Chapter One

The rain seems to be seeping through my body and trickling off the edge of my clothes, each glimmering drop taking a shard of my heart with it as it hits the gravel.

Whoa, stop. That’s way too self-pitying (and a tiny bit pretentious). Here’s how I actually feel, in less faux-poetic language: The rain always puts me in a crummy mood, and right now, waiting for my training to start, I’m cross-eyed trying to follow each raindrop roll off my waterproof hood. There, much better. Language that sounds like me speaking out loud.

As I wait here, I might as well introduce myself. My parents named me Luna at birth, and my brother Soleil. They probably needed more light and warmth and happiness in their lives, badly, and my brother was just that. But when they disappeared, Soleil, the sunshine in that family, did too, and I, the paler sibling, was left behind without the glow of a sun. My uncle saved me though. He took me in and I was peaceful for a few years. And now I go by the name Zeno – his last free gift for me. He—

There’s no time for reminiscences. The training has started. I feel the wires around my hands, around my neck, around my head, start to vibrate, and simultaneously coils of string are snaking into my mind, controlled by someone else and trying to catch one of my loose memories. I imagine putting everything in my head inside a mental box, and then I imagine a miniature version of me, accurate from my messy ponytail down to my worn-out runners, jumping in after my thoughts. I close the lid. Immediately, tendrils of grey smoke, turning into limbs, start to pound on my mental box.

I turn up my nose in the direction of the building. It’s Chopper again. For someone whose name was inspired by a sub-machine gun, I would have expected something more difficult. I’m not sure if it’s my uncle’s orders or if he thinks I’m too weak for anything else, but he never attacks my mind with any real strategy. He always starts with a direct attack, something like punching or kicking the side of my box, and he goes on for a while in the hopes that I might be tired or having a bad day or something. He usually realizes it won’t work within five minutes. Then he rests a bit from all that wasted energy and follows it up with a sneakier attempt when he thinks I’ve let down my guard. He’s so sure that he’s in control, but I often let my box crack or my lid wobble-like now-just to see if he falls for it. He does, like every other time.

Chopper sends in a few tendrils of grey smoke, hard to mentally see, but since I already expect them, I feel their presence acutely. Right before they reach the box, they turn into prying fingers, reaching for the thin crack between the lid and the sides. I let the fingertips pass through, then slam the lid shut. As the severed fingertips dissipate aimlessly, having no mind to direct their purpose anymore, I almost feel his surprise and frustration. In a few weeks, I bet I could win at both roles of the game, attacking and defending. Chopper is my superior, he has been here for two years, and he was hand-picked by my uncle, but he was so easily predictable, so unoriginal. Even now, after only three rotations in this sector, I understand his every move.

I walk out of the training area and back into the mercifully dry data room. I shivered. It was even colder here than in the rain. According to my orientation manual, the temperatures and moisture levels in each training outpost change as soon as its inhabitants begin to get used to the last one. Essentially, everyone is always kept on their feet, and uncomfortably so. I can usually appreciate the genius of such intensive training, but I was wet and now cold, too.

Trying to distract myself, I examine the technology that allowed us to burrow into others’ minds. Our training machines are standard issue, and I heard that there are the clumsiest, least powerful ones here, but I can’t help but marvel at them, layered as they are with loops that interlock in the shapes of circlets and gloves, which flex to fit every size of head and hands. Each shape has wires, thinner than my dark hair, flowing out of it, the strands arranged like tree branches—perfectly planned, as if by nature, in a random order. A sound from behind drags me back to the cold and dreary present, and I quickly turn around. Chopper sits in the corner, unplugging the machinery.

“Good work today,” he says, still busy with the equipment.

I reply cheerfully, pretending not to notice how grudging he sounds. “Thanks. By the way, can you send my results to Her Highness?” Without waiting for his reply, I walk out of the room.

All our training is automatically saved onto the computers and, if chosen, can be delivered within seconds to Her Highness. Her real name, or rather the name she expects to be called, is Grève Tophet, but everyone in the servant and training sectors uses Her Highness, out of respect and, I suspect, a certain fear too. She’s beautiful and intelligent and wealthy and powerful without anyone knowing how she became so, and that leads everyone to assume she’s ruthless and cruel. One thing we do know for sure, though, is that she doesn’t like to be bothered. Anyone can send anything-reports, requests, complaints-to her, but it better be worth her time; otherwise, the sender is fired, sent away, or most often, disappears. I understood the risks better than anyone. My uncle had given me every detail he had before sending me here to earn Her Highness’ trust, and I was not about to fail the only person who had cared about me like a father.

My results have been improving in leaps and bounds, and each new phase was only getting easier. My first weeks in Sector One, half a year ago, had started with the physical conditioning, and I was desperately out of shape. My uncle was more into the smooth and stealthy line of work, so he had only taught me how to slip away and eavesdrop and play tricks on people. I was fast enough and coordinated despite having broad shoulders, but I was far from strong or agile. And my stamina was virtually nonexistent. For weeks, I had to be put on a training schedule of my own that included dodging stunted weapons and 5:30 AM wakeup alarms for an extra hour of running.

Once I had caught up with the rest of my group, I got moved to Sector Two for the strategic training. After the grueling physical challenges, tactics felt like a break. Sector Three was weapons training, and I was finally getting into something fun. I went through everything quickly, but not without a few cuts here and there. My favorite was shooting, especially with revolvers. Knives and daggers weren’t clean enough for my taste, bows and arrows were too cumbersome for a thief, and rifles were just heavy. And don’t even mention clubs or machetes or axes. My most recent move to Sector Four was amazing. Mental training was a breeze, and though I had only been introduced to the mental training a month ago, I could already construct double barricaded walls in two seconds flat. No one has been able to breech it yet, and I’m on my fourth rotation, which means I’ve beaten three opponents already.

I would gloat a bit more, but I have stepped into my room and am watching as Io, the girl I share the place with, untangles herself from my sheets.

She smiles up at me sheepishly. “Welcome back, Zeno. Your bed is just so big and so comfortable and it’s been so cold for the last few days that I couldn’t resist the temptation anymore.” She buries her head back into the sheets. “Sorry. But I’ll probably do it again once you’re gone.”

I almost smile, but then I remember the reason I’m here and bite my lip instead. “You don’t have to apologize,” I tell her. I feel a pang of guilt. She had been friendly and trusting since the first day she came, but I could not afford to make friends here. All too soon, I would have to leave—and betray—them all.

>> Next Chapter >>

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