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The royal CycloBall was the most elegant ride Enioreh had ever touched. There was a blue couch taking up half the floor, wide enough to double as a bed. Its matching blankets were so soft they kept catching on the rough edges of her fingers. Silk tapestries hung in clusters along the wall, mostly obscuring the delicate summer glow of its Freshscreen. Light peeked through gaps in the fabric nonetheless, patterned after a gentle sky. Enioreh’s face and arm lay in a sunny patch, soaking up complimentary vitamin D. She passed the time tracing lacey outlines on her yellow dress. She’d thought it looked awfully sophisticated when she’d first seen it in her locker. Now she felt under-dressed just in the damn Cyc.

She realized it was a strange thing to worry about, all things considered. Something about the luxury set her on edge; it was all just too nice. Cycs were built with rotating layers that kept the inside steady, like the eye of a tornado. But Enioreh had never rode one this smooth. No stray vibration broke through to jar her – it was completely, unbelievably still. And outside, she knew there would be flames, and blood, popping and sizzling laser beams and human suffering in the electric wastelands where Offgrid enclaves hid, and privilege-stripped criminals were kept. But none of that got through the soundproofing.

There was even music – the kind of thing that used fragile instruments, one or two at a time. She kept expecting to hear something bang, a screech of metal or smashing glass. Incomprehensible that sounds so fine could be sustained. And it smelled good, like fucking beautiful meadows in here. After awhile Enioreh looked up and saw the source above her – a spindly silver vase sticking out of the wall. In it there was a real, live clump of flowers. Little purple ones puffing out of a verdant spine like earthbound clouds, and it was like the music, impossible to trust. She could see herself ripping them to shreds so easily, crushing them in one hand so the purple juice ran down her arm like blood and stained her. It was so fucking stupid for flowers to be here, and it all felt like a horrible trick, like proof that something bad would happen soon. Her body could not stop shaking. Draped again in jewelry and flowing clothes, and she was endless and reflecting, each face a tale wild and ethereal…she was a slashing, fearsome warrior, then a mermaid, laughing in luxuriant secrecy; she was a breathtaking angel, feeling sorry for the evil, gritty world, and then again a goddess who could only toy with helpless mortal men.

            Enioreh grabbed her head and held it with both hands. Every now and then this thing would happen, in her mind – like little bubbles of another person’s life sucking her up and popping. Little scenes that didn’t have cause or connection, and made her know she was just as crazy as anyone. Or, she thought sometimes, maybe it was a normal thing – thoughts and feelings that in a kinder time might be stories. But who had time to figure out what things meant? She didn’t. She had all she could do trying to prepare for whatever her fate might be.

If the rebel interview aired tonight, no one could touch her. The Offgrids even knew it; Emperor Mr. Biggs wouldn’t oppose the media. A few decades ago, when the veteran journalist Lobmys Adnikemos had turned up missing, people began to whisper that the crown had something to do with it. When no official explanation was forthcoming, the whispers turned to mass rage, and the Offgrids seemed to gain support. They’d managed to pull off a few serious hacks and blown up a castle before Biggs turned the tide of public opinion back in his favor with a flurry of decrees benefitting members of the media. It had cost him a castle’s worth of data at the very least. Now the crown had an almost obsessive protectiveness over the fourth estate; no one whose face went on the news would ever be suspected of terrorism.

The Cyc parked in another hour, and the music stopped short. The ceiling peeled apart, letting in the comforting, rusty scent of smoke. When it was all the way opened, Enioreh could see that she was banked on a high terrace of the great Public Relations castle, surrounded by the points of many towers. Everything to do with public affairs was planned and executed here, under the supervision of a handful of minor princes.

A handsome officer stood ready to greet her, uniformed in ice-blue with shiny medal accents. He extended a white-gloved hand to help her out. Enioreh stood clumsily, shaking the dress away from where it stuck to sweat spots on her skin. A hot gust of skyair blew her hair around her head, and she clamped down on it with both hands, forgetting to take the officer’s assistance when she hop-rolled out of the ball and onto the sooty terrace.

“Miss Enioreh, I presume?” Asked the pretty soldier, sounding chivalrously pleased to meet her.

“Uh-huh,” she agreed. “And who are you?”

“Major Seussi, at your service, Miss!” He bowed as he spoke.

“Nice,” Enioreh returned.

The Major escorted her along the terrace, which stretched almost the length of the castle between spiky turrets that completely blocked the landscape. The sky was swirling grey above, and roiling pink and green and red and white along the farthest edge. The PR castle was made of metal, more varieties than could be counted; it had fancy architecture, but distant war-sounds echoed along the tin-steel-spine as if through mountains – a crackle like fire, and the kind of booming blasts that get inside your chest and make you cough. Enioreh started to feel more normal.

They walked a few hundred yards, then took an elevator down to the middle of the castle, and there were no hallways; they walked in and out of windowless room after room until Enioreh was sure she’d never find her way back to the terrace. Each room they entered had three or four doors, sometimes one on every wall, sometimes two or three on the same one. Dimensions changed drastically from one room to the next; some were barely larger than a hole in the wall, fitting only one person at a time, and some were as big as two or three offices put together back at the The Herald. Some of them weren’t even rectangular, but made up entirely of geometric surfaces that met haphazardly. Some rooms were as lavishly decorated as the Cyc had been – these ones usually had people sitting in them, eating or fiddling with their quasis. But most of the rooms were full of machines. People scurried anxiously around in these, playing with the instruments and shouting data sets at one another, lifting hurried hands in greeting to Major Seussi and Enioreh as they passed.

The Major guided her through door after door with a practiced step, never a moment of doubt.   “It’s a fairly convoluted route,” he apologized. “It’s a marvelous construction for security, of course. It is unfortunate we cannot offer a more pleasing visage to our guests.”

Enioreh smiled weakly. He might be very well aware that he was leading her to her death. It might be his job to kill her.

Finally, they reached a thick metal door marked, “Meeting”. The Major held it open for Enioreh, and the girl clenched her stomach to squish the nervous energy that was getting her all sweaty again.

The Meeting Hall was legendary. It was by far the biggest room Enioreh had ever seen, and among the most irregularly-angled. In some portions of it, the ceiling bubbled up cavernously; in others, it slanted away to barely higher than the rows of seats that closed around the Speaker’s Bench. This construction did funny things to people’s voices, stretching them thin and brittle or compacting them into hardened thunder, depending on where you stood; in one or two coveted spots, you could hear what was said at the Speaker’s Bench with near-perfect clarity. In others, you could only hear what was said by people sitting on the left side of the room, or only sounds an octave or two higher in pitch than a whistle. Many places mingled the echoes of old sounds with ricocheting new ones, exaggerating volume unexpectedly, so you weren’t exactly sure who was saying what to whom or how loudly or even really what order the words were in. There was one well-known crevice in the wall that did this in a beautiful way, making every sound into a somehow musical cadence that didn’t make sense but was a wonder to listen to. Sometimes people stuck a quasi there just for fun.

There was supposed to be some reason for using this as the conference Hall – the angles were designed to deflect spyware or something. But really, it was all about the sport. Good reporters spent years studying the Meeting Hall’s design, crafting strategies they hoped would get them ahead of the rest. Some were focused frankly on hearing the speeches, and many others, more crafty, looked for ways to spy on those with better positions or catchier interpretations.

Damn fucking Ret. This wasn’t Enioreh’s game. Veteran journalists packed the room, having arrived an hour or two early just to get a good spot. Some publications sent teams of reporters, who climbed on each other’s backs to gain the best sound bites. Most didn’t sit – the seats had generally terrible acoustics. Being among the last to enter, and entirely new to the castle-scene, Enioreh had little hope of getting a strategically good position; she headed for the chairs, pretending not to notice the looks she drew from other reporters – some contemptuous and others suspicious, wondering who she was and whether she had discovered some clever new strategy.

Blue poodles shone from many tattooed foreheads as they swiveled back and forth. Fucking posers, Enioreh thought. These guys were desperate to show off their political immunity, but they’d all get killed in time. Not even the Emperor’s pets were laser-proof.

Enioreh shook her head, making herself comfortable where she sat. Body language didn’t lie, and she had a better view of it from here. Someone back at headquarters could piece the speech together after the other reports came out; The Herald had a small and fiercely loyal audience, who waited for real news.

The Speaker’s Bench stretched the length of the room, and was peopled at the moment by mostly men in uniforms, with dented faces and lots of medals. A few were laughing; from where Enioreh sat, the laughter was buried under muffled grumbles and a general senseless loudness that came from everywhere at once. She wondered what it sounded like at the Speaker’s Bench. Many studies had concluded that it must be impossible for anyone seated there to hear anything clearly aside from their own voices, but some theorized that they could also hear the ocean.

Enioreh strapped the quasi to her shoulder and tapped it into “record” mode. She recognized the Prince Hedoniet where he sat at the center of the Bench. He looked scrawny in real life, not quite the chilling figure he always cut on screen. His skin was about the shade of boiling mushrooms, and his hair was a shade or two brighter than grape wine. His eyes had the color of the moon at harvest, all yellow-y. And they were looking straight at her.

Enioreh looked at the floor quickly, caught off-guard. Of course, though – she was the only one sitting down. Who else was he going to look at? The din petered out when one of the Speakers at the end of the Bench had gotten to his feet and begun to address the assembly. There was a muffled reaction from some of the journalists, gasps or maybe sighs, and a bleated muttering. Enioreh strained to hear the smaller sound of the Speaker’s words. They came when the man had finished speaking and was halfway back to his seat, seeming to have traveled all around the room and become worn-out before they reached her.

“It is my pleasure to introduce to you this evening, the good General Hedoniet.”

Enioreh’s heart sank. General Hedoniet, he’d said. That was a very bad sign. Hedoniet was youngest of all the Emperor’s nephews, a minor prince. Everyone should call him Prince, if this was a treaty discussion. General made this military. There would be no truce.

The Prince – General – surprisingly remained seated, with his fingers folded demurely into one another. The echoes of the press’s reaction had mostly died away when his voice came through – clear, cold, and pointed as an icicle. “The Emperor is not unfeeling,” he began, and Enioreh started to sweat when she realized that he was still looking at her.  “We understand that many of the people comprising the Primatives’ base are innocent children with no recourse to civilization.”

There were murmurs, low and ominous, from the rest of the press, smothering the Prince’s words. Had they all noticed the way he was staring at her?   Were they thrown off by the fact that he was addressing the assembly from his seat, rather than the podium? He hadn’t said anything spectacular yet. From the corner of her eyes, Enioreh saw journalists begin to jockey, quietly as possible, for new positions – many of them throwing inscrutable glances her way. They probably thought she’d had advance notice of the speaking arrangement; she had one of the best seats in the house now.

The Prince was wearing a wistful smile, like he found the words difficult to part with. Enioreh strained to hear them. After a time, she was able to make out,

“This can and must be our only negotiation. I firmly believe that peace shall reign, if the rebels would but accept our modest proposals for once and for all.”

There was a collective inhalation, like a passing wind, that floated along the outer edge of the room; a massive text box had projected itself suddenly into the space above the Speaker’s Bench, a dense outline crammed inside. There was new agitation as those members of the press with the worst acoustics jostled to take advantage of the visual field, but Enioreh doubted there was any vantage point that could have made the font legible; she was sitting closer to it than most, and she could only make out letters that were capitalized. It didn’t matter – people were tossing jealous glances her way, as though she had somehow arranged to turn what should have been one of the worst seats into the best.

The Prince’s reverberated words picked up speed until they were only barely comprehensible – the traditional style of delivering imperial decrees. After a few sentences Enioreh’s ears picked up the words, and in another second her eyes were coordinating the minute print with the sounds so that she knew almost exactly what was being said:

The purpose of this Agreement is to establish the terms and conditions of a Treaty of Accession! In this agreement the words “I,” “me” or “my” refer to the Supreme Emperor, Mr. Biggs, and all of the Empire by extension! The word, “Primitives,” refers to those regions which, due to unfortunate circumstances, and prior to this same Agreement, have been unresponsive to decrees of good and righteous law! The words “you” and “your” refer to all of those individuals who have actively contributed to the unfortunate circumstances mentioned above!

  1. With this Agreement, I hereby grant you an opportunity for Reconciliation, which assures for all parties a speedy return to the rule of law and to the benevolence of this mighty Empire! These terms and conditions will be established when you signify accession by physically signing this document, or by your use of imperial roads, currency, or language, or by your omitting to vocalize rejection of these same terms in the physical presence of one or more honorable Governors within thirty days of the issuance of this Agreement!
  2. Accession of this Agreement will establish the following:
  3. You and all of those who have lived as Primitives shall immediately receive full citizenship and be welcomed back to the imperial fold with all the benefits and privileges enjoyed by citizens!
  4. You shall suffer no reprisal, punishment, nor reprimand for unfortunate actions you may have taken prior to becoming civilized!
  5. You shall not be required to pay taxes, subscribe to news publications, attend Neighborhood Meetings, nor fulfill any of the other duties of a natural-born citizen for one full year from the date of your Accession!
  6. You shall be provided with employment training (in any field of your choice!), a re-adjustment stipend, and optional therapeutic counsel from the time of your Accession until such a time as you determine these benefits unnecessary!
  7. The terms and conditions established herein may at any point be determined null and void and shall at such point be rectified by Imperial Prudence without need of council or review from such other parties as may have previously established accession of these same terms and conditions, wherein any such alterations shall be instantly and retroactively enacted and enforced in any province deemed applicable.
  8. Your culture shall be preserved…

.

Enioreh stopped listening.   She glanced around the room, wondering how many other reporters had noticed that the treaty was total BS. Not too many, by the look of it – most of them seemed either excited, or just lost. Given the date, half of them were expecting a genuine truce. Wishful thinking.

Biggs would wait until half the empire was outraged at all the taxpayer-funded perks to rebels to start tinkering with the treaty. He might amend it with some mild sanctions, at first, pretending to do so as a concession to the critics. But he’d also add clauses that seemed to give the rebels more extravagant privileges – inflating the promised stipends, or lengthening the amount of time they wouldn’t have to pay taxes. Everyone would get angry again, and Emperor Biggs would keep on adding harsher sanctions and bigger pseudo-perks until the whole world was screaming for rebel blood.

The Prince, as he spoke, kept the vaguely pleasant look of someone delivering candy to a stranger from someone else. Enioreh strained to uncover a nugget of sincerity in his eyes that might prove she was wrong, but they held still, betraying nothing. The Prince seemed to notice her attention; his smile broadened, and the corners of his eyes creased, almost mischievously. Then he half-closed one eye at her. A wink? Did he just wink at me?

No fucking way she was wrong – there was definitely some nasty strategy at work here, and the Prince knew exactly what it was. What was that he’d said earlier, about “retroactive enforcement” of policies? What if…

Enioreh’s mouth went dry. What if the Empire’s forces had already done something to the Offgrids – something bad enough that Mr. Biggs felt the need for legal protection? If the rumors of an unstoppable weapons code were true, and every hiding rebel had been found and electro-fried, or rounded up…

No, Enioreh told herself, trying to think. They couldn’t have acted against the rebels yet. No one was exactly sure how many people comprised the Offgridland, but she knew there were enough walking around in camo-code that people would notice if they all dropped dead. Some estimates went as high as fifty percent of the world. None went lower than ten. So the Empire would have to wait for public opinion to catch up with policy before mass executing them. By the look of it, that wouldn’t be a very long wait.

Enioreh looked around the room again, noting every door. If that was really the plan, she might be the only person who could see it coming soon enough to stop it. She couldn’t let them take her life today.