“There is an incredible spread over here! Why is no one eating this?” Eva said, pointing at the food on the table. “Get carbs while you can!”
“Collin? Really? Can they even do that?” Lynn asked.
I needed answers, so I searched for Brie’s eyes, hoping she would break her silence again. I silently begged her for answers.
She sighed, and said, “Collin is competent. He’s super focused, especially spiritually. He’s a purist. He’s an idealist.”
Tessa interrupted, “Ugh, Eldridge loves him! I wonder if that will change when she doesn’t come back from her first mission,”
The only person I trusted so far was Eldridge, so the fact that Eldridge liked Collin and Tessa didn’t was slightly encouraging.
But only slightly.
Brie continued, “With this being his first year training, you’re both—” someone interrupted with what I guessed was a Republic swear word. Brie ignored them. “At a disadvantage.”
I wanted to defend him or ask more questions, but I was struggling to not to throw up, since it was my only virtue so far¬.
Any hope I had to bridge the gap in training was disappearing, if the person training me was as inexperienced as me. I almost wanted to go downstairs and tell the Council this was a horrible decision and that I wanted Sir Avery instead.
“So,” Eva continued, swallowing her food, “Collin is in the hot seat right now, even though he probably isn’t being allowed to talk, so we might as well eat this not-so-mediocre food for another thirty minutes until we can go to our Circles.”
I felt claustrophobic. I wanted to get out of the room. I’d rather be on a mission in the Republic than stuck here waiting.
“Well,” Lydia said loudly, “I wish I knew what was going on down there, don’t you?”
The silence continued. Tessa and Brie stared at each other, but it was no longer with contempt. Tessa whispered, “C’mon.”
I realized that Lydia’s statement was not a vague wish; it was a challenge.
Eva’s eyebrows jumped up twice, but she remained frozen, waiting on Brie. The only thing to interrupt the tense silence was the tapping made by Cassidy’s foot.
Brie put her hand on her hip. “Don’t get caught.”
“Don’t get caught,” nearly every voice in the room echoed.
Eva spoke quickly. “I’ll get audio with Cassidy. Visual?”
“Yes!” Cassidy shouted and jumped onto the couch.
They moved fast, pulling out what I assumed were portable comms. They pulled two from the side cabinet and synced them. Eva caught a small speaker someone threw at them. They began opening the back of the speaker, exposing the circuit board and cutting one wire to attach it to another. The one wire on the matching comm was cut and fused with a tiny device that Cassidy took from her pocket. A little smoke rose from the tool.
“Is that a…” I started to ask, but then said, “What is that?”
Eva winked. “Miniature soldering iron. Want one?”
All the technique and skill enthralled me. Their proficiency erased any chances I had of catching up to their level. Meanwhile, Tessa kept reading off what sounded like random numbers to Brie who was typing them in an Mobile Computing Unit, or MCU, which I had never seen except in a textbook.
Megan came up from behind me. Trying to be casual, I asked her, “So, this is what you learned at the Academy?”
She sighed. “Some of it. I can’t do it as well as they do. At the Academy, we didn’t need to master all the subjects to succeed. Only Brie and Tessa have mastered it all. A techie might find an opportunity to break in a lab. Another girl’s extended medical knowledge might help her spot a Vessel faster. You will rescue who you were meant to save. That’s what we’re supposed to believe. You should believe it, too. If you do, you’ll be fine.”
I wasn’t sure what to say, but whispered, “Thank you.”
Tessa yelled at Cassidy to try another code. Cassidy punched in three more sets of numbers before her hands went up in triumph. Tessa said, “Confirmed.”
Brie said, “That means they’re done, Eva. And you’re not.”
Eva answered vacantly, “Thanks for that. It’s inspiring me.”
I walked up to Eva, who was still working on the comms, and asked, “Are you sure we should be doing this? We’re not supposed to be there.”
“I hate to break it to you, 27, but in six weeks, we’re all going to be in a place where we aren’t supposed to be. Get used to it.”
She intricately worked her way with the wires on the second comm. Her movements mesmerized me as if they were a thread and needle in my mother’s hands.
I wouldn’t see my mother stitching clothes tomorrow.
I wouldn’t be sewing tomorrow.
I wouldn’t be pricking myself with my needle.
I wouldn’t be giving up on sewing and joining the twins in running around the house with the leftover shreds of ribbon.
A strange, overwhelming rhythm of panic started beating. Everything I thought I was going to do had changed. And not one moment of my life was guaranteed from now on.
“Megan, you got the wall?” Brie called out.
“Yep, on it,” she said, handing Eva back the map. “Brie?”
As I tried to make a mental scan of the map, Megan headed toward the wall. She removed a silver panel that looked like a vent, curled into a ball, and without warning, fell into the black void behind it. The breath in my lungs escaped before I could speak, but Eva threw the comm right through the hole in the wall and I heard Megan say, “Got it!”
“Video?” Eva called out.
“Should be good. Go, Megan,” Tessa said.
Within a few moments, a scratchy voice became recognizable through the receiver, but then dropped back into static, silence, then more voices. I realized Megan was picking up voices from different floors as she dropped past them. The fifth floor was all static, and then Patterson’s voice cut through.
“— in assigning her to Collin. This wasn’t my call, but I stand behind this decision because I believe in his abilities.”
Another voice seemed certain as it interrupted.
“We have shared a concern that everyone is ignoring: that considering her lack of training, this is not faithful or brave, but a silly emotional decision. It is just foolish. We risk her death or even more severe consequences, as Zander stated.”
“What’s up with the video?” Tessa asked. “I want to see if Zander is still there since Avery is quoting her.”
“We can’t hold video very long. They keep scrambling the feed. It must be something the Council does to keep that room secure.”
Lydia sighed. “Their tech is more advanced than at the Academy.”
The curls of Cassidy’s hair bounced each time she hit several keys, whispering, “Work, work, work!”
“This process has existed for years before the Academy started. We need to trust it,” a Council member called out.
Cassidy sighed. Eva must have given up on video because she put her feet up onto Cassidy’s lap as they watched the speaker.
I leaned in as well, feeling my body strain from the effort it took to stay still and not shake so I could hear every word.
“Nor do I doubt Collin’s effectiveness, but this may end…”
There was some static.
Lydia shouted some instructions I barely heard as the voice continued. “—I am just asking for a simple evaluation of Aislyn’s abilities before we assign her a trainer.”
“Tech?” another Council member said. “It must be Tech, right? What else could the girl excel at? I’ve seen her transcript.”
Avery continued, “Regardless, this is reckless. You all know what we’ve been facing of late. Assigning 27 a trainer who doesn’t agree with the changing philosophy of our training is ridiculous.”
I wanted to ask what he had meant by the “changing philosophy of training,” but I wanted to hear his statement more.
“This is another bad choice due to an archaic system. The idea of just one trainer for each apprentice is an ancient and ineffective use of our resources. We need to change or we risk her life! If we had trainers who excelled in each area instead of one—”
The arguments escalated. I was trying to pull a sentence out of the shouts and yells, but all I heard was a few words.
Then something jolted me. The door behind me slid open.
I jumped slightly, turning to see Eldridge in the doorway.
The visual monitor continued to show static, but the voices from the Council echoed throughout the room. No one moved or flinched, except for Eva, who leaned back and smiled.
“Richard, whatever brings you up to our humble waiting room on this fine day?” Eva was so dry and non-reactive it made me want to hit her, but I remained frozen with everyone else.
The High Counselor smiled a wry smile and said, “I told everyone I would come and check on you. But honestly, I left because it seemed they wanted to talk about me behind my back. Are you all having fun yet?”
“Yep, a blast!” Eva said. “Just like they imagine us: bonding and laughing while braiding each other’s hair and talking about how much we will enjoy cauterizing bullet wounds and eating meal bars for weeks on end.”
“Good! And I’ll be happy to report that to the Council. I’ll even throw in that one or two of you are a little uneasy with me picking Aislyn, since this is obviously infuriating Tessa.”
Tessa opened her mouth, yet despite his playful tone, his sudden stern glare stopped her words and she swallowed instead.
“As they’ll probably be talking about how senile I am soon—”
Eerily on cue, there was a sound from the comm of an unknown voice saying, “—if Eldridge hadn’t chosen her in the first place! The man is too old and going mad.”
“Ah, and there it is,” Eldridge said, amid the bellowing accusations that were now defending or attacking him. “Lots of yelling¬… someone says ‘order.’ Yes, well, that’s enough to be going on with. I’m going back down. Have fun!” There was a thud in the wall. “Oh, and tell Megan I stopped to say hello.”
He turned, and the door slid shut behind him with a loud clang. Lydia was the first to say, “Is that normal?”
Everyone looked at Brie who shrugged as Eva said, “Yep.”
Over the comm, the conversation moved on to three tedious minutes of a dull voice reading the law as it pertained to Eldridge’s right to select a Protector and their trainer. Someone then shouted, “That being said, Patterson, is there anything more?”
Patterson sighed into a microphone and said, “To be honest, sir, I think there’s only one person to defer to. Only one.”
There was silence. I wondered if there was some movement we couldn’t hear.
“And how convenient for me,” Eldridge said, now into a microphone, “that I found him pacing in the hall outside. Collin, you have the floor, young man.”
I almost took a step back, but I didn’t know why. No matter how I felt about Collin being my trainer, I could not have wished upon anyone the torture of being in the Council room at that moment.
But my pity didn’t last long. It was burned out by fear.
What if he rejected me? I could only hear his breath, but it sounded sure, focused, and deliberate. I no longer felt nervous that he would be my trainer; I was terrified he wouldn’t want to be.
“Council,” his voice rang out. “Many of you know my convictions, and why I aspired to do this. I have a great amount of faith in the Council and in Eldridge. And faith, by definition, declares nothing to be impossible.”
I noticed that Eva had transformed from playful to focused, with an indistinguishable expression on her face. She closed her eyes as he was speaking. Brie stared at the wall blankly, but she rocked back and forth instead of standing still.
“And if you have declared it impossible, so very impossible that she could even live, let alone succeed, then I have every reason to take on the task of training her, despite every reason not to. I have every reason to try now. While I respect your concerns, I’ll take my shot at the impossible. And I will follow Eldridge’s order and train the 27th Protector of the 188th Generation.”
The breath I let out was too loud for the quiet room, but I didn’t care.
Collin believed I could do this. I might end up hating him, becoming his friend, or both. But I wasn’t alone.
Eldridge’s voice rang out through the room. “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that is settled—and bravely spoken, I might add. The standings remain unaltered. Dismissed.”
There was a loud sound, which I assumed was from a gavel, which called the end of the meeting. Eva went from listening intently with her eyes closed to jumping the sofa, leaping over it and running to the hole in the wall as she shouted out, “Thirty seconds.”
There was a loud sound, which I assumed was from a gavel, that signified the end of the meeting. Eva went from listening intently with her eyes closed to leaping over the sofa and running to the hole in the wall.
“Thirty seconds!” she called.
Everyone moved, as if it were a dance they’d memorized.
“Comm,” Eva yelled. “Cassidy, Reagan, you’re on the wall.”
Eva left the wall and joined Cassidy, who I now realized, was screwing in the final casing to the comm. Someone opened the cabinet as Cassidy and Eva threw the comms over. Megan’s hands came out of the wall first as she pushed herself out to land softly on one knee, like a cat landing on a perch.
Tessa said, “Everyone act natural; don’t mess this up now.”
I put on my best deadpan face, but I could still feel the weight of Collin’s words, as if they were forcing the blood through my body faster. The door opened. A security officer came through followed by Patterson, who stared at the girls and then at me.
“Are they playing nice?”
“Yeah,” I said, more apprehensively than I would have liked.
I was a little shaky. He squinted at me. I realized I could be nervous about a lot of things. A cover story materialized in my mind.
“No really, it’s been fine. But no one could answer my question, sir. It’s just… they all got to see their parents today. Say goodbye, you know. And I didn’t.”
“I said maybe she could see them at the feast,” Brie blurted.
Tessa said, “I think she should see them in a private area to say her goodbyes, especially with her chances.”
Eva and Lynn said their opinions over each other.
Patterson put up one finger, silencing everyone. He turned and said, “Banquet. It won’t be private. I’m sorry, 27, but you can talk to your family instead of sitting up at the head table.” He nodded to his left. “Ladies, you’ll be reporting to your Circles before the banquet, as planned. Sorry for the delay.”
Nobody did anything at first, and I realized they were all waiting for Brie, who moved intently for the door. Tessa jumped up after Brie, still glaring at me. Everyone else naturally went in the order Patterson had called out their names, with Eva passing me last.
“Nice cover, rookie,” she muttered with a wink.
I stood in the empty room. I was never meant to see this room. I was never meant to see a Circle. I felt scared and enthralled all over again, but I knew I might always feel like I did at that moment: alone, confused, and a few steps behind everyone else.