“Least Common Denominator”

I learned later on that Raiden and Felicity had a past with one another.

I can’t say I was very happy to hear of it, though I placed no blame on my dear friend for neglecting to tell me. It was something to do with a tribe of sorts in one of Hemlock’s eastern sectors, referred to on the street as the Arrow of Artemis.

Earth was filled with religious tales dating back to times of antiquity. Of these, there was the Greek goddess Artemis, often referred to as the Hunter. She was also the goddess of childbirth; the story goes that her hands held the power to both give life and to take it away.

Perhaps more fascinating was the interpretation that her bow and arrow would pierce through anyone who dared claim to be superior to her, thus making it an arrow of truth or even an arrow of humility for those who fell victim to its awe-inducing power. The group residing under that name was an appropriately prideful one.

Even my father tried his best to avoid them. If a crime was committed in that part of the city, he only sent his most experienced sergeants, and made sure they were fully equipped for the possibility of a worst case scenario. Thankfully, it seldom came to that.

The Arrow of Artemis could rain literal hellfire on anyone they pleased and at a moment’s notice, but only chose to play their hand when conspiracies in the corporate world were afoot. All other times, they were a close-knit, guarded cult of personality envied by the weaker masses.

It was only natural that they would pick fights with the Megaera Estate.

When questioned, Felicity told me that the Breaux family had pledged its support to Artemis long ago. It didn’t bother her one bit that Artemis was occasionally very brutal, because in the end they always tried to do what was right. As a bonus, she had been able to attain medical training while a junior member of the group. It made her the person she is now, and she was grateful if nothing else.

She added that she could never hate the individuals who made up the Megaera household, even if the collective family name was marred by rumors of nefarious plots. Her cordial demeanor toward Raiden was her way of giving him the benefit of the doubt, and I concluded that I had no need to press further into the matter.

After all, there were far more important events to be deliberated on in the short term. Today I was standing outside of a coffee shop, one hand gripping the strap of my satchel as the other twirled my phone around and around. I was dressed in a very casual combination: denim shorts over black tights, a striped blouse over a black camisole and a sun hat atop my auburn hair.

“So that’s how an honor student dresses when she’s about to do business? Not a good look, if you ask me.” I turned around to see Mrs. Albury, professionally garbed in a grey women’s sport coat, matching slacks and black heels. A pair of reading glasses was nestled under her collar.

“It’s like I told you; I only wanted to discuss an idea. I even mentioned that it was a personal meetup!”

She frowned. “Normally I wouldn’t make time for something so out-of-the-blue, but since you did well on your exams this time around I figured I would take a chance on whatever it is you have to show me.”

“Thank you so much for the opportunity,” I replied with a bow and held open the door.

“Shall we get something to drink first?” She turned her nose up with a humph sound before making her way inside. Carmella ordered a black iced coffee, while I selected a vanilla one. As we collected our beverages, we made are way to a secluded corner and sat down. I pulled a folder out of my satchel and revealed the sheets of paper tucked within.
Mrs. Albury donned her glasses and began to read. “Seven Stars competition, held during the evening hours at… What the hell is this, Jade!?”

“It is exactly what it looks like, ma’am. That is to say it looks like a more up-to-date version of King of the Hill.”

“Do you really expect me to approve a… a…” she struggled to find the words. “…a mock shoot-em-up in what is supposed to be an institution of higher learning!? What would the board say to such a thing? And furthermore, I couldn’t possibly allow any activity that could result in damage to the facilities! It would cripple my pride as a school administrator!”

I swirled my tongue along the straw of my drink for a moment before setting my coffee down and staring coldly into her eyes. “Are you quite done, Carmella?”

“Did you just-!?”

Cutting her off with the wave of my hand, I continued. “It is actually rather simple if you were to look at the proposal in full. The equipment that I would provide shall meet all safety requirements with absolutely zero risk to the property of the school. Additionally, I can assure you that the Board will certainly look the other way if they were to perceive this as an educational exercise.”

“Educational!? On what grounds!?” Mrs. Albury’s hands were visibly shaking, digging into the synthetic coffee cup.

“The SCS shall be the key: seven buildings, seven teams. By uniting the students along specific criteria, we can argue that this is nothing more than a team building scenario put on by members of the student government. I have even attached a short thesis which you are welcome to submit to the Board for review. I can assure you a follow-up report will also be drafted to make it all appear legitimate.”

Shock plastered itself across the elder woman’s face, followed by morbid curiosity. Swallowing, she asked, “If I were to approve this little… project of yours, what would I receive in exchange?”

“That depends. What would be most beneficial to your institution, Carmel-ahem, Mrs. Albury?”

With a sip from her own drink, she thought it over. Her expression softened and she took a deep breath. “I can’t say for certain I know what it is you’re up to, but I have my suspicions that large sums of money will be involved, far more than your little cafeteria games thus far. Our laws may allow free-betting, but there are still heavy penalties for bribes and laundered funds. Unfortunately, I cannot accept contributions on behalf of myself or the institution I manage. Unless…”

“Hmm?”

“Are you familiar with the Twenty Rule of Economics?” she asked. The Twenty Rule was how Ganymede had kept its currency system simple compared to other planets. There were three basic principles which fell under the Twenty Rule.

First, the base valuation of any good and service was required to be divisible by twenty. This meant that the lowest valuation of anything on the planet was 0.20 GTC. Second, all goods and services were to be assessed a business tax, of which the percentage was always a fraction of twenty. That is to say the rate – depending on the market – was commonly limited to five, ten, fifteen or twenty percent. Lastly, interest on borrowed money was to be calculated using the standard rate of 0.20 GTC per week per 100 GTC borrowed.

This was to ensure that values of less than 0.01 GTC could seldom, if ever, occur. As the banking system evolved, so did the number of systemic changes centered on the Twenty Rule. Of course, there was one exception which the system had yet to find an adaptation for. Any tangible resource for which the value appreciated or depreciated continuously would always exist outside the bounds of the Twenty Rule.

I had been planning on exploiting this fact for my own ends, but it appeared that old lady Carmella was three steps ahead. “You’re talking about a wine fund,” I murmured quietly.

“Hemlock Preparatory School encourages its faculty to invest in a community wine pool. A wine which has sufficiently matured has its worth graded down to the nearest ten millionth of a GTC per unit of volume. Thus, bulk wines of similar age and volume can contain monetary differences of several GTC.

“When a wine is exchanged for an identical one of lesser value, a credit is applied in the registry. Once sufficient credits have been attained, newer bottles will be placed on the ledger and the credits deducted in place of real money. Professional brokers use a hyper-advanced fermentation process which can mature a quality wine in days rather than weeks. This form of money laundering is one that the government has so far been unable and unwilling to touch.”

She paused, took a drink and cleared her throat. “I’ve made up my mind. I will agree to help you, provided that you invest every penny of your venture into my own.”

“Now who’s the one out of her mind!?” Others of the shop turned to look at us. I realized I had inadvertently slammed my fists on the table when I stood up, causing our drinks to rattle and some of the documents to scatter onto the floor. Oh shit.

Carmella merely smiled, pushing her spectacles up the bridge of her nose. “Allow me to put it to you another way. Whatever you choose to put into the fund, you will earn back by the time you graduate and then some. All you need to do is not screw up for a year and a half, and you’ll be the subject of nepotism for the rest of your days. Think you can handle that?”

Of course I could, if only it were my money. I could never tell her that, however. “Very well; I hereby accept the terms of your contract, Mrs. Albury. Once my coffers are bloated, so to speak, we can discuss the drop.”

“It was a pleasure doing business with you.” Gracefully, Carmella stood up and extended a hand. “Glory to both of our houses, as the old saying goes. Good day.” Drink in hand, the elder woman headed out into the city. I collected the scattered documents and the rest of my belongings, quietly excusing myself a few minutes later.

Outside, the sky was dotted by flames of crimson. As the reflection of Jupiter beamed down, it diffused through a growing thicket of clouds promising rain. Even the artificial suns had been blotted out, leaving shadows of blood all along the seaside.

The rains were what I loved most about Ganymede life. There were very few places in the solar system with this kind of atmospheric diversity. Making my way back home, I took my time to admire the beauty swirling around me until the sky inevitably let loose a vivid red torrent upon the world.

I made it home and let myself in, cold water dripping through my hair and clothes. Better change before I catch a cold. Iced coffee may not have been the best idea in retrospect. I grabbed a towel from the closet, running it through my hair haphazardly. Looks like dad’s home but doing his own thing.

Next to my bed lay a stack of crates full of electronic equipment. I placed my satchel on top and crawled between the blankets with a historical novel in hand. The shades on my window were currently see-through, thus I was able to watch the bloody downpour comfortably as I leafed through the pages of my book. All was right with the world, if only for the time being.

This is the story of a family of three who lived in Japan during the twentieth century. The mother and the father were skilled statisticians, revered in the scientific community. Society remembers them for their contributions to the Many Worlds Interpretation Theory and their longstanding postulates surrounding the existence of parallel universes.

Their life’s work was one pursued not for money or glory, but for the daughter they loved more than anything. They wished only to teach her how beautiful the mysteries of this world could be. This noble cause is something they championed to the very end when on a tragic summer’s day, the plane they were riding crashed into the ocean.

The daughter studied hard for more than ten years so that she could attend a prestigious university in North America, following in the footsteps of her mother and father. She wished to close the book on her parents’ research, believing it would bring closure to her shattered heart. Only during her final years of secondary school did she come to realize the truth: true closure would come from forging her own path in the world. She didn’t have to be like her parents if she didn’t want to; the choice was entirely up to her. The story ends with her completing the research not for her parents, but for herself and the world.

Perhaps this is the true naivety inherent to mankind. As children, we aspire to succeed in the ways that our forefathers had once failed. We carry within us not our dreams, but theirs. Even when we rebel or declare sovereignty over our lives, we more often than not act in accordance with those familial ideals without so much as realizing it happening around us.

I had always been regarded as a fair and honest girl. It was expected that I would help others like my mother, or protect order like my father. Yet here I was in my rebellious stage, partaking in the questionably legal while thinking only of selfish gain. Was I still in accordance with them at all? I refused to believe it.

I was nothing like the girl in this story. I was neither molded nor shaped by the whims of anyone. At least…

The sky had dulled to a mango orange by the time I next opened my eyes. The rain was but a misty drizzle now. I stretched my arms over my head and shook out, my bangs falling to one side of my face. I must have nodded off. The book was on the floor, its pages slightly crumpled and the place-marker removed. I picked it up and smoothed out the creases before setting it neatly on the dresser, the place-marker on top.

Now then, how to set phase two into motion… Snatching up my phone, I sent a text to Francesca. Once that was done, I pulled some electronic devices from the crates near my bed and put them in a larger backpack I kept in the closet. Lugging it along with my regular satchel was rather heavy, but I managed.

My father was in the kitchen cooking food on the stove. He glanced over at me with a raised eyebrow. “Going on a trip?”

“Nothing of the sort, Father, but I would like to use the car for a bit if that’s alright.”

“That will depend on how you answer two questions. First, what’s in the backpack?”

“It is an art project, Father.”

“Very well,” he replied. “Question two: can you afford to be going out so often?” Shit. “I won’t be covering your expenses forever, you know.”

“That’s true, but you did say you’ll continue to look the other way if my grades are good.” Clasping my hands together, I put on my best pleading face. “Surely you could find it somewhere in your heart to grant me this simple luxury?”

It appeared to work, as he grabbed the keys from the window sill and tossed them to me.

“Just… call to check in every once in a while, okay? I worry about you.”

“I promise, daddy!” I made my way out the door to our small SUV, shivering a little from the mist which had settled over the landscape. My house wasn’t too far from the beach, but carrying the package down a steep hill on a motortrike was not my idea of a fun time.

After a short drive, I parked along the beachfront, taking in the scenery. I could see more clouds rolling in, the ocean waves forming a strong riptide current as they swept laterally across the sand. It was an expanse I had the luxury of witnessing daily, though certainly one I would never take for granted; for it was an exhibition of nature’s true power and its true beauty, manifested in each of the five senses.

Francesca arrived just minutes later, parking her car next to mine. I stepped out of my SUV, grabbing the backpack and my satchel. She turned to me as she grabbed her purse. “I swear if this isn’t the most spectacular thing I’ve seen in my life, I am going to kick your ass.”

“Patience, my dear Watson,” I remarked jokingly. “All shall be revealed in due time.” Rocky outcroppings rose up the further along the trail we went, until we reached a secluded tide pool, out of sight from any prying eyes.

At the bottom of my backpack was a vest made from an impact resistant polymer. I handed it over. “Please put this on, Fran.” She opened her mouth to protest but quickly shrugged and snatched up the garment. As she was getting it down over her shoulders, I pulled a coil pistol from the bag. “Brace yourself!” I spun around and pulled the trigger, sending a wave pulse into her chest at point blank range. The impact knocked her off her feet, and she fell backward into the wet sand, until it covered her in splotches.

“W-What the hell, Jade!?” As she spluttered, struggling to regain her footing, I let out a massive cackle. This only aggravated her further. “It’s not funny! Help me up already, dammit!”

I stopped laughing long enough to bring her to her feet, before pulling out my phone and pointing it at the vest. As it read the vest’s impact sensors, the results flashed in a 3D hologram. “Let’s see… damage to the left lung, liver and one of the arteries leading from the heart. In the real world, that’s death in a matter of minutes. I have to say that I like the accuracy of this sensor system!”

Francesca finished dusting herself off. “Alright, you want to tell me what you’re up to already?”

“One second.” Quickly resetting the model, I drew back my right arm. “I’m going to hit you as hard as I can. Try not to move.”

“Jade!” Her protests fell on deaf ears as my hand made contact. I winced from the force rebounding into my knuckles. As the diagram updated, it illustrated a shock with damage equivalent to a broken rib.

“Okay, okay. The reason I had you run that test is because I needed to see how viable these sensors were for differentiating injuries from confirmed kills.”

Francesca blinked before asking, “What exactly does this tell us?”

“That should be obvious! If you still haven’t figured it out, how about I put it all together for you?” I retrieved the data from the gunshot and overlaid a heartbeat monitor to the projection. However, instead of counting beats, it was really a timer. As the timer counted down, the sound of the heartbeat got slower and slower until finally, it flat-lined with an audible screech.

“Oh, I get it now!” exclaimed the girl.

“Do you?”

“Not even!”

“Dammit all!” I took a deep breath. “Look, if someone were to wear this and get hit, then the timer would calculate how long before their injuries were fatal. At that point, the vest would shut off and the person wearing it would be out. Get it?”

“Like, in a survival game, you mean?” It appeared she was getting the picture now.

“Most normal survival games are really short, usually less than thirty minutes. The one I want to create is much longer, but for the time being we’re bound to hypotheticals.” The diagram disappeared and I brought up an entirely new one. “This is a map of Hemlock Preparatory School. Notice anything about it?”

She nodded. “Those hexagons on the map – what are they?”

“They correspond with different points on campus. As the game unfolds, registered participants will have their territories lit up in whatever color denotes their team, group or banner. Neutral territories will of course be grey until claimed with a group’s banner. The goal of course will be conquering all possible territories on the map. In this case, the game ends when one team takes control of enough territory to surpass a point limit, or when six of the seven teams have been completely eliminated.”

“It sounds kind of complicated.” Francesca removed the vest and handed it back to me. “In any case, you’ve managed to sell me on the idea. I’ll help you in any way I can.”

“I appreciate it. You’re one of my best friends, you know.” We set down some beach towels and relaxed, discussing the plan at length while the ocean waves crashed along the shoreline. I told her about my meeting with Carmella Albury but left out some of the more confidential points, like the wine fund. There would be a time and place for that to be discussed, but the priority for now was ensuring that a trial run would indeed go according to plan.

“You know,” interjected Fran, “if the survival game is going to have medics, we’ll probably want someone well versed in the field, won’t we?”

It was no secret that Felicity Breaux was the ideal candidate, and I had every desire to get her on board. The question was whether she would say yes, especially if it meant going up against Artemis, or working alongside Raiden.

Raiden was indeed talented, to the point where his success in this hypothetical wargame was almost certain. It would be impossible for me to remove him from the standings without cries of foul play, so my only recourse would be to make an attempt at controlling him.

I knew that he liked me, and I knew that if I desired I could make him fall for me. Yet I knew also that if it came down to Artemis vs House Megaera, I would be throwing dear Felicity to the wolves, and I couldn’t bear the thought of doing such a thing. As Fran and I parted ways for the day, I found myself struggling with the decision of whether to use my heart or my head. Regrettably, after sleeping on it for several days, I was still no closer to an answer.

When the break ended, students were required to return to their independent study courses. These were usually in the form of modules broken down by subject, to be completed by the student during each fifteen day block. An academic year consisted of fourteen blocks: ten that were regular instruction, two midterm blocks, and two final exam blocks. This ensured that instruction times would total near enough to 210 earth days, the recommended standard for secondary schools throughout the solar system.

My long hours of planning and scheming had caught up to me, resulting in my absence from “morning” rotation. As a result, I didn’t make it to the school until 5PM GST, when all of my regular classmates had already left for home. Cursing myself internally, I swiped my student card and entered one the classrooms in Building Four.

I may have mentioned before that the number of buildings which made up the campus was seven. Building Four was divided into wings for mathematics and history. The mathematics room I entered was currently occupied by about twenty other students. The sit-in tutor was moving from desk to desk, asking if anyone needed assistance.

I decided to keep to myself, taking a desk near the back of the classroom. I pulled out a tablet and synchronized it with the desk’s built-in computer. As this block’s lessons appeared on both screens, I began to take notes and listen to the audio which came out of a set of earbuds connected to the tablet.

My mind, unsurprisingly, had started to wander as the minutes passed. If I remember correctly, Hemlock Prep has nearly twenty-three hundred students. It’s doubtful that I could get all of them in a trial run, but maybe sixty percent? That would be around fourteen hundred. An eight coin buy-in should get us very nearly a pool totaling ten thousand, and if I commission off fifteen percent to give to Mrs. Albury…

“…Miss Cassia?” I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up. The instructor was standing next to me.

“Eh? What is it, sir?”

“I felt I needed to point out that while you set up your Law of Cosines formula correctly, you used values from the wrong problem. It looks like you did the same up here too.” He pointed with his finger to the offending question.

“I see. Sorry, I guess I’m just off my game today! Hahaha!” I quickly corrected my mistakes and he went on to assist a pair of students further up the aisle. Letting out a deep sigh, I stared out the far windows toward the fields behind campus. Reality can be so boring.

The monotonous crunching of numbers continued for three hours. Eventually my brain simply refused to work any longer, and I packed up my things, heading over to the cafeteria in Building Two. The dinner rush had ended leaving about fifty or sixty students and faculty members chatting amongst themselves. I grabbed a plate of spaghetti and sat down alone.

“D-Do you mind if I… join you…?” I was greeted by a rather timid and mousey girl, her blonde curls almost bouncing as she jittered nervously with a similar plate in hand.

With a chuckle and a smile, I nodded. “I haven’t seen you in a long time, Elena! I hope your underclassman experience has been fruitful!” This was Elena Breaux. She was two and a half years younger than Felicity, yet like her sister she had joined Artemis. If memory served, she was also a very skilled cook.

“Yes, I made l-lots of friends and even joined a few c-clubs…” As her voice faltered I reached out and patted her head.

“You and I are friends, dear. You need to relax and allow yourself to be open around me!” She has a ways to go, it would seem.

“Right… I’ll do my best, Jade!” Putting on her best smile, she gave grace for her meal and began to dig in. Silence returned as I waited for her to adjust to the proximity, and then I set my fork down and turned to her.

“I was wondering if I could actually talk to you about your sister.”

“About Felicity? Did something happen between you and her?”

“Nothing in particular; however, I’ve needed to bring something up with her for a while, and I’m just not sure the way to go about it.”

Elena looked puzzled as she took a drink of her juice. “It isn’t like big sis to turn down a favor, especially from those she cares about. At home, she always talks about you and Francesca with the highest possible regard. If you were to be honest about whatever it is you need, I don’t think she would say no. Then again, that might also be something of a weakness for her.”

“A weakness?” I asked curiously.

“Yeah,” the mousey girl replied. “Felicity has always been one to hide her concerns behind a veil. She is also the type of person who wouldn’t really speak up if she was sad or hurt. She would continue to give and give alike until nothing remained of her. And well…”

Forgive me; I’m going to have to pick your brain a little more. “How does she act when she’s working alongside members of Artemis?”

“I don’t think I can talk about things like that without her permission-!”

“Please, Elena.” I brought my hands together in a bowing motion. “I really need to know because I do not want to cause her any sadness either.”

Elena gasped and then nodded. “Okay, I will tell you what I can. Felicity has been reporting for duty almost every day, coming home late and getting maybe two hours of sleep. Even that night she went to Francesca’s party, she made a detour after the party in order to volunteer. I’m afraid she’ll make herself sick, but she waves me off at every turn.”

“Do you know when this behavior started, or why?”

“I do,” Elena murmured, “but I’m afraid that I cannot tell you what those reasons are. It’s… It’s too personal, for both of us really. I’m really sorry!”

“That’s okay; you did your best and I have to respect that.” I gave her a pat on the head and stood up. As I discarded my dinner tray, she called out to me one last time.

“Eleven-Six!” Elena hurried to discard her tray and rushed out the opposite door. Her skittishness caused some to turn their heads in confusion, and I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. You really are a good girl, and I think you’re doing your family proud. I hope that in time you will see it too. I had one more class to go, and after that, a new obstacle would need to be overcome.

I may have been a citizen of Hemlock since birth, but I seldom ventured into the east side before today. The streets were narrow and congested as vendors peddled their wares, some of which were surely classified as black market. Nearly everyone carried a weapon of some kind – knives, handguns, metal bats and even machetes were all in full view. I clutched my satchel tightly as I made my way through the throng.

A group of older men cat-called me, claiming that I would do well for some kind of hostess club. Anxiety gripped me the deeper I fell into this social labyrinth. Miraculously, I wound up at the Breaux residence without anything terrible happening, and uttered a sigh of relief before ringing the intercom. “I’m looking for Felicity. Is she here?”

The voice which responded was one of shock. “Jade? What are you doing all the way out here? It’s already an hour to midnight; you should go home and get some sleep!” A few moments later and Felicity had opened the door. She was dressed in a white smock with orange stripes along the arms and back. It was her medical uniform.

I gave a respectful bow before saying. “I need to talk to you. Do you mind if we step out?” We walked together until we had reached a bridge overlooking the spillway to the Navaro River, for which our district was named. The water was flowing rapidly thanks to the week’s earlier storm, and small fish could be seen following the current. Leaning on the railing, I stared my friend in the eyes. “Felicity… Your cousin… isn’t coming back.”

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