At 3pm on Sunday afternoon, a dozen or so members of the Art-using population of the area gather in the back room of a pub, about five minutes walk from the seaside. The pub’s a fairly traditional establishment, serving no food besides crisps and the odd bag of pork scratchings, and decorated with old wood panelling that’s seen far better days. This is the regular meeting of the local branch — some would say “cell” — of Factio Umbrata.
Penny shows up to the meeting about five minutes early. She’s not a member of Factio Umbrata, and has very little idea of what they stand for other than what the Lucerist leaflet had to say about them, and she’s growing increasingly convinced that the leaflet was not a particularly unbiased source of information. The people here certainly don’t look much like hardened terrorists: they’re about equal parts ageing hippies and young punks, with the occasional middle-aged man looking somewhat out of place despite wearing his best leather jacket.
The group’s overwhelmingly male, which makes Penny a little uncomfortable, even if she does look like a boy right now. That’s not the only way she doesn’t fit in here, of course, but hopefully Yarn’s cover glamour will stop anyone from noticing that. She touches the stone around her neck meaningfully, putting her other hand into the pocket that holds her special coin. She swallows her nerves away as best she can, and takes one of the few remaining empty seats. Many of the attendees are standing, though.
In a prominent position at the other end of the room is a particularly wizened man wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt. He clears his throat.
“Hello, everyone,” he says. “I would like to call this meeting of our branch to order.”
At these words, the room falls silent. Clearly this guy commands some respect.
“Now,” he continues, “do all those present consent to a scan?”
Most of the room nods assent. Penny follows suit a little after the rest, not being entirely sure what a “scan” is but not particularly wanting to stand out. One person does not nod: a young man seated a few chairs away from Penny, with black hair and small, scholarly-looking glasses.
“Is this really necessary?” he asks, sighing. “It’s not like we’re doing anything wrong by being here.”
This sparks off a wave of muttering among the assembled; Grateful Dead quells this with a subtle motion of the head.
“I’m afraid it is,” he says. “Those of us who have been around for a while know that the Lucerists’ Department is rather fond of sending infiltrators and provocateurs.”
Glasses shakes his head, straightening his posture. “We’re fighting for liberty, here. Surely we can’t do that in a Panopticon?”
There’s some muttering in the room at this; Penny hears something like: “Oh, spare us the fucking Foucault.”
Grateful Dead clears his throat again. He states calmly, but firmly: “If you do not consent to a scan, you are welcome to leave.”
“West Midlands branch didn’t pull this shit,” Glasses mutters, low enough that Penny’s not sure she was meant to hear. At his usual volume, he says: “All right, I’ve said my piece.” He stands up and walks out of the room, leaving a muttering that quickly dies out behind him. The subsequent silence lingers for a moment.
“Now,” says Grateful Dead, “let’s get on with the scan.” He gestures to a man in his twenties wearing ripped jeans and a tattered blazer.
The man in the tattered blazer nods, gets up and walks around the room, staring at each attendee in turn; Penny prays silently that her cover glamour holds. After a few minutes, he pulls a partially-solved Rubik’s Cube from his pocket and starts playing with it. He doesn’t look at the toy, but it edges toward a solved state regardless. Finally, he stops in the middle of the room and puts the still-unsolved cube back in his pocket.
“All clear,” he says, and Penny realises she’s been holding her breath.
“Good,” says Grateful Dead. “Now, onto matters arising.”
The meeting begins in earnest with a recap of the last meeting, along with a discussion of actions taken as a result. It’s pretty boring as it is, and since Penny didn’t come to the previous meeting it’s all rather lost on her. Ten minutes are spent discussing who should bear responsibility for paying for the meeting room, the main two factions arguing over whether the cost should be split equally or weighted by income. Fifteen more minutes are wasted on debate on whether to “rotate the chair”, and it takes Penny about half of that time to work out they’re not speaking about an actual chair. It’s over half an hour into the meeting before anyone starts discussing any of the actual issues at hand.
Penny never expected that a meeting of terrorists could be quite this dull. She’s on the verge of sleep when, at about the one hour mark, someone says something that catches her attention.
”…but it’s difficult to see how we can achieve this without revealing our people in the Department.”
The speaker is an older man with a dark goatee and long, thinning hair, wearing a red-and-black plaid shirt and blue jeans.
“Could we not use these contacts to gather information on what the Department is planning?” asks a woman in her thirties. She’s wearing a green knitted jumper and plenty of jewellery.
Rubik’s Cube Guy clears his throat. “We are,” he says, carefully. “But it’s hard to act on that information without revealing how we obtained it.”
Green Jumper sighs, clearly running thin on patience. “They’ve got soldiers on the streets here and you’re saying we should do nothing?”
“Nobody is expecting anyone to do nothing,” Grateful Dead says, “but we do need to be cautious.” He’s got a sort of patronising tone, like he’s explained this many times before.
Goatee adds: “Acting rashly could get our people killed.”
So: Factio Umbrata has people in the DEC, and the Lucerists have “soldiers on the streets”. Penny’s not sure how literally to take that: she’s not seen any soldiers, as far as she can remember, but presumably magical soldiers don’t look like the normal ones. Still, Yarn will probably want to know about spies in his own organisation. She keeps listening.
The next person to speak is one of the young punks. He’s got green hair in a half-hearted mohawk, trimmed at the sides but the top drooping down his forehead, and a large nose ring. “If they’re putting soldiers on our turf, we need soldiers of our own. ‘An eye for an eye—’”
“‘Leaves the whole world blind’,” Grateful Dead completes. “Except in this case, it leaves the whole world sighted. Aware of us.”
“We don’t want a Salem on our hands,” Goatee adds. “We should act with discretion.”
“Come on,” Nose Ring sneers in a tone somewhere between whiny and irate. “There don’t need to be witnesses.”
“Fucking hell, Ed!” Green Jumper admonishes him. “We’re separatists, not supremacists. Jesus. We don’t just kill people who’re inconvenient!”
Goatee nods. “Even the Light-Bringers don’t do that.”
Nose Ring — “Ed” — scoffs, but lets the point lie. Green Jumper looks away from him in a show of disgust. There’s clearly some history there: the frayed threads between them tell their own story. Bit of an odd couple, but it has a certain logic to it.
Penny pays more attention for the rest of the meeting, making mental notes of anything she imagines Yarn will be interested in. After about half an hour more, the meeting peters out, with Grateful Dead announcing its official adjournment a minute or so after it becomes clear that people are going to leave anyway.
“Same place in a fortnight,” he says, “but in four weeks’ time there’s a birthday party here, so we’ll be in the Red Lion. I hope to see you all there.”
Penny leaves in the middle of the pack, not wanting to be first or last. She doesn’t want to draw attention, after all. She takes a slightly circuitous route home, just in case anyone’s following, though not too circuitous: she wants to be home before her parents get back from their weekend away. About halfway into the journey, while cutting across a small green space sandwiched between two main roads, she notices something that causes her to stop in her tracks.
She really hopes that’s not who she thinks it is.
“How long have you been following me?” she asks the air.
Rakesh Davies-Pradhan drops his glamour with a Cheshire cat smile. “Long enough to know what you’ve been up to. You really need to get better at masking your traces.”
Shit. Is he going to blow her cover? Penny’s breath gets short, the world starting to spin a little around her.
“I’m disappointed,” he says, though it’s hard to know how seriously to take that given his tone. He lets his yo-yo gracefully dip to the floor. “I warned you to think carefully about which side to pick, but you went ahead and joined the Dark Side anyway. What, did they suck you in with talk of ‘freedom’?”
Penny’s never been chastised by a twelve-year-old before. She doesn’t like it much. “This isn’t Star Wars,” she points out, though she’s not sure if this kid’s even old enough for Star Wars.
Rakesh laughs, at first warm but growing cold. “No,” he agrees. “It’s not. It’s real life.” He jerks his hand and the yo-yo jumps up, landing between his thumb and little finger. “If you die in real life, you die in real life. These people are dangerous terrorists who don’t believe in the rule of law. Think about that.”
Penny attempts to stare the boy down. “You followed me from the meeting.”
“I followed you to the meeting,” he corrects her. “Be glad it was me rather than my brother. He’d be even more disappointed than I am.”
“Your… brother?” Penny echoes, guardedly.
Rakesh shrugs, twirling his yo-yo about. “Well, half brother,” he admits. “We share a father. Father’s the one who got him his job at the Department.” He smirks. “I’ll probably end up there myself some day.”
“Your brother’s in the po— in the Department?” she asks. By this point, they’re walking side-by-side down the road to Penny’s home; she’s given up on losing him.
He sighs. “The Department of Enforcement and Compliance is not a police force,” he says. It sounds a little rehearsed. “It is an organisation dedicated to preventing abuses of power.”
Penny’s not sure she understands the distinction he’s trying to make — and going by what Yarn said, there isn’t much of one — so she decides to change the subject.
“So, um,” she says, cautiously, “your father: is he important?” This seems like a question that’s likely to get him to boast, which is somewhat better than when he gloats.
“My father,” Rakesh says proudly, “is Emrys Davies.” From the way he says the name he seems to expect Penny to know who that is, but she doesn’t. Presumably seeing her blank expression, he adds with some exasperation: “you know, the MP for West Dorset?”
Penny blinks, surprised. “We have MPs?”
Rakesh glares. “Your lot don’t have MPs. We have MPs. We work within the system.”
She repeats, slowly: “The Lucerists have MPs, but the Umbratists don’t?” This seems sort of significant, and a part of her really wants to make sure she has it right.
“Of course not,” he scoffs. “Why would a terrorist group need people in parliament?”
Penny grits her teeth, her patience running thin from the constant casual attacks on her character. “I’m not— I’m not a terrorist,” she says, managing to keep herself from snarling. It probably wouldn’t help her point.
Rakesh responds quickly, but calmly: “Then stop acting like one.”
Penny sighs, turning to look at the boy. He’s wearing the same sort of weirdly smart outfit he was last time they met, albeit in different colours. This time the blazer’s a dark sort of bottle green. He’s an odd one, and more than a little irritating with his know-it-all attitude and outspoken brashness; Penny has to keep reminding herself that he’s just a kid. She’s sure she was just as annoying, once upon a time. And he’s right, at least partly: the Umbratists are dangerous. Even if most of them don’t kill, it only takes one to do real damage.
But that’s all the more reason for her to keep going.
When Penny gets home, having somehow managed to lose her unwelcome shadow, she notes with relief that her parents’ car is still absent from the driveway. She lets out a sigh of relief as she closes the door behind her: her parent-free weekend can continue for a little while longer. She goes to the freezer, grabbing a frozen pizza and setting the oven to pre-heat according to the instructions on the box. Her evening plans don’t extend much beyond dinner, so she sits down on the sofa in the living room and turns on the TV.
She’s just in time to watch the evening news: she watches the headlines with disinterest as she jots down her notes on today’s events on a few scrap pieces of paper.
By the time her parents get in, she’s already gone up to bed.