Long before she ever met him, she had heard more about her master than anyone else at the Academy. Some said he was the most powerful Sci-Mage in the last hundred years. They said that his record for the Final Test was still unbeaten. They said he won the prestigious Cosmos Medal in his freshman year, and even turned down the Honors Award that the Council itself wished to bestow upon him. They said he was behind the gauntlet innovation that every student now used to channel the Energy before getting their Tattoos.
Some said he was an utter hack. He had never been awarded with the Honors, and the rumor to the contrary was one he had created himself. They said he did not invent anything, certainly not the gauntlets. Gauntlets were mere training tools, not a truly great leap in the Art. They said if he had invented them, it was only because he had failed to bond with a Tattoo. They sneered at his hubris to continue as a Master when he should have curled up in shame without a Tattoo.
What was undisputedly known was that he was the one who ran the First Year tests, and no one passed without his approval. What was known was that he had never taken an apprentice before her. What was known was that his sculpture in the Immortal Gardens did not have a generator beneath it as all other sculptures did.
Long before he ever met her, he had heard more about his apprentice than anyone else to come across his path in the Academy. Some said she was from an elite family of Sci-Mages, which was why she wore the white robes. They said she was a prodigy, earning her Tattoo before she was even accepted into the Academy. They said she had been playing with the Energy since she was a small child, able to feel its flow with only a child's Energy-Scope, and that her parents had pushed her hard to excel. They said she had mastered all the First Year Shades before primary school.
Some said this was utter bullshit. They said her parents were not elite, but pretenders. They were no doubt wealthy, wanting the cachet of a Sci-Mage in the family to ease their way with the Council. They said her family had hired a private Artist to give her an unsanctioned Tattoo. Obviously she could never reveal the truth of that. They sneered that she acted so proud when she had earned nothing on her own.
What was undisputedly known was that her Test Object was unconventional. What was known was that she belonged to none of the Academy Houses. What was known was that she had studied and passed all three disciplines. What was known was that she had failed the Test of Perception.
The first time she had the chance to see the Immortal Gardens in person was her Senior Year when she must decide on Apprenticeship or Residency. She had an inkling her answer would be in the Gardens. She walked among the sculptures, taking in the creativity and scope. Only Masters could exhibit their work here, and all Academy Masters were required to have a showing here.
She had not expected her master's work to be so hard to find. It was definitely out-of-the-way, and frankly a letdown when compared to the grand and sometimes awe-inspiring works of the other Masters. The sculpture was a perfect cube, tilted on its side and constantly shifting colors. It floated above a circle of floating pebbles. It was a peaceful sculpture but there was nothing there to indicate passion or ingenuity.
She wondered if she had misjudged him.
The Test of Perception was a basic test, one that he had seen administered thousands of times. It was the first of the tests all students faced before being inducted into an Academy House. It was designed to be simple. The student was presented with a challenge to unwind a Mobius Strip, and told the only way to succeed was with the aid of an Energy-Scope.
This was a lie, of course. An Energy-Scope was useless against a Mobius Strip, but that was the whole point of the Test of Perception. If the students were using the Energy as they'd been taught, then it was obvious the Energy-Scope would not work. A touch of raw Energy was all that was needed to undo the Mobius Strip.
Most students passed with ease, but not his apprentice. She had insisted upon using the Energy-Scope. Instead of undoing the Strip, she had blown it to pieces and a part of the back wall of the testing room she'd been in at the time.
The generators beneath each sculpture kept the fine particles of the figure in their place. The Masters conceived of their design, set it in motion, and the generators kept the design for all to see. Hidden computers mapped out the end result so that if the generators lost power, the sculptures could be recreated without a Master's input.
She had walked around her master's simple sculpture, a rising eagerness battling with her confusion. There was no generator beneath her master's sculpture to power the sculpture in her master's absence. Did that mean that he had found a way to power the sculpture in some other way? Had he uncovered the Holy Grail of the Energy—a construct that could exist outside the influence of a Sci-Mage?
If so, why had no one ever spoken of it before? Surely, this would be earth-shaking news. And, why if he had uncovered this secret, had he wasted it on this simple sculpture where it would be overlooked compared to the epic sculptures all around her?
An Energy-Scope was a simple device that non-Sci-Mages used to manipulate the structures of a Sci-Mage. Most people had no need for such a device as the work of the Sci-Mage was specialized and limited in scope. Anyone who desired to go into the field of Sci-Mages, though, would've used an Energy-Scope as their first foray of interest.
The Test of Perception was a crucial step to teach new students the difference between what people thought of the Energy and what it really was. The Energy-Scope should only be able to touch something that a Sci-Mage had constructed to be manipulated by the scope. Obviously, the Mobius Strip was specifically designed not to be manipulated in this way. It was basically invisible and untouchable by the scope.
He had watched the footage of his apprentice's test. She had the Energy-Scope in hand, and it was pushing into the Mobius Strip when the structure lost cohesion and blew apart.
Cohesions and Structuring were more advanced concepts. She could not have known that actually doing what was asked of her was dangerous. No one had thought it to be an issue because no one had ever done it before. According to every rule in the book, an Energy-Scope touching an unprepared structure was impossible.
But she had done it. She had begun to unwind the Mobius Strip with a simple Energy-Scope. He was a bit surprised, when he advocated for her continuing her tutoring despite failing to House, that none of the other Masters had seen it.
When he asked her to be his apprentice, she was surprised. It was true that she had sought him out. When asked who she wanted to work with, his name had been at the top of the list. But he had never taken an apprentice before, and she had thought it would be an uphill battle to convince him that despite her shaky record, she could be the apprentice he deserved.
She would learn what he had to teach, and she had an inkling (a hope really) that what he had to teach was lightyears beyond the Academy textbooks.
She did wonder why he chose her when he had never chosen anyone before. Did he see something in her worth cultivating or had the other Masters asked him to take her on so they didn't have to?
It didn't matter the answer. If he saw greatness, she wanted him to help her find it too. If he saw a failure, she was determined to prove that she could master the Energy. She would see the world as he did; she would unlock its true potential.
He was surprised when he saw her name on the requests calendar. It was true that every few years, his name was chucked onto someone's list but it was never top billing. He thought long and hard about that, wondering what she saw in him.
That she had passed all three disciplines (albeit a bit shaky from her test scores) indicated ambition. He knew what was said about him. Did she buy into the story that he had invented the training gauntlets and that he might have something of value to pass onto her? Or did she believe he was the talentless hack unable to earn his own Tattoo, and that he might allow her to Master where a more traditional Master would see her faults and fail her?
It didn't matter the answer. If she thought she was going to have an easy time, she was in for a surprise. He was going to make her work for her Mastery, and he would do it because he saw a spark in her that he'd never seen before. It was true that she came sideways at every problem, meaning that more often than not, her structures failed and her tests didn't go well. But, she was seeing the Energy in a brand new way.
He would love to see what she could make of it. That was reason enough to accept her as his apprentice.
She had never had a proper conversation with him prior to being his apprentice. She did not know him, not really. Their first outing was disastrous. He took her to the untamed Energy fields far from civilization and had her show him what she could do. She had been too aware that she had no idea what was going on behind his eyes as he watched her, watched what she made.
She had wanted to impress, but she did too much at once. He had added a single structure of his own, but it was in the right spot to disrupt one of hers and that set off a chain-reaction of all the others. She knew immediately what she'd done wrong, but he'd said that was enough for the day and they'd gone back to camp without her proving herself.
It burned her that whole night, and she didn't sleep a wink.
The Energy fields were wild and unpredictable. He wondered if she saw the comparison. He was optimistic when she dove right in. She impressed him when she took command of the Energy—that was the lesson for today. He would build upon that.
But she did more than that. She shaped the Energy as she would in class, creating dozens of complicated structures. For her first time in the Energy fields, that was more than impressive.
There was danger, though. Danger she had to see. This wasn't the classroom. The rules were different out here in the real world. She had to know that so he burst her bubble, rather literally.
Her structures crumbled around her as surely as ash upon the wind. She knew immediately how he'd undone her, and she was raring for another go. If only that was the only mistake she needed to fix. He needed to get her out of her head to see the larger picture here.
She was unsatisfied, he could see, and that was exactly why he'd stopped. It was good to be driven. He could harness her frustration and drive, if she let him, and show her what the Energy could really do.
The first few weeks were nothing like she expected. She was out in the open with no other soul around; this was an opportunity to really flex her skills and see what she could do. But he kept insisting that she do the simplest of exercises. Any time she did something more grandiose—sure that this time she had figured it out—he knocked it down as if it were nothing.
She began to doubt herself. Maybe he was as traditionally minded as all the other Masters. Maybe his cube-sculpture really was the best he could do. There was no generator but maybe there was no earth-shaking breakthrough either—just smoke and mirrors that had duped her.
Had she made a mistake?
He knew the value of patience. He had been an instructor at the Academy for two decades. Some students needed to be pushed. Some students needed their hands held. Some students needed to fail a dozen times before the lightbulb went off over their heads.
And some students needed the right teacher.
He had thought she needed to be pushed, and that was the kind of teaching he excelled at. But as the weeks went by and she kept coming at the problem in the same way over and over again, he began to doubt.
Perhaps it had been a fluke that she had manipulated the Mobius Strip with the Energy-Scope. Perhaps he'd been wrong that that was what had happened at all.
Even if he wasn't wrong about her potential, he might've been wrong about his own ability to help her reach it. Had he let his hubris get the better of him?
It wasn't fair to her to keep going if he was the wrong teacher, but it also wasn't fair to give up on her. Maybe he needed to try another tactic?
Her master liked to tell stories. "Once upon a time," he would say, and then tell her some obscure piece of history like it was a fairytale. He had a special love for early space travel, and she had begun to research old missions in the hope of showing him she knew at least something he didn't.
She wasn't entirely sure if his stories were a quirk of his that he just liked to tell stories or if every story was trying to teach her something but she just couldn't see it.
What she knew was that every day they would go out in the Energy field and she would somehow fail. She wasn't giving him what he wanted. She wasn't getting what she wanted.
She liked him. She wanted this to work out. She thought he was a good teacher. Certainly he explained the basics in a more understandable way than any of the Masters ever had.
Maybe she was the wrong student. Maybe he did see things differently than the traditional Masters but it wasn't the same way she was looking at things. She didn't want to lose that strange insight she'd always had—that insight she had tried to cultivate despite the pressure to conform.
But she wasn't going to get where she wanted to go all on her own. There was a leap she needed to make but she couldn't see the far edge. She needed help, and she had chosen him to help her.
If he wanted her to focus on simple structures, then she would do that. She was trying to understand what he was trying to say.
He had always liked the Energy fields. When he had been young, he would sit under a sky filled with stars and just feel the Energy flowing. It was bounded by a grid of generators that collected and held the Energy, but they were far away. He would close his eyes, and it would feel like the Energy was a force of nature. It wasn't a man-made power with the limitations of generators and complicated bio-software. It was something tangible and real.
Her master had asked her to form his simple cube. She did so and let the cube drift away. It dissolved eventually as her mind left it. He did not ask her to fix it. He did not ask her to build anything else. He wandered away, and she was alone.
It was not the first time he had done so. At first, she had thought he was just getting distance away in case she exploded something again. Then, as things grew stagnate, she worried that he was abandoning her.
Maybe she was looking at it wrong. He was always there if she called. He could stop an exploding construct in its tracks. There was no need to leave, but he did leave.
She sat still and waited for his return. She looked out on the black field, and saw the endless possibilities. She always saw them. All these things that wanted to exist. She could see them there, just waiting for her to know how to make them real.
Flexing her fingers, she felt the lines of the Tattoo as the Energy zipped under her skin. It was a part of her. Even before the Tattoo. She had never understood her classmates who saw the Energy as a tool; something known and quantifiable.
It was so fundamental, so simple. Like breathing. So breathtaking, so exhilarating. Like dancing.
Out here, she felt it as she had never felt it before.
He watched, as he always did, to see what progress she was making. Something had changed, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Her eagerness had returned, banishing the mounting frustration that his teaching had engendered. She greeted each day with determination.
What she did was sit alone in the fields. He could see her drawing the fine particles around her, imparting them with energy. He could see her carefully build them up one at a time, trying to make a quadrangle structure. It was bigger than the cube he had left in the Gardens, but just as simple.
Day after day, she made the same thing. He watched patiently. He felt the flow of the Energy shift. He waited until he was sure, and then he blew her construct up. One last time.
There was something there. She wasn't sure immediately if what she was feeling was real or not. The Energy here was different, but in a subtle way. She began to play with that, to test it. She built his cube over and over again, rearranging the particles so that the Energy would move in new and surprising ways.
The more she played, the more she could anticipate the Energy. She wanted to make what her master had made—something that would not need her to maintain it.
That insight that had always served her so well rose stronger than ever, and she was getting it. She was making the cube. She was finally seeing where this might all lead.
And then it blew up in her face. Again.
It was a lot of effort not to scream in frustration, doubly so when her master was immediately there and ready with another history lesson.
There was a twinkle in his eye, though, that stayed her tongue. She was confused at first why he spoke of the Rosetta mission. Even so, she filed away the details he chose to highlight. It was an ambitious plan with many unknowns. The old scientists had harnessed the awesome force of nature that was gravity, but their technology was primitive. They wanted to show what was possible. And it was the first.
But then he was looking at her, and she knew he was talking about her now. Stubborn. Ambitious. "We fall. We pick ourselves up again, and we adapt."
Were these the traits he needed to teach her? Was this what he was waiting for her to show?
She hadn't even known those were the words she was longing to hear until he said them. She reset the Energy fields, and finally let loose with all the complex design thrumming inside her.
Yes, she was ready.
He was sure she would understand one day. Perhaps even tonight, when the excitement settled down. He thought he knew what she wanted, in the macro if not in the details. She wanted to rewrite the rules, to test the boundaries and push past them. He was more than happy to help with that, feeling he hadn't truly been challenged in years.
But they were working with a power of nature far beyond them. Their understanding was simple. They were venturing out into the unknown, and they would both need to pick themselves up again and again because they would surely fall.
She had it in her, though. He had seen it.
He couldn't wait to see what she would do next.