The Ministry of Changes
The War is endless. It’s time that's scarce.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
Fantine was very lucky to have a job in the Ministry of Changes. She had heard her mother tell it to the grannies on their block too many times to forget it, and the things the grannies knew were transmuted to truth by some alchemy unknown even to the Ministry.
“After Reginald—” Fantine’s mother would say, and the grannies would hiss, “Yes, yes,” careful to move on quickly from Reginald. Reginald was Fantine’s father, and no one wanted to linger too long on him, lest anyone ask too many of the wrong questions, which had been one of his failings in the first place. Reginald had disappeared after he criticized the government’s handling of the choleric tertiary plague five years before.
“After Reginald, I don’t know what we’d have done if they hadn’t taken an interest in Fantine at the Ministry.”
“Well, they think the world of her there,” old Mrs. Wu would say, snapping out one of her embroidered white dish towels briskly before hanging it on the line to dry. No one knew where old Mrs. Wu got the old towels like everyone had before, but she washed them three, four times a week, and they were the decoration of the neighborhood, flapping in the breeze like prayer flags, like surrender, which old Mrs. Wu had never in her life done and would never do, that Fantine or anyone at the Ministry could see. Old Mrs. Wu was one of life’s touchstones, a holdout, a cornerstone.
“Why are so many of our words to do with stone?” Fantine asked Mercutia, who had worked at the Ministry since Fantine was a little girl in school.
Mercutia shrugged. “Not given to me to know. Ask another.”
“Why do we get a cocoa break on Thursday mornings? It’s nice, I never even saw cocoa before—”
“That, I tell you.” Mercutia sipped her demitasse of cocoa, it being Thursday morning and therefore the day that their co-worker Hector pottered down into the vault to get carefully measured scoops of cocoa powder into the correct pot for them all. “In the old days, people had cocoa when they liked. Before the war.”
“They did,” Mercutia affirmed, her many braids bobbing against her neck and their tokens with them. “And we get the cocoa to remind us. How it was, how we—how we want it to be. When they founded the Ministry, they had hope that we could direct the changes and not just chart and catalog them.”
This notion so startled Fantine that she was uncharacteristically silent for the rest of the cocoa break, all the way to her lunch, even, and Mercutia and Hector had to tease her into being any company at all at lunch. She sorted the papers and keys that comprised her main body of work mechanically, and as the pneumatic tubes zipped them away from her into the heart of the Ministry. To guide the changes in the country, in the world, and not just to map them? It sounded almost like heresy.
Certainly it would not have been something allowed to anyone at Fantine’s pay grade regardless of what the rest of the Ministry was doing. Her job was to sort the keys by shape and size—that was easy enough, any of her classmates could have done it—and to catalog the dreams into the right files. The dreams were harder. They had to be pieced together with clues from past dream predictions and with knowledge of how far into the future an individual dreamer might go. Now that she was experienced at the Ministry, Fantine worked with hundreds of dreamers’ files a week, and that was quite difficult enough. She had no idea how she would start to induce them to dream different directions. She had never met them, never even seen their names, just numbers and color codes and handwriting on their paperwork.
Still, the idea intrigued her so much that she continued to toy with it on her way home, so much so that she almost didn’t notice that the trolley had been re-routed to make up for the total bombing loss of the fifth district that afternoon. She had to take the mauve line and then the yellow instead of her customary straight green, and she arrived home late enough that her mother was on the step telling the grannies that, though they were lucky the Ministry of Changes had taken an interest in Fantine, it would be a wonder if they ever saw each other again. She belatedly noticed the rubble under her feet, tracked in from the fifth district, and the way her fingers still smelled of the coppery keys.
“I’m here, Mother,” she said, and then as they were all staring at her, “I’m here,” again. She took her mother by the muslin-covered elbow and led her into their flat. There were yams for dinner, and the remains of yesterday’s pork, which was made from the remains of Monday’s. The Ministry of Changes had never shown the least interest in Fantine’s mother.
“At least I didn’t have to queue for food today,” Fantine’s mother rattled on, “but the bombing, oh, the fifth district is where your father and I met, and I knew so many people there—they got most of them evacuated, but there’ll be refugees living in the nooks and crannies—don’t be surprised if we have to take your second cousin Desiree for a time—and I think we’re missing at least one of the Chao children, just cannot find her, and—”
“Mother,” said Fantine, and then with more emphasis, “Mama. Sit down. Have some dinner. Have your nice yams. I can’t eat them all, you have to work tomorrow too.”
Her mother burst into tears, but she ate her yams, and they listened to the broadcast together. The Minister of State said that they had a solid plan for preventing the enemy from encroaching on any more districts, and there was a cheerful new song everyone was to learn. Fantine and her mother repeated it dutifully. Then they went out onto the step to listen to what everybody had to say in turn, about the broadcast and about their dreams, what it all might mean.
Old Mrs. Wu’s grandson Ti-Jean worked at the Ministry of War, and he was full of self-important bluster about the new troop movements and how they would catch the enemy off-guard, he only wished he could tell them more. Everybody wanted to ask Fantine what the Ministry of Changes said, but nobody wanted to be the one to do the asking. Fantine had never told them much since she started working there, and her neighbors assumed it was because her Ministry work was so terribly secret.
Fantine was too embarrassed to tell them about the cocoa breaks or the way she knew how to sort keys now, the tiny ones and the large ones, the gentle thump and whoosh the pneumatic tube containers made, so insulated from the noise of the bombing outside.
She was about to go inside to wash in the basin and get ready for bed when old Mrs. Wu took her by the arm and drew her aside. “The Ministry is not what it was,” said old Mrs. Wu. “None of them are. You don’t have to be a century dreamer to know that much.”
Fantine looked at her respectfully. Old Mrs. Wu was a century dreamer, in addition to being frightfully old, like a little brown apple when springtime comes. Not like ordinary people, whose days stretched only into the next day, or even the rarer year or decade dreamers, old Mrs. Wu was one of those whose dreams the Ministry of Changes followed most carefully. She might even be one of Fantine’s own charges, coded with bright red tabs on her files.
“The Ministry—yes, I know,” said Fantine. “Can you tell me what it ought to be?”
“Follow the tubes,” said old Mrs. Wu.
“How did you know about the—” Fantine stopped. It was best not to question the elderly too closely, and old Mrs. Wu even more so. She had been known to snap presumptuous children with her beautiful dishcloths.
But Fantine was no child any more, and Mrs. Wu let her question pass without any snapping, dishcloth or otherwise. “I see what I see, which is more than most. Follow the tubes. They will take you where you need to go. Remember that you have as much right as anyone. You are an employee of the Ministry as much as any of the others. They chose you, Fantine. They must have had their reasons.”
“I always supposed it was because I was organized,” said Fantine, who had kept a neat desk at school and used this and her crisp shirtwaist and tidy hair to hide her more alarming tendencies from her instructors.
Old Mrs. Wu snorted. “They are fools, but not such great fools as that. Go, go home, get your rest. The young need their rest. The old don’t sleep so much. Means we don’t dream so much, means we don’t see so much of use. Which is a shame. But I know that you should follow the tubes, at least, so I’m not a completely useless old lady. Go, now.”
“Good night, Mrs. Wu,” said Fantine obediently.
It took her most of the next morning to get through the set of keys on her desk, and she realized that she had never before asked where they came from. They were always there in the morning, they always got sorted, and it was part of the job. She looked at the sheaf of papers waiting for her and decided to take the chance. She got up as if to go to the washroom and then followed the pneumatic tubes down the hall past the washroom, through the doors, where she had never gone before.
With all the keys she sorted, she expected to run into locks on one of the doors, or perhaps all of them. She expected to return to old Mrs. Wu, to tell her that she had been stymied in her assigned quest, or alternately to find a superior who would ask her what she was doing.
Instead, the small, plain door at the end of the hall to the washroom swung open to the touch, and then so did the sturdier oak door that took the pneumatic tube corridor further into the building, and so on.
There was no one.
The hum of the pneumatics overhead reminded her that she was going in the right direction. Every so often, a tube would fly past with a key or some paperwork sorted by Mercutia or Hector or one of the others. But no other footfalls reached her ears, no chatter of human voices, no other office workers arguing about whose turn it was to get more tube containers or how long it would be until the lunch break.
In her own office, the floors were plain bamboo flooring like Fantine had seen in anyone’s house, worn down until any crumb or scrap of paper that fell between the boards had to be wormed out with special cleaning tools after everyone had gone home. One of the topics Hector brought up with the other old hands when they had large group gatherings every few months was when the floors would get replaced. They never were.
But back here, the floors gave way to rarer stuff, pine and then oak, and it didn’t look like they’d been cleaned by anything except the automateds, not for months or years.
Fantine began to wish she had brought a shawl or a wrap, though it was not cold. She told herself it was just the sound of the air whistling through the pneumatic tubes fooling her brain into thinking so.
The last door she opened stuck. She had to slip through it, glad for once that her mother had been too tired to queue for more or better rations, or she would not have fit. She batted at her skirt, trying to get the dust of the door off it, and then her hands dropped to her sides, dust forgotten. She was in the sort of room she had imagined when she first started work at the Ministry, but the longer she’d worked there, the more she’d stopped thinking of it at all.
It was larger than the central trolley station, larger than the central train station, even, with pneumatic tubes lining the walls and ceiling all over. They were dim and scratched with age, and the brass labels for each section had gone golden brown, with little bits of green patina around the carven letters and numbers. They were at convenient heights for Fantine to read, so she was able to step along, looking just above her head, and find her way in the vastness, her boot heels echoing.
“They’re dates,” she said aloud. The keys had been sorted by size, but within the sizes there were categories and subcategories, stacks and stacks of tubes filled with keys of each size from each year. At first glance she thought they might be the year of the sorting, but no, the dustiest old ones went with tubes she remembered sending herself.
She was able to find the label for the current year. There were very few ahead of it.
“Fantine!” called Mercutia from the corridor. “Fantine, lunchtime! Fantine, are you there, girl? Did you lose your way from the washroom?”
“Coming,” she shouted back.
“How did you get so far back?” demanded Mercutia, two hallways out, dusty and bewildered.
“Oh, the higher-ups,” said Fantine. “You know how they are.”
“The higher-ups are promoting you?” squeaked Mercutia. She hugged Fantine before any further explanation could ensue. “Oh, that’s wonderful! I always knew you’d go far. Don’t you forget us out in the outer office, you hear, now? What’s the name of your new patron?”
Fantine thought quickly. “Minister Wu,” she said. “Minister Wu said I was to work all afternoon in the inner room there. I’m sorry to leave you with my paperwork, but I’m sure it’ll only be—”
“Mr. Yarlung won’t leave us long without another filer, don’t you worry about us,” said Mercutia. “Now come along to lunch, and promise me you’ll come on out for cocoa sometimes.”
“I promise,” said Fantine. She gulped, thinking of Mr. Yarlung, the grand boss of the whole office. She had only hoped to get herself one afternoon with the pneumatic tubes, and no further mention of Minister Wu, but Mercutia hurried on ahead, shouting to the office of Fantine’s new patron.
Mr. Yarlung came out of his office and favored them with a thin-lipped smile. “Minister Wu’s doing, is it?” Fantine froze, sure that he was going to fire her, but Mr. Yarlung went on: “You know, Fantine, my patron was someone very like Minister Wu. Very like Minister Wu, indeed. You will have to be careful with your new work. We will expect great things.”
He went back into his office and shut the door just quietly enough to avoid the underlings thinking he had slammed it, and Fantine let out her breath. He knew! He knew that there was no Minister Wu, that there was no one at all. What was he doing, then? Drinking up his cocoa and not saying a word? Hiding in his office and letting the pneumatic tubes carry their keys and records to that giant temple of a space, and for what? For what? But her co-workers insisted on half-carrying her out to a celebration of her promotion, and they had just finished their jerk krill patties when the klaxons sounded and everyone had to go into the nearest shelter.
The people in the shelter near work were kind and familiar, and their games were different than the games in her home shelter, which at least made a change. One could grow tired of playing charades and cripple crag with the same neighbors every time there was an air raid. A round of button button-button and some singing would not suit her every time, but for a change . . . “a change is as good as a vacation,” said Mercutia with forced cheerfulness. When they came out again, the Ministry was still standing. The restaurant that served jerk krill patties was gone, half of it rubble and half of it more ominously erased.
When Fantine got home again, her mother was crying, and her cousin Desiree was frying noodles on the stove. Des was wearing a decent shirtwaist for the first time Fantine had ever seen; usually she wore coveralls like a dock worker, though she rarely did anything so like work as cooking. “Oh, good, it’s you,” said Des. “She was afraid you would never come home again. I told her you were like bad beer, always coming back on you.”
Fantine thought that it would not do to start their new tenure as roommates by telling Des what kind of metaphors were likely to be comforting, so she said, “Thank you for making supper. That’s a help,” and went to the basin to wash up.
“Don’t think I’ll be doing it every night!” Des called after her. “Just because I’m out of my own place doesn’t mean I’m your servant, you know!”
Fantine’s mother wailed.
Work in the morning was a relief. Fantine could simply walk back to the giant wondrous room that was the tubes’ destination as though she had a right to be there. The word of the imagined Minister Wu would protect her at least a little. She examined the piles of keys. There was a cabinet next to the pile, so she tested the drawers and doors—all locked, and next to a pile of keys, anyone could put two and two together. The smallest key for the date went to a long, flat drawer.
There was a log book in it. The listings were for the other drawers, clearly numbered with the brass labels once she knew what to look for. “Cabinet 1, Drawer 1,” she read aloud, since there was no one to be bothered by her doing it, “cure for lapine encephalitis. Whoever heard of lapine encephalitis?” She took the tiny, delicate key and unlocked the corresponding drawer. It contained a vial of pale, celery-green liquid. Fantine thought about uncorking it, but as she wanted nothing to do with any kind of encephalitis, lapine or otherwise, she thought better of it. She looked down the list until she came to the larger keys.
“Experimental all-terrain transport,” she read. “Now, that’s a bit more like it. The Ministry of War could use one of those!”
The key that matched that one went to a door—Door 73 for this year, one of the last ones—and was nearly as long as her hand, with ornate levers to turn the tumblers. She could hear the heavy lock clicking home as she turned it. She wished she had a torch or electric light to look inside, but the moment she stepped inside, a soft glow suffused the area. Fantine jumped back, muffling a little scream.
The cabinet was more of a room, larger than the apartment she and her mother were now sharing with her second cousin Desiree. It was alarmingly full of a spider-shaped object twice her own height, made of jointed matte black material she had never seen before. There was a padded cloth seat and a control panel like the trolley driver’s but infinitely more complex. All of it was remarkably free of insect life, considering how long it seemed to have been abandoned. Fantine did not know of an automated complicated enough to clean it. Perhaps the lock was a better seal than she had realized.
She thought of climbing up into the seat, like a child at the playground, but she knew she had not even the experience to drive a trolley, and there was the question of how to get it out of the central room, and what she would do with it if she did. Should she summon Mrs. Wu’s grandson from the Ministry of War? His vague bragging about troop movements didn’t fill her with confidence.
Fantine fetched the log book and sat down on the floor with it, spreading her skirts under her. She could easily enough believe that this was meant to be an all-terrain vehicle, for someone who had the proper fuel and knew how to drive it. But why was it locked away, filed under this year? Clearly it had not been made this year. Was it made for this year, then?
With a sinking feeling, she unlocked the log book for the previous year and looked over the first few entries. “Cure for endocrine collapse plague,” she read. She got up suddenly and rushed to the book for five years ago. There it was, the vial that would have saved her father, or at least might have: cure for choleric tertiary plague.
“He had reason to yell! Oh, Papa, I wish you’d yelled even louder,” she muttered. “All these cures. All these machines. And here, and for what?”
Five years passed, the cabinets still full. How many more devices and innovations waited for her? Were they supposed to have been opened in sequence? What had gone wrong? If Mr. Yarlung had given himself a promotion just as she had, what had happened to the real Minister of Changes? Murder or political coup or—something worse, somehow?
She kept going backwards in increments of five years, then went forward again when she found the first empty cabinet. It was twenty-two years ago when they had last emptied out the drawers and cabinets they were supposed to empty. By the time she found these things, Fantine had decided what they were supposed to be.
The dreams of those who could see far into the future could be made reality—that she knew. It was integral to the Ministry of Changes. But it was equally important that they not reach the future out of turn. Time turned out of joint could damage everyone—they all knew that, or at least they all believed it. And so they were to file the future away in careful doses, measured so as to get to the proper time in the proper order. The scientists would work from the blueprints of dreams, and the Ministry would make sure that those dreams were there for the people of the city when they needed them.
Some time twenty-two years ago, it had gone wrong.
The last item taken out of the drawers was another of the little medical cures, a missing vial of the cure for influenza gamma-17. Fantine pressed her lips together. Had they failed to deploy it in time? Had it been manufactured incorrectly, or had the scientists just gotten the formula wrong? In any case, she knew the tales of the gamma-17 days. Even the enemy had called a cease-fire to bury their dead. She could easily imagine the Ministry nearly grinding to a halt, and only the outer office employees continuing with their work, no one taking the reins, no one deciding what to do.
She stepped outside the Ministry in a daze. Someone would have to decide what to do now.
For a small favor, the klaxons were not blaring as she made her way home, and the trolley route she had found earlier in the week still held. Old Mrs. Wu saw her face as she got off the trolley and asked Des to come help plan a neighborhood party. Fantine and her mother listened to the broadcast alone, and Fantine could hear the emptiness in the messages. No word between Ministries meant no moving forward. The enemy was closing in, and the only person with access to twenty-two years of advances had no idea how to even drive a trolley, much less shield a city.
The next morning, the broadcast announced the fall of the city gates and the destruction of the Ministry of War. The neighbors clustered around old Mrs. Wu, who kept telling them not to panic, which they did anyway. Fantine slipped over to Mrs. Wu’s clothesline, nodded to her as she took a dishcloth, and walked calmly to the trolley stop.
“You’ll go to work in all this?” shouted Des.
“That’s my girl,” said Fantine’s mother. “She’s that dedicated.”
But Fantine got on the orange line instead, which went to the city gates, or at least to where they used to be.
The enemy looked very little like the broadcasts had said they would. Fantine wondered if she surprised them with her looks, too, her skin the same brown as theirs and her clothes—not a military uniform, but possibly something their sisters would wear.
She knew she surprised them with her presence, and with her calmness.
She knew she surprised them with her offer.
They offered an escort home, but despite the broadcasts or because of them, Fantine, the new Minister of Changes, could walk in her city, as they all would walk. The only person who did not regard her with shock and hope was her own neighbor. Mrs. Wu scowled at her. “There was going to be something. You were supposed to find something. We were to beat them. We were to win.”
Fantine took the old lady’s hands and chafed them gently in her own against the evening chill. “I did find something. They will be—they will be better. They will be as much better as I can make them.”
“But—there’s supposed to be—” Mrs. Wu yanked her hands back in frustration. “In my dreams, there was . . .”
Fantine looked up at the pieces of the sky she could see from the city. The color of twilight was warped to the south by the floodlights of the enemy troops marching in. “You know that we all do what we can, and that’s all we can do.”
Mrs. Wu made a harumphing noise. “Better than most, I know it. Well, girl. Plague cures—you traded them?”
“Copies of plague cures. Copies of . . . lots of things. Only copies. Never the originals.”
“And you keep the keys close?” Without waiting for an answer, Mrs. Wu smiled. “It was a fine thing to hear of our own little Fantine walking out there to face down that general.”
“Even if I lost?”
“It’s not what you can lose, it’s what you can win. We’ll just . . . we’ll just have to use the things we still have. And win back more of what we still have, yes, Fantine?”
Fantine looked again at the unnaturally bright sky and hoped that they would continue to feel that way.
“The Ministry of Changes” copyright © 2013 by Marissa Lingen
Art copyright (C) 2013 by Julie Dillon