My test comes after two months of training my mind with Dancer. I do not memorize. I do not even really learn when with him. Instead, his training is designed to help my mind adapt to paradigm shifts. For instance, if a fish has 3,453 scales on its left side and 3,453 on its right side, which side of the fish has the most scales? The outside. They call it extrapolational thinking. It was how I knew that I should eat the scythe card when I first met Dancer. I am very good at it.
I find it ironic that Dancer and his friends can create a fake history for me, a fake family, a fake life, but they cannot fake my admittance test. So, three months after my training begins, I take the test in a bright room next to a noisy mouse of a Goldbrow girl who incessantly taps her stylus on a jade bracelet. She may be part of the test for all I know. When she’s not looking, I snatch the stylus from her fingers and hide it down my sleeve. I am a Helldiver of Lykos. So yes, I can steal a stupid girl’s stylus without her knowing anything about it. She gawks around as if magic has been done. Then she begins to whine. They don’t give her another stylus, so she runs out in tears. Afterward, the Penny Proctor looks at his datapad and rewinds a video from a nanoCamera. He looks at me and smiles. Such traits are apparently admirable.
A Golden razor blade of a girl disagrees and sneers “Cutter” in my ear as she slices past me in the hall outside. Matteo told me not to speak to anyone because I am not yet ready to socialize, so I barely bite back a very Red reply. Her words linger. Cutter. Cutthroat. Machiavellian.
Ruthless. They all describe what she thinks of me. Funny thing is, most Golds would see the term as an accolade.
A musical voice addresses me.
“I think she actually just paid you a compliment. So don’t mind her. She’s pretty as a peach, but she’s all rotten inside. I took a bite once, if you catch my flow. Tasty, then putrid. Fantastic grab in there, by the by. I was about to rip that ninny’s eyes from her skull myself. Damnable tapping!”
The shining voice comes from a young man torn from Greek verse. Arrogance and beauty drip off of him. Impeccable breeding. I’ve never seen a smile so wide and white, skin so smooth and lustrous. He’s all I despise.
He claps me on the shoulder and grasps my hand in one of the several ways of semiformal introduction. I squeeze slightly. He has a firm grip too, but when he tries to establish dominance, I squeeze his hand till he jerks it back. A flash of worry in his eyes.
“By God, your hand is like a vise!” He chuckles. He calls himself Cassius very quickly, and I’m lucky he gives me little time to speak, because his brow wrinkles when I do. My accent is still not perfect.
“Darrow,” he repeats. “Well, that’s quite the off Color name. Ah …” He looks at his datapad, pulling up my personal history. “Well, you come from no one at all. A farplanet hayseed. No wonder Antonia sneered your way. But listen, I’ll forgive you for it if you tell me how you fared on the test.”
“Oh, you’ll forgive me?”
His brows knit together. “I’m trying to be kind here. We Bellonas aren’t reformers, but we know that good men can come from low origins. Work with me, mate.”
Because of the way he looks, I feel a need to provoke him.
“Well, I daresay I expected the test to be more difficult. I might have missed the one about the candle, but besides that …”
Cassius watches me with a forgiving grin. His lively eyes dance over my face as I wonder if his mother coils his hair with golden irons in the morning.
“With hands like yours, you must be a terror with the razor,” he says leadingly.
“I’m fair,” I lie. Matteo won’t let me touch the thing.
“Modesty! Were you raised by the Whitecowls, man? Never mind, I’m off to Agea after the physical tests. Join me? I hear the Carvers have done some splendid work with the new ladies at Temptation. And they just had gravfloors installed at Tryst; we can float about without gravBoots. What say you, man? Does that interest you?” He taps one of his wings and winks. “Plenty of peaches there. None of them rotten.”
“Unfortunately, I cannot.”
“Oh.” He jumps as if just remembering I’m a farplanet hayseed. “Don’t worry about it, my goodman, I’ll pay and all that.”
I politely decline, but he’s already moving on. He taps my datapad before he leaves. The holoscreen cast over the inside of my left arm flickers. The dimensions of his face and information about our conversation are left behind—the address for the clubs he spoke of, the encyclopedic reference for Agea, and his family’s information. Cassius au Bellona, it reads. Son of Praetor Tiberius au Bellona, Imperator of the Society’s Sixth Fleet and perhaps the only man on Mars to rival ArchGovernor Augustus in power. Apparently the families hate one another. Seems like they have a nasty habit of killing each other off. Baby pitvipers indeed.
I thought I would be frightened of these people. I thought they would be little godlings. But aside from Cassius and Antonia, many are unimpressive. There are only seventy in my testing room. Some look like Cassius. But not all are beautiful. Not all are tall and imperious. And very few strike me as men and women. For all their physical stature, they are children with exaggerated senses of self-worth; they don’t know hardship. Babies. Pixies and Bronzies, mostly.
They test my physical properties next. I sit naked in an airchair in a white room as the Copper testers of the Quality Control Board watch me through nanoCams. “Hope you’re getting a good look,” I say.
A Brown worker comes in and applies a pinch to my nose. His eyes are blank. No fight in this one, no contempt for me. His skin is pallid and his movements awkward and clumsy.
I am instructed to hold my breath as long as my lungs will allow. Ten minutes. Afterward, the Brown removes the clamp and leaves. Next, I’m to take a breath and exhale. I do and realize there is suddenly no oxygen in the chamber. When I start to tilt in my seat, the oxygen returns. They freeze the room and measure how long it takes for me to shiver
uncontrollably. Then they heat it to see when my heart begins to struggle. They amplify the grav in the room till my heart can’t push sufficient blood and oxygen to my brain. Then they see how much motion I can take till I vomit. I’m used to riding a ninety-meter drill, so they have to give up.
They measure the flow of oxygen to my muscles, the beats of my heart, the density and length of my muscle fibers, the tensile ratings of my bones. It’s like a walk in the park after my hell with Harmony.
They have me throw balls, then line me up against a wall and ask me to stop small balls that they shoot at me with a circular machine. My Helldiver hands are faster than their machine, so they bring in a Green techie to adjust the thing till it’s shooting veritable rockets. Eventually, I’m hit with a ball in the forehead. I black out briefly. They measure that too.
An eye, ear, nose, and mouth test later and I am done. I feel vaguely distant from myself after the test. Like they measured my body and my brain but not me. I’ve had no personal interactions except that one with Cassius.
I stumble into the locker rooms, sore and confused. There’s a couple others changing, so I take my clothes and move along to a more discreet section of the long rows of plastic lockers. Then I hear a strange whistling. A tune I know. One that echoes through my dreams. The one Eo died to. I follow the sound and come upon a girl changing in the corner of the locker room. Her back is to me, muscles lean as she dons her shirt. I make a noise. She turns suddenly, and for an awkward moment, I stand there blushing. Golds are not supposed to care about nudity. But I can’t help my reaction. She’s beautiful—heart-shaped face, full lips, eyes that laugh at you. They laugh like they did as she rode away on the horse. It’s the same girl who called me a Pixie when I rode the pony.
One of her eyebrows arches upward. I don’t know what to say, so, in a panic, I turn and walk fast as I can out of the locker rooms.
A Gold wouldn’t have done that. But as I sit with Matteo on the shuttle as it ferries us back home, I remember the girl’s face. She blushed too.
It is a short flight, not long enough. I watch Mars through the duroglass floor. Though the planet is terraformed, vegetation is sparse along our flightpath. The planet’s surface is streaked with ribbons of
green in its valleys and around her equator. The vegetation looks like green scars that cut across her pocked surface.
Water fills her impact craters, creating grand lakes. And the Borealis basin, which stretches across the northern hemisphere, brims with fresh water and teems with bizarre marine life. Great plains where dust devils gather cloaks of topsoil and tear through croplands. Storms and ice rule the poles where the Obsidians train and live. The weather there is said to be brutal and cold, though temperate climes are prevalent throughout much of Mars’s surface now.
There are one thousand cities on Mars, each ruled by a Governor, the ArchGovernor presiding over all. Each city is set in the center of a hundred mining colonies. The Governors manage these colonies, with the individual MineMagistrates like Podginus overseeing the day-to-day.
With so many mines and so many cities, it was chance, I suppose, that brought the ArchGovernor to my home with his camera crew. Chance and my position as a Helldiver. They wanted to make an example out of me; Eo was an afterthought. And she would not have sung if the ArchGovernor had not been there. Life’s ironies are not charming.
“What will the Institute be like if I get in?” I ask Matteo as I peer out the window.
“Full of classes, I imagine. How should I know?” “Is there no intel?”
“No?” I ask.
“Well, some, I suppose,” Matteo admits. “Three sorts of people graduate: the Peerless Scarred, the Graduates, and the Shamed. The Peerless can ascend in society; the Graduates can as well, but their prospects are relatively limited and they still must earn their scars; and the Shamed are sent to the distant, hard colonies like Pluto to oversee the first years of terraforming.”
“How does one become a Peerless?”
“I imagine there is some sort of ranking system; perhaps a competition. I do not know. But the Golds are a species built upon conquest. It would make sense if that were to be part of your competition.”
“How vague.” I sigh. “You’re as helpful as a legless dog sometimes.” “The game, goodman, in Gold society is patronage. Your actions in the
Institute will serve as an extended audition for that patronage. You need
an apprenticeship. You need a powerful benefactor.” He grins. “So if you want to help our cause, you’ll do as bloodydamn well as you can. Imagine if you became an apprentice to a Praetor. In ten years’ time, you could be a Praetor yourself. You could have a fleet! Imagine what you could do with a fleet, my goodman. Just imagine.”
Matteo never speaks about such flights of fancy, so the excitement in his eyes is contagious. It makes me imagine.