Chapter 9

A Message from the Past

Emily clasped a hand to her mouth, afraid to breathe. She knew it was all an illusion, a soulless simulacrum feeding sensations to her brain through an implant in the nape of her neck, but that did little to stop the drifting scent of burning flesh from threatening to dislodge her lunch. Even though Ms Shimomura had assured the girls otherwise, she couldn’t shake the fear that throwing up in a simulation would mean throwing up in the real world, too.

She had similar concerns about dying, and if Phoenix Rogan didn’t shut up soon, they would probably find out the hard way whether those fears were justified.

“I’m afraid you do not frighten me, Sir,” the Veritas editor spat at the armoured figure. It was twice her size and almost as wide, its ivory shell golden in the light of the burning forest village. The blade at its side looked like it could cleave a person in two. “If you do not cease your posturing, we shall reveal your dirty truths to the public. In fact, I have the right mind to reveal them regardless!”

She had been this way throughout the simulation, taking charge the moment they awakened to the replica world and determined to ignore Seelie’s orders. Katrina and Andromeda had no say in the matter, and Emily even less. They had to do “what was right”, according to Phoenix, and that meant trying to barter a truce with the Sophists — a truce backed up with blackmail.

If Phoenix’s threats had any effect on the monster inside the armour, however, Emily could not tell. In the real world she could just close her eyes and read the aether, but not in this realm of manifest data. There was no truth behind the shadows of matter. Here, the only sign of the monster’s feelings came when it drew its broadsword.

Phoenix remained undaunted. “If you think killing me will protect your secrets, I am afraid you are very much mistaken. Chief Payne knows your secret, and you can be certain he will reveal all if you even think of harming us. Now, are we going to discuss the terms of your withdrawal or—”

With a deafening roar, another explosion tore through the forest, pelting the village clearing with a gale of burning brush. Emily grabbed Katrina’s arm for support. Shielding her face, she chanced a quick glimpse in the wind’s direction, where a skull of black smoke rose into the sky with eyes of molten flame. More explosions followed, like claps of thunder echoing through a storm.

The armoured Sophist snapped it head towards the chaos — the first time it had shown the slightest emotion — then, with a monstrous growl, lifted its sword high and swung it towards Phoenix with a cry of “For the Father!”

Your mind makes it real. Or not.