Chapter 1: The Courtyard Pagoda
The Eighty-Eighth annual Vision Scholar Awards were split into four categories: history, technology, language arts, and the sciences, but Evolice Nadima was unsure where her proof of the human soul fit in.
Evolice arrived at the Westkemper Conference Center at precisely sixth hour, just as the sun was painting the sky in peach and pink. The invitation she clutched in both hands read, "Exhibitors must arrive no later than 8th hour," but Evolice knew that the woman typing had actually meant, "for my sanity, and the sanity of everyone working here, please arrive well before the listed time." Evolice always knew these things.
Evolice ran a hand through her cocoa brown curls, gazing in awe around the inside of the Westkemper Conference Center; the grand hall truly lived up to its name. An exquisite chandelier hung from the dusk blue ceiling, four stories overhead. It was over ten feet wide and twice that in height. Speckled gemstones hung from its spindly silver arms, casting prismed lights across the polished marble walls. A second-story mezzanine, with a long bronze railing, wrapped from the stairs at the far end of the hall around the walls and over the entryway where Evolice now stood. A banner hung above the stairs of the great room reading:
The Convention for Visionary Youth
88th Annual Vision Scholar Awards
Evolice hadn't expected the center to be too busy this early, but she also hadn't guessed it would be so lifeless. Against one wall was a desk where a tall uniformed man was nodding sympathetically to an irate teen boy, but other than them, there wasn't a soul in the spacious hall.
Not seeing any indication of where to check-in, Evolice approached the desk where the teen boy was bickering with the friendly-looking employee. The man behind the counter was a decent size, both tall and round, with a fancy black name tag reading: J. Ivony, Junior Greeter. His deep black beard was thick but well-trimmed, with the occasional grey streak. He nodded patiently to the boy, whose frustration echoed across the mostly empty hall.
"Noko Innit pikka ma," said the boy, balling his fists at his side. He had dark skin and thin buzzed hair, with an intricate floral pattern shaved into one side. If Evolice had to guess, she'd say he was probably sixteen, just a year younger than herself. He had a black flower with a blue stem pinned to the lapel of his oversized blazer, and the muddy ends of his baggy pant legs looked as though they had been repeatedly trampled beneath his aged dress shoes.
"Son, I've said before, I have no idea what it is you're trying to tell me," responded Mr. Ivony, gripping his belt so hard his knuckles began to turn white. "If you'll just wait a moment. I've called for Ms. Lapour, she'll be right down to help."
"Noko Innit pikka ma," the boy repeated loudly, his voice cracking. Evolice quickly recognized the words as an Innit dialect.
"Jen mo ti a ta?" called Evolice.
The boy spun quickly to face her, a smile of relief settling across his lips. "Kopo bano!"
"Napo Evolice," she introduced herself.
"Napo Kyrillis," he responded.
"Oh no, not another," groaned Mr. Ivony, running a hand down his face. "What's this then, a prank? Did Jet put you up to this?"
"It's not a prank," said Evolice, "it's Innit. He says his name is Kyrllis, and I'd wager he's from somewhere in Innit'Ro"
The boy, Kyrillis, perked up at the mention of Innit'Ro.
"Well I'll be," said Mr. Ivony with an awkward smile. "Can you tell him I'm sorry? I've met folks from just about everywhere, but I ain't ever met no Innit before." The man looked quite embarrassed, as he began nervously tapping his desk with a pen. "Check-in... check-in," he said, suddenly shifting the conversation, "that's why you're here isn't it? I don't think the booths are quite set up yet. If you'll just wait a moment for Ms. Lapour, she's the event organizer, I'm sure she'll get you sorted."
Evolice conveyed the message to Kyrillis, whose temper had cooled with her arrival. While they waited, Evolice acted as a translator for Mr. Ivony and Kyrillis. Mr. Ivony was very curious about Innit'Ro. As he put it, "Hadn't ever thought there'd be folks livin' all the way down there. Goes to show what you know."
Kyrillis seemed to love the spotlight Mr. Ivony gave him. He told them a bit about his tribe, that lived almost entirely without modern technology, and his vision project, modifying the genetics of a fruit bush to survive the tundras of Innit'Ro.
"Ivito min votro kimil mat Lyza bru. Nutri tompos lek vorto tu va tek," he said.
"With the scholarship I can take my work beyond the Lyza Bush," Evolice translated. "I can find a real solution to our food scarcity." It wasn't until the words left her mouth that it dawned on her, Kyrillis was her competition. There were four scholarships, one given out for each discipline, so depending on what Hall they placed her in, Evolice could be pitted against Kyrillis for the prize. A sudden guilt washed over her, sapping her excitement and awe for the conference. If she won, would that mean stopping Kyrillis from aiding his people? How many other teens here had worthy causes like his?
Fortunately, Evolice's fretting was cut short by a small cough behind her. Evolice turned to find a woman in a thick maroon turtleneck and black dress pants. She wore pointed black sunglasses, and her dark hair had been pulled back into a bun.
"Evolice Nadima and Kyrillis Ma-Ikkut, a dream connection," said the woman, her speech quick and perfectly punctuated, "I am Ms. Lapour and— oh dear, I nearly forgot." Ms. Lapour rummaged in her pant pocket and retrieved what looked like a silver earpiece with a short microphone extension. She offered it to Kyrillis.
Kyrillis took the device and fit it over one ear. "Aptu al?" he said, asking if it was working.
"You need to— oh, here," said Ms. Lapour, reaching around the side of his head to flip a switch on the earpiece. "Can you understand us now?"
"Absolute Magic," said Kyrillis, clearly impressed, "I can understand you perfectly."
"And us, you," said Ms. Lapour with pride. "The audolopod intercepts both inbound and outbound soundwaves, providing real-time vocally-mimicked translations to both parties. It's slated for release next year, but these are the perks of a Vision nominee."
Kyrillis gave Evolice a starstruck grin.
"And have you two linked your professional accounts yet?" asked Ms. Lapour excitedly?
Evolice shook her head.
"Well don't worry, you're plenty early. There'll be time enough for that once we get you checked in" said the energetic woman. She tapped a small glass lens sewn into the left breast of her sweater. "Index, check in Evolice Nadima and Kyrillis Ma-Ikkut, then give us a map."
The lens on Ms. Lapour's shirt flickered to life, projecting a holographic image of the Westkemper Conference Center in the air between them. Kyrillis, you will be here," she said, pointing to the eastern wing, "Booth two-o-seven in the Hall of Sciences. It's just a short walk up the stairs," she said, pointing towards the grand staircase at the end of the hall, "Take a right then head up a second set of stairs and follow the passage to a large set of doors. You'll know it when you see it."
"Up the stairs, to the right, more stairs, doors at the end of the hall, sounds easy enough," said Kyrillis. "Thanks for all the help, Evolice."
"It's really my pleasure," said Evolice warmly. "Seeing as we're so early, maybe I'll swing by once I've settled in. I'd love to hear more about your Lyza bushes."
"Oh yeah, that'd be great," grinned Kyrillis. He thanked Evolice and Ms. Lapour one last time and skipped off with a wave.
"Now, as for you," said Ms. Lapour, studying her diagram, "That's odd, this shows you're not registered to a specific Hall."
"Oh yeah," said Evolice nervously. The moment of truth had come. "I wasn't quite sure where my presentation fit in. It's a proof, like in science, but it involves literature, and really that's at the heart of it—"
"It's no worry at all dear," said Ms. Lapour, cutting her off. "Let's see here. Index, pull up Evolice's submission."
The hologram in the air shifted, the map melted away, and a long document took its place. Ms. Lapour scrolled through the document, her eyes flicking across the page as she scrolled.
"I see," she said, coming to its end, "a proof of the human soul. A truly visionary undertaking if ever one existed." As she looked back to Evolice a sly smile crept across her lips. "On one hand, I could certainly see you in the Hall of Science," she said, "but to be blunt, the competition is fierce."
"So you're not putting me in science then?" asked Evolice hopefully. The last thing she wanted was to go up against Kyrillis.
"Well, I'll ultimately leave the choice to you," said Ms. Lapour, "but I might recommend the Hall of Language Arts. I'd hate to break my image of impartiality, but I was a big fan of your presentation on Garey Mosey's show last month."
Evolice's cheeks flushed red. "You saw that?" The popular viznet program had reached out to her after a local talent show. In truth, she didn't realize the scale of it until she arrived at the studio to find dozens of cameras and a full production team.
"Honey, half the nation watches Garey Mosey. You had to have known you'd get some attention," Ms. Lapour placed a hand on Evolice's shoulder. There was a reassuring warmth to her touch. "A polyglot as young and accomplished as you in a hall of linguists? You'll be playing to their hearts. And, if there's any merit to your claim..." She winked at the girl. "So what'll it be?"
Evolice didn't know how to handle the shower of compliments from this strange woman, but the answer to her question couldn't be more clear. "The Hall of Language Arts," said Evolice, "definitely Language Arts."
"Smart girl," said Ms. Lapour, giving her an endearing smile. "Come along then, I'll show you to your hall."
Ms. Lapour led Evolice across the grand hall towards the wide staircase at its far end. The stairs were parted down the center by a series of decorative fountains. They were tan marble, trimmed in gold, with dozens of coins sitting in their wrist-deep waters. As Ms. Lapour began to climb, spurts of multi-color water followed her upward, leaping like glimmering snakes from pool to pool.
Ms. Lapour turned to Evolice. "I must say, your eyes are an incredible shade of blue. I thought it was the vizcaster playing tricks with the light, but they are just as extraordinary in person."
"Oh, thanks!" said Evolice, finding herself blushing again.
"Okay, enough flattery," said Ms. Lapour, sounding almost giddy, "I want to see your talent in action. I mean, if that's okay with you."
"Sure," said Evolice politely.
They had now reached a small landing at the top of the steps. On their right, a second stairway proceeded upward to the Hall of Science, where Kyrillis was no doubt preparing his booth. To their left, a second staircase led to a long hallway, ending in a set of massive double doors. It was the landing's far wall, however, that captured Evolice's awestruck gaze.
The wall was one enormous window, top to bottom, spanning the width of the landing and following the passages on either side. Outside, Evolice could see the peaks of many colorful tents scattered about a spacious courtyard. Past the courtyard was the north wing of the convention center, also wrapped in a wall of seamless windows, reflecting the brilliant orange glow of the early morning sun. An enclosed passage led over the courtyard, serving as a bridge to the north wing of the conference center.
As they crossed the landing, Ms. Lapour paused at the entrance to the skybridge, tapping the glass on her sweater.
"Index, will you pull up the transcript I loaded this morning?"
The glass lens began to shine. In the air between Evolice and Ms. Lapour was what looked like a note scribbled in the lopsided handwriting of a child. As far as Evolice could tell, it wasn't written in any language she'd seen before.
"Go on then," Ms. Lapour smiled cheekily.
"I work better with original drafts," said Evolice hesitantly, "but let me see what I can do."
Evolice raised one hand to her grandmother's blue-stone necklace, resting on a silver chain around her neck. With her other hand, she began tracing the letters of the projected paper. As her fingers followed the messy curls of the strange letters, a pencil-thin rainbow light followed her movements. It wasn't a product of the projection, and Evolice knew Ms. Lapour couldn't see it; no one ever could. With the light came a voice. It spoke only in her head, as if part of her inner monologue, but the voice wasn't her own. It belonged to a young girl.
"This is a letter from a girl to her childhood friend," said Evolice, focusing on the voice in her mind. "She's moving— No... her friend is moving away. She's terrified. Life seems as though it's come to an end. Will she ever see her friend again? Who else will she share her secret language with?"
The voice suddenly disappeared as Evolice finished tracing the last word.
"Absolutely marvelous," said Ms. Lapour, mouth agape. "Of course, the language itself isn't terribly complex. I created it as a young child to speak with my best friend in secret. However, the note never mentions her moving; I couldn't bring myself to write about it. I simply told her how much she meant to me and that I'd never forget her. Even if you guessed the move, how did you know it was her moving and not me?"
Evolice's chest grew tight. She wasn't sure how much to say, but Ms. Lapour didn't seem the type to judge. "Language is more than just words. It ties us all together," she began, choosing her words carefully. "I've found the more I understand language, the better I understand the people around me. It's hard to describe what I see when I read. It's like a light between the words. Every author leaves a bit of their soul on the page, their meaning and emotions, beyond the words themselves."
"It sounds like religious babble to me," said Ms. Lapour, betraying a hint of cynicism in her voice.
"It's not about faith or religion," Evolice quickly fired back. "It's spirituality. Science and just about every religion on the planet have been at odds for ages, with spirituality caught in the center. If I can prove the soul leaves a mark on the page, maybe the two sides can come together to try and understand what exactly the soul is. It'd mean a whole new branch of study." She took a breath to balance herself. She couldn't be too frustrated with Ms. Lapour's view on the matter; the woman couldn't hear what Evolice heard.
"The proof of the human soul," Ms. Lapour concluded, although she didn't sound convinced. "Speaking of, we should get you to your booth."
They walked the rest of the skybridge in silence. Through the windows on either side, Evolice got a better view of the tents below. Men and women in colorful outfits hurried from tent to tent. A pair of gymnasts had set up a long balance beam and were expertly bounding over each other as they crossed in opposite directions. Out to her right, Evolice could see a man in a fanciful red and black jacket standing in front of a terrifying beast. It looked much like a rat but was larger than any dog Evolice had ever seen. It had four eyes, locked upon its master's every movement, and Evolice could swear that as long as she watched the beast, its rear eyes never once blinked.
Off to the left, beyond the tents and the conference center's north wing, Evolice could see the crystal blue waters of Lake Nuva, with hundreds of sleek glass skyscrapers lining its coast. The lake was so large that Evolice could just barely make out the tips of the towers on its farthest shores. Even this early, dozens of ferries, yachts, sailboats, and more skimmed across the waters under a cloudless summer sky.
Finally reaching the end of the skybridge, Evolice and Ms. Lapour came to another similar looking landing, with a wide set of double doors in front of them and a stairway leading down to their right.
"This is the Hall of Technology," said Ms. Lapour, motioning towards the double doors before leading Evolice down the steps to their right. "You'll be down this way." At the bottom was another passage with several smaller doors spaced along the left wall and a wide expanse of window on the right. At the end of the hall was a similar set of double doors, which Ms. Lapour tugged open and motioned for Evolice to proceed.
Entering the Hall of Language Arts was like stepping into another world. Evolice found herself in a marketplace, with wide spans of different colored cloth draped overhead. Although Evolice and Ms. Lapour appeared to be the only two people in the hall, it was far from lifeless. Translucent letters hung in the air, like summertime lightning flies, dancing around each other until they formed words or passages and quickly disbanded again. As Evolice stepped past the first few market stalls, a cluster of letters descended on her, spelling out:
It was not the treasure Hawk sought.
"This is a passage from Deity, isn't it?" asked Evolice. She had just read the most recent book in the series. It was then that the run-down stalls and stacked wooden boxes around her clicked into place in her mind. "We're in the covered markets of Bruhm!"
"Indeed," said Ms. Lapour. "I take it you're a fan of the series? This hall is changed annually to reflect the year's best seller. It is designed by chief architect Movro Makoy, if you recognize the name."
"I've never heard of him, but... it's wonderful," said Evolice, watching a dozen silver letters flutter past a seam in the hanging tarps overhead.
"Oh, you haven't even seen the half of it," beamed Ms. Lapour with pride. "But, I'm afraid, this is where we part for now. You see those objects on the booths?" Each of the market stalls had a fist-sized black pyramid propped in the center. "Those are index stations. This hall is first come, first serve. Once you find a stall to your liking, its index will take care of the rest. It was a genuine pleasure getting to know you. If I might leave you with a piece of advice?"
"Of course," said Evolice.
"I think your mastery of language alone is more than enough to claim the scholarship," said Ms. Lapour, "but this talk of the soul and spirits isn't helping you in this competition. Now, I understand it's genuine and for a noble cause, but this scholarship is for visionaries and scientists, not prophets."
"I understand," said Evolice sullenly. Despite Ms. Lapour's warm smile, Evolice couldn't help but feel cold inside.
"Remember, once the floor opens, you won't know the judges from the rest," said Ms. Lapour. "Keep to the basics, the mastery of language that got you here, and you'll come out on top." The woman offered a hand, which Evolice shook weakly, and then disappeared out of the hall.
Evolice's sullen state couldn't last long as she flitted through the covered stalls. The Hall of Language Arts was wondrous at every turn. The passage Evolice followed through the market quickly widened, and the stalls were soon replaced with broken stone walls and rubble. Evolice recognized the location as the Fallen City of Karst, recreated in perfect detail. The squat, square, single-story structures each had several counters inside, with index stations at their center. The path ended at a set of stairs, leading up to the great temple of Karst. It was a three-story structure, shrunk down to fit within the limitations of the hall. Rather than enter the temple, Evolice was drawn to a courtyard she could see beyond a dilapidated wall to her right.