without a bounce in her step, but at the same time, her feet were light on the cement. She wore a knee-length coat that snapped when the wind caught it. The pattern on her temple was iodine black, but it was the last thing Darya noticed.

All Darya could think was that this Hearkener of Death was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, and she wanted to be just like her.

As the Hearkener passed Darya and her father, she tilted her head, the way a person does when he is trying to hear something. Her footsteps slowed for just a moment, and she closed her eyes.

After the moment passed, she looked Darya’s father in the eye and smiled. Despite the curl of her lips, a troubled look remained in her eyes. She kept walking.

Three weeks later, Darya’s father died of the infection, and that Hearkener was the only person who ever heard his death song.

Darya passed the test, and her mother enrolled her in the Minnesota School for Hearkeners that fall. Though Darya’s mind was still muddled with grief, it was what her father had wanted for her, so she went.

Her first impression of the place was that it was too large for her. Even the front steps were vast, made of wide slabs of a dark, matte stone. The building itself was tall, made of black glass with girders that formed a huge X across the front. A giant clock, fixed to the front of the building, told her she had five minutes to get to her first class.

She looked at the piece of paper the school had sent her, along with half a dozen packets and information sheets, to tell her where to go on her first day. All the new students took classes together until they tested into particular levels of musical study or until they chose their instrument specialties.

The schedule said: Hour 1, Introduction to Hearkener History, Room A104.

Darya looked up when she passed through the doors. She couldn’t see much past the security barrier. A stern-looking man in a black uniform told her to put her bag on a black conveyor belt that would take it through a scanner. She then had to stand in what looked like a globe with a tunnel cut through it so that it could scan her body. She had gone through both when she took her tests here, but her father had been with her then. This time she was afraid. What if they didn’t let her through?

But another man, on the other side, handed her the bag and let her pass him. The hallway here was completely different from the dingy, green-tiled hall that had been in her old school. Here, the floors were white marble—or at least something that looked like marble—and the walls were navy blue. Even the lockers were elegant—made of dark wood, they lined the walls as far as she could see.

She looked at the first room she passed—room A101. She was close. She walked past another section of lockers and glanced at the rooms to her left and right. A104 was on the left. Taking a deep breath, she walked in.

The room was oddly silent. Ten other children, her age, sat at long wooden tables inside. She found an empty seat near the back, next to a densely freckled boy tapping out a rhythm on the table with his pencil.

The bell rang. An older woman with gray, curly hair and a chunk missing from her eyebrow strode in. She wore the Hearkener uniform: a black trench coat, buttoned up to her throat, and gray pants. Darya leaned to the side to see what color the woman’s implant was. Red. That meant she heard life songs rather than death songs.

The woman cleared her throat, though there was no reason to—no one was talking.

“Hello,” she said. “Let’s not bother with introductions. Oh, except me. We go by surnames here, and mine is Hornby. I’ll be giving you the rundown of Hearkener history.”

Darya knew the basics—that the Hearkener implant had something to do with string theory, and what it did was channel the vibrations of the human body somehow and make them into music. But she felt strangely exposed, without knowing more.

“String theory became widely accepted in the early part of the century,” Hornby said. “Can anyone tell me what string theory is, basically? Yes—how about you—what’s your name?”

The boy next to Darya had raised his hand. “Christopher Marshall, ma’am.”

“‘Hornby’ will do, Marshall. Go ahead.”

“String theory is the theory that subatomic particles like electrons and quarks are one-dimensional strings instead of three-dimensional, and that the one-dimensional strings form the fabric of the universe.”

“Good,” said Hornby. “Also, the strings are constantly vibrating. That’s important to remember because when Dr. Rogers created the first implant, all it did was channel the vibrations and their various frequencies and translate them into music. It was her successor, Dr. Johnson, who refined the implant to filter out all frequencies but those of human cells, so it was only people who made music. Anyone want to tell me why he would do a thing like that? You, there—your name . . . ?”

“Samanth—uh, I mean Brock,” a girl in the front row said. “He said he just wanted to see if it was possible.”

“In fact, that is what he said, but we have since determined it was so he could hear the music his dying wife made.” Hornby added, “He had a friend try out the implant so that she could transpose the music. She was the first Hearkener. But the implants didn’t stop there.”

Here she paused and tapped the red dye on her temple with her index finger.

“The last developer of the implant discovered that he could filter out either the vibrations of decaying cells or the vibrations of regenerating cells. In other words, he could make the implant play the sound of a person’s life or the sound of their death. For a long time, hardly any Hearkeners chose death. Now that death is so common, those Hearkeners are in high demand.”

Darya remembered the look the Hearkener who had heard her father’s death song had given him. She had seemed almost bewitched by it. Darya didn’t think that woman had chosen the death songs because they were in higher demand.

Hornby clapped her hands. “Now that that’s out of the way, I would like to call each of you up so that I can listen to your life song and tell you what instruments it seems to include. Not, by the way, that a life song actually incorporates instruments. It’s just that certain sounds remind us of them. Anyway—this is important because you will be selecting two of the three instruments you are required to master in your first year here. Much of your time will be spent trying out each of them to see which ones you gravitate toward. Hopefully my evaluation will steer you in the right direction.”

It had been a very brief history lesson. Darya sat in her seat with her hands clutched around the edge of the chair as each of the eleven children in the class walked up to the front of the room so Hornby could listen to them. She didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to let that woman analyze her. She didn’t know why, but it felt far too personal, far too intimate for a setting like this.

It wasn’t long before Hornby pointed to her and bent her finger, beckoning Darya forward. Darya got up—too fast; she knocked the chair over and had to set it right again—and walked to the front of the room, her hands fidgeting at her sides. When she stood right in front of Hornby, the woman asked her, “Your name?”

“Darya Singh,” she said.

“Singh.” Hornby laughed a little. “Well, that’s convenient. Let me listen to you for a bit.”

Hornby focused her attention on Darya’s face, though she wasn’t exactly looking into Darya’s eyes. She stared for a few seconds, and then a few more seconds . . . and then Darya became aware that Hornby had been staring at her for much longer than she had stared at anyone else . . . and then Hornby rocked onto her heels, as if something had blown her backward.

“My goodness,” she said quietly. Then she seemed to come to her senses and said, more briskly, “I hear . . . violin, cello, piano, some voice, trombone, trumpet, drum . . . there are more, but those are the dominant instruments.”

She leaned a little closer to Darya’s face, so that Darya could see a dart of blue in her otherwise green eyes.

“I’ve never heard so much dissonance in a life song before,” she said quietly, so that only Darya could hear.

And that was the beginning of Darya’s education as a Hearkener.

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