They go into the Terminal Building and head for Bear Hall, the largest and grandest hall on campus, used only for the finest occasions (and certainly not for student graduations). It had seemed unlikely to Ren that he and George really would be on the front row, but when they get into Bear Hall they see that the seating has been laid out in a semi-circular, concave, arrangement, so there’s quite a few seats on the front row. And there they are – two seats with their names on them on the left end of the front row. Grant, meanwhile, has the honour of being seated on the dais along with the Murnesian and Grayvington bigwigs. George collapses into his chair like he’s just completed a marathon, puffing heavily and looking a little green.
Bear Hall was originally designed in a mock-Renaissance style, with vaulted arches, but before completion a new architect took over, and the University administration of the day decided that a medieval theme would be more suitable, so some hasty changes were made to create an impression of the middle ages, and the hall was re-christened with its current name. One wall, the one furthest away from Ren and George, is full of stained-glass windows, whose mix of themes infuriates the University historians, but which do look very impressive to the less tutored eye.
Ren notices George’s dandruff. It’s all over his shoulders. It’s so bad Ren can even see it on George’s hair. Some of the flakes are rather large. And then he notices that everyone else has large flakes of dandruff all over them. He looks up at the ceiling. It’s not dandruff. It’s bits of the ceiling falling down.
The ceiling, as the University well knows, is in bad shape. That’s one of the reasons why the hall isn’t used very much. A full, noisy, humid house will occasionally cause bits of the ceiling to fall off, although it’s never been this bad. It looks like the audience at a dandruff convention eagerly awaiting the announcement of a new miracle cure. The University keeps putting off the repair of the ceiling because the whole ceiling needs to be done with just the right sort of repair methods, and the ceiling can’t be repaired without re-doing a lot of the Hall, and all of that is going to be expensive (although not as expensive, some people have noted, as a lot of the other things that Raven likes to spend the University’s money on). But after today, Raven has been assuring people, the University will easily be able to afford to get the ceiling fixed.
After the audience has settled Raven calls for quiet. This allows everyone to get a good listen to the crowd baying outside. The Murnesians and their security guards look uneasy. Do these complacent Westerners really know how to handle an angry mob? Even Raven looks a little worried as he nervously adjusts his glasses. Ren, on the other hand, is content to stare at a blonde who is seated up on the dais near Raven. This must be Raven’s wife. He’s never seen Raven’s wife before, but it’s got to be her. Even the salacious gossip doesn’t do her justice. She’s stunning, and her languid movements leave Ren mesmerised. How on earth did Raven snag her?
Raven clears his throat.
‘I’m proud to welcome to our University one of the world’s great leaders, Ding Pingajing,’ says Raven.
Pingajing stands up to receive the lukewarm applause of the crowd. He bows.
‘Murnesia, as we all know,’ continues Raven, ‘is one of the world’s most ancient countries, a country full of wisdom that goes back millenia, and a wisdom that continues to be displayed every day in the modern age. We still have much to learn from this wonderful, vibrant land, which sets us examples in so many ways.’
George lets out an awful groan. It sounds to Ren like he is trying to suppress a groan of pain, but it sounds to the audience like he’s trying to suppress a groan of anger. There’s muttering in the crowd. Ren can see Robot making neck-cutting motions to George with his hand. He notices that the Murnesian guards have also seen Robot do this. They’re looking at Robot and George suspiciously. What does a neck-cutting motion indicate in Murnesia? Ren smiles at the agents to try to reassure them, but this seems to make them even more suspicious.
Raven pauses. His thunder is in danger of being stolen. He puffs himself up, puts on his most important look, and takes a deep breath: ‘This is a historic day. It is perhaps the most historic day in history. It is the day when East and West finally come together in peace and harmony, through the means of a healing bridge built by scholarship. I am proud to announce that Grayvington University will build and manage the historic Oxbridge University in Rankpo.’
Raven pauses. The audience has gone deathly quiet, which provides a dramatic backdrop to the sounds of the crowd outside, who seem to have gotten louder, and – as far as one can tell from the inside – even angrier. The Murnesian guards look to have become even more jittery than before. Raven’s wife, Dymphia, however, has closed her eyes and is rolling her head around as though she’s in internal ecstasy, and Ren can’t take his eyes off her.
Raven makes a little movement with his hands, and a few people cotton on that this is supposed to be the moment for rapturous applause. The clapping takes a while to get started, and as a result never really reaches the thunderous level Raven anticipated. The Murnesians look angry, like they’ve been disrespected. Ren has a look behind him to see what the faces on the audience look like. While he does this, and while the clapping is dying out, George gets to his feet unsteadily, with one clawed hand out in front of him, and staggers over towards the Murnesians on the dais. He lets out an angry shout, which probably sounds to the Murnesians as though he is remembering the relatives and friends who were murdered by the Kum Kwat regime, taken from their beds at 4am into the labour camps, never to be seen again. The Murnesian security guards draw their guns. Even the British agents put their hand into their jackets.
‘George, no,’ shouts Ren, who has turned back around to see what is happening. ‘Stay away from there.’
Then George, with a face that looks like he knows that death is near, emits an agonised wail, while his shaking index finger seems to be pointing at Ding. As he howls, Ren shouts out that he’s having a heart attack, but George’s wailing drowns out his exact words. George reaches into the inside of his jacket to hold his heart. Or his oesophagus, whichever it is. Ren gets up to run to him, but it’s too late. Milliseconds after George’s hand goes into his jacket pocket three bullets are fired at him, and he’s killed instantly.
The hall erupts like Ginnungagap has arrived. Guards fire bullets into the ceiling, but this just shoots out some of the lights and causes large sections of the fragile ceiling to fall onto the crowd, sending up clouds of plaster dust, reducing visibility, making things even worse. The screaming and shouting crowd frantically tries to run through the dust for the exit, but this results in half of them ending up on the floor, or getting knocked over into the chairs. More plaster falls, and more dust is thrown up. Some people are completely caked in white plaster. Those who do make it to the exit find that their way is blocked by the security guards from outside, most of whom have run into the building and to the hall to see what has happened.
The recent 9/11 terrorist attacks have made people jumpy, so it’s no surprise that serious panic sets in when the sounds of crashing glass are heard in the room. The stained-glass windows on the side of the hall are being smashed through, and protesters wearing heavy gloves and batons start climbing in over the broken glass. Ren tries to get to George’s body, but he can’t see much through the haze of dust and the frightened crowds, and then he is knocked to the floor by the swirl, and is forced to crawl around just to avoid being trampled to death.
The Murnesian guards, sensing that they’ve killed an innocent man, and aware that they really don’t want any more deaths on British soil, are reluctant to fire directly at the invading protesters, and they don’t want to fire at the ceiling again, so they aim their guns off to the side, and shoot again to bring order. This does nothing but create even more terror in the audience, especially as some of the bullets have ended up going through the top parts of the stained-glass windows, resulting in glass falling onto the crowd from on high. The protesters and the guards start swinging clubs at each other. Ren can hear a mix of dull thuds, and the sound of bones cracking. He’s going to get caught up in the middle of this. The hired security guards from outside can’t get in, as they’re caught between the audience trying to get out of the hall, and other protesters who are trying to get in.