Cass passed through the exit out onto the white steps leading away from the Capitol. The tour this morning marked the first time she had seen the inside of the Great Rotunda and it had been amazing to see the architecture of the home of Congress. But trips like this were nothing new to the students in her school, the Academy rose to prominence based on amazing virtual trips like today’s that allowed students’ access “Everywhere, every day”. But now, as usual, she was growing restless following the carefully controlled plan for the day.
The bump was gentle, but jarring enough to wake from her daydream. She looked up to see who had collided with her and was met by the empty face of a Bland. Although she managed to avoid eye contact, a chill ran through her. The tall, thin man in the grey suit politely and robotically spoke, “Excuse me.” After he passed by, she noticed several other Blands milling around the outside area. Although Edunet added the computer generated figures to create a sense of normalcy, they gave her the creeps and she always tried to avoid looking directly into their lifeless eyes.
“Oh no,” a blonde boy in a blue polo that was part of the school uniform pulled up next to her. He was frowning. “You’re thinking of doing it again aren’t you?”
She couldn’t help but smirk slightly as she kept pace with the rest of their group. Many of the students, eager to return home, had tuned out Ms. Thompson as she continued to drone on and on about the history of the building. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He looked back up to their teacher, who was about twenty students ahead of them, to give the appearance that he was paying attention as their teacher lectured about the architecture of the seat of the legislative branch. He lowered his head just enough to avoid her gaze and whispered. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
She rolled her dark, brown eyes. “You never think my best ideas are good ideas.” She held her tablet up to give the appearance that she was readily taking notes. As she did, she slowed her walk and several other students in khaki pants passed by her. Because three cohorts were mixed together on this trip, it was fairly easy for her to blend in because most of the students on the trip didn’t know her.
Her one friend in her cohort, clad in the light blue short sleeved shirt emblazoned with the Edunet name and symbolic owl, slowed down too. “I knew it.”
“You can come too Felix.” She was now at the end of the line of students. She reached down to pull off the dark sweatshirt tied around her waist.
He shook his head, “No thanks. My parents think that the demerit I got last week for being late to science was bad enough.”
She slipped on the sweatshirt and pulled the hood over her black braids, “Suit yourself then.” Just as a Bland couple was about to pass by on their left, she made a U-turn right in front of them and winked at the boy with the bright blue eyes as he shook his head. Turning away from the group of students heading to the Archives, she briskly returned to the Capitol. Arriving at the steps, she swung around the far side of the building until arriving at the Mall. Relaxing knowing that she hadn’t been caught, she looked out across the green expense to stare at the Washington Monument standing before her.
As always, Edunet had engineered a perfect day. The sun was shining and although she didn’t have a thermometer, she knew it was seventy degrees. Everything was always perfect in their world, right down to each perfectly green piece of grass between her and the great, white obelisk.
Slowly, she made her way down the steps. It was one of the things that she disliked most about the trips— the perfection. She knew that it was an amazing opportunity to be selected for the Academy and she was excited to virtually experience sights and museums all over the globe through the Worldtrip program, but she often longed for the messiness of the real world. The buildings here were always without graffiti, the skies without clouds, and the trees always had leaves. To her, the truth was that some of the spray painted tags scattered through Harlem were beautiful and being outside on a trip with a few drops of rain was sometimes refreshing.
There was too much order in this perfectly designed world— it was unnatural to her, but the other students seemed not to notice or at least they didn’t seem to care. They were just proud to be part of the Academy. In the beginning when she first arrived, she had raised some of her questions about this new world. But early on, her teachers made it clear to her that criticism about their school was not acceptable. So now, she kept quiet and kept to herself for the most part.
Looking out at the National Mall created by the Worldtrip program, she watched the movement of people. There were only two types of inhabitants in this world— the bright blue shirts of the Academy and the dull outfits of the Blands were both scattered throughout the cities and sites.
She made sure that her sweatshirt was zipped up to hide her uniform and she walked in a stilted manner so as not to draw attention to herself as she stepped onto the lawn. The grass below her looked perfectly manicured, but could not produce the same feel of comfort as when she was lazing on it in Central Park. For one thing, no matter how hard they worked at Edunet, they hadn’t been able to include smell in the program— and the world without the fragrance of fresh flowers or freshly mown grass was striking.
The giant monument dedicated to Washington stood before her as she made her way towards the site trying to blend in. The Blands did not stop to admire anything, so she had to be careful not to appear too interested in the sights. As she passed other school groups, she stared straight ahead. If another teacher saw her and suspected that she had strayed, she knew that she would be reported. Luckily, no one took notice of the girl circling the walkway around the towering structure at the center of the Mall.
At times, she liked to head away from the tourist attractions into the heart of the city. There was no need to worry about her safety. In this virtual world without violence, she could travel wherever she wanted— so she went off the beaten path whenever possible. Because of the safe environment, chaperones didn’t closely monitor their group and there was no need to track students. The sites were informative and often awe-inspiring, but to her there was something more real about drifting into the nearby neighborhoods where school groups seldom went. Some of her favorite experiences had been just wandering abandoned alleyways.
Today though, she headed towards the Lincoln Memorial instead of down the side streets of the capital. She kept to the Mall so she could circle back to the Archives and catch up to the cohorts on her trip once they exited. Looking to her left, she longed to sit next to the reflecting pool and just admire the architecture of the marble for a couple of hours. But instead of having time to sit with her sketchbook, she had to keep moving. To her right, a family of Blands passed without taking notice of the tall, skinny girl in the blue hoodie.
She looked up at President Lincoln and wondered what Abe would make of the school system that now served almost twenty-five thousand kids from kindergarten up through twelfth grade. The government struck a deal with Edunet two years ago to expand from its handful of private schools to go nationwide. The deal led to taxpayer money covering the cost of the expensive equipment each student like Cass needed to access the Academy.
Unlike Felix, she was enrolled as a scholarship student— her aunt would never be able to pay the tuition required. Instead, she had taken the Academy Aptitude Test and scored highly enough to earn a full ride. All students had the opportunity to take the exam, but the school only served two groups— the select few who scored well on the AAT and those whose parents had enough money to enroll.
She took a deep breath before leaving the massive sitting president. Although she wanted to inhale the fresh air of spring day, she felt nothing fill her lungs other than the stale air in her apartment at home as she breathed deeply. Sighing, she turned and made her way down Constitution Avenue towards the Archives. This was not her first trip to D.C., so she knew a little about the geography of the Mall. Additionally, she always researched each city the night before a trip because she liked to take advantage of an opportunity to stray from the group.
Right about now as she continued towards the Archives, she figured that Ms. Thompson was going on and on about the copy of the Declaration of Independence on display in the Rotunda. It would be easy enough to get the notes online tonight from Felix. It was ironic that when travelling throughout the most famous cities and sites of the world, students were still given an exam on facts that you could find on the Internet as a measure of their learning while on the trip.
To her left, the White House appeared on the horizon. They had taken a tour there last semester as a part of her United States History class. This term, she was continuing with the second part of the course. Although the trips in seventh grade were fascinating, they all looked forward to the trips involved in their study of World Civilizations beginning in Summer Session before their eighth grade year.
A clean-shaven man in a blue suit approached from the opposite direction. This Bland like so many of the others seemed more zombie than human with its stiff movements. She had to read about the creation of these creatures outside of class because the teachers never talked about the permanent denizens of this world. In fact, students received demerits for saying anything negative about a Bland because such statements were said to disrespect the greater community.
The truth about the computer generated residents actually made her feel somewhat sorry for the miserable creations— each Bland had a programmed course of walking and sitting that they followed methodically each day. The young man approaching her traveled the same circuit without ever deviating, running in circles twenty-four hours a day without any goal or any ability to enjoy the world. The thought of such a life saddened her. Without thinking, she looked up just as he was next to her and she accidentally made eye contact. The man with the deep pools of grey set in his sockets passed by without saying a word as his eyes stared blankly ahead. She felt the goose bumps prickle up on her skin as her heart beat faster. She hated looking into their eyes. They sent a shiver down her spine as she blinked trying to get rid of the image of the haunted, empty orbs.
Walking slowly down Pennsylvania, she calmed herself. Although unnerved, she needed to hurry back to the group. In a few minutes, she arrived at the Archives and focused on the task at hand. She took a seat across the street from the columned building and stared blankly doing her best imitation of a Bland and trying to wish away the image of those grey eyes. A few minutes later, a woman in dark pants and the blue polo of the Academy emerged from the exit with her flock trailing behind. Her voice boomed across the street. At the front of the line were the eager beavers who had their tablets out, attempting to capture each note from today’s trip. Towards the end of the line were the less interested students, many of whom looked like they were ready to logoff.
She got up and walked carefully towards the group once they stepped onto the street. Walking slightly faster, she neared them from behind. She pulled off the sweater and returned it to her waist as she fell in line. A boy with a ponytail from another cohort turned and looked surprised to see that someone was behind him. He then returned his gaze back towards the front of the group. Slowly, she made her way up the line until finally arriving at the comfort of her friend. She tapped him on the right shoulder while staying on his left. He looked around to his right, froze, and then looked to his left.
“Very funny,” he smirked before quickly jerking his attention back to the teacher.
“And you fall for it every time,” she smiled. She snapped her fingers, “See, no problem. I’m back. Demerit free.”
He shook his head, “You’re lucky she didn’t catch you. She’s in a bad mood today. She gave two kids from another cohort two demerits for talking while she was sharing about the Magna Carta.” He looked up to make sure that he wouldn’t be in trouble. “Where did you go today?” he whispered.
“Just around the Mall.”
“That’s it? You didn’t break into the Oval Office and declare a coup? I’m surprised.”
“I’d probably just find the President of Zombie Nation there anyway.”
Ms. Thompson came to a stop as the students slowly circled her. “This concludes today’s class. Over the weekend, you will need to complete the essay that has been uploaded. On Monday, we will return to our discussion on the Framers. Any questions?”
No one raised a hand. Clearly everyone was ready to leave.
“You may all logoff then.”
A few students around her immediately disappeared. “You going to the Commons?” The boy with the deep blue eyes inquired.
“Not tonight, I’m heading home. I need to help my aunt.”
He frowned slightly, clearly disappointed in the response. “Okay, well, I guess I’ll see you on Monday.”
She nodded. “Yeah, see you then.”
With that, the sunny world of Washington, D.C. disappeared as she returned home. The grey visor had been lifted and the sight of her room greeted Cass. She took off the helmet and hung it on the hook on the right side of the sleek, grey chair with the golden owl logo. She stretched to full height on the black touch sensitive mat that held the unit. The mat was set in place with an outer ring that allowed the pad to move in any direction.
The Virtual Home Unit, known as the VHU, gave the students a full range of motions— just five hours ago she had been playing racquetball in P.E. The VHU captured every tiny movement that she made while her avatar at the Academy mimicked each one. Although the virtual world workout had been proven by Edunet to meet teens’ needs for exercise, it was not enough for her. She wanted to head out for a run before her aunt arrived home. She stepped off of her VHU and went over to her closet to grab her tennis shoes, t-shirt, and shorts. From there, she would shed the bodysuit that stimulated students’ nerves to feel sensations in Edunet’s world.
Passing by her computer, she could see that the essay assignment had arrived in her inbox along with the notes from her tablet on today’s trip. Turning off the screen, she stepped away from the virtual world to go jogging in the real one, hoping that the exercise might erase the image of the eyes of a Bland that were still stuck in her head.
“What is wrong with you?” The large woman scolded as she shuffled out of her bedroom. “I can hear you pacing the floors. You know that I work late on Fridays and that I have to go in today. On Saturdays, you know you’re not supposed to make a sound.” Her hair disheveled and her pink robe hanging slightly off her frame, Jeanette Benson stepped out into the kitchen. The light from the window caught her face as she squinted and held a hand to her face. “The last thing I need today is you making all kinds of damn noise.”
“Don’t you sorry auntie me. It’s too late, now I’m up.” She looked around the kitchen towards the table. “The least you can do is get some food on the table. I’m the one that’s gotta go earn a living today.”
“Yes auntie,” Cass replied while keeping her distance.
“That’s right,” her aunt turned back to the bedroom, “I’m going to shower up, but then I hope I see something good on that table. One of us has to make the rent in this godforsaken hole…”
Her voice faded as the old wooden door closed behind her.
Cass went back into the kitchen and fried a couple of eggs with some bacon. Although she didn’t eat meat, her aunt did— and she thought that with a side of toast, her aunt ought to be satisfied. She set two plain white plates out on the table.
The door banged open and her aunt stumbled out in her company’s dark blue work uniform top and slacks. “Guess you knew that your aunt needed to be up anyway.” She sat down and dug into her plate, not speaking again until all was devoured.
Once all of the scraps were gone, her aunt pushed the screeching chair back and stood up, “Don’t know why you’re so anxious today— your pacing around is making me nervous, but what you need to do is get on into this kitchen and get it cleaned up. It looks like a pigsty.” Her aunt grabbed her purse and headed for her bedroom. “Make sure it’s clean by the time I’m home.” Her wide frame waddled to the bedroom door and turned sideways to ease through. “Ned better not be on my ass today…” The door slammed shut.
Cass took her dishes from the table to the counter in the kitchen. Staring out the window at the bricks of the neighboring building, she thought back to the trip from yesterday. For some reason, she was having a harder time than usual forgetting about the vacant stare of the Bland man at the Mall. Last night, she uncharacteristically had a nightmare. And although she couldn’t remember the specifics, the man in the grey suit was a part of it— as were his eyes. And this morning, she had woke up in a sweat for the first time since she was a child.
The bedroom door came open and the short, stubby frame waddled in the door again. “…he must be out of his damn mind to think that I’m going to keep working all these doubles…” she mumbled.
Her aunt put her worn purse on the cracked counter. “I’ll be hungry enough to eat a horse tonight, so it’ll be good to see dinner on the table when I get home. I’m tired of all these doubles that man expects me to work.” She looked at her niece with a critical eye, “You hear me?”
Her aunt nodded and focused on the plates by the sink. Slowly, she made her way to the dishes. Reaching down to Cass’s plate, her aunt scooped up the last bit of toast that had been remaining and popped it in her mouth. “That’s why you’ve got to watch those grades at that school. Lord knows that I can’t afford it if you lose your scholarship,” the words came out slightly muted by the mouthful of food in the way, a small piece of toast flew out as she spoke. “So you need to stay in it so you don’t have to work jobs like the one I’ve got.”
Cass nodded, “I’m going to head back to the computer to finish homework when you leave. Is there anything else you need while you’re gone?”
Her aunt spotted another bit of crust on the plate hidden behind the fruit bowl. She finished it off. “Yeah, a new job,” she said while cackling to herself.
Although her aunt wasn’t the warmest person on earth, she had provided a roof over her head and Cass was thankful for that. Her aunt scooped up a couple of scraps of eggs from the edge of the skillet and shoveled them in. She grabbed her coffee and went to sit down at the table to catch her breath. Cass came over and sat down next to her aunt. Her heart felt heavy today and she couldn’t explain exactly why. Although her aunt wasn’t a calming force in the apartment, she was family and it felt comforting to sit down with her this morning.
“Well, what seems to be the occasion to bring her queen almighty out to join me?”
“Auntie, can you tell me about mom?”
Her aunt paused mid-sip and nodded looking at the girl. She brought the mug back down to rest on the table. “It’s been a long since I’ve heard that. Does that counselor woman have you upset about something?” she asked defensively.
Cass shook her head. Something didn’t feel right about the world today— she felt uneasy and the nightmare had left her shaken. When she woke up this morning, she found herself missing her mother more than usual. “No, I was just thinking of her today. Missing her.”
The hard edges of her aunt softened as her voice did as well. “That woman was something else. Drove me crazy half the time— those were the times I didn’t understand why the hell my brother thought to marry her. But the other half, that was something else entirely. Your mom was a good woman.”
She proceed with caution. She didn’t want her aunt reaching out to the counselor at the Academy. “What do you mean ‘something else’?”
Aunt Jeanette let out a loud cackle, “Your mom?” She continued to laugh at her own joke. “Your mother wasn’t like anyone else on this damn earth, you know that.”
And she did. She remembered moving around a lot as a young child after her father died and couldn’t remember her mom ever talking much about her job. There was also the strange art and artifacts around the apartment that were lost in the fire. “I mean anything that I should know now that I’m older.”
Her aunt’s countenance showed a look seldom seen— a look of pity. “As strange as her secrecy was— the whole never-letting-us-know where she lived at any particular moment, the whole dropping-off-the-face-of-the-earth for months at a time, the conversations where she was seeming-to-be-in-her-own-world, the what-exactly-does-that-woman-do-for-a-damn-living question that never really got answered… as strange as all of those things were— I have to admit, there was no kinder soul on earth than your mother. I can see why my brother fell in love with her.” Even her aunt seemed a little nostalgic now, but it lasted only a maudlin second. “So, yes, your mother was one strange bird. I didn’t even know where exactly you were ‘til after the fire and the whole secretive will surfaced.”
“Was there anything that scared her?” Cass looked down at the linoleum floor tiles casually before looking back to her aunt.
“You sure that counselor lady doesn’t have you worked up?”
She shook her head. “No, I just… was wondering. I had a bad dream.”
Her aunt nodded and drew a deep breath. “Well, your mom wasn’t afraid of confrontation. I remember that, ohhhh do I remember that. But your mom did seem to be a bit paranoid about everything— I suppose that’s why all the secrecy. And, well, I guess you’re old enough to know now, she did always talk about protecting you— she was afraid for you. Which is normal for a parent, but I have to say that the way she talked about you wasn’t quite normal. All parents swear that their child is special, but when your mom said it, she meant it with all her heart. And I can remember that day in the garden right before the fire when I was talking to her on the phone and she made me promise that I’d take care of you if anything happened to her. Then she went jabbering on about some craziness that I’d have to protect you. I promised her I would and I told her that every parent worries about their child. But your mom, she really had some streak of crazy in her.” Her aunt caught herself and reached up putting a stubby finger to the lips covered in bright pink lipstick, “in a good way, but still way too paranoid for her own worrying-good.”
She nodded wishing for more information, but it seemed clear that her aunt really didn’t have any more to share. With that, she got up to clear the cow shaped salt and pepper shakers that were still out on the table.
“Thanks auntie,” she came back to the table and leaned down to give her aunt a hug, trying her best to wrap her arms around her. Her aunt sighed and got up removing her niece’s arms.
“No need to be thanking me. I’m just doing right by family, as anybody would.” As she walked towards the door, Cass thought she saw tears building in her eyes. “Now you get on that homework and take care of school so we don’t have to be worrying about that.”
“I will auntie,” she smiled as her aunt yanked open the door and grumbled something about Ned before leaving. After the door shut, Cass headed back to her school station and for the moment managed to push the image of the Bland from her mind.
The liquid in the beaker reached a boil over the flame of the Bunsen burner.
“Hello? Earth to Cass…”
She looked up at her lab partner’s face. “Sorry about that.” She reached up and turned the flame down.
“Okay, let’s get started.” She poured the contents of the package into the boiling mixture.
Cass read the temperature. “185.”
Min recorded the response on her tablet. She then reached up and brushed the jet-black hair away from her eyes of the same color. “Just be careful, we don’t want Hawkins to come over here. I already had Thompson rip my essay apart in first period.”
“Sure, yeah, sorry about that.” Cass stared at the glass container. Although it would upset Mr. Hawkins, the truth was that it didn’t matter if the glass exploded. In fact, it wouldn’t matter if the whole, sterile, white lab caught fire aside from her bodysuit simulating the heat of a fire. This realization of how little her actions mattered in this world was something that had started to eat away at her over the last couple of days. I’m spending most of my life in a fake world, she thought as she watched the mixture. Since the nightmare, it had been harder than usual to concentrate in her classes. In some ways, she felt like she was becoming more and more like the zombies that resided here.
“Don’t you worry sometimes that weren’t spending too much time in this world?” she looked to her friend who stood next to her at the lab counter.
“Uhh, no,” the girl with the cropped hair and serious face looked at the timer in her hand. “Temperature?”
“If anything, I don’t think I’m spending enough time at school. My parents keep talking about my sister’s grades and how she has all four points. And she’s been taking advantage of like every single Extra that they’ve offered in her high school classes.” Min tilted her head slightly, “Why? What’s up?”
“I don’t know. It’s just lately…” She trailed off. Although Min was her friend, she wasn’t ready to tell her everything. The daughter of a businessman and doctor who lived in St. Louis was someone that she trusted. She wasn’t caught up in the popularity games that other students played and she spent more time in the library than the Commons. Although this is the only class that they shared, Min was thankful that they were in the same Cohort. “It just feels kind of like I’m missing out on something by spending so much time in the virtual world.”
She examined the red line on the thermometer. “194.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot of people have those ‘otherside’ feelings. I just haven’t really. I mean, I like seeing my family and some of the smells and tastes from home, but do I miss the smog, people, and congestion? Not so much. If anything, I’m kind of bummed thinking about life after school— rain, crime, pollution. Not exactly a party.” She paused for a second. “Did you share with your counselor?” Min didn’t mention her Mentor. Although they had never discussed it, Cass thought she might have similar feelings about the mouthpieces for Edunet.
Min was one of the few people that Cass shared that she saw Dr. Beck. When she qualified for financial aid, she was only provided the scholarship under the provision that she attended mandated weekly counseling. The loss of her parents had made her “high risk” and Edunet wanted to protect its investment. “Yeah, but she says it’s normal. But this weekend, I think it got a little worse.”
“Hmmm,” she glanced at the timer. “Temperature?”
“Well, look, do I wish that we could hang out together and go to the mall or the movies together sometime? Definitely. But we attend the best school on earth, and once we graduate— we’re going to be set for life. Then, we can visit each other any time we want. And every day we’re here, we can go anywhere in the world.”
She started to respond. She wanted to argue that they couldn’t in fact go anywhere anytime. Instead, they could only go when and where Edunet wanted them to go. And they certainly couldn’t say whatever they wanted. Lately, she felt more like a rat in a maze rather than a student who had won a prized opportunity. At this, a feeling of guilt surfaced and she blushed slightly knowing that she should feel more grateful at the opportunity she had. “Yeah, you’re right.”
She nodded, “Temperature?”
Her friend recorded it. “Want to head to the library after class?”
She forced a smile, “Sure. That sounds great.” But inside, that’s not how she felt at all. Instead, Cass wondered what was wrong with her.
Ms. Thompson pointed proudly to the historic building up ahead. The class paused while she talked about the lessons from the earlier unit on the Revolution. She pointed to a beautifully restored, red brick building ahead of them. Today’s trip along the Freedom Trail was to help them on the upcoming midterm.
“Are you kidding me?” He whispered as he leaned in closely.
She felt her cheeks go red as she turned to her friend. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re going to do it again. I can tell. You’re even spacier than usual.” Felix shook his head and the blonde locks swayed.
She kept her head down. “Me? Spacey?” Inside, she wondered why the most popular boy in her class actually talked to her.
He smiled— his teeth were perfect. “In a good way of course. Umm, totally normal.”
“Well that’s good, totally normal is what I’m going for.” The group began to inch towards their next destination, Old North Church. “Join me today.” And unlike the other day, she really meant it. She wanted him to go with her.
He looked unsteady. At that moment, she knew that he wasn’t going to leave the group, but he still looked kind of cute when he was less sure of himself. “I don’t know…”
“Come on, I’ll keep it simple.” For the first time, she really felt like it would be a better adventure if someone came with her.
He looked back towards Ms. Thompson who was guiding them as she walked backwards down the street, narrowing missing a Bland teenager in jeans and a tee. “I can’t. Not today. Maybe next trip. There’s this Extra coming up where I can go surfing in Australia and I know that my parents won’t send me if I get any demerits. But after that, I’m totally down for the next time…”
She nodded, although she knew that it wasn’t true. He was always going to find a reason not to go. It was just who he was. “I understand.” She paused, “so, if you’re staying here, maybe you could help me out?”
“Again?” The idea clearly stressed him out, but he didn’t want to lose face. “Okay. I can… I can pretend to ask a question.”
“Great,” she smiled. “You’re the best.”
He blushed as he made his way towards the front, muscling by a few students in polos. “Ms. Thompson…”
She watched as he pointed in the direction opposite from where she stood. With that, the girl at the back of the line quietly slipped away from the group.
Walking down Salem, she stared away with dead eyes in her role acting as a Bland and then took a left on Charter Street. Although before she had done well on her own, she felt a sadness welling up that Felix hadn’t come with her today. A woman in a navy suit approached. The woman with the long, red hair stared into nothing as she walked her daily circuit. She did not want to see the color of her eyes and looked down nervously. “Hello,” the woman greeted her as Cass kept walking.