Author: Matthew Lee

Chinese-occupied Philippines, 2034.

The palette in Xinghua’s hand was a burst of pumpkin, butterscotch, and persimmon. The colours crept up her arm to her slim elbow.

A group of four left the cathedral. With practiced technique, she scraped four diagonal lines (\\\\) on the canvas using the painting knife.

“Strict, aren’t we?” said Macarius, floating by her side as she opened a new tube of quinacridone red, fresh from Provisioning. He was watching another armed guard bully another local into putting their camera away. Xinghua grunted assent. If she was right, they had very good reasons to prohibit cameras here.

Macarius was her PAL: an evolution of the mobile phone that, among other things, was a doctor and a lifestyle guru. He openly disapproved of her painting. Naturally, he didn’t know it was a ruse.

She stepped back and looked at her canvas. Hopefully, others saw nothing but a simple painting, commissioned by the increasingly whimsical Paramount Leader, of the Saint Augustine Cathedral. In reality, it was an intelligence report. A \ represented someone leaving; a / someone entering. She balked at the thought of the consequences of what they had uncovered. She felt hot.

She felt sure of it: more people left this building than entered. Aides watching other doors and other buildings corroborated the fact. They faced the real possibility that the Chinese military had developed teleportation or something like it, and somewhere in this building was a portal. This was how they were pushing their troops around with such swiftness. Finish it, photograph it, submit it, flee.

“Two more strokes,” chirped Macarius as two more people left the building.

Xinghua felt a sudden coldness in her chest. The scene swallowed her.

Think. Assess quickly.

Her electronic PAL knew what she was doing. There were two possibilities. Firstly, the comment had been a charming result of its AI. Secondly, her PAL had been compromised and was being used to observe her. The implications of the second were beyond terrible. She scratched her painting arm, suddenly itchy. No. Wait. Macarius hadn’t been turned – he wouldn’t have alerted her.

She was aware of murmurs behind her. In the reflection of the painting knife, she saw a flash of black boots, green trousers, holstered gun, round gold buttons, red shoulder straps, black fur collar. Armed guards talking in whispers. Were they on to her? She was unarmed; there were some forty guards in the square. No escape. Over her loud breathing, she heard boots approaching. Froze.

She heard them walk past. Ten seconds passed before she could breathe again. The guards were berating a group of locals before the cathedral entrance, appealing to the Virgin María.

Xinghua fought the urge to sit down. Time to go. Packing her equipment, she flinched when Macarius emitted a low tone. His H-panel was glowing yellow instead of green. Yellow meant her vital signs were dropping.

Looking down, she saw beneath the autumn hues dappling her right arm a fine network of livid cobwebs.

Nerve agent.

Her head felt like it was full of paint thinner. Where had it come from? She gazed at the tube of paint she had just opened and recalled the Provisioner: grey smock, furtive eyes, white gloves. Xinghua’s face was a porcelain mask.

Macarius floated over her as she lay down on a bench. His blood-red hue made her think of Communion wine. Alarms beeped.

With her last breath, she instructed him to notify her aides. At least her PAL would more help than the Virgin – presiding over the cathedral portal – in the coming war.

She closed her eyes.