Archibald Weevil showed the regional representatives for Vancouver’s west and east districts, Grizzella Sticks and Pietro DiPisco, into the Highest Seat’s office, then retreated quickly, scuttling away like an oversized rat.
Grizzella was short and lean, with smooth brown skin and two sleek black braids. Her fingernails dug into her own flesh, leaving quarter-moon dents at the base of her thumbs. Pietro was short, but wide. His shoulders bunched up around his ears, and his forehead was slick with sweat. A clock perched on a bookshelf ticked insistently. The battery was failing, and the second hand twitched, stuck at the bottom near the six, giving the illusion that time had stopped. Harpminster Abbott folded his fingers on his desk, and spread his lips in a chilling smile.
“You two represent the western part of this country,” said Harpminster, his smooth tone rolling around the room. “I depend on you for accurate reports and breaking news. I also trust you to inform your inferiors when they aren’t performing to Parleyment standards.”
“Sir, our inferiors did not convey the seriousness of the situation,” said Pietro.
“Oh really,” said Harpminster Abbott pleasantly.
Grizzella made a choking sound, and turned it into an artificial sneeze.
“Every other regional representative has successfully implemented the measures I ordered. To be sure, there were differences in the manner that each region carried out my orders. Small adjustments, a curfew here, a system of food penalties there. But by and large, the other regions don’t have renegade communities.” Harpminster Abbott lifted his letter-opener from the leather desk blotter and pushed the sharp end under one of his fingernails. He worked the blade sideways, flicking specks of grit onto his desk.
Grizzella and Pietro were standing with their heads slightly bowed when Harpminster Abbott suddenly picked up a glass paperweight and flung it at Pietro. The heavy object struck the man squarely on his crown. He staggered, his hands flew up, and he gasped in pain.
“It isn’t our fault!” Grizzella shouted. “Here in the east you have storms, but in the west we have both storms and earthquakes. Vancouver is broken, all its bridges collapsed, entire neighbourhoods under water. Our residents are doing what they must to survive.”
Harpminster Abbott rose from his desk, walked to the window, and pressed his forehead against the glass. Outside, the sky was smeared with low-hanging yellow clouds. Container fires burned in empty parking lots across the river. People had gathered around the flames, like Neanderthals huddling around the sole thing separating them from chaos and danger. Abandoned cars lined the streets, useless lumps of rusting metal.
“So you think you have it worse than us,” said Harpminster. “Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, not so long ago, traffic flowed smoothly on those streets down there. At night, lights flowed in lines of brilliant white and burning red. It was a beautiful automotive ballet. Now there’s only soulless pale blue circles cast by solar street lamps.”
Pietro rubbed his skull. “But you have enough to eat. Our factory food ran out a long time ago. Community gardens and alternative housing are only natural.”
“So the problem is I don’t understand the problem. Is that right?” Harpminster wheeled around, his nostrils flaring. The black phone on his desk jingled its old-fashioned ring. He glared at it, considering, then lunged forward and picked up the handset.
“Highest Seat. Speak.”
A shrill voice blasted, loud enough everyone in the hushed office could hear.
“It’s mother. Harpy, I’m missing a bag of sugar and a package of smoked meat. They were in the pantry only last week. Your father and I are not senile. Bring them back immediately.”
“I can’t discuss this now. I’m in a meeting. Call Weevil and make an appointment.”
An angry squawk escaped the phone as Harpminster Abbott returned the handset to its cradle. He cleared his throat. “To navigate these dark times, we must restore order. Living outside of established communities can’t be tolerated. Which one of you has Ichamus Nickel as an underling?”
“Uh, that’s me, Sir,” said Pietro.
“Yesterday Nickel’s base was invaded, and overpowered by rebels. I have authorized Nickel and his team to pursue these assailants, and destroy the rebel community they have created.”
Grizzella Sticks swallowed hard, then spoke in a rush. “If you do that you’ll turn Vancouver against Parleyment. In the west we trade vegetables for packaged food. It’s live and let live, and we aren’t fighting each other. Alternative gardening settlements enrich the market.”
Tick, tick, tick. The second hand desperately tried to escape the six.
Harpminster Abbott drummed his fingertips on the desktop. “Thank you for your assessment, Grizzella,” he said at last. “Because you perceive no need for Parleyment intervention to restore order in your region, your employment with us is hereby terminated. There is no shortage of applicants for your position. A more capable individual will gratefully receive the shipments of Parleyment supplies. Now get out of my sight.”
Harpminster Abbott swept the air with a limp hand.
Grizzella straightened her shoulders. “Parleyment has outlived its usefulness,” she said. “Central power is impossible now. Social organization must be local, and specific to each region. I’m glad to be relieved of my Parleymentary duties. I should have resigned a long time ago. Now I can devote myself properly and wholeheartedly to Vancouver’s future.”
Grizzella marched out of the office. Pietro watched her go, wiping damp palms on his trousers.
In the marble foyer, Archibald Weevil grinning widely, air-clapped.
“That was brilliant,” said Archibald in a strained whisper. “No one talks to him like that. Everyone is afraid of him.” He checked over his shoulder, and lowered his voice even more. “I want to kill him. I want to murder him in his sleep. I could do it, you know, take a pillow and…” Archibald mimed smothering his boss.
“Hey, take it easy,” said Grizzella, alarmed. “Come to Vancouver with me, if you want. I’m sure you’ll feel loads better when you get away from him.”
“He would find me,” Archibald said, quailing. “Find me, and make me miserable.”
Grizzella leaned toward the old man and spoke urgently. “It’s his awful energy that makes you feel hopeless. Think about what makes you happy! It cuts through his sickening aura. Why don’t you come out west with me, and start a new life? I promise we can protect you.”
Archibald sagged, and shook his head.
“I have to go,” said Grizzella. “If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”
Leaving the Senior Assistant trembling outside the Highest Seat’s office, Grizzella fast-walked through deserted hallways, and trotted down the wide marble staircases of the Parleyment building. Outside, she broke into a run, wishing she had her bright blue bicycle with its white basket affixed to the handlebars, the one she rode all over the city. After the second earthquake, she had surveyed and assessed the damage to city streets. It was she who had organized work crews to clean up and repair what they could, and she, Grizzella Sticks, had encouraged business to continue as usual. She had moved to expand parks and gardens, and coordinated community centre shelters. She had started soup kitchens to feed the city’s most unfortunate citizens.
The climate in Vancouver was temperate, and the growing season long. Communal gardens had the potential to provide for everyone. Thousands of people volunteered to work in the gardens; you had to sign up in advance for the privilege of a gardening day. It was Grizzella who had conceived of CycleCentres, generating electricity, and giving birth to a new kind of economy, energy exchanged for goods and services. Gradually, old ways were merging with new, and now it was time for the west to secede from the rest of the country. Parleyment was finished. It was something else now, a cartel with a weird despot at the helm. Local governments were flexing their muscles, taking control of their own communities. She, Grizzella Sticks, would lead Vancouver into the future.
Back in her hotel room, she hurriedly packed her suitcase, then descended to the lobby and checked out. She strode along the streets of the capital, on smooth, even asphalt she couldn’t help but compare to rubble-strewn roads in Vancouver. At the train station, she handed her Parleyment-issued ticket to the clerk. Would it still be valid? Yes! A bored usher guided her along the platform to car eighty-seven, seat C. Grizzella sat down, but after a few minutes she rose, and walked casually to a different car and seat.
In her new car there was only one other passenger, a dozing bearded man, his snores riffling the moustache hairs under his nose. A quarter hour passed. Uniformed soldiers swept the aisles, but none approached her. The train lurched into motion. Metal wheels screeched along neglected tracks. The bearded man slept on. Grizzella removed her identity tag, hanging on a lanyard around her neck. The card contained a chip with a locating device; all Parleyment employees were required to keep their card within arm’s reach at all times. She unlocked the window-latch, eased the window open a crack, slipped her identity tag outside, and let go. The card streaked away in the train’s airstream, and joined litter beside the tracks. Relief coursed through Grizzella’s body like a drug.
Back in the Highest Seat’s office, Pietro’s white dress shirt was soaked with sour-smelling, nervous perspiration, and Harpminster Abbott was pacing in slow, tight circles around the remaining regional representative. Polished leather shoes sunk into a hush of soft carpet, and Harpminster’s mouth contorted in a malevolent rictus. He halted directly beside Pietro, and leered. His eyes became blood red. Purple veins stood out on his forehead.
“You should have stopped the whole thing before it started.”
Pietro felt nauseous. He gulped down a wave of bile, and his knees felt weak. Any moment now he would collapse, and lose the contents of his stomach on the Highest Seat’s white carpets.
Meow, meow, meow!
A ginger kitten, sleek fur and pink-rimmed eyes, slipped out from beneath the shiny oak desk, and slunk to the Highest Seat’s ankles.
“Puss-puss,” cooed Harpminster Abbott. He scooped up the kitten, and held it under his chin. “And they say I don’t like nature! You’re a natural creature, aren’t you, Pussykins?”
The kitten mewled, exposing a mouthful of sharp yellow teeth, and writhed to escape Harpminster Abbott’s tightening grip. Mewls became piteous howls. A ridge of fur stood up on the kitten’s back, and its tail stiffened.
“You see?” Harpminster Abbott whispered. “Puss-puss loves me.”