9: A Message from the Past
Despite their cries, her friends could do nothing to save her. Emily turned away. Even if it was only a simulation, and even if it was Phoenix Rogan, she couldn’t watch.
She heard a clank of metal, another scream, another bloody sound of rending flesh and bone — and then the armour loomed over her.
So fast, she thought; almost inhuma—
Death came in a painless instant, and the fires of Hell cut to an infinite white. She had woken from one dream and entered another.
“What were they thinking?” Phoenix Rogan had lost little of her manic conviction in virtual death. “I took all precautions and sent our intel to Chief Payne. The Sophists had no choice but to acknowledge our demands!”
Ms Shimomura stood there with a calming smile, like an angel sent to welcome them to the afterlife. “I am sorry, but your efforts were in vain,” she said. “Seelie would not have risked inciting direct conflict with the Aristocracy, and the Aristocracy would have countered your accusations with their own. If anything, your actions would have helped them to paint Seelie as a dangerous organisation intent on controlling the town through deception and conspiracy.”
Katrina sighed. “So, we died for nothing then?”
“Many have died for less,” said Ms Shimomura. Her smile twisted to the briefest of scowls as she added, “I am afraid we are all expendable when it comes to politics.”
“Were the Donara ‘expendable’?” asked Phoenix. “Is that why we had orders not to interfere? Because the Donara were less important than—than diplomatic relations?”
That the system could convey Phoenix’s passion with such accuracy was frightening. In reality, she lay in a sleep-like trance, connected to the dataworld through a tiny incision in her neck, but she might as well have been here in the flesh. Emily wondered how much was a part of the program and how much was her mind filling in the blanks. Maybe it wasn’t even part of the program, and Ms Shimomura had drawn them into a private world inside the aether. She touched the back of her neck and located the slight itch that suggested she was still inside the simulation.
Phoenix crossed her arms. “I still refuse to believe that Chief Payne did nothing.”
“And you would be right to,” said Ms Shimomura, “because Chief Payne did all that he could — but he has always believed he could have done so much more.”
She waved her hand and they found themselves in a spherical room, its walls a thousand facets, as if they stood at the centre of a crystal. Each face played out a scene from the forest, each one a different variation of events: Phoenix engaging the armoured Sophist with her futile threats; Joel and Leira locked in a losing battle against relentless foes; a battered Lysander and Angelo rigging an elaborate trap — but the efforts of the initiates paled in skill, and their attempts in number, compared to the countless stories of Rembrandt Payne.
“He created this simulation because he wanted to find a solution that could have saved everybody,” said Ms Shimomura, “so he would never make the same mistakes again. To date, he has made two-thousand and thirty-one attempts.”
That’s a lot of save-scumming!