5: The Eyes of the Forest
Emily’s grip grew tighter still as they neared the synthetic glade and the forest began its transformation, as if they were stepping from one world into another. Wild blades of misshapen grass became smooth needles of turquoise, while twisted shrubberies desperate to reach the light gave way to webs of silver stems arranged in perfect patterns, their flowers glowing with a neon luminance. Above them, the ragged branches of nature turned to the woven threads of a circuit board, holding aloft a twilight canopy patterned with budding stars. A bushy-tailed rodent watched them from its perch, its fur a metallic silver. Dante’s visor identified it as a Sciurux, an artificial emulation of life, superior in every way. No doubt the trees had produced it, constructed it through recycled materials just as they did the Aethex, swimming about them unseen but omnipresent.
Emily twisted her lips in apprehension. “Sometimes, when I see what the City can do, I wonder if the Sophists have the right idea dragging everyone back to the Old World,” she said. “At least you’d have a shred of privacy then. The Cities don’t care for privacy. They want to know everything.”
She was trembling. Dante wondered if this reminded her of the home her parents denied her. Maybe bringing her here was a cruel thing to do. Maybe he was being a horrible person.
No. The truth hurt — it always hurt — but it had to be confronted. Emily Fomalhaut could not grow up believing in fairies. One day it would be bright-eyed princesses, the next twelve-winged abominations. He had to save her, before it was too late.
She met his eyes with her own, pale-winter tinted blue in the forest’s light, and forced a smile. “Knowing everything would take all the fun out of life, wouldn’t it? I bet there are things you’d rather I didn’t know. Like, say, who you think about at night before you go to sleep?”
“I don’t sleep,” he replied.
“Of course you don’t,” she said, sounding disappointed. “You’re Dante. But you still have secrets, right? Things you’d rather other people didn’t know about?”
He grunted his agreement. What did it matter if he did? The Aethex couldn’t read minds. Although, now he thought about it, maybe it could detect certainly subtleties — like Emily’s forced smile — and cross-reference them with other details, such as what the person in question was saying. Emily, for example, clearly had issues with people invading her privacy, which he thought ironic given her present clasping of his arm. Maybe the Aethex would have something to say about that too. Before he could develop his thoughts further, there was a rustle of leaves above them and a childish face poked out.
“Hulloh!” said Angelo Foley. He was a small boy — the youngest of the Second Class — with an elfin face and large brown eyes. He was perched atop one of the silver branches and, in one smooth movement, he dropped down, a blur of vibrant colours straight from wartime Paris.
Emily raised a hand in greeting, smiled.
“A pleasure, as always,” said Angelo, without the slightest hint of condescension that characterised Byron d’Arcadie’s verbose ramblings. “And what brings you to this most uncanny of places? Perhaps you wish to take advantage of the facilities? Surely, we would love to help. Come this way, and let us delight you with the possibilities!”
That collective cheer is coming from the people who read the original Phantasia and know who is coming up next.