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Read in White on Black

The twins returned home to paradise restored, the warzone effectively unhappened. The mansion looked much the same as it did before, only slightly revised and expanded, the beach clear and inviting, the landing zone a grass lawn. There was a newspaper at the front door, as if some paperboy had biked across thousands of miles of ocean to throw it there. In an era of instant communications, the Real News was a joyous throwback to a time when things were written down on paper and distributed in physical form if not by ear. It wasn't printed on ordinary newspaper anymore; unless someone deep-froze or stored it in argon, editions of the Real News would oxidize to dust in three days. This was today's paper, and fresh, the twins noticing the headline immediately:


"That's exactly what we are, isn't it," Howard said, smiling, flipping through it. The editors of the Real News knew who buttered their bread, and tried for an appearance of impartiality while strongly supporting the twins.

"Rule by two," William said, smiling as well. "I guess that's our new title." Even if they'd still be called 'Dominator' from tradition and statute. He walked in with his brother, reading over his shoulder. The inside of the mansion was redone and cleaned entirely, the plush red couch in the main room even larger, inviting them to sit on it and relax. Which is exactly what they needed right then.

What they did not need was the island's steward and servant trainer already on the screen waiting for them. Now what did he want?

The group sat down together in the usual way: twins in the middle, Paul on the right, Sarah on the left. "Dominator, I have a confession to make," the steward said as if it was the last thing he expected to ever say. He had lived for his Dominator for a very long time. Now he was prepared to die for his Dominator as well. The twins raised eyebrows at him: Then make it. "I allowed a timed explosive to be brought to the island. An Enforcer placed it in your aircraft, under my supervision. Because I did not want it to hurt you, I gave it an audible warning."

"Why did you do it in the first place?" Howard asked, aghast. If he weren't already pale he would have become that way. This guy, above all others, was not allowed to betray him.

"They had my family, Dominator," the servant replied, still in his formal tone.

"You're not supposed to have or care about your family once you join us," William reminded him.

"They're in the Illuminati. I'm married, with a little boy and girl, both at Northberg." A subtle, wry expression appeared on Sarah's face, but nobody noticed.

"Why are you telling us this now?" Howard asked, paranoid.

"I didn't know if you'd survive. I thought if we all got nuked or something, at least my family would survive."

"Then why tell us at all?" William asked. It was probably a bad question, even if valid. A good servant didn't hide things from his master. Then again, this guy could hardly be called that now.

The servant's tone softened dramatically. The hard, formal edge to it was replaced by something else entirely. "Howard.. do you remember the time you lost your shoe?"

The twins looked at him askance. "The time I lost my shoe?" Howard asked skeptically.

"Yeah. This was around the time you turned seven. You were playing around in the water, out on the beach near the cave. I don't know what happened exactly, but your shoe came off and you couldn't find it." Howard did remember- he'd stepped hard in some very soft sand and it disappeared at once. He had looked and dug around for five minutes before walking back to the mansion in frustration. "You were yelling, making up new swear words, hopping on one foot half the time- and you were halfway home when you found your shoe just sitting on a rock, dirty outside and clean and dry inside, with a towel right next to it to wipe all the sand and grit off your foot. You were looking around in amazement. I think it might have been the first time you really wondered or cared just who was doing all those things for you. It was me, Howard. I caused that to happen."

For far from the first time in his life, William felt envy towards his brother. Over the course of the past two years, the steward and his stealthy crew had done somewhat similar things for the other personal servants as well; any mess was certain to be cleaned up, clothing laundered and even upgraded in size, all sorts of consumables replaced the night after they were used. He'd simply accepted it, along with a whole lot of other things, as the way the Dominator and his chosen servants live. But William was looking at it from the point of view of the seven-year-old Howard, having someone so inhumanly loyal that he would do seemingly miraculous things for you and ask nothing in return; you wouldn't even know it was him doing them. Insoluble problems for even the Inheritor, instantly solved by some anonymous force. Although the young Billy's normal life was far from hard, he could have definitely benefited from a thing like that. And even though a lot of his problems were solved by the young Billy, Paul felt a similar envy. Sarah felt nothing; this was what servants were for, after all.

Howard remained silent. He knew the others' envy and understood the servant's rationale. The servant continued anyway. 'He shouldn't even be talking to me about this stuff,' Howard thought as the servant started speaking again. 'But he's always wanted to say this to me. Considering everything he's done I can grant him that and a lot more besides.' "Dominator, even before you were six years old, my students and I have cleaned up after you, made your bed, even turned off the lights when you slept with them on." That was an easy one: they did it remotely. "How could I possibly betray you after that?"

But all four of them knew exactly how. He could simply get sick of picking up after his young master, envy and growing frustration reaching a crescendo, as he decides to join the enemy in a final act of spite. They doubted that- tone of voice, circumstantial evidence, and knowledge of the man's character all contradicted it- but it didn't outweigh the fact that he did betray them.

"If we're all done the maudlin bullshit," Sarah asked casually, "how did they make you believe they have your family?"

"There was video, recordings, they had someone on the inside, there was a substant-"

"Oh, spare me," Sarah cut him off with. "Forget loyalty, I ought to kill you for incompetence." The others looked at her. "Between stealth training and babysitting Howard and his controlled friends, how long has it been since you actually had to think operationally? If ever?"

The servant reverted to his hard, formal tone, but he wasn't fooling anyone. He was scared out of his shit. "Slightly more than twelve years. I was chosen as the new leader when Howard was born."

"If you had even bothered to check technological updates, you'd know that any amount of video could be faked no matter what they did. Even twelve years ago, actually. Yes, I'm sure they had a lot of other crap too. I'm not interested. Maybe you've been in a fantasyland of your own making for the past twelve years, but I have to deal with reality," Sarah said. "Are you really stupid enough to think the educational directors or the head operators of Northberg are going to just let any of those children get killed by a 'man on the inside'?" She looked to her right at the males. "Pathetic. Loyal as a dog and about as smart. You all can go back to playing kings and knights now. I have other things I need to do." And with that, she was gone, and there was silence for three seconds.

"They actually managed to convince you that letting something important get blown up was the best thing for you to do? Of all the things you could have done, including, oh, I don't know, telling us, you chose that?" William asked.

He took a breath, the real amount of trouble he was in finally dawning on him. "Dominator, they had been showing these things to me for more than a year. It was supposed to be as part of some kind of 'insurance policy' and I didn't know what it was insurance for until recently. I continually tried to track them down and failed. I was.. not aware that they could fake that much video in that little time." That was amazingly retarded. Faking video in real time was a skill mastered by the Illuminati years ago. "It was just meant to be the destruction of an object, then you would wise up to the plan, then you would kill them. I don't know how the Enforcers were taken!"

Howard looked at him coldly. "I'm not sure which is worse- having servants with incomplete loyalty who are intelligent, or having servants with complete loyalty who are stupid. What I do know is that having servants with incomplete loyalty who are stupid is no good." Normally this would be a flat death sentence, but where the fuck were they going to find somebody else they could trust at all? Implants were tempting, but with the enormous variety of independent tasks that servant had, it would be nearly impossible to give orders covering all the bases. "You mentioned your family. Should you screw up or betray us in any way ever again, guess what I'm going to do?" The servant's face went almost as white as the twins' before Howard clicked off. He would later feel relief. The twins gave him something they seldom give anyone: a second chance. Or even a first one.

"Wait, you're not going to.," William started.

"His kids, of course not." They were somebody else's property or going to be. "Him and his wife, corpses." It wasn't like anyone gave prizes for mercy.

"Wait. Where the fuck does his wife even live?" William asked. The twins looked at each other and started pulling up schematics of their own island. They hadn't had to care, before. Not caring was the nice part of being Dominator; you simply lived there and let the unseen servants worry about details. Now they had to care, especially about things physically close.

"Should have known," Howard said. The Dominator's area was a rather large home, the surface of the island, and an expansive basement. Everything else- tunnels, barracks, systems, a small training course all its own- was used by the servants. The entire underground, all the way to the magma and the geothermal power units, was utilized in some way. His wife lived with him; she was a sort of maid matron, never directly serving the twins but making life easier on the unseen servants who did.

"And servants owned by most Illuminati come from here," William reminded him. "And they know our habits."

"Want to change that?" Howard asked. William shook his head. "Me neither. If their first master is us and they've seen us in action, who knows how much stupidity they've talked their masters out of? C'mon. Let's go give them something to see." No disagreement; it was a great day to enjoy their private heaven, with frisbees flying and dogs fetching.

As if they could afford to do that today. The screen buzzed almost immediately, and the twins subvocalized a groan.

"You know that we still haven't checked our email once since hell broke loose?" William asked.

Howard sighed, a long puffffff of escaping air, feeling harried like some normal. At least now the various idiots requesting Dominator intervention would have more wrath to fear.

You have 2,123 messages from 1,250 sources.

"Wonderful," William said sardonically. A bit more than a fifth of the Illuminati. A nice, round number, and they probably all wanted replies. And thanks, guys- that comma makes all the difference.

Howard shook his head slowly. "I hate having to do this." He entered some commands for a pre-connection message. "If you're going to call me up with relief or happiness, don't. There's six thousand of you. If you have advice for my plans, submit it in writing. The only things I should be directly contacted with are the usual disputes and emergency information, such as the names of traitors." He entered the message and exited out of the window. The caller dropped and the screen did not buzz again.

"My? I?" William asked, eyebrows raised.

"Although there may be times when I use it, I am never going to get used to the first person plural. You should do the same. It doesn't matter which one of us is speaking." A smile grew on William's face and he nodded. "And with that out of the way, I am going to bed. Paul! Clean this shit out and let me know if there's anything valuable in it."

"What? How am I going to know what's valuable and what's not?" Paul was otherwise motionless, still subconsciously expecting implants to force him to act.

"You have to use your judgment. You want to be an Illuminatus or not?" William asked with a smile.

Paul gawked, making no attempt to hide his surprise, even if he knew he should have seen it coming. His brain flooded with contradictory emotions. He knew how awesome it was, to have a true hand in the control of the world, to modify a section of society as he saw fit, to be one of the final elite. Of course he wanted it, anyone with an understanding of power would. But not for the first time, he had the intense sensation of being in way, way over his head.

"Paul. Even the basic nature of this conflict is a mystery to me, as I'm not quite sure what the enemy truly wants and what they have. All I'm sure of is that to defeat them, we will need to root them out, discover and destroy their infrastructure, discover future attacks and prevent them, and overall out-guess and out-think them. The raw information gathering can be done by servants but analysis, consideration, and most of all counterplotting, are the provenance of a master," Howard informed him.

"B-but I'm not as smart as you guys! Not even close, dude! I mean, I want to be one, but.. if I fuck up, if I miss something.."

"If you don't think you're up to this and related tasks, I'll simply find someone else or do it myself." The first person singular still sounded weird to William, especially since he was the one saying it, and not pretending as he had pretended so many times before. "No one can make someone be an Illuminatus. Contradiction in terms," he continued, smiling. "You can just keep wearing black, go up to your room, and get a good night's sleep because we don't have anything for servants to do right now. Either way, you'll still be my friend."

"I don't want to stay like that.. I guess I was just thinking I could go home, you know?" His voice became higher and higher, hysteria creeping in. "I know, I know, you don't have to say it, there's no going back, I'm either a master or a servant and there's no room for anything else. I'm still not meant for this shit!!" The combined stresses had finally caught up with him and he started shaking, crying with his whole body.

"Paul, are you able and capable of looking through these messages for not only obvious pieces of information, but contextual and subtextual subtleties as well?" Howard asked gently and directly.

In the end, Paul would never intentionally lie to his Dominator and friend. "Yes. I am," he said, eyes downcast.

"Then do it," the twins said simultaneously. The implication was clear: 'And remain a servant, but doing masters' work.'

"Yes... Dominator," Paul replied, and the twins went upstairs without another word, closing the door behind them.

"I love him so much," William said.

"I do too," Howard replied, looking approvingly at his surroundings, particularly the enormous, inviting bed in front of him. He left his suit on and flopped down on it, putting his hands under his head. "Billy, is it all right for the controller of the world to admit that he's scared?" Sarah was completely wrong on that one. The engineereds hadn't shown fear. It definitely didn't mean they didn't feel it.

His brother laid down next to him in the same position. "Howie, I am one of the two biggest ass kickers on planet Earth. I can admit whatever I want," he said, smiling.

"I'll admit that I completely forgot about investigating Brutus Mando."

"Yeah. Sarah gave some instructions, though."

"Yeah, I was wondering about it for fifteen minutes before I remembered- she'd already dealt with it."

"Becomes easy to rely on good servants, doesn't it?" William asked, with the faintest hint of sarcasm.

"Yeah. I keep on thinking she might leave, but remember- we've got something she likes." The twins shared a chuckle, but couldn't resist glancing at the intercorm and the door.

"She's the one person who can kill us both. Not straight-up with us expecting it, but..."

"Yeah, like we'd ever be expecting it."

"Yeah, I remember what she told you when-"

"Oh, don't go bringing that April Fool's bullshit up!" Howard shouted. That had been a memorable day.

"Yeah, remember a year before that one? Fucking shit, Howie!" That had been another memorable day.

"Woah-woah-woah! I thought you forgave me for all that stuff."

"I do! But that, of all the fucking things- and you still have the recordings!"

"And you've still got the recordings of that other one!" The full-size viewscreen upon the wall opposite the bed was a massive help, wireless keyboards and mice were conveniently located, and someone had the wits to put a double interface into a single ACNOS desktop. A look, a tacit agreement, and both incidents were not removed but heavily encrypted and restricted. No one but the twins would ever be able to see them. Sarah and Paul would think they had been deleted.

"But you know what, Billy? Having you not implanted finally allows me to say something I never have before."

"And that is..." 'Go to hell? Suck my dick?'

"Kiss my ass!" There it is!

"Howie, one thing you really have shown about all this, and it's really impressive, is your flexibility." Howard waited a half second for the punchline. "Therefore, I invite you to kiss your own ass!"

Howard laughed and they got into a talk that lasted for hours. Their twin nature and engineered brains meant that they could converse far faster than normals, with subtext and double meanings throughout. Occasionally they flowed into Latin when it was smoother than English to discourse in, William having absorbed enough of it over the past two years.

Howard was frightened more than his brother, to neither of their surprise. The controllability of Enforcers was a part of his life since birth. When he was four, the Dominator was given a handful of Enforcers who would do whatever he told them, within a broad limit of reason. He ordered them around like it was going out of style (and it did, in fact, go out of style- he completely stopped giving them silly commands for his own amusement by the time he was six), making them do things like juggle each other's weapons and stand, no-handed, on their heads. (To his delight, they were rather good at that.) This sort of free-command activity has always been a part of the Northberg children's curriculum, and the un-people's complete lack of emotion or caring meant that they ended up being seen as simple tools, not perfect toys.

But, Howard admitted, he still did see them as perfect toys, in the game of Illuminated intrigue. More obedient than Asimov's robots (First Law? Never heard of it!) and completely without biases or emotions, they made the perfect servants to an insulated Dominator. Howard could accept other people owning Enforcers and using them to try to kill him- that was simply part of the game. But when his childhood companions, his Enforcers, turned on him- William made the comparison of Sesame Street's Elmo whipping out an SMG on his viewers, and Howard laughed in agreement- there wasn't much else he could trust. Rationally, he could break everything down and say things like 'This person could have killed me already' or 'That's not a trap they would actually use.' Emotionally, he didn't trust the bed he was lying on. Sarah was certainly in a similar situation.

There was no precedent for any of this. Then again, there was no precedent for a Duumvirate, either, and no precedent for any of the technological game-changers that had occurred in the last twenty years, such as human bioengineering and mind control implants. So fuck precedent. The only thing they would worry about was the future, a place they had agreed to go together, and a thing they were once again willing to believe they could control.

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