CHAPTER 7

The man walked with measured tread along the soft carpet. He was effectively alone in the brightly lit corridor as two aides, a man and a woman, kept pace with him some distance away, not willing to encroach on his consciousness unless called upon.

Dressed in a sharply tailored dark suit with contrasting iridescent tie, this man exuded authority from the tips of his polished shoes to the greying hair swept back away from his temples. Bushy eyebrows converged questioningly as he stood before an ornate door that refused to budge at his expectant presence. He glanced briefly over a shoulder.

"Protocol directive change, last Tuesday, your citizenship?" a female voice responded as the two aides sped forward.

"Ah yes," the man said softly, reminded of the security change. Doors would only activate when prompted. He pressed his lapel button and the ornate door sighed smoothly to one side. A babble of voices silenced and the sound of chairs scraping wooden flooring greeted the First Citizen of Godfrey Greater Council as he entered the chamber.

"Please, be seated," he gestured the assemblage of five men and two women gathered around the teakwood table that gleamed from overhead light clusters. He sat at his high-backed chair as the two aides deposited sheets and a tablet in front of him. A glass of water was already present, placed there by a thoughtful councillor. The man took a sip and surveyed the room. With a tap he activated the tablet which simultaneously brought a large display screen on line. What showed on the tablet appeared magnified on the screen. It was the picture of a pretty girl with blonde curls, clutching a cuddly toy rabbit. Everyone glanced at the image and then without comment resumed looking at the First Citizen expectantly.

"My daughter," he said indulgently and smiled. Everyone duly smiled in response.

"I've called this meeting not to look at family photos councillors, but to highlight a growing crisis." He sat forward, elbows on the table and fingers interlaced impatiently. "Changes are on their way, big changes. Norman?" He glanced at the nearest man to him on his left.

"Findlaw Council have formally requested we harbour half a million new souls," he said without missing a beat. "Their reclamation programme is fully stretched whereas we have grey sites on our very doorstep."

"Why not build upward, or downward?" a councillor said, one of the women. She was middle aged with sculpted hair dyed the palest of blues like fresh ice from the now defunct glaciers of Old Antarctica.

"Downward unsuitable, fracked oily shale. Upward unsuitable, flight path nexus. Lantic Air would have a fit," came a lawyer like response from a plump balding man right at the end of the table. He had numerous silver rings on his fingers and toyed with a fat stylus like an unlit cigar.

"Changes, as I say councillors, are upon us, whether we will or no." The First Citizen glanced up at the bright blue eyes of his daughter a moment, magnified greater than life-sized on the curved chamber wall. "Do we have resources for this population influx? Living spaces, jobs, food, an increase in traffic? Of course not. Within the Authority we too have stretched ourselves to the limit."

"So it's the grey sites then?" the ice-haired lady stated.

"Norman?"

"We estimate the cost of draining the swamp area, diverting the river, levelling and connecting the sites with rail networks at three and a half billion. Five year plan though."

"And the misfits?" This question came from a bespectacled woman who had more sheets of paper in front of her than anyone else, casework.

"We estimate there are between six and seven hundred misfits in the grey site areas. We have tried to reclaim them in various ways, even feeding them to some extent to foster good feeling."

"They resist of course, Councillor Eve," the First Citizen leant his weighty word to his fact-wielding colleague.

"Of course they do," the bespectacled councillor replied with a sneer and held up fact sheets of her own. "My agencies have cited numerous suicides among the young. When so many choose death over our brave new world is it any wonder others chose to run away never to return?"

A brief nervous glance at the youthful smiling blonde girl projected on the wall opposite and the First Citizen pushed himself back into the padded chair crowned by the symbol of Authority rule, a copper coloured eye gazing watchfully, protectively on a crowd of tiny citizens.

"Individual choices are always the prerogative of the individual," he said with a twitch of his mouth. "That we cannot and will not control. Our role of councillors in this great metropolis is to counsel, to advise, to guide. Those who choose not to take our counsel know they are swimming against the great tide of human progress. Yet they are not islands in a stream councillor, but dams blocking our worthy endeavours. We cannot let a few wavering fools deny a happy future for the many, a future of security and plenty. One can only regret the loss of life, that we were not able to save those who chose a different path. The misfits are in a similar plight. Dams, Councillor Eve, blood clots in the artery of progress." He bounced a fist off the table in unison with the word blood.

"So, you're going to kill them," the councillor so addressed responded.

"Harumph," came an interruption from a hitherto silent individual. He was the only councillor present in what was obviously a uniform. Chief of Staff Mullins leant forward. "My Enforcement Officers in three districts have mapped the corresponding grey sites and tracked a few prominent individuals. Snatch squads can grab these at short notice which will disorganise any resistance. Deadly force unnecessary as they are armed with primitive weaponry. We neutralise anything dangerous as soon as sighted. Drones are constantly on watch. However there's a wrinkle. Not my department."

"Norman?"

"One of the grey sites may contain an extremely deadly weapon, a mass destruction device of unprecedented scale," Councillor Norman declared with undisguised excitement, deriving curious pleasure from announcing a dreadful fact.

"Neutronic?" the ice lady breathed and everyone looked at her. She was as white as her hair, with the same tinge of blue.

"That's it. We just don't know. The energy signature given off by the device according to our science agency is peculiar. That's their word for it, peculiar."

"Either they've got a neutronic blaster or they don't," Mullins snorted. "Ruddy scientists should make up their analytical minds. Inductive process be damned. Here's how I see it. A bunch of misfit kids have got a pretty toy they may or may not know how to use. It may be a deadly killing device that could blow the Authority to hell and back. We don't know. So what do we do? Send someone in, grab the device, and bring it out."

"And if they're forewarned and it turns out indeed to be a destructive device which they happen to know exactly how to use?" Councillor Eve questioned, waving a sheaf of suicide cases pointedly.

"Strategy. We send someone in who they'd never suspect. A misfit of our very own," and the Chief of Staff grinned, carnivorous teeth flashing at Councillor Eve.

"That's impossible. My psychology agencies have run numerous studies on the misfits. The very essence of their existence is built on an inability to fit in. They feed off each other's idiosyncrasies. Genius level autism. They'd spot an undercover agent pretending to be a misfit as easily as if you put him in uniform and asked him to salute everyone he met."

Mullins frowned. Not his department either he realised. Silenced sullenly he looked to the First Citizen. The ball was in his court he decided, and that court doubled up as a minefield.

Sat upon his padded throne, haloed by the copper eye of benignity, First Citizen Cunninghame looked anything but perplexed at this setback to the expansion programme he was obliged to instigate on the promptings of the much bigger Findlaw neighbour down south. Populations were on the move, always from south to north, away from the deadly equator, and the pressure down below so to speak was becoming irresistible. He had a plan to deal with that pressure. Reincorporate the abandoned grey sites, historically discarded in the search for new land for homes and industry. Free up space, use the expanded population as a resource to generate wealth and re-establish the balance between health, wealth and happiness. There will always be misfits, in every generation, every mode of society. The trick was not to let them stand in the way of progress, acquire power beyond their significance. These he called the Shapers, the stand out geniuses that harboured within them the seeds of revolution, and revolution always forced the human condition back several paces so they had to start over.

Misfits were simply just that when kept at arms length. The grey sites were the perfect place to keep these disruptive influences. Yet now, Findlaw had forced his hand. The misfits would be coming home, bringing their crazy brand of revolution with them, genius level instability. He had a plan to deal with that as well. Unpleasant but necessary. If only the crazy kids hadn't got hold of The Bomb. As if reading his thoughts the lawyer-like councillor voiced his frustration in the simplest of terms.

"How the bloody hell did a bunch of teenagers get their hands on something like that in the first place?" and he flicked imaginary ash off the end of his fat stylus impatiently.

"Norman?"

"We have endeavoured to track the energy signature of the device as far as able. It leaves a trace. Science agency reports suggest it was carried from a caravan of travellers from the east, moving it at least a thousand miles in three years. The misfits got hold of it when someone picked it up at a market in Tannadice Square."

"Scavenger tree," Councillor Eve declared.

"Correct, councillor," the First Citizen said. "We have been monitoring these scavenging travellers and their market sites ever since we realised the significance of that find of theirs. Nothing but junk so far, but we intend to keep strict watch. Never know what else they might pick up. Norman?"

"The trace backwards goes cold. If it is a neutron device there were only three technology centres in existence in the past twenty years that could have produced it but records show nothing with that energy signature was ever created. Plus the location is half a world away. We've liaised covertly with other urban sectors through their satellite probes and the signature appears nowhere else. The last known trace location is a deep cast mine. Agents on the ground have detected the faintest residue two miles down. The signs are it was dug up out of the ground, kept by the local officials, stolen by scavengers and has been changing hands ever since."

"Space rock," someone grunted.

"Bears no resemblance to any known meteorite in the trace signature. Let me emphasise as a word of caution," and Councillor Norman straightened his tie significantly. "This strange device, for device it is, bears a closer resemblance to a complex atomic mechanism than to anything else known to man, be it moon rock, radioactive mineral or chemical battery. There is a regularity in the signal wholly at variance with a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is a device, crafted by intelligent beings, whether alien or human, and its potency is undoubted. What we do not know is whether that potency is benign or destructive, and whether the current possessors of it, some with an intellectual level far in excess of our trained scientists," a nod at Councillor Eve, "know it for what it is and therefore how to use it, for good or ill."

"Which brings us back to our strategy ladies and gentlemen, to covertly extract the device safely and securely." The First Citizen steepled his hands again and beamed knowingly upon the assembled council, who waited expectantly for the revelation. It came, but not from the expected source.

A door banged open from behind the high-backed chair. It was a tiring room, where ceremonial gowns were stored and put on as required. Everyone present knew it also connected with a suite of private rooms used by the First Citizen and his family. When the door flew open it was no surprise to see a well groomed middle-aged lady with honey blonde curls and bright blue eyes standing in the doorway. Everyone was familiar with the image of the First Citizeness but not everyone was familiar with the look of abject horror on her purple face.

"John!" she gasped, pausing to take in the faces turned her way, the colourful image of innocent childhood on the wall, and the massive chair turning slowly to confront the feminine intruder. "It's true isn't it, what they say? Our Petronella's room is empty. She's been gone two days. You've let her go - there!"

The First Citizen stood and went to his wife.

"There, my dear Myriam, she's in no danger. We know where she is at all times and the misfits won't harm her. They think she's one of them." As he spoke he gently guided the distraught woman from the room, closing the door behind him, apparently abandoning the meeting to deal with a family crisis.

"She doesn't know, does she?" Councillor Eve said, looking up at the smiling face on the wall. Norman gathered up the First Citizen's papers. He tapped the tablet and the image disappeared.

"That's the strategy councillor. Consciously Miss Cunninghame is unaware of what she has been sent into that grey site to do. She's as much a misfit as they are and will be welcomed with open arms."

"I heard she was a bit of a problem child," the legal councillor observed.

"Yes, well, that is by the by. In the absence of the residing Authority I shall use the power vested in me as sub to draw this meeting to a close. Are we all of an understanding that the Findlaw request can go ahead pending the reabsorption of the grey areas to free up necessary resources?"

"Understood," each councillor acknowledged.

"With one note of caution, and I want this on the record Norman," Councillor Eve interjected vehemently. "Pending the success of a hypnotically induced teenage girl to extract a deadly device from under the noses of a bunch of highly suspicious, highly intelligent and highly unpredictable individuals without blowing herself and everyone for countless miles around sky-high."

"Granted."

Everyone stood, bowed to the empty throne chair and departed for a very late evening meal.

To be continued...