Rain slashes down from the grey December sky. A figure on a bicycle pedals against the wind, her bright yellow waterproof catching the light of the passing cars. It’s only half-four, but it’s already dark and halos of light surround her bike lights.
Signalling, Hannah Gladson turns down the gravel driveway that leads up to her house. She fumbles for her keys with wet and cold fingers, and manages to get the door open, wheeling her bike away. Blowing on her hands, she strips off her waterproof and turns the heating up in the dark, cold house.
No one is home. As usual. Her parents won’t be back until seven at the earliest.
Heading up to her room, she gets changed from her school uniform into something more comfortable. Safely swaddled in loose jogging bottoms and an oversized sweatshirt, she sighs and reasons herself into not just flopping down in front of the computer and compulsively checking her reviews.
She has homework to do. Two lots of it, in fact. She has regular English and maths, and then after that she has her other homework. So she’ll do her regular homework first, before her scheduled contact time with Mr Green, and that means that after that’s over, she’ll have the whole evening free and she can work on her writing.
Yes. That makes sense. But the mental discipline training often does. It’s freaky. She can just power through writer’s block now. You know how people tell you that the only way to get past writer’s block is to force yourself to write, but it doesn’t always work so well? Now it does.
Sometimes this worries her. Not much, but… it’s a bit disquieting. It doesn’t… it doesn’t feel like she’s doing anything special. But she can remember not being able to do it. So… was that talent there all along and it took the fairly-simple training to bring it out?
It’s funny being a Technocrat. Or, rather, as she prefers, a Unionist. Technocrat still sounds too pejorative to her. She doesn’t feel very different. She’s still her. Maybe not the same her she was before Brighton, but that’s just natural. The her of a few months ago didn’t have the guilt of what had happened there hanging over her. She didn’t have nightmares about beautiful vampire-things.
… which was sort of unfair because Hannah had talked a few more times with Rose, and she really was just nice. But her body and subconscious doesn’t care that Rose isn’t a bad person. It just knows that she could have killed her so easily back then.
And at least she still has Melody. Hannah frowns, playing with her pen. Sometimes Mel worries her a bit. Hannah… ah, sometimes backslides. Just a little bit. It’s sometimes hard to remember not to reach for her old RDism when faced with a hard problem. Most of the time hyperstat is both easier and safer than doing RDism so she doesn’t really miss it, but sometimes it’s tempting to go for the little bit of extra edge and change the problem rather than deduce the solution, even if it makes her feel ashamed of being lazy. And then she gets called in for a talk and they always sound so disappointed in her and she feels awful and guilty.
She flinches, just at the memory of the tight hot feelings of shame that one of those talks causes.
Melody… doesn’t seem to have the same temptation. She doesn’t seem to be able to do her old things at all - not that Hannah’s really probed deeply, because it’s not something which they’re really meant to talk about. She has mentioned that everything seems all hard again and she’s having to learn to do everything again from scratch. But she doesn’t seem to mind. When they talk online, she seems to - like, actually be doing her homework.
Which just plain isn’t natural.
And she’s mentioned she has a surprise for Hannah next time they meet. That’s… more than a little alarming, really. Hannah remembers some of Melody’s other ‘surprises’. They’re often not exactly well thought out.
She breezes through the maths and the English homework. These things are just easier now. She’s fairly sure that she could get straight A*s for her A-levels now, after only a few months of sixth form. Okay, she’d probably have to cram like hell to get away with it, but she’s gone from ‘one of the best in the class’ to ‘simply better than everyone’.
No wonder Unionists call it ‘genius’.
She has a little time before her scheduled contact time, so she entertains herself by checking AO3 and leaving some well-phrased reviews for people pointing out all the ways they could improve. As an Unionist, she thinks to herself smugly, it is her job to make the world a better place. And someone this dire at building tension in a narrative deserves to be told how poor their story is. So they can improve. Of course.
She checks the clock. Six twenty four. She should boot up her other laptop for her talk with Mr Green. The classified one.
Mr Green is her point of contact during the week, and the one responsible for most of her personal tuition. She suspects he keeps an eye on her in other ways, but if he does, he doesn’t say a thing about it. Mr Green looks like an ordinary - okay, quite handsome - man in his early thirties with a vaguely teacher-y air, but he’s a Man in Black. That is, he’s an example of the engineered clones they call Men in Black, not that he’s a Man in Black which is a rank of Operative. He’s actually in the Ivory Tower.
It’s pretty confusing.
Hannah is acutely aware of the fact that she’s still learning all the naming schemes. Men in Black clones are usually named after colours, objects, jobs, food… well, lots of things, while if someone has a JB name that means they’ve probably got Operative status - or at least Operative training which doesn’t mean they’re an Operative because there’s optional cross-training for members of other Methodologies and blah blah blah she sort of zoned out after a while and only woke up again when she was asked if she was considering Operative training.
She’s not. Even if she’s a Unionist now, she’s still going to make the world a better place. And anyway, Operatives are… well, a lot of them are just like policemen, and the rest are sort of weird. She doesn’t want to be either. She’s a writer, not a fighter. She can leave that sort of thing up to people like Ms Ashford. And she couldn’t take the optional training until she was eighteen, anyway.
She reaches the secure log-on screen.
email@example.com she enters. The password box is a decoy - no matter what you put in, it won’t let you in if you don’t have her fingers. The keyboard prickles as she types. It’s sampling skin cells because the webcam recognises her.
Hannah hopes that it doesn’t get confused because her hair is wet, but it seems to handle things fine.
Welcome back, Watcher Gladson the screen flashes up. And Hannah can’t repress a little tingle of glee at the way that she’s now part of a secret conspiracy which controls the world. It means she matters.
“Hannah! News!” comes the voice from downstairs. Hannah rubs her eyes and looks up from the screen. She’s been writing after her tuition ended, but part of her homework is to keep track of current affairs. And that means she needs to follow the news. Normally she’d just read the Guardian and BBC websites, but she made the mistake of mentioning this to her parents and now they call her down to watch the news at ten every day.
Anyway, that keeps them happy. And when her parents are happy, they aren’t thinking about how she spends so much time in her room. They don’t consider talking to people online to be real socialisation - which is a totally backwards and primitive way of looking at things, but she’s given up on persuading them of thinking of it in any other way. You’d think that a doctor and a stockbroker would be more willing to accept some basic things about how the world has changed, but noooooooooooo.
Apparently she should be enjoying her teenage years more and going out and getting drunk at illicit parties. Hannah groans. Clearly people who were born in the Sixties have a totally stupid and wrong-headed way of looking at the world. There’s more to being a teenager than alcohol. And it was so embarrassing when they tried to be all understanding about how it wasn’t so bad to try small amounts of cannabis as long as she understood not to take it too far or go onto any kinds of harder stuff.
Urgh. She has no interest in poisoning herself with any kind of smoke, thank you very much. She comes down the stairs two at a time, and plonks herself down on the sofa in front of the TV.
Her dad smiles at her, somewhat awkwardly. “Hey, Han,” he says. “Nice to see you today. For the first time.”
“Hi,” she says, hugging her cushion to herself.
“You could have come down earlier,” her mother says.
“I was writing,” she says.
“So… when are we going to get to see any of the things you’re writing?” her mother asks.
Hannah has no intention whatsoever of letting her parents see what she’s just been writing. Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope. Not at all. Not one bit. Nope. There’s no way people who think ‘shipping’ is related to naval activities can get to read that kind of thing. “When it’s done,” she says.
And then the BBC news starts.
“The corruption scandal in the UK Independence Party deepens, as a third MP is arrested as part of Endrongate,” says Fiona Bruce, her expression serious. “Deputy Prime Minister Nigel Farage refuses to comment, but Prime Minister David Cameron speaks publicly for the first time, as pressure grows for a vote of no confidence which might bring down the government, coming hot on the heels of the rent boy scandal.”
“Well… uh, obviously this is shocking and disgraceful, and these cases should be investigated to the full of the law. But I don’t think we can lose sight of the fact that the Conservative party was elected to make a difference to the country, and I don’t think that the actions of a few members of our junior partner should be enough to cause a vote of no confidence.”
Hannah can’t help but smirk a little bit. She doesn’t know if these charges are true or not, but she does know that the New World Order is very much in favour of the European Union and the UK’s continued presence in it. And that the Syndicate views a British exit as economic suicide. So at the very least, they’re not covering this up.
“Shocking,” her father says. “Just shocking.”
“I told you to vote Green,” Hannah says spitefully.
“Here in New York, talks are under way for another tense day of negotiations with North Korea,” Huw Edwards says. “Pyongyang is still holding firm against the international demands for a full nuclear disarmament, and promises swift and extreme retaliation should any international ships enter their territorial waters again.”
Hannah’s mother shakes her head. “I don’t see how a war can help,” she says. “I mean, what can we do? North Korea is just horrible, but… invading them won’t help matters. What if they bomb Seoul?”
“These days in Grozny, the guns are firing non-stop,” reports a woman. She’s wrapped up warm, and snow is falling - or maybe it’s ash. Behind her, fires paint the sky red. “After the Chechen C5 militia managed to push the Russian army out of the Leninsky district, the gloves have come off. Soldiers on the ground say the entire district has been turned into a killing zone, so they have no choice but to level every building. You can see the flames, even from this distance - the military won’t let us get any closer to the city centre.”
“Orla Guerin?” her father says, in the tone of voice he uses when he thinks he’s being funny. “More like Orla Stormcrow. Have you noticed that wherever she goes, chaos and war is always there.”
Hannah sighs. “She’s a journalist,” she says.
“Yeah, but it makes you think,” he says. “At the very least, you’d think that anyone who saw her crossing their borders would know that they’re really in trouble.” He grins. “We’ll know they’re declaring war against North Korea soon when she gets on a plane to Seoul.”
“Don’t joke about that,” her mother says tersely.
“Also tonight, our other top stories. Breaking news live from Miami, as American authorities move against a cell believed to be linked to the Middle Eastern terrorist group Category-5. We ask if such groups pose a threat to the UK in the aftermath of the Brighton attack as the intelligence services call for increased regulatory powers to combat new tech-savvy terrorist organisations which combine a slick media presences with an alluring message aimed at young people.”
Hannah blushes, hot shame cringing in her stomach. “MI5 has a point,” she says without thinking, and feels better.
“But Shami Chakrabarti warns against kneejerk reactions.”
“The solution is not yet more powers for the spies. The government needs to address the root causes of these problems, and it won’t get it by being able to detain people without trial for three months.”
“Star Wars… or Star Snores? Critics are predicting one of the most expensive flops in history for the seventh Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. With the leak of the full release copy to the internet, fans are already calling it ‘worse than the prequels’. On top of record low ticket sales in the run up to the Christmas period, we ask - what next for Hollywood?
“And a tale of David vs Goliath, as a landlady wins the latest legal battle against the Premier League over TV rights.
“And on sports coming up later at ten-thirty on the BBC new channel: how the cost of season tickets has increased again year on year.”
This is the BBC news at ten, and I’m Fiona Bruce.”
Hannah’s mother sighs. “Turn it off,” she says wearily. “It’s making me depressed.”
“I’m watching this,” her father protests.
“I… I just can’t take it. Wars everywhere and it turns out that there’s a bunch of paedophiles in Parliament and we might be on the edge of a nuclear war with North Korea and... “ she shakes her head. “Where did it all go wrong? It’s like… the past decade and a half have just been one thing going wrong, one after another. 9-11, then the mess in Afghanistan and Iraq, then the financial crash, then Moscow and now… I don’t get it.”
Hannah narrows her eyes. “That better not be some comment about me and how it’s my fault for being born,” she says, only half jokingly.
Her mother tries a weak chuckle. It doesn’t really pass. “Honey, the only bit of our life you undoubtedly ruined was that bit when you were about six months old and just wouldn’t stop crying.” She leans in and gives her daughter a hug. “It just makes me so worried to see you growing up in a world like this.”
“I’ll be fine,” Hannah says, stretching.
“You were going through this wobbly period and then you almost got involved in the mess in Brighton and… I was really worried about you,” she continues. “And you spend all your time in your room and don’t go out and spend time with people and now you’re spending all the time at your gifted and talented programme and…”
“I’m fine, Mum,” Hannah says, trying to shift the topic away from Brighton. She adjusts her posture and pitches her voice so her mother is convinced. “But I’m going up. I don’t want to be late for the Bentham Foundation meeting tomorrow.”
“Another one?” her dad asks, frowning.
“Urgh! Yes, I told you about this ages ago,” she says. “And Mum’s taking me!”
“I told you about this yesterday,” her mother confirms. Hannah had needed to nudge her a little bit to make sure she didn’t object. “I want to take a proper look at the place, anyway.”
“It seems like they’re every weekend,” her dad grumbles. “I’d wanted to do something. You know, as a family.”
“Don’t make too much noise coming up,” her mother tells her father, rising to her feet. “And don’t go to bed too late.”
Saturday arrives, grey and raining. Since this is December in the United Kingdom, this is barely more surprising than the sun rising at all, which presumably it’s doing somewhere behind the clouds.
The pyramidal bulk of the offices where the Bentham Foundation is hosting the meeting looms against the London skyline. Presumably in better weather it would be quite a sight, but under present conditions the glass is merely reflecting grey back at the heavens. The spire-garden is barely visible, and the sunlamps merely give it a glowing spot at the peak of the pyramid.
Hannah steps confidently through the main doors, her mother trailing behind her. She’s dressed smartly for this seminar. There’s a fairly detailed set of clothing guidelines she was sent beforehand and it’d be really embarrassing to be publicly shown up here. She takes off her winter coat, revealing her white blouse, dark grey jacket and slim cut black trousers. She had considered wearing a skirt, but it was freezing out there. Even tights don’t help when it’s chucking it down and she hates the feeling of wet tights.
Her mother is somewhat surprised at how willing she is to ‘dress up nicely’ and even wear make-up, but she has to make a good impression, right? Appearance is important. The Union’s taught her this. It’s okay for her to hang around in over-sized black t-shirts and jeans at home, but other people judge you on what you look like. And refusing to account for that is stupid, and she’s certainly not stupid.
She’s spent a fair amount of time in these Victoria Place offices. In fact, she now knows this is the place they took her from the police station. She’s entirely used to the statues in the white, airy and well-lit main foyer. There’s a giant hand cupping a globe and a three-legged abstract mechanical tripod which she’s fairly sure is actually secretly a self-defence robot. The giant hand may also be one. She isn’t sure.
“Oh, my,” her mother says, looking around. She looks at the statue of the hand cupping the world with narrowed eyes. “I didn’t think it was like this. I knew the Foundation was wealthy, but…” she pauses. “I didn’t know it was like this,” she repeats.
“I’ve only been here a few times,” Hannah lies. “Usually we meet in somewhere a bit more downmarket. Uh… I’ll need to get my guest pass, but… uh, it was only for one.”
“Well, I want to see what you do here,” her mother says briskly.
This would be more of an inconvenience, Hannah thinks, if she hadn’t told Mr Green that her mother was getting insistent about seeing what her daughter actually did on these ‘training days’ with the Bentham Foundation, an international organisation for the gifted and talented.
Then comes the usual tedious process of getting her security card checked and getting an access pass. It looks like she’s just standing at the main desk in front of a camera, but Hannah is trained and she can see the faint flicker of subliminal action-response prompts on the screen in front of her. It’s verifying that she is who she claims to be and isn’t an imposter.
This Bentham Foundation seminar has a lot more security than usual. The email ‘requesting’ her attendance said it was a meeting of young Unionists from all over Europe for the purposes of networking and ‘getting to know the future of the Technocratic Union’. They’re even going to be spoken to by a Void Engineer admiral. Which is… pretty impressive.
Hannah does consider that it’s sort of a surprise that they’re letting her and Mel in. That means that either they trust her, or more likely they don’t think either of them could do anything if they even tried. After all, Command probably has lots of people like Ms Ashford as bodyguards, so… uh, they’re probably right.
Not that she’d do that sort of thing anyway. She shivers at how stupid she’d have to be to try that. Sure, six months ago she’d probably have said something about how she would be proud to lay down her life for freedom or something, but six months ago she was an idiot. Well, no, she’s being too harsh on herself. She was just gullible and lonely and isolated, she thinks.
“Thank you for being so patient, Miss Gladson,” the secretary says, passing her the card and taking her coat. “You’ll need to go up to floor 50M, but there’s a message left here for you. Mr Green is just coming, he says.”
Right on schedule, a smartly dressed man in a suit appears almost from nowhere. At least that’s the impression he gives. Hannah tracked him walking on nearly soundless shoes across the marble floor. “Hannah,” he says, favouring her with a smile. “Good to see you in person again.”
She nods. “Thanks.”
“Hannah,” her mother whispers, nudging her. “Who is this?”
“Mr Green,” the man says, shaking her mother’s hand. “I’m Hannah’s personal tutor and contact point.”
“Oh, I see,” her mother says. Hannah raises an eyebrow at the slight blush on her mother’s face. Well, she supposes he is quite handsome. “I was wondering if-”
“I’m glad you came along,” Mr Green says. “I’ve actually been wanting to talk with you a bit about some of her progress.” He leans over the desk. “Sorry to be a bother, Elise, but could you see if there’s a spare room anywhere?”
“Certainly!” the lady at the desk says. She checks the screen in front of her. “Ah, Room 102 should be free, although you might need to go next door if someone else needs more space. I’ll make a booking right now.”
“Thank you.” He looks at Hannah. “Go on ahead,” he says. “And I’ll expect a full report on what you see. Take notes.” He quirks an eyebrow at her. “You did remember to bring a notebook and pen?”
Hannah grins at him, and pats her handbag. “Yes,” she says confidently. She says goodbye to her mother, steps into the lift, and swipes the control panel, letting it take her to her destination.
The lift goes up fifty-and-a-half storeys, and Hannah exits only to immediately be hit by an explosive Melody who was lying in wait for her.
Hannah glowers at her, trying to suppress her grin. “It’s not a surprise. You literally told me you were also coming yesterday.” She doesn’t let go, though. “Missed you.”
“Missed you too!” Melody says cheerfully. She steps back and takes in what Hannah’s wearing. “Oooh, very nice! You’ll make a great spy!”
Hannah works her mouth. “I’m not a… oh, shush you.” She admires Melody’s blue dress with - now that they’re past the security checkpoint - an Iteration X hologram floating over her right breast. “Where did you get that?”
“Bought it. You should get yourself something!” Melody says, grabbing her hand and leading her down the corridors. “Are you hungry? You’re probably hungry! The food here is great!”
“Yes, Mel, I know,” Hannah says, caught up in her wake. “Where… how did you buy a dress with glowy things?”
“Off tBay.” Melody stops dead. “I forgot! I totally forgot! Disuno!”
Her bag moves, and a white cat pokes its head out, blinking sleepily. Hannah’s eyes widen as she notices the silvery primium sigil on its forehead, in the shape of the Union’s insignia. “What is that?” she asks. “It’s not a normal cat.”
“I am DIANA Incubation Specimen UN-0,” the cat says in a male RP accent which could cut glass. It shakes its head. “I was napping.”
“I call him Disuno,” Melody says casually. “Say hello to Hannah, Dissy!”
The cat twitches its ears. “Greetings,” it says archly, elegantly licking one paw. “I am a transgenic construct incorporating cybernetic cognitive augmentation. And while I tolerate Disuno reluctantly, ‘Dissy’ is quite beyond the pale.”
“I… uh, see,” Hannah says. The two girls find a comfy seat in one of the semi-public concourses. Much as she is somewhat loathe to accept it, Hannah rather does like how much more comfortable being a Unionist is. Rather than meeting in a rented former council house or the backrooms of a shop, they get lavish office buildings and really comfy chairs. “So. Uh.” She pauses. “Mel, why do you have a talking cat? Also, how do you have a talking cat?”
“Transgenic construct incorporating cybernetic cognitive augmentation,” the talking cat corrects her.
“Please keep out of this,” Hannah begs the cat.
“I got given him,” Melody says. “I was being taken for a tour of some labs and he was underperforming as a combat construct, so got transferred to covert ops and I happened to be at the labs at the time so I got my name in first for the requisition. It was really lucky! I’ve had him for a few weeks and he’s bonded really well with me! They say I’m a really good construct handler.”
“I just happen to find working with Miss Smith to be more intellectually challenging than being prodded in a lab,” the cat says. “Not least because I have to assist her in her own personal shortcomings.”
Melody sticks her tongue out at the cat. “Traitor! Meanie!”
“I’m a realist,” the cat says sniffly. “I could list all your shortcomings if you want.”
“Don’t you dare!” Mel objects.
Hannah laughs nervously. “I guess you must have been missing Gloria,” she says. Her stomach tingles with guilt as soon as she’s said it. She wasn’t meant to talk about that.
“Huh?” Melody says, staring at her blankly. Something stirs behind her eyes. “Oh.” She trails off. “The… the EDE which… which used to. Advise me.”
Looking away, clenching her hands in her pockets, Hannah nods faintly. “Yes,” she says, throat dry. “I… I didn’t mean you missed it, but…”
“I know, I know. Because I don’t.”
“Yeah. It’s just… you’re a pet person.”
“Yeah. That’s it. I like pets.”
The conversation fades off awkwardly. Hannah feels her stomach churning, thinking about the EDE which tricked her friend. And how she’d trusted her! Gloria had been a little fairy which could take the form of a bird and… and… and she’d just vanished. She wondered if it’d gone out and found a new girl to trick. Well, at least Mel’s new cat would be safer, right?
“We need to be somewhere,” she blurts out, looking through her pockets for the room number.
“Yes!” Mel says gratefully. “Yes! We do! Uh… let me just check where we’re meant to be.” Melody pauses. “Okay, this way!” she says confidently, showing far more sense of direction and timing than Melody ever normally does.
“Are you sure?” Hannah checks.
“Yep! I have an ADEI!” Melody says sunnily.
“Um,” says Hannah, the bottom dropping out of her stomach. “You didn’t mention that.”
“I had the surgery this week! It’s amazing! It means I’m not stupid for the first time ever! I can just look at really hard maths problems and just do them!”
Hannah crosses her arms. “You’re not stupid,” she tells her friend. “You’re… just not… uh… you’re more athletic than… um, academic and...”
“You’re saying I’m stupid,” Melody says with a shrug. “I know it. You find things easy compared to me.”
Hannah shifts uncomfortably. Melody is - it is true - not the brightest. And she’s terrible at turning up to things on time. And forgetful. And impulsive. And her handwriting is atrocious. And she reads really bad fics and doesn’t care when Hannah points out how inane and poorly constructed the narrative arcs are and how the character development is non-existent and…
… but none of that matters because she’s cheerful and friendly and hopeful and she was Hannah’s friend back when she was feeling at her worst and no one at school would talk to her! And… and what if… what if the computer in her head means she loses some of that now? Hannah’s a Unionist now and knows a lot of the things they said about them were just propaganda, but… but even the people in the New World Order she knows make fun of Iteration X and are sometimes a bit worried about how much they like machines.
Also, how much they like machines. Some people sort of forgot a) that she was present and b) how old she was when they were making jokes about the proclivities of Iterators and why you should disinfect any HITMark you get issued.
No. She’s just… she’s just being paranoid. They’re fine. They’re not… they’re not brainwashed or anything. Mel is still Mel. If she’d been turned into an emotionless cyborg, Hannah would be able to tell. She can see the fact that Melody still wears her heart on her sleeve. She doesn’t cover up what she feels.
So… so what if she’s now a cyborg?
Hannah tries to convince herself that this hasn’t changed anything, and half-succeeds.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome. We’re pleased to have you all here. Today is about welcoming you - the future of the Technocratic Union - to the larger world and perhaps giving you a sight into the world we in the Union work so hard to protect and advance.” The man at the lectern smiles broadly, looking over the teenagers in the lecture hall. It’s deliberately built in a Grecian style, and living plants decorate the walls and the ceiling. “I’m proud of all of you for making it this far. All of you are extraordinary citizens, and some of you are even enlightened scientists at such a young age. We are, all of us, proud of you and hopeful of what you will achieve.”
Hannah does not have a front seat. In fact, she has about the furthest possible from a front seat. It is a subtle reminder that they do remember her origins and the fact that… um, a few months ago she was a Reality Terrorist with the Rogue Council. Trying to hide her reflexive flush, she concentrates on making notes on the speech, the speakers, and the audience.
She just knows Mr Green will have questions for her later.
The speaker - she’s fairly sure - isn’t an enlightened scientist. She thinks they’re a dedicated construct. Probably Progenitor-made - he’s a little too attractive to be quite natural, which rules them out as being an NWO unit. Enhanced social skills: his voice sounds like honey even when he’s saying the kind of bland speech you always get at school gatherings.
She’d pay much more attention in assembly if the speakers looked like this.
As for the audience, there’s maybe sixty people here. Most of them look like they’re younger than twenty, and the others are probably the guardians of people who are meant to be here. Presumably they’re born into the Union if their parents get to attend this kind of gathering. Admittedly there’s no way she’d want her mother here even if she did know about the Union. She’d probably be so embarrassing and ask really awkward questions and - worse! - spend all her time examining the boys in the audience and trying to prompt Hannah to ask one of them out.
Mothers. Urgh. It’s enough to make her think that her mother was involved with the Cult of Ecstasy back in the day - except that is urgh and ick and yuck and utterly impossible and is utterly impossible in every single way ever.
She thinks she can already see some dividing lines by Convention of the other teenagers. It’s especially obvious among the scientific Conventions. Quite a few Iterators like Mel have holo-badges or sigils, and the same goes for the Progenitors. Of course, the Progenitors are also quite telling in the way that several of them manage to look like models. She suppresses the spasm of jealousy, and impassively notes it down. There’s a cluster of ten young people in matching Void Engineer cadet uniforms down by the front. They’re very militaristic looking compared to the others.
Another group catches her eye down by the front. There’s a few absolute stereotypes of public school students sitting together. Well, fairly close together. They’re all in a cluster, but they seem to have made sure that there’s at least one seat between all of them. She’s not entirely sure what they look like, because they’re all wearing straw boaters inside. They probably go to… to… she looks for the words. Technocratic Eton? Technocratic Hogwarts?
Well, either way, they probably look at the world through their oddly prominent teeth, speak like they’re yawning, and are prone to saying things like ‘Daddy, I want a pony now!’. And then they probably get a pony. Or some transgenic horse made to look like a unicorn, because normal ponies probably aren’t good enough for them. Hannah does not like ponies. Except fictional ones in pastel shades. She spent a while liking them when she was younger; a brief, fleeting romance which was disrupted when she fell off one and broke her arm. She sort of went off the species after that.
“... and now,” the speaker continues, “I hope you’ll join me in welcoming Admiral Anastasia Ivanova of the Void Engineers, who’s sent a beta fork to speak to you. Admiral Ivanova is the chair of VOIDCOM, the Void Engineer strategic command authority, and the highest ranking serving officer in our space-based armed forces. So everyone, give her a round of applause.”
Hannah joins the clapping, as a tall, almost spindly woman takes the stage. Admiral Ivanova is wearing a formal uniform loaded down with medals, and she favours the Void Engineer cadets with a smile as they appear to be particularly enthusiastic with their applause.
The Void Engineers are somewhat detached from the other Conventions. Well, Hannah thinks, that’s hardly a surprise. They’re doing things out in space. She’s heard a few people mumble about how they’re secretive and always ask for more resources, but then again, spaceships are probably pretty expensive. Especially if they have… like, ship-sized plasma cannons or whatever spaceships used.
Honestly, Hannah thinks they sound pretty cool.
“Thank you, thank you very much,” the admiral says. “I’m sorry that my primary personality isn’t here in person, but my alpha is currently participating in deep space operations out beyond the Asteroid Belt. Wish her luck - as a beta fork, I certainly hope she does well.”
She pauses, and leans forwards on the lectern.
“And so it falls to me, to give this speech to all of you. 2015 is nearly over, and it’s certainly been one of the most difficult years on record. I remember 1999. 2015 has been nearly as bad, and saw a Code RAGNAROK. That’s only the second on record. In times like these, the Technocratic Union has been hard pressed to stand up to the many, many threats which would endanger the world and the civilian population. We are the first, last, and only line of defence between safety and global devastation.
“I won’t pretend that things have been easy. They certainly haven’t been. The events in Moscow will have ramifications which will last for decades. Reality Terrorists are taking advantage of the global uncertainty to strike against the Union, and the Syndicate and New World Order have been holding the global political system together. We in the Void Engineers have seen additional threats from extradimensional entities and aliens which seek to take over the world. I know that lupine shapeshifters have been making attacks all across Europe, trying to regain lost ground, and Iteration X and the Progenitors have been standing firm against them.
"We've been hit hard in Moscow, which has taught us that we must keep forever vigilant for threats from the stars. But yet, we've prevailed and overcome that threat. We can win. We will win. We must win.
“There are threats closer to home.” Admiral Ivanova looks over the audience, and Hannah tries to resist the urge to flinch. “Haemophages back nationalist and anti-European movements all across the continent. I am Russian, and I am ashamed to say that there the influence of those monstrous things was enough to cause a geopolitical split with the European Union. You are all so young, but I know some of you lost family members in 1999 - a disaster caused by the haemophages - and the rest of you will have to face the consequences of their actions.
“They are parasites on society, leeches. Remember this. They seek to control the media, to control governments and to control industry. I foresee that Union will face up to the haemophage menace in the future, and it may well be some of you who confront these monsters fully.
“The shapeshifters have been a constant threat ever since records began, dating back to the very earliest days of the Order of Reason. Where once knights slew these monsters wielding silver swords, now we send power-armoured troopers with the very latest weapons. Even as the means are advanced, the war does not change. The shapeshifters and their cultists enable extradimensional incursions, attack civilians and seek to wreck infrastructure.” She grips her lectern tightly. “We in the Void Engineers must face their interference - and their assaults on our extradimensional away teams - in near-Earth spaces. Other Conventions face them in the cities, in rural areas - and yes, on their home turf. And we can and do win.
“One of the bright points of this past year in was the destruction of a major lupine shapeshifter holdout here in the UK. Their armed forces were isolated and destroyed with admirable efficiency and no civilian casualties, despite the assault of another rival group of shapeshifters and their extradimensional allies. Multiple Conventions worked together in the operation, each applying their skills to the best of their abilities. And so the shapeshifters were, all of them, crushed by the Technocratic Union.” The volume of Admiral Ivanova’s voice rises, and falls in line with her words. “Later, you will be shown some of the footage from the assault on that node as part of the presentation on the threats of Nephandic cultists, and though I must warn you that the scenes will be disturbing, this is a good sight of the foes that the Technocratic Union can and must stand up to for the good of the world.
“And beyond all these concerns, I know a lot of you are also feeling the strain of these difficult times. You know what’s going on in the news and your own family’s lives. You read about the attack on Moscow. You hear about the recession we’ve been through. You see it in your parents’ faces and sense it in their voice. More than a few of you have parents who are already on the front lines of this war. Others are new here. But it doesn't matter who your family is or your ancestors are. All that matters is your willingness to work and your determination to make the world a better place."
Hannah… isn’t quite sure that it’s true. After all, some people have to have it better than others. And some people… um, were recently Reality Terrorists. But it sounds true! And she wants it to be true, so much!
“A lot of you are having to act a lot older than you are. You are, each of you, extraordinary. There’s a lot of pressure on all of you, because you have shown yourself through talent and hard work to be truly exceptional individuals. The pressure might be getting to you. I know it gets to me. It doesn’t get any easier.
“It’s a lot to handle; and sometimes it’s more than you should have to handle. And it may make you wonder at times what your own future will look like; whether you’ll be able to succeed, whether you’ll be able to master that degree; whether you should set your sights a little lower, and scale back your dreams.
“But this is, in part, what I came here to tell you: nobody gets to write your destiny but you. Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing – absolutely nothing – is beyond your reach. So long as you’re willing to dream big. So long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re put everything towards being everything you can be. Sometimes we in the Union are tempted to take the easy way out. There are moral compromises which tempt us. And we pay for them. You’re young, and you will be the next generation. Please try to keep your eyes open and try to avoid making the same mistakes. We, all of us, will be relying on you. Don’t let us down.”
The applause is thunderous and entirely spontaneous. As was intended.
The suited man claps his hands together. “Now, everyone,” he says, “we have a teamwork exercise for you. The teams have been allocated based on the number on the back of your entry pass.” He gestures. “Your first goal is to meet your other team members. You will be briefed as to your next objectives when you find your teammates. You are being assessed on this.”
“What,” mouths Hannah. That… seems incredibly pointless. She checks her card, and finds the number 14 on the back.
“What do you have?” Melody asks.
“Me too! That’s lucky!”
“Yes,” Hannah says thoughtfully. “Yes, it is.” It’s probably not a coincidence. From the number of tables, there’s going to be three or four people per team. Hmm.
There’s three people at table fourteen by the time they manage to clear the crowd of milling teenagers. One of them is a teenager, and the other two look older.
Now, Hannah has limited training from the New World Order. She shouldn’t pigeon hole people. Nevertheless, she does. And right now, she’s pretty sure her immediate pigeon-holing is right.
Because one of them is a maid (or is at least dressed as a French maid) and the other is a butler (likewise). And the one who is a teenager is wearing a straw boater, a puffy white blouse and a cream blazer with an ornate crest on it. Or, to put it another way, she’s one of the Damian students. She looks Middle Eastern or maybe Indian, but in all other ways she looks like some pretty upper class twit.
Melody’s cat yawns arrogantly. As a cat he does pretty much everything arrogantly, but he’s more arrogant this time. “Oh, wonderful,” he says. “A robo-maid and a bio-butler. Wake me up if it looks like either of them have food. I’m hungry.”
“Hi!” Melody says confidently, striding forwards and plonking herself down. “I’m Melody, this is Hanah, and this is Dissy!” she says, petting her cat.
“I am DIANA Incubation Spec-” the cat begins.
“This is Dissy,” she repeats. “Ignore him, he… ow! You scratched me!”
“You had it coming,” the cat observed.
“I’m Aqidah Bint Emmanuelle Al-Saudiyah,” the other girl says, smiling at the impromptu comedy. She has a hint of a French accent. “This is Cynthia, my maid, and Jacques, my butler.”
The butler sniffs. “The ill-mannered combat homunculus was correct in its summations,” he says in a painfully precise Received Pronunciation accent.
“Ill-mannered? Hardly,” the cat remarks. “I’m just used to having to point out such things to unobservant human beings.”
“You are quite a high end model for something of your kind, non?” says the maid. Her accent is much more notable than her mistress. “You appear to have surprisingly high levels of cognition.”
“Flattery is nice, but I prefer food,” the cat drawls.
Hannah clears her throat. “Um, it’s nice to meet you,” she says to Aqidah, watching her for reactions. The other girl seems intelligent - very smart, just from the way she seems to be taking in Hannah too. She doesn’t seem to have any training in hyperpsych, or she’s very, very skilled at hiding it because her examination of Hannah doesn’t have any of the tells.
“Likewise,” Aqidah says in response. “So do you two know each other already?”
Melody nods. “Yep! We’ve known each other for… uh, about a year?”
“Ish,” Hannah says.
“Ah,” Aqidah says. She smiles winsomely. “Well, I hope you don’t gang up on me.”
Hannah narrows her eyes fractionally. That was quite a transparent attempt at manipulation.
From the front of the room, one of the speakers gets the attention of the teenagers. “Ahem! Everyone! Please listen. Now that everyone is at their tables, you will see that there is a box under the table. Please place it on the table.” They wait for everyone to comply. “The boxes are now unlocked. Open it. Inside, you will find one pack of spaghetti and one pack of jelly babies. The team which builds the tallest tower only using the spaghetti and the jelly babies will win! There will be prizes! You have half an hour! Go!”
They stare at the pack of spaghetti and the bag of jelly babies.
“So, uh,” Melody says. “Does anyone know anything about building things?”
Aqidah glances at her. “But you’re an Iterator,” she says hopefully. “Shouldn’t you know things about… engineering and suchlike?”
“I’m new!” Melody says. “I got put in ItX because they say I’m a prodigy at power armour operation, not any other reason.”
“I’m the brains of our partnership,” her talking cat says laconically. “However, I lack opposable thumbs.”
“Well, I only have the basics of hyperspatial manipulation and dimensional theory,” Aqidah says. “I’ve only been enlightened for six months and I’m studying Politics and International Relations and also Economics with Philosophy. So unless the spaghetti is an EDE or it’s susceptible to market forces, I can’t do much.”
They turn to look at Hannah. “I’m a writer. I don’t build things,” she protests. “I… I guess I could tell us whether we’re likely to win and maybe what we might have to do.” She pulls out her notebook and jots down some guesstimates to try an optimum path calculation.
There is a moment of silence and the three of them glance over at some of the other tables. In at least one case, someone has pulled out a holoprojector that team is busy modelling some kind of pyramidal structure reinforced with bonded jelly babies.
“Welp,” Melody says, summarising their collective viewpoint. “We’re not going to win.”
Hannah gets her result, and underlines it. In red. “I… yeah. We’re not winning this,” she says. “Although… I think they’re not just looking for the quality of the structure.”
“Well, then!” Melody announces, crossing her arms. “We’ll do our best! Even if we can’t win, we’ll put in the effort! If you don’t try, there’s no way that you can win! Anyway, winning isn’t everything! I should know! Onwards!”
“Don’t worry,” Hannah whispers to Aqidah, trying to resist the urge to facepalm. Several people on nearby tables are staring at Melody, who forgot to use her indoor voice. “She’s like this all the time.”
The other girl giggles. “Well,” Aqidah says. “I suppose if we… hmm. We could probably anchor the pasta in jellybaby, no? And then maybe… well, if we could use them as strands, that would make them stronger.”
Hannah flips pages in her notebook and pulls out a pencil. “What kind of structure are you thinking about?” she asks, tearing out a page and offering it.
“Well… something triangular would probably make sense, no?” Aqidah says, doodling.
“Maybe. And… Mel, don’t eat the sweets.”
“I wasn’t,” Melody says. Her words are somewhat put to lie by the fact she has something in her mouth.
Their tower is two spaghetti-storeys high, and resembles a teepee. It’s sagging quite alarmingly in the middle, and has been propped up with smaller bits of snapped pasta. Surprisingly, they aren’t doing the worst out of any of the teams, but they’re certainly not in the top three. Or the top twelve.
“Hey!” a boy says, coming over to their table. “Can we borrow some of your spaghetti? We’re kind of running out and we need it for the buttressing. And… well, you’re not using it.”
Hannah glances at what that team of almost-certainly-Iteration-X boys has got up to. Their construction looks sort of what you’d have got if MC Escher had worked in spaghetti, and she’s not entirely sure how it’s even holding up. Apparently she’s underestimating the adhesive strength of gelatin.
“I’m sure we can come to an equitable exchange,” Aqidah says calmly. “We’re more than willing to exchange some spaghetti in return for the contracted services of elements of your team.”
The boy blanches. “We’ll… uh, need to go talk about that,” he says, and then goes to hassle someone else in the hope that they don’t have a Syndic on-side.
Aqidah scowls. “That’s very unfair!” she declares. “I offered them a perfectly fair trade.”
“Calm yourself, young mistress,” says the maid. “Such a public display is unwarranted.”
“Oh, bother that,” Aqidah pouts. She shakes her head. “I see neither of you have to put up with your maid correcting your behaviour! You’re lucky you got to leave yours behind! But Synthia follows me everywhere,” she adds, with a slight fondness to her smile.
Hannah opens her mouth. And closes it again. She doesn’t sound like she understands that most people do not have maids.
“Young mistress, your mother instructed me before her demise to attend to your every need,” the maid says placidly. “Those include such things as preventing you from getting into trouble that you cannot get yourself out of.”
“So, I have a question,” Melody asks. “Are you… uh, like, a princess?”
“Mel!” Hannah hisses, already turning red with sympathetic embarrassment. “You can’t just ask someone that!”
“Why not? She’s called Al Saud-thingy, and I do remember that much.”
Hannah strongly suspects it’s the ADEI doing the remembering.
“No, no, it’s quite fine,” Aqidah says. “I suppose I am. Yes, my father was a prince, but that doesn’t really mean much,” she says casually. “There are lots of princes. I have something like two thousand cousins and second cousins.”
“... um,” says Hannah. Her mind rebels at the idea. The…. well! The other girl’s grandfather must have been very active indeed.
“I know! It’s utterly ridiculous!” Aqidah agrees. She smooths down her skirt. “Anyway, I’ve only been to Saudi Arabia twice and don’t really consider myself a Saudi. My mother was French and I’ve spent most of my life in Paris. Well, actually I’ve spent almost all of it at Damian, but Paris is where I go during the holidays. Damian offered this day as a chance to get field passes for the weekend and visit London. I had to fight for the chance for a day out!” She pauses. “And here I am, talking about myself! Where do you go? Unity?”
Melody shakes her head. “Where?” she asks. “Wait, I know this! It’s one of the Union schools!”
Hannah considers how to put this. “We’re both in… uh, mainstream education. We get classes after school. We only… um, joined the Union a few months ago.” She suddenly realises what Melody is about to say, and moves to kick her under the table to shut her up.
“Before that we were on the other… ow! Han, what was that for?”
“Shut up, idiot!” Hannah snaps, blushing bright red.
“Oh my,” Aqidah says, leaning in. “How absolutely fascinating! Defectors”
“Young lady,” the maid says, “I would be somewhat cautious about…”
“Bother that!” Aqidah says. “I’ve never even been allowed to talk to a real defector before, let alone one my own age! Tell me, how did it feel to be an RD?”
“Young lady!” the maid says, sounding utterly scandalised.
Aqidah pouts slightly. “I never get to have any fun,” she says conspiratorially, shaking her head. “But really, Cynthia, be sensible! They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t the good guys now!”
The mortification is burning in Hannah’s stomach, and it’s all she can think of. She feels a pat on her hand. “Sorry for asking,” Aqidah says, looking vaguely ashamed. “I should have thought before saying anything. I’m sometimes a little rude.”
“More than a little,” her maid mutters.
“I’m dreadfully ashamed,” the girl says, brushing back her long black hair with one hand. “So… uh. Who are you with, now? I’m with the Syndicate - my father was one, and… well, my mother had me made to inherit after he was lost in ‘99. I can see you’re an Iterator, Melody, but… Hannah, hmm. Nu-woo, I think.”
She nods. “Um… I’ve been placed with the Watchers,” Hannah says.
There is an awkward silence.
“So. What do you do when you’re not at school?” Melody says.
Aqidah sighs. “I’m never not at school,” she says. “It’s a boarding school.”
Melody turns pale. “How horrible,” she whispers, then perks up. “Oh! Unless it’s like Harry Potter! Have you had to fight any Dark Lords? What about a troll in the bathrooms?”
The Damian student giggles. “Hardly! Oh! I mean, there’s occasionally things the Progenitor students do with gene kits, but they’d get caught before they could do anything like clone a troll. They regulate access to the cloning vats quite strictly! I heard rumours that there were some accidents with them a few years back! When I was little one of my seniors said that she’d heard from one of her seniors when she was my age that someone had once made monsters which burst out of people’s chests!”
“Wow,” Melody breathes. “That sounds so cool! And also quite scary! But mostly cool! What else?”
“It’s mostly studying,” Aqidah says, flattered by the attention. “Lots and lots of studying. “Fourteen hour days - plus homework! And since I managed to qualify as an enlightened scientist a few months back… goodness, it just means more studying. I don’t think that’s quite fair, myself. It’s been cutting back on my time for games - and it’s the games which managed to push me into developing Genius.”
Hannah purses her lips. That sounds quite unfair. “I thought seven hours of normal school and two hours of Union training was bad.”
“It is bad,” Melody says. “That’s worse. How do you cope?”
“I don’t see what the fuss is,” Aqidah says, shrugging. “You get used to it.” She frowns. “Idea,” she says, returning to the topic of what they were meant to be doing. “What if we tried stacking pyramid structures? Oh, but it might destabilise the existing thing…”
The day is nearly over, and Hannah has been called by Mr Green for a quiet talk. They’re sitting in one of the cafes, looking over towards the shape of the London Eye. She’s just finished going over her observations.
“So what do you think the purpose of today was?” he asks calmly, sipping at his green tea. “For example, what was the point of the pasta tower building exercise?”
Hannah has been thinking about this. She prods the cake in front of her with a fork.
“It wasn’t fair. Not at all,” she says. “Certain teams had a massive advantage. Like those boys who built the giant tower because they were all Iterators. The teams weren’t even the same size. That suggests that the actual result of the tower-building,” she shakes her head, “didn’t matter.”
“Mmm?” he says.
“I think,” she says tentatively, “there were a few goals. One was to see how we all reacted in an unfair situation. Some of the teams… um, didn’t have the tools to do the job well. Others had a massive advantage. So I think, uh, the weaker teams were being tested to see how we did things when we knew we were going to lose. I know some people just seemed to give up.”
“Hmm, yes. I notice your team didn’t,” Mr Green says.
Hannah nods. “Because we’re all hard-working go-getters,” she says sarcastically, and she grins when she sees the faint smile on her instructor’s lips.
“Yes, Miss Gladson, I am sure that that’s the reason you did that. I’m certainly not suggesting you worked that out at the time and made sure to keep working hard because you thought it would impress the assessors.”
“... well,” Hannah admits, “that wasn’t Melody’s goal. She just puts all her effort into things always. Well, some of the time. If she thinks it’s interesting. Hmm. I think Aqidah knew she was being assessed in that way, too.”
“What makes you think that?” he asks.
Hannah considers her feelings. “Just a gut-feeling,” she says, frowning. “I don’t know much about her background, but the way the Damian students were sitting… I think they weren’t close friends. None of them were sitting next to each other for the speech.” She pauses. “I don’t know much about the Damian Academy,” she says. “Mostly just a few things mentioned and some of what Aqidah said.”
Mr Green nods. “It’s one of the two premier academies for the offspring of high-ranking Unionists,” he says. “It’s the elder of the two - the Unity Academy was only founded in 1899. It’s where the children of important Directors, Comptrollers, senior Progenitor academics and the like go.” He smiles. “Very, very, very academically intensive. Most students graduate with the equivalent of a doctorate at age sixteen or so. I was made as a teaching assistant at Unity before I was promoted to a more senior role in the Ivory Tower after 1999. Naturally I’m obliged to say that Unity is better than Damian in every way, especially at sports.”
Hannah swallows. “That sounds… hard. Are… are they all enhanced to be that clever?”
“Most of them, yes - and the teaching methods are very advanced.”
She narrows her eyes. “Do you use any of them on me?”
“Yes.” The answer is simple. “That’s how your academic performance has improved so much over the past few months.”
“I see.” Hannah taps her fingers together. “Because I think I know why the other reason things were set up like they were.”
“Yes. I… I think one of the reasons for this meeting was so young Unionists could meet each other. Especially ones from… uh, different backgrounds.”
“You mean the reason we said that this thing was meant to happen?” Mr Green says, taking a sip.
“Yes, but… not exactly.” Hannah looks for a way to put things into words. “For example, the team selection wasn’t random. Which means someone chose to put me and Mel with our… uh. Complicated backgrounds. Um. Someone chose to put us with a public schoolgirl who didn’t really understand that not everyone has maids.” She runs over the feeling she has. “I don’t think it was for our benefit,” she says, carefully.
“Interesting analysis. What did you think of Ms Al-Saudiyah?” Mr Green asks.
Hannah has been thinking about how to answer this. She had clearly been rich and influential, and a lot of things Mr Green asks her are secretly tests. “I think she’s very intelligent, incredibly rich, and quite sheltered. And privileged,” Hannah says clinically. She’s decided pure analysis might be best. “I don’t think she entirely understands what it’s like for people who weren’t born into the Union. She seemed very, very casual when she talked about how students might have been playing around with cloning vats, as if it’s something which just… happens. But she was quite likeable, if you ignore the bits where she lets her mouth run away with her. She really did seem fascinated at speaking to… uh, defectors. We swapped email addresses, and she pestered me and Mel to play her at some game which I’d never heard of.”
Mr Green swirls the dregs in his mug. “Are you going to?” he asks.
Hannah’s instinctual response is that she probably wasn’t, but she reconsiders with his tone. “Do you think I should?” she says.
“Ms Al-Saudiyah is an heiress who has provisionally been placed with the Financiers,” Mr Green says. “She will mostly likely be fast-tracked to a significant position, although I possibly speak as to what plans my counterparts in the Syndicate and at Damian have for her. Possibly she will be liaising with the Saudi Arabian government. It is likely she will have a public-facing position, considering the wealth she will inherit. In the present day, the Syndicate holds the purse strings to the Union. She will need friends from the other Conventions, and people who will be able to remind her of how things are for those who joined the Union when they were older - as after all, by your own analysis she is quite sheltered.”
She nods. “I understand,” she says. “Um. I’ll probably need some help finding out about the game. I’ve never heard of it - I only really play RPGs.”
Mr Green nods. “Excellent. I will help you set it up on your Union laptop. You’ll need to use it to communicate with someone at Damian. It won’t accept connections from an external network.”
“I thought that was only for Technocracy things,” Hannah says hesitantly.
“I think I can pull some strings for an exception,” Mr Green says, smiling.
The train rattles as Hannah and her mother head home. Hannah is feeling tired. It was a long day. She leans back on the scratchy red fabric of the train seat, and lets her head loll against the window.
“You look exhausted,” her mother says, reaching out to test her brow.
“There was a lot of thinking,” Hannah says. “Lots of speeches, and then tests and ‘team-building exercises’.”
“That sounds dull,” her mother says.
Hannah shrugs. “Some bits were,” she says, twisting in her seat. “But Mel was there and I met someone else and she seemed nice enough. We swapped email addresses.”
“Oh. Well, that’s nice,” her mother says. The woman shifts. “Hannah,” she says delicately, “are you all right? With all these tests? And all this studying? You want to do this?”
Hannah considers. As a Unionist… yes, she thinks she does. She didn’t use to, but… what else can she do? It’s not like she’s trapped, she hastens to add mentally. If she wanted to leave, she could try to run. But… what would the point of running be? And here, she’s learning things. She wanted to make the world a better place, and this way she might be able to do it. She’ll make more of a difference here than she managed with the Rogue Council.
“I’m fine,” she insists. “It’s okay. It’s just hard work now, but look how much better my grades are. Mr Green says I should be able to get into Oxbridge easily.”
“Yes, I spoke with him,” her mother says thoughtfully. “He was an interesting man.” She pauses. “Are you sure you don’t have a crush on him?”
“Urgh!” Hannah protests. “He’s… like, thirty! Yuck!”
Her mother laughs. “Well, at least that’s something. I do worry about you, Hannah,” she adds, with a trace of sadness. “But remember, I love you. Please remember that.”
Hannah sighs. “Urgh, Mum. You’re being weird. Stop saying things like that.”
Ten Months Ago
In the basement of a cramped house in west London, fingers clack over a keyboard. Adjusting her glasses, Hannah Gladson types away, constructing a carefully designed narrative as to why the gun behind her was not loaded at the time it was put down.
Her fingers automatically press Ctrl + S, and she checks the wordcount. 103 words. Still too many. And it took her almost two minutes. Rising, she stretches and clicks her knuckles. When she checks the gun, it’s empty, and the magazine is unloaded and next to it.
She’s still too slow. Oh, sure, she can write over longer periods for bigger effects, but she just can’t make changes in times which would make a difference if some of her friends had guns pointed at them.
She just feels… she feels so useless sometimes. Other people can do things. She’s tried to do some of what Karen does. She’s tried. But she’s not a wizard! She’s tried to do things with Hermetic runes and… and chanting and it doesn’t work!
And that isn’t something she likes feeling. Since her Awakening, she’s had real power. So what if she doesn’t have an Avatar which visits her? They say that a lot of young mages don’t have active Avatars these days. So what if she doesn’t seem to be able to learn any of Karen’s really cool magic? She understands the real power of the written word. Her stories make the world follow a better story than the ones the Technocracy would have people use.
In the beginning, there was the word. That’s what they say in the Bible. Maybe they’re right. It would totally make sense if all the world is just one story, told by God.
Hannah giggles at her hubris. Looking at her, thinking she’s God.
There’s a knock at the door. It’s Hidehisa Jones. He’s dressed in his customary black leather coat, open at the waist to show his tattoo-covered chest. His sunglasses are pushed up to his forehead, and his blades are slung over his back. She’s not sure where his pistols are, but they’re probably somewhere close to hand. He’s always ready for violence. “Hannah,” he says. “Come on. We’re going running.”
They’re insisting she get in shape. She’s already lost a lot of weight - helped by Karen’s potions - but now she needs more muscle, and that means she needs exercise, they say. The others are all so much older and they tell her that when the Technocracy comes, she needs to be able to run. She needs to be able to run and she needs to be able to escape from a grab and she needs to be able to hide from being shot at.
It scares her. It scares her a lot. She’s… she’s a teenage girl. She’s heard the tales of the machines and the monsters and the cloned killers that work for the fascist Technocratic Union, and how they have countermagic that can shut down even things like her writing. That doesn’t even make sense, but they showed her some stolen primium and she couldn’t affect it.
They’ve got running machines set up in this basement she visits when she has to. Most of the time she only talks with them online. She has to watch out for Technocratic spies. They’re everywhere.
He starts putting her through a work-out regime, and she’s quickly out of breath. He isn’t. Not at all. In fact, he’s running at a faster pace than her, and talking to her at the same time. Telling her about the Technocracy. Saying things she’s heard before, but he always adds new details or provides a new angle so it doesn’t sound like she’s heard it before.
The Technocracy is… a disease. It infects. It spreads. It’s a disease of the mind,” he says.
“Memes,” she gasps.
“A way for Technocrats to justify what they are,” he says, the contempt obvious. “Everything is memes, that’s what they say. No. They’re unique. They’re a mind-plague. A sickness in the head. They hate the spirits. They send machine-men to kill them. They poison the world, Hannah. Remember that. The Technocracy is a plague. A plague which disguises itself in reasonableness. It covers up everything it does with reason. Unreason is the only defence against such a sickness. They’re the little minds which prefer safety over truth.”
She nods, and swallows, throat burning.
“That’s the horror of the Technocracy. Not the machines. Not the guns. The way they take people and turn you into things like them. Their mind-plague eats people up and spits them out so they’re almost the same.”