9. Power Play

2055, September 1st
Collapse + 6 years

They sat in silence.

All the while, Victoria scrutinized Winnie as though there were something peculiar about her that Victoria couldn’t quite place. Her eyes traversed Winnie’s dress. Winnie tried not to tug the hem again.

Then, Victoria began sketching. “Cho Eun-Yeong,” she said. “Am I saying that correctly?”

“Yeah, but Winnie is fine.”

“Redding. Yes? Northern California?”

“Right.”

The queen grunted and sipped her drink. She drew a few hard lines on the pad, crossing out whatever she had, and sketched on another part of the paper.

“It must be quite a day you’re having. This morning was like any other. And now you’re here because an exemplar told you you might have a mysterious power.”

“Yeah. It’s weird.”

“Have you ever thought you might have a power?”

“No.”

“Has anything ever happened to you that you had trouble explaining?”

“I can’t think of anything.”

“Do you ever know things without knowing how you know them?”

“No.”

“Hmm. So you have no idea what your power might be?”

“No.”

“Do you believe you have one?”

Winnie considered this. “Mr. Matthew says I do.”

“But you don’t believe him…”

“I don’t know. It’s all a little weird. He did show me his plaque or whatever it’s called. I just feel like if it were true, I would have known by now. He did say my power might be a dud though.”

“He said that, did he?”

“He didn’t say that about mine. He just said that powers can be duds.”

Victoria set down her pencil and examined her work. She set the sketch pad on the table. On it were countless lines and curves drawn together like a doodle. Along the edges of the sheet were similar designs, all crossed out.

“How would you like to play a little game?” Victoria said.

“Okay.”

The queen faced the door and yelled, “Guard. Come in here.”

The door opened. A uniformed man stepped in.

“Fetch Madeline,”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” The guard ducked out.

Moments later, Madeline entered. “Your Majesty?”

“I’m supposed to meet with the North American delegates this evening for dinner, correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Inform them that we will not be meeting. Something has come up. They can reschedule to tomorrow.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Madeline bowed and turned to leave.

“Wait,” Victoria said.

Madeline turned back.

Victoria turned to Winnie. “Look at Madeline. Study her. Look at what she’s wearing. Try to remember as much detail as you can.”

Winnie did so. Madeline wore the same black business dress as before. It was a black coat over a button-down blouse. Her skirt came down to her knees. Her hair likewise was black, and her skin olive toned. Winnie guessed she was probably native to the region. Lakira overlapped with what was once part of Brazil.

“Okay,” Winnie said.

“Good, now visualize her in your head and look me in the eyes.”

Winnie did so. Victoria peered at her in the same penetrating way exemplars did.

“No, not quite,” Victoria said. “You’re imagining just her, as though she were in a void. Imagine her here, standing in the room, as though you’re looking at her through an invisible, floating camera. Keep looking at me. Yes, that’s better. I’m going to send Madeline along now. You will let your mental camera follow her. Understood?”

“But I don’t know where she’s going.”

“It doesn’t matter. Just let the image unfold for itself.”

“Okay.”

Keeping her eyes on Winnie’s, Victoria tilted her head toward Madeline. “Go.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Madeline left. Winnie vaguely recalled what the outside hall looked like. There were two directions to go. From the sound of Madeline’s footsteps, she went right, so Winnie imagined her walking that way, but soon the footsteps faded. Her mental image walked down the hall past doors. Madeline was approaching someplace new. What then? Winnie understood the implication of this exercise, that somehow whatever Winnie imagined would be the truth, but she wasn’t sure what to do. She could imagine Madeline walking down a never-ending hallway, but that couldn’t possibly be true, so why would anything else she imagined be true?

“Stop fretting,” Victoria said. “Don’t try. Just watch.”

Winnie tried relaxing her mind as though it were a muscle. Mentally, Madeline turned. It seemed right. The new hall was different. Instead of designed carpeting, the floor was tiled. It seemed like a service corridor. There was an elevator, which Madeline summoned. Unlike the glass elevator from before, this one was large and bulky, like it would lead into a warehouse. When Madeline pushed a button, Winnie imagined an ugly buzz instead of the pleasant ding like the other one.

Winnie felt like she was making up a story as she went, but the queen wasn’t saying anything, so she continued.

Madeline rode the elevator partway down the tower. Winnie imagined the decor down here was like an office environment—fluorescent lights and fitted carpets. Why?

Madeline mentioned there were offices down there, but why should that be correct? For all she knew, that floor looked exactly like this floor, with wood panels and art pieces. Winnie tried imagining Madeline walking along a warmly lit hall instead. She could, but the sensation was like imagining a childhood memory and pretending as though it had happened in a space shuttle. She could imagine it, but she knew that’s not where it happened. She let the image go. Madeline was again walking through an office environment. It felt right. How had Winnie never noticed this before?

Madeline entered an office room. Inside, two elderly men in suits sat at a polished oak conference table. One had curly white hair and a ruddy complexion. The other had greased black hair.

They rose when the door opened, but paused when they saw who it was.

“I’m afraid the queen will not be joining you,” Winnie imagined Madeline saying. “Something has come up.”

The black haired man’s expression was fixed. The white haired man smiled and nodded. “When will we meet with her then?”

“She can meet with you tomorrow at this time, or we can schedule another appointment.”

“We’re flying back tomorrow morning,” the black-haired man said.

“I’m sorry, sir. Another time then, or we can arrange a teleconference.”

He leaned forward. “She was the one who insisted on meeting in person.”

The white haired one stilled his partner. “It’s fine, Rob. Things come up. We understand our queen is a busy woman. We’ll reschedule our flight tomorrow. Are we welcome to use our rooms for another day?”

“Of course.” Madeline bowed. The white-haired man bowed back. Rob smiled unpleasantly.

Winnie envisioned Madeline leaving now. She followed her out the door.

“No,” said Victoria. “Stay with them.”

Winnie’s camera remained.

“Fantastic,” Rob said.

“Don’t worry about it,” the white-haired man replied. “She does this kind of shit all the time. You just have to put up with it.”

“What is it? Some kind of bullshit power play?”

“No. She’s just being a woman.”

“I wish they’d just stay out of politics,” Rob said. “What idiot let her sleep her way into power?”

“Nah. She’s daddy’s little girl. He did all the work and left it all to his princess.”

Petrified, Winnie dropped the image from her mind. Even though Winnie understood that those supposedly exist, and actually said those words, it was still her mind that created it. If she were wrong, she just thought those things about the queen.

“I uh…” said Winnie.

“Don’t worry,” Victoria said. “I can promise that those two definitely said those things.”

Relaxing, Winnie tried to imagine the room again.

“Don’t bother. I think we’ve seen enough of that.”

“So that’s it then? That’s what I can do?”

Victoria nodded.

“Are you sure I was right about all of it?”

“You were a little fuzzy at first, but yes. That was an office floor, and the American delegates do look like that. How about another exercise?”

“Okay.”

Victoria locked eyes with Winnie again. “Imagine some place you’re familiar with. How about your own house? Can you imagine your living room?”

Winnie tried. In her imagination, the sun was shining in the windows, but she realized that made sense. The sun was setting here, but her home was farther west.

“I see it.”

“Now find your mother.”

Winnie’s mental camera moved around the house. Her mind didn’t place her mother in any room, and the lights were off. Winnie resisted the urge to simply imagine her being there.

“I don’t think she’s home.”

“Then find out where she went. Imagine where she is. Put yourself there.”

Winnie imagined the assembler station. The lines were short today. Her mother wasn’t there. Winnie imagined her neighbor, Ms Beasley’s house. Her mother sometimes time with her after they had gotten acquainted during a parent’s night at school. Ms. Beasley was boiling a pot of water on the stove as she was opening a package of assembler mash. Her husband was in the other room watching a stream on the computer.

“Stop,” said Victoria. “Don’t search places for her. Visualize her, then look at where you are.”

Winnie dismissed her current vision and imagined her mother. There she was in her head. Winnie didn’t know what she was wearing or what posture she was in, so Winnie just imagined her standing there and didn’t focus on her clothes. They she tried to let the world fill in around her, and Winnie saw her mother as she’d seen her that morning, in the kitchen, making breakfast. It was a memory, but Mother wasn’t there, right? She cleared her mind and revisualized her own home. The kitchen was empty. Winnie tried putting her there anyway, just to see what it was like. The image seemed… insubstantial.

“No,” said the queen. “You’re just making that up. No matter. We’ll practice that later.”

“It feels like I’m just making all of it up.”

“It will at first, because you’re not used to using it. As you practice, your visualization will become more crisp. It’s that way with all flairs.”

“How did I go my entire life without ever having used it?”

“You probably have. You just had no reason to think what you imagined was correct. If you later confirmed that you were right, you might have assumed you guessed correctly from context. Who would think they actually possessed the power to know whatever was happening, no matter where it was?”

“Is that what I can do?”

“I believe so,” Victoria said.

“Anywhere in the world?”

“So long as it’s happening now.”

“How are you so sure? I thought it was going to take a while to figure it out.”

“I’ve spent my life working with flairs, ever since I found out I was one myself.”

“You draw those symbols?”

Victoria picked up the sketch pad. “That’s right. I create totems of other powers. And this…” She turned the pad around to show Winnie, “is your representation, or glyph.”

It didn’t look like anything a human would design—a random collision of lines and curves, as though Victoria had been drawing with her eyes closed.

“That’s my power?”

“It describes your power,” Victoria corrected.

“In what language?”

“Whatever language my power speaks.”

“Your power speaks in random lines?”

“As your power develops, the symbol will become more featured. I can see that your power has already evolved just from our little exercise, and there are many, many ways your power can grow.”

“Like how?”

“I’m not sure yet. Figuring that out will be my first goal in tutoring you.”

“You? Personally?”

“Does that surprise you? I am the best teacher, and you have a remarkable gift.”

“I figured somebody else would teach me. Don’t you have to run the empire?”

“I will make time for you. Twice a week, I think. I won’t be able to work that into my schedule until next week, but that should give you time to get situated with your living arrangements and other such classes.”

“Oh,” Winnie said. The queen was assuming she had already agreed to move to the capital. “Mr. Matthews said I could meet with you before committing to anything.”

The queen peered at her. “I suppose that’s true, but why wouldn’t you want to move here? You’ll live on the Lakiran campus, which is the most beautiful and luxurious place on Earth. You’ll be with gifted people such as yourself who will understand what you are, and here you’ll have the best education you’ll ever find. You would turn all that down?”

“No. It’s just this is all happening very fast. I only just told my mother before I had to leave to come here. I’m not sure how she’ll feel about all this.”

“If your mother supports you, then she’ll want you to come here. This is the best opportunity you’ll ever get. Most people would kill to live in the capital. It takes connections to immigrate here. Think of the doors this will open for you.”

“But…” Winnie trailed off. There wasn’t really a good reason not to take this offer. The queen was right. Her mother would support this decision, just as she’d supported her designing. But unless her mom wanted to upend her own life by moving too, Winnie would be leaving her all alone, and Winnie was all she had.

There was also her power. Winnie hadn’t even known it had existed this morning, but now she wanted nothing more than to explore it to its full potential. If Winnie were to wake up tomorrow morning without it, she’d be devastated, even though her life would be no different than it was yesterday. This was an opportunity, scarier than anything Winnie had faced, but exciting. If she didn’t take it, she’d regret it.

“Okay,” Winnie said. “I’ll talk to my mom.”

“I suppose that will have to do. We’ll wait until you get your mother’s permission before moving ahead. I’d like to experiment more tonight, but…” she rose, “we’ll do so over dinner.”

“Like… together?”

“Of course,” said the queen. “Just because I dismissed the delegates does not mean I don’t plan to eat today. You will be my dinner guest instead. I’ve already seen in your mind that you’re hungry, so come along.”

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