72. Ripples

Osgur sat alone in his bedroom. His homework lay out before him, but his eyes were on the small card of plastic in his hands. Like every other internet savvy teenager with an assembler, he’d gotten that plaque the Sunday before school, then came in this morning for the most interesting school day.

  • Period 1: No one paid attention to class. Those who didn’t have plaques marveled at those who did. Everyone was reading everyone else’s minds, mostly the teachers’.
  • Period 2: Class was effectively canceled as faculty scurried about informing the teachers what was going on.
  • Period 3: Confiscation.
  • Period 4: Redistribution. Many of the students had the foresight to bring multiple glyphs. They handed out glyphs scrawled on notebook paper. An announcement went out stating that possessing such glyphs was grounds for suspension. No one cared.
  • Period 5: Some teachers fought back. With confiscated glyphs in hand, they took to scanning students’ minds as though exemplars themselves. Parents started arriving to take their children home.
  • Period 6: Never happened. Half the faculty were in emergency conferences. The students lounged in the halls conversing and playing with the hundreds of hand written glyphs.

All anyone knew for sure was that school was canceled tomorrow while the school board figured out what to do. It would have made this an amazing day were it not for the ride home. When his father had picked him up, his gaze was evasive, but just after his dad parked the car at home, their eyes met briefly. Everything his father was afraid of his son learning about had been right on the surface.

Osgur would have to leave home. It was the only way. How could he ever go on living in this family? It’s not like he could ever sit at the same table with his parents and act as though he didn’t know.

Those ropes in his parents closet were not for mountain climbing. The image had been right there in dad’s head. Of Mom. Tied up. And… those other things which he now knew were kept in the gun safe. Knowing that his parents even possessed such things was far more than an child should know, but to see a mental image of those things in use. On mom.

These glyphs had ruined his life.

“Pardon me, sir,” Arnaud approached a stranger standing outside a shopping mart. He was a Chinaman—had no business being in France. Probably didn’t even know french, so Auraud would open with… ugh… english. Men like these deserved to be robbed. But there was something in particular about this man that stood out to Arnaud, though he would be damned if he could put his finger on it.

The asian man glanced toward Arnaud, but made no eye contact.

“Pardon me, but could I trouble you for a cigarette? I only just got here from Marseille. My boy and I haven’t a place to stay, and I smoked my last cigarette on the shuttle ride.”

The part about a son usually got their attention a little more, just enough for eye contact. Then came credit info, or extra marital affairs, Bank PINs, or anything useful. Arnaud had only procured his hacked exemplar plaque last night, but already it had proved far more valuable than the seventy cent credits he paid to assemble it. Twice on his way from the bus station, he got two adulterers to pay him twenty francs. He fancied himself a mental pickpocket. Grab a secret here, or maybe a name or address. The rest Arnaud could bluff. One mark paid him just for asking if his wife knew about “Natalie”.

The foreigner took out a pack of cigarettes and helped himself to one. He glanced at Arnaud, then up and down the street as though looking for Arnaud’s aforementioned son. He lit his own without handing one over. Oh, how Arnaud was going to enjoy taking this foreigner’s money, the arrogant prick.

“Please, sir. I can pay you a franc if that’s what you wish.”

At a meandering pace, the asian man finally popped out a cigarette for Arnaud.

“Thank you, sir.” Still no eye contact. How rude was this man?

“You uh… come from China?” No response. “I’m from Cameroon. Came here after the war. What brings you out so far from home?”

Finally, the asian man looked Arnaud in the eye. “I do not speak good english.”

It was enough. Arnaud saw far more than he expected.

A flair? Other powers? This man could… know the future somehow, but only slightly. His power allowed his own unconscious movements to decide for him. Understanding this, Arnaud finally managed to place what strange detail led him to “Tan”. He could somehow sense this man’s power. So this was what the mystery “flair” glyph was for.

Tan hadn’t learned yet about the glyph cards flooding the world, but he certainly knew a lot about flairs. There was Josephine, a woman who could make you forget about her; and a girl, Naema, who could break glyphs. Most importantly, him and his friends were on the run from the empire.

There was too much to take in. The man, Tan was his name, hardly noticed Arnaud’s shock and kept right on smoking. Without a word, Arnaud walked away. There was profit here. Somewhere. He just had to think.

Liu Fen’s shift at the greenhouse ended at eight each night, but she never got home before ten. The glass farms in Hangzhou were nearly an hour subway ride from where she lived, then a bus ride, and she had to wait in line at the RepMarts to get her daily ration of food before getting on the subway. By the time she was home, she had less than an hour to herself if she wanted a full eight hours of sleep before starting the trip in reverse.

Despite a three hour commute to spend twelve hours a day pollenating genetically dwarfed orange blossoms, she counted her blessings that she had a job at all, much less a high paying job as a greenhouse botanist, especially considering she was a woman living on her own. Best of all, her annual review was last week. After hearing of her crippling commute, her superiors had given her a raise. Not much, but enough that she could afford to live in Hangzhou, within biking distance of work. She’d have three hours to herself every day, plus her day off.

Today, however, left her troubled. Everywhere she went, it seemed people were staring at her. On the bus, a crowd by the door kept glancing. On the subway, a man stared openly. At lunch, several coworkers collected and murmured among each other. When she wasn’t looking, they’d steal glanced at her. She’d frantically checked the mirror in the work bathroom, but nothing was wrong with her appearance.

As she approached the plaza of her apartment complex, a group of children who lived in the building were gathered at a table. They were frequently there, and always courteous when she passed. She suspected a few were attracted to her from the way they scrambled to help her move in last year. Ever since then, they always showed her their utmost manners. Their stuttered words and red faces were flattering too.

Yet today, they stared like everyone else had.

Mrs. Liu!” One waved her over, a boy named Heng.

Hesitantly, she approached.

He held up a black card, which looked like a credit card, except instead of numbers, it had four calligraphic drawings in gold on the front. “Have you seen these yet?”

“No.” Her body was pointed toward the apartment door. Hopefully the boys would get the hint. Two hours of commute and she was within a minute of being home.

“They let you read minds. Look. I can read yours. You are wondering why everyone is staring at you today. Also, you’re planning to move soon. Is this true? We will miss you.”

She hadn’t told anyone about that. She’d hoped to slip away without causing a scene, as her neighbors would want to do. Ever since they discovered months ago that she was living on her own because her fiancé had died in the Collapse, she’d become the neighborhood darling. Everyone was always checking in to see how she was doing. She wished they’d just leave her alone sometimes. Now these children, who must have gone through her mail, would tell everyone.

“That’s not true. I did not look at your mail.”

The boys chittered.

Liu turned and hurried off.

Heng called out. “I’m sorry. Please. I was rude. But please, look at this.” He held out the card. Liu eyed it. She didn’t know what trick this was, but she just wanted to go home.

“Please,” he said. “Take it. It’s not a trick. I promise.”

Reluctantly, she did.

Moments passed in silence. Everyone excitement was practically palpable.

She frowned.

Their excitement was palpable. She could feel it, like their excitement was hers. More than that, there were people in the complex who didn’t care either way. It felt like wires were connecting their emotions to her own.

She could count the connections if she wanted, like counting orange blossoms on a tree. There were so many she’d lose count before she finished.

“Please,” Heng said. “Look me in the eye.”

She did so, and she knew she was seeing his thoughts, because he knew it, and his thoughts were hers. If not for that, she might not have noticed.

Then, in his mind, she saw why everyone was staring.

“Do you see, Mrs. Fen?”

She did.

Later, standing in her bathroom, she stared at her reflection like so many others had stared at her. Heng had given her his card. After their talk, she knew everything he knew, including that there was something about her—something everyone, including her, could see, but not with eyes. When she looked at her own reflection, thoughts filled her head. She had a gift, though she couldn’t explain for the world how she knew that. It somehow connected her to other people. It affected them somehow. It played on their… humanity? Their compassion? Even now she could push it out toward others in the buildings, whose auras shined through the walls. They resonated in response to her push. It tied them to her somehow, but she didn’t know how.

This all had to be impossible, yet the thoughts that flooded her mind while she held the card told her otherwise. Frustrated, she sat at her computer and opened a browser. Others had to be experiencing the same thing. Right?

The public assembler beeped. Victoria opened the dispenser tray and drew out the small card. Winnie wasn’t sure what it was. Or why Victoria had suddenly detoured their car to the nearest assembler station to create it. The menu screen had said ‘hacked exemplar plaque’, but it didn’t look anything like the massive steel plaques the exemplars used. It looked more like a credit card.

“What is it?” Winnie asked.

Victoria sneered. “It’s the end of my empire.”

And this is the end of Part 2. An updated kindle book is available, and Part 3 will begin with the next release.

Thank you once again to all who’ve kept up with the story so far.

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