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“Imagine my surprise,” the girl was saying in a much stronger accent than Lilijoy remembered from their brief encounter Inside. “When I just happened to notice one of my classmates from the Academy at the front gate of my city. And not just any classmate...” She flopped one hand. “… but the mystery girl who everyone’s talking about. Well, I just had to invite you in.”

Must avoid young masters, must avoid young masters.

Lilijoy had dedicated an entire subdivision of her mind to running her new mantra. The public enforcers had been very polite as they escorted Lilijoy and Anda onto the opulent domed grounds of the Lone Star clan estate. Lilijoy had been too distracted running various scenarios in her mind to appreciate the lush foliage and elegant statuary of the gardens, or the serene and eclectic atmosphere of the main entry hall. They had been brought to a small receiving area through a side door, where they discovered why they had been pulled from the streets.

“That was truly kind of you, Miss Antimony,” Anda said

Thank goodness for Anda. I hope he can talk us out of this.

The situation felt perilous to Lilijoy, though she couldn’t put her finger on why. Not only that, but the whole thing was just incredibly... awkward.

I wonder if this is how Jess feels all the time? At least I can just fix it with my system.

She did just that and felt much better about life, though the awkwardness of standing in front of a teenage girl, one who could make their lives miserable, as she lounged aggressively on a pink divan, didn’t quite go away.

I don’t think there’s a neurochemical for that. Might as well try to make the best of it.

“Such a beautiful home, Antimony, and so kind of you to invite us in. I have to admit, I feel pretty out of place. I’m pretty sure someone like me doesn’t really belong in such social circles,” she said.

And ain’t that the truth, she thought. I’m pretty sure any halfway decent person doesn’t.

“Well bless your heart, Emily,” Antimony gushed. “Just because my Pawpaw runs this little city here doesn’t mean we need to go about putting on airs. We like to visit with folks from all walks of life.”

Okay, now she’s just messing with me. Another thought occurred to her. Or is she actually trying to be nice, but the only way she knows how is from old stereotypes about southern hospitality?

As far as Lilijoy could tell, Antimony wasn’t lying per se. It was more like whatever truth there was to this girl’s thinking was buried beneath a lifetime of seemings and semblance. She decided to try a different tack.

“So… how are things for you at the Academy?”

Antimony brightened. “It’s so kind of you to ask. In fact, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. You see, my cohort just has so many… boys.” The last word carried the tone one might use to complain of household pests or foot fungus. “I noticed you have a little girl-power thing going on with your cohort.”

Oh shit oh shit oh shit. Tell me she’s not going to…

“...and I saw that, and I just thought to myself, Antimony, that looks like fun. And then I noticed, why, they only have four, and it’s certainly no proper cohort without at least five or six.”

This can’t be happening.

Lilijoy tried to smile and nod, to avoid the expressions that would otherwise occur.

“So, I mentioned to my Pawpaw that I might want to leave my cohort and join yours!” She gave Lilijoy a brilliant smile.

It’s like Veruca Salt and Scarlet O’hara had a horrible mutant child.

She began to seriously contemplate using her system to try and control Antimony somehow.

Oh my god, she’s still talking.

“Now as you might expect, Pawpaw wasn’t too keen on the idea.”

Oh thank…

“But I talked him around.”

Never mind.

“But then it was such a stroke of luck that you showed up right on my doorstep.”

Anda, I’m going to kill you.

She messaged him to that effect, adding, Get me out of this!

He cast a gentle smile in her direction.

You have something she wants, he replied. Does she have anything you want?

All I want is for her to leave me alone! she sent back.

Welcome to dealing with the clans. It’s not all vampires and shooting, he sent.

Lilijoy took several long moments to think it through. Integrating a spoiled clan scion into her group was beyond impossible, though she would pay good money to see Magpie’s reaction. Not that Magpie was likely to be part of things going forward. The solution wasn’t quite as simple as denying Antimony’s request. For one, she wasn’t entirely sure that it was a request. It seemed like Antimony assumed it was already happening.

She’s probably already designed the uniforms.

She had the strong feeling that ‘No’ was not a word the girl was used to hearing. She and Anda were stuck in her web at the moment, and there were more than a few ways this situation could go horribly wrong.

I miss Starcoil. Actual spiders are much easier to handle than the human variety.

Antimony was looking at her expectantly. Lilijoy watched as her eyes blinked in slow motion, long curled lashes closing like a trap, and felt the time had come to say something.

“Um, wow!”

Well said, Lilijoy, she thought to herself. I just need a few more brilliant moments like that and I’ll end up as her maid.

She forced herself to continue. “What I mean to say is, wow, it’s such a shame that...” here she paused for second trying to think of any way out of the trap she was about to step into. “...my cohort is disbanding after this term. At least it probably is.”

Antimony only allowed herself a brief flash of disappointment. “Well honey, that could work out just fine. Even better, now that I think of it. We’ll just bring you on board the Lone Star train.”

Oh god, I am going to end up her maid. At least until I work out how to take over her clan from the inside...oh.

She had been having a lot of ‘oh’ moments of late. This felt like a big one. She had been so immersed in developing her system and its abilities, she hadn’t really spent much time thinking about exactly what she was going to do once she had achieved her goals. Goals that she now realized weren’t real goals at all, but simple steps on a longer path.

What was the purpose of gathering her strength, entering cities, of joining the Outside world? If she was going to be something beyond a reaction, then what action would she become?

Antimony does have something that I want. Access. Power. Connections.

She wasn’t in any hurry to take those things. It might make sense to use Antimony at some point, or it might be some other clan scion she could manipulate to her cause. One way or another, if she wanted to grow her forest, if she wanted to help the Mr. Sennits of the world, she was going to need to deal with the clans. For just a moment she allowed herself to imagine the sweeping change she could bring when she came into her full power.

I’m not the cattail fluff anymore, she realized. I’m the wind.

***

 

Leaving the domes of the Lone Star estate, Lilijoy kept wondering when the other shoe was going to drop. Antimony had babbled on about cohort-related trivia for a while. Evidently, Quatorze, whose real name was Billy, had been ‘madder than a wet hen’ when Lilijoy had beaten him in stealth contest. Edison was irritating, but it was Belsaurus and Teerex who were the real thorns in her side.

“I swear, those two couldn’t hit the floor if they fell out of bed. I’ve got to go back in there in just a bit and remind them which end of the sword to hold.”

Reading between the lines, it seemed that the real problem with Antimony’s cohort was their stubborn refusal to do everything according to the will of Antimony. Lilijoy kept that insight to herself though. She had smiled and nodded and promised Antimony she ‘wouldn’t be a stranger no more’ when the time came for the blond girl to go back Inside to meet with her current cohort and their impromptu visit came to an end.

“Well, that was something,” said Anda. He had quietly observed the encounter, after the initial introductions. It seemed that Antimony had assumed he was a bodyguard or servant of some kind, which was ironic, given the fact that he was the one with a clan background.

Their escort of public enforcers had accompanied them onto the clan estate and escorted them off of it. That was it. There was no grabbing or threatening or coveting of systems. Just the whim of a teenage girl. Lilijoy suspected that Antimony was bored, and maybe even a little lonely when she was Outside. She imagined the girl watched the people come through the gate on her internal awareness to pass the time. She didn’t strike Lilijoy as the type to curl up with a good book.

“Anda, why are there so few clan kids?”

It was one of those little observations that had bothered her for some time. Marcus had told her that virtually every clan kid, with the exception of a few holdouts such as the Maasai, attended the Academy. That meant that the entire population of the clans produced under two thousand children every year. It seemed like a small number, even considering the population caps imposed by Rule 1c.

Anda scratched his chin while he walked. “Now there’s a can of worms. Short answer is, fewer kids means fewer heirs stacking up and causing trouble. However many kids they are having, it’s probably just enough to match their mortality rate. Of course, the clans would say that they’re sacrificing for the good of humanity. Why do you ask?”

“Just trying to figure Antimony out. I thought she might be lonely.”

He gave her a skeptical look. “You’re not feeling sorry for the poor little rich girl now, are you?”

“Maybe a little? But I’m mostly realizing that I need to understand the clans better if I’m going to take over the world.” She wasn’t sure if she was kidding.

He laughed. “Narf?” Then his face became serious. “Lilijoy, give yourself a few years to live and explore the world. Worlds. I saw the expression on your face when you were watching those child porters, and I agree with you. It’s why I’m in Renaissance.”

She shrugged and turned to watch a pair of street musicians playing violin and bandoneon. The music was distant and plaintive, as her system was set to reduce the volume of the sounds all around them. More and more people were out and about on the streets as they moved away from the domes of the clan estate. Most of them seemed happy, or at least not unhappy, as they went about their lives.

She gestured to their surroundings. “Anda, have I got it all wrong? Maybe this is the best we can do.”

“I hope not! We could have a true post-scarcity society instead of this clan-based neo-feudalist crap. But changing it isn’t going to be easy. The Corp figured out that if you make sure no one starves and you keep the masses in debt and ignorant, you remove most of the pressures that might threaten their way of life. That’s why Renaissance is focused on teaching people to use their own systems to become better humans.”

Or we could give them better systems with all of that built in from the start.

She kept her thoughts to herself. She knew it was too soon to think about giving out the Tao system right and left. There were far too many unknowns, both with the system and with how likely it was to be abused.

She spent the rest of the day with Anda in New Manaus, watching people and browsing shops. It was striking how much the city resembled the Inside. Some of the areas underneath the soaring domes contained buildings and streets that wouldn’t have been out of place in a medieval town.

“Reminds them of home,” Anda said when she asked him about it.

She thought about that for a long time.

Toward the end of the day, they reclaimed the refueled hovercar and left New Manaus behind.

“Look Anda, the crane!”

They were passing the enigmatic, half-sunken construction equipment when the message from Magpie arrived.


Go time! Window of opportunity starts in about two hours.
Sorry for the short notice.
Things came through quicker than expected.


 

A few words with Anda, and then she was Inside. She couldn’t help but feel like the rushed timing was purposeful.

Probably just projecting.

***

 

The sun was high in the morning sky. Birds were singing in the little stand of young trees at the edge of the forest. She took a moment to enjoy fresh air and real sunlight.

“There you are!” Magpie sounded relieved and a little stressed. “It’s been crazy here. Major stuff going on. For whatever reason, the Wraiths and A.L.F. haven’t been coordinating for decades, or so I gather. I guess Sinaloa infiltrated A.L.F. some time ago, and the Wraiths haven’t trusted them since.”

The Wraiths of Averdale were the Insiders making life difficult for Sinaloa in Averdale forest, while the Averdale Liberation Front were Outsiders doing likewise. Both group’s activities had ebbed and flowed over the years, ranging from prolonged sieges to a token presence.

Magpie continued. “I guess the timing was good for them to start talking again. My contacts in A.L.F. swear up and down that they rooted out any Sinaloa presence, so let’s hope they’re right. Anyway, both groups are launching diversionary assaults any minute now. The Wraiths haven’t let anyone in on the specifics, but they have agreed to escort us through one of the tunnel systems they’ve built over the years. It should bring us to Sinaloa’s doorstep. But we need to go now, like five minutes ago now, if we want the timing to work out.”

Lilijoy analyzed Magpie as she spoke. Her mind was currently softly subdivided; one part scrutinized all the details of Magpie’s delivery to capture nuances of expression and inflection, and another part used that data to cross-reference previous conversations and strategize. Those portions of her were operating as fast as her system would allow. A third part was monitoring her own emotions and watching for bias and assumptions, while her final subdivision was in charge of responding in real time.

It was a complicated mental arrangement, but one she had practiced several times in conversations with Anda. He had tried to deceive her in various ways and she had about an eighty percent success rate detecting his prevarications and exaggerations. She found that very encouraging, considering he had his own Stage One Tao system, and foreknowledge of what she was doing.

“It’s not happening.” She folded her arms and stared at Magpie.

Magpie blinked. “What?”

“You heard me. I’m calling it off.”

***

 

What the hell is going on? Magpie thought.

She looked down at Lilijoy, who stared back at her with a stubborn, almost hostile expression.

She had been getting weird vibes from Lilijoy for past few days. She had chalked it up to the stress of the travel instance. Actually, she had thought it was because of her own less than stellar moments during the instance.

I thought I redeemed myself by the end.

But maybe it wasn’t about that.

She knows something, or she thinks she does. I need to figure out what it is.

“Can you tell me why?” she asked.

“You know why.” Lilijoy responded.

Magpie suppressed a spike of anxiety, and a realization dawned on her.

She’s reading me. Handling me.

She had a solution for moments like these, though she had never imagined she would need to use it with Lilijoy.

Stupid emotional attachments begone.

She went cold. Clarity washed over her as she turned off all her emotions but those connecting her to the mission. Strategies for manipulating the situation to her advantage filled her thoughts and her mission parameters grew in importance: Obtain the Outside location of the subject’s brother, maintain deniability to any Flock involvement, retain good will of the subject.

“That’s not fair. I know it can’t be cold feet, so I’m guessing someone is messing with us.” She sat down on the forest floor and sighed.

Add one appeal to justice, one subtle compliment and raise doubts, while lowering temperature of confrontation. Stir and observe.

“Actually, it’s not your fault. You’re just a minion,” Lilijoy said.

Huh. That might have stung before I went cold. Definitely would have elicited a subtle reaction. Better give her something.

“Look.” She allowed her voice to rise while she simulated the correct vital signs. “I think you have the wrong idea. You know how Subtle Arts works. Be the shadow, be the edge that surrounds the light blah, blah blah. I’m one hundred percent on board with our mission today. Yes, it was an assignment from my trainer, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t put my heart into it and worked my ass off. You may have started off as something like a client, but I’ve come to see you as a friend.”

She was startled to realize that she would have said the same even if she wasn’t cold.

I guess the truth makes the best lie.

Lilijoy looked at her skeptically. “You really don’t know, do you?”

Oh, she’s good. Luckily there’s only one response.

“Know what?”

“If the organization you work for hasn’t bothered to tell you, I don’t see why I should.”

Wow. Fish much? Actually…

“Wow. Fish much?”

Lilijoy shook her head. “It’s not fishing. I’m just realizing that I’m not the only one manipulated by mysterious forces. I think you are worse off than I am. You may never get to be your own person, because by the time you see what’s going on you won’t trust your own eyes.”

Magpie’s cold brain parsed what Lilijoy was saying. It paralleled her own fears exactly. That didn’t impact her on an emotional level, but its truth was undeniable. She strengthened her connection to the mission parameters reflexively, only to realize that this conversation had made them mutually incompatible. She couldn’t maintain Lilijoy’s good will and maintain flock deniability. Without Lilijoy, her odds of obtaining Attaboy’s location were reduced.

She opened her mouth to respond, but the words wouldn’t come. She locked eyes with Lilijoy and forced the air through her vocal cords.

“I want to-”

“Let me step in here...” came a new voice. A familiar voice.

Raven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A note from Aetherial

Thanks for reading!

Next post Thursday.

 


About the author

Aetherial

Bio: Life long science fiction/fantasy fan (how long, I'm not telling!) Over the last three years, fallen in love with progression lit of all kinds. My current writing is the result of years of reading author blogs and thinking "Someday..."

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