Auspicium Melioris Aevi

Singapore stank. The last Asian post of the British empire stank. It was a country at war, a country under occupation, and it stank. It stank from the musk of the Chinese men milling on the road, it stank from the sewage cooking in the open drains, and it stank from the diesel burning in puttering lorry engines. Every breath the fiftieth new Harry Lee drew reeked of festering, tropical stink.

Separated from the others, the Chinese men were being taken somewhere. The loud voices and glinting bayonets of the Japanese soldiers forced them onto lorries. A soldier gestured to Harry. You. Get on. Under his military cap his forehead shone, and the khaki armpits of his uniform were dark with sweat.

The fiftieth new Harry Lee already knew how this would end. Suspicious of these circumstances, he would ask to go home and gather his clothes. The soldiers, swayed by his erudition and respectfulness, would let him go. Harry Lee would walk away. The other men would not. They would be rounded up, brought to the beach, and shot. All of them, in all their faceless multitudes. The script of the original Harry Lee Kuan Yew’s brush with genocide was written in 1942, immortalized in the mythology of the nation that he raised, and burned into the minds of all his copies at the Academy.

The soldier that had picked Harry out waited for his response. Waited for the persuasive excuses that would save his life.

Harry knew what was expected of him. Go up to the soldier, let the scene play out, get it over and done with. Get away from this reeking, sweat-soaked hellhole and back into a century with climate control, where Harry’s batch of copies were close to graduation; just steps away from being sent out, tested and certified, to lend their zeitgeist-defining expertise to nations of the world.

But the fiftieth new Harry Lee was a man on a different mission. He had spent the three years since his matriculation from the Academy incubators doing the expected thing, and all that had netted him were shamefully mid-table grades. The fiftieth new Harry Lee was never going to excel doing the expected thing. He had to try something different.

Consider: This copy of Harry Lee had something the original did not—foresight. He knew what awaited the other men at the end of their journey. He knew about the dirty sand soaked in blood, he knew about the shallow unmarked graves, he knew about the generation lost to war, cut out of the fabric of history.

If the original Harry Lee Kuan Yew had known all this, he would definitely have done something. The fiftieth new Harry Lee understood this with a certainty that filled his gut and filled his blood. And his blood was the same blood that had run in the veins of the original. He knew he was right.

He turned towards the doomed men on the lorries. “They’re going to kill you! It’s a trap.”

The men stared in confusion. Shouting facts at them was pointless. What they needed were instructions. A clear path of action.

“Run,” Harry Lee said. “Run.”

Something grabbed Harry by the shoulder. He saw the soldier’s face and the fish-glint of a blade. Then there was searing pain. He was on the ground, lying in mud-caked filth, and when he looked down he saw rivers running red, the gleaming pink of intestines, his pants drenched and stained. His mouth filled with blood and bile, sour and coppery, and he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t get up. He couldn’t move his arms and legs. The sun was burning his eyes out—

Click.

Everything went black. The test was over. Sound and sensation vanished, wartime Singapore and bayonet wounds were cast aside. Harry was left bodiless. Disquiet filled the spaces where the world had been. That had not gone as planned.

Then the simulator lid cracked open, pouring fluorescence onto him. Harry sat up, pulling neural patches away, shaking his hands and legs to get rid of the post-test numbness. In the room around him the rest of his batch were regaining their feet. Fifteen other faces, carbon copies, stretched and scrunched in the harsh top-down light. They all wore the same talcum-white uniform, long-sleeved shirt and trousers. A stranger would have been hard-pressed to tell them apart.

The Harry Lee beside him, whose ID number was 47, asked, “Did you find that too easy? What did you tell the guard?”

Harry murmured vague syllables. “Nothing much, really.”

The Harry Lees were so numerous they almost ran out of nicknames for themselves. Kuan Yew and Senior Minister and Lao Lee and Ah Gong. The forty-seventh new Harry Lee went by MM Lee, MM short for Minister Mentor. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I thought I screwed up. I hesitated too long before asking. But he let me go anyway.”

The fiftieth new Harry Lee bent over to touch his toes, and said nothing.

“I suppose they let you go, no matter what. The test was about judging the delivery of what you said, anyway.” The original Harry Lee had been a great orator, a lawyer, persuasive. They were all expected to match up.

MM Lee continued: “It’s a strange test for Oratory. I expected a Parliamentary speech, or an election campaign. But maybe that would have been too easy.”

The screen in front of the classroom lit up. Their numbers filled up on it, ranked from best to worst. The first twelve numbers were in white and the last four in red. Small titters rippled through the room. Right at the very bottom, next to the number fifty, was a big nothingness picked out in red. A zero. Harry had scored a zero. He sat back down in the simulator, feeling dizzy, and sort of light and hollow, as though he’d really left his innards on the ground in twentieth-century Singapore.

MM Lee looked at him, puzzled. “How did you do that? What did you say?”

“Nothing.” Which was the truth. “I didn’t talk to the soldier. I tried to warn the other men.”

The other’s face shifted further into puzzlement. “Why would you do that?”

Another copy came swaggering up to him: Number fifty-six, who had announced, when they were naming themselves, “I like the name Harry just fine,” and brooked no argument. This wolfish aggression turned out to be his defining characteristic; it was a rare occasion when his grades did not top their cohort. He looked at the fiftieth new Harry Lee, his features shaped by a smirk. “You’ve really outdone yourself this time, Kid. A zero?”

Kid was his nickname. He’d liked the name Harry and hadn’t wanted any other, but copy number fifty-six, having laid claim to the appellation, said “We can’t both be called that.” So he’d become Kid Harry to the other copies in his batch. In his head he always referred to the other Harry as Number Fifty-Six.

Now Number Fifty-Six stood in front of him, completely self-satisfied, as though the judgement of some piece of machinery buried in the center of the Academy made him worthier than Harry.

“That’s an achievement, at least. First to the bottom,” said Number Fifty-Six.

Harry stood up and dusted off his coveralls, careful not to let his churning insides affect his surface gloss. “At least I’ll be remembered for something.” He walked out of the classroom. No one followed.

“What did you think that would achieve?”

Before Harry could answer, Volodya shifted his weight and then Harry was flat on his back, pinned by the young Russian with the crooked-mouthed smile. “You warned the other men, so? The soldiers still have guns and you have nothing. You only die on the road instead.”

Above them, the glass dome of the Academy’s sports hall was pierced by the early evening light, golden and slanting. Harry frowned. “What would you have done?”

“Something different. Get on the truck, tell the other men, make a plan. When we get to the beach we attack the soldiers. Get their guns, and the game is different.”

“That wasn’t the point of the test. It wouldn’t have gone that way.”

Volodya offered Harry a hand up. “No, that’s not what they’re raising you for.”

The hall resonated with the sounds of young people in exertion. Copies sparred, played ball, or swam laps in a gently-warmed pool. These were faces familiar to anyone who had lived through the early twenty-first century: Leaders and thinkers, a catalogue of genetic excellence carefully curated and propagated by the Administrator himself. Pod-grown like heirloom tomatoes, they were made-to-order for clients, spending years in algorithmically-tailored training programs. Each one came with the Administrator’s mark of quality assurance.

If there was proof of the consistency of their training and genetic integrity, it lay in the patterns which emerged in their interactions. The Suu Kyis and the Hillaries seemed to get along well, for example, but the Modis and Merkels never did. And sometimes there were surprises, like the frequent friendships between the Gateses and the Ahmadis. Harry had an interest in judo, and Volodya was rather good at it. They met three times a week to practice.

The two of them headed to the shower stalls in placid agreeability. The sports hall had two levels, a ground floor where all the facilities were, and an upper floor like a spectator’s gallery. There, in their pure white uniforms, members of Staff patrolled, wordlessly monitoring the peace. Staff were said to be copies of the Administrator himself, and their smooth faces, identical and expressionless, were as much a part of the Academy’s architecture as the white dome where the Administrator lived.

They could see that dome as they walked, painted yellow by the setting sun. The Academy was a collection of glass-roofed buildings, and in their center the Administrator’s dome sat on an artificial hill, watching over them all.

“The zero won’t stop you from graduating, will it?”

“It might. I’m number thirteen now.” The zero had pulled Harry’s mid-list grade average to fourth from last overall.

“There were sixteen in your batch, is that correct?”

“The total number doesn’t matter. What does is that there are only 12 places for us to go to.”

It was the Academy’s style to overproduce: more copies than actual orders. It meant graduates earned their places through the auspices of meritocracy. It was one of the founding principles of the Academy.

“Cutting the herd is good quality control,” Volodya said. “It means that clients only get the tough ones.”

Volodya was one of three Vladimirs in his batch. They had a specialised skill set not often in demand: Not too many constituencies large and decrepit enough to need the cold steel of a former Soviet spy for help. The Harry Lees, on the other hand, boasted specialisations well-suited to the modern world: social engineering, resource management, and capital generation.

The original Harry Lee had been a legend, a twentieth-century iconograph. He was, by all accounts, a man who single-handedly pulled a minuscule island nation with no natural resources out of Third-World muck into burnished First-World prosperity. And he did it in just decades, within a human lifetime. According to the official history of the Academy, his genetic material had been the first to be acquired by the Administrator, and formed the basis on which the Academy was founded.

In the unofficial history of the Academy, passed on in whispers from overlapping batch-copy to batch-copy, the Administrator was himself a descendant of the great man. It was impossible to confirm this rumor: The Administrator never left his dome to come among them, and there were no pictures of him save for his rumored Staff clones. Every copy of Harry Lee had compared the plasticky features of Staff to their own and debated the similarities. Evidence, inconclusive.

“Which lucky copy got spot number 12?” Volodya asked, an eye fixed on a placid instance of Staff on the upper level.

“Number forty-seven.” MM Lee had languished at the top of the drop zone for a long time; Harry’s precipitous plunge had shuffled him into graduation range.

They got to the lockers. In the cacophony of the metal doors banging open, Volodya said, “I’ll tell you something. If you’re worried about graduating, there’s one easy way to guarantee it. Kill your batch mates.”

Harry slung a towel over his shoulder. “Your humor is getting rusty, your jokes are falling flat.”

The calm in Volodya’s bland face only heightened the intensity of his arctic eyes, like two pools of battery acid in a sea of milk. “You only have to kill four. Pick the correct ones. Do it at night, it’ll be easier.”

“And I suppose you’re offering to help?”

Volodya laughed, teeth showing. He touched Harry on the shoulder before he headed inwards to the shower stalls. “You have to earn your destiny, brother.”

Civil Arbitration, the final test, was a courthouse simulacrum: air-conditioned rows of benches, smell of floor polish, learned people shuffling through papers, waiting for their turn to talk. Harry was chairing a Committee of Inquiry investigating the causes of an ethnic riot.

“Ethnic riot”: an unusual phraseology that Singapore’s authorities had chosen to apply to an incident where a hundred or so migrant workers—two busloads, three busloads—had destroyed vehicles, set fires and clashed with police. These were minimally-paid construction workers largely from India or Bangladesh, airflown to Singapore on transient work passes, stacked ten-a-room in makeshift dorms at night.

The igniting spark to the sorry affair had been a death: one of their own, stumbling drunk onto a rain-slick road, his head crushed by the wheels of a bus helmed by a Singaporean Chinese man. That much was clear. The job for the Committee of Inquiry—Harry’s job— was to determine what made up the kindling for the fire.

Seated on a dais that loomed over the courtroom’s regimented innards, Harry looked over the papers spread before him with a growing annoyance. The Little India riot had been an actual event. The Committee of Inquiry had been an actual charade put up after that event. And they had produced an actual set of findings somewhere in the tangled guts of history. Harry knew what those findings had blamed: it was alcohol. They blamed that cheap vice, that bottled sin, for both causing the bus accident and fueling the rage of the attacking mob.

With that short conclusion, the solution was obvious. No alcohol, no problems. In areas frequented by construction workers, the committee had proposed the following measures: no more drinking in public. No more alcohol sales at night. More police and more cameras watching. Order would be forced upon them.

Harry knew that was the answer expected of him. After all, the anointeds of the Singapore Government had chosen that path, and it had worked. No more riots. It was a solution venerated by history. The easiness of the test, the obviousness of its answer, manifested as an irritated prickle in Harry’s skin. It was the laziest thing he’d ever seen. He was frankly offended by it.

He drummed his fingertips on the table, barely listening to the sociologist testifying with a locust swarm of figures and numbers. Harry had long despised the finding of the original Committee of Inquiry. Now was his chance to rectify that.

“Stop.”

The sociologist looked up, momentarily confused, and Harry had to marvel at the verisimiltude of the AI’s response. “Honored sir?”

“It’s interesting, isn’t it?” Harry leaned forward, fingers steepled. “You keep saying that the workers were out-of-control when they rioted. All drunk, not unhappy.”

“Yes, the surveys show that—”

“They smashed the bus windows. Threw projectiles.”

“Yes.”

“They overturned police cars. They set rescue vehicles on fire.”

“Ye—”

“Yet they left shopfronts untouched. There was no looting. They didn’t destroy the street, the lampposts, anything else that wasn’t a symbol to them.”

“…Sir?”

“I posit to you that this was no simple drunken mob. I say that these men were very much in control.”

Silence fell. Harry sat back, satisfied. He liked his words. He thought they sounded like his predecessor’s.

The sociologist blinked. “Honored sir, the survey of the foreign worker dormitories showed they were completely satisfied with their working conditions. There was no rea—”

“Who conducted these surveys?”

The sociologist looked briefly to the other members of the committee, its fellow AI. But no support was forthcoming. Baffled, it said: “The Ministry of Manpower.”

“The same Ministry of Manpower that has the power to revoke their work permits at any time?”

“Yes, but—”

“Would you not consider, then, that these surveys were conducted under coercive conditions?”

The sociologist’s voice was quiet. “Honored sir, we do these to the best of our ability.”

“Then I must call your ability into question.” He raised his voice, sending it over the empty heads of all in the room. “This is my recommendation: that the Committee be recused until the proper groundwork has been done. Come back when you’ve found some honest answers.”

The room filled with the susurration of paper shuffled, and shock hissed between library-quiet lips. In between its choreographed displays of surprise, Harry knew for certain that the AI running the simulation would recognize the superiority of his actions. The thing with the bayonets had been a mistake, him overstepping his bounds. But this time he was right. He felt tectonically confident in his choices.

When the simulation ended the fiftieth new Harry Lee was told he failed the exam.

Harry stood on the upper floor of the canteen building, the Administrator’s dome in the bullseye of his vision. Other copies walking beneath would see only the neutral, camera-ready features of a man in control. They would be unaware of the riot of emotions underneath, the volcanic sea that seethed.

The AI was wrong. The metrics by which they were measured were wrong. That he was certain of with a heliocentric intensity.

The other thing Harry was sure of, but loath to admit, was that he too was wrong. Had been wrong. He thought that the AI, with all its cleverness, with all its verisimilitude, would adapt to his actions and give him the marks he deserved. But it was only looking at the narrow band of outcomes it had been conditioned to think was right.

He had made a gamble, and lost.

Even the other copies had seemed baffled. Harry wasn’t a bad student. Unremarkable, perhaps, but not bad. That he would graduate had never been in question, not until the last two tests. MM Lee, the benefactor to this development, the one who would be graduating in Harry’s place, had simply left the room in a flurry of shame after the marks were revealed.

Number Fifty-Six hadn’t even laughed. He’d just said, “Really, Kid? You couldn’t play along for just one exam? It’s a simulation.” He had looked at Harry with an expression that was closer to confusion than contempt.

On the upper floor, Harry sighed.

Something had gone wrong on the canteen floor. A large group of assorted copies pooled around a table, humming with the bright energy of people around a disaster that wouldn’t personally affect them. Harry overtook members of Staff as they slowly percolated downwards.

The focal point of the group was an inert comma on the floor, a comma Harry instantly recognized as one of the Vladimirs. Copies were meant to be identical, but Harry knew right off that this was Volodya, his Volodya. His eyes were shut and his thin lips a bruise-like shade of grey.

Number Fifty-Six was there, on one knee, fingers on the discolored length of Volodya’s neck. He glanced at Harry and shook his head.

Harry remembered the bloodthirst encapsulated in the advice his friend had given him. “It’s one of the other Vladimirs,” he said.

“Probably.” Number Fifty-Six stood, slowly. “Looks like he was poisoned. He was eating, and then he stood up to leave and collapsed.” He blew air through his lips, and for a moment Harry saw him as utterly human, lost and conflicted as he was.

Volodya had been a friend. Harry thought about the man’s sand-dry sense of humor, the crookedness of his smile, the ruthlessness and fearlessness in his movements. Had they both graduated, they might have kept in contact in their new postings. Harry would have liked to.

Cutting the herd was good quality control; it meant clients only got the best. Harry stared at Volodya’s still form at his feet. They let their lives be shaped this way. They let these things happen to them. The seething in Harry boiled over.

“You should have been more careful,” he chided his friend. Those were good parting words, he felt.

In another world, in another timeline, Harry might have found himself at the foot of MM Lee’s dormitory block at dusk, knifeweight comfortable in his palm, waiting for the light in that particular window to go off before making his move. It would have been as Volodya said. A simple solution, fussless, order rightly restored.

But Harry was not that kind of person. That would not be his story.

Number Fifty-Six allowed the barest flicker of surprise to show when he opened his dormitory room door to find Harry determinedly framed in it. “Not out here,” Harry said, as Number Fifty-Six started to mouth a question.

Number Fifty-Six let him in. His room, like all of theirs, was small and picked out in shades of white. It was also, predictably, neat. Not merely in a dustless and tidy way, but with an aura of near-fanaticism, as though everything in the room had been put in place at a molecular level.

“I’m going to see the Administrator,” Harry said.

Number Fifty-Six’s eyes widened. No copy had ever breached the sacred boundaries of the Administrator’s dome.

Harry continued: “I’m going to appeal for graduation.”

“Of course you are.”

“You’re coming to support my position.”

The other copy folded his arms. “An interesting fantasy. Why do you think it’s going to happen?”

“Because you care.”

Number Fifty-Six raised both eyebrows, and Harry said: “You care about the integrity of the program. You care about the grades and the ranking system because you care about quality. You care that a copy that you deem substandard is going to graduate and stain the Academy’s brand name with his inferiority. And not just the Academy, but the legacy represented by the name of Lee Kuan Yew.”

The tics in Number Fifty-Six’s expression told Harry what he needed to know. “You believe I’m a much better prospect for graduation than he is.”

“So tell the Administrator yourself. Why do you need me?”

“It’s proof. I can do the work. I can get others on my side. Regardless of personal distaste.”

“In other words, I’m just a useful tool.”

“The most effective one, certainly.”

Number Fifty-Six scowled, but he offered no new objection. Because he had none. “Now,” Harry said, keeping his tone neutral, keeping out all the satisfaction he felt over his coup de grace, “you must weigh which matters more to you: your personal disdain for me, or the reputation of your name and program.”

Number Fifty-Six’s lips folded in at the corners. Silence fell, not as long as it actually seemed.

Finally he said, “I’ll hand it to you, Kid. You’ve played your hand extremely well. That, at least, is something I can admire.”

The Academy was wreathed in darkness and night-damp as they made their way up to the Administrator’s dome. It sat pale and imposing above them, like a giant’s skull, lit from beneath by yellow floodlights. The hill it sat on was perfectly trimmed with tiny grass.

Above the gunmetal-grey entrance, in letters two feet high, was carved the Academy’s motto: AUSPICIUM MELIORIS AEVI. Hope of a better age. A member of Staff stood at attention on either side of the doors.

“We’re here to see the Administrator,” Harry said.

The Staff on the left simply turned and pressed a button set into the wall. The doors rolled open with a sound like an avalanche. Then the interior of the dome lay waiting, cool and dim. Harry crossed the threshold first, and when Number Fifty-Six had also stepped in, the doors thundered shut behind them.

No instructions were given. The only way to go was to the left, down a high corridor that faded into darkness above their heads. They went.

The corridor went around the periphery of the dome. There was another stacked concentrically inside, and then yet another. They were all the same: curved white walls bisected by glass displays occupied by pictures and videos of Lee Kwan Yew. In between were stylised monographs of the man’s best quotes.

“The human being is an unequal creature. That is a fact. He is not equal, never will be.”

“Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”

“We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

“At the end of the day, we are so many digits in the machine. The point is—are these digits stronger than the competitor’s digits?”

Harry and Number Fifty-Six walked along the floor made of cool marble, softly lit by concealed lights. The myriad faces of Lee Kuan Yew scrutinised them from the walls, while his words surrounded them, echoing vaguely through the dome. A couple of members of Staff passed by without looking at them.

The door to the innermost chamber, a white shell inlaid with a silver frame, slid aside as they approached, revealing dark-panelled insides. A tall, circular room, its outer walls covered with monitor banks and screens on one side, and old-fashioned shelves of books on the other. A set of steps, acrylic and steel, curled up towards a glass floor stretched across the top of the room. The Administrator’s office.

“Come up,” said a voice, drifting downwards.

The two copies went up the steps in tandem. Their footfalls were loud in the machine hum of the room. Monitor screens looped recordings of copies in their training simulations. Harry saw himself on the ground in wartime Singapore. He watched himself dismiss the Committee of Inquiry. From this distance it seemed surreal.

As they reached the top step the Administrator turned around. “So! You’ve come!”

Harry stared. The Administrator’s face, revealed in the clear light of the room, was identical to his own, except with the patina of age laid over it. Deeper eyebags, looser jowls, greater laugh lines. Harry’s pulse thudded as he tried to look for telltale signs of plastic surgery. He didn’t know what they were.

“You expected us?” Number Fifty-Six asked.

“Expected? No, no, no. But I had hoped you would come. It’s been so many years.” He shook his head, smiling. “So many years.”

Harry had imagined some grandfatherly patriarch, slow and wise, plucked from the videos of Lee Kuan Yew in his later years. But this man was saturated with energy, like a light fixture, strange and nearly painful to look at.

“I’ve come to appeal for graduation,” he said.

“Of course, of course. Those last two tests, what a surprise, huh?”

“I believe I had the superior answers,” Harry said. “The system’s grading was wrong.”

The Administrator laughed. He began to pace the circular office, his steps loud and ringing. “Naturally. The simulations are run by computers, by machines—if we could make machines that smart, what would we need humans for? Might as well leave it all to them.” He turned back to face the duo. “Right?”

Harry felt a surge of hope. “So you agree with what I did?”

The Administrator leaned forward and snatched something off a shelf, a golden trophy of some kind. “You know, the Committee of Inquiry, back when the old man was alive, I’ve heard he didn’t agree with what they said as well. So I’ve heard. So it’s rumored. You’re the first copy to openly disagree with them. Who’s to say what’s right or wrong?”

Number Fifty-Six interrupted at this point, and the offense was clear in his voice: “Are you saying the tests were useless?”

The Administrator laughed as he slapped the trophy on a glass table. “The tests were good for consistency. It was what I needed. But you, my man.” He wheeled around and stepped towards them, almost uncomfortably close. “Copy number fifty-six. What are you doing here?”

Number Fifty-Six’s spine was so straight it might snap. “I came to support his bid for graduation.”

“Of course you are.” The Administrator turned to look at Harry. “Brilliant.

Number Fifty-Six looked like he was regretting his largesse. Sensing victory, Harry asked: “So you agree that I should be graduating, then?”

The Administrator laughed again. As the two copies stood, awkward, he fiddled with the trophy, spinning it around, admiring its shape. Then his gaze snapped to Harry’s face. “Of course not. Copy number forty-seven got the grades, did he not? Fair’s fair. He’s going to graduate.”

“But he’s substandard!” Number Fifty-Six blurted out. A chill was growing in Harry, spreading along his back in a rush. There was something in the Administrator’s manner, something deep and fundamental, which he could not understand.

“Do you think it matters?” The Administrator crossed the room again, coming close to them, as if to better push home the point of his oratory. “Once he goes out into the world, do you think anyone will care about what suggestions he makes? These are minutiae, footnotes in history. My clients, they want the branding of the Academy. They care about nothing else.” He circled some unknown prey. “They only want suggestions they think are Lee Kuan Yew-endorsed. The bare assurance of greatness will do. No,” he said, speaking to the air, “let him go. He’s more useful to me that way.”

The Administrator stopped right in front of Harry. “You. You deserve so much more than that. To you I offer something greater.”

Harry saw Number Fifty-Six look at him with open envy. He wasn’t sure he wanted it. Something was deeply wrong.

The Administrator continued: “Do you know how long I’ve waited for this? I used to make you one at a time, you know, giving you all my attention, hoping this would happen. I had almost given up. I thought, none of you will ever take the step, to come up here and challenge me. But here you are.”

A shudder ran through Harry, the sense of an earthquake, of the ground shifting swiftly and inexorably under him. This fierce joy, this reveling in a broken system—he hadn’t expected that. “What’s going to happen to me?”

The Administrator’s face glowed, like a plume of lava. “Anything, everything you want!” He clapped his hands on Harry’s shoulders. “Because to you, my spiritual successor, I give you the greatest gift of all. I give you freedom.

Freedom. The word hung between them, colossal and heavy. Harry turned it over and over in his head. Freedom. Freedom. What did it mean?

The Administrator spun away, arms majestic, orating to invisible masses. “Every path is laid open to you! Why graduate when you can do anything you want? You could shape the world! You could disappear into a mundane life! You even could take my place if you wanted! I have been waiting so long for a worthy candidate. Copy number fifty! The possibilities I give you are endless.”

He turned to Harry, his smile a trap, his gaze sharp and probing. It felt like one last test, the weight of all the Administrator’s expectations hinging upon Harry’s answer. “So. Number fifty. My one success. What will you choose to do?”

Harry stared. He had asked for one thing. He had asked for the thing his whole existence had centered around. Now the whole world lay on a carving dish in front of him and he, handed the knife, did not know what to do.

He scrambled for the comfort of his training, but none was forthcoming. The situation lay blank and inscrutable before him. The Administrator was watching. Number Fifty-Six stood beside him, utterly paralyzed, afraid. Harry’s stomach fell away, headed somewhere with no bottom.

“I don’t know,” he said. His tongue and lips were moving, but no good answer could ever come out of them. He wanted the ground to open up and swallow him, taking with it the emptiness in him and filling it up with rock. “I don’t know.”

(Editors’ Note: “Auspicium Melioris Aevi” is read by Amal El-Mohtar and JY Yang is interviewed by Julia Rios in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 15B.)

JY Yang

JY Yang is a queer, non-binary Singaporean author and editor of SF/F. They are the author of the upcoming Tensorate series of novellas from Tor.Com Publishing (The Red Threads of Fortune, The Black Tides of Heaven), and they have over two dozen works of short fiction published in places such as Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Lackington’s. http://jyyang.com

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