Happy #FridayReads! Did someone say robot dragons?! This week, we’re reading Rebelwing by Andrea Tang. Read the excerpt below!
The whole mess was a long time coming, but the drama really began when the long, sleek snout of a plasma gun interrupted Pru’s breakfast.
“Good morning,” said Alex, black-eyed gaze intent over the shiny chrome barrel he’d aimed at Pru’s head. “We need to talk, please.”
“Ah hawt finif muh foo!” protested Pru.
Her interrogator blinked. “Pardon?”
Pru swallowed her mouthful of cha siu bao, and said, “I haven’t finished my food. My mama taught me not to talk with my mouth full.”
Alex sighed. “Fair point.” He adjusted the setting on the plasma gun with a flick of his thumb, as the weapon lowered. Like everything else he did, it was an annoyingly graceful motion. Figured that someone like Alex could make even borderline death threats look pretty. “All right, finish your pork bun and coffee. But after that, I have, like, an entire midterm essay’s worth of questions for you.”
“Abo wuh?” demanded Pru.
“Please finish chewing first too,” said Alex.
With relish, Pru obeyed, catching errant sesame toppings with her tongue as soft bao dough gave way. The bun’s cha siu filling had been marinated to perfection. “About what?” she repeated, when she was done.
Alex cast her an incredulous look that would have been hilarious if Pru hadn’t still been sort of scared of the plasma gun. “What else? The dragon.”
“You sure it wasn’t a war wyvern?”
“I’m just saying, it looked an awful lot like—”
“It was a dragon, you shameless smuggler.”
Pru licked crumbs from her fingers in mildly offended silence.
Wordlessly, Alex passed her a handful of napkins.
“Thanks,” said Pru grudgingly.
He ignored her. The hand that hadn’t passed her the napkins was twirling the plasma gun in a casual, alarming display of dexterity. “I mean it, Pru. What happened to the dragon?”
With a sigh, Pru took the napkins, and began dabbing at the cha siu bao crumbs scattered across the pleats of her uniform skirt. That was, she thought, an excellent question.
If Pru really stretched her imagination—because her imagination was pretty damn flexible—she could probably argue that the real root of her current trouble was procrastination. The first wyvern sightings, a shadow of metallic wings kissing the city walls amidst the lazy summer haze, had been easy enough for the Barricade Coalition government to write off as the hysterical ramblings of inexperienced sentinels. Since the end of the Partition Wars, the Coalition’s Incorporated neighbors had made a passive-aggressive little hobby of testing all sorts of military wares in plain view of Barricader sentinels. If every ugly metal thing bearing Incorporated logos seen within five kilometers of Barricade walls was a real bona fide war wyvern, the peace treaty would have gone up in plasma fire years ago.
“We should make Masterson’s drop now,” Anabel had said during the first week of school. “Getting into Incorporated territory will be a lot harder if schools issue a lockdown.”
“Please, they won’t go into lockdown this early in the semester over one misidentified hunk of Incorporated metal,” scoffed Pru. “Can’t we put our side hustle on hiatus for a couple days? Summer break’s been over for, like, five seconds, and I somehow already have a research paper and three exams to cram for.”
Naturally, the second wyvern sighting hit the news five hours later. Barely twenty minutes after the first headline blared to life on Pru’s phone, Headmaster Goldschmidt announced a campus-wide lockdown on New Columbia Prep, effective immediately.
“Well,” said Anabel. “Now you have a research paper, three exams, and an anal-retentive Headmaster to defy, if we want to get paid.”
Pru did want to get paid. Getting paid was how she afforded little luxuries like the textbooks she needed to pass the exams. Pru was luckier than most of the other scholarship kids—Mama made all right money, just not bougie private school money—but that also meant less generous bursaries, which meant finding creative ways to stretch her pennies. So Pru had pulled two all-nighters, half-assed the paper, and let Anabel book a private study in the school library to cover their illicit exit from campus, which, of course, was where the first seeds of disaster were planted. Therefore, Pru’s thesis statement: dawdling was the source of all evil. She’d been a prep schooler for going on four years now. She’d hung a midterm paper or two on fouler bullshit than that.
But dawdle she had, and the Pru of that fateful day paid the price. Already jittering on her third thermos of coffee, her fingers twirled the holo-drive cylinder in an anxious, chrome-bright staccato across her thigh, Pru was unreasonably scared of being spotted through the one-way study window. Which was, Pru realized on several levels, ridiculous. Even if it were a double-way window—which, she reminded herself sternly it wasn’t—plenty of students kept cylinders for legitimate purposes. You needed them to store notes and textbooks, unless you were one of those weird pretentious kids hunched beneath enormous knapsacks who insisted on hardback, paper-bound everything. God bless and keep the lifespan of their spinal cords.
Pru sometimes took paper-bound smuggling jobs too, but those made considerably riskier drop-offs, even if the money was better. Really, if you wanted to buy black market media in Incorporated territory, a cylinder holo-drive was your cleanest bet for evading police brigades. Holo-drives were small, easily concealable, and most importantly, well-primed for remote content deletion. Still, Pru wouldn’t begrudge a paying customer some old-school sense of bookish romanticism.
Tap-tap-tap, went the holo-drive, insistent and illicit beneath the smooth metal desk, concealed under the standard-issue pleats of Pru’s posh uniform skirt. Minutes slowed to a crawl. The thrum of Pru’s heart inside her ears crescendoed. She felt ridiculous.
Cylinder smuggling is easy. You’ve done this, like, fifteen million times, and never once been caught, not even during lockdowns, Pru informed her brain. Grim experience had taught her that applying logic to the caffeine-hyped fog inside her head was a lost cause, but what else could you do? Quit being such a big baby.
Shan’t, retorted her brain, which in fairness, Pru had run pretty ragged with the latest crop of half-assed problem sets and hastily scrawled bullshit essays. She cast a bleak, accusatory look at her depleted thermos, trying in vain to un-jitter-fy her fingers. Coffee: the cursed elixir of sleep-deprived, overachieving prep schoolers everywhere. The productivity potion that giveth and taketh away.
Where the hell was Anabel? Three years of running a book smuggling ring right under the shadow of New Columbia’s walls—lockdowns, public safety mech patrols, and all—taught you a lot, but what it drilled in hardest was strategy. Anabel and Pru had theirs down to an art form:
One. When making a drop-off during a campus lockdown, book your alibi in advance. New Columbia Prep’s faculty loved its stereotypes, and so far as Headmaster Goldschmidt was concerned, the anxious little grade grubbers who reserved three hours of library time five days early couldn’t possibly be using that time to smuggle black market media into Incorporated territory like common delinquents.
Two. Put in face time during your first hour in the library, and no one would bother checking to see if you ever returned from your “bathroom break” during the second.
Three. Don’t be fucking late to that first hour.
Like an answer to her prayers, or an eavesdropper on her inner monologue, came the telltale whoosh of sliding chrome.
Pru practically exploded toward the door. “Park! About damn time you showed up for the job, I was just about to—”
She paused. The boy at the door wasn’t Anabel Park. He was probably another student, judging from his uniform—either a student, or some terrible, sleep-deprivation-induced fever dream—but not a student Pru had seen around campus before. At the very least, she’d have remembered the knife-edge silhouette of those cheekbones.
So why did he seem so familiar?
“My name’s not Park,” said Cheekbones McFever Dream.
“Clearly not,” said Pru faintly. She turned her chin up for a better look at him. Nonplussed, Cheekbones McFever Dream returned her scrutiny with dark eyes, deep-set beneath a wavy mop of equally dark hair. His white button-down, bright over olive skin, and schoolboy tie loosened at the collar made him look like a long-lost leading man from an old-fashioned film poster. Maybe he’d been summoned forth from the depths of history, newly arrived in their brave new world. Or maybe he’d escaped the pages of some teen romance comic Pru’s mother was penning. That would explain both his alarming familiarity and distressing amounts of sex appeal. Maybe Pru could call Mama later, and ask. Say, Mama, she imagined drawling, funny thing, but you don’t happen to be missing one brooding romantic lead disguised as a prep school kid, about my age, perhaps yea high? Why? Oh, no reason, just an anxiety-induced case of creepy deja-vu! Love you.
“May I . . . help you?” asked the fever dream delicately.
“Sorry,” mumbled Pru. “I’m waiting for Anabel Park. I thought you were her.”
“I’m flattered.” The full mouth twitched with amusement. “Though sorry to disappoint. Afraid I’m nowhere near as charming as the youngest and cleverest of the Park clan.” He stuck his hands—what Mama liked to call artist’s hands, long-fingered and elegantly-formed—into his trouser pockets. “I’m merely me.”
“Who?” asked Pru. “I’m, like, eighty percent sure we haven’t met.”
“Alex,” said the fever dream, then with an odd shift to his accent, “Alexandre Santiago, if you need to pull the school library records. Anabel Park and I are checking into this study, actually.”
“No, you’re not,” said Pru. Indignation temporarily overruled self-consciousness. “Anabel and I are checking into this study. I’m supposed to”—hurriedly, she slid the holo-drive into her stocking—“meet her for a . . . a project here. The study should be booked in her name.”
Alex’s expression cleared. “That’s the mix-up, then. She’s also my project partner, for Modern Politics II. She booked our study too. If she’s working with you for another class, she must have double-booked yours by mistake.”
Irritation jabbed at Pru. “And you’re so sure she double-booked me, and not you?”
Alex frowned. “That’s not what I meant. You probably just have the wrong time slot.”
“Look, my dude,” said Pru, fishing out her phone, “Anabel told me two p.m., in study number five thirty-two, I’ve got it right here in the automated calendar. How do you know you’re not the one who got the wrong time slot?”
“Fine,” snapped Alex, producing his own phone, “we can check the official school records.”
“Fine,” agreed Pru, jamming a finger against her screen with more force than strictly necessary. The brightly colored library records burst into reproachful, three-dimensional life over her outstretched palm. “See here?” Triumphantly, she swiped a finger through the hologram to pull up the study bookings. “It should say right here, ‘Anabel Park’ and ‘Prudence Wu.’”
“Maybe it should,” said Alex amiably enough. The hologram colors gleamed in the dark mirror of his eyes. “But you might want to look again.”
Pru, against her better judgment, looked. And groaned.
Anabel Park and Alexandre Santiago, read the entry for Study No. 532, West Library, 2:00 p.m.
“Clerical error, maybe,” offered Alex with a shrug.
Murder, thought Pru with hysterical, malevolent cheer. I’m going to murder Anabel. What’s a little homicide between friends?
“You’d have to ask Anabel,” said Alex. “But do me a solid, would you, and give her a chance to finish her share of the Modern Politics presentation first.”
“Did I say the homicide thing aloud?” Pru probably didn’t need another coffee, but she definitely wanted one now. Maybe with something stronger mixed in.
“Look,” said Alex, who was evidently inclined to take pity on would-be murderers, “wait until Anabel arrives. Once she’s here, you two can sort out your scheduling mix-up—”
“No, no,” Pru flapped a hand, “don’t take time out of your study date on my behalf. The mix-up is my fault, anyway.” Which was a blatant lie. Pru wasn’t the one who’d double-booked their alibi like some overworked secretary. Then again, if Pru hadn’t procrastinated on the damn drop-off in the first place, she wouldn’t be stuck here playing chicken with this obnoxious, tight-assed pretty boy.
She grabbed her knapsack with a grimace. The metal cylinder dug cold against her thigh beneath the stocking. There was no help for that. It wasn’t like she could text Anabel to reschedule, when they’d already delayed the job this long. Besides, Pru had been smuggling longer than she’d been friends with Anabel. Even on lockdown hours, what was one solo drop-off in Incorporated territory? Cake.
Alex’s sharp black gaze tracked the staccato efficiency of Pru’s movements. “Wyverns got you nervous?”
“What, those flying mechanical boogeymen?” scoffed Pru. “Rumors, that’s all. Some caffeine-deprived guard manning the Barricade gates probably just saw a flock of really big-ass birds or something, and freaked the fuck out.”
“Birds,” repeated Alex, utterly deadpan.
“Fine, maybe not birds,” Pru allowed, with a roll of her eyes, “but don’t tell me you really believe in this bullshit about a revival of the war wyverns. You’d think the Incorporated would have thought of better scare tactics since the Partition Wars, with the amount of money the Executive General throws at their Propagandist. I mean, airborne stealth mechs that shoot top-grade plasma fire and kill on sight? In peacetime? They’re not real.”
Even growing up on classroom holo-footage of the Partition Wars, it was hard to believe wyverns, all razor-edged wings and jaws crackling with plasma fire, had ever been real. Anyone could build weapons for a war, but the Incorporated had built monsters. Nothing about wyverns would ever look real to Pru.
Like a switch flipping, those big black eyes went flat and cold. “Partition War veterans might beg to differ with that take.”
As if some fine-faced rich boy would know. “The war ended, like, a decade ago. Our government’s just paranoid out of habit. Any leftover mechanical monstrosities the Incorporated engineers have cooked up aren’t going to leave their territory.”
“Right,” said Alex. His sarcasm sounded lighthearted, or should have, but something dangerous lingered in the tilt of that expressive mouth. “Because you’ve spent plenty of time on Incorporated land, I’m sure.”
“Yeah,” said Pru, emboldened despite the anxiety thrumming through her gut. “I’m a real secret revolutionary. By day, I’m a schoolgirl of modest origins here in the hallowed halls of New Columbia Prep, surviving on scholarship sufferance. By night, dorm curfew be damned, I breach our fine city walls to spread Barricader values of freedom and liberty through their sad little corporate empire.”
An abrupt smile dimpled his cheek. “I don’t doubt you do. Enjoy your insurgency.”
“Enjoy my study,” Pru shot back, unable to contain that last bit of pettiness as she pushed past him. At least Anabel’s name was on the study booking, which meant Anabel would find a way to cover for them both if Headmaster Goldschmidt decided to check records of Pru’s whereabouts. Fixing trouble was what Anabel did, even when she was the cause of it.
“I’ll give our favorite double booker your regards,” Alex called after Pru as she rounded the corner. She snorted. Fine-faced rich boy he might be, but at least he’d stoop to match her petty for petty.
Pettiness wouldn’t sub in for a decent wingwoman on the other side of the wall, though. That, thought Pru grimly, was what sheer dumb luck was for. Fair enough. Not like she’d have gotten this far in the book smuggling business without it.