Angel in the Maze
Author: 3jane

Chapter 4
Fanatics and fervour

Northbridge is not a nice city by any standards. Dirty, run-down, notoriously corrupt and in some places desperately poor, it has a reputation amongst other city-states for being a great big nasty sponge that sucks up all their bright young things and gives them only dodgy exports in return, usually at an extortionate price. In recent years these unpleasant traits have been getting worse, under the ultra-conservative regime of Lord Calvinus, the Seneschal. And a man called Lucan Ramir has come here from the southern city of Jerboa to change all this. He’s been in Northbridge for about two weeks now and he is absolutely disgusted by the baseness of life here. He’s been mugged twice and Nagy Murat was beaten raw in a back-street for accidentally bumping into a gang leader and not saying sorry nicely enough. Ramir is sitting in his tall and uncomfortable chair in his room at their place, an abandoned church hall.

Even the Selenites here are corrupt. Look at them with their hymn-singing and their stupid little festivals while this place is crawling with every sort of sin imaginable. It makes me sick, this waste, this ineffectual wandering round the edges when they all know that the real problem is the city itself, and they’re too afraid to deal with that. Useless lot.

There’s a knock at the door, a timid tap, and this seems to fit so well with the namby-pamby Northbridge Selenites that it makes him all angry again.

‘For heaven’s sake, learn to knock properly!’ Ramir shouts. ‘Come in, then.’

The door opens and a huge man comes in. He has to duck to get through the door. He has a fearsome, simian face and ugly pinched eyes, too close together in his head.

‘Ah, it’s you, Cave. How’s Nagy?’

Cave shrugs.

‘Angry, Leader Ramir. He wants to get up but Cephall told him not to. He still looks like a side of meat though, I reckon it’s best if we count him out of things for a while.’

‘Luckily I’d already catered for that, Cave. You and Phi Tyndell are doing his duties instead. Fill the gaps, Cave. The work must be done, so done it will be, even if it kills you. You know this.’

Cave grunts a response and sits down in a vacant chair which creaks ominously.

‘How are the transistors going?’ asks Ramir.

He knows already, but he wants to see if Cave has checked the details, like he should have done by now. He sees Cave’s face empty of colour.

Fear brings obedience.

Obedience brings devotion.

‘Er… fine… ’ Cave mumbles. He knows no one can lie to Ramir and get away with it.

‘You haven’t checked. Cave; that’s very disappointing, you know. Get out,’ Ramir says flatly. ‘I won’t see you until you’ve done all of your duties, not just those you feel like doing. For the last time, learn some DISCIPLINE!’

Ramir’s voice rises to a scream and he pelts a paperweight at Cave, which hits him in the ribs with a thud. Cave flings his long arms over his head as Ramir reaches for another missile, his face ugly with rage.

‘S-sorry, Leader Ramir, I’m sorry, I’m – ’

‘SHUT UP!’ bellows Ramir and Cave mumbles something incomprehensible, getting up and shuffling backwards towards the door, which he opens and practically chucks himself out. Ramir yells after him,

‘Get Mihan up here right away, Cave!’ and hurls another paperweight for good measure, which takes a chunk out of the door. He sits back in his chair, fuming and sweating, and tries to think of calm things. Anger is weakness. Control.

Why are people so stupid?

Ramir is one of those people who is terrifying when he’s in control. It looks like he’s the sort who never loses it, he just stays calm and when you’re gone he makes a black mark against your name, and soon enough punishment will come your way, unannounced and inescapable. He’s not like that. He’s got a notoriously short temper and the bad thing is, he’s even more frightening when he really loses it, goes purple and distorted and spitting with rage; he roars and curses and looks almost ill, and it’s horrible to watch. You have to wonder how anyone has that much fury all piled up inside them like a constipated volcano, just waiting to be tipped a little bit too far. Mihan Igrain almost shrinks from going to see him; he never knows what mood Ramir will be in and he dreads getting it wrong. He bangs on the door. Not too loud, because that makes Ramir afraid that his authority is being undermined, and afraid is nearly as bad as angry; but if he knocks too softly Ramir shouts at him for being wimpy and unassertive.

Mihan grits his teeth as the door opens and the ordeal begins again. Ramir looks rather blotchy, and his bald head is shining with sweat, even though it’s freezing in his room. He is not an attractive man, it must be said. Shorter than average, but he makes up for it by his considerable bulk; he’s not fat, just sort of dense in a way other people rarely are. He has a square, brutal face with small, cold eyes, a shaved head and a cruel mouth. His voice is unctuous and barking at the same time, and Mihan always wonders how he does it. Ramir’s face assumes a twisted expression which is actually a smile, and he beckons Mihan into his room.

‘Ah, Mihan, there you are. How are the Reconstructs?’

Mihan swallows nervously. If there’s one thing he really doesn’t want to talk about, it’s the Reconstructs. He’s had enough of them, he knew they’d never work in the first place and he’s dreading telling Ramir just how badly the whole campaign is going. He takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders.

Bite the bullet, Mihan. It’s going to hit you anyway.

‘To be perfectly frank, they’re a nightmare. We can’t get the programming devices running at all even though Comrade Lanegan and I have been working flat out for four days. There’s something seriously wrong with the readouts and neither of us can work out what it is. I think it’s the crystal readers not being tuned properly so they’re not picking up the correct resonances, therefore we’re getting nothing on the screen at all.’

There, Mihan, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

Ramir’s expression has not changed at all; he raises his hands in a gesture of plea.

‘Creator, help us in Your doctrines, for we are poor mortals and only with Your brilliance will we achieve the technological perfection worthy of You,’ he intones. Mihan nods, not daring to say anything in case it’s a private communication between Ramir and the Creator, as Ramir is famous for. As the Leader of the Architect society he’s said to have a special vision for the city, but none of his staff have seen much of it, apart from the bits about the Reconstructs, which they’ve seen too much of already.

If they’re the way Ramir’s brave new world has to be achieved, then Mihan’s seriously considering jumping ship before it’s too late to get off, before it goes city-wide and everything starts happening all at once.

Before Ramir gets too powerful.

He’s spent months in the company of the most skilled, intelligent, dextrous people he’s ever met, and what have they been doing? Scientific butchery – going round collecting the dregs of civilisation from back alleys and gutters and slums and, as Ramir’s book, Blueprints Set A, puts it, ‘giving them a purpose to aid society once more and further the Architect Vision of a perfect synchronised workforce’.

What the hell have I agreed to, Mihan often thinks, when he stands back after a day’s work and looks at what he’s done; the vision’s amazing, but is it worth this?

I know they’re asleep when we do it, I know they’ll never know the difference, it’s like dying, you’ll never know it’s happened.

But he does wonder just how much more blood and risky, messy, difficult, ugly surgery he can bear, stuck in that cellar with Cephall the surgeon as he lobotomizes them with the speed of a maniac, and him and Einor rushing around programming the crystals as fast as they can and it’s never enough, the pressure’s too much, he’s going to go mad soon. What a procedure they have to go through: Cephall doing brain after brain and fitting the crystal chips that Mihan’s assembled, tailored for each head, Cephall sealing them in there in place of a frontal lobe and connecting them to the transmitter grid so they’re controllable by thought, except it’s not working so they’re stuck as mindless gibbering atrocities, while Einor wrestles with the crystal readers and reconfigures them over and over again, with the same result: nothing. Oh, and constantly subduing their pain processors with specially-prepared drugs so a Reconstruct won’t even notice if its arm gets hacked off, it’ll just keep going until it dies. Terrifying stuff. But it’s the will of the Creator, and if it helps the new world, which it will without question, then it must be done.

‘Ah well, Mihan. There is nothing I can offer for advice, I’m afraid, but you have until the end of the week to sort out the problem, or, if it really cannot be rectified, then I shall investigate the matter myself. I know it’s hard,’ Ramir says, with something very much like sympathy in his voice, ‘I know you’re wondering how such a loving God as the Creator can drive us to such lengths to see His vision become reality, but think, Mihan!’

Ramir sweeps his arms out in a wide gesture as he begins to tell Mihan of this vision, and Mihan, despite the fact that he’s tired and hungry and sickened by his work, and he’s been in their basement/surgery since seven this morning with only a ten-minute break, he’s seeing it too, this glorious tomorrow that Ramir and his God have dreamed up together. Buildings that no other civilisation can touch, gleaming and shiny and sleek, not lumpy brick but smooth poured concrete and metal and glass, the materials of the future. Electricity in every house. Automated transport. Useful industries only, with a job for everyone – no pointless pleasure-makers, like artists and musicians and actors; wastrels and scroungers, the lot of them, who’ve never done a stroke of honest work in their lives. They’ll all go first, when we get into power – at this Ramir gets rather violent, and has to stop while he composes himself again. Mihan sits spellbound.

He’s thought of everything, and it’s all true. Amazing.

None of this greedy, money-grabbing, sprawling capitalism, all untidy and tangled and backstabbing, Ramir continues, finding his focus again: everything is state-owned, and the proceeds go to everyone in return for their work for the state, who will own all the industries, insofar as anything is owned. Ramir stops talking, eyes shining with God, and Mihan shakes his head weakly, dizzied by this genius in front of him.

‘That, comrade, is the Master Blueprint of the Creator, which He has seen fit to show me alone. Stay faithful to me, Mihan, for the sake of what I have just told you,’ Ramir says softly. ‘Swear to me now, swear again, that you will do whatever I ask you, if you know it is for the future of this regime, when we seize power and save this sorry city.’

‘I swear it!’ Mihan says ardently, as Ramir takes Mihan’s right hand and cuts a finger with a tiny dagger, catching in his own hand the few drops of blood that fall from the little wound and licking them off his palm.

‘You are the first, Mihan, the first and trusted. Go now. Free your technical mind in prayer, and the kingdom of science will be yours in the next shift. Bring Vagus here.’

Mihan leaves the room, shaking and dizzy and over the moon. The future is waiting. All they have to do is reach out and grab it before the capitalists deface it. He feels reborn, the Creator’s burning in him and he’s prepared to do anything, so long as the vision captures him and holds on, sweeping him forwards in its juggernaut rush to perfection, faster and stronger and higher and more beautiful with every new day. And in the centre of this maelstrom will be Ramir, burning with a sort of holy fire, bright as sulphur showing them all the way forwards, cutting through the dark imperfection of humanity with the white light of pure science and ironing out the flaws that make all ideas fail in the end.

Bring Vagus here.

Command me, oh Leader, and I will obey, eager as a Reconstruct.

Mihan thinks again of the Reconstructs: all he wants to do now is solve whatever the problem is with them and win Ramir’s approval. He doesn’t care if it kills him. He doesn’t need to eat or sleep, he’s got a holy quest; dying with Ramir’s smile raining on his fading sight would be the most beautiful way to go. All he wants is to see the approval in that mighty face and know that it’s for him, Mihan Igrain, lowly technician, that the light shines, for what he’s done. What could be more glorious?

Vagus is in the work room, hidden in that mazy little warren of rooms at the back of the building, poring over a musty-looking book entitled Sub-Molecular Chemistry. Vagus is a little man, about the same height as Mihan, but rather than just being compact, he’s scrawny like a rat, underfed, furtive, gives the impression that he could have been much bigger but got stunted somewhere along the way. He slams the book shut when Mihan approaches and gazes up suspiciously with a small cold eye. Vagus doesn’t like anyone, and no one returns the sentiments. Mihan doesn’t even know what he’s doing here anyway, since he does nothing for the regime apart from endless research on seemingly random subjects, and he never attends services either. But Mihan’s too full of bonhomie now to even register this; he smiles affably at Vagus.

‘Evening, comrade. Leader wants to see you.’

‘Oh yeah? About what?’ Vagus snaps instantly, shoving the book into a pile of papers strewn over the table.

Why do you always jump to such conclusions, Vagus? Just reach out and accept what you’re given, don’t question it all the time. Ramir will change your life like he’s changed mine, if you let him.

‘I don’t know.’

Vagus snorts and gets up from the chair, straightening his cap. He’s got a nasty blot on the front of his overall, and Mihan automatically looks down at his, which is his spare, and brushes a bit of lint off his sleeve. Imagine going to see Ramir looking like a shambles; the displeasure would be palpable. Vagus sees where he’s looking and rolls his eyes with a snort.

‘Wash behind your ears as well, did you? Little sycophant,’ he says contemptuously, barging past Mihan and leaving the room. Mihan shrugs to himself, sits down in Vagus’s empty chair and leafs through the papers on the desk. Undetectable Poisons, the title of one page says, followed by a tangle of symbols and scrawly writing. Mihan frowns and covers it up. Notes about poisons are not a good thing to be caught looking at, even if it is by a colleague. He wonders what it’s for. He flicks through the book but it might as well be in Legrady, all the sense it makes to him. He sighs and leaves the room.

Vagus bangs on the door of Ramir’s room and it opens far too fast for his liking as Ramir appears in the doorway.

The bastard must’ve been standing right behind it.

‘Ah, Comrade Vagus, that was commendably fast.’

‘Well, I figured you wouldn’t be too happy if I ignored you,’ Vagus retorts.

Ramir nods, but Vagus can see his anger-management mask slip another notch.

‘Quite. Come in, comrade, we’ve got a lot to talk about.’

He ushers Vagus in, closes and locks the door. Vagus sits down in one of the hard chairs, but Ramir remains standing, looming slightly over him. Vagus feels threatened.

‘It seems that the time is near, Vagus. Your big moment is just round the corner,’ he says, with a cruel sort of amusement in his voice. Vagus is genuinely confused.

‘Time for what?’

Ramir scowls at Vagus and bangs his fist on the table.

‘The poisoning, you fool! Do you never listen to anything I say? The Creator has decided, it’s time to go ahead with poisoning Calvinus when the time is right. Have you finished your research?’

Ramir leans over him, predatory, greedy for knowledge. They’re practically nose to nose. Ramir’s eyes are dark and cold, like underground wells where the light can’t ever reach.

‘Erm, nearly,’ Vagus gabbles, if only to get Ramir out of his face. In reality he’s still miles off, but he’s damned if he’s letting that little bomb drop before he has to.

Who the hell does he think he is anyway, eyeballing me like this? I’m my own man.

‘And what’s your plan?’

‘Ah – yes – the plan… I was thinking, should we not wait until the Reconstructs are up and running? I just meant, if things get nasty with Security, at least if we’ve got them working we can defend ourselves. On the off-chance, as it were.’

Vagus has considered that little speech very carefully indeed. Just the right amount of suggestion, not too hesitant, because that would look like he doesn’t believe it himself – and if he’s not convinced of his own idea, who else will be? But at the same time, any more forceful than that, and Ramir would think he was being undermined. Not a good career move, outsmarting a boss with a shorter fuse than a three-bronze firework and not half as pretty when he explodes. Ramir hangs there for a moment as if the ground has been whipped out from beneath his feet. Then a smirk cracks across his face.

‘You’re exactly right, comrade, of course we should. What was I thinking, rushing into something like that, and with Comrade Murat still in such a state? Thank you, you’ve opened my eyes to what I was completely passing by. You could have just saved this Regime from the long crooked arm of the law, Vagus; well done.’

He claps Vagus on the shoulder with a heavy hand. Vagus sits there, hardly daring to believe he’s got away with it. He can’t have done. Ramir speaks again and his heart sinks; he hasn’t got away with it at all. There’s always a catch. Here it comes.

‘Still, I would quite like to know what you’re going to use. I’ll need to test it, of course: we’ve only got one attempt at this and I want to make sure it goes just as I planned.’

‘Er – ’

Vagus actually can’t think of anything to say to this. How the hell can he answer that? Without revealing that he’s actually way behind on his research, he’s been doing overtime every night for weeks and he’s sick of the bloody project anyway, he never wants to see another diagram of a belladonna plant as long as he lives – and besides, it’s not going to work, Calvinus has survived more attempts than he’s had hot dinners.

‘Are you afraid of telling me what you’ve come up with?’ Ramir says soothingly, his voice all condescension. ‘Don’t worry, Vagus, everyone feels like this when they’re asked to present their works to me. I understand, you’re scared it’s wrong, you don’t want to let the Regime down. You won’t, Vagus: the only way you can let the Regime down is by failing to put the effort in. It’s less of a problem if you do the work and it’s incorrect, than if you don’t do it at all. Everyone makes mistakes.’

Vagus wants to snort derisively but he knows it would get him killed.

Afraid of you? Yeah, I’m careful of you, but that’s only cause you’ll beat the crap out of me if I don’t do what you want. I couldn’t give a stuff about your silly regime, it’s never going to get off the ground anyway.

He sighs, his ratty face the picture of contrition.

‘Yes, Leader Ramir, that’s it exactly. My work’s not good enough for you to see, I mean, I need to archive my notes, and…’

Ramir’s face changes, not for the better. He looks like a bulldog chewing a wasp.

You’ve blown it this time.

‘Oh shut up, you whining little man,’ Ramir snaps. ‘You’ve got until tomorrow, and then I’m taking whatever you’ve come up with and if it’s still not ready – ’

Ramir doesn’t even finish the end of his sentence, he simply bugs his eyes out in a way that’s more terrifying than any words in the world. Vagus gulps and gets up hurriedly, backing away from the horrible eyes across the desk. Ramir points a thick finger.

‘Get out, Vagus, and don’t let me down again. I’m watching you!’ he shouts, dragging the door open and shoving Vagus outside, then slamming it again. He sinks down in his chair again and opens the thick grey book open on the desk in front of him. It’s the half-finished version of The Vision; part manifesto, part prophecy, all-encompassing ideology. It’s his brain-child. He flicks through it to a bit he’s particularly fond of: the provision of labour. The golden figure of the Creator shines bright in his head as he reads, imagining preaching this to his hapless staff and all the good-for-nothing Selenites. They’ll be blown away. They’ll love him as the Creator’s representative in the world. God-on-earth.

 

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