Stepping across the threshold to the room, Sam found himself inside a squared room with tables and desks on one side, while the newest in projection technology showed an old-school blackboard on the wall which all the chairs faced.
In front of the blackboard, a small rotund man had paused his scribbling in favor of staring straight at Sam and his guide through a pair glasses. He wore an out-of-fashion outfit of tweed and a matted pair of shoes that might once have been polished.
“Ah, Ms. Merril, I take it this is our prodigal son returned to us?” Said the man in a low basun voice shaking every surface with its rumble.
“Indeed, Mr. Loule. As I told you, he will be in this class from today.”
“I see, yes, I remember. Mr. Welbourne, was it? I’m glad to see you back among us mortal souls! Come, come, don’t hesitate now! Come closer, man, so everyone can see you!”
A little taken aback by the teacher’s manner of speech, Sam stepped forward in stiff motions and took in the faces of the classmates whom he would share a lot of time with from now on. When he halted his steps only partway into the room, Mr. Loule came over and took a hold of his shoulders, dragging him up in the center so everyone could see the aura of nervousness he surely radiated.
“Right, here we go then. Ah yes, thank you Ms. Merril, you’ve done us a good service!” Teslynn nodded to the teacher, graced Sam with a slight smile, then turned and exited the door, leaving Sam all alone.
“Now, lad. Let’s hear some about you; tell your good classmates here what makes you tick!”
Sweating again, and this time not from the exercise, Sam breathed heavily, trying to figure out an approach. He had known, of course, that he would have to introduce himself, but it had always been sometome in the future. Now he was here, he forgot everything about the short speech he had prepared for himself. Why was he here, who were these people, and what on Earth he was doing, acting like he belonged?
Hhyperventilation soon set in. The room began a slow spin around him. Nearing the end of his ability to keep his feet, Sam found and locked eyes with a pair as steel-blue colored as his own. The spinning slowly receded, and his breath returned to normal. His sister was here, Liz was here, he could do this. He would do this.
“My name is Samuel Welbourne,” began Sam, trying to supress the slight tremor in his voice, “I was admitted to this school alongside my sister, Liz, like everyone else, but due to health reasons I have been unable to attend until now. I hope to get to know you all better, and make some new friends. Thank you.”
A slap on the back made Sam lose eye-contact with Liz. “Good show, old chap, good show!” Mr. Loule laughed and gave Sam another slap on the back, before pointing out a seat in the back that had not been taken. “You can take the seat there, Mr. Welbourne. Now, everyone, let’s give our newest arrival a good welcome!”
Dispirite clapping began, as Sam made his way down the rows of students, the faces of which melted into a hotchpot of unrecognizable features while he attempted to nod and thank everyone on his way down.
Just as he was about to make it into the clear, Liz’s hand went into the air. Mr. Loule acknowledged her, and she said, “Mr. Loule, my brother has just recently gotten well enough to attend school. There’s still a risk that he might get worse again, and so I think he should be seated next to me in these classes – in case the worst should happen.”
No no no, Liz! We talked about this!
He tried to communicate silently with his eyes opened wide in horror, but Liz actively ignored him. Mr. Loule appeared to consider carefully. “Yes, Ms. Welbourne, I see the logic in that. Indeed, we must ensure the best conditions for your brother here at the onset. Mr. Lorsen, would you please exchange seats with Mr. Welbourne?”
A tall and well-built young man, as muscular as Sam was slim, turned slowly to look at Sam with narrowed eyes. His jawline was chiseled to perfection, his skin in an appealing bronze, and his short hair looked soft and curly. When he turned back to Liz, Sam noted an elegant smile grace the boy’s lips as he nodded, then stood up and walked back towards Sam.
With the boy on his feet, two things quickly became obvious to Sam. For one thing, he was much taller than Sam had initially thought, nearly a giant; secondly, around his right bicep a golden armband fit snugly to the taught fabric of his jacket.
The tall boy approached and laid a massive hand on Sam’s shoulder. Sam looked up into the brown eyes of the bigger student and gulped; a reaction that was rewarded with another smile. This one, however, did not feel elegant or gentle – it felt like the feral grin of a predator laying eyes on its prey.
“I gotcha, new boy,” he said, smiling all the while.
Sam nodded mechanically, and made his way back to sit with his sister, completely intimidated.
When he sat down on the still-warm seat, his sister leaned over and padded him on the back while saying, “Well done, Sam. You did great!”
Rigidly, he looked over at her with consternation. Why did she always make things so hard for him? Did she not realise what kind of effect she had on people, how they wanted to get close to her, and how every boy wanted to talk to her? Even if he was her brother, they would all resent him for staying close to her. They would not understand why she made time for him, or included him in their activities. As long as she held him close, no one would be friends with him because of him, but always because of her.
I’ll have to try and talk to her again, Sam sighed, knowing it would do little good. She saw the best in people, and was willing to look past the worst flaws. He loved her as dearly as he loved the rest of his family, except perhaps Warren who was more like a stranger, but he could not be his own self within her circle of influence.
She was the light – he was the darkness; and no one wants to stay in the dark.
Trying to ignore the observers on all sides, Sam focused on Mr. Loule. The little man was jumping sideways and up and down as he was trying to explain the reasons for why Flotsam had been built in the first place. Though he had landed in the middle of it, Sam knew enough to put the missing pieces into place.
With the rising seas, and many of the older cities fighting against receding coastlines, Flotsam had been built as a collaboration between UN nations, everyone pitching in their particular expertise. The whole island was a collection of floating plates that were kept above the water by a combination of displacement, airlocks, and massive pumps.
Below each separate plate, long spikes made from aluminium and fiberglass displaced several tons of water, allowing each plate to bear the weight placed upon them, while airlocks were built into the supporting structure to further the lift. Still, water did overflow from time to time, hence the use of pumps. The city was engineered to float in near-hurricane winds, with a clever application of waterways and a slight incline towards the central pylon, which all made the city a successful experiment for 13 years running.
Sam and Liz’s parents had been among the first movers, settling on the floating island while it had only just been opened for civilians, back when house prices had been kept artificially low to entice prospective citizens. Now prices were sky-high, as land areas were getting devoured and demand for sustainability and safety was on the rise.
Next year, another floating island, named Jetsam, was scheduled to be completed as well as the new underwater city of Lagan. Mr. Loule exploded in inexplicable laughter as he described the maritime terms that had inspired the naming of these new habitations.
Sam liked the man.
His own thoughts quickly fell upon his own ambitions. Now he was hale again, he could actually try and achieve what he had always wanted: travel to Mars. The red planet was the ultimate destination for anyone wishing to live on the frontier of human civilizations, much more so than the new water-bound homes.
If he understood Teslynn correctly, then this school might actually allow him to make his own research into the problems faced by martian settlers, and their possible solutions. If he could graduate from this school with a proof-of-concept solution to such a problem, he might have a good shot at intriguing those of the Mars Initiative, and getting pushed forward in the line of candidates!
“What are you smiling at?” Said Liz, touching his shoulder. Sam started and looked at her, saw that she was standing up beside him, then looked around to confirm that, yes indeed, class had been dismissed and everyone was leaving.
“I was just thinking about something,” said Sam and stood up, “What’s nex-“
“Hey Liz, is this really that brother you’ve been talking so much about?” The voice broke into the conversation, and Sam lost the initiative. Another girl had popped out of nowhere by Liz’s side, and was now studying Sam with fists on her hip. She was at least a head taller than Sam, dark-skinned and full lips that made her look like she was constantly pouting. She wore her thick black hair in long braids, held up in a ponytail by a scarlet band. With a soft snort she abandoned her scrutiny of Sam and turned to Liz.
“He really doesn’t look like much,” she stated, throwing her hair over one shoulder.
“I’m right here, ya know,” said Sam, annoyed at her ignoring him. Then he found himself shocked that he had said those words out loud. It wasn’t the first time someone had talked over his head, but this time he had actually responded?
The girl just looked at him, raised an eyebrow, then returned her attention to Liz. “Well, are we bringing him, then?”
Liz gave Sam an apologetic smile and said, “Yes Chara, he’s with us now.”
“He better be worth it,” mumbled Chara and gave Sam a dark look, “He better be damn worth it..”
They went out into the park to eat lunch on a bench accompanied by a table. Liz had brought both her own and Sam’s, since there was no need to drag it all the way to the hospital, and together with Chara they found a nice bench to enjoy the sunlight that was beginning to win out against the overcast skies. It was still cold, but Sam felt he could stand it better now with his sister along. She was sunshine incarnate, after all.
“Well,” began Chara before they had even settled down properly, “What can you do then, boy?”
“Do?” He asked, dumbly, fumbling with the lid of his lunchbox.
“Yeah, ‘do’?” She aped, grimacing at him, “I mean, you gotta be good for something, right? If we’re bringing you into our work, you gotta contribute?”
“Say, what now?” Said Sam, looking from this rude character to his sister, who was picking out the exact amount of food for her fork, placing it in her mouth with care and a smile. “What’s she talking about, Liz?”
“You didn’t tell him?” Chara nearly squealed in annoyance as she faced her friend, looking at Liz with a great deal of accusation.
“I did tell him,” began Liz carefully, as she put another small chunk of food into her mouth and swallowed before continuing, “He just did not understand, because someone wasn’t paying attention when he was told what this school is all about.”
“Yeah I’m sorry about that, I just didn’t think–“
“I don’t care if you can’t think, boy-o! Liz, if he doesn’t understand what’s going on, we’re all going to be dragged down by him, understand. Each and every one of us!”
“It’s not that big a deal, Chara. The project on the first year is more of a experiment than anything else. Just because Sam has missed out on a bit of preparation, it doesn’t mean he won’t be able to get it. He’s quick, I promise.”
“Look, can I just say one thin–“
“Not a big deal…!?” Chara hissed as she leaned forward and grabbed Liz by the wrist, “You may not care, since you live here already, but I need those credits to be allowed to stay in the dormitory! That’s a pretty big deal, Liz!”
“I know Chara, and I’m not belittling you. I just don’t think you have anything to be worried about. Sam is good for it, I promise.”
Sam held his breath, waiting for the explosion he was sure would erupt at any moment. When it did not come, he hesitantly tried again to let himself be heard. “Since I don’t even know what the project is, might it not be an idea to–“
“Then what about the distribution; Does he get as much as everyone else? If we carry him this once, will we have to carry him again next time?”
“All in good time, Chara. Honestly, we’re just going to introduce him today. We can discuss all of that once we get Sam on track and see how much he can contribute. If he can pull his weight, he gets full share; if he can’t then he’ll get less, alright?”
“How can he pull his own weight when we’re this far into the process?! You can’t be seriou–“
Fury took hold of him and Sam slammed down his fist on the table. His eye caught the slight shine of something green around the his hand, but he was so caught up by anger that he dismissed it immediately and said, “Are the two of you quite finished?!”
Clearly surprised, both Liz and Chara stared at him with eyes wide open.
“Good, then maybe I can get a single word in.” This he growled with uncharacteristic menace. “I don’t know enough about these ‘projects’ and I certainly do not know enough about yours. Liz, I appreciate the help, but I never asked for it. And you didn’t even ask me if I wanted to join your group; just one sidedly decided that I was going to.”
“I know what you were trying to do, Liz – and I do love you for it – but by damn; you’re talking about me as if I’m not here! Discussing it above my head like I’m a child! I won’t have it, not one bit. I may still be weak, but I’m not the boy who was chained to a bed any longer, and I don’t need you to take care of me. I will not be dragging you down, because I will not be a part of your project; if I’m going to stay in school, I’ll be doing so on my own gods damned legs!”
With those words he stood back up, ignoring the lunch that he had barely claimed a few bites of, and stormed away from the two girls, leaving behind a clear indent of a fist in the wooden surface of the table.
Angry at his sister – angry at himself for getting angry – and absolutely incensed at the rudeness that Chara had shown him, Sam did not care where he was going as long as it was away from them. He went in between the buildings and came out in the back, where more park area opened up, including athletic fields of several varieties.
He crossed a football field, where a few boys were lining up shots, shouting at the top of their lungs as they fired towards the goal. Finding an opening between some sheds, Sam stepped inside the hollow where no one could see him unless they came close. Here he squatted down and buried his face in his hands.
Shaking slightly from the cold beginning to seep into his bones, Sam tried to let go of the anger that felt so alien inside of him. It was a similar feeling to the one he had experienced only a month back, when he had been doing the mock-exam. The joy of seeing maths problem again had only just emerged, when he felt his mind spinning into calculation. He had been doing this his entire life – a near-automated process wherewith he saw the solution rather than arrived at it. It was as if his mind was able to do this work on its own, as if there was a computer hidden within the lumps of his neo cortex.
It was as if he was a machine.
Shuddering, now from more than the cold, Sam whispered to himself, “I’m human… I’m human… I’m free, and I’m human…”
But the anger was still there, the kind he had come to connect with that ‘other’; with Ares when he lost control. It was a strange thing that a machine might feel anger, and it was something more than anger, really. It was a feeling of superiority – of completion. It was a feeling of being the master, and everyone else just little insects that dared to infest your house.
It was just a dream. It was a dream, Samuel, just a dream. No matter what, dreams can’t hurt you. Dreams cannot be real. They’re just dreams. Just dreams!
No matter how much he tried to push the dream away though, a small part of him felt and knew that it had been very, very, disturbingly real. He had ordered the consumption of sentient life, he had killed; he had killed more than once.
Tears began to form at the edge of his eyes, and he dared a small sob. He could barely contain the sadness any longer. Vivid images began to form in his mind, as if the sadistic machine within wanted to remind him about all they had done, all they had destroyed, all they had made their own.
Then a loud ‘crash’ broke him out of his reverie, and he looked up from his hands. Through the crack between the sheds, Sam saw shapes pass by, heard laughter and the distinct sound of someone being dragged. The sound was familiar because he heard it constantly in his mind; the sound accompanying the image of him dragging a bird-like creature through the underbrush on the way to…
Terrified, and absolutely mad with anger, Sam stood up and exited the corridor on the side he had seen the shapes pass. Back out in the open, Sam found four large boys standing over someone on the ground curled up into a ball. The four boys laughed as they prodded the shape on the ground, occasionally wounding up for a massive kick, which they made sure to level on the body where marks would not be obvious.
“C’mon Mime,” said one boy, a hand taller than Sam, but with an athlete’s build, “You gotta make a decision. Can’t just be a free agent, not anymore.”
“This wouldn’t be happening if you’d just speak up, Mime,” said another, a fat one who panted hard every time he made a slight kick, “Just let the lion know whose side you’re on, and we won’t be having these conversations no more!”
Incensed with the kind of fury Sam had never really felt in the real world, he tightened his fists and stepped forward. Once of the boys squatted down besides the one lying on the ground, which made the others stop. He had been hidden behind the boy in front before, but now that he was down on his knees, Sam recognized him as the boy who had given up his seat next to Liz – what was his name?
“Lorsen, what you want to do with him?”
Now that he recognized one of them, Sam also recognized another feature he had overlooked before. They all had golden armbands on their right arm. The figure on the ground had no armband though, not that he could see. He took another step forward.
“Well… The lion wants to know where he stands. I guess we could beat him up a bit more, but if he hasn’t said anything by now, I doubt we’ll get an answer out of him. We’ll just have to hunt him during the next pocket. Without a Well to support him, he won’t be able to do shit.”
The figure still did not respond, did not even make a squeak. In fact, Sam was pretty sure he said nothing even as he was being kicked the hardest. That only made him more angry.
Lorsen suddenly looked up and saw Sam approach. His mouth cracked into another of those feral grin as he said, “Now what’s this? Are you a hero, new boy?”
The other boys turned on Sam the moment Lorsen spoke, all replicating that predatory look of their leader. Sam said nothing, just took another step forward, fists clenched as hard as he could. The anger was overwhelming, and so powerful now. It was as if something inherent to these boys was making him angry. They were lesser. He knew it deep inside that these small creatures were less than him and would always be so.
How dare you look at me like that? How dare you think me prey, when you are nothing but dirt beneath my shoe?
“Oi, look, he’s… Can’t be,” Said the fourth boy; a skinny boy with glasses and huge teeth.
Lorsen, too, furrowed his brow and stood back up, stepping over the figure on the ground to stand in front of Sam. “Do you know who we are, new boy?” He asked, staring down Sam from his giant height.
“You are kertal,” Sam hissed, without having an inkling of what he was saying. His vision was tinted red now, and he could taste the blood he was going to spill.
The boys all went white. Lorsen then lowered his face so that it was level with Sam’s.
“Call me that again, new boy…” He said, dangerously.
Sam did not care. “Kerta–“
He barely managed to react to the fist connecting with his face. Then he saw the sky. Felt the ground. Then everything went from red-tint to deep scarlet. In one move he was on his feet, without knowing how. He leveled a fist at Lorsen. Then a kick into the stomach of the skinny guy. He headbutted the little athlete, and took a chokehold on the fatty.
Standing in the aftermath, vision still bloody, Sam breathed hard. Looking at what he had done, he could feel a part of him screaming in the background.
What the hell did I do?
Something hit him in the stomach. He keeled over and lost his breakfast onto the ground. A hand grasped his neck and a voice hissed into his ear, “You’re going to regret this, new boy.”
Before he got to regret anything, however, a new sensation hit him; a pull of some kind, dragging his consciousness away from the world of pain and into a different world. Already he could feel where the drag was taking him, and he clawed at his grasp on reality as he was pulled further and further away. His vision narrowed into a pinhole, no matter how much he fought it.
He would not give in. He would not go there. He screamed in defiance.
Never again! Never again!
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