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Chapter 1

We don’t really use paper much anymore, but paperwork still manages to get lost. This phenomenon astounds me.

“My housing arrangements were approved six months ago,” I tell the campus bookstore associate. There aren’t a lot of real books here, but you can buy just about anything else—for probably twice what it’s worth—and it’s still where one goes to sort out textbook problems.

I have the final message with the housing approval attached pulled up on my tablet screen. I’m practically shoving the thing in the face of the woman in front of me, but she’s not even glancing at it. She’s looking at me dully, tapping her first fingernail on the counter between us.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but you’ll have to go to the housing office and have them update your account from there. We can’t override your access to your textbooks. You’ll be able to download them as soon as the hold on your account is cleared up.”

Freshman are required to live on campus unless they live within commuting distance or have family in the area. I don’t fall under either category, but my grandmother’s house is here in Ruston even if she isn’t. I’ve wanted to come back here and take care of that house since she got sick when I was twelve. We moved in with my aunt south of Baton Rouge when it happened, but we never sold the house. Now that she’s gone, I technically own half of it—my dad’s half.

“You can’t call housing? Or just upload my copy of the approval. It’s right here.”

I’m not lazy, I swear, but being here is keeping me from where I really want to be. I push the tablet at her again—a smaller motion, apologetic.

She pushes it back.

“I can’t access that system from here. You’ll have to go to the housing office.”

“But—”

Ma’am.”

She nods over my shoulder, and I glance back at the line of people behind me with their knickknacks and t-shirts. Most of them look like other freshman. They’re the ones who look anxious or embarrassed rather than bored, like the upperclassmen do. Some of the freshman have parents with them carrying mugs and magnets and license plates that say things like #1 LA Tech Mom.

I shift on my feet and tug my hair out from behind my ear. “Right. Yeah. Sorry…”

I take my tablet and make for the door with my head down. Not until I’m outside do I look back through the front windows at the line of parents and their freshman. Something in my chest lurches, and the girl looking back at me in the window swallows. I feel the sticking in my throat, and glare at the reflection. Traitor.

The reflection glares back at me: brown eyes, straight dark brown hair that hangs to my shoulders and still sports a few sparse, fading highlights. A navy and burgundy plaid dress, black ankle boots, half-size army green messenger bag I don’t go anywhere without.

I spin and stride down the two wide concrete steps and past the bushes and flowers guarding the store entrance. I point myself across the grassy quad to Keeny Hall, where the administration offices are housed. The first of fall’s leaves dot the sidewalks, and I purposely step on the crisp brown ones. The crunching sounds give me something else to focus on.

Halfway across the quad I swing around the fountain that’s home to the Lady of the Mist. The stone woman’s arms are open wide, welcoming. I stop for a second and make a wish. I’m not superstitious, but I know from orientation over the summer it’s something thousands of other students have done before me.

I would also rather not have to rethink my living arrangements at the last minute.

Keeny’s main entrance is one set of white double doors. Off to each side of the main doors, though, is one extra, narrow door. I use one of them, instead. Inside, in the center of the brick floor of the entryway, is a transparent freestanding screen with both a map of the building’s floors and a list of the offices inside.

Housing isn’t on the list.

“Really?” I huff at myself under my breath for not checking. “Where is the housing office?” I ask the screen in front of me. The display changes just long enough to show me the campus map with the location highlighted. A female voice tells me the office is on the ground floor of Wyly Tower.

I huff one more time—really loudly, just because it feels good—and twist around to head back out into the quad.

Wyly Tower is next door on the north side of the quad. It’s still the tallest building on campus, just barely, even with the new dorm towers out by Tech Drive. Its’ white facade separates it further from the tan, steel, and glass look of the newest buildings and the brick of the ones that are even older than it is. I go to the entrance on the far side, where the elevators for most of the offices in the building are. An identical standing screen greets me in the blue, white, and red tiled entrance. The listing for the housing office jumps out at me on the map like it’s mocking me, and the glowing red letters make me growl in the back of my throat a little.

“Fine. There you are,” I mutter.

Now I know I’ve found it I’m already calculating how long I think it will take and what to tell Ivory. I find a clock on the wall and realize I should have met her five minutes ago.

A shrill beeping calls from my purse, and it seems loud in the echoing lobby. Heads start to turn, and I jump back through the sliding doors and out onto the stone and concrete steps. I juggle my tablet and bag for a second or two before I decide to just drop to my knees and set both on the ground in the interest of saving time. It’s easier to dig through my bag with both hands.

I root out a small silver disk and press it behind my ear. The tiny connections embedded in my skin there are ready to receive it, and it clicks into place. As soon as it does I tap it to answer the call, and the loud but welcome voice of Ivory James bounces around in my head.


“Roooraaaa!”

“Sorry, I forgot to put my comm on this morning!” I tell her as I get back up.

“Really, Rora, just upgrade to an implant model already. It’s not like you couldn’t afford it,” she teases.

She’s right about that last, at least. Mom and Dad’s life insurance money is paying for college—for anything not covered by my scholarships. I have real access to the money now that I’m eighteen, but I also have no desire to use it for anything else yet.

“I’m fine. I’d rather not have computer hardware in my head, thanks.”

“Your loss. Okay, where are you? Seriously. I miss you.”

“You just saw me at orientation,” I chuckle. The two months since then has been nothing compared to the six months since Christmas before that. Ivory graduated a year before me, with Matthew. They’re a year older. Matthew is Ivory’s other half, and Ivory is my lifeline. We’ve been a threesome since middle school, when Grandma Jean and I moved in with Aunt Karan. Neither of them came home for the summer; they’d found jobs, and stayed to work.

“Whatever. Where are you? Start talking.”

“I’ve got to take care of something. I tried to look through my textbooks and the syllabuses for my classes this morning and I couldn’t get to any of them. There’s a hold on my account because I’m not registered in a dorm.”

“But you had the approval for living off campus months ago.”

I know that, but somehow it didn’t get in the system. I have everything I need to prove it, I just need to go to the housing office. I’ll be there as soon as I’m done. Java City, yeah?”

“You know it.”

“Good. I’ll need coffee after this. Ran out this morning without making any.”

“You poor thing. We’ll be here! Bye!” The gentle tone that tells me she’s hung up rings in my ear, and the comm is silent.

It’s been all of ten minutes before it rings again. The tone is much quieter now that the little device is docked by my ear, but it’s still loud enough to make me wince. I run a finger along the back edge in a downward motion to turn the volume down before I answer.

“I’m second in line now; give me a few minutes.”

“Okay, okay.”

After that she only waits five minutes to call back. But I’m still in line—first now—so I answer one more time.

“This is why I take the thing off, you know.”

“Shut up. You know you love me. You’re still there, right? Housing office?”

“Yeees…”

“I’ll be there in five.”

“No, you don’t have to—!”

She disconnects. I shouldn’t complain; having to wait to see her is what has me the most upset about the time this is taking.

But I also know Ivory.

I’m hoping it won’t take long and I’ll be done by the time she gets here, but the student worker at the desk when I step up doesn’t know what to do with the approval message. I’m standing off to the side waiting for the supervisor to come back from stepping out somewhere when Ivory barrels in. All legs and long red hair, she nudges and elbows her way to my side.

“Excuse me, ‘scuse me, I’m with her!”

I’m only five foot one, so at five ten Ivory is a good head taller than me. I’m usually wearing heels—boots and platforms and wedges, mind; I would die in anything less sturdy—but it doesn’t help because she usually is, too. Most of the time I wear skirts, though, while she detests them, so showing off my legs helps me compete with hers.

Ivory bumps me with a hip, managing to unbalance me briefly, and I grab her arm to steady myself and shake my head at her. “I hate you.”

“No, you don’t.” She laughs first, and I can’t help laughing with her. “What are you doing over here?” she asks while she’s hugging me.

“Waiting for someone more in charge, apparently.” She takes a step toward the desk and I have to physically hold her back to keep her from going up to demand to know when whoever-it-is will be back. “Really, it’s ok!”

A balding man in khakis and a sweater opens the door beside the desk a minute or two later, and asks for the girl having a problem.

Ivory raises a hand before I can say anything. “That would be me—because you can’t keep my girl’s stuff straight.”

He blinks once or twice, looks from her to me, and I wave in a small motion by my shoulder. “You’re looking for me.”

“Right,” he says. “You can come back.”

He doesn’t say Ivory can come, but he doesn’t say she can’t, either. She takes it as an invitation and follows. The man doesn’t look back until he leads us into a cubicle. When he does his mouth opens like he might say something, but then he doesn’t. Not about Ivory, anyway.

“Okay, now what’s the problem? Off campus approval?”

I explain briefly and show him the copy on my tablet. He takes it and scrolls through himself. He brings up a window from the signature at the bottom.

“This seems in order,” he says. “If it’s not in the system I’ll have to check with my supervisor, though. She’ll have her own copy of this to back it up. Then I can update your account and get this input correctly...”

“But it’s right there. I really need to look through my material for tomorrow. Can’t you just—?”

“It’s protocol. The encoding in the message you have here seems genuine, but you’d be surprised. There have been incidents.”

“Is it really that big a deal?” Ivory questions.

He doesn't answer that question, just turns to his computer. After a moment or two he shakes his head. “I’m sorry. Someone must have failed to update your account correctly after the approval came through. It’s not here.”

My arms are crossed, one finger tapping quickly. “But you can look for your supervisor’s copy? If she has it, why isn’t it coming up here?”

“Because it may not have been saved in the system at all, but we do have back-ups.”

“What if you can’t find it?”

He drags a copy of the message from my tablet to one of his own and hands mine back to me. “You can wait here. I’ll be back.”

I start to follow him out. “But what if you can’t find it?”

Ivory catches my arm to keep me in the cubicle. She brushes past me to glance around outside, then dashes back to the computer. “Keep an eye out for me, ‘kay?”

“What?” I spin around, and she’s already got half a dozen windows open that I can’t read for the gibberish. “What are you doing?” I stage-whisper. I take the step and a half to the door anyway.

“Please, Rora. I’ve been here a year. Their network is cake.”

“Do you know how much trouble we’ll be in? I haven’t even started classes yet!”

“I’m only fixing their mistake.”

“You’re the reason they check everything, aren’t you?”

She smirks. “Of course not. They check everything thanks to meddling amateurs. My work would never be spotted if I didn’t want it to be.”

Movement out in the main office catches my eye. “Someone is coming, Ivory.”

“Tablet.” She swings an arm toward me. I give her what she asked for, and she copies the approval again onto the desktop in front of her with a finger and flick of her wrist. She hands the tablet back to me and I shove it into my purse and sit down again, back painfully straight against the cubicle wall behind me.

Several seconds later she closes everything she has open, just as someone comes by. I’m watching them walk past, holding my bag closed with white knuckles, and when they’re gone and I take a breath and look back Ivory is on the bench beside me.

“Try to get to your books again,” she tells me.

I let out a breath and do what she asks, because at this point why not?

When I try, everything is where it should be. The hold is gone from my account and I can access all of my books and the files for this semester’s classes. I give her a look, and she ignores me.

“Shall we go?” she says brightly.

We break from the office cubicle and ask the girl at the desk to tell whoever it was we were talking to that the problem seems to have fixed itself. We’re out the door before she can ask too many questions, and in the hallway we break into a run. We probably don’t need to, but we’re us.

“Tell me again why you’re not a computer science major?” I’m asking.

“Because that would be too obvious!” Ivory calls over her shoulder.

Once we all but trip into the elevator I have to catch my breath before I say anything else. “Did Matthew decide office lines weren’t for him?”

She’s bent over with a hand against the wall, laughing. “What?”

I smack her arm with the back of my hand. “Matthew. You said ‘we’ earlier.” Not that the ‘we’ was needed. I assumed he’d be with her anyway, seeing as they’re a bit of a packaged deal.

“Oh. Yeah.” Ivory straightens up and begins studying the elevator’s control screen, with its’ animation showing us where we are in the building as we move. “He had to go anyway, actually. A study group or something.”

I take a beat to respond to that. “Wait, what? Classes don’t start until tomorrow.”

“What?”

She asks the same distracted question again, and I shake my head and decide it’s the leftover adrenaline scrambling our brains. “Never mind.”



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