'Dammit, I'm hungry.' Nakishdan made for a gloomy figure, notwithstanding his bright yellow outfit and pirate's hat. 'Isn't anywhere open?'
Mixt shook her head. She'd already checked their maps. The detailed shopping hologram projected in front of them showed every food-outlet in the city to be closed.
'Have some gin.'
Nakishdan scowled at her. 'Gin isn't food, no matter how much you try and pretend. How can every single shop be closed? Shouldn't there be someone, somewhere, who disagrees with Geeda's Lala's crazed revolutionary rhetoric? Someone to take a stand?'
Mixt laughed. 'Asking for equal pay is not crazed revolutionary rhetoric. It's entirely reasonable. You should support it.'
'I do. I just wished she'd waited till we'd done some shopping.'
Nakishdan rose to his feet and paced around the main room of their underground bunker. 'I wonder what the rest of the city is making of all this? All these mercenary armies can't be very pleased they've got no food. It's never happened before.'
The strike was rapidly spreading and had already brought the city to a standstill. Transport and power workers had joined in, leaving most districts paralysed. There were warnings of power cuts.
'I don't understand how it spread so fast. Aren't there usually arguments among workers? People who don't want to take part?'
Mixt nodded. 'It is unusual. Maybe it's because the idea is so new. Worker's rights were never coded into the game. I suppose it does count as a revolutionary idea, if you've never heard it before.'
Geeda Lala and Fourteen trees clattered noisily down the outside stairs. There was a brief delay as they were bio-scanned before the heavy metal door opened to admit them. Both young women seemed excited. Nakishdan scowled at them.
'Where have you been? And do you have any food?'
'We've been helping the strike committee. I worked out a mathematical model so they can picket everywhere efficiently. And no, we don't have any food.'
Nakishdan slumped in his chair. 'I'm going to starve to death in a simulated video game. What a way to go.'
'Soup kitchens are being set up,' said Geeda Lala. 'To tend to the masses. We're volunteering to take a turn serving. So are you.'
'No I'm not.'
'Yes you are. We volunteered you.'
'Mixt, make them stop ruining my life.'
'At least if we're serving at a soup kitchen we'll get some food,' Mixt pointed out. 'Won't we?'
'Probably,' said Fourteen Trees. 'Although we'll have to cater for the most needy first. This is all so exciting! Nothing like this ever happened at home. I feel like finally I'm really doing some good. I've been taking strike leaflets to outlying areas. Also I'm making woolly hats for poor children.'
'The wages in this city are really a disgrace,' added Geeda Lala. 'It's bad enough that the women get paid less but even the men are ridiculously exploited. All these greedy mercenary armies hog all the loot and the workers hardly get anything. It's not good enough.'
Geeda Lala and Fourteen Trees began to pour over their maps, working out which areas still needed to be leafleted and where they would set up their up kitchens. Nakishdan lay flat out on the sofa in hungry despair while Mixt carried on with her attempt at using gin as food. Rainith the Red, who had not been seen for several days, appeared in the room, fluttering, in her small fairy size, through the open skylight. She was scowling fiercely.
'I had a big argument at the station! All the workers went on strike but they wanted me to keep broadcasting!' The fairy looked offended. 'What do they think I am? A strikebreaker?'
Nakishdan raised his head an inch from the couch. 'Your radio station's still open? Do they have a canteen?'
'It's not open. I persuaded everyone to leave. I am mortally and utterly offended that women get paid less than men. We fairies would never put up with that.'
'Doesn't it bother anyone else that we're actually going to starve to death?' Nakishdan appealed for sympathy in the room.
'We won't starve,' said Geeda Lala. 'A few days without food won't kill you. Anyway, we'll have these soup kitchens set up in no time. We need to act quickly. The strike took the city authorities by surprise but there are rumours they're going to organise action against it. We need to be prepared. Mixt, Nakishdan, we might need your fighting expertise in helping with the defence.'
But Nakishdan wasn't responding, having turned over to lie face down on the couch in despair, while Mixt had succeeded in drinking herself to sleep.
'Well they'll need to show more resolve than that if we're going to win this strike,' said the young Fourteen Trees. 'You can't be giving up at the first sign of hardship.'
'The South Market Worker's co-operative soup kitchen is now open,' declared Geeda Lala, proudly. There was some cheering from the assembled crowd. Food had quickly become scarce in the city and was now either being hoarded, or sold at inflated black-market prices. Demonstrating their impressive organisational skills, Geeda Lala and Fourteen Trees had arranged for the installation of a soup kitchen in each of the city's four main markets, for those on strike and their families.
'And anyone else who needs it, I suppose,' muttered Mixt, observing Nakishdan, who stood conspicuously at the front of the queue with his yellow pirate's outfit and a hungry expression on his face. Unlike Mixt, Nakishdan had resolutely refused help and would not consider working behind the counter until he'd been fed. He advanced, bowl in hand.
'Not a believer in women and children first, I see,' said Mixt, smiling.
Nakishdan scowled at her. 'Just give me some soup before I starve to death.'
He thrust out the bowl. Mixed ladled soup into the dish and placed some bread on the side. Nakishdan did not appear overly impressed
'Is that it?'
'We're on strict rationing. There are a lot of hungry people to feed.'
'I want more.'
'No need to sound like Oliver Twist. It'll keep you going till we can find more supplies.'
Nakishdan walked off, scowling and muttering. If he was not reacting well to the situation, the mood in the market was generally cheerful. The strike for equal pay, a new idea, was widely supported. It had rapidly grown in size. Geeda Lala's original demand for equal pay for female workers remained the central issue, but the workers' demands had now expanded so that all over the city people were striking for better pay and working conditions. Why, they were asking, do the mercenary armies and generals get all the money while it's us that keep the city going?
The speakers on the walls, silent since the strike had closed the radio station, suddenly blared into life.
'This is Fairies Hate You independent radio. Supporting the strike even if everyone in this city is really stupid and annoying. I'm not sure who's most annoying, the humans of the aliens. But the people in charge of this city are probably the most annoying of all. They all deserve to be killed when it comes right down to it. This is Eater. The were an original punk band in London. This song's called Thinking of the USA. But that doesn't mean I'm gong to be playing any of these useless fake American punk bands who weren't really punk bands at all. They were all annoying. Like everyone in this city. Especially the aliens. Unless they're supporting the strike. Then I suppose maybe they're all right. But it's not like they're as good as fairies.'
There were puzzled expression all round the market. No one in Star Metal City had the faintest idea what any of Rainith's pronouncements on punk rock meant. Her peculiar obsessions were indecipherable to the inhabitants of this video-game world. Nonetheless, people were generally glad to hear her voice, her radio station having rapidly gained popularity in recent weeks, particularly among the city's youth, who enjoyed hearing her outpourings of abuse.
Geeda Lala looked up from her screen to see Baticla hurrying towards her. Baticla, a young, blue-skinned Vooret, was an employee at one of the food shops in the market, and now one of the strikes' strongest supporters.
'I just got a message from my mother! She's a mechanic for Bitter Frost.'
Geeda Lala frowned. Bitter Frost was one of the city's many mercenary groups. They had a bad reputation.
'She says they'e coming here to break the strike! They're going to storm the market!'
Mixt, overhearing the conversation, stepped away from the counter.
'Well, we were expecting something like this,' she said.
'No we weren't,' said Fourteen Trees.
'Then you should have been. It's time to man the barricades.'
'We don't have any barricades.'
Mixt pursed her lips. She'd known from the start that forceable suppression was the likely outcome of a strike in a violent, militarised location like Star Metal City. Neither Geeda Lala nor Fourteen Trees, young and idealistic, really seemed to have considered this.
'It won't take long to make barricades in an enclosed space like this market. Nakishdan, stop trying to sneak a second bowl of soup and help me organise things.'
Noutan Five Lives slipped away from his village before sunrise, avoiding the attentions of his sister, who had nursed him back to health, and Matreen the Elder, who would not have approved of his departure. He made his way silently through the Forest of Ancient Oak, taking care not to disturb the Elves who patrolled the outskirts of their territory or the friendly owls who assisted them. He succeeded in leaving the forest unobserved. It wasn't that he was forbidden to leave, just that if his plans had been known, there would have been a distressing confrontation. His sister would have protested that he was not fully returned to health, the Elders would have agreed, and his many relatives in the Elvish tribe would have tried to discourage him.
He travelled north until he came to the place where he could enter the between space used by both Elves and Fairies. It took him close to Under Green Hill Market, where he made his way down a shaded path to The Pierced Fox, a tavern with a poor reputation, avoided by decent folk. Honest citizens tended not to visit. The interior was small and poorly lit, though the lantern behind the bar was bright enough to illuminate the proprietor, Lily the Fox and Wolf, a woman with whom Noutan had had dealings in the past. She watched him approach with out any noticeable sign of friendship.
'I wasn't expecting to see you out and about so soon, Noutan Five Lives. Or would that be four lives now?'
Noutan didn't answer her question. He asked for a jar of mead. Lily poured him his drink and passed it over. He paid with some coins from his purse.
'I'm looking for Rainith the Red.'
Lilly smiled, without warmth. Noutan heard whispering behind him. Everyone in the tavern was pretending to mind their own business but he had no doubt they were all listening closely.
'Haven't seen Rainith since she went looking for you.' Lily paused. 'So would that be three lives now?'
Noutan remained calm, despite the insult. He didn't know if his defeat at the fairy's hands was known outside the forest. It might be. He studied Lily's face. He hadn't expected her to be forthcoming. Noutan was not sufficiently well-connected with the shady underworld that frequented the Pierced Fox for anyone there to really trust him. It didn't matter. Noutan had strong powers of discernment. He'd have known if Lily the Fox and Wolf had been lying, even if she'd tried to deceive him. She was telling the truth that she hadn't seen Rainith.
'Has anyone in Under Green Hill seen her? Did she pass through?'
'Not as far as I know.' Lily sounded bored.
Noutan took his drink and sat on his own at one of the small wooden tables. It was odd that Rainith hadn't passed through. He'd have expected her to, on her way back to Mercia, her fairy land. Unless that hadn't been her destination. Reports of her departure from the Elvish forest were unclear. It seemed she'd simply disappeared, vanished into the air.
Perhaps she'd returned to London. Noutan had tracked her there before, sneaking into the huge building at Vauxhall and learning her whereabouts. It was a long way to London. Noutan's chest hurt. His wounds had not fully healed. He ignored them. He went back to he counter.
1 of 1: posted 20 June 16
The atmosphere in the South Market worker's co-operative was tense. This was partly because the striking workers were expecting an assault by Bitter Frost, a hostile mercenary group, and partly because Rainith the Red, Fairy DJ, had apparently decided to drive everyone mad with her playlist.
Crouching behind a makeshift barricade, laser rifle in hand, Nakishdan drummed his fingers on the cold concrete floor. 'This has gone too far,' he muttered. 'I'm actually going to kill the fairy this time.'
Mixt wore a similarly pained expression. 'It is hard to take. Did she have to choose today for her early Fall singles special edition?'
Rainith had been playing the first six singles and EPs by the Fall all morning. First she'd played them in chronological order, from 1978 to 1980. Then she'd played them in reverse chronological order. Next she'd played all the b-sides, then the A-sides again in alphabetical order, followed by some arrangement of sleeve colours that she'd made up herself. Nakishdan had lost track of exactly which order she was playing them in now, but did feel strongly that if he had to listen to How I Wrote Elastic Man one more time, he might be tempted to turn his laser rifle on himself, and end his misery.
As Rainith cheerfully played Bingo-Master's Break-Out for what seemed like the tenth time, there were mutters of discontent from all around the market. Even her young fans were finding it disconcerting. There were whispers that if Fairies Hate You Radio had decided to inflict psychological torture, it should have been directed towards their opponents, rather than the market workers.
Suddenly they heard the heavy rumble of troop carriers. Four large, dark green vehicles appeared in the street that led towards the market. Above them were several drones, one of which advanced towards the barricades.
'Thank God for that,' muttered Nakishdan. 'If the mercenaries kill me quickly I won't have to listen to Totally Wired ever again.' As he spoke, his yellow outfit changed to a dull, grey camouflage. He raised his rifle, taking aim at the drone which now hovered overhead. The drone withdrew swiftly, flying back to the troop carriers. Immediately a hatch opened and two mercenaries emerged. They walked forward towards the barricades. Watching them approach, Mixt had the distinct impression that they were in a bad mood. Not that mercenaries ever had a reputation for being cheerful, but there was something about their gait and their expressions that suggested that everything was not well. As they neared the barricades she could make out their insignias - a colonel and a lieutenant, both members of Bitter Frost.
The Colonel spoke, his voice amplified by an invisible loud-hailing device. 'We're here to negotiate.'
Both officers advanced. Mixt, Nakishdan and the others watched carefully.
'The city council demands that the workers in the South Market halt their illegal strike action and return to work.'
The workers had elected the young Vooret Baticla as their spokesperson; no one else had volunteered for the job. She rose to her feet to respond. 'The strike is not illegal and the city council has no authority to hire mercenaries to attack us.'
'The city council - ' The Colonel paused, and looked around him with an expression of disgust. 'What is this damned music?'
'This is Rowche Rumble from 1979,' blared Rainith's voice over the market's speakers, as if in instant reply. The Colonel winced as the Fall's second single began to play once more. 'Who is playing this?' he demanded.
'That's Rainith. Fairies Hate You Radio.'
'Why does she keep playing the same records?'
'It's such a terrible noise,' added the Lieutenant. 'We haven't been able to listen to anything else in our troop-carriers all day.'
'The band are dreadful,' said the colonel. 'They can't play.'
'And the singer can't sing. Why does this Rainith keep playing their music? It's intolerable.'
Nakishdan rose from behind his barricade. 'I know. It's really awful. She's the worst DJ ever.'
'Is she singing along with the record?' asked the Colonel, as Rainith's voice joined in with Mark E Smith. The Lieutenant shook her head, and looked rather sad. 'It's having a very bad effect on morale.'
'But getting back to the point, said the Colonel. 'You have to end this strike. There are food shortages all over the city and the council won't stand for it.'
'Then tell them to accede to our demands,' countered Baticla.
'This is Repetition,' came Rainith's voice, again. 'Third track on Bing-Master's Break-Out. It's best if you play it a few times in a row.'
The workers in the market groaned. The Colonel and the Lieutenant looked anguished.
Nakishdan shook his head and sighed. 'Maybe someone could launch an air strike against the radio station?'