Enioreh considered making a run for it, but without an escort she’d never find her way to the terrace. And even if she did, somehow, chances were slim she’d find an unprogrammed Cycloball – there would be security fields to keep non-royal Cycs away. A wild image came briefly to her mind, of darting on foot though the unprotected land beyond the security shield. Poor people lived in those places – there must be ways of crossing. But the thought was crazy, and she knew it, and let it flash away with the millions of other crazy thoughts she suddenly was having.
She’d never make it if she left alone. But if she waited for the end of the conference to leave and wound up dead, people would assume another journalist had killed her; it was a competitive field, after all. Which maybe explained why the Prince was sitting – he’d given her an auditory advantage to give the Empire a cover-story. What the fuck was she thinking, making herself stand out like this? Although…Probably no one else would leave the room as long as the conference was going on, and risk missing something valuable – which would make it harder for security to act against her without raising suspicions. Maybe she’d pull off this survival-thing a little longer yet.
Shakily, Enioreh got to her feet, and moved as boldly as she could to door. It made enough sound that heads turned in her direction; all the correspondents from the major publications noticed her leaving. Good thing.
The quiet outside the Meeting Hall was nauseating. The small room was lined with officer escorts, waiting at attention for their journalists. “Can I be of assistance, Madam?” Major Seussi asked gallantly, appearing at Enioreh’s side to offer her his arm.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m needed back at my station.”
Seussi’s face assumed a sympathetically-pained expression. “Ahh, how unfortunate,” he sighed. “Our Cycs are all in use at the moment. We did not anticipate that anyone would leave early.” His eyes lingered momentarily on Enioreh’s quasi, as though challenging it to protest. “Surely,” he said, “Your colleagues will understand. Perhaps you would be more comfortable waiting in the Meeting Hall? I will be sure to take you directly to the fastest CycloBall as soon as it arrives.”
“No,” Enioreh insisted, “I’ve got to go. I’ll just ask The Herald to send me a Cyc – you can upload our security sets to your database, can’t you, for a member of the free press? On a temporary basis, or something?”
Seussi’s left eye twitched. “But of course.” He didn’t move. “Ordinarily, security requirements prevent us from accepting outside Cycs. I will have to consult a supervisor with your request. I’m sure you understand.”
“Uh-huh,” said Enioreh, and her eyes were darting around the room again. The rest of the officers stood impassive against the walls. She wondered if it was the law that only buff, beautiful soldier-men were allowed in PR wings. All the soldiers she’d known before this had been greasy with bad posture from diddling computers sixteen hours a day. “So, uh – I guess you’ll need to go call that supervisor, then?”
Seussi smiled, still not going off to consult with anybody.
The young woman whipped her quasi open and pulled up Rey’s contact number as her officer motioned to two men who had just come into view in the doors on opposite ends of the room. Come on, Enioreh thought, willing the quasi to connect with Rey as the two tall men began their advance. Come on… A holographic image began to swirl in the air, but as the officers approached her, it flickered and would not take shape.
“Miss Enioreh requests permission to upload security codes from a personal CycloBall into our system,” Seussi reported, as one of the officers looked at him. “She has need to return to her establishment’s headquarters.”
“The Herald’s headquarters!” Enioreh corrected, her voice rising against her will. “You know, The Herald? The famous old-timey newspaper? It’s totally a press emergency, here!”
“Terribly sorry about the reception, madam,” Said one of the new officers. “Shall we escort you to a more convenient location?”
Enioreh jabbed desperately at the new quasi, even gave it a good shake, but the holographic image just fizzled away into nothing. The two officers hooked arms under hers and led her away through a door to the left, then into several more rooms before stopping in one that looked suspiciously like a torture chamber. There were hooks and laser-heads dangling from the stone ceiling, and there was no furniture in it except for a stool surrounded by serious-looking chains, straps and wires that stood on what looked to be some kind of electrical grid. A muffled commotion came from the Meeting Hall. Either the Prince had just said something extraordinary or the conference was over.
The quasi made a beeping sound, and a refreshed hologram started to blossom. “Hey,” Enioreh said, “You were right! The reception in here really is…”
The officer to her left snatched the device from her hands and, before she could finish her sentence, had smashed it against the floor.
“Are you serious!” Enioreh screamed, waving her arms. “That’s rude, guys!”
The officer opened his mouth and shut it again, apparently surprised at being called out.
“It’s standard procedure,” his partner cut in quickly. “We apologize for any inconvenience. Please, have a seat.”
Enioreh glanced at the weird half-stool, half-electrical-grid-looking thing. “I’ll stand, thanks.”
“Unthinkable,” came a purring, regal voice behind her.
Enioreh spun on her heels and caught a sharp breath. The Prince Hedoniet was stepping in through a door on another wall that seemed to connect to a plush hallway. Shit, she thought. Shit, shit! What kind of information did they think she had, that the Prince himself had come to preside over her interrogation?
The young woman twitched as the Prince flowed in wearing an expression of pleased disinterest. Hedoniet shook his head, sensuously tousling burgundy curls, taking his time crossing the room. Three other officers filed in behind him, two of them bearing a high-backed, velvety imperial throne, which they set down across from the electrical-looking stool. Enioreh grinned nervously, eyeballs jumping from face to hardened face, wishing for a flicker of sympathy.
“I will not have it said of Emperor Mr. Biggs that he refused seating to an honored agent of our free press,” The Prince was saying. “Nor can I endure to have it thought that any man in my motherland is so aesthetically calloused as to suffer fatigue in a creature of so ethereal and haunting a beauty. I am captivated.” The Prince reached her and drew her hand to his lips.
“Oh, um…thanks,” stammered Enioreh. “That’s, uh… cool of you, to say.”
The Prince’s arm was somehow under Enioreh’s, then, and he was leading her across the room toward the grotesque electric-stool. The officers had closed in around them, helping the Prince to escort her. One of them was resting his hand on the head of his laser-bender.
Enioreh swallowed hard as the Prince handed her into the deadly-looking seat. “What’s – uhm…what are you doing?” The guards, responding to the prince’s signals, were strapping Enioreh down, wrapping chains and wires around her legs and arms and torso and neck. A box! He said. A total cube! There’s a reason you won’t see boxes anywhere in nature. Her heart was throbbing in her throat. The soldiers acted as though she had not spoken.
“Yup,” she stammered. “That sure is..ah..comfy, there. Thanks so much for that.”
Hedoniet maintained a lazy smile, sinking into his portable throne. His eyes were the color of crystalline sulfur. Enioreh was starting to feel weird – not just from being scared. There was some strange electric energy between them, she could feel it. Not quite anger, or attraction, but like the way it feels to see a person you had a dream about that you can’t remember anymore.
“But of course,” stroked the Prince. “A guest must be honored – and you are quite the special guest. I requested you by name to represent your business, after that dreadful accident this morning. Please bring my condolences to all of your colleagues, as well the eternal thanks of the empire for so graciously bearing to part with you this evening.”
“Hey, you know? No biggie!” Enioreh tried to grin over the feeling of her throat closing. She hoped she looked gracious and not terrified.
The Prince continued to look at her, wordlessly, allowing seconds to drag more seconds by.
“Look,” she blurted, when she just couldn’t stand the silence. “I know why I’m here, ok? I know I was in the Pettyland, and everything. But, I swear, I didn’t learn anything important, nothing that could matter to you. I swear to God. They had me knocked out for the trip there and back, I couldn’t tell you how to get there even if my life depended on it. They didn’t even tell me their names, I can’t even remember how many of them there were, they, like, kept coming and going in the dark, and there were all these bombs, ok, and things were exploding all over the place, like, whoa, and..all I know is, all I know is they want peace and they’re, like, excited about the treaty, and…and…”
Enioreh felt her mouth go dry. The Prince, with a wave of his hand, was sending the officers away – each of them left through a different door. There was a metal-moving sound as they all locked from the outside. Shining metal claws were shooting down from the ceiling – creating a cage that enclosed her seat and the Prince’s. “Ok, that’s…wow,” Enioreh gasped. “Even you probably think that’s overkill!”
Hedoniet’s expression had not changed, which was scarier than anything.
“What’s wrong with you?” She screamed. “Those people, the rebels, they’re nice, ok – they’re really, really nice. There’s nothing bad about them, and I know what you’re trying to do, with your evil treaty and your evil loopholes – you want to wipe out the Pettyland once and for all, you want to turn the whole empire against them. You can’t get away with this, with genocide – I already messaged my boss about it, she knows all about clause 2.e. and is writing the story as fast as she can. Maybe it’s already done. Maybe she sent it out directly to every one of our subscribers with a note to all of them to send it out to all of their friends and family – everyone knows what you’re up to, and they’re really not happy about it.”
She stopped, feeling prickles rising on the back of her neck. The prince was laughing. He was laughing harder and harder, bending over in his chair to even put his back into it. He was trying to intimidate her, had to be, trying to get her to call her own bluff. She threw back her head and laughed along with him.
“Hahahaha! Exactly, man, it’s funny, right? Hahahaha. All that hard work for nothing. Good job, being a good sport about it, though! And you can’t kill me, either. Nope, because my interview with the rebels went out, like, hours ago, to our special audiences, and they’re prepared to send out the interview instantly if they don’t see my face on the news by midnight tonight. So if you off me, everyone’s gonna say you’re oppressing the media, and everyone’s going to riot, and the whole tide of war could turn around – you know what happened with Lobmys Adnikemos, don’t you? Yeah.”
The Prince’s laughter rolled away into a series of little, far-spaced “ha’s” and steadying breaths. He had a sad look in his eyes now. “It’s lonely at the top,” he sighed. “Up here, there is no mystery. Things are uglier, and less interesting.”
Enioreh squirmed uncomfortably. “Wow, yeah, huh? Why don’t you tell me all about that – I’m, like, so sensitive, and good at listening.”
He smiled sadly back. “I want you to know. You should know. We are not of this world.”
“Oh…right. I know – right! We’re all, like, different, and stuff, from everyone else. It’s, like, freaky how similar we are. Maybe even soul-mates – what do you think? Maybe, right? Man, though, that’s so cool that we figured this all out before you tried to kill me! We’ll have a good laugh about this after you let me go home and be alive.”
The Prince shook his head and stood, beginning a brooding pace inside the cage. “The most important thing that ordinary people do not understand, is that the Emperor is not planning to win the war.”
“Wait,” said Enioreh. “What?”
The Prince kept talking over her – in a strange, flat voice she had never heard him use in all his thousands of speeches or interviews. “It was common knowledge throughout the Inner Circle that we had achieved a state of peak efficiency, in which the greatest conceivable amount of power had been concentrated in the fewest possible hands. We could not efficiently control more than half the world. The status quo is maintained with such precision that no one could even consider a different way of life; we measure public opinion like temperature, seeking to maintain equal parts lethargy and fear. The tragedies that seem senseless to commoners – the battles, the raids, the mistakes – all of them are very carefully coordinated. Losses are directed in predictable cycles, like an unwritten tax. Without being consciously aware of the fact, people know to expect a certain amount of carnage every so often. Too much fear or lethargy, any more or less tragedy, would create excess energy, destroying the balance of sameness. Like a misstep in a dance, the disharmony can force self-consciousness.
“From the moment I fell into the inner circle, I have known no global mystery, nor expected any. It was all I could do to play. We always prefer, of course, to be winning, but we can never allow ourselves to win. The greatest high is to have, beside your own sense of victory, the fire of players who have yet to realize their loss – whose passions flare to fuel your own.”
“So…what, you’re saying the rebels fight you to keep your spirits up?”
The Prince sighed again. “I hate politics.” His mouth closed quickly, as though surprised at what his brain had made it say. He closed his eyes a second, and when he opened them again they were harder than before. “I do,” he said. “I hate war. I hate ugliness. I hate this status-quo, that feeds on misery and never dares to rest with triumph. The world has screamed so long it’s now afraid of what the quiet holds.”
His voice was bouncing back and forth between the crisp new flatness and its usual rolling honey. It made Enioreh curious to hear more. “Right,” she breathed. “Totally inconsiderate of the world, to do that.”
The Prince stopped pacing, turning urgent eyes to Enioreh. “Quiet can only come from peace. And peace would come with triumph. But it seems great men have not the strength to will it so.”
“Kay,” said Enioreh. “That’s cool to know, and all, but…are you gonna let me go, or what?”
“Enioreh,” The Prince reached a hand out, almost touching the girl’s chin. “You and I have a destiny greater than almost. Peace, true peace, is within our grasp.”
“Whaaat are you talking about?” Enioreh laughed, nervously.
“One year ago, a breakthrough in technology was achieved – greater than any that has ever been known. A top scientist developed a machine that had the power to send creatures into the past and future.”
“Wait,” said Enioreh. “What?”
“We discovered time-travel.”
Enioreh breathed. “In the treaty…you said something, didn’t you, about retroactive enforcement…?”
The prince allowed himself a chuckle. “You really are very shrewd.”
“Well don’t go sounding so fucking surprised.” Enioreh closed her eyes, struggling to wrap her head around too many thoughts at once. This was not at all the conversation she had been expecting. “Then…the whole treaty – you’re saying it’s not about genocide?”
“The treaty has nothing to do with our present.” The Prince’s smile turned into a smirk. “Mr. Biggs was not pleased at the technological advancement. A device that can unravel the known order of the universe is no welcome thing to those for whom the world is already ordered as they like. My uncle had the machine destroyed last year. He thinks the inventor was killed, as he commanded. But I didn’t let him die. I saw in him a chance to make something of the world.
“The scientist went into hiding here, among the Public Relations experts. I’m the only member of the inner circle who has any reason to come here on a regular basis – so I was in a perfect position to monitor his work.”
“You had him build another time-mach-aghgh!” Enioreh cut herself off, feeling as though she’d snapped out of a hypnotic trance.
The Prince had pulled a gold case from his suit and began removing pieces of a ridiculously long needle, which he screwed together with meticulous care. “I had him convert his innovation to a more practical, portable form.” He turned a goldish vial onto the needle and flicked it gently with his middle finger and thumb. “If isolated and introduced directly into one’s blood, the particles most active in chronotrek can empower the mind to do impossible, unbelievable things.”
“Keep the fuck away from me with that!” Enioreh tried to make her angry eyes scrape over his soul and wound him. Somehow she’d keep him there, in that fucking chair, away from her.
The Prince let the needle sit balanced in his palm. “My lady,” he sang. “I do nothing except by your command.”
Enioreh breathed. Sweat was breaking out all over her face, and she couldn’t wipe it off because her arms were tied down. The Prince’s hypnotism had almost worked. But this was a trick; she knew what it was. This was the Prince trying to settle her fears to make the dying easy. If she didn’t have a genocide to talk about she might have been ok with going out that way. Think, think, think!
“Untie me, then, if you’re such a nice guy. There’s no reason for all this –” She jerked her head up at the cage around them and back down at the chains that locked her in.
“Be not hasty, maiden fair,” The Prince purred. “You shall hear the full truth first, that you know what it is you are requesting. These shining ornaments are not to harm, but rather help you channel your dreams as you will. The particles I hold are inconceivably powerful, but these metal bits are filled with matter of an opposing nature. Should you desire to take flight on the wings of your own imagination, this metal stands to keep the rest of this world here, that none may follow uninvited.”
“And why are you here, then?” Enioreh tried to sound in-control. “Hoping I’ll invite you on the trip, or something? Cause I got to tell ya, my imagination is pretty fucked up for a Prince to want in. There’s no music there, no beautiful flowers. It’s all fucking creepy and shit. How ‘bout you stab yourself with that shit, and go off on your own imagination’s wing? That’d be cool, right? I bet you it’s wicked enchanting.”
“My dream is only this – to unlock an existence of peace and beauty. I plan for us to journey to the battle of Theminus, 50 years ago – the day the Empire almost won. That was the last battle honestly fought – the last sincere defeat before the notion of victory was cast aside. My resemblance to my grandfather is such that I could have taken up his post and led his men – knowing as I do exactly where the rebels were and what they were planning. I would go and I would win, a simple matter.
“Alas, every one of our test subjects died or lost sanity when exposed to Chronojuice. I’d nearly lost hope when, last month, something happened. A woman appeared in the middle of the floor, right there, and warned us one alone is fit for chronotrek. You, Enioreh! Your marvelous brain can take others along for the ride, only if you touch them. A beautiful woman she was who spoke those words, the very image of you – for she was your future. She disappeared as soon as the message was out.”
The prince was looking somberly at the ground, and Enioreh was glad of that because she could feel her forehead crinkle and her eyes pop, plainly expressing her thoughts. Dude’s nucking futs…
He looked up and she nodded right away, pursing her lips like it all made sense.
“My every act since seeing you,” the Prince went on, “Has been in obedience of your command. I convinced the Inner Circle that it is in the greater interest of the status quo for you to die. It was easy to do, once word came that you were going to the Pettyland. I argued that killing a neutral journalist is the only way to restore balance, with the rebels on the verge of collapse. We had to stir up a public outcry against ourselves. And they agreed. They arranged for you to be brought here for the conference, and I wrote a treaty that could be used equally to make the people love or hate us. It all made sense to them. And here we are – ready, at last, to change the world!”
Enioreh shifted again. “Hey, I’m totally in favor of world peace,” she said uncomfortably. “I don’t mind being your telekinetic chauffer, like, at all, or anything. Tell you what. Unhook me here, let me put in a quick call to the station, and I’ll totally do it. I mean, if we’re re-making the world it doesn’t much matter what happens in this one, and if you need my imagination to be all productive, and whatnot, you should let me clear my head first by talking to my boss. Cool?”
The Prince was reaching into his jacket’s quasi pocket, and for a second Enioreh thought it had actually worked, that’d she’d convinced the most persuasive man in the world to let her call Rey on his own quasi. “Yeah, dude, thanks,” She started weakly. “This is such a good idea, of yours!” She stopped.
The Prince wasn’t holding a quasi. He was holding a military lapel pin – the Blue Hand.
“In gratitude of your service to the crown, Enioreh, I hereby and with every honor elevate you to the full rank of Smakabich. On the shores of Theminus it will be known to all that you have earned your place and will answer to none below me.”
“Go fuck yourself!” Enioreh gasped. If she went to the grave with one of the most enviable ranks in the military no one would believe she’d ever been a free press agent. Her interview would look like an attempt by the crown to dialogue with the rebels, and her death would be spun as an act of Petty aggression in the face of peace talks. The legendary moral fiber that was the Offgridland’s only defense was crushed in one moronic move of hers. She should have seen this coming, as the rebels had, and hid herself away.
“The rebels saw this coming,” Enioreh whispered, hearing her thoughts again. The Prince had moved to pin the Blue Hand to her, but Enioreh caught his eyes and made him pause. “I have molars,” she hissed, her lips now tight in smile. “Baby teeth. One for me, and one for my sister.” She’d left them on Reyolpme’s desk. “Go ahead and pin that to me – if you can prove I’m on your side, now, so can they! This war will not be over yet!”
It was a second tremblingly intense where they both stayed, looking each other through. Then the Prince kept moving, his fingers graceful as they fastened the Blue Hand to her shoulder, and in the next instant Enioreh screamed in pain; the Prince had taken advantage of having his hands so close to her neck, and with a trick of his hands had pushed the needle through a vein.
“Think not on war any longer, Enioreh. Think, and think of peace –world peace, that you are helping to create. Think, think, of Theminus, and of the beach where the CycloBalls first stood, hundreds and hundreds, ready to launch. There is the sand, sparkling white under your feet, and under shining chrome spheres. There are the waves, beyond, the sky above, your world that is too beautiful for war, too beautiful…”
The sound of the Prince’s voice put her in a sleepy mood, and yet her mind was feeling quicker, more awake in a strange, strange way. There was something exciting and new going on – and scary, and uplifting. She was almost floating above her body already.
“If you kill the rebels, we will haunt you.”
Shake shake from all things great and strange, fasten into waves well-known –so casting out thin dreams of what might be, yet draw again of tainted sea…sigh, and sigh, of ocean faint, let waters steal you, whispers blow…believe in only glow what hides and stays in olden dim, and knows to wake stiff glimmers where they lie…push back, and back again, against the grain well after longing left behind – slip, slip, into always one and nevermind what bright or shade might come in all the ever all was ever well…catch, catch, by calling spark, and pulse enough to love, and love enough for brutal choosing…go…