It was the morning of the twenty-fifth of the month in the district of Torsad-Laur, and the dread orb of the Amarr sun was just beginning its slow climb from the shimmering puddle of the horizon. As soon as his cold feet hit the warmth of the platform he felt the familiar throb and whistle of the quarter as it began like a great lumbering beast to rouse itself, scratching and snuffling in the umber haze of dawn.
The young Minmatar passed the mudbrick walls of the terminal with its sputtering praydrones and its ragged rush of beggars, felt the dark heady breeze caress the back of his neck as the day’s first frying smells slithered dustborne into his nostrils. He hadn’t missed Dam-Torsad, it was true; but now, upon returning, he had to give it its due. Few places in the universe – certainly none he had visited – possessed in the same proportions that uneasy mingling of purity and rot which forever straps the Amarr soul to the rack of its own contradiction.
Izoni Square was much the same, he reflected as he exited the terminal. Even at this early hour business was booming. Handmade cutlery, bootleg holosymphs, off-world condiments of varying legality, scriptural terp mods, Adakul manuals, the latest in carefully faked Caille leather. Plumes of smoke rose from innumerable stalls. A thousand smells wrapped around each other in the thick air, creating the unique melange that was the hallmark of Torsad-Laur and the reason for its nickname, the Cauldron. Most likely the flesh of every creature in New Eden was being cooked somewhere in this sprawling expanse, animal souls ascending from the shadow of the city’s bladed spires to find salvation in the copper skies. Groups of slaves passed through without cease, but whereas in other parts of Dam-Torsad they would be ghosts among the multitude, here they comprised the essence of the district’s beating heart.
Resisting the temptation to indulge in broiled blackfowl, he made his way past Chopamaia Yard, where children played among the cracked statues and worshipers swayed in communal rapture, their god-intermediaries whispering sweet eternity to them through embedded earpieces. He passed under the arch of Nekater, with its sad white little angel-guardians that every day shed tears of stone into the currents of beleaguered humanity flowing underneath them. He navigated the narrow cobbled corridors of the quarter’s south side, weaving among the people and gradually quickening his step until, some ten minutes later, he arrived at a squat flat-topped house nestled between two much taller ones. The road wound back sharply in both directions here, so that the little house gave the impression of being right outside the curve of a giant horseshoe. He looked around and sniffed the air. Flowers and ozone still.
"Da?" He rapped a few times on the basement door. There was no answer initially, but his father hadn’t been a fast man even in his younger years. A faint glimmer of light appeared inside the door’s window, then the door was thrown open. "Darmad!" shouted the old man. "Father," he replied, smiling and stepping inside. The two embraced, then exchanged the happily abashed pleasantries of a parent and child who haven’t seen each other in several years.
His father, Engru, was a tenth-generation indentured professor to The Hedion Academy Torsad subcampus, and a specialist in the ancient texts of several nations the Amarr had conquered in the course of taking over the planet they now stood on. His days were spent in his little basement translating manuscripts and taking notes and reconstructing languages several thousand years dead. Over the course of his time living out on the coast Darmad had become accustomed to plenty of fresh air, and now the familiar overpowering mustiness of his father’s apartment – a consequence of several dozen plants, intractable mold and very little ventilation – made it hard for him to breathe. They decided to visit a taproom located not far from the house, where they could take in their morning meal.
"How are things at the research facility?" asked his father as they ambled along the broadstreet, occasionally ducking a hoverstroller or an autocaravan. "Is your holder still giving you trouble?"
"Not really, not anymore," said Darmad. "He’s been more accepting of me since that small success of mine last year."
"I was proud of you for that one," said his father.
"I’m surprised you even heard. It wasn’t really such a big deal," said Darmad.
"A polymer synthesis technique that could revolutionize high-altitude building materials? Sounds like a big deal to me, son."
"I don’t know about revolutionize," said Darmad. "And remember, as far as everyone’s concerned it wasn’t Darmad Intajaf who made the discovery, it was his grand highness the good Lord Lucretio Kor-Azor."
"Of course," said his father. "No use in the slaves mucking up the works by getting famous, is there? We’re here. Mind your step, now. Welcome to the Font."
The place was basically one tremendous elongated corridor, a tall narrow space floored with cork and festooned with dormant string lights which hung powerless between corbets set high on the rough stone walls. From the corbets great plants of all shapes and sizes arced and drooped and spread their branches across the airspace. "I can see why you like it here," remarked Darmad as they took their seats in a small booth with synthetic leather padding just a touch too red for its surroundings.
It was midmorning and the place was sparsely occupied. As was typical of Torsad-Laur alone among the districts of Dam-Torsad, those few who were in here mostly kept to themselves. Dam-Torsad’s people had a great general tendency to stay in direct active communion with one another while in public, either chanting or praying or speaking loudly and at great length with their companions. At all waking hours their environment encouraged them, subtly and unsubtly, to do this; through praydrones and billboards and other disruptive phenomena, a habitual preference for communion over solitary contemplation was constantly reinforced in the populace. The Font, meanwhile, had people indulging in all manner of solitary idiosyncracy. At one table a heavyset girl with a pretty face sat munching on something, absently combing her thick hair. At another, a man rolled a cigarette contemplatively in the slanted rays of the morning sun while his companion read a book. Darmad felt relieved to be back. It was as if the chain around his soul had been loosened slightly.
They passed the morning in idle chatter, eating a light breakfast, content to simply enjoy each other’s presence. At around midday, morning prayer being over, the place’s regulars started filtering in from the busy streets of the quarter. His father on more than one occasion remarked that the crowd was strange this morning, that there floated about a faint apprehension quite atypical of this bustling straightforward place. Shortly after midday, Darmad was in the middle of relating an amusing anecdote when a great shout rose from the middle of the room and a figure detached itself from the throng.
"Well, look here!" It was a big man whose black beard and receded hairline framed a face deeply carved with smile-wrinkles. Darmad slid over one seat and the man sat down next to him.
"Hello, Crofton," said Engru.
"Engru," replied Crofton. "Your houseborn’s back, I see."
"Just for a short while," interjected Darmad with artificial cheer, annoyed at being spoken to in the third person. "How’ve you been?" The old discomfiture returned; growing up, he had always by turns been impressed with Crofton and frightened of him.
"Oh, you know. Keeping busy," said Crofton. He flagged down a waiter and ordered kacha root tea. "Perused the day’s palaver?" he said to no one in particular as the waiter carefully poured the dark green liquid into his cup.
Engru nodded faintly. "Vagaries and hearsay as usual, I suppose."
"I don’t think so. Not this time," said the big man. The waiter finished pouring the tea and bowed. Crofton grabbed the cup and perpetrated a gregarious slurp.
"Pray tell," said Engru.
Crofton began to speak in the deliberate diction that was his custom. His words were habitually infused with gravity, and propelled by his powerful voice they became missiles of rhetoric. He had been a leader once, an orator capable of moving men and mountains, but after consenting to a speaking engagement in Ammatar space he had been captured and given to the same university subcampus as Engru. This was Amarr’s preferred way of silencing her enemies. Killing was too crass. It acknowledged too much fear. The real victory didn’t lie in brute extermination (except in cases where required on a large scale for logistical or geographical reasons), but in defeating your picture of things with theirs.
Of course, particular sorts of people are immune to such tactics, and Crofton was of that general sort. A stodgy Brutor warrior-poet who had never had much truck with rigid self-image or outward appearance, he had never seemed to mind his lowered status. Toward his masters he indulged in the sign language of submission expected of every slave, but his area of expertise – representational systems of governance and their application in a pan-planetary setting – gave this "democrat savage" a certain degree of leeway toward the bemused scholars of Hedion. Time and time again, regardless, he had had to accept punishment for expressing his heretical views too loudly; but to Crofton, there were worse things than the electric lash.
Most of the people who made this quarter their home were similar to Crofton, though the vast majority were high-generation houseborn, slave children to slave children. Artists, musicians and academics, preachers and weirdoes and vagrants and madmen, all played their parts in the great cruel mechanism of the empire. It was said in the high halls of Amarr society that Torsad-Laur was the only slave-inhabited quarter where the gentry could walk at night without being attacked – and where, moreover, one could even have a conversation with a slave, if one were inclined toward an evening’s debasement.
"You feel the tension in the air, I can tell," Crofton was saying. "When was the last time people were set on edge this bad?" Another grand slurp and his cup was finished. He gave an imperious wave toward the waiters’ corner, then returned his attention to his boothmates.
"I know a man at the Civil Service office over in Torsad-Unan," he continued. "He’s not technically supposed to consort with me, but we maintain a bit of a clandestine correspondence. All very romantic and revolutionary. He wrote me," and here he leaned in towards the center of the table conspiratorially, "that something very very big was afoot. High-stratus decisions, perhaps as high up as the new Chancellor." Abruptly he stopped, then turned to look at Darmad. "You work for a Kor-Azor, don’t you?"
"The technical term is ‘owned by,’ but yeah," replied Darmad, somewhat acridly. "Distant cousin to Chancellor Aritcio several times removed, but a Kor-Azor."
"And you’ve heard nothing?"
"No one at my facility ever hears anything," replied Darmad.
"Ah," said the big man. Pensively he rubbed the brim of his saucer. "Normally I would dismiss it as a flight of fancy – my friend is a young man, and prone to those – but the general mood of the Cauldron today seems to support his notion that something is going on."
"Have you spoken with anyone around here?" asked Engru.
"Not yet," replied Crofton. There was a period of silence at the table as the waiter returned and refilled the cup in front of him. Presently the waiter left, but the silence remained.
Looking around, Darmad saw that the crowd in the place had dwindled significantly. As the other two men at the booth began to take their own notice, he became aware of a cadenced din, a distant whisper traveling over the city, reverberating off its tired walls.
"What is that?" said his father. Crofton stood up and made to exit the place, with the other two following. Just outside, standing on the portico which overlooked the gigantic expanse of Izoni Square, they squinted against the searing midday sun and were able to make out, through the plumes of smoke and dust, the face of Empress Jamyl on several billboards around the area’s far perimeter. Despite the preternatural hush of the assembled thousands who had broken with their daily business to listen, the trio were unable to make out her words.
Darmad had the sudden queasy notion that there was going to be some great change to adjust to, and giving up the useless effort of trying to understand the words he sat down heavily on the portico’s stone floor, cold in the shade of the canvas canopy. The two older men stood stock still, craning their necks comically toward the indifferent skies.
A young man came tearing up the steps to the portico, his incoherent screaming preceding him by almost a full minute. Crofton stepped into his path and the smaller man barreled into him with a thudding impact. Crofton swiftly grabbed him by the shoulders. "Relax. Relax!" he shouted at the man. "What is it?"
The young man made a conciliatory hand gesture and gently shook free. "The slaves," he said, panting. "We’re… freeing them. Us. We’re being freed." He coughed.
"What?" said Darmad.
"They’re freeing the slaves," said the man, still coughing.
Engru blinked, once, twice. "I’m sorry. What?" he said.
"Us," he panted. "Minmatar, ninth-gen and up, all the preachers, all the academics."
Crofton just stared.
The young man pointed vaguely out toward the tremendous crush of people, some moving to and fro, some wide-eyed, others on their knees.
From the far end of the Cauldron, a roar was rising.
"No good. No good," said Crofton, shaking his head. He had just repeated the phrase "No good can come of this" about twenty times, and was now down to simply "No good." Around him, the Font was packed with people thrashing and flailing amid laughter and cries and shouts, each person reeling in their own way from the unexpected crumbling of a wall in their mind.
The three had spent the afternoon lost in the wash of people, watching preachers and podiumites deliver sermons and speeches, watching street musicians play instruments they had up until now not been allowed to touch, watching hustlers and beggars in crazed jubilee on the city’s whirling boulevards. When they had returned to the Font in the late afternoon to discover their booth taken they had repaired to the end of the bar and promptly switched from tea to alcohol. With the string lights now draping a warm glow over the encroaching darkness, Crofton had begun to elaborate.
" It’s a brilliant public relations coup, I’ll give her that much," he was saying. "She’s definitely figured out all the angles here. Anyone who points out the practical flaws will be drowned in a torrent of righteousness. Never mind that up until a few hours ago, these people were all subhumans unworthy of the legal rights bestowed upon proper people. The fact that it’s a cynical political maneuver will be completely drowned out by the cackling of the righteous."
"What makes you think it’s entirely cynical?" replied Engru. "Perhaps she’s had a change of heart. ‘Who can tell what winds yet sway the soul of man?’" he quoted, from a favorite scriptural passage.
"Woman," corrected Darmad, quite unhelpfully.
"States are not run on compassion, Engru, not even states that are built around religion," said Crofton. "Speaking of which – what do you think will happen to the slaves who have practiced their own religions? If they want their marriages and families registered as legal units, they’ll need to take up the state religion. How many of them will be able to afford the registration? How many of them will be able to afford or figure out how to pay their own taxes, for that matter? Who’s going to teach millions upon millions of freshly minted freemen how to survive within the system? She’s not banking on these people to stay, let me tell you that much."
Neither of the other two said anything. Darmad was about to speak, but just as he opened his mouth a young woman with a tray of drinks fell foul of the crowd and crashed into him. After helping her up and sending her on her way, he turned back to his companions and gave a little shake of the hand, sprinkling droplets of grain alcohol onto the countertop. "Getting rowdy in here," he remarked.
"That’s another thing," said Crofton without skipping a beat, his great head swiveling around to scan the crowd. "She knows this will cause them to get so excited that there will be mass gatherings in some places which are going to turn ugly. More fodder for the spin machine."
Darmad made his own survey of the place. At every table and every booth, on chair arms, in laps, on table corners and windowsills, the smiling faces of young people and old people commingled. Though he generally considered himself a rational man not given to easy emotion, he nonetheless found to his surprise that it was almost impossible not to get swept up in the roiling elation that pervaded the room. You had only to look up and you would feel it.
He looked back at Crofton, who had his head cocked to the side and was staring at one of his own elbows, which rested on the bar. It was impossible to see what he was thinking. He snuffled once, then ordered another drink.
"Ploys, ploys, they’re all ploys," he began again. "She wants the docile ninth-gen Mins to go scurrying back to the Republic and start the Reclaiming for them. She wants everyone to see how well-behaved they’ve managed to make them. As to the rest of them, she just wants to make it known how they function better shackled than free."
"Us, Crofton. The rest of us. You and I are free, too."
A small silence, then Crofton said: "The thought never even crossed my mind." He downed his drink.
Darmad suddenly had one of those small epiphanies that seemed to him only to take place when circumstance and mindset conspired in the human soul to strike a perfect chord, one that would allow the recipient for a few precious seconds to reverberate in unison with the rest of creation. He was standing with his back to the bar, looking at a beautiful girl who stared back at him from one of the booths further along the opposite wall. There was a look in her eyes that he would see in every face around here, for the rest of the night and well beyond.
"I’m not so sure it’s as bad as you’re making it out to be," he said, turning back to Crofton. "I mean, look around you. Are you even taking note of what’s happening? She may have, as you said, figured out all the angles, but I don’t think her conniving soul even realized what freedom – the idea of the thing she’s just given us, you see, the concept of it – does to a man."
"What does it do to a man?" asked Crofton in a low voice, barely audible over the raucous din.
"Well. It gives him hope, I suppose."
At this Crofton laughed and laughed. He smiled a strange smile and then laughed some more and then fiddled with his glass and looked at Engru, and then he looked back down and grimaced, and just like that a little tear dropped into his glass. With a great deal of dignity he retrieved his coat and made his excuses, and when he said goodbye he didn’t look in Darmad’s eyes but only at his chest.
The boy and his father sat silently through the night, savoring in their souls the bittersweet taste of history while Dam-Torsad’s, and the entire Empire’s, myriad dramas mighty and small unspooled around them. Come morning, with the revelries dying down, the pair made their way to the door.
"Proud of you for that one, too."
He took his father’s elbow and gingerly the two of them made their way down and out, out into the bright and terrible morning.