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Second Break

The door slid open, and this time anax left the room in better spirits. Telling the story to the Examiners felt no different from telling it to Pericles in one of their endless practice sessions.

There was no stranger in the waiting room this time and Anax was left with her thoughts, which turned naturally enough to her precious tutor and the time when they first met.

Anax had a favorite place, a ridge up above the city. She would often walk there after classes. Usually she went by herself. She wasn't a loner; it was just that her friends were reluctant walkers. "You're missing a great sunset," she would message them, but the answer was always the same: "So download it." The favored insult of that time.

It was during those final school years that Anax first began to realize she wasn't like the others. She didn't understand the careful nonchalance that appeared one day without warning, spreading through her classmates like the plague. It was as if a whole stage of development had passed her by.

She tried to explain it to her best friend, Thales. "I think there might be something wrong with me."

"What do you mean?"

"I, well, I don't think I'm like you. I like what we're learning still. I don't understand the things you talk about. The gossip. I enjoy the old days. I miss the games."

"You're just taking a bit longer to grow up," Thales told her, sounding confident it would happen soon. Anax wasn't so sure.

So each evening after class that summer, instead of rushing back to her apartment to plug into the group flashingwhich to her had all the appeal of a passing electrical stormshe would detour up into the hills. It wasn't just for the sunsets, although they grew more spectacular as the days lengthened and the northern haze extended. It was the breeze coming in off the sea. The feeling of standing at the edge of the world. It was the view. From the hilltops you could see the water sparkling silver, and dark against it the rusting outlines of the huge pylons, which had once supported the Great Sea Fence. To the west, the ruins of the Old City, overgrown and crumbling, being called back to the earth. A beautiful sight too, Anax thought, although she had never heard anyone else describe it that way.

In their last year of study the best candidates were encouraged to specialize. Anax was a good student, although not at the very top of her class. Her choice, The Legend of Adam, was hardly original. It was a story that every elementary student encountered. But the others weren't drawn back to it the way Anax was. That, she knew, was the real reason this hilltop called her. The view out over the ocean, the view he surveyed from his watchtower. The dead city, the place where he returned each evening, to eat, to argue, to seduce. The remnant of the Great Sea Fence, Adam's fence. Each day she pored over the details of his life in school, and then she walked to the top of the hill, and thought about him more.

Anax had never before met anyone up there. The track was narrow and poorly marked. She scanned the stranger from a distance, nervous of course. She could flash for help if she needed to, but it would be too long coming. These were peaceful times, but still there were stories, and caution was encouraged.

He scanned back, and apparently satisfied, turned his attention to the sunset. That was how she first saw Pericles, his face to the breeze that ruffled his long tangled hair, lit up by the strange green light of a dying sky.

She spoke first. "My name is Anax."

"That's what the scan said too."

"Just being polite. And you're Pericles?"

"That's right."

"What are you doing up here, Pericles?"

"Watching the sun go down."

"I haven't seen you here before."

"And I haven't seen you here either."

"I come here every day."

"I don't. I suppose that must be why we haven't met."

That was typical of their conversations. Talking was a game to him, and it became addictive, once you played along. Pericles didn't talk about the silly things her friends talked about. He chose words carefully, for the sounds they made, or the shape of the ideas they folded into. That was how he described it anyway.

He was older than her, by five years, and handsome. Together they watched the earth turn its back on the sun, and he walked with her down into the New City. By the time they reached the end of the path, Anax knew she had to meet with him again. It was unusually forward for her, but she couldn't stop herself. She heard the words come out and felt the flood of relief when his smile widened.

"Will you be up there again tomorrow?"

"If you will," he replied.

"I told you I'm there every day."

"I'll see you then."

Anax didn't message her friends the news. In fact, she mentioned the meeting to no one. The feeling was too new to her, too strange, and too fragile. If she let it out into the world, it would surely shatter.

He was there again the next day, and the day after that. Anax told him about her studies, about Adam, about all the landmarks they could see that linked to him. That was when he told her he was a tutor for The Academy. She felt instantly foolish, and apologized for boring him with talk of things he must have known so much more about. He was gracious and told her that her knowledge and enthusiasm were remarkable. She didn't believe him, she knew it was just politeness, but still she filled with warmth. He told her she should apply to The Academy. He said he would be prepared to be her tutor.

Anax thought it was a joke. Only the very best of the best were even considered for The Academy, and of those who completed the three years of training, less than one percent were admitted. She wasn't that sort of a student. She wasn't in that class.

"Don't be so sure," Pericles told her.

"Even if I was good enough, and I'm not, I could never afford the tuition."

"I would find you a sponsor."

"No, don't. Don't even joke about it. You're laughing at me, aren't you? It's cruel. You shouldn't be so cruel."

"No," he told her, in the calm, beautiful voice that would come to fill the next three years of her life. "I'm not joking. I wouldn't do that."

He was good to his word. He gave her files to study, and arranged a preliminary assessment. She surprised herself, her teachers, and her classmates, scoring in the top percentile. From there finding a sponsor was a simple matter.

That was the last thing that would ever be simple for her. The challenge of preparing for today was harder than Anax had even imagined it could be, but she and Pericles faced it together; and when it all got too much, they would scramble back up to the top of the hill and stand silently together, looking out over the past.

She went there now, inside her head. It relaxed her. The Academy was the most elite institution in the land. Academy members provided the leaders with their advice. They alone conducted the experiments, extended the knowledge. They built the blueprint for the future.

Pericles had told her all along that there was more to her than she realized and now, with the examination finally here, she could stop doubting it. She knew this story so well. She couldn't imagine knowing it better. She would not let him down.

Anax opened her eyes at the sound of the doors opening. She walked back to her position in front of the Examiners.

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