“This privilege was extended because Takahiro requested we accommodate you.” Hadiza’s smug smile carried through in her voice despite my inability to see anything behind her tinted visor. “You are aware of what you must do?”
“And don’t forget the most important thing is–”
“Never to make direct eye contact.”
No one had explained what the consequence of this would be, but I sure as hell had no intention of finding out for myself.
Hadiza nodded. “Good. Brace yourself. It’s here.”
There was really no need for the announcement, just as she had said earlier. All four walls of the twelve-square-foot space we occupied pulsed to a frequency my earpiece was programmed not to detect. Like the potential third flash of the orb, it was one of the irregularities I had been cautioned about. What I had not been expecting was what happened to the walls afterwards.
One second we were surrounded by solid whiteness, and the next, nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing.
I was well aware that Hadiza and I would not be the only ones waiting to meet the Tribune. With the memories of attendees fragmented to only allow the recollection of chosen segments, not much was known about what actually happened during the sessions at the Manchester Assembly. But with the state of things in London at the moment, I was certain I couldn’t be the only one hoping to have an audience. Now that the opacity of the walls had faded, it was clear just how many of us had made the journey.
“Don’t worry,” Hadiza said after my jaw hung open for longer than I willed it to, “you’re high up on the list today. We shouldn’t be waiting longer than an hour if the others don’t waste time.”
Her words brought more comfort than she could have imagined. If I tried to count the other Emissaries surrounding us in their own transparent
cubicles, I didn’t think I could manage it without being elevated to a better vantage point. If I was pushed for a guess, there were probably less than a few hundred of us waiting beneath the titanium dome of the Assembly Hall.
A silver podium hovered above us in the center of the space, with our cubicles fanning out radially in what I imagined would form a floral pattern if looked at from above, much like the large rose emblem etched into the underside of the dome. The podium’s sole occupant was the object of our attention.
I blinked. And then I blinked again, harder.
“That’s the Tribune?”
“Don’t let the host body deceive you.”
“But…but…it’s a child.”
Taking the stage was a girl who couldn’t possibly be a day older than my eleven-year-old nephew. The smooth ebony tone of her face contrasted sharply with the flowing white cloak draped over her small body. Her face shimmered with a metallic luster. No body oil I had come across could provide such a sheen to my similar skin tone. When she tilted her head slightly, I noticed a clear tube attached to the back of her neck. It disappeared into the high collar of her cloak. The hair on the right side of her head was braided into thin corn rows. The left side of her head was shaved down to the skin and covered in dark red inscriptions. I couldn’t make out what the tattooed text said from where I stood, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to decipher them even if I was standing right beside her.
The Tribune’s eyes remained closed, and yet it felt like she was taking us all in, processing the surrounding information in her mind’s eye. I couldn’t help but wonder how human entities like us registered to a being like her.
“The implantation survives longer in the younger of the species. Your conscience may say otherwise, but using them is better management of resources.” Hadiza’s impatience with my naivety was clear. “Is this going to be a problem for you?”
“No, I’m fine. I can do this.”
I had to. There was far too much at stake.
“The session has begun.”
Hadiza’s commentary was needed because it turned out that even though the cubicles were packed closely together, I couldn’t hear a word of what was being said outside of ours. The only sign that anything had changed was the appearance of a halo of blue light over one of the cubicles in the distance.
The Tribune’s eyes remained closed, but her lips began to move slowly, her head swaying to the left and right in measured timing. Whatever was being relayed between her and the emissary must not have been too complex because the halo vanished seconds later and appeared over another cubicle just as the walls of the first cubicle solidified to a shiny white.
“Wait, is that all the time we get?”
“If your cause is deemed worthy enough, you will be given the appropriate consideration.”
“But it is a worthy cause! Why else would I be here?”
“The Tribune will decide when your turn arrives. Patience.”
Having nothing else to do, I took this opportunity to take a look around me. The occupants of the cubicles to either side of us couldn’t have been any more different. We Emissaries were distinguishable from Vectors like Hadiza by our attires. Whilst the Vectors were all fully suited in shimmery yellow shell-suits and matching colored visors, our outfits bore the marks of our origins.
With his breathing tube and dark streaked jumpsuit, I could tell the middle-aged man to my left had come from the shale mines in Dover. And even though she had made the effort to wash off any evidence of crystalline particles from her overalls, the short, pale woman to my right had to be a salt harvester from Winsford.
I glanced down at my gray tailored suit and tie. Perhaps I should have made more of an attempt to pick an outfit that didn’t scream London accountant.
The halo had just moved on to the next cubicle in line when the walls of the one we stood in shook with a ferocity that forced me to drop to my knees and grip Hadiza’s arm as I fell. By the time I looked up again, the halo had turned bright orange and the walls of the offending cubicle had turned black.
“What the hell was that?” I let go of Hadiza and stood up, remembering the rule on physical contact. My next move was to reposition my dislodged earpiece.
“Fools,” Hadiza snorted. “There is always one.”
“So-called anti-feudal activists.” She kissed her teeth. “No matter how thorough the screening process is, there can be slips in the system. They must have tried to use a shield detractor.”
I turned to the Tribune and saw she had not moved an inch. Even more surprising, her eyes remained closed. The threat was clearly not substantial enough to cause concern.
“Has anyone ever made a dent in the shield?” I asked, wondering what remained of the occupants of the blacked-out cubicle.
Hadiza’s laugh was short. “You’d need at least ten going off at once to come close to making any impact. The system may not be perfect, but it would never miss that many activists in one Assembly session.”
“I guess this means I’ve moved up in line. Hurray for my cause.”
My attempt at a joke was lost on Hadiza.
The top of our cubicle lit up, flooding the space in an almost blinding blue haze.
“You’re up next.”
I took a step forward, although I knew it wasn’t going to make a difference where I stood in the cubicle. At least the issue of making eye contact wasn’t going to be a problem. The Tribune wasn’t even facing us, and her eyes still hadn’t opened.
“Tribune, I am here from Camden in London and I implore you…”
The words caught in my throat. My brain was still struggling to figure out how to show deference to a being I knew was not actually a child. Taking a moment to clear my throat, I started again.
“I’ve come from Camden which has been overrun by Saps for a fortnight.” I was a little impressed by how confident I sounded when my pounding heart told a different story. “We started off maintaining a strong resistance, keeping mind shields in place and ensuring all sensory binders were deactivated quickly when we found any. But things have gone downhill over the last few days. Hostages have been taken.”
“That’s a problem for Sector Eighteen. File a report with the Recovery Department.”
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting the Tribune to sound like, but for some reason, the voice of the young girl was not what I was prepared for. It was a polite sound, like the one a child uses when asking for an ice lolly or for permission to go into the back garden for another turn on the trampoline.
“Yes, but this is particularly sensitive,” I added hurriedly, worried I would be dismissed as quickly as the others before I could explain the situation in detail. “There are children among the group.”
The Tribune’s blank expression suggested she was waiting for more details.
“And?” Hadiza spurred me on quietly from behind.
“Forty-six of them to be exact. And four pregnant women among the fifty-two adults. We don’t have time for the paperwork the Recovery Department requires. We need to take action now.”
“I don’t see the problem,” said the Tribune.
“Children,” I repeated slowly. “They need our protection.”
“Why should they matter more than the others? The young have greater agility than the adults in their company. Troops would be a waste of resources. What they need is guidance. How many Possessors are in the region?”
“Two,” Hadiza answered this time. “The uprising in the Hackney area needed them more urgently.”
The Tribune took only a second to consider the options.
“If we pull resources from a mining zone for this, there will have to be a price.”
My quick response seemed to surprise her, and her brow knitted.
“Once liberated, the hostages will be moved to the salt mines for a period of six months to balance out what we will lose by sacrificing a Possessor for them.”
It was unclear if she meant that all the hostages would be subjected to this same fate, but there was no point in asking.
“Two of the women are close to term,” I reasoned.
“Their time at the mines will be deferred for a few weeks until they are ready to join the others. Do we have an agreement?”
“There is just one last thing,” I said, moving closer to the wall so my face almost pressed up against it.
After all this time, the Tribune’s small head finally turned in my direction. She was probably wondering why I wasn’t grateful for what had been given. The diversion of a Possessor would be at a great cost to the establishment, even if they would receive nearly a hundred bond-servants in exchange for the loss.
“What are you doing?” Hadiza hissed. “You already got what you came for.”
“I’m sorry, Hadiza,” I whispered. And I truly was. She may have been part of the system, but she had been much kinder to me over the last few hours than I had heard Vectors could be.
My finger shot to the side of my earpiece, pushing down on the spot Biyi had configured to match the impression of my print. The device pulled out of my auditory canal, quadrupled in size, and then split open. Black goggles emerged from the slit and wrapped around my eyes. My vision was immediately lit up with data I had been missing this whole time. I had prayed that my timing would be right, and now I knew that it was.
Given Hadiza’s estimate of the damage ten shield detractors could impart, thirty blasts at the same time had to be enough to make more than a dent in the force field. Lights exploded. All the cubicles were rocked at their core. To prepare for the impact, I crouched down and placed my hands on the floor in order to stabilize myself. But Hadiza wasn’t prepared.
The Vector was thrown across the cubicle. She banged her head against the far wall and was knocked unconscious. Even if she hadn’t passed out from the hit, the blinding light would have been enough to incapacitate her. Biyi had assured us that Vector visors could not withstand the intensity of light we’d unleash.
A siren began to blare, warning of a breach to the system.
The Tribune’s eyes shot open, and I understood why Hadiza had given the eye contact warning. Protected by my goggles, I could see the completely white surface where her irises should have been. It wasn’t just the peculiar lack of color that was the issue. My data collector was registering a heat signature that was intense enough to sear any bio matter the Tribune’s eyes fell upon. A gaze that was now frantically scanning the assembly, trying desperately to pinpoint the source of the disruption.
The top of my cubicle slid open and I sprang up and out in a flash. If Biyi was right, and he had been so far, the system was already starting to reboot itself, and it would reset completely in four minutes. The element of surprise, on the other hand, would only last a few seconds if the Tribune managed to lock onto me. I made out four other figures already on top of the cubicles and racing towards the podium. Wasting no time, I began to hop from one to another, closing the gap between mine and the Tribune.
We were all nearly at our destination when the Tribune suddenly latched onto one of us, a man dressed in a suit like mine. With the man in her grip, there was nothing we could do for him. Instead, the rest of us hastened our approach as the sounds of his screams filled the air and the smell of charred skin assaulted our nostrils.
I got to the podium first and pounced on the Tribune, knocking her to the ground in a tackle that ensured her eyes faced the floor. It may have been the Tribune, but the strength in its host body was still that of a little girl, and I didn’t struggle much to hold her down until the others arrived to help.
“You didn’t tell me it would be a child,” I hissed at the only woman in our crew. She ignored me and jammed an illuminated tube the size of my little finger into the girl’s ear. The Tribune’s feeble struggles ceased immediately.
“Doesn’t change what we have to do. She stopped being human the second they let that thing feed on her.”
I knew she was right, but what we were about to do still felt inhumane.
“And what about all the others? I didn’t know there would be so many people here?”
“Think of everyone we lost in Camden,” the bearded man standing beside me answered. “Your sister, her unborn baby, your little nephew, my entire family. Sheila’s. You heard what they were going to offer us in exchange for their lives. The bond of servitude! For lives they didn’t even realize had already ended. Because that’s all we are to them: slaves.”
“Think of all the others we will save by the time they send the next Tribune to replace this one,” the woman added. “It’s a small price to pay.”
I shut my eyes and breathed deeply. My plea to the Tribune about the situation had not been untrue. I had merely omitted certain details, like the part where the mind-force of everyone who had been taken had already been sucked dry by the Saps, their bodies dumped outside our homes as a reminder of the cost of our fealty to the Overlords. I had simply been buying time for everyone else to set up their shield detractors.
Our synchronized data collectors informed us that we only had a minute left until the system came back online.
“Sever the link!” the woman urged.
The tube that was attached to the Tribune’s neck led to a bulge at the top of the host body’s left shoulder. I pulled aside the cloak, and we all shrank back. The implantation device was far more horrific than the sketch Biyi had provided. A pulsating mass of green flesh clung to what was left of the festering skin on her shoulder. And what was once her arm had withered to the size of a drinking straw. It was impossible to fathom what had become of the bones beneath the shriveled appendage.
“Do it now!”
The desperation in my companion’s voice snapped me into action, and I dug my hand into the damp mush of the puckered flesh. I tugged until I felt the base of the tube crack.
“See you soon, Nneka.”
Those were my last words before the mass on the Tribune’s shoulder exploded in a surge of green fire and sparks. The liquid that connected the Tribune’s life force to the host body had been exposed to oxygen, the only gas known to be toxic to the beings who had controlled our existence for the last 1,081 days.
And then the titanium dome came down on us all.
Copyright © 2022 Kenechi Udogu