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Fiction – “High School 3000” by Timothy Miller

Another uncomfortable itch sparked in his leg. Caleb grunted irritably, shifting a few centimeters in his seat. He wished for the thousandth time he could have just one of his hands free, if only for a moment. It was a pointless yearning, of course. Even if he could draw the attention of the driver beyond the smudged, bulletproof glass, protocol forbid any sort of free mobility during transport.

The redheaded boy sitting next to him licked his lips nervously. “You scared?”

Turning his head as far as the restraining harness would allow, Caleb tongued the activation switch behind his wisdom tooth. A tinny whine sounded in his right ear as his voice algorithm analyzer booted up. “A little. They say the first day is the worst.”

The redhead nodded. “That’s what I heard too. I’m Lite Mano. My sponsor is Bioneugenics. What about you?”

Caleb frowned. The algorithm chip detected no alteration in speech pattern or syntax. Lite Mano was telling the truth–which made absolutely no sense. No one but a suicidal braincase would give out their name and sponsor so easily.

“Are you some kind of idiot, Lite Mano?”

The boy blinked. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. How do you know I’m not a competitor?”

Lite Mano paled. “But we’re both freshmen. I thought …”

Caleb silently berated himself for reacting so waspishly. Maybe the itching was getting to him. So Lite Mano was a talker. Why alienate a potential resource?

“Sorry,” Caleb apologized. “We’re not at Trade War. You just startled me, is all. I’m not used to being offered that kind of information so freely. I guess I’m more nervous than I care to admit.”

Lite Mano relaxed in his harness.

He was a small boy, and thin. No threat there. With his spindly limbs and unhealthy pallor, it was clear the he was no market operative. He wouldn’t last ten minutes once he left the school bus.

“My designation is Cruor Ojo,” Caleb said, modulating his voice with smooth, disarming undertones. Threat or no, his marketing instructor would turn over in the grave he’d put her in if he wasted the opportunity to milk a talker. “I’m here on a secondary Visa, cross training in blackops, special marketing for Invent. Sorry if I freaked you out.”

Lite Mano grimaced. “No apology necessary, Cruor Ojo. You’re right. I should have kept my mouth shut to begin with. It’s just …” He shook his head. “I’ve been bunker training in nanotech my whole life, micro bionics division. Truthfully, I’m not cut out for this kind of pressure.”

Bunker trained? How interesting.

“I thought Nanotechs were indentured until retirement.” He rubbed his prickly shoulder against the seat. “How is it you ended up here?”

“By the skin of my nose, actually.” Lite Mano sighed. “I faked a third level supervisory recommendation. The next thing I know, I’m being prepped for freshman year.”

“Inventive.”

“You mean stupid. I thought any transfer station would be better than the lab. I didn’t realize what I was getting into until it was too late.”

Caleb chuckled. “Well, you’re here now.”

Lite Mano swallowed hard. “Yeah,” he muttered glumly. “Whoopee.” Caleb kept his expression carefully neutral as he considered his options. A rogue micro technician was a rare find indeed. If bound, Lite Mano could prove an invaluable asset over the next four years. Of course, that was assuming he and Lite Mano made it through the first day.

A dirty bulb above the cockpit began to flash green. The bus decelerated, and the harness tightened against Caleb’s chest. If he was going to enlist the spindly techi, he had to be quick.

“Lite Mano, how would you feel about pooling our resources?”

Lite Mano’s eyes narrowed. “You just finished reminding me why I shouldn’t trust anyone today.” The light above the cockpit went from green to blue. “Why would you want to team up now?”

The clicking sounds of the harnesses disengaging echoed through the bus. Students rose from their seats and began lining up outside the blast doors.

Caleb took his time removing his restraints. When everyone else had stood, he took a spot at the end of the line behind Lite Mano. “Look, I’m ops and you’re tech. I could use you, and you definitely could use me.”

The heavy doors slid apart. The first two students charged out of the bus. Lite Mano didn’t speak as the next pair moved up to the door. There were only six students left in front of them.

Caleb bit back a curse. Diplomacy had never been his strongest study. Oh well, so much for the olive branch of mutual interest. It was time for the unforgiving fist of survival. “What’s the dropout rate on the first day, Lite Mano?” The question was cold, and emotionlessly matter-of-fact. He scratched at the black pseudo-leather of his bodysuit just below his elbow. “I’m not positive, but I think it’s around eighty … or was it ninety percent?”

Beads of sweat formed on Lite Mano’s temples. Two more students left the bus, and his breathing quickened as the line moved forward.

Caleb smiled. “Last chance, techi. I’m not asking for much, just contractual obligation of your services over the next four years. In return, you have my protection en route to Orientation.”

“That’s robbery!” Lite Mano hissed.

“That’s high school,” Caleb responded callously. “If it makes you feel any better, I wouldn’t have let you make it to Orientation anyway.”

Lite Mano reddened. “You said we weren’t at Trade War. We’re not even competitors!”

“Do you think that really matters?” Caleb shook his head. “There are only so many seats available, techi. The fewer students I have to contend with, the better.”

The last pair of students in front of them readied themselves at the door.

Lite Mano bowed his head. “You win, Cruor Ojo. Get me to Orientation. In exchange, I’ll help you with any tech I can. Is the contract agreed?”

The chip in Caleb’s ear confirmed the truth of the offer. “It is agreed.” He slid past Lite Mano to take a defensive position in front him. “Now stay close and be silent. I won’t be violating the contract if you bring unwarranted risk to the arrangement.”

Lite Mano’s lips tightened to a thin angry line, but he nodded his assent.

The students in front of them darted from the bus, and Caleb moved up to the door. He took a moment to examine the docking hall before following the other students out of the bus.

He’d studied the structural design of this complex for months, and he instantly recognized one of the more derelict portions of the high school. Dented lockers lined mildewed walls of stained plaster. Broken tile and trash littered the grimy floor like rotting leaves. The glass light tubes on the ceiling had mostly burned out, and those that still worked flickered weakly like slowly dying torches.

The freshmen who’d just left the bus took only seconds to disappear within the murky corridor.

Motioning for Lite Mano to follow, Caleb slipped out of the bus and moved into the hall. He’d only taken a dozen steps however, when his tracking implants activated. A chirp sounded in his ear, and two semitransparent blips appeared in the corner of his vision. He froze.

“Krizer,” he hissed softly.

They hadn’t even made it out of the docking hall. Classroom placement must be getting more competitive every year.

Lite Mano crept closer. “What wrong? What is it?”

Caleb scratched the itch in his thigh. “Upper Classmen.”

“Oh, krizer.”

“That’s about what I was thinking.”

“What do we do?”

“Only one thing to do.” Caleb began rolling his shoulders to loosen the muscles of his arms and back. An itch sprang up between his shoulder blades. He ignored it. “If you want to live, techi, then listen up.” He could have modulated his voice to reassure Lite Mano, but he didn’t bother. They were in it now, and high school was no place for coddling. “We move fast and hard. You stay on my six, or you’re on your own. Are we clear?”

“We’re clear, Cruor Ojo.”

Caleb tapped the inside of his left wrist. A schematic of the school superimposed itself over his right pupil. He zoomed in, blinked three times to mark their position, and zoomed back out until he located the Orientation room. Memorizing the route, he tapped his wrist again to banish the image. “Let’s go!”

Caleb ghosted down the hall, Lite Mano a noisier shadow behind him. The redhead’s lack of stealth grated on his nerves, but it was probably irrelevant. The students ahead would undoubtedly possess cybernetic or biological tracking enhancements. Even without the noise, it was unlikely they could pass the Uppers undetected.

Lite Mano’s heel stamped down noisily on a loose tile.

Caleb winced. Of course, escaping notice would have been far simpler were he alone.

A hundred yards into the building, Lite Mano tripped over a crumpled mound that smelled of charred pseudoleather. He gasped.

“Cruor Ojo, look!”

“Quiet, you idiot.” Caleb knelt. On the floor were the blackened remains of one the freshmen from the bus. The boy’s skin looked sunken, dry to the point of mummification.

Lite Mano hesitantly reached out and touched his fingers to the desiccated face. “He’s dead!”

“Of course he’s dead. We will be too if you don’t shut your mouth.”

A muscular teen with a protruding eye implant sprang out of a dark doorway beside them. In his hands was four-foot rod of sparkling blue light.

Lite Mano screamed, scrambling back.

The upperclassman swung the glowing rod at Caleb’s head.

Caleb weaved to the side. Solar Kiss, he thought, reflexively identifying the elemental tech even as he moved. That explained Mr. Crispy lying on the floor.

Designed to excite hydrogen molecules, the Kiss evaporated liquid on contact. Prized by Arctic excavators and cold planet miners alike, the Kiss was a dangerous tool. Applied against living tissue, it could evaporate every drop of blood in less than a minute.

The Upper must have nicked the Kiss from Geology.

Coming up inside the weapon’s arc, Caleb took note of the Upper’s surprised expression and smiled. The prototype adrenal response system had cost his sponsor plenty, but it had given Caleb speed and reflexes few expected, and fewer could match.

Using his augmentation to good effect, Caleb planted his knuckles in the Upper’s throat.

The Upper gagged, dropping the rod to clutch his crushed windpipe.

“Behind you!” Lite Mano shouted.

Caleb spun to the side.

A second Solar Kiss, this one held by a lanky teen with a bionic arm of dull grey metal, passed through the air Caleb had occupied a moment before and stabbed into the first Upper’s shoulder. The rod sizzled like bacon hitting a hot skillet. The wounded Upper fell back with a rasping cough, still clutching his ruined throat.

Caleb’s spin ended with a powerful kick to the second Upper’s wrist, knocking the Solar Kiss from the student’s grasp. Pivoting on his heel, he aimed another kick at the Upper’s skull.

The Upper’s bionic arm blurred up, blocking the kick.

Undeterred, Caleb launched a series of lightning punches and kicks. He aimed at eyes, joints, soft tissue and nerve centers, any and every place that might be vulnerable.

But though his first kick had successfully disarmed the Upper, not one of his subsequent attacks struck home. Whirling like the propeller from a twentieth century airplane, the Upper’s bionic limb intercepted every strike.

This was not good. The bionic slapped another of his punches painfully aside. Caleb winced. He was faster than the Upper, but the bionic arm must have military grade combat programming. No matter how fast he moved, he couldn’t get through.

Caleb ducked a metal backhand as he tried to think. Every opponent had a weakness. It was the first fundamental law of ops combat. He eyed the spinning bionic thoughtfully. It was possible the limb’s programming was limited to standardized combat routines. A little unconventional fighting might be enough to fool the limb’s system.

Falling back onto his palms, Caleb scissored his legs. It was a freestyle move designed to take his opponent from his feet. No standard defense matrix would have it on file.

Hard metal fingers clamped down on his ankle.

Of course, a higher quality adaptive defense matrix was a completely different story.

The bionic limb jerked Caleb the floor. Swinging him around like a discus, the Upper sent him rocketing toward the locker-lined wall.

Tucking into a tight ball, Caleb tensed his muscles and expelled his breath to minimize the trauma of the impact. He crashed into the dented lockers and tumbled to the floor.

There was pain–pain and the taste of blood. Warning icons flashed in his vision and he felt wet-wired painkillers and coagulants flooding into his damaged system.

“Krizer,” he choked.

Spitting the blood from his mouth, he winced at the flickering injury report that scrolled along his retina. Two broken ribs, massive bruising and tearing, even his reserve lung was punctured!

The Upper was moving toward him. He was smiling.

Caleb moved the tip of his ring finger to a specific spot behind his thumb. He hadn’t wanted to use his ace in the hole so early, but the Upper’s bionic had him beat. Continuing to fight would be pointless.

The older student had apparently reached the same conclusion. His approach was unhurried, arrogant more than confident.

“Completely unprofessional,” Caleb complained under his breath. “Idiot should never have let go of my leg.” Man, he hated that kind of attitude. Not that it would have saved the Upper had he been more cautious. It was too late for that.

A small red cloud suddenly appeared in the air around the Upper’s head. His brow furrowed, but he had time for only one confused sneeze before his eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed to the floor.

Lite Mano stepped over the Upper and offered Caleb his hand. “You okay?”

Caleb frowned. Lite Mano’s hair had changed from bright red to a muddy brown. “What was that?”

Lite Mano grinned as he helped him up. “Neural spyders. I snuck them past the weapons inspection by adhering them to my hair follicles. They slip in through the pores and deliver a paralytic shock to the nervous system, knocks you out for around six hours.”

Caleb was impressed despite himself. Smuggling contraband weaponry past the scanners was no small feat. “I guess you’re not a complete imbecile after all. Who knew?”

“You’re welcome,” Lite Mano responded dryly.

“Guess we should find out who we’ve ticked off.” Caleb bent over the unconscious Upper, examining the insignia emblazoned along the collar of the teen’s bodyglove. It was the white horse head, the shape of the knight in the game of Chess.

“Krizer. I must be cursed.”

Lite Mano ran his finger along the white insignia. “A knight, huh? Who are they with?”

Caleb stood. “Chess Club.” A large group of red indicators sparked in his retina even as he spoke.

“Chess Club? Are you krizen serious?” Lite Mano looked sick.

Caleb delivered a vindictive kick to the Upper’s ribs and then started jogging down the hall. “Come on! We’ve got to get to Orientation before the whole krizen club gets here!”

Lite Mano didn’t argue. “Right behind you, Cruor Ojo.”

Tracking the approaching blips, Caleb took a left at the next corner and led them down a stairwell. He was moving quickly, but Lite Mano matched him step for step. With the Chess Club on their tail, they needed to get to Orientation as fast as possible.

For awhile, they gained ground on their pursuers. But while cutting through an old gym, they were forced to pry open a set of old doors that had warped solidly in their frames.

As Caleb squeezed through the doors into another hall, his blinking proximity alarm went solid red. There was movement on both ends of the hall as well as the gym. He snagged Lite Mano’s arm. “Hold up. We’re surrounded. We have to find a place to hide.”

Caleb examined the walls. There were nothing but lockers in either direction, and the Chess Club would most certainly be scanning those for foreign heat signatures.

“There!” Lite Mano pointed. Just above the lockers was a large air duct with its grimy cover hanging by a single screw. “They won’t be scanning that high.”

The blips were getting closer.

“Good enough. Let’s do it.” Caleb hoisted Lite Mano onto his shoulders and pushed him into the opening. Backing up two steps, he leapt up, snagged the edge of the air duct with his fingertips, and pulled himself inside.

Together, they levered the damaged vent cover back in place just as a dozen shadowy forms exploded through the wooden doors of the gym and into the hall.

Lite Mano stiffened.

Caleb brought a finger to his lips, reminding the techi to remain quiet.

“Where are they?” someone demanded. “I don’t know,” answered another. “I thought we had them, but they just disappeared.”

“Don’t give me that,” scoffed the first speaker angrily. “They have to be here somewhere.”

“Well, I don’t see them. Do you?”

“It doesn’t matter. Orientation closes in less than fifteen minutes. Let’s put a couple of guys at either end of the hall to make sure they don’t get there.”

Caleb tapped his wrist, checking his internal chronometer and their location. He swore silently. The Upper was right. They were less than a thousand meters from the Orientation room, but they had only twelve minutes to reach it before the doors closed.

“Okay,” agreed the first speaker. “We put guys at either end. But we keep searching, too. Anyone spots one of those dirty little krizers, we’ll take them apart. Understood?”

There was a chorus of affirmatives, and then the shuffling sounds of the Uppers splitting up.

When he judged them to be out of earshot, Caleb eased open the vent cover for a peek. A pair of bulky Chess Club members were standing guard at opposite ends of the hall. “Great.” He closed the vent. “Hope you didn’t have any plans on finishing high school, Lite Mano.”

Lite Mano didn’t answer.

Caleb turned.

The techi was staring at him, a curious expression on his pallid face. “How old were you, Cruor Ojo?” he asked suddenly. “How old were you when they recruited you?”

Caleb frowned. “About six or seven, I guess. Why?”

Lite Mano leaned back against the wall of the air duct. “I was four when they came. I remember bringing home my pretesting scores that day and showing my mother. She started crying when she saw my rating. She knew what the score meant, I suppose.”

“Lite Mano, I don’t see how–”

“Do you remember your mother, Cruor Ojo?”

A brief flash of long, soft hair and gentle doe-like eyes.

Caleb shook his head. “No,” he lied.

Lite Mano sighed. “I wish I didn’t. Every time I picture her face, all I can see is her crying … crying and making me promise that, whatever happened, I would always remember my real name.”

Caleb suppressed a grimace as he scratched the itch on the back of his neck. This was getting them nowhere. He should just leave this moping techi here and go on by himself. Better yet, he should knock him out and toss him into the hall. Lite Mano could provide the distraction he needed to slip past the Chess Club.

Lite Mano looked up, meeting Caleb’s eyes with a disgusted scowl. “You’re a real jerk, Cruor Ojo.”

Caleb blinked. Was the techi a telepath?

Lite Mano laughed softly. “Be that as it may, you’re about the closest thing to a friend I’ve ever had. I hope you make it.” Shrugging past Caleb, he pushed open the vent and leapt down into the hall.

“Lite Mano!” Caleb leaned out of the vent with his hand outstretched. “Get back up here you krizen techi! What do you think you’re doing?”

Lite Mano smiled sadly, but didn’t take his hand. “Something you would think stupid, I suppose. Incidentally, my name, my real name, isn’t Lite Mano. It’s Timothy. Good luck, Cruor Ojo!”

With a loud shout, Lite Mano dashed away.

Warning cries sounded at both ends of the hall.

Huddling further back into the air duct, Caleb held his breath as an Upper guard rushed past after Lite Mano. Seconds later, he kicked out the vent and dropped to the floor.

The hall was empty, but he could hear the shouts of the Uppers not far off.

What could have possessed a skinny techi with no ops training to do something like that? Was he crazy?

Caleb snorted. “Who cares?”

After all, he still had eleven minutes to get to Orientation and, thanks to the techi, the Chess Club was no longer an obstacle. What more could you want?

Do you remember your mother, Cruor Ojo?

“Krizen techi!”

Leaning down, Caleb ripped one of the metal crossbars from the vent cover and ran after the Uppers.

Rounding a corner, he found two of the Chess Club holding Lite Mano face down on the floor. Further down the hall, a large group of the club’s remaining members was rushing toward them.

Springing forward, Caleb buried the jagged point of the metal bar into an Upper’s meaty buttock. The boy screamed, grabbing at his wounded cheek. Releasing the piece of scrap, Caleb drove his elbow into the Upper’s temple. The Upper went limp.

The second Upper started to rise, but Caleb delivered a powerful kick to the side of the teen’s knee. The joint gave with a crunching “snap!” The Upper went down with an agonized shriek. Caleb put him to sleep with a double-fisted blow to the back of the neck.

Grabbing Lite Mano’s collar, Caleb dragged him to his feet.

The techi had blood on his lips. His eyes were wide, almost feverish. “You came for me. I thought you would leave me for sure, but you came–”

“Would you please just shut up?” Caleb shoved the techi back the way he had come. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re about to have some company. Now, move!”

They ran, the Chess Club hot on their heels and howling like rabid monkeys.

Turning the corner, Caleb risked a glance back and instantly regretted it.

The corridor behind them was overflowing with furious Uppers. Flitting between the infrequent lighting like hungry demons, the tech-enhanced mob ran along the floor, the walls, even the ceiling.

Caleb made a quick calculation of their comparative speeds and the distance to the Orientation room. He swore bitterly, but then spotted an open locker about fifty yards ahead. “Hey, Lite Mano.”

“Yeah,” Lite Mano wheezed. The techi was obviously nearing the end of his endurance.

Unlike the bunker-trained technician, Caleb’s breathing was steady and even. “You don’t have any more of those Neural Spyders, do you?”

Lite Mano shook his head. “No,” he gasped between breaths. “Didn’t think … I could … sneak any more … past quarantine.”

Caleb sighed. “Oh well, guess it’s on to plan B then.”

“What’s … oof!”

Caleb’s elbow rammed into Lite Mano’s solar plexus, and the air exploded from the techi’s lungs. Seizing his arm, Caleb whirled him into the open locker and shut the door. “Sorry, Timothy. I’ve got no time to explain.”

Caleb turned to face the approaching Uppers, and charged. His assault caught the Chess Club off guard, just as he planned. Their reactions were slowed, not by much, but enough for him to penetrate their front line before they could stop him.

A monomolecular blade of a scalpel whizzed toward his neck. Caleb dove beneath the blade, positioning his finger below his thumb knuckle as he slid further into the Uppers’ ranks.

The Chess Club were no slouches. Cutting instruments and clubbing bionics came at him from every direction. If not for his unnatural speed, they would have diced him to cubes in seconds.

As it was, it was all he could do to stay alive. Somersaulting over the whirling blades of a Woodshop Multisaw, he kicked off the metal chest of a hulking teen and twisted over a spider-legged senior grafted with massive reconstructive bionics.

A cut opened on his arm, another on his thigh. They were getting his measure now, compensating for his speed with their implants and other combat tech.

He was woefully overmatched, a fact he found strangely appealing. To be tested, to be ready to die in the squalor of a broken hall was the very essence of the dark arts of Black Ops Marketing.

Caleb smiled as he moved. Dodging and leaping, he ghosted through nearly half the Uppers’ bloodthirsty group before his luck finally ran out.

A neuron razor cut into his chest muscles. Instantly, he leaned into a back flip to keep the weapon from slipping deeper into his vitals. A large teen with a tentacle-like pair of mechanical arms grafted to his spine batted him out of the air.

Caleb shifted with the blow, but landed hard. Before he could recover, four of the Uppers pinned him to the floor.

A blond Upper with the Multisaw unit fastened to his arm moved forward. “I swear you freshmen get dumber every year.” The other Uppers laughed.

Caleb just stared at them, cold fury burning in his eyes.

The blonde smiled menacingly. “I mean, are you mental or something? We’re the krizen Chess Club, freshman! What did you think you were doing?”

The other members of the Chess Club tightened the circle around him, no doubt eager to witness the carnage.

Caleb watched them push closer with a smile of his own. “You Upper Classmen really are a cocky bunch, aren’t you?”

Blondie’s Multisaw hummed to life. “Did you say something, freshman? A last request maybe?”

Caleb grunted. “Sure. How about you let me scratch this itch?”

Caleb pressed his finger hard against his thumb. The tip of the small diode in his finger clicked, triggering the network of micro ejectors lacing his epidermis, and the itching he’d been experiencing all day was finally relieved as thousands of toxic needles erupted from his pores.

***

A few minutes later, Caleb helped a scowling Lite Mano out of a cramped locker.

“What the he… Oh.” Lite Mano looked down at the sprawled bodies of the Chess Club littering the hall. “Oh, I get it.”

Caleb gave the boy’s shoulder an affectionate pat. “Good to know, techi.” He started down the hall, pausing only once to deliver an absentminded kick to the blond with the Multisaw. “I had to use my ace. It’s a toxin-based needle net implanted within my epidermis. Itches like crazy, let me tell you, but it’s absolutely bank in a tight spot. Only problem is it’s kind of a scorched earth deal. You can’t really pick your target.” He shrugged apologetically. “I didn’t want to stick you, but I didn’t think you’d agree to being shoved into a locker while I went back to handle the Chess Club.”

“Agree to hide inside a claustrophobic cabinet with no windows? You thought right.”

Caleb smiled. “I’m smart that way.” Stepping over a sprawled Upper who had thin surgical saws in place of fingers, he picked up the pace. “We’ve still got three minutes to get to Orientation. Once that’s over, you get to load a new batch of needles into my ejectors.”

Lite Mano grinned and then hurried to catch up. “Oh well, they all say the first day of high school is the worst.”

Caleb turned to the techi, his expression grim. “You don’t really believe that nonsense, do you?”

Lite Mano’s jaw dropped. “What?”

Long before he stepped through the reinforced blast doors of Orientation, the instructors heard the sounds of Caleb’s booming laughter coming down the hall.


.

About the Author

Born in May of 1974, Timothy Miller has worked at a farm, a meatpacking plant, a pickle factory, a casino, and a rowdy nightclub as a bouncer. Currently employed as a repair technician for a large telephone company, he writes in his spare time. His biggest fans, his family, spend many frigid Wisconsin nights in their home, listening to his stories and encouraging him, despite the nightmares.

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