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A measured rhythmic pounding on his entrance door woke Rassun from a sound sleep, and he staggered out of his bed in a daze. His work was irregular, he had to be ready to respond to situations with very little warning, but it seemed like this employment had gone from slow and predictable to ridiculous and demanding in the space of a few years. Author's Notes
Who would be out apotheosizing at this hour in the morning? The crazies were getting more desperate and he was going to have to renegotiate his credit licenses with the Cultural school, if this kept up at this rate. There was more than one reason that this tended to be a short-term job. He pounded back on the door and went to pull a cup of still-hot tea from his time crystal storage unit to slug down while he waited for the slip of paper under the door.
The address was waiting for him when he was finished, neatly lettered on the back of a white card with a counter-clock-wise arrow. He considered changing clothing, but the address was a poor-class area, and the clothing he'd fallen into bed wearing the night before was even more suitable for the location for having been slept in.
He hit the street at a jog, knowing that his chance of catching the first cross-town railcar was good; one of the first things he did when he made one of his frequent moves was to learn the transportation schedules. The streets of Affamarg were only starting to awaken, and the sun was barely above the horizon. The Monitor at the railcar gave his travel license only the barest of glances, and didn't ask to see any others.
In just over a ten-tick, he was disgorging with the rest of the early morning commuters in the poorest area of Affamarg. He had lived in Faarar for a short time, and knew too well that these slums did not compare to the squalor of those.
The object of his journey had already set up his space on the corner near the railcar stop; a slightly wild-eyed young man with a shock of reddish brown hair and a gaudy green jacket to ward against the spring chill. He had a few placards set up around him already, hand-painted with 'Say Yes to the Empire,' with the 'yes' crossed out and replaced with a 'no,' and 'Not in OUR Best Interest.' His day-long license for public protest was tacked out on one of them, and he was clearly intent on getting every coin's worth from his fees, already well into an impassioned recount of the Empire's cruelty to the Mayaloi people when they first met.
Rassun didn't have to feign morning confusion as he mingled in with the few early commuters who were stopping to listen.
"That was a long time ago," he countered out loud, some time later, when the young man finally gasped for breath. "They made reparations!" He used a particularly gravelly voice he'd spent hours with the Theatre Guild developing. It was a natural choice; after the hours he'd spent cheering the night before for a speaker in the industrial district, he wasn't sure he had the voice for anything smoother.
A woman in the front ranks of the slowly growing audience turned to him in outrage, "A few coins can't make up for starving an entire race of people to death!"
Rassun didn't let the flicker of recognition reach his face, but he knew her as a counterpart in this dance; her card must have born a clock-wise arrow. Today she was wearing a machine guild novice vest, and dark brown hair. He liked her better the way he'd last seen her, in Tiflail, as a blonde, but changing appearances frequently was important in this position. Even more important was changing voices - she'd gone shrill this time.
"You'd blame a government for what they did four hundred years ago?" He crossed arms over his own plain labor guild vest, daring her to continue.
The man with the placards took the metaphorical stage back. "We're not blaming them," he said, with a fast, appreciative smile for the woman he thought was siding with him. "We're holding them accountable! We need to make sure they never have the power to do that again! We need to keep the authority in our own hands!"
He ranted further, illustrating the Empire as a power-hungry, authoritative dictator and pointing out the latest law as another step towards domination of the common man.
"You're an ungrateful, lazy little nobody who doesn't understand anything," Rassun roared at him.
"And you're an overblown prick!" the woman in the front row rounded on him, before the speaker could formulate a more statesmanly retort.
"The Empire feeds and clothes you, gives you an education and a chance to work and earn any place you've got the wits to get to," Rassun said, without rising to her bait. "You want to say what they did hundreds of years ago, I say look at what they do now."
"Yeah," the woman said viciously. "Look at what they do now!" She looked expectantly at the speaker, waiting for him to back her up.
He stumbled, not expecting the opening, and had to shuffle around a few cards to find the place in his prepared notes. "Exactly," he said. "They take people's children away when they don't follow ridiculously strict rules."
"Maybe some people shouldn't breed," someone unexpected in the audience said with a half-laugh.
Rassun grinned, loving that moment when unscripted participation went his way, and gave a gravelly laugh out loud. There were scattered chuckles through the growing audience.
"Maybe you shouldn't breed," the woman in the front spat in the direction of the newcomer. Rassun half-envied her the role; it was more fun than the straight-man he was playing.
The speaker scrambled to regain his footing. "Ma'am," he cautioned. "We can't let anyone tell us when and how to breed. Having children is our most sacred and personal dictate; it's born into us at a biological level. We give the Empire these rights to our very body, without question, and we have to take them back!" He gathered more steam, railing on about the depravity of the Carnal Guild (a poor choice, in Rassun's mind, as the strength and acceptability of that guild made them a challenging enemy to court) and the genetic necessity of free breeding and personal choice.
Rassun stayed as long as his apparent role logically could allow, making depreciating remarks as necessary and pointing out holes in the speaker's carefully-planned speech. His counterpart was as effective, if not more, continuing to hurl insults veiled as support for the speaker and disrupt his train of thought and the rhythm of his speaking, even as she appeared to be agreeing with him.
Finally, he gave up in apparent disgust, preferring to fade out into the edges of the crowd rather than make a stormy exit. He would be replaced by another dissident later in the day. The woman remained, clearly entrenched for the duration of the speech. Rassun felt a pang, leaving her. He didn't know her name, and probably never would.
He was exhausted, and handed the Monitor the wrong travel license at the railcar, resulting in a moment of confusion, and had to show her the rare license allowing him to have licenses with varied ranks. She let him pass without further question. "Say yes to the Empire," she said conversationally in parting, as he boarded the car. Rassun gave a sideways grin back at her, already thinking ahead to the report he would be writing up about the event he'd just attended. "Say yes," he agreed. 'Even when you're saying no,' he added in his head, thinking of the woman he'd left behind at the corner.
A piece written for the March 16th Muse Fusion, from a title prompt by Lorna Cowie.