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just a pawn, ready to advance

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It's not just a test, it's the test, and it's how Freddie knows he's nearly in.

Clarence had told him to take it slowly, carefully. Don't let them think you haven't always been there. Haven't always been in the background, indispensable. Target Hector first, be everything that he cannot. Have the foresight to see the mistakes he's making and fix them. The rest will soon pay attention, and then you will have the opportunity to infiltrate.

And it's worked. He'd received the summons at his - well, it's not really a flat. No one's got those anymore, except the Party. Freddie's got a bedsit he shares with Isaac down in Hoxton, telescreen and hot plate and electricity the only amenities to speak of. He'd nearly had a coronary the first time he'd dropped Hector off in Belgravia and seen the stately mansion, the wrought iron gates and lush gardens.

He supposes that's what one gets when one's father in law is head of Miniplenty.

Freddie knows his flaws include impatience and ambition. Clarence would call them "tragic flaws", but Clarence is dead and no longer around to chide. And he's going to add pride to the list, because he is feeling rather satisfied, as he makes his way to the lifts in Minitrue headquarters. He's heading for a private meeting with Mr. Brown himself, with an order to bring the "documents". It means Minitrue - because Mr. Brown is Minitrue - is ready to offer him the position. Ready to test his mettle once more, and if he passes, name him personal assistant to Hector Madden.

("Bagman", some would call it. Those people would be too thick to see the opportunities the position affords. Unfiltered access to one of the Party's fastest-rising stars, an advisor to Mr. Brown, a man with influence over what the public is told and how it's disseminated to them. Access to the truth.)

He exits the lift and is escorted by the guards down a long corridor. It's not the way to Mr. Brown's office, not even on the correct floor, and he follows in slight confusion. Clarence had warned him that the test was essentially the same for each recruit: meet with Mr. Brown, bring all the forbidden books or newspapers or items that you'd kept against the Party's wishes, and make the choice to either keep them, or burn them. But it's always done in Mr. Brown's office, where the cameras could be controlled.

He grips his copy of Kaddish a little more tightly, shifts the copies of De Profundis and The Soul of Man Under Socialism into better order, runs his fingers over the lettering on the cover of Aline and Valcoeur. They're hardly the extent of his collection, but they're taboo enough to be acceptable offerings. If Mr. Brown and his like don't know he's got further contraband, then they don't deserve his honesty in bringing his favorites.

Freddie finds himself lead into a small room. Nothing special about it - he can tell it begun its life as a conference room, but it's been turned into an interrogation room. There's no outward clues, of course, but there's any number of places to hide cameras, any number of places on the plain steel table to chain a prisoner, the chairs designed to keep one alert and uncomfortable. The taller of the two guards motions for him to sit down, and he does. No sense standing around when he doesn't know how long he'll be here.

His guards withdraw, boot heels ringing out on the tiled floor. Freddie amuses himself by contemplating precisely how much of his allotment he'd have to save to buy a pair, then remembering that if he passes, he'll be able to buy them straight off. Hector probably wouldn't stand for his assistant looking like a prole, even if Freddie actually is one.

It's an interminable amount of time before one of the guards comes back, handing him a plain paper file and collecting his contraband.

"I've been ordered to bring these to Mr. Brown. He's instructed you to familiarize yourself with that file."

Freddie nods, sliding it closer to him. "What then?"

The guard blinks in surprise. Apparently he doesn't get questioned often.

"Mr. Brown will be to see you. Read the file."

Boot heels on the tile floor again, and Freddie gingerly opens the file. It's stamped in typical Newspeak, Unperson #1938, 3PUG Status. Freddie's never heard of 3PUG - most criminals are 2PUG, even SUD types only ever receieve 2PUG status - and he can feel his breathing stop as his eyes skitter over the photograph on the left cover, the personal information.

Lix Storm.

This is Lix fucking Storm's file, and he can't quite believe it. She's SUD's golden girl, their messiah. Her face and her camera have become symbols for the resistance, her name coopted into SUD itself - Sturm und Drang, Storm and Drive. Proles rising up, crushing the oppressors, and the movement had caught on despite the Party's best efforts. But SUD had gone underground when Lix was captured, forced through reeducation and Room 101.

He reads through the thing twice, commits most of it to memory. Her family had been Outer Party, and she'd been allowed to travel to Eastasia and Eurasia after completing school. She hadn't gone NeoBolshevik - he'd know, for one - but she had come back full of idealism and a whole slew of illegal photographs that she'd published against the Party's wishes. Preached revenge and retaliation, advocated the resurrection of terrorist tactics to show strength.

He remembers being a teenager in the group home, huddled under a ratty blanket and reading SUD propaganda, before he'd ever met Clarence and gone sleeper for him. Lix had been something of an idol, and he traces fingers over two of the photos. The first is a surveillance shot taken on the day she was captured, camera slung around her neck, hair blowing in the wind through Party Square as she spoke to the crowd. The second is her reeducation cell, head bowed, hands curled into fists by her sides. It had been on every front page for weeks; the triumph of the Party over the SUD.

The door to the room scrapes open again, and Freddie receives another shock. The guards are escorting a woman that cannot be anyone but Lix Storm into the room. There are no chains, no handcuffs, not a single outward signifier that she is a prisoner, and she calmly sits in the chair opposite him, waving a hand toward the guards in dismissal.

"Hello Freddie," she says, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of her trousers. He hasn't had one in years, they're strictly rationed, and he goes lightheaded at the smell of tobacco. He's even more lightheaded that he's sitting here, talking to a living legend, and he just gapes at her like an idiot. "Smoke?"

His hand shakes as he takes the cigarette from her, lights it with the pack of matches she slides across the table.

"You're alive," he says dimly.

"Of course I am," she says, blowing out a cloud of smoke and fixing him with those startling sea-blue eyes. "The Party wouldn't dare kill me outright, and if there were somehow an accident, they'd have broadcast it twenty-four hours a day for a year straight. Celebrate their triumph properly. They'd said you were smarter than this."

"Give me a moment," he snaps, and she laughs, low and smoky. "You do remember I was unprepared to meet the great Lix Storm, considering you're thought long-dead?"

"You have my file. The latest photograph is dated yesterday."

"There's a difference between a file and the real thing. Files can be falsified - I should know. I do it every day."

She shrugs. "Yes, I suppose you'd know, then. That hasn't been tampered with, incidentally. Well, except for a judicious editing of my personal life - they don't think it relevent."

He studies her, and she lets him. She must be used to scrutiny, used to being an object for people to look at. She's aged, obviously, but not much. Her hair is still black, curls grown long and waved down to her shoulders, and if she is no longer allowed the trademark red lipstick, there are few lines marring her beauty. Not that she ever considered herself beautiful, he suspects.

"Why are you here?" he asks, instead of other, less intelligent questions. Now is not the time to lose himself in idolatry.

"Why are you?" she returns. "He wouldn't bring you here unless he was sure you were worthy. So what is it - will you be PropDep, one of his three architects of truth? Selecting which of the many truths the proles will be allowed to learn. You're very pretty, darling, but I'm not sure you quite have the face for TeleDep."

And Clarence never warned him about any of this. This hasn't been in his training. The entire place is bugged, and here is Lix Storm, talking about how Minitrue works. As if she hasn't been tortured for doing the same; there may not be any marks, but he knows sleep deprivation, reddened eyes, the glaze of reeducation when he sees it.

Why would she - oh. Of course. The test isn't just loyalty, it's quid pro quo. How much will you reveal of yourself to Minitrue?

"PropDep. And you're part of the test, aren't you?"

She flicks ash onto the floor. "I always have been. He's good at that, using me the way he needs to. Some people need to see me bleeding, broken. The defeated figure of a dead revolution. Others need to see me raving, positively mad. Proof of Minilove's victory over even the strongest mind. You, though. He knows you inside out. He knows why you've slogged along for years in RecDep and he knows your reverence for me. So, when faced with a living, breathing Lix Storm, given the truth of what happened to me, what will you do? That's what he wants to know."

"You seem to know him pretty well. Mr. Brown."

She laughs again, but this time it's genuine amusement. She takes another drag of her cigarette, and he remembers the one in his hand, burning down to a stub between his fingers. He drops it on the floor and stamps it out, ignoring the smirk on her lips.

"I like you. I didn't expect to." She blows the smoke out, cocks her head at him. "I haven't before. The men he picks for the Ministry are obedient. Dull. I haven't seen one like you in years."

Freddie nods at the compliment, but taps his fingers atop her file. "You still haven't answered my question."

"It wasn't phrased as one."

"I'll rephrase, then. How well do you know Mr. Brown?"

And there's a startling moment - just a moment - of vulnerability. As if she hadn't truly meant to consider his question. As if she doesn't want to. But it's soon masked by a chilly detachment, a veil of indifference.

"I've known him for nineteen years. I'm probably the only one alive who truly does know him." Her eyes refocus on his, and he could stagger under the weight. "Is that what you want to know? What he's really like - the man, not the office? Do you think that proves your loyalty and usefulness to him?"

"Anyone else would be asking about you. And I'm curious, don't get me wrong. I want to question you for hours and then write a dispatch about my findings to send to the nearest chapter of SUD. See what happens."

She coughs, looks over at the far wall. "Don't be absurd, you'd be taken for reeducation immediately."

Ah. That's where at least one of the cameras is, then. She's dropping hints, as much as she's able. Seemingly careless waves of her hand also point out the one in the light switch and what's probably double-sided glass.

"You're worried about reeducation, but you're not worried about the consequences of telling me your role in - whatever this is?"

"I've been to reeducation, you ridiculous boy." she says, putting the cigarette out on the steel of the table. "They let me say whatever I like in here, they always do. But if you're not careful, they'll decide your curiosity could be put to more harm than good."

That silences him, and he ignores the smug tilt to her mouth. He supposes she doesn't get to see very many people, and one thing they'd always said about her was that she possessed a wicked sense of humor. There's no telling how that will manifest after reeducation. There's no telling what she's like, after reeducation.

He's beginning to wonder who it is he's actually been talking to.

"You're getting it, aren't you?" she says, crossing her legs in her chair as if it's a throne. "The test."

It's not what he'll do. It's what he'll think, which truth he believes.

The door opens, and Mr. Brown steps into the room. Freddie has been in the man's presence before, of course he has, but every time, he can't help but freeze, as if he's a rabbit before a wolf. The man just has that eerie calm, that iron discipline, that no human ought to possess. His eyes are an icy blue behind his glasses, suit cut perfectly and severely to his thin body. At first, he doesn't even seem to notice Freddie, eyes only for Lix in her plain white shirt and trousers.

"Randall," she says lazily, and Freddie's heart comes to a complete stop.

Is that his name?

"You always give the game away too soon, you know," he responds, resting a gentle hand on her shoulder. She looks up at him, nose wrinkling in fond amusement. "Just let him dig himself as deep as he can, you don't have to do much more."

Freddie can't look away from them, at the intimacy between them. He thinks he might be sick, might run out of the room, might try to light the entire place on fire because if this is what Lix Storm has become, he doesn't want to face any of it. And his mind is racing back nineteen years, back to when Lix had first lit up the country with her photos and her rhetoric: there had been a man, then, a skinny man with too-big glasses and forgettable clothing, went everywhere with her. He'd disappeared when she was arrested, when Mr. Brown's identity as the head of Minitrue had been publicized.

"Were - were you ever - was it ever true? Any of it?"

Lix sighs, gets to her feet. "Of course it was. I am the test. I believed in Sturm und Drang, and I was taken by the Thought Police for it. I went through reeducation and I've been to 101 and back. What you - any of you, any of the too-smart boys he brings here - do with that information is what determines if you're a danger."

Mr. Brown takes the seat she's vacated, posture military and rigid even as he sits. He closes Lix's file, and places Freddie's books in its place.

"This is the choice you were warned about. Yes, we know who you work for - Clarence Fendley was hardly unknown to us. The Brightstone program was promising, we almost let him get away with it. But he took it much too far. LeRay, Darrell and Kish were easy to reeducate; it's a simple matter of brain chemistry, reworking what Fendley had already done. Ruth Elms was - regrettable."

Ruth. Beautiful, fragile Ruth. She was supposed to be safe, Clarence had promised she'd be safe, but they'd gotten to her. She'd gone out messy, slitting her wrists before they could drag her off to reeducation, Freddie breaking into her flat to find her in a pool of blood.

"And then you," Lix says, reaching into Mr. Brown's suit pocket to nick a beautiful silver lighter. She flicks it open and lights another cigarette, handing the lighter back absently. He kisses her knuckles as he takes it. "Then you, Freddie Lyon. You showed up in RecDep, appearing perfectly ordinary and competent when anyone with a brain in their heads could tell you wanted more. Your handling of Mr. Madden's unfortunate run-in with that prostitute was masterful."

"What will you do with me?" he asks, and they exchange an indecipherable look. "Reeducation?"

"Is that your choice?" Lix responds.

"What else is there?"

Mr. Brown steeples his fingers, taps his fingers together three times. "You didn't let us finish. You could be an asset, that's why you're still alive. Do what you came here to do, serve as Mr. Madden's personal assistant, but report to us instead of Miss Rowley. Reeducation is not negotiable in that case, I will not have a potential triple agent in my organization. Or vaporization, it is entirely your choice."

And the choice is simple: betray Bel, betray himself, or die.

Betray Bel and himself and die.

It's not a choice at all. It's doublethink, because to live and betray is not living. To die and retain honor cannot be reconciled.

"It's easier than you think," Lix says, in a soft voice. She leans against the double-glass, looks at him in the reflection, and he can hear the howling echo of explosions in her voice. "Choosing life. There's a power in that kind of choice. A way to change yourself without letting anyone else do it for you. A way to control what people think about you. I'd have been rubbish as a leader, but as a living martyr? I control the narrative."

He can't look at her. Won't. Stares blankly at the wall and the question comes out before he can stop it. Not that it matters any longer - he has nothing left to hide.

"And that's enough? Control? Power? Is that what you prize above all else - above freedom and self-reliance and all of the things you once screamed at the top of your lungs in Trafalgar Square?"

"Yes. Because freedom isn't slavery, it's a falsehood. It's what we feed the proles to keep this house of cards from crumbling. Self-reliance gets us nothing but a nation of selfish individuals, and I wasn't self-reliant then. I was beholden to the idea that hundreds of people held me to, not myself. I never wanted to be the story."

"And you were able to change that," Mr. Brown murmurs. "With my help. I could do the same for you, Freddie."

Freddie looks at her, at them, and he sees it. The edges they hold, hooked into each other jagged and patched-together. Lix all coiled-energy and spark and Mr. Brown all glacial patience and stoicism. The nation thinks Minitrue is one man, but it isn't - it's one man and one woman, running a long con.

"And have you blindfold me, plug my ears up, and sit me in a cold room for as long as it takes me to crack? That's my deepest fear, as I'm sure you're aware."

Mr. Brown flicks his gaze over at Freddie, above the rims of his glasses. Very apropos, Freddie thinks frantically, Randall, the old Germanic for "shield rim" or "edge". Mr. Brown is a man of edges.

"Actually, it's all of that, plus simply disappearing. Turning up in the Thames one day, body floating as a warning to the rest of the populace. I'm afraid I can't rule that out of the question."

Freddie takes a deep breath, his last, he thinks, as a pawn.

"Then I choose vaporization. Because I'll go the same way Ruth did if you try to reprogram me. Clarence made sure of it." Then, to the woman that isn't Lix Storm anymore. "That's my choice. I don't mind being the story. You'll make good use of me, I imagine."

Mr. Brown is inscrutable as ever, but Lix rounds the table to stop beside him. She looks down at him, Madonna-serene, and cups his cheek with her hand.

"That we will, beautiful boy. That we will."