From visionary author C. T. Rwizi comes the epic journey of four people on a distant planet who face the ultimate test of loyalty, friendship, and duty in the rising tide of war.
A corporate aristocracy descended from Africa rules a colony on a distant planet.
Life here is easy—for the rarified and privileged few. The aristocrats enjoy a powerful cybernetic technology that extends their life spans and ensures their prosperity. Those who serve them suffer under a heavy hand.
But within this ruthless society are agents of hope and change. In a secret underwater laboratory, a separatist cult has created a threat to the aristocracy. The Primes are highly intelligent, manipulative products of genetic engineering, designed to lead a rebellion. Enabling their mission are the Proxies, the Primes’ bodyguards and lifelong companions bound to their service.
When the cult’s hideout is attacked, Proxies Nandipa and Hondo rush to the rescue. As they emerge with their Primes onto the surface, however, everything they’d been led to believe about their world is shattered.
Nandipa and Hondo will risk it all to honor their oath of absolute loyalty. But when the very people they’re tasked to protect turn on each other, the Proxies must decide between those they were built to serve and the freedom to carve out their own destinies. And the fate of their planet may rest in their choice.
Release date: April 1, 2023
Print pages: 391
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House of Gold
C. T. Rwizi
Tick, tick, tick.
My eyes drift to one of my twenty-four siblings, who are waiting with me outside the War Room, and I’m reminded yet again of why I hate that word. Sibling. She and I are not genetically related. None of us are. I certainly don’t like to think of her as a sister. But that is how we were raised: as equals, counterparts, rivals. Siblings.
She notices me staring, and a slight frown visits her face. I look away.
There’s a clock ticking on the cement wall behind me, a curious anachronism the Custodians say once hung in the office of some consequential leader back on the Old World. I feel the movement of its little analog gears like a musical beat inside my head. A pleasant sound, even though each tick should remind me I’m a step closer to what I know will be the end.
Because a month from now, I will be recycled.
Tick, tick, tock.
I sneak another glance at Nandipa, my not-sibling. She has a look of deep concentration as she watches the simulation unfold on the other side of the glass windows separating us from the octagonal War Room. I catch myself wishing I could brush the cloud of hair around her face, that I could make her smile at me the way I’ve seen her smile at Benjamin, that she would laugh as she watched me strangle Benjamin until his dead eyes bulged and . . .
And I should probably go see Counselor to find out exactly what’s wrong with me. Something has been wrong with me for a while now, I think.
I look away again, and the clock keeps ticking. I would be afraid if the fear of endings had not been rigorously trained out of me. But people like me, people like my Prime—we were born for endings. Our existence is a temporary and carefully controlled deviation from the norm. Expies, they call us. As in experimentals. Our purpose is to stress test the durability and social cohesion of the more established genetic lines, and judging by the numbers on the all-important scoreboard inside the War Room, our usefulness is almost at an end.
My Prime, Jamal, is in session in the War Room with his two dozen siblings, seated at a round conference table where the hologram of a world map hovers at their center. Every year the Primes begin a fresh war game as leaders of their own geopolitical domains on a new hypothetical planet, a patchwork of colors spread out across the map. But as the game progresses, the colors bleed into each other, uniting, conquering, forming strategic alliances. These games are what the Primes were built for.
My siblings and me? We were built for the Primes.
As always, today we watch their game of empires from outside the glass War Room, keeping one eye on the players and the other eye on each other. A digital scoreboard in the room tallies the victories and losses accrued
throughout the year, ranking the Primes from first to last.
I’m no dimwit, I don’t think, but I understand what’s going on in only the most basic sense. Sophisticated programs simulate the behavior of populations and armies, as well as individual generals, diplomats, politicians, and even assassins. Throughout the year the Primes pit their respective forces against one another in a scramble for influence. Send an assassin program to dispatch a rival general, and if you succeed, you earn influence. Get caught, and the game turns against you.
It’s about getting the timing right; knowing where you’re vulnerable, where to protect yourself, where to deploy your resources; knowing who to bribe, who to ally yourself with, who to betray.
And all the while, the scoreboard watches, keeping a tally that will doom whoever ultimately falls short.
Jamal’s name has been sitting at the bottom of that tally for months now, and any hopes he might escape from that hole were squandered long ago.
I know what this means for the both of us. Jamal knows, too, but he’s been more reckless than usual this year, bent on being contrary, thriving on the frustration of his siblings. While they were jockeying for influence, forming competing axes of power that grew to span the globe, he cornered a small but strategically vital patch of land and sealed it off from the rest of the map, nurturing an insular but self-sufficient population protected behind impenetrable defenses, firewalls, and the threat of mutually assured destruction.
No one has dared to attack him.
Unfortunately, seeing as the war games are about questing for influence, not hunkering down, the scoreboard has not been impressed. And now there’s a stalemate between the two main coalitions, both of which need his cooperation to win.
“Give it up, Jamal,” says Chairman David, the room’s holograms casting a greenish film across his broad face. “I’ll give you thirty points if you concede. Thirty points. Think about it. You’ll have a fighting chance
to save yourself.”
David has been chair for the past three years, winning every game since the Custodians began the first simulation the year we all turned sixteen. He has the charisma and physique of a team captain from one of those soccer vids from the Old World. He smiles a lot. Likes the sound of his own voice. I heard his genetic profile came from a long-dead leader of the United Nations. His Proxy, Benjamin, is almost a carbon copy of him. He smiles a lot too. Likes to tell the rest of us what to do, and most of the other Proxies follow his lead.
Sanctimonious pricks, the both of them.
“Make it three hundred and I’ll consider it,” Jamal says in the War Room, getting a few snickers from his siblings and a few more from those of us watching outside.
I glance at the scoreboard. Three hundred extra points would put him halfway up the rankings, leaving the second-lowest score to take the fall. But the owner of that score happens to be a member of David’s coalition, and knowing the chairman, he’s not letting one of his own get recycled.
“No one sane would give you that much,” David growls at Jamal. “No one has to give you anything, in fact. We could end the game now and we’d all be safe, except for you. I’m doing you a favor.”
“How very thoughtful of you,” Jamal ripostes. “But if you end the game now, you lose the chair.” He grins lopsidedly, eyeing the scoreboard, where David’s name is currently second from the top. The name holding the place of honor belongs to the leader of David’s rival coalition, and she has been very quiet today. “Or,” Jamal offers, “I could concede to you, and you could keep your winning streak, all for the low sum of three hundred points. I’d be doing you a favor.”
David’s eyes find Paul, the high-strung owner of that second-lowest score, whose shoulders stiffen. Paul looks up at the silent shadows watching from behind the windows on a second floor, our ever-present and often faceless Custodians, and a touch of fear makes his lips tremble. He shakes his head at David, his face almost pleading.
“You know I can’t do that,” David finally says, words spoken as a sigh.
“Then I guess I’ll have to congratulate future Chairwoman Clarice.” Jamal’s cunning
gaze latches on to the young woman across the round table. “I hope, future Chairwoman, as you celebrate your imminent victory, you’ll make a toast in my name. To honor my memory.”
Even in the standard-issue sky-blue jumpsuit we all wear every day, Clarice has the stature and bearing of royalty. I wouldn’t be surprised if some genetic ancestor of hers was a queen.
She bares her teeth. “Don’t address me, Rat. I have nothing to say to you.”
Jamal stopped taking offense to that particular epithet years ago. In fact, the only thing it ever does is embolden him. His grin sharpens with cynical amusement. “A marvelous strategy. Keep me at arm’s length. Don’t look like you’re cozying up to me too much. Otherwise people might start thinking we’re working together. Or . . . are we?” He winks at David, which makes Clarice fume.
“Why are we tolerating this?” she demands, glaring at the rest of the room. “He’s hijacked the simulation. He’s been a constant source of division and disruption all our lives, and we finally have the chance to get rid of him. I say we take it. At this point his absence would be a greater good than any chair.”
“Agreed,” says a nervous Paul. “Jamal has the lowest score. He should be the one to take the fall.”
I can’t help but snort. How transparently desperate. Paul’s Proxy hears me and throws me a dirty look. I grin at him until he looks away.
“Yes, Chairman David,” drawls my Prime in the War Room. “Concede. Help future Chairwoman Clarice get rid of me. But of course, if she was so devoted to the greater good, she could simply concede herself and let you declare the game over.”
“A fair point,” David says thoughtfully. “Are you willing to concede, Clarice? For the greater good?”
“Go to hell, the both of you,” Clarice throws back, and Jamal’s eyes glitter with smugness.
“And thus we return to where we began,” he says. “Three hundred points for the chair
, David. No more, no less.”
When the day’s session ends, I wait outside the War Room for Jamal. Most of the Primes walk out in pairs or in groups, their Proxies falling in silently behind them. I keep my gaze studiously on the floor as Nandipa passes by with her Prime. Jamal is alone when he joins me, the look on his face the usual blend of pride and resentment.
He and I actually share genetic material, so in many ways, we are alike. We are both lean, long limbed, and sharp featured, though the people of the Old World might have thought him North African by the lightness of his skin and the slickness of his curly hair, whereas I am more strongly descended from the ancient Maasai and the rebel fighters of millennial Uganda.
I used to think Jamal was jealous of David and the other Legacies—the regal Clarice, the silently intelligent Adaolisa, the smooth and elegant Moussa, who are each, unlike us, the progeny of highly successful genetic lines refined by the Custodians over many generations. I used to think he hated existing solely to test them, living with the knowledge that his own line would not continue past him.
If only it were so simple. Jamal’s resentment and discontent go well beyond his siblings to the very foundations of the Habitat, a dangerous mindset to have in a place where disobedience can make you vanish.
“I’m beginning to think being recycled would be preferable to another day of this bullshit,” he mutters as he joins me.
By reflex I look around the hallway to check if anyone overheard him. “Be careful, Jamal,” I say in a low voice. “The Custodians could be listening.”
“You worry too much,” he says dismissively, stretching the muscles of his neck. Then he frowns as he looks at me. “What’s got you so worked up anyway? I’ve felt nothing but tension from you all day long.”
How can he not know? I was built to care for him beyond anything else in the world
, beyond even myself, and now I have to live with the knowledge that in a few weeks, he will die. How can he, of all people, not see it on my face? “It’s nothing,” I say.
He scowls but holds his tongue when we notice David approaching us with Benjamin in tow. We’re of a similar height, but those two wear their jumpsuits like princely supermen, and unlike us, they are almost identical in appearance.
Benjamin eyes me the whole time. I watch him back. The way he’s built, he could probably snap me in half. But I know I’d slit his throat before he ever got the chance.
“Stop being unreasonable, Jamal,” David says. “Thirty points would put you just fifteen off from Paul. He’s an ally, but I can’t protect him if you beat him fairly, and I know you’re smart enough to make up the difference with a little luck. It’s your best chance.”
“It’s a shit chance, and you know it,” Jamal replies. “No way in hell I’m closing that gap in less than a month. I’ve given you my terms. What happens next is up to you.”
An ill-tempered sentiment crosses David’s noble features. He glances at me, then back at Jamal. “So you’d let your Proxy face recycling just to spite me, is that it?”
“Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t mind.”
David’s frown deepens. “You realize you’ll be right next to him, don’t you?”
“I don’t mind either,” Jamal says blithely. “It’ll be a nice change of pace. I’m getting bored with these games, to be honest.”
When David glances my way again, I smirk.
Disgusted, he tugs h
is Proxy away. “Let’s go, Benjamin. These two are hopeless. Fucking expie rats,” he adds under his breath, just loud enough for us to catch it.
“I could kill them both if you want,” I suggest to Jamal as we watch them go, and I’m not completely sure I’m joking.
“I’ll not have you waste a single breath on that hypocrite. He’s not worth the dust on your shoes.” Jamal considers me again. “But you’re not actually worried, are you? About the Big R? Is that why you’re so on edge?”
I could lie. He’d know, but he wouldn’t push it. “I don’t want you to die,” I answer honestly.
“And I’m not going to die, you idiot! Neither will you. Do you really think I’d gamble your life away? We’re getting those points, Hondo. Someone is taking the fall, but it won’t be us.”
“How?” I ask. “David wants the chair, but he’s not the type to betray an alliance.”
“Like I’ve told you before, what David wants is irrelevant. It’s the person pulling his strings I’m counting on, and I know she’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
I still can’t imagine David being under anyone’s control, but the Primes were engineered for the War Room, and even though I can sometimes follow their choices and predict their moves, their games are ultimately beyond my ken. My sole purpose is to keep Jamal safe and let him do the thinking. I should trust him implicitly.
I nod. “As you say.”
He pats me on the shoulder. “Good. Now, why don’t we go release that tension I sense inside you? I’m sure you’ll feel better after you hit something.”
“If we spar today, I’ll hurt you,” I warn him. “I’m too wound up.”
“I can take it. Just . . . go easy on me, okay?”
I nod, but we both k
now that I won’t.
One side of the gymnasium is a thick layer of reinforced transparent polycarbonate. An ocean of pale-blue water presses up against the glass-like material, clear enough that the other sectors of the Habitat are visible as beehives of titanium, glass, and lights rising out of the seabed.
The story goes our ancestors left Africa on Old Earth centuries ago, crossing a long-range jump gate to a distant arm of the Milky Way and settling the habitable worlds scattered across what they called the Tanganyika star cluster. They came to this world and named it Ile Wura, House of Gold, for its richness in natural resources. They settled on Tripoli V, the moon of a gas giant orbiting a gentle star. They settled on New KwaNdebele, Mawu-Lisa, Élysée Bleue, and several other planets and moons, building cities and nations that grew prosperous enough to compete with those on the older colonies closer to Sol.
But not even a century after their arrival to Tanganyika, their civilization fell prey to
the spread of cybernetic technologies. Once-promising societies devolved into brutal and oppressive regimes run by cybernetically enhanced tyrants.
On some worlds, like ours, the blight of cybernetics was so vicious it manifested as an actual disease, turning anyone it infected into a mindless and dangerously violent beast. The Custodians, geneticists who’d settled on Ile Wura and despised all manner of cybernetic technology, found themselves the only people unaffected by the plague and soon became the last keepers of knowledge in an increasingly vicious and illiterate world.
As Ile Wura descended into further madness, the Custodians built a subaquatic refuge and retreated from the chaos on the surface, and it was there that they began the Program: a plan to breed leaders strong and capable enough to defeat the cybernetic plague and its tyrants and restore our lost society to its uncorrupted state.
Jamal and I were gestated together in the twenty-fifth tank of the conception ward, over in the children’s sector of the Habitat. When we emerged from our glass-and-steel womb, Jamal was whisked away with all the other Primes who were born that day to live apart from me and my fellow Proxies, and we wouldn’t see or even hear of each other for the next seven years.
During those years I went by the name Two-Five, the number given to me by my gestation tank, like all the other Proxies. It was probably done to make the job easier for the nurses who minded us. And so my early childhood was such that I shared sleeping quarters with One-Five and Zero-One, sat next to Two-Two during reading class, and stood between Zero-Four and One-Seven when we waited in a neat line to get our hair buzzed down to the roots.
When I look back at my life during those years, I often feel like I’m recalling a distant, gray dream that happened to someone else, and I suspect that this is by design. We wore collars that kept constant vigil over our b
rain chemistries; pills and other medications were quickly administered to keep us optimized. A nightmare would be interrupted by an expressionless nurse with a pill and a glass of water. The rare tantrum or even the thought of one would be preempted with a shot of a clear liquid injected into the shoulder. I was never unhappy. I felt the joy, love, and comfort necessary to rear up a healthy child, except none of those emotions felt like they came from within me. They’d been put there by the Custodians one deliberate neurochemical at a time. I was a tenant in a mind and body that did not belong to me.
It wasn’t until I turned seven that the dour veil was lifted from my life and my world burst into color, and I remember that day, unlike much of my early childhood, with crystal clarity. A nurse brought me into a windowless room with two chairs and told me to sit down. Then she left, sliding the door closed behind her.
When the door slid open again, in walked a boy I’d never seen before, who in many ways looked just like me but was different in just as many ways. His smile was the brightest I’d ever seen. His eyes were full of intelligence, like he had so many secrets he couldn’t wait to tell me.
He sat down on the other chair, and his smile grew as he studied my face, several milk teeth missing, just like me. I’d never wanted to smile at any of my siblings. I couldn’t help but smile back at this strangely exciting boy.
“Hello,” he said. “My name is Jamal. Do you want to know your name?”
“My name is Two-Five,” I told him.
“No, silly. I mean your real name.”
“I have a real name?”
“Yes. Your name is Hondo. It means war. Because you’re a hero. Or you will be one day.”
He sounded so sure of this, and I had no reason to doubt him. “Okay.”
Jamal stood up and offered me his hand. “Come. I’ll show you where I live. It’s where you’ll live from now on too. We’ll be brothers. The best of friends.”
That was the first time true joy bubbled out from within me, without chemical aid. H
alf of me had been missing from my life all along—I hadn’t known it until right then—but here it was, restored to me, and I was complete.
I was sixteen when I first met someone from the surface. I remember waking up inside a glass room in nothing but my boxers and with no recollection of how I’d gotten there. Across the room lay a man dressed in filthy rags. His hair was unkempt, and he smelled like a beast. A feral strength coiled around his tensed muscles, and there was something synthetic and wild about the way his eyes shone. I knew immediately he was a savage from the surface.
He, too, was just rousing to consciousness, looking about himself with bewildered terror, and when those eyes of his locked on me, we both sprang up to our feet.
He was afraid. I could feel his fear like nothing I’d ever felt before. I swear I could hear it, but before I could grapple with what was going on, a clock began to tick above us, and the savage man attacked.
I knew I was being tested. I couldn’t see who was behind the glass walls boxing us in, but I could sense their eyes on me, watching, assessing, and I knew the result of this test would be important. I would later find out that the three Proxies who’d failed the test had been removed from the program along with their Primes.
Removed, meaning recycled.
This was our trial of blood.
In the end, the savage was no match for my engineered strength and years of relentless training. I’d survived a thousand blows from our unsympathetic weapons masters. Battled combat mechs until I could read them five moves ahead. I’d broken every bone in my body, been resuscitated six times from the edge of death. He was hardly a challenge.
But as I choked the life out of him with my bare hands, I realized: He wasn’t there to test my fighting skills. Taking his life was the test itself. To see if I had it in me to kill another human being. If I was cold blo
I still remember the look in his eyes in his last moments, the thrill that raced through my veins. He was a surfacer, little more than an animal, is what we were told. But I could see a thinking person somewhere inside him. Part of me wanted to release the hold on his neck and ask him why he was savage, but I had a trial to pass, and the violence had taken me, so I held on and watched as the life went out of him.
Three years later, and I could draw his face in vivid detail, down to the zigzag scar beneath his left eye and the shape of his blackened teeth.
I show Jamal little mercy as we kickbox in our exercise grays on the gymnasium’s floor. He’s quick on his feet, and he knows how to take a punch without whining about it, but just as I could never match his wits, he could never match the superior muscle density and bone tensile strength of a Proxy. That’s my job, to make sure he never has to. The second man I killed was a Proxy who’d been sent to assassinate him, and the third was the Prime who’d ordered the hit.
His abrasive nature has made him many enemies and no friends in the Habitat, but that incident was the first and only attempt on his life. I think it scared a lot of people, what I did. I regret the way some of them look at me now, but an example had to be made.
A Custodian in a black combat uniform—one of the wardens on duty—watches us from the other side of the gymnasium, the ambient pale-blue light of the ocean dancing on the surface of his tactical helmet. Jamal lets his attention stray to the warden, and I punish him for it with a punch to the gut. He crumples to his knees in pain, winded, but I’m still too agitated to stop sparring just yet.
“Get up,” I growl.
Still on his knees, he hugs his stomach, shaking his head. “No. Please. I’ve had enough.”
“I said get up!” That gets me a few disapproving looks from the others using the gymnasium. I ignore them. “Get up, Jamal, or you’ll be sleeping under anesthesia tonight.”
He groans again, but
he knows I’m lethally serious. “All right, all right! Just let me catch my breath, would you?”
The other Proxies disapprove of the way I treat him. I’ve sent him to the infirmary quite a few times. They think it’s evidence of an inherent mental imbalance, a manifestation of my expieness. They might be right. I revere Jamal and never mean to hurt him, but sometimes the violence in me is like a flooding river: once it starts flowing, I’m caught in the currents, and I go where it takes me. Jamal can pull me out of it with a single command, but fool that he is, he likes to see how far he can bend before he breaks.
We keep sparring, and I work up a sweat putting him through his paces. He lands a few well-placed kicks and punches, but I never fail to pay him back for it.
“Enough!” he eventually snaps. “Cool off! Any more of this and you’ll take off my face.” He winces as he caresses the bruises I’ve put on his jaw. I suffer a sobering stirring of guilt.
Guilt that quickly pivots into annoyance. “You could have stopped me sooner, you know.”
“I know,” he admits. “I’m not blaming you.”
I let out a breath and begin to undo my wrist wraps. “You’re getting stronger,” I tell him, which makes his face light up with delighted surprise. “But you’re distracted. Your mind is elsewhere when it should be focused on the ass kicking I’m giving you.”
He snorts, and then his gaze wanders back to the silent warden watching us from the window. Mysterious thoughts slither beneath the surface of his eyes. “Come,” he says. “I think I’ve earned some time in the sauna.”
Something rebellious is on his mind, I can feel it, and I’ve grown weary of the things he says to me when he’s in a rebellious mood. I follow him any
The days on Ile Wura are twenty-five hours and thirty minutes long, but the planet’s calendar, with its leap weeks and leap months, was designed to hew as closely to the Earth standard year as possible.
When we were younger, we lived in a different sector of the Habitat, where our minders were nurses whose names we never learned. Then we turned sixteen and the trials of blood came and the war games began, and we were moved to a new sector with wardens for minders, whose faces we never see.
Years later and they still put me on edge. Shadows in black tactical gear and masks who guard the domes and tunnels, watching us in silence. I can never tell how many of them there are. And are they the same people each year, or do they come and go? Where do they even
Could they be us in the future? I often wonder. Could they be former Proxies, here as silent guardians of the next generation?
“A good question, isn’t it?” Jamal whispers to me as we stew in the humid heat of the gymnasium’s sauna, black cotton towels wrapped around our waists. “What are they hiding behind those masks? Are they even people, Hondo?”
When you grow up around Primes, you learn to accept that your every breath, your every eye movement and twitch of the mouth, is a window into your mind, as though you had transparent glass for a skull. Jamal has taught me ways of insulating myself from the penetrating gazes of his siblings, but I cannot enjoy a single private thought without him reading it off my face.
I close my eyes, resting my head against the synthetic wood paneling behind me. “What else could they be if not people?”
“Androids. Reanimated corpses. Who the hell knows?”
I don’t want to encourage him, so I keep my mouth shut and my eyes closed.
“Remember that data stick I told you about?” he says in a weird non sequitur. “The one Counselor keeps in the top drawer of his office desk?”
“The one that has a biometric lock you’ll never crack? What about it?”
“I might have found a way to crack it.”
This should be impossible, and I might have dismissed him immediately, but the mixture of fear and excitement I sense thrumming off him gets my attention. I look at him. “What are you talking about?”
“I got another message today,” he quietly says.
“This morning, just before session. It was almost identical to the last one. But . . . something else happened. Strange programs started popping up on my PCU. I tried deleting them, but they kept reinstalling themselves. So I took a look. Hondo, I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
The blood chills in my veins. “What kind of programs?”
“High-level decryption tools,” Jamal almost whispers. “Exploits, programs that would eviscerate any security system in the Habitat. I’ve never seen anything so advanced. And it gets crazier. I was still looking
at these programs when I received another message. Attached to it was a large file containing decrypted data. Guess what was in it.”
I really don’t want to hear it, but I ask anyway. “What?”
“The biometric templates of every Custodian,” Jamal tells me. “Including Administrator and Counselor. At first I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do with this data. Then I discovered that one of the programs can use templates to bypass biometric sensors. Someone has almost literally given me the keys to this whole place.”
My fingers curl into each other, and suddenly I want to hit something again. “We need to report this to Administrator. Someone is trying to get you into trouble. To frame you for something. One of your siblings, no doubt. When I find out who it is . . .”
“There’s no way it’s one of them. No one has this kind of access.”
“Then who does?”
Jamal gives me a silent stare. He’s going to do something stupid, isn’t he. Or more accurately, he’s going to make me do something stupid. “What if it’s the Custodians?” I suggest, trying to rein him back in. “Maybe it’s a test. Maybe they want to see how you react.”
“Unlikely. This reeks of subversion. Whoever it is, they’re no friend to the Custodians, and I sense they’re probably using me, but I want to play their game. That’s why I need you to steal Counselor’s data stick. It should be easy for you given your skills.”
I hiss out a lengthy curse. “By the ancestors, do you even hear yourself? You’re supposed to be the smart one here!”
“The Custodians are hiding something from us, Hondo. I can feel it in my bones, and I know you feel it too. Don’t you want to find out what it is?”
“Not at the cost of your life! Legacies have vanished for lesser offenses. With you, they won’t even hesitate.”
“Then . . . don’t get caught,” he says.
I regard him for a long moment. He gave me my name on our seventh birthday. If I had failed my trial of blood, we would have both paid for it, j
ust as we’ll both pay when he fails his trial of the war games. We came out of our gestation tank on the same day, and if somehow he died before me, I would end myself. We are closer than brothers. We are the same soul in two bodies, and there are no secrets between us.
But sometimes I wish to the ancestors I had a Prime with a little more sense and a little less of a death wish.
“Is that an order, Prime?” I say.
“Oh, come on. Don’t be like that.” When I don’t relent, he clenches his jaw and hardens his voice. “Yes, Proxy, that’s an order. Are you happy?”
“No,” I tell him, “but I want you to remember this moment when they recycle us for your stupidity.”
“Expie rat,” he says under his breath, shaking his head.
I give in to the urge and punch him in the side. As he gasps in pain, I close my eyes and return to the business of enjoying the sauna.
Lights, camera, action.
I’m an actress in one of those old drama serials from Earth, and my role: the spunky heroine who makes the whole room stop and stare with her dramatic entrance.
Granted, the stage could be better. The dinnertime cafeteria doesn’t exactly scream glamorous. And my talents are clearly wasted on the audience of Primes and Proxies dining in their eternally blue jumpsuits, since they barely notice me when I walk in. I might as well be performing for the fish outside the glass on the other side of the room.
No matter. A heroine cares only for the completion of her mission.
I spot Benjamin sitting at his usual table, poking at his boiled kelp with a fork and a detached look on his face. He’s alone. Perfect.
I flash my smile. “Benjamin. There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.”
Benjamin. Broad and handsome in that leading man type of way. Hero complex. Vulnerable to flattery, just like his Prime, but today he sighs in exasperation as I settle down across from him.
Not at all the reaction I was expecting. “Wait,” I say, eyeing him suspiciously. “Have you been avoiding me?”
“No.” He rises, picks up his tray, and starts walking away.
“You have!” I get up to follow him. “Why?”
Benjamin drops his tray off at the designated counter and keeps walking, ignoring me like he’s some big-shot celebrity and I’m a pesky reporter out for a scoop. And to think I prepared a whole performance for him.
His long legs give him a fast stride, so I have to jog after him as he leaves the dining hall. I follow him out onto the Green, a square of grass and open air beneath the Habitat’s largest dome. A lamp powerful enough to imitate a miniature sun is about to set in a clear sky simulated by the panes of the dome’s color-changing glass. Well-tended trees and park benches lend to the illusion of a quaint little town square, and it’s easy to forget that those towering snowcapped shapes behind the dome’s blocky cement buildings aren’t actual mountains in the distance but holograms.
“Benjamin, we need to talk!”
“No, we don’t,” he says, his footsteps crunching on the gravel path skirting the Green. “Prime David has decided to let Clarice win the chair. He will not betray Paul’s trust. Besides, it’s about time the Rat and his Dog bit the dust. We’ve been trying to get rid of them for years.”
“Okay,” I say. “I hear you, but the thing is—would you slow down for a second?”
Benjamin finally deigns s to stop and look at me. Look down at me, rather. I’m not short by any means, but he and his Prime are at least a head taller. “I understand your perspective,” I say in a low voice, looking around to make sure no one’s listening, “but letting Clarice win the chair is not going to work for us. She’s already powerful enough without it. ...
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