22. A Bleached Flag

2055, October 5th
Collapse + 6 years

“Keep your eyes open,” said Victoria.

Winnie hadn’t realized she’d been clenching them shut. She met Victoria’s gaze again. In her mind, she was holding the image of Javier Santos in her head. He was an imperial guard who had appeared at Winnie’s bedroom door that morning and introduced himself. Now, he was somewhere in Porto Maná. Winnie didn’t know where.

Carefully, she expanded her awareness to Javier’s surroundings. A shuttle terminal? That wasn’t right.

“No,” said the queen. “You’re not doing as I instructed.”

“I’m trying.”

“Stop trying. It’s not about trying. It’s about realizing. You’re still trying to find him like you were when we started. You still think you need to know his location in order to know where he is.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Winnie, I can see your thoughts. I know what you’re doing. You may think you’re visualizing him without his location, but you’re still treating him differently than you would anything else.”

“But I’m not.”

“Fine. Let me show you. Clear your mind. Now visualize your dorm room.”

Winnie did so. After four weeks, her dorm had a sense of being lived in. Her own decorations were up, and her possessions littered surfaces.

“Now visualize the Egyptian pyramids.”

They sprang to mind. At first she saw them from overhead. On one side were dusty, ramshackle buildings that stretched on for miles. On the other: desert. Then Winnie saw inside. The halls were in worse shape than an alley in a bad neighborhood. Spray paint marred the walls. Litter covered the floor. After the Collapse, the authorities that had protected against such profane vandalism fell apart. She’d found that most constructions of human triumph had suffered, as though vandals targeted them maliciously, to desecrate the marvels of the old world they’d never get to enjoy again.

“Good. Now clear your mind again.”

Winnie did.

“Now point to your dorm.”

“What?”

“Point. With your finger.”

Winnie glanced around. She oriented herself with her mind by figuring out how this office room was arranged compared to the rest of the campus, then she pointed downward at the wall.

“Okay. That’s close. Now point to the pyramids, but this time, don’t cheat and use your power.”

“Like, through the earth?”

“Yes. Through the earth. Stop hesitating. You clearly must know where it is if you could pull it to mind like that. You must know its exact direction and distance relative to you. So do it.”

“You know I can’t.”

“Then how come you could visualize it?”

“Because I’ve already been there… in my head. I’ve already seen the place.”

“You saw Javier this morning.”

“The pyramids don’t move.”

Of course it moves. It moves around the sun, through the galaxy.”

“It doesn’t move compared to me.”

“Nonsense. Take your dorm. It was much closer to you this morning.”

Winnie nearly rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but then I walked away from it. It didn’t hide somewhere in the city like Javier.”

“That distinction is entirely inside your head. You, Javier, and your dorm all split up this morning. It happened because two of the three of you were waggling a pair of legs. Now you’re in different places, and for whatever reason you think you can only find one of those two… because of what? Because you can kind of point to it?”

“Yeah.”

“Winnie, if I knocked you out and sent you somewhere else in the country so that you had absolutely no idea where you were, and you couldn’t point to your dorm, would you be able to visualize it?”

“Are you going to do that?”

“If it would help you make a breakthrough, I can’t promise I won’t. Answer the question.”

“Yeah. I probably could, but it’s still not the same. You want me to find Javier so I can tell what’s around him. I already know about the world around my dorm. It’s easier.”

“Easier, perhaps. But it is not the difference between possible and impossible. If, while I’m absconding you to some other part of the country, I have some men burn down your dorm and tear up the surrounding land so nothing looks the same, you would still see the dorm, wouldn’t you?”

“You’re not going to do that, are you?”

“No promises. But you already know you’d still see your dorm. You don’t need details to see something. Your flair gives you details.”

“But if your people actually picked up the dormitory and put it somewhere else, then I wouldn’t. I’d see empty air where the dorm used to be.”

“Utter nonsense. Your power is not GPS dependent. Suppose we were riding a train. You’re sitting in one car, and I’m in another car further up. You’re telling me that if you tried to visualize me in my car, that you’d actually see empty air above the track somewhere behind us?”

“No… I’d probably see you.” Winnie’s mind viewed the clock by her bed in her dorm. Four hours now. That’s how long she’d been in this office arguing logic with the queen. It wouldn’t be so bad if Victoria hadn’t fixated on this one particular exercise all session.

“I think you’d see me too,” Victoria said, “no matter how far the train traveled.”

“Because I’d have a good idea where you were: twenty feet ahead of me.”

“But if we put a blindfold on you and spun you around until you lost all sense of direction?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably.”

“What if you were walking toward the back of the train such that you were not moving relative to the earth?”

“I think so.”

“And what if you were outside the train, but walking alongside it? Could you see my car then?”

Winnie could hardly muster the will to consider it. “Probably.”

“And if you stopped walking?”

Winnie sighed. “I guess. Probably. Until your car was so far ahead that I didn’t have a good idea where it was.”

“So why does it matter if it’s far away, but it doesn’t matter if I spin you in circles until you don’t know your left from right?”

“I don’t know. It just does.”

You just think it does. You can’t find people with your power because you don’t believe you can.”

“I don’t believe I can because I can’t.”

“An inconvenient circular dependency,” Victoria said. “Break it by letting go of your preconceptions.”

“And what if you’re wrong? What if I actually can’t find someone without having an idea where they are?”

“I’m not wrong.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Clear your mind.”

“Can we take a break?”

“One more projection first, and we’re done with locator practice for the day. Now clear your mind.”

Winnie did so.

“Now, do you remember where Neil Armstrong planted the flag?”

At the mention of those words, Winnie saw it again: the endless sea of crystal dust, the scattering of immortal footprints, and that flag, bleached white now from decades of ultraviolet exposure. It was the moon landing. Last session, Victoria had helped Winnie find it using a lunar map. It took her forty minutes to locate the spot, but it had still been a pleasant break from an otherwise grueling lesson, even if Winnie didn’t understand Victoria’s motive at the time.

Now she did. Winnie saw the moon landing instantly. It was in the same place on the moon, but the moon certainly wasn’t in the same place as last week—not in reference to the earth. It had moved much farther than Javier had.

“Understand now?” Victoria said. “You can see the moon landing because you believe you should be able to, because it seems like a static location to you. You can’t see Javier because you think you shouldn’t since you don’t know where he is, but you don’t where the moon is either. I’ll bet that if I’d asked you to visualize the moon instead of that specific spot on the moon, you couldn’t have done it, because you would have realized first that you don’t know where the moon is. Take Mars. Where is Mars right now?”

Winnie looked for it. She saw the solar system from millions of miles away. There was the bright dot that was the sun. Somewhere far off would be small motes of dusts. One of them would be Mars. She didn’t bother looking. The point of the lesson was clear. If she’d looked for something specific on Mars, she would have seen that immediately. She visualized a particular Martian mountain she’d seen once during her mental exploration. It didn’t come to mind.

“There, you see?” said Victoria. “You saw the moon landing, but you can’t do the same with a mountain you’ve already explored. Do you understand now? You’ve convinced yourself you can’t since you don’t know where Mars is. It’s all in your head.”

“Yeah. I get it.” Winnie couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for this revelation. It was great and all, but endless homework exercises would now follow. “Can we take a break now?”

“For a moment, I suppose.” Victoria jotted down notes while Winnie laid back and covered her eyes. Her headache was right on schedule.

“Next session,” Victoria spoke more to herself, “we’ll have a field trip. I think the moving train idea would make an excellent intermediate step for you. I’ll have Madeline reserve a stretch of track.”

Winnie didn’t react to the idea of the queen shutting down a railway. She’d been in Porto Maná for four weeks. It didn’t take long to realize everyone else took Victoria’s extravagant whims for granted. If she wanted to shut down freight shipping, and cause a hiccup in the empire’s market, just for her own experiments, everyone would go along. She was the empire’s most famous eccentric.

Victoria kept pondering. “We’ll need two train cars. No. Probably more. I want to be able to put distance between us when riding. I suppose we’ll be stopping and starting a lot too. I’ll want a track that’s in the grid. Hmm. I’m sure there are still some freight tracks in gridded territory…” More notes.

“Can we do something else?”

“I think the train lesson will be good for you.”

“No. I mean, now. We’ve been working on finding people all day. Don’t you want to see how my other exercises are going? I’m getting really good at reading books without opening them, and I think I can see ultraviolet now. I’m not sure. And what about my self control? I thought that was supposed to be my number one goal. You haven’t even checked it.”

“I know how your other lessons are going. I saw it in your mind.”

“But don’t you want to spend any time on them? I’m getting a headache.”

“Very well, we’ll stop with locater exercises for today, but we’re picking them up next session.”

“What’s so important about them?”

“They’re useful. Far more useful than seeing ultraviolet.”

“But what for? Spying? Is that all my power is going to be used for?”

“Is this about what my daughter said?”

Winnie’s first thought was the Helena must have told Victoria about her talk with Winnie weeks ago, but the answer was simpler. Mind-reading.

“Is it true?” Winnie said. “Is my contribution to this world going to be making it so big brother can see everything?”

“You’re flair will be used for much more, but only in time. As useful as your power is, it can too easily be used to spy on me and the empire. That’s why I’m not distributing your flair to others. Not even to my exemplars.”

“So no one will use it?”

“I will, for select military and security needs. If I find a more secure way to regulate how others use it, then perhaps others may too.”

“What about your daughter?”

“What about her?”

“Do you think she’ll be as careful with my power?”

“You’ve had my daughter on your mind for days. Is there a concern you’d like to get off your chest?”

Logically, Victoria already knew what was bothering her, just as she knew how uncomfortable Winnie was discussing it. This was dangerous ground. “I’m worried your daughter will not be as good a ruler as you are.”

Victoria grinned. “I see you’re picking up a knack for diplomacy.”

Winnie didn’t find it as humorous.

“Don’t worry about my daughter,” Victoria said. “When the time comes, I will ensure she’s fit to rule.”

“But… okay.”

“But what?”

“What if something happens to you before she learns… to be good for the people.”

“You mean, what happens if she gains the throne before she learns that the world doesn’t revolve around her?”

“…Yeah.”

“First of all, I was exactly like her when I was her age. I could tell you a story about a tantrum I threw over a Lamborghini my father gave me. And secondly, I never grew out of it. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but you’re having this lesson with me at the top of my magnificent tower. The first words of our national anthem praise me as being the greatest woman on earth, and I’m a queen. Not a president, not a prime minister, a queen, by my own choosing. I am just as selfish and arrogant as Helena. I’ve simply grown into it gracefully.”

“That’s not true. I mean… sure, maybe. But you’re more than that, or you’d be just like any other dictator in history. You’re—” She caught herself. She’d nearly said that Victoria was making everyone’s lives better. That would have been a lie. “You’re trying to help people. That makes you selfless.”

“I’m selfless? I took over the world so I can build a utopia in my image. I can’t think of anything more selfish. The difference between me and other dictators is not selflessness. It’s that I’m good at ruling. If other dictators knew how to completely secure their authority and have their people be happy, they would. Their problem is they don’t know how. Other dictators faced the same problems I face every day. It’s impossible to please everyone. When they’re faced with opposition, they react with violence, and fear, and prejudice. It works, to an extent, but true power comes from devotion. Happy citizens are productive citizens.”

Victoria leaned in. “And as you so politely refrained from mentioning, my regime is far from perfect. I’ve done things to gain my power—things that you would never in a thousand years call anything but selfish. Maybe I am trying to make this world a better place, but for that to happen, I maintain my power by whatever means it takes. That is why arrogance and selfishness are necessary. That is why I have more faith in my daughter than you do.”

“You make it sound like you’re the bad guy.”

“I don’t confuse matters by labeling them as good or evil. I do as I please. If my will benefits those who follow me, then so be it. I will not insult your intelligence by telling you stories of my altruism. No one has ever held power because of their selflessness or humility. Not for long anyway.”

“But Princess Helena—”

“Will be ready to rule when the time comes. Now, break time is over. Back to work.”

“I thought you said we were done for the day.”

“No, I said we’re done with location exercises for the day. You yourself pointed out there are many other exercises we haven’t reviewed yet. That’s not to mention any of the new experiments I have for you. Did you make any plans for dinner?”

Winnie withered. There was only one reason Victoria would ask that.

“That’s right,” Victoria said, looking in her eyes. “You’ll be dining with me today. We’re going into overtime.”

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