The four boys looked at each other with a mixture of emotions. Vila glanced apprehensively at the one that Kerr had introduced as Jack. The large boy seemed very intimidating. When Kerr had first told him the size of clothing to provide, Vila thought he was kidding. But looking at Jack now…
Vila swallowed nervously. He hoped that the clothes in his bag would be all right. It might be a tight fit in some places. He didn’t know that kids came in this size for his age. Maybe he should have nicked his mum’s clothing repair kit, in case some adjustments were needed or Jack managed to rip something while trying to stuff his sizeable frame into the unfortunate clothes.
Jack stuck his hand out towards him. “Thanks for helping me.”
Vila extended his own and was almost crushed by Jack’s firm grip. “It’s nothing. Any friend of Kerr’s is a friend of mine.” He looked at Charles and grinned, “Well, mostly.”
Charles had an amiable smile on his lips.
Kerr asked, “Do you have the clothes?”
Vila handed a large bag to Jack. “These should fit. Don’t move around too much.”
Jack took the bag and pulled out nondescript dark grey pants, light grey shirt and a large grey vest that was favoured by the technicians.
Charles, who was much more fashion-conscious and rebelled at the tyrannically standardized school uniforms they were required to wear, remarked critically, “It’s grey but at least it makes him stand out less.”
Kerr scrutinized the clothes with careful eyes. Now that they were standing together, on the brink of the escape, he realized how impossible it might have been to try to pass an eight, nearly going on nine-year-old, as an adult. Jack would just manage to pull it off because of his size. He would come across as a short, bulky technician.
Jack began briskly peeling his clothes off and putting on the unremarkable grey ones.
Vila’s mouth nearly dropped open when the boy’s physique emerged from the confines of the school clothes. Vila tugged on his friend’s sleeve and whispered, “Kerr, do you think I could look like that when I grow up? I bet no one’d dare bully me then.”
Kerr said, “You shouldn’t need muscles to survive, Vila, just your head. Jack is special. There are very few people like him.”
Charles muttered, “And good thing too.”
Kerr glowered at him.
Charles grinned impishly back as Jack quickly pulled on the pants and donned the vest. Jack moved around a bit to test the clothes. It stretched complainingly in places.
Vila had visions of splitting seams. Even though these materials were supposed to stretch and never break, there had to be limits, else why’d there be different sizes? He said in nervous warning, “Uh, you might not want to do that.”
Charles said jokingly, “Yeah, stop breaking the clothes, Jack. Vila might want them back sometime.”
Vila said to Jack, “No, I don’t. Those are for you.”
Jack took a half-menacing step towards Charles but there was a lightness in his tone when he said, “How would you like me to break something else? Something Vila doesn’t want back?”
Charles stepped back and said in a joking whine, “Kerr, Jack’s being mean to me.”
“Good,” said Kerr without a trace of amusement. “What were you saying about flowers yesterday?”
Comprehension settled in Charles’s eyes. “Oh, you’re all ganging up on me.”
Kerr said, “Someone has to.”
Now that they were all ready, an awkward atmosphere descended on them. The boys enjoyed their interaction together. Vila fit right in, as if he had always been there. Perhaps because Kerr accepted him. But now, it dawned on them that some of them might not see each other again.
Jack brought his hand up to his mouth and coughed uncomfortably. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. With resolved but hesitant words, he said, “I…don’t know what to say…but I need to…Thank you all for helping me. It means a lot to me. I…hope I see all of you again but…”
Charles said, “Don’t say it, Jack.” All lightness and joking had disappeared from his manner. “We’re going to see each other again, nothing can keep us apart. I know that I joke a lot. At your expense most of the time. But you know I don’t mean it. We’re friends and we always will be. No one can take that away from us.”
The other three stared at him in amazement, making Charles flush with embarrassment. He said unapologetically, “It’s how I feel.”
Jack nodded slowly. It was something he’d been trying to express to Kerr in the gym yesterday but had never found the words or the courage to say it. Even now, the words needed seemed to come from an alien language that made him feel tongue-tied.
Instead, he stretched out his hands to Charles in a gesture of agreement. “Friends.”
Charles glanced down at the strong hand and then he gripped it as hard as he could with his own. “Yes, friends.”
Kerr looked at the often-quarrelsome pair. There was no hint of contention between them now. Kerr put his hand on theirs. “We are all friends.” Kerr looked expectantly at Vila. There was encouragement in his eyes.
Vila seemed perplexed.
Kerr said, “You too.”
Vila didn’t seem to understand. “Me?”
Jack and Charles looked at Vila, and then at Kerr. They both nodded.
Jack said, “Yes, Vila. You’re Kerr’s friend, that’s good enough for me. And you’re helping me even though you don’t know who I am. I would be proud to call you my friend. If you’re willing.”
Charles liked their new young friend. He said warmly, “Me too.”
Kerr said, “All four of us. We’re in this together.”
Vila had never felt that he’d belonged anywhere before. He kept looking among others of his own grade but his quickness and greater intelligence usually made them think that he was trying to show off or act like an Alpha. The only way he could fit in was as a clown. But not with these three.
He was an only child. His father had died when he was still an infant. Vila had always wished he weren’t so alone. A brother or sister would have been nice, even if only to argue and fight over toys with.
A smile lit up Vila’s face. Hesitantly, he reached up and his smaller hand joined the other three. He knew he should have felt out of place identifying himself with the three Alpha kids, but they were making him feel as if he was one of them.
Vila and Jack were peeking around the corridor at the security station that led to the workers' area. The guard was lounging lazily in his chair, almost half-asleep and yawning frequently.
Vila whispered nervously, “They’re late. Where are they?” He had a horrible feeling that something was wrong. The little voices that nagged at him when there was danger near were in full force.
Jack pulled at his tightly fitting clothes. “They’ll be here.”
They heard angered voices down the corridor.
Vila whispered excitedly, “That must be them!”
They saw Kerr and Charles coming around the bend and steaming after them, the bully and his entourage.
The bully was angry and demanded, “Take that back now!”
They saw Kerr say something to Charles but they couldn’t hear it. It was clear that the bully did because he was almost livid now. Kerr and Charles continued walking in the direction of the guard station, ignoring the bully. As they neared, Kerr leaned his head towards Charles and whispered something. Charles nodded, turned to look at the bully. Vila and Jack couldn’t see the expression on Charles’s face but they could imagine it was not something very friendly.
That did it. The bully charged them like a bull seeing red. Kerr and Charles stepped to the side as if they were expecting this. The bully staggered and was confused for a moment until he realized that the two boys were now behind him. Charles was smirking. A fight broke out, with the bully and his friends trying to beat them up and Kerr and Charles trying to defend themselves.
The guard popped out of his seat and went to break up the fight. “Stop it!”
“Let’s go.” Vila whispered as he kept his head down and slinked towards the now empty station, trying not to be noticed. Partway there, he realized that no one was following him. He looked around. Jack was still looking from behind the corner, his eyes worried and intently focussed on the fight. His body was tense and restless and he looked as if he was about to go and help his friends.
Vila remembered what Kerr and Charles had said about him. He went back towards Jack and whispered, “What are you doing? We have to go before the guard gets back!”
Jack was torn. “I can’t leave them. They’re outnumbered. I have to help.” He took a step towards the fight.
Vila put his hand on Jack’s arm to stop him. “I know you want to help, but they’re doing this for you. Do you want them to do this for nothing?”
Vila tugged on Jack’s muscular arm and began pulling him quickly to the worker’s entrance. Jack followed with dragging feet; his face kept turning towards his friends. They made it through just as the guard managed to manhandle the bully off Kerr.
Kerr sat in the empty computer lab, his fingers working quickly. A nice bruise was developing over his left eye but he ignored it. There was too much to do. The first part of the plan worked. Jack and Vila should be on their way out of the building with the next shift of workers. He checked his wrist chronometer. Another fifteen minutes.
Now he had to make sure that no one found out that Jack was missing. The only way to do that was to make them think that he was still there. Kerr pulled up a video file he had recorded. Jack in the gym, hitting a poor defenceless dummy. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
The bored security guards would probably not even give a second glance to it as the images from the security cameras flickered across their screens in succession, showing different parts of the Academy grounds. What would be unusual was if they didn’t see Jack in the gym during his off times.
Charles was in the infirmary. Kerr smiled wryly. The boy’s performance had been a little too enthusiastic and he had almost been knocked unconscious. He should be all right though. Kerr concentrated on what he was doing.
Charles lay groaning in the infirmary bed. He was hurting but not as much as he let on. He smirked to himself as he remembered the bully and his entourage being dragged off to see the headmaster, complaining bitterly that he was the one who had been wronged.
The nurse came over and gave him a couple of pills and a glass of water. It was Vila’s mother.
As Charles popped the pills into his mouth, she said, “You should be more careful.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I am,” he reassured her confidently after he took a few mouthfuls of water and swallowed the medication.
Nurse Restal sighed. “My son’s like you. He thinks he can handle anything.”
Charles said, “I’m sure he can. You shouldn’t worry about him.” He handed the glass back to her. His voice lowered. “I forgot to thank you last time. For helping us see our friend.”
The nurse said softly, “I wish I could do more. They shouldn’t treat you boys like that. It’s not right.”
The door opened with a crash and several guards came in with a bald man that Charles didn’t recognize. The man had a hard, indifferent look on his face that caused a shiver to run up the boy’s spine. The imposing stranger wore a long black leather coat, that made him look like a figure of death.
Two guards grabbed Vila’s mother by the arms. Charles bolted up in bed as the nurse protested. “You can’t do this to me. What am I being charged with?”
The bald man said, “I’ll decide that later. Take her out of here.”
The guards led her out.
Charles asked angrily, “Where are you taking her?”
The bald man came towards him. Charles almost flinched and wanted to shrink back. “I wouldn’t worry about her, if I were you. You’ve all been very naughty. In a way this is your fault, Charles.”
“What do you mean? Who are you?”
“If you hadn’t used the nurse to help you see your friend, we would never have started watching her as well.”
Charles had a sick feeling in his stomach. That was why nothing had happened to her after they were caught.
The man continued, “And we would never have discovered Kerr’s little friend.”
Charles started. It was like a horrible nightmare.
“We’ve been keeping careful eyes on them. He needed an act of defiance and we were prepared to tolerate it as long as they were monitored. However, he’s tried to do something that we cannot allow. And he’s dragged you into it.”
“Who are you? Why are you telling me this?”
“Who I am doesn't matter. You’re a smart boy but unfortunately, you’ve let Kerr influence you. We can’t allow that.”
Charles asked apprehensively, “What does that mean?”
The cold leather-clad stranger gestured to the remaining guards. “Take him.”
Charles tried to resist but it was no use. They dragged him off the bed.
“I am telling you because I like you. But it won’t matter, you won’t remember me. You won’t remember anything.”
A wave of fear washed over Charles. “What are you going to do with me?”
“We have ways.” The man walked out of the room with the guards dragging the fearful boy behind them.
“Can I see my friends at least?” Charles pleaded.
The man stopped and turned to look at him. “You will never see them again.”
Vila and Jack waited until there was a bunch of workers heading for the exit. It was only a few dozen feet away but it seemed like much longer. They stepped out and followed along. In their eyes, the crowd seemed to be inching its way. They tried to crane their heads to see what the hold-up was but there were too many people in the way.
Vila looked sideways at Jack. The boy was trying to look smaller and inconspicuous. Finally, they reach the doorway, another step to freedom. Their feet reached beyond. Their hearts almost stopped in shock. They both backed up. There was a contingent of guards waiting outside and a slim woman dressed in black leather. Her eyes lit up when she saw the two boys. That was what was causing the hold up. The guards went towards them while the woman watched with cold, impassive eyes.
Vila heard Jack taking a deep breath beside him and then without warning, Jack whispered, “Run, Vila!” He launched himself at the guards. As he went down in a tangle of flailing arms and legs, Vila watched in frozen shock. A hand gripped his shoulder from behind. Vila turned around.
As Kerr put the finishing touches on the surveillance feed, the door slid open and there was a rush of booted feet. He blanked the screen and stood up quickly as several guards, and a dark stranger in black leather came purposefully towards him.
Kerr tried to sound innocent. “I was just finishing some work. I’m done now.”
The dark man, said clinically, “That’s very good, Kerr. You don't like lying, do you? But you manage to tell the truth without really telling the whole truth.”
The tone in the man’s voice made Kerr realize that something had gone terribly wrong. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who are you?”
“I think you know that your plan has failed. All of your friends have been rounded up. Jack, Charles, your little Beta friend…” The man paused, as if for effect. “And the nurse.”
Kerr’s face paled. There was pain in his back and he noticed that the man had not answered his question. “I’m the one who planned it. I pushed them into it.”
“Oh we know it was your plan, Kerr. And a very good one it was. It’s good to know that our high expectations for you were not incorrect. Fortunately for us, you never found out the hidden levels of security that are in this facility.”
“Yes, we’ve known from the very beginning. We knew when you found your little friend in the tunnels.”
Kerr reacted in shocked dismay. “How?”
“We’ve been watching the nurse ever since your friends used her to see you. We discovered that she sometimes brought her son with her and that he disappears for hours.”
Kerr felt sick that his plans had doomed his three friends. He asked, “What’s going to happen to us?”
“I don’t mind telling you. You won’t remember it anyway. I hope you had a proper farewell because you won’t be seeing each other again. In fact, you won’t remember each other.”
Kerr whispered, “No.” His legs felt weak and he sat down heavily on a chair.
“Charles will get what he wanted. He’s being sent to a place that is perfect for someone of his calibre. Jack. Well, he’s already allocated. We’ll just have to move him sooner.”
“And Vila and his mother?”
“We haven’t decided on the mother yet. Most likely a penal colony, if she's lucky. Your little friend will be placed in a facility for wards of the Federation. You haven’t asked about yourself.”
Kerr’s voice was flat, like someone who no longer had any emotions. “Does it matter? I won’t remember.”
“Yes, you won’t."
Kerr tried to resist as the guards dragged him from the chair but it was no use. They followed the dark man out of the room. Kerr suddenly stopped, pulling against the guards. He said in a voice of cold warning , "No matter what you do to me, I'm going to find a way to remember. I will bring you down one day."
There was a cold, unreadable expression on the dark man's face, "I don't think so."
Little Vila sat in the grading hall trying to look busy. He was with a large group of kids who’s parents had been victims of unfortunate accidents or wars. The grading test had been easy for him and he’d finished ages ago. He sat surreptitiously watching the others.
He rubbed his head absently. It always seemed to hurt but the pain was getting less. The doctors said it was the result of the accident.
There was a deep pain of loss at the thought of the accident. They’d said his mother died and he was lucky to be alive. He’d suffered a bad concussion and that was why he didn’t seem to remember some things. He barely recalled the accident, just some scattered images of a shuttle crashing.
Vila, don't let them re-grade you.
Vila’s head jerked up. He looked around nervously; everyone had their heads down, working on their own terminals.
Vila, don't let them re-grade you. This time Vila had a flash of fear. He looked down at his own terminal. There was a strong feeling of danger but he didn’t know why.
Vila, don't let them re-grade you. His heart began pounding so loud he was afraid people would hear it.
He realized the voice was in his head. He was trying to tell himself something? But shouldn’t he sound like himself, not someone else? There was an itch of recognition but little else.
Vila always had a good instinct for danger. He was always right. But…
Being an Alpha was what he always wanted. He was sure his test results would get him re-graded but he couldn’t ignore the strong feeling of danger. It didn’t make any sense. How could there be danger in being re-graded?
Should he listen to the voice?