I held my breath as I snuck towards the enemy encampment. Navigating only by the soft glow of the stars and the flickering lights of the distant campfires I crept ever closer keeping my sword loosely grasped in my palm.
Despite myself, I was impressed. The chill of the night air, the arrhythmic chirping of crickets, the smoky odor of the camp, this was a reality in and of itself. On top of that, the graphics were amazing. No other game could compare.
The sentries remained oblivious to my presence as I took my position behind a handily placed bush. They never saw me. The dumb NPCs were practically blind unless you were four feet in front of them. Not that I was complaining, mind you.
Hmm… Should I attempt a direct assault, or would remaining stealthy prove wiser?
Stealth, definitely stealth. If I broke cover now, the sentries would undoubtedly sound the alarm and enemy soldiers would swarm me.
I sheathed my sword and shrugged my bow off my back, checking the number of arrows in my quiver. Ten… that should be enough, but it would probably be a good idea to stock up next time I entered a town. No problem.
I was just about to take aim, when I heard a twig snap behind me. I dove to the side right as a massive sword swung down at my head.
Crap! Thankfully, the blade missed my vitals, merely clipping my left shoulder. No problem, I had health potion in my—
Before I could access my bag, my attacker, a huge Dark Knight in shadowy purple armor, swung his impossibly large weapon at my face. I jumped back in the nick of time, drawing my own, much smaller sword. There was no time, I would have to heal later. Good thing it didn’t hurt .
I swung at the knight’s side, but my blade merely bounced off of his armor. Man, I hated these guys. Their armor was nearly impenetrable, and I just could not get the knack for killing them.
Maybe if I tried a different approach? I was pretty sure that I overheard someone say once that every Dark Knight’s armor was weak at the back.
The knight swung again, but somehow I managed to dodge him, quickly rolling to the side in an attempt to get behind him.
No use. The knight turned and impaled me as I tried to get in close. His mammoth blade passed through my cheap iron armor as if it were paper.
Dammit. I thought as I looked down at the gaping wound in my chest, and then back up at the Knight’s triumphant, mocking grin. I should have upgraded.
I lost all control of my body. Mournful music played in my head as I fell in slow-motion, first to my knees, and then to my face in the mud. My vision went black, except for a hazy vision of my avatar’s corpse lying in a pool of scarlet blood.
GAME OVER. CONTINUE?
The red text flashed in my brain. I selected “No,” and waited for the menu to reappear before unplugging the system from its familiar spot at the base of my neck.
I truly did like playing the game, but after three deaths in one day, I really did not feel like playing any longer. A guy could only take so much of his own blood.
I blinked my eyes repeatedly, waiting for my body to readjust to the real world. The first few moments after unplugging from a game were always a little awkward.
To my surprise, I saw my little sister, Kelby, sitting across from me, plugged into the Viewer’s cord. That meant that while I had been unable to see her, Kelby had been watching me the entire time.
“Nice going, Carson,” she teased the instant she had unplugged herself. “Great work, dying like that. And it was such an obvious trap, too!”
“Oh, shut up, Kelby,” I grumbled, not in the mood for her ribbing. “It’s not like you could do any better. What are you even doing here? I thought you were supposed to be playing over at Sammie’s place today, not sitting here bothering me.”
Kelby shrugged. “Sammie had to go somewhere, so her parents brought me home. Now, are you finished with your game so that I can get on?”
“Yeah,” I sighed, tossing the Gamecord to my sister. “Just turn everything off when you’re done, alright?”
“I know,” Kelby assured as she switched the cartridge for my Dark Realms with her copy of Horse Story.
“Just ‘cause last time you forgot, and it was still on when I came up.” I may as well have been talking to a wall, for Kelby was already plugged in and tuned out.
I sighed again, beginning the search for some other way to occupy myself. I couldn’t go out, not if Kelby was home, for Mom had to work late tonight and Dad was out of town, leaving me with babysitting duty. My friends were all busy this weekend, so I couldn’t invite them over, and I had already seen every film we owned over a million times.
I had absolutely nothing with which to entertain myself.
Nothing, except for a boatload of homework.
I should probably get a start on that…
The lights flicked on automatically as I stumbled down the narrow, carpeted staircase to the main floor of my family’s apartment. Warm yellow light reflected cheerily off the many metallic frames my mother had hung on the walls. Every few minutes the image in each of them would change, cycling between the smiling faces of each of my family members, and occasionally showing all of us together.
Instead of going immediately to my room, I decided to take a brief detour to the kitchen for a snack. Mom had said something about there being leftover pizza in the fridge.
Yeah, there it was, all the way in the back, I could just see the glint of aluminum foil hiding behind the milk. I took out the pizza, debating whether it was worth taking the time to microwave it. Nah, too much work. I plopped the cold pizza onto a blue plastic plate and took it to my room.
Balancing the food in my right hand, I touched the sensor pad lightly with my left, and my bedroom door slid open, humming faintly.
I set the plate down on my desk and turned on my screen. The flat black rectangle mounted on my wall above the battered wooden table flickered to life, displaying my background: an epic screenshot of my two best friends and me killing a dragon together on Dark Realms.
So maybe I was slightly obsessed with that game, but it was just so much more interesting than real life. Especially when Aarron and Emmi could play too. Why did both of them have to be gone today?
I sighed again wondering where I had left my school bag. I had come home on Friday, thrown it down on the floor of my room, as usual, and had not thought of it since.
So where could it have gone?
The bag did not seem to be under my bed, nor was it next to my bed where I usually left it. Oh, wait, there it was under my window, hidden by a discarded jacket.
I unzipped the nondescript gray rucksack and sifted through the mess of crumpled papers for my textbook, all the while going through my mental checklist.
No homework in science, obviously none in art or gym class, I had long ago finished the book we were reading in English, so all that I had left to do was the worksheet that I had already halfway completed for math class, and the entire Catalyst project for history that was due tomorrow before the Examination.
The project had been assigned two weeks ago. Leave it to me to procrastinate until Sunday evening.
Well, better late than never, I reasoned. Plus, a lot of my best work had been last minute, so why change now?
Finally, my hand brushed against the hard plastic cover of my History textbook. I pulled it free from the multi-layered detritus of discarded worksheets and set it next to the pizza on my desk.
Under its cover, the textbook’s screen was scratched and cracked to the point of uselessness from years of rough treatment. My teacher had been assuring us for ages that new ones were on their way, but as of yet the replacement books had not shown up.
Not that it mattered. I preferred to plug my textbook into the Screen in my room anyway. That way I could multitask more effectively. Plugging the book into the Screen also beat plugging it directly into my neck, because this way I was able to look away from the display and do other things.
Like eat my pizza, for instance.
I took a large bite of the pepperoni’d slice, using my Screen’s touchpad to scroll through my textbook’s expansive table of contents with my other hand. When I found the chapter I needed, I slipped on my headphones and settled into my battered desk chair to watch the lecture.
A man appeared on my Screen, the same guy who usually narrated the readings. He looked to be about fifty years old, had funny little glasses and an impressive grey mustache that reminded me of a walrus. Apparently, he was a history professor of some acclaim, but I had a hard time believing it.
“As you are well aware,” he began pompously as I ate my pizza and stared out the window, completely ignoring the little yellow subtitles below the Walrus Professor’s image. “There have been a total of three Cataclysms in recorded history, the first of which, according to our earliest records, happened almost two thousand years ago. The second came much later, approximately one thousand years ago, while the third Cataclysm, the Cataclysm that preceded the establishment of our glorious Order and signifies the historic beginning of this Golden Age we now enjoy, happened a mere eight hundred years ago.
“As the name suggests, the event known as the Cataclysm is best described as the dramatic, violent ending of the world as it is known. Continents are sunk, vast forests vanish without a trace, volcanic activity dominates much of the landscape, and mountain ranges are reported to have grown up overnight. Human civilization is brutally destroyed and left to start again with nothing, left to raise a new Order from the ashes of the old.
“This tragedy has come about three times in the past, and could happen again at almost any time, should another Catalyst rise.”
I have to admit, I zoned out a bit at this point. The Walrus Professor was only restating what we had been taught every single year since first grade, and had yet to say anything new. Only when his mustachioed visage was replaced by images of the Cataclysm’s aftermath did I actually start paying attention again.
Photo after photo appeared on the screen, showing first the grainy images taken from the last apocalyptic period, then moving on to more recent pictures of ancient ruined cities and desolated, barren wasteland. The incredible photos of destruction made me forget my pizza for a moment. What on Earth could possess such terrible power?
I already knew the answer: the Catalyst could. All of the terror and death of the Cataclysm was brought about by the Catalyst. The annihilation of everything that had been could be attributed to that terrible figure. Three times in the past a Catalyst had risen, and three times the world had collapsed in a Cataclysm. Truly the Catalyst was the ultimate evil.
The morose montage of desolation ended after a minute or two, and the Walrus Professor returned, dominating the screen once more. I finished my pizza as he rambled on about names and dates and places.
The guy went on for a while about different stories and eyewitness accounts from the last Cataclysm, but I simply could not bring myself to care all that much. The pictures had been cool, in a creepy, end-of-the-world kind of way, but the Walrus Professor’s voice completely killed my interest. Even the Cataclysm could be made boring by a dull teacher.
I twitched the cursor to check how much time was left in this lecture before it moved onto the next section. About two minutes remained. I sighed again.
So far, the textbook had done nothing more than reiterate what I already knew. Maybe I could just skip the rest of the section?
I paused the recording and brought up the screen that displayed only the subtitles, skimming the text quickly to see if it was worth wasting more of my time with. Nope, I could definitely afford to skip it.
What about the next bit?
No, this stuff seemed new, I should probably listen. I brought the screen back to the video and began to play the second section.
“—of course, such devastation as the Cataclysm could not occur on its own: the calamitous event only occurs when a Catalyst is allowed to rise,” the Walrus Professor instantly began to drone. “While, of course, we only have three recorded instances where a Catalyst has risen, individuals showing Catalytic characteristics appear every two hundred years or so, on average. No one is sure where the Catalysts get their awful power, or what set of circumstances leads to their birth, but our glorious Order has developed the technology to detect and apprehend Catalysts before they can begin their apocalyptic rise.
“This is achieved through the yearly Examination of every citizen of and over age fifteen. Through this Examination, scientists of the Order have successfully captured and Shut Off five such threats and preserved the world for—”
At this point, I zoned out again. This reading was appallingly dull, and I had run out of pizza.
I debated on going and finding something else to eat, but as that would require me to get up again, I decided against it. My chair was too comfortable, and I was too lazy. Instead, I picked a little puzzle toy off of my desk and played with it while the Walrus Professor spoke.
He talked, and talked, and talked, and talked, and I had almost solved my puzzle by the time he had finally finished.
The problem I had with the guy was that he used far too many words to convey only a small amount of information, and he would repeat himself over and over and over again with only slightly different phrasing each time. He turned something that could be easily summed up in a few lines into a massive, multi-page rant.
The Walrus Professor was probably the only man on the planet who could make the violent end of the world sound boring.
I had at last finished the reading, so now I needed to do the project.
It would not be too difficult— the assignment was to create a slideshow demonstrating knowledge of the Cataclysm and the need for the Examination. I could throw a decent presentation together in maybe half an hour.
I glanced at the clock. Six forty-five. I’d have plenty of time to work, and I’d probably have extra time to kill again afterwards. Perhaps I could actually find something interesting to do. Or I could sleep. I had endless opportunity to accomplish absolutely nothing at all.
First, though I had to focus.
I moved the textbook display to the right half of my screen and brought up a blank slideshow on the left.
Completing the project took over twice as long as I had expected. More than an hour was spent finding information and adding bulletpoints to the pointless history project, and I had not even added any pictures yet. At least that was all I had left to do.
I copied and pasted some of the pictures from the textbook into my project, but when I got to the slide about the Examination and the Catalysts who had been stopped, I found that the book had nothing to offer.
Annoyed, I pulled up another display to search the internet for a good graphic.
After a moment, I found what I was looking for. I selected a link that led me to a site all about the five former Catalysts. Their pictures, their histories, everything a person could possibly want to know about them.
I should come back to this, although it would be a good idea to finish my slideshow first, before I got sidetracked and forgot.
…Or not, I realized a few minutes later when I noticed I was still reading the Catalyst thing. Oh well, homework could wait, this was actually interesting. And anyway, this should not be too long, I’d be finished in a few minutes, and then I’d be back to my project.
Three hours later, I was still reading on the same slide, and my presentation was still unfinished. However, I was probably an expert on the un-risen Catalysts by now.
Daniel Morrison, he had been the first one, and had nearly succeeded in destroying the world again when he was captured by the Order and switched off. His picture showed a dark-haired, dark-eyed, unshaven man of about thirty-five. The look on his face disturbed me, his expression was one of a strange, hungry fire.
The second Catalyst to be stopped was a young woman, maybe twenty-three, with caramel brown skin and black hair. Apparently, she had only just begun to demonstrate Catalytic tendencies when the Order had apprehended her. This woman had been named Crystal Meyers.
The next three Catalysts were all kids like me, not one of them looked to be any older than fifteen. None of these faces had the same fierce hunger of the first two Catalysts; instead, these kids looked terrified. Tom Brewer, Pamela Jonson, and Lucille Benjamin had all been detected through the Examination.
I was not sure whether or not to feel bad for them. These kids were all my age, and had had their whole lives ahead of them when they had been switched off, but on the other hand, they had been born to destroy the world, if the Examination was correct.
The thought sent a chill down my spine. What if the Examination had been wrong? Who would know?
People attributed the lack of a Cataclysm to the Examination, but what if that had nothing to do with the fact? What if those kids simply had not been Catalysts? If that was the case, then they had died for nothing.
No, I assured myself. Surely the Examination was accurate. The information was gathered directly from the plug in the back of the person’s neck, there was no way that could be wrong.
So why did I still doubt?
Suddenly I did not feel like reading the Catalyst site anymore. I quickly stuck the photos I needed into my slideshow, saved the project to my school folder and turned off my screen.
I glanced at my clock again. Wow, ten-fifteen… It might be a good idea to check on Kelby and make sure she was in bed. Mom would kill me if my little sister were still up when she got home from work. Heck, she would kill me if I were still up when she got home from work.
I left my room and walked down the hall to Kelby’s. I opened the door a crack to check if she was sleeping, but I opened it the rest of the way when I saw that she was not there.
“Awesome,” I muttered in annoyance before retuning back upstairs to kick Kelby off the Gamecord. Surprisingly, when I got there, although my sister was still plugged in, it was not to one of her dumb horse games.
I was not sure whether to be glad or annoyed that my little sister was currently playing Dark Realms.
I tapped Kelby’s shoulder to call her out of her game-trance, and waited a moment for her to unplug herself.
She did so, glaring at me in irritation when I announced it was time for bed.
“Oh, come on, Carson!” she complained. “I was in the middle of something! Just give me ten more minutes!”
“Can’t. Mom’ll be home soon, she’ll switch us both off if we aren’t in bed when we should be.” Now it was my turn to glare at my sister. “And next time, I’d like it if you asked before messing with my stuff,” I teased.
“Whatever,” Kelby poked back as she followed me down the narrow stairs. “I don’t make you ask to use my stuff, though, so why should I—”
“That’s because I never want to use your stuff.”
We continued playfully ribbing each other like this all the way to our rooms, where Kelby and I wished each other goodnight and went our separate ways to bed. I waited until I saw my sister’s light go out before shutting my own door.
I took a moment to throw my school stuff back into my book-bag before climbing into bed myself.
Dark apprehension danced through my brain as I lay there in the blackness, listening to the sounds of the street. Tomorrow was the Examination day. Tomorrow everybody over the age of fifteen would be plugged into the system and scanned for abnormalities.
Tomorrow, my school would be checked for a Catalyst.
Sure, they probably wouldn’t find one, but… what if they did? What if it were someone I knew? What if it were—
I cut the thought short. There was no chance of that. No chance in all the world.
The last Catalyst had been caught, what, like, eighteen years ago? And the Walrus Professor had said that they came around every two hundred years, so we would be good for a while, right?
Right. I tried to assure myself, but as I drifted to sleep, I could tell that I wasn’t convinced. The last thing I remember before falling asleep was the thought that the Examination seemed like such a small way to decide someone’s fate.
That night, I had a series of crazy dreams. Actually, that’s kind of a lie. It was more like a montage of insane nightmares.
The first one that I remember was pretty mundane: I woke up for school late and failed a test I had forgotten to study for. Then, when the bell rang at the end of the period, zombies from Dark Realms came out of the walls and started attacking people.
At some point, that dream switched to one where a Catalyst rose and started blowing up everything. I couldn’t find my little sister or my parents, and our house got blown up. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it was pretty scary at the time.
The third dream, the most vivid nightmare I think I’ve had in my entire life, was one where my best friend Aarron was the Catalyst and was switched off by the Examiners right in front of me.
I was glad when my alarm clock woke me up that morning, although I wasn’t glad to find that it woke me up fifteen minutes later than usual. The darn malfunctioning piece of crap forced me to skip breakfast, and I very nearly forgot to grab my book-bag and my history project on my way out of the door.
Not that any of this really mattered, though, in the long run, but at the time it had seemed important.
…Looking back, much of what seemed really important at one point in time became utterly meaningless the next day, but that’s aside from the point.
The point is, I had to run to catch the bus, and I only barely made it in time.
The bus was quiet, it was always quiet in the mornings. Nobody was awake enough yet to make much noise, and pretty much everybody was plugged into their music, so nobody was actually interacting with anybody.
I debated on plugging myself in as well, but decided against it. Emmi got on the bus a mere two stops after me, so there was really no point in starting my music if I’d only be unplugging myself again in five minutes to talk to her.
I sat in silence, staring out the grimy window at the nearly vacant streets as the bus lurched and creaked around the neighborhood. These busses were a million years old, and easily heard a mile away.
One stop. Silent, sleepy students clambered aboard. One kid, he looked like he was sleepwalking, tripped up the stairs and nearly faceplanted in the aisle. Thankfully though, he caught himself at the last minute, and I don’t think anybody other than me noticed.
Two stops. Emmi was the third person on the bus. As usual for a Monday morning, Emmi’s face was set into a distant scowl, but her expression brightened when she saw me, morphing into a smile.
“Hey, Carson. Morning,” she greeted me, pushing back the battered hood of her favorite black jacket to reveal her short raven hair and customary skull-patterned hairband.
“Morning,” I replied, moving my book-bag from the seat to my lap to make room for her to sit beside me.
“Sorry about not getting on yesterday,” Emmi began as she flopped down on the seat. “I was—”
“At your grandparent’s house, I know,” I finished for her. “It’s alright. You told me a while ago you’d be gone for the weekend.”
“I did, didn’t I?” she mused, rummaging through her green and purple bag. “So, what did you and Aarron do while I was gone? Kill giants? Slay dragons? Raid temples? What did I miss?”
“Not much. I dunno about him, but I died a few times and then did my homework. I think he got grounded again or something.”
“Again?” Emmi sighed. “Man, that kid either needs to stop making trouble or start getting away with it. Do you know what his dad’s mad about this time?”
“Nope,” I replied. “My guess would be that he either bombed a test or mouthed off.”
“Yeah, that sounds like Aarron all right,” Emmi sighed and shook her head, smiling despairingly. She perked up after a moment, though, when she found what she’d been searching her bag for. “Ah!” she laughed. “Here it is! Found it!”
“What is it?” I asked, peering over her shoulder as she pulled out a little black device.
“My grandparents gave it to me while I was there,” Emmi explained. “It’s a wipcon.”
“Really?” I insisted curiously. “I thought they didn’t make those anymore.”
“They don’t,” she replied.
Wireless Personal Connectors, or wipcons, as they were known, had been invented a few decades ago as a means for people to connect to the internet without being plugged into any devices. They were supposed to be the dawn of a new era, putting an end to the need to own a separate gadget for every occasion, but for some reason, the little gizmos had never caught on. I had never even seen one before.
“Can I look at it?” I held out my hand for the device, and Emmi handed it to me, laughing.
“That’s why I brought it, Carson! Grandpa can’t get it to work anymore, and we all know I’m hopeless at fixing things, so I thought maybe you could work your magic. You’re good with this stuff.”
“No problem. I’ll see what I can do.” I took the little oval and examined it, turning the thing over and over in my hand. The wipcon was small, about as wide as two of my fingers, and roughly a centimeter thick. Glossy black plastic formed a smooth, slightly flexible shell over the inner workings, and the overall shape curved slightly to allow for a comfortable fit at the base of a person’s neck.
“You mind?” I asked, gesturing with the wipcon.
Emmi shook her head and took out her music. “Not at all, do your thing. I’ll poke you when the bus stops.”
I nodded. “Alright.”
Emmi plugged herself into her music, and I plugged the wipcon into my own neck, eager despite myself. The last thing I heard before my sight and hearing turned inwards was the audible click as the device slid into place.
For a long while, all I saw was darkness. The only sound to be heard was the rushing roar of my own blood. There was no interface menu, no user’s guide, not even an error message. Just… blackness.
I imagined this must have been what it felt like before the world existed. Unlike that primordial nothing, however, I got the vaguest sense that something had definitely existed here before. I could instinctively feel the shadow of the previous network of connections.
But something was missing…
A firm, insistent poking sensation in my arm interrupted me. Apparently, the bus had stopped.
Sighing, I unplugged the wipcon and faded out of the blackness and back into reality. Emmi’s face swam into focus a few inches away from mine. Her deep green eyes held a surprising amount of concern.
“Carson? Carson, are you alright? Carson, come back to us! Carson!”
I blinked and stretched in the light. “Yeah? I’m here. I’m alive. What’s wrong?”
“There you are! Good! You’re back! I was beginning to worry I’d have to call Tech Support!”
“What?” I sat up, shaking my head and starting to gather my stuff. “Why?”
“I was only poking you for the last five minutes! What happened? It was like you’d been switched off, except for the fact that you were still breathing!”
I shrugged, slightly dumbfounded. “I don’t know. I was only looking at the thing. I’m perfectly okay. I think I know what’s wrong, too.”
“Well that’s good,” Emmi stood up, and I followed suit. I trailed her down the bus stairs, wobbling slightly as I readjusted.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure the problem is a disconnect between the user and system. If I have some time to play with it later, I’m fairly certain I’ll be able to find a new pathway.”
“Alright, just be careful.” Emmi grabbed my shoulder, steadying me as I nearly tripped over the threshold of the school. “I really don’t wanna have to drag you all the way down to Tech Support, Carson. Those nurses there give me the creeps.”
“I’m with you there.” I slid the wipcon into my pocket as we strolled towards Emmi’s locker. I would work on it later, tonight, probably. Right before going to bed.
I would get it sorted out.
One of the pale fluorescent lights flickered as we traveled the halls. The school was pretty empty at this point. My bus was one of the first to arrive, so there were not very many people walking around yet. Soon, though, this place would be packed.
I yawned, waiting as Emmi retrieved her stuff from her locker, and then we both headed down to the common area to wait for Aarron.
The common area was the large, open room that served as the cafeteria later in the day. Just about everybody- popular kids, tech geeks, creeps, nobodies- everybody hung out in the commons in the mornings. It was just a thing people did.
Our spot, the table where Emmi, Aarron, and I always ended up, was towards the back, in an out-of-the-way little area near the wall. We set our bags on the bench and sat on the table as we waited for Aarron, just as we always did.
As more busses arrived, the room filled with people. A few staff members guarded the entrance from the hallway to keep people moving and to prevent the opening becoming clogged with students, but for the most part, the commons was frequented solely by teenagers.
Finally, after what seemed like ages of waiting, I caught sight of Aarron’s familiar, spiked up, fire engine red hair in the crowd.
I nudged Emmi. “There he is.”
“It’s about time!” she muttered, watching as our friend fought his way through the mass of students, greeting just about everybody as he made his way over to us.
For, while Emmi and I preferred to stick to the edges of school society, Aarron was always in the thick of it. We were simply faces in the crowd, but Aarron was the face of the crowd.
As usual, Aarron’s short, vibrantly dyed hair was styled up in all directions. His ripped jeans, duct-taped jacket, and battered sneakers all gave Aarron a rebellious, casual air that instantly turned teachers against him and made students notice him. No matter how he looked or how crazy his reputation was, however, Aarron was my best friend, as he had been since the second grade.
Yawning, Aarron roughly swung his beat-up backpack beside ours and sat himself on the tabletop as well.
Emmi crossed her arms and raised her eyebrow in mock annoyance. “You’re late. What happened?”
“Monday happened, that’s what,” Aarron retorted, equal parts cheerful and irritated. “My freaking alarm decided to go on strike, and I didn’t wake up ‘till the bus drove past my door. I had to walk the whole dang way.”
I nodded sympathetically. “Hate it when that happens.”
“And not only that,” Aarron continued obliviously. “My dogs both managed to get themselves sick over the weekend, so I spent pretty much every waking moment from Friday night to now cleaning up after them…” Aarron sighed, rubbing his face with his hands in a gesture of exhaustion.
Emmi “awww”ed in sympathy.
“That really sucks,” I added. “Are they alright?”
“Yeah…” Aarron absentmindedly pulled a stylus from his pocket and twirled it between his fingers as he spoke. “They’re fine now, but they really had me worried there for a while…”
I nodded again. Aarron’s dogs were part of his family, even I couldn’t imagine anything happening to them. “’least they’re okay.”
“Yeah,” Aarron sighed and stretched, as if shaking off the troubles of the weekend in favor of now. When Aarron spoke again, his tone was brighter. “So, what did you two do all weekend?”
“Went to see grandparents,” Emmi answered, using as few words as possible. “Was forced to hang out with family.”
“Same as always,” I shrugged, doing the same. “Played Dark Realms. Actually did homework for once.”
“Man, you must’ve been bored!” Aarron laughed.
The multitude of murmured conversations flowed to fill the gap in ours. I looked around at all the other people as I tried to think of a new topic of conversation. However, Emmi beat me to it.
“Hey, Aarron, you’re sixteen, right?”
“Yeah. I got held back in elementary school for being “Immature,” remember?”
“Thought so. So, you were Examined last year, right?”
“Uh-huh. It’s no big deal.”
“What happens, exactly?”
I tried to focus on their conversation, I was genuinely interested, but my attention was diverted by the arrival of a pretty brunette girl. Cassie Wilson had been what could be called my crush since the beginning of the year, despite the fact that she was of a completely different social group. Cassie was popular. She was pretty. She was smart. She was athletic. Cassie Wilson was more or less perfect. I was a nobody. I had never even spoken to her.
As if from a distance, I was aware that Aarron and Emmi were still talking.
“Basically, all that happens is the whole group gets taken down to Tech Support, and they have these little rooms, right? Well, everyone is called down one by one into these rooms, and the nurses plug you in just like any other checkup. You sit there for a few minutes while they sort out your data, and then it’s just all “Nope! You’re not gonna blow up the world, next!”
Aarron paused, having noticed my distraction. “Hey, Carson!” He waved his hand in front of my face, snapping me back to reality. “You alright?”
“What? Yeah, I’m fine. I’m okay.”
“You sure? You went all weird there for a minute.”
“It’s that Cassie again, isn’t it?” Emmi interrupted, slightly smug. “Every time she walks into the room, you go all quiet. You like her, don’t you?”
“What? No, I—”
“Carson,” Emmi cut my denial short.
“I mean, I don’t dislike her—” I tried again.
“Carson.” This time, her voice held the faintest hint of warning. I could tell she was not about to let this pass, so I relented, sighing.
“Fine. Yes, I like her. I think she’s really pretty.” I knew it sounded lame, but I was unable to think of anything better to say.
Emmi chuckled triumphantly. “I knew it! Female intuition, for the win!”
Aarron leaned forward, looking interested. “It’s about time you got yourself a girlfriend, kid. Have you asked her out yet?”
“What? No! She doesn’t even know I exist!”
“Well, she never will unless you talk to her. Go on.”
I looked at Aarron, then at Cassie, then back to Aarron. The girl was walking closer, chatting with two of her friends. There wasn’t a chance in the world I could ever gather the nerve to approach her.
“No way!” I shook my head furiously. “Doesn’t she have a boyfriend?”
“Nope,” Emmi piped in, grinning impishly. “I heard in the locker room that he broke up with her on Friday, for some reason. She’s single.”
“See?” The mischievous glint was evident on Aarron’s face as well. “She’s all yours. Go talk to her!”
“No, I can’t!” Cassie and her friends were getting closer. In a matter of moments, they would be walking past our table. “What would I say, and what if she says no?”
“Pizza. Movie. Friday.” Emmi supplied. “It’s easy.”
“And if she turns you down,” Aarron shrugged, “well, at least you can say you tried.”
“But I don’t— I can’t—” I faltered, casting around hopelessly for a plausible excuse.
“Carson. Go.” Aarron placed a firm hand on my back and pushed, shoving me directly into the path of Cassie and her friends.
I stumbled, vowing never to forgive Aarron, and did my best not to end up hopelessly humiliating myself.
“Hey.” I greeted her, my heart pounding as if it were about to explode.
“Hey…” she replied, obviously bemused by my awkwardness. The blonde friend on her right giggled.
I plowed on ahead. It was too late to turn back, the only thing I could do was dig myself in deeper. “I’m Carson, we have the same first period.”
She nodded, some form of recognition suddenly dawning. “Oh! Yeah, you’re Aarron’s friend, right?”
Aarron’s friend. Very few people actually knew me, they only knew the company I kept.
“Yeah,” I laughed awkwardly. “That’s me. Aarron’s friend. I was wondering…” I trailed off, my voice catching in my throat. I couldn’t believe what I was doing, what I was saying. I was going to kill Aarron later. “I was wondering if maybe, if you don’t have any other plans, you might, y’know, I dunno, go get pizza or go see a movie or something this weekend…? With me, I mean.”
Her friends exchanged amused glances as Cassie blinked in surprise. Then she laughed, and I’m fairly certain my face turned pink.
“I-if you can’t, that’s fine—” I stammered. “It’s no problem, I’ll just… uh… I’ll..”
“No, no, that’s fine,” Cassie smiled at me and shook her head, making her perfect, glossy brown curls bounce around her face. “That sounds great, Carson. Does Friday work?”
“Y-yeah. Yeah!” I nodded, well aware of the relief flooding my voice. “Friday is fine! That’s great! Awesome!”
Cassie smiled at me again. “Alright, Friday it is, then. I’m looking forwards to it.”
“Yeah. Yeah, me too.” I smiled back, still unable to comprehend what had just happened. Cassie and her friends began to walk away, whispering and giggling in that worrisome way girls have. Suddenly, a thought struck me.
“Wait!” I called, catching up as quickly as I could manage. “Hey, Cassie, we should probably, y’know, exchange handles. I gotta be able to contact you Friday…”
“Oh, yes, of course! Um…” Cassie opened her purple cloth bag and began to fish around. “I think I have a pen in here somewhere…”
I stood there for a moment like an idiot as she searched, before finally remembering that I had a pen in my own pocket. It was a nice pen, too. My dad had brought it back for me from one of his business trips, once, and it doubled as a stylus. I brought the pen out and clicked it a few times before handing it over.
Cassie looked in her bag again for a scrap of paper, but quickly gave up on finding one and just asked that I roll up my sleeve instead. I did so, and she carefully wrote the series of numbers and letters that served as her online identification on the back of my arm.
She returned my pen and then rolled up her own sleeve so that I could do the same.
After we’d completed the exchange, Cassie and I went our separate ways. She continued walking and whispering and giggling with her friends, and I shakily returned to the table with mine.
I sat down, burying my head in my arms. “Don’t ever make me do that again,” I warned Aarron, my face burning now that I was no longer on the spot.
“What?” he asked laughingly. Evidently, my voice had been muffled beyond understanding.
I lifted my head and repeated, “Don’t ever make me do that again, Aarron. I’m gonna kill you for that.”
Aarron laughed. “Well, you got the date, didn’t you?”
“…Didn’t you?” Emmi inquired curiously.
I took a deep breath, calming myself, and managed a laugh. “Yeah. Somehow, I did.”
“Told ya!” Aarron crowed, pounding my back. “I knew she’d say yes, all you had to do was gather the guts to ask!”
I was about to retort, to think up some vaguely witty reply, but before I could think up a good one, the bell rang and cut me off. That was the signal for everybody to go to class.
Like a flood of rats fleeing a burning ship, students flowed out of the common area into the hallway. I tried to keep track of my friends in the chaotic press of bodies, but in the surging mass of teenagers, that task proved to be impossible. Even Aarron’s scarlet hedgehog was lost from sight.
Oh well. We were all headed to the same place anyway. It’s not like it mattered.
The short trip to the classroom was fairly uneventful, aside from a brief spell where some moron wasn’t looking where he was going and nearly ran me over in the hallway. As it is, the guy accidentally slammed me into the lockers on the wall. It’s not like I particularly minded, but he bruised my arm and did not pause for even a moment to make an apology. I survived, though, and made it to History Class unscathed.
The room was already nearly full by the time I walked in; almost all of the flat black desks were occupied and activated. As I took my seat near Aarron and Emmi, I noticed one kid covertly transferring data onto his desk from his folder. I couldn’t suppress a chuckle when I realized that he was trying to throw together a project at literally the last possible moment.
Even I didn’t procrastinate that badly. Although… it couldn’t hurt to look everything over again.
I plugged my own folder into my desk and waited for the shoddy school technology to turn on. The desk’s scratched screen finally blinked to life as I drew my stylus pen from my pocket, and the little folder icon appeared in the corner. I touched it with the stylus and skimmed over my report, making little edits as I went. On the whole, I was satisfied. This was a top-grade presentation. I would surely get at least a “B” for it.
Saving one last time, I X-ed out of the slideshow. Just as I leaned over to pull the book I was reading out of my bag, the teacher, Mr. Harrison, walked into the room, making the motion unnecessary. I straightened up and sighed, preparing myself to be bored out of my mind.
Mr. Harrison was a skinny, balding man in his mid-forties, with the chronic affliction of perpetually wearing stupid sweaters. He had a nervous, halting way of speaking that made listening to him a trial. Attempting to pay attention during Mr. Harrison’s lectures was like wandering into a labyrinth: there was never one discernible path among all the thousands of false starts. Pretty much all we ever did in his class was read from the book and do dumb projects.
The babble of conversation died down as Mr. Harrison stood at the podium in front of the room. “Okay guys, today—” The teacher was cut off by the grating tone of the second bell, the sound that officially started the school day.
A collective giggle rose up from the class at his inconvenience. Mr. Harrison began again, seeming somewhat self-conscious, “Okay guys, we’re going to the Examination, so we don’t have much time to goof around. Turn on your desks, submit your projects, and get ready to head down to Tech Support.”
The quiet murmur of conversation floated up once more as we followed his instructions. I tapped Emmi’s shoulder and wryly whispered, “Maybe I should have passed out on the bus. Seeing as we’re going to Tech Support anyway, it might’ve saved us time.”
Emmi laughed, playing along, “Yeah, we should remember this. Next year we can get a head start on things!”
Aarron leaned over from his desk to join in. “What?” he asked, trying to catch up. “What about passing out?”
“Oh, nothing.” Emmi smiled infuriatingly, her dismissal aimed to increase Aarron’s curiosity. “Carson just nearly killed himself hacking old tech on the bus this morning.”
“Hey, I never—” I started to defend myself, but was cut off by Mr. Harrison beginning to speak once more.
“Come on, hurry up, you don’t need to talk to submit. We need to be moving, the whole school gets Examined today, and if we miss our date, you all will have to get appointments on your own time, or risk federal punishment.”
“Harsh,” Aaron whispered as the room quieted down. “I don’t see why this is such a big deal.”
“This is a big deal, Aarron,” Mr. Harrison answered, putting my friend on the spot. “Because it is through the Examination that we postpone the Cataclysm.”
“Yeah, I know.” Aarron refused to be embarrassed to silence. “But the last Catalyst was caught, what, twenty years ago? Don’t they only pop up every two hundred?”
“I see you did your homework for once. Yes, Catalysts only appear every two hundred years on average, but the system is largely unknown and highly unpredictable, so it is best to be safe. Also, the Examination is the Order’s way of ensuring all adolescents, such as yourself, remain healthy and disease free.”
“Will you please, just stop asking questions, Aarron?” Mr. Harrison seemed flustered. “We really are on a schedule here.”
Aarron finally shut up, and the class at last drifted out of the door. There was a lot of chatter as we walked down the hallway to Tech Support. With the exception of Aarron, this was my year’s first Examination, and everybody (barring Aarron) was at least a little nervous. Examination was a big deal.
Somehow, my two friends and I ended up leading the herd across the school down to Tech Support.
Technically, it was the clinic, as the dark little plaque by the door stated, but nobody had actually called it that for ages. Tech Support had been titled Tech Support throughout my entire school career.
The class waited outside the door for Mr. Harrison to arrive, and when he finally did, we were arranged into a straight line against the wall so as not to block the hallway.
“Just like preschool, eh?” I commented to Emmi, trying to distract myself from the upcoming event.
She nodded. “Yup. At least they aren’t making us all hold hands, right?”
“Yeah.” I chuckled nervously, unable to tear my eyes away from the plain, steel grey door. My own apprehension was echoed on her face as well. Heck, it was echoed on all of our faces.
Except Aarron. My idiot best friend leaned against the wall, his fingers laced comfortably behind his head. “Man, you guys are all acting like this is some kind of ordeal or something. Chill out, my first Examination was last year, I’ve done this before, and it was no big deal.”
“Well, duh you’re not worried anymore, Aarron!” another one of my classmates, a blonde guy who might have been named Pete, cut in. “You’ve done it before. You already know you’re clean! The rest of us— we dunno. Anyone could be the Catalyst, any one of us could get switched off before the end of the day, even!”
Aarron looked as if he were about to retort, maybe even start a fight, when Mr. Harrison stepped up and intervened. “Come now, Pete. You know that is highly unlikely. Here…” The teacher cast around the line for someone to pick on. My heart dropped like a stone when his bespectacled gaze settled on me. “Carson, please, remind Pete again how often potential Catalysts appear.”
I stood for a moment in shock, a deer in headlights, my heart racing as I struggled to find the answer that I had known a mere three minutes prior. “U-uh… T-two hundred years?” I managed to stammer self-consciously, cursing my shyness.
“Very good. And will you reiterate again when the last Catalyst was apprehended?”
“Eh-eighteen years?” I mumbled, unable to keep the questioning tone from my voice, despite the fact that I knew the answer as well as I know my own name.
Mr. Harrison nodded. “So, Pete, I can guarantee that the chances of the Catalyst being in your year group are beyond slim, and the chances of the Catalyst being in this first period are even slimmer. There is nothing to be worried about. I doubt you shall see a Catalyst in your lifetime, even.” Mr. Harrison pushed up his glasses, seeming calm despite his usual disposition.
One of the Tech Support nurses opened the door and called a name. “Lawrence Adams.”
So they were going alphabetically. It would not be long until I was called.
Mr. Harrison patrolled up and down the line, partially to make sure nobody misbehaved, and partially because he didn’t seem to have anything else to do.
Lawrence emerged from the nurse’s office after a minute and stood by the opposite wall, starting a line for those who had already been Examined.
The murmur of quiet conversation barely dipped as a second kid apprehensively entered Tech Support.
Time passed. David exited as well.
“Bethany Amiston.” A blonde girl, one of Cassie’s friends.
“Cassandra Balfort.” Athlete, dressed all in pink.
“Andrew Bennec.” Dark haired guy. I didn’t know him.
“Carson Black.” …My turn…
I stood up, my heart pounding again. Emmi passed me a nervous smile, and Aarron gave me a thumbs up. Nothing will happen. I told myself. It’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.
The storm-colored door shut behind me with an unnervingly final click.