Alular knew the streets well but knew the time of day better. The angles of sunlight coruscated across the cluster of buildings, outhouses and warehouses known as Silar’s Wharf, signalling midday. Seven days ago the Ministry of Emissions had handed the relevant documents to the cabinet, and the Prime Minister had promptly issued the repossession papers that Alular was about to serve to the squatters on the Wharf.
Mia Ziman’s personal army were, to Alular, little more than pirates. Where Ziman had been an industry insider, completing contracts with private corporations and even, in its infancy, with the Ministry, the lowlifes who populated the Wharf were motivated only by the financial morsels which Ziman allowed to fall from her lap after she had gone underground.
Little had changed, thought Alular. A few pennies here and there and anyone will follow you into the fire.
He made his way between a low stone outhouse and a series of rusted metal automobiles towards a large cement building. Its tin roof curved over two long, wide segments in a deflated M-shape—like a child’s sketch of a seagull—and Alular could hear movement within. He regretted having handed off his gun license when he left the Ministry of Emissions.
A wooden door leading in to the left-hand silo was offset in its jamb. He pushed until the door popped inwards. Inside the vast and seemingly vacant silo shafts of light streamed through cracks and illuminated dust hanging in the air. But behind him and to his right a figure had crept unnoticed into the space between Alular and the door.
“Get your fucking hands up in the air, minister,” the Cutter said. Alular complied. If the Cutters saw fit to put a bullet in his head and dump him into the muddy Thames basin, he had no means to object.
“I’m not a minister,” said Alular. “My name is Samuel Alular. I used to work for the Ministry, but I’m retired now.” There was a moment’s pause. “Lung condition,” he sputtered.
The Cutter’s movements described a circle around Alular until the pistol was aimed waveringly at the captive’s head. He seemed to be reducing the situation to its fundament—numbers, letters, probabilities—before addressing the intruder.
“Well, whoever the fuck you are, we know that Ziman’s dead and that the Ministry of Emissions is behind it. And now they’re out to throw us on the fucking pyre and let us burn, let our ashes light up Downing Street for a few days…”
“The papers were signed by the Prime Minist—”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? I didn’t elect Luger. Neither did Mia. You, on the other hand, probably served on the committee that put him in office.”
Alular kept still.
“So tell me, Samuel Alular: why should I listen to a retired Emissions Agent delivering messages from an unelected official?”
The fire behind the Cutter’s eyes seemed for a moment to be quelled. Alular tensed until he could feel his ageing tendons crunch downwards, ready to snap at and wrestle the barrel from his opponent’s hand.
But the Cutter drew away, turned and jogged towards the end of the silo, shouting: “this way, Minister Alular.” He followed and, after several seconds, pushed into the sunlight at the end of the building.
* * *
The light bleached the tarmac. His eyes dilated and adjusted, and Alular saw the Cutter gesturing to an outhouse further ahead. He stumbled past another scorched and rusted car chassis and the husk reminded him of Ziman’s death mask beneath vacuum-sealed glass.
Alular jogged on. The Cutter reached the outhouse and stumbled inside, raking the handgun against the interior wall before swinging it absently back towards Alular. A red-brick glow was reflected in the Cutter’s eyes.
He flicked the barrel, indicating a wooden trapdoor in the centre of the room and said: “you go first, Minister.” Alular lifted the hatch to discover a ladder, punctuated with rusted holes and descending into low-lit chambers beneath the silo. The Cutter pointed with his chin and Alular clambered on to the top step and lowered himself downward.
In the chamber it could have been twilight. Tongues of light flickered against the walls, illuminating Alular’s captor as he reached the base of the creaking ladder. He knew as the Cutter brushed past him that this had not been in Augustus’ plan.
“Down here… down here is what you and yours are so afraid of.”
Alular was tiring fast. At the end of the tunnel, he slowed and stopped. The Cutter was haloed in an orange light, flame glowing and crackling around him in spite of the transparent plexiglass screen keeping the fire sealed in the passageway.
The Cutter’s pistol was dangling, pointing at the ground beneath their feet. Alular knew that, in that moment, he could have snatched the weapon and twisted the barrel to his captor’s temple.
But he did not. Instead he stepped close to the screen, an inch of plastic separating him from the flames. Placing a hand against the plexiglass he could feel the heat, could almost smell the ashes beneath the towering peaks of yellow and white and orange. Looking up he could see embers disappearing into a flue.
Alular had not seen so much carbon burning, so freely ablaze, since he had been a young Emissions Agent at the Department of Energy. The blaze put his teeth on edge, but the contained power of the fire entranced him.
“How did you get your hands on so much C?” he asked. The Cutter did not answer. “I haven’t seen this much flame in… twenty years.”
The Cutter drew up next to him. “Mia didn’t leave us without our bargaining chips.”
Alular moved back into the tunnel and was digging inside his jacket pocket when his captor said: “You can send those repo papers back to our dear Mr Luger. And now that you’re here, Minister Alular—sorry, former Minister Alular—I have a little proposition for you.”
Behind the screen the fire burned, wisps of light formed and reformed, and Alular saw the zigzag hairline of Mia Ziman disappear in a lick of flame. [continues]