Sophia learned early on to spread her studies over different usernames, to use them a few times and then abandon them for weeks at a time, never researching long enough to send up red flags. At the beginning she'd only used her own login, looking up school subjects and then going deeper, doing searches for terms she didn't know.
It was a cyclical endeavor. Every new document she read brought up more questions, more searches, more questions. In this way she transitioned from division, to the history of numbers, to Pythagoras, to Ancient Greece, to democracy, to war, and so on.
War was still one of the strangest concepts she had come across in her years of infodiving. She simply couldn't wrap her head around it. The closest she could come was thinking of it as a sort of wide-spread, indiscriminate assassination between cities. But what was the point of assassinating a Mass? Sophia tried to imagine someone ordering her to be killed, and couldn't. No self-respecting Gun would accept such an assignment. It would ruin his career, after all.
So she found this war concept a bit unlikely and wrote it off as an exaggerated document. Interesting, but to be taken with a grain of salt.
It had been several weeks after her first dive before her parents received a message from the Board of Education, notifying them of her extracurricular activities. It was a casual note, filled with the usual praise and encouragement that was due to childed couples, with just a few short lines detailing her transgressions.
Her parents had taken the subtle suggestion and restricted her data access for a short time, writing the Board back to assure them they would discuss limitations carefully with their child.
Sophia really had meant to obey them. She understood the reasons, and agreed with them wholeheartedly. There was absolutely no need for her to have any knowledge of subjects outside of her career path. When she was done with her schooling in fifteen years, she would be placed in her reserved position as a systems analyst. She did not need to know any history beyond the Peace of the Forefathers, any form of politics other than the surface mechanisms of the Consulate. It was a waste of time to burden her head with such trivial, useless information.
It was a burden, really. The knowledge distracted her in classes, made it hard to concentrate on the procedures and processes that would be crucial in her adult life. Better to leave well enough alone, to apply herself fully so there would be no need for a reprimand.
And so a month had passed with no further research. She learned what the school taught her, played with her friends, and thought very little about other cultures or antique ideas. Still, there was always a quiet, niggling stir in the back of her head.
When the Consulate released the name of a man who'd broken the Peace, she was desperately curious about what came before the Peace, how radicals were dealt with in the eras before Society's Will became possible. After all, that was pretty advanced technology. People in the past wouldn't have had access, so what did they do when individuals threatened stability?
She did not seek out the answers, though she knew the database held them. Her parents were still watching her work logs closely. A historian might know, but there was no guarantee she'd get a straight answer. Historians were famously vague, able to talk for hours without ever actually saying anything. She put the questions out of her mind.
But in the end, it was a historian who pulled her back into her studies. A politician had been assassinated--very cleanly, the Gun was given public commendations and a wage increase--and a noted historian who'd been on the scene was asked to make a comment. She was an intelligent, respectable woman occasionally asked to advise the Consulate on matters of importance, noted among the Masses only for her status as a Herodotus and an odd phrase she was fond of saying.
The historian did not say anything out of the ordinary. Praise for the Gun, a short discussion on why the assassination had been necessary, the hope that other politicians would take note and bow to the Consulate's will more easily in the future.
Sophia was listening to the broadcast with only half an ear, busily studying sheets of software uses for an upcoming exam. "Thank god we have the Consulate," the historian was intoning, "to protect us from the dangers of such a headstrong man."
She could feel that niggling sensation rising up again, pulling her attention away from the papers in front of her. Thank god? What a strange expression. People normally said 'thank the Consulate' or 'by Society's Will' or other variations of the same, when they were expressing gratitude.
With one last guilty glance at her schoolwork, she set it to the side. Infodiving for this couldn't possibly do any harm. The database loaded swiftly onto the screen with just a few keyed commands, and then she was well and truly obsessed.
Sophia was cautious now, though. Using the computer skills and tricks the school had taught her to prepare her for her career, she managed to acquire her mother's login codes and used her account to continue the research without fear of discovery. Her father's account came next, then a friend's, a teacher's, a plethora of strangers'.
With each infodive she found one thousand subjects she'd never even considered in all different genres, from religion to fine cuisine to politics to entertainment. There was never enough time to learn it all, and while there was always the fear that she would be caught, there was also an undeniable hunger--and with that hunger came the realization that there was something to hunger for.
The actions of the Consulate and the politicians slowly became much more involved to her eyes, much sterner and less irreproachable. The radicals transformed from crazed dangers to rational victims. Society's Will, after a little research into recent history, suddenly took on very ignoble properties.
She wasn't stupid enough to say such things to anyone, not even her parents or her closest friends. Only historians could know what she had learned, and they were under the thumb of the Consulate.
It was only after three years that she made her mistake--her grades slipped low enough for the Board of Education to take interest again. With one warning on her record already, they sent a computer engineer immediately to inspect her logs. She forced herself to wait quietly in the receiving room while the man rooted through the systems in her bedroom. Sophia knew he would find nothing.
Which was precisely the problem. He would find nothing. No schoolwork, no games, no correspondence with friends. The logs would be absolutely untouched for the last year, and that alone would generate enough suspicion to spur the engineer deeper through the computer's memory. He would use the back doors and hidden programs that only Consulate-employed workers knew. A few minutes, maybe a half hour to find the login information she'd been using, expose the dozens of passwords she'd discovered, and then it would be a simple matter to track down what she had been doing with her life for the last three years.
And then she would undergo Society's Will, lose everything she had learned. They might even erase everything she had learned in school, make her start from the very beginning, so that she would know she had done something wrong and was being punished-- even if she had no recollection of it.
Or maybe they would even execute her, to save her parents from shame and warn off anyone else from repeating her mistakes. Even now they had sequestered themselves in the kitchen, distancing themselves from her. Given the choice between punishment and execution, they would probably choose the latter.
Not that Sophia could blame them. Public shame was such a heavy thing to be stricken with. Neighbors turned away, bosses searched for errors, relatives closed their doors. She wasn't sure which option she herself would choose.
Perhaps she had been even cleverer than she had originally believed, or perhaps the engineer was inexperienced. Either way, it took him until evening fell to finish his inspections. He left without looking at her, without saying a word to her parents. She watched him get into his transport from the window, saw him speak briefly to the air, pause, and then speak for several minutes.
All personal transports, Sophia had once read in her years of infodiving, had been fitted with perpetually-active communications devices since the Collaboration-Prevention Act passed two hundred years prior. The Consulate-employed were no exception, but were given special codes when they wanted their words to be heard immediately. Now, only the Consulate-employed even knew the devices existed.
The engineer finished his report and drove away. She stepped away from the window, turning to face the silent house. Her parents were still conspicuously absent. This had not gone the way she expected, not at all. She should have been taken on the spot. Had he been unable to figure it out? Had she really covered her tracks that well?
Impossible. No information could hide from a professional with the knowledge of the Consulate. There had to be some reason for this hesitation, for the lack of action against her.
The hours ticked away. No Peacekeepers came calling, no sirens cut through the night.
Two days after the inspection, the teacher opened class with the news that Sophia had been expelled, so everyone should say their goodbyes now. Unsurprisingly, no one even looked up to watch her. The room was motionless as she collected her bags and left.
She was not shocked, only nervous. It seemed unlikely that she would undergo Society's Will now. She would not be returning to school, so that form of punishment would be moot. Execution, then. The Consulate had only choose the best time to air her death. Maybe a politician or two would quarrel about the decision, and be promptly assassinated. A representative of the Consulate would comment about keeping the Peace, express regret that the effects of radicals extended even into the school system.
Transport was waiting outside the school for her. She did not resist as she was ushered into a seat across from a vaguely familiar woman. The transport hummed to life, and Sophia felt them pulling away from the curb. The interior was dim, the windows dark.
The woman wasted no time. She was leaning forward, intently examining her face as though she were searching for something. Whatever she found seemed to satisfy her. "Sophia, dear," she murmured, "--thank God we managed to convince them."
The strange phrase stirred her memory. Oh, she was the Herodotus historian. Sophia was touched with a strange sense of camaraderie, meeting like this with someone who also knew the draw of information. Still, what in the world did a historian want with her?
"It took some pushing, but I have enough favor with a few of the Consulate to do this, at least," she was saying. "But now to business, dear. You have a decision to make. It will seem very easy at first, but think hard before you answer. You have much to lose here, no matter what you choose."
The historian paused for a breath, waiting for a response. Sophia nodded and kept her silence, which seemed to satisfy the woman. "Your fate was execution, as I'm sure you well know. That can still be your fate, should you wish it, but I'm here to offer an alternative that you may find more palatable.
"I will not disguise it, we historians are a pathetic bunch. All of us were caught snooping through the database, put on a leash, and controlled by the Consulate. We are allowed a certain amount of freedom to information. We may research almost anything we like, submit new entries as needed, discuss any topic among ourselves."
She paused, ran a hand through her hair. "But we are bound. Everything we do is watched closely. We must back the Consulate, no matter how much we disagree with a ruling. We never raise a word against them. Every wrong, every injustice is seen and documented and categorized, but we can not stop them. If one of us makes the slightest step out of bounds, and the Consulate quickly executes him.
"New historians always think they won't have any problems with these restrictions; but it grates on you, the helpless frustration. Eventually, the joy of simply learning is no longer enough. Between the suicides and the executions, there are never a great many historians. That's the reason I'm the Herodotus, despite the fact that I'm not terribly old. I'm still the most experienced historian right now.
"Those are your options," the woman finished. "Execution or a chained life of supporting an oppressive government. You must make your decision now, or the Consulate will step in."
Sophia leaned back, shoulders tense. The transport hummed quietly. She thought of the martyrs she had researched. She thought of would-be martyrs, who died uselessly. She thought of death, she thought of limited life.
Sophia made her decision.