And here's the second part of the update.
Nadya had made it as far as the old powerhouse—a hot cavernous hell three stories tall, where two antique steam engines rotated the dynamos of the power plant and engineers scurried the numerous catwalks—before realizing that she would never make it in time. She had spent too much time in the common room—Dr. Lee would have already left Pupin Hall if he wanted to be at the council meeting in time. She could wait here to intercept him, but she doubted they would have time to talk on the go. She would have to catch him after the meeting. She sighed and turned around.
While most of underground Columbia was small and cramped, a few large open spaces did exist within the tunnels. The old powerhouse was the largest of them, but another underground hall, almost as large existed under the eastern end of Havermeyer Hall. It was, as far as Nadya could tell, once used as a loading dock of sorts, and still had the wide metal gates and loading ramps even as the forklifts which used them ran out of fuel and were cannibalized for parts years ago. Crates and boxes of supplies were stacked along the thick walls of yellow cinderblock. The room was over two stories tall, most of that space wasted in the original design. After the world ended, the survivors tried to remedy it and now scaffolds and catwalks of wood and metal crisscrossed the air overhead. A large wooden podium was constructed at one end of the room. It was there that the open sessions of the Columbia Council were usually held. Nadya could see eight empty chairs and a large brass bell. She was just in time.
The room was already packed with people. Looking at the size of the crowd, Nadya estimated that about half of the community’s total population—almost everyone without immediate duties at this hour—had found a pretense to be here. The noise of some ten dozen people talking at once echoed from the walls and ceiling of the cavernous room and descended back to the floor, creating a thunderous din. With her height, Nadya towered over many in the crowd, giving her a good view of the surroundings. She saw familiar faces, greeted people and was greeted in return. She scanned the crowd looking for Paresh, but he was nowhere to be seen. Instead, looking far to her left, she saw someone else entirely.
As always, “perfect” was the word to describe Kelvin Cosgrave. He was a few inches taller than Nadya, and his gaunt face, brimmed by short brown curls could be seen above the heads of the crowd. He was talking to a fellow engineer, half a head shorter than himself, and Nadya could see his patient smile with only the slightest hint of amusement in his eyes. She knew the expression well—he wore that smile whenever teaching her something new; be it explaining a new equation or recommending a book she missed out on reading. Looking at him now, Nadya felt something twist and break inside. Kelvin Cosgrave had been the best and the worst thing that had ever happened to her. With him, she felt the happiest she could remember, the happiest since she was a little girl living at the Rock with her mother and uncle. For a moment, Nadya desperately wished she had not seen the things she did, and immediately hated herself for it.
Kelvin’s eyes shifted a little, and his smile grew slightly wider as he saw her. He gave her a short, ironic nod of the head. Nadya turned away as if slapped. Around her, people noticed the sudden movement, and she faintly heard murmurs rise over the din of the crowd. She sighed inwardly. He was their hero, the idol of her generation, the brilliant young engineer who kept Columbia’s heart beating, and thus, had a place in their hearts as well. She was the outsider, the girl from the kitchens who rose above her place and stabbed him in the back. She had tried telling them the truth, warning them of the darkness that lurked beneath the mask, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Even Magda, her closest friend told her what a good man and a prize catch he was, and if only she could work things out with him…At first, she got angry at people for being blind, for refusing to see what was there. That only made things worse. Eventually, she realized that she could do nothing without proof and shut up. But sometimes, even she herself began to doubt what she saw. What if she was wrong? What if people were correct and she just imagined the whole thing…
The ringing of the large brass bell interrupted her thoughts and brought her back to reality. The noise of the crowd began to quiet down. Nadya turned towards the podium, but not before sneaking another glance at Kelvin. He had already turned away, looking at the figures ascending the podium. Next to him, she could see the scruffy head of Noah Weiss. So much for that mystery, at least. She looked away.
Looking at the podium, she could see figures climbing up and taking their seats. She knew them all by sight, of course, and, squinting, scrutinized their faces for any hints of what was to come. She could see dark rings under the eyes of Major Cardona and the hard face of her mentor and knew then that the matter was serious.
The bell rang again, and the last of the murmurs died away, leaving silence broken only by the puffing of the steam engines just beyond. The secretary, a tall, grey man over 50 with a remarkably mousy face stepped away from the bell towards the edge of the podium, brought his cupped hands to his mouth and took a deep breath, puffing his chest.
“It is June 29th, 2032, 2:32 pm,” he began. “This emergency open session of the Columbia Council is convened to rule on the subject of granting an asylum application to the two individuals captured last night.” He stopped and took a deep breath. “The session will begin with the Council debate, after which, the people will be able to voice their concerns.” He took another deep breath and continued.
“In presence are: Dr. Reinquist, Dean of SEAS, President of the Board of Engineers.”
Jason Reinquist was a tall old man, grey-haired and hawk-nosed. Twenty years in the tunnels failed to bend his back, and his eyes, were as clear and sharp as ever. A strict disciplinarian, he alone among the council followed protocol and wore an old-style suit and tie. He was, unarguably, the second most powerful man in Columbia, one who had ensured its survival again and again by keeping the vestiges of old technology in operation.
“Dr. Melissa Udell, Dean of the School of Medicine, Chief of Medicine,”
The only woman on the council was old, well into her sixties. Her stern face was lined with worry lines, and her small, sad eyes examined the crowd below. She was in charge of the only institution in New York, and, perhaps the whole world, capable of producing qualified medical personnel, and her former students worked everywhere from the secret tunnels of Chinatown to the subway stations under Washington Heights.
“Dr. Steven Lee, Dean of the School of Pure Science, Head Researcher.”
Nadya looked at the short Asian man, the most brilliant scientist left alive by the cataclysm, her mentor and the man who held her fate in his hands. She could see that he had waited till the last moment to leave, as he still wore his old stained lab coat. His haggard face and tired eyes, covered by a pair of glasses with thick cracked lenses, made him look older than his 63 years. At the moment, he was talking to his neighbor and made no notice of his name being called.
“Mr. Martin Smith, Head of the Foraging Department, Proprietor of the University Store.”
The richest man in Columbia, and perhaps, the world, smiled at the mention of his name. He was a legendary figure, a hero not only to his community, but to all of New York City. Before their disbandment, Martin’s Marauders, the original Free Roaming Group, had distinguished themselves in everything they did, from diving into the depths of flooded subway tunnels to retrieve parts for Bloombergville’s sump pump to raiding demon-infested ruins of Con Edison powerplants for valves for Columbia’s steam system. He had been the head of the Foraging Department since its creation, and even though he had not set foot outside the tunnels for almost six years, he controlled the outside work teams with a meticulous eye and firm hand. He was dressed in a bloodswimmer hide-and-scale coat, worth more than Nadya could possibly dream to make in her life, and was carrying an ornate cane in his hand.
The Secretary burst into a fit of coughing, spat on the floor of the podium, and continued in a quieter voice.
“Mr. Imran Hussaini, Head of the Maintenance Department,” he said.
At 35, Imran Hussaini was by far the youngest member of the Columbia Council. A carpenter by trade, he was recently elected by Columbia’s tradesmen as their common representative. The son of a taxi driver, as he proudly proclaimed at every opportunity, he claimed to stand for the interests of the “common man” at Columbia against the “oppression by the elites.” Despite this, he looked distinctly uncomfortable sitting openly in front of the large crowd.
“Mr. Tyrone Gibbs, Special Representative of the Mayor of the City of New York.”
Nadya looked at the man occupying the leftmost chair, away from all the others. Unlike the rest of the Council members, he did not represent a segment of Columbia’s society, but rather, made sure that it was governed according to the wishes of Bloombergville. He was sent by Mayor O’Malley three years ago, and made no secret of his dislike of the posting, leaving his quarters only to attend council meetings or to get food, drink, and companionship.
“Presiding is Major Adrian Cardona, USMC, President of Columbia University, Commander, Morningside Heights Task Force,” the Speaker finished speaking and let out a small sigh of relief.
Columbia’s most powerful man had just turned 57. His long drooping moustache was grey, his head was balding. He was dressed in his old military fatigues, and carried the University Mace in his hand. He usually wore a tactical vest as well, as far as Nadya could remember, but she could see no sign of it now. Perhaps, she thought, he could no longer fit in it—he, alone amongst Columbia’s population, was getting thick around the waist.
“This emergency session of the Columbia Council is now open,” the Secretary said, taking his seat, and pulled out his notepad.
Adrian Cardona looked around the hushed crowd with small, porcine eyes, and began speaking.
“I have gathered this meeting because of a matter of some importance, which occurred last night,” he said, stroking the University Mace in his lap. “In brief, two members of a certain community to the East of us have been captured by one of our patrols. They have since informed us that they are refugees from their community, and have asked for sanctuary here in Columbia. As you well know, this sort of situation has never before happened in the history of our University, and I have decided that all should have their say while this precedent is being set.”
He raised the Mace, ending the muttering from the crowd before it had a chance to really begin.
“Martin, your men found them, tell us what happened,” he turned to the head forager.
Martin Smith nodded, cleared his throat and pulled out a yellowed piece of paper, torn from some notebook.
“At 3:15 am, the Eastern patrol came into contact with the individuals in question near the ruins of the 125th Street overpass,” he said, referring to the old El station. “The individuals offered no resistance, surrendered their weapons peacefully, and announced their desire to seek asylum here at Columbia.” He put the paper away. “After debriefing them, I’ll say that their intentions appear genuine. I’m done here,” he said, turning to the Major.
“Thank you, Martin,” Adrian Cardona nodded. “Since this is an open meeting, I think everyone should see them for themselves before making a decision.” He stood up from his seat and swung the Mace. “Bring in the prisoners!” he said.
Immediately, the crowd erupted in shouts and jeers. When the world ended, before the sailors and marines of the USS George H. W. Bush reestablished order in the city, Columbia had been overrun by gangs from Harlem and the South Bronx. They were expelled, eventually, and established their own community, but Columbia did not forget, nor forgive.
With a loud clang and the screeching of badly-oiled hinges, the metal gate slid upwards, revealing two figures being led in by members of the First Squad, two of whom positioned themselves between the prisoners and the crowd. Behind them towered the giant form of Jim Washington.
The prisoners themselves were short, thin, and painfully young, no more 14 or 15. Their features were so similar, they could almost be twins. Nadya’s first impression was of how foreign they looked, not merely in dress—they wore torn and dirty track suits, but even in the way they moved. The boy’s movements were jerky, sudden, full of barely-restrained fury. He was staring defiantly at the jeering crowd, his fists clenched. Nadya could see fresh bruises on the dark skin of his face. The girl who followed him was half an inch shorter and so slight she was almost ephemeral. She was looking around nervously with huge scared eyes, as if expecting a blow at any moment. Nadya could see a sheen of sweat glistening on her forehead. Nadya could see that the smells of Columbia hit them hard—both were trying hard to breathe through their mouths, and the girl looked like she was doing her best not to vomit.
“Everyone stand back!” Jim Washington bellowed and the crowd obeyed. Nadya was forced to take a step back, then began to push her way through to the front of the crowd. On the podium ahead and above her, the Secretary got out of his seat and was ringing the bell incessantly.
Slowly, the crowd calmed down and fell silent.
“The Council will now decide whether to satisfy their request for asylum,” Cardona spoke again.
“Fuck no!” Nadya heard a shout from the crowd.
“Order!” Adrian Cardona got out of his seat and shouted. “There will be order or this session is over!”
He walked over to the edge of the podium, and pointed the Mace in the general direction of the two Hoodies.
“State your names for the record.”
The boy kept staring at the crowd and said nothing. Cardona frowned. “Name?” he repeated.
The girl turned around and looked at the University President timidly.
“Shaniqa, sir,” she said. “And this be my brother, Shawn.”
“Does he have a ‘g-name?’” he asked, pronouncing the last word with evident distaste.
“No sir. He dun have none,” she said. Nadya could see the boy glare at her for a moment, before turning back to the crowd.
“Very well, Shaniqa,” Cardona nodded. “Tell us about what happened. Why did you decide to come here to Columbia?”
“Fuck this shit, man!” the boy exploded, looking straight up at him. “We been done telling you this shit all night, so what the fuck is this shit?!”
The girl stepped up to him, and put a hand on his shoulder, calming him.“Sorry, sir. He just tired, he don’t mean nothing by it.”
And probably expected a better reception as well, Nadya thought.
“Please answer the question,” Dr. Reinquist said from his seat. “Why did you leave?”
“We couldn’t stay there no more,” Shaniqa explained “My brother, he done killed a homeboy.”
“A full gangsta, you mean?” Dr. Udell asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Shaniqa said.
“Go on, tell us, why did he kill him?” Martin asked.
Shaniqa sighed and fell silent for a moment. Slowly, her brother turned his head and looked the scavenger straight in the eye.
“Cuz the motherfucker tried to rape my sister, that’s why,” his voice was trembling with fury. “Any more questions you already know the answer to?” he began, but his sister interrupted him once again. She pulled him close and whispered a few words into his ear. The boy glowered at her, then nodded.
“How did you leave?” Cardona asked.
“We been done….we hid,” Shaniqa said. “Then we bribed the guards. Gave them everything we got.”
“That, I can believe,” Martin chuckled. Imran looked at him in surprise. “Worthless, the lot of them.”
“We got out, crossed a bridge. Hid in a basement during the day.”
“How do you know how to speak proper English so well?” Martin asked, suddenly.
The girl became flustered and looked down. “One of da slaves…he from here. From Columbya. He been done taught us, and he done…told us how to get here.”
There were shouts of outrage from the crowd at the mention of slaves. “ORDER!” Cardona shouted at the top of his lungs, but the crowd ignored him. Nadya could see the panic rise in the black girl’s eyes as she saw the crowd’s reaction. She flattened herself against the podium. Her brother took a step forward, and screamed something defiantly. The two soldiers between them and the front of the crowd took a step back and raised their assault rifles. For a moment, it seemed like all of them would be swept away by the enraged mass of people, but then, Nadya felt something give in the collective spirit of the crowd, as if someone let air out of a balloon. Looking up at the podium, Nadya saw that even the Council members were shaken, only Tyrone Gibbs sitting at his seat with the same bored expression he kept on during the entire meeting. Either he was very brave, or he simply didn’t give a shit, Nadya decided.
Adrian Cardona got up from his chair once more, and examined the crowd with cold eyes. “The open session is a demonstration of faith and goodwill on the part of the Council. If you cannot keep basic order, we will continue this behind closed doors,” he said. “Please continue,” he turned to the girl, who was holding on to her brother. “When was that? When did he teach you?”
“Seven, maybe eight years ago,” she said.
“Are there any Columbia slaves still remaining?” Dr. Lee asked suddenly.
“Not many, sir” Shaniqa shook her head. “It’s mostly their kids now.”
Dr. Lee sat down heavily. Nadya remembered that his wife had been taken by the gangstas when they were forced out.
“Why did want to learn our language, anyway?” Cardona asked. “I thought you Hoodies wanted nothing to do with the Man? That’s what your people believe, is it not?”
“Some, sir,” the girl looked up at him. “The ones in charge always be telling how we be oppressed by the Man before the world ended. But we don’t see no oppression except from them.”
“So you say,” Cardona nodded.
“I say it’s bullshit!” Imran Hussaini said. “They’re spies, that’s what they are! These fucking Hoodies, they fucking sent them here, they tell us this fucking sob story, and they think we’ll just lap it up and ask for seconds! Let them in, and they’ll be out of here in no time, with all our secrets!”
“What secrets would that be?” Dr. Reinquist raised his eyebrow ironically.
“All the entry points, for one. The guard schedules, the water supply, anything, really! The next thing you know, they’ll be raiding our tunnels before you can say ‘oh shit!’”
There were murmurs of agreement from the crowd. This was too much for Nadya. This was an open session, so eventually people would be given an opportunity to speak. She would go up there, and she would end this outrageous nonsense. In her head, she began composing a reply.
The boy glared at Imran. “We ain’t no fucking spies!” he said. Behind him, the girl clenched his arm tighter. She was shaking.
“We ain’t spies…you have to believe us!” she pleaded. “If you send us back to the Hood, they’ll kills us! Look, if you don’t trust us, lock us up somewhere, but please don’t throw us out!”
“We have no other choice,” Imran said. “The risk is too great, we cannot take the chance that you are.”
Again, the crowd agreed. The hostility was almost palpable, as if it gathered under the high ceiling in thick, heavy clouds, ready to erupt in a murderous storm at any minute.
“Mr. Hussaini, you will cease this pointless fearmongering,” Dr. Reinquist said. “Whatever our decision, it should be based on logic, not on this nonsense you’re peddling.”
“Nonsense? Nonsense?!” The carpenter exploded. “Would you still call it nonsense when some gangsta rapes your daughter, then shoots you in the fucking face for your fancy clothes?!”
Dr. Reinquist threw his hands up in disgust. “This is what we have to deal with every session,” he muttered. “My good man,” he turned to Imran. “Assuming, for the moment, that you are correct and that they are indeed spies, have you considered how easy it would be to prevent them from leaving Columbia ever again?”
“What?” Imran said. “What are you talking about?”
“The exits, my man, the exits,” the engineer looked at him. “Every entry point is sealed and guarded. But,” he paused and looked around, “assuming that they do somehow escape…how far do you think they’ll get, alone, unarmed, and without protective clothing or equipment?” There was a collective sigh from the people assembled. Imran Hussaini stared at the chief engineer in surprise. “Because of course, we would have to confiscate their gear for security reasons and since they would no longer be needing it.”
The boy sputtered, but said nothing. His sister turned around, and was looking back at Dr. Reinquist. Nadya couldn’t see her expression, but she figured it had to be a mix of relief and incredulity.
“And even if they do somehow get out, get back to the Hood safely, and reveal our ‘secrets’,” Martin Smith joined in, “how many men can they send against us without compromising their own safety? 30? 40? I think, and I believe Mr. President will agree with me, that we can well defend our tunnels against that many,” he smiled. “After all, in addition to having the advantage of home ground, we would only outnumber them by what, seven-to-one?”
Some people in the crowd laughed. Imran Hussaini shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“The very idea of a raid is preposterous,” the head engineer interjected. “The Hood is violent, but their leaders are not suicidal. The raid would never happen in the first place. Haven would not allow it.” There murmurs of agreement from the crowd. “The Hood is completely dependant on Haven for trade and supply, they wouldn’t last six months if cut off. And we are far more valuable to Haven than they are.”
That seemed to have more effect than anything else. There were nods of agreement, and occasional shouts of “He’s right!” and “Yeah!” and “Haven will protect us!”
“So you want to let them in? Is that it?” Imran Hussaini refused to give up so easily. “These murderous goons? As if we need more mouths to feed!”
“Imran, haven’t you had enough?” Melissa Udell asked. The carpenter glared at her, but said nothing.
“Mr. Hussaini,” the President turned to him. “Just this past session, were you not the one complaining how your department is short of labor, and asking us to lower the apprenticeship age? And now, you’re turning down two pairs of perfectly capable hands?”
“The only thing they’re capable of is murder,” Imran spat.
“That’s not true!” the girl said. “We can work! We used to work. We can do anything!”
“See?” Dr. Udell said. “And we always have need for unskilled labor.” Imran glowered at her, but said nothing.
President Cardona looked at the crowd below, then at his fellow council members on the podium. “Personally, I think this case is clear cut.” Smith, Udell, and Reinquist nodded in agreement. “Any other points we ought to consider?” he looked at Imran Hussaini who opened, then shut his mouth. For a few seconds, there was silence.
“In that case,” Major Cardona said. “I’m opening the discussion to the people.”
The Secretary put his notepad aside, got up from his seat, and shouted. “The session is now open to the public. Raise your hand and wait to be recognized by the chair.”
Immediately, Nadya’s hand shot up. Looking around, she saw that at least a dozen hands were raised.
Adrian Cardona turned his head side to side, examining the assembled crowd.
“Ms. Corelli,” he said at last, pointing out the woman with the University Mace. Nadya cursed under her breath. The woman hated the Hood, perhaps with good reason, but if she were to win the crowd over, there would be no justice for the two prisoners.
“The Council recognizes Ms. Naomi Corelli, Seamstress,” the Secretary said.
The crowd parted to let the woman through. She stepped out, into the open space before the podium, with only the two soldiers separating her from the two Hoodie teens. She gave them a look of utter hatred before turning around to face the crowd. Nadya could see her clearly—she was an older woman in her 40s. Her face, once pretty, was marred by a broken nose. She wore a t-shirt and shorts, which did nothing to conceal the angry red scar across her pale neck.
“Before the world ended, I was a student here at Columbia,” she began. “After the asteroid hit, we hid in the basements, and decided to keep hiding after the Sun turned red and people started going crazy. We had plenty of supplies, so we just barricaded ourselves in, and prayed for the best.” There were nods of agreement from the older people. Most Columbians had survived the end of the world that way.
“For a time, we were safe,” she continued. “Then the raiders found us. We saw what the Sun did to people. But these…creatures, they were different. They were…methodical.” She turned to the Shaniqa and her brother and stared at them with such intensity that even the boy cringed and took a step back.
“Some of the boys tried to resist, so they killed them out of hand,” she went on. “Then, they turned their attention to us.” She paused. “I was gang-raped by 12 men; then they gave me this,” she pointed to the scar on her neck. “There were seven of us. I was the only one who lived. What I want to know, Mr. President,” she turned around and looked straight at Major Cardona, “is why the Council thinks we should show them any mercy, when they have shown us none?”
“Hell yeah! No Mercy!” people called out from the crowd. The girl gasped.
“I want to point out that these two are far too young to have participated in the attacks on Columbia. They had nothing to do with it.” Dr. Udell said her from her seat.
“Who cares? They’re all the same!” someone shouted back.
The woman gave a triumphant smile and left the open space, disappearing back into the crowd. The secretary got up from his seat and rang the bell until order was restored once more.
“Anyone wants to add something else?” Cardona asked. A few people, including Nadya, raised their hands up once more.
“Dr. Wright,” he waved the University Mace in the woman’s general direction. Nadya’s heart sank. What was Cardona doing? she wondered. At first, he seemed fairly sympathetic to the two prisoners, but now he was consistently picking the most hostile speakers. Was he trying to throw them out all along, or did he have a plan?
“The Council recognizes Dr. Elvira Wright, Director of Education,” the Secretary said.
She was an old woman, doing her best to appear prim and proper, the very model of an old world schoolmistress. Before the Apocalypse, she had been a professor at the Teacher’s College, and was now in charge of educating Columbia’s children. The very sight of her made Nadya grit her teeth. There were very few people she had truly hated, and Elvira Wright was definitely one of them.
“Ms. Corelli tells a sad and shocking tale, and I truly sympathize with her,” she began. “Her argument is perfectly valid, and should, indeed, be heeded by this Council if it wishes to be in accord with the desires of the people of Columbia,” she paused, and turned around, looking at the faces of the council members, each in turn, before returning to her speech. “However, should they choose to ignore this argument, and, indeed, decide to permit these individuals to dwell amongst us, there is another point which must be considered.” She took another breath, and continued. “As you all know, Columbia is truly unique and special among all of the communities of the New York region. We alone have a unique mission: to preserve and maintain the collected knowledge of Humanity through these dark times.” She paced from one side of the open space to the other, as if giving a lecture, ignoring the two teens entirely. “As such, every Columbian is thoroughly educated in the letters, arts, and sciences, either by myself, or in the old world, so that he or she may serve as a repository for knowledge,” she paused. “These two individuals,” she looked at them for the first time, “come from outside this culture of learning, and even if they become a part of this community, they will never be able to truly integrate fully. They will forever remain outsiders, unable to fully participate in its life. Would it not be more humane to spare them this life of loneliness and alienation…”
“Oh, cut the fucking bullshit!” came a shout from somewhere at the back of the crowd. People looked around in surprise, looking for its source. Nadya could here the first confused mutters of the people around her. “Let me through, you bunch of fucking pussies!”
A man pushed himself through the crowd, and into the open space before the podium. Elvira Wright’s face contorted in disgust and she backed away from him slowly. He lunged, as if to hug her, and the woman jumped back, slamming into the podium. Then, he turned around, and faced the crowd, grinning. He was a tall, bald man, wearing knee-high rubber boots and excrement-stained overalls. The entire left side of his face was one big mass of scar tissue. He was missing an eye, an ear, and the tip of his nose, but his surviving eye blazed with such a fury that the crowd actually reeled back under its glare.
One of the first squad members made a move to grab him, and throw him back into the crowd. “Let him speak,” came Major Cardona’s voice from above. Nadya glanced at him in surprise, but the major’s face was unreadable.
“The Council recognizes Mr. Drumbicil, Hog Farmer,” the Secretary mumbled obediently. There were gasps of shock from the crowd, and Elvira Wright turned pale.
“Thanks, Boss,” Old Drumby said, looking back the University President. “As for the rest of you,” he turned back to the crowd, “never in my life have I seen such a bunch of self-serving, self-righteous, cowardly, sniveling pussies!”
“How dare you!” Elvira Wright was practically trembling with indignation. She had stepped away from the podium and was now standing next to the two prisoners without realizing it. Nadya could see a smirk on Shawn’s face, while the sister was looking at the scene with concerned eyes.
“How dare you pollute my ears with your insipid bullshit?” Old Drumby bellowed. “It would be more humane to throw these two children out? Really? Like they have anywhere else to go!”
“That is not relevant to this discussion!” the old woman protested.
“It isn’t?!” the pig farmer actually gasped, then turned to her. “You worthless, slimy piece of shit on a stick. NOT RELEVANT?! You’re throwing them out to the demons, rather than pollute your precious culture, and then you try to tell me that it’s more humane that way? My pigs have more humanity than the lot of you.” He spat. “You know what’s more humane? Shooting them right here and now. Sure as hell beats what those things would do to them. Hell, you want them dead so much, you can do it!”
He reached in somewhere inside his overalls, and pulled out a massive Model 29 revolver. The soldiers next to him reeled back instinctively, and raised their own weapons. “Here!” he held the gun by it’s barrel and offered it to the teacher, grip first. “Go on! You can do the honors. Or are you nothing but a walking, talking sack of pig shit?” he grinned.
The woman stared at him in shock. Nadya could see that her hands were trembling.
“Well?” Old Drumby asked. “Are you going to do it, or are you a sack of shit?” The woman reached out for the gun, then pulled her hand away at the last moment, and disappeared into the crowd. “Thought so,” the hog farmer nodded. He put the gun away and pulled out a small metal flask and took a deep swig.
“And you…all of you,” he turned to the crowd, observing him in stunned silence. “You just stood there, agreeing with it all. You fucking pussies,” his voice was practically oozing with contempt. “You’re worse than fucking liberals. If this is the best humanity has to offer, I’m going back to my pigs. You got all that?” he asked the secretary. The man nodded nervously. “Good,” he said and walked back into the crowd. The people stepped aside to let him pass. To Nadya’s surprise, no one spoke or jeered. Many people looked down, avoiding his gaze. It was as if somehow, the old man’s stream of abuse had managed to break their conviction and make them doubt themselves.
At last, Major Cardona cleared his throat. “Anyone else?” he asked.
Nadya’s hand shot up through the air even before he had finished speaking. She looked up at the podium where he was seated, scanning the crowd. For an instant, their eyes met.
“Mr. Cosgrave,” the President said. Nadya cursed under her breath.
“The Council recognizes Mr. Kelvin Cosgrave, Engineer, Powerplant Shift Supervisor,” the secretary said.
Nadya watched as Kelvin stood before the podium and smiled at the crowd. He was wearing a set of soot- and oil-stained coveralls, as if he had just stepped away from the powerplant. Nadya knew that the hoodies had no chance if he had decided to speak against them, that whatever conscience they regained would be lost. She clenched her teeth and prepared to interrupt him at any moment.
“I’m not sure I can match Old Drumby in eloquence,” he smiled, “but I’ll do my best to try. Ms. Corelli had asked us why we should show them any mercy, when none was shown to us? I will say to that, ‘because we are not them,’ because we are better than them, because we are Columbia. We say that we are special, that we carry with us the memory of the world as it once was and the entire moral theories of the human race, and yet we cannot find it in our hearts to forgive, to rise above the common beastliness of the world. There two have come to us, seeking our aid. If we turn them out, then how are we any different from the ones we despise so much?”
Nadya could see the change taking place in the crowd, the quiet nods of agreement as more and more people began to see things his way. She turned and looked at the two prisoners, and, for the first time saw a glimmer of hope in their eyes.
“You, Dr. Wright,” Kelvin turned to look at the old woman, “are absolutely correct. They come from outside, and are not educated by your fine establishment. But will they truly never become one of us? Is there not a person standing here in this very room, who by her very existence proves you wrong?” he smiled and pointed straight to Nadya with his hand. “Did she not arrive here without once setting foot in Dr. Wright’s classroom, yet is now a candidate for membership in the Order?”
All eyes turned to Nadya. She saw hostile stares directed at her, and ignored them. She knew what he was doing, reminding everyone of her existence, and that she too was an outsider, but she could live with it, if it saved the two prisoners from certain death.
“Are we not Columbia, the beacon of knowledge and enlightenment?” Kelvin continued. “Is our mission not to preserve civilization, so that it may not be taught to others? I will tell you something, if we cannot educate these two living in our midst, then we have already failed.” There were shouts of agreement now. Somehow, in the space of a few minutes, the crowd’s opinion had changed completely. “We are Columbia,” he went on. “We say that we are the last bastion of humanity in a world of savagery. I say that if that is true, then let us act like humans, and be guided by compassion, and not our prejudices. Thank you.” He bowed and walked through the crowd, then out of the room.
“Anyone else?” Major Cardona asked. There was silence. Nadya looked around. No hands were raised. “Vote!” she shouted, and soon, another voice took up the call, then another. Soon, dozens of voices were shouting, demanding that the Council vote. Adrian Cardona looked at crowd, and nodded.
“The Council will now vote on satisfying the request for asylum,” the Secretary said, once order was restored. “The votes shall be entered into the record.”
“Mr. Smith?” the secretary asked.
The head scavenger had been playing idly with his cane for most of the meeting, looking up only when his name was called. “Aye,” he nodded.
“Absolutely,” the chief engineer said.
The scientist looked at the prisoners for a few moments, then sighed. “Aye,” he said, at last.
“Aye,” the President said.
“Aye,” she smiled. “Good to know sanity prevailed.”
The carpenter looked around the room, examining the faces of the crowd. “No,” he smiled. “Let it be known that have been opposed to letting these snakes in our midst.”
“Abstain,” the black man shrugged.
“The vote is 5 to 1 for, with one abstention,” the Secretary said. “Your asylum request is satisfied. Welcome to Columbia. This meeting is concluded.”
For a few moments, there was silence. Then, the first jeers began. The two teens were led away by the members of the First Squad, and slowly, the crowd began to disperse.
Nadya waited as the members of the Council descended the podium one by one. The conversation she had been dreading was almost upon her, and the proceedings were unlikely to have improved Dr. Lee’s disposition. Still, she had little choice in the matter.
“Dr Lee!” she called out as her mentor descended the stairs. He made an even worse impression from close up. He was short, the top of his head barely reaching Nadya’s chin. His face was creased by worry lines. A crack snaked across the right lens of his glasses.
“Nadya,” she saw his expression soften as she saw her. He glanced at his watch. “Never late for an appointment,” he smiled.
Together, they walked through the tunnels leading past the powerplant and into Pupin hall.
“You look upset,” the scientist said at last. “Has something happened?”
Nadya sighed and lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry, sir. I should have told you right away. I’ve been assigned punishment duties, and so won’t be able to assist you tonight.”
Dr. Lee looked up at her with concern. “I suppose I ought to ask you what you’ve done, but I won’t, as is it is none of my business. I won’t hold it against you, especially since I am to blame.”
“Sir?” Nadya looked up at him in surprise.
“People do all sorts of things when they’re under stress, and I should never have put you in this situation.” He stopped and put a hand on her forearm. “I am sorry, Nadya, I never meant for this to happen,” he sighed. “You and Paresh both mean a lot to me, and never have I thought that I would be forced to choose between you two. Believe me when I say that you have been an invaluable help to me, and that I would do anything in my power to ensure that you both are shown the appreciation you deserve for your efforts.”
Nadya’s heart leaped. For a second, she lost her balance, and had to grab on to a pipe to arrest her fall. She looked up at Dr. Lee wide eyed.
“Don’t worry,” Dr. Lee smiled. “Things will work out fine. I promise.”
Nadya swallowed hard, and nodded.
“Now,” he looked at her. “Since you won’t be around tonight, we’ll just have to exploit you when we can. Come along now, for we have a lot of work to do.”
Nadya bounced into the room and plopped down on the bed, causing the old springs to creak and whine. It was 20:00, halfway into her 4 hours of free time. Dr. Lee had her stay over long after her watch was over, explaining specific nuances of molecular genetics. She could feel the waves of excitement running up and down her spine. Dr. Lee had all but promised her a place in the Order, and she had no reason not to trust him. He was already teaching her new things. All these years, all her efforts, it wasn’t all for nothing, after all! She touched the silver crucifix hanging around her neck and imagined her mother’s face, smiling. Nadya knew that if she could see her, she would be proud of her.
Nadya stretched out on the bed and laughed with joy. She could do that—the room was empty. The kitchens were already busy preparing the evening meal, and Jennifer was there, helping Milagros. Sally was away, too, guarding something important, or, perhaps training. As for Diana…who knew where she was.
Slowly, her excitement abated. She was not a scientist yet, and there still were things to be done before the start of her punishment detail. Still smiling, Nadya walked over to her locker, and pulled out her torn and dirty clothes. Carefully, she examined the jacket and overalls for poisonous needles, spores, parasite wasps, or any other unpleasant surprises. Finding none, she took out a needle and a spool of thread, and began to patch up the many fresh rips and tears.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t my third most favorite person in the whole world!”
Nadya hung her overalls on the clothesline and secured them with two laundry pins, then turned around. She was in the laundry, an area in the under Uris Hall, between the swimming pool which served as Columbia’s central reservoir, and the steam plant.
“Hello, Rod,” she looked at the smiling scavenger.
Rodrigo Alvarez was about 5 years older than Nadya, and a few inches taller. He was dressed in military fatigues and carried his assault rifle, equipment bag, and, Nadya noticed, no dirty clothes of any kind.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“As it happens,” Rod stroked his immaculately groomed goatee, “I am on a mission.”
“Why yes. To find you,” he bowed.
“Oh. That mission.”
“I assure you, my dear, that this mission is quite real,” Rod smiled. “I have been sent. By Anselmo.”
“Anselmo wants to see me? What for, I wonder.”
“Indeed he does. He was most insistent about it, too. ‘Find her, Rodrigo,’ he said,” Rod fell to his knees and extender his hands in supplication. “You’re my only hope!”
Nadya sighed. “You almost had me for a moment there.”
“You think that I am being….less than honest?” Rod got up from his knees angrily. “How dare you?!” he asked in mock outrage.
“You’re saying that you are?” Nadya squinted at him.
“All right, all right, you got me! I surrender!” Rod raised his hands. “You got me! About the only hope part, that is. For, as it happens, Anselmo really is looking for you.”
“I thought he’d be satisfied with sending me to the pigs,” Nadya muttered. She walked out of the drying room, and closed and locked the door behind her. She walked up to the laundry supervisor, paid the fee- one Columbia University souvenir keychain, and received the corresponding mark into her Columbia Card.
“They’ve actually given you punishment duty?” Rod whistled. “Wow. Then, I guess, you don’t want to be late.”
“Say, Nadya…” They were alone in the Western tunnels, somewhere between the entrances to Mathematics and Nadya’s own dormitory in Jane’s Hall, on their way to the forager headquarters under Journalism Hall.
“I’ve been thinking…”
“A good habit to have,” Nadya nodded.
“Yes, very,” Rod agreed. “In this case I was thinking about you.”
“And you’ve decided to declare your undying love for me?” Nadya smirked.
“But of course!” Rod went down on one knee, grabbed Nadya’s hand, and kissed it. “My fair lady, I beg thee, join me for a night of wild love, followed by an expedition to untold riches!”
“Hmmm….let me think about it…” Nadya brought her finger to her chin, as if deep in thought. “No and no,” she pulled her hand away.
Rod got up. “All jokes aside, we really do need your help. Ever since Jeremy died…”
“You can’t go out, because you need a fourth,” Nadya finished for him. “So Rajit has you courting me.”
“We’ll get disbanded if we don’t go out soon. You know how it works.”
“So get a fourth,” Nadya shrugged. “Every forager would give an arm and a leg for the opportunity, except you don’t take cripples. This is where the money’s at. So don’t give me this ‘we need you,’ bullshit, you can have anyone you want.”
“You’re right about that,” Rod nodded. “But Rajit wants you and no one else. You know how he can be.”
Nadya looked at him sharply, trying to examine his face for any sign of falsehood, before giving it up as futile. “Why?” she asked, at last.
“He knows and trusts you. He doesn’t trust them.”
“Look,” Nadya said. “I’ve already told Rajit and you. I’m out. I’ve been out for two years.”
“I know,” Rod nodded. “And we’ve respected your wishes for those years, crazy as they may be. But now, we really need your help.”
“Oh? What changed?”
Rodrigo looked from side to side to make sure they were alone, and leaned in closer.
“We have a find,” he whispered. “Jeremy didn’t die for nothing. We found something.”
“And you said nothing!” Nadya exclaimed.
Rod reached out and put a hand over her mouth. “Shhh,” he hissed.
Angrily, Nadya pushed his hand away and slipped out from his grip. “Don’t…” she began.
“We couldn’t say anything because that would mean giving up first rights. You know that.”
“Even if it means the Raiders being disbanded?” Nadya asked.
“That’s why I’m here. You’re our last hope. It’s either you, or going public.”
“Then go public.”
“Please!” Rod pulled her close. “I’ve already begged you on my knees. One job. That’s all we ask. One easy job. If not for me, then for Magda. Have you seen her? Have you seen the state she’s in? If we do this job, Jeremy won’t have died for nothing. And, we can set her up for life.”
“Let go of me before I hurt you,” Nadya said slowly, looking him straight in the eye.
Rodrigo released her and took a step back.
“And cut the emotional blackmail, while you’re at it,” she said.
“It’s the truth!” Rod said. “This is the find of a lifetime.”
“Oh?” Nadya asked, skeptically. “What is it?”
“Not canned food, let me tell you that,” Rod grinned. “As for what it is….”
“You’re not going to tell me, until I agree to the job,” Nadya said.
“It’s only common sense,” Rod shrugged.
“Any rare plants in the vicinity?” Nadya asked suddenly.
“Plants?” Rod blinked in surprise.
Nadya sighed. “One job?” she asked.
“One small, easy job,” he nodded.
Nadya looked at him. The man dwelled and thrived on deceit, but now, she could see barely concealed excitement, mixed with naked avarice in his eyes. She knew then that the job was real. Then, she thought about Dr. Lee and what he said to her. For a minute or so, there was silence.
“Tell Rajit I’ll consider it,” she said at last.
“Unbelievable,” Rod sighed. “Un-fucking believable. Anyone else would kill for an opportunity like this. And she’ll ‘consider it!’ Sometimes, I think you were right to leave, because you’re absolutely fucking bonkers.”
“Would you prefer a no?” Nadya asked.
“No…” he sighed. “Just…don’t think too long, okay? Preferably before the Feast.”
“Then, you will have it soon,” Nadya said.
Shift leader Anselmo was waiting for her in his office, a tiny room barely larger than the closet she slept in earlier, bare except for a small stool and a paper-filled desk. Neil Anselmo was almost half a head taller than Nadya, and sinewy from two decades of physical labor. Before the end of the world, he had been a student at the Police Academy, and there was an air of authority about him.
“Melnik,” he began once Rodrigo disappeared behind the door. “What the hell was that, last night?”
“Sorry, sir,” Nadya tried her best to look contrite and apologetic.
“Not even a ‘will never happen again, sir’?” Anselmo raised his eyebrow.
“Sorry, sir,” Nadya sighed. “I can’t make that promise. My duties, they’re…”
“Will get you killed one day, if you continue to ignore the rules,” he cut her off. “They’re there for your own protection? How long do you expect to live if you go off to fight mantraps or razor-rats, or who knows what else on your own?”
“I’ll do my best to follow the rules from now on, and will try not to get killed, sir,” Nadya said.
“She’ll do her best…” Anselmo sighed. “At least’ you’re honest about it. If it were up to me, you’d never leave the tunnels. But, since it’s not up to me, and since your future already consists of shoveling pig shit, I suppose it would have to do. Come with me,” he said.
“Mr. Smith wants to see you,” Anselmo said. “Lord only knows why.”
Continued in the next post- curse you 60k character limit!
Have a very nice day.