"—but if you've got flux-thinking too," Ari says, tapping the Scriber with her stylus and catching Justin's eyes, flat-on, "like a very socialized Beta would, a Beta or even an Alpha raised with CITs, they're still going to react hard off of stimuli that threaten their family. Right? Even if it's not in their tape."
Justin bites at the lower corner of his lip, thinking. Ari watches. She watches that a lot, when he does it. He doesn't know he does it. "Yes," he says, "but it'll still run up against logic-structures. Azi have tape-logic first, and if tape-logic says protect the base, even at the expense of their emotional ties – azi can think through flux like that."
"Emoryite," Grant calls, teasingly, from the other side of the room.
Justin says, "You'll never let me live that down, will you," and Ari feels good just hearing that, hearing them be easy with each other while she's here.
"What if the threat's not direct?" she tries.
"Mental-emotional. Like – oh, sex," she says, the idea very clear, one of the flashes she sometimes gets, "sexual threat from outsiders, like something out of Old Earth, they need sexual access to the immigrant population, like the Sabine women and the Roman Republic – that'd be a survival-of-the-base threat which would still throw up all kinds of flux – "
"I don't see how –"
"It's irrelevant, Ari, and that's all, let's go on." He's tense, all over. It makes her heartrate pick up, like she's spoiling for a fight.
It's not irrelevant. It's a good question. It shouldn't be one of those things she can't talk about because she's sixteen and he's Justin, she needs to know if she's thinking correctly –
It still hurts when he's cold with her, like that, even if she knows the reasons.
The apartment's empty tonight, aside from Florian and Catlin, and they're working, still, watching newsfeeds and talking softly to each other, being Security for her, being safe.
Ari folds into the corner of the couch, pulls her feet up under her, tilts her head back onto the armrest, and thinks about power. About Justin's face, the widening of his eyes, how his shoulders got stiff and everything about him closed up tight like a bottle, just from reacting off her. It's frustrating. She hadn't pushed that hard. Not on purpose.
It's frustrating because she likes it. Not that he's unhappy, when he's unhappy because he's fluxed off of something she did she feels awful, a little sick and a lot infuriated. But having him react is different, it's all endocrine reaction underneath how much she needs him to teach her, to work with her -- she's fluxed, on that. On having someone to talk to. On having Justin Warrick to talk to, and isn't that what her predecessor was after in the first place?
Having Justin Warrick. To talk to, amongst other things.
That tape's locked in her file cabinet. Her predecessor and her Florian and Catlin, and Justin, that Ari taking Justin apart and knowing exactly what she was doing.
Ari doesn't need to watch the tape again. She can remember it, with a sexual frission that she doesn't trust. It's sharp, like tape-flashes. The spread of that Florian's hands, wider and older than her Florian's, dark against the shock-white and flush of Justin's hip.
She wonders if Justin has tape-flashes. He was on kat. In the vodka-and-orange, because her predecessor was running without safeguards, without tape, without anything like a clinical situation.
The way she's remembering is spooky. She's not the right shape yet – her predecessor has another inch of height and a settled sharpness in all her joints, narrow in the angles where her knees meet her thighs, her hipbones and wrists thicker and closer to the surface – but she's reached for people like that Ari reached for Justin. Measured. Knowing. Wanting and using what she wanted to Work someone. When she remembers the tape the conflation's really obvious. She remembers – well, she imagines remembering what it feels like to be Ari, to put her arm around Justin's shoulders, her fingers trailing low on the underside of his ribs, against his belly.
To say, like that, Family's such a liability, sweet.
Which was part of the intervention. Saying that, with sex. For Justin, to free him up from some of what her predecessor thought had trapped Jordan. Limited him. And she'd curled around Justin and pushed him until he knuckled under and drugged him and set that up in his head, family's such a liability and truth lies at the interface of extremes and locked it in with pain and pleasure and knowing he didn't have any way out except through her.
It was an intervention, she can't forget that. Not just sex, politics. It was all politics, everything her predecessor did.
Did she enjoy it? Ari wonders. And then, yes, she did, because I want it. But I don't know if I want the power or the sex.
She unfolds, stands up, pressing her fingers to her temples. Thinks about calling for Florian and then pours herself a drink instead. Can I have a moral disagreement with myself?
It's just her and Grant, this morning. Ari's not sure if that's because Justin is still fluxed off of her and being avoidant or because he's working, and asking Grant is – not possible. Not when she remembers the first conversation she and Justin had, when she'd been stupid and clumsy and hadn't known that asking him to go to bed with her was the absolute worst thing to ask -- Grant had taken her down for that, Got her good. With just being azi, and telling her that he wouldn't say no.
Couldn't say no. Because azi can't, really.
They're working on her model world, pushing at the semantic drift problem, integrating it down through the third generation. "—what if I shift defend to preserve?" she asks.
Grant leans over her shoulder. He's not easy around her, never careless, but he gets into her space sometimes. When they're really focused. Justin never does. "From the start?"
"Yes. Not defend the base but preserve the base. Give the Alpha that to work with instead."
He makes a noise that's almost a laugh. "Your hypothetical religion just got a lot more plausible, that's what. To begin with. But he's still military, he's an AJ."
"Military doesn't mean inflexible."
Ari nods. "Conservative helps with 'preserve'. Cuts down the drift."
"Yes, but –" He shifts, taps the Scriber screen, adjusts the arc of one of her graphs. "They're going to miss having tape. They'll think about it all the time. With 'preserve'."
Sometimes Ari almost forgets that Grant is azi, until he says things like that, out of left field but all logic underneath. Tape's dependable, tape's eternal, an azi knows that, down in the deep-sets where nothing can touch except more tape. Or a Super who knows that azi's tape structure.
"Because it stays the same?" she asks. To make sure she knows.
"Because it's the only thing that stays the same."
Grant is beautiful. Grant is azi, like Florian, like Catlin, so wanting Grant isn't politics it's just power, except that Grant isn't hers, he's Justin's. And everything is politics. Everything.
"Nothing stays the same for a CIT," she says. "No matter how much we fix on 'preserve'."
"And we're looking at the third generation here," says Grant.. "They don't have tape. They just want it. And for everything to stay the same."
Ari winces. "Theocratic police state."
"Well. You've got a fix for the linguistic drift problem." It's so dry she almost misses that he's making a joke.
She still gets all warm and happy when he thinks she's done something well. Even if it's not a good fix, it's a fix, and she found it. She wants Grant to think she's right. Same as she wants Justin to.
"Bad fix," she says. "But I can temper it." She touches the graph again, shifts the values, considers. "It's only a problem when it's all CITs. Third-generation. So there has to be an intervening – " worm, she thinks, "idea. Before then."
"Possible. A diversionary fix. Something outward-looking –"
"Like an intervention."
He looks at her, evenly. Calmly. Like he's waiting to see how she'll jump.
Is she responsible for Justin? On paper she is. He's in her wing, she brought him in when she made him agree to be her teacher. She controls his salary, his and Grant's. Grant's, through his, because Justin's his Super.
Justin Warrick is Justin Warrick PR, though, not Grant ALX-972. CIT, not azi. It changes responsible. Which is linguistic drift again, and kind of funny, in an uncomfortable way.
Ari burrows deeper into the pillows. She's been trying to sleep. It's not going to work. She can't stop thinking long enough to, and she isn't tired enough to just go out, flat, everything silent because she's run herself empty.
If what her predecessor did to Justin was an intervention it wasn't finished, he wouldn't still be fluxed on her if it had been. Or not the same way. Fixed on her, maybe. Instead.
Even Ari's not sure whether she means her or her predecessor.
She slams her hand down next to her head on the mattress. It doesn't do a thing for the anger.
She'd like it if Justin was fixed on her.
She could get out the tape and just – look at it. Analyze it. Like an exercise. She needs to know, doesn't she? If she's responsible for Justin. If her predecessor made her responsible because she didn't finish and Ari's supposed to pick up all of that other Ari's research, isn't she?
She can see it, in the dark on the inside of her eyelids. The tape running above them, blurred into the icy white of Catlin's inner thighs, the curve of Florian's wrist as he spreads his fingers wider, her hands on Justin's face, turning it to look at her, his eyes dilated, shock-wide, the red flesh inside his mouth just visible as he says, "Do you understand now? There's nothing more than this. This is as good as it gets –"
No. She said that. Backwards. Inverted.
She sits up, drags her knees to her chest, shudderingly cold. Adrenaline, arousal. She's the age he was, then. Isn't she. With a kid's face and a voice that hasn't quite settled yet.
That's not how she wants to think of that tape, it's not for her, not some kind of entertainment. And she doesn't want that, anyway. Anyone to tell her that, to have that much power over her. To have as little control as Justin had, to need to bargain like he'd tried to bargain, to be Worked over so well –
Except it'd be nice.
If someone could. Ari's pretty sure no one can do that to her, anymore.
She's responsible instead.
Justin's back in the office. That helps. Ari's got too much to do to be worrying about where he is and when he's going to come back. She's nervous anyway. Everything Catlin's told her about the Paxers, the connections between Jordan Warrick and the Abolitionists, all of that buzzing under the work they're doing.
It's not that she can't handle holding onto it and the work. She can handle it fine. She's never not thinking about the macro-scale. That's how she is. She can think about politics and take apart an Alpha set with Justin at the same time and not mention a thing to him about his father because Catlin's right, she can't do that.
They're just working. It's nice. She's being careful, being null-state with him, nothing personal, just thinking and letting him help her focus down.
Except he's never in null-state with her. That's not her fault but it is her problem.
"Justin," she says, knowing he's terrified, knowing he's fluxed, knowing he should be both of these things – terrified for Grant, and fluxed on being in her livingroom, alone with her, with her suggesting he take kat and let her probe him. "Justin, thank you for coming. I know – I know how you feel about this place. But it's the only place – the only one I'm absolutely sure there's no monitoring but mine."
She's going to have to finish it, now. At least she can tell him the truth about what she's doing, and why.
And maybe she can make some of it go right. Like it should have. Not for her, for him.