You pass out, eventually, after a mind-numbing amount of boilerplate questions from nurses and doctors coming in at the middle of the night.
Eventually, you wake up, the sun lazily filtering through the blinds, and you’re removed from the IVs and free to walk around, which is…weird. You probably should have a concussion, but they seem convinced you don’t. Hell, you feel…fine. There’s bandages on your head, but it’s not even sore. It’s all a bit odd, but…
maybe your injuries weren’t as severe as they thought?
Then again, you’ve had a look outside your door, and there could be another reason they wanna fast-track you. The hospital beds…there’s so many of them, all filled, some with people who probably deserve that private room a lot more than you do. Looks like a lot of them are climate refugees, too, people who came to Southern Sun hoping for refuge, only to meet ignorance and violence…
The city is, well. Not a nice place sometimes. (Most times, if you’re unlucky.)
But, well, you’re suspended. And even if the doctors seem to think you don’t need it, you may have to just force bedrest on yourself, just in case. Hard as that is for you.
You’ve had a chance to check your smartglasses footage – your phone, thankfully, survived its journey against drywall – and, unfortunately, it looks like you forgot to charge the batteries. You’ve got no evidence of what happened, and, honestly, knowing the school, they’d probably just say that footage was still circumstantial. (It’s happened before, after all.)
What are the odds you’d forget to charge them on the exact day Alicia decided to try and murder you, anyway? Tch. Typical.
Well, at least you’ll have a chance to code. Or catch up on old anime, or something. You could go through Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon again, that was fun. Or maybe just the Ami arc – you really do love that part. It feels less like someone being forced to be evil, and more like a girl who’s been forced to go along with what society wants finally allowed to let loose with her power and genius, right down to brainwashing her classmates just because.
Or maybe you can just watch Madoka again, relive those old memories of discovering you’re a girl, or even finally watch Symphogear like your friend’s been recommending, or –
♪ “And you don’t seem to understand…”
Your phone is ringing. Vibrating, even. Your family was texting you rather than calling (probably because they knew you were unconscious), but the number’s unlisted…
Ordinarily you’d just let it ring, but if it’s after an incident like this, it could be serious. The last time you got any phone calls that weren’t from your family, it was from Sunset –
oh, fuck, they aren’t going to try and cut your scholarship off, are they? That’d be the fucking shittiest thing Alicia could accomplish, but –
okay, no, don’t panic, Rita. Just answer the phone.
“Hello?” you say, tapping speakerphone as you slip off the hospital bed. “Rita Sternbach speaking, who is this?”
“Rita Sternbach…yes. As expected. I trust you’ve made a full recovery? We made special arrangements for your treatment when we heard the news. As our top scholarship student for the year of Reiwa 41…”
“Yes, who is this?” You kind of recognize the voice, you’re pretty sure it’s not anyone you know from school, but it could still be some jackass trying to prank-call you with a deepfake or something.
“A friend, of a sort. I work for the Sunset Corporation. You may refer to me as ‘Queen’…does that ring any bells?”
…Queen? You seem to remember there was someone at the Sunset meetings that went by that. Either a self-aggrandizing nickname or extremely optimistic parents. You kind of remember her; she had these gorgeous black curls, and wore black and gold, standing out completely compared to everyone else. The moment she decided on approving your application, everyone else seemed to just go along with it. And the voice sounds a bit familiar…no one else was in that room, and you’ve never mentioned it to anyone else, so you have to assume she is who she says she is. Maybe she’s working under the table?
“Yeah, I think so,” you say. “So you’re responsible for my private room, huh?”
“Among other things.” You can just hear her smug smile on the other side of the line…but, it’s in your favor, hopefully. “In light of a blatant attack on our interests in you, one your school seems ill-prepared to deal with, I would like you to know that an arrangement has been made to fast-track some benefits of your scholarship.”
“Really?!” You grin from ear to ear – finally, someone is treating you with some respect after all this! “Oh, does that include the surgery? I guess I’ve got the time off –“
“I’m afraid not.” You sigh; of course it wasn’t going to be that easy. “Legal requirements, you understand. An archaic holdover to please benefactors from the old democracies, I’m sure. But, I have been able to provide you the residence we planned for you within the Highton View Terrace district, complete with the fabrication equipment you requested in the scholarship agreement. I believe, given our information on Alicia Sentinella’s usual commute, that this should help you avoid her before classes.”
“Small favors,” I mutter. “But that should help a lot.” You’ll probably have to spend at least a day removing Sunset surveillance from the place, but at least you have the time. “I’ll pack my bags and move in ASAP.”
“Movers with Sunset have been arranged, at your convenience.” At least Sunset protects their own, huh? “And I have, alongside your new accommodation, granted you some access to Sunset resources, including some research papers you may find of interest.”
“Pretty generous.” You grin. “I look forward to it, ‘Queen’.”
“I have a considerable investment in your abilities, Rita Sternbach. Show me what you can do, and prove that my faith in you is not misplaced. As our number-one candidate, you could very well be leading your own Special Division someday.”
“I appreciate the flattery, but…well, I’ll do my best. Just don’t expect miracles, you know?”
…you swear you can see that woman’s smile, behind heavily painted lips, so vividly in your mind’s eye.
“That you came into this world, and into my presence, Rita Sternbach…is already a miracle.”
…and then she hangs up, an email from Sunset showing the moment the Queen leaves your presence.
And good god, you forgot how weird these Sunset bigwigs were. At least it’s weird in your favor, but you do kinda wonder…are you going to end up like that someday, or is this just something with this Queen lady?
Questions for later, you suppose. You flick through the email, and then over to your mom’s number – you’ve got a lot of bags to pack.
Well. Mom was worried about you, at least.
Then again, she’s always the person telling you to keep your head down so you stay out of trouble, so that doesn’t mean as much as it could.
But, she doesn’t mind you at least checking out your new condo, albeit not moving all your stuff yet.
That’s fine. Apparently you’ve got a new PC there, and you can just print out casual clothes in the new fabricator. The whole thing’s very similar to what Sunset uses in their industrial colonies; you’ve had so many ideas you just can’t try out because you can’t do anything with them at home!
‘Queen’ arranged some movers, but you don’t really want to wait. Packing a few of your spare uniforms, as well as your laptop and some other essentials, it’s just a short bus hop and walk until you arrive in the neighboring district – thankfully close enough to get to the college quickly – and take a good look at the outside of your building.
It’s got that typical ‘high-tech’, energy-efficient look a lot of buildings have in the city, panels of glass held in by lattice steel, the whole thing reasonably tall but not overwhelming. Racks of rental bikes recharge next to a post office and convenience store, where a red-haired woman happily waves at you – huh, does she think you’re cute? Aah, how embarrassing!
Oh, wait, no, she’s opening the door. Maybe she’s come to see you?
“Oh, hey, you’re, uh…Rita, right?” Her nametag says ‘Anna’, with what you presume to be the same thing in katakana beneath. “Right, I’m supposed to give you the keycard…here.” She takes a small envelope out of her pocket, and hands it to you. “Don’t say it too loudly, but I’m working for Sunset, yeah? Just give me a shout if you need anything, my number’s in there. My boss says to supply you whatever you need, as long as you go through me.”
…code for, you assume, ‘bypassing hazardous materials laws’. Handy! “Got it. I’ll let you know.”
“We’ve got a hairdresser down here, too, if you ever feel like a makeover. Maybe try new ribbons, white hair…”
“Are you introducing me, or scouting me?” Right, that’s…how you flirt, right? Is Anna flirting with you? You really can’t tell.
“Who knows? Maybe I need to recruit you to fight the giant monsters!” The woman winks. “But seriously, I figure you’re moving into an unfamiliar new neighborhood, may as well be nice.”
“Giant monsters? Don’t tell me they’re still going on about that stupid rumor.” Honestly, how would you cover something like that up? The number of cameras alone…
“Aah, just kidding, Rita. Seriously, gimme a holler. And have fun doing science or whatever, too?”
…weird. She just waves at you and wanders back in. Something like…y’know, ‘god’s old prototypes’, or however that went. At least she’s friendly. Maybe another way for Sunset to keep an eye on you, but if this one’s got a pretty face…
You know, maybe it won’t be so bad, right?
Even so, even if the place looks nice, you’re more interested in what’s inside than out.
You eventually reach the elevator inside the lobby, and carefully coax your luggage inside – and you kinda wish you asked Anna to help out, but you suppose it’s a bit of a big ask – and you tap the button…
let the elevator rise…
walk down the hall…
and in front of your new door, inserting your keycard and letting the lock verify your entry, the door opening automatically.
The room is so dark, it’s hard to see normally…but you flick a couple of lightswitches and…
They weren’t kidding, huh?
That’s definitely an industrial printer. Seemingly supplied with all the feedstock you requested (don’t think about latex don’t think abo–er, too late!), the exact model, just like in the colonies. You’ve never seen one of these things this close, and you really are looking forward to trying it out…
Not only that, but a multi-monitor setup connected to a computer you have no doubt is in your exact specifications, comfortable furniture, expansive shelving, even an espresso machine…
Yeah, this definitely takes some of the edge off.
(Only a tiny bit, though. Someone trying to kill you isn’t something you get over that easy)
Setting down your bags, you walk over toward the bed, thinking of just lying down and sinking into it, maybe trying to get some cognitive rest just in case you do in fact have a concussion –
There’s…a box. Labelled with Sunset logos. Right on your bed. Ugh, it’s probably some kind of ‘welcome package’. Full of corporate garbage that you should probably just recycle. But, even so, it’s a box, with things, so you can’t resist the urge to get out your multitool, slice it open…and…
inside is an utter pile of binders. Binders, like a paper office, the kind you’ve never seen in your lifetime, probably from some archive somewhere. You’re not sure what they’re for, let alone why there’s so many of them, because you can’t imagine you haven’t signed all the contracts you need already…
So you flip through some of the cover pages. Let’s see. Psychological research, hormonal responses, twin studies, pheromonal studies, metamaterials, cybernetics…wait…
That can’t be right. Maybe ‘Queen’ thought you could use some scientific reading while you were suspended, so she offered you a few binders full of Sunset papers as a sign of goodwill, but…
As far as you know, that technology is still a good decade or two away from mass production. And yet, this doesn’t strike you as a theoretical.
So you take a closer look.
And you realize…oh, yes, you realize…
that your benefactor either made a huge mistake, or she’s rather more generous than you thought.
From the look of it, this paper should have so many redactions you’d think it was written by the CIA. Technologies that, publicly, are years to decades away from production being detailed in exacting precision, with a vast and comprehensive list of the practical, legal, and ethical barriers in their mass production.
This could only come from one place.
One of Sunset’s Special Divisions, their top-secret skunkworks, where the most intelligent scientists and engineers on the planet create the future. So the stories go, anyway; you always had trouble believing that they’d hold such things back, corporations just didn’t work like that in real life, and yet…
You shouldn’t have this in your hands.
Yet you do.
In fact, all of these papers are from the Special Divisions. Every single one. Just…sitting there on your bed, waiting to be read. Full of secrets some people would kill to have, secrets you could sell to the Lost Girls of the Electric City, or a rival corporation, for millions. Billions, even!
Right here, in your hands.
…you should rest.
Cognitive rest is important after a head injury. You don’t trust yourself not to just have been pushed out before the doctors were sure you were alright. You should put this off until you have class again.
But you’ve got a week. A whole week of uninterrupted time to work with all this. And it’s…
For one thing, not only do you feel fine, not concussed, you actually feel better. As though the wool has been lifted from your eyes, and the world is clearer. As though all the possibilities of the sciences, physical and social both, are so easy to grasp with your vision. And maybe it’s because of the college’s tacit admission they don’t care about you – all your greatest fears now coming true, you have nothing to lose.
There’s just something about all this.
Something within the edges, between the lines, as you speed-read through scientific papers that should be beyond your understanding…
You’re so tired. You’re so tired of being pushed around, treated as an annoyance. Of being cut down for being talented or standing out. Of being at the mercy of others.
Other people get away with things, because they do them to you. Other people don’t examine their actions, because they’re jealous of you. You’ve fought so hard to be recognized, whether it be this scholarship or simply your chosen name and gender, and other people want to judge you.
Because a track star is equal to a visionary like you. Because you are violent and volatile, and Alicia is merely ‘troubled’. Because the world decided that other people matter more than you, and that you were a threat.
If that’s the case, then…
…the kinds of things you could do with this, with what’s in the edges, the gaps, of all of these things, all these things the Queen handed you, on a silver fucking platter…
(the kinds of things you could do to Alicia…)
if people are going to equivocate against a woman who tried to end your life because you made her grades look bad, because her own success is worth more than your own, because she fits and you don’t, because she was born in the right body and you weren’t…
does it matter, if those things are ‘wrong’?
when Alicia would go so far to take out her anger on you?
is what you could do any worse than that?
or perhaps, is it better, because in the end…
(she might be happy, being yours…)
and you laugh.
and you laugh.
No. No sleeping. No rest. Nothing like that.
You raise your hand to your face, and smile wider.
Some people – people who have never been meaningfully hurt in their entire lives, people who are willing to tell other people how to process their anger and grief as though they’d ever felt it, people who never had to deal with their very name being rejected – claim that the best way to counter hatred is with kindness and love.
But maybe, just maybe…
Maybe, within the gaps, of molecular machines, designer drugs, the psychology and physiology of human attraction, all the things Sunset handed to you…
You can make ‘love’ your own personal form of revenge.
Compared to what Alicia did to you, after all, it’s a mercy.