“Am I the first?” asked Arcus, kneeling.
“I’m afraid not.”
He looked up, surprised despite the likelihood of the answer. The eye contact appeared to make the Ascendantary uncomfortable. Something new, then—a deviation. A good sign. “How—”
“A great many. I have not kept count.” She had known his question before he’d fully formed it himself. Backward motion—a regression. Well then, he decided, being first is simply a function of what you choose to measure. Winning has nothing to do with being the best, nor the strongest, fastest, cleverest, or even luckiest—though the last is not an unwelcome weapon in any arsenal. No, winning means playing your own game. Let us play, then.
“In accordance with your vows to the Allegiancy, Conscript Arcus, report at once to the Discharge Office on Centauri Prime for redistribution. I have every confidence in your devotion to duty.” She flashed a brief and bitter smile.
Arcus may be a stockmind clone and a tool of the Allegiancy, but his greatest devotion belonged—as did everyone’s—to the fluctuations of chance. His mind was no longer a mirror of his brothers’; it was his own. He could see the Ascendantary for what she was: a falling body, powerless to defy its own well-worn grooves. She was merely a copy of her own self. Recursive.
Arcus rose swiftly, bounding at the ancient woman with the precise fury for which he’d been chosen. She did not register his intent, must not have believed it to be possible, because she did not make any move to protect herself. He reached for his Disassembler in midair and made ready to cut her down—
And the simulation ended.
“What were you going to do, Arucs? Murder the Ascendantary?”
He blinked away the confusion and centered himself in the present. “Well, I mean—”
“Every time it’s something different with you. The Allegiancy looks for consistent mind patterns, predictability. Otherwise you’re of no use to them, and they don’t make copies of flawed templates. How did you plan to escape after murdering her?”
“If you wanted to know you should have let it play out!” Arcus grimaced and lowered his tone. “I’m sorry. Let’s keep going. Run it again.”