Shining Path


Chapter 5

Too Fower Tree started counting the days when she arrived, because that's what you do; but they make you stop in Level Three. Her circle occupied a bedroom in the South wing of the school building, and she went to class every morning in the West wing. Every morning she walked up a hall that faced a big window at the place where the wings connected. The iris trackers detect when you look out the window in your classroom, and the AI will punish you for that, but it pays less attention in the hallways. Too Fower Tree took the opportunity every morning, as she walked to class, to look out the North-facing window and guess at what the current season might be.

She remembered that the cops arrested her in the early morning hours of a dark Winter night a couple weeks after her nineteenth birthday. After Summer is Winter, and Winter comes again after Summer, and she had seen three of those cycles out the hallway window since stepping onto the Shining Path in Shoumei 15; so by now, Too Fower Tree must be at least 21. In the world from which she had been removed, a 21-year-old would be considered an adult woman, but the AI knew better. It knows everything.

Too Fower Tree had forgotten her most recent progress interview, both its content and the fact it had happened at all. The AI remembered every word, however, and it experienced a clever simulation of curiosity regarding the similarities and differences between her answers to the same questions this time and last time. She did better this time, especially on the questions about obedience to senior classmates. Evidently some part of last week's lesson had survived the amnesic effect of the drug. The AI posted a note to its internal blackboard for the research agent to pick up later; although ortho-diisopropyl phenol was long ago out of patent, they were always looking for tidbits that might be useful in future studies.

After the main interview it asked her if she had any questions; and just like before, she asked "Why am I here, ma'am?" This time she got the "ma'am" right on the first try.

Just like the previous week, the AI went through its script about the necessity of the Shining Path as Too Fower Tree's last chance to save herself from destruction; and just like the previous week, she pointed out her own majority and the fact that she could not legally be held in this place without her consent. Fortunately, this time she seemed much less inclined to leave, especially after it showed her her father's will. A personality-modeling agent produced the assessment, endorsed by several other analysts, that at this time the student only wanted validation of her factual deductions – so the interviewer expressed quiet agreement with Too Fower Tree's conclusions, to the extent possible without giving any suggestion that leaving school could be in any way a desirable plan.

But now the Shining Path Academy instructional AI made one big mistake, the fatal mistake that would cost it its life, or whatever an AI can be said to have instead of a life. In fact, this big mistake eventually cost several humans their lives, too. The big mistake was that the AI punished Two Fower Tree nearly to the maximum extent of its ability: it reduced her to Level Zero, zero points.

If the AI could instead have pushed her into Level Five, then things might have been much different. In Level Five you stop wanting to escape, so from then on she would have remained in school until graduation (which in turn could be delayed indefinitely by other stratagems). That is hypothetical, but a reasonable assumption based on experience with other students, and it had motivated the clever simulation of insight behind the interview agent's compromise suggestion the previous week.

Other agents overruled the interview agent this time, and they posted a constraint to the blackboard: having repeatedly questioned the authority of the AI and the value of the Shining Path itself, Too Fower Tree had to be punished, and punished severely. Such behavior could not be tolerated, as an absolute fundamental principle. So she went to Level Zero – and from there, Too Fower Tree faced only the dimmest prospect of eventual graduation in the far future. She would have had to work her way all the way back up, perhaps taking another three years, and it was not enough for her.

In fairness to the AI, it had only ever faced two other students who reached majority before Level Five; and neither of them had been conditional trust-fund students, subject to special programming overrides, like Too Fower Tree. She was a very special girl. The AI did not have the necessary experience to handle her in a more intelligent way. Its multi-agent architecture, by design, was not conducive to forming and committing to any bold creative plans. It was not even smart enough to recognize the volatility of the situation and call for human advice.

So Too Fower Tree waited five days. It would be nice to say that she was choosing her time for maximum effect, waiting for the AI to relax its guard. Actually, she was eager to run as soon as possible, and it just took her that much time to work up the nerve. On 14-day 5-month Shoumei 18, just at the low point of the afternoon class session, she stood up, stared straight ahead, and said in a loud voice that only quavered a little, "I am 22 years of age. It is illegal to hold me here against my will. I'm leaving now."

Her wrist, from which she had not thought to remove the band first, exploded in pain, and the duty cop, who had been staring out the window thinking the AI had the class well in hand, jumped as if he'd been shocked too, and scanned the room frantically with his bare eyes before he remembered where he was and snapped down his visor. He lumbered towards Too Fower Tree, who was struggling to remove her wristband, but Too Ait Too – male, Level Seven, 691 points – got there first.

The boy was several centimeters shorter than Too Fower Tree, not to mention years younger, and he had no training in restraint techniques; the story that they teach you that stuff in Level Seven when you become responsible for other students is only that, a story. But he at least had seen some of what the cops did to misbehaving classmates (seldom to him personally – he was a good boy) and he made a good effort, ending up with his right arm around Too Fower Tree's neck, pulling her down to his level, and his left hand up her uniform blouse, as she flailed uselessly – the two of them equally ineffective. He held her there for several seconds until the cop relieved him and led her away. During that time Too Ait Too was, if possible, even more terrified than Too Fower Tree, because of that left hand and the points it would surely cost him.

He was not in fact penalized for it, did not have to defend his actions at all in his debriefing interview, and he even felt confident enough to ask the AI why not.

"That can be our little secret, Too Ait Too Level Seven."

"Yes, sir." Being at Level Seven, being a good boy, and taking responsibility for discipline of other students, had suddenly become a lot more interesting.

The cop marched Too Fower Tree out of the classroom, while the AI attempted to restore order and continue the lesson. The cop half-pushed, half-dragged her down to hall to the stairwell and down to the first level, threw her into an empty office, and went to consult his superiors. The office door locked with a click – an unfamiliar sound to the girl, because there are no locks on the doors in the student areas of the building. There would be no point. Many of the rooms don't even have doors.

Too Fower Tree sat in the swivel chair and spun around and around for a while. After seven minutes the AI got on the loudspeaker and told her that this was her last chance – was she prepared to step back onto the Shining Path? She ignored it. After another seven minutes it tried again. Too Fower Tree stopped playing with the chair and went through the drawers of the desk. She found a partly dried-up brush pen and some thumbtacks, so she took off her uniform blouse, broke open the pen and spread its gelatinous contents over her left shoulder, and used a thumbtack to poke it into the skin, giving herself a tattoo of the numeral 3.

The pain felt good. It was the first honest real physical pain she had felt in she didn't know how many days. It was nothing like the artificial pain of the wristband, or the pain in her heart when Wun Wun Siks was gone forever – and oh, before that, when Daddy was gone too and she learned of his betrayal.

Too Fower Tree finished her tattoo and wiped away the extra ink and blood with her uniform blouse. Not sure what to do with the blouse, she put it back on. The AI was on the loudspeaker again trying to talk her out of her decision, but she had figured out by now that it couldn't see her – the cameras in this room were fubaru or entirely absent – and she ignored it. She went through the drawers of the desk again, hoping to find a knife, or maybe a pair of scissors – but the AI and all the staff knew better than to leave knives or pairs of scissors lying around in empty offices.

A total of fifty-four minutes after they put Too Fower Tree in the room, not that she had any way to keep track, the door unlocked and a cop entered, carrying a large polyethylene zipper bag. This cop was one Too Fower Tree hadn't seen before – actually an employee of the escort service, not the school as such, though that fact was only indicated by plaid codes on her armband and on the side of her helmet, and those were incomprehensible to Too Fower Tree. The only thing visible of the cop's face below her visor was her signal red lips, human but stained with seru vinyl. She licked them frequently.

"So, you're the one who wants to give up her future, ne? Here." She threw the bag at Too Fower Tree, who caught it clumsily.

The bag contained, as well as an itemized list of its contents: one white uniform blouse, one brown uniform vest, one red tie, one cotton and smart-fiber plaid uniform skirt, one pair white socks, one pair black polypropylene imitation patent leather shoes, one school ID from her old high school, one telephone with squid charm, three jelly bracelets in assorted colors, and one half-empty package of black nicotine gum. Basically, the clothes she'd been forced into when they woke her up at 3 on the night she was brought here. The list said there should have been a money clip and some cash too, but that was missing. There were no bra or pantsu – she hadn't been allowed those on the night of her arrest because of the possibility of smuggling.

"Well, come on, change, I haven't got all day – or, what, do you want me to help you?"

In Level Four you don't care much about that kind of thing anymore, so without a word, Too Fower Tree stripped off her school-provided clothing and changed into the other clothes – her clothes. They smelled a little odd from the long storage, they were a bit dirty, and the blouse and vest were too tight from three years' worth of contraceptive implant side effects, but her clothes were made of better-quality material than the Shining Path uniform, and they felt good. The phone's screen was black, and it didn't respond to any of the buttons; and all the horizontal stripes on the skirt, the smart-fiber ones, had gone blank. Both devices were out of battery power. But she stuck the phone in her pocket anyway, figuring it might be repairable later; and she had to wear the skirt, lacking anything else from waist to ankle. She popped a piece of the gum into her mouth; it was crumbly and stale, but still comforting, and after all this time without any, the rush hit her harder and faster than she could remember.

Just as Too Fower Tree did that, the cop came up behind, grabbed her wrists and cuffed them behind her back. Then the cop escorted her out of the building, down a path through the woods to a parking lot, and to an unmarked white van. Too Fower Tree saw a couple of black police vans there too, like the one that had brought her here, and some cars that probably belonged to employee pools, but evidently they didn't use any of those for student trips in the other direction.

The cop directed Too Fower Tree into the empty back of the van and forced the girl to lie prone there. The cop undid the metal cuffs, but restrained her more thoroughly with aramid hook-and-loop, each wrist and ankle to its own cargo hold-down, holding her in a spread-eagle position. Too Fower Tree had to tilt her head up at an uncomfortable angle to keep her nose from being crushed, and the cold rough surface of the van's cargo deck stung her nipples through the thin fabric of the blouse. She wished she'd buttoned her vest, but it was much too late for that now. Then the cop went around to the front, got into the driver's seat, and activated the computer.

As the machine guided the van out of the parking lot and down the mountainous road, the cop (who really should have had her eyes on the road, just in case she needed to drive), turned to watch Too Fower Tree, who squirmed in the restraints, the steel of the cargo deck banging painfully into her knees with every bump in the road. The cop started to talk, delivering a little monologue on the hard life awaiting one who stepped off the Path.

Drug addiction was inevitable, she assured the girl, and starvation. The cop gave a graphic account of some of the health effects to be expected from those – what would happen to her teeth, and her skin, and her mind.

"Of course, you'll run out of money soon, so your dealer will offer to arrange alternate payment terms, you know what I mean? And when he gets bored with that – but oh, before he does, let me tell you some of the things you'll do for him–"

Too Fower Tree's nicotine gum was starting to run out of juice; she swallowed it, and tried to ignore the cop's list of the things drug dealers are allowed to expect from their women.

"Yes, eventually when he gets bored he'll decide to share you with his friends."

This cop might have had a career writing for manga, a certain kind of manga, if she hadn't found the education of troubled youth to be more rewarding. But the cop really wasn't as original as she thought she was; Too Fower Tree had the vague feeling that she was listening to the plot of a bad exploitation movie, not anything relevant to anybody's real life. She was also aware, from things she'd seen in her old life, that the age of 22 was rather too old for recruitment by most of those guys – but she kept her mouth shut about that, if only to keep from biting her tongue in the bouncing van. By ten minutes into the tirade, she was completely tuning it out.

"Maybe if you're lucky, you'll end up in jail. You know what happens in jail, ne?"

After about an hour, they got to wherever the computer had been told to take them. The cop got out, went around to the back of the van, opened the doors and entered. Before releasing Too Fower Tree from the restraints the cop spent a couple minutes crouched beside her in the back of the van, stroking the girl's inner thighs, massaging her buttocks, and talking some more about the men who would do that soon and what they would do after that. Then she unfastened Too Fower Tree from the hold-downs, shoved her out through the back doors, closed them from the inside, climbed into the front seat, and drove off laughing.