Following on from the opening chapter of Integration in my last blog post, here's the promised second chapter, from the perspective of Kofi Albus and set some two centuries later.
As before, this is a first draft and subject to significant change without notice. In particular, this is probably a bit long, so I may well split it either side of the next Carole chapter. We'll see, I won't make any decision on that until I've completed the first draft in its entirety. A good chance I might do quite a bit of juggling in the second draft.
That's all the previews you're getting for now, along with this first attempt at a front cover image which matches the theme of Long Division.
Kofi Albus was forty-two years old. The day that affirmed years of hard work and dedication had finally dawned. He settled into the utilitarian chair behind the desk in his office. Beige walls, grubby interactive whiteboards and a balding carpet cocooned him in the past, but he didn’t care. Today wasn’t about his surroundings, his students, or Colin. Today would define his future, or rather the past in his future.
Kofi had cultivated a respectable international reputation as Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Accra, with a specialisation in the pre-Flood era. His biography of Raj Tamboli had been well received and was the final slab in the pathway leading to his magnum opus. That was his real passion, the uncharted territory of the immediate post-Flood years.
It was an itch he’d been aching to scarify all his career, a foggy discontinuity that separated Flood day from the new order that had kept the world at peace for the last two centuries. The period of trauma after the Flood had been chaotic, but only a decade later the countries of the world were effectively conjoined, controlled by the Decemvirate with democracy devolved to the Elector. And it worked. The most prolonged period of tranquillity the human race had endured showed no sign of wavering. Why did nobody remember the details of how this had happened? It offended him as a historian not to have a causative chain in place between the Flood and the Decemvirate. Why did no-one else want to know?
Joining the dots would be tough. So much information from that period was lost, mislaid or restricted. He was sure it could be done though. It had taken three months to write the proposal, estimating it would need five years to complete. His submission had been positively received by the grants committee, and he was sure he’d successfully defended all their objections at the formal grilling session. Would they grant him funding for the full five years upfront, or phase the payments? It didn’t matter. Once he got started, he was confident he could show results that would justify completing the investigation.
The main stumbling block would be getting access to some restricted records, but he hoped that his reputation would speak to his trustworthiness, as would making the request from an approved research programme. His initial informal contact with the local Office of the Decemvirate seemed encouraging enough. Bureaucrats could be reasonable if you worked within their rules and remit, so he’d taken time to understand the limits of their authority. As long as he didn’t tread on any forbidden toes, he’d charm it out of them.
He hated waiting. It was still ten minutes before the scheduled conference where they’d announce the level of his funding. Another piece of archaic bureaucracy; a simple message through the Stream would tell him everything he needed to know. A blink of the eye and his worries could have been quelled. But no, a meeting was required. It helped justify the chairman’s existence.
It would be the same three committee members that had quizzed him on his proposal, chaired by the Éminence Greasy, Sanjay Kaur from the University of Mumbai. He was the main cause of the occasional niggling doubts Kofi had about his project being approved. Sanjay gave the impression of saying what you wanted to hear while secretly plotting against you behind your back. No, that wasn’t fair. He had no evidence to back that up, there was just something about him that made the hairs on his neck lay down and try to hide.
Fuck it, he wasn’t going to concentrate on anything. He may as well go to the meeting room and wait for them arrive, rehearse what he was going to say in his acceptance speech and hope not to break into tears.
Kofi closed his eyes, pulled up the meeting invitation and asked to enter the room. An ornate, old-fashioned office faded into his virtual view. Dark wooden panels adorned the doorless walls, carved with smiling gargoyles. A solid antique oak table filled most of the room, with similar motifs inlaid in its surface. This theme continued to the sturdy arms of his chair, positioned behind one side of the table. A horribly anachronistic choice of room, but the lack of taste didn’t really surprise him if it was Sanjay’s decision. To the far side were four more empty chairs, identical to his.
Four? He was only expecting the three committee members. Who was the extra person? Should he be worried?
A distant knocking noise dragged his attention back to the real world. Opening his eyes, he tried to focus on his drab office through the rococo monstrosity of the meeting room. Damn, he wished he was one of those people who could block out reality entirely when immersed in the Stream.
The knocking came again. It was someone at his door.
The head of one of his students poked through the panel of the wall; no, through a crack in his door.
‘May I ask a question about this week’s assignment?’
‘Sorry, I’m in a conference. Come back in an hour please.’
Kofi pressed the desk button to indicate he was occupied to stop anyone else coming in. A stupid mistake by a preoccupied mind. Closing his eyes, he sank back into the wooden horror.
After a couple of minute’s contemplation of an unexpected empty chair, a woman faded into existence in the leftmost seat. It was Rima Khalil from the University of Cairo, a friendly face. Kofi had had professional contact with her over the years, well before she’d got dragged into the world of bureaucracy. She knew her stuff.
‘Hi Kofi, big day for you,’ she said.
‘It certainly is. Any hints?’
‘You know I can’t say anything. Sanjay would have my guts for garters. Anyway, I don’t want to spoil his fun.’
‘He knows how to have fun?’
‘Now, now,’ she smiled. ‘Just relax. Enjoy your moment.’
‘Thanks,’ said Kofi. That sounded encouraging.
Another figure gently shimmered into being; Enriqua Santos from the University of Santiago emerged into the third seat along. Kofi nodded in greeting. Enriqua was still a bit of an enigma to him, she’d not asked many questions at the hearing, and he knew little of her work.
While he was deciding whether to engage in futile small talk with Enriqua, the problem was solved by Sanjay oozing into the seat between them.
‘Good morning, Dr Albus,’ said Sanjay.
‘Good morning, Professor Kaur. Good to meet you again.’
‘Indeed. Now, as you see, we have one more person who will be joining us today. I believe you have been in contact with your local Office of the Decemvirate?’
‘Yes, that is correct. I wanted to find out what would be involved in gaining access to some of the restricted records. Is that a problem?’
‘No. A little precipitate maybe, but perfectly allowable. However, I have received a request from that office to attend this meeting. I believe that one of their representatives will be joining us shortly.’
‘I see,’ said Kofi, not seeing at all. ‘Isn’t that unusual?’
‘Indeed, but it is within their rights,’ said Sanjay, glancing across to the empty chair. ‘If only they could be punctual.’
‘Shall we proceed?’ said Enriqua. ‘I have another meeting immediately after this.’
‘Agreed,’ said Sanjay. ‘Very well. Dr Albus, thank you for your proposal. It was very thorough and raised some intriguing questions. We all agreed that this is an area that has been sorely neglected, and appreciated the value in your work.’
Rima and Enriqua both nodded in tandem.
‘We are happy to approve your proposed research. However we have concerns over the length of your project, and the risk it entails. Our resources are not unlimited and must be shared equitably. Based on the preliminary breakdown and phasing of your expenses, as outlined in Appendix C of your proposal, we are happy to fully fund your project for one calendar year from the beginning of next month. We expect a full report of your interim findings at the end of this period, on which we will base the decision of whether to fund your project for a further year. You may reapply for funding in this way annually, up to a maximum of five years. Do you accept these conditions?’
‘Yes, thank you. That is a very acceptable outcome.’
He would have preferred longer-term funding, but it could have been worse. It was in his control now, all he had to do was deliver. That was fine. That was wonderful.
Without any of the customary gentle transition, a figure snapped into the fourth chair. With a stern, steely-eyed blue gaze, he turned to face Sanjay.
‘My name is Legate James Jenkins. With the authority invested in me as Legate to the Decemvirate, I order this project to be terminated. This proposal contravenes the standing orders of the establishment of the Decemvirate.’
‘How…what…gives you the right?’ stumbled Sanjay as Kofi’s elation was stunned into silence.
‘As I said, as Legate I need no further authority. I report directly to a Decemvir. I speak with their authority.’
‘I see. Why are you doing this?’
‘Did you not hear me say this contravenes standing orders? The proclamation of establishment forbids this.’
‘I’m sorry,’ interrupted Kofi, finding his voice. ‘But what does that mean?’
‘That doesn’t…’ began the Legate. His severe expression softened, relaxing into a thin smile. ‘I can see this is a disappointment to you.’
‘You could say that.’
‘I understand. Very well, let me explain.’
‘Please,’ said Kofi, failing to hide his desperation.
‘Since the establishment of the Decemvirate, we’ve lived through the longest period of peace in humanity’s history. We can't allow anything to put that at risk.’
‘How could my project do that, for Raj’s sake?’
‘The period leading up to its formation was…chaotic. The world was troubled. Politicians fomented division to foster their own agendas, whipping up populations into nationalistic frenzies. That must not happen again.’
‘Why would it?’
‘Because our species is proven to be doomed to repeat its history. It always has. Indeed, it is often inspired by the darkest moments from its past. We must ensure we make a break from this, in part by removing the source of inspiration.’
‘So we edit the past?’
‘Only for public consumption. The Decemvirate remembers, the population must forget.’
‘What gives you the right?’
‘The Decemvirate gives me the right,’ snapped Jenkins, his stern demeanour returning. ‘This is not up for discussion.’
He turned to Sanjay.
‘Do you understand my decision? There will be no funding for this project, nor for any similar research.’
‘Do you understand?’
‘Yes, very well.’
The Legate nodded and disappeared.
The four academics sat in silence for a few moments, Kofi oblivious to his surroundings. Sanjay was the first to collect himself.
‘I’m sorry, Kofi. I have no choice. It's out of my hands.’
‘What do I do now?’
‘I don't know. Think again. I’m sorry.’
Sanjay blinked, and faded out of the room, as did Enriqua. Rima shrugged helplessly, closed her eyes and disappeared.
Head in hands, Kofi sat motionless, observed only by the surrounding gargoyles until the meeting invitation expired and the room faded away. He opened his eyes to the beige blandness of his office, his cocoon from the past now offering him no future.
Shortly before lunch, Kofi admitted defeat and went home. He wasn’t achieving anything. There was little he could do; nothing he wanted to do.
Sat in the shuttle on the way to his village, his mind wandered over his life. Where had it gone wrong? Could he have predicted this? In retrospect, it was obvious there must be a reason why that era of history was so opaque. Such utter hubris to think he was the only one who had spotted it. Of course it was a deliberate act. How could he have been so stupid?
It had been all so clear when he was an undergraduate. His roadmap seemed foolproof. He knew what he would do at every major decision point in his life; the things needed to take him to his ultimate goal of a professorship; how he would identify the area that would cement his reputation. And he’d done it, everything had panned out as he’d hoped. Until today.
Life had been so much simpler back then; four friends who were going to conquer the world. Of course, everyone thinks that. They’d done well, though. The loss of Michelle Laurent in the car crash just after graduation had shaken their world, but life went on. Colin Wei, now his husband, had recently had his first best-seller after years of slowly building his reputation and craft. Kofi was so proud of him. After Michelle’s death, they’d both slowly drifted apart from the last member of their quartet, Geraldine Mander. They knew how she was doing though; hard not to when she was in the news so regularly. It was her career that had taken her away from them, but that was unavoidable. Working through the ranks of the space expeditionary corps, she rapidly rose to command her own exploratory craft. The bulk drive had finally been perfected, and humanity was out, exploring the stars. Some of the generation starships from two centuries earlier had been found, but it was Geraldine who had discovered the first extra-solar civilisation two years earlier, the Proximates. It made her famous, and she’d been left in charge of establishing relations with them. Things had been quiet over the last year, but he couldn’t wait to see what she’d achieved.
And now he’d failed. He had to admit it. He’d take his time to work out what came next though, there was no point in rushing things. His mind wasn’t ready to move on, not yet. Other things would interest him, he was sure. But would he ever have the same passion for a subject? Maybe. Today though, he just needed to see Colin. To lean on Colin, to remember there was more to life than his career. Perspective, yes, that’s what he needed.
As he approached the door to their apartment, he felt a wave of relief wash over him. He needed to be at home, Colin would make everything all right. He was sure he wouldn’t mind being disturbed from his writing under the circumstances.
Kofi entered their sanctuary and closed the door behind him, isolating them from the rest of the world. Colin would be in his study at this time of day, so he walked softly towards it and poked his head through the door. To his surprise, the room was empty. Indeed, it appeared not to have been used yet today. Had he forgotten that Colin was going somewhere? No, he was pretty sure that wasn’t the case.
‘Colin?’ called Kofi. ‘I’m home. Where are you?’
He wandered back out into the living room.
Kofi heard rustling from a room at the back, so walked towards it. Before he got to their bedroom door, it opened a crack, and Colin sidled out looking flustered, shirt untucked.
‘What are you doing home?’ said Colin.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Nothing, I was just resting. Headache. What’s up?’
‘I didn’t get it. My grant.’
‘Oh, Kofi, I’m so sorry,’ said Colin, stepping forward and hugging him. ‘Tell me what happened.’
Kofi put his arms around Colin and squeezed hard. He needed this. ‘Not yet, hold me first.’ He closed his eyes and let the warmth soak through him.
He opened his eyes and froze. The bedroom door had opened a crack, and he could see movement through it. His arms dropped to his side, as he held his breath.
Colin stepped back, feeling Kofi’s tension.
‘Who’s in there?’ said Kofi.
Colin turned to see where Kofi’s gaze was fixed.
‘Who is it?’
‘No-one. I…I’m sorry.’
Kofi stared at Colin, his world shrinking further. He remembered to breathe.
‘Let me explain…’ began Colin.
‘It’s too late. How could you?’
‘No. Leave me alone. I needed…’ faltered Kofi. At a loss, he turned and headed for the door. He had to get out of there. He couldn’t face it. Not today.
‘Come back,’ pleaded Colin. ‘Let’s go somewhere and…’
Kofi cut off the rest of the sentence by slamming the door behind him. He strode back towards the shuttle station. Where could he go? He didn’t want to see anyone. He had to be alone, to think.
The first place that came to mind was the automated hotel near the university. It would do. With perfect timing, a shuttle was pulling in as he arrived. Still numb, he settled into the seat.
A high priority notification popped into his vision. He closed his eyes to focus on it, expecting it to be a message from Colin, but no. It was a message from the Decemvir’s office.
‘Your presence is required at a debrief meeting with a representative of the Office of the Decemvirate. This is an official request, evidence must be provided to justify if you are unable to attend. Please reply as soon as possible.’
Fuck, just what he needed, couldn’t they leave him alone? It was scheduled for later in the afternoon. Fuck. Fuck.
He’d be settled into his room by then. At least it would keep him occupied, although he wasn’t sure he’d be able to control his temper if it got difficult. Sod it.
Kofi closed his eyes and sent his acceptance. Keeping his eyes shut, he slowed his breathing to try to calm himself. Setting a location alarm, he let the movement of the shuttle slowly lull him into contemplative slumber.
The day had started with Kofi on the top of the world, in a happy relationship, in sight of the apotheosis of his career. Now it was gone, two events combining to excommunicate himself from his life. Sat alone in the tiny but comfortably grey hotel room, he contemplated what came next.
Nothing. He had no idea. Could it get any worse?
He’d soon see. He couldn’t imagine the meeting with the Decemvir’s office being a positive affair. At best, they were going to make him agree to some sort of non-disclosure clause, or ask for all his records on the proposal.
Laying back on the single bed, closing his eyes to the achromatic cell that would be his home for the night, Kofi reviewed the meeting invitation. No real clues there as to the agenda. There was only one way to find out, and there was no point trying to think straight until it was over. So he selected the meeting room and sank into it; hopefully, the other party might be early, and they could get on with it. It was soon, anyway.
Whatever Kofi had expected of a formal meeting room of the Decemvirate, this wasn’t it. His avatar was stood in large chamber topped by a resplendent ceiling in the style of the Sistine Chapel. The stone walls were adorned with similarly painted frescoes. It was an homage to the Renaissance, one of his favourite periods of history. It was exquisite. But what was it doing here?
In front of him was a raised dais covered by plush red carpet and mounted by an ornate throne. Its indigo cushions were embroidered in gold with an elaborate monogram of the letters G and M.
There was a beauty to the incongruity of the room, but he wasn’t in the mood to appreciate it. What was going on? What did GM stand for?
A deep voice resonated around the chamber. ’Please be upstanding for the arrival of the Grand Master.’
Kofi, already standing, looked around in confusion. There was no-one else here.
Slowly, sat on the throne, a figure began to appear. It wore a heavy mustard robe, crested by ermine, with red garments visible beneath. The head was crowned by a circlet of gold and carmine velvet; the visage concealed by a full-face Venetian mask.
‘Good afternoon, Dr Albus,’ said a woman’s voice, obviously affecting a deep timbre to try to sound like a man. ‘I hope you appreciate the effort I’ve made in choosing the decor?’
It sounded familiar.
‘It’s very…’ said Kofi, at a loss for words as his annoyance rose. ‘I’m sorry, but what’s going on? It’s all very pretty, but I’d rather just get this over with.’
The figure exhaled an audible sigh.
‘You always did like to spoil my fun, didn’t you?’ she said in her normal voice.
It couldn’t be. Geraldine Mander, his old friend from university days, was supposed to be somewhere in the vicinity of Proxima Centauri completing first contact with the alien race.
Slowly, she removed her mask to reveal the friendly face he was so familiar with. She’d grown her hair longer than the last picture he’d seen and had reverted back to her natural brunette, but there was no mistaking the warmth of her smile.
‘Hi, Kofi,’ said Geraldine. ‘I was just trying to break the ice after all these years. Sorry, I should have realised you’d be upset after your research was cancelled.’
She spoke with an empathetic confidence and authority so unfamiliar to how he remembered her. He guessed it was natural given how many years had past, and the fact she was used to command. It came naturally to her now.
‘It’s OK. How did you know about it?’
‘Ah. I’ll come to that, it’s a bit of a long story. Anyway, how are you? How’s Colin?’
‘We’re…we’re not together any more.’
‘Oh shit, Kofi. I’m so sorry. How long has it been?’
‘Fuck. You’ve had quite a day.’ She blinked, and the room dissolved back into a vanilla office, with a small desk between them. ‘I’m sorry, that was supposed to be a bit of fun. My timing was never great, was it?’
‘It’s fine,’ said Kofi, still acclimatising to being with her. ‘Thanks for the effort.’
He smiled, and felt better for it. It was good to see her again, he felt himself automatically relaxing into the old mannerisms of their past.
‘What happened with Colin?’ asked Geraldine. ‘If you want to talk about it.’
‘He’s a bestseller. He’s got fans. He…’ Kofi faltered.
‘It’s OK. I really am sorry. I always thought you two would…you know.’
They fell into silence. Geraldine’s sympathetic gaze was hard to bear.
‘I bet you’re wondering why I’m here?’ she said.
‘Yes, what on Earth are you doing here, on Earth? Aren’t you supposed to be off sweet-talking the Proximates?’
‘I left that in someone else’s hands, someone with the specialist knowledge needed. I was given a new command.’
‘A promotion? What ship?’
‘Yes, you could call it a small promotion. But not a ship. Something a bit bigger.’
‘You know Decemvir Marcus Nguyen died a while back? They haven’t announced his successor yet?’
Geraldine spread the palms of her hands either side of her head and wiggled her fingers, smirking.
‘What? You’re a Decemvir? How?’
‘Same way as the others. The Elector chose me. Clearly an algorithm of impeccable taste.’
The world government was led by a ten-person council, the Decemvirate, whose members were chosen by the Elector as a synergistic group to represent the best of humanity. The Elector was a sophisticated algorithm which analysed the problems faced by the world, the skills that would be needed, and chose members to ensure that they could work together to solve whatever was thrown at them. If a nominee accepted the role, they were appointed for life. Only death or infirmity could end their responsibility. Actively seeking political power was one of the few things that would block an individual from being considered for the position of Decemvir. Earth needed the altruistic, long-term stability provided by the Decemvirate, and with minor exceptions, it had worked. But Geraldine?
‘How long have you known?’ said Kofi.
‘I accepted six months ago. We’re given a year to get used to the responsibilities and become effective in the role before it’s publicly announced.’
‘I…don’t know what to say. What should I call you?’
‘Same as always, anything but Gerry.’
‘Now, now,’ she laughed. ‘Anything you want to ask?’
‘Can you get my project approved?’
‘I knew you’d ask that.’ Her face turned serious for the first time. ’No, I’m afraid not. You see, it was my office that cancelled it.’
‘Exactly as Legate Jenkins told you. It’s against official policy. There was nothing I could do.’
‘I though Decemviri had ultimate power?’
‘Within limits. This isn’t a boundary I want to press this early in my tenure though. But I can help in another way.’
‘Come and work for me. There’s a problem you can help me with.’
‘Why me? I’m no civil servant.’
‘I trust you. Something is going on that I don’t understand. I need your analytical skills, your background, to help me make sense of it.’
‘It doesn’t sound my thing. What makes you think I could possibly help.’
‘I think it links back to the years immediately after the Flood. You’ll have access to the restricted records to help your investigation.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Perfectly. I need a friend I can trust too. You helped me through my transition when we were younger. Help me through this one. Becoming a Decemvir makes changing gender seem a doddle.’
‘OK then. There’s nothing to keep me here.’
‘Sure? Anything stopping you moving to Kenya to be near my office? It would be much handier.’
‘Welcome to my team, Kofi. You’ll not regret it. Probably.’