The White Palace.
Private Speers slid down the wall in a daze. She landed on her feet but stumbled backwards and ended up sitting on her butt. She had hit the wall head first, her outstretched arms doing little to protect her from the reinforced concrete.
It had happened too quickly, she hadn’t been ready. And what would she have done if she had been? They hadn’t trained her for that kind of attack. A throw onto the ground to pin someone, that she could have found a way to deal with. But to throw someone at a wall… it was just stupid, and embarrassing.
She turned, rising into a crouch. A click in the back of her neck indicated her organic was active. Her hair, short as it was, stood on end.
“Enough, Private,” said Captain Tek. “Stand down.”
Figaro looked at Speers without sympathy. She was ready to use everything she had to claw back her pride, but if she had to use everything against an unaugmented boy, what kind of pride would that gain her?
“You lost,” he said. “And I went easy on you.” That wouldn’t calm her any, but she would have to swallow her anger. The Seneca Corps didn’t stand for insubordination.
“Don’t you think that was a little cheap?” said Captain Tek.
“Out there, there are no rules and regulations,” said Figaro, mimicking her own words back at her. “And no starting bell.”
“Do you really think you would win against someone like her if she went all out?” said the captain.
Figaro could see she wasn’t going to accept his demonstration as proof. “Each situation is different. I dealt with this one as I thought appropriate. If she was really trying to kill me, I would have done it differently. But Private Speers has been with my mother for several years. I’ve watched her train and spar with the others. I know all her moves. I beat her because you train your people to observe and react. I didn’t give her time to do that. Next time, she won’t make the same mistake. Next time, I’ll know that.”
“You didn’t know he was going to move, did you?” said Ganesh to the angry soldier. “He disguised his intentions and you never saw him coming.” His words were filled with pride. “I really am a most marvellous teacher, it turns out.”
“Do you really think a soldier needs such tricks?” said Captain Tek.
“But you see, my dear captain, I’m not training him to be a soldier, I’m training him to be a magician.” Ganesh laughed, pleased with himself and pleased with his student. But mostly pleased with himself.
Captain Tek nodded, downturned mouth unimpressed. “I see. And what about me? Do you think you could deal with someone like me?”
“If I had to,” said Figaro.
“Shall we test the theory?”
“Alright,” said Figaro.
She moved much faster than anyone Figaro had fought before, including organics, and she hadn’t activated any of hers.
Figaro felt the air shift around him. He could hardly see her, let alone predict her moves. Something hit him in the chest — a hand, a foot, he wasn’t sure — his feet were swept away and he was falling. He hadn’t made a single move of his own so far. He felt her near him and he struck out with his hand, but he didn’t hit her. Not that he’d meant to.
She kicked him in the side before he hit the ground and there was a loud crack.
“It seems you don’t know all my moves,” she said, standing over him.
“True,” admitted Figaro, sitting up and rubbing his thigh. Fortunately, the crack hadn’t been one of his bones. The soldier had a satisfied look on her face. Her commander had avenged her. “But now I know one more than I did. Each situation is different, Captain. Here.” He held out the bracelet she had asked him to wear. It was broken.
Ganesh laughed even louder this time. Captain Tek scowled, checking the pocket she had put the bracelet in, and stormed out of the training hall, the soldier hurrying after her.
“Well,” said Ganesh, “it seems you are more ready than I imagined. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were put on the Seneca most wanted list after that impudent display. Good job. If they offer a decent price, I might hunt you down myself.”
“I know all your moves,” said Figaro.
Ganesh helped Figaro to his feet and slapped him on the back. “Yes, yes you do. Use them well.” He walked away, still laughing.
It wasn’t the smartest idea to aggravate the Seneca Corps but he wasn’t about to be controlled by them. His parents already did that more than he was comfortable with, although their intentions were well meant.
He returned to his room to get changed and caught sight of himself in the mirror. His formal Ollo jacket looked smart and sharply cut to fit his torso. The light blue military-grade material showed no signs of wear and tear, the gold braid looked immaculate as ever. His silver hair looked wild and messy.
The buttons down the front of his jacket were embossed with the head of Aurelias Ollo, his distant ancestor and founder of the Ollo dynasty. The head was round in profile on the buttons, no hair. There were some clippers in the dresser drawer. He took them out and set to cutting off his lovely locks.
By the time he finished, his hair was shorter than Private Speers’. At this length, it was hard to tell what colour it was.
“I was joking about your hair. I’m actually quite fond of it.”
He turned to find Private Speers standing there. He hadn’t heard her come in, either because of the clippers or because she hadn’t wanted him to.
“I get that quite a lot,” said Figaro. “But it’s too recognisable. I don’t want people to identify me easily. Or remember me when asked. The whole point of this is for me to be incognito.”
She came closer. “Did you enjoy throwing me around like that. Made you feel all strong and powerful, did it?”
“Not really,” said Figaro. “I would have preferred a kiss.”
She smiled. “All that time we spent together, I thought it was just good old-fashioned lust, but you were really just learning all my moves, huh?”
“Among other things,” said Figaro.
She put her arms around his waist. “I guess I should have done the same.”
“Shouldn’t you be protecting my mother and unborn sister?”
“We do get breaks, you know?”
“No, you don’t. Did your captain send you?”
She let go of him. “You have a very suspicious mind. I think that’s what attracted me to you. You think like one of us.”
“Thank you?” said Figaro.
“You shouldn’t have done that to the captain. She isn’t happy.”
Figaro shrugged. “She isn’t my captain.” He wondered what Speers had been sent here to do. Convince him to wear another bracelet? Probably not.
He did understand why the Corps was so unrelenting. A simple look at the history of organics made that clear.
Women had suffered immeasurably when organics were first discovered. Having a high compatibility quotient meant a better chance of being able to integrate with an organic artefact, but the true potential of a high CQ came in the form of children. Two people with high CQs were much more likely to produce a child with a high CQ.
Men were able to spread their seed far and wide, but women had a limited window for reproduction. Which made women with exceptional CQs very valuable. As breeding stock.
They were kidnapped, bought and sold, impregnated to exhaustion and mental failure. The prize was considered worth any sacrifice.
It didn’t take long to work out how to identify those who were compatible, but no one knew why one person could join with the alien technology, and another couldn’t. Trying to engineer a high CQ proved impossible. They had no luck decoding the DNA of high CQ individuals in the lab. In vitro fertilisation produced nothing of use. Children had to be made the old-fashioned way, which meant women who weren’t willing to cooperate were impregnated by natural means in a very unnatural manner. Without consent. Often, without consciousness.
A hundred years of terror for ‘gifted’ women followed.
The Corps rose to defend their own. Women found ways to obtain organics and used them — to protect themselves and their sisters. They employed extreme measures from the start. If a man was found guilty of violating a CQ woman, his whole bloodline would be eradicated, from his children to distant relatives. There was no appeals process, just summary execution.
Universal outrage and indignation was ignored. The Seneca Principle was simple. If you don’t want your family tree burnt to the ground, don’t touch without permission. It was stunningly effective. Entire planets were ready to turn in one of their own rather than anger the Seneca Corps, because entire planets had been destroyed for crossing the Seneca Principle. Hell hath no fury like a Seneca strike force, nor does it have the ordnance.
They would ensure his sister had the right to choose her own destiny, for which he was grateful. But he planned to be the one who kept her safe.
“If you’re here to plant a device on me, you should know I’ll be scanned before I leave.”
Private Speers nodded. “I still have to try.”
“I understand,” said Figaro. “Orders are orders. Do you mind trying while naked?”
“I was told to use any means necessary. Are you hoping to learn some more of my moves?”
“Do you have any new ones?”
She started taking off her uniform. “I’m sure I can think of some.”