Chapter 1

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7

I, Telra, ready my blades as I wait for Brev to come attack me first. I'm gonna do it this time. I'm finally gonna beat him without taking a wound. I know I'm better than him by enough. I just have to focus...

When he gets in range, he swings both his swords from opposite directions, executing Pygon power swings with both of them. Exactly the same way our last duel started. I jump back, dodging them and wasting the energy he spent on them, then come back while his swords aren't ready and deal him two normal slashes. Yes! That's the opening I need! This has to be the time.

Brev retreats, shouting in pain and frustration. (We keep our Pygon protection on the whole fight to minimize actual damage, but it still leaves a large cut.) I pursue and take the offensive immediately by going for a power attack from one side and a normal attack from the other. These he manages to block both of, but he uses Pygon stabilization on both his swords. Spending energy too liberally is his biggest flaw in my opinion.

My right sword won't be ready again for a while, so I retreat this time. Brev attacks again, with - guess what - double power attacks.

I jump backward again and dodge both of these. With all this Pygon spamming, he's already so exhausted that he's stopped attacking to catch his breath for a minute. I take advantage of his weakness by going full offense with my own power swings, hoping to -

Agh! He lands a slash on me. Dammit, how did I mess up after such a perfect opening?

I continue the offensive, and Brev's companion - a small wrist-mounted computer that everyone has these days - gives him the warning that he's sustained too many wounds and needs to seek medical attention. He isn't allowed to continue the duel past this point.

Brev collapses in exhaustion and pain. "Dammit, not again! One of these days, Telra, I'm going to get you, more than once, or twice..."

Brev's pathetic empty boasts put me back in a good mood. I smile, looking at the other pairs of cadets sparring. "Not with that ambition you won't. But look at them." I point to another pair who are both completely avoiding Pygon abilities besides protection. "You could take a lesson from them: Don't use Pygon attacks so much."

"Last I checked, you weren't the instructor, so shut up, okay?"

I shut up and keep watching the other cadets. After weeks of sparring, I've gotten used to the pain of protection-muffled sword wounds, and can tolerate them for the few moments before we're allowed to go to the medical wing. We don't have any sort of analgesic because tampering with the human brain seems to kill the subject. I'm told the scientists couldn't figure it out and gave up centuries ago.

Besides, pain is, after all, part of the point. Experiencing and dishing out intense pain strengthens our Pygon nodes - a part of the human brain that detects when we're holding weapons made of Pygon, and awakens special powers. This mysterious connection to Pygon is the reason human soldiers are still used, and also the reason why swords are our weapon of choice even though the technology for guns is well within our reach - no one cares if you can swing your gun extra hard.

"Cadets, dismissed," the instructor says when the last pair finishes sparring. There are cameras all over the room that the instructor will use to review footage of our fights so she can talk about any mistakes that a lot of us are making next session. We collapse our blades, turn them in and leave.

I always have trouble parting with mine. I know they're not my property, but I feel incomplete without them.

A few minutes later, my wound is completely healed and I'm out climbing on the railing of a staircase that leads up to a bridge between buildings. I like climbing. Both the physical exertion and the places it gets me to. Places where I can look down on the world and be alone. I want to be alone because I have something I need to think about. I've been putting it off for months. It's that my training period will end in less than a month, which means I don't have long to reach a decision about my little career problem.

The way the training period works is like this: when you turn sixteen, you're expected to have reached a decision about your career or at least narrowed it down to a few options, so you're sent to the academy at the local government hub, where you can try out your choices for six months. If you're not happy with any of them you can start trying out a different one for a parallel six-month period. After that, you get your job, and it's incredibly difficult to change it (purely because of the amount of red tape involved).

I like fighting a lot, and I'm really good at it, but there's just one problem with that career. The only direction you're allowed to go with it is to be a soldier for the government. And I don't want that. I don't want to take orders for the rest of my life. Besides, all the government does is interfere with everything that isn't their business. Take a cut of every trade. Require all disputes to be solved through them. Punish everyone who does anything they don't like in some absurdly disproportionate way. Every time you wanna get anything done, you have to go through a mess of red tape so complicated people have to hire people whose profession is knowing the law to help them navigate it. I hate the government and the idea of working for it.

That's why I'm also in technician training. Working with electronics is my secondary fascination, and I'm fairly good at that too. It doesn't have the career problem. But after the first few days of it one thing was clear to me: that is not my eventual career. I'm going to use my talent and passion for fighting. I don't know what I'm going to do. But I'll make it work.

I hear footsteps coming up the stairs. It's Brev and three other cadets I recognize: Logan, Stef, and Sally. They move immediately but casually to surround me.

"Well let's hear it then," I say.

"Telra..." Brev says. "You know how you're the only cadet who's better than me?"

"I'm surprised you're not too embarrassed to say it out loud. What of it?"

"Well that's kind of a problem for me. So I'm gonna ask a favor: I want you to drop out of fighting class."

I can't resist a laugh. "Drop out of fighting class, as a favor to you? Hell no. I don't know what you were thinking when you decided to come ask me this."

"Well you see it's kind of... mandatory."

"And how are you going to make it mandatory?"

"Look around you. There are four of us. And like me, they're below you in fighting class, so we all gain from you dropping out. I don't want to hurt you, but we will if you refuse to cooperate."

I pause. "Wow. You're actually serious about this, aren't you?" I've always thought it would be fun to have something like this happen to me, but I have to admit I'm in a bit of a pinch here. Even I can't beat them all.

"Yep. So what's it gonna be? Cooperate, or get beat up?"

"I'll cooperate with you when you beat me in an even fight." I wait for them to move first.

And I realize just as it becomes too late that that's a mistake. I'm surrounded here; I desperately need to fix that if I'm going to stand a chance. The four adversaries all attack.

They don't even do it right. With such a number advantage they should be going for restraint instead of immediate injury, but they don't, attacking me directly with their fists. I parry one of Sally's punches and deal her a fierce blow to the face, but take a hit to the stomach.

Pain and weakness surge through my body, but I regain my strength quickly and trip Logan, who screams in pain as his head smacks into the ground.

Brev slams me into the railing and hits me in the stomach again. Six fists continue to pound me, and before long I'm on the ground and too hurt to fight back. They keep beating on me.

"Agh! You guys win! Stop!"

They don't stop for another three seconds. "Do you regret defying me?" Brev says when they finally do.


Brev kicks me again, eliciting another shout of pain. "How 'bout now?"


Brev kicks me again. "Now?"

"Yes!" I scream. Dammit! This is the most humiliating thing that's ever happened to me. I am going to make Brev and his wingmates cry for mercy.

"Alright. Just one minute..." He takes my companion and deletes the automatically captured recording of today. "... And we're done. I hope not to see you next class."

They leave me. I lay on the ground for several minutes, gasping in pain and pretty much unable to move. Eventually the nearby door opens, and another student comes out.

"Whoa!" he says. "D-do you need help?"

"What does it look like," I breathe.

The student helps me get up. "So who did this to you?"

"None of your business."

I don't want them reported because I don't want the authoritites' "help" getting back at them. I want to get my revenge personally, and the police are famous for not letting you do that. No, they'd take the satisfaction for themselves, because that's the nature of authority. But I don't need their "help". I can and will get my revenge on my own.

"Well, if you're gonna report them yourself that's fine, I just wanna know who I should be avoiding."

"Don't worry, they're not a threat to you. They just have a thing against me."

"Why are you so reluctant to tell me? Are you trying to protect their reputation or something?"

Why can't this boy take a hint? "Look, I'm just not gonna tell, okay? Leave it alone."

"Oh... You're planning to get revenge yourself, aren't you?"

Ugh, am I that obvious? I raise my voice. "And so what if I am? I have that right!"

"But whoever did this to you broke the law! That means if you don't report them, you're breaking the law too!"

"And why should I care?"

"Uh... because it's the law?"

I roll my eyes. This boy is so deeply indoctrinated he can't understand the word 'why'. "Look, there's obviously no point in arguing about that, so just help me get to the medical wing."

"Hold on - you're breaking the law too by trying to be a vigilante. That means I've got to report you or I'll be a criminal!"

Oh no. Tell me he's not that much of an asshole. "But you wouldn't do that to a girl you just found on the ground beaten to a pulp and who needs your help, would you?"

The student hesitates. "Well... I guess I don't have to report you. It would just be a little misdemeanor..."

I smile through my pain. The people of this world aren't evil, they're just indoctrinated and a little irrational. They do have some compassion.

He helps me to the medical wing, where I tell the medical droid I already called the police and reported the bullies. In a few minutes I'm out, fully healed again, and already contemplating my revenge.