She caught me by surprise, Amazonian and heavily armed. From what I understood about recent events here in Val Verde, El Presidenté surrounded himself with these female warriors, his brides, he called them, although allegedly they only operated as his spiritual advisors. The ambassador in London made that quite clear, much to the amusement of the press. The papers at home replied with half-veiled allegations, hinting through euphemism at new, Bacchic rituals between the self-described Messiah and his bodyguards, not only guardians of his palace but of his sex-drive as well.
I don’t pay much attention to the whisperings of gossip columnists. Who am I to judge a man by his peccadillos and predilections? I was guilty of at least some of the same misdemeanours, but at least they weren’t hunting after me, although I was sure I’d feature shortly, if I made too close an acquaintance with the dictator’s brides.
She took my hand, with an abnormally firm grip. Reinforcing her position and power, as though the show of force was necessary with me – I’d have been happier with a sweat-stained, balding curator than a monster like this. Although she was something to behold, in immaculate officers’ whites and a steam-carbine hanging from her hip – one of the newer models, capable of firing a dozen rounds a minute. The cold-blue steel of the weapon seemed to catch the light and hold it, muted – a sense of oblivion rose from the gun, much as the steam rose from the venting casket strapped to her shoulder.
A brand new steam-carbine, even though reports suggested the people of Val Verde were impoverished, starving. Skeletons working ankle-deep in the rice paddies or burdened with impossible loads. Although I certainly wouldn’t be permitted to see that, not as El Presidenté’s guest. The mining magnates certainly would, on their tours of the great gouges scarred in an attempt to scratch out more power from the earth – although I doubted it would raise the same levels of disgust in him as I felt at the thought. When you see the world as walking, exploitable pounds sterling there isn’t much hope for you to truly witness humanity.
Or to feel humility.
“Doctor Grady, I presume?” She said it without a trace of irony, although surely she recognised the words Stanley said to Livingstone, lost as he was while searching for the source of the Nile.
Evidently the Peoples’ Republic didn’t enjoy the support of all the people of Val Verde. I had seen it before, all too often across the globe. An aspiration grips the imagination of the common man, a desire to clear out the corruption and the debauchery of the pedigreed upper classes too often led to a beautiful catastrophe of sorts, a situation where everyone mutinies, but no one deserts. The strongman will always seize the day, and with networks of informers and quislings, he who takes power can often hold it.
But only at gunpoint.
“With me, Doctor.” I felt her grip shift to my wrist, tightening like a serpent’s iron-edged coils.