FFFF #9: Dangerous Thoughts 1.3

I’ve spent so much time working on the Dangerous Thoughts series that I have had zero time to come up with new stories for First Friday Free Fiction. Instead, I’m going spend the next five consecutive Fridays serializing the first volume of the series.

One chapter every Friday for five Fridays. Or if you get impatient you can go here and buy Volume 1 for all of 99 cents.

What follows is Chapter 3 of Volume 1: Hive from the series Dangerous Thoughts. If you haven’t read Chapters 1 & 2 yet, go here and do so first or you’re going to be really confused.

As usual, all of this is my intellectual property so don’t reproduce this without attribution.

Text Copyright © 2015 Jake MacMillan

All Rights Reserved

 

Chapter 3.

1. He noticed Mary wasn’t next to him in the tube when he jacked out. Figuring she had gone down to the facilities ahead of him, he jumped out of the tube and slid down the ladder to the catwalk. Unfortunately, this involved going past his parents’ tube where he caught sight of his mother tending to his father’s bloody knuckles. Seeing this, he realized he had been logged in all afternoon, long enough for the men to go do their blacklegging and come home.

He averted his eyes and dropped the rest of the way onto the catwalk.

“Missed you out there today, boy,” his father called.

Paul said nothing, choosing instead to make his way to the facilities for his evening meal. Running a little late, he had to shove porry into his mouth as quickly as possible in order to finish before his shift ended. Then he went with the others into the locker room and washed up before returning to his tube.

He was on his way back when he noticed Mary coming toward him from an odd direction. He was trying to puzzle out where she had been, if not in the women’s chow hall, when he noticed the look of shock on her face. Her eyes were open a little too wide and her mouth drawn a little too tight. She didn’t appear to see him.

“Mary? Sis? You okay?” he asked.

She turned her head slowly to face him but didn’t say anything.

“Hey, you’re red in the face,” he said with a teasing smile. “Something embarrassing happen?” But then he noticed she wasn’t red on both sides of her face. “It looks like a handprint.”

At that moment, Thomas Greer, eldest son of Rev Greer, walked up and clasped Mary’s shoulder in his overlarge hand causing her to stiffen at his touch. Thomas sneered at Paul and said, “Not even married yet and I already had to correct her.”

Paul now realized where Mary had been. There was a place in the stacks above the cold rooms where the banks of servers were housed that couples used for courting. “What did you do?”

Older than Paul, Thomas was also larger and stronger. He reached out as if to put his hand on Paul’s shoulder but then, at the last moment, slapped him so hard across the face that he fell off the catwalk. Fortunately, they were on the ground level, so he only had a foot or so to fall, but he landed oddly and took a spill that tossed him on his butt.

“You don’t touch my sister! You don’t ever touch her. I will kill you!”

“She’s not your sister anymore,” Thomas said with a look of sad bemusement. “We were betrothed today. Your father gave me her hand.”

“She’s not old enough,” Paul said. “Not for another year.”

“It’s going be a long engagement.” He took his hand from Mary’s shoulder and sauntered off, laughing to himself.

Paul climbed back onto the catwalk and took his sister by the arms. “What happened? What did he do?”

She blinked and shook her head, as if trying to escape a terrible dream. “He went on the blackleg raid today. Father was so impressed with his ‘work’ that he made it official. I’m to be Thomas’s wife. We are betrothed.” The word “betrothed” slithered out of her mouth like something that left a foul taste behind.

“No, I mean, did he hit you?”

“He took me to the kissing place,” she said, not looking at him. “He tried to… touch… me. I stopped him. He got angry. When I said that he would rather have me pure on our wedding night he hit me and told me never to tell him what he wants again.” She looked up at him, her eyes brimming with tears. “Oh, Paul, I can’t marry him. He’ll kill me.”

He took her into his arms and held her while she wept. He wanted to tell her it would be okay, that everything would turn out all right, but it would have been a too obvious lie. For Primitives, a wife was property. Their father had been so angry that his second child was female he had simply stopped having children all together. He wanted nothing more than to be rid of her. He wouldn’t care if Thomas beat his daughter. He treated Paul’s mother the same way, had almost killed her right in front of Paul the night she gave birth to Mary.

“Come on, let’s get you back to the tube,” he said, turning her for home. “We can log in and meet at the sock hop.”

“Can’t,” she said blankly. “Have school.”

“Okay, after.”

“Okay,” she said.

Paul had never felt so worthless in his whole sorry existence. A proper brother would have honor killed Thomas right there on the catwalk but all he could do was slink back to his tube with his tail between his legs. His future brother-in-law was too big and too strong and a much better fighter, but worse, he possessed that love of violence that Paul could only muster in moments of pure rage.

 

2. Back inside their tube, he watched Mary drag her visor down and log in to school. He remained behind for a moment to try to come to terms with the knowledge that Thomas Greer was going to marry his sister. If James Corday could have picked a worse candidate to be her spouse, Paul was unaware who it could have been. Thomas was an arrogant bully who had already made it clear he didn’t respect Mary. If he had ever entertained an original thought in his small mind, he would have yanked it out of the ground by its roots and salted the earth where it had sprouted.

Who was Mary going to talk to when she disappeared inside the impenetrable puzzle box of a hive marriage? Who was going to catch the subtle punchlines of her jokes? How long would the love in her heart last before Thomas beat it out of her? How long before she became another empty shell like their mother?

He had to do something to clear his mind. He couldn’t spend the rest of the evening letting this unsettling news rattle the windows of his mind. He had to do something to get active, to get mentally engaged so he could come to terms with the fact that he was going to have to murder Thomas Greer sometime in the near future.

The note. The squirrely one from Intra-Galactic. He wanted to take another look at it just in case he had missed something important. He reminded himself that, while Intra-Galactic had sent him a letter that wasn’t 100 percent a rejection of his application, that did not mean that they were going to let him in. Or even test him. There was no law that said they had to test everyone who put in an application.

He pulled the visor down, suffered through that moment of dislocation that was so disturbingly like the sensation of falling asleep, and then found himself on Main Street where it was sunny, warm and comfortably breezy.

A delivery urchin appeared almost immediately.

“Message for you, Mr. Corday,” he said, handing over a piece of virtual paper.

Paul slipped it open, his eyes eagerly scratching at the page for information. They found none. The only words on the page were “Test 1” which had been neatly lettered at the bottom. In the middle of the page someone had drawn four rows of short lines. The first two rows were vertical lines and the second two were horizontal lines of varying length.

He tried to crack open the message to check the source code, but there was none. This message was in plain text. It had no inner workings. So it had to be a cipher of some kind. A code. He did a quick search for code breaking information and got back a few links and a warning that if he wanted more information on this subject he would have to clear it with the Missionary. He definitely wasn’t going to do that, so he followed the few links he was able to find and spent the next hour reading up on various letter substitution and codebook techniques for encoding messages. It was interesting reading but it didn’t to apply to the seemingly random collection of geometric lines on the page.

But were they random? The first two lines contained nothing but verticals. The next two lines contained only horizontals. The fourth line had two horizontal bars followed by three horizontal bars. The next position was also three bars. In the first line, the fifth and sixth verticals were half sized whereas the first four ran the full height of the vertical space. The fifth vertical was anchored to the top of the line but the sixth was anchored to the bottom.

He got a tiny charge of excitement from this, struck by the feeling that the fifth and sixth verticals were the key to cracking the puzzle. Two lines of verticals and two lines of horizontals. Puzzle? The word stuck in the middle of his brain for a moment. Puzzle? Puzzle pieces?

He selected the first row of horizontals and dragged it up to overlay the first row of verticals. When he had them aligned just right, he merged the two and had it converted into text. The result was not immediately clear: A850LU7E.

No, that couldn’t be right. He decided he needed a place to work on this project where he wouldn’t be bothered. The only such place where he could be truly alone was the great hall in the Demon Hunter simulation.

His arrival there set off quite a stir. He was still the only player ever to be disciplined for violence against noncombatants. Most of the other players gathered in the hall had most likely thought they would never see him again.

Of course, no one actually wanted to talk to him about it. No one was curious about his side of the story. They had just assumed the shame would force him to leave and never return

He took to one of the red leather wingchairs and opened the test again. A850LU7E. A 850 Lu 7e. Or was the 7 a T. That would make it A 850 LUTE. A lute was a musical instrument. Maybe an 850 was a particular type of lute. A model number. He decided to merge the second line of horizontals with the second line of verticals.

P0UUEA

Okay, that made even less sense than the first line. Every part of his brain was urging him to move on to some other strategy except for the one very vocal part that kept forcing his attention back to that first line: A850LUTE. It was as if one part of his brain recognized what was hidden there but couldn’t communicate it to the rest of his brain.

“Not going out today?”

Paul knew from the odd accent that it was Bertilak talking to him. He looked up and smiled. “No, working on something else.”

Bertilak nodded but seemed disinterested. “Seventy-five thousand.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ll give you $75,000 for your vector. Now, before you reject my offer again, think about this: The next time you go out, you could be killed. You would lose everything you own and be out $75,000. You’re a smart kid, what’s the smart move here?”

“The smart move is to sell,” Paul said. Then he smiled and added, “But I guess I’m not that smart.”

Bertilak bellowed out a deep belly laugh and clapped his hand on the back of Paul’s chair. “What a pip! Just keep my offer in mind when you’re out there. If things get too hairy, turn around, come back here, and let me make you rich.”

“Thank you for your offer,” Paul said. He didn’t know whether he should like Bertilak or not but he did like him. Probably because he was the only player in the game that would talk to him as if he were a person. “I will keep it in mind.”

When Bertilak wandered off, probably to molest some other player about selling his vector, Paul returned to the puzzle.

A850LU7E

P0UUEA

That first word tugged at his subconscious mind, whispering its meaning at a volume just slightly too low to be heard. The other word was nonsense, but that first one looked like it could be read under certain circumstances. But under what circumstances? Well, first off, he would have to remove the numbers. Or replace them. But with what?

The eighth letter of the alphabet was H. The fifth was E.

AHE0LUTE didn’t make much sense.

He realized then he had forgotten to translate the zero because it naturally looked like an O. But what was the 0th letter of the alphabet? The realization struck him like someone had plugged his spine into an electrical outlet.

A zero looked like an O.

He had already replaced the 7 with a T without thinking about it.

A five looked like an S.

But what about the eight? An eight sort of looked like a B.

ABSOLUTE.

A sense of serenity rushed in to fill the void left by the rapidly dissipating adrenaline surge. He had it now. What was next?

POUUEA.

There was nothing to fix. No digits to replace with letters. He was back to square one. Or was he? The first word had to be ABSOLUTE. If that was the case, the second word had to be translatable in the same way. Didn’t it? He selected the text and undid the merge, returning it to a mix of overlapping horizontal and vertical lines.

The PO part was obviously correct, or at least couldn’t be transliterated, but the two U’s… He stopped. The two U’s. Double-u. W.

That yielded POWEA which still didn’t make any sense. But that last letter looked like an A because its lines were squared off. Restricted to verticals and horizontals, that arrangement of lines could just as easily have been an R.

POWER.

ABSOLUTE POWER.

For a moment, he was thrilled. But then… Absolute Power… what? Maybe it didn’t matter. He dragged his fingertip down the page to move the cursor next to the text that said, “Test 1,” and then opened a keyboard to type, “ABSOLUTE POWER.”

The moment he typed the last character, the page burst into flame and disappeared with a pop. It was wonderful, of course, because it probably meant that he had passed the first test, but it was also terrible because that page had been plain text. There had been no computer code embedded in it that could have recognized the correct phrase unless someone had been watching him type it. He stood up and looked around. No one was near enough to have seen him typing unless they happened to be invisible.

 

3. Though he wanted to spend the rest of the evening pondering the implications of what had just happened, he was actually pressed for time. Mary would be done with her extracurricular activities in two hours and he wanted to make a probing advance on the Green Knight before checking out of the game to deal with his sister’s situation.

Still in the great hall, he stood and made his way to the stables, conscious of all the eyes on his back as he left. Those players, both above and below him in the standings, no longer knew how to categorize him. Once he had been a routine but very successful player. Now he was an enigma who probably should have been kicked out of the game for disciplinary reasons and yet continued to show up and play nonetheless.

On his way out, he spied Lancelot55, currently in sixth place on the leader board, and punched him good-naturedly on the shoulder. “How about that Green Knight, yeah? Am I right? That’s some kind of boss, right?”

Lancelot55 recoiled from his touch as if he had been reached out to by a leper and simply glared at him with angry confusion. Paul laughed out loud and made his way to back door to the stables. Odds were good he would be killed on this sortie or the next or the one after that, but he was going to live the life of a champion while he could.

Once at the stables, he climbed into Gringolet’s saddle, and said, “Yeah, yeah, the Green Knight awaits me,” to his squire before kicking his horse into a dead run. He shot out of the castle into the hinterlands at full gallop laughing maniacally while the other players watched him dumbly from the windows of the great hall.

What was the difference between dying in the game and dying in real life? It was easier to die in life because that was the end. It was over. In the game, you had to stand back and watch as everything you held dear was ripped from you and then you had to start over. Well, if he was going to die in the game that had come to be his life, he was going to go down swinging. He was going to find the Green Knight and do something that would yield the tiniest bit of information on how that monster might be defeated and then he was going to do the honorable thing and run away as fast as Gringolet could carry him.

He raised his right fist in the air as if calling down a curse from the heavens and yelled, “Shortcut!” He galloped through the shimmering portal and instantly found himself striding tall in the saddle outside the same village where he had allegedly murdered the defenseless inhabitants. They appeared to be quite well now, blithely going about their daily chores, not wounded, not killed. The Green Knight was there, menacing them simply by sitting astride his horse at the edge of their village.

Paul edged Gringolet forward. “Can we leave the innocent bystanders out of it this time or do you feel the need to cheat again?”

“Them?” The Green Knight said, nodding toward the village. “Are they innocent? I seem to remember they tried to eat your flesh.”

“In a fever dream you created,” Paul said. “What do you say we just fight and get it over with?”

The Green Knight chortled. “They’re robots, Gawain. Why do you care so much about them?”

This statement drew him back. The Green Knight had just used the word “robots” inside the game to describe something in the game. It was wrong on so many levels he didn’t know how to process it. Unless… what if the Green Knight was a player character? What if, unlike all the foes he had faced below 13th rank, there was a human behind his vector? That would explain a lot.

“I care because I care. I don’t need a reason.”

The Green Knight was unmoved. He drew his sword and saluted Paul with it. “Arm yourself so we can get you properly killed and I can get on with my day.”

Paul was struck by an idea at that moment that was so stupid it was literally suicidal. It was a tactic logic warned him he shouldn’t try, but he knew he had to do something odd, something unexpected if he was going to tease out any information about this new adversary. He couldn’t simply clash with the Green Knight in open combat. He would be killed straight away. He had to do something to change the field of play for both of them. So instead of drawing his sword and shield, he began to dismount.

This solicited a laugh from his opponent. “Really? You think you have a better chance of defeating me on the ground? Might I remind you that you only survived our last encounter because your horse is a better fighter than you?”

Paul ignored him and continued to dismount, saying only, “If you’re afraid, run away.”

The Green Knight barked out a good natured laugh, as though he was truly enjoying the moment, and then sheathed his sword and dismounted. The moment his foot hit the ground, Paul swung himself into the saddle and kicked Gringolet into a charge. The Green Knight caught motion from the corner of his eye and immediately tried to regain his saddle but by then Gringolet’s breastplate was crashing into him and his horse.

The blow knocked the Green Knight to the ground and sent his horse charging off in a different direction, the blade of abomination still securely in its sheath on the saddle. Paul turned Gringolet in a circle while drawing his sword and then quickly brought it down on the knight as he struggled to his feet. The blade struck him on the steel collar behind his head and knocked him back to his knees. Paul then drove the point into the Green Knight’s back, hoping to pierce the weakened armor, but the plating was still too strong. If he wanted to get through that plus steel, he would have to spend an appreciable amount of time hacking away until it basically fell off.

Instead, he turned Gringolet and charged after the Green Knight’s fleeing horse.

“There you go again!” the Green Knight called from the ground. “Running away!” He laughed and got to his feet. It was then he realized he didn’t have his sword. “Wait…”

Once the Green Knight’s mount had put some distance between itself and the collision, it slowed to a trot. It spooked a little when Gringolet pulled up alongside but Paul was able to grab the reins and lead it away.

He couldn’t use the sword of abomination or any of the other weapons attached to the saddle – it would be the equivalent of a war crime for a hero knight to use evil weapons even if he did so in pursuit of good – and the mount was obviously inferior to Gringolet, but he could sell the whole lot and use the gold to trade up his armor and weapons. It wasn’t much of a victory but at least he would be on a more even plane the next time they met in battle.

When he returned to the stables, he gave Gringolet to his squire, put his weapons and armor into inventory, and then made his way to the town that had sprouted up just outside the castle walls. It was the standard representation of such things: dirt streets covered with a light dusting of hay and manure. Shops manned by NPC vectors waiting for something to do lined both sides of the street. He would be visiting them soon, but first he had to go the little stone church at the end of a nameless lane.

Inside the rough structure were roughhewn pews, four to a side, lit only by sunlight that burst through the leaded glass on a great window over the front doors. At the edge of the chancel, in front of the altar, was a stone pillar that supported a baptismal font.

He called to a short man in a black cloak huddled in prayer, “Excuse me, preacher, I need to have this baptized.”

The preacher looked up at him with a simple, mechanical smile. “What have you got there, good sir knight?”

“A sword of abomination.”

The preacher blinked and nodded. “Ah, yes. I believe we should be able to clean that right up for you.”

It was pointless to try to sell an evil sword. Demons didn’t buy their weapons or their armor. They were just awarded them – probably by Satan himself – and a hero knight couldn’t use such things. But if he paid a small fee to have the preacher baptize the evil out of it, the diminished sword would be something a lower rank knight could purchase as an upgrade.

Owing to the church’s prohibition on the display of magic in any venue, the process of rendering the sword inert was a bit anticlimactic. The monk simply splashed some water from the font onto the blade and said, “By the power of God, I drive the evil from this relic.”

And that was that.

Paul went out into the street and down to the barnlike structure that served as the blacksmith’s workshop. He sold the weapons there and then went down to livery where he sold the Green Knight’s tack and horse. Then he took his fresh riches to the armorer where he traded his sword of righteousness and all his gold for a flaming sword of eternal light. Not only was it a righteous blade that would cause evil creatures to explode when it graced their flesh, its flame would also inflict heavy damage whenever it came into contact with accursed armor. He figured it might be his one chance to wear down the Green Knight’s plus defenses without getting so very killed in the process.

 

4. He left the castle and returned to Main Street just in time to get a text message from Mary asking him to meet her at the sock hop. On his way there he was stopped by yet another messenger boy. He took a moment to open the folded piece of paper, afraid it would contain a terse rejection from Intra-Galactic but eager to see if it might be another challenge. In the middle of the page was a single line of text: “Complete the sequence.” Below that was a string of digits: “3151818211620.” At the bottom of the page was written, “Test #2.”

Complete the sequence? He did some quick math in his head. Add 20 to 31 to get 51. Add 30 to 51 to get 81. Add 1 to get 82. And then an 11. That made no mathematical sense to him but he hadn’t expected it to be easy. He slipped the page into his inventory and headed over to the sock hop to meet with Mary.

Once again, his progress was halted by a familiar voice.

“$100,000.”

Paul stopped and turned to find Bertilak, although outside of the game his name was actually rendered as Blaylock, grinning at him. “It’s my final offer.” He was still tall and broad shouldered but his extravagant mustache was gone, its absence leaving his vector’s face a little flat and featureless.

Paul smiled and said, “Then I guess this is my final rejection. Have you tried some of the players above me on the list? Maybe they would be amenable…”

“No, not at all. I want your vector.”

“Why mine specifically?”

“You’re at the 13th rank,” Bertilak/Blaylock said. “You’re right at the beginning. The other players are already most of the way through as far as I can tell. I want to walk in your shoes.”

“I’m sorry to be rude, but I have to go. Someone is expecting me,” Paul said.

“Final offer,” Blaylock reminded him. “Going once. Going twice…”

“And I’m gone,” Paul said and then stepped through the door into the sock hop.

It was a little like passing through a shortcut in Demon Hunter. A sock hop building’s façade looked very much like that of a drugstore or a haberdashery, but when a vector passed over its threshold it was immediately transported to the gymnasium of a mid-20th century high school decked out for a school dance, the decorations limited to crepe streamer and poster board around a clutch of card tables on the gleaming floor of the basketball court.

A DJ spun vinyl records on the stage at the far end so that the vectors of Methodist and Episcopalian kids could dance while those belonging to the stricter denominations sipped flavorless lemonade and watched from the tables.

He found Mary as far from the dancers as possible, sitting across the table from some boy he didn’t recognize while dreamily listening to music that was old when their grandparents had been recycled.

He started to take a seat at the table with them but then realized with a shock that they were using the special sibling code he and Mary had worked out for secret communication. As they spoke, their hands jittered on the table, modifying the meaning of their words. Had his sister fallen in love with some boy outside the hive? That could not have happened. That would be terrible for everyone involved. He took a seat, throwing shade at the boy who refused to look at him. “Hey, Sis, how’s it going?”

As the boy slid away from the table and disappeared into the crowd, she said, “I just wanted to thank you for trying to help me with Thomas.”

Trying to help. Trying. That word was like a hot spike in his heart. For his whole life he had loathed the violence his father loved so dearly but now he was beginning to crave it. A violent man could have defended his sister.

“But I also wanted to ask you not to do it again,” she said. “Don’t be mad. I just… it can’t help. The situation can’t be helped. If you beat him up he’ll take it out on me. If he beats you up, he will still take it out on me. Look, it’s like with Mother, my job from now on is to manage my husband so that I don’t get killed. You can’t be a part of that.”

“I want to do something,” Paul said, churning inside with an impotent rage that knew no master and had no outlet. “I just wish I could bash his face in.”

“Suppose you could,” she said. “What would Father do if you beat up his prize protégé? Thomas has always been his finest student. And when he went out blacklegging, Father said he performed so well that he was a prize any woman would be happy to have.”

Paul looked away, his mood clouding over, and seethed into the darkness.

She said, “Look, I know you want me to say that I think you could beat him if you tried or whatever, but I don’t think that. I think that he’s a professional and you don’t even want to be an amateur. And I love that about you, Paul. I love that you’re still gentle in your heart. I certainly don’t want to be the cause of you losing that.”

Was he gentle in his heart? Not at the moment. It wasn’t gentleness or nobility that prevented him from trying to kill Thomas. It was fear. It was the bone clanking, muscle sapping liquid fear that locked him into terrified inaction whenever the moment for retribution came around. “I’m not gentle. I’m a coward.”

“Whatever it is that keeps you from fighting Thomas is fine by me,” she said, not realizing how she had just hurt him. “I just want you safe and alive.”

He glowered at the tabletop, her words echoing inside his head. He was a coward. He lacked the basic ability to protect the people he loved. How was the world helped by the “goodness” of his inaction?

Seeing the look on his face, she decided to change the subject. “So how is your application with Intra-Galactic going?”

He looked up at her and blinked. “Oh, I… I went. I applied.”

“Good for you!”

“No… it’s… they’re blowing me off. It’s a ruse. They take your application and they give you some crazy tests and then they say you didn’t pass. The recruiter basically told me they were going to fake it and then reject me.”

“Why would they do that? I heard they were hurting for colonists.”

“Because I’m a Primitive,” he said. “No one wants us.”

“You can change their minds,” she said. “Just show them your heart.”

My cowardly heart? he wondered. “Yeah, I’m working on it.” He stood up. “Okay, I have to go.” He looked over his shoulder at the boy she had been flirting with. Was that the boy she would hold in her secret heart for the rest of her troubled life with Thomas? Probably. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay. Have fun.” She beamed up at him but he knew she wasn’t smiling for him. She was smiling for the boy who couldn’t stop throwing sideways glances at her from across the dance floor.

 

5. He removed his visor and lay there for a moment while his sister breathed evenly next to him. Awareness of his surroundings hit him hard for the first time. He had grown up in the hive, had known little about the world outside apart from the scraps he picked up online, but it was suddenly clear to him that he lived in a tube in a stack of tubes in a hollowed out building crammed with stacks of tubes. It was dehumanizing. He could see it from the perspective of someone standing on the top floor looking down at the people in the hive and they looked as functional and dispensable as bees.

What was the point of overpopulating the planet if you had to live in a hive? What was the point of going forth and multiplying if you were just filling up all the available space? For the first time ever, he felt the crushing dogmatic burden of the faith he had been born into. It was like all the people crammed into the space were pressing down on him. It was suffocating.

Why would God put people on this planet – and he had seen pictures from before the Reformation when there had been open spaces filled with green and gold and red and all the colors of the food rainbow so he knew what it had once been like – just to have them breed so fast they stripped it of its colors and left everything the uniform khaki color of a farmed out, fished out, sun baked, nutrient free, water deprived wasteland? That couldn’t possibly have been God’s intention.

It was this simple thing, the inability of Primitive rhetoric to answer even the most logical questions, that had steered him clear of the more pungent parts of their belief system. Honestly, he wouldn’t have minded being lied to by the church if the lies had made even the barest sense, but the stuff they were putting out was patently, obviously without any form of logic.

If God truly loved His creations then why did He set them on a path of self-destruction? Why wouldn’t God say, “Go forth and multiply up to a reasonable level and then stop before the world can no longer support your numbers?”

The world was overpopulated. That much everyone knew. The oceans had been overfished and the land had been farmed beyond its capacity to recover. The hundred year drought had destroyed crops and caused a permanent state of famine. And yet the church was against birth control and abortion and their attitude toward sex education was basically, “Close your eyes and your knees and pray hard that God doesn’t want you to get pregnant.”

He was still puzzling over the logical fallacies inherent in that reasoning when the bell chimed for his sleep shift. As Mary removed her visor and blinked her way back to the present, he lay on his back and waited for the lights to go out. He didn’t want to talk to her right now. Mostly, he didn’t want to look into her eyes and see that she saw him as a functionally impotent male who needed her protection.

Despite what he had told Mary, he believed the Intra-Galactic tests could be beaten. He had overcome the first hurdle just by figuring out the tricks in the invitation letter and then he had beaten the first test by combining the ability to see images with the ability to see words. If he could do the same with the remaining tests, he felt like he might get the chance to argue for his inclusion in the colonization program despite his background as a Primitive.

He decided to use the half-hour window before lights out to go down to the facilities to relieve himself. A short trip to the latrine would get him away from Mary’s attempts at conversation and it was always easier to sleep with an empty bladder.

He was mixing in with the crowd of other Primitives when he ran into Thomas. His future brother-in-law was looking quite agitated when he pushed through the tide of ants making their way to the facilities.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” Thomas said as the crowd flowed around them. “I don’t like what you were thinking.”

“Thinking?” Paul asked.

“You’re not allowed to object to the way I treat my betrothed,” he said, bitter and angry out of all proportion to something that had happened hours ago. It was obvious Paul’s father had been at him, whispering dangerous things in his ear. “It’s like you’re trying to deny my place in her life. You think you have more call to govern her than I do? That’s incest!”

The turn of phrase was odd. Call to govern? That was fresh out of his father’s mouth. So, yes, Paul’s father had manipulated Thomas into a violent, possibly deadly, interaction with his own son. It was becoming obvious that James Corday really just wanted to free up the extra space in the doublewide.

Paul said, “I can’t let you hit my sister. I just can’t let that happen. She wants me to let it happen. My father wants me to let it happen. It’s all perfect for everyone involved, but I just can’t let you hit my sister.”

Thomas charged. It was the basic teaching of the blackleg fighting technique that an attacker would charge a defenseless victim to make them curl into a ball and cover their head. That was when the blacklegs really went to work, hammering away with their bats and axe handles and hammers on the pressure points exposed by the classic pose of passive resistance.

But Paul didn’t curl into a ball on the catwalk. Too angry to allow himself to be bullied anymore that day, he grabbed Thomas by the shirt and hurled him over the railing. The bully inheritor of his father’s cruel regime plummeted three levels, his fall coming to a sudden conclusion when he met the concrete floor with a wet crunch. Paul ran to the rail and looked down at the place where Thomas lay sprawled awkwardly in the darkness. He was alive but his arm was bent oddly behind his back.

“What happened?” someone asked from behind him. “Who is it?”

“Thomas Greer,” Paul said. “I think he slipped.”

People went running to call for a healer and a prayer circle. Paul continued to lean over the railing, hoping to look into Thomas’s eyes as he lay suffering in that odd, broken doll position, but the older boy was apparently unconscious down there in the dark. He moaned and moved his head back and forth but his eyelids remained tightly shut. Paul wondered if he would remember how he had fallen. If he did remember it, things could go badly with his father. To whatever extent James Corday was capable of feeling love, he felt it for the borrowed son lying insensible down there in the shadows between platforms.

He returned to his tube and found his sister already asleep. He waited an hour for his father to call him out, but eventually fell asleep from a combination of boredom and stress.

 

6. Sitting in the Demon Hunter great hall the next morning, quite proud of himself and oddly unafraid of the imminent fallout from his encounter with Thomas, Paul worked at the puzzle he had been given for the second test.

3151818211620

Complete the sequence? That didn’t make any sense. There was no indication how long the sequence should be. One more digit? A hundred? And there was no discernible pattern in the numbers. There were no repeated sequences. Maybe groups of three digits? 315 181 821 162 0. No, that left a trailing 0. Or maybe that was the part that had to be completed – the fifth three digit number – but there wasn’t enough information to be able to tell. None of the other groups even had a zero in them.

There just wasn’t enough information.

He returned the message to his inventory and sat there thinking about the problem. One possibility was that they really were just messing with him, giving him something pointless to chew on while they prepared to reject him out of hand. That was a possibility, but the first test had been solvable. Why not stop him there if that was their intention? So if this test could be solved, then they absolutely had given him enough information. He just wasn’t looking in the right place for it.

Searching Trinity for the next hour, he found nothing on the whole string of digits or parts of it, except where they broke into area codes. That cost him twenty minutes mapping the string to an old style phone number but that didn’t help. Hardly anyone used phone numbers anymore. Finding no hits, he spent some time looking up mapping systems in case the string of digits was something like GPS coordinates. This yielded an equal lack of success.

Finally, his brain fuzzy from too much concentration, he stood up and tried to decide if he wanted to take a run at the Green Knight or kill some time goofing around in a vain attempt to clear his mind, but he was interrupted by an urgent message from Mary.

SOCK HOP NOW!

She must have heard about Thomas. He sighed. Maybe he would just pretend he hadn’t seen her message and go out to face the boss knight who wanted to destroy him, instead – it seemed preferable to being confronted by his sister – but he went to the sock hop anyway.

She was already at the table when he arrived. No one sat with her. No one tried to make conversation. No boys flirted with her. The angry scowl probably had something to do with that.

He took the seat across from her.

“I expressly asked you to stay out of it,” she said by way of greeting. “And you went right out and did the exact thing I asked you not to. He has a concussion. Did you know that? And a broken arm. Father is livid.”

“Does he know I was involved?”

“He suspects it.”

Paul looked around at the other kids blithely enjoying themselves. His father wouldn’t move on him right away. He would want to gather evidence first. Then, when he was sure Paul had thrown the much larger and much stronger Thomas off a third story catwalk, he would get the blessing of the hive elders to honor kill him. “I didn’t do it on purpose. I didn’t even really do it. He came at me and he slipped and he went over the rail. I barely touched him.”

“Really?” her anger partly mollified, she eased the tone in her voice. “It doesn’t matter, though. Even if Father just suspects you were involved, he will make you pay.”

“Do you ever think about leaving?” He just blurted it out. It wasn’t even something he had been thinking about, at least not in the front of his mind. Somewhere in the back, though, he had been counting the money Bertilak had offered him for his Demon Hunter vector and was thinking it might be enough to make a run for Canada.

“Leaving?”

“The hive.”

Her face went blank. “And go where?”

“Anywhere.”

“And do what?” she said, practically snorting at the impracticality of the idea. “Paul, a woman can’t sign contracts, can’t own property, can’t even cash her own checks. Even if I could somehow find a job, I would have to live in one of those Stranded Women shelters until I could find a husband.”

“What about Canada?”

She stood up and walked out. It was treason to even talk about it. Even protected by their gesture-based code, it was a terrifying thing for that notion to break the surface tension of polite society.

He stood up to follow her but saw that one of the matrons was coming over. The matrons were big-bodied women in drab gray dresses with their hair pulled back into punishing buns. They wandered the sock hops checking to make sure the kids weren’t getting up to any trouble.

“Something wrong?” the matron asked. “The girl left in a huff.”

“She’s my sister,” Paul said. “I guess I teased her a little too much.” Lying to matrons came naturally to every child of the American Theocracy.

“You should watch that,” the matron said, the words streaming out of an expressionless mask of a face like the chittering of an angry chipmunk. “Treat your family well.”

“Yes, Matron,” Paul said and then slid out of the sock hop without looking back. Now that he was angry, with himself and with Mary, he headed for the great hall, for the stables, for his squire, for Gringolet. For battle.

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