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The Real Phaeton panel 1

Episode 3

The Real Phaeton

The man was speaking: “You are blind to what is plain before your eyes! Behold the mirrored layer of tissue growing over all these leaves. It is to block the true sun from the knowledge of these plants. Tracking a sun, which merely rises and sets, is easier than anticipating retrograde motion, I assure you. Complex habits, painfully learned through generations, would be instantly thrown aside in one blast of true sunlight. And therefore these little flowers have a mechanism to keep the truth at bay. Strange that I’ve made the blocking tissue look mirrored; you can see your own face in it … if you look.”

This comment verged on insult. Phaethon replied hotly: “Or perhaps the tissue merely protects them from irritants, good sir!”

“Hah! So the puppy has teeth after all, eh? Have I irked you, then? This is Art also!”

“If Art is an irritant, like grit, good sir, then spend your genius praising the society cosmopolitan enough to tolerate it! How do you think simple societies maintain their simplicity? By intolerance. Men hunt; women gather; virgins guard the sacred flame. Anyone who steps outside their stereotypic social roles is crushed.”

“Well, well, young manor-born—you are a manorial, are you not? Your words sound like someone taught by machines—what you don’t know, young manor-born, is that cosmopolitan societies are sometimes just as ruthless about crushing those who don’t conform. Look at how unhappy they made that reckless boy, what’s-his-name, that Phaethon. There are worse things in store for him, I tell you!”

“I beg your pardon?” Strange. The sensation was not unlike stepping for a nonexistent stair, or having apparently solid ground give way underfoot. Phaethon wondered if he had somehow wandered into a simulation or a pseudomnesia-play without noticing it. “But … I am Phaethon. I am he. What in the world do you mean?” And he took off the mask he wore.

“No, no. I mean the real Phaethon. Though you are quite bold to show up at a masquerade like this, dressed in his face. Bold. Or tasteless!”

“But I am he!” A bewildered note began to creep into his voice.

“So you are Phaethon, eh? No, no, I think not. He is not welcome at parties.”

Not welcome? Him? Rhadmanthus House was the oldest mansion of the Silver-Gray, and the Silver-Gray was, in turn, the third oldest scholum in the entire manorial movement. Rhadamanthus boasted over 7,600 members just of the elite communion, and not to mention tens of thousands of collaterals, partials and secondaries. Not welcome? Phaethon’s sire and gene-template was Helion, founder of the Silver-Gray and archon of Rhadamanthus. Phaethon was welcome everywhere!

The strange old man was still speaking: “You could not be him: Phaethon wears grim and brooding black and proud gold, not frills like those.”

(For a moment, oddly enough, Phaethon could not quite recall how he usually dressed. But surely he had no reason to dress in grim colors. Had he? He was not a grim man. Was he?)

The Real Phaeton panel 3

He tried to speak calmly: “What do you say I have done to make me unwelcome at celebrations, sir?”

“What has he done? Hah!” The white-haired man leaned back as if to avoid an unpleasant smell. “Your joke is not appreciated, sir. As you may have guessed, I am a Antiamaranthine Purist, and I do not carry a computer in my ear telling me every nuance of your manor-born protocols, or which fork to use, or when to hold my tongue. Maybe I speak out of turn to say that the real Phaethon would be ashamed to show his face at a festival like this! Ashamed! This is a celebration of those who love this civilization, or who, like me, are urged to try to improve it by constructive criticism. But you!”

“Ashamed? … I have done nothing!”

“No, no more! Do not speak again! Perhaps I should get a brain filter like you machine-pets, so I could merely blot out stains like you from my sight and memory. That would be ironic, wouldn’t it? Me, shrouded in a little silvery tissue of my own. But irony is perhaps more fit to an age of iron than to an age of gold.”

“Sir, I really must insist you tell me what—”

“What?!! Still here, you interloper! If you want to look like Phaethon, maybe I should treat you like him, and have you thrown out of my grove on your ear!”

“Tell me the truth!” Phaethon stepped toward the man.

“Fortunately, this grove, and even the surrounding dreamspace, are my own, not part of the party grounds proper, and so I can throw you out, can’t I?”

He cackled, and waved his walking stick.

The man, and the grove, disappeared. Phaethon found himself standing on green hilltop in the sunlight, overlooking the palaces and gardens of the celebration shining in the distance. An overture of music came faintly from the distant towers.

This was a scene from the first day of the celebration, one of the entrance scenarios. The old man had deleted his grove scene from Phaethon’s sensorium, throwing him back into his default setting. An unthinkable rudeness! But, perhaps, allowed under the relaxed protocols and standards of the festival time.

A moment of cold anger ran through Phaethon. He was surprised at the vehemence of his own emotion. He was not normally an angry man—was he?

Perhaps it would be wise to let the matter drop. There were entertainments and delights enough to engage his attention at the Celebrations without pursuing this.

But … unlike everything he had seen, this was real. Phaethon’s curiosity was piqued, and perhaps his pride was stung. He would discover the answers.

He raised his fingers to his eyes and made the restart gesture. He was back in the scene, at night, in the silvery grove, but alone. The man was either gone or he was hiding behind Phaethon’s sense-filter.

The Real Phaeton panel 5
The Real Phaeton panel 6
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