Sam woke up the next morning, refreshed and in a good mood. His body had never felt better, and his successes on the other side left him with an optimistic outlook on the future. Perhaps this whole deal was not as bad as he thought?
After taking that peek at the labyrinth, their group had left the dungeon to recuperate and prepare for their next delve. Assured in their recent dealing with the test floor, they all felt assured that they would begin their true delve on the morrow.
He had expected Orca’s presence in his head to greet him, but he no longer felt the same intense connection as he had after his brawl the day before. He wondered if he might be able to reopen the connection if he tried hard enough. Orca would be a useful assistant in his research into terraforming.
However, it was a worry for later. He dressed and did his morning ablutions.
Liz greeted him downstairs, having prepared breakfast before he came down, and together they enjoyed a simple meal of oats, toast, and some eggs – sunny side up. Their parents were already out for work, and so they were all alone. Liz desperately tried to pry out information about his ‘group date’, but Sam skirted around the topic, using his best arts of dissembling and misdirection in order to avoid talking about what had happened.
His body had changed, true, but his mentality was still lacking. That strange sense of calm he had felt in the moment, when dealing with Idris, was now just a memory. He wondered what people would make of the video she had caught of him and the café barista, now that it was out in the open. Most people would probably think it was special effects, or something.
He hoped he was not on the track to being arrested.
There was no use thinking too hard on it. He grabbed his stuff and prepared to leave for school, opening the front door, and was met with the sight of a long limousine parked in front of their house. He started and stopped in place, unable quite to compute what was going on.
In front of the car stood a well-dressed man with dark skin, close cropped hair, and a rectangular pair of glasses. He held his hands in front of him in a military stance, eyes locked onto Sam.
“Why’ve you stopped Sam–” Liz asked, walking out beside him and started as much as he had. Blinking, she looked at the car and man with a strange expression on her face, as if she recognized the two.
“Mr. Welbourne?” The man asked, his rock-hard features moving imperceptibly as he talked.
“Y-yes?” Sam said and swallowed, unsure about what the hell was happening.
The man nodded, then opened the passenger seat, holding it open in an awaiting manner. “Please get in.”
“I– I am not sure I should,” Sam said, apologetically. Whatever was going on, he was not about to just enter a limousine car because someone told him to.
“What’s going on here?” Liz asked, finally out of her stupor.
A soft voice spoke from inside the car; too soft for Sam to make out the words. The severe man standing before the car nodded, before approaching Sam and Liz. When he was close, he nodded briefly to Liz, as if in greeting, then handed Sam a piece of paper.
He took it and studied it. It was folded three ways, like a letter, and bore the seal of the Mirmir Wells Academy: the old-timey well with a creepy eye sticking out of it. Unfolding it, he read the terse lines of text and swallowed.
“Is that satisfactory, Mr. Welbourne?” The man asked, his blank eyes looking more through Sam than at him.
“Yes… Yes, I believe it is. I have to go, Liz. I won’t be long, I promise… I’ll see you at school.” With trepidation, Sam ignored the confused look on his sister’s face, and walked with the man back to the limousine. He entered the passenger cabin, and the man closed the door behind him, shutting him in.
Liz stared dumbfounded at her brother as he got into the limousine. The man closed the door behind him, then turned and gave her another nod, before he too entered the car, but at the front. It drove off, leaving her staring into space. What the hell was going on?
Of course, she recognized the man; even recognized the limousine somewhat. How could she forget what had happened the day Sam had woken up after surgery. The imagery of the strange girl surrounded by unnatural snow was edged into her mind.
Scrambling to regain her senses, Liz jumped back inside, ran up the stairs and went into her room. Where had she put it? She knew she had saved it, but where? Opening a box she had only recently acquired –a beautiful thing with her favorite bird depicted on it in vivid colors– she found what she was looking for.
Fingers shaking, she took out her phone and dialed in the number engraved upon the black piece of paper.
Inside the limousine, Sam found he was not alone. Seated opposite him, a man with curly dark hair and a pair of round glasses sat and read a book. His attention was on the book alone, and Sam might as well have been a ghost for all the presence he possessed.
“Um, excuse me–” He was stopped mid-speech, as the man held up a finger – without ever losing his focus on the book before him. Sam thought he might want to get to the end of the page, and thus politely stayed silent. With a smooth acceleration, the limousine moved.
The man turned the next page, but there was no sign he would put the book down. Indeed, while Sam waited patiently, the man turned the next couple of pages as they traveled leisurely forward.
“Excuse me, Sir–” Sam tried again, very politely, to catch the man’s attention, but was immediately stopped by the same finger as before. The man was clearly not intending to talk to him.
Biting his lip, Sam instead studied the letter he had received again. It was short and terse.
Your extracurricular activities have come to the chairman’s notice. The White Rabbit summons you to account for your actions in ‘Sky Café’ yesterday, on the 28th of October.
None of that bode particularly well for him. Of course, he should have known the event would not simply have been over. He had just left the place, after all, for all intents and purposes he ran away from a crime scene. If Idris, or anyone else, had called in the security forces, they could easily have come to the conclusion that it had been Sam who had assaulted the barista.
He had no way to run now, and it was just as well. Perhaps the Rabbit would put a stop to some of the madness that was currently going on in his life.
They passed through one of Flotsam’s ‘arms’ out of the residential district and traveled into the academy district. With schools of all sorts, the entire place was a wealth of students of all ages, and especially the morning traffic was extensive. They passed Sam’s old elementary and middle schools, back when his sickness had him pass back and forth between school and the hospital regularly.
They were soon by the academy, the car driving up an entranceway Sam had not seen before, to the back of the academy. Here, a thin forest hid a small two-storey building, carrying no special markings or signs. The limousine stopped before the house, and the dark man stepped out and opened the passenger doors. Of course, he started on the other side of the car, allowing the book-reading man to step out first.
Instead of waiting for the man to get to his side, Sam opened the door himself and stepped out. The book reader straightened his suit and collar, tugged the book in under his arm and without a glance in Sam’s direction, walked up to the house.
“Hey,” Sam called, all semblance of politeness leaving his voice. The man did not stop, and so Sam opened his mouth to give his honest opinion on the matter, when the man with close-cropped hair stepped up to his side and said, “This way please, Mr. Welbourne.”
The tone was stiff, lacking any elements of placating of plea, and yet Sam felt compelled to obey. Whatever was going on, he was playing by someone else’s rules now. He walked up to the door and through it, entering into a long hallway. He just managed to catch a glimpse of the book reader opening a door at the end and entering it.
The man followed closely behind, and when Sam stopped in the entrance, he gently gestured him forward. Obeying the wordless command, Sam walked down the hallway and into the same room as the bookworm.
Inside was another elongated room, with a matching table. Around the table were several seats, and in front of each seat were a collection of paper and pens, neatly arranged. The bookworm had seated himself in the far end of the table, leaving Sam to walk all the way down the table to stand in front of him. In his hands, the bookworm no longer held a book, but a tablet. On the screen of the table, Sam recognized the video of him choking the barista into the ground. He felt his hands begin to shake.
“Sit down, Mr. Welbourne,” said the bookworm, still without a glance in Sam’s direction.
He sat down, awaiting whatever was to come. When the video had finally run its course, the man sighed and placed the tablet on the table in front of him, then finally turned his eyes onto Sam.
“You have seen your own handiwork, I presume?”
The man nodded, leaning back and folding his hands in front of his chest, elbows on the chair’s armrest. “And? Why did you allow yourself to be filmed in a situation like that? Surely you did not think you could contain the news simply by deleting the video?”
“I’m sorry,” Sam said with a sarcastic undertone, “Who am I addressing? Are you the chairman – or should I say ‘the Rabbit’?”
The man looked at him, his eyes as dead as a fish’s. “Who I am does not matter. Answer the question, Mr. Welbourne.”
“Fine. I didn’t know I was being recorded. I didn’t allow it to happen, because I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
“You were warned that we have enemies. You were warned that they would be hiding in plain sight. How were you unable to ascertain the identity of a kertal so close in your proximity?”
“I didn’t know I was supposed to ‘ascertain’ such things,” Sam snapped, “I’m new to all this, alright? I’ve barely been at this for a week, and yet I’ve been attacked twice, and threatened with death if I did not comply because of some stupid war I had no idea was going on before this moment! Why isn’t this common knowledge, if it is so dangerous? Why haven’t you informed the public, if this is such an existential crisis that you need to put students into gods damned wargames in order to combat it?”
He ranted, having lost his temper completely. What else was he supposed to do? This all seemed so terribly stupid and self-defeating, and yet they were going about it as if it was natural.
The man looked at him with increasingly narrowing eyes. Once Sam was done, the man opened his mouth to speak, but halted abruptly when the door to the chamber opened, and the man with rectangular glasses appeared. He walked towards them slowly, carrying a small tray with a phone lying on it. When he was right beside the bookworm, he offered it to him.
The bookworm looked at the other man, as he took the phone and put it to his ear and said, “This is Stilton.”
Sam blinked, recognizing the name. Was this man related to the student council vice-president?
“Yes… Yes…” The man nodded, his eyes shifting only once onto Sam, “Are you sure that… yes, I understand. It will be done.”
With that he put the phone down and took his book back up. Speaking in a dismissive tone, he said, “You can leave now, Mr. Welbourne. We won’t be requiring anything further from you.”
“But…” Sam tried, not quite understanding what was going on, but the man was actively ignoring him again. Sam looked up at the other man, who had at least spoken to him with a modicum of respect, but the dark man simply bowed slightly and gestured towards the exit. He was being dismissed.
He walked in a daze, finding the whole experience bizarre. What purpose had his visit served? None, as far as he could tell, and yet there was clearly something else going on – an undercurrent he was not seeing. The bookworm had not been the chairman, this he was certain of. The one he had talked to on the phone might be, but why would he summon Sam, only to later call and have him dismissed?
He was escorted out the door of the house, out the driveway, until they arrived at a pathway that Sam could see would lead him to the academy. “Have a pleasant day, Mr. Welbourne,” said the guard, giving him a curt nod, then turning and leaving him alone.
Confused, and slightly annoyed, Sam began walking to school. He had not gotten very far before he encountered the first pair of students – a couple of girls who looked a bit older than he.
“Wait, look, isn’t that him?” One of them called. Sam was used to being ignored, and paid no attention to them before one of them yelled, “Hey, first-year! Aren’t you the guy who got in a brawl yesterday?”
He stopped in his tracks and turned around, horror painted on his face. None of them had armbands. If they had seen it, they would know he was some kind of freak. They closed in on him, but strangely there appeared not a shred of apprehension on their faces, instead… respect?
“Tell me,” the one who had yelled at him spoke, “How did you know he was going to attack her?”
“What?” His confusion grew.
“Yeah! And how did you take him down? I mean, you don’t look that strong… No offence.”
He blinked and backed away. “I think you have the wrong guy,” Sam said, putting his hands up in front, “I’m not who you think…”
“Oh yeah? You’re saying this isn’t you?” One of the girls said, a brunette with an assembly of freckles around her nose, and showed him her phone. On it ran a video, much different than the one Sam had seen. Here, it looked like the one filming was being assaulted by the barista, just as Sam saw himself intercept and force the attacker onto the ground, locking him in a submission hold.
The video was so much different than what had actually happened that Sam was horrified at how real it looked. It was shocking, really.
“See? C’mon don’t leave us hanging; who was the girl? You can hear her scream, although you can’t see her. So, who was it? Was it your girlfriend?”
“Maybe it was his crush,” another giggled, “Oh, she has to be head over heels for him now. I would, if someone came to my rescue…” She stared dreamily into space, possibly fantasizing about being rescued in the last moment like that.
“Dream on,” One of the other girls snorted, “Who’d wanna save you?”
The exchange soon grew to a good natured argument, one that was distracting enough for Sam to slip away. He was not safe for long though. Every time he met students, someone pointed to him and they began approaching. He started running, darting back and forth, avoiding large crowds, until he saw his chance to enter the school building.
However, the hallways were not safe places either. Once he entered, he was quickly boxed in, and soon saw the error of limiting his movement options like that. “It’s him!” Someone would call, and immediately students would appear out of nowhere, coming to see what the commotion was all about.
Sam darted through a pair of boys, who wanted to know what kind of martial art Sam practiced, and ran up the stairs to the next floor. He darted down a hallway he had not seen before, turned a corner before another group of students could identify him.
Here, he met with a dead end.
“I think he went this way!” Someone called, and Sam panicked. Turning the door handles of the nearest door, Sam swore when it was locked. He tried the next – locked. There were only two doors left. He tried the third and was met with another locked door.
He heard footsteps. Cold sweat erupting across his back, Sam threw himself and the final door. He had expected it to be locked as well, so when it opened he tumbled through it, losing his balance and staggered. Once back in control, he immediately turned around and closed the door behind him. Breathing heavily, he put his forehead to the wooden door and relaxed.
“Oh, if it isn’t the hero of the day,” a light voice called to him, dispelling all his hopes of peace.