The crowd went silent. Lakshmi stayed at the back as Josie took up her position next to Kone and took a deep breath. As usual when there was something political happening, her personality was different to the woman who’d been talking to him moments before. The way she held her head now reminiscent of a leader, not a negotiator. That was why he was working for her and what he was learning.
Lakshmi knew her story off by heart. How she was one of the first arrivals after Geppetto was founded but had still worked her way to the Prime role through a combination of hard work and political maneuvering.
He remembered meeting Winter as he interviewed her for the school newspaper. He was an idealist, convinced that The Whale was the best place in the known universe, and unable to understand the reluctance of arrivals to integrate properly. His friends had lost arrival parents to the void, or had watched them wander off into the tunnels to become food for the grubs or swampers, all because they couldn’t get used to the place. Years later he would find out about the official gambling pool that the previous Prime ran against every new arrival. He actually employed someone to make and update odds on each arrival, based on their chances of suicide.
By then Winter had very long odds. When young Lakshmi had met her she was just out of the ivory mines, her hands rough and calloused from the work. Miners don’t wear helmets as a rule – there’s no rocks to hit you and if a dug tunnel heals while you’re in it, a helmet won’t stop you from suffocating – but Josie was wearing one.
“An old habit,” she said, tapping it, “I’m from a family of pessimists.”
As she told him about her old life, Lakshmi started to understand for the first time what arrivals went through. The loneliness despite all the people around them, the complete and overwhelming sense of loss and change. Yes, Josie said, she had a better standard of living now than she had back on Earth (the USA), but it had come at a cost. She would never see her children again, never see their father. She struggled so much to keep her Earth family above water, she now worried constantly. Or she’d catch herself not worrying about them, and the guilt would grab her by the throat and make her feel sick.
“It’s a puzzle all arrivals face,” she said as Lakshmi scribbled her answers down, “How do you come to terms with The Whale, and the opportunities it brings, especially when those you left behind might be worse off for it?”
He had no answer. Of course he didn’t. How would a Whaleborn like him begin to understand the challenges that the arrivals had to overcome? So often in school the Whaleborn mocked the arrivals for being weak, laughing off their troubles and weaknesses like they were inferior somehow. It was easy for them to do that though – everything they ever knew and everyone they ever loved was inside the little town of Geppetto and the surrounding chambers.
Lakshmi remembered that feeling of worthlessness and shame as he saw Josie Winter clear her throat and address the crowd.
“What we are experiencing is a minor blip in trade,” Winter said. “The Reedor are concerned about something that they detected in Geppetto. I’m going to resolve it, and trade will be restored as soon as possible.”
One of the miners raised his hand. Martin Bashir. Lakshmi went to school with him. He was one of Kone’s men, one of the many who didn’t think that an arrival was up to the job of Prime. Josie would know all that, and as he shouted her shoulders tensed. It wasn’t a big movement, but Lakshmi knew her well enough to recognise the tension.
“I’ve got an entire day’s worth of ivory just sitting here,” he said, “your blip in trade is going to cost me my compensation. My family needs that compensation.”
Grumbles of agreement echoed around the crowd.
“Your Prime sits in her townhouse,” Kone said, “and enjoys spending more time with the new arrivals than time with the men and women that she relies on to find the materials she uses to build her precious little town.”
Winter folded her arms. Lakshmi could see her mind working as she regarded Kone.
“And the Reedor,” he continued, “they pull her strings like the puppet-masters they are. The robots they use are no more able to say no to them than the woman who is supposed to be keeping us safe. This is not working for the best interests of all the humans. This is a Prime who is trying to divide us up, to make the miners second class citizens. To keep us at the bottom of the ladder, starving while she enjoys the spoils.”
Kone had taken some of the miners by surprise. Most of them would have voted for Winter at the last election, and such aggression was unsettling some of them. Lakshmi wondered if the pretender had overplayed his hand.
Then Winter stepped forward.
“We won’t have anyone go hungry because of this. Until we remedy the issue, rations will be issued without proof of trade. I’m in the process of organising the guards to testify to your produce. That statement will get you your compensation.”
Lakshmi pulled out the small notebook he carried with him everywhere and scribbled the promise down. He’d learnt the hard way that Winter was both an excellent politician and an erratic promise maker. She would often make decisions and promises on the soapbox and it would be up to him to work out how to enact them. This one would not be difficult, a quiet word in the ear of the guards and the financiers would do the job, but he would have to start working on it the moment he got back to Geppetto.
“You need the words of the guards?” he asked, “Is the promise made by my miners not enough?”
Winter shook her head.
“If it were up to me, of course the word of the good men and women in front of me would suffice. But remember, Mr Kone, it was your pressure that insisted every claim be verified by a third party.”
Labaan Kone tried to brush off the counter-attack, but Lakshmi could tell he was at a loss.
“This is an emergency, Prime,” Kone said, “we can surely make an exception.”
A hand went up from the crowd. A small woman Lakshmi didn’t recognise shouted.
“I don’t want people using this to get more than their fair share.”
Another hand. This one was Jilt Booer, one of the Dutch arrivals. “Some people might take advantage, you know? I don’t think that’s fair.”
Lakshmi never understood why the miners all distrusted each other so much. It was rare to find two outside of the same family group that trusted each other. They simply never got on. Unless they were drinking, they viewed the successes of each other with suspicion. Kone had used that division to get them to vote for him and work for him. He was the one voice that they all trusted, although why Lakshmi had never worked out.
Asking them to trust each other’s word had been a step too far. Kone could attack Winter as much as he wanted with strong rhetoric, and they would listen. He could tell them how she was working against them, that they were victims of a bigger system. It sounded good, but to organise them they would have to forget their contempt. Lakshmi wasn’t sure that miners were capable of doing that, not when compensation was involved.
Winter nodded. “Thank you, friends of Geppetto. The rules are in place to keep things fair. We can’t use a minor issue with the Reedor to undermine all that. If we do that, the Reedor will see us not as a strong, united species, but a jumble of savages. And that only benefits the other species on The Whale.”
“Humanity will prosper!” An anonymous voice shouted from the back of the crowd. It sounded like Bacot, but Lakshmi wasn’t sure.
“Humanity will prosper!” Another voice.
Soon the chant was being repeated by all present. Even Kone was forced to join in or seem unpatriotic.
Winter had turned back the tide once again. Lakshmi smiled.