Hilltown’s peace of mind shattered as the first whisper seeped out of a wristclamp autoreader over lunch, and before long, every device crackled with the news. Work stopped, students gathered, primed ears bent low to catch every detail. The collective heartrate skyrocketed. Inhabitants collapsed into chairs, eastern windows groaned as they were shoved open and eyes strained for something beyond the horizon. The dull old line where the plains cut the sky in half had always been present but unimportant. Not now. Promise lingered beneath its lip; opportunity raged towards town at fifty-five miles an hour.
Beneath the Hill, lodged deep in the rock where it had hidden for three hundred years, the Hilltown Energy Beetle’s turbines spooled up, preparing for the increased demand on the grid. Far above it, in every room, the people of Hilltown laughed and cried and hugged and danced.
Parbrier College was coming. There was no time to waste.
All my life, I’d planned—no, dreamed—of catching a college like Dad. I’d heard his Wakereach boarding story so often at bedtime it felt like I’d been there, tasting the sea foam and feeling the burn of desperate paddling in my own arms. And now, I was going to get a shot at one. I wouldn’t have to spend weeks or months hunting it down, tracking its paths, living out of a backpack. Parbrier was coming to me.
After classes were cancelled, I’d bounded down the Hill, expecting Dad to have beaten me home after catching the announcement at work and bolting, but nobody was there. I paced our tiny apartment from deck to kitchenette, looping around the sitting area Dad used as his bedroom and back, around and around, seething with the nervous energy the radio announcement had injected straight into my chest. Three weeks!
I couldn’t even remember what Parbrier College looked like, though it was probably in Dad’s Encyclopedia of Modern Behemoths. I stopped pacing and made for his sagging bookshelf. He had over three hundred books about behemoths, but the one I wanted was wedged right in the middle, acting as a pillar for the shelf above. I wriggled it out carefully, making sure nothing came crashing down on me.
The Encyclopedia was fourteen hundred vellum sheets, grouped into chapters on various locomotion styles and native locale. I’d pored over the section dedicated to ocean behemoths as a kid, obsessed with the googly-eyed, spiney, deep sea machinations that often people only learned existed when their metal shells washed up on shore, rusted out and covered in barnacles. The land-based education behemoth section was pristine.
After a little searching, I found Parbrier College. Even in a palm-sized sketch, it gave me a shiver of dread. Seven stories tall, three hundred feet wide, built like a porcupine with a plow head, its towers fanned out like quills across its back: Parbrier was no joke. It looked downright vicious.
I looked up at the paper-mâché model of Wakereach I’d made in seventh grade. I’d spent hours working on it, recreating every hatch, every rivet, with cardboard, paint, and paper. Dad had been so impressed, he’d rigged it up from my ceiling so that it looked as if it were beginning a dive to the depths. It was sleek where Parbrier was sharp; it was beautiful where Parbrier was ugly.
Three weeks. I shut the book and slumped back on my bed, mind racing. How could I possibly be ready in time? Everyone at school was talking about their plans, their trainers, their theories and gameplans. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know anything at all about catching a land-based college.
The apartment door opened, and my heart jammed itself up into my throat as Dad’s shoes scuffled on the floor. Something rustled as he set it down. The sink sputtered on.
“Kai? You home?”
He sounded so calm. I crept to my door, staring as he dug through a canvas sack of groceries and started putting things away. He glanced over at me, smiling like the world wasn’t about to shift into high gear.
“Ah, there you are! How was school?”
He couldn’t not know. Everyone, everywhere, was talking about Parbrier. There was no way he hadn’t heard.
His brows arched as he pulled out the battered cutting board and set it on the counter. “What’s up?”
I was just about to explode when his eyes suddenly twinkled and his straight face broke into a huge grin. The restrained horror burst out of me in giggles, and he ran over, scooping me up into a bear hug.
“Three weeks!” he cried, and I clung to him like a life raft. He thrust me out at arm’s length and looked me up and down. “When’d you grow up, huh? You excited?”
My face locked in a grin. “It’s crazy! Three weeks!”
“God, I can’t believe it. When I heard, Kai!” He pulled at his thinning hair and waved me towards the kitchen table. “And Parbrier is a great school. World-class in Behemoth studies, if that’s what you’re looking for. But also pretty top-notch in agriculture and history. Oh, and their Arts program!” He kissed his fingertips and turned back towards the counter, unpacking the groceries. I recognized the ingredients for my favorite curry and a six-pack of light lager. He was planning a celebratory dinner.
“The last time a college passed Hilltown, it came within half a mile,” Dad was saying, “but—and you didn’t hear this from me, because Neil said they haven’t finished running the simulations yet—but a few of the path models are saying Parbrier’s going to come a lot closer.”
“Close. Possibly even hitting a street or two. But like I said, it’s early days and they won’t have a clear projection for a while.”
I thought of that huge, spiny machine barreling towards town on its tracks as wide as a roadway, and choked down a lump in my throat. This was real. This was happening, now, not in some mythical future. Parbrier would be here in three weeks. How could I possibly be ready by then?
I pulled myself out of tunnel vision to see Dad stooping in front of me at the table, a warm smile on his face. “Don’t worry. I know this is a lot, and there’s a lot to do, but we’re in this together, all right? You’re not alone.”
Dad winked at me, and I felt my fear evaporate under the confident gleam in his eye. I might not have a team of strategists or a jetpack like some of the kids from school, but I had Dad.
The knot in my chest released and I leaned forward, the nervous energy converting into excitement. “So where do we start?”
No quiet place existed in Hilltown anymore. Its living rooms buzzed with excitement; its streets with swarms of vendors setting up temporary shops. Banners snapped in the desert wind, advertising coaching services, specialized training, lucky talismans, every kind of trick and placebo. They caught even the most skeptical eyes. No one could afford to be too confident.
On the outskirts where the town bled onto the flats, tent fabric squealed as applicants and their families from neighboring towns built encampments, jamming themselves into every unclaimed bit of sidewalk and courtyard. The Hilltown Energy Beetle grew feverish as every spare outlet was overloaded with extension cords and portable grills and radios and TVs and chargers. The streetlights at night fluttered, gasping to remain lit. High on the Hill, the Beetle’s internal heat made the asphalt as hot as high noon, and the dainty lights strung on the sculpted trees writhed in the shimmering air.
The next night, after we’d cleaned up from dinner, Dad dropped a pile of schematics on the kitchen table. The giant sheets crinkled as he unrolled them and smoothed them flat in front of us. Dad weighted the corners with mugs and a shoe.
Here was Parbrier in every detail, no longer a tiny sketch in the Encyclopedia. Thin grey lines dissected it, measuring it, picking apart its fundamental features in minute detail, down to the number of links per tread. In such a close-up view, with a tiny human figure silhouetted for scale, I felt my stomach flip on itself. It was vastly taller than our apartment building. Its tracks were wider than our street. Its underbelly, forty feet above the ground, was pocked with manholes and webbed with catwalks.
I looked again at the tiny scale figure and tried to imagine what it would feel like to stand so close to such a thing. Parbrier wouldn’t even feel a bump if it crushed me screaming into the dust. I shivered.
Dad pulled at his jaw, frowning at the schematics. “The main difficulty with Parbrier is the treads. It should slow down as it approaches town, prior to its turn, but probably not a lot slower than twenty miles per hour. That’s still going to be pretty fast for our purposes. We might be able to hook it, if you get close enough, but without getting up to speed, that’ll be pretty risky even if you do snag it…”
I slumped in my chair. This was impossible. If I had a jetpack or a paraglider, sure, I could just sail over to one of its towers and drop onto it, but from the ground? It was a mountain. Climbing it at a standstill would be challenging, but moving? How could I ever have thought I could do this?
I’d always imagined that I’d choose my own college after graduating, and then spend months or years hunting it down, and that somehow, in-between, I’d become brave enough, I’d grow up, I’d be ready.
I wasn’t ready now. My fingertips throbbed from my racing heart. I swallowed to wet my throat enough to speak, and then said, embarrassed by the slight waver in my voice, “I heard a Parbrier specialist on the radio. They said the last time Parbrier passed close to a highly populated area, six people died.”
“The average is nine.”
“Most colleges have an average of nine deaths per season. Parbrier’s a little better, actually.” Dad was still frowning at the paper, his finger tracing the tracks. He sighed. “Maybe hooking it is the wrong angle. If it slows down enough, maybe you could ride the track up and over, jump off it to here.” He pointed to a series of doors along the left side of the school where the track passed a broad, low balcony. “That might work, but we’d still have to catch it…”
I cleared my throat, trying to banish the idea of nine kids like me who weren’t around anymore. “H-how many people made it? Onto Parbrier, I mean.”
“Hmm?” Dad looked up at me as though he’d forgotten I was there. “Oh, um. Well, when it passed Moschberg about a year ago… Let me think. Three, I think. But I’m not sure what its overall season total was.”
Dad shrugged. “Plenty of applicants just don’t catch it, Kai. If everybody who wanted to succeeded, it wouldn’t be special, would it? Wakereach has an even lower annual admittance ratio.”
He frowned back down at the paper. “Ah! I’ve got it!” he shouted, the paper crashing like a firework when he slapped his palm down on it. He bounded to the balcony and scrambled over the railing onto the fire escape. I followed. “My old motorbike! That thing’ll do forty-five, easy, and it’s junk, so you can ditch it and it won’t matter! You’ll be right up next to Parbrier in no time!”
He swung around the last post, missed the top step, and through some miracle, managed to dance down to the ground without falling. He laughed and disappeared around the side of the building.
I thought of the motorbike, stashed in the communal garage, buried under boxes of forgotten things. It’d been years since he’d taken me out on it, perched in front of him, his arms bracing my eight-year-old body from shaking off. My butt would go numb from riding, and even a bath wouldn’t get all the sand off my skin, but I’d loved it.
The garage door far below rattled open; boxes groaned and hissed as Dad moved them aside. I scrambled down the fire escape. I came around the corner just as he rolled out the battered old bike and set it on its kickstand.
“Ta-da!” He grinned at it like it was a custom jetpack instead of a crumbling bucket of bolts with two flat tires and chipped paint.
“Does it still work?” I asked, running my hands over the dented fuel tank, the ripped leather seat. Dirt came off on my palm.
“Oh, it’ll work. These bikes are tanks. A quick tune-up, new tires, fresh fluids, gas, a couple of filters—it’ll run like a dream.”
I bit my tongue. Never mind that I’d never driven it before and now hardly seemed like the time to learn a whole new skill, I could see by Dad’s dreamy gaze that he was already sold, and nothing I could say would change that. And maybe he was right. I took a deep breath and tried to invoke his confidence. Wakereach had a worse admittance ratio than Parbrier. Yes, people had died, but a lot just hadn’t made it. If I was smart, if I was careful, maybe, just maybe, I’d be one of the lucky few who got on board. Dad believed in me. Now I just needed to believe in myself, or at least fake it until I could believe it for real.
Forcing a smile, I slung myself on and gripped the handlebars.
“That’s my girl!” Dad slapped the bike’s front fender, and it fell off with a clatter.
Every word in Hilltown was about Parbrier. Voices raised in arguments over strategies, over pros and cons of approach techniques. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone’s opinion was right and wrong.
Parbrier had closed plenty of lives instead of opening them. Not all seeds landed in fertile soil. Some baked on stones. Some were consumed by birds. Life didn’t offer guarantees. But the opportunity to spread its liveliest citizens beyond its borders, to chance at even just one of them finding great financial success or fame or a scientific or artistic breakthrough so that Hilltown could become The Place Where They Started: it was worth the risk.
Dad frowned at his wristclamp when I pulled up after my latest test run on the motorbike. We’d been practicing for almost two weeks. Parbrier was due to arrive in less than six days. Hour after hour, we’d run its expected paths. Dirt crusted my nostrils and caked the corners of my eyes. Grit chaffed my feet raw in my boots. My butt ached from the barely-padded seat, and I couldn’t clench my hands from gripping the handlebars so tightly.
“You can’t fear speed,” Dad said, shaking his head. “We’ve been through this. You’ve got to push, Kai. Parbrier’s not going to slow down just to make you more comfortable.”
“Well, try harder. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Go again. I want to see at least thirty-five. I don’t care what the scientists are predicting, there’s no way Parbrier is dropping to fifteen. And this time—” He squinted at me, and I withered inside. “—I want you to jump.”
“We’ve got six days, Kai. Six. Days. You need to practice jumping off the moving bike.”
“What if I get hurt? I won’t be able to catch Parbrier if I’m injured!”
“So don’t get injured. Come on. We don’t have time for theatrics. You need to be comfortable jumping.”
I bit my cheek, willing tears from my eyes. Theatrics. Parbrier was just days away, looming in my mind like the end of times. My whole life stopped at that threshold, after which nothing would be the same, after which I couldn’t even envision what life would be like.
Whether I caught Parbrier or missed it, whether I lived or died, its coming was the most momentous thing that might ever happen to me. Catching Wakereach had been the highlight of Dad’s life. It gave him proof that he was capable of taking his destiny into his own hands, wrangling the fear of his mortality, and proving himself worthy against the biggest, scariest thing the world could throw at him.
I was just scared. It was normal to be scared. Everyone was scared, weren’t they? I took a deep breath. I could not give in to self-pity. I’d never pull myself out and Parbrier would be as good as gone.
“Okay,” I said, the dirt crunching between my teeth. “But can I work my way up?”
Dad sighed. “We’ve practiced tumbling. You can’t run from speed forever.”
“I’m not running.” I almost shouted. “I’m just…trying to be logical about it. Build up speed, build up confidence. If I mess up at thirty-five, it’s going to be hard to get into the right headspace. If I work up to it, I’ll be ready for the speed.”
My stomach unclenched as he nodded slowly. “Okay. Yeah. That’s not a bad idea. But start at fifteen.”
“Tuck and roll!”
He rewarded me with a smirk and I yanked down my goggles and kicked off.
The rumbling through the bedrock intensified with each passing day. Hilltown felt it. Its people felt it, too, radiated up through bed and table legs, through streets and floors, setting their stomachs on edge, making them short-tempered, nervous. The skies, irritatingly clear, provided no relief from the sharp horizon line burning its shadow-double across the backs of every eye. Every whirl of dust or smudge of shadow made breaths hitch. No one could risk being caught off-guard.
Within the metal fungi of City Hall, machines blipped and squealed as Hilltown’s best and brightest ran simulation after simulation with each new shred of information. The path models converged, solidified, bound themselves into something like certainty. Their voices whispered in hushed concern, as new paths drew closer to the outskirts of town.
Barring a miracle, some fluke of chaos theory that governed the mechanisms that drove the school, Parbrier College would hit town. Evacuating neighborhoods would spare civilian lives. There was time, thankfully. Parbrier was still some distance away.
But it was closing in fast.
Two days. I sat in the living room alone, looking at the pile of boxes and bags Dad and I had packed after the evacuation order had come down the Hill. In two days, Parbrier would crash through our neighborhood and destroy everything.
I hadn’t slept well last night. We’d stayed up past midnight strategizing, testing the makeshift radar Dad had rigged to the motorbike to help me find my way when the dust cloud made it impossible to see. I’d collapsed into bed like a sack of concrete, the dust from the plains still clinging to my scalp because I’d been too tired to take a shower. Even with my eyes burning, my body shaking with exhaustion, I couldn’t sleep.
I lay awake, thoughts swirling over things that only half made sense but seemed so important to puzzle out, to fit into real life. My inner monologue devolved into self-loathing. How could I be so stupid as to think I could catch a college? Not everyone was my dad. I wasn’t my dad. He’d faced down one of those enormous behemoths, not side-by-side with a dozen other applicants, but alone. If waves had swamped his kayak, if he’d been caught in a rip-tide, if he hadn’t gotten on board before Wakereach dove, he’d have drowned. He’d had to risk everything, knowing he wouldn’t make it back if he failed, so he didn’t fail.
But me? Did I have that in me?
I stared into the gloom where the Wakereach model arched gracefully from the ceiling. The fairy lights glittered on its scales, on the curves of its fins. Parbrier seemed nothing like Wakereach. It was bulky and sharp and frightening.
I dragged the covers over my head and stuffed myself under my pillow where everything was dark and muffled, smothered like deep water. At last, whether from slowly suffocating myself with my own CO2 or from actual exhaustion, I finally fell asleep.
Then came morning, and the announcement of the evacuation orders, and Dad and I had spent every second since scrambling to pack up what we could. I wouldn’t be taking the bulky Wakereach model, but the fairy lights made it into my backpack. I packed a week’s worth of clothes, my old stuffed whale Nemo, and my journal. I couldn’t fit anything else, and I couldn’t weigh myself down on the motorbike. Dad set aside a box for me to put anything else I wanted, but I quickly realized that everything I wanted wouldn’t fit.
Defeated, I helped him pack a few kitchen supplies, bathroom things, his clothes, and his books. I paused at his old copy of The Encyclopedia of Modern Behemoths, thinking of his boarding story. It changed a bit each time he told it, as personal memories do, but the core remained the same:
My father, in his early twenties with all his hair in dark tousled waves, scrambling barefoot across algae-slicked rocks along the southern shoreline for a hundred miles. Eating limpets and clams as he could find them. Wincing from the infected cut on his hand that kept getting sand and saltwater in it. Jotting down notes on Wakereach sightings from local fishermen in his damp pocket notepad. Calculating that its next ventilation flush would be close enough to shore for him to board, if he could get to it fast enough. Buying the leaky kayak, barely seaworthy, that whitecaps filled with water before he’d gotten three hundred yards off shore, soaking his belongings, freezing his feet and hands. Paddling harder as Wakereach’s massive metal spine arched up from the depths and settled on the surface a quarter mile ahead, its foghorn moaning, its blast of spray arching up into the sky and raining down on him. The kayak foundering. Casting the oar aside and plunging into water so cold the fishermen had warned him he’d only survive ten minutes before drowning. Hauling himself up the iced metal rungs with the last of his strength and pounding, screaming at the porthole for someone to open it, to let him in. Finding himself face to face with a student horrified to see him and getting dragged inside mere seconds before the school dived back to the depths.
That was the kind of story I’d always wanted for myself. Proof of my unflagging determination, my strength, my bravery. Secretly, I’d always thought I had that in me, but sitting in the living room, waiting for Dad to come back, I felt every last drop of confidence ooze out of me.
I just wanted things to stay how they were. I wanted to live with Dad, go to school, work a part-time job over the summer, and keep falling asleep under my Wakereach model. I wasn’t ready for everything to change, and yet it would, whether I caught Parbrier or not, whether we evacuated or not: nothing, in two days, would ever be the same.
I clutched my head in my hands and willed myself not to cry. I wasn’t ready. How could anyone, any of my classmates, be ready for this?
The footsteps on the front stairs made my heart sink, and I sniffed hard to choke down the dread that threatened to break me into pieces. The door burst open and Dad swept in, sandwiches under one arm, and a bright green pair of goggles dangling from his other hand.
“Hey, kiddo!” he said, beaming, practically dancing on his toes as he dropped lunch on the bare table. In two days, the table would be gone. The room would be gone. Everything, everything—
Dad came over and dropped with a huff onto the couch beside me. “Here. I got them printed just for you. Look! It’s got the Parbrier logo on the side.”
I looked and looked.
“Hey.” Dad’s arm draped over my shoulders, squeezing gently. “What’s up? You look like you’ve got something stuck in your throat. You okay?”
The concern in his voice broke me. I couldn’t stop it, couldn’t hold it back any longer. I curled up against him and burst into tears. It was like the ocean and all Dad’s saltwater stories were pouring out of me. I cried and cried, but eventually the water dried up, leaving me numb as Dad hugged me, shushing softly, whispering, “Hey, hey, hey. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“I can’t do it,” I croaked at last, mashing my face with my hands to wipe the tear tracks from my cheeks. “I can’t, Dad. I’ll die. I just know it.”
Dad turned in his seat and gripped me by the shoulders, giving me a little shake. “Hey. You listen, and you listen closely, okay? You can do this. Kaiya, you’re strong and you’re brave and you’re smart.”
“No, I’m not!” I could feel the tears surging again. “I’m not brave and I’m not strong. I’m terrified. I’ve been terrified for weeks, ever since they announced Parbrier’s approach.”
“Of course you are!” Dad cried, and I looked up at him.
“Kai, I’d be worried about your sanity if you weren’t terrified. Parbrier is a massive, powerful school. It has and will destroy people, good people, smart people, brave people. I was terrified of Wakereach, too.”
Dad nodded and a small, comforting smile slipped across his face. “Yeah, Kai. I don’t talk much about that part because I don’t like remembering. I was shitting myself in that kayak. I almost turned around to go back to shore. A part of me was absolutely sure I was about to die, that Wakereach would dive before I got close and that its wake would drag me down behind it.” He rubbed his warm hand up and down my arm. “Catching a college is terrifying, Kai, but you are fully capable of doing it. I know you. I wouldn’t let you do this if I didn’t think you had it in you.”
The dread clenching my stomach loosened slightly. “Why does it have to be like this?” I whispered. “Why does it have to be so hard?”
Dad shrugged. “Who knows? But I promise you, no matter what happens, I’ll be here for you, okay? I don’t want you to let your fear stop you, because I know you’d regret it. This is the experience of a lifetime, a chance to bloom into the person you’ll be from here on out. It’s a rite of passage, proof of your adulthood. Kai,” he said, taking my hands, “you’re braver than you think. You don’t have to do something stupid just to make it, okay? Healthy risks. Don’t dwell on all the things that could go wrong. Think instead about what it’s going to feel like when you climb up onto Parbrier and the other students sweep you inside. You’re going to love it. Libraries the size of City Hall, dorms filled with ambitious kids like you, world-class professors to drive and inspire you!” He laughed. “Oh, Kai, the future will be yours! You’ll be able to do anything you want, go anywhere you like! And wherever you end up, know—” He held me apart from him and peered lovingly into my eyes. “—I’ll be here. Always. Okay?”
His enthusiasm infected me, set my heart soaring. This was my chance. Yes, it was terrifying, but wasn’t that part of the appeal? To prove myself? To show that I could manage on my own, carve my own path in the world?
“Okay,” I said, and he hugged me tight again.
“Good. Now let’s eat and get this stuff packed up, okay?”
The warmth and confidence that had enveloped me while safe in his embrace began to trickle away as I watched him unwrap our sandwiches, softly chanting, “Two more days! Two more days!”
I looked again at the piles of belongings we needed to move. I looked at the apartment’s peeling paint, its uneven walls, the way the floor sagged under the weight of his bookshelf. The fold-out couch Dad used for his bed; the side table piled high with his stack of notebooks. The small but tidy kitchen where I’d eaten almost every meal of my life.
I took a long, shaky breath, absorbing the smell of coffee, sawdust, and paper. I’d been lucky to grow up here in Hilltown, even if it was boring. I’d never realized it until now. After tomorrow, I would never stand in this apartment again.
I choked down the thought and went to the table where Dad was already tucking into his salami sandwich.
Yes, I told myself, everything will change. But it’ll be for the better.
It had to be for the better.
It appeared as a dark cloud on the horizon, as a warning tremble that sizzled the sand in the gutters and clattered glasses on shelves. Hilltown’s concrete teeth rattled, and in a burst, its sirens screeched over the rooftops: IT’S HERE. Eyes snapped open, exhaustion wiped from every heart as Hilltown’s citizens gathered at their eastern windows to peer out at the drifting darkness, like volcanic smoke on the horizon.
The city, after a breathless pause, a moment between heartbeats, exploded into activity. Citizens scrambled for supplies. Jetpacks whined, engines warming. Earpieces and hand-held radios squawked as frequencies synced. Parasails strained in the breeze. Boots pounded down Hilltown’s steps, beating their way to strategic spots.
This was it. The city’s walls echoed with shouts of encouragement and people mobbed the guardrails high up on the Hill. Cardboard banners danced above their heads. Flags lunged and shivered in the breeze. The air filled with the smells of roasted nuts and fried dough and spicy street noodles.
Through the haze of dust far across the plains, Parbrier College began to take form, a shadow of spines, roaring closer.
Dad sagged against the deck railing, a beer clutched in his hands even though the sun was hardly above the horizon. He looked thin and tired, his hair ruffled up like he’d tossed and turned all night like I had. When I pushed the sliding door open, he pivoted to squint at me, and over his shoulder I saw it: a dark cloud of dust billowing up from the east. Inside the unearthly plume, a knot of shadow made me catch my breath.
Pushing off the rail, Dad came over and wrapped his arm around my shoulders, and we stood like that, watching the cloud grow, feeling the deep rumbling as it shook its way up through the ground, the floor, and into our feet. The warning sirens shrieked, echoing off the courtyard and the surrounding buildings.
The cloud swirled in hypnotizing spirals, coiling up into the sky. It drifted higher and higher, its veil wafting over the sun, blotting it in and out of sight, turning it red as a blister. Beside me, I heard Dad take a trembling breath, but when I glanced up at him, he was grinning.
“Let’s get you ready, huh?”
Following Dad down to the courtyard where the motorbike waited, I felt every step jam up into my hip, making me suddenly aware of how my muscles and bones connected to make walking happen. It was such a strange process, walking, I realized; it took so much thought, so much mental work, all of it tucked away in my subconscious, forgotten by ease of practice. But it was a complex movement.
The bike looked fragile in the vague light, patched together with duct tape, its paint pitted, its crevices jammed with dust from weeks of practice. I slung onto it, took the small rubber grips in my hands. Parbrier’s approach made the bike’s body rattle softly, like it was shaking. I brushed a film of dust from its fuel tank, felt the gentle shushing from my lips before remembering it wasn’t a living thing. It couldn’t be afraid. It couldn’t die.
Dad stood with his hands deep in his pockets, hunched and peering as he paced around the bike. “I checked over everything,” he said. “Spent all night making sure it was good to go. It’s rock solid.”
I nodded, swallowed the muddy spit that had started pooling in my mouth. The rumbling was making me nauseous. I needed to get moving, get distracted.
“You’re heading straight up Hill when I go, right?” I asked. He didn’t look at me as he stooped to pick at a flake of something on the rear tire. “You’ll have a better view up there. And better reception on your clamp, so when I call…”
Dad nodded, stood, cleared his throat. I felt a shudder run through me at the shimmer of moisture in his eye. “Yeah. Yeah, that’ll be perfect.” He nodded, and I saw his nostrils flare as he glanced up at the sky over the courtyard wall. The dust cloud was drifting towards us now. Parbrier was getting nearer. The fire escape rattled against the building.
“I gotta go.” It came out as a croak, and Dad lurched suddenly, catching me up tight in his arms.
“Be careful, okay?” he muttered as he pressed a fast, dry kiss to my cheek and ruffled my hair as he stepped back. “Don’t let fear get in your head, but don’t do anything dumb, all right?”
I nodded. “Thanks, Dad.”
He forced a grin that muffled the wetness in his eyes and threw up his two thumbs. “Go get ‘em, kiddo!”
I revved up the bike and the tires spun out on the asphalt, shooting me forward as I wrestled to keep it under control. It was like everything I’d learned, everything I’d practiced had flown out of my head, and suddenly, I needed all my attention just to stay on the bike and keep it going straight.
Swerving around chunks of masonry shaken free from the buildings, I cut through a side street and out onto the plains. The landscape folded flat around me, and I saw it: Parbrier, its spires rising up out of the gloom, its windows glowing in sooty twilight, not more than two miles away.
I gunned the bike to its top speed, thirty miles per hour, forty. The wind filled my ears, its soprano screaming cutting through the roar of the school. I swung out in a circle to get around the worst of the debris cloud. Far to my left, I caught a glimpse of tiny figures scuttling up into the trees at the edge of town, ropes and harpoons dangling like delicate strands of spider silk beneath them. Would they be too close when the college turned?
I shivered and swung out farther. I needed to pass the college in order to get behind it, attack from the rear. The bike engine squealed as it pushed forty-three. A stone stung my cheek. Off to my left, the college formed a cliff of darkness. It was no longer a uniform mass, but a complex of recesses and protrusions, projecting thousands of interior corridors and laboratories and community rooms and private spaces. High up on the spires, silhouettes gathered, waving.
I’ll be up there with them tonight, I thought, and yanked down my goggles.
Leaning low over the handlebars, Dad’s attack plan raced through my head. I had to keep up the speed to stabilize the bike for the jump. One shot, one jump, one chance. If I missed, I’d land hard and probably scrape off most of my skin, if I didn’t break a bone.
The dust cloud boiled ahead of me. It’d be impossible to see inside. I’d have to turn, line up, then drive into the fiercest debris, all relying only on radar.
Overhead, a flash of movement drew my eye, and I watched as a kid with a jetpack raced towards the school, vapor trails streaming behind him. He was almost there when the jetpack’s left engine sputtered out in a billow of smoke and he plunged. My heart lurched into my mouth as he tumbled, arms and legs flailing, out of sight on Parbrier’s far side.
Then the cloud caught me. Sand sizzled against my windbreaker. I switched on the radar and turned hard. The fist-sized screen started blinking, showing a large cobalt splotch sliding into place ahead of me. My bike jittered over ravaged dirt. I had to focus.
The dust thickened as I gunned forward, barreling towards where I hoped the track was. I tugged up my muffler. The debris burned my cheeks and sand-blasted my goggles, and then I sensed it: a bulk in the darkness, coming up fast. I couldn’t hear anything but the bone-numbing roar, the squealing earth, the percussion of rocks. A stone punched me square in the shoulder, making my hand go numb. I yelped and choked on dust.
I aimed into the raging storm. A pebble cracked my goggles. Almost there. Grit stabbed into my eye, blurring everything to the right. I had to jump soon, but couldn’t tell where. I couldn’t see anything in the chaos, couldn’t even detect a shift in sound to find the tread. Rubble flew at me, bounced off. I’d be speckled with bruises later. One chunk clipped my lip, sending a shooting pain up behind my nose. I tasted blood, and felt the knife edge of a cracked tooth with my tongue.
I couldn’t get close enough, I realized. Dad hadn’t considered how many rocks would be mixed into the soil, that it’d be too dangerous to get close enough to jump. I couldn’t see, my goggles were broken, I couldn’t breathe!
His plan wasn’t going to work. I dropped back to where the dust thinned, ripped off my hazed goggles, and fought back a sob of frustration. This was my boarding story, and this was how would it end? That I’d gotten scared of getting hurt and given up? I imagined riding back to town, weighed down by dust, walking the gauntlet of spectators recognizing failure. Would they laugh? Would they try to comfort me, clap me on the shoulder, say Nice try? And then Dad’s face, the forced smile, the soothing hug, all the words that would spill out of him trying to convince me it was fine, that there’d be other chances, that sometimes luck just wasn’t on our side, but deep down, I’d know—and he’d know—that I’d given up. That when faced with the same terrifying choice he’d made a hundred yards from Wakereach, I’d turned around and run back to safety.
The dust thinned for a moment around me, and I saw the gap between the tracks, Parbrier’s underbelly. It looked clearer there. I thought back, searching my brain for some small piece of info, and remembered with a jolt the portholes on the underbelly.
I revved up the bike again and gunned forward, breaking out into the clear and eerily muffled space under the school. Above me, the college was a vast inverted horizon. The size of it gave me vertigo, like I was falling headfirst out of the sky towards the darkened land below.
With a nauseating lurch, my perspective whipped right-side up again as I made out the latticework of catwalks above me. If I could get up there…
Movement caught my eye, a fluttering line, dangling from a grappling hook snagged on a railing. I started towards it, but just then, the college shifted, the right track arching towards me. I veered, and missed the rope. Looking back over my shoulder, the rope was gone. Had it been there at all?
Up ahead, through the broad gap, I could see the buildings of my neighborhood racing nearer. I scanned the catwalks for anything that could help me. There! A broken walkway within reach.
I had to get up and get inside before the debris from town started bouncing around the undercarriage. Ten feet. Five feet. My boot slipped off the saddle as I tried to get it under me, the leather slick with dust. I gripped the handlebars, just as Dad had taught me, and leveraged myself up again. The bike wobbled. I accelerated a little to keep it stable, and then jumped!
I crashed onto grating and felt the twisted metal bite into my thighs. I cried out and shifted to take the cutting weight off my legs, felt hot, sticky liquid soaking my pants. I clawed higher. I could hear the sirens from town again. I had to hurry.
A hand clamped onto my wrist, and I looked up to find a pale lady dangling from a climbing harness. “Welcome to Parbrier!” she shouted, throwing a safety line around my waist. Hauling us up to a stable platform, she unclipped me and shoved me towards four waiting kids.
A concrete chunk buzzed past us, not twenty feet away.
“Inside! Now! We’re gonna hit!”
Someone dragged me inside with them, and the woman slammed a steel door behind us, cutting the roaring noise to a whisper that rang in my ears. Then everyone burst out laughing. I sat trembling as someone applied pressure to the gashes on my legs. A girl with black curls hugged me.
“Congratulations! You made it!” She grinned. “Let’s get you registered, okay?”
And then it was over. The last chunk of stone flipped up from Parbrier’s tracks, and Hilltown felt the roaring subside as the college cut off to the north, its dust cloud once more shrouding it from sight. The city watched, stunned to silence, until one bold voice shouted out in joy and the streets erupted in hoots and howls and Parbrier’s fight song which everyone had learned by heart.
Details trickled in, reports from the ground. Of the thirty applicants, eight had gained admittance, ten missed their chance, and twelve perished. The school had crushed two streets deeper than predicted, forcing citizens to scramble to escape. Some didn’t get out in time. Parbrier had left its mark on Hilltown once more.
But what thrill! What destruction! It made Hilltown giddy and loud and boisterous. Champagne corks popped, and there was dancing and music and joy and among all that, huddled in dark, quiet rooms, failed applicants and the families of the dead clutched their heads in their hands and wept or stuffed their mouths with bedding and screamed in rage.
The Energy Beetle hummed quietly to itself, pleased to make the strung lights glow, the stereos pound, the griddles sizzle. The town swelled with pride, having launched its seeds of future prosperity at the raging college, and having successfully landed many. For those who failed or died, Hilltown chose to believe if they’d only tried harder or been smarter, if only they’d made better choices, they’d have made it. It was easier that way.
I lay on the bed in my dorm room ,which was little more than a cube with a cot and a storage locker that doubled as a desk. The bulb overhead cast flattening light into every corner, erasing the shadows. I switched it off, preferring the reddish glow of dusk seeping through the slotted window.
On my legs, bandages tugged on the school-branded sweatpants I’d been given in the Parbrier infirmary. Thirteen staples, all told, and filler for my chipped tooth. The painkillers helped, but I was sick with exhaustion and bruised to my core.
I kept waiting for the thrill of triumph to hit, for my version of Dad’s victorious whoop to burst from my chest and fill me with joy and pride, to feel changed, worthy. But I felt nothing.
I’d met with advisor after advisor, all of them trying to puzzle out what I wanted to study, what I wanted to do with my life, and I couldn’t tell them. I didn’t know. I’d never thought about what would happen after I caught a college.
In the end, they signed me up for behemothology. It was the only major I could remember Dad talking about, and lost as I felt, it seemed to make sense to study the thing that had baffled me: this giant machination that came and destroyed and left, without malice or kindness, without explanation. It simply existed, as all behemoths did, without question. Who built them? Who controlled them? But even more, why didn’t we question it?
Maybe I was just ungrateful. I tried to conjure up the enthusiasm I’d felt at our kitchen table, but that only made me remember the table was gone. Our plans were gone. Our apartment, our deck, my room, my model of Wakereach, everything.
I thought of the kid with the jetpack spiraling out of control, and my stomach lurched up into my mouth. There’d been four other kids in the medical center when they brought me in, blooded and scraped raw from the ordeal of catching Parbrier. The medical techs chatted around us while they cleaned wounds and patched torn skin. A dozen kids had died trying to board this year. One of the techs said it was the highest casualty count in Parbrier history, and would no doubt increase its desirability.
My wristclamp buzzed with another message from Dad congratulating me, asking me to call, to tell him everything. I stared at its cracked screen, then looked back up at the slotted window. Wind wedged silt under the sill, leaving a film of dust on everything, including me.
Dad wanted my boarding story, the one thing I’d dreamed of ever since I was a kid. But all I wanted to do was sleep. I clenched my eyes shut and tried to squeeze pride out of my heart. How could I feel nothing? How could I not sense how I’d changed?
I’m just tired, I told myself. Tomorrow, I’ll wake up and squeal in delight, I told myself. It’ll all be worth it, I told myself, but Parbrier’s rumbling engines lulled me to, I was more certain than ever that I was wrong.