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What Might Have Been

By Firerose
Page 2 of 4


When the anonymous message came I knew it was from Avon. No great deduction, it would take someone with computer expertise to send a message lacking any id trace, at least to my inexpert probings. I knew no-one else in that division, no-one with need to contact me like this, anyway.

Remembering the dowdy feeling, I deliberately turned up at the central meeting area still in my engineering coveralls. It was a suitably anonymous place to meet, and one I used frequently for this purpose myself. I turned the corner and there he was sitting alone at a table in the alcove by pillar X17 that the message had described, nursing a very small coffee. In view yet inconspicuous. Amusingly, while still in his habitual sleek grey, Avon had managed to dredge something out of his wardrobe that did not proclaim his status quite so self-consciously. Something that any Alpha might wear. Slumming it, are we? I had wondered whether his motives for contacting me were sexual. Of course I had investigated the man, listened to the interdivisional gossip -- of which there was plenty -- and unearthed no evidence of women. Certainly no wife and devoted family. Was this telling for someone of Avon's age and status? Homosexuality, like intercaste mixing, was not exactly illegal but it was certainly not a matter on which polite people wasted much thought.

I swiped my credit chit into the nearest refreshment station and picked up a coffee and something large and sweet to pick at, then paused, looked around ostentatiously. Luckily all the other tables approximated to full. Even in his slumming-it outfit, Avon radiated sufficient Alpha exclusiveness that it would be a brave man who sat at his table. I took a deep breath and seated myself, avoiding his eyes and over-stirring my coffee.

'Understand, Blake,' he said, in that voice of his, so penetrating yet barely above a whisper, 'if you so much as mention your little organisation I will report you immediately.'

The venom he could invest in the word 'organisation' was frightening. I didn't reply, and he went on, 'This is a dead spot in the surveillance network.'

Actually, our experience suggested that the surveillance receivers must be rather inefficient at recording quiet conversations over the piped music that pervaded all public areas of the Dome, although it was generally considered wise to face away from them. There were examples of people who had been successfully convicted based on conversations reconstructed from lip movements.

'If you're not interested...then why?'

'Curiosity. When one is accustomed to promotion-seeking sycophants, it is occasionally refreshing to hear someone speaking an unrehearsed truth.' He favoured me with another of those half smiles. 'I assume that you have a life aside from...?'

I was not so sure myself, but apparently I convinced Avon in the ten minutes it took him to dispose of his miniscule coffee, sip by tiny fastidious sip. All I could remember afterwards was that we had discussed music. Avon liked the austere and abstract sounds of the Early Tonals, Jayess Bach and his imitators, unsurprising for someone who chose to express himself on an ancient instrument as obscure as the harpsichord. I preferred the richer, earthier passions of the Mid-tonal period, rooted in the natural world and aimed at the common man. Bate Hoven's 'Ode to Joy' had been adopted as an anthem by the Freedom Party -- but of course that was something I could not tell Avon. We uncovered a shared love of the rather unfashionable fusion of ancient and modern traditions that critics called New Tonalism.

Did I say all I could remember? I lied. Avon's hands, their blunt fingers dwarfing his coffee cup. Occasional snatched glimpses of his face. The intensity he lent to every sentence. Avon was like no-one else I had ever encountered.

When the next communication arrived, couched in an invitation to a private viewing of a new art exhibition which would never before have dropped my way, why did I attend? No recruit for the cause here.

Perhaps it was simply that the invitation was perfectly chosen. A rich selection of Dutch masters, usually housed in one of the north-western domes. A chance to look at them with the tranquillity denied at a public exhibition. And a venue so above reproach, so full of ambassadors, of politicians, of the higher echelons of Space Command, that Avon could openly approach me bearing all the considerable arrogance of his grade and position. We stood side by side, casually discussing matters as trivial as the thickness of the paint in a portrait of an astronomer by an artist I had never heard of before, while sipping a 25-year-old port that caressed the nose and slipped down the throat with an aching smoothness. Avon smilingly introduced me to anyone who dared to greet him. And, yes, it felt good. Who cares if I wondered whether for Avon, I was almost the 'dissident as fashion accessory'? Or even whether Avon got some kind of kick out of the danger of it all? Just for once, the danger wasn't to me.

Afterwards, I told myself -- and all my Freedom Party associates who asked -- that talking to the great and the good, or rather the cynical and the corrupt, of Federation society rated as potentially useful research. And I told them -- but not myself -- that Avon might eventually prove a useful contact.

Next came a lunch invitation.


A dingy underground tunnel, uncompromisingly lit by fluorescent tubes that gave a greenish cast to the all-too-meagre circle of faces gathered in front of me. The tunnels were our favourite meeting place, deep under the Dome. Safe. They formed part of the maintenance network for the ventilation system. One of our number was a Beta-grade technician in the maintenance corps; persistent solvent leaks from ageing pipework -- most of them genuine -- gave him continuous access to the tunnel system. Relatively safe. Nowhere was truly safe now that the Freedom Party had been outlawed. Meetings -- defined as the planned attendance of more than six people -- had been declared illegal unless registered at least five days in advance.

A recruitment meeting. Too few people; my rapid assessment suggested no Alpha grades. Nothing new there. Of all our supporters, only two apart from Bran Foster and myself were Alpha grade. We mainly recruited Beta-ones who thought they should have been Alphas, and Beta-twos and -threes who coveted Beta-one status. So few joined because they saw the system as a whole as unjust, without regard to their place in it. Idealism was not selected for by Federation society. Of the service grades, we had a few Gammas but virtually no Deltas. It was frequently hard to persuade Deltas that there was a system at all, let alone that there might be meaning in a revolution against it. In my experience, two or three Deltas would agree with anything I said, while I was there -- and then you never saw them again. The very anonymity that would make them so useful to the cause also made it impossible to track them down in the ants' nest that was the Delta levels. Addressing a large group of service grades they would simply ignore the intrusion, and carry on their lives as if you were absent. In the long term, improved education for the lower grades was essential, and of course that was one of the core objectives that we campaigned over. But in the short term; well, it was one problem we had never managed to solve. Just one of many, I suppose.

The theme of my address that particular evening: inequalities in the distribution of wealth. I had to shout over the ever-present whirr of the ventilation fans and the random shufflings of an audience unused to sitting on unheated concrete. As usual, I started out with the raw facts: 10% Alphas absorbed almost 40% of Dome resources. An Alpha-one team leader earned more in a month than a Gamma-three cleaner earned in a year. No use even mentioning Deltas, at least not in a recruitment talk: most Dome inhabitants, I'd found, chose to simply ignore their subterranean existence. Almost on auto-pilot now, I knew exactly when to make the hand gestures, when to look out at the audience in direct appeal. When to observe which of those gathered in front of me seemed interested, which to consider cautiously approaching afterwards. Also as usual, the idea of a redistribution of credits and ration allocations to better reflect the individual's worth to society went down well. I hated appealing to people's avaricious instincts, but Bran always argued with his rather ruthless pragmatism that it was the only strategy that worked reliably. We can work on their altruism once we've got their attention, as he often put it.

The talk had largely been scripted by Bran, and several phrases in his first draft led me to guess that my oldest remaining friend disapproved of my newest. Bran wasn't here this evening, of course. As a routine precaution, we rarely attended the same meetings, and recruitment meetings were a particularly high risk. And even if he were here, Bran would never say anything directly. But then he hardly needed to.

In the morning, I messaged Avon with apologies, explaining not untruthfully that I was stuck with some engineering problem and a deadline. He sent back simply, 'Bring it with you.'

And I did. So that, in between spoonfuls of bitter chocolate ice-cream, I was explaining the six-dimensional vector equations that I was trying to minimise -- or was it maximise? Avon asked what the equations represented, and I rather half-heartedly explained that I was tasked with deriving the optimal array of sensor devices for the chamber itself. He brought out a liquid-filled writing device of a type that I had never seen before and started sketching on his paper napkin. Approximately three minutes later, he had derived the set of field equations that I had slaved over for weeks, and then said casually, 'The chambers you are working with, they are open at the front? And the sensors are fragile?' I nodded. 'Well then, the floor and one wall will be empty, so we can substitute two dummy variables.' And then, still scrawling on the napkin, he showed me how to use symmetry properties to solve the simplified vector equations.

Avon ordered a second serving of blackcurrant sorbet -- a reward perhaps? -- and leant back in his chair, relaxed, almost glowing. He was clearly at home in this retro-style eating place, the dim cramped space dominated by a gigantic and noisy machine that reminded me of 'images of an ancient steam locomotive and appeared to dispense his favourite coffee. But it was not just that: I realised suddenly that he loved to teach. I tried to apologise for my dullness but he waved me silent, 'I may as well solve one trivial problem as another. The whole matter-transmission project is futile. The fundamental problem of transmission of living organisms will not be solved using current mathematical techniques.'

'Why do you stay, then?'

'I have yet to find a more interesting challenge.'

'What do you want from life?'

'To be so wealthy that no-one can touch me.'

'That's not an aim. You want freedom to enjoy the good things of life.'

He did not answer, nor did he comment on my use of one of the forbidden words. Eventually he countered, 'And what do you want from life?' He caught my instinctive glance at the ceiling, and added with an edge of sarcasm, 'I believe there are no surveillance devices here.'

'Freedom for everyone to enjoy those good things.' A succinct summary of last night's address.

'Your masses would not appreciate them.'

'At least they'd have a choice.'

'You would place choice for people without the intellect to comprehend what you were offering them above order, progress, culture, education?' Avon sounded more amused than angry. Apparently revolutionary politics in the abstract was allowable, as long as I failed to mention any practical measures. Waving at the two small gold-rimmed cups of dark coffee that had materialised at our table, he added, 'And if the supply of coffee beans were restricted such that either we could enjoy real coffee or everyone could enjoy slops I suppose that you would prefer to drink slops.'

I imitated Avon in stirring in the froth and took a cautious sip of the stuff. The caution was warranted -- the sensation was explosive. Dark, somewhat bitter and wholly addictive, the taste bore absolutely no relation to the coffee that came out of the canteen dispensers. Even in the Alpha canteens, which usually boasted that their coffee was not synthesised.

'Slops definitely,' I replied, and Avon just smiled.

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