LEADERS - not followers

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fourth Millennium (10)

THE FOURTH MILLENNIUM

6 Perspective

All the roads had been meticulously and spotlessly cleared of all evidence of the wintry conditions, which had resulted in the off-white backdrop to every scene. In all directions, a slow thaw was now setting in, as the weather turned slightly milder. This milder weather had been present since the previous morning; the day after Rose had been made part of the quest. The soft slush that the lying snow had become, had receded slightly, leaving uneven borders of green, where vegetation was present, around the stubbornly persisting, widespread covering it still provided. Immense man-made’ drifts’ had been created in the massive road clearance exercises that had been, largely unnecessarily undertaken. These exercises had been designed primarily, as a method to promote ‘Community Unity’, as it had been clumsily labelled, than any practical traffic safety function it may have served.
For the first time in their lives, Starling and Nightingale had witnessed the creation of ice sculptures, depicting realistic representations of common wildlife. Like the receding borders of the ‘ice fields’, these sculptures were also beginning to melt, dripping to leave further patches of greenery around their bases. This caused the once beautifully artistic examples of ‘still life’ to take on the appearance of grotesquely, deformed mutants.
Artistic freedom, like other personal freedoms, had been, until recently, very actively discouraged by the paranoid ‘authorities’. It was only at the suggestion of one, talented artisan, that the local ‘authorities’, who were in fact, powerless to refuse or deny the request, such was the disorganised state of their system of procedures, relented. The aesthetically pleasing examples of art work had been a temporary feature of Sector 4735 winters since 2997.
Several melting examples were sadly, still in evidence on the short trip south that Starling made with his two companions, Nightingale and Rose. Walking outdoors, without the requirement for added protection of overcoats, for the first time in six weeks, was a refreshing and pleasurable experience. Despite the efficient insulating properties of modern clothing; those who had been brave enough to challenge the effects of winter, were still subject to all the usual discomforts. Chilblains, loss of feeling to their extremities, and that strange sensation of stiffness of the spine that accompanies the act of posture adjustment, to combat uncontrollable shivering, and brace the body against the onslaught of frigid air, were all still as common as ever.
Starling kept the two coins Robin had given him, in the two front pockets of his plain black slacks. He felt somehow comforted by the gentle rhythm of the impact they created, as they beat their silent tattoo against his thighs in response to his forward motion as he paced steadily. He also felt that they, like the lion on the reverse of the coin that displayed the number, or value 500, symbolised courage. The two faces, on the front of the coins, symbolically represented his companions Nightingale and Rose.
He slipped both hands into his pockets, in order to make physical contact with the two metal discs. He had actually come to regard them as good luck charms, partly in his response to Robin’s suggestion that he may later be able to come up with a reason for their presentation. He wasn’t at all sure if it was actually the case, or if somehow his desire for the discs to provide him with good fortune, allowed him to derive comfort from the feel of them rubbing against his hands. More than this, he actually drew inspiration from the mystery of their origin. In this way, he was able to formulate a workable plan that would lead them to the location of their next contact, Hawthorn.
The journey south had come about as a result of this inspired plan.
Inside the ‘Social Relief’ section of the local ‘official headquarters; nicknamed ‘Lost and Found’ by the ‘Riff Raff’, in reference to its rarely practical function of search and rescue, Starling put his plan into action.
“We’re here on behalf of the representatives of a man named Hawthorn,” Starling announced to the spotty faced teenager, who stood behind the reception counter.
He flashed his travel permission disc, to prove his ‘official’ status.
“This is his grand-daughter, from Sector 303, who became displaced from the family group, in the throng, during the New Year celebrations. They’d joined friends in the central area of the district, to witness…and enjoy...the pyrotechnic display; a harmless activity. Having only arrived in this Sector on New Year’s Eve, she was unable to remember the route back to the house. It’s her first visit to this Sector, and this happens!
I spotted her, sitting on the frozen roadside, crying. I alerted my parents to her predicament, and they offered to assist. She’s been staying at our house ever since, waiting for news. We’ve already received confirmation that Hawthorn doesn’t belong to any outlawed group, and has not been detained for ‘conversation’ by the ‘Service’. He may have already contacted Citizens Advice to report the incident, but what we really need, is a little bit more priority attached to the situation, in order to discover the location of the family home. Her grandfather’s name is Hawthorn…473520. That’s the right ID number isn’t it, miss Hawthorn?”
“Yes, that’s it,” Rose answered, timidly.
The gamble of using his travel permission disc, as well as ‘official’ terminology, such as ‘outlawed’, ‘detained’, and ‘conversation’, paid off.
The receptionist, possibly on day-release from ‘Education’, responded instantly and decisively. He produced a chart, on which was drawn a mesh-like representation of the hundreds of Sectors in the nation. He referred to the grid, in order to locate details pertaining to Sector 4735 that were stored in a cabinet behind him. Further charts were stored inside the cabinet, each one of them illustrated with a different variety of tree; all of which he’d memorised the name’s of. He wasted no time locating ‘Hawthorn’, and the relevant ID number. Noticing that there were no colour-coded marks against the entry, to indicate reports of ‘anti-social’ activity, or situations pending attention, he proudly announced;
"There haven’t been any reports against him, of any description, but he lives in south-central four. I’ll arrange immediate transport to take you there.”
Within five minutes, a bus had drawn to a halt outside the reception area, and the threesome had seated themselves inside.
“That was pure genius, Starling,” congratulated Nightingale.
“Yes, a stroke of brilliance,” added Rose.

Hawthorn was neither a grandfather, nor a father. He was an overweight, single man, in his thirties; unshaven, with longer than regulation hair, and unsightly food stains, discolouring his inappropriately pale-coloured tunic. He rubbed at the overgrown stubble on his chin, continuing his hand motion into a full sweep of his face, over the top of his head, before coming to rest at the back of his neck, to rub further.
“What do you lot want? I’m not expecting any visitors,” he barked through the accumulation of phlegm and only partially swallowed food that had collected in his throat.
“We’re here to meet a gentleman, named Hawthorn. Do you know him?” Starling placed as much emphasis as he could, on the word ‘gentleman’, in an attempt to trigger an adjustment of attitude from the impolite stranger.
“Why? Who’s asking?”
“Actually, we’re here at Robin’s request.” Nightingale chipped in.
“What? Who? Why didn’t you say so in the first place? Get inside, quick.”
“Thanks,” smiled Rose, as she took the lead.
They were invited to take a seat, in the surprisingly spotless living room
“Wait on a bit, I’ll just be a sec; need to take a leak.” The fat man disappeared behind the door of the cleanroom.
“Is this some sort of joke?” Starling asked, looking at Rose.
Unable to confirm, one way or the other, she shrugged her shoulders.
Within a minute, the door to the cleanroom opened, and out stepped an athletically built man, in his thirties; clean-shaven, with short hair and immaculate clothes, which Starling recognised as an Attire, design.
“I’m dreadfully sorry about my less than welcoming…er, welcome. It’s all part of my act; the belly, hair, beard, and clothes are all just a decoy, so ‘nosey’ people don’t come too close. I’m the man you’re looking for. Hawthorn 473520, at your service. It’s a good job for you that you mentioned Robin’s name as quickly as you did. I can keep up that obnoxious act for hours; days if I have to.”
Sighs of relief were exhaled, and chuckles of laughter allowed the three visitors to return to more acceptable levels of comfort and confidence.
“You really had us for a minute there,” complimented Nightingale.
“Not me, I knew it was just a joke, didn’t I Rose?” lied Starling.
“Sure you did,” doubted Rose.
“So this is the beautiful Rose? My pleasure,” commented Hawthorn.
“The pleasure’s all mine,” responded Rose, with a touch of irony in her voice.
“Well! No reason for delaying. Follow me, all of you, into the back room.” Hawthorn instructed.
The sparsely furnished room contained only four chairs, on which they all sat. A curtain, or screen was drawn across one corner of the room; evidently some kind of storage compartment.
“Is that where you keep all your disguises?” Starling asked, pointing.
“Among other things, of a personal nature, yes,” answered Hawthorn. “Now, let’s get down to business. From memory; no peeping. What did Robin give to you when you saw him last, apart, of course, from his stunning niece? You won first prize there, boys. Excuse my ill-mannered informality, Miss Rose.”
“Compliment accepted,” smiled Rose.
“A silver disc with a woman’s face and 2765 on the front. On the back, it had a lion, and 500,” blurted Starling; just as much to draw Hawthorn’s attention away from Rose, as to answer his question.
Rose was flattered by Starling’s act of chivalry, and lowered her eyes, smiling. Perhaps, she thought, Starling felt as attracted to her as she did to him. But no fraternisation during the course of business, she reprimanded herself. There will be plenty of time to entertain such thoughts, once they’d completed this, or any, part of their ‘duties’. She made a quick promise to herself that she would maintain her discipline, where appropriate, and engage in distractions from the quest, whenever opportunity permitted.
“Good; well that’s that trivial matter out of the way. Now; here is your next assignment. You are to find a way of getting to Sector 900. There you will find a person named Aspex, and you will say that I sent you. That’s it. Off you go!”
Nightingale and Rose stood up to leave the building.
Sit down a second please, you two, I have a question,” instructed Starling.
Nightingale and Rose complied, hesitantly, wondering what there was to ask. Starling patted the air with both hands, indicating he wanted them to keep quiet and listen.
“Gosh! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend with my informality,” he apologised, realising he’d performed another action, another trait he’d borrowed from Robin.
“You wish to ask me something?” Hawthorn queried.
“Oh yes; a few questions, actually.
First of all; how come you never asked to look at the disc, to confirm possession? I know it’s a long shot, but I could have just made a lucky guess for all you know.”
“Anything else?” Hawthorn encouraged.
“I’ve been thinking about Robin’s instructions for today. He told me to pay particular attention to numbers. At first, I thought he meant the disc, but when you gave us the assignment, something about your instructions made me realise exactly what Robin meant.”
“Keep going; this sounds good.”
“OK, Sector 900 doesn’t exist for a start. It’s an oddball, because Sector 899 is followed by Sector 901. Don’t ask me why. I only know because I spotted it ion the chart at ‘official’ headquarters. What about this person; man or woman? And that name, Aspex? Aspex was only invented ten years ago. You don’t seriously expect us to set off on a journey to nowhere, to meet up with a kid, do you?
Now; about the disc. Is it worth showing you, or should we just go back home and forget about our quest?
There was me, thinking we were being taken seriously. Nothing personal, Hawthorn, but I really don’t appreciate being laughed at, when I’m trying to be sincere.”
Expressions of shock appeared on the faces of Nightingale and Rose. They’d never heard anyone speak in such defiant tones, in the presence of others.
Hawthorn smiled, and held up his hands.
“I have to hand it to you, Starling. Birch told me you were the man. He wasn’t wrong. You made an amazing recovery, from the shock of my transformation, and handled my distraction tactics with consummate ease. My apologies, once again Miss Rose. Starling, I applaud you.”
At that moment, Birch, of all people, appeared from behind the screened portion of the room. He’d listened to the entire process. He was smiling broadly and clapping his hands silently.
“Birch, you…How did you get here?” Nightingale gasped in surprise.
“Questions and lies; if you don’t ask, you don’t get. If you don’t want, you don’t ask.
Now give them their real assignment, Hawthorn; once Starling has shown you his silver disc, of course; if it even exists…Starling.”
Birch walked purposefully, towards the exit.

Copyright © Stanislaw Skibinski
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