II. The Jinna al-Maghrib Mosque
The Martian Capitol
Faruq knit his brow, but not at Coronach or her question. He was still puzzling over the sight of his new intern-- or, more particularly, her sex. "What?"
"Y'panicked message t'her. Y'thought I'd..." the special investigator shrugged.
Georgie, whom had slunk as abashedly into his office as though she were guilty by association with Specialist Ullien, was finally relieved of Faruq's penetrating gaze. The intern bowed her head and tried to find pattern in the threads of colour woven into the office’s otherwise drab grey carpet.
"...thought you'd drag her straight into casework without anything in the way of training or introductions? Yes. You have a lot of bad habits I don't want passed on. But then, I don't think you do, either."
Coronach nodded to the commander, inclining her neutral expression toward Georgie as though to signal that he had just said something to his own credit. What, the intern couldn't fathom. "Jus' so."
Faruq coughed, straightening his shoulders. Close-shaven, decorated by a meticulously pressed suit, he gave the impression that he didn't wear his status-- rather, he tried his best to stretch himself out into a suitable vessel for it. Georgie didn't know why, but his unexpected gentleness made her stomach sink lower than its previous, miserable station. It was so hard in places like these where everyone on every side was just real enough to have surrendered the illusion of a crisp, clean officialdom. Any institution that was forced to squat in a nest of expired hubris and equally rancid petty crimes came to take on either a grim humour or none at all. As an outsider it was hard to know how to comport oneself. Illusions were simple. Illusions cleaved to the canon.
Georgie realized her mind was wandering again, and that Faruq had been talking. She cursed her introspective streak. She cursed the system that required ‘real world’ experience of her. She cursed the fact she couldn’t think of anything less trifling to curse the system for.
"--handbooks and guidelines are available somewhere on the network I gave you access to this morning. But you'll learn best by doing, and learning to learn by doing is also a good skill, as far as being an intern goes. This latest job we have should be good experience. It’s a private one, so we won't have to follow any other departments’ standard procedures on top of our own."
"Is it fer y'friends from real gov'ment, then?" Coronach broke in.
Faruq's lip twitched in spite of himself, in spite of the ignorance he feigned. He seemed apprehensive rather than impatient now that he'd met his intern in the flesh. As though now that she was human he couldn't help wanting to extend her every possible aid—rather than brief her from behind his desk, he was shifting gingerly from foot to foot at its side. "So do you mind if I leave you with-- ah, here he is--."
Georgie turned, trying to swallow down the nauseating suddenness of it all as she was greeted by the upraised hand of a nondescript Philie, a local like her. You could always pick out the people with no loyalties outside Econphilos. They were an easy-going breed, herself seemingly excepted.
"Miss Grey, Yetz." The thick brown man blinked at her indifferently. "And vice versa. Er, as I was saying Miss Grey, you don't mind standing back and watching how Yetz and Rona-- Specialist Ullien go at it this first day and then seeing about how we can involve you more?"
Georgie realized she was supposed to respond, squeaking: "S-- yes."
Faruq seemed genuinely pained by her anxiety, and he hesitated as though trying to search out better words of welcome. But Specialist Ullien waved at his desk as though to dismiss him back to the role of command, her many layers of black tittering at him as she breezed past Georgie.
"S'be fine and welcome, wha'wi Yetz always bitching 'bout wanting more help with recordswork."
"Only because she never helps at all, Commander." Yetz muttered, but goodnaturedly. It was a jest such as he'd share with any of his colleagues, but he seemed to force it with Coronach; Faruq was the only person who, as Georgie and Specialist Ullien had entered the bureau, hadn't winced at the sight of the latter.
Faruq edged back toward his desk, directing not at Coronach, but Yetz. "Yes, well. Do set an example for her."
Georgie felt compelled to whisper a word of thanks, however weakly, as she followed her—colleagues, or perhaps wardens-- out past Faruq's alternately relieved and encouraging smile. She wondered at the dartboard portrait of Councilor Spyridon Mavrok hanging on the door but tried not to show it.
The Missing Persons Bureau was an unhappy place. Someone, early on in the construction of the first Martian colonies to harbor those diverse bands of immigrants that wanted nothing to do with the politico-psychological revolution taking place on Anthropeden, had started furnishing everything in that modish, sterile pastel style that had been in vogue at the turn at the twenty first century (no doubt with an eye to frugality and grafting funds). Later good taste had prevailed, but too late for Econphilos’ government offices. Many had been renovated since. In like fashion, someone had made an attempt to refurbish the MPB in a contemporary style. He or she had seen to the addition of a few tactile screens that could ape the texture and fullness of some of Mars' finest artists, whether their medium happened to be paint or ferrofluid. A warm brown coat of paint had done wonders for some of the walls, seeing as they weren’t holo-fitted. But financing, or lack thereof, had aborted the endeavor. The floor remained a dingy, grimy tile, and the lights overhead cast stark beams over the halls that white-washed them half to grey.
Coronach looked quite at home in the mess. Yetz looked indifferent. Georgie was trying not to let the ambiance sink her spirits even further. She was trying to figure out some way to convey to her new colleagues, in spite of her wincing and shying and general timidity, her willingness to try and prove competent.
"What did-- you mean by 'real government' back there?" she tried at Coronach's back.
There was an agonizing period of silence, during which the Specialist appeared to be hoping her companion would spare her the trouble of answering. But, of course, he hadn't been there for that part of their briefing. At length, without turning, she mumbled:
"I meant 'conphilos's Social Venture Co'litions."
Unhelpfully, the Specialist didn't elaborate. Georgie feared how she’d look if she had to ask more, and Yetz didn't appear interested in anything but making it as quick as possible to his office and getting work over with.
Social Venture Coalitions and the rich philanthropists whose investments they competed for tended to be the primary source for Mars' social welfare programmes, what with all the fervor to decentralize after Anthropeden had gained dominion over even its subjects' minds... It wasn't a bad practice, all told, forcing hopeful young idealists to channel as much acumen and expertise into their ambitions as their corporate brothers and sisters had to found their commercial endeavors upon. The threat of corruption loomed large over the ‘venturers,’ so to speak-- but then, where didn't it?
Real government, though… They must be successful, Georgie surmised. It made one wonder why the Police Commander was working in such abject circumstances. Or was Coronach only joking? Hard to tell, when the woman deadpanned everything.
"Has the bureau cooperated in one of an SVC’s projects before?" She tried asking, indirectly. She cast her eyes anywhere but at Coronach as she did so, because she was a terrible even at half-truths. She took in the tiles glaring beneath all that hateful light, peered through a doorway at a handful of officers trying to force compassion enough into their bored voices to console friends and families they really couldn't do anything for. They had sleek, glistening comm-wires looping from their ears and close to their mouths, and each was speaking softly so as to be heard solely by his or her own client. In Anthropeden, however, a telepathic link would have been set, and--.
Georgie stumbled back as she near-collided with Coronach. The Specialist had stopped to turn a lidded eye on her, ignoring Yetz and his impatience. "...Nnn. We're t'much've a lost cause f'even them..."
Georgie began worrying that she'd struck the wrong chord, and swallowed. "O--oh..."
"Still," Coronach shrugged, turning away. "There's status n'gov'ment of the formal kind. N'right, Yetz?"
"If by status you mean stable pay," he answered boredly, and they began to walk once more.
"Stable pay 'cause y'a symbol..." the Specialist returned, faintly, seemingly falling into step with his disinterest and dropping the subject.
As for Georgie, she was left recalling, rather too explicably, how surprised she'd been to find a Muslim in one of Econphilos's security offices, no matter how estranged.
Then, as they entered a room filled with plasmatics and ground lines snaking down into Econphilos's bureaucratic mainframe, she was stricken by a more insidious thought. It was hard to sustain whilst she watched Coronach and Yetz put in a dozen futile calls to try and gather intel on the missing person they were to find. Easier, once they took to the streets and Yetz began differing to Coronach's erratic, inspired weave through the city.
In short, Georgie wondered what the seemingly broken special investigator was really like. Not that Georgie was adventurous by nature—she had no interest soever in any secrets the Specialist had stowed away, not in Coronach’s past.
But the present—well, the intern preferred to keep that as clear and certain and stable a ground as possible. It made treading it easier. And the present happened to be a flotsam field, which meant, metaphorically speaking, that she was a spaceship. And in space there was nowhere to plant one’s feet, and she felt sick, and even the tiniest scrap of rubbish (from before mankind had the deciliter of sense it took to clean up the glitching messes they were making in the final frontier) could puncture a hole straight through her hull. All of which meant that even the slightest clue as to where she could expect the next surprise to come from was--.
Well, she was probably making the metaphor too convoluted.
The point was that over the past two months Specialist Ullien had taken bewildering interest in her tutelage. That didn’t mean the woman spoke at all beyond delivering her signature, deadpan cynicism; however, the quality time had given Georgie the unshakeable impression that all Coronach’s uncouth, unwieldy mannerisms were an affectation. And that the investigator could turn to wrath as quick as the idiot intern to point out the charade could blink. Better just to watch that frightening acumen at work from afar and try desperately to learn something—preferably without getting too involved.
It was an effort Georgie felt was more or less doomed to fail.
She’d been summoned for a weekend meeting with Commander Faruq, and Specialist Ullien had been invited, also. That meant that they’d probably be expected to work together on God-knew-what, which was problematic because aforementionedly, Georgie hated the unknown and Specialist Ullien was, most definitely, one great big unknown at the center of an internship that was too messy already.
They were meeting Faruq after his weekly worship, at an eatery near his mosque. The commander had explained away the unusual request by asserting that his wife liked knowing his coworkers, but Georgie felt there was more to it.
As though she weren’t nervous enough in the al-Maghrib District (whose real name nobody really knew because nobody really paid it much mind save the locals, who were fiercely proud of their own title). Most everyone had a second language these days, but Georgie felt uncomfortable surrounded by rich, throaty Arabic, spattered as it was with more familiar French.
English was the tongue of tongues galaxy-wide, but that status had become less privileged and more banal-- there were several increasingly unintelligible regional dialects springing up, and no one rendition had claim to authenticity. Polylinguals usually spoke some variant of the romance languages, or else a tongue like Korean or Vietnamese. Chinese was the academic language in vogue, much like Latin and French had once been, but it wasn’t popular on Mars, as there were few Martian cities that didn’t resent the old-world Chinese, and the People’s Republic of China never had exerted must soft power influence prior to allying with the UN to transform Earth into Anthropeden.
The state of language on Mars reflected the political climate fair and accurate, Georgie supposed. Anglophones were a broken people—the few Americans who hadn’t broken down with their empire into smaller loyalties had become a class unto themselves that everyone called the Yanks. They spawned more radicals than any other ethnic minority on Mars. The British had been absorbed into pan-European cities. And by far the vastest majority on Mars was the Asian diaspora that had been forced to flee Earth upon Anthropeden’s ascension.
A curious history, that. China’s ruling Communist Party had been groaning with the exertion of staying afloat for decade after decade— what kept the party strong and in power did not, as it turned out, coincide with what would make the nation strong. It was a matter of time, people said later, before that awesome figure, the people’s hero, emerged young and dazzling from the party’s mix.
Yu Zhang had overthrown his own government and sent democratic reforms sweeping over what was now the People’s Republic in truth. Only, there was such a surge in ethnonational pride that these reforms had devolved into outward expansion in order to maintain control over the vast empire in transition. Taiwan, the South China Sea, North Korea—they were all subsumed under (specifically Han) Chinese rule as surely as the disenfranchised Uiguhrs and Tibetans, and many fled for the budding Martian and Europan colonies as a result. The UN hadn’t done a thing about it, because how were they to complain when that immense power had not only (seemingly) turned at last to their democratic ideology, but so curtailed its ambitions as to claim nothing but the East Asian region?
Zhang’s ambitions weren’t really that limited, of course. It was said that he’d aided his cabinet of policy advisors in drawing up the blueprints for Anthropeden, drawing heavily on Confucian ideals of leadership. He dreamed of the rebirth of a righteous kingdom and the dawn of a new, uniquely Eastern culture. He wanted there to be a single ruler linked to the minds of all his or her subjects, so that perfect, agonizing empathy with them was unavoidable. He wanted power bound in heavy chains to responsibility. Power with requirements so terrible and awe-inspiring that Zhang himself had died when he tried to assume his throne, died sobbing and screaming remorse, and Sovereign Luiza Ruiz had taken his place. The fact that a Brazilian from the UN rather than a Chinese emperor had assumed leadership of Anthropeden did not seem to quell many immigrants’ loathing for the planet, however.
“Y’stare when’re thinkin’.” Georgie flinched with a hiss as Coronach slapped the back of her head gently. “Makin’ the locals uncomf’rable.”
It was true. Georgie had appropriated a table with a view of the imposing Nissa al-Maghrib mosque’s facade. She could tell the al-Maghrib district was middle-tier because the mosque was the only building in sight that had the luxury of being constructed from unreflective white stone, save for its golden crowns, which were fashioned from ingeniously tinted solar glass. The café where Georgie sat was, like most Mars’s conservative establishments, a dull, crystalline blue. Most government and government subsidized complexes (to say nothing of wealthier districts) were flagrant derelicts when it came to squeezing every last drop of energy from the surface of the red planet. Visitors often complained, after all, that the solar-fitted buildings were cave-like, that they exhibited a modish primitivism.
Georgie enjoyed imagining that passersby (dressed as was fashionable in a hodgepodge of antiquated robes and headdress that contrasted with the shimmering collared tunic and tights that were the usual fare on Mars) could break out at any moment in feral ecstasies. But there was rather too much focus and bustle about them for that. They seemed annoyed even that her staring had given them pause.
Georgie kicked guiltily at some of that ubitiquous rust-coloured grime that clogged Econphilos’s sidewalks. “…how much longer before the Police-Commander comes, do you think?”
“Service use’ly runs’alil late in the Nissa,” Coronach shrugged as she joined the intern, only to have a server jerk her cigarette from her lips with cool familiarity and sit an Arabic coffee at her elbow. Thick black grounds bobbed mournfully at its rim. Coronach took this in stride by fetching a sleeve of almond milk from the inset at the table’s center and stirring it in.
“…you and the Commander seem to um—haunt the same places.”
“Nn…” A deep draught of that strongest of coffees. “Faruq used t’treat me t’pieces’ve his life. Arab hospitality n’his glitchin’ optimism, all that.” But the Investigator spoke in a tone that suggested Georgie should not inquire further.
“…I assume he didn’t really ask us to come because his wife wants to meet me,” Georgie hinted.
“’Course nah. He wants fer y’tmeet his wife.”
The intern decided to sulk a while, then, and peruse the news on her Wist©. She could feel Coronach watching her, clear up until the Investigator remarked:
“Y’ve an unhealthy b’session wi’Anthropeden. Searchin’ it out t’eadlines, even.”
“Nobody ever talks about it.”
“Nothin’ bloody or excitin’ happens there.”
“So it makes no sense, being scared about it.”
“S’why it’s scary.”
“But absolute security sounds… nice.”
Georgie blushed, and the conversation died again for the ten minutes it took before Faruq’s neatly shaven head and keen profile assembled themselves in the throng flooding out of the mosque. He was, notably, on his lonesome—so much so that he spotted Georgie and Coronach swiftly, as though eagerly.
“You should have attended the service with me,” he sighed to Coronach. “My wife forsook me for work this morning.”
“Few’ve the masses keepin’ faith these days—y’d better’ve looked fer that kinda spirit in Georgie.” The investigator’s brogue was heavy with self-recrimination.
Faruq was quick to nip Georgie’s budding curiosity with a sigh and a welcoming smile. “Well, being assembled, we might as well speak to professional matters. There’s a quiet room at the back of this fine establishment.”
The din in the street had indeed risen. Yet the Police-Commander was tense, also. They were led by what was undoubtedly prearrangement into a warm, skylit room sealed off from the rest of the café’s accommodations by a thick, fine rug fashioned into a sliding panel.
“I’m sorry,” Faruq sighed once it closed. “You’re sensitive—all this suspense and secrecy must have you frazzled,”
“It’s fine,” Georgie murmured, clutching her tea.
“It’s not,” he answered remorsefully, to her surprise.
Coronach leaned back from the table they shared and crossed her arms over her chest. She didn’t smile wryly any more than she smiled at all, but there was a sardonic air about her. It made Georgie’s stomach twist and bubble alarmingly enough that for a moment she wished the singularity hadn’t failed and she could have nice, smooth brass piping for guts.
“We have unusual orders,” Faruq tried to begin. But whatever he had to say wasn’t something that could be prefaced. Not well.
She realized at length that the Police-Commander was trying to gauge her reaction, but she didn’t have one—how could she, before the news even arrived?
“You’ve likely noticed how… adept our Specialist Ullien is at finding people,” he tried again, pinching the bridge of his nose. With every word that slipped past his teeth it was clear he restrained the urge to blaspheme his superiors and, perhaps, himself. “Prior to retiring to this division she had quite a prestigious position. There are a lot of connected people who remember her. And now they have an important job for her.”
“One’ve many ‘portant jobs,” Coronach broke in. “As in one’ve ten back-up plans they’re firin’ up simultaneous, like. Par’noid bastards.”
“In any case,” Faruq continued agitatedly, “Her task is rather simple, but our division, and the parts she mans especially, are not known for following commands to the stroke.”
Explain this fragged mess already, Georgie wanted to plead, but instead she sat waiting, winding.
“I’ll—shit I’ll start with the order,” Faruq swore miserably. “Apparently one of the prisoners in the Solar Refectory took control of the station and now he’s making demands. You know how it is—the refectory is Mars’ single biggest energy asset, life itself for Kolkander. And nobody knows this guy except, apparently, the one person they want Ron—Specialist Ullien to search for. But it’s sensitive so--.”
“S’if we don’t want’em watchin’ us we got t’send someone whose neck we wouldn’ dare riskin’ t’do n’ythin noble. Yours,” Coronach broke in.
“Especially because it’s not dangerous, it’s just—delicate. A delicate matter,” Faruq finished grudgingly, teeth cinched. “And—you can refuse. But there’s not much good experience this department can offer you. And like Specialist Ullien said, we’ll have our hands tied by an outside overseer otherwise.” He cast his eyes at the intern, bitingly anxious. “What do you think?”
Georgie stared back helplessly, petrified.
Surreal. This was an actual government job. People like Specialist Ullien and Faruq and she weren’t supposed to participate in that sphere. It was supposed to belong with the competent, the gifted, the people with perfect white smiles and swelled chests that the big suits with big problems paid to educate.
Worse, she had a feeling accepting the mission would mean leaving the city. And the threat of that had all her hair standing on end, had her lungs constricting in her chest. The blood must have drained from her face, too, because Faruq hastily waved his hands.
“Sorry, I’m sorry—forget that I had said any--.”
“Let’er speak f’erself,” Specialist Ullien cut in sharply, glowering at Georgie. “She’s bright ’nough t’see this s’important or y’wouldn’ ask. Awful cruel’ve you t’sume she’ll let fear’n her way.”
“Wah?!” the investigator snarled. “Y’said y’self she’sa good kid, an’ what good’re we doin’er here if we’re teachin’ her t’waste i--?!”
“Leave if you can’t be civil. Can’t I even trust you to--?!”
“I don’t understand!” Georgie broke in desperately. She felt under attack. “It’s—why you’re worried and I should go. I don’t—understand.”
The Police Commander and his specialist quieted.
“…it’s the nature of the task,” Faruq murmured at length. “The man taking over the Solar Refectory has very specific demands. He wants better rights for the poor on Europa. He wants Anthropeden and Mars to pressure for it. And there’s something strange about how little information they’re giving us about the civilian we’re supposed to find, the one he’s been communicating with.”
Georgie bit her lip. She didn’t know much at all about the Europan Confederacy.
“They’rs good s’callin’ him a terrorist, t’bogey word’ve the last cent’ry,” Coronach chuckled humorlessly through her teeth. It produced a ghastly noise like the first rattling breath of a corpse reanimated. “S’enough t’know they’re wrong,”
“The situation on Europa is more complicated than that,” Faruq remanded her, ostensibly speaking to Georgie. “We just… want room to maneuver. And our intentions look as pure as they are only if we send an… innocent, so to speak.” He smiled sheepishly.
“What—would I have to do?” Georgie spoke, but inwardly she was marveling with dread at the infernal force was drawing her in deeper.
“Plant y’ass n’a wayfare station.”
“Nothing you don’t want to.”
Georgie hesitated. Caught between terror and self-loathing.
“Please, don’t burden yourself,” Faruq insisted, rising. “And you can take time to make this decision--.”
But Coronach knew as well as Georgie did that if she didn’t commit now then she would, very soon, prevaricate herself right out of the affair.
“Yeh, it’ll b’fine,” the Specialist grated, and she rose also, her spiny fists clenched. “Like Europa says, they take care’ve people like this terr’ist. Shove ah t’dispossessed in t’the penumbra’ve their anti-radiation shields an’ when t’poor bastards get infected they deliver’em the munificent blessin’ve comfor’ble imprisonment n’exploitation n’research hospitals.”
At this Faruq ran a hand over his face. “Regardless of our actions nothing will change, Rona. Don’t guilt--.”
“Imma one s’gave up on t’world, n’you,” the Specialist growled. “So pay t’kid’s morals more respect.”
Georgie blushed as she watched the Investigator go.
“I’m sorry,” Faruq hurried to say. “That wasn’t fair of her. You--.”
“The point is nothing’s fair, right?” Georgie squeaked, heart pounding as she bowed her head. “So you should make me do it. Because I—won’t otherwise.”
For a long time that room was absolutely still. The Police-Commander’s brow furrowed. He seemed on the verge of objecting, but then he laid a hand on Georgie’s shoulder instead.
“Give your word or don’t, girl. Nobody makes anyone do anything, not in the real world.”
Georgie swallowed and, rushing to outpace the horrors her imagination was conjuring, blurted: “I swear I’ll go with her when she leaves,” She felt a shiver run down her spine and cursed her own pathos. “Just please don’t—offer me the choice to back out again.”
And then she had done it—she was plunging face-first into a yawning black chasm, and she couldn’t breathe and she felt light-headed enough that she had to brace herself against the table. But then--.
Faruq gripped her shoulder firmly. Georgie turned her swimming eyes up, and felt her vision refocus around his grin. It covered his whole face, so bright and strong it put the all-too distal sun to shame for its strength. She was nodding before he spoke; she trusted that grin absolutely.
“Lunch is on me,” he was saying, as though she hadn’t quailed at all. “I’d recommend the kibbeh. And my wife is picking me up—I’d really like you to meet her.”