Part One: London
"Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered." -Cymbeline
"Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder, treason, and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot."
These are, of course, the first lines of the Guy Fawkes Night poem, retelling the plight of Guy Fawkes as he attempted to blow up the House of Lords in 1605. Such a man could not easily have been forgotten, unless of course he was forcibly exiled from memory. Ideas like his are dangerous, they say, so they tell you not to think them. Don't speak or write of them, put them out of your head. In this way the man is forgotten. But the idea? Never. And in this way the idea survived, a tiny spark in people's minds, dormant yet somehow alive. Forbidden thoughts of revolution would on occasion come into view, soon to be shoved away again. Fear imprisoned and concealed the idea. To free it would take a miracle, an idea, and a man. But the only thing concerning this story today is the man.
"Happy birthday, Vic," James Hammond grinned, giving his friend a pat on the shoulder. "Look at you! A year ago you were a lost college graduate, scrambling to please everyone as the newest and youngest journalist for The London Times. It took the editor all his willpower not to laugh in your face when you suggested a section of the newspaper for book reviews and poetry analysis." He mimicked the stuffy, serious editor by drawing out the words as if they were infectious diseases. "But you, being the stubborn little mule you are, begged and pleaded until he gave you the spot just to shut you up. And turns out, your hole-in-the-wall section is quite a success."
Victor shrugged modestly, but the ever-present smile on his face glowed with pride. "I figure nowadays people need to read something other than the death tolls. I just want to keep the whole paper from turning into obituaries and bad news. People need to escape the world for a little while. Don't worry; once the world turns and the sun comes out again, I will once again be a useless 24 year old with nothing but useless trivia and an apartment full of books."
"I know what you mean," James sighed. "I used to enjoy my job, giving the public the truth, but now it's taking its toll on me. That's why I write books in addition to news stories. The books keep me sane, along with my family. And you, of course, are the reason why I don't tell the pompous editors what I really think of them and leave this office altogether. If not for you, Vic, I'd have quite a few more grey hairs."
The friends laughed and clinked their coffee mugs together in a toast.
Victor's section of the newspaper offered his readers a brief escape from their problems, which were far from trivial and too many to count. Britain was one of the few countries not at war, but they had had their fair share in the years prior. Where there wasn't war, there was disease, vaccine research being futile because no one would be able to afford it anyway, if there was anyone left by the time the vaccine was ready. America was plagued by both, a civil war and an outbreak of leprosy in the Midwest.
Britain was free also of disease, but what they lacked in these they made up for in riots. Some were religious, promoting repentance for sins and the apocalypse, but most were political. After Queen Elizabeth II's death, people rioted to overthrow the monarchy. Parliament, eager to quell the chaos, obliged, and replaced the position of king or queen with a High Chancellor, who would determine nearly everything in the country. The High Chancellor would be the choice of the people, Parliament hoping this would please unrelenting vox populi. However, no one had claimed or attempted to take this position, perhaps from the responsibility of dealing with the nation in its current state and the riots continued. Some rioted for the seemingly essential foods that had become rare or ridiculously expensive, such as butter or milk, while others fought for vaccines against the abundant diseases pressing in on Britain. Chaos of that magnitude is difficult to escape, making Victor's comforting, news-free words all the more popular.
"You know how to get people to like you, kid," James noted, his light brown eyes mirroring the pride in Victor's. James was a tall, lean man with dark, greying hair and an often distant, thoughtful expression. He had a clean, friendly atmosphere, and was brilliant at interviews because he was exceptionally easy to talk to. His laugh was loud and often, and he was seldom completely serious. He was a father of two and more than ten years Victor's senior, but when Victor took an internship at The London Times during college James took him on as a sort of apprentice. Victor being mature beyond his years, the two quickly became friends.
"The editor-in-chief still doesn't like me," Victor pointed out.
"That stuffed shirt doesn't like anyone," James countered. "And he's too proud to admit that you were right all along. People tend to equate success with never having to admit that they're wrong. I don't know why, but that's how it works."
"You're right, as always," Victor replied, leaning against his desk. He looked up with a start to find the predatorial hazel eyes of Joshua Webb glaring at him.
"Is there any productivity in this office whatsoever?" Webb sneered, his expression one of pure disdain. Webb was a journalist who spent as much time on the front page as possible, and made sure that everyone in the office was aware of it. He was the editor's pet, and had no problem with twisting facts if it meant writing an exciting article bound for the front page. Naturally, Victor and James would have liked nothing more than to throw him down the elevator shaft, but they resisted the urge.
James, ever charming, simply replied, "I was just wishing Victor a happy birthday. But, as you so politely reminded me, it's time I got back to work. See you later, Vic, and happy birthday." James gave Webb a sickly sweet smile and returned to his cubicle, which was a few down from Victor's.
Webb's snakelike features twisted into a grimace. His angular face would have been rodent-like if not for his cold, narrow eyes and thin mouth. Victor half expected him to hiss as he said, "Watch your back, Egan. If there are any budget cuts, you'll be the first to go. Your column's useless, even if people do like you. In today's world, no one cares about things like Shakespeare and the Shroud of Turin."
Victor shrugged nonchalantly, arms crossed. "The way I see it, people tend to prefer articles about holy fabrics over fabrications," he retorted, delighting in Webb's stung expression. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." Victor sat in his chair and swung around to his computer, not waiting to watch Webb stalk away from his cubicle.
It was risky, of course, for Victor to make enemies with one the Times' favorite journalists, but Victor couldn't stand to be civil with him any longer. Webb's condescending attitude and constant air of superiority weren't deserving of Victor's civility.
He faced the keyboard, fingers poised and ready, but no thoughts inspired them to move. Looking at the clock, he quietly swore, knowing he only had a few hours to come up with an article so that he wouldn't have to bring his work home, again. He had a list of inspirational topics on his computer, but none had yet struck a chord with him. With a small grin, he considered writing an ironic editorial on writer's block, but knew that the editor wouldn't understand it. Mr. Sherman, the editor, had no qualms about calling articles 'junk' and 'garbage,' and didn't have a humorous bone in his body. Because of this, Victor was one of his least favorite journalists, but he found a way to tolerate him.
Ripping his thoughts away from Mr. Sherman, Victor reminded himself to focus, running a hand through his wavy brown hair. This nervous habit was always at work while Victor grappled with writer's block.
A knock on the door reverberated off the plain, powder grey walls of Victor's meager office, and Victor didn't hesitate to answer it.
"High Chancellor candidate Adam Sutler requested to speak with you," a stony-faced man explained, and turned before Victor had a chance to respond.
Victor shot a glance at James, who motioned for him to hurry up, and followed the man.
Adam Sutler was the only known candidate for the position, but even that didn't ensure him the job. It was the decision of the people; they would be the deciding factor on who would lead their country, and appealing to them was crucial. Sutler had so far lacked in this aspect of the running.
Victor was led to the conference room, where he had been only once or twice before. Running a hand through his dark brown hair in an attempt to look respectable, Victor put on a confident expression and entered.
Most of the space in the sizable room was taken up by a long table, at the head of which sat a slight, wrinkled man who could only be Adam Sutler. Sutler's hands were folded politely on the table, and his face smiled as if it wasn't used to the action.
Behind him, a pasty-skinned man with an expressionless face stood silently, his dark gaze fixed in a permanent glare. He resembled an overgrown penguin, his massive black trench coat sweeping the floor and beady eyes peeking out from over an overly starched collar.
"So glad you could make it, Mr. Egan," Sutler said, rising to shake Victor's hand. "My associate, Mr. Creedy, and I have some important matters to discuss with you. Have a seat."
Victor obliged, feeling extremely confused but enjoying the feeling of importance.
Sutler leaned forward and began, "As you likely well know, your section in the newspaper is quite popular. I, like you, believe that this chaos must be stopped. If I achieve the position of High Chancellor, my first priority will be to do just that. This country is in desperate need of authority. Nothing can be accomplished when people are running through the streets shouting so loudly that they cannot hear the voice of reason. If I become High Chancellor, I will make sure these riots end. If people want to argue, I will be perfectly content to listen and negotiate like civilized people instead of barbarians. Do you understand?" Sutler asked in an almost patronizing manner.
Victor, with the weight of Sutler's words occupying his mind, didn't pick up on his tone. It does make sense, he thought, perching his clean-shaven chin on his fist and staring out the window above the thinning grey hair on Sutler's head.
Victor nodded, and Mr. Creedy allowed a hint of a smirk to appear on his face.
"And here is where you come in," Sutler continued, his sand-paper voice drawing Victor's attention back to the present. "I have seen how popular your writing is in these troubled times, and would like you to put in some positive words about my cause in your section. A combination of my campaign tactics and your influence will make us unbeatable."
The potential next leader of this country wants me to help his campaign, Victor mused, almost unable to comprehend the fact.
Sutler took Victor's hesitation as reluctance. "Of course," he quickly added, "Your contribution will not go unrewarded. As High Chancellor, I will make sure that your articles will never be on the last page of the paper again."
"Just one question," Victor puzzled. "What exactly are your campaign tactics?" Victor knew little of politics, but knew enough to at least skim the fine print before signing his life away.
"We need people to understand that they cannot simply fill the streets, yelling to the high heavens. They need to see that this is a powerful government and we won't stand for it. They have gotten away with it for so long that they will only listen to reason in two ways: your writing, and if they are afraid. I intend on using both strategies. They will be afraid of the power of our armies, which we no longer need in the field. A few armed officers should do the trick," Sutler answered.
"You don't mean to kill—" Victor sputtered, incredulous.
"No, no! Of course not. We only want to riots to disperse. They may be afraid at first, but eventually they will respect our power, especially with your help."
It all made sense to Victor, and the benefits were almost too wonderful to ignore. Promotions were virtually impossible for first-year workers because of seniority issues, and he could seriously use the money. After a few moments more of thought, Victor shook the hands of Sutler and Mr. Creedy, a bright smile lighting up his young, tan face. "Yes, thank you sir!"
"Smart man. We'll be in touch," Sutler complimented, straightening to his full height, which was about six inches shorter than Victor.
Mr. Creedy dismissed him with a curt nod and Victor exited the room, his feet barely touching the floor as he was lifted by the excitement bubbling in his stomach.
When he returned to his office, it was vacant. James had been replaced by a post-it note, reading, in hurried cursive, Anniversary! I almost forgot Vivian and I have dinner reservations. That was close!
Victor laughed, packing up his things. It was five of six, close enough to quitting time, and his fingers itched to write the words swimming in his head within the comfortable confines of his apartment. I can't believe this is happening. James is going to be ecstatic, Victor thought, shaking his head in disbelief.
Briefcase held loosely in his hand, he walked toward the exit, barely suppressing the smile playing on his lips.
What lacked in space in Victor's apartment was made up for in stuff. Mainly books.
Every nook and cranny in the three-room living area was overflowing with books, magazines, newspapers, and random odds and ends that had some sort of sentimental or historical value in Victor's eyes.
Victor settled into a dusty plaid armchair, carefully placing his forest green mug of tea on the table next to him, between the lamp and tissue box.
His hazel eyes stared intently at the blank document spread out across his laptop screen, a ready canvas.
Typing was quick and easy. The words appeared in his mind and on the page synonymously, effortlessly tying together in as convincing an article as Victor could manage. The pages flew by, and before it seemed possible it was eleven o'clock and the article was finished.
The adrenaline that emanated from writing that he was proud of kept Victor from feeling at all hungry or tired. His common sense protested, but he found the well-loved, leather-bound book at the top of one of the numerous stacks and opened it, as he had millions of times before.
Victor was enthralled with Shakespeare's plays, this, Hamlet, being his favorite. He had considered joining a community theater group, if he had had the time. For now, though, he would settle for reading the plays again and again, memorizing the best passages, and acting them out when no one was looking.
"Tis too much proved that by devotion's visage and pious action we do sugar o'er the devil himself," Victor read, relishing the sound of the familiar line.
It was these little things that Victor felt were responsible for keeping him sane; the reliable comforts that would remain unscathed by an ever-changing world.
The obnoxious beeping of the alarm clock two rooms away roused Victor from an uncomfortable sleep, contorted in the likeness of a cat on his armchair. His eyelids were heavy, and he was grateful for printing out his article at quarter to midnight the night before.
He prepared for work sluggishly, cursing Shakespeare's captivating words. "These violent delights have violent ends and in their triumph die, like fire and powder, which, as they kiss, consume," he muttered with the ghost of a smile.
After rushing through a shower, he changed into one of his well-kept dark grey suits, sleek navy blue tie, and black leather shoes. He shaved, brushed his teeth, combed his thick, mahogany hair, and deemed himself moderately presentable.
The commute to work was normal, the bus ride monotonous and the atmosphere swimming with cynical thoughts, foul words, and indoctrinated lies. A few blades of light shot down from the heavens like precious golden rain, spearing the noxious fumes of negativity in Victor's vicinity. In London, April was a rare time for sunshine; clouds were so familiar that the sky could have been the backdrop to a stage, ruffling slightly on occasion but the picture never really changing.
When Victor reached his office, James was already there, early to work as usual. He blinked often and moved quickly, a result of James' daily three morning cups of coffee. He normally justified this with, "I hate the cliché of hating mornings. I need a reason not to hate them."
"Well?" James inquired, leaning heavily on Victor's cluttered desk, his expression expectant.
"What?" Victor responded jestingly.
"Victor, I spent my whole anniversary dinner and what could have been a relaxing evening at home with my wife and kids wondering what the heck Sutler was talking to you about. Don't cross me," James warned, but there was laughter in his voice.
Victor recalled the previous day's events to James, whose brown eyes grew progressively wider over time.
When Victor was finished, James collapsed on a chair, rubbing his forehead. "Victor," James laughed, "Do you have any idea what this means?"
"No, I don't think you do. I mean congratulations, this is great news, but are you ready to become a politician?" James questioned, eyebrows raised.
"I'm not politician, I'm a journalist," Victor protested, unpacking his briefcase.
"Now you're both," James retorted. "Just make sure you know what you stand for. You'll be associated with everything Norsefire does."
"Victor…" James buried his face in his hands. "Norsefire is Sutler's group, the name of his campaign. You really didn't know that? I'm not trying to be mean, I'm concerned."
"I didn't know Norsefire was the name, but I do know Sutler's plans and they make sense. I told you them just now," Victor argued.
"They do make sense, I agree, I just want you to know what you're doing." James put up his hands in a slightly defensive position. "I don't want your name written on those riot signs. You don't want to be on a hit list if there was ever a revolution."
"Which is exactly what we're trying to prevent," Victor added.
James stood and sighed, "When your mind's set on something you're as stubborn as a person can be. It's not that I don't approve, I just want you to understand what you're getting into. As your friend, I want you just to remember what I've said." James placed a hand on Victor's shoulder before departing for his own office.
James is right, Victor thought. But I think I know what I'm doing. Norsefire feels right to me.
As the coals of his anger died down, Victor cleared off a space on his desk only to occupy it with the bulk of his laptop, notebook, pens, and a few pencils.
In the daily pattern, Victor left his office to leave a memo in his boss' mailbox with the article he had written the day before, which, if approved, would be passed to the editor. He greeted everyone he passed with a smile and nod, skillfully navigating the maze of halls and obstacles.
As he passed the conference room, a deep voice escaped through the crack in the door, infiltrating the hallway.
"What do you mean it's not fool-proof?!" The man was clearly trying but failing to whisper.
Victor couldn't resist stopping to listen. Through the inch of open door he glimpsed a massive black trench coat. Creedy? he wondered.
"The campaign begins today. We'll use what you gave us for now. But by the end of the month we need it. It will be in your best interest for it to be ready." The ominous click of a closing cell phone was Victor's cue to get as far away as possible.
"Egan!" The voice of an angry Creedy isn't exactly music to one's ears. Or, if it was, it would be quite close to a funeral march.
Victor froze, took a deep breath, and turned.
"I'm glad I caught you. Sutler'll be here at noon. Another meeting in the conference room," Mr. Creedy reported, his demeanor again emotionless.
Once Creedy was out of sight, Victor released his breath and his heart rate began to slow. He let out a short laugh before continuing on his way.
Time progressed listlessly. As his hands typed, Victor's mind strayed. What was Creedy talking about? Does it have to do with the meeting with Sutler?
After a few hours researching current events and beginning potential articles, twelve chimes rang from the clock hanging on the dusk-grey office wall.
This time Sutler was joined by not only Mr. Creedy but also a female doctor with curly blonde hair and sad brown eyes. She seemed to be in her forties, and was preparing a need with a miniscule vial of transparent liquid.
"Ah, Mr. Egan, welcome!" Sutler clasped his hand warmly. "This is Dr. Diana Stanton."
Victor shook the doctor's hand. Her smile was thin and she only briefly met his gaze.
He passed Sutler a copy of his article, whose face lit up as he skimmed it. "Perfect! Mr. Egan, you are truly a good investment."
Victor beamed, but he recalled James' warning and took note of Sutler's strange choice of words.
"Now, as you know, there are a myriad of diseases banging on Britain's door. A few have managed to penetrate the borders that many politicians have thought impregnable. As High Chancellor, I know that we will have to take evasive action against this threat. We will have to close the borders. We can't take risks at this point," Sutler explained calmly.
"As a last resort, I suppose," Victor nodded, though he thought it was a shame that even healthy people wouldn't be allowed in Britain.
"Dr. Stanton has been busy researching and trying to create a vaccine for the various diseases. We have one now, but it isn't… perfect," Sutler continued. Dr. Stanton averted her gaze to the window. "We can't risk giving it to those in most need because it could have side effects if they are more susceptible to disease. However, to keep the people from going into a panic because of these viruses no one in this party can get sick. We would like you to receive this vaccine as a precaution until we can get one that works for everyone."
There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with that, Victor reasoned. "Sure," he answered.
The shot was as enjoyable as any, and there were no apparent side effects.
As the short hand on the clock neared the ebony six, Victor had enough time to deliver his approved article to the editor, write two articles for his section and one on current events, and answer his ringing phone.
"Hey, James," Victor greeted, silently thankful for caller ID.
"Hey, Vic. Just wanted to make sure that there weren't any hard feelings from this morning," James responded smoothly.
"Course not," Victor smiled.
"And I thought I should check to see if that vaccine hasn't killed you yet."
"I knew that was coming," Victor laughed. "How did you know?"
"I saw the doctor and guessed. Are you feeling okay?"
"Good. I have to go, I'll see you tomorrow," James concluded.
"Bye." Victor snapped his phone shut with a smile, put away his supplies, and returned to his home.