The next day, I walked to school fully dressed in my brand new, pressed school uniform, the binder tight around my chest. Every time I thought of taking it off, I just reminded myself that it was for Gideon.
It was already a week into the new school year. I had chosen to come late. Gideon had told me of the hazing that the new students had to go through. I couldn’t afford to be stripped naked. That would ruin my plans.
Gideon had mainly taken the classes that involved biology in some way or the other. He’d always been fascinated with the human body, and his fascination had rubbed off a little on young Aster. I remembered listening to my older cousin speak with words I didn’t understand. I was torn between feeling excited about my classes and being terrified of them.
I collected my breakfast from the cafeteria and forced myself to finish everything in the tray.
I found my first class for the day, Regenerative Engineering Principles and Technologies in Lab 9 on the third floor. It was half an hour before school was to start, but there were already boys talking or working on their tablets while making notes in notebooks.
I went over to a group of three boys I saw talking by the window.
“Which seat is empty?” I asked.
“The seating chart is up there,” one boy said, pointing to a screen by the door.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Hey,” he said. “You’re new here. We don’t get new students very often. How did you get in?”
“I bet his parents know someone,” one of the other boys said.
“There’s no way that could happen. It’s not like this is some preppy private school,” the third one said. “The government officials monitoring this place wouldn’t allow anyone to be accepted based on anything other than merit.”
“Come on. There’s no way someone hasn’t gotten in based on connections,” the second boy said. He looked at me. “Your grades must be really high if that wasn’t the case.”
“I wrote a good essay,” I said.
“I’m Ezra. He’s Seth and he’s Jericho,” the first boy said, pointing them out in turn.
“Brothers?” I asked. They all resembled each other in facial features but Ezra had dark brown curls, while Seth had light brown hair and Jericho had black hair. Their eyes were the same warm brown.
“Triplets,” Jericho said.
“Ah,” I said. “I’m Aster.”
“Hey, you must be the guy I saw walking around with Malakai yesterday,” Seth said. “You know him?”
“A little,” I said.
“The robot he built for the last science fair was amazing,” Jericho said.
“Think you can get him to help us with our project?” Ezra asked.
“What’s it about?” I asked.
Jericho lifted the pants of his leg, revealing that it was metal. “We’re working on prosthetics. We think that his robot running on gesture control could be applied here.”
“I can ask him but he’s a busy person and we’re not that close,” I said.
Malakai had military training in the morning, physical training in the evenings, classes during the day and the mandatory club meetings on some evenings and weekends. Busy was an understatement.
The door opened and some girls walked in. The girls’ school had two uniforms that the girls could choose from, either the one with the skirt or the one with the pants. Gideon had told me that since most of the girls coming to the boys’ school for classes were in the Science and Technology Department or Military, they would be wearing the pants for safety and practical reasons. That meant that uniform for the boys’ and girl’s looked very similar, the only difference being in the vests they wore. The girls’ vests had white pinstripes while the boys’ were plain.
Two girls came over to where we were standing. One kissed Ezra on the cheek. They turned to me.
“Who is this?” the darker one asked.
“Aster. He’s new here,” Ezra said. “Aster, this is Rachel and Callista.” Callista was the girl who had kissed him.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said.
Rachel crushed me in a hug. “He’s so tiny and cute.”
I froze and prayed that Rachel didn’t notice that there was more in the chest area then there should be.
Seth pulled her away. “You’re making him uncomfortable,” he said. He turned to me. “Rachel is a hugger who has no knowledge of the words ‘personal space’.”
She put her arms around him and squeezed. “You know you love my hugs.”
“Ah, my ribs,” he said. She chuckled and let him go.
“Oh come on. I barely touched you,” she said.
Callista rolled her eyes. “Says the girl who does planche pushups.”
Rachel shrugged as if that was nothing.
“Hi,” Callista said. She leaned in closer to whisper loudly. “She’s also a part of the cadets so be wary of her strength.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” I said. “I’m going to check the seating chart.” I went over to it and searched for my name.
“Tough luck,” Jericho said, peeking over my shoulder. “You got the seat next to Krish Summers.”
“Why is that bad?” I asked.
According to the chart, I was sitting at a desk second from the door. Krish didn’t even look at me when I sat next to him. His eyes were glued to the tablet screen in front of him, or at least I thought they were. I couldn’t see his face clearly through his curtain of hair but I did manage to glimpse wireless earbuds in his ears.
The bell rang and the teacher walked in, ready to start the class with the usual speech of using our gifts for the good of every citizen of Nevaeh.
By lunch, my head was spinning. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the classes, because I did. It was that there was too much information for me to process mentally in that short amount of time.
I spotted Malakai sitting at a table with some other kids but when I got my tray from the machine, the triplets, with Rachel’s help, dragged me over to another table. We sat at the table and peeled back the foil cover of our trays.
The academies and universities trained the next leaders of the country in the di!erent areas. That’s why the entrance exams were so hard and why the school population was so small. My biggest classes had only fifteen students. The students were the best of the best in their fields and tuition and school expenses were covered by the government. The food they ate was made specifically for each student.
When the student was accepted, the school entered the physical details of the students and any medical conditions or allergies they had into the system. The machine scanned the student’s ID or school pin and dispensed their tray. Each tray had the exact amount of food with the exact amount of calories and nutrients necessary for each individual student. This was the reason for the signs around the cafeteria prohibiting students from sharing or tasting each other’s food. It wasn’t a big deal since the students mostly ate the same thing unless there were medical problems. Everyone had to show one of the workers that they’d finished their tray before they could leave the cafeteria.
Because I was pretending to be a boy, the quantity was much more than I’d been allowed at my previous school. Rachel who had military training morning and evening, had almost twice the amount of food on her tray as Callista who was focused on academics.
All students were required to maintain a certain size, the ideal for their genetic makeup and their department and career choice.
I turned around. Malakai stood behind me.
“I didn’t finish showing you around yesterday,” he said. He glanced at my tray. I shoved the last mouthful into my mouth.
“Later guys,” I said, my mouth full. I grabbed my mostly empty backpack and ran after him. “What did you want to talk to me about?” I asked, once we were far enough away from people.
“I was thinking last night that Gideon may have left a clue to where he was going in our room. I couldn’t find anything, so I thought you might want to have a look,” he said.
“You’re letting me in your room?” I asked, shocked. “You wouldn’t even let me into the building yesterday.”
“I’m more concerned about Gideon right now.” He stopped and turned to me. “Only search his stuff. Touch my things and I’m throwing you out the window.”
“Why would I care about your things?” I asked.
He pushed open the door to the lobby of the east side of the dorm. Some boys were lounging around in the chairs watching TV in the corner. Another group was playing a tabletop game around a table in one of the sunken sitting areas. The corner opposite the TV had lots of sitting chairs with individual lamps that were probably used for reading.
“Maybe I should have applied to stay on the dorm,” I said.
“I would get you kicked out immediately,” Malakai said.
“How perverted do you think I am?” I asked.
“It wouldn’t be for my sake,” he said. He didn’t say anything further.
“Hey Malakai. Do you want to play with us?” one of the boys at the table asked.
“Maybe some other time,” Malakai said. He grabbed my shoulders and pushed me towards the elevators.
As the elevator took us up to the fifteenth floor, I got a good view of the fields behind the school buildings. Acres and acres of green stretched out before me, the stream running through and around it. There were bridges to cross and benches to sit on and gazebos for students to relax in. I wanted to run on that grass. I would get my chance after school. Each student had a certain amount of physical activity that they had to do of their choice at least four times per week.
Past the fields to my left the ground stopped on a cliff and I could see the sea in the distance. There was a cobblestone walkway that went from the school to a long flight of stairs that went down to the beach, or so Gideon had told me. At certain hours of the day, it was open for the boys to use, whether to relax or as a training ground for the students in the cadets or one of the clubs.
Malakai led me down the hall and to the room at the very end.
We passed a few boys coming out of their rooms.
“This is our room. His bed is up there,” Malakai said.
We were on the top floor and windows lined two walls. Half the room had a sitting area and TV and some workout equipment. There was also a table with four chairs and two bookshelves stuffed to the brim, despite the fact that they both had tablets. The other half was separated into two floors. Both had a bed, a closet and a desk, but the top floor had three quarters of its roof made of glass. A telescope pointed to the sky.
“Now I really wished I’d asked to stay here,” I said.
“You wouldn’t get a room like this,” Malakai said, heading over to his bed.
“I forgot, you’re the school’s treasure,” I said.
“Exactly. I get first pick of everything.”
“Then why share a room?” I asked. “I’m sure you could get your own.”
“This was my room alone but the noise downstairs was driving Gideon crazy and he likes to clean. I lose nothing by sharing a room with him,” Malakai said. He dug around in his closet. “He’s not exactly an average student either. He was offered his own room as well, but you know how much he likes company even though he hates noise.”
“Yeah. I know,” I said.
“Ranger, any news from Gideon?” Malakai asked.
“No, Malakai. He has not left any messages,” the computer said.
I frowned and headed up the stairs to Gideon’s ‘room’. Each floor had its own bathroom. The bed was made with the stripes on the blanket going horizontal, not vertical. He couldn’t stand vertical stripes. I smiled. I used to change his sheets sometimes just to annoy him when we were younger. Everything else in the room was at a precise ninety degree angle, except for his desk which was a massive mess as it always was. For a guy who valued neatness, he couldn’t work unless his desk was a huge mess.
I decided to start with his bed on one side of the room and move across until I reached his desk and finally the bathroom.
I searched the shelves above his bed where he’d laid out the things I’d sent him over the years. They were just trinkets or prizes I won in school, nothing special or impressive, yet he’d put them on the shelf above his bed.
I tore my eyes away from them.
Below the shelf, Gideon had stuck the pictures we’d taken during the holidays when he came home.
I pretended I didn’t see them.
I felt his pillows and the mattress, even the sheet. Nothing out of the ordinary. I looked under the bed and between the mattress and bed. There wasn’t anything there either.
I searched the bedside table, the closet and his desk. There wasn’t anything strange in the bathroom.
I looked over the rail. “Malakai,” I called. “Does Gideon still carry around those little notebooks?”
“Yeah. He should have a collection somewhere.”
“I don’t see them.”
Malakai stepped out from his room to look up at me. “That’s strange. I saw him with the box in February.”
“Maybe he put it in your room,” I said.
“There’s nothing down here. Maybe he digitized it.”
It wasn’t that Gideon keeping a digital copy of his notes was out of the question, it was that even if he did, it would just be a copy. He’d never get rid of the originals. He liked the feel of pen and pencil on paper too much to ever give it up.
“Maybe it’s at the apartment,” Malakai said. “Have you searched his room?”
“I did, but I’ll look again tonight,” I said.
I gave the room another once over, stopping at the desk to see what he was working on. There were notes on tissue regeneration and human gene engineering to solve blood disorders and repair defective organs through gene therapy. That wasn’t strange considering the classes he’d taken.
“What’s this?” I opened one of the folders. There were copies of a patent for a robot. “Malakai, I thought this was your project.”
“The robot? The two of us worked on it,” Malakai said. “I was just the one who did the presentation so people forget it was a joint effort.”
“Then why is only his name on this?”
“I traded him my rights to the patent for the exchange program.”
“Why would you do that?”
He didn’t answer for a while. “Gideon knows what he needs to do. If I’d kept it, then it would just be gathering dust. I have other ideas for projects that I’m working on right now. He’d already gotten the offer for that mentorship program so it wasn’t as if he lost anything. I thought the exchange program might help me figure some things out.”
“Did it help?”
“Yes and no.” He didn’t say any more.
Once I was done with Gideon’s room, I went to the shared living area. I took every single book out of the bookshelf, but nothing was there.
I fell onto the couch.
“Find anything?” Malakai asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “This isn’t like him. Something is wrong.”
“Maybe he took everything back to the apartment,” Malakai said.
“I didn't find anything earlier but I’ll still look some more tonight.” I held my head in my hands. I felt when Malakai rested his hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sure he’s fine.”
“Don’t lie to me. If you were sure of that, you wouldn’t have let me into your room,” I said. “This only makes me even more worried.”
The school bell rang in the distance. I stood.
“Do you have a class now?” Malakai asked.
“No. I’m going to take a walk around the school.” I swung my bag over my shoulder and headed to the elevator. I didn’t even notice the beautiful scenery on the ride down. All I needed was one clue, something that would let me know where he was and how he was doing.
I walked around the school building then took the elevator up to the seventh floor. I stood on the crosswalk between the science and art building and leaned against the rail. It was September so the hot summer air was just started to cool down. During the colder months when the weather was bad, and at nights, the glass casing covered the crosswalk.
I closed my eyes and let the breeze hit my face. I wondered if Gideon ever did this. Probably not. He didn’t like heights.
My head turned to the sound. A young man was trying to balance a stack of boxes that the wind was threatening to blow over the rail. I jumped forward and grabbed the top two boxes just as they were sliding off.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got them,” I said. Now that he only had two boxes in his hands, I could see the pins on his shirt, one of a paint brush and pen meaning he was a part of the Art Department, and the other saying ‘Teacher: Caspian Moore’. He was twenty-five at the very most with large, thick glasses and long, curly, windswept hair. He wore a simple sweater over a dress shirt and tie. I thought he was a little young to be a teacher, but if he was at Neptune, he must be amazing at whatever kind of art he did.
He gave me a sheepish grin. “Mind giving me a hand or do you have a class?” Something about his voice sounded familiar but I was certain I’d never met him before.
“I have time,” I said.
He let out a breath. “Good. I thought I was going to be walking around lost. I don’t know where my class is.”
“Um, well, this is my first day too,” I said. “I’m not sure where anything is yet.”
“Oh,” Mr. Moore said. “I guess we’ll just have to ask someone else then.”
It didn’t take us long to see another student who showed us where his studio was. We placed the boxes down on his table at the back of the room.
He looked around the room. “Would you mind helping me set up a few things?” he asked. “It won’t take long.”
“Sure,” I said. Hopefully that would help get my mind off Gideon for a little while. I needed a break to recharge my brain.
“Set the chairs in a circle and put these supplies in that cupboard over there,” he said. “See if you can get everything to fit on the top few shelves. I’m going to get the rest of things. I’ll be back soon.”
I watched him walk out the door, then turned my attention to the task at hand.
Gideon had told me that the Art Department had been getting smaller and smaller recently so the few Year Six and Seven students, and sometimes Year Five, went to the girls’ school for classes. This means that Mr. Moore would mostly be teaching the younger students unless the class sizes had increased.
By the time he came back, I’d laid out the paints and other small art supplies in the cupboard and was arranging the chairs.
“Nicely done,” he said.
“What about a place to put tablets for digital art?” I asked.
“Those aren’t arriving until next week,” he said, “and there are benefits to doing some projects traditionally.”
I shrugged. “I’m not an art person. I wouldn’t know.”
He glanced down at my pin. “A Science student,” he said. He shook his head and opened the other boxes he’d brought. “No matter how good I was during class, it didn’t matter when it came to the final exams. I could never remember the formulas.”
“I find that to be the hardest part as well, but once I have them memorized, I can manipulate them to find the answers to my questions. What can I do with art?” I asked. “That’s not an insult. I really am curious.”
Mr. Moore straightened. He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Don’t people have to design your projects?”
“Yes, but that’s easily done with a computer,” I said.
“True, but it is still art.” He thought about it a little more. “I’m not sure how to explain it but how about this, you have to take at least one class outside of your department. Why don’t you take an Introductory Art class and I’ll show you?”
Gideon had taken Film Appreciation.
“I’m not so sure,” I said. “There are other classes I want to take.” I wanted to give it a try but I had to focus on finding Gideon.
“It will just be for an hour or two per week,” he said.
“I’ll think about it.”
The bell rang for the next class session.
“I have a class now,” I said.
“Thanks for the help,” Mr. Moore said. “Feel free to stop by anytime I’m not having class.”
“Sure,” I said. “Oh, one thing.” I pointed to my hair. He turned to look at his reflection in the mirror. His eyes widened and he scrambled to fix his hair. “Later Mr. Moore.”
“Later… wait, I didn’t catch your name,” he said, turning around, half of his hair flat and the other half still sticking up.
I held back a laugh. He reminded me of Gideon. “Aster Arman,” I said.
“Pleased to meet you Aster.”