The knock at my door was not too loud, but steady and rhythmic.
No, my cake!… aughh… morning already?
Why don't you go away?
Or amuse yourself by running into a concrete wall at full tilt?
"Mr. Bertram." Knock. Knock.
No, by setting your hair on fire.
"Mr. Bertram!" Knock.
The door opened and I heard footsteps cross the short distance to the foot of my bed.
"Mr. Bertram, you would like breakfast, would you not?"
I pulled my face up from the pillow and craned my neck to squint at the intruder.
"The other trainees are there already."
I groaned and flung back the covers, straightening myself from the contorted position I had slept in.
"I will wait outside while you dress," the man said, and did so.
Arrogant rookie. He looked to be a few years younger than my twenty-six, and much more self-important.
I stood in the middle of the closet that served as my room to decide what to wear. I didn't relish the idea of climbing back into my suit, but on the other hand, the gray clothes reminded me of prison outfits or janitor uniforms. I briefly considered going in nothing but my boxers, but decided they might not like that, and I wanted to stick around long enough to find out what this job was. I settled on the janitor uniform, favoring comfort over pride. On my way out, I glimpsed myself in a mirror and ran a hand over my scalp in a vain attempt to tame my perpetually unruly hair. They called it dirty blond, but to me it was more dirty and less blond, regardless of how often I washed it.
The rookie led me down the corridor and stopped at a door near the offices, but still in a green carpeted hallway.
The room was fairly large and was dominated by a conference table laden with doughnuts, bagels, fruit, coffee, and juice. The twenty or so other recruits milled about with their breakfasts, all of them wearing identical gray suits, some fitting better than others, with identical badges hung around their necks.
I swiped a sugar doughnut and a cup of coffee, then a banana as a healthy afterthought. I glanced around as I bit into my doughnut and spotted the redhead from the previous day.
"Hey," I said, approaching her and lifting my cup in greeting. "Troy Bertram. I introduced myself yesterday, remember?"
"Oh, Mr. Bertram,"
"Troy," I interjected.
"Troy." She held out her hand before she realized that mine were full, then let it drop awkwardly to her side. "I'm sorry I was so short with you yesterday, but, well, you know how it is."
"Don't worry about it." I sipped my coffee. "So, do you know what this job is, ah…" I read her badge, "Chera?"
"It's pronounced share-uh," she corrected me, and then shook her head. "I have no idea what it is. I don't think anyone else knows either, except for that woman who talked to us yesterday."
"Commander Adams," I told her with some smugness.
She raised an eyebrow.
"How did you know that?"
"What, didn't you ask questions yesterday?" I teased.
The door opened and in walked the commander herself.
"Speak of the devil," I muttered to Chera around a mouthful of doughnut.
Commander Adams stood at one end of the table and waited patiently for everyone's full attention.
"I am pleased to see that you all enjoyed your first night here," she said, not really sounding to pleased at all, more like emotionless. "I am Commander Adams, and all will address me as such."
I poked Chera's arm.
"See? Told ya."
She shot me a look, but turned back to the commander before telling me to shut up.
"This morning you will undergo a thorough physical examination as well as a test of your mental capabilities. For the rest of your stay you will attend morning exercises after breakfast, and repeat the examinations once a week. After the exercises, you will attend a comprehensive computer course, after which will be a general mathematics class. Following this will be lunch, during which I will speak with you briefly. The rest of the day will be yours to do with as you wish. If you do not wish to fulfill these requirements, you may leave your badge at the reception desk and return home. You are free to leave at any time, but those who leave will not be allowed to return.
"If you are now finished with your breakfast," she added in a tone that told us even if we weren't, we were now, "my assistant Mr. Jacquard will take you to your examinations."
After she left, Mr. Jacquard stepped up, a tall, thin man with short dark hair and slitted eyes. He told us to follow him and walked crisply out the door. On my way out, I tossed my cup and unopened banana in the trash. Chera still held her half eaten bagel.
Mr. Jacquard led us to the room from the previous day. As we sat down, a young blonde woman in a green smock came through the other door and handed us some forms and pens. I filled mine out as the others one by one passed through the door. Most came back within ten minutes, but a couple returned badgeless and left the room, presumably having been rejected. Chera went before I did. She came back, still wearing her badge.
"Still here," she commented, "and it wasn't that bad."
I gave her a sardonic grin.
"Yeah, and my eyes aren't blue."
"They're not," she said pointedly.
"What? Of course they are. My eyes have always been blue."
Chera shook her head.
"They're more of a greenish blue. Kind of a dark turquoise."
I stared at her blankly.
I left her to try to change someone else's eye color and entered the dreaded room of terror. After I handed over my form, the doctor gave me a typical physical, concentrating mostly on my heart and lungs, and then gave me multiple balance and reflex tests, and a short eye and hearing test. I behaved myself, and they let me keep my badge.
Chera confronted me as soon as I walked through the door.
"See? It wasn't bad, was it?"
I gave her a steady look.
"My eyes are still blue."
When everyone had been examined, the doctor left and an older woman with a briefcase and brown hair in a bun stepped through the door and strode through to the other room. Within moments she began calling our names crisply through the door. When it was my turn, she immediately fired off a series of questions, mostly concerning my education, stress level, social circle, basic family background, and caffeine and sugar intake.
"If you were paid for keeping a secret," she said, finishing up, "how much would you require?"
"That all depends on how big the secret is and what would happen if I didn't keep it."
Without looking up from her clipboard, she added in a dispassionate voice.
"It is the biggest secret you ever knew, and the government could be undermined if it were let out."
"Oh, well, in that case, nothing," I replied.
She looked up in surprise.
"You wouldn't keep the secret?" She turned back to her paper. "I suppose you would sell it to the highest bidder."
"No, no, I mean, I'd keep it for nothing. I kinda like how the government works. It's not the best, but I'm doing pretty good, and I don't really want to rock the boat, ya know?"
The shrink made an "mm-hmm" noise and marked something on her paper.
"That will be all," she said, and called the next person's name as I left.
After all the recruits went through the inquisition, the psychologist and Mr. Jacquard left. A man in his late fifties and an outdated suit entered and passed out pens and spiral bound notebooks. School was in session.
As the man, Dr. Cafferd, began, I opened my notebook and began scribbling like a good student. By the end of the class, I had two abstract pieces, a cartoon involving mostly cats and canaries, and several meaningless doodles.
Dr. Cafferd gave us a break before the math class, but wouldn't let us leave the room, so it was mostly pointless.
During the next class, I added some more margin designs, an unrecognizable sketch of the man sitting in front of me, and a cartoon dog chasing a cartoon cat up the margin line. The guy next to me actually had words and numbers in his notebook.
Mr. Jacquard was back at the end of class to take us to lunch, which was in a table-filled room adjoining the breakfast room. Chera's table was full, so I sat at another one.
We were served bowls of either a thick soup or a thin stew with a plate of crusty bread and limp salad.
As I began eating, my attention was drawn by the girl next to me.
"Hi," she said, beaming at me. "My name's Andi Lawrence. What's yours?"
Andi was young, probably not long out of high school, maybe eighteen or nineteen years old. Her nut-brown hair was cut to her jaw and half spiked out. Freckles stood out on her pale face, and her amber eyes were wide and excited. She had probably taken notes during class, too.
"Troy Bertram," I replied. "Hi." I waved my spoon in greeting and went back to eating.
"This is Jon," Andi continued, indicating the man on the other side of her. "He thinks this job is some sort of computer specialist thing."
"Jonathan Bartel." He reached across Andi's plate to shake my hand. He seemed closer to my age, maybe even a little older, with black, short-cropped hair and dark eyes. He sat at least a head and a half taller than Andi, and was big enough that I would be more than a little hesitant to pick a fight with him.
"I was just saying," Jon commented, "That with the math and computer science classes, it only makes sense to be a computer job."
"Yeah, but what about the physicals?" I asked in between spoonfuls of soup. "And Adams said something about exercises tomorrow. Even the ad said they wanted people 'fit and healthy.' Why would they want us in perfect health for a computer job?"
"Maybe it's a really stressful job," Andi suggested.
Then the man across the table from me spoke up.
"Sounds t' me like they want us to do some sort of hard physical work that needs technical knowledge. Shaquire Jackson, by the way," he added as an introduction. Shaquire was tall and thin, with dark skin and black curls tight to his scalp.
"But what kind of job could that possibly be?" Jon inquired.
I was sopping up the last of my soup with my bread when Commander Adams showed up.
"Good afternoon," she began. "You all here have passed the examinations, but it does not necessarily mean that you have met the physical requirements of the job, only that you have a chance of meeting them in the next two months." She paused and gazed around the room, meeting as many eyes as possible.
"You may have been wondering about the job you are applying for. Let me ease a part of your curiosity, small though the part may be. We are not a private business searching for an employee. We are a special faction of government research looking for volunteers. As a matter of security, we wish to reveal the exact nature of the job to as few people as possible. I alone of all those here know what it is, and I will tell you the details over the period of your stay. If at any time you are not willing or able to do what is required of you, you must leave.
"Your curfew is ten O clock. Until then, you are free to do what you will."
Adams left with Jacquard on her heel. When I realized that no desert was forthcoming, I got up and invited Andi, Jon, and Shaquire to go exploring with me.
"Sure," Andi chirped predictable. "Where are you going?"
I shrugged. "I was going to go see if there's a pool table hanging around here anyplace."
"Sounds good. What about you guys?" She turned to Jon and Shaquire.
"I got nothing better t' do."
Jon stood and shook his head.
"Naw, I'm going back to my room. I need time to relax and be by myself."
"I couldn't stand that much time alone," I commented, "but it's up to you, I guess."
I had apparently been appointed the leader, so the other two followed me out the door and down the hall. As I had done the previous day, I stuck my head through the first office door. This was the office of a thirty-something woman with black hair in a loose ponytail, small black glasses, and a slightly disheveled dress suit She was kneeling on the floor next to a rapidly tipping stack of paper, tugging futilely at the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet.
"Need help?" I offered.
"Oh, yes," she said fervently, not looking up. "I can never get this drawer open." She glanced at us, then stood quickly and made an attempt at straightening her clothes.
"Oh, trainees. Hello, and welcome to, uh, my office. I'm Laura Cranston. What can I help you with?"
I quirked an eyebrow at her.
"What happened to helping you?" I knelt in front of the filing cabinet, grabbed the handle with one hand, braced against the cabinet with the other, and heaved on it. The drawer flew open, scattering the papers that had been sitting next to it.
"Sorry about that."
Ms. Cranston waved her hand dismissively.
"Don't worry about it. It happens all the time; I'm used to it. Now, what can I do for you?"
"Is there a pool table or a foosball table around here?"
"Or a TV?" Shaquire put in.
Andi added hopefully, "Pack of cards?"
"You mean nobody showed you the game room?" Ms. Cranston asked incredulously.
I perked up a bit. A game room definitely sounded promising.
"With all due respect, Miss Cranston," Shaquire told her, "no one showed us anything."
"Well, I'll have to give you a quick tour, then," she stated. "And please, call me Laura."
Ignoring her papers and her newly liberated file drawer, Laura led us back the way we had come. Just past the bedrooms, she showed us the communal showers and bathrooms, none too private, but at least clean, with separate rooms for men and women. Beyond that we found a large room with rubber foam mats and some gym equipment. I guessed, and was proven correct by Laura, that it was for our morning exercises. A small library across the hall held two tables, a couch and a few overstuffed chairs, aside from the shelves of books. A girl Andi's age sat curled in the nearest chair, thoroughly engrossed in a thick novel.
"Hey, you," Andi called. "We're going to the game room. Wanna come with?"
The girl looked up, lowering the book enough for me to see her badge. Dayra Thompson. Her brown pigtails draped over her shoulders and her dark eyes stared up at us.
Dayra shook her head.
"No, I'm good. I'll stay here for a while. Besides, I was there yesterday."
"What?" I exclaimed with a mock glare. "You knew about it and didn't tell us?"
"Tough luck," Dayra shot back as she returned to her book.
The next room was pretty large, since it needed space to hold the pool and two hot tubs.
"Now this is what I'm talking about!" Shaquire cried, grinning broadly.
"So this is what you guys have here," I commented to Laura. "Library, pool, hot tubs, game room… It's pretty nice. You must love working here."
"Oh, no." Laura shook her head. "This isn't for us. This whole wing was a new addition for the trainees. They're to have anything they want that doesn't interfere with their training."
"You mean this is all for us?" Andy asked. "Exclusively?"
Laura nodded. "Yep. You want to go to the game room now?"
I looked to my fellow trainees and shrugged.
"Sure," I said, and we left the pool room.
We followed Laura down the hall a short distance, and she opened the next door with a grand flourish. We all gaped in amazement. The term "game room" was a vast understatement. It was more like an arcade. In is were crammed a pool table, a foosball table, an air hockey table, a Ping-Pong table, a couple carpetball tables – lots of tables. Dartboards hung on one side of the room, and on the other, a skylight sloped sharply upwards to make room for a twenty-foot rock wall.
Two men were involved in an intense hockey game with a third watching, and a woman climbed the wall barefoot and without one of the safety harnesses so conveniently placed along the wall.
"I'm sorry," Laura spoke up, "but I have to go: I have work. The other game room is through that door," she pointed across the room.
"Other…" Shaquire began.
Laura continued without pausing.
"One of the lounges is across the hall, with the other right next to it, and the music room is the next door on this side."
Laura exited the game room, leaving us stunned.
"Two months," Andy remarked dazedly. "We get to live here for two months."
"Are you forgetting the exercises and classes," I pointed out, "Not to mention the weekly physicals?"
She shrugged. "Who cares? So long as we get all this!" She flung her arms wide to indicate the whole place. She then scampered over to the hockey players and called the next game.
"Well, I'll see ya later, man," Shaquire said to me. "I think I'm gonna go back to that pool."
"All right, catch you later," I tossed over my shoulder as he left. I glanced around the room, then started for the far door. I wasn't too interested in those games and I wanted to see what was in the other game room.
I stepped in and paused just beyond the doorway, a slow smile spreading on my face. This room was furnished with couches and chairs and about a dozen large TV's, each with its own game system and a set of shelves full of video games. A goateed man, maybe a few years older than me, lounged on a couch playing a golf game that looked mildly boring, and next to him two younger men competed against each other in a wrestling game. A small oriental girl and a red haired man both played older two-dimensional action games at the far side of the room. In one corner, two ladies were playing a dancing game, stepping on lit squares in time to the throbbing beat of the music, nearly synchronized. They were both tall and tanned, probably around twenty-two, one with dark brown shoulder length hair and the other with longer bleached hair. I ambled over and watched them dance the rest of the song.
"In your face, Nicole!" the blonde teased her companion. "Take that!"
Nicole made a face. "You weren't that much better."
"Well, I think you both were amazing," I spoke up.
The blonde turned to me and stuck out her tongue.
Nicole came up beside her friend.
"Don't mind her; she's just a ditzy blonde." This remark earned her a dirty look from the "ditzy blonde."
"I'm Nicole Delmont," she continued. "What's your name?"
"Troy Bertram," I told her. "And you?" I turned to the blonde.
"Kymri Anders," she said, "and don't mind Nicole. She's just psycho." Kymri got a dirty look of her own.
"I'm done," she announced, ignoring the look. "I'm going to quit while I'm still on my winning streak." She flashed a smile at her friend.
"One win, that's a real streak," Nicole countered.
"Hey, it counts!"
"Well, I'm going to do another song," Nicole commented. As she began another upbeat tune, Kymri pulled her nametag from the TV where she had laid it and pulled it on as she sat on a couch nearby. I sat next to her and she turned to me.
"So, Troy, what do you do? I mean, before you started looking for a job. Did you go to college?"
"Yeah, I got a bachelor's in history, focusing mainly on ancient world history."
"Ancient history? Why?"
I shrugged. To tell the truth, I hadn't a clue. It just sort of happened.
"I dunno. It sounded cool, I guess."
"So, what, you know about wars and stuff?"
"Yeah, sorta. It was kind of connected to art, literature, and archaeology. What about you?"
Kymri flipped her hair over her shoulder.
"Oh, I got an associates in science, then tried for acting, but it fell through."
"Acting, huh? In movies or TV?"
"Live plays, actually. I joined a troupe for a few months, but they decided I couldn't 'contribute what they needed.'" She made quotation marts in the air with her fingers.
Nicole finished her song and came to sit on the other side of Kymri.
"Didn't do so well on that one," she remarked. "You want to try, Troy?"
I glanced at the screen, which showed flashing colors and Nicole's scores.
"Ahh, no. I think I'll pass." I had never been too coordinated, and I could just see myself looking like a complete idiot in front of them.
Kymri glanced at her watch.
"Oh, that new makeover show is coming on, Nickie," she gasped.
"Well, let's get going. I don't want to miss it." They rose from the couch, and Nicole hesitated. "Are you coming, Troy?"
I weighed the options in my mind. Watch a makeover show with two gorgeous ladies, or play an awesome video game alone?
"No, you go ahead. I'll see you later." Maybe some other cute chick would come in.
"Ok, bye!" Kymri waved as they left.
I turned to a nearby TV and perused the games, running my finger over the cases as I scanned the tiles. I soon found one of my favorites, a jet fighter game. Within moment I was thoroughly engrossed, and before I knew it, one of the workers was coming around to remind everyone that it was almost curfew.
I returned to my room, wolfed down the sandwich and juice that had probably been there since 6:00, and changed into my pajamas, pretty much just a flannel version of what I had worn all day. I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth with my new toothbrush and generic toothpaste, and then went to bed.