17 - The Extortion

Loyalty and patience as a method for advancement had failed Eustace so far. This she had learned with her visit to the Acropolis headquarters. Her going maxim was that doors appear and, in fact, bend over backwards to open for those bold enough to flaunt convention.

Without doubt, there was something worth knowing hidden in those memos and shipments. She had been lucky. It had only been through administrative laziness that she’d been able to come across these ancient documents. Perhaps the few people who actually knew the story behind them had been too busy to remember to dispose of them correctly. They had been forgotten about in long-term data storage when perhaps they might have been destroyed.

Eustace thought back to tromping in the fields. She was certain she still had dust coating the inside of her mouth. She acknowledged her mind was still recovering from the punishing cyclical nature of thought that appears when spending days doing pointless and uninspiring tasks in isolation. She would never allow that fate to befall her again. She saw an opportunity here to learn something useful, to be in the know, to use information as a currency. If merit wasn’t going to get her anywhere, she took pleasure in looking for other ways to play the game.

It was graduation day at the Academy. As a former star of the class, it was only natural that Eustace appear in support of former classmates, and future collaborators. However, as a former person of grand economic and technological potential, she was less eager to show up and face the disappointed questions and sad looks from investors, former classmates, and other members of the elite class of Old Jardinian. But - it was an opportunity to learn. To learn, about a legacy; a family connection between two powerful people - the current dean of the academy, and the founder of Acropolis, who had gone to considerable effort to undertake some barely mentioned, conspicuously vague activities so long ago, that had been, so she thought, conveniently lost to time.

Eustace sat on the shuttle tapping her foot thoughtfully, dressed to impress, and armed with the terminal that would hopefully open up hidden long term storage. She’d allowed herself to dress down during her time of toil in the fields of Acropolis, but had come back to herself with a sense of renewed purpose. A precisely manufactured look can open doors as well as anything else, not to mention a discerning eyebrow, she had thought, contemplating her angle of elevation in the mirror that morning. Not wanting to be seen in the boutiques of Old Jardinian just yet - again, avoiding my reality she had chided herself - she’d ordered some fashions that had appeared on her body using her augmented lens. She’d turned on all the privacy settings of course, but it was a company device. Won’t care what files I’m accessing during work hours but some admin will probably watch private activities like a hawk. Some nobody in a back room somewhere, she had a mental pause, and a laugh. Is a nobody better than a has-been like her? Not for long though, she thought, hardening her mental resolve.

The shuttle hummed to a stop on the levitating C-rail. The station above the academy beckoned her in. She stood in front of a grand arch, with water flowing down the sides. Two statues, known to her only as “the Founders”, worn down by time into smooth reckonings of human shape, beckoned in a tasteful vision from their identical pools on each side of the arch. The university station was thankfully bereft of advertisements. Augmented ones had shown a much better rate of success. The physical advertising industry had faltered some in the past hundred or so years, perhaps digital posters announced themselves in some of the less grand areas, but aside the grand central, this station was the vision of unmarred prestige. Visual, unpersonalized advertisements had become uncouth, and decidedly un-vogue.

A long, wide stair platform, hopelessly outdated in function but good for appearances, promised to transport Eustace to the grand gardens at the temple of academia known as Spuria Academy. Her former school as the only university in the city, the unparalleled best amongst those in the loose empire, had been the only option for her to apply.

Groups of visitors and dignitaries, glamoured up for the ceremonies descended the grand stairs from the platform in small groups tittering and laughing. Either ostentatious in finery, or annoyingly, brutally minimalist - the garb captured the run of high-dress fashion of the moment. Eustace had gone for the latter. Her attire was impressive to those who know, but not attention grabbing for those who don’t. She’d learned much about the way the elite of the city dressed and behaved during her time as a budding prodigy, a former shoe-in for the industrialist caste. They’d just about forgotten her, but she hadn’t forgotten how to be one of them.

She got a few glances from some of the descending groups. Of curiosity, was she the one who…? Mostly the little groups were content to stay occupied with themselves. She knew how little she could offer them, social capital, literal capital. It rankled, frankly, to be passed over so easily. Oh, so quickly to become an afterthought. How fast the world moves, she thought darkly, as she descended the stairs amongst the growing and glittering crowd toward the university.

The grand stairs led beneath another arch, ornamental to the point of aggression, and filtered into the gardens that fronted the most prestigious halls of the university. The crowd milled excitedly, networking at a high fervour, trying to get a last few moves in before the grand game was paused for the ceremony, be be resumed with new players afterward (how exciting).

Eustace left them here, tittering and glamouring. She was on the hunt for the old, the foundations. If any meant-to-be forgotten ancient data had been stored here, it would be in the old parts, like the basement of the Acropolis building. Fortunately, because of Spuria Academy’s grand penchant for tradition, the, ahem, oldness would be less hidden than in Acropolis.

Eerily, thinking back to her time at school - there had been no talk of founders, of history of some of the oldest buildings. The narrative was of infinity, an eternal nest for burgeoning minds, the progenitor of the endless Old Jardinian golden age. So Eustace didn’t know which buildings were the oldest, or what the university around the time of her mysterious acropolis findings may have looked like.

But she had her terminal, presumably still being tracked by some ghoul in a dark room at Acropolis. Presumably, if there was any ancient data stored at the Acropolis, bringing the terminal nearby would announce it. She shrugged to herself. Who knew what they were thinking so many years ago.

The vision of Eustace handing the terminal looked very much like a miser searching the infamous beaches of Sodden for dropped coins and other goodies. Like said miser, she was oblivious to the commotion around. Here however, there weren’t any relaxing bathers here recovering from long gambling stints in the city of Sodden, or frolickers gearing up for a long night of said same. Instead, there were excited students rushing too and fro ahead of the ceremonies.

They had given Eustace a few glances, but they, like the glamorous visitors that she’d encountered on the way in, were reverberating at a fever pitch ahead of the biggest event of the season. They were gossiping about the social upheavals, the potential winners and losers that might come out of the graduation ceremony. Or more likely, it was the gala afterward where the noteworthy interactions would be had; it was a watering hole for students of potential, and industrialists and investors looking for such. Eustace thought back to her presence in such events with a smile - but knew she had nothing to offer now. She was a fallen prodigy, and really at the moment, a social pariah. She would get nowhere by rubbing elbows for the moment.

To get somewhere, she knew she needed to have something to offer. Scintillating information would be good as anything. And that was why she was waving her terminal around with a flourishing precision amidst the rush of students on the busiest day at the academy.

Her going theory was that any sort of ancient data stored in the material foundation of the university would be away from the embrace of the general public, the well travelled areas. So, she stuck to the lower corridors that happened to be a convenient pathway for students in a rush. She had been waving her terminal around like a fury, at columns, walls; in fact, no piece of interior architecture was safe. Finally, she saw the telltale red glow appear in a slight recess. Perfect she thought, surroundings forgotten in the face of more discovery.

Students rushed by Eustace as she knelt in the tall passage, lit by a general ambient glow. There were no windows in here - and the columns and ambient lighting were spartan but pleasant. Gone was the general state of ornamentation that so often befell things within the academy, replaced with broad granite columns with a slight incline towards the tall passage roof.

There were a number of passageways like this in the Academy, away from the public eye, serving mostly as shortcuts for students. Eustace had always felt they were different from the rest of the university. Not necessarily form a different time, but designed with a different, perhaps slightly nebulous sense of unflinchingly pure purpose.

With some unflinchingly pure purpose of her own, Eustace made to set the terminal in the slightly glowing receptacle in the wall, and had it transfer to her lens.

Then she met Alden Carnibus. He bowled her over in a commotion of elbows, knees and with a stack of well-wishers trailing behind. She’d heard of him, most definitely. She’d been out of the loop certainly, but not immune to the chatter.She looked him over, but she was too preoccupied to apologize. She’d nothing to offer this rising star. Yet.

He moved on, with a slightly odd and less pompous expression, entourage tugging him on - but he kept looking back, she noticed idly, as she waited for the terminal to load up and send to her lens.

When it did, she was not disappointed. The files were in a dating system she didn’t recognize. And a language she couldn’t speak. Strange symbols danced in front of her eyes. She examined the files with gestures, manipulating the file library in super-imposed space. She received a few odd looks from passers-by, though they by this time were late for the ceremony, so none stayed to investigate.

And here was a file she did recognize! It was a portrait of the Academy founders and benefactors. It was the same still she’d first seen on her orientation. No matter how one manipulated the scene - it was impossible to remove the shadows that obscured the faces of the subjects. Members of the committee for justice she’d been taught - names lost to time she’d been assured.

But here, the image seemed to be labeled! She could focus on the strange symbols, but she could not read them. So close, and yet so very far.

After pawing some more through the nearly intelligible filesystem, and running some searches in her own language using the lens system, another file came up. Packaged along with this file was some sort of key with single, or groups of the symbols correlating with letters she knew.

Perhaps one more familiar with the inner workings of her lens device and its associated apps could have built some sort of translator. She momentarily cursed her student-era disinterest for anything resembling the construction of applications.

There was always the brute force compare and contrast method. She would have to pick her files wisely, because this would take some time. Sitting with her back to a column, she began the long process. She started with the photo. Comparing the symbols, she was able to decipher the labels on the personages in the famously nameless photo. A moment of clarity! She was struck with a mental sense of completion, a pattern coming together. One of these founding patrons of the university, the shadowy members of the committee for justice, who’d ostensibly set up the university to democratize the learned fields as she and every student knew by brute force instruction - was the same one signing off on the mysterious shipments, the founder of Acropolis, and who, she now finally realized, had the same family name as the Dean of the academy.

With this bone between her teeth, Eustace sought to wring more juice from the archaic filesystem kept alive in matterform states.

She emerged hours later, and headed down the lush carpeted hallway towards the convacorium. Judging by the droning sounds coming from within, chanting, orations, perhaps even one enthusiastic grunting - they were deep in the throes of academic tradition. There was the hushed whisper of a crowd waiting politely for the next prodigies to take their place on the altar of industry.

Even through all this miasma of tradition, Eustace knew where the real action was. The VIP refuge behind the theatrics. Filled with catered feast, low light, vast windows looking out at the gardens of the academy, calculated moderation and ostentations in turn, and of course, movers and shakers. For the second time in her life, she had something to sell, and this time it would not be herself and her potential. She had information now, and she was big game hunting. There would be a buyer here.

How she would get in was another matter. She’d been to the VIP gallery before of course, and knew she could bypass the ceremony hall by a corridor outside it. She did so, and now came to face a large imposing double door, behind which the most important delegates would be, elbows rubbing beneath exquisite fabrics. Her current main barrier to upward mobility was two discerning employees of the Academy manning the evocatively panelled door. They would know her face, instantly, she assumed they were wearing a version of her lens, plugged into the academy database. It’s not like they would bar her from getting in per say, but without their approval, her erupting in would announce her as uninvited, a state of affairs that equalled social suicide really, and destroy her mission before it began.

She approached, and could see the small crowd of VIPs mingling around inside. One of the door keepers began to shake their head, the other ignored her, absently brushing an invisible piece of lint off a long, minimalist dress coat, nary a worker’s pocket to be found.

As she approached, she caught the eye of a striking figure inside the room. It was the Dean, and she focused on Eustace. Eustace felt, recognized, something between proudness or fondness for a child, and prey perhaps. The dean moved on beyond her viewpoint from the doors, but the icy remnants of that gaze laster for some time longer. Eustace wondered for an instant if perhaps some things she’d “found” had indeed been made discoverable.

Unfreezing and back to herself, Eustace moved towards the door guarded by the administrative stooges.

“Could you at least bring a message to the Dean?”

Neither of the pair said no.

“Please tell her that I know about the Alovians. I know about the ARRANGEMENT.”

“The what?”, questioned the second guard, interested now that some intrigue was involved, and impressed she’d spoken in all caps. “The Alohviuns?”

“She’d better be impressed”, pronounced the first, “or you’ll find yourself less than the nothing that you already are.”

“Mhmm” said Eustace, and awaited the delivery of her message beyond the slightly open door to the VIP room.

“You know”, mused the Dean “Extortion is illegal in our wonderful city, for good reason”

Eustace inwardly gulped as she sat as lightly as possible on a black couch in front of one of the floor to ceiling windows in the VIP lounge. The Dean was dressed in her convocation finery, hands clasped on the other side of the couch. The other guests milled around, languidly sipping exotic cocktails, aiming to appear busy and occupied with discussion amongst peers, but trying to sneak a peak at one who was as likely as anything to rise like a shot through the social matrix.

The Dean looked out at the expansive gardens, sculpted with care and precision under her watchful eye. “Let me tell you a story, or perhaps just this tidbit for the sake of time. I have to get back to the stage soon after all.”

She shooed away a nervous event organizer with yelling coming from their microphone.

“So few outside our, let’s say community, (Eustace took her to mean the Industrialist & Magnate elite of the loose empire.) are aware, but my family is one of vast means, even compared to the others in this room. As you have insinuated, it has been this way for some time. As long as we have used this language, as long as our written history dictates.

Every generation, there are two children. How to decide who inherits, shall we say, the keys to our family machine? It is not something so arbitrary as birth order, or some folly of affection. It is simply whichever one survives. Five years before we are set to take the reins of the dynasty, we are told of this new reality, and from then on, are strategists against our own death. Move, and countermove - no physical contact between the two siblings is permitted, but everything else goes. The how and the why do not matter so much, or the when. What matters is I am here now, and my brother is not. We believe struggle forges strength. And I must say that I am now impressed with your struggle, Eustace.

Eustace, what do you know about the M&G Conglomerate, besides the shipments?

Eustace left the VIP room. A great relief washed over her, or more accurately, she allowed herself to feel an incredible exhaustion. She had been living under a shadow - of the fallen stock of her potential, angry investors having derided her character, and then forgotten her. This had been her energy for the past few years. She recognized she was now instantly a great deal more powerful - her great endeavour for relevance was over - but she harboured a nagging feeling that it was perhaps she who in the end had been extorted.

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