Before Asta can even sit on a stool, my story gushes out: the boulder, Flicke, the black lozenge of the Legionship hissing into its cradle. I can’t lift my hand higher than the legionary’s imaginary elbow to show how tall she is, so I climb up a lab stool. Still, my head’s only level with the commander’s imaginary shoulder.
A merit can’t be erased any more than an infraction. Still, I’m astonished to see Brave winking on my screen.
Asta shakes her head. “You’re the least brave person I know.”
“Right?” The panic I felt at the Moorings comes out as a gurgle. There’s even a little snot I wipe away with my finger. I’m afraid of open closets, heights, dogs, bees, waves, and thunder (not lightning). I can add: afraid of Legionships. And commanders who step through hatches with machine legs and a single bright-blue eye.
Asta asks. “Brave for what?”
I can’t confess I almost got her in trouble for a painting she didn’t ask for. The gift was always more for me than for her, so she’d have something to remember me by.
A lie slips from my mouth. “I don't know.”
Asta's eyes narrow. “You were painting, weren’t you?” She sighs, exasperated. “Dini, the Moorings are off limits on Graduation Day. By the Mother, for your own safety if nothing else. You have to put away such foolishness. Mother’s breath, why take such a risk?”
Her words sting. I can’t let foolishness be the last thing she remembers about me.
Asta pushes aside a rack of tubes to flatten her scroll on the lab counter. “Why is the Legion here, anyway?”
Asta searches for Commander, Legion, and machine legs. She taps the most promising result, circling her finger to turn down the volume before the video plays: a clip from last Founders Day. With her machine legs and black blades, the commander is unmistakable. She wears a dress Legion uniform: gleaming black leather with three sheaves on each shoulder, the bright gleam of pure pergama.
Asta whistles softly. “She’s not just any commander, Dini. By the Mother’s breath. She’s Legion Commander. Kesh 544-DxL.”
Asta’s gray eyes fix on me. “The Legion Commander called you brave. She gave you an exceptional merit. Listen. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to you.”
Together, we watch the video again. The commander—Kesh 544-DxL—stands among the Sowers. Sowers pluck out their eyelashes and eyebrows, so their faces are like moons of different colors. Next to them, the commander looks like something wrecked. Asta taps older links. Kesh stands beside a hovuck carrying supplies for legionaries fighting north of the Rift, the Weave’s border. Kesh speaks about captured scrags on some dusty plain. Each video has a headline. “Legion Commander reviews forces at Holdfast.” “Legion Commander rounds up scrags.” “Legion Commander announces new Campaign against the rebel captains.”
It’s news we hear all the time and usually ignore. This time, I listen carefully. “See if there are pictures of her whole,” I tell Asta. “Before the legs.”
There are none. “Why would the Legion Commander even be here?” I ask. “I thought only Arcadium girls went to the Legion.”
A dark thought occurs to me. There’s been a terrible mistake. Maybe I should have been an Arcadium student all this time. Maybe I was never supposed to be at the Collegium. Maybe my Keeper put me on the wrong ship. Collegium girls are supposed to be smart, brewed to manage laboratories, banks, and communications. They make some of the best pilots and controllers on the Signal Way.
Could my whole time at the Collegium have been some awful mistake?
Asta twirls the wet curl around her finger. “A three-sheaf commander does whatever she wants, Dini. You know they have Sower rank. There have only been two three-sheaf commanders since Constance.”
I don’t say the name Kesh out loud. The name feels spiky as wire ends. Constance defeated the army of men. On the spot where the Centrum stands, she offered terms: surrender, and receive lands to the east. The general’s answer was to spit on her. For this, Constance severed his head. In the Book of Sowers, the Chronicler drew Constance next to the stone they set over the buried head to keep him imprisoned forever.
I’ve always admired that drawing. With just a few lines, the Chronicler captured Constance’s exhaustion. At the top of the page, the Chronicler wrote: We serve the Mother. No price is too high for peace.
The first Sowers contained the men for everyone’s safety. Constance became a Sower and led the Great Quest, to protect the Mother for all time. One day, she promised, Sowers would discover a way to brew new citizens without men. Their terrible violence would be eliminated forever.
“We’re thinking about this all wrong,” Asta says. “You got an exceptional merit. From the legion commander, no less. How can we make sure this helps you?”
The “we” makes me want to hug her tight enough to make her squeal. But Asta hates to be touched. I tap my finger next to hers, our compromise to show feelings.
“There’s nothing to be done,” I say. “It’s not like any of us can choose.”
“Except.” Asta lets the wet curl of her hair drop. “You can invoke the Rule.”
“You know,” Asta says, growing more confident. “Students can volunteer for the Legion before their assignments chime.”
“Why would any Collegium girl choose the Legion?” We’re supposed to get the best jobs.
Asta taps her scroll again. “There was one. Our second year. She made the news.”
“I don’t remember her.”
Asta pauses. “You were in the infirmary. The winter the dog attacked you.”
The memory makes me catch my breath. Before the graduation feast our second year, I was collecting walnut shells in the orchard to make brown paint. A wild dog leapt from the brush and seized me by the arm. The dog threw me back and forth as if it meant to tear my arm from my shoulder.
Professor Flicke was nearby. She beat the dog off with her huge fists. A fysic later told me it was one of the Legion’s battle dogs gone feral. My scar throbs when I see a battle dog on the news.
Asta peers at me. “Dini, you’d be the first Collegium girl in history to invoke the Rule to a three-sheaf commander. That’s almost better than getting some entry-level job in the Centrum.”
Asta is nothing if not determined once she’s certain she’s right. “Seriously, Dini. Even with this merit, your Compendium’s a disaster. You’ll probably be sent to some awful job in the colonies. You wouldn’t be able to move to the Centrum for years. Maybe forever.” Asta sighs. “Or you’ll be sent to work a Cyclon. Remember when we visited the Cyclon at Fourth Years? No sun, no fresh air. At least in the Legion, you won’t be underground for who knows how long.”
Her words bring sudden tears to my eyes. Asta never means to be cruel. But she can’t lie or soften her opinion to spare anyone’s feelings. Every Weave city and town has a Cyclon, all connected to the central Cyclon at the Centrum. The Cyclons generate fuel for heaters and coolers, lamps, kitchen stoves, computers, the ships traveling the Signal Way, and even the Signal Way itself.
The Collegium Cyclon is as wide as the building itself and buried deep underground. When Asta and I visited, we saw its enormous bladder sagging green and veined over our heads. Fat bubbles lifted through the murk. Bits floated by: bone shards, hair mats, peels, and even human waste. Everything we discard, down to the last fingernail, goes into the Cyclon.
As we watched, a worker in a greased suit and goggles wriggled up into the bladder, to loosen a clog, we were told.
Asta waits as I wipe away a tear. “I have to be honest about these things,” she says.
“I know. It's just…” I don’t want to argue with her on our last day. I feel like one more thing to be thrown away. “I was fooling myself about getting a decent assignment.”
Asta has her own deficits. Allergic to sunlight and dust. Poor in social encounters. But her list of merits is long: detail-oriented, deliberate, easily grasps complex number sequences, outstanding pattern recognition. She doesn’t have to think about invoking any Rule. She’ll get a wonderful assignment: Central Bank or a warehouse in the capital.
What would I even do in the Legion? Stab a scrag with a brush handle? Splash it with moldy paint?
“Promise me you’ll think about it,” Asta insists.
“I promise.” Here’s one merit I should have: I’m an excellent liar.
“We should look at your final so I can leave before Professor Rusta gets here.”
The Biotics assignment was to create a simple plant or creature that’s useful and also resistant to a natural predator. I mixed a formula for a mole-repelling potato in one of the consoles, cutting the formula this way and that with the injectors. I show Asta the shelf where the potato plant grows from a box of dirt. The vines spindle up the stone walls, leaves turned to the wintry light filtering through a window.
I try to sound Biotics-y. This also keeps me from blubbering. “The leaves are well-developed. There’s scaling on the stem, normal for the base variety. The color is robust.”
Asta’s trying to calm me. “You should mention the quantity of leaves.”
Together, we pull the vines down, each tender suckling exhaling mortar dust as it pops free. I carry the box to a lab table. Asta selects a small scoop from a drawer. “Bring me a dissection tray,” she says.
The red wax coating the bottom of the tray reeks of preservative. Asta makes a neat pile of dirt on it, then peers into the box. “I see a lump.”
My spirits lift. Still covered in dirt, the lump looks like a potato. A real potato. An edible, storable potato no mole should even sniff.
I managed to create a living thing. Maybe I’m not so bad at Biotics after all.
Asta places three more potatoes onto the tray. Under a light, I see that one potato has a swollen seed eye. I poke it with a glass probe.
I swear the potato shivers. The eye has something inside it: serrated and butter-yellow.
Asta pries out the object with a scalpel. “It’s a tooth. Look, there’s more than one.”
I roll the second potato over. With my probe, I poke at a black patch. Fur. “Now what?”
“Maybe they’re not all the same,” Asta says.
Every single potato has teeth and fur. The largest one even softly growls.
Asta shakes her head. “We have to shave and de-tooth them all. By the Mother’s breath, what did you put in this formula?”
Skunk. A natural predator of the mole. And a bit of orange.”
“Orange?” Asta is incredulous.
“For the smell.”
“Snake would have been a better choice,” Asta says, exasperated. “You could have made the potato shed its own skin. Cooks wouldn’t have to skin them. You could have made a potato that grows in water. There are no potato predators in a tank. At least it wouldn’t growl! No one wants an orange-flavored potato, Dini. Look at what Susalee did. That’s the kind of final the professor wanted.”
Susalee’s project is an insect-eating flower combining gardenia, bee, and Drosera glanduligera, a carnivorous sundew. The sundew’s creamy petals curl around anthers heavy with nectar that slow-drips into a beaker. Pieces of fly wing, the only part of the insect predator the plant can’t digest, lie like crusty snowflakes around the sundew’s base.
No de-toothing will make my mole-resistant potato pass. Asta’s determined to do what she can, though. Her scalpel flashes over the last potato, lumped like a turd.
I wish there were some place I could officially surrender.
Asta’s expression is as serious as I’ve seen it. “The exceptional merit is lucky for you. Invoke the Rule. Otherwise…” She doesn't have to finish: risk a truly terrible first assignment. She gives my hand a quick tap of affection before she leaves.
I dump the potato fur, teeth, and vines down the Cyclon chute. Once the whole mess hits the first bladder, there’s a faint, fruity burp. I can erase charcoal lines with the fat of my hand, but there’s no way to erase my Compendium.
I give the potatoes a last scrub, then stack them in a glass beaker. I put the turd at the bottom. Maybe Professor Rusta won’t notice.
Of course, the first thing she does is upend my beaker on one of the dissection trays. The turd’s at the top. Her lips press together in disgust. With a silver tongs, rolls the turd back and forth. The holes where Asta and I pried out teeth are red-rimmed and look painful to the touch.
Professor Rusta slices the turd open with a scalpel. An oily stench fills the room. The potato's inner flesh quivers for a moment, then slumps in a gelatinous mess.
At this moment, my whole life feels like one lumpy, messy turd.
“I don't know a single creature made by the Mother capable of ingesting this horror.” The professor marks the potato inedible and potentially carnivorous. Fail.
Mariza gets a high mark for a spider that produces web strong enough for armor. The spider’s hard carapace is too bitter to appeal to birds or frogs. High pass. Tem’s project is sow bugs that eat garbage, then poop a froth that can be molded into soap. At the lightest touch, the sow bugs roll into hard pellets.
“Inedible.” Professor Rusta wrinkles her nose. “With that carapace, the bugs would likely pass through the digestive system unharmed. Good work.”
Another high pass.
The professor snatches her hand back when the tiny pink tentacles on the nose of Edba’s dilidot grasp her finger. “Cyclon tube cleaner,” Edba says. “It can scour the narrowest joints.”
Edba’s creation is hairless, a plus. Professor Rusta gives her a low pass since there are no natural predators in the Cyclon.
With relief, she turns to Susalee’s final. Susalee’s always been best among the 584s. The professor dips a glass probe into the beaker, half-filled with golden nectar, then dabs the end on her tongue. She allows each of us a taste: a morning fragrant with just-opened flowers and a tangy edge, like just-baked bread.
“Each harvest more efficient, each crop more nutritious and delightful,” Professor Rusta says. The Biotics Guild motto. “Perfect.”
Susalee earns a merit. Best in class. Susalee even smells like her final: sweet, like honey.
Susalee is exactly the person her Sower intended. I am a furry, carnivorous potato.