Daylight/Nightlight
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« Midnight Grey Goose ||

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Auxiliary module of Red central command




Day Turns Night

The Reds take my mugshot with my own Polaroid. I have to tell the woman holding it how to work the lens; the result is still so blurry it’s like the camera was crying all that time.

Agneta is dead. I’m the closest thing to a culprit the Reds have. By all accounts, I should be standing before a firing squad. The Treaty states abusing journalistic immunity is a capital offense. But instead, the Reds have me handcuffed and blindfolded in a taxi going who-knows-where, and that’s much, much scarier.

“Where are we going?” I ask, for the third time.

The driver, muffled by the glass divider, bothers to reply. Her name is Anja. When she approached me after the press conference, I briefly thought she was asking for an autograph. I wasn’t expecting her to take out a blackjack and backhand me with it. “The Chamber.”

“What?” Shock, not confusion.

Her only reply is the engine rattling in the bonnet.

We come to a stop and I’m ushered out. Aphantasia turns what happens next into a muddy wreck—cool, recycled air, we must’ve gone inside, the clatter of steel-toed boots on vinyl floors, the hum of an elevator. We descend. This much I know, because I can remember, certain as death, a lead weight in my gut. Gravity, the pull of the Earth, gravitas, the pull of significance. Something is here. Something bright and terrible.

We are approaching. We are approaching.

The elevator doors rattle open. Anja pulls the blindfold off my eyes; the rabbit pulled out of the hat.

“The Chamber sees you now,” she says.



Interlude: Archaeopsy

In 1965, during Treaty proceedings, both sides of what would become the Zrnyowycz topological conflict were required to submit organisational charts for public scrutiny. The rules of the game could change, but its players could not, and in this way they created the conditions for checkmate to occur: were a side to change instead, the war would be won.

When you ask the question, ‘Who is fighting this war?’, ignore the men whose names undersign the paperwork, for they are so much dust against the machines they built to fight for them. Ignore the soldiers, ignore the street-corner prophets, ignore the radio and the papers. Look at these charts. Find the head of the ouroboros, see where it bites down upon its tail. Here, the Black Chamber, representing red; Foremost Doctrine, standing for blue. Now we have the actors in this play.

Follow the line of questioning. Who is Red? The Black Chamber. Now who is the Black Chamber?

I could answer the physical dimension of this question, to within certain tolerances. I could describe to you, truthfully, the thing I saw that day which had that name: a reel-to-reel assemblage of vacuum tubes and thermocouples and hand-cut metal plating; an array of sixteen Viennese oak chessboards connected to the computer by braided cable; the scent of burning metal, hot paper and cardiac chattering.

Yes, the courts would agree, this is a thing that calls itself the Black Chamber.

But to say that this is the Chamber would be to commit that first and final act of nomenclative heresy in Zrnyowycz: saying a face is the man who wears it.



Furnishing

“Well?” Anja says.

It takes a physical effort to speak again. Being in the same room as this thing makes the ground feel unsteady beneath my feet, like things don’t know how far away they should be from each other. The ideal and the real are running together. Not a cell in my body appreciates it. “Why am I here?”

“Politeness, mostly. This sort of news ought be delivered in person.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose. “And what news is that?”

Out of the corner of my eye, a piece skitters across its board. The motion is insectoid. A mantis leaping from leaf to leaf.

“You owe us a debt,” Anja says. Her voice is clipped, stilted; as if reading from an invisible script. “You forced a mistimed gambit. A loss in tempo of approximately three months. We would have made use of Agneta in future months; we can do the same with you instead.”

“And if I refuse?”

Anja turns to face me. “Answering would imply that matters. Consider this a courtesy call, Iris: don’t pick a fight you’re not going to win. The Chamber will come to collect whether you like it or not.”

I stand silent for a long moment, fists clenching and unclenching in my coat pockets.

“Mate in three, Iris. What’s the move?”

“I want a photo,” I say. “And after this? I never want to see you again.”



Caro-Kann

The war room—one of twenty-five, according to the numbering scheme—is a few floors up from the Chamber. It looks like it used to be a classroom of some sort, with its well-chalked blackboard and its torn-down posters of scientific luminaries. An official map of the district, correct as of a day ago, has been torn into thirds and pinned to the walls in their place.

I take Anja’s portrait in front of this map. Her shadow against the wall forms a second river dividing St. Germain Northwest and Fifth Quarter East. The Nikon catches her with a cigarette hanging half-out her mouth, and something about her bearing makes even the rolling paper look impossibly aged, suffused with her deep exhaustion. The pose reminds me of an actress stepping off-stage, no longer able to summon the energy that comes with the facade.

“Smoke?” she asks, holding out the carton. Szilard White. The Red militia’s wages.

I shrug and take one, offering my lighter in response. Grateful, she lights up and takes a long drag, before taking a seat on one of the desks at the front and beginning to speak.

“We need an in,” Anja says. “There’s a point defense battery here—Ostford and Lang—and the Blues must have some serious shit on the girl working it, because she hasn’t left her goddamn perch since Sunday. That studious little bitch is the one thing stopping us from turning their base in the Quarter into so much concrete. You’re going to fix that.”

“I don’t know how to use a gun.” This is half a lie: before Andhra Pradesh, the higher-ups made me learn. But there’s a world of difference between a modern semi-automatic, and the obscenely baroque single-shot contraptions that pass for pistols here.

“If all it took was a gun, we wouldn’t need you,” she snaps.

Deep breath, exhale, menthol and tar.

“No. We’re going quiet. You’re going to ask for an interview.”

“You seriously think they’ll fall for it?”

“They see you on the televisions. They know your face. And besides: it’s not like there isn’t a story here. She’s setting records with the V-97, our shrapneliers would kill for an eye that sharp.” Anja gnaws on the cigarette. “I’m not the journalist here. You are. Understood?”

I nod slightly.

“Good. Good. Now let’s get you a ride to their party…”



Draw, O Coward

The Reds give me nothing for the job except a new carton of cigarettes—unbranded, ash-grey—and some cold well-wishes.

I’m thrown into Blue territory by a clandestine network of cab drivers and kerosene rickshaw operators. Our protocol is simple: I say Anja’s name and they floor it.

Their faces become dark and lined the moment the word leaves my mouth. I wonder, briefly, if the Chamber has something on them, too; if every cog in the Red warmachine is held together at gunpoint.

It feels like we loop around the city a hundred times before I’m finally dropped off for good. The cab is gone before I can even say thank you. I don’t blame him. There are several locations rumored to be the birthplace of the Blues, and Ostford and Lang is one of them. Flags are strung across balconies on either side of the street, so dense they form a second sky of blue.

A few eyes glance my way. I quickly take out my Polaroid, begin snapping away; soon enough, the attention fades and the inhabitants return to their usual routine. Under the camera’s camouflage, I’m free to follow the bright glint of the countermortar, perched atop a long-abandoned apartment building. Even the few open militiamen grudgingly part around me as I reach the ground floor of the perch.

Forward. Up. In.



Modern Variation

This place is filthy with spilt gun oil, rat shit and plaster powder. The elevator, of course, is broken; I have to make a long, arduous crawl up the side of the building via duct-taped fire escape stairs and rusted rivets gunned into pipes.

My target is holed up in a nest of sandbags, open MREs and bottles filled with piss. When I set foot on the roof, she whips around and tries to take out her sidearm; her fingers, twitchy with sleep deprivation, end up dropping the pistol on the floor. Cursing under her breath, she sighs and stuffs it back into its holster. “Some warning, dolly-woman.” (A poor translation of the idiom, but a translation nonetheless.)

“You’re a hot story. I was in a rush.” I look around. There’s a decapitated folding chair sitting off to the side, propped up against one of the sandbag walls. “Mind if I sit?”

She waves a hand, hummingbird-quick. “Sure. Sure. But get on with it.”

I nod, and gingerly ease myself onto the rusted wreck. It’s begun to dawn on me that I don’t have a plan for this, not really; hard to be a more effective distraction than a military-grade Roman candle. So I have to play for time.

There’s an edge to her body language. High alert. She probably already thinks I’m in bed with the Reds. I need to ingratiate myself, and one move suggests itself. These cigarettes should be a safe shade of grey—maybe they’ll be too non-partisan for her tastes, but they’re my best shot.

“You smoke?” I offer.

“Course.” She takes one, and now the mood lifts a little. My window widens. Good start.

I take the time to snap a couple of photos out the sides of the perch—letting the nicotine do its job—and then ask her to pose. She’s all smiles now, even if they are a little forced, and I admit, she does cut a striking silhouette with the sun behind her. For a moment I forget all about the sword hanging over my head.

“So,” I say. “About th—”

And then I hear the beesting whine of a distant coilgun, and she falls—

I stumble back out of the chair, nearly trip on myself, grab the sandbag to steady steady steady the ground below me God my God—

silent look of betrayal mouth open eyes wide the floor ripped out from under her—

she draws again and she’s lost too much blood for the shot to go wide—

screaming fire down my thigh—

heavy bass of bombardment meeting building—

noise and whirling dark.



Receiver

Three pictures:

The first, a woman buying lamb sweetbreads in the Fifth Quarter. Her eyes are fixed firmly on the butcher, but the planes of her hand point elsewhere. Her index points up, her pinky jabs directly towards the camera. Towards me. Below our feet, peppermint-striped tiles, blood washing towards the grates.

The second, a clipping taken from Realise!, the Red periodical. Your typical bluster and bluff, yes, but an undercurrent of anxiety beneath it all. The models in the cover photo look strained, their eyes dark, their smiles forced. They’re covering for something.

“HOW LONG CAN THE EFFORT ENDURE?” asks the headline. I’m not sure the writers believe in their answer.

The third, the photo I took before entering the Blue compound. Here, this building. This balcony. The woman from the butchery, leaning on the guardrail. So small it’s almost impossible to make out, a pair of binoculars in her hand, cherry-red.

Who would send a supposed hostage into the middle of enemy territory without so much as an escort? Why did they depend on the neutrality they took away for their plan to work? And, of course, why would they give me a coded message I would never have known to read?

This was not a blunder. This was a gambit. If they could position the Blues into firing on a journalist, bury the evidence beneath stucco and gunpowder, pull people away from the other side—

(But there are bigger players than this little game of Blue and Red, you wake older gods than these—)

One picture. The one taken before the fall.

See the river across the way, see the flare falling back to earth, see a scope glint in the light—



Interlude: Vivisector Majoris

Here there is a break in the continuity of the collection, spanning approximately seven hours.

Trying to reconstruct the sequence of events that occurred in this time is almost impossible. The newspapers are a palimpsest of contradiction and accusation; photographs have either been blurred, burned or else rendered unusable. For all I know God might have taken those seven hours off.

The only definite fact which escaped this black box is the bullet lodged a quarter-inch above my hip.



Night Turns Day

When I wake up men are shining flashlights in my eyes. The cellophane they’ve hastily taped over the bulbs crinkles and rustles in the wind. In the heat of the skirmish I have been dumped into an alley. The wet bricks and the puddles are drowned, International Klein blue.

I squint and shield myself against the glare; if my captors have anything to say about that, they do not say it to me. Quiet chatter runs between them like rainwater, carried out in a dialect I cannot follow. Bastard fragments of the Albanian I do know float to the surface of the conversation: they are talking about fronts, tides, lines of battle. When are they ever not, in this city? Brick and mortar exist only to represent the invisible walls they draw on their lacquered tables, on the dioramas they level and rebuild every fifteen hours at the beat of a clockwork heart.

In the distance, a woman in overalls hauls a theodolite out of the back of a truck. Its panelling is devoid of emblem or insignia, that absence the only official signifier of its neutrality. I want to scream for her, to tell her there’s been a terrible mistake, to shake her and beg to visit the embassy.

But right now I can barely breathe loud enough to remind myself I’m alive.

One of them leans down to offer me a hand up. Their little council is adjourned. “Did they abandon you?”

“What?” Words bubbling up from my throat like tar from a well.

“There is a measure of lenience we afford to those left behind,” he says. “We would rather this city be owned by cowards than razed by demagogues.”

Blood still lingers in my mouth. Its taste is more unfamiliar than I would like. “They shot me.”

He looks down at me. Takes my shattered camera from the bag at my hip, points it at me like a gun.

“Who?”

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