Linden sat in numb silence between the two soldiers. The statement that they had a plane to catch didn’t make any impression. He hardly took note of the long ride and the way it was taking him farther away from his mother with every minute that passed. That all came later.
But there was finally an end to the trip, at least that part of it. They got out of the car and walked from an almost-empty parking lot to an almost-empty airport waiting room. Linden started to wake out of his stupor and looked around. The place didn’t look anything like the airports in movies. The waiting room was small and he could see the airfield from the big windows. There were no big passenger jets, just one small plane, looking lonely and, somehow, ominous. Sharing the waiting room with him were more soldiers and a few kids his own age. A soldier with a clipboard in his hand, walked over to him.
“This Linden Thomas?” At a nod from one of Linden’s guards, the man made a mark on the clipboard and said, “We’re all here, then. I’ll let the pilot know we’re nearly ready to go.”
Linden became aware that someone was staring at him. When he lifted his eyes to the huddled group of kids, he saw three girls and three boys. One of the girls was crying. One boy’s eyes were suspiciously red and swollen, and he glared at Linden as if he was to blame for their being here. Or maybe he was making them late. He didn’t know and he didn’t care. He clenched his fists and glared back, then walked over to a seat near the wall. The soldier with the clipboard stepped in front of him. Instead of the clipboard, he was holding a metal bracelet.
“Hold out your left arm, son.”
“Why?” Linden asked, the spirit of resistance suddenly raising its head. It was much too late, but it made him feel alive for the first time since he’d walked away from his home. “Suppose I don’t?”
The soldier closed his eyes, mumbled something and then gave him the expression that adults gave kids who were being annoying. “It won’t get you anywhere, you know. Just give me your arm.”
Linden didn’t move. He watched the man’s hand reach for his arm. Watched the bracelet being put around his wrist and heard the snap of a catch. It wasn’t his arm, he decided. He would simply refuse to accept that it was his arm, encircled by a bracelet of cold, hard metal.
“It’s a temporary ID, in case you’re wondering. It’ll be removed when you get your permanent ID.”
The hand let go of his arm and he let it drop. It took with it the brief flareup of rebellion and the cold numbness returned. When a door opened a few minutes later, Linden followed the others out onto the tarmac and up the metal steps into the sleek two-engine plane. He’d never flown before, and a little voice in the back of his head kept trying to tell him he should be excited. He let himself be directed to a seat, let the drone of the engines lull him. He ignored the voices of the soldiers in quiet conversation, and the sudden cry from one of the girls: “I want to go home,” and the sobbing that followed.
He dropped into a shallow doze that was broken just for a few seconds, every now and then by a raised voice. The first bump when the plane hit an air pocket jerked him fully awake, panicked. But no one else seemed alarmed, and he allowed himself to drift off again. Vague thoughts floated through his mind and disappeared. He should look out the window and see what the world looked like from up here. He should pay attention to what was going on around him. He should remember all this so he could tell his mother about it, later. The thoughts faded and he slept again. Suddenly, it seemed to him, they had arrived at another airport and were leaving the plane. There was another long ride, in a van this time, with the other children and the soldiers who’d been on the plane with them. The slamming of a heavy metal gate finally brought him out of his daze. He got out of the van with the others and found that they were surrounded by buildings that said ‘college,’ but it didn’t look anything like the pictures in the brochure. We’re here. Wherever here is. The van drove off, and the soldiers who’d come with them headed to another part of the campus.
Eight adults stood in front of the small group. One was a tall man in a uniform that was much fancier than the ones the soldiers had worn, and with shiny decorations on the shoulders. He stepped forward and ran his eyes over the seven children. “You look tired, youngsters. It’s been a long trip and I’m sure you’d like to rest. I’m Major Cornwell, provost of Merriman College. I want to welcome you as the latest members of this year’s class. And the last to arrive.”
Linden stared at him, trying to work out the meaning of the uniform and the rank, and everything suddenly clicked into place. He shuddered. If this was a military academy, he wasn’t going to survive. He’d failed his high school’s compulsory cadet training program quite spectacularly. They’d thought it was just a bit of childish rebellion, that he would give in eventually, but he hadn’t. He refused to wear a uniform. He refused to march. He refused to learn the commands or the stupid pledge that they were supposed to recite. He’d won, as far as that was possible. He had to attend, but he’d been allowed to sit on the sidelines while the other students drilled. He was sure that failure here would be get him more than reprimands and a bad grade on his report.
“I’m aware that not all of our students are pleased to be here when they arrive, but that will change, I assure you.”
I’m not the only one. I bet none of them want to be here. The major confirmed every hateful word of the instructions, every word from Mrs. Kinney’s lips. He’d been tracked, like an animal, and all they had to do was wait for the right time to capture him. He’d never had a chance. Maybe some of the students were proud of having been selected. Maybe they even liked it here, but he would never be one of them.
The major waved his hand at the other adults and stepped back into the line with them. “These are your tutors. They will also be your advisors and, we hope, your friends. They will be sharing your quarters, and their first job will be getting you settled in. Tomorrow, they’ll accompany you to the orientation for the incoming class.”
The tutors were dressed identically in exercise clothes, in shades of gray and black. They each carried a clipboard, and it didn’t take a genius, Linden thought, to figure out that the new students’ photos were right on top. The adults knew exactly who was who. They introduced themselves and led their charges away, all heading for the same building, chatting as they went. Linden’s tutor was a man with a sour face and stiff posture. He certainly wasn’t the one Linden would have chosen if he’d had a choice. He wondered briefly if he’d ever have a choice about anything, ever again.
“I’m Tobias and I’ll be your tutor and advisor for the next few months.”
He didn’t looked pleased, and the introduction was so abrupt that it took Linden a second to register that the man had walked off without offering his hand, obviously expecting him to follow.
Exhausted, hungry, and expected to accept as his tutor and advisor—and friend—a man who clearly wasn’t happy to see him, Linden dawdled, letting himself fall behind. If he got lost in the building, Tobias could just come and find him. He was almost disappointed to find the tutor waiting for him inside, his arms folded, disapproval coming off him like a heat wave.
“You’re going to have to learn to move a lot faster than that, young man.”
“I know how to move faster,” Linden snapped. “I just wasn’t expecting to be treated like a dog on a leash.”
Tobias had started toward a stairway. He stopped and spun around. “Let’s get one thing straight, right now. I’m not going to put up with any insolence. My job is to keep you on track with your studies, and that’s what I’m going to do. You don’t have to like me, but I expect a minimum of courtesy.”
“That would be a lot easier if you showed me some.” Linden put his hand out and leaned against the wall, suddenly dizzy. He shook his head to clear it, and with the last of his energy, he said, “I just want to be treated like I’m a student and not a prisoner.”
Tobias stared at him, then turned around and went toward the stairway, at a slower pace. “It’s only one flight,” he said, without looking back.
The hallway at the top of the stairs was bleak, with a dozen or so doors on either side before it turned a corner. “This floor in this wing is for new students. There’s a print map of the building and the campus, next to the stairway, and it’s also on your computer.” Tobias put his hand to a plate next to the last door on their right. “Put your hand here and let the building register your identity. Your hand print lets you in and out. It also keeps a record of exits and entrances.”
Linden was too tired to ask why, and Tobias didn’t volunteer the information. He already had the feeling that Tobias wasn’t much of a talker and wasn’t going to tell him anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. How was he going to find any good in this situation if he had this antagonistic man hanging over him all the time? He stopped in the now open doorway, appalled. He could see the entire place from where they were standing, in a small bedroom that was the center of the apartment. The bed was just a few feet in front of him. The rooms were small, efficiently arranged, and as cheerless as the hallway. With the exception of the white walls, everything was in shades of gray, even the bed covering. The light from the window above the bed didn’t do a thing to brighten the place up.
“Is this your bed or mine?” he asked Tobias, who seemed to be waiting for his reaction to his new home.
“Yours. My bed is in there.” He pointed to the room on their left.
Linden took a few steps in that direction and looked in. The space was even smaller than his own, and just as dreary. But what gave him an unpleasant feeling in his chest, was that though the beds were separated by a wall, there was no door. Neither of them would have any real privacy. The room to the right of the entrance, a study, also lacked a door. It had a worktable with a computer and two tablets, two chairs, and a few shelves on one wall. It was also the route to the bathroom. That did have a door.
Linden scanned the corners of the rooms, where the walls met the ceiling. “Where are the cameras?”
“There are no cameras.”
Linden’s sarcastic mode, so much a part of him when he was in school, took over. “So my dinky little school in Nowhereville keeps an eye on every twitch, but here I’m in the heart of the machine and there are no cameras?”
“I told you, we don’t need them. And I’m part of the machine, so I suggest you watch how you speak to me.”
“Really? I thought you looked kind of like a stiff. So why no uniform?”
“I don’t wear my uniform when I’m serving in this function. We’re usually short regular tutors because the student body is growing quickly. Support staff has to fill in until . . .”
“Until none of your business,” he snapped out. Go take a shower and change your clothes,” he added, leaving Linden with one more thing to think about. “You’ll feel better. I’ll take you down to the cafeteria afterwards.”
“I don’t have anything to change to.”
Tobias pulled open a drawer in a low chest that spanned the room from the doorway to the wall of his own bedroom. Linden hadn’t noticed it before, and he wondered what would fill so many drawers.
“My clothes are in the drawers at my end of the room. Yours are in the middle section. The rest are for towels, sheets, etc., and winter wear.” He pulled out a pair of what looked like yoga pants, a pair of boxer briefs, and a long-sleeved henley, all dark green, and tossed them on Linden’s bed.
“That’s right. Freshman green.”
“I don’t like green.”
“Then go naked,” Tobias said, his voice sharp with annoyance.
Linden decided that from now on he wouldn’t ask Tobias anything that he could figure out for himself. He picked up the clothes and went to find out what the bathroom was like. Like the rest of the apartment, the bathroom was utilitarian and not an inch bigger than necessity demanded.
There was a shower, but no tub. The floor and shower enclosure were tiled in white and shades of gray. “Great color scheme,” he muttered. “Nobody will ever be able to tell if the place needs to be cleaned.”
He avoided looking at Tobias when he came back out. A quick glance had been enough. He wondered whether the anger had anything to do with him, or was just part of the man’s personality. “The clothes fit okay.”
“Of course, what did you expect? Let’s go.”
Linden followed silently, keeping his head down. He didn’t want anyone to see that he’d been crying. He’d sat on the shower floor letting the water pour over him until it started to cool, and he remembered that Tobias was waiting for him. Tobias would expect him to eat. Tobias would expect him to get up in the morning, and he didn’t know if he could do that.