Author: John McNeil
“You won’t get it,” said Granan. “I’m better.”
They strode the polished halls of the Mentalist Academy. Marcus tossed his head. “No you aren’t,” he said. “But I’d get it even so. Preceptor Elius likes me, and knows you’re an arrogant foistling.”
There it was, the insult. A student foisted on the Academy by rich parents who paid for tutoring and the entrance exams. Best to ignore it.
“I’m a foundling,” Marcus continued. “I wasn’t coaxed and pampered. Natural talent. They recruited me for it.”
Granan just smiled. “Today at the plenum, you’ll see. Elius will name me the Class Exemplar.”
Afternoon sunshine filtered in through the skylights. Wisps of mist floated over their heads, creating patches of shadows around them. The hot floor toasted their sandaled feet. From the forest outside they could smell rotting fruit and hear insects humming. Granan twitched his head and tapped his fingers while they walked.
“Your parents couldn’t buy you talent.” Marcus’s voice quivered.
“Discipline matters more,” said Granan. “And I’ve got talent, too.”
“Do you really?”
Marcus stopped. “Then prove it,” he said.
Granan continued another pace, then stopped also, and turned. “You want me to flip something?”
“Flip me,” said Marcus. “To Alpha Hall.”
Granan didn’t blink, but his eyes widened. “We don’t flip people till fifth year.”
“Before I could walk, I flipped my father,” said Marcus.
“That doesn’t mean you knew what you were doing. I might kill you!”
“But you wouldn’t,” Marcus replied with sarcasm, “because you have discipline.”
“You could split between dimensions,” said Granan, “or show up inside a rock wall.”
“Not so confident. All right then, I’ll flip you. Get ready.”
Granan blinked, then gasped. Marcus was pulling a gas mask over his face. It would be connected to an orange flask at his belt. Granan didn’t use his outside class. Marcus was taking deep breaths. He had closed his eyes. He was serious. He was really going to.
Granan felt a hole inside him. That would be contents of his digestive tract disappearing. He felt thirsty and short of breath. Marcus was smiling. How could he be so reckless? Granan would have screamed if there were air in his lungs. The nerves would be next, then muscles, organs, and bones last.
Beyond the third moon, Granan’s consciousness hovered. He saw the cratered planet and the sun, a bright distant ball. So this is my end, he thought. Death before greatness. My potential wasted. At least Marcus will be punished.
In the well of Alpha Hall, Granan’s body reassembled, molecule by molecule, ready for his consciousness to slip back into its shell. There were the familiar rows of seats, high windows, and textured cement walls. He was alone. The humming of insects was no longer audible but he still smelled fruit rot.
A side door creaked open. Preceptor Elius strode in, his formal magenta robes emphasizing a ruddy bald head.
“Granan!” said Elius. “First to arrive. Very good. The Class Exemplar!”
“It’s decided. You ought to know. That talented Marcus. We’re so impressed.”
“Marcus is the Class Exemplar?” Granan felt like he were being flipped again.
“You’ll deliver his peer tribute. What an inspiration he is to you foistlings, and so on.”
“But preceptor! Marcus just flipped me here! Recklessly!”
Elius’s head tilted back in surprise. Then he grinned. “Indeed? What an exploit! I always knew he’d shine. Found him myself, actually. Put that in your speech.”
“Preceptor!” said Granan, then composed himself. “Preceptor,” he said, “I shall.” The smell of rotting fruit thickened in his nostrils.