The Shadow Games preview
Today could be the best day of my life. Or my greatest humiliation. Part of me wished I knew which it would be, but another part, a greater part, was afraid of the answer.
I stood at the apex of our curved growing-yard, leaning as far out as the dome encasing it allowed. In the distance, through the narrow gulf between the towers of New Vegas, the white spire of the Royal Tower glowed pink in the early-morning sun. The lower part of the tower, the Royal Academy, bulged out, like a donut perched on a street vendor’s spike. The tapered point above consisted of apartments for Academy members, official function rooms, and at the very top, the royal apartments of the king and his family. But royalty didn’t matter to me. All I cared about was the Academy.
It wasn’t even about the status, or the luxury apartment you were given, or the well-paid job. It was the security for your family. When Layla had been accepted two years ago, we’d moved from our old, internal apartment to this one on the edge of the tower. If I made it to the Academy, too, my family would be secure for life. Dad could retire without having to work himself into an early grave.
There was a lot at stake. Today, I would find out if I had what it took to be accepted into that elite school.
“Vesper,” Sol called, his thin, reedy voice filtering through the orange trees behind me. “My dragon’s lost its puff.”
I took one more look at the gleaming white building, allowing my gaze to linger on its curves, before scanning the patchwork of blue sky high above, segmented by the metro trains that connected the towers. Then I turned to see where my little brother had got to.
Inside our garden-yard’s dome, the light levels gradually increased to simulate the sun rising. The sun rarely penetrated this far down the towers, so the dome provided our days and nights, as well as the light for our fruit and vegetables to grow. I ducked between the two orange trees and found Sol sitting on the pathway between the tomato plants and the miniature fountain. Three toy dragons were scattered around him, the fourth he held in his hands.
Sol gave it a despondent shake and looked up at me. “It’s run out of puff.”
“Well, we can’t have that.” I stifled a smile and crouched down in front of him. “Let me see if I can magic up some more.”
Sol clung to his toy, reluctant to hand it over. It was the orange dragon—his favorite—and he rarely let it leave his sight. The other three were more basic models, but this one was a firebreather. Dad had saved up to buy it for Sol for his sixth birthday. If we’d run out of the cartridges that produced the fake smoke, Sol would be devastated.
“I’ll feed him,” he announced. “Can you get me some firestone?”
“Sure.” I made a move to stand, but something in his eyes stopped me. “Are you okay, Sol?”
His little fingers tightened on the dragon. “Are… Are there any dragons out there, Vesper? Real dragons?”
“I’m afraid not, little brother. They died out decades ago. Typhon was the last.”
“And the biggest?” Sol asked excitedly.
I lowered my voice. “And the most dangerous. But yes, he was the biggest and strongest.” I tapped the orange dragon’s nose. “Though your Typhon is a friendly dragon, right?”
“Yes. He’ll protect me,” Sol said with the conviction only a six-year-old could have. Then his face fell and tears welled in his brown eyes. “I saw one last night. A big, black one. You were trying to talk to it, but it was angry and didn’t want to listen.” His voice rose until it was almost a squeak. “It was going to breathe fire over you, and then…and then I woke up.”
I wrapped my arms around my little brother and pulled his thin body into mine, ruffling his dark hair. “It was only a dream,” I said soothingly. “Dragons don’t exist. It was just a dream.”
He sniffed into my t-shirt.
After a moment, I pulled back. “Now, shall I go and get you some firestone? Then Typhon can chase the black dragon away.”
Sol wiped his nose on his sleeve and nodded. “Fanks, Vesper.”
I stepped around him and slid open the door to our apartment. Like most homes in the lower levels, it was compact, providing the bare minimum of space for four people to live. But it was a fraction bigger than our old apartment, and with Layla now living at the Academy, I had a tiny bedroom to myself. Her apartment was almost as big as ours. All that space for one person.
The sound of running water came from the small bathroom, mingling with my mother humming her “laundry tune” from my parents’ bedroom. Mom had a tune for everything—cooking, cleaning, laundry. She said it made the chores more enjoyable.
I stood on my tiptoes to reach the high cupboard where Sol’s toys were kept, once again wishing I was taller than five-foot-two. I was about to give up and fetch a chair to stand on when there was a click and hiss as the front door of the apartment slid open. There was only one other person who had the code for our apartment. I ran into the narrow hallway.
“Layla!” I threw my arms around my sister. “What are you doing here?”
Layla was a fraction taller than me, and while Sol and I had inherited Dad’s dark hair and olive skin, Layla got Mom’s genes. Her brown hair was woven with strands of gold and amber, and fell in waves around her round, pale face. Having graduated from the Academy last week, she’d swapped her white trainee uniform for the light gray of a Guardian.
My sister grinned back at me. “Well, a little bird told me that someone”—she tweaked my nose—“aced all her exams.”
My stomach flipped. “You know the results?”
“Unofficially.” Layla shrugged. “They’re all processed automatically before the final testing.”
I looked down at my hands, nerves gnawing at my insides. I may have aced the academic tests, but that wouldn’t mean a thing if I couldn’t pass the final test today.
The test nobody talked about.
My mother emerged from the bedroom, holding a pair of Sol’s trousers. Her face broke into a smile as she caught sight of my sister. “I thought you’d be involved in the testing today.”
Layla nodded. “Can’t stay, but I wanted to come and wish Vesper luck.” She glanced over at me. “Walk with me to the transport pad?”
“Sure. Let me get my things.” I stumbled into my bedroom and leaned over my bed, closing my eyes and sucking in air. It was a good thing I hadn’t had breakfast, or else it would be making a reappearance right now.
You always feel like this before a test. Just breathe through it.
Light footsteps approached. My mother’s scent, jasmine blossom and lemon, filled the air.
She rubbed my back. “You know, whatever happens today, we’re really proud of you. The Academy isn’t for everyone. You may even be happier in a…”
“Normal job?” I glanced up at her. Is she kidding?
A ghost of a smile crossed her face. “It’s not so bad, you know.”
“I just wish they’d tell us what to expect so I could prepare for it.” I blew out a breath. “I don’t see why the test has to be such a big secret.”
“You can’t prepare for it, Vesper. That’s the point. It’s…” She bit her lip and turned away, carefully folding Sol’s trousers and placing them on my bed. “Well, anyway. You should be going.”
Layla’s laugh rang loud in the hall in response to something Dad said, then she yelled, “You nearly ready, Ves?”
“Yeah. Give me a minute!” I called back, then turned to Mom.
She stared at me intently, her blue eyes scanning my face as if trying to memorize my features.
“Are you all right, Mom?”
My mother reached up to cup my face, tracing my cheekbones with her thumbs. “Of course. It’s just a big day.” She smiled, but it seemed kind of forced.
“I’ll be back this evening,” I said, as much for my benefit as hers. “Even if I get into the Academy, they let you come back to pick up a few things.”
I remembered the day Layla had returned from her test, bounding into the small apartment and sweeping us into hugs. Her skin had glowed as she’d introduced us to the gray-clad Guardian who accompanied her. I wondered if they’d let her bring me home this afternoon.
Don’t get ahead of yourself, Vesper.
“I’ll be fine, Mom.”
“I’m sure you will.”
As Layla’s footsteps sounded outside the door, Mom pulled me into a tight hug. I clung to her, feeling her reassurance wash over me like a blanket that could shield me from the world. Her breath was hot on my ear. “Remember, everything the society does is for our protection.”
When she pulled back, I stared at her, puzzled. “Wh—”
“Come on, Vesper,” Layla said from the door.
My mother gave a small shake of her head. I forced out a smile before grabbing my bag off the bed and turning to my sister.
“Sorry. I was just saying goodbye.”
Layla rolled her eyes. “You’ll be back before you know it.” But her voice also carried a thread of tension.
She stepped back to let me out of the room. I hugged my father, who waited in the hall, already dressed and ready for another day overseeing food production in the hydroponic factory. Laugh lines creased his warm skin and his dark hair was threaded with gray. Every year, he looked more weary. He had worked so hard to support us all these years. I finally had a chance to give something back to him.
“Good luck, my little star,” he said. Unlike my mother, his smile was easy and relaxed.
Layla was named for the moon, me for the evening star, and Sol for the sun. Which was kind of ironic given we rarely see any of them from down here. We once took a school trip to the roof of Tower 14 at night to see the stars. They twinkled as if someone had thrown glitter across the sky. The sight had made me forget to breathe.
“Thanks, Dad.” I glanced at the doors to the garden-yard. “Say bye to Sol for me? And can you get him one of those fire cartridges? His dragon’s stopped working again.”
“The rate he’s going, that dragon will cost me a month’s wages.” But the smile didn’t leave his face as he walked across the small living area to Sol’s cupboard.
If I pass the tests today, Sol will be able to have all the dragon puff he wants.
The thought made me smile as I turned back to Layla, who held the front door open impatiently. “Let’s do this.”
Rush hour hadn’t yet begun, so the travelators were mostly empty as we make our way to the nearest bank of elevators. Level 137 was mostly family accommodation, so most of the people we did pass were dressed in the blue coveralls hydroponic staff wore. Some carried babies or young children to the factory nursery.
We were a couple streets from the elevators when a group of people stepped out from a side street. One, a tall woman with long, white-blonde hair, was dressed in the same light gray uniform as Layla. The other woman and the two men wore the darker gray of the Peacekeepers.
They stopped at the door to an apartment farther up the street. The Guardian consulted a device on her wrist, then nodded at a Peacekeeper, who stepped forward and scanned the lock. He stretched out a hand, but before he could open the door, it exploded outward.
The man stumbled back into the other Peacekeepers. In the confusion, a girl ran out of the apartment, ducked under the arm of the Guardian, and ran down the street toward us.
Blonde hair whipped around a pale, drawn face. When the girl’s blue eyes met mine, a jolt of recognition froze my feet to the floor.
Layla tugged my arm. “This way.”
But I couldn’t move. I racked my brain for the girl’s name. She was a few years younger than me, but I’d seen her at school and around the Level 135 recreation area. I had a feeling her mother worked at the hydroponic farm and her father… I didn’t know what had happened to her father, but I was pretty sure he wasn’t around.
Marissa. That’s her name.
“Stop!” one of the Peacekeepers hollered.
Then something happened that left me wondering if my mind was playing tricks on me. One minute, Marissa was running toward us. The next, her body jerked and she flew backward. She must have gone at least fifty feet before she fell into a heap at the Peacekeepers’ feet.
Marissa sprang to her feet and flung her hands out toward the Peacekeepers. Nothing happened. She looked down at her hands, as if there was something wrong with them, then threw them out again.
The Guardian walked toward her, a soft smile on her face. “There’s nowhere to run, Marissa.” Her voice was gentle, yet firm, like a schoolteacher chastising a pupil.
Marissa spun around. Her eyes, wide with fear, met mine and she opened her mouth, but the Peacekeepers were on her, wrestling her to the floor.
“Come on, Vesper!”
Layla dragged me into a narrow side alley. She marched me through the smaller back alleys until we were far from the main street. In a dark passageway, she stopped, glanced around to check there was no one listening, and turned to me. Strands of dark hair clung to her forehead.
She grasped my shoulders. “You didn’t see anything, understand?” She gave me a shake for good measure. “A criminal was arrested. That’s all.”
“But Marissa’s not a criminal. She—”
Layla’s gaze flicked upward briefly. I remembered the cameras that tracked our every movement. “She is a criminal. The Guardians are never wrong. You know that.”
The intensity of her gaze unsettled me. I opened my mouth, but the flash of fear in Layla’s eyes made me close it again.
“It’s our job to keep everyone safe. Criminals must be removed to protect the society. Now, come on. We’re late.” She whirled around and stalked off.
“To protect the society,” I whispered, trailing after her.
That was what we were taught from kindergarten. Guardians and Peacekeepers kept our society safe. As a result, crimes were so rare that this was the first time I’d ever seen the Peacekeepers on our level. And Layla was right. The Guardians were never wrong. Not like the system of juries and judges we studied in history class. Innocent people were often locked away for crimes they didn’t commit, and the guilty frequently walked free. If you committed a crime now, the Guardians knew. No one escaped justice.
But Marissa? I didn’t know her well, but she never got in trouble at school. And she had looked so terrified, so confused…
I jogged to catch up with Layla. “What did they do to her? She flew—”
I nearly ran into my sister’s back as she stopped and whirled around. She grasped my arm, her fingernails digging into my skin.
“Ow!” I stared at her in confusion. What’s gotten into her?
“Sorry.” Layla smiled awkwardly and dropped my arm. “Look, just try and forget about it, okay? You’ve got more important things to worry about today.”
We took the elevator to the transport level in silence, then weaved through the streets to the transport deck. It was busier up here, the chatter of morning commuters and the hum of the pods a welcome distraction from my thoughts.
Layla glanced up at the huge clock hanging on the side of the tower. “I’ve got to run. You’re meeting here, right?”
I nodded. There was a meeting zone to one side of the transporter pod and our class had been told to meet there at eight.
“Well, I suggest you visit the restroom before heading out. There’s bound to be a queue when you get to the Academy, and if you don’t go before they want to start, they’ll make you wait.” Layla searched my eyes and smiled. “You’ll be fine.”
I swallowed and nodded again. I wanted to put my arms around her and draw on her strength, but I held back. Guardians were supposed to be aloof, emotionless. Hugging in public, even with family, was definitely not allowed.
As if she could read my thoughts, Layla took my hand and squeezed it gently. “Good luck, Vesper.”
Feeling more confused than ever, I watched her stride toward the silver pods reserved for Academy members and graduates. My fingers closed around the slip of film Layla had pressed into my palm.
The Shadow Games extract
© Alison Ingleby, 2019