Angel in the Maze
Author: 3jane

Chapter 5
Altar of science

There’s a hall not far from the Selenite lodging house in Third Ward, district of tight-packed terraces and myriad little alleys, where even street-wise newcomers get hopelessly lost, but the residents know it like the backs of their grimy hands. It’s an old-fashioned community hall that was set up by the Selenites about ten years ago to try and combat the problem of alcoholism in the area, but quickly abandoned due to unpopularity, bricks through the windows, that kind of thing. Now there’s lights on in the windows again, there’s people going in and out, there’s bustling activity, which the old lady in the chair across the street has been watching with nosy interest all day from the shelter of a doorway. Hanging on the hall’s doors is a big grey sign saying ‘Architects First Meeting Welcomes The Forward-Thinking’, which is perhaps a little too intellectual for a slogan, given the area it’s in, but they’re not worried about that.

All day Mihan’s been in Cathedral Square telling people about it, giving out handbills and loving every minute of it. He’s part of something big. A movement the like of which this miserable city has never seen before, chasing the future when no one else knows how. He’s given out 500 bills this afternoon, every single one that he printed, and he’s heading back to the hall, feeling pleasantly tingly. He’s looking forward to tonight. Ramir has been planning this for nearly a week, shut up in his room, and everything’s been on hold. Even the Reconstructs, which Mihan discovered a new zeal for; he was repairing people, all that time when he hated what he was doing, wishing he’d never agreed to it all. Giving them a purpose where they were lost, saving them from felonies that their weak minds would be incapable of resisting. Now even they’re on the back burner.

He’s in the street where the house is, and he can see the queue to get in stretching along the pavement past the grubby terraces, full of jostling and laughing and life, and his heart does a great big leap. There was a point where he was getting really scared, when no one looked that interested and he was dreading going back to Ramir with all the flyers he didn’t give out and say, I failed you. The very thought makes his flesh creep, the idea that he’d be letting Ramir down, letting the regime down, letting the Creator down, it scares him even more that what Ramir would do to him.

Mihan thinks of the Creator, of the splendid golden form Ramir has told them about with His face of infinite power and the thought crashes through his head like a tidal wave. He can’t get over the beauty that the world’s running towards headlong, and that he’s one of the people making it all happen. He instantly feels bigger, stronger, there’s steel in his bones. He can do anything. He squeezes round the crowds at the door and takes his place at the back of the stage they’ve set up at the far end of the hall, standing with the collection box just like an usher at Selenite services. Then Cave, who’s guarding the door, flings it wide and the crowd rush in eagerly, right up to the edge of the stage. The hall’s packed faster than he can believe possible, mainly full of factory workers and dockers, but there are a few industrialists and some soldiers at the back, tall and conspicuous in their red jackets and peaked hats. From somewhere a banging begins; Vagus with an old side-drum, hidden behind a pillar. He steps out and he’s hitting out a rhythm on it, really simple, doing it over and over again. The crowd begin first tapping their feet, then clapping, it’s like a disease, this strange rhythmic pandemic which no one knows the cause of but they’re doing it all the same and it’s new and exciting and there’s a buzz in the air – and then Ramir, dressed in black, literally explodes out of the back room and begins shouting. His face is almost frightening it’s so alive. His eyes are blazing, sort of bulging out of his head, and he’s shouting words again and again.

‘Tomorrow is ours!’ he shouts, in time with Vagus banging the drum and it’s like a wave. Cave begins as well, his voice low and scratchy compared with Ramir’s loud bark, then Einor Lanegan from the other side, then Nagy Murat, still on crutches, banging the end of one crutch on the floor, then a sort of madness comes to Mihan and seizes him by the throat and he begins yelling too. The crowd are stamping their feet in time. Mihan cannot think, all he wants to do is scream back at the figure at the front of the stage as loud as he can, take me, take me, I shout loudest for you. Take me, Creator, I’m yours.

Then Ramir raises his arm and drops it, and Vagus stops drumming, but the crowd go on for a while. Their faces are glowing and shiny and excited, it’s hot as buggery in the room but no one cares, they’re part of something really big here. Ramir flings his arms out wide and cries

‘Comrades, the first meeting of the Architect Order is officially in session!’

He strides to the front of the stage and opens the big grey-bound book on the stand.

‘The future awaits us, comrades. We are the Architects, the builders of a new world in the centre of the old and I have waited for this moment for so long, dear comrades, the point at which I show you the Master Blueprint that the Creator, mighty God of all men and all objects, has seen fit to reveal to me. How long I have dreamed of this, Oh Creator, when Your ideas grace the earth with their beauty,’ he sighs reverently. The crowd are silent.

‘How many of you work in factories?’ he asks. ‘Show yourselves, workers!’

A forest of arms wave in the air, many clad in overalls or the cheap padded jackets that the poor of Northbridge seem to live in.

‘Dockers? Soldiers? Engineers?’

More forests of arms. Ramir smiles. He’s sweating, and the harsh strip-lights reflecting off his gleaming shaved head make it look like there’s a ray coming straight from his thoughts into the room. His face is lit with it and Mihan feels the power of the man, a strange loveliness, formed of strength and ugliness and vision and sheer life-force. He’s more alive than anyone Mihan’s ever seen and he’s absolutely blown away.

‘The future is yours. What’s around us now is corruption and rot, and the Architects will clean all that away. We’re exploited, comrades! We’re being played for fools by the people we look up to, and it’s been going on far too long. How many of you don’t get enough pay to keep yourself fed, let alone a family? Eh? I expect there’s a lot of you who go hungry from time to time. We, the Architects, will end hunger. We will end poverty and want and unemployment and we will create a unique world for all of us, comrades! A model civilisation. Imagine it.’

Ramir sighs, letting his hands drop and his voice go quiet. Mihan strains to catch what he says; every face in the crowd is hanging on his words.

‘Buildings that touch the sky, buildings made of glass and steel and smooth concrete. They’ll shine in the sun and glisten in the rain and they’ll never be ugly, not like these hell-hole slums we live in these days. And we’ll build them, comrades, and the Creator will see them from above and bless us, bless us with knowledge and logic and the ability to raise His structures with kindness and love for our fellow workers. Technology, comrades, huge leaps in science and engineering and medicine. Diseases that kill will be annihilated, no more Lunacy Plague, we’ll cure it forever. Dangerous working conditions will be repaired, we’ll be long-lived and healthy and clever and efficient, and life will be sweet! Comrades, the glory of potential is ours, if we reach out as one and grab it. Join me, put your hands with my hands and your minds with my mind and together we are invincible! Follow the Well-Paved Way and live in the world of tomorrow, with me, your speaker, and the Creator, God most high of all things!’

Ramir flings his head back and shouts,

‘May the foundations never be undermined!’

The hall erupts with shouting and clapping. Vagus begins banging the drum again and everyone shouts this time, it’s like they’re a single organism with one voice and one brain. They’re all absolutely in thrall to Ramir, they’re following his every tiny move, watching him with hard, worldly eyes in grimy faces, some that are bloated with drink and greasy food, some that are lean and wolfish with hunger, all obsessed with the figure on the stage in front of them. Mihan sits there, shocked. He knows Ramir’s enormously persuasive, but he had no idea that so many people felt like that. He thought it was just them, the staff, who love Ramir like a father. Nagy gets up clumsily and hobbles to the front of the stage with a book and a pen.

‘How many of you would come back here?’ he calls, balancing precariously on one leg as he addresses the crowd. They scream back at him. Mihan’s just sitting there, whishing he was as brave as Nagy, to get up in front of that crowd and ask that, after one meeting – true, a phenomenally successful meeting, but still, it’s not like Ramir’s a big celebrity or anything – and he wishes he’d done it, because Ramir’s smiling benevolently at Nagy from behind as he waves the book.

‘Well, put your names down, if you like, and we’ll make sure there’s space for you at the next meeting, if it’s going to be as packed as this.’

‘Oi! What if we can’t write or nuffin?’ asks a lanky woman at the front. Laughter, a bit of applause. Nagy looks slightly flustered and starts to speak, but Ramir gets up.

‘Then the Architects will teach you to write, comrade. Free education for all if we get into power!’ Ramir booms, and the hall explodes again.

Everyone hates the Municipal Education Board. They’re the ones who decide that you’re fit for a decent job, or you aren’t. They give you your ‘Intelligence Level’ and the whole system is entirely skewed towards those who can buy a good education. Or, alternatively, there’s the specialist craft schools, but everyone knows they’re poor as hell and never get a break. Mihan studied engraving and printing at a craft school in Riverton and it was not a nice place. True, he learnt all kinds of useful stuff, but they work you so hard and there’s never a let-up. Well, they do have to keep pace with the records of the private institutes with about a fraction of the funds.

‘The intelligence level will be abolished, since it has become corrupt and meaningless through long years of elitism. Instead, we’ll set up Architect schools, free entry for everyone, no matter how clever. Everyone has a purpose, and at these schools our sole aim will be to teach you skills relevant to that purpose. None of this Intelligence Level rubbish,’ Ramir spits, ‘it’s ridiculous! What’s so good about clever people? Most of them just sit on their arses all day and waste time and money, while you, the workers, use your skills day in, day out and never get a word of credit. Workers, comrades, I am your word of credit!’ he thunders. ‘Meeting closed, comrades, meeting is closed. I await your return next week with impatience, and until then, let the flame of the Creator burn in your eyes and guide you through your work to the best of your ability. I bless you, comrades.’

Ramir’s voice has grown deep and sonorous, and the crowd are transfixed. Ramir bows to them, then turns on his heel and leaves the stage. Dead silence, then a surge, like the breaking of a colossal wave or a sheet of ice, with terrible slow grace, it gets louder and louder until it’s deafening. They’re shouting Ramir’s name, smiling and clapping and whooping and they want him to come back, they’re shocked and awed and just a little bit in love with him. Mihan gets up, hating himself for bringing money into the equation and dragging everyone back into the material world that Ramir’s been leading the way out of, he gets up and worms his way through the crowd to the door, opening it and standing on the step with the collecting box. Cave is busy shoving everyone away from the door of Ramir’s room at the back; they’ve stormed the stage and they show no sign of leaving. Mihan shakes his head, amazed. He didn’t expect that in a million years, that it would go down so well. Sort of frightening really, how the people have been starved of a revolutionary presence like that for so long; Calvinus is a deeply paranoid man, and any sign of any form of revolution is stamped out by Security before they can even say ‘Comrade’. But Ramir’s too clever for that. Religion is allowed, so long as it doesn’t interfere with politics. So long as it’s safe.

Soon there’s queues outside every week, people hanging round the door to hear Ramir preach. They love him; he has a sort of hypnotic effect on everyone who meets him and they keep coming back. Nagy’s in charge of the register and it’s growing and growing.

‘What does he do to them?’ Mihan asks Einor Lanegan one day as they’re printing yet more flyers on the press in the community centre. Lanegan shrugs, pushing his glasses back up his face with inky hands.

‘Do you know, I have no idea. He just makes you…fearless, like you can do anything, and all you have to do is give yourself to him, you know? It’s amazing. Wonder if he’ll ever tell them about the Reconstructs?’

‘Don’t talk about them, Einor. I hate them! They’re driving me mad,’ Mihan cries, smudging a flyer irreparably in his agitation. He sighs and chucks it in the stove. It’s cold in Northbridge now; the wind’s come in off the river and there’s no escape, it gets into your bones, that sort of damp cold that automatically makes your nose run and your feet all clammy. Einor shakes his head, pointing towards the door.

‘Shh! He’ll hear you!’

Mihan shrugs, but he looks a bit scared. Ramir’s been pretty quiet since the last meeting, where he really broke some boundaries. The subjects were hot topics: worker rights, the Industrialist Front, the corruption in the Great Assembly – usually even talking about that is a by-word for Security kicking the door down. Mihan remembers his face as he preached, the anger, the light, the power that swept the audience along until their faces glowed like his, glowed like they were face to face with the Creator and His golden skin was dazzling them, blinded and mesmerised by what they saw through half-shut eyes. Lit from behind by the projection lights, Ramir and the Creator were synonymous that night. Mihan would give anything for the man, anything. He’d die for him, gladly lay down everything at his feet, let the world go black and cold and still. He’d be alright on the other side, Ramir would guide him through the dark to the blaze that lies beyond, it has to, there can’t just be blackness forever.

‘Hey! Look at this!’

Mihan jumps, breaks off his gloomy revelations. It’s Nagy at the door, free from his crutches and feverish with excitement, waving the dog-eared black register. He comes in and sits down, passing Mihan the book. It’s full of Nagy’s neat writing, column after column of names and dates and donations and ticks for attendance. So many pages!

‘Look at it, comrade! We’ve hit the 500 mark already!’

‘Brilliant! That was quick, we’ve only been up for a month. Has someone told…’

Einor jerks his thumb towards the hall, but the door opens and the man himself enters.

‘What have you been keeping from me, Comrade Murat?’ he thunders jovially. Nagy nearly falls over himself in his haste to get up. Blushing furiously, he hands Ramir the register, trying vainly to straighten out the crumpled bits.

‘We’ve got over 500 members, Leader Ramir. I was checking the books this morning,’ he says crisply, regaining some composure, his cheeks still a dull red. Ramir has this effect on all of them: they’re sort of in love with him and it makes them embarrassed, they’re gawky teenagers in front of a super-cool guy. Ramir flicks through the book. Their eyes are all on him, waiting for his words, he’s their life-or-death, he’s the decision-maker.

‘This is good,’ Ramir says quietly, and there’s real wonder in his face, a surprise and a delight that makes Mihan love him even more, that he’s human and he misjudges situations the same as the rest of them, he’s still taken aback by life occasionally.

‘Do you know what this means, comrades? We’re getting popular. Call a staff meeting for half an hour’s time, Mihan; it’s time for Phase Two to begin.’

 

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