Phillip shivered. The mornings were getting colder as August faded into the distant reaches of his memory; it was already October, and soon it would be time to pull down the heavier blankets. The sounds of the two alarm clocks, muted by the insulation between the attic floor and the kids’ ceiling, brought him into full awareness. He glanced at the clock by his own bedside, and sighed. Another early day.
Gene and Jeanne were already stumbling their way towards their respective bathrooms as Phillip came down from his room. Both mumbled greetings to each other and to him before closing their doors; he reciprocated their good-mornings as he headed down to the kitchen.
As he entered the kitchen, the clock-radio mounted on the shelf clicked on, right on time. It was a convenience that he enjoyed, and the kids didn’t mind the morning news playing while they ate breakfast. He had just finished making his tea when the children came down the stairs, brighter-eyed than they had been upon waking. “Did you sleep well?” he asked.
“A little,” Jeanne said, opening the cereal cupboard. “I kept waking up.”
“It’s getting a little colder,” Gene nodded. He had the bowls and spoons in his hands.
“Can’t we turn on the heater yet?” Jeanne asked.
“Sorry,” Phillip said. “It’s still too warm for it to be of much use. I’ll get the extra blankets out tonight, okay?”
“Finally!” Jeanne said. She grinned from ear to ear as she sat down at the table, carrying the two boxes of cereal. “It’s been really hard to sleep with nothing on me.”
“You’ve got a sheet,” Gene said.
“That’s not enough,” Jeanne said. “I don’t know, I just sleep better in winter with lots of blankets.”
Phillip had to agree with her; the weight did put him more at ease than the warmth. “Well, that’s tonight. You guys ready for school?”
“Yeah,” Gene said. “Ready to sleep through it.”
“Gene,” Phillip cautioned. “It’s not that bad, is it?”
“It’s that bad and worse,” Jeanne sighed. “It’s so boring!”
“We go through this every day,” Phillip said. “It’s boring but it’s unavoidable.”
“Maybe if we showed Mrs. Baum, she’d let us off the hook with homework,” Gene said. “But, I bet she’d just put more on us.”
“Probably.” Jeanne gazed deeply into the last few Cheerios floating in the milk. “We’re not that lucky.”
“Hey, luck has nothing to do with it,” Phillip said. “Besides, you guys aren’t exactly alone. There’s Rob and Tegan, right?”
“Yeah, kinda,” Gene said, “but there’s also Deacon.” The mention of the name seemed to send chills through Jeanne; she sat bolt upright in her chair. “I bet he’s waiting for us again.”
“He wouldn’t dare,” Phillip said. As convincing as he tried to sound, though, he knew the kids saw right through it. “Anyway, let’s hustle a little.”
The rest of the awakening rituals passed without much complaint or trouble; Phillip sipped the tea as he set out his clothes for the day. The kids were out of their rooms a few moments later, dressed in typical fashion, jeans and t-shirts.
The kids were ready a few minutes earlier than usual, and as a result Phillip let them check their e-mail. A few polite messages from their classmates were waiting for them, but nothing that couldn’t wait until school. A hug and a kiss later, and the kids were out the door and on their way to school.
Phillip watched them walking down the hill towards the school, and waved. They could be pains sometimes– he counted himself extremely lucky that they were as well-behaved as they were– but he was completely certain that he had made the right choice adopting them. Besides, he thought, they loved me first.
“He didn’t know, did he?” Jeanne asked, once they were out of earshot of the house.
Gene shook his head. “Nope,” he replied. “I didn’t see it in him. But, he’s getting good at hiding stuff from us.”
“Not that good,” Jeanne said. She kicked a small pebble into the street. “We’d know if he was hiding something, and I didn’t see that.”
“Yeah,” Gene sighed. “So how do we want to do this?”
“The way he always says to handle it,” Jeanne said. “Act like we don’t know it’s coming.”
Gene sighed again, even deeper this time. “But Deacon–”
“If Deacon’s waiting for us,” Jeanne interrupted, “and we start in on him before he can get us, then we get in trouble. And if we get him when he’s not waiting for us, we look like the bad guys. We have to let him come at us first.”
“But it’s Deacon.” Gene’s tone was flat and matter-of-fact. “We always look like the bad guys when it comes to him.”
“Yeah, I know,” Jeanne said. She glanced around her. “But we could try to get him really good. Try to get him so he never comes for us again.”
“What, like, hurt him?” Gene asked. “We really can’t do that.”
“No, we can’t,” Jeanne said, “but we can scare him.”
“Well, we do know what scares him,” Gene said. “But it’s not fair. We need to make sure the teachers don’t get us anyway…”
“Yeah,” Jeanne said. “If we scare him, he’ll find some way to get us back. This sucks.”
“Hey, isn’t that…?” Gene said, pointing ahead. They were closer to the school now, and a lone figure was ahead of them, walking quickly. “It is! Hey, Rob!” Jeanne waved over her head to the boy.
Rob glanced up from the sidewalk; he took a single look at Gene and Jeanne, his eyes meeting theirs for a split second each, before taking off in a full sprint. Away from them.
“He’s in trouble,” both said, taking off after him. Jeanne’s longer legs gave her a bit of an advantage over Gene, and she quickly overtook her brother. She slowed only imperceptibly as she saw another figure in the chase: a taller boy rapidly gaining on Rob.
“It’s Deacon!” Gene said. All four participants in the impromptu race accelerated. In between flutters of Jeanne’s brown hair, Gene saw the flagpole of the school, the unspoken goal line. Rob was leading, but only by an arm’s length. So, it was completely unsurprising when Deacon reached out and clamped his left hand around Rob’s wrist, jerking them both to a halt.
“Let him go, Deacon!” Jeanne shouted, still a dozen or so yards away. Other students milled around the two boys near the school’s gate, ignoring the scuffle. “Let him go now!”
“Make me, Jeannie-in-the-Bottle,” Deacon sneered. He grinned at her, a wide, toothy smile that showed no mirth. Its malevolence was matched only by the cold stare of his glittering gray eyes.
“Let him go,” Gene said, catching up to Jeanne as she slowed and advanced on the other boys. “Let him go or I’ll–”
“You’ll what?” Deacon said. “You’ll tell? You won’t tell. There’s nothing to tell. We were playing tag, and Rob here lost.”
“Let me go,” Rob said, yanking his arm away. It didn’t work; Deacon’s grasp tightened, and Rob gasped in pain. “Come on. Leave me alone.”
“We were playing tag,” Deacon repeated, “and you lost. So now you have to pay the loser’s penalty.”
“Deacon, I mean it,” Jeanne said. She was next to him now, and even though she was only an inch or so taller than he was, she seemed to tower over the boy. “Let him go or we’ll make you let go.”
Deacon glanced at the three of them, each in turn, then let go of Rob’s wrist. Rob quickly darted to Gene’s side. “Losers,” Deacon sneered. “All of you.”
“Then what’s the penalty?” Gene said.
“You’ll see,” Deacon said. He turned and walked away. “You’ll see, losers.”
“That was close,” Jeanne said. She turned to Rob. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Rob said. He pulled his backpack loose and checked its zipper; it had held. “No problem.”
“Good,” Gene said. “We’re not lucky enough for a teacher to have seen that.”
“We’re lucky a teacher didn’t,” Jeanne said. “I was gonna punch him. What did he say?”
“He didn’t say anything,” Rob said. “Just shouted for me and started after me.”
“I don’t like this,” Gene said. “Let’s get inside before he comes back.”
The morning traffic wasn’t that bad; Phillip caught his bus easily and read the news feeds on the short ride downtown. The usual people were busy with their travel habits, and Phillip said his hellos to the few on the bus he knew by name. It was pretty calm, all things considered.
Downtown Pittsburgh was still stinging from the recession, but the major edifices were still there. The kids had nicknamed each of the buildings: “The Glass Castle”, “The Dark Tower”, and so forth. Phillip worked in a smaller development the children had given the somewhat inappropriate description “The Old Fortress”. It had never been a military installation, as far as Phillip knew, but Gene had pointed out the old elevator gate looked almost like the gate in front of a drawbridge, and the windows into the ground-level offices resembled nothing so much as crenellated arrow-holes. Phillip had often joked with his co-workers that, in the unlikely event of a zombie apocalypse, this was probably the safest building in town.
The elevator was far older than Phillip, and as such took its time coming down from its previous location. He grasped the inner gate’s bars reflexively after pressing the button, steadying himself against the shuddering and lurching mechanism. Each floor was announced with a clang on a bell that had obviously seen better days, exposed in the upper corner of the elevator cage.
When the gate opened again, he was on the seventh floor, and a sign in the hallway– between two more windows that looked more like sniper nests than decorations– pointed the way to the two businesses on this floor. The left portion of the floor was home to an old chiropractor, who Phillip had been assured would be retiring this year, each year, for the past four years. To the right, however, an arrow pointed the way to the Indigo Foundation’s primary office space.
Phillip opened the door, careful to not make mistakes in entering his security code on the small keypad, and waved at the receptionist. She waved back, not greeting him verbally, as she was on the phone; her left hand held the receiver to her ear as she struggled with her right to refill a basket of promotional penlights for visitors. He turned and walked down the small hallway in the space, past doors labeled “Examinations” and “Meeting Room 1″, to his office. It seemed that there was no inch of the walls that was not covered by a painting or poster of some sort, so the stark white walls of his office were a bit of a jarring shock. He’d only recently been promoted to the use of one, having spent the majority of his time in a tiny cubicle on the sixth floor in the grant-writing pool.
A small red light on his phone blinked, indicating messages waiting for him. He gave his computer’s trackball a quick spin, revealing icons overlaid on the desktop, indicating waiting e-mail. Post-its littered his keyboard wrist rest, and the tiny, neat handwriting on a slip of white paper on the keyboard itself was markedly different from the wide, scattershot scribbling on the whiteboard above his desk. Phillip slipped his messenger’s bag off his shoulder and let it fall gently onto the chair. Ah, he thought, the wonders of being thrust into management.
He picked up the note from his keyboard and read it, smiling slightly upon recognizing the handwriting. “Need to see you sometime Thurs. about Wings. Maybe lunch? Chloe.” He set the note near his trackball, and shrugged his jacket off. So, he thought, do or die time.
Gene and Jeanne had not planned on being in the same class this year, just like the past two years. It did not help that, being both adopted, it was not obvious that they were siblings, and therefore supposedly “random” seating had managed to have them next to each other in some way or another in almost every class. However, this year, it worked in their favor, particularly in Social Studies. That classroom was split into seven clusters of five students each, and named according to a theme. Jeanne LaFayette, Gene Nagy, Rob MacKenzie, Tegan Kennedy, and Nick Maya were Antarctica. It got them a lot of funny looks from the rest of the students, but it fit them just fine. Particularly because Deacon Flay had been assigned to Asia, on the other side of the room.
Mr. Walsh had a huge grin on his face as he watched the students file into the classroom, and Jeanne exchanged glances with Gene and Tegan. All three were in silent agreement; something was up. Nick was the last to be seated, as he was on folder duty today. “What’s up with Mr. Walsh?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Rob said. “I think it’s going to be trouble.”
“All right, citizens,” Mr. Walsh said, closing the door as the bell rang. He picked up a small flag from his desk and carried it with him as he walked to the Antarctica cluster. “Now, we’re going to start off with a few easy questions today. Let’s see, Miss LaFayette, can you tell me if this year is a leap year or not?”
“It is,” Jeanne said.
Mr. Walsh moved to the next cluster, South America. “And, Mister Caan, can you tell me what is special about leap years?”
“They have an extra day,” Adam replied.
“True, but I’m thinking more on things that happen only in leap years,” Mr. Walsh said, moving to the next cluster, Oceania. “Mister Greene?”
“The Olympics,” Joey said.
“Close,” Mr. Walsh said. “Those happen every other year, though– they used to just be in leap years.” He had reached Asia. “Miss Thursdottir?”
“People vote for the President?” Allannah said, her voice wavering.
“Excellent!” Mr. Walsh said. He placed the flag on Deacon’s desk. “Asia has the UN today. Okay, so this is called the Presidential Election, but so what?” He grinned again. “It’s a boring grown-up thing that’s not really important, right?” Most of the children, Rob and Jeanne included, agreed. “Well, that’s not quite right,” he continued. “It’s a grown-up thing, but it is really, really important.”
“But it is boring, right?” Joey called out, making a few students laugh.
“It can be, depending on who’s running,” Mr. Walsh said, chuckling himself. “But it doesn’t have to be. Anyway, picking the President is an important thing because, well, they run the country. The President’s the leader of the army, and makes sure that the people in America are safe when they go abroad, as well as safe and secure here at home.
“But the big thing is, how do we pick out who’s President? We need to make sure that whoever we pick is really the right person for the job,” Mr. Walsh said. “So, that’s why we’re going to pick a President of the World, right here in our class.”
The children murmured amongst themselves for a moment, and a few hands shot up. Cries of “Me, me!” or “Not him!” came out as well. The Antarcticans stayed quiet, however, knowing that this was what they were expecting to happen. They glanced at each other for a second, and even though they didn’t exchange a word, each knew what the other was thinking: “This is not good.”
“All right, then,” Mr. Walsh said. “The President of the World is an important job, because he or she is going to pick out what we do next Friday.” The children became even more excited at this, but their teacher waved them quiet. “But, we can only pick one, so we’re going to have a vote. Each continent gets to pick a leader, and they’re going to present to the whole class what their idea to do is. We’ll take a quick vote tomorrow, and the three best ones will get another vote on Tuesday. Whoever wins then will be the President of the World. Sound good?”
“Why do we vote twice?” Allannah said.
“I’m glad you asked, Miss Thursdottir,” Mr. Walsh said. As he went on to explain the ideas of a primary election and the other vagaries of the American electoral process, the Antarcticans glanced among each other. Things had gone from bad to worse in just a few sentences.
Gene risked a glance across the room, his eyes briefly meeting Deacon’s. Deacon had not taken his gaze from Rob since class started. “This is really bad,” Gene whispered.
Phillip leaned back in his chair. The worst of the administrative fires had been put out, and he’d managed to defer or defuse the remainder in fairly short order. Overall, it was a good start to the day. Or, he thought grimly, it would have been, if it hadn’t taken me all of the morning. His stomach growled loudly, and he picked up his mug. The last of his tea had gone ice-cold, and the dust of the tea leaves floated in the half-teaspoon of liquid left. He sighed again, setting the mug down.
A knock came at his door, and a woman poked her head in. “Phillip? Do you have a moment?”
“Chloe, yeah,” Phillip said, standing up. He opened the door all the way; the woman entered the office and glanced around. “I was just on my way to see you. You still up for lunch?”
“Of course,” Chloe said, smiling. She brushed some of her blonde hair away from her eyes, and glanced back into the hallway. “What do you think about Francini’s?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of Subway,” he said. Money was still tight.
“This is a business lunch, Phillip,” she said, with mock seriousness. “I’m not going to be the one to explain a six-dollar expense report.”
“Then we’ll get larges, make it seven dollars,” Phillip laughed. “All right, all right. Francini’s.”
Phillip put on his coat and pulled his phone from its charger, as Chloe stepped out into the hallway. “So, about Wings…?”
“When we get there,” Chloe said, absently. “I just need to get my purse.”
Phillip waited for her at the elevator. “The kids would love for you to come by again,” he said.
“I know,” Chloe said. “Movie days are just not enough. I’m just always busy, especially with looking at the new building, and…”
“I know, I know,” Phillip said. “It’s okay. I know it’s rough.”
“Yeah,” Chloe said. “Katherine tells me they’re doing very well on their tests.”
“Busting the score ranges every time she gets them recalibrated,” Phillip said. “I wouldn’t believe it myself if I didn’t see them.”
“They’ve been through a lot,” she added, “and they’re still doing so well. I really hope we can get Wings off the ground.”
“I know,” he said. The elevator’s gates opened, and he flourished his arm, showing her out. She giggled and stepped into the stark lobby. “Well, should we call ahead, or…?”
“I already did,” Chloe said. “We’ve got time, though.” They stepped out into the cool air of Pittsburgh; Chloe buttoned her coat as the wind caught it, while Phillip simply zipped his jacket up halfway. “Nice day,” she muttered.
“At least it’s not snow yet,” Phillip said. Francini’s was a small bistro set into one of the Gateway buildings, the one the kids had nicknamed “The Blue Bridgekeeper.” It was a few blocks from the Foundation’s building, and even though the lunch hour was already in progress, Chloe’s foresight had them seated in a window booth just about ten minutes after they’d left.
They ordered, and as the salads were being placed, Chloe leaned in. “Phillip, I need to tell you something about the meeting this afternoon.”
“I think you shouldn’t be there,” she said, somberly. “I really think that.”
“Any particular reason?” he asked, taking a bite of his salad.
“Well, for one thing, Daniel is on the warpath this morning,” Chloe said, “and I know how you and he don’t always see eye-to-eye on things.”
“I can handle Daniel myself,” Phillip said. “What’s got him so uptight? Someone filching pencils from the cabinets downstairs?”
“The Wells America grant fell through,” Chloe said.
“I saw,” Phillip said. Wells America had been one of the last few grants he’d applied for before his promotion, and it had been risky enough that when the managerial position had opened up, the accusations of promoting him to stop him from doing major damage to the Foundation started almost immediately. “I really thought we had a shot on that one.”
“It was a bit of a stretch,” Chloe said. “It would take a lot of work to retool our metrics for identity theft verification.”
“Yeah,” Phillip said. “I was kind of hoping we could have glossed over that part.”
“Well, anyway, if Wings turns out like we hope, it would have been totally useless anyway,” Chloe said.
“But they didn’t know that,” Phillip grinned.
“Obviously, they did,” Chloe said flatly.
“Yeah.” Phillip poked at the cherry tomato on his plate for a moment. “What’s the other reason I should lay low today?”
“It’s… it’s personal.”
The cafeteria was disconcerting to three children in particular. Jeanne, Rob, and Gene sat off to one side, their trays alone on the table as they ate in silence. Each one had their reasons for not speaking.
Jeanne felt it mostly in her chest, the crushing pressure of being in a room with too many people. She wasn’t claustrophobic; the room had once been a gymnasium, and it had high ceilings with bright halogen lights hanging down between the huge ventilation ducts. She focused on the mirror across from her while she ate, her eyes fixated on a long-forgotten kickball up in the metal struts of the rafters. She couldn’t take her eyes off of it, no matter how many times she tried; the red rubber, deflatedly draped across a pair of metal bars high up, gave her a focal point to shut out the feeling of being pressed by something heavy and dark against something cold and hard. It wasn’t easy, and every once in a while a clatter of a tray or a dropped plate threatened to divert her attention long enough for the pressure to intensify. The food tasted like ash in her mouth; on a good day, she could sometimes taste the faintest glimmer of what it was supposed to be, which was usually nothing like what the whiteboard claimed the meal was.
Gene’s hands trembled with each move of his spoon into his meal, not because the cafeteria was overly air-conditioned (which it was), but because if he held his flatware any looser, he would drop it as he clapped his hands to his ears. The wordless, toneless, senseless babble of the children talking about this and that, their petty squabbles and their infinitesimal victories, it was torment. He had long since given up trying to follow one conversation, because he was constantly following all of them, which was the problem. Instead, he forced his mind back to the morning, to a jingle he’d heard during the news broadcast. He’d been lucky today, as the marimba melody was easy to remember; the audio logo was for an ecology report, but he could honestly care less. It was enough for him to focus on the thirty-four notes, playing and replaying it endlessly in his mind. The marimba became louder, and the cacophony slowly dimmed down to a manageable level. He started changing the melody, switching notes, transposing it up or down an octave, changing the key, as he mindlessly spooned rice pilaf into his mouth. On occasion, the scent of Jeanne’s lunch– purportedly Salisbury steak– wafted into his nose, turning his stomach and crashing the playback just long enough for the crowd to shoot back up to full volume.
Rob was grateful for the scent of the Salisbury steak, and ate slowly. The scent was fatty, greasy, oversaturated with artificial herb flavoring, and slightly off-putting, but it was one that he could actually perceive, and know that it existed in reality. The stench surrounding him was unreal in that it did not exist, and in that it was impossibly strong and obscenely powerful; it overpowered his consciousness as the sensations of so many children in such a relatively small area forced their way into his brain in some mockery of his natural senses. He concentrated instead on the pressure in his thin wrists, beating out his pulse; rise, fall, in, out, up, down. The pressure’s rhythm was erratic at first, but he brought his mind to full bear and drove it from chaos to a regular, if sliding, tempo. Gradually he felt the stink of the mob fading, but it was impossible to ignore; with each inhalation between bites, the noxious non-gas forced its way into his lungs, invading him, threatening him. Each breath disrupted his heartbeat, and he reached for another bite of the industrial meat product to try in vain to flood his nose with something real. There wasn’t any more; he’d finished his lunch. He set his flatware down, slid his tray gently to the side, and laid his right hand down on the table. Palm up, it looked like a gesture of surrender.
Jeanne moved her tray aside as well and clasped his hand with her own; Gene followed suit immediately. The three of them gazed into each other’s eyes. Jeanne heard the melody; Rob saw the dead kickball; Gene felt the heartbeat. Gradually, they smiled. It wasn’t nearly that bad.
“Personal how?” Phillip pushed the empty salad plate aside as the waiter laid his ravioli plate before him. He concentrated on Chloe, wary not to let the heavenly smell of the rich food distract him too much.
“Thank you,” Chloe said to the waiter; she had a plate of shrimp linguini before her. “It’s got to do with the candidate process. When you came on board, you had some harsh things to say about how it was being funded,” she added.
“Well, yeah,” Phillip said. “The process has a lot of ways it could have been monetized, and instead we’re relying on the core business to buoy it up. At least we could have taken some creative liberties with the investor queries.”
“That’s the core of the problem,” Chloe said. “Daniel still doesn’t think that’s the right way to do it. And unfortunately, we’re in a bind now that we might not get a chance to try it your way anyway.”
“We’re almost broke,” Chloe admitted. “This extravagance here is just a symptom of my denial.” She grinned. “But then again, I can afford it.”
“I’m glad you’re covered,” Phillip said, “but this puts us all in a bad way. How are we broke? I thought the Seneca Report–”
“The data we got from Seneca had problems,” Chloe said. “To be honest, it’s damn close to useless. We’re lucky we got what we did out of it, and how it’s going to affect Wings is still hard to tell.”
“Yeah,” Phillip said. The Seneca Trials, a school-wide testing metric, had been tainted by the leak of an example answer sheet a day before the administration of the test. One class’s data had to be disregarded entirely, while it was believed that roughly fifteen percent of the rest of the students were using at least partial copies of the cheat sheet. To say that people at the Foundation were fired over the blunder– the answer sheet should never have left the Old Fortress– would be to state merely the most obvious repercussion.
“Still, we got sixty candidates out of it, right?” Phillip added. “That’s better than the revised expectations.”
“Not hard, when our revised expectations were just the control group,” Chloe chuckled, humorlessly. “Still, with each problem that Wings runs into, Daniel becomes more and more irritated that you were willing to gamble on it.”
“Nobody could have predicted this,” Phillip said. “He’s far too much of a perfectionist and you know it.”
Chloe sighed. “You’re right, of course,” she said. “But he has a point, too. We leaked an answer sheet, and look what happened there. What if news of the blunder got out to the people we’d convinced that it was ‘foolproof’? We wouldn’t just be out the data, we’d have every bill collector at our doorstep overnight.”
“Zombie apocalypse,” Phillip said.
“Not funny,” Chloe replied. “I’m serious. I think Daniel might be willing to go for blood today. Maybe you should head home early, surprise the kids.”
“They can handle themselves just fine,” Phillip said. “Besides, you know how they are. If I’m home early, they’ll know something’s up.”
“They probably already do,” Chloe smiled. “Phillip–”
“You wanted me on the board,” he interrupted. “Let me do the job you’re paying me for. At least the one that warrants all of the money you’re paying.”
She studied him for a moment as he took another bite of his ravioli. “There’s no way I can convince you?” When he shook his head, she sighed. “All right. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. This is going to get messy and it is going to get there fast.”
“I feel weird talking about Daniel behind his back,” Phillip said. “And I can see why he’d be upset, but really, there’s nothing wrong with my idea. If anything, we’re probably in more risk now than we would have been otherwise.”
“Be that as it may, just please don’t needle him too much,” Chloe said. “All right?”
“I won’t start any trouble,” Phillip said. “You have my assurance on that.”
The skies had been overcast all day, but the rains that were threatened from the south had not yet come in. Recess, then, was outside, and while the majority of the children ran around the schoolyard, four kids sat on some steps near the main entrance of the playground. The open air alleviated the agoraphobia that they had experienced in the cafeteria, and they were chatting amongst themselves.
“I don’t see why you guys can’t come to the table with us,” Tegan said, frowning. “It’s not that bad, really. It’s not like Deacon sits there.”
“Why don’t you come sit with us?” Jeanne asked in return.
“Well, I like talking with Nicole,” the other girl said in reply, her voice slightly defensive. “And I’m not scared of Deacon.”
“Good for you,” Rob sighed. He gazed off towards the center of the playground; its central feature was a pair of balance bars, where Deacon Flay and two of the students closest to him in capacity for cruelty were playing a sick distortion of “king of the hill”. His flunkies were orbiting the balance bars in opposite directions, eyes peeled for any of the smaller children wandering through the yard. When a target approached, one of the satellites grabbed him– it was always a boy– and shoved him into the corridor delineated by the balance bars, more or less. This clear act of aggression provoked Deacon, who would then push the child back out of the corridor in a direction perpendicular to his entry vector. That only happened for the kids who knew better than to resist. Those who fought their fate found themselves without the opportunity to duck out of the way of the balance bars. Banging their victims against the bars produced an amusing hollow clang, but each child was picked up only once. To do it more than once would remove the illusion that it was an accident.
“Deacon’s a jerk,” Gene said, “but it’s like he goes out of his way to be mean to us. If we’re not alone, then he doesn’t come at us unless he’s not alone.”
“That’s why you should sit with Nick and us,” Tegan insisted. “You wouldn’t be alone with us.”
“Yeah, we’d be worse than alone,” Jeanne growled. “He makes kids turn on us.”
“He’s just a bully,” Tegan sighed. “He’s only this bad because he can get away with it.”
“You think we should do something to stop him?” Rob asked. “‘Cause if you do, then forget it.”
“Nobody can stop him,” Gene sighed. “The teachers always believe him, and never us.”
“They can’t always believe him,” Tegan said. “It’s not like he… hey.” She trailed off, following Rob’s stare.
Deacon’s game had changed, as he left the balance bars. Presumably a teacher had cottoned a little onto the commotion. His flunkies had started by increasing their orbit, but now they were chasing boys towards Deacon, who was slapping them on the back. Every boy fell face first, and the next victim always was pushed over the last one. Deacon laughed each time, but only until the next kid was brought near him to repeat the process. This was ‘tag’; everyone who fell was “it”. A teacher was watching, apparently oblivious to the synchronization shown.
One of the smaller boys had the misfortune of having his head right where the next target was about to step. Without thinking, he curled into a ball instead, and was kicked hard by the upright soul. Deacon’s eye caught this, and started over; his two cronies advanced as well. Their intent was unmistakable to anyone who had spent more than ten minutes with Deacon, while disadvantaged by being around the same age as him.
The fallen boy lashed out, catching Deacon’s ankle with his foot; he registered the blow but didn’t lose his footing. He didn’t have any excuse not to do it now. Deacon wound up with the unstruck leg and delivered a solid kick into the boy’s unprotected midsection, bouncing him a few inches backwards. His cronies started to advance faster, but were stopped as the teacher caught the smaller boy by the arms and hauled him to his feet. The boy, breathless and witless, gasped ragged curses at Deacon, who crossed his arms and spoke; his words were inaudible to Gene and his friends.
The teacher started to drag the smaller boy away, who was quickly realizing the situation. The first kick was delivered in secrecy. The teacher had no proof of it. All the teacher saw was Deacon coming to help him up, and then he kicked Deacon. As far as the teacher was concerned, Deacon was the victim. Deacon’s friends laughed and shouted at the smaller boy, whose screams had turned from rage to despair. “I didn’t start it!” he howled; while everyone could hear it, nobody was listening.
The bell rang, ending recess. Tegan stopped asking the rest of the Antarcticans to sit with her.
The early part of the afternoon saw Phillip in his office, trying hard not to fall asleep. He’d tried not to overindulge, but the simple fact was that Italian food was far too rich for a “business lunch”. He glanced at the clock once he felt he’d burned away enough of the laziness, and found that if he hurried, he could get a hot cup of tea just in time to be barely late to the meeting. He settled for cold water in his mug as he seated himself in the conference room. Chloe followed him in; Daniel was already there.
“I hope you had a good morning, Mister Brookfield,” Daniel said. He was dressed in a fairly modest-looking suit and tie, in contrast to Phillip’s slacks and Hawaiian print shirt; Chloe was somewhere in between, wearing a striped baby-blue dress. “Because this afternoon is going to be rough.”
“So I hear,” Phillip said. “At least it wasn’t Mexican.”
“Pardon me?” Daniel asked. His voice was almost inaudible over Chloe’s giggling.
“It’s nothing,” Chloe said. “We’ll wait a moment more for Katherine.”
Katherine closed the door behind her at that moment, careful to not let her white lab coat get caught. “Sorry,” she said. “I had to see the latest run of the Gateway data.”
“If there are no more interruptions,” Daniel said. “Miss Reed, if you would.”
“Of course.” Chloe’s voice took on the edge that Phillip had noted during lunch. “Just to get everyone up to speed, the Seneca Report identified sixty potential candidates for the Twilight Wings program. The interviews of these candidates has been ongoing for a few weeks now.”
“We had the last interview last night,” Katherine said, “and we’re still going over that data. However, the results of the Seneca Report are distressing to us.”
“How so?” Phillip said. “I can’t see how sixty kids would be that bad, especially given our expectations. Of course, I haven’t read the whole thing yet.”
“I am not surprised,” Daniel said. “You do not have access to it.”
“I have parts of it,” Phillip admitted. “But those are still just the investor synopsis and the stuff pertinent to grant-writing. The results…”
“The privacy rules mean that only one of us can have access to the full report, and that’s me,” Katherine said. “I’ll get what I can to you later, Phil.”
“Anyway, the results turned out far fewer viable candidates than we expected. Of the sixty that we discovered and interviewed, only eighteen were viable,” Chloe said. “And yes, that counts the control group.”
“Our individual program is working wonderfully for the control group,” Daniel said, “but it is cost inefficient at this time. Twilight Wings is designed to discover ways to defocus the training while maintaining effectiveness.”
“You know how the Blue Streak guides work, right?” Chloe said.
“Yeah,” Phillip said. Children in the Indigo Foundation’s pilot program, Blue Streak, received a study guide each week that was tailored both to the student’s preferences in subjects but also to their ability levels and learning capabilities in their “off” topics. Blue Streak’s goal was to provide accelerated learning to exceptional students, freed from the paradigm of grade levels and standardized testing. Its major draw was that it could be used as a supplement to the child’s existing education, in a time where in-school enrichment programs were not just unheard of in practice, but almost a mythical thing of the past as the baseline of pass-fail testing sank lower and lower. The program had gathered the attention of many institutions in the education science world, as well as grant money from dozens of government agencies. In spite of all of this, the program was barely making ends meet for the Foundation due to the intensive tailoring the program required for each participant. At its current level of efficiency, the program consumed about thirty man-hours per student per week.
“If we can try to widen the focus just a little,” Katherine said, “the same principle could support two or even three students per cluster. To do that, we need to get some of these kids together so they can hit it off in that way.”
“I don’t follow,” Phillip said.
“Think of it like going full circle,” Chloe said. “Blue Streak works outside of class, because the classes aren’t challenging these kids. What Twilight Wings is supposed to do is to create a class specifically for these kids.”
“Some of the students in the Blue Streak program are at similar, but not identical, levels of achievement in certain subjects,” Daniel said. “We attempted to ‘synchronize’ these students’ guides for those subjects, to disastrous results.”
“Because the program throws the ‘level’ concept out the window,” Phillip nodded. “I think I get it. Like, if they were learning French, they might know the same number of words, but not the same exact words.”
“Exactly,” Katherine said. “What we want to try to do is to get kids at similar numerical points of achievement working together to see if that does accelerate their learning.”
“I thought that was what the control group was doing,” Phillip said.
“To a certain extent, yes, but I think you have seen that their ability differs significantly in certain areas,” Daniel said. “The collectivity must be observed on a reproducible scale.”
“All or nothing,” Chloe said. “By having a bigger group, we increase the chances that students at similar ranges of ability connect, even if it’s not a precisely one-to-one match. Say, one student might have to connect with three others in order to be completely covered, and each of those might need one or two others outside of the already existing group.”
“We’re trying to do for a classroom,” Katherine said, “what hypertext did for the written word. We’re creating a ‘web of learning’, sort of.”
“Won’t that just slow them all down?” Phillip asked.
“Not necessarily,” Daniel replied. “The control group has taught us that in the cases where there is positive synchronization, the rate of learning accelerates dramatically for both participants.”
“All right,” Phillip said. “So, in order to make sure you have as many kids completely covered as possible, you need as many kids as possible,” he said.
“Yeah,” Katherine said. “The last Gateway report says that we might be able to make do with a minimum class size of fourteen.”
“The problem arises when you take a look at the number of kids we have committed to the project,” Chloe said, sliding a page over to Phillip. “We’re one short.”
“Four flat refusals and one non-responder,” Phillip said. “We’ve tried convincing the ‘no way’s?”
“Yes,” Daniel said. “In all four cases the refusal was borne of scheduling conflicts. Music lessons, mostly, but one student is in training for their black belt in karate.”
“The non-responder is where we’re in a bit of a fix,” Chloe said. “And this is why I was worried about your presence, Phillip.”
“Oh?” Phillip asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“Yes,” Katherine said. “I’m not sure right now if the non-responder is going to work out as well as we’d expected, given his relationship to the control group.”
“You can just go ahead and say ‘my kids’, you know,” Phillip said.
“All right, then,” Chloe said. “The non-responder is someone very close to the kids, and we’re worried that their relationship could jeopardize the branching of the connections.”
“He’s not yet a part of Blue Streak, but was an alternate for that program,” Katherine smiled.
“Well?” Phillip said. “Who is it?”
“His name is Robert MacKenzie,” Daniel said.