14
May
10

The Centre

It took Nima well over an hour to return to the lodgings deep in the hinterlands of the sprawling megalopolis, passing what seemed to him like an endless landscape of grey slab buildings divided by matching road and walkways. The building in which Nima and Astra lodged was virtually indistinguishable from the other ten such structures erected at the same time by a developer more interested in revenue than atmosphere: each edifice was perfectly rectangular, lined with evenly distributed rows of plain square windows, and spotted by darkening patterns of soot and dirt. And to avoid extraneous maintenance and maximise profits from parking, all of the space in between these cubic clones was tarred and blackened too.

Inside the building, the material covering the hall floors was rank and discoloured as if urine had been a frequent contributor. The dim overhead lights flickered continuously as Nima walked through to the door of their compartment. Existence in The Nervous Centre of The Empire, thought Nima, was a far cry from life in Barise.

Knocking on the grimy white door, Nima waited while Astra undid the many heavy locks fastening the entry shut. The Centre was extremely dangerous despite being the administrative hub for an empire that dominated the greater part of the known world.  In fact, The Centre now ruled over every inch of the planet, short of Barise alone. Given recent reports, however, the Barisians had suspected it was only a matter of time before aggression would be instigated in a bid to capture what remained independent. Nima and Astra, two of Barise’s brightest citizens, had been sent to learn as much as they could in advance of any attack.

Letting her husband in, Astra quickly began re-securing the entry and with each turn of a lock came a dense and ominous thud. Nima glanced around the dwelling and instantly felt sorry for his wife, who had clearly been trying in vain to clean the place. Astra’s hands were raw from the chemicals so commonly used in The Centre and yet the black stains that crept out from all the cracks persisted while large bugs darted here and there. Nima reached out and drew his wife near to him, holding her slender body in his arms he kissed Astra gently on her forehead, as he was wont to do. “Don’t worry. It shan’t be too long,” he whispered.

The pair had arrived in The Centre but a week before and while a civil service term typically lasted for a year, no one had expected this particular posting to be longer than six months. Both Nima and Astra had already completed their mandatory service several years ago in the more usual appointments on the peripheries of The Empire. Very rarely were Barisians ever asked to live in The Centre itself, but times were different and the people of Barise needed to understand why after hundreds of years left outside The Empire, The Centre had finally decided to try and absorb it.

“How was it out there?” Astra asked looking up at Nima’s dark eyes.

“Grim,” Nima’s face grew more serious as he revisited the scenes of The Centre, “it’s incredible how these people survive, for surely this cannot be called life.” Nima hugged his wife once more as if to ward off the horrors of a world grown so cold and released Astra rather reluctantly. “Did you learn anything through their broadcasts?”

The chief task of every Barisian while completing civil service was to observe.  Gleam as much as possible from a variety of sources, while taking care not to become too involved in the actual on-goings of The Empire.  This was easier said than done, as Barisians by nature were a kind and interested people, who were easily concerned by the plight of others. Everyone had understood that in the distractions of The Centre, remaining detached and objective would be that much more challenging, and so both Astra and Nima were sent together so that they might succeed with mutual support.

“Well, we are certainly their other,” answered Astra thoughtfully. “It is really quite incredible how much anger is directed at us. They have this channel that is practically dedicated to demonising us called BNN: the Barisian News Network.  It plays perpetually, day and night, and purports to tell those in The Empire what life is really like in the kingdom,” Astra made fake quotation marks in the air around the word as she uttered it, “of Barise.”

“Kingdom?” repeated Nima.

“Yes, they call us The Ascetic Kingdom and claim our leaders have imposed upon us some austere lifestyle of denial and renunciation of all material and worldly goods. As a result, we are supposed to live in abject poverty, deprived of the most basic things, like chemical cleaners, I guess,” Astra snorted and tossed her reddened hand towards a steaming bucket in the corner, “how did we ever live without it?” she joked.

Nima looked admiringly at his wife. She is strong, he mused.

Astra continued, “We aren’t blessed with the freedom of choice, apparently, unlike the residents of The Empire, who periodically vote for a leader and are unhindered in their consumption.” The insistent chatter of the television had quietly continued to fill the room with a sort of mindless background noise, of which Astra was now thoroughly tired. Looking in the direction of the screen hanging on the dreary wall, Astra ordered, “Turn off,” causing the panel to flicker to black. Returning her attentions to Nima she sighed, “enough of this world now, we need rest.”


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