Dry heat and surreal, uncertain calm hung over the Harbour and its surrounding towers, the sheltered waters behind the lock at the harbour entrance dominated by the guns of the destroyer DFS Parramatta, the skies shielded by unseen robotic aircraft. Crowds swarmed around the Opera House and Circular Quay, spurred on by the promise of another appearance by the political wing of the rebellion.
The calm marked the transition between two realities. The global government had festered for so long at the heart of world affairs that almost nobody had questioned its dominion, not merely for fear of the Civil Guard and other enforcers of political virtue, but also simply for lack of imagination. The notion of being outside the Union had made no more sense than being outside the atmosphere, or outside reality itself. Even the name ‘the Union’ had long been redundant, since for so long it had no rival. But now here it was—a whole city, and indeed a whole continent and more, cut off from that hitherto universal authority.
But as that realisation dawned, everyone knew for certain that something had to fill the void left behind. If the Union was the wrong answer, what was the right one? And how could you prove it?
Fang Saxena trailed a few metres behind the provisional leader of the free world, as their entourage pushed ahead. The security personnel would be looking for weapons. He was looking for something more subtle on the faces of those they passed. Some of these people would, he hoped, be inspired to take part in the nascent political landscape. Some of them, perhaps, might be future political enemies. He briefly entertained the notion that he might be able to tell from the broadness of their smiles, but he knew it wasn’t that simple.
They were not here to make speeches, to choreograph the evolution of public opinion. They were going to try something much more radical than that—yielding the podium to free thought. Nominations for speakers had been pouring in. So far, Fang and his band of overworked volunteers had taken almost a week to work through the list. Each day, a growing crowd of thousands had turned out to witness the spectacle of a sequence of individuals speaking their minds honestly, unedited, in full public view, under the unconditional protection of the regime itself.
The caretaker Prime Minister, sundry other temporary political appointees, and their staff found their assigned seats at the base of the Opera House steps. The podium stood several steps up and back, towards the building. Fang sat off to the side on one of the steps, watching both the seated audience and the mesmerised onlookers. A small group of soldiers and police officers patrolled the outskirts of the crowd.
In theory, any number of things could go wrong. There were only so many security personnel to handle the increasing crowds, and there was paranoia around the possibility of an attack by Union loyalists. Fang had privately contemplated this. Such an attack might have more political value for the Front than the Union. There were other concerns about whether the list of speakers included Union loyalists. So much the better, Fang thought. Their message would be lost among the more remarkable fact of their being allowed to speak at all—a poignant contrast against the Union’s information security apparatus which, despite itself, was legendary for its impatience with disreputable unbelievers.
But the event would have to end eventually, once all the Union’s more obvious abuses had been explored from all angles and the euphoria of free speech had faded slightly, and before speakers’ grievances turned to mundane or outright slanderous day-to-day nitpicking. Fang felt this was inevitable, and had been quietly prodding enthusiastic local journalists and businesspeople to establish a new, independent media, ostensibly to ‘take over’ from the speakers’ corner.
One of Fang’s helpers urged the next speaker towards the podium. A timid-looking man with wild hair and unwashed office clothes stepped forward, carrying a bundle of notes written, Fang saw, in actual ink. The man took his place at the podium and arranged his notes. He grasped the wooden edges and looked down, suddenly with much more confidence, at the new order before him. He began speaking.
A different entourage rambled through frigid, sterile streets at the heart of the old city that had escaped the layered, skywards-reaching commercial developments. Those densely-packed structures encircled the low-rise political city core like a doughnut. Tiananmen Square had scarcely changed in decades. The odd statue or monument occasionally appeared on the whims of Senate leaders, and then disappeared a few years later.
The palatial Senate Chambers luxuriated off to the side of the square, surrounded by the homogeneous austerity of fifty square kilometres in which the Senate exercised absolute control, with the influence of the Council, the Assembly and the Executive all but snuffed out. Here lay the infrastructure of the core of the state—absolutely ‘the’ state, until recently—at its most undiluted.
Gabriel da Costa marched with a small band of councillors up the steps to the courtyard fronting the main entrance. The courtyard was a singular hectare of ground comprising smooth, swirling patterns of quartz, gemstones and rare-earth metals, atop which grew entire trees made of the same. In curving rows underneath were the unblemished gold and silver busts of past presidents and prominent senators.
Hours ago, he had intended to keep his stride in the face of security checks, and to burst at full gait into the meeting room. But the Senate was a lot better at that game. An armada of Civil Guard paramilitaries drifted around the central precinct, growing thicker as they approached the Senate building. A whole platoon of them had broken off to escort the councillors, slowly, on foot, from their transports.
Their escort force merged, and mingled for several minutes with those guarding the building itself. Gabriel’s frustration grew. Presumably they derived some satisfaction from this opportunity to one-up another arm of government, even as territories fell to a common enemy. Eventually, a team of less conspicuously armed and armoured personnel emerged and ushered the councillors through a side entrance, and then down through sloping labyrinthine corridors. The actual meeting room must have been several storeys underground, but the physical geometry of the building was inscrutable.
Senators and delegates looked up, all smiles, as the councillors entered. There were some councillors already here, having sided with the others. High-level Presidential representatives were conspicuously absent. Gabriel and his colleagues took their seats in an arc along one side of the circular table that dominated the room. They ignored the set agendas on the surface and produced their own notes.
Gabriel collected his thoughts as pleasantries were exchanged. How was your flight? Sorry to meet under these circumstances. A bit colder than New Delhi, eh? We’ll have to sort out information security, so we can have more confidence in remote communication again. We have a few difficult issues to address. Yes, hear, hear. It passed over Gabriel like a fog of anaesthetic.
‘Senators, delegates…’ he began, before being cut off by Senator Slaviša.
‘Councillor da Costa,’ she said sternly, ‘we welcome you to Beijing. Senator Nakamura will be chairing this meeting.’
‘Thank you, Senator,’ Nakamura spoke up. Kyung Nakamura sat approximately opposite Gabriel, radiating boredom and disapproval.
‘Councillors, delegates, senators,’ Nakamura droned, ‘thank you all for your time. I recognise that we are in disagreement on a matter that is obviously of critical importance. The funding arrangements for military operations in Oceania and Indonesia are… well, I suppose at a crossroads…’
True enough. For all the Senate’s power plays, there was no override for the Council’s veto. From their perspective, they needed Gabriel to give in, or to strip away his thin majority. There was no hint of support for Gabriel’s bloc in the Senate, but with deadlock—and thus without increasing the military budget to fight the rebels—his argument must inevitably prevail.
‘… I think we need to make it the task of this panel to come to an in-principle consensus…’ Nakamura paused. It was not an optimistic pause. He continued: ‘But of course we must examine all arguments in detail. I understand Councillor da Costa and fellow councillors are prepared to articulate a more nuanced proposal that evolves their previous position. I’ll hand over to the Councillor to explain.’
I’ll fucking evolve you a new position, Gabriel thought, smiling.
‘Thank you, Senator,’ he said with as much faux respect as was customary. ‘It does remain the position of the Council, and most of the world’s major commercial entities, that armed conflict is a truly unfortunate occurrence, and that we must act to minimise damage to commercial interests and, needless to say, human life. I’ve no doubt delegates in particular will be aware of the moral challenges we face, and so I don’t think the word “peace” ought to have any stigma associated with it.’
Gabriel outlined what was ostensibly his alternative plan. For an hour he bullshitted his way through the establishment of diplomatic channels, the Union’s negotiating strengths with the Front, the appointment of emissaries and ambassadors, and his ‘breathing space’ metaphor for the reconstruction of the Union’s run-down military forces. Hardly anyone at the table would have been the slightest bit convinced, save for perhaps one or two delegates, but they all sat politely, feigning interest as his points washed over them. Deadlock was the natural state of being for the Union, and few questioned it.
The meeting adjourned unenthusiastically for lunch. Someone tapped Gabriel on the shoulder as he stood up. He turned around to find himself staring at the departmental head of the Civil Guard, Reinette Ceesay, employing practised inconspicuousness. The Civil Guard was in some respects the antithesis of Union politics—brutally efficient. Conversation swirled around them as she leaned close.
‘Gabriel?’ she asked politely, earnestly. He nodded. ‘Perhaps you and I can have a quiet discussion.’
‘Most of us do not know precisely how the Union of Humanity came to be. All references to its inception are marked by euphoric revisionism, untempered by outside influences, for of course there was no outside. New variations of the stories appear almost every year. To challenge any of them, even to point out obvious contradictions, is to invite the Union’s remorseless retribution.’
Fang stared at the speaker uneasily. The Front’s leadership knew this, of course. Teaching robots were used by the government precisely because the lies it needed to tell young students were too egregious to be left to the ethical and rational judgement of human beings. And given the obvious corruptibility of human ethics and rationality, that said something.
The speaker continued, ‘The end of the last war, the Union’s victory over the Old World, has been retold and re-imagined and elevated almost to status of creation mythology. We do know it was a war; even this much is far from clear in the official historical records. Our youth have been taught about spontaneous uprisings by citizens weary of moral and financial corruption, prolonged struggles against the odds by battle-hardened volunteers, and of course the fiery megalomania of the Old World’s agents and power brokers, even as their fate was sealed. The very earliest accessible versions of these stories seem to preserve some actual historical details, including the disposition of military forces as the war went on, but the political dynamics have been lost to historical vandalism. Or rather, I should say, almost lost.’
The man apparently knew rather more than he had hitherto let on. So far, most of the speakers had voiced general grievances about the amount of control the Union had over their lives, which was substantial, but none had strayed into murky historical events, least of all the very founding of the Union itself. Only the Geneva Resistance had any remotely reliable access to those details.
Some of the Prime Minister’s staff were looking over at Fang from their seats. Fang shrugged at them. They couldn’t stop him talking now; that was the whole point. There were any number of private cameras capturing the moment for all people around the world to witness. The Front itself had been dismantling the Union’s technological censorship infrastructure. To step backwards now might be a catastrophe.
‘… a world that then entertained hundreds of individual states and many thousands of international businesses and organisations, competing and co-operating economically, diplomatically and of course militarily. Some of these are likely to have formed an alliance against the others, even a confederation—a precursor to the Union.
‘The war itself was no spontaneous, peaceful uprising. Those killed in the course of the conflict are thought to number around thirty million, give or take—largely those who fought to preserve the free world.
‘But the real misery began after the world had capitulated, when the Union claimed victory. Having crushed its enemies, the Union developed a fanatical ability to see new enemies in every shadow. And drunk with ambition and paranoia, it began to dismantle social services, charities and even health services that it thought might be supporting these phantom opponents. With war having devastated the planet’s economy, people began to starve, and others began to die of treatable illnesses. The Union responded simply by executing anyone who attempted to document the fact. Nonetheless, our analysis suggests a decline of around a hundred million in the world’s post-war population, and that was with a stable birthrate. Whispers and probabilities are all that remain of the lives and deaths of such incomprehensible numbers of people.
‘Obviously life did continue, but for most of us it has been hard and unrewarding. The Union’s purpose was to systematically entrench and stabilise power among those who already had it: government security agencies, large businesses, and religions. Witness the interplay of the Senate, the Council of Commerce and the Assembly of Religious Delegates. They regard the rest of us as merely resources or liabilities.
‘Their expansive censorship rules long ago gutted entire cultures and rendered all but the most banal of factual news reporting impossible. Their identity tracking laws erased the voices of the oppressed. The very Constitution—their constitution—through articles purporting to prevent arms trafficking, imposes restrictions on research practices that make whole scientific disciplines untenable. But more than anything else, the systemic corruption, neglectful incompetence and distorted, esoteric visions of those wielding power have left social and economic progress at a standstill, with billions permanently at the edge of survival.
‘We owe this chance at freedom to two small groups of dissidents who defy everything the Union stands for, and everything it will throw at them in return. One of these is the underground network, a group that has persisted beyond all purges, beyond all control of a government that controls everything. Few know about the sacrifices made by the Geneva Resistance in order to evade the unparalleled scale and ruthlessness of the Union’s intelligence agencies. But you all now know the importance of that goal. They have been the guardians of history and intellect; the patient believers in the future.
‘Now we have another dissident group. Under your leadership, the Democratic Front will pursue the Union to its destruction. You confronted the global military, a force that once wiped out two hundred nations and has kept the planet on its knees for a century. In defiance of guerilla tactics, yet outnumbered by a thousand to one, you are winning against our common enemy in open warfare.
‘In the last few hours, we’ve learned that your forces have taken control of a high-level Senate weapons project. The military potential of this technology will be decisive. Its final deployment could end the war in weeks, hasten our transition to a free and open society, and save countless thousands, even millions of lives. I can’t openly discuss the nature of this project, for obvious reasons, but I implore you to pursue it with as much courage as you have shown thus far. Thank you.’
The man carefully packed up his notes and shuffled away nonchalantly, politely making way for whoever dared follow his act. Fang gulped at the swiftness with which the agenda had just been seized from his grasp. The caretaker Prime Minister had a look of patient thoughtfulness. His staff, sharing some of the same political senses as Fang, appeared to be on the verge of panic.
Gabriel sat in an open lounge area a couple of storeys above ground. An internal balcony overlooked the main entrance hall, with its rows of mirrored metal pillars, each just about the size of a passenger aircraft. Light from the building’s translucent central dome penetrated into the hall, and into the Senate Chamber itself.
Director-General Reinette Ceesay returned with coffee. Gabriel was entirely unsurprised to learn that the Civil Guard knew precisely what to get him. She sank into a sofa opposite him, looking thoughtful.
‘I think I understand what you’re trying to do here, Councillor.’
‘Oh, do you? Great,’ Gabriel replied. He put down his coffee and stood up. Deliberate naïvety was one of his favoured opening gambits in negotiations. It was a primary nonsense filter. A lot of bullshit didn’t survive if the bullshitter had to explain it up front.
‘Sit,’ Ceesay commanded, as if she’d been anticipating his thoughts.
Gabriel sat down, and she continued: ‘I understand what you’re trying to do, but I don’t think you appreciate all the cards now in play.’
‘What am I trying to do?’
Ceesay smiled. ‘You understand that conflict can create enormous economic demand, but only in the short term. You’re thinking ahead a bit, and you’re concerned about what happens to your constituents’ capital and infrastructure as things get worse. You’re self-interested, but you’re at least marginally enlightened about it.’
Gabriel smiled back. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘So what am I missing?’
‘You don’t represent Global Defence, do you?’
The Council theoretically represented the interests of Global Defence, of course, along with commercial interests in general. Gabriel himself owed them no particular allegiance.
‘What, you don’t know?’ Ceesay rolled her eyes. ‘Let’s try this, then. What do you know about the Strategic Technologies Initiative? Play it straight with me, Gabriel.’
‘GD lost a large part of their business to it. To the Senate itself.’
‘Yes. The Senate took over a group of projects years ago when it became clear that GD had been compromised by certain ideological interests. And I’m not talking about profit.’
Gabriel shrugged. ‘Take it up with the Assembly. I don’t do ideology.’
‘So I’ve noticed. The STI is a purely research-oriented organisation under the Senate’s control, directed by Dr Ali Enus. They’re tiny in terms of government funding, but they have been developing a weapon that could change everything. Now one of their principal scientists has gone rogue, created a decoy version of the test model, and given the real thing to the insurgents. We went in with the Union Guard, but a little too late.’
‘The story of the last three months,’ Gabriel said, grimly. ‘That’s just more evidence that we need to take stock and…’
‘For God’s sake! Save it for the other politicians. The STI’s wayward project is a sapient military android. It’s nothing like any other robot. The Front now has the only fully-functioning one, and with it a key part of the design.’
Ceesay paused, as if waiting for this to sink in.
‘Okay, well that’s fucked then, isn’t it?’ Gabriel said eventually, palms outward. ‘You’re still making my case for me.’
Ceesay smiled again, but this time it was forced and cynical. ‘The Front getting this technology is the worst outcome. Us having it is only the second worst. If we succeed in retrieving it, your peace plan will be totally off the table. The STI costs almost nothing to fund, so the President and the Senate won’t need your vote any more.’
Gabriel thought about this. ‘Okay, suppose I believe that this android is as valuable to the President as all the military resources we could fund…’
‘The President doesn’t have to weigh up the options. He can pursue them all simultaneously. You’ve already played your card. And if we go down the STI route, there’s no guarantee that the androids would bring a swift, clean victory.’
‘No. Of course, they might destroy us all instead,’ Gabriel snorted. Information Security had once bandied around the term ‘extinction-level technology’ as if they actually believed it. Propaganda obviously had to give way if the Senate was seriously considering using the very thing it had written laws to prevent. Ceesay merely grimaced.
‘Clearly it’s futile to ask you for more funding,’ she said. ‘And you can’t do anything about the STI itself. But if I were in your position, I’d consider conducting an inquiry into Global Defence.’
‘For reasons that you’ll discover when you investigate them.’
Gabriel rubbed his forehead and sneered. ‘I should get back to the dungeon downstairs.’
‘You are such a determined waste of talent, aren’t you? You brought six councillors all the way from New Delhi just to spit in the face of the Senate. Surely someone on your team can manage that without you.’