I scrambled to find the arm hole in my gown as I ran toward Zorah’s office apartment. Synthetic fabric should not get this twisted, but the wind tested my best efforts to arrive precisely on time. Zorah lived in the central Administration Building that towered over Mount Leipren University. They occupied the second-highest floor, but unlike the Chancellor right above them, Zorah invited their students and coworkers inside. I untangled the gown and situated the cap, trying to catch my breath. Then I checked my watch. A minute to spare. As I waited for the elevator, I reviewed my mental checklist for the final interview that stood between me and tenure.
My blood pressure rose with each passing floor. An MLU professorship was not a job for the lazy, the purposeless, or even the decently competent. Imposters and flakes were weeded out. It was tenure or bust, admission into the inner circles of academia or irrevocable banishment from this campus and this career. I could not fail now.
The elevator chimed, and at exactly six o’clock the doors opened to reveal—you’ve got to be kidding me—not Zorah, but Rafa.
“Good morning, Charlie!” Rafa practically burst with self-satisfaction. They had been waiting in front of the elevator to gloat. I could have sworn I had reserved the earliest office hour. I wanted to set the bar high, to become the standard against which others were compared, but Rafa had outmaneuvered me. “Good luck,” they said insincerely and squeezed past me to take the elevator down.
I shot them a fake smile and stepped into Zorah’s foyer.
“Come in,” Zorah called, and a door opened at their command. I shook my wrists and took a deep breath before proceeding to their study.
“Good morning, Zorah. Thank you for meeting with me so early,” I said. I had planned that greeting, but after Rafa’s surprise attack, my words took on a double meaning.
“Never mind about Rafa,” Zorah began. They had anticipated my reaction. “Everyone assumes going first gives you a leg up, but the truth is,” they leaned forward and gestured for me to sit, “the patterns of the recent past are no guarantee of the present.”
Zorah was dressed in the finest regalia. They sat behind a grey marble desk. On either side, bookshelves lined the walls. They were crammed with old lesson plans, monographs overflowing with sticky tabs, and personnel files. Somewhere in there, I thought, must be Zorah’s field notes for the first English-Leiprenese dictionary and countless other treasures. Behind them, floor-to-ceiling windows opened onto the Appalachian ridges that wrapped around the campus.
The view from this elevation, and Zorah’s reassurances, washed away the disappointment and most of my nerves. They had a way of making the world feel right again.
“Let’s get down to business,” said Zorah. I took a seat, while they opened my file. Zorah skimmed the summary of my publications, peer evaluation scores, and the data collected about my work-life balance. They mmhmmed and appeared to be quite pleased with my performance over the past decade. Then they tapped the page with their finger and looked at me over the rim of their glasses. “This says you have a new essay forthcoming. A report on the influences of Leiprenese on Earthling languages?”
“Yes. It will be published next month.”
Zorah gestured for me to explain the work. This was an interview, after all.
“Right. Leiprenese is a pidgin language developed by the Renner to facilitate the colonization of Earth. At first, the Renner envoys used it to communicate with Earthling leadership about commercial matters. For the Renner, Leiprenese was an undignified but necessary mode of speech.”
“Some of your peers would disagree with that statement,” Zorah interjected.
“Well, they would be mistaken. There is a somewhat popular, but unfounded, notion that the Renner cherish Leiprenese for its simplicity. However, such scholars fail to distinguish the moral value the Renner assign to efficiency from their own yearning to be respected by the Renner. It’s pure solipsism.”
“Let’s assume that’s true. How, then, do you explain the Earthling desire to borrow from a language of such low esteem?”
“Earthlings are banned from learning any of the Renner’s native languages while on Earth. The Renner have always insisted on maintaining a certain distance from their colonial subjects,” I explained, and Zorah finally nodded in agreement with something I had said. “On Earth, Leiprenese was, and still is, the only possible means of communicating directly with the Renner. Speaking the language provides a way to improve one’s station in life. For those born around the time of Earth’s discovery and who came of age just as the Renner reconstructed the economy to ease its entry into the galactic marketplace, Leiprenese became associated with the progress and prestige of the Renner and their Homeworld.”
“You’re speaking of my generation.”
“Precisely. In fact, I analyzed many of your early speeches.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, as if overnight, you stopped using gendered language.”
“That was intentional. The Renner practically demanded it. Are you arguing that all of the changes were conscious?”
“Of course not. Most occurred over time as the result of code-switching, of constantly living between the two languages. Over a span of ten years, you adopted new vocabulary and even smoothed out some of the harsher consonants not used by the Renner. The th, for example, became an aspirated h.”
“And?” Zorah prodded.
“And the hard k softened into sibilants.”
“When I think back to how I used to speak, these changes seem drastic,” said Zorah. They traded the steely gaze of peer review for a more wistful expression. “But I suppose those born into this world never knew anything else.”
“Now you’re speaking of my generation,” I replied with a wink.
“And speaking of your generation, I have to say I’m quite impressed. With two of you anyway. You and Rafa can count on my endorsement.”
“Thank you, Zorah, that means a lot.” I could have melted in relief.
“You’ve earned it,” they added.
“What about you? Is there any news about your ascension to the Homeworld?”
“You never know about these things,” Zorah said cryptically. Without a doubt, they were the most qualified candidate. Every year, the Renner chose one professor from each planet in the empire to retire among them. Zorah had been favored for last year’s opening, but at the eleventh hour, the Chancellor received word that the Renner had suspended all ascensions due to unforeseen circumstances. Something about the collapse of the housing market on a distant planet. Zorah stood and turned toward the windows. “But I try to remain optimistic,” they said and invited me to join them.
“I’m sure this will be your year,” I said as I approached the wall of glass. “I can’t wait to be where you are. I lie awake most nights and dream of escaping this backwater planet.”
“I take it you’ve watched the latest video of the Homeworld?” Zorah’s gaze rose toward Renner Hall as they spoke, and mine followed. Perched on the highest peak, the site where the Renner had made first contact almost fifty years ago, its gold-plated facade reflected the sunrise over the entire valley. Originally, the building had been reserved for Renner envoys, until they stopped visiting the planet in person. Ever since, the hall had taken on a ceremonial role, housing the person chosen to ascend for their last night on Earth. The rest of the year, it looked down on the campus as a comforting reminder of the Renner’s promise: Paradise awaited those who worked with passion and perseverance.
“Who hasn’t? Rethinking your plans now?”
“Absolutely. I had always wanted to stay in the capital. I love living in the mountains, but I thought for my retirement I’d try something new. The sprawling city with its glass towers and plastic-lined boulevards. The personalized pods to carry you to the Anthropological Museum of the Galactic South and then to the beauty spa for a quick chemical peel. I’d watch the sunset in one of those open-air wine bars in a heated pool near the coast. But that train, is that what you would call it?”
“I suppose. There weren’t any tracks, or at least none I could see.”
“It made me rethink everything. Having your own private car while touring the planet,” Zorah’s voice soared with their imagination. “The quartz canyons, the cloud forests, the petrol rivers.”
“I had no idea those even existed.”
“No one did. And being granted permission to study the local languages as you pass through each region.”
“It’s a dream come true for language nerds! Any favorites?” I asked.
“I’m partial to Milonian. I find the short, shocking phonemes to be an irresistible challenge for my palate.”
“Hacher would be my choice.”
“The language of austerity,” they added. “It all sounds marvelous.”
“I wish they’d allow for more opportunities to visit the Homeworld. You’d think if people got a taste of that lifestyle, they’d be more motivated to develop their own planets.”
“I’m sure they have their reasons,” cautioned Zorah.
“Of course,” I agreed and shifted the topic. “It’s exciting to think I could get tenure the same year the Renner choose you to join them.”
“That would be nice.” They spoke in hushed tones, as if another line of thought were running under the surface. “You’re following closely in my footsteps.”
“I’ve had a fantastic mentor in you,” I said, at risk of crossing that line between gratitude and groveling.
“But best not to get ahead of oneself. There’s still plenty of work to do here.”
I watched as Zorah traced a finger over a hairline fracture in the window. The gesture was unassuming, as if out of habit, but it left me uneasy. I couldn’t help but imagine the entire pane shattering into a million shards and pelting the ground below. I took a step back from the edge and returned to the other side of the desk.
“Look at the time,” Zorah said as they turned toward me. Their voice helped shake the irrational vision from my mind. “I have eight more interviews to complete, and you have a class to teach.”
“Thank you again.” I bowed in deference and left Zorah’s study. For a moment, it felt as if everything were lining up just as I had planned.
The students in my Leiprenese 101 class were arranged in their mobile desks like ten little bowling pins. It was my job to knock them down in order to build them back up. Now that I had secured Zorah’s endorsement, I could focus on defending the record I had set years ago as a student in this very classroom. Today’s unannounced oral exam was designed to do just that.
“My value is my work,” declared Student 1, leading the repetition of the weekly motto. Rankings were all that mattered at the introductory level. Scores were tied to biometrics, and only the top twenty percent would survive the first year. Only then would I bother with their names.
“My value is my work,” said the other students in unison.
Student 1 had been Student 1 for almost a month, which gave me until the end of the week to depose them. They knew I would be relentless to them in defending my title, while lobbing easy questions at their competitors. There were no friends in that classroom. Only ten adversaries. And I had all the power.
“Today, I will assess your understanding of pronouns,” I said. “Student 1, are you ready?” I had switched to Leiprenese, and they knew resorting to English would move them immediately to the back of the class.
“Ready,” they responded.
“Student 1, fill in the blank: The employee is late. Blank lose ten percent of their wages.”
“They lose ten percent of their wages,” they affirmed with annoyingly accurate pronunciation.
“Correct. You earn one point.” I pursed my lips.
“Student 2,” I said, slowly and in English, freeing them to respond more easily. “True or False: I is the first-person singular pronoun.”
“Student 2, you have three seconds.”
“False?” Their voice cracked with uncertainty.
“Such a maynard,” mumbled Student 1. “Pathetic.”
“Wrong,” I said in disbelief. “Did nothing trickle down from my recorded lectures? Minus four points.”
At my command, the scoreboard in the front of the room docked four points from Student 2, who became Student 4, though they deserved to be in the back of the class. As always, I had been too generous. The desks rearranged themselves, moving Student 2 back a row and sliding Students 3 and 4, who became 2 and 3, into higher-ranked positions.
Just then I noticed Rafa lingering in the hallway, checking to see if Student 1 had outperformed me yet. Time to strike.
“Student 1,” I said, returning to Leiprenese, “Fill in the blank with the proper first-person plural pronoun: I am the foreman. They are the Manager. Blank always reward efficiency.”
“They, wait—” the student’s eyes popped as they began to self-correct. I had my opening.
“Sorry, Student 1. The correct answer is: I and they. Minus—” I turned to look at the scoreboard. Student 1 was now in the lead by twenty-four points. “Minus twenty-five points.”
The star student became outraged at their failure to best me. While the chairs for Students 1 and 2 swapped places, I walked toward Rafa, winked, and shut the door in their face. I would count this as payback for the little trick at Zorah’s office.
“You’ll just have to try harder, Student 2,” I said as I turned. It was better they learned how the world worked under my guidance than on the job. This was for their own good.
The day of the Promotion Ceremony had finally arrived. I and Rafa and the other eight candidates for tenure waited behind the auditorium with luggage in hand. Anyone not tenured would be escorted from campus immediately. A lucky student had been assigned to usher me and the others through the loading door and into the wings. In the audience, the tenured faculty were arranged by rank in the shape of an inverted pyramid that pointed toward the stage. At stage left, the Chancellor teetered behind a podium, while Zorah oversaw a folding table draped with purple fabric. It bore the MLU sigil of a black bear under a maple tree. I counted two golden sashes and two flower crowns.
I and the other candidates drew lots to decide the seating arrangement on stage. I drew a front-row seat, and Rafa, poor thing, would have to sit behind me. As they settled in, their shoe kicked my chair. It was not an accident. I was used to the spats, the little digs at every turn, the subtle, but not unnoticed, affronts. It would be a long road beside them, but then again, every Arguedas needed their Cortázar. Rafa’s disparagement drove me to new heights, to push harder than I ever imagined as I worked to outshine them.
The Chancellor tapped the mic. They praised the faculty for their increased output and commitment to student success, but then they deviated from the perennial format of their speech. “This year, I’m proud to report a special honor bestowed upon the campus.” The auditorium brimmed with anticipation. This must be Zorah’s moment, I thought. Zorah took a step toward the podium, and a hush fell over the crowd. “Mount Leipren University,” the Chancellor continued, leaning toward the mic, “finally pushed into the number one spot for most accumulated unused vacation days on the entire planet.”
The faculty cheered as a wave of ceyah washed over the room. Such a frugal loan word from the Leiprenese. It named a feeling that had become prominent under Renner tutelage. Ceyah is similar to pride, but without the enduring sense of satisfaction, because no record is ever unbreakable, no limit impossible to surpass. Ceyah is that brief moment you celebrate before going back to work.
“Now, on to the final event,” they said.
The faculty were caught up in their own success, but I kept my eyes on Zorah. They would not ascend yet again this year. They appeared sullen, as if something had broken, as if they had known it would slip from their hands but picked it up regardless, only to watch helplessly when it crashed to the floor. As the lights dimmed, they stepped back to the table and tried to put on a brave face.
Suddenly, my chair began to move. I and Rafa and the others swirled and rotated around one another at center stage. The big reveal had begun. My chair pulled me upstage, and my pulse pounded in the side of my neck. This was the wrong direction. I felt the blood drain from my cheeks, and Rafa rolled beside me. The others enjoyed the view from downstage. I stared at Rafa, and they at me. An uncharacteristic nervous sweat had beaded around their brow. At least if I were being banished as a failed professor, I thought, so were they. But to my relief, the bigger group was then split in half and dragged toward the wings. I and Rafa were pushed through the open space between them, and in a reversal of fortune, the undeserving eight were swept from the stage entirely. I dared not turn around for a final look at my former colleagues.
The spotlights landed on me and Rafa. I stood to receive a handshake from the Chancellor and my sash and crown from Zorah. Rafa received the same in reverse order. This was the moment I had been working toward my entire life. On paper, it was my greatest achievement. I was happy, or I would be, I told myself, once the reality sank in.
Still, there was no denying this competition had taken its toll, and it was far from over. Earning tenure had been a simple sprint. Now, I would need to adopt a new regimen if I wanted to beat Rafa—and if I hoped to avoid Zorah’s fate—in this marathon toward the Homeworld.
I unclenched my toes and let my head drop onto the pillow. Rafa rolled off my bed and rebuttoned their shirt.
“That was productive,” they said, hopping as they pulled their too-tight and too-short pants up to their waist. “What are you going to work on tonight?”
I usually experienced a renewed clarity as soon as I and Rafa finished, sometimes even a hurried need to start drafting a new lesson plan before they were out the door. But my mind felt mushy.
This rivalry paused twice a week. Wednesdays I visited them, and Saturdays they visited me. The calendar was marked for a strict twenty minutes. I and they toasted to recent accomplishments, in this case tenure, and allowed for a quick release.
“Afraid I’ll steal your next great plan?” Rafa prodded.
“Please, you couldn’t scoop any idea of mine.”
“Then tell me.” Rafa almost knocked over a stack of journal articles piled on the nightstand as they bent over to pull on their socks.
I didn’t know what to say. For the first time in my career, a blight had spread over the vines where my upcoming ideas usually ripened and waited to be plucked. “Didn’t you—” my voice trailed off as an impossible idea skulked around the corners of my consciousness.
“Expect the Chancellor to announce Zorah’s ascendance last week?”
“The thought did cross my mind.”
“They should have ascended last year. To be passed over twice is incomprehensible. If Zorah can’t make it, who can?”
“I can,” declared Rafa. They never missed the chance for self-promotion.
“Seriously, the Renner have to realize Zorah is unsurpassed in their generation. No one at those old-world Ivies even comes close.”
“That entire generation began to slack the minute they got promoted. I and you both produced more plans and better research than Zorah last year. The way I see it, none of them have earned the right to get to know the Renner in person. They were just lucky enough to not have serious competition.”
“Still, I wonder—” I sat up and pulled on my undershirt. There was a tear in the seam under the arm. I would have to get this mended.
“Out with it, Charlie. The clock is ticking.”
“Maybe ascendance isn’t worth it.”
I watched their mouth droop a bit. The thought had never crossed Rafa’s mind, and it ought not to have crossed mine either. The mere doubt in my voice approached the treasonous.
“That’s absurd,” Rafa scowled.
“I just mean—” I tried to backtrack. “I thought this would be Zorah’s year.”
“Yeah, well, it wasn’t.”
My proposition had been outlandish, mindless, even violent. If I were Rafa, I would have been over the moon, plotting the best strategy to reveal my great mistake.
“It was a dumb thought. Don’t pay me any attention.”
“Sure thing,” said Rafa as they opened the door. They chose not to confront me in private. Their energy would be better spent on a whisper campaign that would slowly erode the high hill on which I currently stood. For now, they shook their head and slipped out the door.
I should have been panicked, or angry, or rushing to preempt Rafa’s next move. Right then, for a reason I could not explain, it just didn’t seem to matter. The calendar alarm sounded, but instead of getting back to work, I sat on the edge of the bed and stared blankly at the reflective poster of the Homeworld hanging over my desk.
A sea of purple caps and gowns with golden doctoral stripes packed the roof-top deck of the Administration Building. I stood with my back to the party, sipping champagne, and stared out at the campus. The valley shone under flood lights on this chilly evening. Going into the New Fiscal Year, I had to reclaim my sense of purpose.
Looking for inspiration, I turned toward Renner Hall, but the campus lights had imprinted on my vision. I lowered my eyes, blinking away the glare, and noticed a crack in one of the deck boards. It appeared to be quite deep, like a fault line on the verge of fracturing. I traced it as it zig-zagged beneath my colleagues’ shuffling feet, but I couldn’t see where it led.
I was taking another sip when a hand landed on my shoulder. I recoiled, and champagne dribbled down my gown.
“Charlie, hi, sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” said Zorah. They reached for a cocktail napkin and dabbed at the wet spots.
“No worries,” I said. “It won’t stain.”
Still, they folded the napkin and patted at the spot once more. “Why are you standing over here all alone?”
“I’m just in my head tonight.”
“I know that feeling.”
They noticed the doubt in my silence.
“Seriously,” they said, getting quieter as they rested their lower back on the bannister and crossed their arms.
“Did something happen?” I asked cautiously.
“The Chancellor informed me the moratorium on ascensions has been extended indefinitely.”
“Let me guess, another unprecedented crisis on the other side of the galaxy means Earthlings have to tighten their belts?”
“And by indefinitely, they don’t just mean a year or two, do they?” I turned to look back at Renner Hall as I asked. Zorah should have been spending their last night on Earth over there, waiting for the shuttle to pick them up first thing in the morning.
“It could be five, ten years. Maybe never. Who even knows?”
Zorah turned around with me. As their words echoed in my thoughts, the future I had imagined, the one the Renner had promised, slipped from my fingers like a balloon from a child’s hand.
I felt dizzy and braced myself on the bannister. “This champagne is strong.”
“I don’t think it’s the champagne,” replied Zorah. “A little birdie told me you’re also having some doubts.”
My face burned, and my shoulders went stiff with the thought of Rafa’s version of the events. I tried to strategize a counterattack, still unsure of Zorah’s motives. Before I could muster the energy, they reached out and rested their hand on my upper back. Their touch, friendly, released some of the tension and quieted the growing sense of abandonment.
“Rafa, blissfully unaware, approached me the day after your accidental revelation,” Zorah said, laughing a bit.
They stood beside me and waited, patiently, as I debated what to say next. Even if this was a trap, I thought, even if confirming Rafa’s accusations meant some sort of punishment, I decided to risk it. I couldn’t hold back any longer.
“I can’t explain it, but this—” I looked around.
“Doesn’t seem worth it?”
I almost dropped the glass, so I set it on the bannister. “How did you know?”
“Because, Charlie,” they sighed and paused. Exhaustion settled in the crow’s feet around their eyes. Meanwhile, Rafa kept to the opposite side of the deck. The busybodies kept buzzing around them, perpetually reconfiguring the dynamics of the swarm. “It’s not worth it. Only a handful ever made it to the Homeworld. And the rest, what did they get? What did I get? What will you get? I’ll tell you what. Nothing.”
Zorah’s words confirmed a fear I had so far kept from surfacing.
“The Homeworld is a lie,” I mumbled, still concerned I might be overheard. Worse, I realized, is that I would never get the chance to prove to the refined and upstanding citizens of the Homeworld that I was an elevated example, if not an exception, to the human race.
“The Renner withdrew long ago,” said Zorah. “Yet, they control every dimension of this little planet from a distance.”
“So they don’t have to get their hands dirty?”
“Yes, and also to avoid being blamed for the world they built. Today, Earthlings discipline and drive other Earthlings. As professors, I and you play a key role in churning out the managerial class that keeps this system humming along. One of the strategies the Renner developed was to prohibit the use of Earthling languages in the workplace. They believed they could prevent, or at least slow, any nascent sense of solidarity by alienating the workers from one another. Of course, the crushing debt they acquire just to make ends meet and the lack of alternatives keep most people from stepping out of their assigned role. Not to mention the threat of being sent to the mines. Meanwhile, the Homeworld keeps those who are better off shut into the system, running in circles to achieve a vague promise of another world, another life.”
“Not just running, but constantly trying to outpace everyone else,” I added.
“Right. The Renner never force you to run faster, technically speaking. They don’t crank some knob. The faculty here do it to themselves. All in pursuit of a dream that was imagined by another. Meanwhile, the Renner sit back and feast on the fruits of Earthling labor. And every time the Renner move the goalposts, everyone accepts this as a greater challenge. Look at Rafa.”
“Between my blunder and your failure, Rafa couldn’t be more motivated.”
“You can’t blame them. I’ve been in their shoes and acted no differently. Everyone is playing the same game here. But I think, Charlie, like me, you’re growing tired,” Zorah offered.
“You know, you and I really are quite similar.”
“Do you think—” I started to say. “Wait.” The word order was wrong. “What did you say?”
“You heard correctly, Charlie.” Zorah smiled and took my hands in theirs as the unnoticed anagram unscrambled itself. “You and I,” they repeated.
Zorah’s words sprouted before my feet. Their syntax went against everything I had believed, everything I had been taught. Yet somehow it perfectly described one of the many sensations that had been surfacing since the Promotion Ceremony. I let my toes inch their way toward that new growth. It was soft and squishy, like a bed of moss. Zorah, quite literally, had put me first. Not their work, not their own interests or ambitions, but someone else. I felt light as air and stood tall.
“Yeah, you and I,” I repeated slowly. “You and I.” I had to untrain my mouth to break the deeply ingrained grammar, but with practice, the words would take shape, and one day I might be able to return that generosity or pay it forward.
Zorah squeezed my hands once more and then, as the final seconds of that year wound down, left me to make a decision for myself.
“In the year 2035,” I recited in slowly enunciated Leiprenese, “the Great Navigator discovered a primitive culture with the potential to be molded.” I paused. The students, arranged before me in two opposing lines, furiously transcribed my every word. They were competing to reproduce the most accurate text in the least amount of time.
In the interim, Zorah’s “you and I” kept rattling around my brain.
I read the next sentence. “Upon contact, the Renner demonstrated the benefits of cultivating a highly intensive culture of achievement.”
Such a clunky phrase, “you and I”. A more succinct way to express that idea, that connection, had to exist. It was on the tip of my tongue.
“The Great Spaceship dropped through the atmosphere to the wonder of all Earthlings, who freely offered—” I stopped the dictation mid-sentence and looked out at the obedient students. I had to stop repeating the Renner’s lessons. This could not go on.
One by one, each raised their head wondering why I had paused for so long.
“Professor, you may continue,” the student currently in first place informed me.
I would not go on. There were no words, in Leiprenese or any other language, that could reach across the void and explain to the students I had trained so well what I was about to do. Out of habit, I gathered my notes from the podium, tucked them into my briefcase, and walked silently out the door.
I could hear the disbelief in my wake. A few sat frozen. Others buzzed with gossip, and one suggested they follow me outside.
Renner Ridge surrounded me. Even from my relative elevation at Leiprenese Hall, it was impossible to look off into the distance. There was no horizon here, only a barricade sealed by Renner Hall. If someone happened to let their gaze wander beyond themselves, their work, and their rank, the building’s shiny walls would grab their attention and redirect it toward thoughts of the Homeworld.
That was where I needed to go.
The Hall could only be accessed by a narrow staircase. I hopped the gate. Before my little stunt, no one had imagined a need for greater security. The minds of each member of this campus blocked access better than any physical barrier.
My gown whipped in the wind as I plodded along. I clutched my cap reflexively, but then I ripped it from my head and tossed it over the railing. It soared above the campus for quite some distance before landing in a thicket. A student, still playing by the rules, rushed over to retrieve it.
Higher and higher, I climbed until I finally reached the launch pad next to Renner Hall. For a second, I saw myself from the outside. I laughed at the absurdity of it all. Here I was trespassing on consecrated grounds during a workday for no apparent reason.
Up close, Renner Hall did not look the same. The façade was scratched, and the shiny surface only coated the walls that were visible from below. The others, made of concrete, were covered with mold and old growth. I had an urge to smash the windows, but I changed my mind when I noticed they were made of plexiglass.
For the first time, I saw Renner Hall for what it was. A vacant tower. A few crumbling walls coated in fool’s gold. A monument to deception and exploitation. A cardboard box left out in the rain.
I walked back to the stairs, peered over the railing, and saw bodies pouring out of every building. They gathered around a central figure—Rafa—who steered the swarm’s bewilderment. They directed outraged hands and fingers to point in my direction.
A corrupting influence on such impressionable minds!
A defender of society hiding in plain sight!
Meanwhile, the briefcase tugged with the weight of the world below. Why was I still holding on to this? The lesson plans and ungraded essays begged for their release, so I popped the clasps and dumped out the contents. Pages and pages burst from their folders and fell out of rank. As the papers hung over each stunned student and staff member, time itself lurched to a halt.
An irreversible first strike, for those below. From here, a moment to contemplate the slow beauty of my disruption.
The sheets fluttered in the wind. Some drooped toward the crowd and caught in treetops, while others glided into the distance. I dropped the empty briefcase and stripped off the gown as I walked to the other side of the launch pad. There, I climbed on the railing and sat with my feet dangling over the far edge. My idleness occupied a forbidden space and time. But it also revealed a horizon that had been missing from my life.
A hand touched my shoulder, and I steeled myself to be cuffed and dragged back down the mountainside.
“Charlie,” said Zorah.
“Don’t try to talk me out of this,” I shouted, but they shook their head.
“I had no such intention.” They climbed on the bannister, took a seat beside me, and removed their cap. They had not come to stop me. They had been waiting for me to join them. “You and I sure are going to give them something to talk about today.”
“You and I. My mind resists that phrase at every syllable, and yet it feels somehow right to foreground you instead of me.”
“I and you wasn’t always the grammatical order,” Zorah explained. “It was imposed by the Renner in the early days, and I thought, just maybe, you’d have noticed in that last article you wrote.”
“Oh really? No, there are no oddities in the use of pronouns in your recorded speeches.”
“In the ones that still exist. Many documents from the first years were purged, and by the time you were born, those changes had already taken hold. They were taught to you in school and in every interaction. They even reflected the hierarchies and values built into the environment all around you. But language cannot be controlled completely from above.”
“It was so disorienting, and yet freeing, when you said ‘you and I’. You named this thing I couldn’t quite put into words, this thought I didn’t know how to express. I sensed there had to be more than this competition, this life of working without rest. There had to be more than my little academic achievements.”
“See, you get it.”
“You’re the one who invited me to hop off the treadmill. There was no going back after that.”
Zorah took a deep, renewing breath.
I did the same.
It was quiet here, calming. There was an ease to it all.
Mountains stretched before Zorah and me. I could have stared at those blue ridges for days. No roads or trails pointed the way. No rope guided my descent. Only a steep drop, and beyond that, the open woods. Not long ago, the thought would have terrified me.
“What now?” I asked. The timeless questions had resurfaced. “How do we undo all of this? How do we build something better?”
“We, Charlie. You do know that word after all.”
“We!” I shouted in surprise at myself. The ancient pronoun had crept up from the back of my mind. Not I and you. More than you and I, even—Zorah and I became we. The word echoed in the distance. So elegant and unassuming. It joined, not through isolating chains of conjunctions that mark order, but by allowing individuals to come together in a collective syllable.
We sat here together. We were exhausted and burned out. We let ourselves, ourselves! We let ourselves rest, shoulder to shoulder, and for a moment, we chose not to do anything at all.
Our collective inaction sent a shudder through the campus behind us. We had opened a hairline fracture in the foundations of this place. We had cracked open a door. There would be no guarantees, of course. It would take more than two to change the world, for we could easily be discredited, cast out, and replaced.
Yet, for us, being tired together formed the strongest bond we had ever known. This was our first real lesson, one we were writing together. Ours was a small offering, intended as only one of many more to come. For now, though, we would wait here on the cusp of something unforeseen as long as we could. We would invite others to take a seat beside us. To rest and linger here for a while. To contemplate a new sense of time, one that did not consume, but endured.
And after that, we just might have the strength and the stillness of breath to speak with one another and imagine where we go from here.