Here she comes, clacking along on impractical Blahnik heels worth a weeks wages to some; hair bouncing, unseeing eyes front, a marching stride that says I'm important, I'm going somewhere.
Becca glances swiftly up and down the street. Two men are coming the other way, engaged in conversation, not looking where they're going. It's risky, but fate never provides the perfect moment: you have to take what you're given. She steps from the shadows as the other woman arrives opposite her, and says "Izzy? Isabella Shipton? Is that really you?"
Isabella looks at her, and thus away from the mysterious street-door that so many people walk past each day without ever wondering what it hides. The ancient lock has succumbed to a bump-key and that door is now gaping open, Isabella framed in its maw. Isabella's expression is uncertain, but there's a hint of recognition as she examines Becca: Becca does look like someone she knows, after all. Becca looks like the one person Isabella would struggle to pick out from a crowd. Becca looks like Isabella herself.
"Oh, you don't remember me, do you?" accuses Becca, disappointedly, closing the distance between them.
"Oh no, of course I-," and then Isabella says no more beyond a shocked, wounded sound as Becca punches her swift and hard in the gut. She wilts into Becca's grasp and Becca shoves into her, grabbing her hand and twisting the wrist into a painful lock, carrying Isabella off balance and forcing her to walk swiftly backward to stay on her feet. In moments they're through the door which Becca pushes shut with her foot even as she wraps her arm around the other woman's neck in a tight 'V'. Isabella's neck is squeezed between Becca's bicep on one side, and radius on the other, applying pressure to both carotid arteries. Isabella goes from believing she's being mugged to believing she's being murdered and she's suddenly fury itself: possessed of unexpected strength, kicking and bucking, clawing hands seeking something to rend. But, without blood flowing to her brain, the struggle only lasts five seconds before she goes limp and heavy. Becca keeps the blood-choke on as long as she dare, while shadows move through the slats in the door and male voices pass by unperturbed outside.
Becca hauls the other woman's slack form into the waiting chair, which she bolted to the concrete floor two days ago. Cable-tied at the wrists and ankles, gagged with a silk scarf, Isabella won't be going anywhere until the automated dialer phones the police in five days, and tells them there's a bomb in substation 1204. Becca removes the unconscious woman's jacket and plugs an intravenous drip into her arm: it'll keep her hydrated, alive, and sedated for the entire period. The jacket proves to be an Anastasia Gonzalez-Mansour or at least a beautiful fake, and it fits wonderfully. It should add verisimilitude.
The sculpture park is a perfect location, completely exposed with few witnesses. Becca feigns interest in a nightmare-fuel Baconian nude, all the while imagining that dots of red sniper-light have settled on the back of her head like neon mosquitoes, until her scalp begins to itch.
She's about to give up and leave, when someone steps beside her in a waft of Caron Poivre. "You're the new girl?"
Becca instinctively keeps her eyes front. "Yes, ma'am."
"They say you're very good. Top marks from Le Rosey and LSE. Impressive."
"Thank you, Ma'am."
"But being a swot doesn't guarantee you'll work out. Is it true you stole a copy of The Book at thirteen?"
The interview has begun. Becca knows a wrong answer will, at best, leave her standing here alone; at worst, leave her lying here with a hole in the head for company. There's only one thing "The Book" can be: a tome so far beyond banned that most people who've ever heard of it think it's a myth. Those who know better avoid speaking its name. That book is "Applied Microsociology for Blackhats", a college level text-book in the social sciences, rumoured to have been written by Satan himself.
"I wanted to know if it was real or just a rumor," says Becca. "And I was sixteen, actually. Does that make me a late developer?"
"Everyone told you there was no such book?"
"Just because everyone believes a thing doesn't mean it's true. The company of fools has much to recommend it, so long as one is not a fool oneself."
"You read it and started using what you learned on your friends. You're not very loyal, are you?"
"No one was really hurt."
"Yes they were, every act changes the future in some way, becomes magnified as it echoes down time. Your reign affected the future lives of all your classmates. If someone gets ahead by the slightest amount, someone else is left behind."
"Someone will always be left behind, I have a responsibility to see it's not me."
The other woman makes a snort that could disgust or approval, or a bit of both. "You must have had offers from the government agencies. Don't you have a patriotic bone in your body?"
"The age of nation states is past: their pay-offers prove it."
"You can still turn around and walk away, and forget this forever, and we'll let you. It might be best."
"I've made my choice, ma'am."
"Then riddle me this: To fight and conquer in a thousand battles is not the supreme excellence-"
Becca answers in Mandarin, because Isabella would and her replies to these 'innocent' questions are surely being checked against an expected psych profile. "the supreme excellence is to defeat your enemy without fighting at all."
"Show off," says her inquisitor. "Well, clearly I don't need to ask you the source. How about this: 'Point one: All complex systems are incomplete, even mathematics. All systems contain singularities where they disagree with themselves, break down, or produce crazy results. Point two: By extension all complex systems are insecure. Somewhere among their possible states there will be conditions that yield undesirable behavior. Weaknesses. Vulnerabilities. Thus all complex systems can be exploited by a malicious attacker. All complex systems can be hacked."
Becca finishes the quote. "Point three: Human minds, human groups, and human societies, are complex systems. Chapter one, paragraph one of Applied Microsociology for Blackhats, the Eris's bible."
Becca's insides turn over and dive. "Uh, well, all of them?"
"Even the thirteenth?"
"There is no thirteenth edition, it's a myth."
"You're sure of that? You were told that before, after all?"
Becca feels like her heart just shifted in its cavity. Perhaps there is a thirteenth edition. Perhaps there isn't. Perhaps it's a shibboleth used to detect fakes. "I'm sure of the official line, Ma'am," she says.
"Good, see that it stays that way, the thirteenth edition is not to be spoken of. Well, you know the basics and we've watched you long enough to know we'd rather have you in our organization than someone else's. So there's just one last thing," she holds a silver cellphone before Becca's face, one of those models that's actual silver. "Say the creed."
It's voice recognition, of course. Just as Becca has bleached her skin and straightened her hair, so months of practice and surgical alternations to her larynx should make Becca pitch-perfect, and if there's a tremble in her voice, well Isabella would be nervous. "My name is Isabella Shipton and I am an Eris. Where there is insight, I will bring confusion. Where there is unity, I will bring conflict. Where there is harmony, I will bring hate. And where there is peace, I will bring war. So mote it be."
'Record' is thumbed off, and the phone is put away. "Obviously, everything you say can, and will, be used against you, if you give us cause."
She steps into Becca's view. Late fifties, but handling it very well. Her face is Paris. Tokyo. Istanbul. Tokyo about the eyes, Istanbul nose, Paris skin, lined but still luminous. Eyes grey and hard as bullets, wearing an expensive, but understated suit. She could be a renaissance rapier that's taken human form. "Well, you've said the words, you've crossed the line. Welcome to the sisterhood. It is mostly a sisterhood, I'm afraid, there's very few men who can work The Craft and those all become politicians. You know what men are these days: most can't relate to anything that doesn't have a keyboard attached. I'd fear for the continuation of the species, except one thing that you decide early as an Eris is that our species doesn't deserve to continue. Oh, and it's not very sisterly either, so watch your step. I'm Allegra Salem, by the way. You are now part of an elite secret order in the service of appallingly powerful, shadowy people, for whom you will do terrible things. If you can't hack it, you can quit without fear of repercussions as long as your mouth stays shut. But whether you stay or go, from this day forth your every movement will be watched and there will always be mysterious clicks on any phone you use. As long as you are in our service every door will be open to you and your every desire will be fulfilled, but never forget that you are a disposable asset. If you fuck up, turn traitor, or breathe one word to anyone even while drunk, then you'll be another missing-white-woman for the tabloids to cluck over, until your violated body washes up on a riverbank somewhere. Is that absolutely clear?"
"You put it very vividly, ma'am."
"Nice jacket. A woman of wealth and taste, you'll fit right in," she looks down at Becca's shoes.
"They're practical," says Becca, perhaps a little too defensively, "good for running. Steel toecaps: good for kicking."
"Exactly so. If you'd have turned up here in a pair of expensive 'fuck me' heels I wouldn't even have bothered to make contact."
A smoked-glass office-block with biometric locks on all the doors. The top floor proves to be one gigantic apartment, complete with gym, pool table, a kitchen big enough to service a restaurant, and a balcony view over the city. This in a metropolis where the cost of a square metre of land is more than most people will earn in their lives. Becca remembers her childhood, when her mother would fret that they were becoming too visibly successful, too ostentatiously rich, but her father would always laugh it off, and say this is America, people like the rich here. 'Course, that was before everything went to shit.
"Uh, wow, this is yours?" asks Becca.
"The whole building's mine. I rent out the rest at a profit, and this is somewhere to crash when I'm in town."
"Somewhere to crash?" says Becca, laughing, because Isabella would. Inside, Becca isn't laughing.
"Yes. It's one of several I own in major cities. I don't actually live here. You look shocked. Why?" She does a theatrical twirl in the center of the giant space, like an actress in an old advert. "Isn't this what you expected? What you wanted? Isn't this why you're here?"
There's an undercurrent of aggression to everything Salem says. Becca suspects that all her wealth has not brought her happiness, which must be her problem, because most anyone would be happy with far less. "It's a little... bigger, than I expected."
"Bigger? My, my. Someone was prepared to sell her soul cheap. Well, take a good look. Someday all this will be yours. This is what it is to be a gravedigger of nations."
That final phrase hits Becca like a hammer hitting a gong, and leaves her ringing. She wants to ask "which nations have you dug graves for?" That's why she's here, after all. If she had that answer this whole business could be settled in the privacy of this apartment, and all the cameras and witnesses who saw two women enter and one woman leave would give the description of a girl who's been locked up and sedated in an electrical substation for days. But it won't be that simple: Salem isn't going to blurt a confession just because someone asks.
As she's been invited to look, she does, seeking clues that will let her build a picture of Salem and her past. There's an old photograph of a laughing, pretty woman on the wall. It's not Salem, but there's a resemblance. Eager to start gathering information, Becca asks, "Your mother?"
"No. I never knew my mother. She died."
"Oh, I'm sorry. She must have been young, what-"
"She died of me. There were complications with the birth."
"Oh,", Becca remembers a detail from Isabella's life, "Well, mine ran away so I guess we were both Daddies-girls."
"Let's leave my father out of this. He was a good man. Too good for this world: in the end it chewed him up and spat him out like a foreign object it couldn't digest. In fact, that's enough small-talk, because you're really no good at it. Let's to business. My job is to evaluate your skillsets and decide where you fit into our organization. So let's start with something basic." She leads Becca to a wide, raised dais that faces the picture windows. Upon this dais is mounted a chair that looks like it came out of a luxury jet fighter. Surrounding the chair are tiers of keyboards, the one-handed kind where you press keys in chords like a musical instrument. Completing this installation is a computing core in the shape of a gold-plated apple, big as a pumpkin with glowing, flickering, Greek lettering written across it. The apple sits on a pedestal of transparent plastic, full of bubbling freon to carry the heat away. The whole thing looks like the cockpit of some techno-baroque vessel, as though the glittering city beyond the windows were the ship it commands. Or perhaps the world.
"You like the rig?" asks Salem.
"It's a little vulgar, to be honest, ma'am."
Becca slides into the chair, which automatically adjusts to her shape. The great windows darken, and become display surfaces for overlapping panes of imagery and data. Salem leans against the seatback, and clearly proud of her toy, and says, "The Craft used to be hard work. Maybe, if a situation was ready to tip, one person could make the difference: Lenin, for instance. But normally you'd need dozens of agents at least, all in the right place saying the right thing, at the right time. You'd need to get in the papers or on TV to reach the masses. Now, with a rig like this, a skilled Eris can access anyone. She can maneuver fools into traps, destroy reputations and end careers from half a world away while she's still in her pajamas. She can bring down governments or alter the course of election campaigns. She can-"
There's a hesitation, for a moment Salem's slick, superior persona stumbles. "Why do you ask that?"
"Well, you put the idea in my head with that gravedigger comment and-". One of Becca's many tricks is the ability to trigger a blush response, she uses it now, "well, I sound like an awful n00b, but... I mean... is it true? Can The Craft go that far?"
Something has faded from Salem's gaze, and her eyes are back to being gunmetal darts. "So long as one has an audience and a megaphone loud enough, there's no limits to The Craft. If she wanted to, a talented Eris could destabilize the planet."
"Well, you needn't worry, I've got no plans in that direction!" laughs Becca: overexcited, girlish, a big divergence from Isabella Shipton's psych profile, but she needs to calm Salem's obvious suspicion. "Still, it must be... thrilling, to wield such power? Have you... ever?"
There's a shift in Salem's expression, the barest hint of contempt or disgust. "You don't wield such power, missy: Such power wields you."
Becca makes one last try, "Oh, come on, don't look at me like that. When you first got into the biz, you must have found this as exciting as-"
"That's enough about me, I think," says Salem. She leans over and rattles one of the keyboards with a barrage of typing. "Anyway, that level of operation still requires fieldwork, boots on the ground. Fortunately nations aren't so gullible that we can hack the planet from our living-rooms. Yet." She hits return. The most central of the room's windows fills with a feed from a V.R. chatroom full of corsetted steampunkettes, glowing-eyed jawas, cybermen and balrogs. Three people have come as Hal 9000, and are exchanging opaque jokes about it. "But there's a lot of smaller social groups who are so gullible."
"What is this?" asks Becca, dropping back into something more like Shipton's persona, wrinkling her nose at the images as though they had a smell.
"This is the main discussion forum for Utopia-Con 1, an upcoming sci-fi event focusing on social issues. These nerds think they're enlightened, progressive visionaries who are building subculture that's morally superior to mainstream society. I want you to go in there and fuck them up."
Salem's raised eyebrow is because I say so, but her voice says, "Because they deserve it?"
After having her expectations pumped with all that 'gravedigger of nations' chat, Isabella Shipton would not be impressed with this development, and Becca must act the same. Likely Salem is out to provoke just such a reaction. "This is your big test?! Can I troll a bunch sci-fi geeks? This is an insult." Perhaps Becca overdoes the outrage: she's enjoying being this cocky little white bitch, it's so much more fun than what she'll be when the masks come off.
"Did you think we're going to let you loose on the on the Middle-east as your first operation, just because you were teacher's pet at LSE? We start small. I want to see for myself that you are mistress of The Craft, and The Craft is not mistress of you, and that you can follow orders."
Becca holds the other woman's gaze long enough to let Salem feel she has won a battle of wills, and then turns back to the keyboards.
"As it happens the science fiction community is one of our favorite testing grounds," says Salem. "No one outside takes anything that happens there seriously, and the inhabitants are very suggestible to ideological argument. The competition likes to play in this sandpit too."
"The other organizations and nation-states. You don't think we're the only team in this game, do you?"
"Of course not," says Becca. But her guts feel hollow, because that's exactly what she thought, and the likelihood that she's found her target just took a plunge. "I was just wondering who exactly they are, and how much they pay?"
"No one knows. We just know they're out there, manipulating things to their own agendas. A lot of what's happening these days I think's down to the Chinese. Or the Russians. Now the yanks are in such a mess there's no one to hold them back. Or maybe it's the Koch brothers or the Bilderberg group, the Illuminati or someone none of us even knows exists. All we know is that sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll find there's someone else running experiments in this petri dish of nerds. Then things can get interesting. But trust me, our outfit is one of the big dogs in this game. Do you know what software this rig is running?"
"I know what you're going to tell me, but it's-"
"Supposed to be a myth. Like those saucers at Area 51. Yes."
"They say it has real A.I."
"Real enough," says Salem "This is Marionette Heavy Industries' MUPPETMAYHEM 5.4 Professional edition. It's able to interface with all current social networks, which is not remarkable, and can maintain up to three hundred Turing-qualified A.I. sockpuppets, which I'm told is. I'm not so impressed myself: most humans on the net couldn't pass a Turing test, so how hard can the deception be? I'm sure you've used the simulations of it that we've put out there to train up bright young things, like the air-force does with flight-sims. So, let's see what you've got."
Becca has endlessly played the simulations. She manages the social analysis engine with one hand, guiding it through the interplay of conversation, building influence-charts of who speaks to who, who blocks who, who are the hubs, and who are spokes that can be ignored. Salem's machine is almost too good, does almost too much of the work, making Becca feel simultaneously empowered and redundant. It offers timeline analysis without even being asked, identifying the brittle people: the ones who'll get fighting mad and abusive at even the most innocent interactions. It highlights the trigger-phrases and topics that most often make people enraged. But it's when she opens the zoo of pre-prepared sockpuppet personas that she really grasps its capabilities. Caged within labelled windows marked "Free-market atheist" or "Marxist, Vegetarian Truther", perfectly realistic people in perfectly realistic rooms look out as though she were seeing webcam feeds. They smile and stroke their beards or toss their hair, blowing kisses, waving or winking at her like she's an old friend who's just come online. Each is as convincing as Isabella Shipton's pale reflection in the screens before her. She doesn't doubt you could friends with these people for a lifetime, you could fall in love with them, and never know they were computer-generated illusions. Through this machine she can be anyone from a white, male Christian fundamentalist to a Thai, lesbian, social-justice-warrior. No, it's worse than that: anyone can be anyone.
"Are you going to do anything beyond stare at the pretty pictures?" asks Salem.
"Oh, yes, sorry Ma'am." Becca forces herself into the familiar routine of The Craft. First one must find the three Gees: Golden Apples, Golden Fleeces and most of all the Goldsteins. Every group has its Golden apples: those things that divide people and over which they will fight, especially when an Eris sets them against each other. And every group has its golden fleece: something the group considers above critique, and under whose aegis an Eris will hide. Finally, there's always a Goldstein, at least one: a hate-totem that the group defines itself against. Hate is the defining human emotion: not an animal thing, but a complex social phenomenon. You don't really know anyone until you know what they hate. A good Eris can turn anything into hate: fear, anger, even love, but how often does one see hate become something else? Hate is the bottom of the moral gravity well, and once you're in it's tough to climb out. You don't really understand anyone until you know who they hate. The software does the grunt-work of linguistic analysis for her, rating statements on curves of positive or negative association, and then counting which demographic groups wind up on which curve. Up comes a graph with tall spikes of feeling around particular groups, but before Becca can absorb what it says Salem leans over and swipes it away.
"Automated analysis won't be there for you in a field op, or if you have to improvise for a hostile audience," she says. "A good Eris needs only their wits and their bare tongue to destroy worlds. Find the Goldsteins yourself."
"Oh, please, this is kindergarten stuff." says Becca. She spins up a legion of low-grade puppets, barely smarter than video-game mooks, just text-feed avatars without faces or names. They don't need to be convincing: they exist only to shout a variety of racial, gender, and ideological insults, systematically attacking every demographic in turn. She doesn't send them to the target environment, but instead follows people's friend connections, to forums and chatrooms and channels across the world. Birds of a feather flock together, and if you know the company someone keeps, you know them pretty well too. It's techniques like this that she's sought out and studied, that have let her pull signal from the noise of the world, that have put her on the trail of this woman stood at her shoulder. Her bots pick fights with people and with each other, slinging slurs and insults like chimps throwing excrement. Becca notes which slurs are met with outrage, and which ones with applause, and thus who is the Goldstein group in this environment. The machine keeps score but she doesn't need it. In under a minute she has confirmed who these people hate, or at least despise enough to be useful.
"You should have known the Goldsteins at a glance," says Salem.
"I did. But a victorious general makes many calculations before entering a battle. One who will be defeated makes few. A professional makes no assumptions." Becca starts selecting her footsoldiers from the perfect people in the sockpuppet zoo, fingers rattling on the twin keyboards as she tweaks their belief-systems and attitudes to fit her purpose.
A new window appears: A list of people, measured, rated, indexed and numbered. The machine has analyzed online interactions, graded them on a curve, and selected those it thinks will be of interest, mostly middle-aged men and thin, twitchy girls. Reading the charts beside each name, Becca realizes what it's telling her: these people are the highest suicide risks.
The sims she's played never did this.
Becca sweeps the new information away. Salem pounces. "Why did you dismiss that information?"
"We're not playing that game."
"What makes you so sure?"
Becca thinks fast, and is rewarded with a good answer. "You said this was your favorite testing ground. A spate of suicides would attract unwanted attention."
"Nice use of logic. But what if that were the game we were playing?"
"I was in the air cadets, I can follow a chain of command, Ma'am. But we're not playing that game, are we?"
Salem holds the moment, playing with her, then says. "No dear, not today. Carry on."
There isn't time for Becca to do anything elegant, so she looks for the most obvious means of burning down the house. Fortunately the place is already a tinderbox. Previous Erises have left ideological backdoors and weaponized memes scattered throughout the local culture. Certain arguments and ideas sound plausible enough, but they're traps. Once someone's taken the bait they're pwned forever, and anyone with a little skill can call the tune, and they'll dance. The talk in this community is full of echoes of previous Eris activity: people repeat clever lines and phrases without knowing where they came from or why. They're like post-apocalyptic savages who've found some long-buried hand grenades and think they'll work well as hammers.
An odd thing about this bunch though: the Goldstein group is well represented among its members. Normally the Goldstein is an outgroup, who are... out, not in. Becca sets her sockpuppets to pick a fight with them, but they don't defend themselves, not in sufficient numbers to be useful. They agree with their accusers. This makes no sense, it must be some kind of trick-
"Something up?" asks Salem.
"No, not at all." Not a trick then, there's way too much smug in Salem's voice for that, this is an honest test that Salem expects her to fail. So, what's happening here? It's got to be animal behavior: roll over and show your belly, abase yourself and hope the attack passes, demonstrate submission. So, that's going to make it difficult to start any fight involving the Goldstein group. Unless she supplies her own Goldsteins. Becca reconfigures her sockpuppets. If the Goldstein group has learned to be this submissive, then any misbehavior by them will provoke a violent reaction. So, Becca's new sockpuppets are styled to be exactly what this community hates most, but programmed to attack. Press return-
The reaction's almost instantaneous, wonderfully violent, and self-recruiting as the call to arms spreads from person to person, account to account. Suddenly it's almost too easy: who knew such anger burned in the soul of the sci-fi geek? Now Becca has something she can work with, something she can shape, most of all something she can direct. The familiar spiral of insult and accusation ramps up fast, Becca managing it like a potter shaping a vase, ensuring that whenever someone says something hateful or stupid it's forwarded to the person who needs to see that most of all. Two clear sides begin to develop, each becoming more extreme moment-by-moment. Some would-be peacemakers step up and appeal for calm: Becca sends agents to debate with them, perfectly politely, taking them out of the main game to waste their time talking to fake people. Thus she achieves a kind of fractional distillation, removing impurities to achieve a more concentrated solution. A few smart folks know where their bright-lines are, know when those are being crossed, drop out of the game, and the solution becomes purer still. The increasing fury attracts combatants as news spreads and outsiders start to join the fray. The emotion heatmap display flickers through a spectrum of colors to a satisfying white fire.
Salem leans in over Becca's shoulder, tapping keys with manicured talons. "Most of these fuckers honestly believe there's no such thing as racism towards white folks. Let's disabuse them of that, shall we?" She starts cross-posting to accounts with eye-watering names, dragging in outside forces of her own choosing.
"What are you doing?" asks Becca, not needing to fake Isabella's annoyance at the intrusion.
"I'm pouring some slime in the cauldron, if that's alright with you? Look, it's coming to boiling point. If I've seen this once, I've seen it a million times. How do these fuckers never learn? Well, time to wrap it up. I want you to use your sock-puppets to start making death-threats towards celebrities and major political figures," says Salem. "Couch them in the local political language so some of these morons support them."
Becca senses something: a test, a trap. If she does as she's told it'll bring in outside attention and law enforcement. Becca can wipe all her A.I. sock-puppet accounts and leave no traces, but the people in the chatroom, many of whom are there under their real-world identities, would not be able to escape from the things they've foolishly said. But why? Something is askew here, she's being tested again. Unquestioning compliance is the obvious wrong answer, so she choses to balk. "What?! No. That's-"
"It's what? It's not one millionth of what you'll be expected to do in a real operation. Who cares if some middle-class nerds get their reputations scarred or score a little jail-time? No one's going to die and a little community service might be educational for these people."
Becca couldn't agree more: These people are nothing to her and reputational damage is well down the scale of threats she's experienced in life. But she says, "It's unnecessary. This isn't an operation, it's just toying with people for the sake of it. Maybe this is a game for you, but it's not a game for the people on the other side of these screens."
Salem, leans close, looking into her face like someone trying to read a difficult text. Becca stares back.
"Good," says Salem. "Very good. You're right, of course. The day you forget that, or stop caring, or just fall in love with the power of controlling people like fruit-flies in your private laboratory, is the day you become a dangerous liability."
Becca releases the breath she didn't realize she was holding.
"And now, as your commanding officer, I'm ordering you to do it," says Salem.
Becca turns back to the keyboards and starts entering the commands . After twenty seconds, Salem's hands enclose her wrists like manacles and lift, terminating her typing. "Okay, that's enough. Sorry dear, I can't let you 'destroy science-fiction', we'd lose our favorite testing ground."
On the screens the fighting is dissipating. The Utopia-con organizers have declared the event cancelled, the chat-room is breaking up into sub-groups to lick their wounds, debate who was to blame, and wonder why does this stuff keep happening to us?
"Let's have a drink," says Salem, and leads Becca to the kitchen, where she pours two glasses of amber liquor from a bottle marked 'Bowmore 1968'. "Congratulations, you've passed another test. Not one you're really supposed to pass, though. I can't think when I last had someone refuse the order to ruin people. You see, we mostly hire young women with broken amygdalas: no one present in the house of love, if you know what I mean. Psychopaths, sociopaths, whatever we're calling them now. That's why you got the surprise call-in by your doctor four months ago, so we could NMR scan your brain. You're in full working order, but you can work The Craft. That's... unusual."
"What can I say? I'm special. I've always known it."
"You're a cocky bitch. You remind me of someone. This makes me uncomfortable. And you're too good to be true. This makes me suspicious."
"Look, I've shown you I've got the skills-"
"No, dear. You've shown me you can play a videogame. You've shown me you're a competent troll. It's light years away from what we really do."
Becca doesn't need to fake her frustration, seemingly she's played Isabella too well, and Salem is refusing to take the bait. "I think we're wasting each other's time. I think you don't like me, that you've already made the decision to flunk me, put me in a clerical position, and you're just hunting around for the excuse."
"Oh, I don't dislike you. The problem is rather the opposite. Normally our recruits are damaged goods, they're bad news, they're a hazard to themselves and to others and we don't do anything to actually make them better. Look at you: you're young, you're exceptionally smart, you're reasonably pretty, you have a good education and lots of cultural capital behind you. Society tells people they can be anything they want, and it's usually a lie, but for you it's true. What are you doing here?"
"I read The Book. You know there's no going back from that."
"Isabella, what is it that you think we do? What, in your opinion, is the nature of our game?"
"It's all there in the creed, or even just in the name 'Eris'. We spread chaos and disharmony."
"To what end?"
"To destroy our enemies. Well, our employer's enemies."
"No," says Salem, "sometimes yes, but not often. Mostly we work to maintain the status quo. We do this by keeping the herd at each other's throats, and we don't destroy anything that we can co-opt instead. Sun-tzu was wrong, you see. To destroy your adversary without even fighting is not the supreme excellence. The supreme excellence consists in turning your adversary into an asset, directing them in such a way that their every word and action works to your advantage, so that you wouldn't want them removed from the game. We are not about destruction. We are about control. Every socio-political movement that's ever appeared, we've either created or taken over. We change their ideology and rhetoric to suit our own ends, and pretty soon they don't remember what they used to be. An Eris is not just a troll or propagandist. She is an engineer of souls. What does the Art of War say is the highest form of generalship? In English, please."
"To attack the enemy's plans."
"But again, it's not. The highest form of generalship is to attack an enemy's identity. If you feed someone disinformation, they may take wrong action, but they're still the same person, and when the information is shown to be false they will repent. An Eris injects ideology and argument, and people who swallow it are changed forever. We do not just mislead and provoke. We corrupt. People, movements, religions, nations. We change who they are at the most fundamental level. Murder would be kinder and more honest. You know we're deep into the feminists, right?"
"Yes ma'am, it's very obvious."
"Subtlety is overrated. But we, and those like us, have probably done more to hinder gender equality than anyone since Bluebeard. Speaking as one woman to another, doesn't that bother you?"
"The likes of you did it, not me. I've not started yet. If it's so bad, then why haven't you quit?"
"I am beyond the time of choices," says Salem. "Isabella, what we do, it's evil, you do realize that don't you?"
Oh, I know that, sweetie thinks Becca, but through her mouth Isabella Shipton says, "What would you have me do? Starve? The world is made of evil, either because you've made it that way, or maybe it was born that way, but I have to make my way in it. I think I'll help 'women', by helping myself."
Salem smiles in a curious fashion that seems both disappointed and pleased at once. "Then you shall be my borrowed sword. So yes, we own the feminists, and the masculinists too. We own everything. We control left and right, horizontal and the vertical, rich and poor, geeks and jocks, parties and politicians, cultures and races. We send our agents in, and take them over, and shape them all to our purpose. We haven't gotten to the gays yet, they're still singing unity and harmony. But we will. Everywhere there is a division in society, we put our levers in, and turn people against each other. And this we call "The Great War of Fools." The sheep must be kept focused on those around them. They must never look up, or start to see the workings of the system. It's all been ticking along very nicely, for longer than anyone knows..."
"But?" prompts Becca.
"But now we're losing control. We've been pumping up the hate for decades, and now the cauldron's starting to overflow. We've made the whole world a tinderbox. Problem is, what we do is a one way function: it's really easy to lead people into hate and conflict, but it's wicked difficult to pull them back out again. So, if we cannot make water flow back uphill, we must redirect its course. We need a new target, a new Goldstein for the masses, a card that we haven't played yet. And we've played all the cards, we've told people it's all the fault of the Jews, or the Muslims, the workers or the bosses, single mothers, or kids these days. We've blamed gay black women and straight white men. We've told people it's your wife, or your husband, or your neighbor, that it's Bill or Billy or Mac or Buddy, or Susan or Fatima or Meiko. But tonight, and tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow: it's Grandma. That's the new policy, and I want to see how you would handle that. I want you to draft up a line of political argument and a memetic campaign that targets the over-fifties as being the cause of everything that's wrong with the world."
"Why them in particular?" asks Becca.
"Because they're disposable," says Salem, lines crinkling across her face as she speaks.
"What's the time frame of the operation?"
"That's not do-able," says Becca. "There's not time to instill a new ideology-"
"The Book tells us that 'A weapon doesn't care who it's pointed at', does it not?"
"Uh, yes, so I'd take something existing and redirect it."
"Privilege. I'd claim the old enjoy privilege and power because of their accumulated wealth, experience and social capital. From that everything else flows. We've already established the idea that privilege puts groups outside of social norms, allowing them to be treated like-"
"Exactly. A good Eris doesn't reinvent the wheel, she uses what we've already put in place." Salem looks at her Patek Phillipe watch. "Now, I'm off for an assignation with one of my many lovers. You are going to stay here and design an operation in which money is no object, and you have about a hundred highly skilled Erises at your disposal. Let me be clear: we're going for maximum impact. Mass geronticide is not the aim, but is is acceptable collateral damage. Help yourself to anything in the fridge, mi casa es tu casa. I want your proposals written up and in my hand when I return at six this evening. Paper and pen, by the way, never trust anything electronic. If what you produce is good, and I have a hunch it will be, I'll be fast-tracking you onto a less virtual exercise."
Salem's half out the door by the time Becca calls to her back, "This plan, redirecting the hate, you've tried this for real haven't you? You've tried it before?"
Even from behind Becca can see the momentary glitch in Salem's body language, the brief tension across her shoulders. Becca's looking for it now. Fearing she's been too obvious she says "I mean, we, we've done this before, haven't we? It's not in The Book, but I'm guessing it's standard practice. When things get out of control you try to dump the lightning into some minority group. And I think it doesn't always work, sometimes it backfires and then-"
"I do keep telling you you're free to leave," says Salem.
"I just want to be making an informed choice," says Becca. "So, how many of the bloodbaths I read about in the history books are down to the likes of us?"
"I don't think anyone really knows," says Salem. "But I'd assume all of them. That's the price of all this. I wasn't joking when I said you're selling your soul. Or" she steps aside, holding the door open. "There's the exit if you want to stay Snow White."
"It'll all happen anyway," says Becca. "Others will do the job if I don't. It makes no difference."
"It'll make a difference to you."
"That's right, I'll be poor, scratching a living as someone's secretary or something. No thanks."
"Your funeral," says Salem, and steps through the exit herself. The door clicks shut and just like that Becca finds herself free to study the apartment of this woman she changed her face to get near. It could be a trap: there's every chance that she's being watched to see how she behaves. Becca investigates the fridge as suggested, but her eyes stray to take in the rest of the room. She goes to the picture windows to look out over the city. She says, "this better not all be an elaborate joke," to the empty apartment and mutters a few unflattering comments about Salem for any hidden microphones to pick up. She behaves, as best she can, like Isabella Shipton would. All the time she's looking for clues. There's writing materials on a coffee table in the lounge. She makes a show of being unimpressed with the pen, and goes searching for something better. In a side-board drawer near the door she finds a gun, and acts out the shocked reaction of young woman from a country where guns are uncommon. She slams the drawer shut in fake panic, but not before getting a good look. It's a Sig-Sauer P425, with RFID locking. It will only fire when held by someone who has the matching RFID tag implanted in their hand. But, the P425 has a service mode that can be activated by sticking a pin in the appropriate hole and interrupting the battery voltage. It's meant to be used for firmware updates, but the gun will fire in service mode without the RFID system.
It seems Salem doesn't take her own advice: Never trust anything electronic. and chapter five, paragraph sixteen of Applied Microsociology for Black Hats, A weapon doesn't care who it's pointed at.
Salem, laden with bags as though she's been shopping, reappears on the stroke of six, like some glamorous fairy-tale sorceress come back to see if the impossible task has been achieved, and exact the penalty if not. Becca has her spiral-bound offering ready, thirty pages in which she explains how to blame oldsters for everything; how to isolate them and argue that they are outside of the social contract; how to undermine people's mental and social resistance to group hate; which memes will most likely go viral and which lines of argument will be most readily swallowed.
For the first page Salem is silent, making Becca fear for Isabella Shipton's glittering career. On page two Salem slashes an entire passage to death with her red pen, muttering "No, that'll never work." But on page three the corners of her mouth quirk up. By page eight she's cackling. "Ha!" she exclaims, pointing to a suggestion where Becca knew she was pushing the envelope, "Do you really think you can get away with that?"
"Yes. I could."
"What the hell. I like your style kid, let's give it the old college try." Salem returns to broadcasting red text throughout the document, scrawling notes all over it at furious speed, sometimes barely seeming to read the text she's commenting on. When she reaches the end, she hands it back to Becca and says, "I'm afraid some of your proposals are naive and wrong-headed and some of them are horribly old-fashioned, but overall, that was outstanding, you continue to exceed my expectations. I've made alterations to fix the deficiencies. You'll have to read and absorb them during the flight."
"Yes, we're going to do some fieldwork. Did you think this was just a theoretical exercise? No. I wanted to see how you'd handle it, but we're already doing this for real, and we can dovetail our little exercise into the operation that's already underway."
"This is another test, isn't it?" says Becca. "To see if I'm gullible. I mean... you couldn't, it's too big. It's against human nature. You can't make people hate their grandparents."
"Isabella, we can make people hate themselves, and we do. You think it's not doable because you're an outsider, not up to speed with the state of The Craft. But later this year, our organization will send you to a secret conference at a secret location, where some bitch will get up on the stage and present the results of her research this year, and it will be something completely fucking insane. Then you'll see another such presentation and another, until you leave the auditorium shaken and changed by the knowledge that's been imparted. And some piece of you will be thinking 'I can't wait to try that sick shit myself', and that maybe you'd like to be up on the stage, getting the applause. And thus, for decades, we've been expanding the art of directing people like living clockworks. The pace of discovery is accelerating, and no-one out there is patching the vulnerabilities in the human mind. You're right, ten years ago this wouldn't be do-able. But now? Now we can shift the planet from zero to genocidal hatred and beyond in a single year, and you're going to have the privilege of being part of this great undertaking. Don't worry if there's people you care about, give us their names and they'll be protected, so long as you're in the organization at least. After all, look at me, sixty this year. Do I look stupid? And as it's going to happen anyway-"
"Ma'am, I've asked you not to use The Craft on me."
"I'm just helping you to make a decision, one way or another."
"I still don't believe you. No one would support this. No one wants to set the mob on their nan."
"I don't think you appreciate the severity of the situation. We've spent decades promoting race war, faith war, gender war, class war, and types of war for which there's no simple names. Soon all those little wars are going to start joining hands into a global conflagration unlike anything the world has ever seen; and let's not forget, the world has seen some shit. We've got megacomputers running simulations of human society and they all say the same thing: In twenty years there's not going to be human society. Our paymasters, or paymistresses, or whomever, are scared, and they are never scared. Do you want to hear plan 'B'? No, why don't we give you another chance to show how clever you are, I know you enjoy that. What's plan 'B' Isabella? Given that you've got to ground the hate somewhere, and it's got to be something special because just targeting another racial group is only adding another piece of tinder to the pyre, and time is short, what would you do?"
The answer's obvious. "I'd go public. I'd blow the organization. I'd ground it through Erises themselves. If I'm a paymaster or a top decision maker, nothing will be traced back to me, because that's the way things are always set up, isn't it?"
"Exactly. And who's the collateral damage? Oh, did you think you could focus decades of hate and anger onto one target like a laser beam? No, the lightning's going to arc and hit bystanders. And who will that be? Will it be high functioning sociopaths? That's eighty percent of us, but those girls are hairy on the inside: the normies can't tell, and sociopaths are one group that we've not spent any time teaching people to hate. Will it be white folks like you? Well, look at me. Don't know what race I am. Our organization is very diverse and equal opportunity, racially. Will it be-"
"Women," says Becca.
"Yes. Now I know we've both asserted that sisterhood is bunk, but consider the environment. We've been strengthening antipathy between the sexes since the seventies. We've been feeding arguments that demonize men since the turn of the century. We've made them think that society is turning against them, and that they deserve it. We've wound up radical feminists and marched them through society like Mecha-Godzilla through Tokyo. This has allowed us to bring traditionalist misogyny back from the dead, and make women-hating demogogues look like they have an argument. It's been an excellent policy for keeping people divided but, as with everything, we can make it happen but we can't make it stop. Now everyone's going to discover that everything wrong with the world is all the work of secret societies and, oh look, they're almost all women. You and I know that's for the same reason that military forces are mostly men: we're hired because we're just good at this shit. But the muggles aren't going to see it that way, 'cos we've worked hard to establish the idea that generalizing about a group from it's worst members is a valid argument. So, '#NotAllWomen' ain't gonna fly. People are going to discover that the wars their sons died in were just pawn exchanges on our chessboard. They'll learn that we ruined countries and untold lives just so some shadowy rich people could get richer. Ignoring half the sky for a moment, how'dya think the men are going to take this?"
"They'll go apeshit," says Becca. "But we're not disposable, they need us."
"Which is one thing that makes Plan 'B' attractive. It has built-in containment. Biology sets a cap on it. I mean, they're not gonna kill us. Well, you and I, Isabella, you and I and every girl who's so much as read The Book, our corpses will be lining the streets like decorations strung up for Diwalli. If the men don't lynch us, the women will. When they drop this bombshell every woman alive's going to get hit by the shrapnel. Accusations and denouncements will become common coin, and legions of innocent women will be swept up in the storm. We've seen it before, after all. Religious extremists and hardline regimes will have a field day, and all round the world women will see their futures shrivel. And how are the feminists gonna take it, knowing that half of what they've believed in recent decades has just been us fucking with them? Maybe they'll bring back burning. So that's Plan 'B'. Plan 'A' is grandma and granddad, Plan 'B' is you, and I, and every woman on Earth. Which do you think every Eris on Earth is going to choose?"
"They'll choose enligtened self interest."
"And what are you going to choose? Out, or in?"
"I still think I'm safer in. One of your plans is going to happen anyway, what I do doesn't make any difference."
"It'll make a difference to you."
"Yes, it will. I'll be poor. My unique skillsets are good for one thing only, I've got no 'plan B' for this life. And when the day comes that it's my turn to be the Goldstein, I'll be unprotected, I'll be a laboratory rat in your latest social experiment. In truth, I gave myself to this course when I read The Book. I'm in."
"I said something like that once," says Salem. "Okay then. You've shown you can do the theory, you can work from behind machines, but let's see if you can stand in harm's way and spit in its eye. Our plane awaits. Don't worry about passports or anything: that's all taken care of."
"Oh, I wasn't worried about that," says Becca, glancing to the gun-laden drawer.
The Jinbei-Honda limousine rolls right out onto the airport tarmac, right up to the plane, something Becca has only seen happen in movies. There's no security they have to pass through, and Becca curses herself for not realizing this; she could have smuggled the gun with her. The waiting Embraer Z90 has no markings to betray its ownership or affiliation. Inside it's as stylishly luxurious as Salem's apartment. The cabin crew, all men, look like they've walked off the front covers of romance novels, except that they have shirts.
Becca skims the continents of red-ink that Salem has graffitied throughout her proposal document. Some of what's written is embarrassingly obvious, embarrassing because Becca should have thought of it. Some is truly brilliant. Some of it makes no sense, it's clear what she's being told to do, but the workings behind the suggestion are as impenetrable as an instruction manual found in a crashed UFO. It's a glimpse of what it is to be a top, time-served Eris. Still, Becca's interest wanes. She's almost burned her first day as Isabella Shipton, and still hasn't found any evidence that Salem is the person she's looking for. Perhaps if she can just get Salem to talk, something will surface.
"This yours too?" she asks, meaning the plane.
"No, it's the organization's, but I can call on one as needed."
"I could get used to this. How long before I get to a level where I can call on one as needed?"
"That depends on how you do in a live-fire test. Why aren't you studying the changes and suggestions I made? You've got two hours before we arrive."
"Arrive where? Do I get to know what bear-pit I'm walking into?"
"Ah, at last she asks," Salem produces a promotional flyer from her jacket pocket. It's for a public symposium on the topic: Are we there yet? Gender and Justice in the 21st century. The venue is a lecture hall at the London School of Economics. Isabella Shipton's recent alma mater.
"Why this?" asks Becca, fearing a trap.
"Let's just say it's being run by some old friends of mine. With emphasis on the 'old'. I've chosen your battlefield for you, and it's a beaut, it comes fully equipped with an array of standard ideological weapons that everyone in the room has already been primed to respond to, and which you should easily be able to retool to our new agenda."
"I see. These 'old friends', you want me to 'fuck them up'?"
"I want you to rip them a collective second vagina."
"Um. We wouldn't happen to be mixing business and pleasure, would we?"
"Let's say I'm mixing business and satisfaction. I want them to finally know what it's like to be on the wrong side of a hate campaign, what it's like to have society turned against them, and I want you to use some of my suggestions. They'll recognize my style and know whose hand is on the knife."
"So this is where I'm your borrowed sword?"
"Yes. They would see me coming, but they won't see you. By the way, they would recognize that 'borrowed sword' reference, so be prepared for the target trying to fight back. Oh, don't look so worried dear, they've been out of the game for a long time. These are experienced bitches, but they're out of shape, whereas for you and I it's a full-time job, hmm? If you absorb my suggestions, and stick to the plan, you'll be fine. You have made many calculations for this battle, whereas they do not even know what's about to hit them."
"I think I had better review my calculations," says Becca.
"That's what I would do."
The audience are mostly students, mostly female, mostly young. At the far end of the hall, behind a raised table, sit four women somewhat older than Salem, but just as expensively dressed and hard-eyed, and each with 'professor' before her name. Becca concludes they're ex-members of Salem's organization who've cashed out and gone back to academia. Could they be some of the people she's looking for? She still lacks a hard lead on whether Salem is a valid target, but if she is, then these women might be too. Even if they're not they're surely guilty of terrible crimes. Yet here they are, fat and respected, and no doubt continuing to have a warping influence on academic thought. Becca wonders how they rose to their positions. She imagines there might have been a different calibre of woman holding these professorial posts once, but these cuckoos have pushed the real brood out of the nest. Knowing The Craft herself Becca can well imagine how that would have gone, denouncement and traps and gaslighting until the paranoid incumbents break down or are disgraced. Sitting five rows back Becca starts to feel the blood in her arms is fizzing.
Currently, of course, the room is quiescent, the calm before Becca's coming storm. Everyone here thinks alike, and discussion is an endless stream of time-worn positions so overused that people's nodding assent could be mistaken for dozing. Becca picks up a few new flashes of jargon, but very little that she wasn't expecting to find here. She nods along and applauds in the right places. When the time comes for audience questions, she doesn't move straight away, she sits there, trying to look eager and innocent, and when she puts her hand up, it's with a shaking hesitancy, and she doesn't raise it too far. And then someone points a pen at her, and she stands up, and says she hears a lot about privilege, but no-one is discussing age-privilege, the privilege of accumulated wealth and power and experience stockpiled by those who live fat and comfortable on the financial blood of the young, like vampires.
The professors smile and nod, like they've heard it before, like she's a angry child who needs to be handled with care. When the finally interrupt her, telling her that her viewpoint is valuable and it's an interesting new angle, but not really relevant to the discussion in hand, she meekly sits down, and awaits developments.
Talk rambles on, but Becca looks about and sees some of the audience looking down, frowning, at their cheap fake-designer trainers and rented Jimmy-Choos. Creases have formed across some of the smoother brows in the room, and their attention seems to have turned inward. You can almost hear the 'tik, tik, tik' of her words sinking into young minds. Eventually one of them stands up, but slightly crouched, like she's immediately ready to sit back down, and with a stuttering, quivering voice, starts to ask a question that takes them back to Becca's argument.
"Yes, Dear," says one of the professors "I think we've covered-"
"Don't you patronize her!" shouts Becca, leaping to her feet.
"Yes you were. Yes Dear what the fuck is that? She's not your teenaged granddaughter!"
"Well, I'm sorry you feel that way-"
"You're sorry I feel that way? How dare you imply I'm not in control of my emotions!"
The professor stares at her, open-mouthed at the temerity of the maneuver. Becca seizes the chance to launch into another monologue of her new ideas, particularly the ones she wants Nervous Girl, who's now looking at Becca like she's clad in shining armor, to pick up on.
One of the professors interrupts her again, "Young Lady, I think you've had your say."
"No Old Lady," says Becca, "I think it is you who have had your say for countless decades and now we are speaking up! Let her speak, without interruption," and she hands the floor back to Nervous Girl.
But Nervous Girl ain't so nervous anymore. Now she stands straight, and speaks clear, and seems to have picked up some of Becca's intonation, as she says "Well, it's an interesting point isn't it? I mean, we took your courses, and gave your all that money, and now we're drowning in debt, and I can't afford a house, or barely to rent, and I can't get a job, and..." her eyes narrow, "nor can my boyfriend?"
"Exactly," says Becca, and picks straight up where she left off.
And then one of the men, some old white guy with a grey, goatee beard and bald spot the size of Becca's palm, stands up, interrupts, and says that, actually, he would like to hear someone else speak for a change.
Becca rips him to shreds. She condemns his age and castigates his gender; she plays the race card though she's standing here wearing Isabella Shipton's white face; she critiques his expensive clothes even though she's wearing a Gonzalez-Mansour jacket; she dissects and denounces every aspect of his being, right down to the color of his fucking eyes. By the time he sits down, red-faced and shaking, no white man in the room will dare to say another word, and an entire demographic block that Becca cannot trust has been neutralized.
After that virtuoso performance the bitches on the stage finally realize what's happening. There's any number of things they could do, they could end the meeting, they could call security, they could come down and punch her in the mouth, anything but play to what they know and attempt to engage her in ideological combat.
They attempt to engage her in ideological combat.
One professor is of African heritage, and Becca knows what's coming before she even opens her mouth. She let's the professor get as far as "Well, I wouldn't expect a white woman to understand-"
"Did you just assume my race?" Becca snarls. "Put those bifocals on and look at my eyes, look at my hair! Don't you patronize me just 'cos I can pass!"
Another has a faint Newcastle accent. Whether it's real or fake it's there for a reason, so Becca is unsurprised when she tries the class card. "I find it ironic to be lectured on privilege by someone wearing a jacket like-"
"Rented," says Becca, and turns to a galaxy of shining young eyes, "we're all renting, aren't we? All pretending to be citizens of a dream we'll never own. And then at midnight, our glass slippers shatter and our dresses turn back to rags, and you're a little deeper in debt than you were before. And in debt to who? As your youth bleeds out one day at a time, who's pension account gets fatter?" She turns back to the prof, "and dressing like a bag lady isn't the same thing as keeping it real."
That gets a laugh, and from that moment on the facade of patronizing, professorial politeness begins to crack. Becca knows she's scored scored a point with the bifocals jibe too. Salem's right, this lot are out of shape. Too much time spent in ivory towers with roomfuls of people hanging on their every word. Too much ego invested in being the smartest bitch in the room. They won't disengage because they've got to win, got to establish dominance, and that's exactly the kind of human weakness an Eris depends on. As words fly between them, she can see them start to lose it, lips curling back to expose their teeth, eyes flashing. She feels her own rage rising in response, adrenaline flooding into her bloodstream. She should crush it down, should stay icy rational, but something inside her says 'fuck it' and she just lets go. Words spasm out of her and her body shakes with the violence of their passing and she's lost in the simple, glorious performance of The Craft. It's like the mindless rush of her martial arts training, purely instinctive, action-reaction faster than thought.
The professors have nothing. Too long out of the game, Becca can predict every move they make. Everything they throw she returns with topspin. Their expressions change as they find all their barbs flying back at them. Becca can smell their panic, "What's happening? Why isn't the magic working? These are our weapons, they've always worked before!" But a weapon doesn't care who it's pointed at, and all the arguments and axioms that everyone in this room has studied and learned and digested, only need a few words changing and they're Becca's now. And inside, she's laughing, All your base are belong to me, bitches, and she doesn't know why it feels so good, because this isn't even her fight. But after all she's been through it's good just to hit and hit, if only with words. Finding themselves deep in a hole already, the professors dig harder, giving her ever more to work with. Unwilling to disengage they keep hunting for a saving gambit as poison spits from Becca's lips and into the minds of their audience. Becca shifts to the attack, drawing on a cunning ecological argument that she'd worked out on page six of that spiral notebook. "Do you know how much damage you're doing to nature?" She sees four gazes break away to left and right as all four of her opponents are forced to think of a reply, because no-one ever thought she'd bring the fucking planet into this. But she who thinks is lost, and Becca brings out her next argument before they can respond to the first, and that one's in the bag.
The kids have their phones out, a hundred gigapixel eyes recording every toxic word, and copy, copy, copy, PASTE, into every website and chatroom, every tablet and phone, in every city in every nation, into the mind of every moody teen, dissatisfied twenty-something and broken-dreamed thirty-year-old. Nothing can stop this now, you couldn't stop this now if you killed every motherfucker in this goddamn room.
In her mind's eye Becca turns the page of the spiral notebook, and the next page is...
She's forgotten what should be there. In a moment of drowning panic she reaches inside for something, anything, and comes up with one of Salem's crazy, nonsensical suggestions. Still not knowing what it is, she speaks the words anyway, and she sees The. Whole. Room. Twitch. And she knows that's it, she can take it to the bridge. She launches into a line of argument so outrageous that ten minutes ago no-one would have wanted to be in the in the room with it, but now history has turned down a different path. In her mind's eye she takes the notebook and rips it up: she doesn't need it any more. She doesn't need books, she doesn't need plans, she doesn't need thought. The words come on pure instinct, spasming out of her as she shakes with fury. This is not Becca, or Shipton, or Salem that speaks now, this is not even The Craft, this is possession. In the final straight, Becca does not even know what language she's speaking. All she knows, all she is, all that is required, is HATE. The professor's eyes widen in outright fear as she calls them useless eaters and tells them it's way past time for carousel. Someone who gets that movie reference actually laughs, and Becca knows she's won. It's viral now. The kids will google 'carousel', and they'll make joke memes out of the images, and it will spread and spread, carrying Becca's new ideology and the sinister suggestion of a final solution. Out of words, the spirit leaves Becca's body, and she slumps to a stop.
The room explodes.
Everyone is up on their feet. People are shouting, screaming, laughing, some crying, some just roaring. It's bedlam, it's madness, it hits Becca like a sonic wave, and reality itself melts and flows about her, and suddenly, she's someplace else, in another place, another time, another mob, and her grip breaks on her mother's hand, and she hears "Run Becca, Run!"
The last words her mother spoke to her.
Outside, she hits cold air, and sucks it down in great gulping sobs as the world comes back into focus, and it's London again.
A vice-like grip seizes her arm, and Becca automatically launches into a complex, twisting motion that will entrap her assailant's arm in an unnatural position, snapping bones. But she sees a face old enough to be her grandmother, and cancels the movement halfway. Either the old prof moves fast, or Becca's been stood here, gasping, for longer than she thought.
"Who sent you?" hisses a Newcastle accent.
"I did," says Allegra Salem, materializing from the shadows.
"You. I might have known. What the fuck are you doing?"
"Oh, I'm just opening another front in the Great War of Fools, because I'm paid to do that by higher powers. You'd know a thing or two about that, wouldn't you, Melissa?"
"Fucksake," says the Professor, rolling her eyes, "this is about your father."
Salem steps closer, "No Melissa, this is about money, the one thing you've always understood. Why are you having so much trouble with it now?"
"Who are you to judge me? What's your body-count these days, Salem? And are they all the fuck-ups people say, or do you do it for the thrill? At least I got out of the game after America."
"Not before you made me."
And for whatever reason, there's no reply to that. Salem smiles, apparently having won some mysterious point. "Well, Melissa, shouldn't you be about organizing some kind of defence? Though I don't know what you'll say. "Not all old people are like that, we're not all rich and privileged? 'Not all Fossils'. But others tried that argument, and how did it go for them? Well, I'm sure you'll come up with something. It'll have to be good though, we all know which way the wind is blowing these days: there's a storm coming, and you don't want to be the demographic group holding the parcel when the music stops. But anyway, we must be going. Come along dear, you must be exhausted after that." She takes Becca's other arm, and the professor lets go though Becca became tainted and disgusting the moment Salem took hold, as though she's afraid something might flow from Salem, through Becca, and into her.
"Oh, and Melissa," says Salem, "you might want to watch yourself around the granddaughter of yours. She's made some new friends on the internet. She's already started to hate you." And with that parting shot they're striding away into the night, and if the London streetlights failed now, they could probably still find their way in the dark from the way Salem's glowing.
Becca, her heart pounding from what she's just heard, manages to gather her wits sufficiently to ask, "Satisfied?"
"You have no idea," says Salem. "I've given my life to this. Finding them, getting into their organization, rising up their hierarchy, winning their trust, just so one day I'd be close enough to stick the knife in and twist. This whole campaign of targeting the old, it's mine. It's my suggestion, my invention, created just so I could get at one generation of those bitches on that stage."
"A weapon doesn't care who it's pointed at," says Becca. "You might get hoist by your own petard."
"Fine. I accept that. There would be some justice to it. But while I'm in the organization I'll be protected: they made themselves vulnerable when they retired. But anyway, enough about me, you were faaaaantastic! That was incredible! At the end it was like you'd become one with the craft, it was just vomiting out of you, I've never seen anything like that." She looks at Becca like she's seeing her clear for the first time. "Girl, you're the best goddamn Eris I've ever seen."
"'Cept when you look in a mirror," says Becca, remembering how she used Salem's words and this woman spoke through her and did something to a room full of people, something that Becca still doesn't understand. But perhaps when you've reached Salem's level of ability, you don't show up in mirrors.
Salem almost blushes. "Well, I suppose age does have its advantages." She looks down at her shoes. "Look, um, I've got a big bottle of Bollinger back at my place. I thought we could have a girl's night in, to celebrate."
Just look at you, thinks Becca. You've given your whole life to revenge, and now you want some girl you met a day ago to be your friend because you've got no-one and nothing else, no one to share it with, no one who'll understand. But then Becca remembers why she's here herself and says, "Yeah. I could do with a drink."
Allegra Salem babbles for the whole drive out of London into rural south England. The transformation is astounding. It's as though she's been possessed by vengeance for decades, and now some teenager who's been kept on ice all that time is back in control of the body. Becca just lets her talk, smiling and nodding, and most of all listening. The only interruption is Salem taking a call on her silver mobile, steering one handed instead of using hands-free. "No, you get going. I'll be there in five minutes more, no sense you being late. He'll be fine."
It's closer to ten minutes until Salem's vintage Jag is crunching down the gravel of a swing-round drive. The house is a recent-build folly in the style of a French country cottage. The front door chimes in response to an electronic key. Salem looks over her shoulder, and says "The other places are investments. This is where I live," in tones that tell Becca that few of her peers have ever made it to this level of trust. "The maid's off chasing boys somewhere tonight. Can't say I blame her. But we'll have to keep our voices down a bit."
Becca follows Salem over the threshold. The only thought in her mind is Well, this is it. This is where it's going to happen. Funny, both of them have given their life to something, and they're both going to get the payoff in the same night. She feels nothing except perhaps the push of purpose that a clockwork might feel as the spring unwinds within it. Her eyes scan the entrance hall, seeking for where and how. By the door there's a small chest of drawers. Another door leads to a room with a tiled floor.
"Um, where's your loo?" she asks.
"Just through there. Whatcha fancy: cognac, scotch, sake, vodka?"
"More of that Bowmore, if you have it," says Becca, taking just one step into the toilet as she watches Salem disappear through a door to the main room. Becca's trained for this moment, if she had to she could do it with her bare hands, but success comes from stacking the cards in your favor as much as you can. Once Salem's out of eyeshot Becca goes straight to that chest of drawers. Sure enough, in the top drawer, a Sig-Sauer P425. A poke with a brooch pin is all it takes to reset the gun to service mode. Then, with her hands behind her back, Becca enters the main room herself.
"Seems an elaborate and expensive means to settle old scores though," she says to the empty lounge.
Salem voice and the tinkle of glassware come from a side door that presumably leads to a kitchen. "Isabella, this isn't geopolitics or sabotage of a corporate competitor. This is fuckin revenge. It has to be done right. Melissa was on the team that ruined my father's political career and left him a broken man and eventually me a rich orphan. Once I was in the organization I did everything to get into her department. I studied her and all she knew, especially who else had been on that team. By the time one of them discovered my identity I was too successful, too established in the biz to dislodge. So they quit. A tactical mistake that. Now I'm in a position to redirect the whole force of our organization onto them and they have no backing."
"What did that bitch mean about America?"
"Oh, you have a knack for saying things that spoil the moment," says Salem. "She and I did a job there over twenty years ago."
Becca positions herself facing the door.
Salem comes out, carrying two chunky glasses of amber fluid. "As you might guess, it went bad."
"Yeah," says Becca, dropping her fake accent for her native east-coast twang. "I know." She swings the gun up to point into Salem's face.
After a long silence, Salem says, "You're not Isabella Shipton,"
"No. Oh, she's alive, don't worry. After all she's an innocent, near enough. Her crimes are in the future. And I'm not white, and I'm not twenty-five. I'm thirty five. Old enough to have been there. Old enough to remember. I was a Yankee Muslim, and guess who got it worst when everything went to shit? I've been searching ten years for the people who ruined my family, my life, and my country, and I've found one." She sees calculations within Salem's grey eyes, so she pivots and puts a shot through a nearby sofa. In the instant it takes her to swing her aim back, Salem seems to have aged two decades and her skin has gone the color of her irises. "Yeah," says Becca, "there's a production flaw in the P425. An you were thinkin' you'd got a weapon that cared who it was pointed at, that wouldn't turn on you. But an Eris should know there's no such thing. So, this is what it is to be a gravedigger of nations."
"What do you want?" asks Salem.
"Names. Who else was on that op with you?"
"Why should I tell you anything?"
"Because there's worse things to suffer than a bullet through the head, and there's nothing to stop me doing them. That's the problem with isolated country estates: no one to hear you scream."
"It was me and Melissa. There were two others, they're both dead. Nabila got cancer, Maja was on a team that pushed over some wobbly African state, and didn't get out in time, got caught up in the violence. Well, there's some justice in that."
"A four person team? Bullshit."
"It wasn't meant to be-"
"Liar! Give me the names or I'll-"
"Then do it!" hisses Salem "'Cos there's nobody else, and even if there was, it's me you want."
And then Becca senses something, a third presence in the room. For the first time Salem looks distraught. Becca glances to the doorway. There's a child there, probably a boy, Becca guesses he's been walking maybe a year. He wails "mommy!" and speed-toddles over to Salem, wrapping stubby arms around her legs and shielding her up as far as her thighs.
Becca remembers Salem saying "We'll have to keep our voices down a bit". This would be why. Aghast she says, "Surely you're too old?"
"They can do wonderful things these days," says Salem. "with test tubes."
"What do you mean, 'it's me you want'?"
"We were a four woman team, sent to create a little internal distraction while someone moved pieces on the geopolitical chessboard. I'd joined the organization to destroy them from within, but while I was waiting my chance I went a little native. You know how it feels to work The Craft. It takes you over sometimes, specially if you've got anger buried in your soul. They put me in charge of a minor aspect of the op, a sideline. I took it as an insult. I wanted to show them, show them I could beat them at their own game, show them I was the best Eris since Lenin. And I was too, 'cept, I couldn't keep my creation under control. My sideline just exploded, overturned the whole op. The hate slipped its reins and people were killing each other. We fled. I thought I'd be for the chop, washing up on a riverbank somewhere. Instead I was a hot property, a real killer, a weapon of mass destruction. I should've quit, but I wanted my revenge, so I let them keep whoring me out to the highest bidder. So you see, I'm your target. I'm the one you've been looking for. It's just me."
Becca keeps the gun focused between Salem's brows and tells herself, any minute now, I'm gonna do it. But the boy's wailing smothers her resolve. Whatever she's trained for, whatever she's capable of, Becca knows she cannot shoot a mother in front of her child. Disgusted at her own weakness, she lowers the gun, says "You're not even worth a bullet," and turns to leave.
Salem calls after her, "I'll quit, if that's what you want. I'll leave the organization and take my chances in the world I've created. But as long as people have hate in their hearts, as long they can be sold an enemy to unite against, there'll always be someone whistling a tune for them to dance to. It won't make any difference."
Framed in the doorway Becca looks back over her shoulder, and before she vanishes into the night, into the swarming world of people, never to be seen wearing this face again, she says, "It'll make a difference to you."