By Colin Harvey

The castle is a squat bulk, gleaming in the fine rain, waiting for events to unfold, the hum of traffic the only sound. Less than forty kilometres away people slaughter each other daily in a vicious internecine struggle, but, separated by a strip of water and a frontier, the war, like the past, is another country, and things are indeed done differently there.

Outside the castle, the rest of the city centre comprises low-rises with preservation orders on almost every building. Farther out rise the ziggurat shapes of the arcologies, towering hundreds of feet high. The effect is akin to a tribe of pygmies surrounded by giants.

The castle is homely rather than the usual hulking mediaeval fortress, a Victorian gentleman's romantic view of what a castle should be. The keep is small, the walls are low (though all-encircling) and inside, the furnishings are opulent.

There is movement, busy but unhurried. Cleaners polish the ornaments and silver, as well as making sure every surface is spotless. Ancillary staff ensure each conference room has a supply of glasses and cups. Security people check deliveries while those making them mutter at the delay. The building is well guarded, but the security has been unobtrusive, until today. There are secret-servicemen from the EU, joined by Americans, intent on preserving their country's unequalled record for impartial but secure arbitration. Nothing will get past their scrutiny, especially not the reporters camped out overnight.

The first to arrive at the castle are the security details from either side. Walking mountains of muscle, eyes never still. Every movement could be an assassination attempt. They check the rooms their delegates will be in, opening cupboards, scanning the rooms, thoroughly irritating the staff who have worked long through the night to make the place ready. They go over lists of names, checking the names of each one, objecting if there is a hint of some real or imagined affiliation, or possible sympathy for the other side.

Then come the arbitrators themselves, politicians either constantly briefing, being briefed, or talking into their wrisps.

Last of all come the factions: first the rebels, sharp-suited, eager to give their version of reality to the watching world, the men standing subtly apart from the women, both groups hawk-eyed, fanatical. Then the delegations from the government coalition, like the rebels, actually two groups: first the minority Conservatives, and then the Liberal majority. Amongst the phalanx of bodies, one woman appears of little significance. But though she tries to shrink down within the government group, one of the reporters sees her and shouts "Ms Davis-Kosigin-". Before he can say anything more, a couple of burly security men have him by an arm each and frog-march him away. The others take the hint. The stakes are far too high for anyone to deflect them from finding a ceasefire that can be made to work, perhaps even a lasting peace.

The two sides are in separate rooms: if they can get them in the same room within two weeks the arbitrators will consider themselves successful, but they have no illusions. The hatred runs too deep to be so quickly forgotten. The animus toward Karen is particularly noticeable, several of the rebel delegates hurling curses. Both sides agreed to her presence, but one side call her The Assassin, and the other The Traitor, and spit at the mention of her name.

Inside the government delegation sit, and at a signal from the front, Karen stands. All eyes follow her steady walk to the podium.

"My name is Karen Davis-Kosigin." She hesitates; "You're probably wondering why a local councillor is here today. To be honest, I'm unsure myself. Parti Homo insisted I attended, despite the fact that I tried to kill Red May." The delegates stir at this news. She continues, speaking over their conversations. "I'm even more surprised that they insisted I address you." She knows her presence is an irrelevance to the delegates from central Government, who on cue now talk freely amongst themselves, ignoring her. "I have to tell you my story as part of the deal." She pauses, with a faint, nervous smile. "So I'll use my wrisp." She connects it to a loudspeaker, and her voice booms out across the room:

"The ceasefire was officially into its fourth day, nearly a record, but nobody was fooled. The quickest way to the cemetery was to be lulled into a false sense of security. So we drove into work in our heavily armoured official car, past the Freikorps sent in by Berne to maintain order, the infantry huddled by their tanks in the swirling snow.

"What's the hold-up?" Sergei fretted, anxious as ever to get to work.

I patted his hand. "Relax hon. The Freikorps have a roadblock near the bottom of Park Street. The queues are blocking other junctions."

He squeezed my hand in turn, and shot me a thin smile. He only lives here because of me, but we've stopped arguing about that. He said: "The traffic's bad. Surprising, given how few people are prepared to risk their necks crossing the lines."

"They're stopping every car and checking it." I checked my make-up in the mirror, and patted a stray hair into place. "Relax." I soothed. "It's just routine."

"I know." He stroked the bit of fluff on his chin, a sure sign he was nervous. "But I don't like Germans." He turned up the sound for the local news.

"There are unconfirmed reports of a massacre in an isolated gay community behind Hetero lines at Greenbank in what is believed to be retaliation for a raid last week by a Homo snatch squad." The announcer said. "At the time the squad took at least a dozen adolescent youths for what is termed indoctrination."

I changed channels to an international net. "Not this morning." I pleaded.

"We could live elsewhere, and you wouldn't have to worry." Sergei said gently.

"And I'd have to leave Gamma." My answer was equally gentle, but firm.

The man on the radio was talking to an impartial expert, guaranteed to infuriate both sides. "We must accept that without a bipartisan approach, this ceasefire will fail like all the others. One side or the other calls a ceasefire and uses the time to re-group. Then the killing resumes. We're fortunate that this is an isolated conflict, but we have no guarantees that it won't spread across borders, becoming a trans-national situation. We need-."

I snapped it off when we reached the roadblock. "Good morning." I said cheerily, giving the young officer a big smile.

"Good morning, Councillor..Davis-Kosigin." He nodded to Sergei. "Mr Kosigin." He had eyes so blue they were almost transparent, and chin you could open tins with. He talked while they checked our retinal scans. His English was flawless, albeit accented. "There are rumours of a terrorist attack on the Council Offices. Please be extra careful this morning, won't you?"

"We will." I nodded. "Thank you." I elbowed Sergei to be quiet. "They mean well." I muttered as they waved us through.

"I hate it when you flirt." He said.

I know he does, but hid my smile. "It means nothing, darling." My jealous teddy-bear.

He sighed when we cleared the blockade. "How the hell did we end up like this?" It was a rhetorical question, of course.

"Don't underestimate our achievement." I half-joked. "Its taken fifty years to make our killing this organised. Back in Gamma's day, it'd just have been an occasional mob looking for a bit of queer-bashing."

"Then the queers started to fight back." His tone of voice was neutral and I wasn't sure whether the thought pleased or saddened him.

He drove me to the end of the crescent around College Green, from where he would drive the hundred metres back to the Facility's underground car park.

I kissed him goodbye. "I'm visiting Gamma tonight, so I'll see you at lunchtime."

"Okay." He said. "Call me."

As he pushed me out of the car, I looked back. "I might bring company."

"Whatever. Just go." He waved me away. "Go on in, before there's trouble."

"Worrywart." I dashed for the lobby, turned and blew him a kiss, but he had already driven off, his mind already on his precious engrams.

Lucky me. If he'd been only handsome, I'd never have fallen for him. But he's scarily bright as well, one of the first generation Russians to accept they're no longer a superpower, instead working and living abroad, truly international citizens.

We met while I was on a council exchange to Moscow, and I sneaked off one evening to a student bar. Sergei drank there as well, as it was the only place whose prices he could afford. We got drunk, ended up in bed that night, and married three months later. When I called in some favours six months after we were married, the Institute hired him. They knew immediately they'd hit the jackpot. Five years had flown by, while the conflict bubbled into outright war, like a pot left too long on a stove.

Before I entered, I keyed my wrisp. The watch-face was replaced by an image of Sergei. "Lunch at one," I instructed it, "remind me at ten-to."

"Noted" the wrisp replied "quiet or loud reminder?"

"Quiet, as usual." I said; it reverted to watch-face.

Inside, the council meeting was the usual squabble. The empty seats left by Red May and the other Parti Homo councillors cast shadows over the proceedings, and sometimes a momentary silence fell when her name was mentioned.

Once the council argued over how to fund housing projects without council tax increases, between keeping a balance between police and criminals in high-tension areas, and traffic-calming schemes. Now the arguments were how to stop the armed gangs from Fishponds massacring the protestant refugees, whether to let the bars along The Strip stay open round the clock for the militia, and staying alive under the daily bombardment from the warring forces. At one point, the session looked like it might degenerate, but once the council leader deflected the blame from those attending onto Parti Homo, things eased a little.

Crisis averted, the morning session ended. It was nearly one o'clock when I nodded to Linda. "Lunch?" I mouthed.

She nodded and joined me. "Are we going to meet Sergei?" She grinned with the enthusiasm she brought to everything, and we left the chambers. If I was the jealous type, she'd have been first person I'd have bumped off, the way she flirted with Sergei, but I'd known her since we were at school. I trusted her like a sister.

The canteen was busy, with only a few of us prepared to venture outdoors. We ignored the familiar sensation of being watched. I'm unsure whether it's better to be a lone walker, and be the sole target for any snipers prowling the rooftops, or to be part of a group, and attract their attention that way. The swirling snow of earlier had stopped. Overhead, defence microts sparkled like diamonds in the sunlight. There was a constant race to update them against incoming nanots. As fast as the enemy could find new measures, they would combat them, and the game would begin again.

"Ready?" Linda shivered.

"Ready." We hunkered down, and ran across College Green to Sergei's Lab.

If we were foolish, so be it. The conflict's been bubbling for a generation now. We can only fear so much, only so many precautions we can take.

We sprinted and I saw a red dot appear on Linda's back, but before I could shout, there was a flash and she crumpled.

I threw myself down beside her.

"Hurts bad." She gasped.

"Can you move?" I tugged at her.

"Yeah." She winced. "But not quickly. Get help."

I knew that was the logical thing to do, but we don't let go easily of what is ours, including our friends. I should have left it to the paramedics, but even in a high-priority zone like this, they'd take forever. Quicker to get her away.

I hoped the microts had isolated the sniper, prevent them from getting in another shot. Cursing and panting, I dragged her across the grass. At last we reached the other side, and inevitably the paramedics arrived, simultaneously thanking me and criticising me for moving her.

I insisted on joining her in the ambulance, and as we hurtled through ruined streets toward the Infirmary, I called Sergei. "Linda's been sniped."

"Shit. She okay? You okay?"

"I'm fine." I studied the blackened stumps of firebombed buildings as we passed, alternating with others still untouched, like rotten teeth alongside healthy ones. "They didn't touch me."

Linda lay on the stretcher, her pallor worse beneath the oxygen mask. Her eyes were shut, and I hoped it was sleep and not sliding into coma. "But Linda's been hit by a laser. Not much blood, but there may be internal damage. Call you later."

"I'll be waiting." He would too. He might be absent-minded, but he cared deeply about those close to him.

The ambulance screeched to a halt, and they hauled the stretcher into the hospital. I found my credentials only got me so far, so I sat and waited.

A harassed-looking doctor, an animated scarecrow with a white coat, eventually joined me. For a moment I dared to hope, until I saw the hang-dog look in his eyes.

Before he could give me his rote-learnt lines, I interrupted. "She's dead, isn't she?"

There was the barest of nods. "I'm sorry." His voice almost broke. I thought I saw a tear trickle down his face, but I was probably mistaken.

"She was my oldest friend." We could have been holding separate conversations, but both knew better. "We were at school together. We were going to change the world."

I remembered what a friend, another medic had said recently, and I could almost read his thoughts in the memory of her words: "I'm tired of fighting to keep people alive, and losing all the time. I've lost three today. I've fought harder each time, and still we can't save them." My friend was killed a week later, crossing the lines. After they gang-raped her.

"I'm sorry." I was supposed to be the one grieving, but couldn't help sympathise, he was so forlorn.

"No, I'm sorry." His voice was firmer. He regained his bedside manner. "You're the one who's lost a friend. Forgive me."

"Nothing to forgive." I was equally firm, and he responded with a faintest smile.

"Thank you." He said. "Did she have relatives?"

"None she was in touch with." We'd been each other's families, Sergei and I, she and Michael. It was through us that she and Michael had met. "She had a partner."

He nodded. "We need to inform him."

"No problem. He works with my husband. He'll pick me up." I said. "I'll ask him to bring Michael with him."


The next week was a blur. We postponed the visit to Gamma, and getting the message through about that was an epic itself. I organised a quiet funeral for Linda, and after the cremation the few friends Michael invited came for drinks.

Michael took Linda's death as hard as I would've expected. A big, dour Ulsterman, he'd left only a year before the massacres forced the Protestant Diapora, and unlike many, had found somewhere to live before sheer weight of numbers forced them into refugee camps. He wasn't given to great displays of emotion, had buried himself in work for years before Linda lit up his life as she had so many others. Transmuting him into someone quite likeable, for all his mass of prejudices against `Cotholics ond quares' as he called them in his blancmange of an accent.

For days, Sergei said, he sat staring into space. Then reflection turned to bitterness. Now he hated everyone. He raged against the politicians who had been powerless to stop her death, raged against the gay sniper, for he had no doubt it was a gay sniper, despite the regular acts of agent provocateurs on both sides. And he raged most of all against Parti Homo, the political wing of the gay insurgents, and Red May Vickery, their founder.

His unrelenting bigotry had always been difficult to stomach, and it was harder than ever now. I knew he was grieving, but he wasn't pleasant to be around.

He threw himself into his work, often working double shifts, as if with Linda gone, it was the Holy Grail. Sergei found him equally difficult to cope with, came home looking increasingly wan.

They had been working for years together on the artificial cognitive maps first developed at the end of the last century. It was part of a project to adjust behavioural mechanics to help the mentally ill without using drugs, instead with nanots rewiring the brain. With the potential for mind control, there were immense implications for civil rights, but with increasing drug-resistance, there seemed few alternatives.

One night Sergei admitted that Michael seemed to be straying outside the parameters of the project. The effort of keeping an eye on Michael as well as doing his own work had taken its toll on him; he lost weight, and looked quite haggard.

My own workload was easing, which only made things worse, as I had more time to brood and watch the devastation Linda's death wreaked on us. I decided to visit my grandmother, my last living relative. It had been weeks since the last visit had been cancelled, far longer than I'd ever gone between visits. I told myself it had absolutely nothing, to do with Linda's death.

The problem is Gamma's place is right across town. Beyond the battle lines that divide the city into a checkerboard of shifting combat zones, a safe area one day, lethal the next. I re-arranged the visit, and we drove into work just as we had the day Linda died. I kissed Sergei goodbye.

"See you later." He grinned at me.

"Is that a promise or a threat?" I teased.

"More like a declaration of intent." He whispered.

"Do you want to meet at lunchtime?"

"Maybe." He sounded non-committal.

"Sooner or later." I said gently. "I'll have to cross the green again."

"I know." He admitted. "But I don't know if I'm ready for it yet." He said briskly. "I'll see you later. Wish me luck." He added dryly.

"Is he that bad?" He was Michael.

He shrugged. "He seems to hate everyone at the moment. He doesn't say much, but it's there all the time. It's my fault I have a wife who's alive, it's your fault. Well, you know."

"I know." I kissed him goodbye like any other day. "Give him time."


Near the end of the morning session, Michael called. "Sorry to intrude." He chewed his moustache.

"That's okay." I said.

"Sergei wanted you to come for lunch. He couldn't call himself, he's in a meeting, but he should be out by then."

"He's changed his mind?" I was surprised.

"I guess so." His smile was feeble, but at least he tried.

"Tell him I'll see you both about one, yeah?"

"Great." He answered. "See you later."


Sergei's meeting lasted longer than expected, and when I arrived, Michael met me on his own. He apologised for his moodiness over the last few weeks, and spent the hour showing me his pet nanot he'd developed out of hours. In the end I never did see Sergei. Michael said "cheerio, then" as I headed for the underground car park. I would have to hurry if I were to see Gamma.

The city was once a mediaeval port, but when the river silted up and ships got bigger, its decline was inevitable. The legacy was a network of cellars beneath the city where the merchants kept their sherry casks. What fell into disuse centuries before gained new purpose with the civil war, and now it was possible to scuttle several kilometres underground through damp passages half-lit by lamps, ignoring the scurrying of rats in the darkness. Overhead both sides carried on killing, but an unofficial truce prevailed here, and it was even possible, if one knew the right people, to pass safely through the lines.

I was scanned at every checkpoint for hidden weapons. They found nothing. If I planned mayhem, carrying weapons through the surveillance mesh wouldn't be my method. As one who's been watched almost every day since birth, there are two things to remember: the watchers can always be beaten if necessary, and one only does it when really, really necessary.

I was met by an ear-ringed brave wearing the colours of the most militant gay revolutionaries, who looked at me as if I was an alien. "Come." He said.

Blinking, we exited into daylight. The houses here had once been elegant Georgian mansions, but were now squalid ruins. Gangs of vagrants squatted amongst the rubble between the remaining buildings. Every so often there was the screee of an incoming near miss, and the crump of its impact. Sometimes they were close enough to shake the ground. The incoming fire from Hetero positions alternated with the thump of returning rounds from Homo guns. Some of the weapons were legacies of the long-ended Cold War, and had been obsolete for years, but they could kill as well as any smart weapon. Others were newer, for weapons are still a source of money and influence.

My companion led me past more checkpoints until we reached Gamma's house. He watched me climb the steps, making sure I went exactly where I was supposed. Because I was from the other side. I was unclean. Neither side had a monopoly on bigotry.

Inside, a curtain twitched. Marta probably, Gamma's bodyguard-secretary, maybe Gamma herself. The door opened, and Marta studied me. She was a redhead, taller than me, powerfully muscled from hours of training, slender as a reed, but tough as cable.

"Hello." I said.

"Hello yourself." She was equally cool, but not unfriendly.

We waited in the lounge.

"Your Grandmother will be here shortly. Drink?"

"I'd rather have a hug, old girl." I suddenly felt very tired. She put her arms around me, and we hugged and kissed. I fought down old emotions, old passions.

"I've missed you." I wiped my eyes.

"You know where we are." She shrugged. "I know it isn't easy, but you made your choice."

"Indeed." I would have said more, but the door opened.

A big, red-faced woman with grey frizzy hair entered, still upright, despite the need for the stick on which she leaned, still vigorous despite her age.

"Hello child." Red May Vickery greeted me.

"Hello Gamma." We hugged fiercely, my militant, proud, adored grandmother and I.

"Finally got away from him, have you?" She winked, trying for a bite. She'd need to better that.

"Still got that china doll of a girlfriend?" I shot back, and got a nod of approval.

"Leave us, Marta." Gamma nodded her head at the door.

Marta said "see you later," and as she reached the door shot me a smile so brief, I almost missed it. My heart lurched, but I'd made my choice when I met Sergei.

Gamma and I studiously avoided politics, though it tainted everything we talked about- Linda's death, which shocked her more than she would admit, Sergei, Michael, Marta, the mutual acquaintances which one or other of us had been unable to keep in touch with. Several times she started to speak, wanted to say something, from the way she looked at me, but stopped.

"You know." She said when we'd exhausted every other topic, ended up on politics. "There are some on both sides who'd call us traitor for sitting here together."

"Probably." I agreed. "But bigotry is nothing new. And surely your people wouldn't harm their elder states-woman?"

Her laugh was more a bark. "Don't you believe it. For some it wasn't enough that I came out. I shouldn't just have left your grandfather, but taken his cojones in a box." She growled at my grin. "What?"

"Cojones?" I asked incredulously: years of watching Latino vids had given her a colourful vocabulary.

She chuckled. "My grandma used to watch gangster films. I won't bore you with the quotes from those."

"Must have been tough leaving Grandpa." I suddenly had a feeling of moving into uncharted territory.

"Broke his heart. I did love him, I thought." She said. "When I was young, you didn't admit readily to being a lesbian. Marriage was better for the politico's image. It was years before I stopped fighting my sexuality. Years more before I did something about it."

"Do you think that's why Mum went to America?" I asked. "Because she couldn't cope with being Red May's daughter?"

"Probably." She admitted cheerfully. "Unlike you, she never had any backbone."

I felt, as always, the titanic weight of her approval. "And look at us now." I looked at the ruins outside. "Would you done things differently if you'd known how they would turn out?"

"Probably." She said, weighing the question. "All I did was provide a focus. I didn't start the war. That just needed dogmatism on both sides. One side wanting their rightful place in the sun, the other worried their children would be corrupted. It was okay while times were good. But once the post-Millennial Boom was over, and times got hard, the backlash against the liberals started. We drew together for protection, but creating our own zones was probably the worst thing we could have done. Created our own ghettos, more like." She sighed, then returned to the present. "Anyway, it's done. And if I had known, I'd still have followed my conscience." Her gaze grew bleak, and I shivered a little at how inhuman she suddenly looked. "I'd do anything to give us a chance." She said. "I'd sell myself, Marta, even you, if I thought it would help us win." She smiled, and suddenly Red May was again my Gamma. "Anyway, it's academic. We're outnumbered ten to one. Nothing's going to turn the trickle of support we get from the States and the rest of Europe into a flood, is it?"

I paused, judging the question carefully, because we were on really delicate ground now. "Isn't there anything you can do? How many more Linda's do there have to be?"

"How long have you been in politics, girl?"

I shrugged. "I had to ask."

"I know you did. But it's not that simple. At the risk of being sexist, it's the guys who are the problem on both sides."

"You mean" I paused dramatically, raising an eyebrow. "That it's all the men's fault?"

She laughed to hide her irritation. "You know damn well that's not what I mean. But women only fight when they're backed into a corner. It's the men on both sides who perpetrate the atrocities." She sighed. "To be honest, our guys are probably worse. It's like they have to be more macho than the Heteros." She added. "Most of them were gentle guys to start with. But atrocity after atrocity, retaliation after retaliation, it's like a crucible, melting away any softness. Most don't so much kill to live, as live to kill." After a pause, she added "I'm sorry about Linda."

The world stilled momentarily.

Her use of Linda's name triggered the deep programme Michael had implanted at lunchtime, after he greeted me with the immobiliser. I'd never suspected the depth of his hatred, or that he was so cunning. Or that he knew who Gamma was.

The killer programme surfaced from the depths where Michael had buried it, like a yawning monster seeking to devour us all. I tried to speak, to warn her that I had no volition, to call for Marta, anything, but my traitor muscles refused to obey, and while my mind screamed, I picked at the false nail Michael had replaced one of my real ones with.

Gamma stared into space, perhaps thinking she'd offended me, when what I wanted was to warn her to get away from me, that I was a loaded gun, ready to fire. Reacting to the real nails on my other hand, the false nail unravelled into a thread-thin garrotte. When Gamma cleared her throat to speak, I lunged, wrapping the cable round her throat. She fought vainly to clear the wire, but despite the blood making it hard for me to grip, I held on grimly, her struggles growing weaker."


During the mid-morning break when the rain stops, the groups take a walk in the grounds, while overhead echo the thwacka-thwacka-thwacka of the gunships standing guard.

For twenty minutes the two groups circle their goldfish bowl like separate schools of fish swimming round. The two groups make no eye contact. They ignore each other completely. For each party the other might as well not exist.

Only at the end when they go in together, do the Parti Homo delegation acknowledge Karen's existence. The hatred in their eyes should freeze the blood in her veins. But she stays composed, even when one of them spits at her feet. For a moment, it looks as if there will be violence, and everyone tenses.

"Enough." Red May's voice rings out, and the Parti Homo withdraw slowly. "Get inside." She orders her people.

She stands looking at Karen when the others have gone in. Karen stares back. Finally the old woman nods and follows them.

Inside, Karen's voice booms again:

"Perhaps Marta heard something, maybe we knocked over a vase. Whatever the reason, she entered the room as Gamma weakened, life ebbing from the old woman's body.

I think it was lingering affection from our old love that made her use a paralysis dart rather than a gun, but it worked well enough. My muscles locked up after she'd stuck it into the base of my skull, jamming the signals from my brain, leaving me drooling whilst she called a medic team, and set about saving May.

Even now my stomach churns when I think of lying there unable to do anything whilst my body struggled both with the intruder device and Marta's dart. Michael's implant was amazingly effective, but was limited. Once it was triggered, it was only expected to run for a brief period. The dart immobilised me long enough for it to run down.

When Marta returned, she looked at me as if I was a poisonous snake. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you." She said, removing the dart.

"Had no choice." I moaned. "Michael-" I coughed until I retched. When I'd finished I told her the whole story.

"May's not dead yet." Marta answered grimly. "No thanks to you. Can you prove what you claim?"

"Pump me full of drugs. Do whatever you want." I said miserably. If she had tried to kill me there, I wouldn't have done a thing to stop her. It seemed to me that everyone I came into contact with, I contaminated.

They held me there while darkness fell. On instruction, I dictated my story into my wrisp.

A man entered and spoke quietly to Marta.

"Come on." She said.

May was propped up in another room, ashen-faced and eyes closed, though they opened when we came close.

"She claims it was duress." Marta said.

May nodded. "Had to be." Her voice was like the rustle of leaves. "If they'd waited, another six weeks would have saved them the trouble."

I stared unbelieving.

"It's nearly time, Karen. They can't do anything for me. The cancer's too advanced."

"Could they have treated it?" My voice was thick. To have her survive, yet still to die, was almost too much to comprehend.

She shook her head. "Maybe if they'd caught it at the start. But we don't have the facilities here. And I couldn't surrender. There'd have been a show-trial." She paused for breath, and I thought of her entering that room the last time, propped up on her stick, refusing to bow to the inevitable. She would not have shown weakness to me, any more than anyone else. Oh, Gamma, I thought, bereft of words.

"Don't grieve for me." May spoke at last, her voice fading, then getting stronger again. "Will you help me? Not because of this, not from guilt, but rather for all the good times we had?"

"Of course." My voice shook.

"If I'm to die, I want my death to have meaning." She whispered, but still the fire was there. "And I want it to hurt them, not benefit them. I want it to paint them so dark that they'll become pariahs. I want it to be a rallying call to our cause."

She stopped, exhausted. I feared she wouldn't last the night, but I would be proven wrong.

Cold purpose flooded through me. I was far past simple fury at Michael. It extended to the whole human race. "Whatever you want, I'll do it." I kissed her on the cheek, and thought of Sergei.

Gamma must have caught some hesitation in my voice. "Don't promise because of today." She said. "We'll be no better than any others who perpetrate atrocities. But at least this one will have some meaning. If you're prepared to give everything, we need martyrs."

Gamma summoned a doctor, who injected me. "It'll show up as adrenaline, even if the scanners pick it up. Perfectly natural in the circumstances. Perfectly harmless, too. Until." He handed me a packet of what looked like morning-after pills. "This one." He said. "Take it when we instruct you. We'll need to know your exact weight."

"The Heteros aren't the only ones with sympathisers." Marta said. "Or access to black technology."

"Just wait for the nod." May kissed me goodbye.


Karen sits with a glass of water, sipping occasionally, only now beginning to lose her composure. As she dabs her eyes, she surreptitiously swallows the tablet, as instructed.

In the next room, at times perfectly calibrated to their body mass, fifty other tablets are taken with fifty glasses of water.


I lurched from Gamma's house to the near end of the tunnels without incident: the guards were unhappy when I turned up unescorted, but I bluffed my way through them, into the tunnels. Michael's crude conditioning had burnt through, and now I had no refuge from the consequences of my actions.

At the other end, Michael waited for me with a trio of armed thugs. They wore no uniform, but they didn't need to. It was clear they were Hetero partisans.

They `escorted' me to their headquarters and threw me into a dirty, stinking cell lit only by a bare bulb. From the marks on the walls I guessed that not all my predecessors had left alive and intact. I didn't much care. Although I wasn't physically abused by them, Michael had already violated me as thoroughly as if I'd been raped. I lay curled foetally in the corner, haunted by flashbacks.

Michael had immobilised me, then injected me with a microt that attached itself to my brainstem, waiting until needed. To prevent me warning her, he overwrote the memory engrams and implanted false memories of a harmless lunchtime with him while we waited for Sergei.

It was back-street garage stuff, but no less effective for that. What shocked me more than his assault itself had been the hatred that gushed like an oil-strike when he showed me the results of his moonlighting.

"Fucking queer whore." He hissed. "Linda told me about you and her all them yers ago. She thought it was funny, said you were the only one she'd ever been with. But you worked your way through them, didn't you? I put up with you for her sake, but I don't have to do that now. Did Sergei know?" His eyes gleamed. "He does now. You and your fucking bitch grandmother. Witches." He wiped his mouth. "Now the Witchfinder-General's here to burn the whole lot of youse at the stake." He held the nanot in his palm. "And you know what Karen? You're going to be the kindling that burns them, and this beauty's the match."

It was added torture, replaying it over and over again. I'd grieved for Linda, but now there was the guilt as well- maybe I had caused this?

Days later they released me without explanation. I expected a bullet in the back of the head, but instead they blindfolded and dumped me on a patch of waste-ground in the Spanish Sector. The Spanish troops picked me up, and drove me to the council house, ushering me into an office where three people sat. The first was Peter Alberts, a Government whip. Also present was Catherine Moorhouse, the council leader. The third man was never identified, but was clearly secret service.

Alberts was as smooth as silk, but I didn't trust him. That was probably unfair, but I couldn't help it. Based on gut feelings, and recent experiences, at the moment the only good man was a dead one. Moorhouse eyed me warily, unsure of the loose cannon I'd suddenly become.

The third man said nothing, but watched everything.

The next two hours were spent in painful debrief, the memories still raw. Alberts was sympathetic but dogged. The others said nothing- it was clear who ran the show. Moorhouse opened her mouth to speak once, and closed it at a look from Alberts. At times I wanted to scream at him, and I think he sensed it, because every so often, he would stop a particular line of questioning as I approached boiling point, and started another. It's been said the law lost a brilliant cross-examiner when he entered politics; that morning he proved it.

Alberts asked a last question: "Where do your sympathies lie?"

I considered my answer. They were scanning me, weighing every word against the tell-tale responses of my body.

"I'm bi-sexual. But I disapprove of violence, or any form of coercion. From either side. And I'm married to a man who, if you knew him, you'd know would explain my life better than anything else I could say. Now I have a question."

"Of course." He tilted his head slightly.

"Is it actually a criminal offence yet to be homosexual, or are you saving that for a rainy day?"

His smile was a tacit admission. "Touch‚. It's not illegal. What concerns us more is what those beliefs may lead to." He waited for a moment, looked at his colleagues, back to me, then continued gently. "Thank you for your honesty. You have my sincerest condolences Ms Davis-Kosigin. You've lost a friend and been turned into an unwitting tool for extremists to attack a woman who deserved better, whatever our disagreements with her. We have no truck with these gangland tactics."

"You would say that, wouldn't you?" I replied.

"Yes, I would say that." He said. "In this case I mean it." I believed him. "The perpetrator of this outrage has disappeared, probably into the Loyalist camps, and we had to be completely sure of your part in this. Certainly it seems to be borne out by other information we have."

He refused to elaborate further, instead dropped a bombshell. "Parti Homo have agreed to peace talks. It's a surprise, because they're doing well locally at the moment, and those with the momentum are rarely willing to lose it. Even more surprising that one of their conditions is that you attend as one of the Government Delegation. They've guaranteed your safety. We're completely bemused, but left with few options. We needed to be absolutely sure of your part in this." He turned to Moorhouse.

She smiled without warmth. "We've had to suspend you for the last few days, but will re-instate you immediately after this meeting."

"Rest for a few days, Karen." Alberts concluded. "A limo will take you home. We'll be in touch."

Home. Sergei wasn't there, and when at last he came home, my woolly bear looked at me as if I was an alien. When I reached out to hug him, he drew away as if I would bite.

"I'm still me, whatever Michael said." I spoke gently.

"But who is me? The woman I thought I'd married, or the woman I really did marry?" His voice was bitter. "Why did you never tell me?"

"When I met you, I was celibate." I said. "And when we met, your sex was irrelevant. I fell in love with a person, Sergei, not a label. Everything changed when I met you."

"Really?" His disbelief was clear.

"Is your love for me so fragile, that finding out that I liked girls as much as boys won't survive it?"

"But that's not it, is it?" He said. "It isn't that you used to like girls. You still do."

"I'm still attracted to women." I admitted. But I no more act on that attraction than you do."

"Really?" He didn't believe me. "You and Linda, Michael told me everything. What you got up to."

I felt sick. He was no better than the rest, when it came to it. "So you choose to believe Michael, rather than me?" My voice started to rise. "A monster who'd have me kill my own grandmother, because of who she is? He's slandering his own wife to justify what he did!"

Sergei turned away, and the bedroom door slammed shut. I knew then I'd lost him, maybe for good. He'd wanted to get away from the conflict for years, and this was the pretext he'd needed - whether or not he believed me, or worried about my orientation was irrelevant. It was just an excuse. He left carrying a suitcase, without saying goodbye. In the bedroom, there was a note from him: he needed a few days to think. Pressing one of his shirts to my face, I doubted he'd return. There was an emptiness at my core; I'd rejoined the ranks of the hollow people. For some reason, it was almost a relief.

I spent a sleepless night, wondering if he was right, what I could have done differently. Days passed with me a prisoner in the cell of my home, in solitary. Finally the phone rang. It was Moorhouse, inviting me to the conference.

I then made a call myself. "I'll do it." I said, then added "sixty-four kilos."


The room is in turmoil. The delegates have realised there is significance in her testimony, but are unsure in the hubbub precisely what it is. Someone calls; "can you rewind that?"

She looks puzzled, and as she stops the wrisp, checks the time, then surreptitiously palms the second tablet as instructed. This will be the trigger, detonating the explosive when the two parts connect. She is deliberately clumsy as she tries to reset the wrisp, and as a man barges past to reset it for her, she doubles up. The buzz of concern grows louder.

Karen feels stabs of pain as the nanodes flock to the signal she has swallowed, carrying their deadly payload, dancing their deadly minuet.

On the signal the nanodes released from the first pill track and gather the scattered plutonium, too small to measure when dispersed, then hurtle toward the beacon. The second pill also contains nanodes, but they are a magnitude smaller than the others, to gather their own harvest: like the philosophers stone of legend, these nanodes rebuild her, neutron by neutron, turning her into something very different from that which entered the room. Technology so arcane, its very existence is denied. The resultant mix will act like a magnifying glass shining the sun on brush and twigs, increasing the effect of the plutonium by a magnitude.

In the other conference room, the Parti Home delegation will feel the same pain she does at slightly different intervals. Working back from a calculated end-time, everything has been calculated to the millisecond. Their differing body masses meant the delegates had to swallow their tablets at different times, so the climax will come only seconds apart.

The inferno will leave no definitive forensic evidence, other than the explosion started in the Hetero room: rumour will do the rest, and gays world-wide will be incensed at Red May's death. If the plan works.

Oh Sergei, she thinks, close to fainting from the pain. Oh Gamma. Her blood is boiling now, turning micro-gram by micro-gram into a toxic cocktail. At least the pain fills the void. The buzz grows louder, a million droning bees, and Gamma, Sergei, Michael, Linda, Marta, none of them matter any more, as her hollowness is filled, and as she topples, she spontaneously combusts. Falling forward, the blazing body shimmers and the people in the room are consumed in a flash of fire. Her transformation triggers a cascade of the Parti Homo delegates, and the castle itself is consumed by the miniature sun which engulfs everything for hundreds of metres and rises high above the city, in a spiralling column of fire.

The End

Copyright © 2001 by Colin Harvey

Bio:"I have one previous sale, in 1999 to Pulp Eternity - unfortunately, the magazine folded before the story could be published. I have also sold an article to "This Way Up" webzine, and have a fiction appearance forthcoming in "Fractured Infinity" webzine. I'm 40, married and live in the UK."



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