Orphic Phantasia

5: The Eyes of the Forest

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“That’s not what you came here to do,” she said, and stepped past him. Placing her own cellular on the tree, she made a connection to the network. “Merope,” she said through clenched teeth, “what information do you have on a ‘Princess Phantasia’?”

“I do not recognise the name,” replied the avatar.

“Search your recent recordings,” said Emily. “Say, over the past four hours. Focus on conversations, in particular those that appear to be missing a speaker.”

Within a few moments, the network returned a number of results. One of them was for Byron d’Arcadie, listed by name. Emily picked it out. “I just want to hear the immediate dialogue,” she said.

Byron’s voice quipped up from the cellular, “Ah, if it isn’t the figment of my dreams brought to life before my eyes! Phantasia, is it not?” A pause. “Oh! Please accept my humble apologies, Your Highness!”

Emily almost cracked a smile. “Could you do a search for indications of possible avatar presence, either through a volumetric display or Aethex projection?”

It the system took all of a second to return a negative result.

“Could it be evading your sensors, perhaps?” asked Emily. “Search for any areas you can’t read.” She threw a half-smile Dante’s way. “What? Isn’t that what you just did to find the shrine?”

Again, the network had nothing. Emily then asked it to analyse the areas around all other mentions of the name ‘Phantasia’. Dante knew what she was playing at, and he didn’t like it one bit — but to turn away would be to admit defeat. Only when Emily gave up her search did he dare to speak his mind.

“Aethex isn’t all-knowing,” he said, as he followed her out of the synthetic glade. “I’m pretty certain her physical form is only a projection. It might even be something that works on a subliminal level.” From the look Emily was giving him, though, he knew she could see through his excuses. He had to tell the truth. “The City is capable of anything these days. She could be a spy program. Like you said, you’d be surprised the lengths some people will go to for information.”

With every step away from the synthetic forest, Emily’s tension eased. She wasn’t even clinging to his arm anymore. “And somebody high up is interested in you, are they?” she asked, jokingly.

“Maybe.”

The fragment of a scowl — or was it fear? “So,” the smile returned, “what’s your secret? What’s so special about Dante Orpheus that the highest terraces of Malkuth would send out cutting edge technology, modelling itself on a princess from another world, to speak with him?”

“Knowing everything would take the fun out of life, wouldn’t it?” he replied.

It didn’t cheer her up. If anything, it threatened to bring the frown back. It was getting hard to tell which Emily was the real one: the cheerful girl with the crescent-moon smile, or the anxious, tense woman biting her lip.

“Or maybe they’re after Byron!” he offered, hoping to bring back the former.

“Yeah, maybe.” She reached out, grabbed him arm, and pulled him away from the path his visor was indicating they follow. “That way’s hexed,” she said. “This way’s safer.”

Something has to give soon, right?