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What Might Have Been

By Firerose
Page 1 of 4

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

From 'Burnt Norton' by TS Eliot


I scanned the rows of seats. For me these occasions served a dual purpose. Yes, I loved the music, but I also enjoyed the relative freedom to mingle with others. Usually I used that freedom to sit among the lower grades. Sure, few service grades would ever bother to attend such an event, but frequently the lower technician grades, Beta-twos and even Beta-threes would come -- people on the project to whom I would never normally have cause to speak. Even without their dark-blue coveralls with the shoulder flash indicating precise grade and project assignment, somehow I could always tell. Something about the look in their eyes faced with a room largely full of Alphas. Everyone else sat strictly according to invisible grade demarcations, but it was not actually illegal to mix. Even encouraged -- technically that is. Certainly given my existing record I would do my reputation little if any harm by mingling in this context.

This time however I was late, the music about to start. My rapid search revealed few empty seats, fewer still near the ends of rows. One here. I stared pointedly at the seat, and the man blocking my path to it rose silently, vacating his seat and standing aside to allow me to pass without risking brushing against him. He wore dark grey, and I didn't need to look at the quality of the clothes to know that he was a fellow Alpha-one. Consequently I didn't bother even muttering my thanks, just inclined my head a fraction and failed to meet his eye. I didn't need to see his face to feel the smouldering anger at my invasion. In fact his face would probably have shown little. In my half-hidden non-project life I had grown accustomed to reading the hints that weren't there.

The music started. Something choral, ancient I thought. I did not recognise the language, certainly not one of the three or four variations on Standard with which I was familiar. I could only catch snatches of phrases, a repeated refrain that sounded like dee ess ear ay. Probably religious in inspiration? A rather daring choice for a public assembly. Under its cover I stole a glance at my neighbour's face. Fashionably pale skin, neat dark hair, precisely regulation length, eyes shut, hands clenched, as if trying to will me out of existence. Leaning back in his seat just a little further than was strictly Alpha-conventional. Perhaps simply enjoying the music? Maybe there was something to be gained here? Something about the man seemed familiar, but I could not place it. Certainly he had not worked in any of the engineering groups to which I had been assigned.

I turned in the interval, bravely looked the man straight in the face just for a fraction of a second. Then I remembered -- a gift with faces was one of my more useful accomplishments, and I must have stared at this one for over an hour. He'd been sitting on the platform that time, though. Foolishly I allowed enthusiasm to take over my tongue, blurted out something about being glad to meet him, remembering him from the last concert, enjoying the music. He stiffened further and turned away before I managed to add my name. In a way though that was a good sign. In my experience it often meant that the person already knew who I was. Being introduced was dangerous, speaking nothings to a stranger polite, conventional. And if someone pointed out my identity later then he could always claim ignorance. Yet no matter how well I rationalised, every time that it happened it hurt. As we stalked together but separate towards the bar, he asked without looking at me, 'Do you like the harpsichord?' And I was so disorientated by the unexpected attention that I told him the truth. As I tried to cover my faux pas with more babbling about how much I liked the ancient music, I thought he smiled. But he didn't speak again, just handed me a coffee fresh from the dispenser and walked away while I added milk and sugar, hands shaking.

And after the interval he sat somewhere else. Or left early.

It was over a month before I saw him again. Oh, in between I'd looked him up of course. I did that with everyone I met. Had to. Either they were potential recruits, allies, or enemies who might report my activities. I dug out the message with the programme notes for the previous concert from my history file -- at that time I compulsively hoarded information of all kinds, you never knew what might prove useful later. Incidentally the jumble also effectively camouflaged any potentially suspect files from casual inspection. Found the name of the person who had played the harpsichord. Kerr Avon. I didn't need to look him up, everyone knew the names of all the division heads, but I did it anyway. The fact he had even spoken to me was interesting. And that half smile, if I hadn't imagined it.

Our second meeting was in the central Alpha-one canteen, or 'restaurant' as the people who normally lunched there usually chose to call it, mimicking a long-dead language. I didn't normally lunch there, although the food was excellent, but my team's quarterly progress meeting with Dara and Tredein, the head of engineering, happened to end just before lunch. And old Tredein would never have imagined eating anywhere else. But he was a pleasant guy, prepared to be seen in public with a dissenter, as long as I constrained myself to engineering matters and the usual meaningless chatter that passed for conversation in those circles. Presumably he had defended me in private as too good an engineer to lose to foolish politics. Dara too, I imagined. Her tiny frame -- reputedly she came from one of the south-eastern domes, although she never spoke of such personal matters -- was a poor indicator of her strength of mind.

Tredein saw Avon before I did, hailing him cheerfully as he sat alone at an oval table which would comfortably seat four. Avon looked as if he would rather avoid company but he had eaten too little of the food on his tray to pretend that he'd finished. Anyway engineering outranked computing, with more than three times the personnel. Tredein introduced section leader Dara Kesinay and made to introduce me, but Avon said abruptly 'We've met,' again with that tantalising hint of an almost smile. He'd addressed himself to Tredein, but stupidly I was flattered that he had remembered, and even more flattered that knowing who I was he did not insist on my immediate eviction. Neither of them included me, or Dara, in the conversation that raged over the meal. Interdivisional politics was far from my interest and the two were clearly what passed for friends among their sort. Excluded I studied them, feeling dowdy even in my silver-touched black coveralls. Luckily Dara's habitual taciturnity made it unlikely that she would expect more than an occasional word from me.

At the end I decided to take a tiny risk. I hailed the serving Gamma grade to pay for the meal, and in getting out my credit chit fumbled my id card so that it fell on the floor by Avon's feet. A routine that I'd used many times before. He retrieved it wordlessly, face impassive, but I guessed he had held it for five or six seconds. Long enough to swipe it -- at least if he had fixed his reader so that it worked through a layer of cloth.

And then I waited. I wasn't sure why I was so certain that Avon would contact me. Five words and a couple of almost smiles.

Nor was I sure why I cared. Or if I cared?

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