2055, September 1st
Collapse + 6 years
It was in biology class two periods later when the call came. Mr. Belview had just begun lecturing when a wiry freshman poked his head in the door.
“Uh, Winnie needs to go to the headmaster’s office.”
Winnie looked up from her current design doodling.
Mr. Belview scanned for Winnie and motioned for her to go. He resumed class before she was out the door.
The halls were empty. Voices came from behind classroom doors. Winnie’s shoes echoed on linoleum as she walked to the office. She wore her coat. Warm as it was, she didn’t need Mr. Myers seeing her dress. She considered slipping in the bathroom to change back, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. He’d ordered her change back a few times before, but he didn’t really want to stifle a student’s creativity.
The Assistant Director’s office was before the principal’s. Winnie sat on the row of seats where troublesome students waited their turn.
The director glanced up from her work. “You can go right in. They’re waiting for you.”
Winnie entered the principal’s office. Somehow, she knew who else was there before seeing the education inspector sitting across from Principal Myers.
“Ah. Winnie. Please, join us.” Myers indicated the chair beside the inspector. “Do you remember Mr. Matthews from assembly?”
“He wanted to speak with you. Come. Sit.”
Winnie dropped her backpack beside the chair and sat. Mr. Matthews held a tablet in his lap with his hands casually crossed over it. Her heart skipped.
It was bulky. LED lights shined on the edge. She’d seen a tablet like that before, three years ago when a man in a tent decided her fate—the exemplar. Winnie became aware of the thoughts she was thinking.
“What about?” she asked.
Myers glanced at Matthews. “Well… perhaps, Mr. Matthew, if you’d like to explain?”
Mr. Matthews face lit conversationally. “Absolutely. However, I would like to speak with Ms. Cho privately.” He gave Myers a friendly smile.
Something about the principal’s expression struck Winnie. Before, whenever she saw him, he was either frowning down at a student for misbehavior, or smiling in what he probably thought was a grandfatherly way. Right now, his expression was dead neutral. Winnie was not alone in recognizing who Mr. Matthews really was.
“Of course. I’ll just be in the other room.” Myers headed to the door. Pausing, he turned to say something, and thought better of it. He bowed to Mr. Matthews before shutting the door. His footsteps faded.
Matthews turned to Winnie. “Hello. My name is Jordan Matthews. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He extended his hand. They shook.
“Nice to meet you,” Winnie said.
He smiled. “You can relax. You’re not in any kind of trouble. I can tell you know what I really am.”
“You’re an exemplar.”
“That’s right. What was it that gave it away?” He held up his tablet. “Was it my plaque? It does stand out, doesn’t it?”
“And your suit.”
“My suit? This isn’t our uniform.”
“No, but your clothes were stitched from bolts. which means they were made with threaded fabrics. Most people can’t afford it, and it’s mostly a status thing. I didn’t think a school inspector would have a suit like that.”
Matthews looked over his clothes. “Huh. Nice catch.” He looked at her and smiled. “Clothes, right? You’re a designer.” He tapped a button on his tablet. It lit, and he navigated to a browser. Winnie’s clothing site was on the displayed tab. “You must know all about clothes.”
“You know about my site?” she asked. Is that why he singled her out?
“Mr. Myers was just telling me about it. Apparently you’ve become quite infamous for your dress code violations. I like it though. Not my style, of course, but I suppose my daughter might wear it. I wish she’d get into something like this, maybe do something besides spend all day on the internet. Though I’m not sure I’d let her out of the house dressed in half these things. Your socks are nifty. How’d you get into this?”
Winnie shrugged. “I just did. I downloaded the Studio a couple years ago and just played around.”
“Yeah? Do you get a lot of business around here?”
“Most of my subscribers are from South America, I think. I’m not really sure.”
“That makes sense. There’s more money for luxuries in the home continent.”
“They have their own assemblers there,” Winnie said.
“That too. Does your family have an assembler?”
“Not here, but my mom used to have a series I at our old place. We didn’t use it after the Collapse though. It didn’t work on solar.”
“So you’re making your dresses… how? The local station?”
“Huh.” Matthew browsed her site for a few pages, then dimmed the screen. He set the tablet on the table with a heavy thunk. “I bet you’re wondering why I called you here. How much do you know about the Exemplar Committee?”
“Nothing really. People say you guys read minds. You go around to towns after you take over and decide who gets dragged off.”
He winced. “Well, yes. When the queen folds a settlement into the union, exemplars come in for threat analysis. Those we think are at high risk of making violent attacks are taken to a secure facility. It’s not a pleasant business, but it’s better than having a rebel or terrorist attack that could potentially hurt a lot more people. We’re also able to sense the presence of nearby hostiles.”
“But you can read minds?”
“Oh yes. We call them screenings. Our main purpose is to root out corruption. We work side by side with the military to keep their ranks clean, and we handle internal investigations. In other words, we set the moral standard for the empire. Hence our name: the exemplars.”
“What if an exemplar is corrupt?”
“Fantastic question. We have a chain of accountability. There are a few hundred exemplars throughout the world performing screenings and other tasks. Each exemplar, myself included, is assigned to a High exemplar. They are the people who screen us.”
“And who keeps them straight?”
“There are only four of them, so the queen scans them personally.”
“And if she’s corrupt?”
He grinned. “She’s the one who decides what is and isn’t corruption. If she does something, it’s what the empire is meant to do.”
“Problematic? If she were corrupt, it doesn’t matter how the Exemplar Committee is set up, the empire would be in trouble. But remember, she was the one who created the Committee in the first place. We are her eyes and ears. After all, she’s the one that gave us our powers.”
“How do they work?”
“Another fantastic question. Most people assume it’s some kind of brain wave scanning technology, but the truth is much more interesting than that. I could explain it to you, but how about I let you see for yourself?”
He picked his tablet off the table and handed it to Winnie. It’s weight surprised her. She turned on the screen. It showed her clothing website.
“No, no,” Matthew said. “Just hold it.”
“Clear your mind and focus. It’s already happening. You just have to notice it.”
Confused, Winnie looked at him, but Matthew was staring into his lap.
“Close your eyes,” he said. “It helps.”
She did so. Following his advice, she tried to clear her mind, and the first thing she noticed was that her mind wouldn’t clear. She had the distinct impression of being watched. All around her were eyes through the walls. They were the students. It was as though everyone had stopped, turned, and were now staring at her through concrete and plaster. She yanked her hands away from the tablet. The sensation didn’t go away.
“Put it back on the table,” he said.
She did, then pulled away as though it burned. The sensation faded.
“Startling, isn’t it?”
“What was that?”
“We can sense auras. It’s how we detect hostile threats. We call it our Empathy. Everyone experiences it a little differently, but let me guess. Suddenly, you felt like you were standing on stage without your clothes, right? Don’t worry. It’s a one way street. No one else can sense you. All you felt was a connection with everyone nearby, and your brain wasn’t sure what to make of it. Want to try again?”
Winnie placed her hand back on the tablet. Again, all eyes were on her. This time, she didn’t lash away. Matthews was right. They weren’t aware of her, but her mind seemed absorbed in theirs, and it gave her the impression of looking in on one’s self. When she had startled, it was like being startled by her own reflection staring back at her. She focused on one. The aura was bored, focusing on something entertaining, but the enjoyment was mere droplets in a pool. This was someone in a class. They weren’t paying attention, but distracting themselves somehow. They could be on a phone, or twiddling their pencil. Whatever it was, their boredom was her own. That class was dulling her just as it dulled them.
She focused on another, and another. With each one, it was as though connecting her brain to someone else’s. Sharing the same soup of emotions, she would be that person and look back upon herself. None were particularly powerful, but one stood out. It was close. When she embodied it, she felt fidgety energy that made her want to get up and pace. The mood was short of breath, and wound tight. The stress bled into her, so she let the mood go and observed it distantly. This person was behind her, in the hallway right outside the school office. It was Principal Myers.
She took her hand away.
Matthews took the tablet and held it up. “This tablet—this bulky workout of a tablet—we call it our plaque. It’s tablet part is actually a secondary feature. It’s just so this brick does something other than improve our upper body strength. If you were to open it up, and somehow bypass its security measures, you would find a plate of thin, silicon wafers. Drawn on each one would be a symbol which was hand drawn by Queen Victoria herself. They act as totems for these gifts of hers. Possessing them is what grants us our abilities.”
“But why does it do that?”
“I don’t know. Our scientists have used every instrument known to man to analyze these glyphs. So far as they can tell, they’re nothing more than a design on a surface, and yet they work. It’s something special about our queen. If I were to draw the same symbol, nothing would happen. It has to be her.”
“You make it sound like she has a superpower.”
“We call it a flair. Some people are just born with them.”
“If that’s true, how come nobody has heard about this?”
“Because those who have them are so few and far between. And even when they do, they could go their entire lives without knowing they have one. It takes awareness, and practice. And flairs are more subtle than what comic books would have you believe. We exemplars can’t defy the laws of physics.”
“But still,” said Winnie. “If anybody had ever had a power, it would be huge.”
“Yes. Our queen has built an empire with her flair.”
“No. I mean before that. If there were other people with powers, somebody would have showed up. They would have proved it. Even if it happened just once in the world, people would know. Why aren’t there other people with powers?”
“There are. Every power that the queen grants to us comes from someone else who has it naturally.” He paused. “And that brings us back to the question of why I’ve invited you in here to talk.”
“You… think I have a power?”
“I think you do.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. All I can tell is that you have one.”
“How could I not know about it? If I had telepathy, I think I’d have figured it out by now.”
“Not necessarily,” Matthews said. “Let’s say you did, and you look into somebody’s eyes. Thoughts fill your head. They might be indistinguishable from any other thought you have, except these just happen to be their’s too. For all you know, you figured out what they were thinking through your own intuition. They’re happy. They’re sad. They like you. They don’t like you but are pretending to.”
“I would completely know it was them,” said Winnie. “It was so obvious when I was touching your plaque. I felt connected to everyone else.”
“Yes. Empathy is noticeable, but the original empath spent years honing their talent. Before they knew what to focus on and what mental muscles to build, they might have thought they were simply good at reading people. It’s rare for someone to discover their talent on their own.”
“Oh.” Winnie cleared her mind again. She focused, as though she might detect something now she never had before. Nothing was there. She didn’t expect there to be. If it weren’t for Matthew’s demonstration of power, she knew she wouldn’t believe any of this. Even now, she felt as though she’d just been told she’d won a lottery she never entered.
“Okay, so let’s say I do have a power,” she said. “How do I figure out what it is?”
“For that, you would need to see someone who understands these powers far better than me: The queen.”
“Like, personally see her?”
“Yes. She’s the expert. You’d meet with her one on one. She’d evaluate your flair. She’ll determine what sort of power you have, and help you develop it to it’s maximum potential.”
“How long would it take?”
“Years, most likely. We would relocate you to the empire capital campus and enroll you in the International School of Porto Maná. It’s currently the top school in the empire. You’d be with other flairs such as yourself, and—”
“Wait. You want me to move?”
“Obviously, it’s your choice, and no one would expect you to make a decision until you’ve met with the queen and had a chance to see what you’d be getting into.”
“What about my mother? I can’t just leave everything behind and go live in the capital.”
“We can relocate your mother too. For her however, we wouldn’t house her on the imperial campus, but in the surrounding city.”
“Or I could just live with her.”
“The queen would prefer if you were on the campus. It’s better for security since you’d be visiting her frequently, but don’t worry. You’d be able to visit your mother easily. Public transportation in the capital is a marvel unto itself. Our repulse grid has the highest resolution than anywhere else in the world. Anywhere you want to go, all you have to do is flag down a coach and input your destination. The grid will float you anywhere within the city in minutes. The capital is one of the most happening cities in the world, and might I add, the heart of today’s fashion.”
“You’re really serious about this.”
“Of course. The first step will be to fly you out to meet with Her Majesty the Queen. It will probably be a day long trip. I’ll make arrangements with the school for your absence, but we should have you back by tomorrow night.”
“Today? You want me to leave today?”
“The queen would like to meet you tonight, and it’s a six hour flight. My plane is standing by at the Hampton Airstrip. My driver is outside.”
Winnie laughed. “You’re serious? I haven’t even told my mom. I… this is all so ridiculous.”
“We can stop by your house if you’d like. You can pick up whatever you need for the trip. I can explain everything to your mother. If it makes you more comfortable, she can come too. But like I said, it’s just a quick trip. You’ll be back by tomorrow.”
Winnie imagined arriving home in what was probably a limousine. Hi, mom. This guy at school says I have superpowers. Is it okay if I fly across the continent with him to meet the queen of the world? You can come. I promise to do my homework on the plane.
“Are you really that convinced I have a power?”
“I’m certain,” Matthews said. “I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t matter. Even if your power turns out to be dud, the queen will still invite you to relocate to the capital.”
“Not all powers are useful.”
“Does that happen a lot?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why not? How many people have you found with useless flairs?”
“So it’s rare.”
“No. Flairs are rare. I’ve never met another flair outside those whom the queen hasn’t already found.”
“But I thought this was your job.”
“It is. I go from community to community, checking schools, nurseries, colleges, even prisons. I spend about two or three days in each town, so in the course of my three and a half years, I’ve visited… hmm, several hundred towns. And I see several thousand people at each.”
“I’m the first you’ve ever found.”
“In my three in a half years, you’re the first anyone has found. I’m not the only exemplar assigned to scouting.”
He paused as Winnie considered this.
“I think,” he said, “you’re starting to realize just how special you are.”