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By Shane Jones-Rust https://www

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By Shane Jones-Rust

    It was as if Quincy had been woken from a mindless sleepwalk. His usual routine- roll out of bed, drag himself to the train, force himself to look awake throughout the Academy, come home to paint, feed himself, and sleep- faded away.

     Quincy woke in darkness to meet Leon by streetlight on Path 50. Each day he breathed a bit easier while his heart pounded against cold pavement between burpees. It occurred to Quincy that he was actually competing with Leon, in his mind at least. He couldn't hope to match even half his friend's well-tempered performance. Still, it was the closest phantom of a competition he'd had since his last chess match with his dad. Henry had always enjoyed the thrill of an even match, after being crushed so many times by his brother, Percy.

    The more time Quincy spent next to Elly on the train, on a booster seat of forgotten books, the more he started to notice her around the Academy. They actually crossed paths several times through the day, he realized. Now they caught eyes, even waved and, rarer, smiled. It was enough to keep Quincy somewhat aware through the classes between.

    "Er... Quincy?" even Instructor Frigg seemed hesitant to break what might almost be a stride for him. All the smoldering embers of something good puffed out in the wind when Frigg handed him his Cartography test.

    Two days until Roseyard, was the sole thought in Quincy's head when he tallied up the score. He'd almost passed.


    "Get yourself ready, Famino," Jess slapped his shoulder on the hill over the Roseyard Electrical Plant. Its concrete towers and steel walkways glowed in a dark, grassy cradle, as if what was happening inside was subtle and unimportant. As if it didn't keep a sliver of the Terra Layer alive with solar electricity. The violet night-light of the Beacon glared off a thousand glass panels on its roofs, waiting for morning, when they would collect its rays.  "This is no job for an artist, but we can't have the brains of the operation down there, so you're the best we've got."

    "I'm ready," Quincy lied, "When will we know?"

    "Security changes shift in four minutes. Many Ranks have been relocated closer to Greenknoll, since the detour incident. They figure scheduling the gap in coverage in the dead of night covers their bases. They didn't account for us." Us, Quincy almost scoffed. A brain who doesn't want his bright future, a glorified janitor in the making, and... me. He clutched the cloth in his pocket. His fingers grazed a folded slip of paper with a workout schedule typed out beside it. He cringed as he drew his shark-toothed bandana.

    "Be the bigger monster," Quincy recited the words that'd passed to him with the cloth, while he stretched it over the bridge of his nose. He tried to get angry, to feel like this was justified. But there was no face to put to it. Corel, Percy, Leon, Elly, even Frigg- they didn't want him to fail. No, it was the symbol on the side of the plant that incurred what he needed: the huge X with dots between the slashes inside a diamond. The Supervisors at the Academy. President Veighman and his board. Strand. You did this.

    "They better switch before he loses it," Jess mumbled to herself.

    "That's it. Go," said Aaron. In that heart-stopping second, Quincy's fear and hesitation shrank inside a tiny box inside him. It slammed shut and locked itself. He needed only follow Jess' lead.

    Their shadows zipped through tall reeds of grass in a sickly yellow light, with no one outside to see. Quincy and Jess wove down the hillside to a barbed fence. Jess signaled for him to fall back while she drew a tiny metal hilt from her pocket, engraved with the Strand insignia. A blade flicked out the top. Its edge glowed red with fierce heat. By the time Quincy thought to ask how she'd gotten her hands on it, Jess had already sliced enough chain links to pull part of the fence back. Without a breath to hear, the two slipped beyond where anyone without explicit permission was allowed. They zipped like vipers to the gritty concrete walls of the plant. Quincy arched his neck to stare up the length of a great exhaust tower while Jess knelt by a pipe drooling wastewater from inside.

    "Over there," Jess tapped his arm. Quincy followed her pointing finger to a similar pipe fifty feet down. She handed him a small brick of clay fixed to a wheeled motor. When Quincy felt the weight of it in his hand, he was truly afraid for the first time in years. Since headlights had stirred him from a daydream. He went to the drain and held what appeared to be a shoddy toy car in place. Jess clicked her earpiece on, too late for Strand intelligence to intercept the signal, "Ready," she said to Aaron.

    They knelt in silence while their singular intelligence operative configured the remote for their little clay cars. It'll take about twenty seconds for the blocks to reach the distillers, Aaron had explained to Quincy. Jess nodded at his confirmation and held up three fingers to her partner. His heart froze mid-beat when she dropped to two.

    "Hey!" Quincy was too shocked by the sound to realize the voice was familiar. He and Jess shot a glance up to the Bolt Ranger perched on the edge of the wall above them, then to one another.

    "Go!" Jess belted. She and Quincy shoved their cars inside their respective pipes, which drove in at Aaron's remote control. They dashed for their hole in the fence.  Quincy heard that unmistakable, horrendous metallic friction. Bolt wings. The Ranger slammed into Quincy's back. He came up with the back of his mark's shirt in an iron grip.

    "Back off!" Jess flicked open her heat-knife, poised to strike. Before the clash had a chance to play out, the side of the Roseyard Electrical Plant lit searing white. The explosion flung concrete, the fence, and the three between them, into the fields.

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