70. The Paintbrush

“Here you go.” The exemplars thrust Paul onto his bed. “Enjoy yourself now.”

Without waiting for a response, they left the room. The hatch closed and sealed. Two pairs of footfalls walked off. Their fun was over.

They’d won.

He had drawn his own glyph.

He’d done so staring into a mirror at his foreign face. All his previous bodies were destroyed, their victim owners killed. His current body hadn’t a scratch on it, and yet he trembled so badly it took him three times to draw his glyph, and the exemplars had practically carried him back. The things they’d done had seeped into his soul. No matter what body he was in, he was broken.

Paul looked at his room. It was the same one they’d kept him in before his imprisonment had taken its dark turn. His painting set up was still on the balcony. The easel still had oil paint on it, and some of the paint tubes were still open. It’d all be brittle now. The painting itself was unfinished, and always would be. It had rained during his absence, and now it was ruined. Paul would have to re-assemble everything and start over, except he just didn’t feel like painting anymore.

Paul had watched as Alex gleefully drew his own flair while looking in the very mirror that Paul had used to betray his oath. He’d wondered whether Alex would force him to explain how it’s done, but of course Alex already knew. Alex had pried around in his mind long enough to know every detail of glyph writing. They had everything they needed now. With one master glyph, they could make more, so long as they kept Paul around to model his own flair.

He got to his feet slowly like an old man on his last legs. This room was his locked and guarded retirement home. He had to remind himself that his current body was no older than twenty. The weight he felt was not actually there. One foot after another, he reached the balcony, and looked over the citadel. Steel and sky. Gray and black. And dotted lights of a city far away. He was miles away from anything green. This room was to be the peace and quiet Sakhr promised him, where he could look out over the world Sakhr owned, and Sakhr could look over him.

Cautiously, he reached over the edge. No resistance. No puff of air. The rail didn’t have any repulse guards. It made sense on a citadel where soldier’s were entrusted not to walk over the edge of the deck, but what about prisoners?

It would be cheating though. Paul had just inflicted his power upon the world once again, and now he was considering leaving before facing the consequences of his own actions. It would be a coward’s finish, but perhaps best after all. Sakhr’s promised peace would last just as long as they didn’t want anything else from him. When would they begin wondering what Paul could do for them if he just tried to evolve his power? Victoria had told him about how many self imposed restrictions he’s convinced himself he has, such as the need to look at his subject when he draws, instead of drawing from memory. It was a habit probably born from decades of painting what he saw. Paul was sure she was right, but by that time in their relationship, he was done helping her. He’d seen her for what she was, and she was not the selfless humanitarian who’d once filled him with hope of changing the world.

He’d always been a naive rebel. His high school years had been a wash of drinking and acting out. His college years were drinking and protesting, probably landing himself on a watch list or two. He’d genuinely believed in that rubbish he and his fellow hippie friends spouted. He’d idolized their group-favorite philosophy teacher, Mr. Riggs, who had taught him all he believed about society. The government had been the source of all evils back then, with its classes and armies and oil and corporate interests—a self maintaining status quo. The world would be better off if we were all equal.

Rubbish.

Idealistic rubbish.

He’d been so sure he’d grown out of all that nonsense, and then Victoria had come along. She’d convinced him she could create a utopia out of the world, and he’d believed her. This broken war-torn world was the result of that. The government controlled the people with mind reading powers, and he had enabled it.

With Victoria’s death, he’d had a chance to undo his contribution. If he’d only held out, the world would never have to worry about people violating their minds and bodies again, but he’d caved. Alexander had been creative—cruel in ways Paul had never thought possible. But it was nothing compared to the shame of having betrayed the world again.

Sighing, he rested his head and arms against the rail. His eyes drew to his paintbrushes. A thought occurred to him. It was the kind of thought his old rebellious self would have had—a naive thought. After everything that had happened, he should know better.

Yet he kept staring at that brush.

Absently, he took it up and a rag which still rested on the paint bench. He wipe the brush clean. After days exposed to the elements, it would never be quite right again, but it could still paint.

He walked back inside. His legs had lost their tremble. At the assembler, he navigated its menus. At first he looked only at paints, but other things would work much better. For nearly an hour, he followed links and read instructions. The assembler hummed away building items all the while. Paint first, then pencils—like he used in the old days of training with Victoria. Many mediums worked: pencils, pens, brushes, finger paints. Victoria even taught him to use a rake and sand for practice, and then came her metal etcher for those plaques of hers. He’d grown wise to her soon after, before he could expand into other mediums, but in theory, he’d only scratched the surface. Flairs were about how people interpreted them. As long as a glyph was made in a way another human could comprehend and possess, it would work.

As the pencils printed, Paul took his canvas and brush into the bathroom. He propped the canvas on the sink, squeezed gray paint into a soap holder, and stared at his reflection. The face was strange to him, but it was still there, even if he couldn’t pinpoint it, like a hidden detail that made a painting seem off.

He painted that detail. Soon, he had a master glyph—an intricate mapping of geometric lines and curves that appeared nowhere in the mirror.

The next step would make him feel dirty. Paul had always scoffed at those who sketched from other pictures. It was a representation of a representation. The artist might as well lay paper over what he was copying and trace it, but Paul had already given up on his standards earlier today.

He drew another master glyph by looking at the first. It worked, as he and Victoria always knew it would. He’d been on the verge of that breakthrough for so long, but never took that last step for Victoria.

The next part was trickier. He drew his glyph again while referencing the mirror. He botched it the first time. Since his power had just changed, so had the glyph. Minutes went by as he experimented to figure out what it now was. Oddly, it was a simpler design than before.

He returned to the assembler. With the pencils in hand, he sketched out every glyph he could remember. Alex’s was easy. Paul must have practiced on him a thousand times decades ago. Christof’s was harder. Sakhr’s he couldn’t recall. Victoria had never let Paul practice on him, but it didn’t matter, not for what Paul had in mind.

Who else? Sibyl? He thought back to the last time he’d seen her. It was right after Sakhr had released him from the tortoise, but he’d hardly paid attention to her. It took Paul forty minutes of trial and error before the glyph upon the paper finally came to life.

The shield was another he wished he could draw, but he’d never actually seen Sara’s power. She always drew her own glyph using a glyph of Paul’s power. Paul prayed the girl wouldn’t give Sakhr any trouble. It wouldn’t be worth what they’d do to her.

He turned back to the assembler. His next item had finished assembling: a designer tablet. A bottom line, free-to-use device for prototyping, creating, and uploading your own ideas into the assembler network’s public library. It’s interface was overwhelming. Materials. Patterns. Temperatures. Purity levels. Compounds vs. Alloys vs. Micropatterns vs. Polymers. At first, it seemed the device expected him to describe his item in terms of mathematical formulae. Another setting would let him individually assemble items with microparts at near atomic levels, piece by piece, bond by bond. Eventually he found a toolset that allowed for for both additive and subtractive modification of solid matter. That seemed more his style, although he still could barely figure out how to use it.

Eventually he designed a simple plastic plate the size of a playing card. He didn’t bother trying to bevel the edges. With an additive brush tool, he drew glyphs upon it—mind reading, flair detection, aura sensing, and finally his own new and improved master glyph that he’d sketched in the bathroom. His power had probably evolved even more since now that he’d written glyphs from memory, but that wasn’t important for what he was doing.

As an afterthought, he scribbled a few notes beneath each one. After saving the file, he sent it to the assembler. It took a full nine minutes, but when the plate came out, he looked it over. Each glyph functioned, but would it work when someone else downloaded the file? For that, he’d just have to hope.

He filled out out a quick description and uploaded the file to the public library.

And that was that. It was in the wild.

He took his tablet and canvas and fed them into the reclamator. For a long time, he stared at the glowing light indicating disassembly. By morning, no evidence would remain, though of course Sakhr would find out eventually.

Paul returned to the assembler and checked his submission. Zero downloads. He refreshed the page, but the number didn’t change. To pass the time, he browsed through the library and picked an item to assemble. Fifteen minutes later he had in his hand a double shot of single malt scotch, whatever the hell single malt meant for an assembled drink. It certainly didn’t taste single malt, but what more could he expect for a drink made out of thin air? It would do.

As he sipped, he did the math in his head. He was a tortoise for seven years. And it was twenty-five years before that since his last drink. Or twenty-six? It didn’t matter. He’d been sober at least thirty. Somehow, it didn’t bother him to fall off the wagon now. If there was ever a time he “deserved it”, it was now.

He refreshed the page again. Three downloads, which meant somewhere in the world, three people now held forbidden power. Paul imagined a North American teenager in a basement, or a housewife in Europe using a public library machine. Maybe there was an off duty soldier in a remote corner of the world. It didn’t matter who. More would come.

As Paul returned to the balcony, he saw the table of paints, and the same dangerous thought as before came to his mind. Power to the people. It was a clichéd term his adolescent self might have yelled. He’d been naive then, and maybe he was being naive now to think he had somehow leveled the playing field.

As he climbed over the rail, he realized he would never get to know how his actions would affect the world. There’d be chaos for sure, but surely it would recover. He wasn’t deluded enough to think the world would become equal. Such a lofty ambition was a foolishness reserved for his younger self, but it might reach equilibrium, and he felt proud of that. In a single night, he’d accomplished a dream his younger self had given up on.

His whiskey glass spun from his hand.

His clothes whipped.

The world would be different tomorrow. He had hope.

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