It was that hour of the game when sweat and blood began to rub together, skin sliding on skin, smudging the marks of allegiance and territory and leaving only the grav-band colors to identify the two teams. The audience was global, and the cacophony shocking. Every drop and pull and sink was cursed and celebrated. A mosaic composed of myriad images of frenzied supporters enveloped the Wall in a hemisphere of seething color. Players would occasionally look outward into that mad, tilted sky and add their voices in shouts of triumph or fury, but for the most part they saved their breath for speed.
Adrenaline spiked high in players and spectators alike, pushed by the high risk and higher stakes. This was the best part. It was ruined by unfriendly white light flooding the room and washing out the rich, broad holo projection of seventeen carefully coordinated school slates. Cries of dismay rose up, and as quickly died down again at the sight of the schoolmaster standing in the doorway with a tired expression on his face.
"Boys, you are loud. Go to sleep. You will find out the score in the morning. Caps on, Riley, Kim, and Dee. Caps straight, Pareti and Sajanettan. Put away those slates. Let all be in proper order before I leave this place. You—Abowen, Abyowan, however your name's pronounced. Aren't you the new Saturday boy?"
The master's voice was a marvel. It started at a resentful mutter, swelled to stern command, and concluded with a sharp, querying snarl directed at a student who was standing casually at the edge of the room. The boy looked as if he had been hoping—no, expecting— to be overlooked. The sudden question startled him badly.
"Yes, but?.?.?.?it's Friday." Now he looked bewildered.
"Not anymore; it's midnight. You know who I am, don't you? My sister teaches you Telecoms and Transfers."
"Of course I know," the boy replied, oddly offended. "I'm not that new."
The master's expression turned suspiciously mild. "Barely a year, big school, high staff turnover with some teachers you know of but never see face-to-face—it wouldn't be surprising if you didn't know the connection. My office, east wing, nine tomorrow morning."
The room had settled down. Leaving the Saturday boy to worry whether the appointment was for work or punishment, the master scanned the dormitory and, finding it relatively neat and its denizens subdued, gave a brief, approving nod.
"Lights out," he said, closed the door, and set off without a backward look. The slow fade would give them all plenty of time to get into bed.
He jogged down the corridor with as much haste and dignity as could be managed on too many sedentary years and a creaky ankle. "Loud," he grumbled to himself. "Pestilential interference is the problem. A seventeen-slate array! Selfish, unthinking poppets!"
The lift tower at the corner of east and south was illuminated solely by the starlight from its long, narrow windows, but he stepped onto the lift pad with the sixth sense of familiarity and gave it a solid stamp. It carried him up to the second level as he muttered, this time with a touch of admiration, "Enterprising little moujins. Galia will be proud."
Their lodgings were at the opposite end of the wing from his office. He had insisted. Life was too complicated without maintaining a few artificial boundaries. Galia did not have an office; she did not need one. She stayed in their small set of rooms, keeping mainly to the large study. He called it a study. Most visitors simply called it?.?.?.?strange. The walls were full of fixed shelves, the upper air dangled leashes from a couple of floating shelves, and nothing touched the wooden floor but Galia's own feet and her old-fashioned walking stick. She stood leaning on it, considering a slate propped on a shelf opposite her. It was silently broadcasting a small flat-view of that same match he had shut down in the north wing first-level boys' dormitory.
"In, Silyan," she told him as he hesitated in the doorway. The brief exchange said everything about which sibling was elder and dominant.
The floor of the study had a pleasing give, a slight bounce. He enjoyed it. It was how his feet knew he was at home. Galia turned away from the slate, and the movement of her considerable mass sent a familiar pulse through the floor: the sharp vibration of walking stick and the low-amplitude surge of the shifting from left foot to right.
"Image improved. Well done. How many?"
She acknowledged the feat with a nod and a minor show of her dimples. "Sometimes they pay attention."
She tapped her cane. Two other slates switched on from their stations on the walls. There was a momentary blur, and then the full holo coalesced in the center of the room, filling it almost to the ceiling. Her brother's eyes went wide from the sheer impact of the holo's size and fine-grained detail. He silently watched both the game and Galia's concentration. He would have been making notes, looking up strategies, anything to keep a proper sense of what was going on rather than superficially enjoying the speed and skill of the players, but she was far above him and only her mouth moved as she whispered numbers and formulae to herself.
A sadness as sudden and deep as a Punartam double sunset fell over his spirit. "Are you so sure? Are they so sure?"
Galia was untouched by any doubt. "What else is there to do?"
They balanced each other, moments bound by a shared pivot point—blood, ability, and a common prison. The more information they received, the more certain she became; the greater the potential for success, the more his terror grew that they would fail. Hope for a distant dream was sweeter, gentler, and easier to bear than hope on the blade-edge of freedom or utter disaster. At different times they kept each other from despair. She looked at him with a small smile that teased him for his cold feet and sparked enough of the old sibling rivalry to fire up his courage again.
"I have not moved or fought," she said, "but standing still is not surrender. Look at the players. It's about timing. It is always about timing. You must move when the circumstances are right or you will fall. Look at the strategists. They stand still and hold the reins. Sometimes we are players and sometimes we are strategists."
Silyan looked. Anyone could understand the game with a glance. Players ran and climbed and slid from the base of the Wall to the top. They obstructed their opponents and carried their mates. They moved together as closely as possible; a scattered team lost weight and leverage in more ways than one. They tried to tilt the Wall in their favor, making it easy for even the weakest to reach the goal. That was the game at first glance, and many supporters needed no more to enjoy their wins and mourn their losses. For those who knew, there was more, much more. For example, how a certain concentration and configuration of players could tilt the Wall against the other team, or how the sudden shifts of gravity might cause not merely a fall but even, in the case of a slow or unskilled player, a dangerous shear that could rip limb from body. Most of all, the true aficionados knew that the key to the game was in the hands of the strategists, a pair of players who never ran or climbed but stood before the Wall, working at low-slanted grids on easels and orchestrating the moves of their team with pre-programmed maneuvers coordinated through the push and pull of grav-bands on their wrists. One commentator described it as holding the reins for an entire derby of horses while trying to keep them from trampling one another, running off the track, or colliding with the rails.
Silyan had never ridden a horse, but he had kept order in a dormitory of fifty boys of varying parapsychological and physical abilities. The reins were long enough and strong enough that he could, as Galia said, stand still and manipulate them with knowledge and timing alone.
There was hazard too. A player on the Wall might run the risk of shear or a tumble to the base with no hope of medical assistance until the traditional whistle for game-over, but a strategist captain and his deputy were the only ones who faced consequences after the final whistle, consequences that could be as trivial as a brief loss of credit, or as permanent as dismissal and dishonor.
Silyan and Galia had no credit to lose, and dismissal, whether under cloud or glory, would have been a gift. So they stayed, he anxious, she calm, both awaiting a shift of forces that could tilt the Wall in their favor.
In the end, he was the one who almost forgot the morning appointment with the Saturday boy. It had been a late night, watching and pondering the game, and he had not slept well, watching and pondering his dreams. It was fifteen minutes before nine when he came to his office, not for the appointment but to re-read some recent articles from Punartam. He was not fully the schoolmaster, still rumpled and too-comfortable in an old tunic and a frayed but warm mantle to shield him from the chill of the building's thick, ancient stone. The knock on the door startled him upright from his recliner, disorienting him from a reality of formats and formulae until he remembered who and where he was and shouted permission for the boy to enter.
The door opened.
"Master," the boy greeted him. There was deference in the lowered head, but his eyes were cautious and his jaw tense as if, though no longer a novice, he still did not know what to expect.
"Sit." He made the command friendly, but his eyes kept a close watch on the boy as he sat on a chair beside a table with breakable things like confiscated games, old-model slates, and half-full pesto jars, and in the middle of it all an intricate game strategy board wedged between two slates and a stack of old books.
"Rafi Abowen Delarua. You've spent a full year at the Lyceum, now. How are you faring?"
The reply was pleasingly blunt, if typical. "It's boring. I could cover twice the work in half the time on the homestead."
"I know," murmured Silyan. "It's almost as if we wanted to keep you here for as long as possible." He met Rafi's suddenly horrified stare with an amused gaze.
"Your mother and sister have moved to Tlaxce City," he continued. "Your grandmother is away most weekends—sailing season on Tlaxce Lake, I understand. These are not, however, the only reasons you are now a Saturday boy.
"You've been with us for a while and?.?.?.?well?.?.?.?we can't quite figure you out, Abowen. You're not helping. You don't speak to the school therapists, you're friends with no one but friendly to everyone, and you're ordinary. You overdo ordinariness. You wouldn't be here if you were ordinary, Abowen. What are you keeping from us?"
The boy blinked at him and said nothing. Anger, fear, uncertainty?.?.?.?what was the origin of that tension that kept his face so still? It was impossible to tell.
Silyan sighed. "We will have to cap you."
"No," Abowen replied instantly. "I won't accept it."
"Ah, there's the problem. We do need your permission. You haven't done anything wrong, after all. Boy, where do you think you are?"
The master pressed on. "A school? A prison? A hospital?"
"Is there a choice?" Abowen retorted.
"There is," Silyan said gravely, "and I encourage you to choose wisely. The Lyceum has one mandate: to bring together all the rogue and random psi-gifted of Cygnus Beta and teach them ethics, restraint, and community. In that we are supported by Central Government and some of the oldest Ntshune families on the planet. If you need help, let us help you. Prove you're not dangerous and show us what you can do. If you want to learn, you can learn from us."
Abowen studied the mess on the table and began fidgeting with the strategy board. Silyan did not stop him. He suspected that there were tears on the boy's averted face. "You like the game?"
He nodded and cleared his throat before saying in a steady voice, "We call it snakes and ladders." He smiled. "No one else calls it that."
"Messenger, Wallrunning, Cliffchase," Silyan listed. "Of course the original name in Traditional Ntshune is unpronounceable unless you're very musical, but it roughly translates as 'messenger.'?"
"?'Those who go before,'?" Abowen corrected quietly. "?'Vanguard,' perhaps? Or 'herald.'?"
Silyan watched as he flicked the flags and pins into a common formation and then quickly disassembled the grouping with a tap to the corner of the grid. "Forerunner," he said and added, "Do you play?"
"Never in real life," Abowen said, looking up at him with clear eyes and a calm expression.
"Would you like to?"
His eyes widened. "With the Dailies? I'm not that good."
"They won't mind someone stumbling around during training drills. It'll keep them alert at least."
"They'll never accept someone with a cap."
"Wear it after hours and don't tell them."
Abowen looked at the strategy board again, his gaze distant and dreaming. He glanced, frowning, at the walls of the room, then met Silyan's eyes. "I'll take the bribe and the cap. But what does the cap do?"
"That depends on you, boy. That entirely depends on you. Go get your cap, and come back at two—no, make that three. I'll find some work for you to do."
The door to the schoolmaster's office opened and closed and there was my dear and callow friend Rafi, also known as Moo, unscathed by all appearances, but very strange-faced, as if he had a lot of excitement that he didn't know what to do with. Then he saw me and went all-angry with no doubts.
"Tinman, what in all blasted Earth are you doing in halls on a Saturday?" he said, shouting with his hands, whispering with his mouth.
"Making sure the master doesn't disappear you. It's happened before, you know."
Moo hustled me 'round the corner with his fist wrapped up in my sleeve. "They'll disappear you."
"Calm down, you're all aflitter. Come down to the back gate. I flew. No nav, no trace."
He opened his mouth, he shut his mouth. He tried again. "You what?"
"Flew. Padr got me an aerolight to celebrate my ageday. Two-seater. Scared? It's higher than an elephant's eye."
He thumped my shoulder. "Never scared! But I can't. I've just agreed to be capped."