Allies an insignia novel.., p.1
Allies: An Insignia Novella,
An Excerpt from Insignia
About the Author
Also by S. J. Kincaid
About the Publisher
VOICES HUMMED NEAR the girl, rising and falling in idle discussion. She hunkered down on her bench in the solitary corner she’d claimed in the garden, cringing when her own name drifted to her ears.
“. . . where’s Esperanza’s daughter?”
“Wyatt? Oh, she’s probably skulking about somewhere.” The voice dropped to a whisper, and Wyatt could only make out those familiar words she’d heard applied to her too many times in her life. “. . . strange . . . bizarre . . .”
The voices drifted away behind the vast hedges, and relief washed through Wyatt in a great wave. She’d already “made an effort,” as her mother called it. She’d stood among the crowd and endured the conversations for several minutes. But soon, the press of noises, the wafts of perfume, and the casual brushings of shoulders against hers had mounted into a cacophonic onslaught to her senses, and she couldn’t bear to remain in the middle of so many people. She walked away, determined to escape the entire family, Garzas and Enslows alike.
She’d found shelter in the cool, dark corner of the grounds where drooping, green leaves shaded a stone bench near her mother’s stables. The occasional stray voices were her only company, and she might’ve passed the rest of the reunion mercifully alone if her cousin hadn’t remembered this spot from when they were both kids.
But inevitably, footsteps crunched their way over the gravel pathway, and a shadow blotted out the rays of sunlight piercing through the overhead leaves.
Wyatt braced herself, and raised her eyes to meet her cousin’s. She mentally reminded herself of what she was supposed to do during interpersonal interactions: Make eye contact. Return polite, superficial remarks with polite, superficial remarks. Say please. Say thank you. Compliment her hairstyle or clothing.
“Your hair is very well combed,” Wyatt said.
“Nothing,” Wyatt mumbled.
“So you’re Wyatt, huh?” Marissa said.
Wyatt frowned, recalling her aunt introducing them earlier in the day, and the way she’d said, “This is your cousin, Wyatt. Remember her? She’s thirteen, just like you!” Those were the exact words, so Marissa already knew the answer. That meant she was feigning ignorance, and this question was superfluous, and therefore Wyatt didn’t understand why Marissa was bothering to ask it. There had to be a reason she was asking it, though, and some correct answer Wyatt was missing here.
She shifted uneasily on the bench, wrought with uncertainty. “Yes. What do you want?”
“I’m just here to talk. We haven’t seen each other since we were little. Excuse me for being friendly.”
“You’re excused,” Wyatt said.
To Wyatt’s horror, Marissa seated herself onto the stone bench right next to her, so close the warmth of her arm seeped into hers. Wyatt scooted to the very edge of the bench, the scent of Marissa’s raspberry body spray stinging her nostrils. She couldn’t hold Marissa’s eyes at this close distance, so her gaze dropped down—to the other girl’s blouse.
Then she saw it: Marissa had mustard smeared on her shirt.
“I’m so bored,” Marissa complained, propping her palms on the bench, swinging a foot. “We’re the only people here who aren’t older than fifty or younger than five. They’re all talking about dead people I’ve never met.”
Wyatt didn’t answer her. She was still staring, transfixed, at the mustard smear. It was about three quarters of an inch long and shaped like the state of Oklahoma rotated clockwise at a sixty-degree angle—a bright, stark yellow against the white fabric of Marissa’s blouse.
“You don’t talk much,” Marissa went on. “That’s weird, because people talk about you a ton. Mom said you got a gold medal in a Math Olympics thing. Aunt Esperanza told her it’s a huge deal. Like, you could go to any university tomorrow for free if you wanted.”
“Olympi-ad,” Wyatt corrected absently. Her entire awareness was riveted to that mustard blotch, like it was an alarm blaring right in her ears. “It was the International Mathematical Olympiad.”
“Fine, okay. Congratulations on your Olympi-ad.”
Wyatt’s mind flashed over scenarios that might have resulted in that mustard so blatantly smeared on Marissa’s shirt, and she decided Marissa must have eaten something, and glopped on far too much mustard. As soon as she bit down, the mustard dripped out and splattered on her shirt. It explained the shape of the smear; it explained why Marissa hadn’t tried to wash it off yet.
She needs to wash it off. The thought seemed to compress Wyatt’s head, even as Marissa’s voice chattered on, “. . . don’t even live very far apart. Maybe our moms don’t really like each other . . .”
Wyatt grew desperate to tell Marissa about the mustard, but she knew it might “cause needless embarrassment,” the way her mother said she tended to do to people. This one time, Wyatt visited her grandmother in her nursing home and informed her that she smelled faintly of urine. She meant it to be helpful so her grandmother would know to clean herself, but her grandmother began to weep.
She didn’t intend to repeat that scene today. Even if the mustard was right there . . . Just right there in plain sight where Marissa should have noticed it already . . .
And it would stain.
“So if you’re a genius,” Marissa complained, casting a look around the garden, “then why don’t you say something smart instead of letting me do all the talking? Come on. I’m waiting.”
Here it was! Her opening, her moment! Wyatt sucked in a deep breath that made her head spin, and forced herself to meet Marissa’s eyes directly. She managed to hold gazes for a full second before she dropped her eyes to the ground again.
The words pounded their way out of her, too loud. “There’s mustard on your shirt!”
Her cousin was silent for several seconds. Then, “What?”
“Mustard,” Wyatt cried, agitation edging her voice. She made sure to point so Marissa couldn’t miss it. Her words came pouring out, rushed, but such a relief to get out. “Look! It’s right there. It’s so obvious. How haven’t you noticed it yet? You need to go and wipe it off or you’ll have to throw that shirt away. You need to go clean it as soon as you can.”
Marissa rolled her eyes. “You know, if you want me to go away, you can just say so. You don’t have to be a bitch about it.”
With that, Marissa huffed out a breath that fluttered tendrils of her dark hair, slid off the bench, and walked away from her. Wyatt found herself alone again with the solitary bench and the overhead trees, wondering why people always got upset with her when she tried to help them. Confusion and a sense of hopelessness swirled through her.
It was a familiar sensation.
She understood numbers, but human beings were strange, mysterious entities whose actions seemed arbitrary and chaotic—puzzles with pieces that never quite added up to the logical whole. Whenever Wyatt interacted with them, she felt like a broken limb at the wrong angle, entirely out of place. Things that interested her bored them; things that interested them perplexed her. She invariably said something that she wasn’t supposed to, and then they left, angry at her, and never talked to her again.
That was why she avoided people. They were irrational, strange. They didn’t seem worth the bother.
She pulled her legs up to her chest and hunched down, hoping no one else would spot her, no one else would approach. She never truly got lonely, after all. She only felt righ
WYATT HADN’T INTENDED to join the Intrasolar Forces.
Her mother spoke with the recruiter who assured her a boarding school–like environment would develop Wyatt’s social skills and “utilize her full potential,” and she was sold. Her father’s old college roommate from Princeton, George Styron, had a daughter who’d been recruited, and he assured them it was all on the up-and-up.
But Wyatt had no interest. She could think of nothing more unpleasant and aggravating than being locked in close quarters with people her own age full-time. She indulged her parents and accompanied the officers to the Pentagonal Spire, though, only vaguely curious about the stronghold of power that directed the war effort. The entire idea of World War III seemed silly, and a waste of money to her. The USA never seemed to hold the territory they won in space, which seemed to be the point of war in the first place.
Then the Pentagonal Spire officials told her about the neural processors.
Wyatt didn’t even care about seeing the facilities. She sat down in the infirmary and viewed a meshlike web of fine metal, a computer that interfaced directly with the human brain. The man who worked in there, Doctor Gonzales, seemed confused about why she had so many questions, but he answered all of them. The technology was decades ahead of what was officially used by the public, and the possibilities of enhanced brainpower made her head spin.
What could she do if she was machine-fast, if she had the precision of a computer, if she could slice through problems that still continued to elude her, elude the rest of humanity?
She could determine whether the Euler-Mascheroni constant was irrational.
She could find an Euler brick whose space diagonal was also an integer.
She could solve all the mathematical mysteries that the greatest minds in the world had yet to vanquish.
Suddenly, joining the Intrasolar Forces wasn’t an odd or irrational choice, but rather the only choice, the only way to achieve things beyond her capabilities, to become better than she could ever hope to be on her own.
WYATT HAD JUST swallowed her sedative when the large, uniformed man with short, dark hair burst into the infirmary.
“Don’t sedate her yet,” the man snapped, and Wyatt recoiled from the intruder.
But he was in uniform. He looked like an officer.
The newcomer brushed aside Doctor Gonzales’s objections that the infirmary was a sterile environment, and seated himself on the foot of her bed. There were two thin, white lines of scarring down the right side of his face. She looked at those rather than meet his penetrating, gray eyes.
“I looked at your fMRI,” he told her. “You’re not neurotypical, are you?”
Wyatt stared at him. “So what?” This wasn’t news. She was very aware her brain didn’t function the same way most people’s did.
“Your brain isn’t the standard, unlike most of the kids recruited for this program. That means someone in top brass”—he gestured upward with a big finger—“authorized your admission to this program as an experiment to see how a brain like yours will tolerate a neural processor. Did anyone tell you what these machines can do to a human brain?”
“She was warned about the risks, Lieutenant Blackburn,” said Doctor Gonzales. Then, to her, he whispered, “He takes these things very personally when it’s not his concern.”
Blackburn shot him a look that made Gonzales mutter something and leave them alone in the room. Wyatt was tempted to feel alarmed, but a haze began to creep over her brain as the sedative she’d swallowed kicked in. Blackburn’s voice kept lashing into her ears.
“Your brain is all you are, Ms. Enslow, and there’s nothing wrong with yours, whatever they might’ve tried to tell you. Most kids who come here, the neural processor is a tweak. With someone like you, the neural processor will register that your brain isn’t in homeostasis—within normal limits—and it will try to adjust it more in line with a typical human brain.”
“I know there are risks,” she mumbled.
“You won’t be you anymore. This could fundamentally alter you, do you understand that?”
“I know. I don’t know what you think you saw on my fMRI, but I’m not stupid.”
He blinked. “I didn’t say you were. I just want you to think about this a moment. It’s not too late.”
Wyatt closed her eyes, seeing faint, ghostly images swirling in the patterns behind her lids, the sedative taking hold. She found herself thinking, just as he asked. But she wasn’t pondering loss. Nor was she considering mathematics, the possibilities of cognitive enhancement. She found herself thinking of Marissa in the garden and her grandmother in the nursing home and the way she always had to plan everything she said to her mother in advance so she didn’t upset her . . .
Wyatt thought about finally having that thing she didn’t seem to have been born with like everyone else—a means of relating to other people. A means of connecting with them. She understood suddenly what lay before her, what this opportunity was. For the first time in her life, she had a chance to alter herself, to drastically and permanently shift her own personality, her own perception.
One computer in her brain, and she could obtain something most everyone else had been born with. She knew what this Lieutenant Blackburn was trying to tell her. She was uniquely gifted; she was capable in ways no one else she’d met was . . .
But intellectually, she knew she’d always wonder what it might have been like, being like everyone else. She’d always wonder what she could have become if she’d just tried.
She didn’t want to wonder.
She opened her eyes, and Blackburn must’ve seen the resolve on her face. He sighed and conceded it with a nod, then rose to his feet.
“You’ll see me around this place,” he told her.
He’d intended to help her. Wyatt understood that.
“Thank you,” she said, and for one of the only times in her life, she was sure she’d said the appropriate thing.
THE NEURAL PROCESSOR made her brain faster. One download and she could memorize a textbook, a language; and she simply knew information now that she’d never learned for herself.
But it wasn’t that jarring—not compared to the other thing.
For the first time in her life, Wyatt experienced loneliness.
Lieutenant Blackburn’s warning rang in her ears time and again: You won’t be you anymore. . . .
And she was sure she wasn’t. Surely she wasn’t the one who felt this aching emptiness, alone her in her bunk, hearing voices drift in from the hallway outside. Surely she wasn’t the one who couldn’t focus on her work, because she was wondering what the people she’d spoken to today thought about her.
People had always been strange to her, and she’d been able to remain safely across a chasm from them, separate, and glad of it.
It was all different now.
She noticed their faces, their eyes. She noticed changes in their voices. She noticed how they held their bodies, how they moved them. And she pondered what they were thinking. She cared about what they were thinking, and she’d never in her life imagined how painful that could be.
She got off to a bad start with her roommate, Marrion Trout, right away. Mostly because her lips twitched when Marrion’s personnel profile flashed before her eyes, and Marrion exclaimed in frustration, “Why does everyone think my name’s funny?”
Put on the spot, Wyatt tried pointing out the fact that Marrion was a fly-fishing champion and her last name was Trout, but Marrion wasn’t in the mood to hear it.
Later, in Programming class, Wyatt picked up on the subject right away. It was simple, logical, clean-cut to her. She felt this crawling anxiety inside her, knowing she’d already annoyed her new roommate, so she tried to be helpful. She pointed out an error in Marrion’s code. Marrion smiled tentatively at her, and Wyatt felt a strange sensation like warming inside her at the sign of approval.
Suddenly it was the opposite of the anxiety she’d felt all day. Instea
“You’re so good at this for the first day,” Marrion told her.
Wyatt fumbled for the right reply, her brain racing. She might feel sensations of acceptance, but after a lifetime of being isolated, she didn’t know the gestures, the words. “It’s really easy.”
“Speak for yourself,” Marrion said with a laugh. “I’ve been here four months and it’s like hieroglyphics.”
“Maybe I’m just smarter than you,” Wyatt suggested.
It had been the wrong thing to say. Wyatt only meant to be helpful, to assure Marrion there might be a reason for her failure to understand Programming, but the other girl’s toothy smile sprang shut like a trap, and that was the last time they talked civilly. Marrion complained about Wyatt going to sleep too early, about Wyatt opening the curtain when she wanted it down, about everything, until it all came to a head and Marrion stormed out, then requested a bunk reassignment. She received it.
Every morning meal formation, breakfast where they had assigned seating, Wyatt found herself alone at one end of the table, all the other girls in her level and division clustered at the other end. It felt like she’d been placed in quarantine.
Matters grew worse a few weeks later, when a new plebe, Vikram Ashwan, joined her Applied Simulations group. He was a good-looking kid with a high forehead over a long, broad nose, and full, mobile lips. His eyebrows formed twin bold slants over close-set eyes sparkling with humor. At first, he seemed nice enough, with such a huge grin, she could see his gums. Then he discovered that certain things in the training simulation—like alcohol—modified their perception of the sim just like the substances would in real life. Wyatt considered it a test: the military wanted to see if they were responsible enough not to abuse their opportunities. But like a lot of idiots who were new plebes, Vikram was not at all responsible. He downed a bottle of whiskey during a training simulation of the First Battle of Bull Run.