29.2 - First Day of School [Cutscene] [Background]

The town car slowly pulls to a stop in front of the building, under the porte-cochère . I don't get out. The building itself is a massive pile of stone and ornamented windows, a former palace of a former duke of a former regime that was overthrown in a former century by peasants who are still enslaved by the parents who send their precious young daughters to this place. "But Father," I replay the conversation in my head. "I don't understand. I don't want to go there -- I want to be with you." "Your education requires it." "I -- have I not learned my lessons well?" A rare smile pulls at his lips. "Yes, Daughter. You have learned all the subjects put to you -- through computers, through tutors, even by me." The smile is distinctly there. I treasure it. "But there are other lessons that must be experienced, not simply related." "I don't understand." "No, you do not. And that is why you must go." I sigh, gather the scant belongings I am allowed to carry, while one of father's agents -- a large man named Roche, with a bald head, who has said perhaps three words during our entire trip from the airport -- goes around to the back of the car to get out my bags. "Move among them. Learn of their pettiness, their intrigues, their blind spots, their sense of entitlement. Become one of them, even as you learn of the weaknesses against which you can one day strike." "Perhaps --" "Perhaps?" "Perhaps not all of them are bad. I might even find -- a friend --?" The words turn into a question as Father's smile vanishes, his face clouding. "You speak of foolish sentimentality, child. I had thought you wiser than this. No, none of them are worthy of even attempts at such affection. None know the cause in their hearts, as I do -- as I thought you did." "Yes -- Father. I understand. I will not be weak." "This, too, is why you must do this -- to learn this lesson well, to discern the lies, the self-flattery, the self-delusion behind even the softest of their hearts. Hold yourself apart from them, daughter. Learn of them. Do not dare become one of them." "For how long?" "For as long as it takes. " I have my assignment. I take a deep breath, ease my face, wipe away the foolish tears, smooth out the unfamilar skirt around my legs, and when Roche opens the door beside me, I step out, as prim and proper and pampered as any of the other young ladies attending the new session at the École Saint-Michel L'archange. * * * The Range Rover pulls into the village in the Central Province of Zambia, after a dismal flight into Livingstone, and a spine-jarring bush plane hop across half the country, then the long trip cross-country in the Rover to the small village near, but not in, Kafue National Park. The sight is not promising. The village is dried mud structures, the rooftops thatched grass, with enclosures to keep in goats and chickens, what few there are, and to protect against wildlife that still ranges out of the protection of the parks, past the safari hunting camps, and preys on anything it finds wandering. Fields nearby are under cultivation, though not richly, watered by a small pond on a dammed up creek; that pond itself turns a waterwheel which, by a few wires running to some of the huts, provides electricity. The people are thin -- not famine-victim horrors, but clearly undernourished. Most are dressed in dull, worn t-shirts and khakis, discarded surplus from Europe and Asia and America, barefoot or in ragged sneakers. They watch the Rover as it pulls up to the one building that looks like it might withstand a major storm -- a rectangular cinderblock structure with a corrugated steel roof. A wooden cross is wired above its door. "You have learned the ways of wealth and privilege, Daughter. Now you learn the consequences of such to the people of this planet." "I was only a among them for a few months, Father. I --" "Long enough to see their corruption. Not long enough to be corrupted -- I hope." "No, Father." "You will be working in the village of Namketa, serving as an aid to a missionary couple there, helping to teach the children, assisting the villagers with their tasks." "And my actual assignment, Father?" He raises an eyebrow. "Very good. To see first-hand the devastating results of Western Colonialism, of imposition of culture and pacifying religion upon subject peoples, the use of economic policy to enforce poverty to restrain the populace." I have learned more than one lesson. "Will I find any who -- might be worthy of the struggle, Father?" "It is possible. The fields of Africa breed discontent and revolutionaries, but they are too often seeking personal gain over the greater cause. Do not expect to forge such bonds, Daughter." "And the missionaries?" "A pious couple from England, seeking to create productive, compliant proles for the West to further exploit." Disgust drips off his words. "Serve them outwardly, but feel free to -- test their composure and acceptance of their deity's will through what acts of mischief you can work undetected." I nod. "Indeed, should you find opportunity to sabotage the material wealth of the village, what little there is, pursue it. Breaking down the social structure, especially one one warped by the colonial experience, is critical to the ultimate end of reforming all society." "But won't that cause hardship to the very people we seek to --?" "All birth is difficult, Daughter. Learn this lesson well: even the victims of the oligarchies cannot be counted upon as allies. Indeed, in their clutching for the comforts of their oppressors, they, too, may need to be counted as enemies, or as sacrifices for the greater good." I have spotted potential infrastructure targets -- hardly a challenge, except in how to effect it so as not to be the target of retribution. The missionary couple have come to the door of their church / schoolhouse to greet me, as I descend from Range Rover. I try to ignore their smiles as they and the class of students they are teaching welcome me. I have my assignment. I do not expect I will be there long, and I am correct. But long enough to learn the names of those whose trust I will betray. * * * The police van pulls up to the iron gates in front of the large block on the outskirts of the city. "Военная академия Жукова" reads the sign over the gate. Zhukov Military Academy.  The doors from my compartment are locked, so I do not make any move. There is none -- for the moment -- to make. "You have disappointed me, Daughter." "Yes, Father." "I told you there would be consequences to your actions, to your disobedience." I am silent. He raises an eyebrow. "Misunderstanding -- misjudgment -- is not disobedience, Father. I did not willfully disobey --" "It is irrelevant, Daughter. Being able to understand orders, to discern their meaning and to comply, is the least that I expect of you. That you fail to understand that only underscores the lack of discipline you have gained over your years." I cringe inwardly at his use of the word "discipline," but he continues, "I believe further education is necessary. Education that I have neither the time nor inclination to personally oversee." "As you see fit, Father." "You will be sent to a certain institution recommended by one of my soldiers. He assures me that discipline is the least of the lessons you will learn there. For however long that is." "Have I an assignment, Father, beyond learning to discern the true meaning of the orders you give?" "Curbing your insolence one be one assignment, though whether that is yours or that of the Komendant remains to be seen. To brush up on your Russian, and other eastern Slavic tongues, perhaps. To survive, certainly." "Certainly, Father. Shall I try to make friends there? Are there potential allies I should seek to court? Anyone who might be useful to the cause?" He eyes me. "Your path to survival is your own to carve. If you find allies, be certain you hold the ultimate strength in the relationship. If you find anyone of use, then use them. But you will survive, I have no doubt. You are willful, and undisciplined, but your spirit is strong, and you are the daughter of Achilles Chin. That is what will bring you through to safety." I say nothing. "Go. Report to Del Santos. He is making the arrangements." I bow, and take my leave, unwilling to trust my tongue not to get me into deeper trouble. The police van door slides open, and one of the two politseyskiye drags me out by my shackles. Another man in military fatigues is there, beside a metal door next to the gate. The other cop reads from some paperwork. "Remanded into your custody, Prisoner 47-773483, for military discipline and rehabilitation, per court order this date, yadda-yadda, it's all in the paperwork, Ivan." "Da," the man in fatigues says, looking at the clipboard he's handed. "Seems a bit scrawny for legal age here." "There's a problem?" the cop holding me asks. "No. One way, or the other, she'll grow up." I have my assignment. I have no alternative but to pass; whatever my father's wishes, I will not fail. * * * The black SUV pulls into the "Visitor Parking" space, but even after the engine is turned off, nobody in the vehicle exits. "Just so we're clear," Agent Parker says, "You are on a short leash, Miss Chin -- excuse me, Miss Chan." I smile. "Now I wish I'd chosen something more imaginative." "Don't. Imagination is what got your father -- and you -- into quite a lot of trouble. In any case, your parole is provisionally accepted. Break it and you'll never see the light of day again. I mean that quite literally." "If it means I'll keep a pure, pale complexion like yours, I might be tempted, Agent Parker." "Pale will be one word for it. You've been offered a tremendous chance, Alycia. Don't throw it away." I cock my head. "Do I get to make friends?" My lips are smiling, but my voice isn't. "As long as you don't break any assets," she replies, her tone dry, "then knock yourself out, kid." A pause. "I'd offer advice on the matter, but I've dealt with enough cases of abnormal child psychology to know that it would most likely backfire on me." "Most likely," I say with a smile. "And any other provisions around my parole --?" "Are as we discussed." Parker raises an eyebrow. "Be a good girl, Miss Chan. It's a brand new day for you; rise above others' expectations." I merely nod, and she, adds, sharply, "Are we good?" I have my assignment. Though, for once, it's not for my father. That feels more than a bit odd -- but also liberating, even if I'm hardly free. "Positively virtuous," I assure her. "Trust me, I've always looked forward to the first day of school."
The Counseling Office is full of inspirational posters, encouraging visiting students to Try New Things, to Think Outside the Job Title, to Plan for Tomorrow. Recruitment material from the various armed services and civil authorities wars with stacks of handouts and brochures. A row of PCs lines a wall, for students to take vocational tests, research colleges, fill out online job applications, all those things that adults think the kids can be made excited about, and the kids face with varying degrees of existential dread. (They're both sides fools about it, but that may be my particular cultural perspective.) The room is quiet and empty before school begins. Empty of students, except for one that is being specially enrolled. Me. Agent Palmer sits beside me, while a Mrs. Douglas, a hunch-shouldered woman with gray-streaked hair in an incongruous pageboy cut, taps away at the computer behind her desk. "Well, it's the eleventh hour, but I've got her into the appropriate required classes. I'll take your word, Agent, about any transcripts or need for placement testing, but on you head be it should she not be able to handle the workload." Palmer glances at me. I put the back of one hand against my forehead, and make a swooning gesture. "I don't think that will be a problem, ma'am," Palmer assures her. If the Student Counselor is concerned over having a pair of AEGIS agents in her corner of the office, she doesn't show it. For all I know, there are a dozen other "assets" who have been placed here, and AEGIS is a regular visitor. I wonder if they have reserved seating at the stadium, too. (The other agent, Waters, is looking at the Law Enforcement vocational brochures. He's said two words to me since I got into the AEGIS SUV with Palmer: "Good" and "Morning.") "All right, then," Mrs. Douglas says, clicking a large, reassuring SAVE button, "that just leaves a couple of items -- an elective, and study group. Your elective hour would be first period --" She flips through the classes there, looking for one not fully booked. "We have spaces in Swimming --" I'm a decent swimmer, even in full combat rig, but not for sport. "-- Improv Comedy --" Why have art imitate life? "-- Jazz Band, if you know an instrument --" I find music fascinating from a mathematical standpoint, but I've been watching the screen as the class info and current enrollees flip past, and give it a pass. The next screen, though -- "That one." "Consumer and Domestic Science? Home Ec?" Palmer clears her throat. I look innocent. "Now that I don't have minions to cook me the finest repasts," I explain to her, "I need to learn how not to burn my ramen." The agent turns back, and leans a little closer to the screen, to read it. The ravages of age . Another eyebrow twitch -- of course she spots it -- and a glance back at me. "That will be fine," she concurs. "All right. Then for study hour, we have room in three of the --" "Group M," Palmer says. "M-as-in-Mary?" Douglas pulls something up on the screen, but my eyes are on Palmer for that moment. The agent smiles, benignly.  Douglas goes on, "Anything else enrollment-related you need assistance with? I see everything is settled regarding cafeteria charges. Will you be needing a student parking sticker?" "Eventually," Palmer answers, "but not immediately." Well, that's something to look forward to, even I'm mildly annoyed at the excitement that thought carries. "We do have an open campus," Douglas continues, speaking to me, "but your record is flagged, Alice, to stay on-campus except for drop-off and pick-up, so the security guards will stop you if you attempt to leave school." "That would be entertaining," I say, leaning back. Parker merely nods to Douglas. "I'm sure there won't be any trouble," she says in her soft British accent. "Of course not. Well," Douglas fishes a piece of paper from her printer, "here's your class schedule and rooms, Alice, as well as your locker assignment info -- and here's our first-day Assembly Schedule, too. Welcome to Gardner Academy." "Delighted," I say. It's not all that far from the truth. I get up, as does Parker. "Agent Parker, here's a packet with information on school policies, access to the eGardner site where you can review grades and the like, all the standard info. It's what we usually send home with parents, but ..." "Mum," I say to Parker, "can I get a good-luck hug from you and Dad?" I throw a glance over at Agent Waters. "I'm going to miss you both, terribly, here in this strange new place." " 'If you love someone, set them free,' " she quotes in reply, her voice dry as the Sahara. "Oh, I know that one," Mrs. Douglas says, also rising, reaching out to shake Palmer's hand. " 'If they come back, they're yours; if they don't they never were.' " "Yes, something like that," Palmer says, keeping her eyes on me. Doubtless she's thinking of the droll variant: if they don't, hunt them down and kill them. I heft my courier bag onto one shoulder, and make sure to keep the smile on my face as I exit. It's a bit more challenging than I'd thought.
"She's at it again?" Parker asks Lenhart, the current guard on watch. "Not more crossword puzzles, I trust." "No, ma'am. Not the same pattern. That was more rectilinear; she's all over the cell on this one." They watch in silence for a long minute. She's pacing, running, tumbling, spinning, a shadow punch here, a kick there, handstands, fast, slow -- "It's not a dance, ma'am. But not kata , not an exercise routine -- nothing particularly rhythmic or repetitive. Patterns, maybe, but it's hard to see. No theme or story." "You have an eye for modern dance?" "Girlfriend keeps taking me," Lenhart replies. "Can't figure a lot of that out, either, but it's not this." "Well, make sure it's all recorded and routed to crypto. If there's anything to it, we'll let them figure it out, big brains to big brain." "Yes, ma'am." Lenhart double-checks the stream-and-record status, though she'd confirmed it once the prisoner began the gyrations. A standing order, and she'd heard what happened to Grogan. "What are you up to, Alycia?" Parker murmurs. * * * Pacing, pacing, tiger in a cage, a zero-gee tiger, tracing the dimensions of the enclosure, buildling coordinates and vectors, creating a space for thoughts, trying to come to grips with what's happened, what's happening, what happens next. Urgently ordering thoughts, ordering feelings -- That's the problem of course, that corner of the cell, traced back past the table, up the wall there in a big dead-end. Feelings, or lack thereof. Feelings that should be there, but aren’t. We're an awful couple. Terrible, terrible foundations for a relationship. Hour and hours of psych reading. "Western quackery" he'd say, but he still made me study it. Fodder for learning to lead people, but he could have used a bit of catch-up on "megalomania" or "narcissistic disorder" or "fanaticism" -- or perhaps "psychopathy," though that's probably unfair, a judgment based on emotion, and how come I get to feel emotions toward him? Loyalty, of course. He never thought I'd turn on him. Neither did I. But, then, I didn't think he’d turn on me. The injections. That's most of what I remember at eleven, as my brain caught fire. The injections, the experiments, the consultants, the dead bodies, the late nights wracked with pain and hallucinations and a billion new ideas and hatred and horror and orgasmic joy and utter exhaustion and his voice, his voice always so stern, sounding worried, angry about being worried, but worried still -- Then, expansion. A world of thoughts all about me, constellations and comets and belts of asteroids and -- Always loved the drug cocktails, Father. Always a bit too clever for my own good. "Forbidden Fruit" is another one of those terms. Can't have it? Find a way. Shouldn't do it? Must do it. "You're not the boss of me" -- Byron and Achilles, yin and yang, both blind to each others' mistakes and successes, both repeating them in their own way. Byron Quill, hacking hacker, hacks at chunks of memory, facts and figures, always the cold, dispassionate technologist, treat it like a tape to be edited, images and occurrences, sensory data, iconoclasts in the temple bashing away at the statuary. But the temple is not just the ornamentation. Read your religious studies, professor. Shared experience, ritual, ecstasy and tranquility, fear and trembling, awe, relief, transcendence. Emotion. (The true opiate for the masses. Not just words on a page or from a preacher, but the feeling they are tied to. Nobody changed their life over a statue; it was over the emotions that were bound to that statue. Is that Scylla ahead, or is that Charybdis? Will I be sucked down to the depths, or dashed against rocks? Achilles Chin, the leader of men, the hot revolutionary. People aren't important when The People are the primary beneficiaries. Father doesn't care about thought, except his own. Loyalty, devotion, joy, ecstasy -- emotions. Brainwashing, sure. There are scars in my head I've seen reflected in Jason's thoughts and memories, puckered and brown. Do I want to fix those? Damn straight. But the other damage --? Always efficient, always taking advantage of an opening, an opportunity, that's my father. “Isolated Mutual Hardship." Couples, friendships, romances that form when stuck together and suffering. Battlefield romances (wartime romances as a whole), research stations, prisons, military bases, relief workers, long-assignment business workers, soldiers, guards, doctors -- stress and fear and horror and grueling and shared experiences that force-feed a hothouse romance, forged by forced intimacy, desperation to perpetuate the species, the hardwired program in human brains to be together . When the hothouse doors are opened, they wither, freeze, dry out, root balls of sand, adaptations no longer naturally selected for. He's not my boss any more. I left him, crippled, in that other place. He can't hurt me any more. He can't control my life any more. That's exhilarating, amazing, terrifying. A giant "Here Be Monsters" looms on the map of my life. Poor Jason, holes in his head like a redacted file, but the Iconoclast forgot the emotions, damn his crippled soul as well. Thoughts, feelings, feelings, thoughts, the gestalt of experience, but not for Byron. Feelings obey thoughts in his hornbook. Redact the transcript, erase the tape, delete the file, reformat the storage unit -- Poor Jason. Irrational joys, attractions, loves, lusts, affections, swirling about like leaves in a wind, no tree to hold them up. All vaguely associated with a girl-woman he hardly knows any more, hardly remembers. I can abstractly feel the terror that must have been for him, questioning his own sanity about me, wondering if he's going mad, others looking at him like he has. . Intrusive feelings with no anchor, because the anchor points were wiped out. Perhaps Father respected my mind too much, perhaps he was daunted as a parent by the emotions of a growing human, the rebelliousness, the lust, the desire for change that might not coincide with his, the disloyalty, the disdain for his own passions. Why not chop out those bad emotions, snip-snip? Cull the herd, wipe out the rebels, crush the dissenters -- no, the leaders of the rebellion, the ones that inspire dissent among others.  That's what the Autocrat does. Win minds by winning hearts. Crush minds by crushing hearts. Find the places where I felt whatever I felt about Jason Quill, the color and vibrancy and sound-track that went with those events, those encounters, those timeless moments, that gave them depth and meaning beyond a transcript. I need to remember this. Record these thoughts, these feelings. In case they get forgotten, too, overridden like a robot's program. Find a space, a coordinate, to tuck them a way, bury under a loam of distractions, birthday wishes, paper and bows and thing I've seen mostly in cinemas. Chemicals are not lasers. Drugs are not scalpels. Doctor Chin can't fine tune his particular form of butchery. Can't chop them out -- so maybe batter them down with a hammer. Paint them out with a heavy white base. Remove the emotion, remove the driver of the individual, remove the heart of rebellion. Saving his little girl just for himself. Maybe that's why this thing with Jason is still alive. We're still living in the hothouse, still living under extremes, stress, danger, fear, afraid to let go of the only thing we still know we have. Or maybe we still have this thing because of our fathers who fought so hard against it, not just out of Forbidden Fruit (tasty, delicious, dripping), but because they locked it up in twisted, fractured amber. The iconoclast hit the Cerebrum, of course. Byron Quill is a thinking man. Frontal, Parietal, Occipital, Temporal. Neat and tidy and cataloged. Thought and perception and memory, elegantly organized, cubby holes and file drawers and disk drives and clouds of data, taken in and processed and associated together. The "higher" memory, thus the most important. That's all anyone ever thinks of. Save this record, thougths and feelings, feelings and thoughts, don't talk about it, pull it out as my own checksum, my own comparison. Later. Not my father. Don't touch the pretty gray of the Cerebrum. The Limbic System, deep, deep down. More crude, more delicate, more powerful. Father was always about power over others. Power over me. Emotions. I remember almost everything about Jason. I feel almost nothing. Is that Scylla, or is that Charybdis? Will I be sucked down to the depths, or dashed against rocks? The few places the Autocrat missed still haunt me. A whisper of passion. A bubble of affection. A passing breeze of wonder and content. A whiff of need. The rest is gone. He looks at me and I know his face and it's people telling me stories about someone and then meeting him, silent newsreels in back and white. I see, but I don't feel . Except anger and fury and rage at the loss, horror over what was done, terror over what it makes me, sorrow over the loss, insecurity over what the future means to me. Does the Toymaker realize this? Does his little machine, creating collective memories, address something that the Iconoclast and the Autocrat failed to even think of? We are our memories, Jason told me. Even he doesn’t understand. Scylla. I have no doubt it will heal Jason's scars -- that's what he wants, after all. But my very different injuries? Charybdis. Do I really want it to? Or should --? * * * The cell chime breaks into my furious contemplation, the zero-gee tiger slinking into shadows, mental constructions slipping into storage, evaporating with the wind. Never let them know -- "I thought you'd like a shower break before going to your job interview, Alycia," Parker's voice comes over the hidden intercom. I realize my prison pajamas are wet with sweat. My body is trembling with exertion. I run back over the topic list, and I'm not surprised. "That's very thoughtful of you, agent." A corner of the cell rotates in a certain way, revealing the shower area, the water already flowing from a recessed ceiling head. I take a step, and the disembodied voice adds, "Penny for your thoughts." "There's your problem, Agent," I say, stripping off the damp clothing. "Thoughts aren't what you should really be concerned with." I step under the water, stand still, and try to think and feel nothing for a short while.