If there were whispers or screams from the audience, I couldn’t hear them. All I heard was my heartbeat, my blood pumping, echoing in my ears. It helped me remember to breathe, keeping rhythm so I didn’t pass out. I was trying to find the bravery to stand up. I knew I had to move. I had to move now.
So. I moved, amazed at how obedient my muscles were under the circumstances. They froze, for a moment, and then followed orders again by shuffling out of my seat a few steps.
I stared at Eldridge, ignoring my mom’s hand squeezing mine. My dad released a heavy sigh. I risked a glance at them, hoping they weren’t crying, but only my mom’s eyes shimmered. My father’s eyes showed forced pride and courage.
“Don’t be scared,” he whispered. “Take the next step.”
The thick silence continued. I now realized why the candidates from the Academy sat in the front seats. The walk from the middle seats under the Arches seemed to take forever. The slight buzz of conversation made me feel an urgency to get backstage, but my muscles wouldn’t go faster.
My father’s words echoed. I took a step. I remembered how Evangeline walked up, with confidence. But I didn’t have that, and I couldn’t pretend now. I looked at Patterson, as Eldridge was no longer on the stage. Had I missed that? Where had he gone?
Patterson maintained focus, but his brown eyes seemed sympathetic. The Academy students glared as I walked past them, furious at being snubbed for a person who had never trained one day in their life.
I felt my legs ready to give way right as I got to the stairs, but I pushed forward.
You can do this. You can’t do this. You can. You can’t.
A song played in my head in time to the slow procession of my march to the stage, a horrible rhythm of doubt and courage fighting a battle neither of them could win. Because the one thing Eldridge had failed to mention was the 27th Protectors’ survival rate. Being a great leader in the business of Protecting led to martyrdom. Only three out of the eight 27th Protectors had survived their year in service. I tried not to think about that as someone snapped a picture.
Patterson took my hand, his expression unreadable. He smiled a little and shook it, taking my forearm to hold on to me for a second and pat my back like he had the other Protectors.
“Eldridge is waiting for you,” Patterson whispered. “Behind the curtain. You’re doing great. Give one small wave to them, then you can go.”
I barely put up my hand, but I nodded to the audience. Some applause rose, along with some cheers and yells. I was about to be more overwhelmed than I already was.
“That’s good,” he said. “Move now.”
I obeyed without thinking. Patterson continued to address the crowd a few seconds later. He was covering for my shock by saying more eloquent things and smiling, both of which I would never have managed to do at that moment. I went through the parting in the curtain in the back of the stage. Eldridge wasn’t there. No one was there. No one ordered me to move now.
So, I didn’t.
I bent over, my hands and one knee hit the floor, and my body began to shake. My fingers spread beneath my shaking arms to try to hold my weight as I collapsed.
I must have said it under my breath twenty times. “What were you thinking?” Other 27th Protectors wanted this, desired this, or felt snubbed when rejected by the Academy. They were brilliant. They probably dreamed of being named.
The applause rose again. It was coming from outside the curtain. I stood up, almost ready to run.
“So, you react to simple escape reflexes? That’s a good sign.”
Eldridge was behind me. My emotions surged, not sure if I should attempt to lunge at him in anger or break down and cry. But I respected him, and his sentence had piqued my interest enough to keep all my emotions concealed.
“Escape reflexes?” I asked. “They’re just applauding.”
“Yes,” Eldridge said as if pondering that, “but applause is threatening because, in its absence, silence would take its place. With no applause, there is a void of disapproval. It’s easy to be frightened by applause because you are afraid that it’s all that matters and you fear it’s end. It’s addicting. Let’s go, shall we?”
I didn’t want to agree. I wanted to refuse. But I walked with him instead, if only because his words seemed true in a way that no one else had been able to express
“So, how are you holding up?” Eldridge asked casually.
I felt grey: the white was confidence and the black was fear. By the time we had walked down another hallway, I still hadn’t answered his question.
I had no desire to talk, choke, cough, cry, plead. Nothing.
“That good, huh?”
I almost choked as I spoke. “I feel like I will freak out at any second, and then— I just don’t.”
“Well, that is interesting.” He said it with a look of kindness in his grey eyes. “What is the part of you that is about to panic saying?”
“This is insane. I can’t do this,” I said, almost too loudly. My anger now threatened to burn through the uncertainty that kept me calm so far.
“I see. You feel underqualified then?”
“Yes! In all respects!” I answered, nearly shouting at his casual tone of surprise. “I hate technology, I can’t run, I’ve never held an MCU, I throw up when I see blood, I can’t ever seem to fit in here. I’m not committed! At all!”
“How so?”
I took a breath. “I have loads of questions and doubts about what Protectors do. Why do we place the Unnecessaries in shelters? Why do we have so many rules? Why do Protectors train with a trainer they don’t choose? Why don’t we declare war and save everyone? Why do we only choose twenty-six if more want to go or less want to go? I have loads of questions with no answers. I have doubts stacked as high as the Arches, and you picked me without asking!” I stopped, realizing I was yelling.
He was calm, almost infuriatingly so, as he said, “My dear, I would never risk the lives we rescue, those Unnecessaries and Vessels, by putting them in the hands of someone I didn’t think could handle it. Ever. And I still chose you.”
I didn’t have a reply, taken aback by his declaration. I choked out, “What makes you think I’m able to handle it?”
I regretted asking the moment it left my mouth, worried he might now reveal something about myself I didn’t know.
“Oh, I didn’t,” he said, but then didn’t explain, as if the answer was obvious. I couldn’t figure out if I should be concerned about his sanity or draw on the apparent confidence he had in his decision. In the end, I abandoned both to stare at the door sliding open in front of me as we approached.
“To your Circle, 27.” He pointed at the door. “Actually, to another hallway with boring, metal walls in Central which leads to a dull room where everyone is waiting to go to their Circles.”
I hesitated for a moment, but a slight thrill compelled me to step into the small device that resembled an elevator. The unit began by moving sideways; it lurched to the left and then changed directions to move downward. It made me more keenly aware that I was standing in the center of the most innovative technology in the entire Territory. Unless you were an Academy student or a Protector, no one passed the Arches.
“Considering your fears, 27,” Eldridge spoke again, “I should tell you that many opposed this decision for fear of change and what it could mean. Other kind-hearted souls opposed you because they think…” He trailed off, but I finished his sentence.
“I’m going to die.” The statement felt heavy as I said it out loud. I was furious that he hadn’t said it.
“Well, yes. You will die. I suppose we all will. But unlike them, I have faith you’ll live long enough to save lives. And despite what they say, they are not afraid you’ll die. They’re terrified that I’m right, and that you’ll live long enough to do something differently than the status quo. Any changes could force them to rethink things: training, the Academy, missions, and even how we help our victims. People really don’t like thinking. It’s a nuisance.”
“So, are you telling me not to be a nuisance?” I asked, wandering through the words of his cryptic warning.
He smiled. “On the contrary, I’m looking forward to it.”
I shook my head, speaking very softly. “If you are looking for someone with crazy passion and strength to bring down a broken system, you didn’t pick her. I don’t have what you need.”
Still staring at the wall, he said, “Not yet. And I’m okay with that. You have one thing, Aislyn, that will ensure you gain that passion and strength you need.”
“What’s that?” I asked as the elevator door opened.
“Curiosity,” he said, now turning to me again. “It got you through the curtain on stage and through the elevator, kept you walking and talking to me, and it will get you to your Circle. It will get you to the Republic. It will lead you to the first person you will save. Your curiosity will keep you going until your scared and you need bravery to survive. Do you see the door down there?” He nodded down the hall, about twenty yards away. “I will let you walk to that door, without me, for three reasons. One, I’m late for a meeting. Very late. Two, because your curiosity will remind you that if you die one day having not walked down this hallway, you will regret it. Not everyone would, but you would.”
His words echoed in my head. They bounced, almost as if my mind were the stoic metallic walls surrounding me. All the daydreams I’d ever had about seeing Central, the Circles, and even the Republic came rushing in like a flood.
I wanted to know. A part of me wanted to play the part, fight the war, save a life— to bleed, love, scream, cry, live. I needed to know everything I would miss if he had not called my name.
“Fair enough,” I said in surrender. “But sir, what’s the third reason?”
“Oh,” Eldridge started, changing to a playful tone, “if we were standing outside that door instead of right here, there would be thirteen girls with their ears pressed up against it struggling to summarize our conversation to the other thirteen lovely ladies in the room. We train spies for a living, Aislyn. It’s a tricky business.”
I closed my eyes and stopped myself from laughing, feeling that at least his last comment made the Protectors a little more human than I’d imagined. But only a little. I kept my eyes focused on the door, not moving as he spoke again.
“People find what they are looking for, Aislyn. See if you find it. See if it makes your heartbeat faster and your soul fight for something. Be curious enough to find a reason to be brave, and bravery will find you.”
By the time I turned around, he was walking back down the hall. No word of goodbye or any other gesture. He left me in the hall with his last words echoing louder and louder in my mind. The other twenty-six girls were waiting for me— no, waiting for someone better than me— to open that door.
But he was right. I was curious to a fault: a fault that could kill me, and probably would. But it forced me to take a few steps, and I surprised myself by not even hesitating before I pressed the button and opened the door.
I dreaded the silence that permeated the room.
It confirmed that they had all been either talking about me or trying to listen to Eldridge’s last words to me.
Probably both.
It resembled a sitting room at a hospital, with comfortable furniture with plain colors on the walls and fake plants on stoic surfaces. The room had metal wall panels but no screens or any other sign of technology. Many of the Protectors sat rigidly in the metal seats. Some were leaning against the wall, oozing confidence. All of them remained frozen, except for one.
“Here you are,” Tessa said, walking to stand only inches away from me. She looked at my eyes, but then proceeded to glance over every part of me.
“Here I am,” I searched for Megan, but I couldn’t see her. Their silent appraisals could only lead to one question, but none of them asked.
“Chosen to be the 27th Protector. You have to know that we’ve been wondering why,” Tessa said, as if setting me up to explain. But I kept scanning the room for Megan and finally determined she wasn’t in the room. After a quick count, I noticed there were only twenty-four girls staring at me.
I risked asking my question first.
“Where is—?”
“Meg’s down the hall with Eva. They’ll be back in a second. I don’t think it’s an issue, but they wanted to check.”
I realized this was a test; would I understand enough of her vague clues to guess where they had gone? I briefly wondered if I should fake it and say, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.”
But I already guessed I couldn’t fake Tessa out.
“Check what?” I asked, officially admitting my ignorance.
I was right; it was a test.
She didn’t get a chance to answer my question before three of the girls groaned. “She doesn’t even know basic policy?” one said.
“Okay, so you never read Naomi’s Manual, or any of the amendments, or any regulations. You probably aren’t here for physical abilities— no offense. So, is it Tech? Medicine?”󠄅
“What? 󠄅 No!” I said. I was thinking about how I could defend myself or justify my presence with some skill, but bragging about how to rewire or jump-start a generator might sound laughable to them. “I’m not bad, I’m just… not amazing.”
“At Tech?”
“At anything,” I shouted, my defeat sinking in. “I have no idea why he chose me.”
There were several reactions that followed. Eyebrows raised, scoffs escaped, and a head went down into someone’s hands with a groan. Someone from the back of the room said, “Well then… she’s gonna die.”
“Perfect,” Tessa said. “Classic crazy Eldridge. Let’s pick someone with no qualifications. Maybe she’ll even come in and tell us we’re too competitive or any of that other crap he’s always spouting.”
Under her breath, she said another word that I tried to ignore. It sounded as if she cursed, but I had never heard that word before. Maybe it was Republic slang.
“What if that was the reason? Would that worry you?” I didn’t want to antagonize her, but I thought back to her waving and smiling at cameras, wondering if she did it just for the “hero-status” and perks. “Would it mess with your numbers or your next press appearance?”
I said it far more confidently than I felt, but any confidence evaporated in the heat of her glare. Everyone else’s reactions were more mixed this time. But I heard someone say, “Oh, here we go. At least we get to have fun.”
“I do like the numbers. And the attention. And I don’t let criticism stop me. I don’t care what you think, 27. I have other things to worry about, and if you weren’t a newbie, you would know that.” Tessa paused, taking a breath only to lower her voice. “What you should worry about is that for every child we save, ten times more people are dying. You don’t know about Sophia, who we lost last year. She was betrayed and murdered by a Society Party agent who pretended to be a Vessel— just for the chance to kill one of us. Most little schoolgirls like you don’t know that we have more Sentries and technology to beat than ever before, and that we have less of a chance to find someone who wants out of the Republic. Before you think that you can judge us or change anything, maybe you should fall in line and try your best to learn how to save someone. Or don’t you know why you are standing here?”
I soaked in her words. My ignorance unnerved me, but I answered her question.
“I’m only hear because I was chosen, and to see where this goes.” I was once again speaking to a silent room. She stared me down, her criticism echoing behind her sharp dark eyes.
“Not good enough. I’ve done this for a year, and that was long enough to know that you don’t belong here.”
I hated the silence. I would lose any credibility by saying nothing, but I couldn’t argue with her.
Then, the last person I’d expected to argue with Tessa spoke from the back of the room.
“Yeah, well, I’ve done this for two years, which is long enough to know that you, of all people, shouldn’t be the judge of who belongs here.”
Brianna shifted from the wall she’d been leaning against. She didn’t move as much as glide, like some kind of force propelled her every movement. People moved back, like a sea parting around her. One look at Tessa’s face, and I knew what these two Protectors thought about each other, despite polite gestures in public.
Brianna continued to speak in response to Tessa’s silence.
“And beating up on the ignorant and incompetent rookie is not going to make her any better. So back off.”
I was so happy Brianna was defending me I didn’t even care that she had just insulted me.
“This was Eldridge,” Tessa said. “It’s some political agenda to push the idea that we should be something other than soldiers.”
Brianna moved to within inches of Tessa. “We are Protectors, not killers. And despite your confusion on that, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it is political or if she ends up surprising us and lives the year. She belongs here for the same reason you do.”
“And that is?”
“Eldridge chooses. That is the reason, maybe the only reason, I still try to respect you. He chose you. He chose her. You’re here. She’s here. Get over it.”
Brie pivoted, her blond hair floating behind her as she glided back to the wall. She didn’t even look at me. By the time she was there, the door opened to reveal Megan and Evangeline. I desperately wanted to talk to Megan, but instead, Evangeline asked the one question no one could answer.
“Why is she here? What’d I miss? Is it Tech? Med? Some weird mutation? Super strength? What can you do, 27?”
“Apparently nothing,” I answered as nonchalantly as I could, which was enough to get a scoff from Tessa again.
“Oh,” Evangeline said, sounding surprised, and I braced for an impact. “Well, you haven’t passed out since they called you. That’s something of a strange miracle, I almost did.” There was an even more relaxed tone in her voice when she asked, “Is there food? I’m starving. I didn’t eat this morning because unlike all of you, I hurl when I’m nervous.”
I almost laughed but stifled it. Everyone either smiled or rolled their eyes at her as she continued to babble, so I assumed it was her natural personality.
“Well, so sorry that we missed Tessa being mad again, but we confirmed what we needed. Megan is clear. There is a by-law! Gotta love by-laws. They let cousins fight in the same generation.”
I looked at Megan, but she shrugged. “Two relatives can’t be in the same class at the Academy. Clearly, the intent was that no two relatives would ever go to the Republic at the same time, to prevent being compromised or training with a relative.”
“But,” she jumped in, “they didn’t have enough foresight to write a contingency for a 27th being chosen the same year that their relative would graduate from the Academy! Score a point for the incompetence of underdeveloped legislature. Candy?”
I shook my head. She shrugged and moved on with her bag of candy to plop on the couch. Her behavior seemed strangely comfortable. She likely grew up rooms like these while her mother worked long hours.
“Any other news?” someone else asked.
“Why do you assume I know everything, Abby?”
“Because you do.”
“True,” Evangeline said as she got up to grab more candy.
Megan sighed and stepped into the center of the room.
“They convened the Council. Unscheduled debate session.”
“And Tessa,” Evangeline added, “don’t even start. They’re not changing their mind. Aislyn is here to stay. Didn’t you hear Eldridge? She’s under divine calling to protect us all.” She pointed absentmindedly as she sunk in and spread out on the sofa.
Tessa’s death glare rested on Evangeline, who just winked.
Lillian called out, “Our trainers! Is the official list out?”
Evangeline widened her eyes and half sighed. “It was out, and then some intern grabbed it and said it wasn’t ready. That’s what the meeting is about.”
“So do you remember who was on the list?” Abby asked.
It shocked me that someone thought Evangeline, as unfocused as she seemed, could memorize twenty-seven names.
But her lopsided grin grew into a full smile, and I swallowed my disbelief as she spoke.
“First, Brie, still stuck with George and probably skipping every lesson. Tessa, same thing. You’re still with Sir Avery.”
I wondered why she called him ‘Sir’, but quickly assumed that Tessa’s trainer might be as arrogant as her.
“Abigail, you got Clara. So sorry. Our hearts are with you.” Evangeline patted Abby’s head as she sank on the couch with her.
“Emmy, you got Maria. Hope you love sit-ups. Lynn, you have Will, Michael is shadowing this year. You’ll hate his running schedule, but he’s one of the best atTech and will let you work on side projects as relentlessly as you want. Send the Council flowers to say thank you.”
She continued like this through most of the names. I tried to learn what I could from the list, taking the rare chance to collect information their comradery had already afforded them. I found out Crystal hated running just as much as Cassidy, and they both loved tech classes. Lydia sounded thrilled to have a Trainer who specialized in medicine, as did Ivy. Someone called Evangeline by her name and she stopped dead and said “Eva.” I noticed that everyone called her Eva. I also made a note that Abigail went by Abby, Brianna went by Brie, and Lillian went by Lynn.
“Stop! Who got pulled up?” Tessa interrupted. “Patterson had to get replaced because he’s Head Trainer, and 27 needs a trainer, not that’ll it’ll do any good. Was is Dylan, Zoe, or Tyler?”
The Academy chose only thirty girls to train as potential Protectors, but even fewer girls and boys to became trainers. Trainers studied for two years after the Academy, shadowed for three to five years, and served for a decade to mentor Protectors before finding another position in Central or the Academy. It was rare to find someone who was devoted enough to live a life devoid of family and friends for two decades.
Though most of the Protectors held disdain for their trainers, Chloe laughed. “Oh, I hope it’s Dylan. He’s so hot!”
Eva sighed and conceded, “Dylan, who I will admit is muscular and attractive, will be assigned to Kayla. But she– along with the rest of you – will forget that when you’re all climbing up fifty-foot sections of wall in under sixty seconds! He’s a tyrant about the wall! Anyway,” Eva continued. “Zoe and Michael are still shadowing, and the other apprentices will serve in Central.”
“Wait. Who got promoted?” Brie broke her silence and statue-like posture for the second time, staring at Eva intensely. It was enough to put me and everyone else on edge.
“Collin.” She gave Brie a knowing look.
Cassidy opened her mouth just to close it again, Tessa looked up in shock, and Lynn stifled a laugh. Several others protested.
“He’s only shadowed one year!”
“He’s too young, I thought. He’s like nineteen, right?”
“That stinks for Zoe who has three years of shadowing.”
“What the—?”
“Whoa,” Eva shouted holding up her hands. “I’m not Eldridge, who at this moment, is answering all these questions.”
“Okay, but at least he’s shadowed, and with George and Brie. It’s not that big of a deal,” Lydia said though she looked panicked. “Unless I’m with him. Am I with him?”
“Nope,” Eva said.
Everyone froze. I couldn’t wait for someone else to ask.
“Eva,” I stuttered, “who did they assign Collin to?”
“Eldridge assigned Collin to train the 27th Protector of the 188th Generation,” she said pointing at me, “who is now interesting enough to be the center of attention again. Sorry for that, Aislyn, but I just realized there’s food over there. Have fun!”
Everyone else stared at me again, but only one of them spoke their collective thought as my stomach sank.
“She is so going to die.”