The children gathered round in a crescent as he sat before a dingy, concrete wall, twice as ancient as him. His steel-grayed hair and piercing, ice-blues were accentuated by sagging cheeks and creases. Like him, the room was drab, with a sort of accumulated dust that could only come from having lived history.
Whether he’d played a major role in that history, or would still, was just one of the fascinations the younger children speculated on. The curious, old-man before them was no mystery to the older children. They knew the truth of course, but the others were too young to learn it. They had to be protected from grisly realities to ensure they didn’t become cold humans that made them.
The old man’s eyes pulled tight. His mouth drew a smile, “You wish to hear a story, no?”
A curious, Nordic accent mingled with his French. The children’s heads nodded, as they chorused “Oui” in a collective sing-song. He chuckled to himself.
“I know only one,” he said firmly to quiet them down. “But I shall tell it as though I lived it.”
He made small gestures with his hands and the bright LEDs overhead dimmed until only one remained above, at half-power.
“It begins with a princess in a tower, toiling away at tedious work,” he said. The children readied themselves in anticipation. “The most beautiful princess in the tower worked day after day, slaving for masters in fine silks. These masters were wealthy beyond any in the land, past or present. Yet despite all their wealth, they enslaved everyone in the land to do their bidding, increasing it each day, each moment; the princess included.
“Allowed as she was to return home each night, the Princess was forced to return each day, toiling as before, lest her masters grow angry and imprison her.
“So night after night, the Princess returned home, unaware of her masters’ wicked plans for her and others like her. She was a beautiful tool, they said, to be used for evils when needed, and discarded like after. She and all others like her were regarded this way; some were so wholly faithful to their masters, they felt the same. Thus day after day they toiled, enslaved, only to believe themselves safe from the treatment during the night.
“Then one night, the Princess’ wicked masters cast a veil of confusion about her mind. In her state, she knew not who she was, and her masters took advantage of this. They sent her out to do evil only to have her return the next morning, none the wiser of her actions. So powerful was the confusion, they were able to continue the madness months before she could begin to suspect it.
“But before then, her masters had found her capacity for evil was beyond any other’s. For, in truth she was a Princess, and princesses have their own power. With her, they brought destruction to many of their enemies. Through them, the Princess stole, deceived, even murdered under her wicked masters’ veil of confusion. Yet each morning she awoke, utterly unawares of her wickedness.”
The old man’s face sank into sadness, his voice with it. It seemed as if a thousand, terrible memories befell him all at once. Even to their young hearts, it was a cutting pain to see someone of such renown feeling such dread.
“Then came a night when the beautiful Princess could no longer sleep. Her masters watched her carefully, but allowed her not to do evil. Then another night passed similarly. She twisted and writhed in sleepless agony. More time passed. The Princess worsened. Each night she suffered amid more nightmares than before. It was then that the Princess’ family began to take notice.
“Where, by day she had always risen and worked with promptness, now she slogged on, too tired from the sleepless nights. Indeed, everyone whom joined the Princess each day in the tower saw the same change.
“It was, the Princess said, nothing to be concerned for.
“But her younger sister, just as beautiful and even more stubborn and less-mannered, insisted she visit an enchantress to put her mind at ease. There, the sister said, she would be put into a deep sleep of living dreams, and forced to face the ills haunting her dreamworld and keeping her from sleep.
“The sister however, also kept secret her own fears; fears seeded by rumors of others whom had shown the same, worsening symptoms as the Princess, and were said to have been subjected to a great confusion then used for evil in the night. Suspecting the Princess was also a victim, the sister kept quiet for fear that the Princess’ masters might strike them both down before they could learn the truth.”
The old man’s tone turned empty, unfeeling, yet it infected his story with more life; “So thus the Princess was taken to see the enchantress. There, she was put to the deep sleep, and for a long while, did not stir. Then, under the careful guidance of the Enchantress’ words, she soon began to navigate the dreamworld.
“It felt hollow, the Princess remarked, filled with memories that appeared her own, but which broke her heart and tortured her good nature. She watched as bits and pieces of past nights began to return. One upon the other, wickedness and evils stacked and fitted back in place as though a shattering mirror played in reverse.”
He took a deep breath to warm himself against terrible emotions, memories. No doubt he’d drummed them up to better instill the tale’s importance. He steeled his nerves with an encompassing glimpse of his audience; they were captivated, thirsting for the tale to continue.
“When the Enchantress’ deep sleep broke, the Princess awoke shaken. The veil of great confusion her masters had imbued broke too. She found her memory filled with all the evils she’d done unknowingly in her masters’ names.”
The otherwise indifferent face became embedded with a deep frown. “So the sister began to tell of the evil and wickedness by the Princess in her masters’ names. By doing so, she sought justice against those who’d stolen her sister’s mind, tarnished her innocence. All the while, the Princess grew more distraught, fearful of what she’d done; that her masters might use her again in such a way.
“Alas, the masters had other plans. They commissioned an conjurer to kill the Princess to protect themselves, fearing her story might rile the peasants of their kingdom on whose complacence they relied on for their wealth.
“So, under cover of night, the masters schemed. The conjurer-assassin went quickly to lay a trap for the Princess. Upon rising, he planned, she would once more make to toil away in her masters’ tower. Instead, he would spring a trap, swallowing the Princess in a great ball of fire. Sure enough, when the Princess rose again, she stepped outside only to be instantly swallowed by the great fire. It then disappeared with her, never to be seen again.”
He watched the children carefully. Some faces ebbed on tears. Others were still enthralled, sensing the story wasn’t over. A few children though, were the most captivated, yet least affected. They had, he knew, something more special about them; a type of imagination distinguishable by the very look on their face. Indeed, these children were unknowingly the group’s greatest thinkers.
The old man continued, “With the Princess’ death, her masters’ kingdom was up-heaved. Peasants rebelled against in outrage at the Princess’ death. All over the kingdom they wreaked havoc on the lands and possessions of the masters.
“But alas, this too was not meant to last. The masters set loose great, fire-breathing dragons whom smote the land wherever the peasants rose. For fourteen days and fourteen nights, upheaval passed, then the fire-breathers came and quelled the chaos. The Dragons appearance may have subdued the people, but their thirst for justice remained. Indeed, none so boldly ruling by fear can hope to forever contain such deep unrest.
“Through two years of toil and worsening wickedness from her old masters, the world mourned the Princess’ loss. During that time, small groups worked in secret to exact revenge on her masters in her memory. By ways sabotage and subterfuge, the avengers destroyed and thwarted, or deceived and cajoled against them in the Princess’ name. It was not enough, for the land remained in the darkness of the tower’s great, looming shadow.
“Even today that shadow persists, but something unknown to the Masters in the tower is that the Princess yet lives! For two whole years, a great sorcerer worked in secret with her sister to resurrect the dead Princess to lead the people against her old masters.”
Faces around the room seemed in disbelief, or indeed astonishment, but the old man could see the few he’d mentally noted before working something out. He suppressed a smile to ensure he finished appropriately.
“Upon returning from the dead, she immediately began to lead the people in hopes of one day liberating those still toiling as she once did. It is said, even now, she trains avengers in growing numbers. As well, it is said she slept so long in death, she trains and plots day and night without interruption. Such is her will.”
His head gave a small, slight bow, “And that is all there is to tell… for now.”
The children clapped excitedly, already wishing to hear it again. Only those few he’d mentally noted seemed satisfied, having obviously worked out something the others hadn’t. The children disappeared soon afterward.
A middle-aged woman approached, her body gleaming with battle-scarred black and chrome, bionic limbs in place of natural ones. Renee Lemaire was every bit as beautiful as the story told, however wisely worded for children’s ears. She was tall, well-muscled where not augmented, and had a wily cunning from years of fighting Corporate “masters.” She had the look of a warrior Goddess and loving mother.
She approached, “You have the list?”
“Oui.” He handed over a touchscreen data-tablet. Across it were a few names, “Those are the only I saw in this group. Perhaps one day we’ll have more effective means of pinpointing them.”
She eyed the list, “You’ve never been wrong before, Sven. Not once. I trust you to find them better than any other method.”
“Perhaps,” he replied, leaning tiredly on a table to look at her. “But I am an old man, Renee. And none of us can escape death forever. Not even you.”
She gave a bittersweet smile, “You know what they call it, the older ones?”
She gave a nod. “They call it the Princess and the Brain-Hack. Eventually all of them call it that. They don’t get it at first, but at some point, it always gets around that it’s a true story. My story.”
Sven thought carefully. “Are they aware it is a test?”
She shook her head, “A few, but critical thinkers are too precious to let that secret slip.”
He softened severely, then a throaty laugh emanated from him. She sensed its cause and laughed with him. The Princess and the Brain-Hack. She had to admit, it had a certain ring. Maybe one day it would even have an ending; after she finished burning the Corps to the ground. Until then, she didn’t mind being a beautiful Princess with a cause so powerful death couldn’t keep her from it.
She smiled. After all, she was Renee Lemaire; myth, legend, formerly brain-hacked princess, and evermore a rebel.