This scene is to be read after you finish reading the novella. I do consider this to still be canon for the world of Perfect State, but I cut it for various reasons that I will discuss in the subsequent annotations.
Melhi pushed idly with her foot, swinging her swiveling bucket chair first right, then left. Back and forth in front of her monitor.
On her screen, Conan the Boy Scout talked to his sniveling machine-born servant about the Wode.
Even his expressions are ridiculous, she thought, sipping on iced scotch from her glass. That beard, like you’d find on some Greek statue. Sorrow, like sappy poetry. And that voice . . . every sentence sounds like it’s from a movie trailer.
She tapped her glass with her fingernail. It felt good to be back in her bunker. Sleek, metallic, and filled with all kinds of things that the Emperor Superhero would find amazing and magical. Like flush toilets. She loved buffed steel décor; perhaps she should change it. Her comfort here could mean she was becoming complacent again.
The others conversed in the conference chamber, their voices drifting in through her open doorway. They sounded like barking dogs. Liveborn, every one. Accustomed to ruling the world, to being the most important person in the room.
“I traveled through six states to be here!” Gnass’s voice. “Now she can’t be bothered to pull herself away to join the meeting?”
“Who cares? The food is good.” That was Ho Nam. He would attend the execution of his favorite nurse, so long as it was well catered.
“I’ll check on her,” Dionissa said, followed by footsteps.
Melhi continued to watch Kai on the screen, enjoying her drink. Data reports scrolled by on the two screens next to his image.
“Sophie?” Dionissa asked from her doorway. “Are you coming to the meeting?”
“Don’t call me that,” Melhi said.
“Very well, dear.” Dionissa strolled in, then leaned down beside the terminals. She wore a filmy blue dress, antiquated style, but had her hair in a pixie cut that was dyed bright pink.
Dionissa ignored Kai, studying the data streams. “Curious. They haven’t noticed?”
Melhi shook her head. “Not so far. Unless they can mask themselves from my sentries—which they have never shown any sign of spotting before.”
“They locked you out,” she said, pointing. “Here, here. Here.”
“The obvious hacks,” Melhi said. “Which they think themselves clever for finding. The distraction worked perfectly. Invade a communal state, send them into chaos. They think they’ve isolated my touch, but they were so focused on my primary hacks that they didn’t find the riders. My network expands.”
“We could actually do this.”
Melhi wasn’t certain what “this” was yet. But getting into the general system was a good step forward, regardless of what direction the next part took. For months, the others had been complaining that she was too overt, drawing too much attention. They said the Wode was going to strike, cut her off. Doom their movement before it even got a chance to start.
So she’d done what she’d always done. Defy them all, even her allies. It had even been fun.
“Come, tell the others,” Dionissa said.
Melhi nodded her chin toward Kai, still on the screen. A data feed the Wode would certainly have cut off if they’d known she could access it—proof, the best she could provide, that her access to the system was unprecedented.
“He’s contacting nearby states,” Melhi said. “He’s accepted what he is, what we all are.”
“Melhi,” Dionissa asked flatly, “you can’t possibly be thinking of recruiting a fantasy stater.”
“You’re from ancient Rome.”
“Fake real Rome.”
“That’s a long leap from fake Narnia. Look, you know how they are.”
Yes, she did. So easy to manipulate. So . . . straightforward. But also genuine. So little in her life could be considered genuine. Even most Liveborn were as interested in power and inter-state politics as they were in freedom from the Wode. Only Gnass was completely trustworthy, and she had her hands full with her own projects.
Still, Melhi left Kai and the monitor, joining Dionissa and walking out into the conference room. She’d spent years trying to wake up—or destroy—nearby staters. She didn’t really mind which she accomplished. But that was losing its charm. She needed a bigger challenge.
“Welcome,” Melhi said to the group of five Liveborn. “So far as I know, this is the first meeting of its kind. Completely obscured from the Wode, taking place in a state that they don’t even know exists. We, ladies and gentleman, are trapped, imprisoned, confined to a nearly solitary existence within a machine.
“Let’s talk about how to get out.”