Gameboard of the Gods

Page 16

“Civilian airport,” Justin observed.

Mae heard him as she waited for them near the plane’s exit. “You need to go here to get your visa straightened out—and to get her authorized for chipping.”

Tessa jerked her head toward Justin. “I don’t want a chip.”

She knew about Gemman chipping, of course. It was one of their laws. Citizens were all tagged in their hands, allowing their government to keep track of their every move. Her mother said it was the mark of the beast and a sign of their pact with hell. It had never occurred to Tessa that she would have to get one too. Seeing her panic, Justin told her to worry about it later.

“You have plenty of other things to deal with first,” he said when they were disembarking down the Jetway that led inside the airport. Windows in the tunnel showed a constant flurry of planes landing and taking off. “What’s the biggest number of people you’ve ever been around?”

“I don’t know,” she asked, a little taken aback. “Why do you want to—”

They emerged into the airport, and Tessa came to a halt and even tried to back up. She’d never seen a crowd like the one that faced her now, not even when her family had traveled downtown. She was adrift in a sea of bodies. Men, women, and children of all ages, all of them in motion. And everything was bright. Huge lights in the ceiling bathed everything in a cold, white glow that reflected off the abundance of metal in the room. There were monitors everywhere, thinner and crisper than anything she had ever seen before, with information constantly flashing and scrolling. All those people and machines created a roar of noise that beeped and buzzed so loudly, she could barely hear herself think. The room began to sway, and she couldn’t breathe.

Justin tightened his hold. “Need to sit down?”

Tessa swallowed and shook her head. She could do this. She’d be okay as long as she stayed close to Justin. He wouldn’t let her get lost. She clung to his hand, barely aware as Cornelia Kimora and Francis Kyle made their farewells, with promises to be in touch later. They and the uniformed soldiers soon walked off toward a line with an overhead monitor that read MILITARY/GOVERNMENT. Tessa noticed now that although the room felt chaotic, most of the people were arranged into several similar lines filtering through checkpoints. Each one had a monitor. Directly above her, Tessa saw a sign hanging from the ceiling that read REPUBLIC OF UNITED NORTH AMERICA—CUSTOMS AND IMMIGRATION.

“Well,” said Mae, glancing at her ego, “you’re in my hands now. I’ll get you guys settled in.” She gave Tessa a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “Hang in there. I know there’s a lot of new stuff to get used to. You’ll be home soon.”

No, Tessa thought. Home was a very long ways away.

“I think she can deal with the tech better than she can the crowd,” Justin said. “I used to make a lot of jokes about pampered castal girls before I left. Never again. You should see the way the Old Money sequester their women.”

Mae nodded in understanding and pointed. “We’re just going right to that line, Tessa. Straight ahead. Easy.”

Tessa nodded obediently, using Justin for support. They reached a line labeled CITIZENS and came to a halt to wait their turn. Despite standing in the thick of the mob, Tessa felt a little better. The line offered order, and she had Justin and Mae flanking her, creating a sort of protective barrier. She calmed down enough that she was able to study a little of her surroundings. Most of the people she saw had the same plebeian features Justin had, tanned skin and dark hair and eyes. Some of their faces showed a nondescript heritage. Others leaned slightly toward a more dominant gene pool—African, Caucasian, or Asian—but nothing too pronounced. Scattered among them were those who displayed a much more distinct lineage. There were fair-skinned people like Mae and others whose skin was nearly black. Almond eyes, round eyes, blue eyes, brown eyes. And yet, with more study, she could see it wasn’t all so cut-and-dried. She saw tanned skin paired with red or blond hair. Some of it was obviously dyed, but others were harder to deduce. She knew recessive genes could still pop up, even after a few generations of aggressive mixing, but wasn’t sure how to identify whether something was natural or not.

“How can you tell the difference between plebeians and cast—” She caught herself, remembering enough of Gemman history to know the slang terms Justin used weren’t polite in front of someone like Mae. “Er, between plebeians and patricians?”

“The attitude,” said Justin promptly.

Tessa looked back at the crowd, trying to figure out what he meant. All of them seemed purposeful and confident, men and women alike, no matter their physical appearance. No one openly carried weapons, which felt strange, but then, no one appeared as though they were about to start a fight either. Women who looked to be affluent moved around without chaperones, dressed in pants like Mae or short skirts, with hair worn down or up or even cut astonishingly short.

Justin didn’t say anything more about plebeians and patricians, but as they moved forward, he whispered to Tessa, “Pay attention to the screen. You can learn a lot about a person.”

She didn’t know what he meant until they reached the customs agent. Mae immediately set her hand, palm down, on a rectangular glass box. Beside the agent, a large screen suddenly flared to life. There was a head shot of Mae staring straight ahead, with a cool and calm look in her eyes. Beside the picture, in large letters, was her name: Koskinen, Mae Eris. Underneath it, in smaller print, was: Koskinen, Maj Erja (Nordic Patriarchy). Other lines of info detailed Mae’s citizenship, profession, address, age, and more. Tessa couldn’t quite follow it all. There was also a section for general notes. Hers read: Authorization to carry arms.

The agent looked surprised at what popped up and shot her a quick, nervous look. He had a smaller screen in front of him that they couldn’t see, which he began to tap notes on. After a few more seconds, the agent looked back up at Mae. “Do you have weapons to declare?”

Mae removed a gun from her purse and laid it on a nearby table. Then she took out a smaller gun that had been at her waist, hidden by the knee-length jacket she’d put on in the plane. Lastly, she pulled out a knife from her boot.

“Really?” asked Justin. “Who keeps a knife in their boot?”

“No one ever expects the knife,” she said.

The table had a glass cover shielding it. The agent flipped a switch, and a light came on for a few seconds. He nodded and told Mae she could take the weapons back. He started to wave her through, but she said, “I have visas for them.”

Justin rested his hand on the scanner, and once more, it filled with a flood of data. The first thing Tessa saw was that his citizenship space read: None. She also saw something she hadn’t paid attention to on Mae’s, a field marked “Genetic Resistance.” The number nine was filled in beside it. Perhaps the most striking part of his screen was the notes section, which was written in flashing red letters: No authorization to enter RUNA territories. Detain immediately and contact authorities.

“Some homecoming,” he said.

The agent looked as though he was indeed about to call authorities, and Mae quickly handed over her ego, that device that Justin had been enthralled with on the trip here. The agent ran the ego over the palm scanner, and a shimmering, holographic image of the RUNA’s seal appeared briefly in the air. A few seconds later, the red-lettered warning went away, replaced by a much more subdued Provisional Visa, Ministry of Internal Security. The agent scanned Justin’s small bag and then cleared him for entry.

When Mae showed him Tessa’s documentation, the agent issued her a thin, plastic card and told her to keep it until she was chipped. It displayed the RUNA’s seal shining on the surface, along with her name, citizenship, a long string of numbers, and Provisional Visa, Student.

“One more scan,” Justin told Tessa once the agent waved them on.

“It’s not easy getting in,” she said, starting to feel dazed again.

“No,” he agreed. “A lot easier getting out.”

They crossed that last checkpoint and finally entered the airport’s crowded lobby. There were no lines here. People moved in every direction, all going their own ways. A wall of glass doors shone before them, lit by the early-evening sun. Hanging over them was the RUNA’s flag, half maroon and half dark purple, with a golden circle of laurel leaves in the center. Written under the circle, also in gold, was Gemma mundi. The jewel of the world. The motto that had eventually given name to its citizens, the Gemmans.

Tessa felt Justin come to a halt beside her. His eyes were fixed on the flag, his expression reminding her of when their plane had descended into the city. She saw that ache and longing again—and more. There was joy in his eyes. And relief. And awe. And disbelief.

Until this moment, he never actually thought he’d make it back, she thought.

Mae had stopped as well and watched as Justin gazed at the flag. For the first time today, Mae didn’t regard him with exasperation. There was a softness in her expression, something fleetingly affectionate, that took Tessa totally by surprise.

“Welcome home,” Mae said.



He didn’t believe in Huan’s hell, but as Justin stepped into the RUNA, he could almost believe in a heaven.

It was everything he remembered. Bright. Orderly. Efficient. Clean. And advanced. No armed thugs or dilapidated buildings. The lack in provincial technology had always been apparent in his exile, but it didn’t really hit him until he was surrounded by modernity again. The chip readers. The monitors. The egos. Here was the world as it should be, the country that had survived the Decline to emerge more brilliantly than it had started. His homeland. Where he belonged.

Stop drooling, snapped Horatio. The girl’s going to pass out.

Justin glanced over at Tessa and saw that the raven wasn’t that far off from the truth. She was still pale and anxious. He squeezed her hand.

“You’re okay. Stay with me here.”

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