Aks buys an antique book from the mysterious woman's antique store.
Bookwreck started out as a tedious two-storey cuboid of pale grey breezeblocks, a conventional, functional sort of building, possibly cheap bulk housing or military accommodation, before being hit by an aircraft. That happened during Crash One, and so the building was then abandoned for a substantial amount of time. Oak trees and creeping ivy grew, knitting the original breezeblock shell together with the stout cylinder of fuselage, now embedded where the ground floor's ceiling was supposed to be. When people came back to the city, the upper floor was rebuilt using much more aesthetically pleasing bricks; all except for the upper floor's ceiling, through which an oak tree still sprouts.
Aks guesses most of this in the first seconds of his first visit to the shop, just after hitting his head on the plane.
"Oh! I'm so sorry. The padding must have fallen off." The woman hurries forward to help him; she is the only person in the shop. She picks up a yellowed piece of foam and some string and then stretches up to try to tie it back into the dangerously jagged metal edge of the plane wreck, which is handily positioned just a short distance inside the door of the shop, at exactly the height of Aks' forehead.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine, thanks."
"I'm small enough that I never have to duck under the thing, of course, but every now and then some poor soul gets conked."
It is the same woman. Short, with chin-length blonde hair. Mid-thirties. Floppy, green, slightly out-of-date clothes. She recognises him from a few days before but pretends not to. Aks realises this and decides it would be less awkward for all concerned if he did the same. It is an unspoken agreement.
The shop is fairly dimly lit; the glass frontage is heavily leaded and the glass itself is fairly ancient, so not a lot of light gets through. The left half of the main space is dominated by the aircraft tube, the bottom of which is roped off. Bookshelves and the trunk of the great oak form a towering and dense maze; two steps and Aks has lost sight of the entrance.
"I'm looking for a book," he says. "Not any specific book. Something for some research I'm doing."
The shopkeeper's name is Yuen. Yuen helps him locate, leaf through and purchase a M'e 0699 issue of Ika Lgass Hunaethn, a political periodical from roughly eight hundred years ago. The magazine is written in ancient Aethn, which was, as far as is ever practical, the lingua franca of the world in the years leading up to the most recent Crash. It costs him half a day's wages. (Startlingly well-preserved centuries-old artifacts are extremely cheap in a city as lousy with history as Cahagan.)
Yuen explains she found a hundred and fifty of them in an abandoned solar farm cottage while travelling abroad some years ago. Like most of the written works surviving to this era, the "paper" is actually flimsy plastic; non-biodegradable. Aks sadly isn't in a position to make an offer for the dead solar farmer's full collection.
On his way home, Aks flips through the magazine and finds a photograph in it, a big colour picture attached to a four-page feature. It is of a woman in a massive, weighty golden cloak and headdress. The cloak is so thick that it completely hides the shape of her body. Her arms and legs are folded away underneath it somewhere and only her face is visible. Even that is partially obscured by the headdress - it can't be solid gold - which wraps around her temples and cheeks and then towers half a metre above her head. Her face is painted completely white except for her lips, which are painted red. White strands of hair are slicked back against her head. She is seated on a giant golden throne whose back and "armrests" rise even further than her headdress.
Aks knows who this is. He recognises the robes. This is a Chief Scientific Advisor to the kingdom of Oroth, a European kingdom which was centred on Sicily and once ruled every inch of the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and much more besides. At the time, Oroth was the oldest and most powerful global entity, and its king was de facto ruler of, and able to dictate terms to, more than half of the world.
The Orothian role of Advisor was as ancient as the role of king. It was initially held by the king's chief priest/astrologer back in the days when Oroth was a theocracy. As the kingdom advanced into the modern age, the Orothian bureacracy retained most of its religious trappings. Oroth was a strong, modern civilisation at the time the photo was taken. The gold-clad Advisor in the photo was an educated, capable scientist and politician. Her job was to announce alterations to governmental policy and law. While policy and law had advanced to cover such topics as gender rights, environmental preservation issues and sophisticated financial regulations, the announcements were still ritually made through a stone megaphone which broadcast her voice across much of the capital city of Giarre. Such was tradition.
She looks like a Bronze Age tribal ruler; she is probably wearing contact lenses.
Contact lenses. Aks stares at the picture for a very long time, trying to remember what colour Yuen's eyes are.
He recognises only one word from the headline to the article: the Aethn for "Crash".
A prominent sportsman is almost murdered, his wife turns out to be partially complicit, and it all goes sideways... Aks is so busy with police shifts for the next month that he only has time to even glance at the magazine. He spends long, boring hours wading through paperwork, trying to remember the scanty bits of Aethn he learned at university, then arrives home to his shared flat at mid-morning, with maybe six hours before he has to go out again, and sensibly spends that time sleeping like a dead man instead of studying.
The full translation takes him another month:
The Voice Of The World
Aoni Kulla On Cats, Crashes And The Future Of Orothian Science
"It is solid gold," says Kulla. We're in her conservatory on the east face of Mount Etna, just a few minutes' walk down the hill from the Castle. It's excruciatingly early in the morning and Kulla has most of the lights turned off; her whole lodgings are gradually becoming illuminated with pink dawn light. "The first Advisor was a canny scientist. We've always been canny scientists. The headdress perfectly balanced, and there are some hidden connecting points in the throne which carry most of the weight when I'm sitting down, which is ninety percent of the time. Even so, I'm surprised my neck isn't the size of a wrestler's."
Wearing just conventional business dress, without her "costume" (her word), it's difficult to equate this Aoni Kulla with the booming, authoritative presence on our radio sets and television screens. Up there on the pedestal she is unassailable, an enormous golden figure delivering Truth direct from the Gods as the Advisor has done for hundreds of years, twice as big as reality and never, ever wrong. Here, in front of me, is a small, human woman who forgets where she keeps the water jugs, and then spills her water over the coffee table in her enthusiasm to speak. She is keen about the interview; it's the first she's found time for in over a year.
So which one is the real Aoni Kulla? "After eighteen years with the world at my feet, I've grown very comfortable with dictating writ," she says. "Tradition has value. These days all the dictations come out simultaneously as press releases, and it's all couched in legal terminology so that we can cover our backs. But I could never stand up in a gigantic golden mask and robe and shout something to every listener in Eurasia unless I was sure. Accountability is important. It makes me think carefully. It makes me-- us-- ensure a certain level of confidence. So the Golden Advisor is an important part of me."
But both people are, Kulla eventually concedes, an act...
"...but in this era there is so much information at our disposal and so much to be sifted that I simply don't have time to share my life with anything bigger. I only sleep for half an hour a night and the rest of the day is spent connected to the firehose." Another piece of Kulla jargon; she means the torrent of paperwork which pours into the Castle every hour of every day. "I'd never inflict being married to a life like this on somebody. Candidly, the next Advisor will get nowhere if she can't duplicate the feat."
She? Isn't the selection process supposed to be top secret?
"Or he! Slip of the tongue. I can't tell you more than you've heard. A male advisor would be a first, and an important one. But I won't pick one who can't do the job."
That brings us nicely onto the topic of the future. Kulla is looking forward to retiring - "somewhere isolated and sunny where I can decompress for a straight decade" - but refuses to drop further hints and Lgass readers will have to wait for the full story in tomorrow's edition. When asked about her scientific policies of the last year she is pleased to be able to speak more frankly...
"...admit that what the people at the Electromagnetic Project have been discovering could be significant to furthering our understanding of the world. But it's my belief that, after all this time, nothing remains to be discovered, only rediscovered. If there was anything to discover about the real deeper structure of matter, there would be surviving texts about it. But there aren't. That means we know in advance it's a dead end."
It's dawn. My time is almost up. I ask her about the Crash, and whether it could be connected. Aoni Kulla is stony-faced for a moment. "Something caused the Crash," she says, standing up and leading me out. "We don't know what caused the Crash. We have a long list of things which we know, both from historical evidence and our own experiments, didn't cause the Crash. This theory of indivisibles, 'atoms', is not on the list.
"I would never say that unless I was sure."
The door knocks just as we reach it. Behind it is a servant with a two-inch stack of typed reports and a box of white makeup.
Dallman Liffey, 0699-M-27
Illu comes up to Aks at his desk at the police station, the day after he finishes his translation. Aks has made arrangements to see Gilland on his next day off. That is his plan, but it changes when Illu turns up.
"What was the name of that girl of yours?"
"She's not 'that girl of mine'. Yuen."
"Do you have a picture of her? She works at that store, Bookwreck, right? Did your theory pan out?"
"I do not have a picture of Yuen." Aks pulls out his issue of Ika Lgass Hunaethn and opens it to the page with Aoni Kulla's picture on it. "This is a picture of the woman from my crazy theory," he says. "Why?"
Illu plonks down a piece of paper of his own. It is a rough monochrome photostat of a rough monochrome photostat of a police sketch drawn in - judging by the language of the typed notes - northern America. The sketch is a woman's head, full-face. Illu turns the paper around so that its orientation matches the magazine, and then squints carefully at them both.
"The words 'antique bookstore' were in the reports," he says. "I think you could make a case for the resemblance."
"I don't know about the priestess," says Aks, "but that woman is definitely Yuen. Who is she? What's she done?"
"She's an extremist Luddite," says Illu. "She blows up science labs. Holds demonstrations, steals notes, blocks legislation and all kinds of stuff. A gigantic report just arrived at Central from across the border, they just traced her here recently. Wanted on four separate continents, for murder, sabotage and destruction of property."
"She's anti-Crash..." says Aks. "That would make sense. She thinks advancing technology is going to cause the next Crash. Do you know what an 'indivisible' is?"
"I barely know what a Crash is," says Illu.
"The date on this sketch is eighteen years ago," Aks observes.
"Well, that's logical, the pile in Uwzny's office is about eighteen years high. Look, I'm going to go and bring her in quietly. Do you want to be involved in this? Is there going to be a conflict of interest?"
"No," says Aks, standing up and putting away the magazine. "I'll come with you."
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