10:43 a.m. Kameron Preparatory Change Agency
Her eyes bore into him from across the classroom, cutting through the armor he always wore, and in a voice that scraped through his resistance, she uttered, “Pink chip.” And there, as if she had one waiting ready-made, was the dreaded file chip with the message flashing over the edge of his desk, “Heli Clame—Report to Headmaster Grinnamon’s Office Immediately.”
Heli sat, staring at it for a long moment. It pulsed, staring back at him, a glowing hot pink, burning his eyes with the prospect of its looming significance. The simple data card file chip housed all of his personal information—downloaded onto one small memory chip. Plugged into any device in the agency, provided one had the security code, it supplied instant access to any student’s entire cumulative file. This one happened to be heavily loaded with the last two years of Heli’s scholastic procurement.
Ms. Fibno stood by the door, hands on her hips, tapping her right foot like she would have liked to kick him with it.
“Out!” she huffed.
He idly pushed away from his desk and stood. Wasting no more energy with a witty remark or a hasty rebuttal he made his way out the door.
Walking down the hall alone, he made only quasi-observances of the virtual Communica- screens—advertising teen events he would never attend.
A solid churning gripped his stomach as the emptiness hovered around him. While turning the last corner toward the headmaster’s office, all of his attention shifted to a group of suits gathered outside the door.
Waiting for a funeral? he thought.
The largest of the trio towered above the other two, a mythos ringing true to what he had imagined gods and legendary warriors must have looked like. Thick black hair hung heavily in a ponytail between two broad shoulders. It was pulled tight enough that Heli could see the muscles on the side of each temple tense.
The second man was the larger one’s carbon opposite. Stocky and nearly half the size of his counterpart. He wore a hard-pressed demeanor that said, Don’t mess with me! Heli registered all of this in spite of the fact that he appeared to have a nervous tick, causing him to incessantly pinch his eyelids together.
This one could probably do more damage with just one look than the others could do with all of their combined strength.
The third was a slender, proud woman who didn’t seem to fit in among these two bruisers. She held herself in such a way—shoulders set evenly, straight ridge-line posture, and hair pinned up tightly in a bun that Heli had the distinct impression she was the one in charge. She stared at him resolutely and he quickly averted his eyes.
Had they met before? A hazy association perhaps?
Something familiar, Heli thought, yet, in the familiarity, he wasn’t able to grasp what it was that made it so. It just was. And there it was, creeping its way into his consciousness.
As Heli made an attempt to edge through the slot canyon of strangers, the woman extended a delicate but firm hand out to him. “Hello, Helios. I’m Tracy Dodd.”
He’d never met this woman before. He was sure of it now. How was it possible that she would know his name? His real name. Maybe it was the British accent—a misunderstanding?
To hear a total stranger utter his given name—a name that had only served to provoke pain, and held with it a loaded weight he never could shake from his earliest recollections—was peculiar enough. No one ever addressed him by this name, not even his parents, unless they were angry with him. The name itself, tainted from the start, branded him with an indelible mark he had soon hoped to forget.
“Do I know you?” Heli tilted his head a bit, looking at her sidelong this time.
“We’ve been expecting you,” she said.
“Me?” He looked around for some other fool she must be referring to. Stuck suddenly, he felt an unprecedented force pressing in on him, allied with her presence in the awkward diversion.
“Uh, I think you’ve made a mistake.” And with a clear conscience, he slipped past them, and headed toward the secretary at the front desk inside the main office.
“I’m here to see the headmaster. Got a pink chip.” And with a nod, Heli made his way into the office, and sat down in the chair opposite the headmaster.
The look of surprise on Headmaster Grinnamon’s face at the sight of him was—wrong, Heli thought, as he squirmed in the seat.
Grinnamon’s ruddy and plump features spread like hot wax melting across his face, giving off vibes of someone who had led many past lives. A football star, or a wrestler perchance? His face oozed a rusty visage of someone who at one time might have been a force to be reckoned with, but had somehow lost his edge.
As Heli recalled the last time he was “excused” from class, Grinnamon had met him halfway down the hall to intercept his path, and had worn a stern look of well-rehearsed remorse that asked, What am I going to do with you?
At the time he had fed Heli the long course of concerns for his future: “You are truly one of the brightest individuals I have ever met in such a young person,” Grinnamon had told him. “But you will never amount to anything if you keep making the choices that send you down this path.”
Heli sat silently waiting for him to unload.
And what was with the Suits still standing by? Heli wondered.
Grinnamon frowned and cautiously looked up from the projection file he had spread out in front of him.
“You need to see me?” Heli asked.
Grinnamon viewed Heli skeptically and looked back up to scan the 3-D visuo-file from the projection tile of his desk display. The link was shielded in private mode so Heli couldn’t see it.
“No, but there are some people here to see you to your next transition.” His eyes returned to the projection, dismissing Heli.
“I need an escort to my next class? But I think I have detention?” His voice broke and he rubbed his throat.
“No, not for your next class,” Grinnamon stated blankly. “For transition to another program more suited for you, and what you need.”
“Excuse me?” Heli felt his palms sweating. The game was up. “Sir, I have a pink chip, right here.” He waved the card in his hand like a prize-winning ticket. “I thought I was to report immediately to you?”
“What do you think my job is here at this school, Mr. Clame?” Grinnamon looked directly at him, a challenge in his eyes.
Shrugging off the urge to say what he was really thinking, Heli rallied to say what he thought the headmaster needed to hear.
“Your job, sir? I can’t really say. I was just doing what I was told.”
“Do you think I enjoy these conversations over and over with you, Heli? You’re coming to the end of your second turn here with us. I watch students every year come and go with unlocked potentials that keep me up at night. But at least with each of them, there is some hope, some glimmer that they’ll get the message. You‘ve spent your last opportunity here.”
Heat rose and flooded Heli’s face. “Sir, I just don’t understand how you can do this without any preliminary warning or a more official procedure. I mean, do my parents even know about this?”
Heli’s eyes scanned the room nervously, finally settling on the plaque behind the headmaster’s desk. It reminded him of the one in his father’s office—an honorary token of the significance of his trophy years at a Change-Maker University. Heli understood it was intended that he should follow that same legacy and attend the prestigious preparation school like all the others in the Clame family. He imagined the disappointment on his father’s face today when he would receive the com-trip call from the office.
“They transmitted the necessary forms yesterday and they are in full support of this wakeup call. Your detention was actually very timely as your escorts have arrived, ready to collect you this morning. We had to finalize some of the transfer data that needed to be filed.”
With a flick of his pointer finger, Grinnamon opened the file for viewing on the projected image from his desk surface, revealing all of its contents. “HELI CLAME” was clearly emblazoned in bright neon yellow at the top of the docket cube. Grinnamon flippantly pointed to the motley crew waiting by the door.
Speechless and filled with rage, Heli tried to wrap his thoughts around what was happening. He shook his hands to rid them of the numbness in his fingers, brought on by the clenching of his fists.
“Where am I going exactly?”
“As I mentioned before, you are headed to an institution more suited to meet your unique needs. Trust me, it’s the right place for you.” Grinnamon nodded his head up and down and Heli noticed a queer pause in the final tilt. “Your escorts await.” He pointed at the door and leaned back in his chair, then swiveled away from him as he swiped away any remnant of the projection that had been hovering over his desk. It was as if Heli had suddenly ceased to exist.
Heli stood, then licked his lips and pressed them firmly together. He wanted to scream—to wake everyone who seemed to be a part of this nightmare.
He turned and saw the woman who had introduced herself as Tracy looking at him with great concentration. As he walked toward her, every fight or flight gut reaction evaporated and was replaced by a bizarre new understanding. He never belonged here. And instead of bolting out the doors and down the halls, trust cut in on the uncertainty, and a hand came to rest on his shoulder. Tracy spoke gently this time. “It’s time to go.”
They had come here to “collect” him. Was he some kind of collectible? A criminal needing an entourage? His head hung low. He was exhausted, tired of working so hard to bring what little spark of inspiration he could into his life. He didn’t have the strength to fight anymore and turning away from everything familiar, he walked out the door of the office with a group of total strangers.
They moved down the hall swiftly to exit the building with Tracy’s two wingmen at either side of him.
Just as they were about to exit the main vestibule, Heli mumbled, “Tight security.” A beep sounded as the lock disengaged.
“Yes, I’m sure public preparation agencies must have heavy Regulation presence these days,” Tracy replied.
“I wasn’t referring to the doors,” Heli said, raising an eyebrow toward his two henchmen.
She stopped short in the partition between the set of doors and turned to face Heli.
“Oh…I caught that,” she said, slightly amused. “How rude of me. Mr. Cruise, Justin, this is Heli. Heli Clame.”
The small stout one with the twitch whom she introduced as Mr. Cruise tilted his chin up at Heli. The tall one just stared at him offering up little more than a grunt of acknowledgment.
“Together we intend on doing everything we can to aid in making your transition less of a strain.” She nodded their way.
Heli shrugged. “Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but I’m not leaving with you on account of your hospitality. I just get the sense that I don’t have much of a choice in the matter.”
“We do need you to come with us. But you just might find, with an open mind, a place…where you belong,” she responded.
A sly smile parted Heli’s lips. “Sounds like the perfect Shangri La—and I’ve been needing a vacation from this place.”
Tracy rolled her eyes and pressed her lips together. Heli could see that she was done talking. She moved to open the next set of outer doors as a wave of heat, which felt like an open oven, swept over all of them. She continued to walk a few steps ahead, her chin held high.
Compared to the dull synthetic hue of the fluorescent lights inside, the sun outside was shining with such brilliance that it gave Heli cause to shield his eyes. Seasons were under heavy AG Regulation terms. He had only heard the stories of a time when the atmosphere was a natural phenomenon. Familiar with life only after the Blend and the standardized ordinances of climate control, the Synthasphere provided a welcome shield against the elements. Unfortunately, comfort would be short-lived while signs of retention in this eco-technology of the synthetic atmosphere were becoming more and more evident. Assaulting his two escorts as well, they each pulled out a pair of black AGR-patented eye shields. Tracy came prepared and had already slipped a pair securely on. Hers were lighter and fancier than the standard Regulation design. Heli had gotten his on the first day of classes when all new students were issued a free pair at orientation. When he thought of them tucked away neatly in their protective case in his locker, a sinking feeling washed over him as he realized that he was leaving empty-handed.
He wouldn’t be able to call home either because his CS card was in the front pocket of his pack that was also in his locker, but he really didn’t see any point in that. Point being, that his parents were conspirators in this anyways, and what good would a com-trip signal home do now?
Heli turned to get one more glance at the building behind them. Looking back on a life where he had been held to a certain standard of perpetual suspension, he tipped his head down, paying small tribute to a place that had marked so little in his life.
Their getaway vehicle, a classic Neoteric Hovercraft in jet black, narrow body and tinted windows, stood out among the field of floaters in the student lot and theirs came to life as Tracy tapped her CS card ignition tile. Gently humming, it rose from its ground mounts, atypical of the noise pollution this class of engine normally produced. Heli had only seen them souped up like this on film cubes. Little prickles of excitement went through him, calling him against his will to move inside when the passenger door slid open.
As soon as he was in, the door slid shut automatically. The rear compartment was a rounded passenger station and Heli sat in the center of the crescent-shaped seat. Justin, the larger man, sat on one end staring him down under thick trimmed brows. Mr. Cruise sat in the front deck pilot seat with Tracy. A slight sense of jumpy nerves returned when he realized there had been no mention as to the details of his return.
He looked up into the blinding sky, the tinted windows dulling its natural light. They continued up a tree-lined highway, north, he suspected, due to the position of the sun.
They had been driving for over a half hour when Heli asked, “So, this place you’re taking me…seems to be a bit off the beaten path?”
“It won’t be long now,” Justin offered.
“Tomcat time,” Heli said.
Justin’s eyes narrowed in on him from across the seat. “What?”
“It’s what the tomcat said when he got his tail stuck in the door—won’t be long now.”
Justin stared at him for another minute with no reaction. Heli raised an eyebrow, drawing out one long exhale, and looked away realizing how his humor would be lost on this one.
He looked out the window again, and watched the landscape speed by. He had been surprised to see so many trees as they made their way through a gradual arc, edging farther up the incline of a redwood-crested hilltop, a tall, steady line up.
“What’s with all the trees?” Heli asked. He knew there were tight regulations on timber and this appeared to be a rogue grove. No fences, no protective devices to keep poachers out. Where in the world were they?
Tracy piped in, “This is an unregulated area. Off the grid. AGR is fully aware of it, but they see it as somewhat of a relic. They actually play a hand in its maintenance, and therefore they make allowance for it.”
Heli’s hands became sweaty again. He rubbed them on his pant legs. The vehicle suddenly felt smaller.
As the tree line broke into an open view, he saw it. The place looked more like a fortress holding valuable rarities than any “learning institute” he had ever imagined. With a shockingly oversized campus, he scanned its many viewpoints and saw that the fence line of the property extended on both sides out to unseeable ends. Taking in each sizable wing of the structure, a chill ran through him. This vault of a space, with its ominous authority, toyed with his apprehension, and as they entered a pair of metal security gates, he read the word and a number, IDEA33, etched on a metallic frame. It suddenly dawned on him, he may not be returning to retrieve his belongings.