"Director, I'm sure you understand the current situation concerning the Tiger Clan's movements, is that correct?"
"Yes, of course, doctor. When that's all you hear on the radio, you don't tend to miss out much now do you?" The Director was obviously quite annoyed, taking the question as an insult.
"And so I'd like you to think long and hard about the offer I'm about to make," Dr. Reynolds continued, ignoring the Director's comment.
"I will, but will you get to the point? I do not have all day. It's now or never," the Director said, trying to calm his tone of voice.
Dr. Reynolds paused, as if organizing his thoughts. He paced a while, blocking out the impatient tapping of the Director's shoes. Finally, he spoke. "Since 2096, government funding has provided us with many opportunities. My department specializes in space colonization. Last year, we were able to successfully establish a colony. We've done numerous tests and scans to test its safety. We've approved it for human life, and we're looking for our first citizens. All expenses will be on us." The Director was surprised, and did little to hide it. He had not expected such an offer. "What if the Tiger Clan gets a wave of it and swoops in and takes the colony?" "As far as our sources go, the Tiger Clan has no knowledge of the colony."
"So you're telling me that even though they've taken over nearly every existing country, not to mention the technology within, they still can't detect this colony you've established." "That is correct." Dr. Reynolds paused for a moment, looking into the slightly skeptical countenance of the Director. Then he resumed explaining in the same calm voice. "The colony itself is protected with its own 'invisibility shield'-a device which scrambles then absorbs any satellite waves conducting a scan so the signal seems to vanish. But before the satellite is aware of the signal's absence, the device returns of signal of its own, telling the satellite that nothing exists where the colony actually lies. Quite ingenious actually." "Why an orphanage?" Dr. Reynolds was about to answer when a knock at the door interrupted them. "Come in." The door opened, revealing a tall, young woman, holding a girl no older than six. She was very skinny and pale compared to others her age. "Child services just dropped by. They found her alone at a park on the other side of town. She wouldn't say much when we asked her about her mother-probably doesn't know." The Director peered down at the young girl. "Hello. What is you name?" the Director asked in such a gentle voice it nearly startled her. The young girl clung to the woman beside her, apparently afraid to answer. "Her name's Kari Henningway. Records show she was born five years 't mention the place of birth, however. But it does mention that she moved down with her mother a year ago when a job opened up in the biotechnological corporation in the next city-cheaper to rent apartments here, obviously. "It was about a few hours after the bombing when they found her. She was sleeping under a tree with a young, black puppy, which we also brought-" "Where am I?" a soft voice interrupted, originating from the child. "You're safe now Kari." "Where's my mommy?" "You'll see her soon, don't worry." "Would you like to eat something Kari?" The Director asked. "Some ice cream, perhaps?" ".ok." Kari said, hesitantly. "Good. I'll let Ms. Warren show you the way to our cafeteria." The Director dialed a number and called for Ms. Warrren. After a few minutes, a average blonde woman appeared at the door and led Kari out of the room. "Does she have a father?" "Records record them as divorced. Father disappeared and was never seen again." "And still nothing on her mother?" " are some none of which are good. Moments after the bombing subsided, numerous raids went throughout the city, especially through BioCorp, where her mother's currently employed. Of course, it is difficult to determine what has been burned away and what was stolen, so still, no luck." The Director sighed. "What happened to the dog? "Well, after a thorough examination, the dog was clear of diseases so we allowed Kari to take it with her while she was with us. If you approve, we'll let her hold on to it for the time she remains seem quite attached to each other." "Very well." The Director sighed a deep heavy sigh. "So much violence in this much there's nothing one can do."
Kari followed Ms. Warren as she led her to the cafeteria. The cafeteria was crowded with many kids, ranging from age five to as old as twelve. Several kids occasionally glanced over to the new arrival. Kari clung nervously to Ms. Warren as they headed further down the cafeteria. Ms. Warren entered the lines and requested for an ice cream cone, which she later handed to Kari. "Kari, don't worry. You'll be fine here. We're all friends." She smiled warmly as she led Kari to a crowded table full of girls a year or two older than her. "Sarah, this is Kari. She just arrived. Would you welcome her into your group?" "Of course Ms. Warren." Sarah smiled sweetly as Ms. Warren turned away. She appeared the oldest of the group. "Name's Sarah. What's yours?" "Kari." "Nice name. Let me introduce you to the rest of the group. That's Melody. Next to her is Casey. And next to her is Dominique." Sarah motioned to each member as she introduced them. "There's an extra seat next to Melody. Take a seat." Kari took a seat and started licking her ice cream cone. It lacked the strong sugary flavor of the one she once had with her mom. She looked sadly at the group. She had no idea where she was or what was happening. All she knew was that it'd be a while before she saw her mom again. Sarah sat back down in her chair and continued the conversation they were having before Ms. Warren's interruption. Kari remained silent for a long time, only listening every now and then to the words said. An hour later, another adult entered the cafeteria and announced recreation time. Kari followed the others as they got up to leave. "Is she really gonna follow us back to our Castle?" Dominique whispered to Sarah. "We'll see.I've got an idea." Sarah replied. The group left the cafeteria and went out to the playground. Kari tagged behind them, eager to see the 'Castle'. " don't just let anyone pass into our Castle." Kari frowned, Sarah continued, "I mean, we must make sure they're of Royal Blood, mustn't we?" Kari nodded in agreement. "But how do you do that?" "One must pass the Test." Casey said, before Sarah had a chance to explain. "I'm sure you pass.." "Come on, this way," Sarah said, as they reached the playground. Kari gaped at the playground. The bars on the monkey bars were well rusted. The chains on the swings were so old it appeared the next person to sit on the swing would only find themselves on the ground as soon as they hit the seat. The slides were filled with scratches and scuff marks, resulting from many years of children's play. Kari missed the its new slides and swings. "Come on Kari. Under here." Casey called, as the group rushed under a slide. "No one will be able to hear us from here." "Ok, are you ready for the Test?" Sarah asked. "Yeah.I guess." Kari said, a bit uneasy. "The test is made up of four tasks. You must pass all four in order to enter the Castle," Sarah paused momentarily, as if gathering her thoughts. Then she continued, "Each one of us will compile a task for you to complete. The first task has been arranged by Melody. Good luck." Kari turned her attention to Melody, who held up a gum wrapper. "My task is very simple. All you need to do is find this gum wrapper within a day," she explained, releasing the gum wrapper. The group watched as the gum wrapper drifted away into the wind. "You cannot ask anyone for help. Asking for help suggests cowardice and we don't allow cowards into our group," Melody continued. "After you find the gum wrapper and bring it back to us in one piece, Dominique will tell you your next task." "Ok. I'll be back before you know it." Kari came from under the slide and set off to find the gum wrapper. Searching the playground high and low, Kari knew she'd find it. However, after searching nearly everywhere, nothing appeared. She sighed. The task seemed easy, but the winds must have carried it out beyond the fence that encircled the playground. Kari decided to search along the fence. She had not yet searched the perimeter. So she followed the fence, ignoring the stares from other children as she crawled low looking for the gum wrapper. The sun was soon setting and another adult came out to the playground to call them back. Kari let out a sigh and headed back to find the group. Suddenly, something caught the corner of her eye. It shone brightly, as the sun hit its surface. Kari took one last found the gum wrapper! Joy filled her body. She was one step closer to seeing the Castle! She rushed back with her treasure. Sarah, the first to see her coming towards them, alerted the rest of the group. "Look! I found it!" Kari exclaimed, quite excited. "Congratulations Kari! But remember, there are a few more tasks you must complete. You've only completed one-Melody's. Now, Dominique will tell you of hers." Dominique remained silent, gathering her thoughts. A few minutes passed, and nothing was said. They were now in the cafeteria, waiting to get their dinner. Once they received their meal, they all sat down together at a nearby booth. It was then that Dominique spoke. "Kari, you're task will be like no other's done before." "I'm ready." Kari said, without doubt. "This is a test of bravery above anything else." "I told you.I'm ready!" Kari was now getting impatient. "You're task will be staying one night alone with the Kwachitzu." Everyone gasped. "What's that?" Kari didn't like the sound of this. "The Kwachitzu is a monster that lurks in the darkness of the Janitor's closet. It only comes out at night. It's VERY hairy, has four arms and legs, and three eyes. The Kwachitzu is it smells the fear of children." Kari gulped. She had not anticipated in such a task. She was hoping for another treasure hunt. She was enjoying those. "Are you still sure you're ready to take on this task?" Kari thought long and hard. She really wanted to see the Castle, but she had never been by herself at night. "I'll do it!" she said confidently after a couple of mintues.
*** Kari waited patiently for the lights to go off. Click. Slowly, she crept out of bed. She adjusted the covers to produce the illusion of Ralph taking her place in bed. Before she left, she gave him a quick pat on the head. As she rubbed her hand through his silky, black, fur, she remembered the quilt she had at of course, her mother. She lingered in her memories a moment longer, feeling reassurance as her mother's words reminded her of her first day in preschool. I'll always be with you in your heart. You'll have my courage, strength, and wisdom. Don't be afraid. Kari crept quietly over to Sarah's cot, letting her know she was ready to begin her task. Sarah awoke Dominique as Kari found her way through the dark and into the hallway. A dim light shown. Just as Kari stepped into the hallway, a soft voice whispered. "I wouldn't do that if I were you." Kari peered over to her right. A girl slightly older than her sat up in bed. "The last person caught in the halls at night got in big trouble," she said, spreading her arms to emphasize the severity of the situation. " 't listen to Katrina. She has no sense of adventure," Dominique informed, mounting her hands on her hips, obviously quite annoyed. "Go on. We'll keep a look out and tell you if anyone's coming," Sarah said, smiling softly. Kari crept down the hall, locating the janitor's closet Dominique had shown her earlier. She tried the door. It was locked. Kari returned a troubled look. Dominique held up a key and slid it across the floor to Kari. A bit surprised, Kari retrieved the key and inserted it into the lock. It fitted- perfectly. She turned the key until she heard a click. After unlocking the door, she slid the key back to Dominique, who waited patiently outside their room for Kari to enter the janitor's closet. Kari opened the door, slowly. As she opened the door, she gaped in amazement. To an adult, the janitor's closet was small, cramped, and messy. But to Kari, the closet was a whole new world, filled with items she had never quite roomy. Kari took a few minutes to interpret the wonders of her world, not noticing something brush pass her. "Don't be scared."she heard Dominique whisper as she and Sarah headed back to bed. "We'll be watching." Kari entered the closet and softly closed the door behind her, allowing the darkness to swallow her. She sat down on an overturned bucket and tried rocking herself to sleep. However, as much as she tried, she knew that sleeping would only make her more vulnerable to the Kwachitzu. She listened intently, her heart pounding rapidly as she heard movement around her. "Anybody here?" she asked, her voice quivering. She gulped as the rustling continued. Moments later, she felt something brush against her. "I'm not afraid of you, Kwachitzu!" she declared confidently. Again, something brushed pass her. But this time, it brought warmth she had felt before. It ran pass her again. Her heartbeat returned to normal. When the creature ran pass her a third time, she grabbed it in her arms and was greeted by a wet tongue. "Ralph! What are you doing here?" she whispered, surprised to find him in the closet with her. She gave him a quick hug. "You're supposed to be in my cot, sleeping." Ralph whined softly. "All right. You can stay." Kari concluded, after realizing the door was locked from the inside. "I just hope they don't mind you're presence.." Kari cuddled Ralph in her arms and slept soundly for the rest of the night, forgetting all they told her about the Kwachitzu. Hours later, Kari awoke when she heard the doorknob rattling. Nudging Ralph gently to awake him, she then rushed to the corner and hid, as Dominique had instructed her to do when morning arrived. The door opened, revealing Dominique and Sarah. Behind them were Melody and Casey. "Congratulations! You've passed your second task!" It was then that Sarah pointed at Ralph.
*** Kari paced nervously around the cafeteria as the group decided whether her bravery proved true. She had argued that Ralph had found his way to the closet on his own. She didn't invite him. But she knew no matter what she said, it would not help in their decision. Minutes later, Sarah approached Kari. "We've decided that your task has been completed. Despite Ralph's presence, we believe you overcame your fears on your own. After breakfast, we will brief you on your third task." Sarah went to retrieve her breakfast. The others followed. Kari sighed in relief; then slowly followed the others into the cafeteria. After she sat down with today's meal, a biscuit and some milk, she pondered to herself what the third task could be. What would it test? Would it be more difficult than the last? The group gathered outside in the pavilion once breakfast was over. As the last member arrived, everyone grew silent, waiting for Sarah to speak. "Kari, the third task was arranged by Casey. I will let her explain," Sarah said. "The third task will test your loyalty. We can tell you nothing more but wish you the best of luck. You must discover and pass this task on your own. We will leave you now so you can start." Kari watched as the group headed towards the other side to start a game of four-squares. It was then that Katrina approached her. "You should quit while you're ahead. Trust me. They're not as great as they seem." Could this be the third task testing her loyalty? Kari wondered. It had to be.. "You really shouldn't say things that aren't true," Kari retorted. "I'm not. I'm speaking from experience. If you don't believe me, fine. But you'll see I'm right soon enough." "If you say you're speaking from experience, then tell happened that was so horrible?" Kari turned around as someone tapped her on the shoulder. It was Sarah. " you figured out the third task yet?" "No, not yet, but I may have an idea though." "Good! Keep it up!" Sarah smiled as she headed back to the rest of the group who had now started playing jump rope. Kari turned back to Katrina but found that she had left. She shrugged. Why does she keep bothering me? Kari headed to the building. I wish I didn't drink so much milk this morning. As she entered a bathroom stall, she heard two girls enter. She didn't have any intentions in eavesdropping until they started speaking of Sarah. "So, we have all the water balloons ready?" "Yup. We're gonna get them good, Chelsea." "I totally agree." The voice chuckled. "Sarah will think twice before rejecting us again." "I can't wait to see the look on their faces when they're soaked. I wish I had a camera." "Yeah, me too. It would be such a great photo op." "Yeah, well, I gotta go. I told Katy I'd be back within five minutes." "Ok. I should get going too. I'll see you tomorrow tonight then? Behind the stairs, right?" "Yup. I've hidden the balloons there so make sure you don't step on any." "Don't worry. I'm saving it for that snobby Sarah and her followers." "That's the spirit!" The door opened and closed. Kari relieved herself then exited the stall, thinking over what she had just heard. She would have to warn Sarah. After quickly washing her hands, she returned to the pavilion and found the group. "Sarah.I think some people are planning to water balloon us tonight." Sarah suddenly appeared concerned. "Where did you hear this?" "I was in the restroom when two other girls came in and started saying how they we're gonna use water balloons to soak you-their form of revenge, I'm assuming." "I see. Do you have any names?" "I only heard one: Chelsea." Suddenly, Sarah smiled. Kari could only return a puzzled look. Shortly afterwards, Kari followed Sarah's gaze to Casey. "Casey told me she had Giselle on the job, but she never told me Chelsea was involved too." Casey chuckled. "Well you should have known. They're the best of friends," Casey teased. She turned towards Kari. "Congratulations Kari! You passed my task," Casey said, patting Kari on the shoulder at the same time. Kari answered with an even more confused look. She had though Katrina was the third had been so sure. "I had asked Chelsea and Giselle to follow you to someplace private and act out the skit you heard earlier, just to make sure you'd tell us about these types of things if you ever heard of them-a test of loyalty," Casey explained. "Oh.I see.I thought the third task involved Katrina," Kari said. "Why would you think that?" Sarah asked. "Well, Katrina approached me earlier and urged me to does she know about the Test?" "First off, don't listen to Katrina. She's a traitor. She knows about the Test because we allowed her to take it, but she didn't pass." Dominique informed. Kari nodded in understanding. "The next time she says anything, I'll walk away!" "Good," Melody said from behind Kari. "It's best not to associate with them since we don't know whether or not they would compromise our secrecy." The bell sounded for lunch. "We'd better head back inside before Ms. Warren gets mad." Everyone agreed. Sarah told Kari on the way into the cafeteria that the fourth task would take place tonight. She would go into further details during lunch.
*** Kari quickly hurried to the table; she was eager to hear of the last task. As soon as the last member arrived, Sarah spoke. "The last task has been arranged by me; and thus, it will be by far the hardest of the tasks as I do not let just anyone enter our group. Completing it will earn you our loyalty. No one will be able to aid you on this task. You must complete this on your own. If we hear word that you are using outside forces to complete this task, you will be disqualified. "The last task will take place tonight, during the guest speaker's visit. In Ms. Warren's desk lies a large bucket of candy, along with some other goods. We want you to retrieve that for us. We have worked out a plan that should be foolproof. " Kari gazed intently at Sarah. She wanted her to steal something? Her stomach began to churn and flip flop. "I'm not so sure-" "Do you want to see the Castle or not? Dominique interrupted. "Well, yeah." "Then listen to what Sarah has to say." Sarah nodded and thanked Dominique. "First, before the guest speaker arrives, you must cautiously find your way into the hallway near the library. There, you will find the fire alarm. Once everyone is situated inside the cafeteria, pull the fire alarm. Everyone will file out, leaving you a clear way to her office. But the alarm will only give you a short time so you must retrieve it before everyone realizes it was a false alarm." "What if they realized I pulled the alarm?" Kari asked, a bit nervous. "They won't. That alarm has always been going off randomly due to its age. They'll just suspect that and nothing more. Besides, we've done this before and they still haven't suspected us for anything." "What about when Ms. Warren realizes her bucket of candy is missing?" "Don't worry about that now. We'll find a way around that later if it comes up. Once you have the bucket, leave it by you bedside and show us when the presentation is over." Kari gulped. She had not expected this type of task, but she knew what she had to do. "Ok, I'll be ready." Sarah smiled. "Good. We'll leave you alone after lunch so you can prepare." The group finished their lunches quickly. When everyone finished, Sarah wished Kari the best of luck and parted with the group. Kari suspected they would have people around verifying that she didn't receive any assistance on this task. After all, if they were able to find people to pull a 'prank' on Sarah, how hard would it be to find people just to check up on her? She exited the building and entered the playground. As she found her way to the swings, she noticed that Katrina was looking her direction. She looked away, not wanting to show any interest in communication. She had been right... she thought to herself. Katrina had warned her about something like this. It was too late now. She would have to complete what she began. Kari brushed away the tears sliding down her cheeks. She missed her mother. She missed her classmates at Garden Heaven Preschool. She missed her old life. What happened?
Kari watched from a distance as the speaker arrived. Just as he was about to begin his opening speech, Kari pulled the alarm and covered her ears as a loud ring rang through the air. She quickly made her way to the office and waited until everyone was outside. As expected, Ms. Warren's office remained unlocked, even through the drill. Kari cautiously crept in and found the bucket. Holding the bucket closely, she left as quickly and quietly as she entered. By the time everyone had returned to the building, Kari had stashed the bucket of candy by her bedside as the group wanted. This had been a lot easier then she expected. She smiled as she returned to the cafeteria with the others. She would finally be able to see the Castle.
The sun shone through the window as Kari awoke the next morning. She raced to the cafeteria and found the group already there eating breakfast. "Looks like someone is happy today," Casey noted. Kari only returned an even brighter smile. "After breakfast, we'll finally show you the Castle." Everyone ate and exited the cafeteria. Just as they were about to exit the building and into the playground, a voice called them back. "Hold on. Get back here." The group turned around, only to come face to face with Ms. Warren, who didn't look to happy. "I'll need to speak to the unscheduled fire drill we had yesterday."