Ralen turned and leaned against the sink. “O-kee-dee, Tig, what happens when she’s done with you? Everyone at my level’s got the know on her. She’s a real animal lover.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means she likes having pets. Are you cool with that? Do you like being a pet? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you’re not different, Tig. You’re not special. You’re just easier to domesticate.” He pulled on his shirt and zipped it. “If you’re not just her pet, please share with me how you’re any different from the rest of us?
I didn’t know at first. I didn’t have an answer for him. So I gave it a moment’s thought. Then it was obvious.
“The only difference I can see is that I’m leaving this room tonight to be with Cheza Gregory, and the rest of you aren’t.”
I tapped open the door to our quarters and sauntered through.
I opened her door a few minis before locks-on. She was dressed in tightblack from peak to piggies, a cap stretched over her head. She grabbed my hand and led me out of her quarters to a darkened portion of the school where clear plastic sheets hung from scaffolding set up everywhere. There was some work being done on the build. She pushed through some plastic curtains then suddenly dropped to her hands and knees and began pawing around the floor. A moment later she lifted a loose board, giggled, and slid under it, immediately disappearing into a hole. When the board lifted back up, Cheza’s head peeked up out of the floor at me.
“You didn’t think it would be easy, did you?”
I lifted the floor board and dropped in after her, making sure to cover the hole in the floor completely so as not to arouse any suspicions. She already had an electrotorch lit and was carrying it down the subterranean tunnel while she fingered at her gutpad for directions.
“Follow me at all times,” she said. “No exceptions.”
“So serious. Where are we going?”
She said again, “No exceptions.”
I nodded. “O-kee-dee.”
We were down in that labyrinth for what seemed like hours. I think Cheza got lost a couple times, but was afraid to admit it. When we reached a small flight of concrete stairs Cheza checked her gutpad again, looked up at me and smiled.
“Come help me with these,” she said. We ran up the stairs and pushed up on a set of heavy doors that parted in the middle. The first thing I felt was the cold, night air rush in on us. Normally I wouldn’t be able to feel it as strongly, but we’d been stuck inside the bowels of the school for so long that the crispness of the outdoors wasn’t lost on me, even with my numbers. I stepped from the stairs onto grass and, looking out, recognized the white aspen trees of Fairchild’s immense west grove—we saw pictures of the new arm of the school plastered all over eastwing. Cheza had bypassed all the surveillance cameras and truancy forces patrolling the grounds outside our own East Arm and dumped us out on the west wing of the institute that everyone in school knows hasn’t been completed yet and has no stud population until next year. No studs equals no surveillance equals no one knows that we’re here. Cheza was brilliant, again. She hopped off the top step and bounded toward the grove like a fawn.
“We’re here,” she called out. “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” I said. “Isn’t it an awful long way to go though, if we’re just here for a walk? We could’ve just gone tomorrow on our own grounds.”
“But this place is special,” she said as she reached the tree line.
“It’s just woods.” My voice trailed off as I gave chase. “There’s nothing special here, just . . . wood.” I fought through the prickers and dense shrubbery that strangled the ground between the aspens.
Where are you going?” Cheza stopped where the big grove broke and a field spread out in front of us. On the other side I could see the fuzzy brights of the city.
She pointed to my legs. “You’re bleeding.” I looked down to see my pants were pocked with small dark circles. “Don’t worry, I am too,” she said, lifting her calf to show me. The night air was visible in front of our faces and she sucked it in between her clenched teeth. “Tonight you can consider yourself lucky to be so dull.” I took a few steps in the direction of the field and CRACK my body slammed to a halt and crumpled.