After touching his flashing countertop to take the incoming call as voice-only with track-and-follow (necessary because he always paced while talking), Nicolai Costa said his one-word greeting, then listened as Isaac blabbed on for three full minutes to unburden himself. Yes, Nicolai was Isaac’s speechwriter. Yes, he was Isaac’s right-hand man, and yes, he was his chief advisor. But really, the core of Nicolai’s value to Isaac was as a buffer. Nicolai wasn’t responsible for giving Isaac information so much as he was responsible for intercepting information that would only worry or confuse him. And on the other side of the buffer, it wasn’t Nicolai’s job to act on Isaac’s fears and worries so much as to listen to them, then assure Isaac that it would all be okay. Nicolai didn’t precisely do most of what Isaac wanted done. It was Nicolai’s job to determine what actually needed to be done versus what was just Isaac being Isaac, then to handle things in whatever way he saw fit.
“They threw shit at her, Nicolai. Tomatoes. Fucking tomatoes, like Vaudeville. It took fifty police to stop what almost became a full-scale riot. She’s terrified. Well, of course, this is Natasha, so she’s not outwardly terrified, but she is just the same. I can see it. But she’s also… hang on, Nicolai.”
Nicolai had seen this move before and knew what was coming. Isaac was going to run out to his patio to say something he didn’t want Natasha to hear. Despite taking the call as voice-only, Nicolai could almost see Isaac scamper outside in his mind. Couldn’t Natasha see right through it? His departure had to say more than his words ever could.
Nicolai paced, waiting. He crossed the bank of windows looking out onto the city night below. As he passed his grand piano, his fingers feathered the keys. He kept promising himself he’d learn to play it one of these days, but a man only had so much time. Right now, he had his work writing for Isaac, plus his private creative writing projects. The piano would have to wait.
“You still there?” said Isaac’s voice. It seemed to be right in front of Nicolai.
“Where would I be?”
“I’d know, if you’d use video like a normal person.”
“Not everyone wants to be on video all the time, Isaac. What if I’m naked?”
Isaac made an impatient noise and continued. “Anyway, I was going to say that Natasha is hurt. Not like injured, but like… well, you know how she is.”
Nicolai knew. Natasha had practically grown up in the spotlight, and appreciation was, for her, like blood to a vampire.
“The rioters were from our own party, from the Directorate. I don’t like it. It makes us look like a mob.”
“Of course it was our people,” said Nicolai. “Enterprise don’t riot.” And it was true. There were plenty of Enterprise members in the rabble (there were more Enterprise than Directorate below the line, actually, seeing as Directorate received support from their party whether they worked or not) but those poor Enterprise were starving artists, not disgruntled workmen. Artists didn’t rise up. When artists took a gamble and failed their way into ghettos, they sat in dark corners, slit their wrists, and listened to Morrissey drawl on from a century in the past.
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing, Isaac. Is she okay?”
“She’s fine. But I have a speech tomorrow. A speech to these… these fuckers.”
Nicolai couldn’t help but chuckle, keeping the sound low in his throat. He paced his apartment as Isaac’s voice followed.
“I’ll rewrite your speech,” Nicolai said. “This could be good. Don’t worry. I can spin anything.”
Isaac blurted. “How could it be good?”
“Unrest over inequity should actually work in our favor, not against us. Sure, Natasha is your wife and you’re Mr. Directorate, but where’s most of the wealth outside of Directorate leaders? Is it in the Directorate?”
“Of course not. So do you see what I’m saying?”
Isaac was probably nodding. It was an affect some people had when they took most of their calls via video.
“So get some rest,” said Nicolai. “Tell Natasha I said it’ll all be fine. I’ll get you a new draft of the speech and you’ll see. This is good. We want the Directorate upset. If they aren’t upset, they might decide to go Enterprise when Shift comes. But if they are angry and make noise, then not only will it solidify them against a common opponent and make them want to stay where they are, but their bitching will also raise the antenna of some of the complacent Enterprise — folks who are living below the line and might move to us just so they don’t starve. You’ll see.”
Isaac mumbled, mollified.
Nicolai said his goodbye and then swiped the air, ending the call. A beep said he was alone again, so he made another circuit of his apartment, looking out over District Zero.
As he paced, Nicolai looked at his piano — an astonishing black and white trophy appropriate to a man of his station. The thing was worth thousands upon thousands of credits — and was, as Nicolai saw it, a giant status symbol begging in vain to be used for the creation of art. Nicolai didn’t have room for any more art in his life, though. He told himself for the millionth time that his scattered bursts of creative writing were enough. They would have to be. Eventually, he’d find time for music, just as he’d find time to birth a painting on the decorative easel that now supported a plant.
He plopped onto his couch, swiped a square in the air with his fingers, and watched as the overhead Beam projector gave him a screen. Then he reached over and grabbed a keyboard from the endtable beside him. A canvas as expensive as Nicolai’s could project him an airboard, but Nicolai had never understood how people could use those things. It was neat to wave your fingers in the air as if hitting keys, but without tactile feedback, the experience was clunky at best. Such failures of common sense understanding were almost standard in a lot of modern (elite) technology. Sure, it was neat and cool and fun. But was it practical? In Nicolai’s opinion, airboards were for people who wanted to pretend they were writing but never actually did.
His fingers clacked on keys. Words lit the screen. This went on for a while, until Nicolai realized he was just rehashing Directorate propaganda and rewriting an old speech — one of the few standard speeches from the party’s archives that had been given by Directorate leaders over and over and over again. He had told Isaac that unrest was good, but the problem was that Nicolai didn’t know if he actually believed it. You couldn’t quell unrest; you could only redirect it. Those people had come after Natasha because she was at the top of the credit/income ladder, not because of her party affiliation. Nicolai couldn’t make that class-based anger vanish, so his best bet was to refocus it in a useful way. The rioters’ problems — and all of the problems plaguing the Directorate — were the result of the Enterprise. They control the wealth. They are keeping you down.
With a strange punched-in-the-gut feeling, Nicolai realized that it wasn’t the first time such deflection had been used. Back when there had been mass immigration into America (in the days before it joined the North American Union), economic woes were usually blamed on foreigners coming in and taking jobs. Before that, the default enemy was the Jews.
Nicolai swiped the window closed, then set the keyboard back on the end table. He stood, walked to his window wall, and once again took in the streets of District Zero below. The city was alive with light, but the sky above it was a smooth nothingness. Nicolai missed being able to see the stars and the moon through the Shell miles above as he had in his youth, but night objects weren’t bright enough to blast through the three-layered defensive barrier like the sun did. The nights seemed so dark, even in the city. It was the price you paid for protection.
From all the way up high, the city seemed peaceful. But that was the thing about distance: from far enough away, everything became an average. There were rich and there were poor. There were Enterprise and Directorate. There was the NAU and the Wild East, out past the ant farm wall that covered the continent. But if you kept pulling back, eventually everything averaged out to people. And when the Mars project was finished — and if the elite then moved a planet away — the only thing needed to restore a sense of equity would be to zoom out another level or two.
Nicolai sighed. He had to clear his head. He needed someone to talk to and to be with who wouldn’t care about socioeconomic woes. Someone who could make the world vanish for a few hours at an exorbitant price — or sometimes longer than a few hours, if she was feeling generous.
“Canvas,” Nicolai said to his empty apartment.
A single chirp answered him.
“Get me Kai Dreyfus.”