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What Might Have Been

By Firerose
Page 3 of 4

(2-1)

Over those months, Avon introduced me to smoked salmon, non-synthesised steak and old-french-style wines, all as different from even the Alpha ration issue as expresso was from the canteen coffee. Apparently non-engineered food, imported from farming planets, was still available, at a price. More ammunition for my Inequalities in the Distribution of Wealth talk. I introduced him to china tea -- I traded most of my cigarette ration for a number of black-market luxuries -- the names evocative of a long-dead civilisation, gunpowder, lapsang souchong, rose pouchong... These days it was said that one Dome was much like any other, although I had only ever experienced two. He must have taken me to all the exclusive restaurants on the topmost levels of the Dome. Some of them even had windows. We played a lot of chess -- he won around nine times out of ten -- and he tried to teach me some variants, shogi, which I enjoyed and even occasionally beat him at, and go, which I found incomprehensible.

In return, I introduced him to the seedier bars of the basement levels, non-grade restricted and habituated by Betas and Gammas. Few Alphas penetrated the sublevels, but, again, it was not actually illegal. Nor was it as dangerous as standard Alpha-aimed propaganda suggested, although taking the precaution of trading in cigarettes, or even the brown alcohol tokens that Deltas were paid in, seemed wise: producing an Alpha credit chit would not only announce our grade to the bar tender, but also ensure that our visit was recorded in the central security files. In fact, on previous visits I'd found the noise level -- generally fuelled by wall-sized vis-screens playing and replaying either the latest SuperStad match highlights or some PornoVid or other, the poor picture quality occasionally made it hard to discriminate -- to be a good cover for conversation.

I even introduced him to a few of my Beta-grade acquaintances. Not Freedom Party members, of course, but people from the project. Avon -- or rather Chevron as he called himself, which soon shortened to Chev -- could be surprisingly charming on occasion and, less surprisingly, he played a mean game of backgammon. Poker too. I wondered -- rather too often -- whether he'd ever visited these levels before. And why. Certainly he coughed a lot less on drinking his first pint of kif, the rough but effective drink that all these bars served, than I remembered having done. I also wondered sometimes why he accompanied me so readily. I never found a satisfactory answer for that one either.

After one evening spent in company with Gievor, a Beta-two engineering technician, Avon astonished me by saying, 'He's misclassified, of course.'

'Just because he won money from you.'

'You said that Gievor works under your direction? Why don't you approach An Tredein and get him reclassified? Tredein's quite enlightened about such matters.'

As usual Avon was right, Tredein immediately agreed to my suggestion to recommend Gievor for psychometric testing. It occurred to me that Avon might have supported the application but neither of them mentioned it.

Later I ran through central records to find out how many people were re-tested as adults and what proportion of those who underwent the extensive battery of tests were actually re-graded as a result. Not just curiosity, I wanted to be sure of my facts before mentioning anything to Gievor. As I had expected adult re-grading turned out to be rare, an average of hundred or so instances per year among the Dome population of around 1.5 million. But there were five cases in the past two years among people assigned to the matter-transmission project; moreover, when I accessed their personnel records, four of these had worked in the computing division at the time of the application.

I mentioned Gievor a few days later at one of my all-too-rare snatched lunches with Bran. After the party had been outlawed, it had become difficult to justify the risk of being observed together. As usual in recent months we had been arguing, Bran's grey head bobbing up and down as it always did when he was agitated. This time it was over his plans for direct action against one of the Dome's research hospitals, which intelligence reports suggested was developing a sideline in mutoid modification. Gievor suddenly seemed like a welcome distraction.

'Actually Avon suggested the idea,' I added, in an unsubtle attempt at convincing my friend that Avon might eventually prove a useful contact. 'In fact it looks as if he's helped to get four people working for him re-graded.'

From Bran's look I knew I'd somehow said the wrong thing. 'Look, Bran, I know you don't approve of my meeting him. You don't need to say anything. But he really is safe, I'm sure of it.'

'It's not that,' Bran said, with the air of someone instructing a child. 'Those four people. All men. All mid-twenties. And three of them transferred out of computing afterwards.'

I recalled that Bran had worked in computing a few years ago, and still had a lot of contacts there. 'You don't mean...?'

'Roj, I know you can be a bit naive sometimes, but in your position you need to be careful about what other people think.' He looked up at me, then said more gently, 'Even when it isn't true. Especially after...'

He never mentioned her name these days, no-one did, but I knew who he meant and my eyes filled briefly. Self-pity, really. I'd long since recovered. Ulla had been my fiancée before I joined the Freedom Party. She was only the first in the long line of friends that I'd lost when I started addressing dissident meetings. The first loss but still the bitterest. Now she was married to some idiot with the right connections who worked in Space Command administration.

I had come to understand her choice. I never contacted my family these days either. Minimising the risk. To them, of course, but also to us. The fewer people holding any information the better. They lived in a different dome, anyway, and recreational travel permits were strictly regulated, the necessary bribes well beyond my income.

These days I had so few real friends left.


(2-2)

I had decided to say nothing to Avon. What, after all, was there to say? We met that Friday evening, as had become our habit, at some upper-level bar that was a favourite of his. He had offered me a pre-dinner game of lightning shogi, and I listlessly started to arrange my pieces and consider which opening sequence to play.

'What's wrong, Blake?' He'd put down the crossword, unfinished.

'Nothing.' I looked down at the board and realised that I'd swapped gold and silver on one side. 'Tired, that's all.'

'Blake?' He abruptly swept the pieces from the board. 'So someone has relayed some gossip. Foster, I suppose.'

I started to retrieve the little ivory-coloured arrowheads with their strange markings from the floor, wondering whether I would ever play the game again.

'Leave them!'

'How did you guess?'

'You accessed some of the personnel records from my division.' I must have nodded. 'I suppose it never occurred to you to question?'

I looked up at him for the first time. His expression, as always, so hard to read. Not angry, I thought. Weary. Sad. 'Foster told me that three of the four transferred after they were re-graded. That's all.'

'There were better opportunities for Beta-ones in other divisions. Most of the research lines in which we are engaged require a sound theoretical basis in algebraic supergroup theory. I persuaded Tredein to offer two of them positions where it would be easier for them to acquire the necessary knowledge in situ. The third was offered some dull but worthy position in administration.'

'Then why...'

'I was appointed straight from a university position with no direct experience in matter transmission. There were people who believed that the appointment should have been internal, that I was far too young, too inexperienced. They may well have been correct, but their tactics for eradicating me have been ... unpleasant.'

'Thank you for your explanation. I apologise for my ... misapprehension.' I was relieved that he seemed somewhat mollified by my apology. Avon did not seem like someone who readily gave explanations for his actions. 'How did you know about ...'

'Foster?' Now it was Avon's turn to look disconcerted, and he murmured simply, 'My university appointment was in systems security.'

Later, after several glasses of wine, I asked, 'So what was the real reason for your interventions?'

'The grading system is only fair to the extent that it reflects a meritocracy where everyone is tested at birth and any anomalies are rectified.'

'Deltas aren't tested at birth.'

'Few Deltas actually register their children. And even Deltas benefit under the current system.'

'They have access to very basic healthcare. It's hard to see how else they benefit. Have you ever seen any Delta living accommodation?'

'Of course not, but I am sure that you are about to tell me about it.'

'Oh, I won't bother.' Mostly I remembered the stifling heat -- the blankets that families hung up to segregate themselves within the communal dormitories must have impeded the air flow. And of course that distinctive odour, as dingy grey in tone as the blankets, which told more about the number of people per shower stall than any of the official statistics. But what would this fastidious man understand? 'I don't suppose that anything will ever make you appreciate the injustice of the current system.'

'And I don't suppose that anything will ever make you appreciate the futility of the ways in which you and other equally misguided souls are attempting to change the system.'

'At least we care.'

'Cling to that comforting maxim if you wish, Blake, but ultimately it is not caring that counts.'

And afterwards? Sometimes I was unsure whether or not I really did care. If I was honest I had few, if any, real friends among the service grades. And the company of the lower grades lacked the spark of my discussions with Bran -- or Avon.

Sometimes I wondered just what I had gained in exchange for my privacy, my promotion prospects, my friends, my fiancée. Once it had seemed so simple. Federation society was corrupt and oppressive. Opposition the moral obligation of any human being with a conscience. The Freedom Party the only thing that mattered.

But I seemed to have lost that easy black and white demarcation. My life fractured, split too many ways. Could a few hundred people working outside the law ever change the system? I wasn't sure anymore.

But I had gone too far to give up. Too much lost. Perhaps Bran was right, passive resistance was no longer enough. We had to really hurt the administration.

And I activated the little secure transmitter that I'd hacked up to contact Bran and Dev. We needed a planning meeting. And soon.



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