After the sparring/therapy/whatever that was, Abby sat me down in the conference room where I’d just met with Markus. I’d been dreading this debrief, because I was pretty sure I’d done everything wrong. For example, the op ended with me almost getting stabbed to death.
In her previous body, Abby gave off this sense of absolute stillness. Now she was a bit more active. Her pale green eyes never seemed to stay on any particular thing for too long, and her face quirked with slight emotions as she thought. Her posture was blade-perfect as ever. The features of her face were informed by racial characteristics I had no context for, but they’d probably come from the area of Veles that corresponded to the Middle East on Earth. Brown skin, dark hair that she kept short. The guys were growing theirs out, along with their beards, but Abby followed an old code. Give the opponent nothing to use as leverage in a fight.
Give your subordinates nothing to use in a debriefing, either, I guess. She was waiting for me to start or something.
“So,” I said eloquently.
“So,” she echoed affectionately. “You seem tense.”
“Uh, I’m not,” I said.
“Shoulders,” she said, nodding to them. “Fingers clasped. Jaw clenched. You’re frowning.”
I frowned harder, realized I was frowning, and tried to wipe my facial expression. I straightened my posture too, something more formal like hers.
“Better,” said the commander. “But you’re still tense, and the effort you’re putting in is making it more obvious. Will you entertain a critique?”
“I don’t have a choice,” I said.
“Of course you do,” said Abby, leaning back into a more relaxed posture. “You can leave. You can talk over me. You can pretend to listen while arguing internally. You can tune me out and woolgather.”
“None of those are the mature thing to do,” I said. “This is a pressure tactic.”
“Good,” said Abby. “You don’t want to be seen as immature, so I can use that to push you in certain directions. Watch out for that. Tell me, do you think you did a good job on this op?”
My stomach dropped as the sudden change of topic caught me off guard. I grimaced, feeling my pulse start to race. My chest muscles were clenching, too.
“No,” I said in a small voice.
“You’re wrong,” said Abby. “Your mission objective was to locate and build rapport with a sponsor. Roel stood up for you during the ball because you made a connection with her. And you did it in the span of a single conversation.”
“Not on purpose,” I said. “And I flubbed everything else. You all had to cover for me.”
Abby nodded. “That’s exactly why you have a team, Lilith. But I need you to recognize what you did correctly so you can build on it for the next time. Don’t focus on your mistakes. Contact with an alien culture involves too many variables to expect perfection, particularly from a trainee.”
“I’m full-status,” I said, crossing my arms and looking away. “Besides, Val doesn’t seem to think so.”
“Watch that body language,” said Abby. “Try again.”
I blinked, reassessed how I was sitting. “How was I supposed to say that?”
“That depends,” said Abby, her eyes crinkling softly. “What were you trying to achieve?”
“Complaining, I guess,” I said. I was awkwardly aware of my body’s positioning and nothing I could think of made it seem more natural.
“To regulate your emotions, or to triangulate me against him?”
“What? No! I’m not trying to be toxic or anything,” I said quickly.
“Try it,” Abby said impassively.
I blinked at her. No way this was good for team morale.
“Val’s been harassing me about every little mistake,” I tried.
“You didn’t mean it that time,” said Abby.
“It’s hard to complain when you’re ordering me to do it,” I said. “Feels weird. You shouldn’t want this in the first place, it would stress the team dynamic.”
“I’ve let Val harass you, haven’t I? Don’t just complain. Be tactical. What do you need to present to turn me against him?”
“Not a complaint,” I said slowly. “That’s whiny and you won’t respect it.”
Abby inclined her head, as if to say go on.
“I feel like Val’s expectations are unreasonable?” I tried. “Is that still a complaint?”
Abby raised an eyebrow. I was on my own for this, I guess. That probably meant the answer to my question was a yes.
“How about, you say that you don’t have these expectations, but you let Val harass me all the time?”
“Would you ask a mark what will persuade them?” Abby said.
“How can you say that when you let Val nitpick everything I do?” I said, anger coming through in my voice. It wasn’t faked.
Abby smiled at me. “Much better. But are you attacking me or Val? I believe the advice was ‘go for the throat.’”
I opened my mouth, closed it. “You two go back longer than I’ve been alive. What’s my angle?”
“What do I care about?” Abby asked patiently, pale green eyes not leaving my face.
“Team performance,” I said immediately. Okay, be mature, be professional. “Commander, you say no one expects perfection from me, but Val constantly points out my mistakes. It’s not constructive.”
A look of obvious satisfaction spread across the commander’s face. “That was excellent self-advocacy, Lilith. You invoked my duties without directly accusing me of neglect, which would create cognitive dissonance under normal circumstances.”
“It took me like six tries to get it right,” I sighed, putting my head in my hands. “And you’re still not going to stop him. I can tell.”
“Val is perhaps too traditional,” said Abby. “On Veles, such probing attacks are considered friendly reminders to secure an exploitable weakness. In theory, you learn to deal with Val so that you’re equipped to deal with Lirian.”
“Why can’t he just explain this stuff?” I said.
“Spelling it out like that would be insulting,” said Abby. “It means he thinks you can’t figure it out for yourself.”
“I didn’t.” I crossed my arms again.
“You would have, eventually,” said Abby. “However, the custom is adaptive because it encourages self-directed development, and you don’t trust yourself enough to commit to that. So we’ll target your confidence first. Tell me what you did right with Roel and why.”
My final appointment before I went back into the field was meditation practice with Val, who was back from securing the Vitares estate. There was no sign of Lirian; the girls were fine for now. I, apparently, was not fine, so I was sitting cross-legged with Val in the exercise room. He’d used the translation engines to grow his hair out all the way, along with a longish beard. Both the beard and his mane were braided, making him look kind of like an ancient Viking, but with beads in his hair appropriate to a Therian of middling social class.
“I gotta ask,” I said. “Who braided your hair?”
“The braids were translated,” he said. “I added the beads afterward.”
“Okay, but you got the image from somewhere,” I pressed.
He pursed his lips. “Markus and I made this recording about fifteen years ago.”
“So you got to spend some quality time with Markus while he played with your hair?”
“You’re being a child,” he said. Abby’s advice still fresh in my head, I smirked at him. Admit no weakness, convince both of us that I had come out on top. The set of his lips deepened, and I flicked my head to the side—the little Velean “gotcha” gesture.
“Almost,” he said, face resetting to neutrality. “Commendable, however. Now, are you ready?”
I made a little frustrated sigh, and the gleam in his eye was a little too smug just to be a “constructive” attack. I tried to center myself. “I guess.”
“In order to combat Lirian’s cloak, you’ll be learning absence meditation. Absence meditation is similar to what you do with your own cloak,” said Val, closing his eyes, dexterous fingers steepled in his lap. “The fact that you are learning how to handle the cloak at the same time will make parts of this process easier, and the rest more difficult. Expect to fail often at the beginning. But practice will build competence. The goal is to completely remove your soul from your awareness. Do you have an idea as to how that might be achieved?”
“Hold on,” I said. “I thought people need presence meditations because they already don’t notice their soul. How is absence meditation different from baseline?”
“Humans tend not to possess conscious awareness of their soul,” Val corrected me. "It is, after all, the seat of their consciousness. But bracketing your unconscious awareness requires intentionality. For an absence meditation, you must first direct full attention to your consciousness, then banish it more completely than mere disregard can accomplish. This will allow you to function on sensory information alone, acting only as your body, which will render you immune to etheric trickery. But not, I should be clear, to etheric attack. A pit trap is less easily avoided in the dark.”
“So, I have no idea how to do any of that,” I said.
Val nodded. “It’s good to be cautious of your limits when dealing with the soul.”
I glared at him suspiciously. He didn’t open his eyes, but gave a little shake of the head. It’s serious time, he seemed to be saying. Whatever, Val.
After a pause, he spoke again. “Your consciousness is an illusion. Start there.”
“Uh, no it’s not,” I said. “We can measure that shit.”
“What is measured is just a substrate,” said Val. “It is the stuff of you, but it is not you. Think on the difference.”
“So what, I’m only imagining I exist?” I said. “That’s like philosophy 101, man. I think, therefore I am.”
He opened his eyes, fixed me with an empty look. “Is it you who does the thinking?” he asked. “If not, then what? Find it. Tease it apart.”
His eyes closed again with a kind of finality that communicated that he wouldn’t be answering more questions.
Okay. Find the thing that wasn’t me that was thinking my thoughts. Well that was super fucking useful. I was the one thinking my thoughts, right? It was really easy to find myself. I was just—here. And my thoughts were here too. Case closed, I guess.
Val was probably going to be annoying if I didn’t give it an honest try, though. He was way too serious to do something like troll me over the right way to do this meditation. So there was probably something to it, at least. I closed my eyes and let myself relax. My soul was there, almost glowing in my awareness. My cloak was there too. I could feel the activation trigger, almost tense under an etheric switch I just had to grip. I mean, hey, Val said it was similar, right? Maybe I could cheat. I started to slowly toggle the power—
“The cloak,” said Val, “is an etheric effect, if you recall. I can feel you turning it on.”
“I thought absence meditations made you blind to those effects,” I accused him.
“I am performing both absence and presence meditation simultaneously,” he said.
“Regretfully, you have no way of confirming that at this stage of mastery. Back to work. No cloak.”
I shoved it off with ill grace and submerged myself in my soul again. There had to be some trick to this. What wasn’t me that I could focus on? Because, like, again, me was right there, and that’s where all the thoughts were coming from. It wasn’t an illusion, which I could tell because I was experiencing it. Maybe it was like a meta thing? Like maybe the thing experiencing my experience of myself was somehow different than the thing experiencing that thing? Fuck, I didn’t even have words for these half-baked ideas, how was I going to organize them?
I decided to focus on the frustration to make it go away. That was something you could do in presence meditation. You focus on your soul, contextualize the emotion in the greater integrated picture, and let it run its course. The emotion is not my experience, it merely colors it. Which… I guessed meant that it’s not identical to my experience, logically speaking. Maybe that was a good place to start. The frustration was not me, it was just acting on me. But it was also part of me. Part of and yet distinct. Ugh. I was getting nowhere with this.
A frustrated huff escaped my nostrils. Val didn’t respond.
My thoughts cycled uselessly for some time.
“It’s been fifteen minutes,” said Val. “According to the research performed on this exercise, giving you time to explore on your own will increase your level of skill acquisition. Did you give up?”
“No,” I said, trying not to sound defensive.
“Good job,” Val said blandly. “The recommended next step is to induce cognitive dissonance. This will be unpleasant, but effective. All selves have cracks which can be used to get at their inner workings. Do you consent?”
Don’t show weakness to Val. Be confident. Be mature. “Sure,” I said, outwardly unconcerned.
“Your relationship with Roel is a lie,” he said.
“Nice try,” I said, resisting the temptation to open my eyes.
“Don’t fight stupid battles. Focus on the meditation,” he said. “Examine the feelings that arise. Articulate them to yourself.”
“I do like her! It’s not a fucking lie,” I protested.
“To yourself,” he repeated firmly. “Recall that the life-debt that she supposedly owes you was manufactured. The honor bestowed upon Markus is a lie—his wound was entirely for show, and easily healed once it was convenient to do so.”
I hated this. I clenched my fists. I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t. I’d consented. I wasn’t about to go back on that and prove him right about being weak.
“Cades threw that race over nothing,” Val continued dispassionately. “You have acted as their friend, but you are taking advantage of them. They’re worried about your safety right now, but you were never in ultimate danger, and you will never tell them.”
I really did care about them. I swore that to myself. But nothing Val said was factually untrue.
“Is this hypocrisy the work of a unified self?” asked Val.
“People are complicated,” I ground out between my teeth.
Val was relentless. “Complexity is the mark of a composite entity. Now find the seams in that entity.”
Stop resisting. Fall forward. I wrenched my attention away from the pain and pointed it at the part of myself that wanted to give Roel a giant hug whenever I saw her. And at the part of myself that was impressed with Markus for cheating so well. They’d fought for him, not knowing we were here to destroy the entire institution. And I’d let that happen. I was a horrible person.
But if I didn’t do this, one day they’d be eaten.
My conviction and my attachment strained at each other for a long, painful moment.
I caught myself turning on the cloak and stopped, redirected to the clash of self-concepts. Which one was me?
Both, the answer came. Neither. They were distinct from me, so they were not me.
“Your body language tells me you’re making progress. What about the thing observing all of this?” asked Val. “Is that you?”
Yes, it was, except—that wasn’t where I was located, was it?
“No,” I realized. “It’s just the observer.”
“What do you feel?”
Fear. Grief. Confusion. Triumph. Tension. Anger. Elation. Freedom. Guilt. Exhaustion.
“I’m sitting,” I said.
“Correct,” said Val, and I knew I’d won.