Chapter 25: The Primitives
The same worn-out faces stare down at me from their thrones, one for each generation of Tearcatchers. I wait in the back of the parlor, sweating through the fabric of my bio-skin dress. It feels like I just scaled a Mobius ladder out of that underground vault and ended up back where I started. The last time I appeared in this chamber, they all showed me their backs and stayed silent as Atherton ordered my execution. The page summons me to stand and escorts me to the speaker’s circle.
“Alright, next on the schedule, we have Tessa Tearcatcher, presenting a revised testimony regarding the recent events surrounding the DNA leak,” says Bathurst, repositioning his prosthetic mandible. “Much has happened since last we saw you, young lady, men have been fashioned into corpses, including a Rivegan CEO, and Conrad, one of our own. I hope you can acquit yourself better than your last appearance.”
“And you as well, chairman,” I say, keeping my eyes locked in his. I’m not certain, but I think I see a trace of a smile rippling across the wrinkles around his mouth. He flicks his wrist at me, prompting me to get on with it. I straighten my shoulders, pull in a deep breath, and truth speak to the Council, as best I know how, modifying only one trivial detail.
“And this unsanctioned Tearcatcher child, the one you say was killed in the crossfire, you’re certain her remains were properly incinerated?” Bathurst asks, leaning forward and thinning his eyes at me.
“Yes, chairman, and if not for Conrad, her entire genome would be in the hands of the Rivegans right now.”
“Well, if your explanation of events holds up, Conrad indeed died a hero. He will be well-positioned in the family tomb, and many tear bottles will honor his sacrifice.” Bathurst pauses, sucking down oxygen from his mask. “You, on the other hand, pose quite a puzzle to this Council. You deceived this family, time and again. You acted on your own selfish impulses, as if your only allegiance was to your own solitary nature and nothing else, endangering our entire family position and violating our sacred traditions.”
It’s like I said, a mobius ladder, leading me straight back to where I started, only this time Conrad isn’t here to bail me out. I gaze into the eyes of each council member, from oldest to youngest, starting with Bathurst and ending with the youngest, four-year-old Cassiodorus. As they confer with each other, I look over my shoulder, into the parlor, and catch Atherton’s eyes.
Communication phenotypes are inherited. The basic expressions of each family member are roughly the same, only the faces get less communicative the younger they get, because somewhere along the line it was decided that faces which are more difficult to read give us a genetic advantage in our business affairs. None of them wear it in their faces, but they already know what’s going to happen. Bathurst will dismiss the council, and Atherton will be told to put his house in order, meaning my beachfront execution will pick up where it left off. This will mark the third time I’ve died. I don’t expect there will be a fourth.
Bathurst clears his throat and continues, “However, in the end, you showed loyalty, and a determination to do what was needed to save this house from ruin when no one else would.” He tilts his head, fixing his angry eyes on Atherton, before bringing them back to me. “Your family privileges are fully restored, and you are dismissed from this chamber with the gratitude of the council.”
I stand there a moment, stunned.
Bathurst peers down at me and scratches his chin. “Unless you wish to appeal this ruling?”
“No, um, thank you, chairman,” I mumble, turning and walking from the speaker’s circle before they change their minds.
“Alright then, where is this next witness?” Bathurst turns and points to the page. “You summoned the girl nearly an hour ago. What’s the meaning of this delay?”
“There was a complication involving her transportation, sir, but she’s just arrived,” the page says, bowing with reverence at the waist.
“Well, get her in here,” Bathurst snaps. “This council has no time to fritter.”
The parlor doors open, and a security tech pushes a hover chair from the infirmary into the chamber. She’s hard to recognize at first, the blood from her ruptured capillaries tinting her swollen face a deep shade of purple, spoiling her perfect facial symmetry. Her battered legs sway like dead branches as the tech maneuvers her past me and into the speaker’s circle.
“Darien?” I want to say something more to her, but the words get hung up in my brain, my left inferior frontal gyrus unable to resolve the neural conflict of word selection. “What… what happened?”
Before she can open her mouth, Atherton stands up and nods to Bathurst. “It’s my understanding, chairman, that Darien’s been through quite an ordeal. If the council is inclined, I’d like to keep this inquiry as brief as possible.”
Atherton glances over at me, the mask of composure suddenly vanishing from his face. He can see it my eyes. That box of iron I stuffed all my anger into, I can’t keep it buried any longer. If I don’t open it now, I’ll break apart. A primal voltage floods the corridors of my brain, sending shockwaves through my body.
I lunge across the table, my fingers groping for Atherton’s exposed neck. The security tech releases Darien’s chair and catches my hands. I claw his arm and kick at his shin, until he lets go. Atherton falls backwards against the floor, scurrying between chairs for the parlor doors. I chase him down and hammer his back with balled-up fists.
Two more bodyguards clench my arms and pull me away, but I keep swinging my arms in the air, as if my fingernails could somehow still coax the icy blood from beneath his skin. It’s an odd sort of glass through which I’m seeing things right now. The view is nearly the same as it was just a few minutes ago, but it’s like I’m looking at it from the passenger seat now, my rage acting as the driver.
“What angers you so?” Atherton asks, standing up and straightening his suit collar. “The girl is too careless with her body. I remedied the conflict by making sure Darien can bear no more children.”
“You’re a warped little monster!” My arms and legs still thrash, the rush of blood to my frontal cortex drowning all reason.
Bathurst lowers his chair, pushing the weight of his frail body into his cane as he stands. “Might I remind you, young lady, you’re a guest in this council. You will represent yourself in a civilized manner when you stand on this floor.”
“Just what about this council is civilized?” I shout.
“Do not mock the sanctity of this council!” Bathurst grits his teeth, a thick vein surfacing over his neck. “You will sit down and hold your tongue.”
“If you intend to silence me, do it now, in front of everyone, but I will no longer hold my tongue.” I yank my arms away from the bodyguards and march right up to Bathurst. “We pride ourselves on standing at the evolutionary peak, keeping ourselves a comfortable distance from the primitive first drafts, but I’ve lived as one of them, and nothing about them even comes close the savagery I’ve seen here today. Perhaps it’s better the first drafts can’t access our DNA. It doesn’t make us any more human, only more vicious.”
Darien’s lip shakes, and she drops her head so I can’t see the shape of her tears. I walk past the thrones hovering the wall. “You allowed this to happen, all of you. If there exists a soul, yours are marked by this,” I say, standing at the parlor doors until they slide open.
I run through the hallway, meeting eyes with no one, and take the elevator back to the eleventh floor. I slap my hand over the panel outside my room, and once the door clanks shut, I pick up the dollhouse I rescued from Desiree’s quarters and smash it against the wall until splintered beams and tiny mangled furniture litter the floor.
Childhood is behind me. The dreams of youth are as fragile as the walls of the make-believe world me and Desiree once created. My face knots, and my diaphragm weighs heavy in my chest. The neurotransmitters have been sent, but my endocrine glands refuse to produce the hormones needed to wet my eyes. I have no more tears.
I fall backwards onto my bed, cradling a pillow in my arms. A tear catcher bottle sits on the night table beside me. I hold it above me and stare up at the light through the shiny prisms. There’s a knock across the room. “Open door,” I command.
The door draws up into the ceiling and, through the distorted glass of the bottle, I see the fragmented image of an old man limping into the room. “The council isn’t accustomed to being scolded like that,” Bathurst croaks.
I replace the bottle and sit up on the bed. “Might I remind you, sir, you’re a guest in this chamber.”
“Put away your claws, young lady, please. A trip to this wing of the estate isn’t an easy one for an old man like me,” he says, sitting next to me on the bed.
“I don’t understand you. My actions mock the council, but Atherton’s are tolerated.”
“That’s just the language of politics, my dear, Atherton sealed his own tomb back there.”
“Sealed his own tomb how?”
“The council has grown weary of Atherton’s heavy hand. A meeting will be held next week on his removal as this family’s CEO, but if my arithmetic is accurate, the vote will come out a tie, and Atherton will retain his title.”
“Then he’ll continue to antagonize the other families, until he burns this house to the ground.”
“Mmm, I’m of the same mind,” he says, slowly rotating the tip of his cane, a cast of an iris flower with three petals, between his bony fingers. “You know, there is one thing that might break the tie. Westfall’s seat on the council remains open. As chairman, the privilege of appointing his replacement lies solely with me. If I were to fill that seat with another G-13, one who carries a bias against Atherton, we could vote him out.”
I stand up and sweep the shards of the busted dollhouse into the trash bin. He’s not suggesting what I think he is.
“I could name you as Westfall’s successor,” he whispers. “Many of us are impressed with the way you handled this crisis on your own. Would you like me to submit your name?”
I lower myself into my desk chair to steady my shaking knees. “And what happens to Atherton after he’s voted out?”
“It’s not in Atherton’s nature to quietly cede power. You know what has to be done. You know better than anyone, the only stimulus he responds to is force.”
“You mean my outburst back there? Even at my age, I’m still given to childish mistakes.”
“It was no mistake. You followed your instinct, and it was a correct one.”
“No, I let my emotions get the better of me, and I regret it. You’re telling me a council built on the collective wisdom of the entire Tearcatcher brand can’t find a better solution than to kill him?”
“If we permit Atherton to live, he’ll plot a takeover for the rest of his days, it’s in his genes. And every day that passes without his achievement of that very goal will only eat away at him. Truth speak, this is the kindest outcome we could give him.”
I just stare at him, hoping it’ll seep into his brain how cruel his own words sound, but his expression doesn’t budge. If wisdom, and by that term, I don’t mean the capacity for abstract thinking or enhanced learning, if true wisdom can’t be written into our DNA or accumulated from 183 years living between the walls of this incestuous madhouse, what chance do any of us have?
“I know you’ve lived out there, among the first drafts, but there’s an even bigger world out there, one you’ll never even glimpse without an invitation like the one I’ve just offered you,” he says, arching one eyebrow at me.
The evolutionary reason we developed eyebrows was to fool animals of prey into thinking we were awake, when we were in fact asleep. Are Bathurst’s words such a ruse, or is he truly more awake than the rest of us?
“You may think we stand at the evolutionary peak, but the coders are the first drafts to those who truly hold the power in this province. We’re just their vessels, the nerve endings to their brain, to put it in your terms.” Bathurst slowly rises to his feet, offering his unsteady hand to me. “I’d like an answer, Tessa. Are you ready to see what lies beyond?”
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