As usual, they all press against me, and the first question always is, “Why didn’t you go into government afterwards?” I give them the answer I always give: that I had a daughter I wanted to go back to, that I was no stateswoman anyway, that Vincent Coriolis was the right man for the job. They nod, smiling. What I’m telling them is what they are expecting, what they want to hear: the faithful sidekick went back to being a good mother while the hero of the Revolution started the reforms that changed the colony and galactic commerce; he became the Father of the Nation, I returned to my disabled child.
It’s all a lie, obviously. But what would be the point of telling them the truth when they so eagerly believe the legend?
I go to my bike and encourage them to do the same. “The tour is going to start soon, ladies, persons and gentlemen! Please check your bike, that your headset works for sending and receiving, and don’t forget to wear your high visibility vest.”
The ten tourists prepare themselves with empty chatter and laughter. I sigh inwardly. Fifteen years ago, I gave orders to the troops storming Parliament. These days, I shepherd bikers through the notable monuments of Gorne. Marina Herikis, former right-hand woman of Vincent Coriolis, tourist guide.
At the centre of the Revolution Plaza stands a three foot tall statue of Vincent; he gazes to the stars, his arm extended in a gesture of friendship to the other mining colonies. A couple of tourists glance its way, surprised I don’t start by a grovelling allocution that would celebrate his tireless work to reestablish unions—an ancient Earth custom that had disappeared—or to offer subsidized health services to the elderly. Instead, we turn our back to it, pedalling into the warren of small streets that surround the Revolution Plaza.
I begin my speech which is relayed to their headsets.
“We are now in Half-Hanged-Man Street. The buildings in here date back to the first year of the colonisation, all timber and stone, close to one another to defend against the planetoid original predators. No one ever redeveloped the area which is why there are no boulevards, no avenues, no places into which a glider can venture. Pedestrians and bikers only. These narrow streets were incredibly useful during the Revolution. We could easily put up defences and block the way. From the safety of the barricade, we shot at any Loyalist troop coming at us.”
We turn the corner of Half-Hanged-Man Street. This is where Leola fell on the last night.
It had seemed at first like such an ordinary night during the Revolution.
I was checking on the old town defences; Vincent was gathering the troops at the West Corner market to take down a rocket launcher in the morning early hours. A couple of Loyalist soldiers had made a half-hearted attempt to come at us at the entrance of the street, we had repelled them. Later, Leola had decided it was as good a time as any to go and check on her elderly grandmother, only to find two soldiers who were trying to sneak on us from behind.
“How was it?” asks a tourist through the mike of his headset. “How did it feel to be at the heart of the action?”
There’s always one who asks that. Usually, they’re into their early fifties, like me. They were old enough to have taken part in the revolution but never did. It doesn’t prevent them basking in the glory of it and lap up any epic crap I tell them.
“Often frightening. But we were resolute.”
We had pissed ourselves when we realised two soldiers had snuck behind us and killed Leola. It was the shots ringing that alerted us. A fair few numbers of weapons, both on our side and on the Loyalist side, were still old bullet and powder rifles, not the fancy new ray guns.
We left a couple of us to hold the barricade and I led a dozen revolutionaries down the dark street, towards the sound of the shooting. No one wanted to go but we needed to. It was either that or be killed one by one. There was Flower, Rahma, Ekfrasis, Gayn, Barrin, Stuphras, and so many others whose names and faces I have now forgotten. Gayn was playing brave, walking right behind me, but I could hear his teeth chattering.
We found Leola’s corpse, her blood mingling with that of a soldier she had managed to shoot before falling. He wasn’t dead yet. I looked at him with disgust. We now had the unsavoury task of trying to make him talk. We needed to know where the other one was, how they had managed to arrive here. He was unlikely to provide the information gracefully.
We emerge from the old town warren.
“We are arriving onto Lapsichord Plaza, ladies, persons and gentlemen, where we will have our first stop.”
I lead the bikers to the centre of the plaza, zig-zagging to avoid other bikers and pedestrians. The statue of a bronze roaring lion stands proudly, surrounded by a gaggle of tourists snapping pics of it with their comms. We stop a few paces from it and dismount.
They all start drinking, wiping sweat from their brows. A couple take out hats and sunglasses from their saddlebags. I wait until they have gathered around me to start again.
“Lapsichord Plaza played an important part during the Revolution. Unbeknownst to us, there was a secret entrance by the statue side that led to an underground chamber where Loyalists and the former government had hidden weapons and provisions. This cache was instrumental in them holding out for so long in the Eastern Quarter, since Lapsichord Plaza is located at the entrance of it.”
“When did you realise it?” asks a tourist.
“It was actually on the very last night of the Revolution.”
“Was it Vincent Coriolis who led the attack?” asks another.
“For goodness sake, where is Vincent?” Gayn was muttering.
We were huddled in the shadow of the bronze lion. I still couldn’t believe our luck that we had managed to cross the plaza without cover unspotted. The dying soldier had told us where his colleague was heading to and we had followed him at a distance. We had all stood shocked when we had seen him opening a door cleverly concealed in the plinth decorations.
“Flower left barely half an hour ago. Give them time.” I replied in a barely audible voice.
The confidence in my voice was fake. I wasn’t wondering where Vincent was; I was wondering if he would come. Since our movement had swept the colony and we had arrived at the capital, carried by a wave of revolutionary frenzy, he had become more and more distant. In turn, I had sought duties that took me away from his side. He had cronies enough around him anyway. But what put me most ill-at-ease were those moments when we saw each other. He avoided my glance. I had never been one of these pasionarias we had met, women eager to lay down their lives for the Revolution. I just had stuff to do to make the world right, and I did it, however repulsive I found it. I was only hoping for some support from the man I stood up with when it all first started in a tiny village on the Eastern Marches, when we had both almost been executed for resisting the company’s taxes, saved by a mob as angry as we were.
He was slippery like an eel nowadays.
Half an hour later, Flower still hadn’t come back. No sign of Vincent or of any support.
“Damn it,” I cursed. “We’re going in. We have the element of surprise.”
The group is marvelling at the historical artefacts in the subterranean vaulted chamber. It has become a tourist attraction and it recreates the place as I had found it twenty years ago. Crates of weapons piled upon themselves, rolled blankets in which soldiers caught a quick nap. Wax statues represented Loyalists playing cards in faithfully recreated uniforms.
I stand at the exact same spot I stood all these nights ago and go on with my speech.
“The attack was quick and successful.”
The shots rang out as we made our way down the stairs.
“We only had one casualty.”
I saw Rahma stumbling down, her beautiful dark hair forming a halo before her body hit the ground dully.
“When we had overpowered the soldiers, we discovered all that you are seeing now: the weapons, the food the government was using to buy loyalty. We sent one of us back to the barricade at Half-Hanged-Man Street so that we could seize it all.”
Little Barrin went. Barely sixteen. He made it safely there, warned them all. He was overjoyed and did a victory dance on the barricade. A passing Loyalist soldier took a pot shot from half a mile away with a ray gun he had been issued with and hit him in the head.
“This is when we heard for the first time of the conspiracy going on; the one that would precipitate the events. What you have to realise is that we never planned for the Revolution to end that night. We were in for the long haul, to fight skirmishes, to convince people to let go of the status quo. But what we learned here and then changed the course of events.”
The soldier was sniggering, slumped against the wall, a bubble of blood and spit forming at his lips, inflating with each of his chuckles.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked him angrily.
“Because I recognise you. You’re Coriolis’ sidekick aren’t you? The woman who couldn’t pay her taxes because of her disabled daughter and who stood up with him?”
“What if I am?”
“Where’s your hero tonight, O faithful companion?”
A cold sweat broke on my back and made me shiver. Flower hadn’t come back. Had anything happened…?
“Well, I’ll tell you. For free.”
He sniggered some more.
“Since I’m about to die, anyway…He’s at the palace.”
“We learned that this very night, barely an hour ago, Vincent Coriolis had been captured as he was making his way towards the Western Market. He had been brought to the palace, most probably to be executed the following morning.”
The tourists around me gasp. It’s history now, they all know how it ends, that Vincent survives, that he becomes a hero of the Revolution, the new President, the Great Reformer, Father of the Nation. But it’s always so satisfying for my ego to hear them gasp because they are taken by my tale.
“The captured soldier revealed to us that Vincent had been betrayed by a newly recruited revolutionary. The company and its puppet government were now planning to use him as an example to quell the Revolution.”
Such a perfect lie I recite too.
“Who captured him?”
I was frantic. I had kneeled down next to the soldier and grabbed him by his lapel. I may have grown apart from Vincent, but he was the figurehead of the Revolution, the dashing man who fought our oppressors, the person who held together warring factions towards a common goal. His death would have meant the end of all our efforts.
All my fellow revolutionaries are tensed around me. I know the same thoughts are crossing their minds, to say nothing of their worry that someone they admire so much, love even, could die.
“Captured?” said the soldier. “Who said anything about capture? He’s very cosy with President Karn, you know. Has been for weeks now.”
“Liar!” screamed Gayn.
Before I could prevent it, he had shot the soldier in the head. His body slumped further in my grip and I released it.
I looked around us. It was a scene of carnage. There were dead soldiers everywhere, and Rahma lying on the cold ground. On the faces of my companions, I saw no elation that we had taken such a strategic place, only worry, anger and confusion.
I sat down. I felt strangely detached from it all. Maybe it was shock. Maybe my brain was just reevaluating everything I had witnessed these past few weeks, and this reveal perfectly made sense in the context. Vincent watering down his speeches and saying afterwards that it was to better convince the people sitting on the fence; Vincent changing quarters despite the fact he was hidden at a most loyal household; Vincent asking me about my daughter though he had never given a care after that first day when we had risen together.
My companions had overcome their shock and were urging me to go to the palace. That it was all a ploy, obviously. That we had to save Vincent.
I gingerly rose to my feet. Such brave men and women didn’t deserve leaders like Vincent or me.
“We immediately decided to attack the palace. It was just a few of us. We had no time to look for support and it would have been dangerous anyway, with Loyalists hidden at every street corner.”
We are back on the bikes and pedalling under the summer sun. Gorne streets are lively with joyful passers-by, brightly painted shops, restaurants advertising the best fare in the city. A sight so at odds with the night I’m recounting. I know the tourists are both morbidly fascinated by my tale and enjoying what surrounds us, a place so full of life, proclaiming so loudly “We have a happy ending for you at the end of the journey!” No one asks me questions anymore. They all seem seized by the same urgency we had that night, moving swiftly towards the palace, towards the dénouement.
“And here we are, ladies, persons and gentlemen! The palace back door!”
Someone chuckles and I understand why. The words “back door” have hardly ever been used for a three meters tall gate, made of black decorated strong wood, and reinforced by steel bands. It is a remnant of the past, when the mining colony was first established and people defended themselves with what was at hand.
I point to a small door at the side of it. People always overlook it.
“Obviously, we weren’t going to attack the back door, there weren’t enough of us. We needed a quiet entrance. The actual back door was to be it.”
I lead the tourists to the small entrance which stands open and smile to the guard. I recognise him. I come often enough that he recognises me too.
“Borek!” I whispered at the closed door while quietly rasping it. “For goodness sake, Borek! Open this damn door! I know you’re here, I checked your rota yesterday!”
He wasn’t happy to see us. We had planted him at the palace guards months ago, on manning duties, in the hope he would be useful. I suspected he had become used to receiving a salary and a solid meal three times a day. It was much better than his previous employment in the uranium mines in the Southern hemisphere where people died every day.
They all began climbing the dark narrow steps in a single line. I remained behind with Borek who was frowning in the half light of a torch.
“I wasn’t expecting you…” he started saying.
He never had time to finish his complaint. I put a hand on his mouth, slid a knife in his belly and pulled it up to the heart. I felt sick as I saw his body crumpling to the floor. I didn’t know if he would have betrayed us or not. I didn’t know if he knew Vincent was in the palace and if he would have warned him or anyone else. I still don’t. But I couldn’t take any chances.
I hurried to join the others, glad no one could see my face in the barely lit stairs. Tears were streaming freely and my stomach was heaving. It took me the five minutes needed to reach the landing closed by a door to finally get a grip on myself.
“This is it, ladies, persons and gentlemen! The president’s office! Right across the landing at the top of this little known staircase.”
Some of the tourists were panting because of the steep climb. Others were looking around them. The office was a vast room, lavishly decorated with golden cornices, tapestries and old oil paintings. Deep rugs were covering the floor and plush armchairs and sofas were scattered here and there. A huge desk dominated the room.
“Of course, you are all wondering how come such a potential safety issue could ever happen. A secret staircase leading almost directly from the street to the President’s office and the door guarded by a single man?”
One of the tourists raises a hand. “I heard it was built when the first CEO of the company led the colony, because he enjoyed…“ She blushes before going on, “Prostitutes.”
“It’s exactly right. And President Karn was using it for the exact same purposes, and I suppose many others before him.”
The tourists frown and tut. Such deplorable morals, we are so well rid of this lot, they all thinking, I’m sure.
“But before we could arrive into this office, we had to fight the people guarding its door.”
Happily, no one ever asks why we headed to the President’s office rather than going to the prison cells where Vincent should have been kept. Maybe they think that Karn was a villain not too dissimilar from those you see in vids, twirling his moustache as he gloated to the hero about his nefarious plans.
Gayn and Ekfrasis had burst from the staircase and silently dispatched the two guards with their knives before they could even raise the alarm.
“You go,” Gayn told me. “We hold the corridor.”
They took positions: Ekfrasis at the corner; Gayn in front of the door; Stuphras at the other end; Mechil, Asin, Rold, all standing alert, their rifles ready. My last glimpse was of Runa tying her hair back in a ponytail so it wouldn’t hinder her.
I opened the door.
Vincent hastily rose from the armchair he was comfortably sitting in. Surprised, but composed. I barely glanced at Karn who was behind his desk.
“Were they torturing him?” asks a tourist.
Vincent put down the cigar he was smoking and the glass of cognac he was drinking.
“I didn’t expect you,” he said coolly.
“I didn’t expect to find you here,” I replied as coolly.
I think that’s what annoyed me most. He shrugged, as if it was a mild inconvenience that I found him cosy with Karn, a normal development not even worth mentioning.
“I can tell you Vincent was fighting like a lion in this office,” I say to the tourists who are listening to me with bated breath.
“So it was all…What?” I said angrily. “A scam? A sham? A con? Get the peasants to fight for you until you get to the riches?”
He lifted hands to placate me. It didn’t. It incensed me.
“Calm down. I believed every single word I said. I do think our capitalist system is in its last throes. We need to get rid of it. Taxes benefit the shareholders, poor people need three jobs to survive. It can’t go on. But maybe we should go for it gradually. Before you barged in, I was right in the middle of delicate negotiations, you know.”
I saw red. I caught him, hand in the safe, happily taking from the same pot of gold everyone had been taking from for two centuries, and still he lied, pretending, just like the others, he was doing it for the greater good.
The unmistakable sound of rifle shooting erupted from behind the door. People were fighting in the corridor. They were fighting for a colony that would be more just, against a system that didn’t make sense anymore considering technology and the current galactic situation. They were dying for a man they believed in.
I took a quick pace towards the desk, and in one swift movement, I pulled my gun and shot President Karn.
I turned again towards Vincent.
“Congratulations,” I said coldly. “You have now won the Revolution.”
“…And then Vincent shot President Karn!”
The tourists gasp again and erupt in cheers and applause.
When they have calmed down, one asks, “How did it go right after?”
“Vincent went to the corridor, telling the soldiers to stand down, that they had lost.”
All dead, all dead lying on the cold marble floor. Gayn and Ekfrasis and Stuphras and Mechil, Asin and Rold, and Runa with her ponytail.
“He then started immediately the important reforms which have changed our planetoid and commerce. The idea we would get rid of capitalism was obviously nothing more than that: an ideal, a youthful fancy. It didn’t stand to scrutiny in the face of reality. But we are now living in a fairer, more just place, thanks to him and to the men, women and persons who fought in the Revolution. He turned a colony into a nation that showed the way to the entire galaxy.”
They break into applause again. I know there are no gods because I have never been hit by lightning while I tell such barefaced lies.
We leisurely make our way back from the palace to the Revolution plaza where we took the bikes.
When it’s time to part, I find them all again surrounding me. They have trouble letting go of the golden tale I spun them.
“Do you still see Vincent?” asks one.
“His schedule is very busy but, from time to time, we send each other messages via our comms,” I reply with a gentle smile. They all beam back. They probably think I send him words of encouragement and that he enquires about my health and family. My last actual message to him, a year ago, was, “You should have been hanged with Karn’s Loyalists, you arsehole!” to which he had replied, “Go back to changing your daughter’s nappies and driving tourists around town, rabid woman!”
Eventually, they all shake my hand in turn.
“It was so educational, thank you.”
“I had a wonderful day. It made me proud of my nation.”
“Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. It was inspirational.”
“I felt like I became part of history thanks to you.”
And so on, and so forth. Finally, they’re all gone. They’ve probably already forgotten my name. It’s just as good.
Night has fallen and the orange glow of the sodium lamps illuminate the streets. I tie my bike to the wall and shoulder my bag again. I feel sore from the all the pedalling. I should try finding another job before my body decides it’s too old for this or before I’m fired. How would I pay the bills then? I awkwardly make my way towards the tube to go back home and hope the tips the tourists gave me will be enough to buy food.
We won. Yay.