Elidia's feet were aching, she should move them. Her
realisation of that fact, and of her awareness that she had realised it, slipped
into her mind as naturally as if there had been no interruption. She relaxed
her stance. Her memories of the past week were intact. She checked her
arm: there were no shots there, nothing to suppress recall. Porett had told
her to stand and wait. She had obeyed. How long ago was that? An hour?
There was a binder on the door, she couldn't leave. But then,
no-one could enter, either. Was this a mistake? Had Porett forgotten to
renew the shell?
The comsphere on his desk glowed red. Red? His comsphere-3:
her hopes waned. Stiffly, she walked over, seated herself, tapped in.
"Elidia, how are you feeling?" It was Porett.
She tapped out.
She considered her options. Porett had her well and truly
nailed. He could husk her up again any time he chose; there was no escape.
She was worse than dead.
She opened the blinds on the nearby window. She could throw
herself out, end it all now, but then she'd never have revenge. She really
She could try to escape, find the grip, break it? No chance!
Perhaps there was a way to redirect her focus elsewhere? Yes: if she could
invest it in some other artefact, then destroy that, she'd be free again. But
where would she find someone who could do an FF before Porett twigged
what she was about? She was bound to be tagged.
The comsphere shone red again; she ignored it. She was in
Porett's office in the main building - maybe she should just wreck the
place, then, set it on fire? Perhaps she could use the comsphere to contact
someone outside, let them know what Porett was doing - she was sure it
was illegal. She had a hunch Porett wouldn't have left her his precious
comsphere-3 if that were possible, though. That globe was spooky...
He hadn't mistreated her while she was a husk: she'd been
hurting at times, but it had meant nothing to her. He'd kept her moving,
eating, remembered regular toilet trips. No sleep: husks didn't sleep.
The comsphere went green, started flashing. She poked it.
"I have a proposition, Liddy."
She laughed, scornful. "You want to bargain with me? I'm
through, I don't exist any more, I'm a puppet. Shell me again, I'll do
whatever you want." She sounded so abject to herself.
"I want you to link with Conley for me, find out what's
Elidia wiped her cheek. "I see. Husks can't initiate magic, the
most they can manage is a focus. You give me a few moments of freedom,
in return for which I jump through your hoop, then you take away my mind
again until next time. No deal. Do your worst."
"Wait, don't cut off, I have a solution."
She gazed into the crystal through eyes brimmed with tears.
"Remember the shot I gave you, the memory-suppressor? I've
found someone who can make it permanent. Do this link for me, he'll wipe
the past two weeks from your mind. You'll wake up in hospital, we'll tell
you some story about your passing out at work, within a couple of days
you'll be back in your old job bright as a brass button, none the wiser.
What do you say?"
"Do you treat all your shareholders this way?" She tapped the
comsphere, watched him fade.
He'd offered a way out. He probably didn't enjoy keeping her
as an automaton, any more than she liked having been one. He'd be getting
away with everything, of course, he'd never be punished for all he'd done
to her. She'd be trading justice for cognition. She flicked her hair back,
irritably, she detested it loose. Perhaps she could fall in with his suggestion,
and yet subvert it, warn herself somehow of what had happened, tell herself
to leave, sell out to Magicorp. Or MedSpell - what would they do if she
described to them Porett's latest project? Probably recruit The Queen of
She selected a pencil from the holder to her right, put the com-3
into a drawer.
* * *
She tapped in, Porett responded immediately. That man had
unbelievably fast reactions. "I keep my shares?" He nodded. "Then I
"The password for the binder is the same as the switchword."
She smiled. When he'd instructed her to activate it, she was told to say
`minor'. `Miner?' `Mynah?'
* * *
She was sorely tempted to snap the grip as soon as he passed it
her, but if she did he'd just slap her with a sleep shot, bundle her off to the
bottom of a lake somewhere. She thought of the letter she'd placed in her
desk, her bound drawer. Patience: revenge will come.
She closed her eyes, squeezed the wooden handle, succumbed to
sleep and Conley's world.
She was actually holding the click-well. "I thought you said we
could sell it?" Walking down stairs, uncarpeted, a back exit.
The other girl was blonde now, wearing hideously amateur eye-
shad, speaking through lips far too red. "Magic's taboo, anything could be
hiding extra zip, same as those notepad `samples' that minced some of the
"They'll take clicks again when it's all over, though. This has
survived three of your blasts, are you telling me it's worthless?"
"Anyone going to buy it from you? You sound as foreign to
them as Medreph does to us. Me, I look like a schooly here, they'll think I
stole it. You may as well chuck it!"
Elidia panicked. Conley slid the well back into her pocket.
"Have you seen enough of Rhiev, Con?" she was asked.
"Mobs on the streets, fires, looting, rival army units chopping
each other, local parliament suspended... Yes, I think I have a broad
impression of anarchy, now." They reached the bottom of the stairway,
"All because three-quarters of Akrea's top-notch elite got their
hearts stopped or their heads rotted."
"I know your game, Ro: stay just long enough for a lecture on
the evils of magic, then head for safety."
"Well I'm right, it is all due to magic."
"Nonsense!" They were entering private stables, monograms
everywhere, a hotel chain? "These rioters are the Messenger's lot, howling
for their gods to avenge them, to seek out the sorcerous heretics."
"That's just an interaction between Justan's plans and the
Messenger's. You've read the news, the Messenger had warned people they
were on a death list. They thought he was trying to restrict their
movements, reduce their effectiveness while he instigated a popular revolt.
Two days later half of them are dead, magic's fault, and Message followers
naturally start pushing for war. Whoever gets here first takes the country.
Lots of blood."
There was no-one with the horses any more. `Ro' threw on her
saddlebag, Conley's was already there, must have been protected somehow.
"No," she argued, "this is religion's doing as much as magic's.
Without magic, we'd still have rebellion here."
They mounted up. "But fewer deaths. Magic is unfair, those
people stood zero chance, it's furtive, dishonourable."
"Its users are the ones without honour, magic is neutral." They
rode off into the narrow streets, the shadows of Rhiev's tall buildings
closing in on them, driving them onwards.
* * *
Porett didn't have enough yet, he hadn't broken the connection.
No-one had spoken for the past hour as they'd made their way through
block after block of high-cut offices, glittery shops, later sliding to lowtime
franchises, one-off repair shops, converted housing. Towers rose again on
the outskirts, boxlike flats, hives, drab places for drab people with drab
lives. Was Elidia herself such a person? Sister superficial?
It was getting dark, beginning to rain. Down the road marched
a troop of soldiers, coats like the small woman's, muddied up, drooping,
disheartened. "What news from Rhiev?" called the captain, dripping. He
had a defiant strength about him, a beacon to his men, a flame to Conley.
`Ro' surprised him - and Elidia - by answering, she looked the
junior of the pair. "The city is lawless, nothing is open, no-one works.
Tolov holds the citadel."
The captain glanced back at his bedraggled squad. "We'll join
Tolov. Nowhere else for us in any case, the Estavian army has advanced in
the north, taken two provinces. They'll hold there for now, they've claimed
their share of the spoils. Leave the rest for others to fight over."
* * *
They rode through many towns - Akrea was a mass of people.
It was late when they finally cut across country, found a barn. They didn't
light a fire, probably daren't. Outside, the rain was teeming.
"Where are we heading? Dreimen?" Dreimen? "My geography
isn't too good for these parts."
It was so dark she could hardly make out `Ro', propped against
a cart, only her false-fair hair betraying her location. "Dreimen, yes, that's
west of here. It'll be much the same, though, we best sit it out, see who
"Where? Here? With the Purasans?"
"Not here, maybe the mountains south of Dreimen, should be
safe there, we can buy provisions."
"What about our meeting with Sennary?" Elidia felt Conley's
heart pump as she said that, a short adrenaline boost.
"He can take his faraway looks and his perfect teeth and his
velvet voice, and drop them on some other poor doxy."
"Gone off him, Ro? Look, I'm sorry about what I did, but he
was only trying to milk you, find your weak spots, how he could reach
you, plunder you for information."
A half-hearted laugh. "He succeeded there right enough, I
almost believed it, all he was saying. No, you did me a good turn, Con, do
it another time if I ever go stupid on someone again."
Elidia noticed Conley was strumming her fingers lightly on her
thigh. Fidgeting? Thinking?
"Do you want to tell me how it is you know him, Ro?"
Silence. More strumming.
"May as well, it's part of the story, nothing special really. The
night I left home, I was in the library, dusting books. Da comes up, says
the chancellor is here to see me, he's brought soldiers. The chancellor? For
me? With soldiers? He's come to make sure no-one can tell he's scammed
my work. I have to hide, but where? Da suggests the bound-book room, he
knows the password to the door binder. So, I sneak in there. They don't
find me, but I throw my first magic wipe, it's huge, people upstairs,
they're shouting. I run, straight into Sennary, he's alone. I'm done, he's
going to turn me over, but no, he sees I'm just a kid, frightened near-
witless. He lets me go, I flee to CBT, Ansle never finds out. The end."
Conley spoke slowly, clearly. "You're saying my father tried to
have you murdered?" Her hands were tensed.
"Looking back, probably not, least not straight away - he'd see
if I had any other neat ideas first. In a way, I have to thank him; if he
hadn't have come for me, I wouldn't have hidden in the bound-book room,
and if I hadn't done that I wouldn't have - ". She stopped. "No, I'll tell
you that some other time, not yet."
Conley was exasperated. "Go on, Ro, you can't leave it there!
What happened with the books?"
"Night night, Con."
* * *
She was being chased up scarlet-hued stairs. The walls lacked
definition, just flat tokens representing reality. What? Conley's dreaming!
"Come back here, come back!" shrieked a voice close behind
her. Loud, thump-thump noises came in, exaggerated, feet bounding up
"You're evil, I despise you, I want to kill you," she was
saying, her voice high, tearful. She could hear cracking behind her,
something lashing out, striking wood, walls.
The scene suddenly folded round, they were in another room,
she could see Conley herself. Odd, reconstructive? An older woman was
facing her off across a table. In her hand she had a stick, very detailed,
clear, significant to Conley. The woman was snarling, making cat noises.
She looked a bit like Conley, same fervid eyes. Suddenly, she seized a
figurine from the table, hurled it. It clipped Conley's arm, shattered against
the wall. Elidia could feel her heart racing. Her dream-heart? She couldn't
"You can't hurt me any more, mother, I'm past hurting. I don't
love you, I never have, you're a monster, I'd be better off dead."
The creature across the table screamed - a terrible, strangled
scream. She advanced on Conley, Conley didn't move. Things folded
again, to Conley's eye view, there was just her and her mother, nothing
else, nothing except the stick, the inescapable stick raised above her head,
the stick thrashing down, the laugh.
Conley was awake. She opened her eyes, but it was dark. She
breathed slowly, calmed herself. Did she dream like that each night? What
had happened to her? Would Porett have realised it was a dream? Did he
even know she'd been asleep?
Did Elidia know she'd been asleep herself? When Conley
drifted off, had she link-slept too?
* * *
Morning, more rain.
"If you spell the rain off your hair, they'll realise you have do-
it-yourself magics. You're going to have to get wet like the rest of us."
"Don't make up today, it'll just run, there's no need."
"I wasn't planning on it anyway."
She walked between the bales, looked outside. "It's warm, I
think I should remove some layers or I'll stew under that cape." She
dropped back her jacket, pulled an arm from a sleeve...
* * *
It was twelve hours later when Porett broke the link. She
opened her eyes.
"Liddy? How goes it? I thought I'd better check in, Madrett's
comms slices short off after a few hours."