Nuban stared out the window at the dazzling vista of the city below. Never had he been so high off the ground, they were on the twelfth floor of the Spire, not nearly the top, but tall enough to look down even at the six ‘guardians’ as they were called, the six buildings that surrounded the spire and were monsters in their own right. He breathed in the recycled air, his reflection showed his full figure, dark skin a fit body from manual labour and basic self defence training as was common, a harsh world makes harsh people. His figure was covered in his one and only formal suit. It was only basic by the standards of the people he had seen so far walking the halls, but his was a light gray with thin white stripes, a fashion of sorts, or an imitation of one. Looking past his reflection, lights began to come on, little specks that began to dance across the buildings, although it was not yet full Dark. Lights! Nuban grinned as if he were but a child. They had lights in their village of course, but they were used so sparingly, even during the many hours of Dark, one would have a small light in their room, for fine work or perhaps reading if one had been educated. Nuban was lucky enough that he could read, a little. He had spent many Darks pouring over old books, physical books, printed on sheets of plastic. Once, from an off planet trader he had seen one printed on something called paper. He had said that it came from ‘trees,’ and a picture had been presented of a tree. It had confused Nuban, the trader explained that many trees existed on some planets. They had small vegetation here, but nothing so impressive. The shape of the long spindly branches would later remind him of the gold coloured symbols that adorned the Spire building on the outside of its massive structure, as well as the inside of its halls, dancing around the doors as framing. They looked all the world to Nuban as if they were human figures that eventually stretched and flowed forever.
‘They represent the adaptability of the people,’ his father had told him as he had asked staring up at the large structure. ‘The world changes,’ his father raised his hand slightly as he spoke, as was customary when referring to the Great Change, ‘but the people remain, we are tough, adaptable, resourceful.’
Yes we are. Nuban thought as he stared out the window. There was some movement behind him as people walked through the dark blue halls, moving to their meetings, preparing for the distribution of contracts, the Dor-ma. But there was movement that caught his eye. To his right, a figure moved up to the next window. It was a girl, a young woman but just barely by Nuban’s estimates. Her skin was not nearly as dark as his, her hair shoulder length, she wore simple but pleasant clothes that said it was formal wear, not from out in the harsh landscape, but she wore them in a way that told him she was used to the outside, was here perhaps reluctantly, or under sufferance.
Her eyes, her eyes were brown, but sad, with a touch of anger. He began to turn away but her face spun towards him. He sheepishly looked away, hoping it wasn’t too obvious he was looking, that he was in fact staring had not occurred to him until that moment. He rarely met new people, realised he should have more courage, turned his head back, the young woman was looking out the window again.
‘Hello,’ he said, not as confidently as he had hoped. ‘My name is Nuban.’
‘Hello,’ she said absently, but had the courtesy to look at him for a moment.
‘I don’t mean to pry, but are you ok?’
He shuffled his feet, not sure what to do next. ‘May I know your name?’
She sighed, her beautiful neckline exposed slightly as her head tilted back, Nuban admonished himself for staring so.
‘Yes, I’m sorry, my name is Mara.’ She looked at him more attentively now.
‘Yes, you already said that.’ He frowned, shuffled slightly and looked away, turned back when he realised Mara was giggling slightly.
‘Yes I did didn’t I. Forgive me, I’m not used to meeting new people. I live a long way from Coroborree, a small village.’
‘I’m from the outer sectors of the city, it’s small in its own way, much smaller than this place,’ she replied looking around the surroundings of the building that encompassed them.
‘You are here for the Dor-Ma, you seek a contract?’
‘Yes,’ she said, her face falling into a shadow again.
‘Ah, well my father and I are here for the reservoir renovation contract, we are the best, very experienced, my great grandfather did work for the city before.’
‘That’s a big contract,’ Mara said, but her voice was distant again.
‘It is, I expect I’ll be able to move to the city finally, get out of there, be where things are happening.’ Turning back to Mara, realising that he’d been going on for a while too long. ‘It should be quite lucrative.’ He shuffled his feet when Mara said nothing.
‘I wish you luck,’ she said suddenly before walking away, ‘but don’t hold a hope,’ then she was gone, Nuban watched her leave, unable to stop her but wanting desperately to talk to her still.
What did she mean? Something had clearly befallen her, but what he couldn’t say. His mind was murky, filled with thoughts of Mara, her beautiful gentle features, but he tried to focus on the task at hand, lest he become distracted when his father needed him most. They were to meet their liaison from the ministry soon for a light dinner. There they would find out what to expect from the meeting, their final submission. He had to be switched on, sharp, this would be the moment that defined his life. Looking along the finely built walls of the building, he thought of his future, in the city, working with his father’s company, which would soon be his. With their successful contract, his father could retire, Nuban would be the head of a lucrative business, they would live well. He looked out over the city at the encroaching desert, they would no longer be scraping for survival in the outer reaches of this region, they would be at the centre of it, living it, breathing it.
He checked his wrist, underneath his dinner jacket, it was time.
‘Nirra,’ Nuban’s father turned when he heard his name.
‘Ah, Zan,’ he smiled as he turned from the window near the dining hall. He had been waiting for his son who should arrive at any moment. ‘Is it time?’ He checked his wrist.
‘Not yet, I think you will be called shortly.’ The woman stopped in front of Nirra, she was olive-skinned, had short fair hair and dark blue eyes. She stood slightly shorter than Nirra, who himself was a touch below average height, and she was slight in build, but her normally warm smile was strained.
‘What is the matter?’ Nirra frowned.
‘I wont be meeting you for dinner I’m afraid.’
‘I’ve been transferred.’ The words were as a bitter fruit on her tongue.
‘Transferred? When? To where?’
‘Only an hour ago, another department, it doesn’t matter where.’
‘Now? Right before the meeting?’ Nirra’s head spun, Zan had been a welcome liaison, she had been informative and encouraging, her loss at this time could prove disastrous. ‘But they can’t change you now, at such a critical time.’
‘It comes from high up I’m afraid, I’ve lodged a protest, but that wont be seen for some days.’
‘But who is your replacement?’
‘A snivelling little wretch, you must watch him Nirra, there is something a foul here, but I can not say what it is.’ She looked around, scanning the crowd inside the hall and the traffic of diners. ‘I’ve lingered too long, I’m sorry I can not help you, but you must be cautious, keep your wits about you and I wish you luck.’ She marched away, her head bowed slightly and slanted to the left, her mind already moved on to the next subject.
‘Father?’ Nirra barely had time to process what was going on before he turned with an attempt at a brave face.
‘Nuban, there you are,’ he checked his wrist again, ‘it is time, we should take our seats.’ He walked into the dining hall, a large room with at least a dozen tables in the centre, several more around the periphery. Each table was round, had seating for eight to ten people, overall a large place by Nuban’s eyes. This one room, with all its noise, discussion, was more lively than his entire village.
‘Was that Zan a moment ago I saw you talking to?’ He asked as his father waved his wrist over the reception desk, the attendant smiled as he checked their reservation and nodded and the two moved into the main throng of activity, a small hovering light appearing out of thin air began leading them.
‘It was, she wont be joining us,’ he replied, not looking back, not wanting to betray his concern. Nuban knew better, his father was upset, something bad was happening, or was about to happen.
‘Who will we meet?’
‘You’ll see,’ they sat at a table as their small ball of light disappeared, there were two empty seats and six other diners. Signs were placed around on plastic card. These were their competitors for the restoration works of the region’s water. They all smiled politely with barely concealed hostility to the two new arrivals.
Nuban awaited his father’s actions, he didn’t want to upset the ceremony of the evening. His father brought up a menu, it was projected into the air in front of them, he selected a cheaper meal, a vegetable broth, Nuban followed suit. The food arrived promptly, they ate in silence, not wanting to give anything away to their competitors. The others talked idly of the food, only one ordered meat. It was expensive of course, raising large animals on so harsh a climate took a lot of energy, as such, few ate it. Fish was of course plentiful during the Long Cold, when oceans covered most of the planet and their surfaces were frozen. Fish would soon become more expensive.
Before long, a man sat at the table. This must be Dimi, Nirra thought, the man had beady eyes, a tight inhuman smile, a wretch of a man. He wore a dark blue suit, it looked cheap but it was presented as if it were of premium quality which said the man knew little of the subtleties of social behaviour, he smelled of bath oils, so he bathes, a wasteful man.
‘Good evening,’ he said, hurriedly ordering a meal from the screen in front of him. ‘I’ll keep this brief, your final interviews have been brought forward, ah good I see you have already eaten.’ He paused as a small dish was brought to him, it had a pleasant smelling meat with gravy placed next to small white pallets, Nuban thought it may have been rice, a very exotic choice. ‘So if we could get on with it,’ Dimi said with a mouth full of food. Nuban had a sinking feeling in his stomach, something was very wrong, he had met their previous liaison, she was nice, fair, had explained all they needed to know and even pointed out that there was competition for their contract, and that she would be giving them the same information so as to show no favour. This man looked at them in the same way one of their workers back in the village had looked at a small Niyah beetle before he crushed it.
We are nothing to him. No, this did not bode well, the desert seemed to be encroaching on them even faster.
His father stood, Nuban followed suit. He handed over a parcel, a scarf made from local plants that were groomed underground from their village. His father said the ceremonial words that were required. Gifts were needed, but they were to be simple and given by all, it was an odd tradition in Nuban’s eyes, but if it was equal, there was no favour.
‘They tax us father, why would they also want gifts?’ He had asked several days earlier.
‘Traditions that don’t favour you son, will always seem perplexing,’ his father, ever the philosopher had replied.
Dimi took the parcel and it disappeared beneath the table, the two men returned to their seats, the other three companies followed suit, no doubt fuming that they’d lost the initiative by not going first, it was over in moments, as was Dimi’s meal.
‘Thank you, I must go and prepare and I wish you luck of course,’ he said as he stood. ‘But I must warn you, competition is strong.’ With that he was gone.
Within moments, one of the other pairs was called, they looked flustered, their final meeting with the board. They disappeared out the hall, turned left, Nuban watched nervously, within two minutes they walked back past the entrance, they were talking furiously, waving their hands around.
‘I saw it.’ They both knew what that meant, that was entirely too fast, a board interview had ceremony, respect, this did not bode well at all. It was their turn. ‘Come on Nuban,’ he nodded cordially to the rest of the table, the others looked concerned as well. Nuban was trying not to panic. I must be strong for my father, he thought, now was the biggest decision for their futures. Their hopes seemed to be slipping away, but they had to try. They left the hall turned left, a short way down the hall past a scattering of people they were at the door. Behind the door was their fate. They opened it and walked in.
(C) T.W. Norrich ‘The Great Change’ 2017