Hugh hunched over his textbook, staring hard at the words, trying to force himself to read them. In one hour, he would take the university qualification exam, the test that determined his standing among all other university applicants in Ingerwall.
If he failed the exam, no university would accept him. If he passed with flying colors, he might have a chance.
In the years following the historic Kingsmouth Fair, Hugh’s dream to become an inventor had only grown. Now, nine years later, Hugh was finishing his schooling at Riverford Academy, with hopes of attending Kingsmouth University and, beyond that, working for one of the city’s premier invention firms.
Hugh’s parents had sacrificed and saved to send him to Riverford.
Most of his classmates came from well-to-do families, but the Humphries were simple farmers going back generations, and none of them had known wealth.
Attendance to Riverford was straightforward: if a child passed the difficult entrance exam and the parents could afford the tuition, the child was accepted. With great effort Hugh had passed, but the money didn’t come easily.
When less-expensive produce from Lataña began to flow north into Ingerwall, agriculture in their region was hit hard. To survive, farmers were forced to lower their prices again and again just to break even. Still, Hugh’s parents had somehow managed to provide the funds necessary to keep Hugh enrolled.
But for all their sacrifice, Hugh found school to be much more difficult than he had expected. Year after year, he found himself at the bottom of his class.
His grades may have been behind, but his grasp of nearly every subject exceeded that of his peers. Abstract concepts that many of his classmates struggled to grasp came quite easily to him.
Hugh had spent his childhood guessing at the intricate inner workings of the natural world. Now, to penetrate those unknowns by studying the discoveries of modern science was the thrill of his life, and his mind drank it all in thirstily. As professors lectured about the principles of mathematics, linguistics, philosophy, and the sciences, he listened intently, piecing it all together into a growing understanding of natural and intellectual principles.
Each professor was too absorbed in his own domain to acknowledge it, but Hugh found that there were patterns and principles that bridged all disciplines. He couldn't quite articulate it, but a feeling often came into his mind when he thought of two scientific fields at the same time.
Molecules were like sentences, atomic components contributing to a larger function. And different people were like different materials. Electricity flowed uninhibited through metal but was blocked by wood. Similarly, the written word entered directly into the minds of his classmates, seemingly at the speed of a glass light turning on, while for Hugh, words stopped at his eyes and wouldn't penetrate into his mind without his concerted effort.
At Riverford Academy, a student's grades depended heavily on the ability to read thousands of pages a week. Hugh just couldn't do that. So, despite a deep understanding of what material he did read and what was taught in class, his report card each semester was a dismal sight.
He would picture his parents' faces, imagining deep disappointment. He knew he was projecting his own self-recrimination onto their expression, but they believed in him so, and it hurt to feel that he was letting them down.
No matter how his parents may have felt, Hugh saw very real disappointment in the stern expressions of his professors whenever they cornered Hugh to express frustration with his ability.
Earlier in the academic year, Professor Foster had pulled Hugh aside after Applied Engineering. "You seem to grasp principle and theories, but to succeed in this class—to succeed out there in the real world—results are the only currency that matters. You're smart, but you'll never be an inventor."
More recently, Professor Neverde had said to him, “I just don’t understand, Hugh. Your comments in class make it appear as if you understood the concepts better than anyone—sometimes even better than myself. But you don't do your reading assignments, and you all but fail your exams, and it becomes clear you know very little."
He had wanted to tell Neverde that he spent hours each day on the readings. While his hallmates played outside or swam in Bear Creek or wrote letters to their girls, Hugh was in the library, plowing through his assignments.
The problem wasn't effort. It was that when he came across something interesting in the text, it was as though there were a staircase on the page, drawing his mind down into the depths of the topic. Without realizing it, he would stop reading the words on the page as his mind would pore over the swift stream of thoughts and ideas that flowed into his head.
When he came to and realized he had wandered away from the assignment—again—he would often slap himself on the side of the head, cursing himself for getting lost, bemoaning yet another unfinished assignment, dreading the consternation of his instructors.
But other times, he came back from his revere feeling so elevated, like he was flying through spheres and dimensions of thought heretofore untrod by anyone else, that the guilt was easy to ignore. In those moments, a different logic prevailed: what were high marks on a piece of paper compared to the thrill and ultimate value of piecing together the truths of reality?
If his reading was on astronomy, it felt as though revelation poured into his mind and he saw the way the universe functioned.
If it was history, the patterns of the human story wove together such that both the small accounts of intrigue and the grand narratives of war flowed from the same human desires and physical needs. The elemental rhythms of reality were so simple at the core, but, like the notes on a flute, combined together into infinitely complex variations of political, social, economic, and physical engines that shaped the world into what it is.
He knew these flights of learning put his education at risk. He had heard of men and women who drank themselves into a stupor, swearing off liquor in the morning, only to return to the tavern by nightfall. So it was with Hugh. Every time he reported that he’d read only half a chapter instead of the full assignment of ten chapters, he determined to turn off his wandering mind and just read the text. But it was no use. The siren song of knowledge and truth inevitably lulled him into ignoring his duties, and he was carried off into penetrating inquisitions of the nature of humans, their earth, and the heavens that towered above them.
Of course, he couldn’t tell this to Professor Neverde. He would dismiss it as a tall excuse at best, a self-aggrandizing lie at worst. That’s how Madam Ternagie had reacted when he explained all this to her two years previous. He didn’t want his current professors to think less of him than they already did.
So Hugh kept his problem to himself and did his best to carry on alone.
The clock tower rang nine o'clock, time for study group.
Hugh rubbed his face and lay his head on the library table. He had been in the same seat for three hours. The main hall of the library was a long valley of small tables between two never-ending rows of mountainous bookshelves. Each table bore mounds of books to be read by anxious students.
Hugh wondered if he should go to study group. He needed all the time he could to prepare for the university qualification exam, to intake as much of the material as he could. Study group wouldn't help him do that.
But it would help his friends. That's because his friends, indeed most students, were the opposite of Hugh.
In study group, his classmates will have done the readings several times. They knew the vocabulary words, the dates, the names, the sequences of historical events. What they didn't have a strong handle on were the more difficult, abstract concepts. And they knew that Hugh would have already mastered that terrain. That's why study group was formed. It was their chance to polish their understanding before a test.
But the time spent tutoring his friends came at a cost to Hugh. If he chose to help improve his friends’ grades, he risked his own.
Hugh stared at the open page, which listed the proteins involved in digestion. If someone needed his help, it seemed akin to a crime to withhold it. He knew firsthand the pain of doing poorly on a test, and it was in his power to help his friends avoid that pain.
So, unwilling to leave his friends to struggle with concepts he could help them understand, he packed up his books and pushed in his chair.
As he stepped out of the library into the Academy quad, the brilliant sun stung his eyes. It was a warm day in early summer under a clear sky. The entire graduating class seemed to be huddled in clusters around the quad, pouring over their course materials of the last four years, studying at a sprint’s pace for the same exam. All the while, the younger students seemed to frolic back and forth between the gray stone buildings of the campus, heading to and from class, happily aware their seniors were under a load they would not have to endure for another year or two.
Sitting under an ancient oak, books and papers splayed on the grass about them, sat the Davenport cousins, Terissa and Minda, and Owen Beed. Owen was Hugh’s roommate, a rowdy but kind fellow who’s parents lived only an hour east of Riverford. Because Hugh came from a town three hours north, Owen’s parents often invited him to their home for dinners on the weekend.
Even from a distance it was clear that, instead of studying, Owen and Terissa were locked in one of their heated debates.
“De Santos didn’t disappear. He’s dead,” Terissa said emphatically.
“How could you know? For all anyone knows, he simply quit.”
“Without a word or a trace?”
“He’s rich enough. I imagine he can sneak away quietly if he wants to.”
"That's enough of that," chided Minda as she saw Hugh coming. "Hugh, could you help me understand buoyancy?"
"Right, yes, please," said Owen, waving at Hugh and turning to listen in.
Hugh sat down and started. "Imagine you have a ball one foot squared.
"Balls aren't squares," teased Owen.
Minda shot him a look.
"Right, focusing, sorry. Go on, Hugh."
Hugh continued, "If you submerge the ball entirely in water, the air is trapped inside the ball and can't get out, nor can the water get in. Since the ball and the water can't both occupy the same space, the water gets pushed out of the way. Now, one square foot of air weighs less than one square foot of water, so—"
“Why would de Santos quit at the top of his game?” Terissa interrupted. This wasn’t the first time her inability to leave a debate alone had cost them all precious study time.
“He probably just grew tired of inventing and decided he was finished,” responded Owen, who disliked Terissa as much as he worshipped Canto and de Santos.
”Besides,” Owen continued, “if someone wanted him dead, why is Canto still alive? Wouldn’t the killer knock them both off?”
“Maybe de Santos knew something Canto didn’t,” Minda offered, getting caught up in the debate.
“Maybe Canto was the one who killed him,” Terissa persisted.
“Maybe he’s traveling the world,” said Owen, ”bringing electricity to other countries.”
“Miguel de Santos is one of the two most famous people in the world,” said Minda. ”We would know about a trip like that. Now let's—”
“If he did leave,” said Terissa, “I’m glad for it. My father says foreigners should stay in their own countries and stop coming to ours to steal our opportunities and our superior way of life.”
“That foreigner is the reason we have a superior way of life," protested Owen.
“He was only Canto’s junior partner. I’m sure he didn’t do anything substantial. Lataños aren’t as educated as we are.”
“People are people, Terissa,” said Hugh, becoming impatient, “including those without our opportunities.” Then, trying to bring the conversation back around to studying, he added, “After all, we all share ninety-nine percent of the same DNA.”
“Terissa shares the same DNA as a rock,” said Owen.
“Shut it, Owen!”
“Stop, both of you, please,” urged Hugh. ”The test is in an hour. If we— If I don’t score exceptionally on this exam . . . Look, I need to do well. So can we focus?"
He knew it was hypocritical for Hugh to be telling anyone else to focus, but he was desperate. Study group frequently devolved into chaos like this. The rest of them would have done the readings and assignments and called a meeting to review the topics together and make sure they all understood it. Often this meant asking Hugh to round out their understanding of the more difficult concepts. But by then, they were tired and easily distractible and, once Hugh had helped them finalize their grasp on the topics, they could relax. Whereas Hugh, on the other hand, who had been studying as long as they but hadn't gotten as far as they had, still needed all the time he could get to catch up to them.
Sure, he understood the more challenging ideas that their professors spent lecture time explaining. That information went right into Hugh's brain, arranged itself neatly, and stayed there. But the myriad terms, dates, and other details that they would be tested on were all hidden in thick textbooks, textbooks that the others breezed through but that Hugh took hours and hours to read.
"Alright then, Hugh," said Terissa. "What are the elements that form the DNA chain molecule?”
He could never get this one right. “PONCH," he began with the common acronym. "Potassium—"
“Hydrogen,” corrected Terissa. She was the only one in their group who could sense that Hugh wasn't all the others cracked him up to be. Owen and Minda thought he was some savant, but didn't seem to notice that while he could explain how things worked, he had a hard time remembering their names. Terissa, who was a walking glossary, resented the attention they lavished on Hugh instead of her.
She continued to press him: “And what does DNA stand for?”
“Dehydro . . . I don't remember?” said Hugh.
“Dehydrated nucleus,” said Owen. “Or something like that. There are too many terms to remember for this test.”
“Deoxyribonucleic acid,” said Terissa.
They all hurried to write that in their notebooks.
“How do you spell that?” asked Hugh.
Terissa spelled it for them.
“I honestly don't see why we have to learn something that hasn’t even become established science yet,” complained Terissa. “It doesn’t even make any logical sense: a language that tells your body what to do? It’s just absurd.”
“The language of life,” recited Owen and Minda in unison, quoting their biology professor’s favorite phrase.
“It’s a stupid idea,” said Terissa.
“It’s a published idea,” said Minda.
“So was Wingston’s theory of spontaneous combustion,” retorted Terissa. “And look how valid that proved to be.”
“Fair point,” conceded Minda.
“In any case,” continued Terissa, “we’ll all develop electrical machines the moment we get out of university. Why study biology?”
“Electric Light & Power owns the patent on electricity,” said Owen. “No one else can put anything electrical on the market.”
“It’s been more than nine years,” said Terissa. “Their patent expires in ten months, on the first day of the Kingsmouth Fair.”
“I’ll bet reams of firms have been developing electrical machines for next year’s Fair,” gushed Minda. “And we’ll be at Kingsmouth while it’s happening.”
“If we get in,” said Hugh.
“It’s free admission,” said Minda.
“I mean if we get into university. But we won’t if we don’t study.”
"You have it in the bag, Hugh," said Owen. "It's we who need to worry."
"So worry, then," said Hugh. He opened his textbook, hoping he could get a page in while the others squabbled. He was beginning to feel that he should have stayed in the library.
“Professors aren’t trying to prepare us for our future,” Terissa went on, ignoring Hugh. “They’re all just trying to make little versions of themselves.”
“Academic mitosis,” said Minda.
“Epidemic, my toes itch,” said Owen.
“Epidermal,” said Minda.
“No,” said Owen.
“It makes more sense.”
“It doesn’t rhyme.”
“Reason before rhyme,” said Minda, quoting their literature professor.
“Thank you, Professor Bayion, for yet another example of what’s not worth learning,” said Terissa.
“Epidermic,” muttered Hugh, rubbing his temples.
“That’s not a word,” said Terissa.
“Then I suppose I just invented it.”
“Hugh’s getting a head start on us,” said Owen.
"Can you finish explaining buoyancy?" Minda asked Hugh.
"Girlancy," said Owen. "Ancy girl."
"Stop, Owen," said Minda. "I really do need to understand it better."
"Girls can't be understood," said Owen.
"Not by dimwit boys," said Terissa.
“I really need to focus,” pleaded Hugh.
"Go on, Hugh," said Minda. "I'm listening."
An hour later, after more bickering and Hugh's eventual explication of buoyancy to Minda, the clock tower announced that it was fifteen minutes until eleven.
Stretching from being seated for so long, picking up their books and papers and wrapping their arms around their wide, heavy load, they walked toward Sherman Hall, where the university qualification exam was waiting for them.
They entered a large, dimly-lit, stale-smelling room. The somber gray stone walls made it resemble a tomb.
Each student chose a desk where they would spend the next two hours determining the rest of their lives. On each desk was a copy of the exam, a small stack of papers turned facing down.
Professor Orwich stood at the front of the classroom. Apparently she would be their examination administrator. She cleared her throat and began her usual pre-exam speech.
"I don't need to tell you this is the most important test of your life thus far. There will be no talking, no cheating, no getting up for any reason." The clock tower chimed: one o’clock. She waited until the bell's echo faded, leaving behind it a tense silence. "You may begin."
A scurry of papers shuffling followed then died down into a muffled quiet filled with coughs, scratches of pencils, papers turning over, the creak of the old desks and chairs as students shift positions, and the faint but discernible sounds of activity outside: laughter and shouts in the quad, footsteps in the hallway just beyond the door.
As usual, Hugh flipped to the last few pages of the exam where the essay questions were. He did those best. And as usual, when he finished, he returned the to the first several pages to face his reckoning with the fact questions, questions that could only be answered by having done multiple passes at the reading assignments.
Hugh read the first question and stopped in his tracks. "List the proteins involved in human digestion." It was the very topic he had put aside to try and help his friends in study group. He scanned the rest of the questions. This was going to be like walking through a corn maze at night and blind and with no legs.
Hugh lifted his gaze from the exam and looked around the room. Dust hovered in the air illuminated by a sunbeam coming through a window high up in the wall. Professor Orwich paced the rows and columns of desks, peering over the hunched shoulders of each student.
Hugh noticed his heart was racing. He lay his head on the desk and tried to slow his breathing. All he could do was his best. He sat up, stiffened his upper lip, and got to work.
Not enough time later, the clock struck three and Professor Orwich called time. The students put down their pencils and and filed out of the room, putting their completed tests on the desk by the door as they filed out. Hugh looked down to avoid making eye contact with Professor Orwich as he painfully placed his only partially completed test on the desk and left the room.
Owen and Minda were dancing a little jig in the hallway.
“I walloped the exam, I’m sure of it!” said Owen.
“Not as well as I did,” said Terissa as she made it over to them.
“Thanks for the study session, all of you,” said Minda. “It really helped me do better than I thought I would. Especially you, Hugh.”
“Yes, thanks Hugh,” agreed Owen. “Those first two essay questions would have gone right over my head if you hadn’t explained buoyancy so clearly earlier.”
Owen clapped Hugh on his back, and Minda cheered, “Hail, titan of the test!”
Hugh smiled weakly, glad he had helped his friends, but unable to tell them of the irony of Owen's praise.
“How about a celebratory game of kickball?“ asked Owen.
“I’ll play,” said Terissa. “I’m not finished winning yet.”
They all agreed, except Hugh, who said, “I need to do the reading for math.”
“You haven’t read that yet?” asked Terissa.
“No, he’s read it five times,” said Owen. He just wants to get in nine more before the test.”
So Hugh’s friends went to the Smith Lawn, Owen first running to their room to grab his ball, while Hugh trudged off to the library. There he would try his best to read the five chapters covered on the math test, all for very much the first time.