Chapter 22 – Checks and Balances

Part 2 – Servitude

The importance in life lies not in what you do, but whom – or what – you serve

Chapter 22 – Checks and balances

“Well, you’re as healthy as can be.”

Sam stood up from the bench he had been seated on, and began buttoning up his white shirt, fingers still stiff with the strange sensation of unhindered movement.

“In fact,” continued doctor Rain, as he put down his notes and took a better look at Sam through those small, round, spectacles of his, “Your recovery is nothing less than extraordinary. We had hoped for some better quality of life, but you’ve made a full recovery from a disease we barely understand.”

With a smile, Sam turned to the good doctor, picking up the dark-blue jacket off the chair beside him and put it on with jerky and unpracticed moves. “I’m also amazed, Thomas. You’ve basically given me a new life!”

They were in a small room used for minor checkups on the ground floor of Sam’s old hospital. There was barely space for the solid bench in the middle of the room and a small desk and chair besides. Sam recognized that old familiar smell of sanitation that hung in the air like a plague, as well as those blasted, white walls.

The doctor barely twisted his mouth into a semblance of mirth, but kept a keen eye on Sam as if there was more to gleam than what his various tests could show him. Finally he said, “How do you sleep, Sam?”

Not surprised by the question, Sam tugged his white shirt into his pants and said, “Well enough; I get my eight hours.”

“Any dreams?”

That did surprise Sam. He looked at doctor Rain with a questioningly glance, suspecting the man was joking. However, as always, the handsome man looked absolutely serious.

“No dreams. Remember, I told you – I never dream.”

Doctor Rain’s face was like stone for a long while, then he released the tension in a slight smile. “Of course Sam. I ask, because it is an unusual characteristic. For all we know, it might be related to your disease; it might indicate that there is still something wrong.”

Sam grimaced, thinking he would rather not dream than go back to that dream, even if he might get sick again. He had told no one of it, even though the memory of it was haunting him every waking hour. He could not fathom how it could have felt so real, looked so real, to him.

Just a pigment of your imagination, Samuel. A very disturbed and sick imagination.

“I’ll try to get a second opinion from a specialist,” said doctor Rain as he returned to his notes, “It might not have any significance, but there’s no reason to ignore it either.”

Sam sighed, then nodded. Perhaps it was for the best to be sure. There was no telling whether his current health was permanent, or as fleeting his good days had been before.

With that in mind, he turned and faced the mirror on the wall as he put on the blue and green tie that belonged with the rest his attire. Looping and twisting, slowly because of his stiff fingers, Sam made something that resembled a knot, then did his best to straighten it.

“Allow me. You should tie it before you put on your jacket,” said doctor Rain, who approached and took the tie in hand. With trained movements, he undid Sam’s failed attempt and redid it in an instant. “Thank you,” said Sam, smiling as he pulled the jacket straight again and buttoned it over the newly done tie.

“First impressions are important, especially at your age. Be confident, Sam; you’re going to do very well.” Doctor Rain straightened Sam’s collar one more time, taking the time to ensure that the suit was symmetric. Once more dressed in the uniform, Sam could not help a slight nerve of uncertainty. “Are you sure it isn’t too soon for me to go back to school? I mean, It hasn’t even been two months…”

“You’re going to be fine, Sam. Getting back into a daily rhythm is essential to your recovery – as is interaction with your peers.”

That was exactly what he was nervous about. Interacting. With others. On a regular basis… What could possibly go wrong.

He sighed again, then bid the doctor goodbye and left for the bus stop. Walking was still weird, and his stamina was horrendous. He was improving steadily, and at an impressive rate according to his rehabilitation trainer, but he was not going to be running marathons any time soon.

The bus arrived shortly, it’s slow breaking allowing Sam to study the young man reflected in the dark glass of its windows. His face was still marred by long sickness: face gaunt and pale, blue-steel eyes sunken. The biggest improvement since his discharge was his hair, which had grown a healthy sheen to its light-brown texture, as well as his form which had clearly filled out from its emaciated origin.

With heavy steps, Sam made it inside the bus and found a window seat where he could look out at the passing city and scenery. He had spent so much time in the hospital that it felt like leaving home whenever he left, while the urban area around him seemed strange and alien.

The city of Flotsam was built to be practical, but the city planners had found ways to make the sweeping boulevards turn with pleasing gradients, allowing a natural feel to it. From the floating island’s central pylon, where the United Councils held high court, five ‘arms’ of the building provided structural support, cutting the city into five equal parts with walls all the way to the artificial beaches. Once out of the city limits, the arms bulged upwards again into five smaller pylons that served as lighthouses for any approaching ships.

The bus drove through one of the arms, crossing from the urban sector and into an agricultural one. While one could still faintly see the inner city from here, the landscape was dominated by fields of lettuce and maize – the two most common crops on Flotsam. Occasionally, a meat-farm became visible; decked with solar panels on the roof to draw in the necessary energy required to grow the haunches and slices of meat in their vats.

Sam knew that there were insect-farms around in this district as well. The small critters were an excellent source of nutrition for the island, covering the demand of protein requirement that the vat-grown meat could not supply.

As they passed through another arm, leading into the academic district, Sam could just spot the massive fusion reactors of the industrial district that produced all the energy that Flotsam needed. The two rounded structures were distinct fixtures on the skyline from most of the districts, known to all because they were the lifeline of every citizen.

If Flotsam ever lost power entirely, the island would only stay afloat for a few days.

Soon, the bus made it to Sam’s destination, and he stepped out into the late autumn chill that was beginning to indicate the coming of winter. It won’t be long now before they’ll have to fire up the engines and take the island South, thought Sam as he pulled his jacket closer around himself to shield against the cold. He had not recovered any layer of fat that might protect him as of yet, and realized now that he should have taken his mother’s advice on that coat she had offered.

Only, it was not that cold yet, and he figured he would be the only one bringing a coat to school, which would have been odd. So, thinking the day would get warmer before he arrived at school, he stubbornly refused.

Standing there on the pavement, Sam vehemently cursed himself for being such a stubborn fool.

Trying to distract himself from the seeping cold, Sam looked up at his new school – well, technically he had been enrolled here for at least four months, but he had yet to take a single step inside.

The main building of the school was an elegant manor house built in an old european style, with separate wings that held onto the general line of the structure, but added new stylistic choices as they came further away from the center. Between the main house and its wings, the main causeway was cobbled more for aesthetic value than practicality; a theme that extended to the grasses and sprawling flowerbeds that wound around smaller pathways. Here students walked around, or sat on accompanying benches.

It was an idyllic scenery, an image of youthful energy and beauty, and it absolutely terrified Sam to the core of his being.

“Are you Samuel Welbourne?”

Someone spoke beside him. Sam turned his face, which was set in a mask of subdued terror, and looked at the young woman who stood close by. Fearing that he might have heard wrong, Sam did not dare acknowledge until she repeated her question. “You are Mr. Welbourne, right?”

“Y-yes,” he finally stammered, “I’m he– I mean, yes, I’m Samuel.”

She had shoulder length dark hair, slightly tilted eyes, and a very pretty smile. She was not stunning, but was rather handsome in an ordinary sense, which Sam greatly appreciated considering his poor people skills.

Her school uniform was neat and looked freshly pressed, in comparison to Sam’s, which looked rough even when today was his first time wearing it. Like his own, it had a dark-blue theme, accented by turquoise or saffire colors around the edges. Instead of pants like his own, though, she wore a knee-length skirt and stockings to match, and in place of his tie she had a colorful scarf around her neck over the white shirt.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Welbourne,” she said, offering him a dainty hand, “I am Teslynn Merril, student council secretary, and I’m here to welcome you to our school.”

“I– Thank you, Ms. Merril, I’d appreciate it if you’d just call me Samuel, or Sam if you like.”

The young woman looked very professional as she nodded and said, “Very good Samuel, you may call me Teslynn. Shall we go in?”

Sam gave his assent, and they entered the causeway through a gateway in the wall that separated the school areas from the outside. “As I’m sure you are aware,” began Teslynn as they walked towards the main building, “The Mimir Wells Academy only accepts the most promising students from Flotsam, and even more so around the world. It is therefore a little unorthodox for us to allow a single student to be so late in entering the curriculum as you, Samuel. Considering your entrance scores, as well as your unfortunate conditions, you were granted a special stay of the rules that would have otherwise seen you expelled.”

Sam nodded, but was a little distracted by his observations of the many students that appeared to lounge outside in the middle of school-hours. Don’t they have classes, or something?

“Samuel? Are you with me?”

He nearly crashed into Teslynn. She had stopped and turned on him, gaze steady and unassuming. He blinked a few times, trying to remember what she had just said, then responded, “Yes, I understand, a-and I appreciate the considerations. I heard nothing about the make-up scores I sent in a month ago, but I presume I passed?”

After he had begun getting better, Sam had started making up for lost time and read up on the curriculum they should have covered until now in school, helped along by Liz. The school had asked him to send in a mock-exam, to ensure that he was up to their academic standards, but he had never received any indication on how he did. The school had merely accepted his request for reentry, which he took as a good sign.

“You did very well, as far as I could tell,” said Teslynn, “But I have to stress that testing is not the primary purpose of this academy; we only do so to ensure that students have the necessary knowledge required for the more advanced skills we focus on.”

Sam was not entirely sure what she meant. It had been Liz’s idea to come to this academy, he had just followed along. School had never been a place for Sam to excel outside of specific areas like math, although that particular little niche of his had felt like an estranged family member after he had come… back.

They came out of the causeway and onto the central grounds, where a picturesque fountain sprayed water into the air through the mouth of a fish that appeared to vault over the peer of a harbor. Here students congregated themselves into distinct groups, and, now that they were close, Sam took special note of the armbands several wore around their right biceps. There were four colors, as far as Sam could tell: gray, golden, blue, and white. What made him curious was that, while not every student wore an armband, those who wore one color never stood anywhere near anyone with a different color than themselves.

“What’s with the armbands?” He asked, looking from group to group as they passed through the grounds and reached the main building.

“Hmm? Oh, those. They are particular to certain clubs on campus, but I couldn’t tell you much about them.” She showed him her own right arm, where there was no armband, “Only those who are members of these clubs knows what they’re about, and they don’t discuss it with outsiders — ever.”

Sam noted her grimace at that; perhaps she felt left out?

He did not much care for clubs himself and doubted they would accept him even if he wanted to join. From his observations, about a fourth of the student body wore the armbands, which meant he would probably have to find friends among the rest. I can do that… I can make friends, right?

God he hoped so.

They entered the foyer, which was brimming with practical decorations and had a marvelous central stairway leading up to the higher floors in the middle. At the centre of the marbled floor, a large copy of the school’s emblem depicted an old well seen from the side, and, from its depths, half an eye creepily looked up over the edge. Teslynn took him across the disturbing image and up those stairs as she began explaining school curriculum.

“As I said, testing is only done to ensure that our students have the adequate foundations for the skills we actually wish for them to explore. There are few mandatory classes – which mostly focus on the fundamentals or work on student’s social skills and interactions – while there are a plethora of voluntary classes for students to pursue their interests, particularly those relevant to the students’ own projects.”

“Projects?” asked Sam, breathing heavily from the exercise he was getting by scaling the stairs beside the healthy young woman. She looked at him and raised an eyebrow, probably only a little because of his ragged breath and the sheen of sweat on his forehead.

“Projects, yes. I’m surprised you don’t know this already, seeing as you applied to enter the academy and all.”

Sam blushed, and gave a thankful when Teslynn slowed down, allowing him to keep up. Finally, when he felt he could speak in a full sentence without stumbling, Sam said, “I never really thought about it. Liz just said this was the place we should go, and I guess I thought it wouldn’t matter since…”

He trailed off an gave a weak smile. Since I was going to die anyway.

“I see, yes.” Teslynn gave him a scrutinizing look, then turned and proceeded down the hallway.

Good work, Samuel. Why don’t you just dump your entire purse out on her…

Trying to firm his resolve, Sam followed along, listening as she explained. “Mimir Wells grades its students based on the projects they produce, not on the tests they take. Each semester, a student – or group of students – must show the teachers the result of their work on a project; what problem they aim to solve, how and why their solution could solve the problem, as well as produce said solution in whatever form they can. A student is free to pick a new project every semester, or build on a previous one as long as they can show significant improvement upon their work.”

“That seems like a tall order,” interjected Sam, trying to cover his ignorance with scrutiny.

“Indeed it is. It is a difficult way to work, which is why we have dedicated teachers who are ready to assist every step of the way. Of course no one expects you to make a world-changing solution on your first year, but you are expected to be able to argue your case, and make a plan you can stick to. Furthermore, as a first-year student, your access to resources will be limited; you must therefore prioritize and restrict your project as best you can, since you are working on a tight budget.”

“So the only way to get more resources is to get to second or third year?”

“Not exactly, no,” said Teslynn, rounding a corner and walking briskly down a corridor with Sam on her heels, “While your access improves with every year, you also get more access based on the grading you receive from your teachers. A good project provides a good grade and credits with which you can expand the scope of your original plan, or attempt something new. A less good grade will still net you credits, but not a liberal amount. You will be expected to improve and increase the scope of your projects, which is difficult without credits to support you.”

God dammit, Liz. What have you gotten me into?

It was his own fault for not taking an active interest before now. He had been focusing so much on the aspect of having to deal with people again on a regular basis that he had neglected to think on the more practical problem of how he was going to get through school.

He was about to ask for more information, but Teslynn stopped in front of a wooden door and turned to him. “I’m sorry, Samuel, but if you want to know more, you’ll have to speak to your teacher. This is your homeroom, class A1. Your class is currently in one of its mandatory sessions, which means all your classmates will be here.”

Sam nodded and reached for the handle, but Teslynn stopped him. “Last thing – here.” She handed him a slip of paper with a date and a time on it. “The student council president would like to talk with you tomorrow at that time; I believe it has something to do with your late entry into school. The president is extremely busy, so it is important that you get there at the appointed time, understood?”

Sam nodded carefully while looking over the slip. There was no mention of the president’s name, just the numbers.

“Very good. Follow me.” Teslynn knocked briskly on the door, then opened it after a muffled ‘enter’ was heard. With legs shaking, Sam followed her inside into his new battleground.