A woman in a demure dress led her through a wood-paneled hallway toward the parlor where the Worker’s Liberation Vanguard was meeting. Lining the passage were paintings, oil on canvas, most of which predating GroCorp’s founding by at least fifty years. Kat did her best not to think about how much more each and every piece of art she was walking past was worth than the entirety of her family’s possessions.
Finally, the servant opened a mahogany door inlaid with hundreds of gilt flowers. Inside, heavy velvet and cloth curtains obscured the walls, muffling the sounds of a woman speaking. Kat’s eyes immediately fixated on the soft wall coverings, estimating the dozen places she could easily hide a recording device from the room full of amateurs.
A number of faces turned to look at Kat the moment the door opened. She recognized all of them from school. The main area of the parlor seated about two dozen young men and women in overstuffed chairs or regal leather couches. To the left, just out of sight there was some sort of raised platform, obscured by the gaudy drapes hanging about the cavernous room.
The speaker’s voice stuttered to a halt.
The students stared at her confusion on their faces, as they unabashedly looked her up and down. A couple seemed to recognize her, squinting as they tried to place where they knew Kat from, but the rest simply stared blankly. She shifted uncomfortably, looking for Jasper amongst their number.
The angry click of high heels on hardwood drew her attention away from the milling crowd. A woman in a blue dress, a matching blue ribbon tying her hair into a ponytail, stalked toward Kat and the servant, her face a rumbling stormcloud of rage.
“Annabelle,” she hissed at the woman standing next to Kat. Out of the corner of her eye, Kat watched the maid begin to shake. “Would you care to tell me why you interrupted my speech with a newcomer? I believe I specifically said no interruptions and no visitors. Especially people I don’t know.”
“Iris?” Kat cocked her head, finally placing the woman and the blue ribbon. “Iris Leander? I’m Kat Debs. I live across the hall from you at college.”
She cocked her head, glaring at Kat, clearly upset by her interruption, but before she could say anything Jasper hurried across the parlor floor, a huge smile on his face.
“Kat!” He stepped past Iris and reached out to grab her shoulder.
Once again, she found herself fighting the urge to pull back from his sudden movement.
“This is who I was talking about Iris!” He pulled her away from the entrance, leaving Iris next to the servant that was wilting with relief. “Kat was born an employee but managed to work her way into the company college. She’s sure to bring a unique perspective to our organization!”
Now that Kat was in the parlor, she could see the raised dais where Iris had been speaking. There were three chairs on either side of a podium, half of them occupied.
“Jasper,” Iris’ voice was low, dangerous. “Can we talk for a minute about this before you bring an unvetted newcomer into our midst. For all we know, she’s an informant for GroCorp and she’ll be reporting back to the authorities as soon as she leaves this meeting.”
“She’s right,” a man sitting on the dais called out. “Allowing someone to attend one of our meetings requires a vote of the Executive Council. Even then, that vote is only supposed to happen after the candidate has been vetted and received a recommendation from the Membership Committee with oversight and consultation from the Security Committee and the Revolutionary Aims and Ethics Committee.”
“Well I’m the Co-chair of the Executive Council and the Chair of the Security Committee,” Jasper responded, letting go of Kat’s shoulder long enough to cross his arms. “I had Davis investigate her. He literally laughed at me when I asked if she had connections to GroCorp. Kat’s safe, and she’s our only real connection to the workers we’re trying to connect with.”
“As the Chair of the Direct Action Committee,” a woman on the dais stood up and addressed Jasper, “I must disagree with your statement. After several months our anonymous e-mail campaign has started receiving replies from employees. Right now we suspect that half of them are genuine workers with the rest being corporate disinformation. We’re only a month or so of screening those contacts from opening a genuine and meaningful discourse with members of the working class.”
Kat felt the eyes of the entire parlor burning in between her shoulders. Behind her, the rest of the chamber began whispering excitedly.
“I can leave if this is a problem?” Kat asked hopefully. She was only at the meeting because Jasper had forced the issue. She’d gladly use an internal dispute as an excuse to duck out of the proceedings.
“It isn’t a problem,” Jasper glared at the two speakers on the dais. “Kat isn’t a security risk and she can meaningfully contribute to the meeting. I say that she stays.”
“You can’t just make a decision like this unilaterally,” Iris walked up to the two of them, the staccato click of her high heels marking each step of her approach. “Both Jason and Amanda haven’t been in school for the last week, and when I e-mailed them I got an auto-reply saying that they were busy. The company is watching us, Jasper. We can’t be too careful right now.”
“Wait,” Kat put both of her hands up, “are you saying that people have been disappearing? I literally don’t know what you guys do here. Jasper just said that I should show up and I didn’t want to be impolite, but if the company is actually moving against you guys, I don’t want to have any part in it.”
“We don’t know that the corporation is targeting us,” Jasper said stubbornly, glaring at Iris. “Everything we are doing is above-board. There’s no reason we can’t talk to workers and discuss their grievances with management. It’s all perfectly legal within the GroCorp bylaws.”
“Fine,” Iris spat out the word, “let’s have a vote. Everyone on the executive council in favor of suspending rules and admitting Jasper’s friend as an observer, say ‘aye.”
“Aye,” Jasper and two of of the people on the dais, including the man that had initially backed Iris’ complaint spoke up simultaneously.
The woman glared at the man that had voiced support of her earlier.
“Sorry,” he shrugged, no real apology on his face, “Jasper has a point. The new girl doesn’t seem to be some sort of super spy, and if Davis cleared her it means she’s clean as a whistle. We all know that Davis has been as keen as a hawk since…”
He trailed off awkwardly, glancing at Jasper. To the Haupt boy’s credit he managed to keep his face calm as his peers spoke rather casually about his father’s death.
“Then seat the girl so we can get back to our regularly scheduled business,” Iris clattered past them, climbing the dais and resuming her position at the podium. The minute her hands rested on either side of the wooden lectern, she glared meaningfully at Jasper and Kat.
Jasper flashed a rueful smile at her before motioning with his hand toward the dais. Kat’s throat bobbed as he walked past her, taking one of the two unoccupied seats. He leaned over and patted the armrest of the remaining chair.
She sighed and followed him, her skin crawling as dozens of students stared at her with expressions that ranged between curiosity and anger. Ascending the carpeted steps, to the raised platform, Kat turned around and took her seat, eyes boring into her every movement.
They looked at her with the same curiosity she used when observing the effects of a newly unlocked gene or chemical supplement on a mouse. She recognized each and every one of them, having walked past them in the hallways of the college dozens of times without acknowledgement or comment. Now they tried to strip off her clothes and skin with their eyes, to dissect her, to break Kat down into her component parts and see what made her work.
She’d rather fight a floor guardian or a street samurai.
“Thank you.” Iris’ visible anger was gone, only tension in her shoulders hinting at her barely contained agitation as she smoothly addressed the parlor once again. “As I was saying before our unfortunate interruption, our outreach campaigns have been a smashing success. At the suggestion of the Worker Safety and Standard Committee, we’ve started contacting the managers of factories owned by GroCorp subsidiaries. A full ten percent of the individuals we’ve connected have written back to say that they will take our demands ‘under advisement’ and thanked us for our concern.”
The room erupted into polite clapping. Iris paused, letting the sound wash over her with an exultant grin on her face.
“Soon,” she continued once the noise died down, “we will be ready to move on to phase two. The dropping of anonymous pamphlets regarding the unsafe conditions in GroCorp-owned factories and farms. Once the employees are made aware of the danger their jobs pose to them, we can begin mutually supporting each other against the profit-driven vultures that are wrecking our society.”
Kat bit her lip, to try and stave off a frown. An occasional cheer punctuated the applause. A quick glance to Jasper revealed his rapt attention to Iris’ speech.
“Without further ado,” Iris stepped to the side of the podium, “I would like to call Comrade Alicia Gartt, Chairperson of the Direct Action Committee, to speak on the preparations for phase two.”
On the other side of the dais, the woman that had previously spoken out in support of Iris stood up and approached the podium.
“Thank you Co-chair Leander,” Alicia placed a hand on either side of the lectern as she began her speech. “I would like to point out that the Exploratory Committee on Class Consciousness has openings if anyone in general membership would like to apply, but I would like to motion for a commendation to the Committee for the great work they’ve been doing understaffed.”
“Seconded,” Iris called out from her seat, a fraction of a second later.
“By unanimous consent?” Kat almost jumped when Jasper responded within moments of Iris, his voice practiced as he repeated the formulaic words.
A chorus of ayes came from the crowd, followed a moment later by silence.
“Hearing no dissent, the motion is passed, you may continue, Alicia,” Jasper nodded to the woman.
“Thank you Jasper, Iris,” Alicia said pleasantly, inclining her head once to each of them. “As I was saying, the Exploratory Committee on Class Consciousness has been trying to brainstorm ideas on connecting with employees. Some of their most productive work has been a collaboration with the Committee on Outreach and Communication. Next meeting they will be circulating a memo detailing their proposal for educating the working class as to the manifest unfairness of their pay and working conditions. I am hopeful that we can move into breakout groups at that time and workshop possible topics for the anonymous pamphlets that we will be distributing to the employees.”
Kat dug her nails into her hands as the crowd clapped again. She was used to two-faced corporate speak, but it almost seemed like these people believed what they were saying. Somehow, they honestly believed that hereditary employees were simply content to work in miserable and dangerous conditions for literally negative pay because they ‘didn’t know any better.’
“We also have a preliminary design for the posters mentioned at the last meeting,” Alicia continued. “Proofs have been circulated, but we are hopeful that people will respond to our ‘fifty-hour work week now’ campaign. Iris and Jasper have put a general membership vote on the calendar for next week’s meeting, so if all of you could look over the proposal, with any luck we will be able to put the posters into production as early as the first of next month.
She paused, allowing another round of polite but meaningless applause wash over her as Kat stared on incredulously.
“Thank you,” Alicia nodded to the students sitting in the parlor, the back of her outfit shifting and bunching with the motion. “With that I yield the floor to Co-chair Haupt of the Security Committee.”
Jasper stood up and approached the podium, leaving Kat on her own as Alicia returned to her seat. He put his hands on either side of the stand, leaning forward slightly until he looked like a bird of prey, hunched and ready to strike.
“Thank you Co-Chair Leander and Committee Chair Gartt,” he began pleasantly. “As I’m sure you’re all aware, there have been concerns with disappearances from our organization. The Security Committee took the possibility of a breach seriously, and we’ve investigated the situation. So far we’ve found nothing to indicate that either of the missing individuals have actually been picked up by GroCorp or any of its subsidiaries. It is very possible that both individuals’ parents found out about their membership in this organization and are punishing them accordingly, a risk that we all were aware of when we agreed to join the Worker’s Liberation Vanguard.”
A quiet murmuring filled the parlor.
“What the Security Committee has discovered,” Jasper continued, “is that the disappearances aren’t isolated to members of the Vanguard. It looks like some major actors, perhaps even shareholders, are in the midst of a power play far above our level It’s very possible that we are in the middle of a purge.”
The whispers erupted into a furor. One or two of the students even sprang up from their seats, arms pumping excitedly.
“Unfortunately,” Jasper shrugged, “if there’s a purge, there isn’t much we can do but hunker down and try to figure out the causes. With any luck, the factions our various families are affiliated with will come out victorious.”
“In the meantime,” he turned back to Kat with a grin that made her blood turn cold, “I propose we have Miss Katherine Debs take the floor for a question and answer session. It isn’t often that we have a bona fide employee here, and I’m sure all of you have plenty of questions about the working and living conditions that our fellow men and women labor under.”
The polite applause hammered into Kat like a hailstorm as Jasper stepped to the side, offering the podium to her.
She stood up, trying to force her gritted teeth into something that could be mistaken for a smile. Jasper patted her on the back in a ‘comforting’ fashion on his way back to his chair. The entire time Kat ascended the single step to the raised lectern, she imagined the dozen ways she could murder the man before security could intervene.
“Hello, I guess?” Kat spoke hesitantly, microphones in the stand in front of her picking up her words and projecting them about the parlor.
The crowd stared at her expectantly, hungrily. Finally, one of them raised a hand.
The next half hour was an absolute blur. After a couple of minutes, she wasn’t even sure who was speaking. Each question was a delicate balance of casual condescension toward the workers that the group claimed to support combined with elements that demonstrated how phenomenally out of touch the speaker was.
Eventually, the session ended and Iris called an end to the meeting. At that point snacks and drinks were served, but Kat made a polite exit, exhausted after her ordeal.
As she was walking out to the car that Andrew had waiting, her e-mail pinged. A flick of her eyes later, Kat was frowning as an e-mail from Xander scrolled across her smartpanel.
She sat herself down in the car’s heated leather seat and fastened the seatbelt. Andrew opened the front door of the vehicle and buckled himself in before turning the ignition. He twisted his body around the driver’s seat and looked back at her.
“Back to the dorms, Miss Debs?” he asked politely.
“Actually,” Kat blinked, dismissing the e-mail. “Can you take me to the 1000 block of Galt Avenue? There’s something I need to do first.”
“This time of day that means the Nozick Tollway,” Andrew mused out loud, “but I have a GroCorp EZ Pass installed in this vehicle. Barring some sort of accident, I can have you there in fifteen minutes.”
“Thanks,” Kat replied, the car’s acceleration already pushing her back into the cushion of the seat.
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Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night