2055, September 5th
Collapse + 6 years
Winnie had met the queen before, but she couldn’t help feeling apprehensive as she rode the elevator to the top of the Capital Tower. The city outside its glass walls became smaller the farther up she went. It was a backdrop now—a distant place to look down upon.
Madeline, the queen’s personal coordinator, had herded her in, pressed the button for the top floor, and stepped out, leaving Winnie alone to face the queen with nothing more than a Good Luck and a thumbs up. She was going into the forbidden zone.
The elevator stopped. The door opened. Beyond seemed not to be another floor of the tower, but another place altogether. She stepped from a modern age steel-frame elevator onto the hard wood floors of a mansion that had no business being so far from the earth.
The elevator door closed behind her with a whisper. It didn’t sound like anyone was here, so Winnie crept down the hall. Off to the side was a large family room with massive, wall-to-wall windows for lighting. Farther down was a kitchen which belonged in a family home, except for the row of stainless steel refrigerators. A dining room had a long glass table which could seat dozens. Another dining room was smaller, with a friendly little table and curtained windows. Another room was a floor-to-ceiling library. The rooms went on seemingly forever.
“Wrong side of the building, Winnie.”
The voice came from far away. The queen must have sensed her aura. Winnie hurried past dining rooms and down halls. She got lost again.
“In here.” Victoria’s voice was closer. A jingling noise followed.
Winnie came to a room where one wall was nothing but window, showing a full view of the world outside. At the far end was an impressive oak desk with a computer situated so its user would face the windows. Victoria was reclined on its edge staring out at the world. She had an oversized leather glove on her left hand which came up to her elbow. Its thick, scruffy leather didn’t fit with her elegant dress.
“Good morning, Winnie.”
“Morning.” Winnie waited by the door. There were seats in front of the desk, but while Winnie was unfamiliar with proper behavior around the queen, it felt impertinent to just plop down in a seat without permission.
A bird swooped in from outside the giant window and landed on Victoria’s leather-covered arm. Winnie clutched the door frame. Those windows had no glass. It was just… open, without a rail or a guard. If someone were to misstep, that would be it. Her mind showed her hundreds of feet of nothing a single step away from hardwood. As though to underline all this, wind gusted in the office.
Victoria watched her. The hawk stared at her with its severe face.
“Don’t worry,” Victoria said. “There’s a repulse field. Anything heavier than Willow will fall back.”
“Is it just like that? All the time?”
“Oh, some days.” Victoria pulled a scrap of stringy meat from a pouch on her hip. The bird launched from her arm and back into the open sky. Small bells on its talons jingled with each flap of its wings. Victoria chucked the meat out the window. The bird dived out of view. Winnie watched with her mind as the hawk zeroed in on the falling scrap. The intercept course was flawless. Its claws snagged the meat stories above the tree tops. After circling about, it perched in a tree and feasted.
“Are you watching, Winnie?”
Winnie understood what Victoria meant. The bird was far out of view from her natural eyes. “Yeah.”
“Convenient, isn’t it? I used to have to get much closer to the edge to keep an eye on Willow. The repulse field is there, but that’s never good enough for the mind, is it? This window give my security team nightmares.”
Victoria whistled sharply. Far below, the hawk perked up. It took off into the sky. Beating its wings, it climbed higher and higher as it circled about outside the tower. The jingle of its bells grew. One more pass, and it swooped in upon Victoria’s arm. After the queen placed a hard leather leather cap upon the hawk’s head, which blocked its eyes, she tapped a device on the desk. A hum reverberated. Tinted windows slid along the open window frame. The room shaded as the world closed off. Having that barrier there, just anything solid, was enough for Winnie’s hand to finally ease its grip from the door frame.
“Come.” Victoria circled the desk. Her order had the same disciplinary tone as the sharp whistle. Winnie approached as Victoria transferred the hawk into a cage against the far wall. Inside, it perched as majestically as a bird can when it can’t see anything. Next to the cage was a terrarium. Hot lights shined down on a miniature field of mulch and pebble. Set piece fallen logs and dark green plastic leaves acted as props. In the middle of this false jungle, by a small pond of mildewed water, was a tortoise.
Winnie could smell the nitrate smell of reptile as she approached.
“Nice bird,” Winnie said.
Victoria nodded. “She’s a Harris’s hawk. Every now and then an animal in the conservatory has to come out for some reason or another. Willow broke her wing when she was young. Better now, but she’s too acclimated to humans to be a part of the reintroduction. Did Madeline show you the conservatory?”
Winnie shook her head.
“Ask her to do so some time. It’s quite impressive.” Victoria glanced at the tortoise. “Marzipan here is just a chronic little sicko. He’s a survivor given how many infections he’s had, but he’s been separated from the others so much he forgot how to get along. So he’s become a fixture in my office. ” She rapped the glass with a finger. The tortoise didn’t stir. “I take all of nature’s little rejects.”
“How many animals do you have?”
“Just these two right now. Most other animals who won’t make it can’t come up here for some reason or another. Willow was a borderline case. We had a jaguar in our conservancy up north that got rejected by its mother, but I have never seen my staff closer to insurrection than when I suggested taking it in as a pet. All dangerous animal this, and musk doesn’t wash out that. I nearly took it in just to remind everyone who’s in charge. Probably for the best. Marzipan and Willow are quite enough smell for me.” Victoria straightened. “Come, let’s begin our lesson.”
After fetching items from her desk and sitting at the table, she motioned for Winnie to join her.
“So, you’ve spent your first night on the campus. Are you finding it enjoyable?”
Winnie took her seat. “I am. Thank you.”
“I see.” Victoria regarded Winnie. “Before the lesson, I should cover a few rules. Firstly, you have thus far neglected to address me properly.”
“Oh, my God,” Winnie stammered. She realized she hadn’t. Not once had she used a single title. It never occurred to her. “I am so sorry. Your Majesty. I’ve never—”
Victoria held up her hand. “It’s fine. For today, don’t worry about it. I’d like these lessons to be casual, but talk to Madeline. She’ll make sure you know all the etiquette. Second rule,” she grew stern again, “you are never to project your mind into this tower without my explicit guidance. There are places in this tower you do not have clearance to see. Understood?”
“Do not look on my personal floors, nor the company floors lower down, and to be safe, not even the public floors near the ground level. Empire and military secrets are discussed here. This goes for all military or government buildings as well. I will be checking your mind from time to time to see whether you’ve violate this rule. Is this clear?”
“It’s clear,” though even as she said it, Winnie instinctively envisioned the entire tower. It took conscious effort to dismiss it. “But what if I mess up?”
“Like, if I do it by accident.” Winnie said. “If I told you not to think about a purple elephant right now, you’re totally thinking about a purple elephant. Right? When you said not to think about the tower, I tried not to, but it just popped into my head right now. I’ll try not to, but what if somebody mentions the tower to me and it pops into my head and I just happen to overhear something?”
“You will endeavor not to. And self control will be one of your first lessons.”
“Okay.” It didn’t answer her question. She wondered what that answer might have been, whether she might disappear one day if she ever learned something she shouldn’t. Victoria must have done it to others, but Winnie was important to her. What exactly went on in this tower that Winnie could never see? She tried not to dwell on it.
“Thirdly,” Victoria continued. “Never lie to me, no matter how harmless you think the lie is.”
Her fingers rested on a necklace around her neck. It had always been there, but Winnie hadn’t looked closely at it before. It looked like a necklace of half a dozen ivory scrabble pieces. Instead of letter, they had symbols drawn in calligraphy.
“I have all the powers my exemplars have, and more,” Victoria said. “I will always know when you’re lying, so always give me the truth, even if you think I don’t want to hear it. Now. I’ll ask again. Have you been enjoying yourself since you arrived?”
Winnie was still looking at the necklace. Each stone was its own power, but there were only six. Of the near billion people in the world, one could count the number of existing flairs with their fingers. Mr. Matthews hadn’t mentioned that. Even if Winnie would have agreed to come anyway, she felt… cheated.
“I guess, uh… I guess this isn’t really what I expected when I moved here,” Winnie said.
“I don’t know. I thought there’d be more people, like a whole school of flairs like me, but there’s just Sara.”
“Mr. Matthews did tell you that flairs like you and me are exceedingly rare.”
“Yeah. I know.” Winnie pointed to Victoria’s necklace. “But he could have said six.”
“It’s not that I’m not grateful. I really am. This whole place is lovely. My room is great. Ms. Montes is nice… mostly.”
“But…” Victoria prompted.
“There’s nobody here my age. Sara and Bryan are, like, half as old as me. All I’ve done since I got here is wander around the campus and phone my mom.”
“Are you regretting coming here?”
Winnie hesitated. “I don’t know. I guess I haven’t given it a chance yet.”
“Certainly not,” Victoria said. “You start school tomorrow. Isn’t that right?”
“There will be others your age there. You’ll make friends. Give it time. You and I will see each other twice a week from now on. Let me know how you’re doing. If things don’t improve, I’ll step in. I want you to be happy here. Surely, with all my power, we can work something out.” She met Winnie’s eye and smiled. “And above all else, don’t feel afraid around me. I may set rules, but I would like to be your friend.”
“Okay. Thank you.” The talk did make her feel better.
“Very good. First and foremost, however, I will be your instructor. Let us begin your first lesson. Today we’ll determine the limits of your ability, and which of those limits are real, and which you’re imposing on yourself because of your own belief. Any questions?”
“Yeah. What does that mean?”
“Flairs behave differently than physical things in our world. Everything in this world is construction-oriented. What it’s capable of is defined strictly by how it is made. Flairs are purpose-oriented. How they’re made is defined by what they’re meant to be capable of. For example.” Victoria held up her pen. “Someone designed this pen to write. That’s the reason they built it, but it’s not the pen’s purpose. It is not a platonic ideal for writing. Sure, that’s what we use it for, but there isn’t a fundamental law of physics saying that pens write. It’s just a piece of plastic with a tube of ink and a ball point. It’s destined for writing no more than a flat stone is destined for water-skipping. It just happens that you can use it for writing, just as you could skip the rock over water.”
“But it was made for writing.”
“But the belief that it’s meant for writing exists solely in our heads. It’s still just a stick that leaves a trail of ink when we rub it against paper. Flairs, however, are defined by their purpose. Let’s say the purpose of your flair is awareness of everything in the present, which I don’t think is far from the truth. Your abilities will define themselves around this purpose. So take a few days ago, when you could not visualize the inside of a solid substance, or observe a star lightyears away, it’s not because you can’t, it’s because you’ve yet to develop your flair to better conform to its ideal. The pen, on the other hand, cannot change to write on rock or steel just so it can better conform to the platonic ideal of a writing instrument. Clear?”
“So why can’t I visualize stars far away? Why does my flair only kind of fit its purpose?”
“You’ve never used your flair before. It’s like a plant that’s only started to grow. Everything it can be is written in its DNA. All you need to do is help it grow by using it the right way. The other part is a mental block. You don’t believe you can or should be able to do something, so you can’t. Determining what you can’t do because of a mental block and what you can’t because it’s not your flair’s purpose is where I come in.”
“How did you learn all this?”
“Experience. Experimentation. Study. I’ve devoted much of my life to flairs, and my company has been researching them since before the Collapse. That, and some flairs make understanding them easier.”
Victoria began drawing a design on a piece of paper while studying Winnie. “Unless you have any other questions, we should get started. I have several hours worth of questions and experiments, and I’d like to get through as many as possible.”
“Hours? I thought this meeting was only an hour and a half.”
Victoria finished her doodle. It was Winnie’s glyph from the other day, but this time Victoria had drawn it effortlessly. “No. We’ll be here much longer than that, especially today. If you have any other plans, you can reschedule them during a break. These lessons are the entire reason you came to live at the capital.”
“How long do you think this will take?”
“That more depends on how long you can stand it,” said Victoria. “As you’re about to see, I can do this all day.”