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Illustration by Haley Mooney
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    "Check."

    "Merciless..." Quincy mumbled, pulling back the carved wooden King of his chess-piece army, "I thought this was going to be uplifting. Empowering. Not an endless massacre."

    "What's uplifting or empowering about a pity win?" Percy jabbed. His itching fingers hung between his bishop and his knight. Quincy knew it was a matter of turns now. He'd brought this on himself, when he begged his Uncle not to pity him a week ago.

    "Won't get any mercy from the wild-men, eh?" Quincy tried to project his old sarcasm.

    "Or the Nether Ranks," Percy tried to prod, like he wasn't terrified. The facade fell by the time his knight closed in, "They only get paid to protect the Columns. Check." Quincy had been through this floundering, doomed routine enough. He put a finger on the white wooden crown of his tiny monarch.

    "Don't," said Percy, suddenly unfocused on chess.

    "You were always going to win. Every time, with that plate in your brain." For the first time Quincy saw how they were alike in their difference from the other, labor-geared members of their lineage. He wondered if that had anything to do with why Percy stepped down from his role as a Venter Layer lab technician when his brother left a son behind.

    "You still have to fight," he said. Quincy considered it, as a favor to his Uncle, before his King toppled.

    "Not this time," he said, smiling, "But thanks for finding the set for me. I always wondered where Dad kept it." Quincy hadn't seen the gorgeous wood-carved chess set in ten years. It was supposed to be have been graduation present. 

-

    Quincy was on his way to meet Elly when a hand wrenched his shoulder. He winced into a full turn to avoid tearing core muscles with his still misaligned ribs. Quincy heart sunk into them when he faced Leon.

    "Why shouldn't I knock you on your ass?" Quincy forced himself to look his friend in the eye.

    "Can't think of a reason. You probably deserve the first crack most," he said. With white-knuckled fists, he thought Leon might take one.

    "I saw a newscast about the Roseyard     incident," he said instead. The Academy had put on a presentation to snuff the whispers, but only fed the fire with a slow-burning log. It seemed Aaron's endeavor had the intended effect. "Everyone's scared of the arson with the shark-mouth bandanna, but I'm terrified of him. You came to me for help,. Said you wanted to change. Next I hear of you is a crime scene report."

    "You'd have preferred I came and told you?" Quincy knew it was coming- Leon was the only uninvolved person alive who would recognize his disguise. "Taken you down with me?"

    "You didn't seem to have a problem taking those people in the plant down with you." The deep lines on Quincy's face kept Leon a tense fistful away.

    "I pointed a stick at the wrong people. I'll regret it for the rest of my life."

    "I knew Jess and Aaron were no good, but what... what were you going for? Unhinging the hierarchy? Buying yourself time?" Leon drove the wedge in deep, into a spiderwebbed crack like the one from Quincy's nightmare.

    "I wanted it to mean something. My parents, that piece of their coffin in your back, Percy... there had to be a reason. I tried to be somebody, until trying was killing me. I couldn't... I couldn't be anything. But it had to mean something, Leon, it had to. I thought, even if it was just a hiccup in their design, I could stand up to the ones no one will stand up to. That'd be something..." It was more than he meant to let out, and without it, Quincy felt empty.

    "Why'd you wait so long to come to me?" said Leon.

    "Because I never wanted this moment," said Quincy, "You moved ahead while I fell behind... I wasn't about to drag you down." Leon blindsided him with a chuckle.

    "Botched that one up huh?" Quincy had already said too much, but he could afford to laugh with his friend one more time, like they used to.

-

    "You still haven't beaten him?" Elly whined when Quincy shook his head in denial. "I know he's smart and enhanced, but from the way it sounds, I figured he would've lost out of boredom by now!"

    "He's a chess ace," Quincy objected. His legs hung beside hers, off the edge of a rocky ledge. They were a few hundred feet from the invisible Column in Greenknoll's corner of the Tower. As it was now, during Active Hours, they gazed into the illusion of an eternal cloudy sky. It was broken only by the vague lines of a cloaked bridge leading to the cloaked Basal Column. "My dad used to destroy me on that same chess set... he always warned me Percy was even better. How'd your test come back?"

    "Positive," said Elly, "I've got Beacon Fever."

    "Shut up," Quincy laughed, grim as it was, "Really." Since they'd started coming here, through the reedy grass past Greenknoll's even less patrolled east end, she'd hardly mentioned the Academy. Mostly, she just listened to Quincy. She sought always his next tale of now infinite free time, filled with chess losses.

    "I passed," said Elly.

    "You mean you were perfect," Quincy amended.

    "Ninety-seven."

    "Ninety-seven! I've only seen one of those at the end of a price tag!" Quincy laughed. The music of the accompanying chuckle alone made the trip worth it.

    "Can I offer you something I know you don't want?" Elly smiled, eyeing him from the corner.

    "Is that a challenge?"

    "I was issued two tickets to the Sunrise Ball. Do you want one?" Quincy rolled his head towards her.

    "Now why in the hell would I want-

    "To go with me," Elly cut in.

    "Yes," he curled her lips into a smile.

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