small bag. When he straightened up, the cart had begun slowing to a halt.
The station was small, little more than a yard with a shed at one side and walls all around. Lights on tall posts glared down at the cart, and as the passengers climbed down, their shadows sank to little puddles under their feet. If it was meant to make them feel uncomfortable and stripped of all privacy, it succeeded rather well.
As Komar had predicted, there were more police in the yard, and a couple of them at the exit. They checked his papers again, briefly, and nodded him on. He was surprised they hadn’t searched his bag, but then if they had they’d have found nothing. Komar hadn’t got as far as he had by taking stupid risks.
He’d just reached the street when he felt a tug at his arm. Even before turning, he knew who it would be. Maia stood beside him, her hand clutching at his forearm, an anxious look in her bovine eyes.
“Can you walk with me a while?” she asked. Her fingernails dug into his skin hard enough that he had to suppress a wince. “I’ve got such a lot of bags and my sister isn’t here. She was supposed to be.”
“Where are you going, then?” Komar fought down his irritation. Probably she didn’t even have a sister, and this was an attempt to stick with him long enough to get into his bed tonight. He’d have to ditch her. He had to move quickly, and he couldn’t afford this. He...
“There she is.” Maia’s hand dropped from his arm, and rose up to wave. From across the street, a taller, thinner woman waved back. Well, she had a sister after all. Wonders would never cease.
“You’ll be all right, then,” Komar said.
“Yes. Wait.” She turned to him. “Don’t forget, when you’re finished with your work early we could spend some time together.”
“Yeah,” Komar said. “If I’m free, I’ll see.”
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll get together again.” With a final smile, exposing stained teeth, she lumbered across the street. A groundcar whispered to a hurried stop to let her pass.
Komar waited until the women had got into a small groundcar and driven away before he started walking. The streets were filling up with people, and he felt their presence like a choking pressure on his personal space. Of course, they were protection, a sea in which he could easily hide.
He passed a hologram, floating above a traffic island in the middle of a crossing. It was of the High Matriarch herself, dressed in her formal robes of office, her narrow eyes deceptively lazy looking above the high cheekbones framing her handsome face. The hologram was very good; it was difficult to tell that it wasn’t a solid figure.
Komar stopped a moment to look at her. The High Matriarch was a remarkably beautiful woman, and appeared much younger than she must be in reality; it was no secret, of course, that she and the rest of the Supreme Council had the best of life-enhancing technology, and were working on more. It was rumoured that they were planning to live ten thousand years.
Not if he could help it, he thought. If everything went according to plan, those ten thousand years would go no further than tonight.
On all sides rose the buildings of Golden City, so high that they seemed to merge into the sky, and so brightly lit that it was hard to believe that it was night. It was said that the lights of Golden City banished the stars from one horizon to the other, and it wasn’t hard to believe. And around him were people of the entire Empire; more people, and more diverse, than Komar had ever seen before. Tall and thin and black, or short and broad and slant-eyed, they jostled and thronged, and everyone seemed to be talking together at the tops of their voices. It was another evening in Golden City, and everyone was busily trying to have a good time.
Slipping between their jabbing elbows and questing feet, Komar set off to find the person he had to meet. Once or twice, he paused to check that he wasn’t being followed. It was just a precaution; nobody could have realistically followed him in these crowds, and he hadn’t any expectation that anyone might try.
Komar had no map on him, of course. Nor had he been given an address. Both were precautions against his giving away anything if he were caught. Instead, he’d been given a set of directions, which he’d memorised, and now followed them carefully. From the street he was on, he took the second turning to the right, and then counted off six side streets until he found the one he wanted. From that one he continued, until the crowds had faded away along with the bright lights, and the reality of Golden City was around him.
These were the localities where the real people of Golden City lived, where the tourists never came. Tall dark houses like boxes stood on end flanked lanes so narrow that he felt he could span them with outstretched arms, and the only lights were dim, yellow, and suspended overhead on wires. Here there were many lanes and turnings and no signboards, and he had to go more slowly as he navigated his way from his memories.
They appeared simultaneously on both sides, so abruptly and silently that he was taken by surprise. “You.”
Cursing himself for forgetting to check that he wasn’t being followed, he turned quickly. “Yes?”
They were only teenage thugs. One was on each side of him, and the third a little further back. It was this one who spoke.
“What are you doing here? This isn’t for tourists to gawk at.”
“I’m not a tourist.”
“Maybe not, but you aren’t from here, and if you aren’t from here you aren’t welcome.”
“Unless,” the one to his left suggested, “you want to pay a tax.”
“A tax, yeah.” A knife gleamed in the hand of the one who’d spoken first. In the dull gleam of the yellow light overhead, his face looked like an eager skull. “That’s good, a tax.”
Komar sighed. “Look, I don’t have time for this. Go on your way, and nobody gets hurt.”
“What?” The knifeman stepped closer. “Did you say something about getting hurt?”
“That’s what he said,” the one to Komar’s right confirmed. “He said we’re to go on our way and nobody gets hurt.”
The knifeman laughed, a short barking laugh. “Only one person’s going to get hurt,” he said. “Hold his arms.”
“I warned you,” Komar told them. It was no challenge at all; he’d been trained by the best, and they were amateur thugs, who’d never known anyone to resist before. Less than a couple of minutes later, he was on his way again, leaving three bodies on the street behind him. They might have still been alive; he neither knew nor cared.
“Stupid,” he muttered to himself. “I’m getting careless.” His arm was aching a little where the fat girl had dug her nails into it earlier, and he rubbed it absently. The night’s work had only just begun, and he’d have to keep his wits about him.
By the time he finally found the place his directions had indicated, the evening was far enough advanced for cooking smells to seep through the air from the houses around. Komar ignored them. He’d long since learnt to repress and ignore hunger on a mission.
His directions had led him to a tiny crossroads where four lanes met. The ground underfoot was rough and uneven, and he was sure he’d seen something small, dark and furry scuttle away at his approach. The light overhead seemed to have burnt out, or was otherwise not working; the only illumination was from further along one of the four lanes, and was dim enough to make it hard to see anything clearly at all. Komar watched for a while to make sure there was no ambush waiting before he stepped to the outer fringe of the lit area.
A shadow detached itself from the darkness of the lane opposite, outlines blurred and misshapen by a hooded cloak. “Grain?” a voice asked hopefully.
“Out of stock,” Komar said.
“You’re late,” the figure said. It was a woman’s voice. “I’ve been waiting for half an hour.”
“I had a couple of problems.” He didn’t elaborate. “There’s still enough to spare.”
“None to waste, though. Come along.”
He followed her through several more lanes, which grew slowly broader and better lit until they emerged on a fairly busy street. She led him into a shop selling tourist curios, which still had several customers crowded around the counter, and through into a back room. None of the staff, or the obese owner behind the desk at the end, spared either of them a glance.
“Sit down,” she said, pulling off her cloak. She was about his age, or a little older, with strong though far from attractive features. Her hair had two streaks of white running back from her temples, like horns. He was certain that they were artificial, meant as a disguise, to focus attention away from more identifiable features. “We won’t be disturbed here. You can call me Roya.”
He sat, not making any attempt to introduce himself. She’d know his cover identity anyway. The room was wood-panelled and there were thick carpets on the floor. The woman intercepted his glance.
“Soundproof, no windows, and checked for electronics,” she said, and slid out an envelope from a narrow drawer under the lip of the table. “Here.”
There were just two sheets of paper in the envelope. He read them quickly. “They’re in the Supreme Council Building tonight, then? All of them?”
Roya nodded. “We’ve been keeping track of them for a while. It’s a long scheduled meeting. They hold them regularly.”
“Yes, so I’ve been told.” He’d noticed with approval that she hadn’t said “the Hell Bitch” or any of the other useless pejoratives people tended to use for the High Matriarch. It was a mark of professionalism. “And your information is that the High Matriarch will be attending?”
“That’s what our information is. They’ve apparently got to meet to decide about a new invention their scientists have made. What the invention is, I have no idea.” Roya took the sheets back and, sliding them into the envelope, pressed down the flap. There was a puff of smoke as the envelope consumed its contents. “This is our one chance for a killing blow, you understand.”
“Yes.” Komar went over the information on the sheets in his mind, to make certain he’d got it all. “I assume you’re ready to move in as soon as I’ve taken them out?”
“Don’t worry about that. We’ll rise as soon as you’ve wiped out the Supreme Council...and the High Matriarch, of course. But most of all the High Matriarch. Unless she’s out of the way, any uprising is guaranteed to fail.”
“Yes, I understand.” Rubbing his forearm absently, Komar nodded. “You know I’ll need equipment. I gave you a list.”
“Yes, they’re in here, on a time lock.” Roya indicated one of the panels on the wall. “I’ve activated it already, but we still have a little time to wait.” She looked at him with interest. “If you don’t mind...”
“I’m trying to figure something out. You’re a mercenary. Certainly the best in the business today, and perhaps the best that’s ever been. That’s why we decided to hire you, and we were prepared to pay anything at all, any amount you’d demand. But you said you’d do it for free.” She paused. “Why?”
“Why?” He shrugged. “I may be a mercenary, but I have a life too, you know.”
“And...” His mind went back to the village in the autumn rain. “And...”
The autumn that year had been heavy with cloud, and the rain had turned the plains into a sea of mud the colour of concrete and the consistency of glue. That had followed two years of drought, and the crops would have been hit even if the High Matriarch’s troops hadn’t been brooding over the plain, looking for rebels to come down out of the forested hills, looking for supplies.
Komar had known that there wouldn’t be much business that year. But the bills had to be paid, and if he couldn’t get whatever grain the farmers had to sell, some other wholesaler would.
And if they hadn’t contacted him, there was nothing else he could do but go to them. And so he had.
Even the balloon tyres of his trader’s large groundcart, designed for muddy conditions, had struggled through the glutinous stuff, so that he’d already been far behind schedule when he’d reached the first village.
A low, heavy brownish smudge had thickened the air over the rooftops, and he’d thought at first that it was merely smog from the small village industries. It had been smog, but not from industries. By the time he’d realised that, the groundcart had already entered the village.
It had been a gutted ruin. Some of the buildings were still burning, while others had collapsed into piles of embers and smouldering ash. A heavy farm tiller cart had lain overturned in the middle of the main street, the mangled remains of its metal horses trapped under it. One of the horses, actuated by some residual electric impulses, had still been moving its legs spasmodically.
Komar had wanted to move on. Even more, he’d wanted to turn the groundcart around and go right back to the city. But some force beyond himself seemed to push him out of the vehicle, and made him walk through the mud, past the kicking metal horse, into the village.
He’d seen the corpses. Old and young, men and women. Some of them had looked almost as though they were sleeping, while others had been little more than ribbons of flesh sticking to bones. Later, he would learn that the weapons which had done that were called flechettes.
He’d spent a long time wandering through the village when he’d seen the barn. It was surrounded by a clump of trees, growing so closely that their branches intertwined with each other, and their overlapping trunks had shielded it from view. That was probably what had saved it from being spotted and destroyed.
For only a little while he’d hesitated. The barn, intact in all the destruction, had seemed to be full of menace. But then he’d had an idea. Perhaps it had grain in it, and, since there didn’t seem to be anybody left to own it, leaving it there would merely mean that it would rot and go to waste.
It wouldn’t hurt to look, anyway, he’d thought. Most likely there’d be nothing there anyway...or anyone.
He’d been wrong. He’d known as soon as he tried to push the door open that he was wrong. The door had swung open a little and stuck, and he could feel that there was something placed against it to keep it closed.
“Who’s there?” he’d called. “Open this. I’m not going to harm you.”
The only reply had been a strangled sob.
“Open up!” he’d repeated. “I said I’m not going to harm you. But if you don’t open now, the next people to come along might not be of the same mind.”
There had been a brief pause, and then he’d heard the weight, whatever it was, being dragged away. The door had swung slowly and reluctantly open, just wide enough for him to look in.
“There’s no need to be afraid,” he’d said, but that was all before he’d found out that there had.
Her name was Luha. And after he’d managed to get her to stop crying, he’d managed to get her story.
The Empire’s warriors had come just after dark the previous evening, after everyone had come in from the fields. They’d surrounded the houses, and pushed their way in, claiming that the people were feeding the rebels.
They hadn’t listened to any denials or attempts to explain. They’d made their accusations, and then they’d opened fire.
Luha had survived for one reason only. She’d been tending a sick pig, and had gone to make sure that the animal was warm and comfortable in the sty behind her house when the soldiers had arrived. She’d started back towards the house when she’d heard shouting voices, and seen shooting red flames. And then her mother had thrown open the kitchen window and desperately waved her away.
There were things she hadn’t been able to talk about, and which he’d filled in from his own observations and imagination. The flames, rushing up as high again as the houses, would have turned the night to flickering day; and in that light the Imperial soldiers, going from building to building with their spitting weapons, would have been like grim demons out of some human hell. He hadn’t blamed her for running away.
She hadn’t stopped blaming herself, though. “My parents...I should have been with them. I shouldn’t have left them there like that.”
“Your mother knew you had to run,” Komar had pointed out. “If you’d gone back in you’d all have died, and this way at least someone lived.” Someone to tell the tale, as he wanted to point out.
It had been no consolation, of course. And, equally of course, she’d gone with him. There was no way he could have left her there.
He’d not gone much further, just the next two villages. They only entered the first one, and found nothing – no survivors, nothing but destruction. They only looked at the ruins of the second before turning away.
That had been the year when the High Matriarch and the Supreme Council had decided to exterminate the rebels by eliminating their supply bases, and they’d succeeded, almost completely. Ever since then, the rebellion in the countryside had faltered and withered. If they came down out of the hills, they’d been destroyed. If they stayed in the forests, they’d starved. The few remnants now hid in the cities, hoping for the chance of just one lethal blow.
Long before that, Komar had abandoned his grain wholesale business and become a mercenary. It hadn’t been a hard decision. The grain business was dead in any case, with the Supreme Council peering over everyone’s shoulder.
At first he’d gone where the fighting was, in the borderlands beyond the Empire, hiring himself out to warlords, learning the trade. And then he’d found that he was better at it than anyone else, better than his teachers. He could have become a warlord himself, but had long since realised that it was a short and brutal glory. It was the unaffiliated warrior for hire, changing alliances whenever necessary, who could go on, and on.
But there had been one thing, always, in his mind; one gnawing idea, which would not let him go.
The thirst for revenge.
Roya nodded. Her face was smoothed of expression as totally as a mask. “I see. And this is your opportunity.”
“I would not have taken it on otherwise,” Komar said. “No matter how much it paid.”
“And what of...Luha? Do you know where she is?”
Komar looked down at the smoking envelope on the table. “Yes. We got...close, but she didn’t want me to do what I’m doing. She said she didn’t want to lose me, too.”
“But it was something you had to do, and she couldn’t see that?”
“That’s right.” Komar glanced up at Roya. “You know the other reason I’m doing this?”
“Yes. If the High Matriarch and her clique are overthrown, she no longer has any reason to fear losing you.” There was a soft click. Roya got up, swung the wooden panel open, and stepped back. “Here’s what you wanted.”
Komar reached into the safe. The gun was small, almost cubical, and of a dark grey-blue colour. Then, grenades fitted into pockets on the inside of a light jacket which he slipped on. Next, he took out a small packet, which unfolded into a shimmering nosuit. He examined it and folded it up again.
The last item was an energy knife. When he turned it on, the air over the handle shimmered and emitted a very quiet hum. Satisfied, he nodded and turned it off again.
“That’s all you’re taking?” Roya asked. “Are you sure?”
“The more I take,” Komar replied drily, “the more encumbered I’ll be. And if this isn’t enough, nothing will be.”
Roya shut the safe door. “What if you’re caught?”
Komar shrugged. There was no need for an answer to that. Actually, he had a suicide pill implanted on the inside of his left wrist, but it had been there for years; he had never expected to have to use it and did not expect to this time either.
“You’ll go now?” Roya asked.
“Of course. There’s no time to waste, is there?”
“One of our people will take you in a groundcar.”
“No, thanks.” Komar shook his head. “From this point I’m going on alone. The fewer people know my movements, the better.”
“All right. You don’t trust anybody?”
Komar shook his head and smiled slightly. “I don’t trust anybody.”
The Supreme Council Building, occupying the centre of the Imperial Square, was made of stone the colour of butter mixed with honey, and surmounted by a dome made of shining silvery alloy which glinted in the spotlights. It looked grand and designed to impress, and Komar didn’t even glance at it.
From the start, he’d decided to disregard the information in the envelope. It wasn’t that he suspected the woman, Roya, of lying; but if he were the Supreme Council, he’d have assumed that the rebels would find out about the meeting, and misdirect their attention to the wrong, the obvious target. And he’d never thought of the Supreme Council Building as anything more than a diversion. Long ago, he’d conducted his own investigations, and concluded that the Council, let alone the High Matriarch, never went anywhere near it.
A small surveillance drone buzzed by overhead. Like the tourists still scattered along the streets, he glanced up at it. Not to have done so might get him noticed. The drone flew slowly along the Imperial Square and disappeared into the distance.
The streets beyond the Square were narrower and darker, the shops beginning to close down for the night. There, brooding over the sprawl like an architectural frown, was the blocky, undistinguished mass of the Interior Ministry. And behind it, almost like an afterthought, was a smaller building, to all appearances just an annexe housing the spillover of offices from the Ministry. It was so ordinary that the wall around it was no more than chest high.
Komar knew perfectly well that it was in no sense ordinary, and that the wall was far from the formality that it appeared.
He paused a few moments, glancing quickly around. He had no intention of attempting to get over that wall; it was certain to be filled with sensors, and probably booby traps. The only way in would be through the back gate. There would most certainly be a back gate.
It was disguised carefully, and would have appeared to be part of the wall itself to anyone who wasn’t looking for it. The edges were fitted so closely to the wall that they were almost invisible, and stained to match the stains on the sides. With one final quick look around to make sure no immediate danger threatened, Komar unfolded and put on the nosuit, and darted across the street.
From this point he’d have to move fast. There would definitely be cameras, and the nosuit would only protect him from casual scrutiny. Quickly boosting himself over the gate, he fell, already rolling, on the other side, and waited for alarms and shouts. Nothing happened.
He was in a small yard, in which a couple of vehicles were parked. One was only a hump of shadow, but the other one was an eviscerated groundcart, tyreless wheels raised on blocks, the metal skeleton of a horse drooping in the yoke. Obvious, very obvious, camouflage.
Quickly, now. He sprinted past the cart, and to the back wall. The door would be somewhere here, looking innocuous and ordinary...ah.
The energy knife whispered in his hand, and part of the door disappeared in a puff of wood powder. With a gentle push of his hand, he entered.
He knew instantly that he’d come to the right place. The room inside was broad and low-ceilinged, and filled with stacks of humming power banks. It was the kind of back up system a military command centre would have, not a block of offices.
The gun, as he slipped it out of the jacket, felt waxy and greasy in his hand. He didn’t want to use it, not yet, but he might have to at any moment. From now on, he was surrounded by danger. The only point in his favour was that he could take everything to be his enemy; there couldn’t be any possible confusion. The other side didn’t have that luxury.
There was an inner door, but it was open, with stairs and a lift opposite. The stairs led in both directions, but without hesitation he picked the one leading down. If he were in their position, he'd be underground; he was sure of it.
It wasn’t dark on the stairs, so he saw the robot guard well in time. It looked simple; a small sphere of matt-finish grey metal, borne on four telescoping legs. It was climbing up the stairs towards him, rotating lenses on top scanning everything from the floor to the ceiling.
Taking it out was almost absurdly easy. Standing perfectly still, he waited until it came within touching distance; in his nosuit its lenses could never see him as long as he didn’t move. Then all it required was a thrust of the energy knife, and the near leg sheared off just below the sphere. Even as the robot began to totter, he slashed at it again, once, twice, and the lens complex fell loose. The final thrust was to the small oblong box between the legs which held the robot’s power pack; a dead weight, it began to sag to the floor. He clutched at it quickly and laid it down on the staircase, gently, so that it didn’t clang.
There was a blue-white glow of light spilling out on to the bottom of the stairs, bright enough to be clearly noticeable. Komar paused, and then crept down more slowly. There was a short passage at the foot of the stairs, and at the far end a door, which stood ajar. The light was coming from that.
Even before he reached the door he heard voices.
“...we simply cannot afford to do otherwise,” someone said.
“That’s right,” a second person added in a low rumble. “The longer we wait, the more time’s being wasted. With a tool like this in our hands...”
“Nonsense!” the response was like a whip’s crack. He’d heard that voice before, in a hundred videos and radio broadcasts, and wondered if the High Matriarch’s tones had been digitally manipulated to add that tone of command. He didn’t need to wonder anymore; in fact, she sounded far more commanding in real life. “You’re all talking nonsense.”
There was silence so total that he heard the rubber soles of his shoes scuff faintly on the concrete. “But...” someone began. “If it’s not a tool, what is it –”
“I’ll tell you what it is,” the High Matriarch replied, her clear carrying tones covering Komar’s soft footsteps. “It’s a weapon, that’s what it is.”
“A weapon? How could that be a weapon?”
Komar was at the door. He could see shadows now, thrown on the floor, faint in the bright light. He wished he could have looked past the edge into the room, but he couldn’t risk discovery. Not that it mattered. A couple of grenades lobbed into the room, and nothing could possibly survive the explosion. By the time anyone could react, he’d be upstairs and well on the way to safety. Putting down the gun and energy knife on the concrete at his feet, he slipped off the nosuit. Opening the jacket, he reached inside and fumbled for the grenades.
He never touched them.
Hands like steel closed on his arms from behind, pulling them so hard that his back was arched backward. Someone’s arm hooked around his neck, dragging his head back until his chin was pointed at the ceiling. He felt a knee in his back, shoving. Helplessly, he fell on the floor.
“His arms,” a voice said, one that was very familiar but which he couldn’t place for the moment. “Make sure you secure his arms, and then check the left wrist. I’m sure I saw the scar of a suicide pill implant there.”
He felt sharp pain in the skin of his wrist, and the warm trickle of blood. “That’s fine,” the familiar voice said. “We don’t want him to escape his punishment, do we?”
Struggling against the arm round his neck, Komar managed to turn his head enough to look over his shoulder. He saw feet in dark blue shoes move towards him, and then the person crouched down until she could look into his eyes.
“Hello, Komar,” Maia, the fat girl, said, smiling her stained smile. “I told you we’d get together again.”
“It wasn’t a problem, Highness,” Maia said. “Our intelligence sources inside the rebels had said they’d hired a mercenary to assassinate you and the Council. So we were ready for it.”
“Still,” the High Matriarch said, glancing from her to the bound and gagged figure of Komar and back again, “you couldn’t have known exactly how and when they were going to make their attempt.”
“No, but it wasn’t that much of a mystery,” the fat girl replied. “It was obvious that they’d caught wind of this meeting, when you’d all be together. After all, it’s the only chance to murder all of the Supreme Council at one go, and you as well, Highness.”
“I see,” the High Matriarch nodded. Standing on a low wooden dais, dressed in a severe grey-blue robe, she looked coldly beautiful and immensely regal. Her eyes, glittering like wet stone, passed over Komar as though assessing a piece of meat. “So how did you know it was he?”
“We didn’t. We couldn’t find out who the mercenary was, but if he’d been from the city we’d have known all about him. There’s nothing going on in Golden City we don’t hear of, sooner or later. So, obviously, he would be an import, from outside. Also, obviously, if he were any good at all, he wouldn’t risk being in the city for a long time before the attack; he’d suspect, with good reason, that there would be leaks. I decided that in all probability he’d only come here a day before the attempt, or less. And every indication was that the killer they’d hired was very, very good.”
“And so I put agents as passengers on all incoming traffic,” the fat girl continued. She looked very far from ridiculous now. “They knew what to look for, were ordered to tag all suspects. There weren’t many. In fact, there were so few that by this morning I’d almost decided it was a false alarm. But on an impulse, I went out myself, just for one last try. And I found myself travelling in the same groundcart as him.”
“Did you know he was the mercenary?”
“Of course not, Highness. If I’d been sure, I’d have had him captured as soon as we’d arrived, and eliminated the danger. But the longer I spent talking to him, the more certain I was that he was hiding something. And so, of course, I tagged him.”
“How did you tag him?” one of the Supreme Council members, a fat man with a wispy beard, asked.
Maia smiled again and held up a hand. “Dirt impregnated with microscopic trackers under my fingernails, sir. I pretended to panic, clutched his arm, and injected them into his skin.”
“And he was taken in?”
Maia glanced over at Komar. “Very easily. It helps to look fat and stupid, you know. People don’t take you seriously.”
“But then what happened?” the High Matriarch asked.
“But then,” Maia admitted, “he gave us the slip for a while. We were tracking all the tagged suspects, and in between he managed to vanish for some time. We found out later that he’d been wearing a nosuit. We had to wait for him to turn up here, and as you see, he did.”
“No doubt you will find out where he acquired the nosuit.”
“He must have got it, along with the weapons, from the rebel cell leader Roya, Highness,” Maia said. “We’d tracked him as far as her hideout. We’ve already captured her, and we’ll find out where she got it from.” She looked grimly determined. “Along with the details of all her cell members, those whom we don’t know about from our sources. By this time tomorrow, the whole lot of them will be eliminated. I must abjectly apologise that you had to be put to any risk, but, as you saw, we did manage to protect you in the end.”
“Yes.” The High Matriarch stepped off the dais and walked over to Komar. Her elegant toes, clad in soft grey suede, prodded him in the chest. “However, I’m not sure you need to apologise. It strikes me that we have a solution to a problem that’s been vexing me. Killing two birds with one stone, as the saying goes.”
“Highness?” Maia asked, frowning.
The High Matriarch’s smile was terrifying. “We will eliminate the rebels, of course; and they’ll become martyrs and heroes to some idiot or other, who sooner or later will set up yet another rebellion. It’s a distraction we don’t need. We need to terrify them so totally with the consequences of revolting that they’ll never even think of it again.
“And another thing. I was saying that our latest invention is a weapon, whereas my...advisors...preferred to think of it as a tool for their own use.” Her lip curled in contempt. “They need a demonstration.”
Shaking, Komar looked up at her, wondering what she was planning to do to him. “Luha,” he thought, “I wish I could have seen you once more, just once more, long enough to say goodbye.” But Luha was far away and a long time ago.
“Are you going to have him tortured to death, Highness?” the fat councillor asked. He sounded eager to please. “I suggest you have him tortured to death.”
“Of course not.” The High Matriarch prodded Komar with her toes again. “We need to make an example of him,” she said.
The walls of Golden City are long gone now, the immense buildings tumbled, the great avenues clogged with windblown dust. The great green forests outside the city have disappeared ages ago, and a lifeless white desert stretches to the horizon. No drones fly overhead, and no tourists come. The only movement visible is that of an occasional scorpion, crawling on a piece of sunbaked stone. The Empire that created Golden City is dead; others have risen and vanished in their turn, and their successors have been dust for a thousand years.
In the very centre of the ruined city, where a square once stood, is a place that is still free of debris. Here, on a platform of some material that has somehow been spared the ravages of time, is a block of clear material, almost as transparent as air. In the heart of this block stands the statue of a naked man, arms and legs spread-eagled, staring emptily out into the desert. He is so realistic-looking that one might almost imagine he was alive. He must have been an impressive public spectacle, one would think, and one would wonder who he was, and why he would be so honoured.
Unable to move, unable even to blink, Komar spends the endless years counting the stars.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017