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This a camp NaNoWriMo novel.
I was sitting at the counter eating dinner, alone, when the door opened. It was Wednesday, which typically meant that my father went out to play poker with his friends and my mother taught a class for geniuses. Both of my younger siblings, Jack and Molly, stayed late at the complex on Wednesdays for additional sessions.
The person walked through our home like they belonged, their footsteps echoing through the hallway that led to the dining room. More than anything, I wanted to slip beyond the other side of the counter and hide. But I resisted the urge as the footsteps loomed closer and closer to the kitchen doorway.
When they stopped, I knew that whomever they belonged to had seen me. How embarrassing, that I was sitting at the counter and eating dinner in my giant house all alone, and didn’t even have the guts to greet them. But no matter what I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to look up at the newcomer.
A teapot that I had placed on the stovetop before began to squeal, but the person still didn’t move. I desperately wanted just to stop the screaming gadget, but in order to do that I would have to look up. When I did, he moved gingerly and switched off the burner. I recognized him immediately and felt even more foolish, especially that he was standing in my kitchen and I was being an idiot.
“Max Neekan?” I could almost hear the hostility in my own voice as the words poured out. “What the hell are you doing in this house?”
“I didn’t realize you worked out here too, Harley. Don’t be mad, I just came to drop off an application. This is the Vincent home, right?” He flashed me a standard smile and placed a stack of papers onto the countertop. Then, Max set the pot of hot water onto the granite and waited for me to take it.
But nothing from him was anything I was wanted to take, so I ignored the steamy accent of the air in front of me. “Yeah, you’re in the right place. I actually spend most of my time here.”
Max eased his elbows onto the flat surface and looked at me through his round, blue eyes. “I’m hoping it’ll be like that for me, too.”
“Oh god no.”
“Because I actually enjoy it here sometimes.”
He leaned back, rolled his eyes, and then straightened up. I thought for a moment that I had successfully offended him, but then I realized he was just leaving. Words I shot at him didn’t harm him at all. I returned to my dinner as his footsteps receded, twirling the spaghetti I had made.
“Bye Harley!” Max’s voice echoed from the foyer, and I ignored him again. He was one of the more intolerable people at the complex. Like a stereotypical godsend, he was a physical talent that was top ranked and wasn’t even born into a talent family. ‘Scraped from ashes, that boy,’ was something that I’d actually once heard someone say about him.
It wasn’t actually his personality that bothered me much, since he was nice enough. I only spent half of the day with the physicals, but by what I saw he was kind to most people. Instead, it was the other boys, the ones he had as friends, that really made me hate him. They were arrogant, like they knew they were the best and wouldn’t let anyone forget it. And to top it off, they always made fun of my best friend, Didra.
By the time I had finished dinner and cleared Max Neekan from my mind, the water was cold. I cursed silently at myself and threw the pot into the sink. It was getting late, and on Thursdays I had to be in the complex a half hour earlier than normal. I didn’t have time to reheat it for tea, or whatever I had wanted originally. If I wasn’t in bed by the time that my parents got home, I could kiss my own ass goodbye.
The stairs up to my sister’s room and my own branch from the right of the entrance hall. It’s a long, winding staircase that empties into a giant hallway. Molly’s room is to the right, but mine is to the left and up another set of small stairs. Yes, my room is in the attic.
With a house as big as ours, I never understood this until last year. My parents are entirely embarrassed by the fact that I am neither a physical talent nor an intellectual talent. And why wouldn’t they be, since at my age they were both on the top of the complex. So they shut me away in the attic, which really isn’t that bad, so that they don’t have to think about my failures.
My walls are peeling pieces of old wallpaper, but I tack so many papers onto them that you can’t tell anyway. From essays to photographs to satellite imagery, the walls are plastered with my life. At heart, I’m a true nerd. On the broad wall across from my bed, there’s a giant corkboard and a whiteboard. They always display the products of my latest projects.
Two round windows filter light in. The only other light source is a lamp that sits on my desk. A comfy chair sits between my desk and a bookshelf, which holds everything from “Modern Hacking” to three-hundred year old copies of classic literature.
In other words, I really love my room, despite its sour reputation and underlying meaning. That night, I sank into bed readily, and fell asleep soon after my head hit the pillow.
Mornings were usually the same for me, other than Sundays. Monday through Saturday were training days, which meant ‘school.’ For most kids, school was walking into a building at eight in the morning for four classes a day like English, Science, Math, and Social Lives. They had a choice of electives that they could take after school, and a normal life. Friends, enemies, and people you don’t know. Grades and attendance markings, along with a social hiatus. Or so I’ve been told.
For me, I walked into a gym at six-thirty in the morning for physical sessions, and joined the intellectuals at ten-thirty. At three-forty, I went home. The trainers could throw anything at you in the gym on any day they wanted, be it climbing or combat or archery. Our professors typically followed a schedule, but they always started the afternoons with difficult random questions that took thirty minutes for the smartest kids to answer. And we didn’t have grades. No, we were ranked among our peers, given a percentage, labeled by how strong we were or how smart. And then the social hiatus was factored in.
So when I walked into the gym on Thursday morning, it was like any other day. I had left my bags in the locker room, and the mystery of today’s workout was spinning in my mind. The various machines and utilities that were splayed about for training were already spinning as kids warmed up. For the top three percent, they usually came in an hour earlier to do extra work. Maintaining a rank that high was important.
Max Neekan was kicking a trainer’s ass on a punching bag. Miley Atkins, the top ranked girl, was scurrying up a wall at half the speed of light. It was intimidating what they could do, but my job was to ignore them. This was not my place, but it was theirs.
Instead, I went over to the mats and taped my hands. The gauze that I slipped under the tape would protect my knuckles from shattering. (That had actually happened to multiple kids before.) After my hands were taped, I slid off my jacket and left it by the tape station. A trainer had seen me prepping and they were already at my side, waiting to make me perform.
I wasn’t popular enough for people to watch when I did my stunts. Not like Miley or Max. If they were doing something, half the trainers in the gym would be watching them. But my trainer looked me in the eyes and then down at a paper.
“Yeah, that’s me.” I put one of my hands bby my face so that nobody would look at me. It was so embarrassing to be stared at whenever people heard my last name.
The trainer looked slightly offended that I had cut them off so abruptly, but they continued. “You should wrap your ankles too, we’re going to do some stunts with kicks, dodges, and punches.”
When I returned, ankles wrapped and with boots on, they were ready. It’s hard to describe these kinds of workouts, they happen too fast. Everything is about how quickly you can link your subconcoius to the rest of your body.
One second I was on standing on my feet, and then I was rolling on the mat, trying to bring the trainer down. I was throwing punches, aiming kicks, and dodging twice as many as I gave. But when I was done, the trainer gave me a monotone ‘nicely done’ and then shooed me on.
“Where should I go?”
“The climbing wall is next on your itinerary. But you could use the actual rock wall or the tree today.”
“Why not just the wall?”
“The boys are on it now.”
I looked over, away from the trainer and their clipboard, to see figures scurrying up the wall. They were the top five percent, and I watched how quickly they could scale the fake rocks. It seemed like they were doing time trials today, but I didn’t wonder why.
The tree was a tall, once-real hardwood that had grown in an area known as North Carolina before The Society’s time. It had an abundance of natural and fortified branches and knots that became more scarce as you reached the top. Not only was it one of the greatest fears of most young climbers, but it also was something that I (very secretly) enjoyed.
It was standard to wear a harness when climbing, and I slipped into one easily. A bilayer was waiting for any of us kids to come along and hooked me in. Before I began, they made it clear that they were only there to make it less dangerous when I fell. They would not tighten or loosen the rope upon my request, move to a different location, and so forth. Also, it was a standard rule that if you reached the top then you were required to ring the bell.
The first ten feet were easy. I had spent so much time climbing things in my house as a young child that it didn’t pose the slightest problem. But then the footholds began to disperse. At that point, your upper body strength becomes much more important. As I continued to climb, I could feel my biceps and triceps tightening. They complained while I reached smoothly for branches ahead of me. A routine fell into place with my hands and feet and they searched blindly for a place to rest. It had taken all of two painful minutes, and I was within two feet of the bell.
It was my predicament of the day. Not many people ever made it to the bell on the tree, since it was more difficult climbing than usual. Maybe it would make my father proud of me, but…it was so loud. If I rang the bell, everyone in the gym would hear it. They would all turn and stare curiously, picking me apart. And that was something I couldn’t take.
Giving up was never an option in this gym. You had to try and try hard. So when I let my foot slip in the same motion with my hand, I had to make it seem like I was trying. The bark of the tree slipped away from my feet and my hands ran down it for a moment. They burned softly, and I leaned back like you were supposed to.
The mats were nonexistent under the tree, and I hit the floor hard. It hurt, but I was graciously reminded of my incompetence. As I unclipped from the rope, the bilayer gave me a blatant smile and waved for the next person.
Throughout the gym, kids were grunting in effort and screaming in determination. Some were even crying in pain. It wasn’t unusual, but it made me feel even more frustrated about myself.
“Why’d you give up on there?”
I had just taken my harness off when Max Neekan’s voice drifted over to me. He took the climbing gear from my hands and started to put it on, all the while looking for an answer.
“I slipped, idiot. Why would you think that I gave up?”
He finished putting on the equipment and leaned next to my ear. “Your face is red, Harley. Besides,” Max stepped back and started to walk away, “I know an accident when I see one.”
So yes, Max Neekan is extremely attractive, but he is also a real pain in my butt.
That Thursday was just a routine day at the gym. Everyone went from station to station, working on what they needed to do most. We had about two or three days of this a week, and the others were scheduled for us. Our lives and training schedules were controlled. Beyond us, everything was.
Lunch began at ten-fifteen, which gave me six minutes to change into typical street clothes and shower. The other part of the complex, for intellectuals, was only a block away. The walk was short and didn’t cover much ground, but I enjoyed it anyway. It was the only glimpse of fresh air that I usually got between the time I got to training and the time I went home.
That day, it was raining. Dark clouds had gathered over the city, and they dropped bucketfuls of water onto the cobblestone walkway. It was the ‘Road of Power’ and led to the country’s capital building. As I walked across it, the water that had gathered between the uneven stones splashed onto my feet. By the time I got to the swinging doors of the building, my shoes were soaked.
Someone had graffitied ‘braniac’ on our building, but we didn’t care. As I walked in, I immediately felt more comfortable. The squelch of the water in my sneakers drew the attention of people’s alert senses. Eyes watched as I stopped and changed into leather boots. Several heads nodded appreciatively at the quiet shoes before their attentions went back to their jobs.
I turned, dripping sneakers in hand, to walk through the doors that led to the girls’ lockers. Though we didn’t have much of a gym here, we had one anyone so that everyone had a place to keep their things. I always left my backpack there, with dirty smelly clothes and a disorderly leather jacket.
My laptop, a top-of-the-line Cazarou, was as light as a feather. I slipped it under my arm, slammed the locker shut, and exhaled. There were five minutes left for lunch period, which meant that I was later than usual today. In a hurried jog, my feet lead me down the hall and to the cafeteria.
The room had a large kitchen that hooked off from a large dining area. In the dining room, as we called it, there were comfortable chairs and tables. Three fireplaces were scattered between numerous open windows. The ceilings were high and strong, with pillars of natural colored wood.
As I moved across the room, I let my eyes wander to the rain that dripped from the roof. Bad idea, I realized, as I ran into someone. They cursed at me quietly, but when they began to laugh I knew who it was.
“Come on, Harley, I got you some quick food.” The other girl started towards a coffee table next to one of the fire places. She set a steaming mug of hot tea on it, and then a bowl of pudding. A silver spoon clattered onto the glass, and I gave her a smile as I picked it up.
“So,” I made my voice sound casual, “have you noticed the weather?”
She shook her head and stared at me. “Of course I have. You’re hair’s still soaked, whether you like it or not. Besides, I’m not blind. Why do you ask?”
I spun my spoon around in the pudding and licked it off thoughtfully. “It’s just…”
“What, Harley?” She glanced up at the clock. Two minutes left, her eyes said. I ate faster.
After I finished the bowl of pudding, I started drinking the tea. It was minty and the essence of it felt soothing in my chest. When I was confident that I would finish lunch before the bell, I opened my mouth again. “Didra, it just hasn't rained in a while. I like it, that’s all. The change, it’s…enjoyable.”
“Mmm…well, I think I like that.” Didra laughed and I followed her stare out the window. A handful of the physical boys were playing football in the rain. But I knew which one she was watching.
“If only you had come to pick me up today, you could’ve seen it climb the wall.”
“ooh, that would've been easy on the eyes. But you know that I prefer to watch hand-to-hand combat. It’s more entertaining.”
“Totally, so true. Oh, and did I tell you that it was in my house last night?”
Didra’s cheeks flushed a bright crimson hue. She had been crushing on Max Neekan, like most girls, since we were about fourteen. Fortunately, I didn't share the obsession. Therefore, I could indulge her fantasies. But she definitely deserved him.
“No! How’d you react?” The bell rang while she was speaking and we got up to go to class. But on the way, we always talked.
“I ignored him, completely. I think he was kind of embarrassed.”
“Wait, it was Wednesday…you were alone with him!”
“Yeah, but I didn’t really say anything.”
“Why not? You know I-“
Anice Bingham, a very well ranked intellectual, scowled at us. I shot her a sharp look, a challenge she accepted. Her perfect face slipped into smugness. “He has his pick of any girl he wants. And this leads you to think that he’d pick you? You, Harley, who’s neither a physical nor an intellectual? How humorous.”
I brushed the hair along my face back and looked at Anice. “Oh no, I’d never expect any boy to like me. Why would I think that? No, I was thinking more along the lines of Didra.”
“Right, because Didra’s so…” Anice looked down at Didra and shrugged. My jaw clenched tightly at her comment. She proceeded to smile and started to walk away before turning back, “Don’t roll away!”
So maybe there are a few critical points that I’ve failed to mention. Like this rule that everyone that is a citizen of The Society is forced to follow, but that’s more lenient with the talents. Which is that between the ages of eighteen and nineteen, you have to marry the person that you want to spend the rest of your life with. And Didra’s condition, too. She’s paralyzed from the waist down, and has spent her entire life in a wheel chair. Yeah, I guess I forgot to mention those things.
We were standing there in the hallway, staring at people, when Didra tugged my arm. Our first class was starting, and our professor hated for us to be late. Both of us ducked into the classroom quickly, slamming our laptops onto tables and typing wildly as the Prof spoke.
The lecture, which was on designing web pages, had been going on for half an hour when the red flashing lights started. They were emergency lights, and that made a lot of kids freak out. While chatter started, the Professor tried to calm us all, “Everything’s fine kids, everything is fine. There are an abundance of professionals in this building, I can assure you of that.”
As he went on, I shook my head. Being the only one that had a shred of physical training, I was also the only one to notice the shift in the air. It was subtle, but underneath the storm there was a sense of danger and urgency. I got up from my seat, to the prof’s dislike, and moved slowly towards the door. Everyone was staring at me like I was a lunatic. But I let my fingers rest softly on the metal and peered out the small window.
People rushed up and down the hallways, calling to each other and disappearing up the stairs at the end. A good number of them were the upper percentage of physicals, and I saw older talents that now worked for the government too. My father whisked by at one point, and I shook my head. Then a face appeared in the door.
It made me jump backwards in spite of myself. And, despite the chaos behind them, the person laughed softly at me. Then they knocked politely, eyes locking on the instructor. I slunk back to my seat, getting a look of hilarity from Didra. All of the girls in the room, except me, seemed to be at attention. The boys, however, were just confused, and looked around with looks of bewilderment.
I felt like one of them until I locked eyes with Max. He was exchanging hushed words with the instructor, and at one point he made the instructor laugh. Then, after several minutes of conference, they turned to face us all.
“Mr. Neekan, do you like to present yourself or should I do it for you?”
“Uh, I can do it. Station needs Didra Walker and,” he looked up at the prof and nodded reassuringly, “Harley.”
I shook my head, but Didra elbowed my ribs and dragged me into the hallway. We followed Max to the foot of the stairs, where I cleared my throat. He stopped, but didn’t look back.
I cleared my throat again and he turned around this time, nodding slightly at Didra’s wheelchair. Then he pointed to the elevator at the other side of the hall.
“Fifth floor, technological controls room. Meet us there.” He didn’t hesitate to speak quickly. When he was done, he began to jog up the stairs. From time to time he would look back to check that I was keeping up, and whenever he did I had the urge to slap him.
My leather boots were soundless as we both stepped onto the landing for the fifth floor. From there, the stairs would lead only up to the roof. He hurried over to the door and pulled, but it had locked when the building went into its state of emergency.
“Do you have the code for this?” Max looked at me expectantly, but I didn’t realize he was speaking to me. “Harley!”
“Oh! The code? No, students don’t get it.”
“Then how are we supposed to get in there? I figured one of you two would have it. You’re friend probably knows it. Well this is just great.” He had started to pace across the hallway with his hands in hair.
I walked up to the keypad, where he had paused, and put my hand on his arm. “Move,” I muttered, and was especially surprised when he listened. The glowing lights from the ceiling cast an odd shadow on the numbers, and I took out a pair of sunglasses. Then, I pulled out a tiny flashlight. It showed the oil imprints on the numbers.
Slowly I mulled over the four digits in my head. 1, 2,3, 8. It didn’t make sense at first, being that most codes here were five numbers. I organized each number with a letter in my head. They didn’t make any sense at first, which was entirely possible, but then I paired numbers. When I paired two with three and got twenty-three, or W, I knew what the code was.
My fingers dialed the numbers 2-3-1-18 and the door unlocked. Max slipped through with a look of surprise, and I mouthed the word ‘war’ to him. A look of confusion flooded his face, and I smiled successfully.
There wasn’t time to explain what I had done to him. He simply wouldn’t have understood if I had taken thirty seconds to explain it, and by his expression I didn’t feel like we could afford thirty seconds. Moments after going through the door, he stopped at another. This time, he knocked, and someone let us in.
Didra was already sitting happily inside, and the room was crowded with busy people. Someone bumped into Max and he jumped backwards, shoving me into a wall. When he realized what he had done he began his damage control, trying to help me up from the floor. I pushed his hand away and then stood up.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were there and I didn’t want to get in that person’s way and…Harley? Are you even listening?”
In the beginning maybe I had been, but I wasn’t anymore. A large screen was positioned in the center of the room, and there was a live-stream of satellite imagery playing on it. My mouth must’ve dropped, because Max stared at me while I shook my head.
“Is that coming for us?”
The words were so quiet I thought that maybe nobody had heard me, which was probably for the best.
“Yes, Harley. It’s set to make contact in ten minutes.” A professor had turned, giving me a sad smile before returning to his device.
“Why are we up here?” Max asked, coming to stand at my shoulder.
The professor was surprised by his curiousity. “We were hoping, originally, that Didra would be able to help us take control of the missile’s system. But our other students have already failed.”
“What about Harley? Why doesn’t she try?”
“We only wanted Harley here to keep Didra calm. They’re a very impressive team.”
“But…she just got us through that-“ Before Max could finish, I had elbowed him hard between two of his ribs. He bent over slightly and rubbed the tender spot, shaking his head. “Nevermind. I understand, sir.”
Confused and upset, I sat down in a chair at one of the control monitors. I saw the enhanced image of the missile and sighed. Nerds were bustling all around, setting up the protective shield that formed a dome around The Society. It would take nearly two minutes to go up at its fastest, but today they were trying to push that.
I never meant for my fingers to touch the keyboard. My eyes had recognized something in the image that the rest of me didn’t, and it translated directly into my hands. They worked quickly at the keyboard, a skill that I had always had. Hacking was my thing, by nature. But, like any other skill I had, it was hidden.
And when I had control of the threatening device, I had no idea what to do. There was no one watching me. Everyone was gathered around the large screen. Max was the closest person to me, and I kicked him gently in the calf to get his attention.
When he turned to frown at me, I muttered “Get the prof.” For some reason, he didn’t question what I was asking him to do. Instead, the prof was over at my desk in moments.
As soon as I felt his presence, I relaxed. “Sir, I have no idea how to fly this thing.”
There was a brief moment of nervous laughter before I slid my chair aside. He took over, easily steering the device away from the protective dome. Everyone in the technologies defense room held their breaths when the prof set it to self destruct. In seconds, sparks were all that were left of such a threatening device.
Cheers went up all around the room, everyone wildly excited at the success. I sat there silently, though, knowing that it meant two very negative things. One being that now we would declare a state of war with Mollumasa. The second was that now everyone in this room knew the extent of my hacking skills.
It took ten minutes for the commotion to die down. The prof thanked us for our help, somehow understanding that I didn’t want attention, and sent us back for our lecture. In the hallway, the red lights were no longer flashing. Doors were open again and locks were undone. Life was back to an illusion of the normal state.
But heavy, careless footsteps echoed down the hall. Didra and I were on the elevator when a strong arm reached in to stop the door. Max followed it in, biting his lip uncomfortably. Didra, who was extremely good at reading people, stared at him.
“What’s on your mind?” She asked him after a minute.
“What?” He was clearly taken aback by the question.
Not understanding Didra’s logic, he looked at me desperately for an explanation. “She’s really good at reading people’s body language. So don’t act like there’s nothing bothering you, because she can clearly tell that there is.”
“I’m actually fine, and if I wasn’t , would it be any of your business?” Max exited the elevator doors quickly when they opened, and I cast a glance down at Didra.
When he was out of earshot, I leaned over next to her. “I don’t particularly understand what you see in him. Is the brain, or the compassion?”
“Shut up.” Didra rolled her eyes at me and then wheeled herself into the classroom we had left not long ago. The teacher looked at us for explanation, but I didn’t feel like saying anything.
On the virtual board, a slew of notes on computer science were posted. The room was emanating with knowledge, but it felt almost suffocating. Like it was too full, like what was real shouldn’t have been. And like no one actually knew what had happened only minutes ago.