18:30 p.m. in April, the Second Year of the Bearer’s Reign
Irene is happy she had had all meetings cancelled for today. Grezner had grumbled, as usual, having slipped into a more familiar communication with Irene, though she was clearly always aware of her superiority in rank. Irene adds the finishing touches to her subtle make-up and calls for Susan to bring her a small cup of coffee. ‘Need some, might be a long night... but luckily he will not bother me anymore.’
Martin Rislers had finally taken the consequence of his position, and had left all Committees to start his own political party: Party for the People. Busy explaining his views on TV shows and any other public communication forum, he was often to be seen. He had even modeled for an advertisement of a wide-range department store, gaining the status of ‘Best Known Politician’ within weeks. An actor in the power arena, he is at last overtly opposing the Bearer of STATE, and Irene does not look forwards to the moment they will encounter each other again. He will not be there tonight, a polite note outrageously turning down the STATE invitation.
Bearer of STATE for 1 year, 1 month, 0 weeks, 0 days, 9 hours and
S. approaches the Bell’Etoile after a walk of hours through the woods. Her body shell is tired and thirsty, but STATE is rested now she has been alone for some time. The last days were hectic with selecting members for the new Committee for Crimes Against the People, with communicating with the Captain about which servants to punish and how, discussing trivial details about the Reception with him until she squarely told him STATE does not care, with trying to calm down Irene...
It is the first time ever that S. is going to the Bell’Etoile, a top-range hotel-restaurant in the woods near the capital. The building has had strong ties with any ruling government in the past, and many treaties had been signed behind its imposing faï¿½ade. A favorite party place for the former President, STATE had objected against going here, but the Captain had persuaded her that it was the only fitting place for the first annual STATE reception, and she had given in.
As yet, the high glass doors between the precious-stone amalgamate columns are closed. For an instant, S. imagines climbing the steps anyway, beckoning to be shown in, but then she decides that resting in the sun in anonymous quiet is a better idea. In the back, a beautiful terrace looks out over a forest lake. Almost all tables are taken, only one is vacant. S. seats herself on the plastic chair, her back to the spring sun. Compared to the other guests, dressed in floral silks, she looks shabby in her preferred grays and mauves, a short cape hiding STATE.
The scar of S.’ Mark stings briefly. Covertly, STATE checks around for her Guard, any enemies or people who might know her, but no one reacts on her presence. Strange old-pattern behavior. Maybe the servants’ scan had reactivated her paranoia, or is something else triggering this?
> Drink and laugh Bernie, today it’s party time1
> not for me and you know it
> hahaha biting the hook, he is, hahahaha
> Okay and what exactly is the problem of celebrating the First year of the new Bearer of STATE? Hail Her Grace, she has done good
> pah, goooooooody good. why, are you suddenly rich now or somethin’?
> No, but we do not have to look over our shoulder anymore
> well I do all the time I tell ya! she can be sitting next to you on a train, did you know? one touch and BAM you go!
> You should rejoice if She, the most Holy, the Light, would deign to touch you smelly human! Hail STATE
With a small exasperated sigh, Bernard looks her way. ‘Why do we have to have this outsider come and spoil exactly the evening that the nation’s most powerful people are here, assembled for the reception of STATE? It is worse enough I have to serve outside...’ Only too happy to be associated with the rich and mighty, Bernard does not want to waste any time on this unwanted guest. But he is professional enough to try to mask his distaste. Slightly gruffly, he approaches the woman. But before he can ask anything, she orders him: “Water, tap water, a carafe and glass, no crystal.”
Bernard tries to bore into the eyes of this arrogant woman, but as the sun is shining into his, he only can see her silhouette. His trick turned against him! “We are not the kind of restaurant to serve tap water, madam,” he says stiffly, “But we do have a nice champagne…”
‘As if you could afford it’, STATE hears him thinking, and she snaps: “Bring me the water. I will have more when my party arrives!” refusing to look at him as a disproportionate anger boils up inside. S. does not think about it, she never makes time to think.
- ‘You useless parasite.’
Again! Is it Matil? But this voice has a clarity and sharpness very different from Matil’s obscurity. S. brushes the thought away.
Being very thirsty, the vexation grows and subsides in her, waves building up to anger. STATE might lash out, and she has to concentrate to keep herself in check. She cannot afford to unveil STATE now. The woods-enclosed terrace, though looking safe and cozy in the late afternoon sun, is the ideal place for an attack, especially when the whole nation knows about the STATE reception to be held here. You never knew who is hiding there, in the leafy shadows. Matil?
That maitre d’hote, Bernard, hastens to a large group, assembled around a lady talking animatedly from under her large hat. He bows and asks if everything is in order, and STATE yields the knowledge that she is not just a lady, she is the Countess. One of those invited to the STATE reception, she is one of the richest people in the nation, a benefactor of many a project, only superficially covering the traces of her commitment to the former President. Gathered around her, the group is listening intently to what she is saying, which is hard as she never raises her voice above a whisper. Of course, STATE can hear her, and she is not surprised to overhear refined remarks covertly referring to parties that had been held at the Bell’Etoile and on how grand the old times had been.
The maitre d’hote and his waiters pass by S.’ table several times, bringing trays of drinks and food to the lively tables, their hard eyes ignoring her, as she had known they would. Her lips are cracked and she cannot swallow, a foul taste developing in her mouth. Though she tries to divert her focus by observing the huge number of servants working in the kitchens, the entrï¿½e and dining hall to prepare the Reception, STATE does heat up. Instead of allowing the urge to rise and blaze STATE with everyone present, S. stands and walks inside.
Bernard sees her going and a sudden inexplicable alarm hits him. As soon as politely possible, he rounds off his pleasant chat with one of the Countess’ friends. Without knowing why, he follows the grey-dressed woman inside, enters the kitchen and prepares the water as she had ordered. He tries to stay calm by repeating to himself, that there is no reason to become finicky about that woman. ‘Who is she anyway? She is nobody, she is no one, it’s nothing...’
In the wide corridor, S. is stopped by a tall waiter, guarding the inside doors to the central entrï¿½e. “No, no, no! You cannot pass this way. Tonight we have a closed reception,” the man says pompously. On the other side of the door, in the main entrance hall, STATE knows the Captain is panicking about her whereabouts, questioning the Bell’Etoile manager and personnel if they have seen any trace of the Bearer of STATE. “Aside, idiot,” she spits. Before he can do so, the locked doors automatically open against his back. At the same time, two Guards of STATE enter the hallway from the terrace and, spotting Her Grace, immediately close the outgoing doors. One of Guards positions himself there, mGun at the ready, the other walks down the corridor towards Her Grace.
The way is blocked by a multitude of broad white backs. Kitchen and serving personnel carrying trays laden with exquisite snacks and drinks, stand waiting to serve the guests of STATE. They cannot move, not even turn and see. She will have to wait.
Behind her, STATE senses her Guard approaching. With a distinct click, she opens the golden clasp and drops the cape.
Before it can touch the floor, the Guard rushes forwards and catches it. He orders the struck waiter to keep it safe. There is only one person that a Guard of STATE would do this for, and the servant steps back as far as he can behind the door, holding the cape carefully. ‘Her Grace... I have spoken to Her Grace, told her “no”, oh... no thinking’
Coming out of the kitchen, Bernard with the tray hurries after the woman, by now assuming her to be one of the guests.
“Hey Bernard, take it easy man,” the Guard says, following close after him.
‘Captain,’ S. says without voice.
Immediately, the Captain raises two fingers to silence the ongoing monologue of Maurice, the Bell’Etoile manager, in the entrï¿½e some thirty meters away. “There,” he says, pointing to the kitchens.
Maurice smiles: “But my dear Captain! You do not really think that the Bearer of STATE would come in through the back door!” he says lightly, not understanding why the Captain is not accompanying the Bearer of STATE himself.
The Captain ignores him and moves forwards. The serving personnel back away sideways, motioned to speed now by their manager, until there are only a few left and the Captain can see the Bearer standing silently behind them. “Your Grace,” he says and salutes her the old-fashioned way: bowing, the palm of his scarred hand open on his forehead. “I do hope we did not keep Your Grace waiting…” As quickly as they can with their full trays in the crowded corridor, the remaining servants shuffle aside. All guests present are craning their necks to see the Bearer.
Bernard freezes and tries to back away, the tray gripped in his white-knuckled hands, but he finds the Guard in his back.
“Almost your cue now, Bernard,” the Guard whispers, keeping closer still.
“Aaaaahhh Your Grace! What an unusual entrance, I must say!” Maurice exclaims and bows. “We are sooo proud to finally welcome Your Grace in our renowned restaurant. We have prepared for STATE a reception that You and your Guests will not easily forget, trust me! But first, of course, a welcoming drink! For Your Grace and Guests we have opened a Champagne that is not just drunk anywhere!” He waves two servants carrying trays of champagne to Her Grace.
“STOP!” the Captain’s voice is very sharp. “Are you crazy!? The Bearer of STATE will not take alcohol in ANY FORM, as you have been informed, Maurice!”
Non-plussed, Maurice stares at him. ‘No alcohol! A STATE reception with no alcohol?! But surely a Champagne of this quality did not count?’ But the Captain, normally quite amiable and fond of a good champagne himself, turns from him tight-faced. “Ah. I see you did get the message!” he says to Bernard, having spotted him with the tray with water, just to the right of Her Grace.
Bernard tries hard to be his normal self, but somehow taking a step forward is difficult. ‘I have made the Bearer waiting... the Bearer... She cannot be... But she’
The Guard follows him when he approaches the Captain and STATE, with the tray now slightly shaking.
Jealously, Maurice watches how the Captain takes the carafe from Bernard and pours the glass on the tray.
S., not having spoken or moved at all, turns slowly to finally take the water she craves for.
Bernard suddenly realizes how suspicious his trembles might look in the eyes of Maurice, the Captain and Guards. He straightens himself to curtsey only slightly, as he offers the tray to the Bearer. ‘Nobody knows’ he thinks hopefully, when he is hit full blast by a discharge from STATE, the moment the Bearer’s fingers touch the wet glass on the silver-plated tray.
Everybody cries and jumps back, while Bernard falls to his knees. Immediately, the Guard’s gun is in his neck, forcing him to fold over.
‘Never think of STATE as nobody, Bernhard!’ His head seems to split with Her Grace’s voice, too close. Carefully, he spreads his thick trembling fingers with ugly burns on the fallen tray before him.
Everybody in the huge entrï¿½e fearfully stares at the Bearer, who calmly presses her glass against STATE to have it scanned. The bright blue light reveals slight smudges, but there is no alarm. In the deep silence, she drinks and drinks, until she empties the glass. She returns it to the Captain for a refill. He pours it, seeing how thirsty the Bearer of STATE is, and wondering why.
Everybody in the huge entrï¿½e is completely silent.
After the Bearer has downed her second glass, the Captain refills it, again. While the glass is scanned, he carefully asks: “Ehm… In what way has this man angered STATE, Your Grace?”
Bernard wets himself when he realizes the implications. ‘Any discomfort of the Bearer of STATE is a capital crime, and the punishment can be exacted by the Bearer herself, on the spot.’ He knows full well how angry she was, when he had paraded the trays before her, when he had refused her the water she had clearly thirsted for. ‘The President had needed far less of an excuse to execute a servant publicly and in a very painful manner... and STATE can kill directly... she does not even need a weapon!’ He glances at STATE’s cold sheen.
The guests in the entrï¿½e are wondering what the Bearer will do, some of them remembering the old times with relish.
S. drinks and drinks in the leaden silence and finally the thirst subsides. Now everybody has backed away, she feels taller. STATE is definitely happy with the power and fear around her, imbuing her with an alien euphoria. The strong urge to lash out and destroy this servant. This human’s stupid preconceptions, his simple striving for being near to the powerful, his frame of thought too narrow to see the real form of power when she orders him. This human, who had had the nerve to disobey and counter the Bearer of STATE. Who had neglected STATE willfully, who had refused to serve STATE. He should face the consequences of his stupidity the same way an ant chancing on a footpath would pay by ending up squashed in the sand. Stupid human!
A simple thirst for exacting punishment shapes her thoughts, when they are suddenly pierced by the alien thought voice she has heard before.
- ‘You are nothing, a nuisance to this state...’
S. swats the thought away, but it leaves a bitter afterthought.
The eagerness of the guests, awaiting Her Grace’s revenge. The projection of their own powerlessness turns STATE into a machine of revenge, of all revenge, of revenge against everything thwarting them, against anyone belittling them. STATE is the central idol, the Bearer is nothing but a tool. An instrument of their power, her own aims forgotten, hidden behind a power that had chosen her for its Bearer. What does she want with this stupid role-playing, this play for today?
“Twenty-three minutes and 44 seconds”, she says finally. A brief puzzled silence.
“Your Grace has waited for that long, for a glass of tap water?!” the Captain almost shouts. “What kind of hospitality IS this?!”
The Guard releases the safety catch on the gun in Bernard’s neck.
Her Grace remains silent, uncaring.
Maurice sees his chance: “Bernard! This is an utter disgrace for our restaurant! This is a stain on the Bell’Etoile name that will not be easily cleansed! I have no words to describe the shame I am experiencing now, because of you! You” - and here he pauses slightly, wanting to relish every second of this dismissal, that he had schemed for for so long, but never had had an excuse to, “are”
Bernard cringes. This is almost worse than death for him, having built all his social standing on his status here, as second man at the Bell’Etoile. ‘If only I could disappear here, or rewind time,’ he thinks desperately.
“You! Are you trying to punish in the place of STATE?” the Bearer’s cold voice interrupts. A tight silence as Maurice throws himself on his knees before Her Grace: “Uh, I”
“You will only talk when talked to, Maurice!” the Captain hisses, and Maurice quickly shuts his mouth.
The Bearer hands over the glass to the Captain, slightly moves her hands, looks down at Maurice. “Get up. Tonight, Bernard will serve STATE with pain. STATE will punish him by his hands, to help him remember. Now, it is time to be hospitable. Guests of STATE, have your welcoming champagne!”
Everybody suddenly moves and talks: servants carrying the trays around, the Guard straightening from where he had kept Bernard at gun-point, and all the guests jittering to express their amazement and shock about the terrible behavior of Bernard to have kept a Bearer of STATE waiting for that long, and of how strong the discharge might have been and if it could have been deadly had STATE wished it to be, and very softly on Her Grace’s leniency and whether that was wise…
Through the reverently parting crowd, the Secretary of STATE approaches the Bearer, arriving almost simultaneously with Doctor Jan.
Worried, Irene tries to assess Her Grace’s state, but the Bearer hardly acknowledges her presence. Her skin is whiter than usual and the eyes do not react on anybody. Irene exchanges a glance with the Doctor, and he very softly confers with the Captain.
The Captain is still trembling with rage at that idiot of a servant, but Irene whispers that the man could not have known whom he was dealing with, Her Grace arriving with no Guards or retinue... “And remember the First Decree, Captain! Her Grace was very right not to punish this man more than she did!” As always, the Captain cannot reason with her, and he turns away to make sure some of the more rowdy guests will stay respectful after all of this.
Softly taking Her Grace’s arm, Jan and Her Excellency walk Her Grace to a dais with a small golden table and chair where she is seated. Jan keeps a close check on Her Grace, knowing that a discharge like this could affect STATE in unpredictable ways. He orders more water and some fruit for the Bearer of STATE, brought instantly by a very timid Bernard.
Seeing his chance and using his status as Minister, Johan Delaware approaches the Secretary of STATE, introduces her to somebody and the Reception of STATE sucks Her Excellency in.
S. shuts the Reception out.
STATE has no business with the humans skimming around her, hoping for an interview with Her Grace, to promote whatever is important for them. Something more important is here, almost here, and the discharge has drained her. She should be more careful. STATE saves her energy.