Lavender could mentally hear Malka’s voice from years ago; it’s not always easy to be the leader. Every choice is yours. Every decision you want to make… and every one you don’t.
Lavender had thought she'd understood the words then. She’d thought she’d gained new understanding of them since, two successful Contrivance runs as Lead Deviser. Now, staring down the intruder she had at gunpoint, Malka and the other Devisers restrained, she understood them more than she ever had, and had the bad feeling she would be understanding them more and more in the near future.
They’d all been in a meeting, when the room got stormed. And if their attackers had gotten this far, their security team had been taken care of, in one way or another. Everything happened at once.
Rissa, quick to move from the far side of the room, pounced on the nearest intruder, producing a knife, Justice doing the same; while martial arts was mostly a hobby for them, it came in handy. Ritter, unarmed, simply tried to put himself between the two of them and anyone with a gun, captured quickly.
Francisco had scrambled past Trace—who managed to mostly scream before being grabbed, one of the closest to the door—trying to reach Lavender, getting one solid punch in to an attacker's nose before they got him, too.
Thespian required a bit of force to get restrained due to sheer size, though none of it was muscle, and in the end, they got him quickly, too.
Lavender had shoved Kaye, also screaming, even closer, away from the door, and also produced a knife, putting it in the throat of the attacker who had tried to grab her, but by the time she pulled it out, Kaye had been easily taken by someone else.
Malka got one good slash at the arm of the first person to try to grab Lavender, though she had been aiming for his neck, and was disarmed in a flurry of motion by two intruders at once. They were quick on her; being the only one with a publicly military background made her a fine target to disarm first, even if she looked a gray and arthritic seventy-two year old now, the stepped down former Lead Deviser.
Distracted by Malka, by the time the intruders turned back to Lavender, someone else had gotten Rissa, but Justice had managed to get her hands on the handgun of one of the attackers. Having no idea how to use it, and split seconds from being overpowered, she slid it across the conference table in Lavender's direction just as her arms got yanked behind her.
Lavender grabbed it, knife in her other hand, and the one who had been trying to grab her stupidly froze, fell dead from the knife a moment later.
The one exit was thoroughly blocked; they weren’t going anywhere. A windowless fifth floor conference room, and the shouts in the hall showed it had been taken. Perhaps the floor. Perhaps the building. Their attackers did not yet seem willing to kill. If they were here to assassinate, they all would've been dead by now, which was both terrifying—that if that was what they wanted, that was how fast it would've been over—and a relief. They were not, in fact, here for that. Perhaps they thought not killing anyone would get them better trials, or at least quicker executions.
There was a problem, however: shooting to escape was not going to happen. The other Devisers were restrained and unarmed, and every remaining intruder—still plenty—had one of the Devisers poised in front of them. And she wasn't going to point the gun at any of those.
They weren’t keen to see her kill anyone else, even if it wouldn’t get her anywhere ultimately; none of them seemed to be here on a suicide mission. And until they figured out what to do about her—they were waiting, for something, and she wasn’t looking forward to whatever that something was—they’d let her have the gun. If they tried seriously to disarm her, she might be better off letting them to avoid getting seriously injured right then, and waiting for the rescue of whatever government agents were probably already on this case. So she was really holding onto the gun for a circumstance change.
So she pointed it at the next person who came in the door, who she could tell quickly was the something they'd been waiting for.
Every decision you want to make… and every one you don’t.
He was flanked by two more armed intruders, one aiming at her, one aiming at Malka. "Why don't you give me those?" the one in front asked, holding out his hand for the weapons.
They weren't going to get them out of here. They were outnumbered. Outgunned. Caught by surprise. Mostly, restrained and untrained.
She handed over the gun and the knife.
The two who had been aiming changed tasks, one to removing the dead, one to collecting loose electronics; the ones built into the room were disabled. Neither moved to restrain her.
Now, they prayed for security. She wanted to live to see the age of twenty-one in a few weeks, no matter how much she had accomplished early in life. Malka's apprentice at nine. Lead Deviser at eighteen, the youngest Deviser to date.
"Let's get right to it, shall we? There are a couple of things we want." The head intruder rattled them off. Information. It became clear that they were not here for the Devisers, today. Even if they killed all of them, while it would be the news story of the decade, they would be replaced. Contrivance would go on.
No, most of what they wanted was information that would get them into one of the only places harder to get into than where they stood now, the heart of Contrivance Headquarters, where Contrivance was devised and contrived—they wanted a way into the Contrivance Complex, where Contrivance, the elaborate apocalyptic simulation, the event, actually took place every year.
Where the participants, one household per state chosen by lottery, would be when the event was televised. Where the participants could be rescued from, quite publicly. Saving innocent lives, he pointed out, doomed by lottery to make a point for the government—showing a social collapse scenario and the deadliness thereof. Getting everyone out instead of merely one household. He wanted a way in that could not be changed between now and Contrivance, or doom it to be publicly cancelled. And there were ways. And, a few other useful passwords and such that would get them plenty of classified information.
"We have a few options. You might like the one where someone talks willingly.”
The Devisers looked at Lavender. She was still silent, eyes on the man speaking.
“If you don’t like that option, you can start choosing the order you want to go in for the less friendly option. And if you really don’t like that one either, I suppose we could choose for you. Any questions? Opinions?”
“Who are you?” Lavender’s voice was quiet, but sounded steadier than she felt.
“Don’t worry about that. Pick an option.”
“I’ll go first.”
Several people started to speak at once; the Devisers, really, but the man spoke over them: “Oh, but it looks like it’ll be fun to give you all a chance to bicker about it.” He was incredibly arrogant in assuming there was time for these games, but Lavender feared he wasn’t wrong. “You have five minutes.”
The guards swept out, the door slamming and locking behind them; several people tried to reach it first and failed.
“You’re not going first,” said Francisco.
“Yes, I am,” said Lavender firmly. “I’m sure we just need to stall for security. I can stall." There was nothing sharp left in the room, but being unrestrained, knowing where to press, and a stylus with a fine tip helped her enough to get the zip tie off Malka's wrists, who silently joined her in releasing the others. It would probably make no difference but comfort, but it was something. "Keep your hands behind your back and no one'll notice."
“They’re not going to fucking ask nicely while you buy us time," Francisco said.
“He’s right,” Rissa cut in.
“I’m aware of that.” She was very aware of that, actually, and she slipped the black blazer she wore from her shoulders and left it on her usual chair. Malka, who knew, caught her eye, and Thespian, who had sewn the pills into the waterproof seams of it, but had never been told what they were, was trying to.
It was a quick acting, painless, extremely lethal poison known as necranalgeside. Developed in recent years by the United States military to be taken in case of capture. That it had ended up in Lavender's hands was actually not by any official doing, but it had been given to her by one of Malka's oldest friends, a Marine chemist local to DC and Contrivance Headquarters. Enough for the Devisers, a few extra. Thus, it was her choice what to do with it.
Untied, Kaye gripped her arm, her voice a whimper. “Lavender, you can’t—”
“I can.” Her voice didn’t soften, but she squeezed Kaye’s hand reassuringly.
“Please—” Kaye was clutching at her.
“I should go,” said Rissa. “I’ll hold up the best." It was both arrogance and perceived truth by at least most of the people in the room, based on her own rough past.
“The fuck you are,” said Ritter, her husband, and Justice, their girlfriend, overlapped him with similar words, continuing:
“I’ll go. You don’t deserve more of—”
“This is stupid,” said Francisco. “We’re not volunteering anyone, and if we are, it’s me.”
Justice, Rissa, Ritter, and Francisco all tried to yell over each other. Thespian and Trace seemed too in shock to join in. Malka met Lavender’s eyes again curiously, but said nothing. Kaye kept tightening her grip on Lavender's arm, her eyes pleading.
“Then let’s vote,” Lavender said, and it shouldn’t have been audible over the chaos, but all four people yelling stopped and looked at her.
“What?” asked a large combination of the others, including Thespian and Trace.
“We vote. It’s only fair. Most votes goes first.”
“What, so we can all vote for ourselves and have this argument again?” asked Francisco.
“If you think it’ll get us nowhere, there’s no harm in voting. I don’t know how much time we actually have. I vote for myself.”
“I’m not fucking voting."
“Fine,” said Lavender. She looked at Kaye, who was clutching her arm again. “How about you?” Her voice was gentler, running her thumb over Kaye’s hand where it held a death grip on her arm. “So far we have one vote for me, one refusal, and…?”
Kaye stammered. “I vote for myself,” she said finally. "Otherwise it's just you."
It was easier to convince the others after that. Thespian voted for himself easily after Kaye. “But I don’t like voting,” he added.
Trace gave Francisco a guilty look and also voted for herself. “Guess I can’t stay out of it.”
Justice. She voted for herself, also looking guilty. They had all thought she might be another Contrivance dissident, once. She had thought it, too. Left them after only two years as a Deviser. Run for the House, barely age eligible. Looking for change. Contrivance, she hated. Contrivance, they all, in their own way, really, hated. But the Devisers, in the end, loved each other. She had returned, one Contrivance after losing the election. It had been another two years, now.
After that, Rissa and then Ritter were easier. Rissa was the only one who had offered logic in volunteering herself, and she offered it again now.
The pressure was building. “Francisco?” Lavender asked gently.
“Fine. I guess it’s still fucking pointless. I vote for myself.” His tone was still harsh; his gaze, though, still softened a little when he looked at her.
Lavender offered him a rueful but pleased smile, back in control of the situation, and asked Malka for her vote.
“I vote for Lavender.”
“What?!” A few of them had spoken it simultaneously; most of them simply gaped.
“No!” Kaye. Lavender peeled her hand off of her arm.
“That settles it,” she said.
“Fuck,” said Francisco, and the door opened again. Perhaps they'd been listening.
“Do we have a selection?”
“Me,” said Lavender.
Most of the others seemed too shocked, or too scared in the guards’ presence, to say anything; Malka was gripping Francisco’s arm tightly behind both of them, a warning.
The man laughed. “Interesting choice. All right, sweetheart, come this way.” He grabbed her and pulled her out of the room, and they were quickly gone.
When the door slammed shut again, the room descended into chaos.
For just one moment first, everyone seemed to have gone into silent shock, except for Malka, who seemed almost as poised as ever, and perhaps Francisco, who seemed to snap back into it when Malka let go of his arm, whirling on her, cueing the chaos. “The fuck was that?”
“Man asks a good question,” said Rissa, plopping herself back into a chair. “The fuck gives?”
Francisco, meanwhile, was already desperately trying the door again. Trace was trying to soothe him, rubbing his back, saying something in his ear, half for his sake and half to not invite the guards back.
“Yeah, I’ve got some questions,” said Thespian, a little more lightly than the others.
“This is sick,” said Rissa, Ritter fidgeting with her hair nervously from behind her chair. “We were all gonna vote for ourselves, and they probably would’ve grabbed someone at random, and we’d all get to feel terrible about it equally.”
“There was no possible path,” Malka said softly, “where Lavender would've let that happen.”
“Well, she wouldn’t have had much of a fucking choice!” Rissa’s voice was the loudest over various chatter, most closely followed by Francisco saying:
"Forget the fucking guards, we shouldn't have given her that choice!" He kept pulling on the door.
“And yet she got what she wanted.” Malka’s voice was slightly colder.
“Yeah, because you’re a psychopath,” Rissa snarled at her.
“Yeah, what the fuck?” Francisco demanded.
Malka laughed. It sounded all wrong. “Why do you think she suggested we vote?”
The room fell silent.
“… Oh, fuck.” Thespian’s voice was as quiet as it ever was.
“Oh,” Kaye whispered, sitting down again.
“She knew,” said Ritter incredulously, eyes wide. “She knew we’d all vote for ourselves except for you. And it would give her the only second vote. That…”
“Seems incredibly obvious now?” Malka asked. “Given what she clearly wanted and how much she pressed for us all to vote, so it was legitimate?"
“That… does seem obvious now,” said Kaye, looking down at her hands.
“Yeah.” Trace whispered the word, staring into space, hand stilling on Francisco’s shoulder.
A few moments of quiet. Vaguely, anyone listening for news beyond the room could have heard that head guard talking in the next room, indistinctly. Around now joined the sounds of what sounded like hard impacts, and shortly thereafter, Lavender crying out repeatedly, then sobs.
“Fuck,” said Ritter, squeezing Rissa’s shoulder too tightly. His other hand was in Justice’s grasp, and numb, white knuckled.
Thespian was stroking Kaye’s hair, for once lost for words.
Francisco lunged at the door again. Trace was right behind him, trying to shush him. “There’s nothing we can do for her now,” she pleaded with him. “Don’t give us more problems.”
“Okay, new question,” said Justice, louder. “Why did she know you'd vote for her?”
“Then we can get back to why in the actual fuck did you,” said Rissa.
“She knew I would understand and respect her decision,” said Malka simply.
“Is this some noble Lead Deviser crap?” Rissa demanded.
“Do you think it matters what her title is? It really holds no bearing here, does it? Yet when the guards started asking questions, who did you look to? Whose orders did you obey when you participated in the vote at all?" She looked at Justice. "Who did you give the gun to? Did you have any idea if she knew how to use it—"
"—No, but I bet you do—"
"—Or did you look for who was in charge?" she challenged. "If you take out titles and whose contract says what, if we all lost our jobs right now, Lavender's still the leader, and that means being the one to make the choices. And this is what she chose. She wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“And you respect Lavender’s authority as Lead Deviser since exactly when?” asked Rissa.
Lavender was pleading in the next room. Kaye was still crying, Thespian’s fingers tenser in her hair.
“If that was a good argument, you wouldn’t have doubted yourself enough to not use it first.”
“Oh, please. You never entirely stopped running Lavender’s life, and you never will. You might be on to something, but you’re not there yet. Keep talking.”
“I'm willing to question some of Lavender’s decisions,” Malka acquiesced. “This was not one of them. Our lives are probably at stake, here and if we survive but turned traitor to live, and there's no one I trust more in in this scenario than Lavender, including myself.”
There was quiet.
Lavender started to scream. Long, high pitched, agonized wails. Several of them jumped, then cringed.
Kaye cried louder, Thespian unable to help.
Justice, sitting next to Rissa now, had a white knuckled grip on one of Rissa’s hands, and seemed much more ready to back her up if she jumped on Malka than Ritter, who seemed somewhat ready to stop both of them from starting a fight. “So why trust Lavender?”
“Do you not?” Malka laughed. It still didn’t sound right. “Are you deaf?” She gestured at the wall that they seemed to share with the screaming. “Lavender would do anything to get us out of here unscathed.”
“Not what I meant,” said Justice. “What you’re getting at so far is that you voted for Lavender because you trust her opinion on how to get us out of here, which was that she should be the one to 'stall’. What do you know that we don’t? What made you agree? And I’m not sold on her just knowing you would.”
Malka finally sat down again, seeming very tired, pained. “I raised Lavender from the age of nine onwards. I understand her, not just as a Lead Deviser, but as a person, on a level it’s very possible no one else will ever reach.”
“Oh, shit,” said Rissa abruptly.
Everyone looked at her; she seemed to have had a realization, like how Thespian had voiced it, but unlike when Thespian had done it, none of them had had the same.
“What?” Ritter asked, nervous, echoed by a few of the others.
Rissa laughed. “This seems obvious now, too. Oh, I can’t believe you.” She addressed Malka.
“What—“ Justice started.
“You trained her for this,” said Rissa. She spoke for the sake of the others, now. “I said I volunteered because I know how I do when I'm in pain. Lavender didn’t say it, but she knows how she does, too. And so do you. And she knows you do. Which doesn’t leave it too open ended. You’ve hurt her, haven’t you? Like in the name of preparing her for this exact fucking scenario.”
All eyes were on Malka. Lavender was still screaming, crying, pleading, making the silence inside the room heavier, several long moments.
“Yes,” Malka sighed.
“Oh, fuck,” said Thespian again. Ritter and Trace joined him.
“The fuck is wrong with you?” asked Rissa.
Justice’s turn to say, “That’s sick.”
“Oh, God,” Kaye whispered, and looked like she might be sick.
“Way to play fucking noble, yourself,” Francisco spat at her. Trace gripped his arm. “You wanted to give us shit for not ‘respecting Lavender’s decision’ when you were acting on information you didn’t want to give us. Fuck you. I—”
“I never lied,” said Malka, cutting him off. “I did prepare her for this exact situation. And guess what? We’re in this exact situation. Would you rather her be clueless?”
“I’d rather you not be a sadistic child abusing psychopath,” said Rissa.
“I don’t think Lavender sees me that way.”
“Yeah, because you brainwashed her.”
“We can argue any of our mental states all day. In the end, I only asked—not forced—Lavender to agree to what I was going to do, and she did.”
“So, what, she agreed once when she was fucking nine years old, and gave you permission to torture her at will for a decade?”
"—Yeah, the fuck did you do?" Francisco asked.
"Out with it," said Justice.
“No,” said Malka softly, to Rissa's question. She closed her eyes. It was not a nice memory to revisit, even for her. Honestly, she had thought they had moved past it. Healed. Some wounds were never to be reopened. “She was sixteen, and she gave me sixty hours.”