Each tick from the grandfather clock counted down to when Sol’s existence would change forever. He wished the outdated relic was a bomb instead of an ordinary timepiece. Being blown to bits would hurt less than this slow death of waiting for his life to stop.
Seven years ago, Sol had paid his dues within this very room, seizing his right to enter the Academy and proving his worth to the Towers. All for nothing. His dream slaughtered by a single slip up, and the blunder wasn’t even his.
Shoulders hunched, Sol’s numb fingers gripped the edge of his wooden seat. His thumbs rubbed at a section worn smooth. He doubted generations of anxious children had shaped the indentation while waiting to be tested. He bet the Academy created, considering their love of mind games.
Even this room was designed to intimidate. Its ancient Earth relic of a clock dominated the area with enough space for a simple table, shoved in the corner, and four chairs. Chairs engineered so a seated child’s feet couldn’t touch the ground. How small he had felt back then.
Sol grimaced, releasing his grip. Seven years of submitting to their psychological humiliations, refusing to break. Seven years of hoping to become a Tower Elite, to almost taste victory, only to fail. He refused to let them shrink him back into that ten-year-old boy.
The door retracted into the wall.
Sol surged to his feet, eyes forward and body stiff at attention. He hid his thoughts and emotions as trained. They might expel him from the Academy, but they lacked the power to uproot its imprint from his being.
His calm slipped as his brother stepped inside. Like Sol, he wore the brown Academy uniform, indicating their advanced status at the school. His bright blue eyes held no emotion as he stared at Sol.
Sol didn’t know if he wanted to hug his twin or punch him. “Renden. Not you, too.”
Renden’s stoic presence reminded Sol they were identical only in face and form. It was those other differences that were tearing them apart.
“I would never sell you out,” Renden said. “The others are pissant cannon fodder that won’t last a day at the Towers. They’re fools if they think placing the blame on you will gain them entry at year’s end.”
The knot in Sol’s stomach loosened.
Renden’s flat gaze drilled into Sol. “But a separation might be for the best. We’ve been clashing more, and your outbursts are getting worse.”
“My outbursts.” The icy knot exploded into heat. Sol stepped forward. “You pretentious hypocrite, you know—”
“Please, Sol.” Renden focused on the towering clock. Some of his stiffness melted as his voice dropped. “Vincent’s dead.”
Sol wanted to say it wasn’t his fault. A tragic accident and not anyone’s fault. But he wasn’t sure he believed that. Pain throbbed along his clenched jaw. Why did he have to leave when it was Renden who caused this disaster?
Sol bit his tongue—hard—letting the sharp sting override the emotions threatening to spill. “Yes, we clash, but we also resonate. We’re stronger together.”
That cracked through Renden’s tight facade. His face softened, and he stepped closer. “Whatever we’ve inherited, it’s waking up, Sol. And it scares me. You’d better believe it scares the Academy, too.” His brother’s hand rested heavy on Sol’s shoulder. “Take their offer. Join the Institute.”
“Speakers don’t get along with those of the Tower—”
“We will still serve our nation—as we’ve always dreamed. Just in different ways.”
“Ways that will never intersect.”
Their eyes met. After seventeen inseparable years, they might never see each other again.
Sol cleared his throat to apologize when the door opened.
Renden’s hand dropped as he spun around. Side by side, the two brothers stood with shoulders back and chin up.
Cornelis, head of the Safeguard Tower, strode into the room. Worn tracks of age lined his face but did nothing to diminish the aura of power surrounding his presence. Power Sol had experienced firsthand during the investigation. His hands trembled before he willed them still.
A stranger followed behind Cornelius, bearing all the distinguishing markers of an Institute Speaker: dark-tinted glasses, snug gloves, and a long coat. Gray peppered the Speaker’s hair, but he moved with sleek strength—like someone trained by the Guardian Tower.
The door swished shut, isolating them from the outside world.
The Speaker tossed a thick packet onto the table. Though darkened shades concealed his eyes, his attention never left the two brothers. He peeled off his leather gloves and dropped them next to the envelope. Then he removed for his shades.
Cornelius scowled. “Is that necessary, Justin?”
“Stay out of my line of sight if my gaze disturbs you.” Justin slipped the glasses into an inner pocket of his coat. His focus latched onto Sol. “Solaris Collinsworth.” His eyes swung toward Renden. “Flarenden Collinsworth.”
Ice trailed along Sol’s spine. Not even their teachers could tell them apart.
“I have long wondered what happened to the children of Westling Collinsworth. Didn’t suspect I’d find his twin boys hiding under the shadows of the Towers, considering your infamous heritage.” The smile he offered did nothing to dispel Sol’s unease. “Please, sit.”
Justin raised his palm out toward Cornelius. “The file.”
Cornelius looked at Justin’s hand as if ill at ease. He dropped the thin magnetic storage device into the waiting palm, not touching the bare skin with his own fingers. The Speaker enclosed the disk in his fist. For a few seconds his eyes quivered before his gaze returned to Sol and then Renden.
“So, it’s true. The recessive trait has reemerged into the Collinsworth lineage again.” Pinched between two fingers, Justin offered the device back to the Tower Lord. “Thank you.”
Cornelius grimaced. “Keep it.”
Justin smirked, pocketing it. Perhaps the rumors about the Speakers had a grain of truth—that they could assimilate digital information from a touch. That they could see beyond the visible spectrum with their unfiltered eyes and hear a heartbeat change tempo when one lied. That they were more machine than human.
“I am Speaker Justin from the Institute of Cyborgs and Synthetic Intelligence. As such, I’ve renounced all ties to my city-clan, my family name—I’m the perfect tool of the state. So allow me to be blunt. Either one of you is leaving here with me today or both of you will be dishonorably expelled from the Academy, convicted of involuntary manslaughter of your fellow peer, Vincent Azir, and sentenced to three years of service toward the recolonization of the hinterlands.” An eyebrow arched. “What do you say, Flarenden? Interested in the offer to become a Speaker?”
“Expulsion isn’t the end of the world.” The growing smile might fool the others, but the slight flicker of Renden’s eyes betrayed him to Sol. This crushed him.
Renden leaned back in his chair. “The hinterlands? Even with forced labor, they at least guarantee compensation for services rendered. The hazard pay plus incentive bonus for committing to three years, well, I got to tell you, doing my part in making the outback habitable again sounds more attractive than joining your butcher shop of horrors.”
“Cadet Flarenden,” Cornelius’s voice ripped through the tension in the room. “You are still under the Academy’s jurisdiction and will behave accordingly.”
“Apologies, Speaker, if I offended you. I assumed you would appreciate a reciprocation in bluntness.”
While Sol’s anger burned hot, Renden’s always seared cold. Still, his brother’s insults were tame compared to their mother’s. Sol held his breath and watched the Speaker.
“I take it you reject the Institute’s invitation, Flarenden Collinsworth?”
“You assume correctly.”
Sol exhaled. Working the hinterlands carried no appeal to him. The stigma alone would impede finding respectable work afterwards, but Renden was right about one thing. They paid well. If you survived the job—a third didn’t.
Justin shook his head. “Even from the grave, Julia Sabine’s opinions have infected you. I hope, for his own sake, your brother has a more enlightened view.”
Instead of turning to ask Sol for his answer, Justin studied them both as if measuring them. “So be it.” The Speaker gestured behind him toward the table. “There are some documents you will need to review and sign, Cornelius. A formality, but one my Director deemed necessary. Wouldn’t want to blemish the Institute’s pristine reputation of impartiality.”
“Impartiality?” Renden laughed. “You’re going to paint that veneer over your false accusations as you manipulate a tragedy to your benefit?”
The Speaker dragged a chair from along the wall. The screech of wood against tile had Cornelius look up from the paperwork, grumbling under his breath. Paper documents were such an antiquated form of information preservation, but Sol had gotten used to the Academy’s outdated methods. Strange that the Institute, an organization that pushed the boundaries of modern technology, favored paper, too.
Sol swallowed the bitter gall rising into his throat. It was no longer necessary to hone his skills of observation to prove his worth to the Watcher Tower. Whatever he chose, they would deny the Towers to him.
Justin placed the chair in front of the brothers and sat. “She did quite the number on you, boy.” He drew out a cigarette, lighting it. The tip blazed violet.
Sol frowned. What made it burn such an odd color? The sharp fragrance of pepper and nutmeg tickled his nose, not quite covering the chemical undertone.
Cornelius went still. The crisp flick of a page turn revealed his unsettledness. Or maybe that was anger? What would it take to push the buttons of a Tower Lord?
“I can feel your disapproval, Cornelius.” Justin took a few puffs. “My authorization should be on top.” He blew a ring of blue smoke before resting his arm on the back of his chair. “Tell me, Flarenden. Do you blame the gun for killing someone or the person firing it?”
“We committed no crime.” Renden swiped at the vapor drifting toward him. “Vincent died. Unfortunate, but it happens. Fabricating lies won’t alter that truth.”
“Lies. Ha! Like the ones you tell yourself so you can sleep at night?” Justin asked. “Don’t worry. If I thought you had acted with deliberate intent to harm, the Academy would ship you to the Institute for chemical rehabilitation instead of having this pleasant conversation with me. Most of what you’ve been told about us are myths, designed to keep you in line and frightened of the Boogeyman Speaker, but our intolerance of psychopaths is all too real.” Justin leaned forward, smoke curling around the finger he pointed at Renden. “But you’ve been using your brother to your advantage, and this time it backfired on you. Or should I say, Solaris backfired.” Justin eased back into his seat. “Be a man. Take responsibility for your part in this student’s death. Do that and I’ll change my verdict, allowing Solaris to stay here. Both of you don’t need to lose the dream of becoming a Tower Elite by this unfortunate turn of events.”
Renden hadn’t been manipulating Sol all this time, attempting to advance himself within the Academy ranks. Had he? Sol shot a glance at his twin, but his blank mask of discipline revealed nothing. Where was the sarcastic comeback? The cutting quip of denial? True, it had been Renden’s plan that sparked the incident leading to their teammate’s death, but he couldn’t have known it would spiral out of control. Right?
“What do you know about your heritage, Solaris?” Justin breathed out smoke. “Were you aware of your lineage’s Institute connections? Even your father, the brilliant scientist Westling, did projects for us, but it was the Towers who granted him the State Cryobank authorization to create you two. Did you know you were tank-born because it provided the opportunity to hide the identity of your birth mother? That Julia, the woman you called mother, was a scientist selected by the Towers to unravel that mystery? Not sure how that hustler gained guardianship when Westling died, but as Earthers say, it’s water under the bridge.”
Sol froze at the reminder of their stigmatized method of creation. He glanced at Renden.
His brother glared, nostrils flaring, but he stayed silent. Unlike Sol, his twin could care less what people thought about their birth, but he took offense if anyone dared to slander their mother—biological or not.
Tension played over Justin’s features, causing his eye to twitch. “The Towers accuse us of playing God yet blaspheme His name with what they’ve done to you. Tell me, Flarenden, were you promised a Tower spot if you triggered your brother’s abilities? Or is he just an amplifier to your skill set?”
The scratching of the pen stopped. Cornelius stared at Justin.
“Speaking of which,” Justin said, “have you always been submissive to your brother, Solaris, letting him call the shots?”
“Justin!” Cornelius slammed his pen on the table. “What did they do to you?”
“Made me into a weapon, like you. Just not as shiny as your Academy cadets, proudly on display in their crisp and clean military uniforms.” Justin’s cold eyes landed on Sol. “Speakers are the weapons that go where no one else will dare. We get our hands dirty, ensuring the people continue on with their happy lives, oblivious to the monsters that lurk in the shadows. They call us diplomats, but first encounters have more in common with warfare than statecraft. The Tower only steps in when we fail.”
Cornelius shook his head. “You aren’t the man I used to know.”
“Yet I’m the one you trusted enough to garner an entrance through your polished doors.”
Justin gave the same quirk of an eyebrow and tilt of his head as Cornelius had days ago during the investigation. Sol examined their features. How had he missed it?
“Cornelius is your father.” Sol said.
Renden leaned forward. “Well, I’ll be. Your old man sold you out. Was that before or after he became Lord over the Safeguards?”
Justin glared at Renden before focusing back on Sol. He tapped on the cigarette. Purple ash drifted to the floor. “Five years into my Guardian training, about to become a Tower Elite, I had a mishap, much like yourselves. I hear these days the Watcher Tower doesn’t mind untrained Listeners in their corps. Makes for a more efficient spy and all.” Justin rested his arm on the back of his chair as he shifted his body to the side, not quite facing Cornelius. “Are you sure about Solaris? He’s quite observant.”
The Tower Lord paused, pen in hand, to study Justin’s profile. “I wasn’t wrong about you, and I’m not wrong about him.” Cornelius whipped his signature across the page. “Solaris is more suited for the Institute, whereas Flarenden will thrive under our care.”
Not that Renden wasn’t a potential Speaker, just not as suited. It stung to hear Cornelius’s preference. No matter how hard he worked, they always preferred his twin.
Justin took in another drag, shifting around to blow it toward Sol. The smoke fogged his brain, making it difficult to collect his thoughts. He felt the strings of manipulation tugging at him. But who was doing the pulling? His silent brother? This jerk of a Speaker? The Academy?
His chest grew tight with each breath.
When they were kids, Renden had dreamed of joining the Towers. Somewhere along the way, Renden’s dream had become his own. Would his brother grow to detest him, a constant reminder of what he had lost? He couldn’t bear the guilt if he let pride get in the way doing this one action for his twin. Sol had enough guilt to last him a lifetime. But was this the right choice?
“Will you allow my brother to stay at the Academy if I agree to go with you?” Sol asked.
“Yes.” Justin chuckled. “But such actions come with a mountain of paperwork. Good ole dad here will spin it just right, letting the golden child get his shot at the Towers. My diplomacy with them doesn’t mean justice needs to prevail, just the appearance of it.”
“Don’t.” Renden shook his head. “Don’t play their game. Not for my sake.”
For a moment, Sol almost lost his nerve. Almost listened to his brother and told them where to shove their invitation. Then he saw the twitch along Renden’s jaw.
He was lying. He wanted Sol to take their offer. Renden’s insufferable need to save face, playing the concerned brother for their audience. Another thing they didn’t have in common.
Sol swallowed the lump in his throat. “As you said, maybe a break would be good.”
He needed Renden to deny it. Say he changed his mind now that it was the hinterlands on the table instead of prison or, worse, personality rehabilitation. But he didn’t.
Cornelius slapped the folder of paperwork shut. “You’ve overstayed your welcome, Speaker Justin, and I have other matters that need my attention.”
Justin grounded the butt against the chair. “I would like a minute with Solaris. Alone.”
Cornelius rose, gesturing for Renden to follow. “One minute.”