Courage Is the PriceRelease Date: 30 June 2015
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Seventeen-year-old Rue doesn’t need anyone other than Ghost, her not-so-imaginary best friend. They’ve been inseparable for as long as Rue can remember and she shares everything with Ghost.
The day before Rue returns home from school for the long holiday, Ghost disappears. Ever-fretful Rue tries to tell herself it’s fine, but she knows something is horribly, terribly wrong. She’ll have to overcome her anxiety find her courage and push her boundaries further than she ever thought possible in order to save her best friend, and perhaps make some new ones as Rue finds herself drawn into the fringes of a secret battle for human survival.
Soft science fiction meets fantasy in this exciting novella-length adventure of daring and friendship.
“NEXT IS… RUE Nkosi,” Mrs Popov announces, as hesitantly and unsure of their names as always, while Yasmin gathers up her notes. Their history teacher has tucked herself away in a corner where the girls can hardly see her.
Despite her friend’s urging, Rue has elected to take one of the last time slots for her presentation. Scheduling it in the middle of the semester, rather than at the end, only ensures that she has less time to practice, less chance to prepare. It will not help her stay calm or quiet. Rue’s palms are sweaty and she wipes them on her skirt before rising, heart already stammering in her throat. She’s never going to get the words of her presentation out.She grips the edge of her desk for support, safety, good luck… Anything that could possibly prevent her from having to stand in front of the classroom.
But, of course, she cannot, and she gathers up her notes, trying to use the weight of them to hide the tremors in her hands and wishing that she had Yasmin’s elegance. The other girl is walking to her seat briskly, with a sway to her hips that makes Rue a little jealous and her heart patter even faster. Ghost is beside her, soft golden glow at the edge of her mind and non-corporeal hand on Rue’s shoulder.
It isn’t going to be all right. If the world ended right now, Rue thinks she would be genuinely happy. It does not. She isn’t going to be as terrible as she fears. Ghost insists that she’ll be fine because she’s practised so much and knows all the Academy database has to offer about twenty-first century Earth governments. The world is not about to end. Rue knows this, but it does not stop her from her heart trying to choke her, diminish the effort she’s using to keep her breath steady. She can’t faint. She can’t. A whole classroom staring at her — Fifteen pairs of eyes. Thirty eyes. Sixteen and thirty-two if she counts Ghost, though her friend has never made Rue nervous and, anyway, Ghost isn’t looking at her. Ghost’s attention is focused elsewhere.
On Libby and her limpets. Of course. The limpets snigger as Rue makes her way to the front of the classroom, her synth-paper notes pressed against her chest. They always snigger at her in class; it doesn’t matter what Rue is doing, or whether she’s truly nervous. The limpets are relentless. Rue always thinks that, one day, the frequency will have dulled her to the limpets — Mrs Popov’s shushing is never very effective — but no. Their hushed laughter consists of tiny knives that cut deeper and deeper every time.
She’s halfway to the front now and Ghost has stopped moving. If they were alone, Rue would have turned around to ask whether anything is wrong. Ghost usually accompanies her all the way up to the front because her friend’s presence makes her feel a little safer, a little more confident. With Ghost beside her, helping her when she stumbles because her mind has gone dangerously blank, Rue knows that she’ll make it through the presentation at least.
Half an hour. She has to speak for half an hour. About history. She’s studied this. She can do this. But she does not understand why her knees aren’t buckling under her or why her fists crush the synth-paper in her hands. Her topic covers twenty-first century Earth governments. Her mind is entirely blank. Ghost is still behind her, farther away with each step Rue takes.
Reaching the front of the classroom and turning around to face the other students, Rue sees Ghost hovering beside one of the limpets, making silly faces at Rue and rude gestures at Libby. Rue frowns, manages it somehow, because her stomach is roiling with queasiness and her head feels too light.
She can’t breathe she can’t breathe she can’t –
“Welcome,” Rue finds herself saying. Ghost is now clowning behind the limpets. Rue tries to focus on her friend as Ghost jumps around the limpets and capers through people, chairs and tables. A smile twitches at the edge of Rue’s mouth, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. This is an old routine, from when she was little, meant to make her laugh and distract her, but today it barely helps. Rue can feel her arms shaking. She has no visual aids. None are allowed. Mrs Popov is more strict than the younger teachers about the way the Academy’s rules limit the use of technology. All Rue has are her hand-written notes and her voice.
“Welcome,” she says again, and feels stupid. She’s forgotten all about her introduction. It’s stupid. She’s stupid. Who forgets her presentation topic? Rue glances at the synth-paper in her hands, but her carefully penned words are nothing but a blur. A haze of black on yellow. She doesn’t know what to say, what to do. She puts her notes onto Mrs Popov’s desk, carefully, deliberately. Think. She needs space and time to think. The class is silent, almost attentive, and it makes Rue’s breath come out in little almost-hiccups so that she wants to flee and run and never come back. Hide, be safe.
But she finds herself talking, not sure when she started to, about the structure of her presentation and everything she’s learned. Ghost is hovering at the edges of her mind more strongly, flitting through the room. Rue’s eyes follow. There are no antics now, nothing to make her laugh or to distract her. Eventually Ghost settles against the wall, leisurely, behind Rue, and Rue is left to finish on her own.
“Thank you for listening. Are there any questions?” she says, and is relieved to find that there are none. She scurries back to her desk at the back of the classroom and slumps into it. She won’t get the result back until she’s home for the holidays. Rue wipes her hands on her skirt again, wishing that she’d snagged the very last spot so she could bathe and wash the nerves away immediately. She hasn’t, and she smells and Ghost isn’t moving from that spot and her heart is still beating so fast and her body is jittering so much she can’t concentrate on the presentation being held by one of Libby’s limpets.
Soon, she can go home. Avoid dealing with people and presentations.
Tomorrow. Only until tomorrow and it’ll be time for the long holiday. Focus. She must try to focus. Attendance is part of her mark. With an effort Rue manages to sit up straight. One more day and she’ll be home. One more presentation and they’re free for the day.
Rue is going to spend it somewhere no one will think to look for her. She hopes.