I am cuffed and slung in the passenger seat of a Land Cruiser. The blonde drives and I feel the rank of men in the back seat, their eyes and sights, a nerveless focal itch on the back of my neck.
We are travel through city districts taken by the rebels. Cruise missiles hurtle from the sky. People scatter from a stucco house a second before it becomes a wall of flame. Shrapnel whickers and spirals.
The blonde sees my discomfort. ‘Not so easy on the receiving end, hey, Gaetan?’
‘I’ve fought under bombardments like this.’
‘But mainly you’re intel. Certainly how you started, feeding student gossip to the mukhabarat. Don’t tell me you don’t remember.’
‘Yes. You’re Charlene Ranta. You got out of the Gateway okay, then?’
‘I escaped. I was lucky. Luckier than the others you sold out.’
I say nothing. I understand I’m already dead. I am thinking these streets have changed a lot since I last walked through them. Bars, shops and restaurants appear to be serving. Rebel banners are hung across tilted lightposts, hollering for justice and freedom; there are murals painted on jagged outcrops of walls, not just political slogans but spray paintings of love and light, surreality and kindnesses, without cruelty, like some silly animal meme you’d see on YouTube. People walk hand in hand, and I hear laughter and conversation from amateur bomb shelters. Body parts in the street, a triage tent at Green Square, the smell of blood and smoke and the swell and roar of shell and airstrike… and yet the atmosphere seems relaxed, even convivial.
We stop at a bar on Tender Playa Avenue. I had no idea this was still standing. We walk in single file, and one of the men gives me a push as I reach the doorframe. I jerk forwards, and without my arms to balance, almost fall over. I just about manage to keep my feet. Everyone in the bar is looking at me.
The Dias Social is as I remember it, the same rickety circular tables and weird art on the walls, the same hipster club music on the juke… so much like the music Prazma and I still listen to. Even one of the barmen looks familiar. There are laptops stationed around, and people argue over A3 maps and sheets. I hear newscasts, and realise that this is their version of our palace hub. One of the men – the one who pushed me over the threshold – goes to the bar and returns with pints on a tray. To my surprise, a beer is placed in front of me, and my wristchains lengthened so that I can drink it.
‘Yeah, we don’t have much, but we make do.’ Again it seems as if Charlene has read my thoughts. ‘We hit one of your checkpoints the other day. Your men were asleep – oh, Rostam knows this story, yes he does – and they were all asleep, even the staff sergeant. All of them, twenty men, taken prisoner, disarmed and taken to our side.’
The man who went to the bar pulls his chair out. It makes a bad screech on the stone floor. ‘Ah, yes! You should have seen the looks on their faces, Gaetan, when I tell them we had only seven bullets!’ The table barrels laughter. The guy sits down next to me, and slaps me on the back.
‘So you see, Gaetan,’ Charlene says, ‘as the cliché goes, it doesn’t matter what you have. It’s how you use it.’
Rostam is a big corkscrew-headed bearded motherfucker, and when he shouts, all heads turn. ‘Hey! It’s time for the boss’s speech!’
So it is. Twelve hundred hours. I expect that we will listen to it through one of their secondhand laptops, but the barmen hang a sheet on one wall, and some techie girl rigs up a projection device. Ozymandias is projected onto the wall, a little transparent, but otherwise crystal. Whenever I’ve seen him, and I’ve seen him many times, I’m struck by how he looks. He could be a provincial covenanteer. He could be anyone.
We watch on a state television feed, and I notice that the camera avoids panning out over the Victor’s Gate, which perhaps mean that we haven’t been able to bus in enough supporters to look good on a wide view. The Boss is lucid and coherent, but the speech goes on far too long. It is the second hour before he even makes it onto point three of our agenda. People have been watching this the way Prazma, Claire and I watch America’s Got Talent – all giggly-triggered for points of irony or derision. Into hour three though, people go to the bar, talk amongst themselves. Rostam takes off the cuffs altogether, and I get out a pocketknife, strip to my waist and dig the shrapnel from my bicep. The figure that has dominated our whole lives is reduced to background music.
Someone hands me another pint. A tall, wiry man with glasses and an aura of busy youthfulness about him. ‘I’m interested in the link between totalitarianism and boredom. Castro’s speeches last for hours. Hitler, of course, was a terrible bore. He kept his initiates up until five in the morning, talking endlessly, the Tischgespräche, and always on the same subjects – Wagner, Frederick the Great, the Jews, all that crap. His staff had to organise rotas! Why is that? Why are dictators so boring?’
‘That’s an interesting point,’ says Charlene. ‘Most of us, you and I, we do not like to bore people. We want to interest people. The bore either has no idea that he’s boring, or doesn’t give a fuck. Although the listener is required, his thoughts and opinions have no relevance. He is a face smashed under the jackboot. The urge to bore, the urge for attention, is intimately connected to the urge to kill, to destroy and enslave.’
‘A ruler is not meant to be a performing seal,’ I say. ‘His task is to lead his people, not entertain them.’
‘Looking at your man there,’ says the tall man, ‘I would dispute that.’
Indeed, the bar’s attention is again focused on the screen and ripples of contemptuous laughter disturb the air. Ozymandias is onto his Israel stuff, but he’s shitcanned the script. He’s going on about 9/11, Haiti and the Bilderberg group. If the content is bizarre, the delivery is worse: The Boss’s voice fractures and booms like an adolescent’s, he plays fast and loose with grammar and syntax, and he appears to be swaying on his feet. The rebels in the Dias Social are absolutely dissolving, reciting the best bits to each other, provocations of shrieks and guffaws. I don’t blame them. I can almost see Prazma and Claire shouting ‘facepalm’ in the public gallery.
The speech ends with a rallying cry to stand with Ozymandias against ‘the imperialist organ-harvesters’ and a lengthy amateur rendition of a Justin Beiber song. After this, the feed is abruptly pulled, and the eagle and crescent of the state TV logo fills the whole screen. The revolutionaries are killing themselves laughing.
‘How do you feel,’ Charlene says, ‘that all those years ago, when you could have stood with us, instead you followed Ozymandias. Do you think that was a particularly intelligent life decision?’
‘I feel safe.’ This is not true – I haven’t felt safe for a long time – but I feel like spinning the candle. ‘Look, I admire your courage and endurance, a lot of us do. But really, how long do you think you can carry on? We have a steady flow of arms from Russia and Iran, plus the Ghosties, Hamas, Hezbollah. We have blockaded the rebel cities – Patoneta, Saar, Glaleppo – nothing gets in, no one gets out without a white flag. At night we drink champagne in the palace while you are dodging shells and eating food out the ground. As I say, I admire your spirit of resistance, but face it, this cannot last.’
Rostam’s voice is different. ‘The Americans will help us. The NATO alliance will hear our cries and sweep you away.’
Now here’s one piece of regime propaganda I feel confident in repeating. ‘If you think the exhausted and corrupt Western democracies have either the resources or inclination to fight another Middle Eastern war then you’re crazier than Ozymandias himself. Any invasion would have to be ratified by the UN. Our Cossack and Chinese brothers would shoot down any meaningful resolution. No, you must forget all dreams of help. It’s easy to turn away from suffering, no matter how bad. We can fire into funeral cortages, bomb the pharmacies so you cannot treat your wounded, pick up the children of demonstrators and return corpses cratered with electricity burns and bearing bloody stumps where their genitals used to be. No one’s going to give a fuck except a few policy wonks in liberal thinktanks.’
‘You were always a plain speaker,’ Charlene says. ‘It’s one of the few things I still like about you.’
I’m pulling my undershirt and blazer back on. ‘Why the fuck not? You’re going to kill me anyway.’
‘No, you’re free to go whenever you choose. Or you can join us. It’s never too late to make the right stand.’
Rostam returns my AK-47. Charlene walks me to the door. ‘There is one more thing.’
I think that I’m going to die after all. But instead she gives me a proposal. ‘You’re holding a comrade of ours, Hamid Zlatan. I want him released, unharmed.’
‘Not my decision. I can pass the message on, but I doubt like hell we’re going to let him go.’
She lights a cigarette. ‘Oh, I know, you need him to do his big recantation on the propaganda channel tonight. Don’t look surprised, Gaetan. It’s not just your side that can intercept communications. But tell dear Prazma her broadcast has been cancelled. We want the Curator here in one piece by eighteen hundred hours.’
‘And what would we get in return?’
‘You get your tank back,’ Charlene says, sweetly. ‘You’re running a deficit of intelligence and matériel. I think the Master-at-Arms would at least consider it.’
Reaching the palace is not easy. The rebels don’t provide an escort, so I’m running down the streets with an AK. Missiles continue to fall, and although I’m not in uniform, there is a risk that my face will be recognised. As a high profile military attaché, I’m a target for any revolutionary trying to make a name.
A Ghostie vehicle cruises down Good Tidings Way. A teenage girl throws an egg, which splatters against the car’s tinted windows. A squad of furious militiamen leap from the vehicle like psychotic circus clowns. They strip the girl and pistol whip her. I see this Ghostie delivering the blows, a kind of righteous ecstasy thrumming in his cheekbones and jaw. The guy is screaming, over and over, ‘Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!’ and the high sniggery tone of it is like tiny weights falling onto my brainpan, the slap of masonry, spinning metal bars, and I sprint across a sidestreet by Akbar’s Grill and Quire, and barrel into a press of chanting bodies. I realise that I have blundered into the anti-regime demo, set up to countermand ours. There is what seems to be a considerable firefight back at the other end of the alley, and in any case I am engulfed in the crowd.
Tuesday is the night! Tuesday is the night! people are screaming as I fight my way through the rebel demonstration. I’m quite tall, and can see a little over the crowd, and the square is filled to its walls. I can just about make out more demonstrators filling Terrorhawk Road opposite, streaming into the main body of the demo. There are plenty of banners and placards – I actually smile when I see one sheet, on poles carried by pretty hipsterish girls, that reads I WISH I WAS A LITTLE BIRD SO I COULD SHIT ON OZYMANDAS HEAD – and there is fear here, of course there is, but it’s like a good fear, the cold anticipation that comes from doing the right thing, and tempered with the same atmosphere of joyful make-do that the Dias Social had, fires burn, people pass bottles of sake, I hear mandolins, it’s like all human life is here.
Although there must be thousands here, the crowd is easy to negotiate, people let me through with shouldersqueeze and smile. Up at the front, though, things kick off. A contingent of angry-looking young tenement men shout ‘Fuck Ozymandias’ over and over, making a real thing of it, and a group of police break away from the lines and storm in. Gas floods my eyes and it’s like I can’t breathe for a second. Police are beating the tenement lads and other demonstrators pile in to help their fallen friends. One cop loses his balance and falls to the ground and I’m thinking shit, this man is doomed, I’m going to watch a young man trampled to death in front of me… and then, against of kicking his head to a pulp, two of the tenement lads take hold of the cop’s arms and help him to his feet instead.
There’s a break in the lines and I rush for it. A cop swings for me and I raise my AK-47. With my other hand I’m reaching into my IIIA. There’s an evil moment where I think I’ve lost my ID and then my fingers close around the laminate. I scream: ‘Crisis cell!’
He nods and I run through. I sprint down Ozymandian Way and I can actually see the palace walls. The air is full of shrieks and blasts and running footsteps.