Dominy stood at the edge of the crowd in Sector Four, bouncing on the quadrangle’s cushioned surface, desperate to join the action. White-robed students were murmuring that there'd be time for one more battle.
Stepping back from the throng, he smiled and turned toward the inward-facing buildings surrounding the expansive quadrangle. They seemed to rise forever into the cobalt sky. He licked sweat off the fuzz above his upper lip, tilted his head backward, and spun slowly.
Unbelievable. Aspiria selected only a few outsiders per year, and he had made the cut.
"Hey, follow me. The match is starting," said a voice.
Dominy stopped spinning. Nalton. Dominy had arrived the day before at the academy's Interstellar Transport Center, and Nalton, a frail student with a twisted spine and sun-blistered skin, showed up as his escort.
"Race you to the arena?" Nalton asked with a smile. The boy couldn’t run—he more or less hobbled everywhere.
"Absolutely." Dominy raised his fist in salute to his new friend.
Side by side, the two boys followed other students and crowded around the base of a ten-meter-square platform under a violet awning, the venue for the upcoming match.
"That's him!" someone shouted. The spectators smashed forward. Their fevered grins bordered on madness.
The battles were Debates.
As a young man strutted over, the crowd parted, shouting, "That's him. That's Vernan! He's the one!"
Vernan's probably a star student. At Aspiria, high achievers were commonplace—ever since researchers identified intensive competition as the key to progress some ten generations before. The idea was to throw students into confined areas to compete. The mind-warping result was that Aspiria, located on planet P1, had become the intellectual capital of the galaxy: scientific breakthroughs, medical research, philosophical tracts, peace treaties—they supplied it all. Dominy whispered that legendary saying: "As the students of Aspiria go, so goes the future of the galaxy."
He inhaled a whiff of ammonia. Nasty. Most likely, it had been used to swab away the sweat after the last match. Maybe he’d use the smell as a trigger to hyperfocus on this match. After all, over the coming months, he'd take on the likes of Vernan. His future depended on it as Aspiria was a pure meritocracy.
Sucking in another deep breath, he scanned the venue. He winced—the smell was nasty for sure but effective. In his mind, he imprinted an image of the translucent stage, including the transmitters that sent the Debate data to an artificially intelligent computer for real-time scoring.
Waves of cheers greeted Vernan as he and his handler stepped onto a silver-rimmed platform. The stocky young man’s black hair was plastered back, revealing a nebula of forehead freckles—probably a result of the hammering rays of the Aspirian sun.
"Two minutes," Nalton said. His bent shoulders twitched. "Here comes Shalene."
As Vernan shook his arms and waggled his head, a young woman appeared at the far side of the platform, her face a frozen mask. Her sharp cheekbones showed determination, her colorless eyes icy and hard, empty. The blank expression was hauntingly familiar. She reminded Dominy of Hallie, his older sister. He pulled his processing notebook from his robe’s pocket and typed Shalene's name. Test scores and competition data scrolled up, and then, there it was, Shalene's Aspiration: scientist, the same as Hallie's—until the war.
Hallie. Dominy’s chest tightened, and breathing the hot air became a struggle. The guilt of leaving his sister on P10, their tyrannized planet, washed over him. After he had departed for Aspiria, Hallie was all alone. The Reforms War on P10 had left their father institutionalized, and their mother, well… She had "disappeared." At least, that was the government's official response. After years of inquiring, he and Hallie learned the word disappeared was code for "dead." But they had speculated… wildly. How does a renowned scientist just disappear? Dominy shuddered.
"Let’s go!" someone shouted. Others joined the chant.
Standing on the combatants' stage, Shalene scanned the student spectators and then flicked her head toward Dominy and Nalton. Her lips quirked, and her eyes narrowed. Shalene, like Vernan, appeared to be around nineteen or twenty, several years older than Dominy and Nalton.
"Hey, Nalton, I think that girl just winked at us." Hallie had insisted that Dominy read a book on the subject of relationships—after all, she had argued, they had lived in near isolation for years. Dominy studied the girl’s facial expression. No doubt, she's definitely interested in us.
Silence greeted the girl as she trudged to the center of the platform, her handler several steps behind.
"Us? No way—that's Shalene." Nalton flashed his notepad. "Have you seen her latest research, her work in graphene applications?"
Dominy glanced at Shalene and then the notepad. "I-I don't understand the logic of your inference."
Nalton laughed. "Are you for real?"
Huh? Maybe he'd review that book again. Anyway, he'd cheer for Shalene. No one else was. He clapped and shouted, "Go, Shalene!" Besides, he was sure Shalene had singled the two boys out. But why?
Vernan and Shalene gulped down water provided by their handlers and then huddled with the referee, a puffy-faced man wearing a red robe, to receive instructions. The red robe meant the referee was a master, an Aspirian mentor of students. He spread his sweat-sheened arms toward each combatant and said into a microphone, "Resolved…"
Dominy had debated Hallie since childhood, and that familiar word, resolved—used to introduce a debate topic—sent a spike of adrenaline through him.
The referee continued, "That there is a limit to longevity."
While the crowd roared its approval, an array of embedded floor lasers projected holographic scoreboards synchronized with each competitor's movements on the stage. The swirls of Vernan's yellow board danced around Shalene's green.
All around Dominy, students stretched out their arms, fluttering their fingers.
"What're they doing?" Dominy asked.
Nalton smiled. "Reaching for the stars, of course."
A bell rang, pure and resolute. The gathered students pressed forward again. Dominy pinched at his newly issued white robe, pulling it away from his sticky skin. Hallie had said he’d experience no surprises on P1: statistically similar gravitational force, oxygen levels, and even people—after all, they too were descendants from the original galactic colonization. Hallie never mentioned the brutal heat.
The sides for the match were predetermined by the AI computer's analysis of the competitors' past writings and research: Vernan on the Affirmative of the topic, Shalene on the Negative. After the two adversaries offered brief opening statements, Vernan unleashed a barrage of evidence supporting his position. The facts came in a slur of words: "Aging is a function of normal oxygen consumption. Biological age limitations are based on mutations in chromosomes and cellular loss. Furthermore, there’s ongoing cellular senescence…"
Speed. Power. Vernan had it all. Dominy elbowed Nalton. "He's good."
Nalton nodded. "Vernan's a water hose of words."
The computer implemented a natural language algorithm to analyze the competitors' statements, the referee's comments, and even the spectators' responses. The results were translated into a score, and the yellow board hovering over the young man’s head flashed often. Score: 8-1, Vernan.
The crowd yelled, "Extend, Vernan. Extend!" And Vernan didn't disappoint, extending his arguments in a stream of words—and spittle.
Shalene stepped forward. Time for her rebuttal, finally. Dominy tried to cheer, but his mouth turned chemical-powder dry.
Shalene stood, mute.
The audience jeered. "Silence is consent!"
Pinpricks of yellow light sparkled in Dominy's eyes while the beat of blood pounded his ears. By not responding to the arguments, Shalene conceded them—a galactic failure. At that rate, she wouldn't last the three-minute first round.
"Advancing age also brings mutations in mitochondria, damaging cells," Vernan said, continuing his advocacy of the Affirmative. His unanswered strikes became an avalanche.
So did the crowd’s jeers. Dominy rubbed his eyes and glanced at the time on the green scoreboard. Thirty seconds remained. Seconds seemed like minutes. Each unanswered attack made him cringe, physically sick to the depths of his stomach. The score was 12-1, Vernan just eight points from winning.
"You okay?" Nalton asked.
"I just hoped she’d… I feel for her." Too fixated on the overall score, Dominy lost track of the individual point-scoring arguments. 13-1. Do something, Hallie—I mean, Shalene. Hurry. 14-1. He clutched his stomach. Why am I so attached to this Shalene? Illogical. 15-1. He tilted his head up, sucking in a lungful of the hot Aspirian air—and the smell of ammonia.
Note to self: control emotions.
The bell finally rang, signaling the end of the first round. The crowd backed off several steps. Magnesium flashes and crackling explosions came from the north, in the direction of the chemistry labs. "This Debate's all but over," an older student said as she and several others peeled away and ran toward the labs.
"More competitions?" Dominy asked. Two moons, the color of polished aluminum, loomed above the labs. Like eyes, the two orbs seemed to stare at him, measuring him up.
Nalton nodded and swept his hand in a wide arc, gesturing at the hundreds of students, all dressed in white robes, clumped around different venues throughout the quadrangle. His arm stopped with his forefinger pointing northeast at Marika SkyDome, a competition stadium so large it cast a shadow over the entirety of Sector Six. "Soon," Nalton whispered, "you and I will compete in that forge."
Dominy opened his robe at the neck line, ventilating his chest.
A warning chime sounded. Shalene padded to her corner, and a tiny smile cracked her marbled face.
The handlers—bottles, towels, and sponges in hand—leaped to the platform and sprang into action. Vernan's aide spritzed his forehead and sponged his neck.
Heat rippled the air, and the silver rim of the platform shimmered as if it might transform into a pool of mercury. Shalene's aide handed her a water bottle. The handler then whispered into Shalene's ear but was waved off. Shalene stared at Nalton with a know-it-all smile. Why Nalton? Dominy bowed his head in thought. Nalton’s skin is sunburned. Nalton's disabled. Dominy tapped his friend's shoulder. "You're an outsider like me, aren't you?"
"I came from P2, but how'd you know I—"
A bell rang, and the two boys were buffeted from behind by the remaining onlookers. The second round started.
Vernan circled Shalene like a vulture watching its injured prey. The young man thrust his chest out, but his arguments started to repeat. Then they slowed. Shalene smiled again, almost imperceptibly, at Nalton.
16-1. "She'll win," Dominy said, over the hoots from the spectators.
Dominy's throat relaxed, letting words flow like water. "That's my prediction. Shalene'll win."
"That's crazy," Nalton said. "She's gotta be a million to one now."
It’ll be a challenge—there’s no doubt about that, but… "I think she's setting a trap, and you're part of it."
Dominy rocked to his toes and pointed at the competitors. "I don't know exactly how, but watch, I think she's just waiting for Vernan to exhaust his arguments, and then she'll spring something."
Sure enough, Vernan's voice cracked, and his words slowed. "In summary, due to the aforementioned effects of cellular breakdowns and mutations, aging is a biological function… and… and—"
The time had come. "Topicality violation!" Shalene screamed in an outburst so foreign to her prior demeanor the crowd went silent. Then her voice turned calm and as clear as a songbird’s: "Until this moment, I've had no need to respond. Point being, my competitor has argued the wrong topic. Of course, I agree with Vernan, there is a limit to biological longevity. But that's off topic. There are no theoretical limits to medical longevity."
Dominy clapped his hands, and Nalton shouted, "She’s still alive!"
"Why does Aspiria engage in medical research?" Shalene paused dramatically.
A slow-building clamor rose from the crowd.
"What’s happening?" a newcomer asked.
"Shalene—she’s not done yet," another student said.
"Impossible," said another, pressing in with everyone else.
Over at the Transport Center, a booster engine from one of the Commonwealth’s ships roared in anticipation of launch. The Commonwealth was the coalition of world governments charged with intergalactic trade and travel. They had facilitated Dominy's coming to Aspiria.
Shalene pointed in the ship's direction, tilted her chin up, gazed high in the sky, and continued, "We do it because 24.2 light years away, a tiny girl needs a vaccine before her life is stolen by a random illness."
Shalene locked in on Nalton, her eyes sparked, and her voice fell lullaby soft. She waved Nalton to the stage. Dominy helped his friend maneuver through the crowd and onto the stage. Shalene held Nalton’s hand up, and the pair circled the stage. "We do it to prevent newborn diseases from ravaging a boy." After helping Nalton off the platform, she continued, "Why do we engage in medical research? We do it to repair biological anomalies."
Shalene’s bright-green scoreboard came alive. Dominy raised his fist and then remembered to waggle his fingers. Smashing. Atom-smashing brilliant. She had breached his position. 17-12, Vernan's lead narrowing.
"And specifically in terms of longevity, Aspirian researchers have demonstrated the ability to repair dying cells. I will mention only two of many examples: Protocol 427, reversing oxidative DNA damage; Protocol 512, repairing double strand breaks."
Vernan, his eyes wild, gasped. His face and forearms glistening with sweat, he stepped forward, lashing out in a final desperate response. "The biology of cellular failure cannot be disputed—"
"Not topical!" the crowd interrupted.
Shalene nodded to herself as though that was the moment she had been waiting for. She unleashed her remaining arguments, sending him, mute, cowering back to his corner, hands over his ears. But he had nowhere to hide. Her board lit with score after score.
"Finish him! Finish him!" shouted the ecstatic crowd.
She moved in, centimeters from Vernan. Yellowish-green abstract patterns reflected off the holoboards, washing over her competitor. "And in summary, there are no theoretical limits to longevity because… medicine overcomes biology."
The referee nodded at the scoreboard, lunged between the two, and waved his arms for them to stop. He turned to the young woman and raised her arm—the winner.
Dominy jumped and yelled, "Such a prime day!"
Vernan collapsed on the platform, his legs dangling over the edge. The fading holoboard smeared yellow across the losing boy’s freckled face. While Vernan was looking as if his world had ended, the students nearest the action stormed the platform, swept Shalene off her feet, hoisted her on their shoulders, and carried her over the crowd.
The sun had descended, coloring the sky magenta at the horizon.
"Now they love her?" Dominy asked.
Nalton shrugged. "Everyone loves a winner." Nalton pointed at a mountain of a man wrapped in a red robe and watching the proceedings. "Especially leadership. That's Sergian."
Sergian here for some… some game?As Head of Council, Sergian, along with theGuardian and the Council of Masters, comprised Aspiria's triumvirate leadership.
The students carrying Shalene passed Sergian, shouting, "Logic lives! Rationality rules the day!"
Dominy pointed at them and whispered to Nalton, "Is everyone like this?"
"Welcome to Aspiria."
Sergian left the little Debate arena and headed for the quadrangle’s powered walkway. He crossed its outer sensor, and the southbound track slowed smoothly. Stepping aboard, his feet passed over the inner sensor, and the pathway accelerated to twenty kilometers per hour. He heaved his chest out. Nicknamed the Pow, the quadrangle transport always brightened his mood. Long before, he had been its lead designer, and though of older technology, the pathway was an elegant implementation of linear induction charging.
Effortlessly crossing the quadrangle, he lifted his chin, inviting the warm wind to his face. Seeing Everlen’s condition lately had left little doubt the Guardianship would finally be his. Sergian was sure that was why Everlen had summoned him. The old man would announce his decision to step down as Guardian. Finally. A generation before, no one would've believed a person could live that long—one hundred thirty-two years.
Like the Pow, Sergian’s plan was moving along nicely. With Everlen gone, there’d be no stopping him. Reforming Aspiria was his platform for beating his competitors for the Guardianship. He had planted the seeds of reform years before, assisting certain young masters—those of the right frame of mind, influenceable. As Head of Council, he’d also convinced others, the top performers, to leave the Council of Masters—"Aspiria needs your precious time devoted to research."
Re-form. What a beautiful word. He grasped the handrail, closed his eyes, and envisioned a new Aspiria. In his mind, he blocked out images of white and red robes and pictured everyone, masters and students—even that pitiful student slumped on the Debate stage—dressed in the same color—not red, not white, perhaps a new color, perhaps yellow. He imagined the quadrangle awash in yellow robes—all equals, all guided by the one purple robe of the new, benevolent Guardian.
After leaving the Pow, he entered Everlen’s laboratory, only to encounter a chaotic mess. While embedded monitors neatly lined the walls, DNA sequencers, mass spectrometers, and all kinds of scientific equipment littered the workplace. Sergian weaved through the stainless-steel maze, searching.
An old man stood in the center of the lab on a luminous one-meter-diameter circular pad, hands overhead. Naked? The Guardian’s aged skin was so thin it offered a disturbing window on his red-veined circulatory system.
"Guardian, you wanted to see me?" Sergian asked.
"Yes, one moment," Everlen said, holding up his forefinger. "Initiate sequence." A voice-activated MRI torus descended from the ceiling and passed over the Guardian, imaging his soft tissues. The resulting data was transmitted to the Data and Simulation Center, all a part of the medical monitoring Everlen conducted on himself after his breakthrough on longevity. The ring rose back to the ceiling. "We’ve progressed from one-nanometer to atomic-scale spatial resolution."
Sergian brushed stray hairs from his eyes.He liked the style, short to fit in with students but with overgrown bangs favored by the young masters—a compromise, his new image. "Guardian?"
Everlen donned his faded purple robe. "More detailed data from the MRI means better simulations of the aging process."
"Yes, Guardian, it’s extremely impressive." Sergian offered his forearm, forcing himself to not pull away from the sour smell. "You must be proud of all your accomplishments."
Everlen nodded, stepped off the pad, brushed aside Sergian's arm, and hobbled to the monitors lining the eastern wall. One displayed a rotating three-dimensional image of his brain scan, and Everlen pointed at a section of the cerebral cortex. "You can see shrinkage here. There’s also more evidence of amyloid plaque accumulation. I don’t have too much time."
"Yes, Guardian, I suspected not." Sergian hoped his pursed lips removed the lilt from his words. "Guardian, perhaps you'll have another breakthrough."
"I'm optimistic. It appears—based on simulations—I've one or two more years."
He's not stepping down? Selfish. That was an ugly word. Self-ish. "Guardian, why'd you want to see me?"
Everlen shimmied among the equipment and over to the southern wall. "We need to discuss my new mission protocol." Aspiria had a tradition of sending peace envoys to other worlds, and a new protocol was Everlen's pet project. The old man had personally selected one young candidate from each of the other twenty-four known worlds. Long ago, those had been the planets deemed most inhabitable and were colonized. Such a small sample of planets wasn't too difficult to find when you had over 250 billion in the galaxy to choose from—and access to the ST-2, the Commonwealth’s time-warping crafts. The outlandish protocol idea was to train the twenty-four candidates in peace negotiations and—someday, perhaps in five years—send them back to their home planets as part of an envoy, an envoy thereby having cultural knowledge of the destination planet.
"Many of the candidates have yet to arrive," Everlen said. "Communication problems with the Commonwealth."
Communication problems with the Commonwealth. Sergian palmed his heart and shivered, willing himself to expunge any remnants of guilt. A sprightly, self-induced twitch was an effective antidote to that strange emotion. The Commonwealth had agreed to help him reach his aspirations for the academy—in exchange for halting Aspiria's mission program—temporarily, of course, just until they completed galactic trade negotiations. "Guardian, I've been assured the other outsiders are on their way."
Everlen tapped an icon, and the lab’s dispersion lights went out. Floor-level ambient lights came on, casting an ethereal purple glow throughout the lab. "Yes, but that's not what this is about."
Sergian stepped back. "Guardian?"
Everlen typed the words, "VIEW: GALAXY". The ambient lights flashed and then went dark. The lab filled with a hologram of shimmering virtual stars and clouds of astral material. Next, the Guardian typed, "VANTAGE POINT: ASPIRIA". The lighted objects shifted in a blur. The new orientation brought the familiar view of the Aspirian night sky. He typed, "HIGHLIGHT KNOWN WORLDS". The virtual night sky went black except the twenty-five virtual worlds.
"The new outsiders—we’ll accelerate their mission training," Everlen said.
Sergian tracked Everlen, hovering over the old man's shoulder. "Accelerate?" Sergian finger-jabbed an image of a sphere glowing between the two men.
The Guardian typed another command, and the twenty-five known worlds oscillated. While P9 through P2, those nearest to P1, flashed green, all the other planets transformed to a color along the yellow-to-red spectrum. "The conflicts are worsening."
Sergian touched virtual world P10, oscillating yellow.
"Hot spots, these uprisings, are everywhere," Everlen said.
Sergian cupped P10 between his palms and then pulled his hands apart, expanding the virtual planet to about a meter in diameter. "But Guardian, based on requests for aid, I'm already sending masters on missions." His thick fingers skimmed over the orb's great swathes of water. So beautiful.
"There's been no recent request for Aspirian aid. The planets are bypassing our help."
Sergian tilted his head down, refusing to meet Everlen's eyes—those so-called all-knowing eyes of blue fire. "It is rather"—he plunged his hand through the virtual northern polar ice cap—"unbelievable." That ice. Sergian shivered with delight.
Everlen touched the green P1. "And now these uprisings are closing in on us."
"These are skirmishes, squabbles really." Sergian shook his head, causing his bangs to dance. "Regardless, Aspiria enjoys absolute protection. We've no worries—"
Everlen raised his palm for silence. "I'll notify Petrece."
Petrece? Sergian was actually quite fond of that master. Sensitive, emotional Petrece. In fact, he’d soon borrow some of her techniques for his reforms. But why Petrece?
"Logically," Everlen continued, as if reading Sergian's mind, "she's the perfect master to train the outsiders quickly."
Logically. Sergian bit his lip and then nodded. Petrece had been there so long he’d forgotten she was an outsider, one of Aspiria's first selections. He jammed a fist into his robe pocket. "Guardian, let me notify Petrece first. I'll have her conduct the outsiders' orientation, and then I'll explain the protocol to the group." How, he wasn't sure. Sergian inhaled and pulled his clenched fist from his pocket, awaiting Everlen's response.
"Quickly then—the galaxy can’t wait forever. And neither can I." Everlen hobbled toward the door.
Sergian, lagging behind, exhaled. Let us hope not. His goal was simple: stop all outbound missions for the next two years. The Commonwealth needed that time to finish the final eight trade pacts.
The Head of Council knifed his hand through the eight closest virtual planets, P2 through P9, before patting P1, his pet project. Closing his hand, he squeezed P1 as if it was a ball of modeling clay. Re-form.
Dominy and Nalton arrived at the student compound, the austere living quarters located along the eastern edge of the quadrangle. Entering one of the thick-walled buildings, the students were greeted by forced air spooling from tiny holes in the floor and walls.
In the vaulted entryway, speakers crackled. "Jury decision! Imminent! Templar Gallery! Master Julienne officiating." Moments later, ten or so students barreled past the two boys.
Dominy turned to watch them race out of the compound. "I never imagined all of this," he said as the pair walked far down a hallway until they reached the last of three narrow corridors. The firsts resided there while the thirds, the most advanced students, resided along the corridor nearest the quadrangle. Aspirian meritocracy, of course. "And I still can't process that Debate."
"Shalene and Vernan are thirds," Nalton said as theyfollowed an LED strip embedded in the floor, their sandals thwacking theterra cotta–styledtile in clashing rhythms, "We'll get a better idea of our immediate competition at orientation."
They passed three girls who were singing. Their tenor voices, rising incrementally, floated through the corridor. "Three and a half," the smallest of the girls said triumphantly. They were comparing octave ranges.
Dominy and Nalton clapped as they continued on their way. ThenNalton reached into his robe pocket, pulled out what looked like a gray marble, and popped it into his mouth.
"Protein?" Dominy asked.
"River pebble," Nalton said, enunciating each word.
"I have… I had a bit of a speech impediment. I talk with a few of these in my mouth as an exercise." He popped another one. "Mostly a habit, now." Dominy smiled and started to speak, but Nalton pointed down the corridor to a row of doors and said, "C'mon, let’s check out your cell."
As they approached, a light flashed—and then another. In fact, each time they crossed the threshold of a cell door, a wallscreen displayed a life-size image of the occupant, illuminating the corridor. Superimposed on the image was the student’s algorithmic ranking within the class of firsts: Cell 70: eighty-eighth; Cell 71: thirty-third. At Cell 72, the wallscreen flashed on with just Dominy’s name. Leadership had his pre-entry testing data, so he wondered what the problem was. He jumped, smacking his sandal soles on the threshold—no ranking. Soon, he hoped. He remembered a quote from that book: "Fitting in is critical in developing relationships."
Dominy opened his cell door, and they stepped inside. When he had arrived, other than a desk, washbasin, and well-cushioned cot, the tiny room, perhaps three meters square, was barren. The room possessed what his sister called "great potential," like the blank canvas of an artist. He rubbed the smooth synthetic wall coating and smiled. He’dcovered the wallswith reproductions of the artwork of Jameion, the math proofs of Sephie, and the speech transcripts of Arles. "You can really create and study in a room full of inspiration."
Nalton clapped. "Impressive." He skirted around an electronic clean-board and pointed at a box on the floor. "But what world is that from?"
"It's an ancient EEG machine, not even wireless. It's all they offered for now." Dominy pulled it from the crate and untangled a nest of wires connected to a close-fitting scalp hood. The old monitor measured the electrical impulses coming from the interactions of neurons. He wriggled the cloth cap over his head, its wires dangling to the floor. "Until I get access to real lab equipment, I’ll use it to minimize my sleep by monitoring my brainwaves. I'm also using some crude techniques to stay awake." He pointed to his cot, stripped of covers. "The colder my body temperature, the easier it is to wake up."
Nalton stared, wide-eyed, at Dominy.
"Simple logic. Strengthening neural connections requires repetition, repetition requires time, time is limited—I must maximize time." Dominy swept the wires from his face and pointed at his electronic quote board, preloaded with Aspirian Scripture. "Time is a possession to be prized." The words scrolled continuously around the cell's walls.
"You're crazy," Nalton said.
Dominy yanked the hood off. Crazy? No, he'd study while his competition slept, while Aspiria slept. The past year, he and Hallie had logged sixteen-hour days studying, preparing for the Test.
He tried to forget about Testing Day, but the memory was too awful to erase. He and Hallie had returned to their shanty, and Hallie read their intelligence test results aloud. "One of us had the highest scores ever recorded." Her voice was soft and sad, though she forced a smile. "Aspiria selected you." Late that night, he awoke to find her gone from her bed. She stood in the opposite corner of the one-room shelter, staring at their scores, crying. Hallie had never cried before. She controlled her emotions.
"Crazy in a good way. C'mon…" Nalton tightened up his belt as his robe threatened to slide off his lopsided shoulder. "Let's lightout."
Dominy plowed his fingers through his tousled hair. "Lightout?"
"Leave. At the speed of light."Nalton hobbled toward the door. "I want you to meet the other outsiders.We'veall waited up to three months for the big day."
"Bigday?" Dominy asked.
"Hey, Nalton, the time of your departure nears." The husky voice, echoing off the corridor walls outside Dominy's cell, came from a student headed toward them.
Nalton stopped short and cast out his hand to Dominy's shoulder for support. "Cal."
Dominy cinched up his size-one robe. "What’s that mean, departure?"
"It's a miracle Nalton lasted this long," Cal said. "He's fifth percentile."
Dominy turned to Nalton for explanation of his low ranking, but his friend shrugged. Failure at Aspiria—at least for outsiders—meant a one-way trip to a who-knows-where world. They also had no chance to reach their aspirations. Such was the friction point in the agreement: Come to the intellectual capital of the galaxy! Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee a return trip. The Commonwealth had limited transports and resources. Also, someone at another destination might want a genius, failure or not—the harsh realities of trade.
"That's the rub," Cal said. "I don't think Nalton's trying."
"Dominy," Nalton said, "meet Caldellian, Cal we call him, another outsider."
Dominy studied the student with square shoulders, solid jaw, and obsidian eyes, a boy seemingly cut from a marble slab. He had a mark, like a light bruise, around his left eye. Hmm."Hey, Cal. You must be Aspiria’s student astronomer."
Cal’s eyes widened. "How'd you know I—"
"Who’s the new Fresh?" asked a pudgy student who popped up out of nowhere. The boy, despite having no visible neck, swiveled his head nervously.
"Pandor," Nalton said, "this is Dominy."
Dominy nodded at Pandor and asked, "Fresh?"
"Decidedly. Fresh is our word for outsiders." Pandor, his mouth a humorless thin line, leaned in closer and whispered, "I hear you’re the one to challenge." Dominy flicked his head away from a noxious chemical odor coming from the boy.
Cal pulled Pandor away, and the two students huddled at the end of the corridor.
A girl skipped toward Dominy and Nalton, her robe swishing, signaling her arrival.Hers seemed to be the eyes of a dreamer. They were big, like a child's dream."Heya, Nalton," she said. "Who's the fresh worm?"
Dominy’s heart thumped a rhythm he’d never felt before.
"Genna," Nalton said, "meet Dominy."
"Did Cal or Pandor challenge you yet?" Her cheeks dimpled, her nose crinkled, and laughter bubbled in her mouth."What's your story, worm?"
Students passing through the corridor weren't paying attention to Genna, though. They were staring at Dominy.
"Worm?" he asked. "Why does everyone call me worm?"
Shetossed back carbon-black hair, tresses worn unusually long."Because here, as a first, you're a worm. Technically, you're closer to blue-green algae but not nearly as poetic. You're to slither underground, staying out of the consciousness of Aspiria." She swiped her palms on her robe, a robe white like the others but speckled with bits of color. "You're not to speak unless spoken to. You're only to emerge from the slime when you've increased your brain power beyond that of, well, a worm's."
Dominy spun toward Nalton in search of an explanation.
"Now you've met Genna. Firsts… enjoy a nickname. Actually, we've come to like it."
"Strictly for motivational purposes," Genna added.
"I'm a worm, you're a worm, and—yes, it's true—standing upright…" Nalton pointed at the girl and finished, "is a worm."