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Freedom of Contract (excerpt)

Freedom of Contract (excerpt)

Publié le 2 mars 2023 Mis à jour le 2 mars 2023 Culture
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Freedom of Contract (excerpt)

Translator: Austin Wagner


They quickly grew to hate Ardennaus – and Gavin felt Ardennaus hated them too.

Because they’d been given quarters in the military district, they didn’t get to see the true face of the capital. Everyone around them spoke Lagowit, they found Lagowian foodstuffs in the grocery store, whole coffee ground on-site, real cheese at the deli counter, not that greasy processed shit Filippa would scrape onto the side of her plate. But they’d already grown sick of the local fruit: eventually they just put the sour, shriveled, exorbitantly priced apples out for the birds. On the rain-sheltered playground, Filippa played tag with the other officers’ children; the one wearing the stolen soldier’s cap was it. It never occurred to them to let her mix with the ‘Nauseans.

Lucas tried to put on a cheerful face. He collected pamphlets to see which museum they could go see on their first free weekend, copied down the address of a local luthier’s workshop from the telephone book. But when he started installing heat-emitting lightbulbs, Gavin realized the homesickness was getting to him just the same.

“One of the neighbors told me about them,” he explained, screwing one into the living room lamp. The ‘Nausean electricity was largely rain-generated. “They’re the closest thing to real sunlight, warmth and all.”

Gavin didn’t want to get into how a properly drawn-up contract could get real Lagowian sunlight coming from the lamp, he’d already pushed too hard in transit. And besides, they were glad for the heat. If they turned toward it and closed their eyes, it was almost like they were drinking coffee back home on their terrace, warm natural stone underfoot and sunlight filtering through the rose leaves adorning the pergola.

Gavin spent the first week in the records office. He stumbled over half-assed solutions in poorly written contracts all over the city, and he found mistakes among the documents as well. Sloppy air pressure readings that sometimes caused the wind blow the rain in sideways. Parameters of a wrongly diverted river that caused a flood which washed away a village. Too much limestone sold from the soil, the landslide was inevitable.

He didn’t blame the ‘Nauseans. After their surrender, all their scientists had been hauled off, and precious few contractants were left: Lagow tried to take everyone, just as Gavin had been taken at the age of five.

The war was over before Gavin was born, but his grandmother frequently told him stories about it. Before bed they would recite together what to do in case of air raid sirens: you hear the siren, rush straight to the cellar, hold your hands over your ears, cower in safety, and don’t stop cowering until the sounds abate. His mother sometimes rebuked her, saying the war’s over, don’t bore the child with such drivel, but Gavin would just clap his hands over his ears, and he and grandmother would practice their escape in case the Lagowian machines were to come.

Lagow had razed the country to the ground. They had wiped out most of the capital as easily as smashing a cake, leaving nothing behind but smears of frosting and scattered crumbs. Gavin remembered the vacant lots from his childhood, the cantilevered stump of a bridge looming over the river, never to be rebuilt.

“It’s no wonder they stay here,” he sighed to Lucas after a long day of reading in the records office. “After the war they signed literally anything. Their national debt is still through the roof, there’s nothing we could ask for they’re not contractually obligated to give us.”

Lucas glanced through the crack in the door to where Filippa was sleeping in the low lamplight, then refilled both of their wine glasses. He slid his suspenders from his shoulders and sat down next to Gavin on the couch.

“Why do you talk like that? Them. They signed. They’re not.”

“I’m not one of them.”

All he had left of his family was the paper his mother had safety-pinned to his bag when she’d given him over to his Lagowian guardian. He kept it behind the laminated casing in his wallet – an address with no explanation. He didn’t even have a black-and-white photo of his parents.

“Drafting inter-nation contracts,” Gavin explained as Lucas slid a foot onto his lap for a massage, “has too many variables. When the goal is to get rid of ninety-five percent of our rainy days, all we pay attention to is how it affects Lagow. How to source more ground water. What kind of fertilizer we need for the plants. How to ensure the remaining five percent of precipitation falls at night.”

“And why aren’t they planning in the same way on their end?”

“They don’t have any good experts. All they try to do is bargain, raise the price, shave off a bigger slice of the national debt. They don’t think about how their land is waterlogged to the point of uselessness, how their agriculture is being forced into greenhouses. They don’t account for the extent of the floods. You see all those energy traps on the rooftops? They only thought those up afterwards, once the rain was already causing problems. They began to make use of them afterwards, and sure, now they bear the precipitation from plenty of nearby countries to develop electricity, but they never think ahead. They let us rewrite the forces of nature as we see fit. This is why they’ll never recover from the shock of war, they only start thinking after the fact.”

He kneaded the knots from Lucas’s foot as he talked. He always said Lucas had the legs of a musician, long and thin, just like his fingers, as if he could play the violin with either.

“Is that why we’re here?” Lucas asked. He didn’t see much of his husband’s work, military secrecy kept him from prying into Gavin’s day-to-day in the records office. All he saw were the ink stains on his wrists every night. But now the wine, or Gavin’s bringing it up first, had emboldened him. “They want to renegotiate all the contracts they’ve botched over the decades?”

Gavin sighed. He didn’t know why he’d told Lucas about this. Maybe to prepare him. Maybe so that when the aim of their coming here was achieved, when it finally swept through public discourse, Lucas wouldn’t hate him for it. Wouldn’t hate him for what he is capable of.

“No,” he whispered, and knocked back the rest of his wine. “They sent me here to make it all much, much worse.”


The ‘Nausean press named them occupiers, their negotiation tables war zones, as if they’d arrived with firearms loaded with bullets instead of dossiers loaded with papers. But the contracts could only be founded on mutual agreement, on unanimous declaration from both parties: on joint signatures, ornamental state seals, and on the visceral will with which the contractants wanted to change the world.

In the beginning, there were only the foundational contracts of nature.

All momentum in a closed system is constant.

Cold air is denser than warm.

A solvent will flow from areas of lower concentration to higher concentration across a semipermeable membrane.

Viscosity, conservation of energy, gas laws, hydrostatic pressure, drag and friction, light refraction, melting points and boiling points.

Gavin had never seen these documents, but they had to exist somewhere, in endless repositories of endless halls, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to cite them. Nor did he know who signed off on them – Lagow taught that before the first records office there was only chaos, and clerks by the thousands had brought order to the world. Ardennaus, however, believed in a creator, in the creator of solar flares, surface tension, and depolarization. During its occupation, Lagow had the ‘Nausean frescoes whitewashed, their textbooks shredded. Gavin didn’t know who was right. He wanted to use the system, not believe in it. He collated documents, wrote exceptions, amendments, and fine-print details by the million, like he was building a network of contracts which served only a single purpose: to overwrite the laws of nature with the laws of humanity.

This particular contract had been in the works for over a year. Never had he cited so many references. Never had he unearthed so many dependencies.

He wanted to overwrite one of the most ancient of Lagow’s natural contracts.

“We are representing Lagow today,” Gavin said, “to strike a contract on gravity.”

They met with the delegation in one of the Ardennausean Contract Supervisory Committee’s conference rooms. The wainscoting was stale from years of soaking up smoke, the upholstery of his chrome-framed armchair was peppered with cigarette burns. Gavin picked at the edges of its rubbery latticework of flaking. Only the Lagowians were wearing uniforms – Gavin was accompanied by an army physicist and a peacekeeper – Ardennaus didn’t conscript its clerks. For a few moments the ‘Nauseans smiled just as politely as earlier, when they had claimed that, due to inflation, they had to recalculate the value of the minerals contractually extracted from their soil. Then the interpreter translated Gavin’s statement.

“So they want more gravitational plots, is that right?” Mathilda Ayres knit her brow. The leader of the contractants had arrived soaking wet with a broken umbrella and had thrown her sweatshirt on the heater to dry.

Nothing had been built in Lagow in the last ten years without a reduction in gravity. The weight of raw materials was lessened on the worksites during construction to keep costs down. In exchange, Ardennaus bore the corresponding increase in gravity, placing it on the far side of their mountain ranges, where no one ever went, and where the weight-increased rocks led to more frequent avalanches.

“I’m not talking about plots,” Gavin corrected her. “We want a different gravity for the entire country.”

He waited while the interpreter translated. The ‘Nausean words were foreign to his ears, cutting as a razor blade. He could hardly bear to think that he had once spoken this language.

The faces of the delegation darkened.

“What… what kind of ratio are we talking about?”

“Lagow would maintain eighty percent of its current gravity. We would transfer the difference to an equally sized region of Ardennaus.”


Excerpt from my novella Szerződési szabadság [Freedom of Contract] (A hazugság tézisei [The Theses of Lies], 2022).



Photo by Michał Mancewicz on Unsplash 

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