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The square is blindingly white in the middle of the day. The buildings that frame it, also white, concentrate all the energy they can catch into the open expanse. A sliver of moon or the reflection of city lights off nighttime clouds is enough to read by. At the moment, the heat and light generated by this concentrated effort erases the individuality of the city hall and theatre on the long sides and the residential towers on the short sides. They become generic reflective surfaces, broken here and there by the relative blackness of occasional protrusions.
Natalie stands under one of the protrusions, indifferent to the role it plays in the articulation that, when visible, lends the building a certain elegance. Only the narrow shadow that it provides is important. She gazes into the square with squinted eyes, following the lingering blobs of what she takes to be tourists. She doubts that tourists are a common sight in the city, the somewhat obscure second city in the metropolitan area. Most people stick to the capital. She might of course be biased since, even as a lifelong resident of the capital, she has rarely ventured here. On the other hand, only tourists would be sufficiently caught up in the spectacle of the quarter to not notice that they are being slowly baked.
The blobs have ill-defined edges, as if the light and heat have already penetrated the outer layers and are starting to work on the still tender inner flesh. Somehow, the trees placed in meticulous rows in small pockets are clear and sharp, like surgical cuts in the light. They are thin; barely sticks with tufted tops. As far as Natalie knows, the square has been around for at least fifty years, so either the trees have found this environment less than ideal or they have been purposely replaced to offer only slight accents of color to the monotone space. Providing too much color, shade and perhaps habitat for small animals would have undoubtedly detracted from the purity of the original design.
She glances at her watch and then turns toward the face of the tower. Once her eyes adjust, she fishes a scrap of paper from her purse and enters the code scrawled on it into the intercom. A voice comes through a moment later: "Yes?"
"It's Natalie Chaulieu from the office, Mr. Andesmas. I am supposed to help you find your bearings."
"Good. I'll be down in a moment," the voice replies in a curt but not unpleasant tone.
Natalie continues to look toward the building so her eyes stay accustomed to the shade. She wants to scrutinize this mythical figure - according to others in the office, at any rate. The very fact that he has decided to stay here rather than live in the capital already sets him apart, as far as she is concerned; a politician purposely living farther away from the center of power than he needs to is unusual. Of course, as he is new in town, he could have just wandered here like the tourists in the square. If that is the case, the question becomes whether he has the sense to leave before he is cooked.
Her first glimpse, through the window beside the door, is of a grey man: dull, white, receding hair; worn face with features that fit together with a low-key sort of harmony; heavy, practical glasses; well-tailored suit without flash. He resembles the preferred model of a Committee member, probably having already been baked into the mold. He opens the door and passes without hesitation through the shadow into the light, motioning for her to follow him.
She pauses at the edge of the shadow as if it is a ledge overlooking an insubstantial mist, giving her eyes a moment to readjust and mentally putting a check in the senseless column. It's hard to imagine that he can even see where he is going, even if he hasn't yet run into anything. Senseless he may be, but not to the point of self-destruction. And, grey he may be in ordinary circumstances, but not in this light. He seems to absorb the energy, making his hair shine and his skin's appear robust rather than decayed. Even his suit gains a subtle sheen, as if channeling the energy through special threads woven into the fabric. As she hurries to catch up, she wonders if the check in the senseless column wasn't too hasty.
"It doesn't seem like you need showing around," she comments once she is beside him. "Have you been here before?"
"No. I wandered around yesterday, though. You?" They walk around the edge of the square toward the opening between the city hall and a tower.
"Once or twice. If one doesn't live or work here, there isn't much reason to come. I mean, the Towers is unique, but not an attraction per se."
"Good thing that the office sent you, then."
"The others were worse; most of them had never even heard of the place. I see why you chose it, though."
"I doubt that."
"Why did you come, the one or two times you were here?"
"Picking up dirty laundry, a job during high school. It's weird. I actually went to the industrial districts more often than here. Maybe the people here are all impossibly immaculate, like the square."
"The reason you thought I chose this place?"
"That was the general idea, yes."
"I suppose that is flattering."
"Particularly since all this really exists, no matter how impossible it may seem." Andesmas stops and gestures at the buildings. "A utopia at scale, built before the war, before the Committee existed. It is the crystallization of the ingenuity of workers — of cooperation-right in front of us."
"My utopia has more shade."
"This utopia has plenty of shade, on the other side of city hall. There's color too, which might or might not be immaculate."
"Whether you have been here before or not, you seem to know the city pretty well."
"I don't know this city. Feeling the energy of the place is enough."
"I don't understand the connection."
"It's nothing. Well, when we reach the decidedly maculate capital, I should be able to be of more help."
"You do know that that is not the reason you were chosen?"
"Yes, but I'd prefer being useful all the same."
"I would expect no less. Your mother was a remarkable woman."
"I think you mean 'is' a remarkable woman."
A smile flashes across Andesmas's face. "Your mother was a remarkable judge."
"And my father was a remarkable novelist."
"You are basing the opinion on personal experience?"
Natalie counts to ten before answering, "In the same way that yours is, I imagine."
She then bites her tongue before adding you hypocritical fuck.
"You know why I was asked to join the Committee?"
"Politics at that level is none of my business."
"But you know, nonetheless."
"I don't recall."
"Fair enough. I am here to repair the damage done to our country's reputation by the dissemination of a charter a couple of years ago now. You, of course, don't know anything about the document."
"I am shocked to hear that such a charter exists."
"It was written and signed by some otherwise remarkable members of our society at the time, your mother — your parents — included. Their choice made it clear that they no longer desired to be part of society; to continue the constructive dialogue toward a better future. Perhaps it was just impatience that led to the decision. Impatience leads to a great many bad decisions. It is important, though, to react to those decisions in a constructive way.
"For instance, the demonstrations fifteen-odd years ago were more than anything an expression of youthful exuberance. People weren't unhappy with the direction society was going, just the sacrifices needed to get there coupled with a lack of discernable progress. Tanks in the streets as a response was very successful in shutting them down in the short term, but the risk aversion that went along with it slowed progress even further — sometimes to the point of regression. So, the sacrifices continued, impatience built up over time, and BAM.
"I can never know the Towers. I can, however, still feel the optimism, the effort and the sacrifice that resulted in this concrete example of progress in our society. That is the direction of the Committee, that is the message that needs to be spread, and that is what the charter threatens to undermine."
"And the tanks?"
"They are a tool that can be useful under certain circumstances. These are not those circumstances. Regretfully, we have had to separate some of the people from society physically, since it was not enough for them to declare that they no longer wished to participate in our common project. They wished to actively undermine it, regardless of the harm that would cause everyone else. I am sure that you don't know anyone like that."
"No one comes to mind."
"Where are we going?" Natalie asks, realizing that she is no better than the tourists, Andesmas or the proverbial frog, standing as she is in the square.
"To a cabaret, ominously named the Cabaret of the Three Caskets. It is more of a café at this hour."
The two start walking again, slowly.
"Anyway," Andesmas continues, "this is an opportunity for you. No matter how misguided the actions of your parents were — whether you personally think they were misguided or not — they did want something positive for our country. That is why I mentioned the work your mother did when she was a judge, despite your obvious sensitivity to it. She spent a great deal of time moving our common project forward. We shouldn't lose sight of that. And, we shouldn't deprive you of the opportunity to do the same. Instead, we will make sure that you are in a position to see firsthand the improvements that we are making on a daily basis.
"It won't be as brilliant as the Towers, though with your energy and intelligence working in concert with so many others we might as well be that ambitious."
"It sounds like you have everything planned out."
"I don't, which you will learn very quickly. There is no point in dwelling on what we don't know and can't predict. Better to spend one's time bringing good people together — and you are a good person — and do the best we can with our resources."
"I would say that I can tell why the Committee is bringing you on, but you'd probably say that I am wrong or missing the point."
"Why don't you explain before I decide."
"You have painted a pretty compelling picture of the future of the common project, all the while being very careful to manage expectations. You offer a rallying cry that one could say is badly needed; optimistic without falling into naivete."
"That is once again flattering. Thank you. If my voice can be useful to our society, then I will lend it to the Committee. And I haven't proven to you yet that I am more than that voice. I am no empty shirt, figurehead, or whatever else might come to mind, though all you get for now is words. What I propose is that we turn these words into action together. I propose that you make a more constructive choice than your parents, who, despite their many merits, decided in the end to no longer participate, to limit themselves to criticizing our country from the skewed perspective of the sidelines."
Natalie counts to ten. "So I would assist you in all this?"
"You would assist the Committee, but would lead projects and have significant autonomy."
"I would leave the office?"
"For the moment, you will still be based out of the office."
"No more pretending to show people from out of town around?"
"I wouldn't rule it out. After all, the future is unknown. I am curious to discover your maculate capital. I imagine that it is not the side of the city I am used to seeing."
"Although I am supposedly the guest, the coffee is on me."
The two enter the cabaret.
"I didn't ask yesterday," Andesmas says, addressing the server behind the counter, "why is this place called the Cabaret of the Three Caskets?"
"It is famous for being Death's favorite watering hole."
Andesmas looks around at the walls as white as the square, brightly colored in places where the light filters through stained glass windows cut in abstract patterns. He then looks questioningly at Natalie, who shrugs.
"This doesn't seem to be the sort of place that Death would feel welcome," Andesmas says.
"I don't think she cared, only coming in to get blind drunk."
"Force of habit; could have been a 'he', hard to tell with Death."
"So you have met Death?"
"Not personally, no. I would probably have to be dead for that."
"You talk as if you are familiar with, well, her, though."
"It is her favorite watering hole."
"Right. What does she like to drink?"
"Of course. You have a lot of that on hand?"
"Nah, it is a quick fermentation of the freshly dead, best brought in locally right before she hits town."
"Do you have a recipe?"
"Not as such. There are notes scrawled on the vats, though."
"Why don't you make some and offer it to other customers? It sounds like a house specialty."
"It is one thing to be welcoming when Death comes to town, another to give her an additional reason to be here."
"Ah. And how do you know when she is going to come to town?"
"The trail of dead heading in this direction."
"It hasn't been as clear-cut in the last fifty years or so. There have been a lot more isolated incidents; an industrial accident here, a train derailment there, a building that collapses across town. It was easier when it was just disease and war."
"Even disease and war are probably harder to track these days."
"That is offset by better techniques and communication. Try to imagine the technical chaos before Pasteur and the ignorance before telephones, telegraphs, televisions, tele-whatevers."
"I'll give you Pasteur, though the tele-whatevers are just as good at spreading misinformation as facts."
"The misinformation is usually focused on the 'why' and 'how' of the dead, not the fact that people are dead."
"Sometimes, sometimes not. Wait, this means that the cabaret has been here longer than the Towers."
"In roughly the same place."
"When Death was here then, this place was probably dark and desolate. When was she here last?"
"I don't know specifically."
"The caskets mean something?"
"They represent the three major plagues that swept through the town."
"The cabaret was probably the only watering hole at that time, known already for its alcohol and excess. So, of course, when everybody started dying, it made sense for them to see Death as drunk and out of control. I bet that, if the local priest survived, he used it as an excuse to preach temperance."
"You are taking Death as a personification of death."
"Yes. I am not making light of it, or her. I'm sure that those times were horrifying and that considering death as a person was a way to cope, to not feel so helpless. And that was before Pasteur and so many other advancements. They had no idea what was going on."
"Death was a superstition, then."
"There is a reason why the name didn't change to four caskets after the flu epidemic, six after the wars, and so on. It is useful for us to hold on to those traditions, those memories, so we are aware of how far we have come. It is instructive to know that the Towers was built on a benighted town and not ex nihilo."
"I don't think that Death is just a superstition. If she was, why would we have the vats and notes?"
"That is a worthwhile research project. It is not a reason to jump to irrational conclusions. I'll have a coffee. Natalie?"
"Lemon tea and a half-pint of top-fermented blood, please."
The server hesitates before Andesmas states flatly, "She is joking. In bad taste."
"Coppery," Natalie says. "I wouldn't say bad so much as acquired. According to Death, it's worth the effort."
"I am not sure which is worse," the server mutters as he prepares the drinks, "saying that Death does not exist or making jokes at her expense."
"Where does immortality fit into your plan for a better future?" Natalie asks Andesmas.
"Not even under theoretical research?"
"It is not a Committee priority. If scientists believe that it is worth pursuing, they are free to do so."
"I guess we should be respectful of Death at least until we can live forever."
"I was being respectful."
"Calling her an outdated superstition?"
"An important tradition that we should rationally be aware of."
"A tradition that does nothing but show how backwards we once were."
"Correct. It is not constructive to believe that Death will come walking through the door, get drunk on fermented blood and then start killing people left and right. That would be counter to the common project."
Excerpted from "The Amoeba-Ox Continuum"
Copyright © 2017 Trent Portigal.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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