“Sharpening”

Author’s Note: The Rush’s Edge is not a novel about children, but I wrote “Sharpening” while I was working on my novel as a way to explore Hal’s training as a young rook at the hands of the ACAS. This story takes place during the second year of Hal’s training and about seven or eight years before he is transferred into Tyce’s company, the Iron Glaives.  Here, Hal’s apparent age is around 13-14 years old.  At 18, Hal “graduates” vat school and goes to boot camp and specialized training before being put into service around 19 years of apparent age. 



This story is for those of you who have supported and loved The Rush’s Edge and those of you who will in the future. Thank you.


“Sharpening”


“Twenty scrilla Cullen figures it out,” Doctor Marsh said.

“Nah, I put my bet on Bykov. He’s a tough little bastard,” Doctor Starnes scrubbed his chin as he watched the screen in front of him. Nothing was happening yet; the lights were low and all of the rooks were locked into programming mode. The Simulcaster was reinforcing their training and augmenting it with the information they would need to be successful in this mission.

“Bykov’s just a hammer,” Marsh retorted as he remotely deactivated the Simulcaster and watched the feed. “Cullen is a finely-honed blade.”

“They’re all blades.”  Dr Balen, head of the Vanguard Assault Troops training facility, narrowed his eyes as he peered at the feed over their shoulders. “Like an ancient blacksmith, we take the new vats like raw pieces of steel, heat them in the furnace of the forge, hammer them, bend them and draw them out. Then we temper and sharpen them into blades for the ACAS.”

Leave it to Balen to wax poetic. Starnes rolled his eyes where Balen couldn’t see. The old researcher was partially right, though. The vat students had gone through a barrage of tests, real-life situations and training since their “birth” from the exowombs two years ago. But of course, their training had started earlier—when they were the physical size of a one-year-old, they’d been implanted with an interface that controlled their learning and training. They “appeared” twelve-years-old with the growth enhancers and accelerated learning, but in reality, there was only about five years between fetus and young adult.

Besides accelerating their learning, the implanted nodes shaped their very thought patterns and reactions. Starnes knew today’s test would give the scientists more information to make decisions about which rooks would move on to more advanced training and which would need reprogramming; however, Balen held the last word over any recruit’s future.

“I’ll watch the test from my office,” Balen instructed the researchers as he headed for the door. “We’ll compare notes at the end.”

“Yes, boss,” Starnes nodded.

“Simulation is up and running,” Marsh said, bringing the lights up inside the ship. “Let’s watch the show.”

#

Halvor was the first awake. He was always about five minutes ahead of the others when shaking off the programming-induced sleep. He had asked Dr Leah about it one time, and the psychiatrist had told him his mind just woke up faster than the other kids. Then she’d smiled and put a hand on his shoulder and told him it was because he was smart.

Hal already knew that he was smarter than most of the vats except Ivan. He didn’t know this in an elitist way—it was just a fact. His main desire was contributing what he had to the safety and security of those in his batch. But Ivan…Ivan was a whole lot smarter. The lanky, quiet boy was better than most of them at his academic studies. The doctors had been watching Ivan a while; he was one of the special ones that got to spend extra time in Balen’s lab. Some of the rooks were jealous of that, but Hal didn’t really like Dr Balen. There was something about the doctor that caused his skin to creep when he heard the man’s voice, so he was happy with being considered second best or less. He took care not to stand out too much, especially when Balen was watching.

His mind always woke up before he was able to move his arms and legs. It took a few minutes to get to what the techs called “fully operational.”  While he waited for the rest of his body to wake up, he tried really hard to remember what he was being taught by the voices in his head. Dr Leah had told him about them one time. They are teaching you, Hal, she’d said while putting away the data pad she used to test him. She’d turned in her chair and looked up at him with her glass-gray eyes as she spoke. They are making you smarter.

Sometimes she made him look at pictures and make up stories about them. And then sometimes she let him draw his own pictures. He hated drawing. A month ago, he’d drawn something that made her cry, and he’d felt horrible. Even now, he couldn’t remember what he had drawn that had been so bad, and so he worried that he might do it again by accident. He could remember the page had a lot of red on it. Maybe she didn’t like the color red, or he was really bad at drawing. He was only allowed to draw pictures in her office, so it wasn’t like he got a lot of practice at it. He never wanted to see her cry again, though, so he didn’t draw anymore. Or if she made him do it, he would only sketch happy things, like a smiling face, or the plant she kept on her windowsill. Those were safe subjects.

Doctor Leah? What are the voices teaching me? he’d asked again that day.

Everything you need to know to survive on the battlefield. Just sleep and let it happen, okay?

She had been tense and worried, but he had not wanted to push. Yes, Ma’am, he’d replied.

Last night, he had laid in his bed, looking up at the ceiling of the facility while he waited for the implant in his head to put him to sleep, but now, as he opened his eyes and was able to look around, he saw that he wasn’t in the vat barracks on Chamn-Alpha. He was in a different room. Same types of bunkbeds, but a different space.

Now that he could move, he unhooked himself from the sleeping harness he’d been strapped into and stood up to explore his surroundings. Passing his friend Mateo’s bed, he heard the small boy groan and mutter in a voice thick with sleep, “I am the fist of the ACAS.”  Hal knew the creed by heart. The weird thing was he didn’t remember learning it. Probably learned it from the voices, he thought. He moved on, continuing until he reached a hallway near the quarters they were in.

He looked out of a small porthole and his mouth fell open in a stunned gasp. It was space—a sky of black with little stars flung out upon it like jewels. Was this real or a sim? He had no way of knowing.

He began to hear murmuring in the quarters, so he turned back. The other rooks were waking up. Before he’d reached the door, an alarm blared. “Emergency. Captain to the bridge,” a computerized voice warned. It repeated every 15 seconds.

He entered the barracks room to see the students either sitting up in bed blinking like they’d just been born or like him, investigating. Other than the noise of the alarm, there was nothing. No adults. No commanding officers or doctors in white coats. Just them.

“Get up,” he ordered them, seeing the need for someone to take control. “Come on. We have to get to the bridge.”  He glanced at Mateo, who was sitting up in bed with tears glimmering in his eyes. That was bad…crying was always bad and no one ever did it. Crying got you reprogrammed.

“Hal? What’s going on?”  Mateo sniffled.

“I don’t know. Stop bawling. We gotta get to the bridge.”

The boy nodded and wiped his face. Hal turned to the other rooks.

“Come on. Get up!”  He ordered again and pulled Mateo out of the bed by his arm. Two girls and two boys had already gathered around them and were waiting to see what he would say. Three or four more boys and a bewildered girl were looking between Hal and another kid on the other side of the room – a black-haired mountain of a boy named Bykov. He had always been the last to wake up.

Two weeks ago, Hal and Bykov had fought in the mess hall. Hal had caught the hunk of muscle trying to fold Mateo into one of the lockers in the gym area of the complex, and they’d had a shoving match; Hal had gotten the best of him by an all-out rapid attack. Several days later, Bykov had grabbed a metal lunch tray and slammed it into Hal’s head as retaliation. They’d beaten the shit out of each other with fists while the doctors and researchers stood on the sidelines and coolly watched. Finally, after an eternity of blows, some of the soldiers had come to separate them. Nothing had been settled that day, and their hatred of each other had continued to grow ever since.

“Come on!”  Hal automatically prioritized the threats and decided Bykov was not dangerous, at least in the moment. He led five of the vats with him down the hallway. “We need to turn that alarm off and find out what’s wrong!” he yelled over the blaring siren. He could feel his heart pounding with adrenaline. He was rushing–the physical response to stress that allowed vats like himself to take rapid action. Everyone’s eyes were almost entirely black; their irises had dilated to a tiny ring around their pupil as they shifted into a strong rush. As he glanced at Mateo, however, he noticed that his friend’s eyes were still normal. The small boy was wiping tears from his face miserably as Hal pulled him along. “You gotta stop crying,” Hal told him as he dragged him around a corner. It was hard not to feel frustrated with the sobbing child. Mateo wasn’t ready for this. He won’t make it. It made Hal feel sorry for him and he didn’t know what to do with that.

Prioritize, he told himself.

After two wrong turns, they found the bridge.

Hal pointed to an empty seat on the bridge. “Sit there, Mateo.”  If the boy was in the corner, he’d be less likely to get in the way. Hal looked around, naming the stations in his head. All ACAS ships were set up the same way—the Captain’s chair set above all the others. Below were the navigation, communications, weapons, and engineering stations.

He went to comms and began to look at the display. Letting himself react instead of thinking, he moved his hand to a flashing button and toggled the switch. The head-splitting siren went off. “Okay. Everyone take a station and tell me what the displays say.”

The boys and girls each went to a place and then began reporting. “Hal, it says here the engine’s in shutdown,” Talor, the boy at engineering called.

A girl named Harlow had taken the navigation station. She was one of Hal’s friends, and they were often paired up in classes. They worked well together. “The ship’s orbit is decaying. We’ve got to restart the engines, Hal.”  She turned, and her long red hair, pulled up in a high ponytail, whipped over her shoulder. She gave him a tight, worried smile, and he found himself wanting to reassure her.

“Okay, that’s good to know. Mateo, Damon and Dalla, stay here. If we get the engines restarted, you need to reestablish orbit until we can figure out what to do. Damon, see if you can raise someone on the comms.”

“You bet, Cap,” the boy replied with a salute.

Hal nodded to show his appreciation before turning back to the girl beside him. “Come on, Harlow. You’re with me. Let’s get down to engineering.”

#

Dr Starnes and Dr Marsh glanced at each other. “He figured that out pretty fast,” Starnes murmured, looking at the chronometer on his datapad. “Fifty-seven seconds faster than average.”

Dr Marsh nodded. “What’s the deal with that crying rook?”  All the kids had numbers, and Starnes saw Marsh had written the kid’s number on his datapad. “Number 12?”

“Mateo Jond. Consistently low scores. Rush index much lower than normal, despite adjustments.”

“If he’s not making gains by now, he probably won’t be. Send him for reprogramming?” Marsh asked.

“Yeah. Got it.” Starnes made a notation.

“Uh-oh, trouble ahead,” Marsh said as he watched the video feed from the hallway right outside of the bridge.

#

“Where do you think you’re going, Cullen?” Bykov asked.

Hal turned to see that his nemesis had quickly gathered the other stragglers and headed for the bridge. “Down to get the engines restarted,” Hal said flatly, widening his stance and readying himself to fight if necessary.

“I didn’t give you permission,” Bykov said.

“You’re not the captain, and I didn’t ask you. If we don’t get the engines fixed, we’re all gonna die, moron.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Harlow said stepping forward. “Move out of the way.”

Bykov hit her in the face with a closed fist before Hal could react. She was on him quick, but Bykov blocked three of her punches before one of her jabs hit him in the gut. He cursed and angrily shoved her to the floor, using his size and weight to advantage.

Bykov quickly motioned to the kids behind him. “Take the two of them to the ship’s brig.”

“B-but…” one of his crew stuttered.

Bykov turned to glare at the boy.

Hal took the distraction to launch himself at Bykov. He slammed into the bully and they both tumbled to the floor. A punch to Bykov’s solar plexus disabled him for a moment and a second one busted his nose. He kept pummeling his foe until Harlow’s voice shook Hal out of the adrenaline haze. Breathing harshly, he climbed to his feet while Bykov moaned on the floor in front of them.

“The rest of you go to the bridge and do what Damon and Dalla say.”  Hal eyed them, his irritation barely held in check, “or at the least, stay out of the damn way. C’mon.” He gestured to Harlow and they continued down the hallway.

“You okay?” He asked Harlow in a low voice when they’d put some distance between themselves and Bykov’s group.

She nodded, and Hal saw the spreading bruise developing on her face. It made him want to go back and finish Bykov for good. “I’m okay. Hardly feel it with the rush. Do you think this is a simulation, or are we really on board a ship?”

“I think it’s real,” Hal said. “But if it’s not, it doesn’t matter. Either way we have to work with the facts and take actions based on them. It’s what we’re expected to do.”

She nodded. “I’m glad…” she trailed off, biting her bottom lip.

“What?”  He stopped, turning to her.

“I’m glad it was you we were trapped with, Hal,” she said, a blush flushing her features. They continued down the hallway.

#

“Cute pair,” Starnes said. “He likes her. I’ve seen the two of them working on target practice in their free time.” 

“She’s definitely a good second officer. Give her a leader to follow and she’ll get the job done. I think I did her gene editing,”  Marsh boasted. “She’s developed exactly like I made her,” he said in the tone of a god pronouncing his creation to be good.

#

Hal and Harlow searched for the armory on their way to engineering, but found no weapons inside, so they went on to the engine room.

It was lit in red, but other than that, the ship was silent. “Okay. That’s bad,” Harlow said. “The engines are in complete shut down.”

“Yeah.”  Hal knew it as well. Last month, they’d taken a field trip to tour an ACAS ship. They hadn’t gone on a ‘ride’ but the ship had been powered up and he remembered how the thrum of the engines felt. That sound was missing now. Hal found the main panel and hit the restart.

“Engines offline.” The computer replied as the error note sounded. “Safeguard program engaged.”

“Okay.”  Hal pulled the bottom of the panel off and called to Harlow. “I need light. Can you find a…”

“Got it.”  She was coming back toward him from one of the equipment lockers. She knelt beside him and shined the hand light into the space under the panel.

“Thanks,” he murmured, his thoughts racing over the set up. He knew nothing about engineering panels – he wasn’t trained for them, but his eyes roved over the crystal disks of the computer, as well as the ports and circuits. Then in the back, he saw a crystal lying on the floor.

“What’s wrong?” Harlow asked.

“A memory disk fell out?” he said, holding it up. “It can’t be that easy.”

“Try it in one of the ports.”

He inserted the disk into backup comm control, not really expecting it to do anything. Still, who knew? It might be some sort of error that caused a cascade of other errors. “See if you can restart.”

She tapped a moment at the terminal, then shook her head. “No. It’s not working.”

“Shit.”

#

“It’s a distraction, Cullen,” Starnes said. “Come on. You can do this.”

“I’m cuing the second warning,” Marsh said.

#

Another alarm began to sound, and Harlow looked around the engine room.

“Orbit decaying. Reentry in 15 minutes,” the computer said.

“Damn.”  Hal checked all the crystal disks, verifying that they all were in contact with their ports. “Okay. Let’s reboot the engineering computer, then try a restart.”  He crossed to the engineering terminal and began to enter commands, but it was locked out.

He tried several different passcodes that came to mind, but none of them worked.

“Try Celian.”  Harlow said. “I saw it on the nameplate on the bridge.”

“That’s not gonna be it.”  Hal said, entering it anyway. “It’s not gonna be that easy.”

The terminal beeped at them, signaling an error. Hal cursed.

“There’s gotta be an override code,” Harlow said. “But I can’t…remember.” She rubbed her temple, right by her interface scar.

Hal narrowed his eyes as he glared at the computer. “The codes would all be different. I have no idea what it would be.”

“Thirteen minutes to reentry.”

“Computer, restart engines.” It was a desperate plea that he knew wouldn’t work, but he had to try something.

“Please enter or say the passcode or override code.”

Hal growled and kicked the panel in front of him in frustration. Harlow, Mateo, Damon and the others were depending on him, and he was well aware that the ACAS didn’t abide failure.  Any vat failing the test would be reprogrammed.  It made his frustration climb, and he kicked the panel again before squeezing his eyes shut, trying to quiet the noise in his head that told him to take a hammer and smash the computer to hell.

#

Marsh shook his head. “His patience is short. He’s not going to be able to access his subliminal training in that emotional state.” He made a note on his datapad. “We need to adjust his self-control programming.”

“Don’t count our boy out yet,” Starnes said.

#

“Hal…” Harlow pleaded. “We’ve got to think. They wouldn’t have put us in this situation if there weren’t a way out.”

Hal’s head was down for long moments, but finally, he calmed down enough to speak. “I went over the connectors, and the memory crystals. What am I missing?” He lifted his eyes to hers, seeing the spreading bruising on her face. She was part of his batch, and he was damn sure going to get her back to base. Maybe he’d even space Bykov before they returned. No. Don’t get distracted… he told himself. Revenge wasn’t helpful. He had to focus. Prioritize.

“Hal. Let’s see if we can find a datapad with a manual. There have to be directions and codes for how to do a restart.”

She reached above the terminal to open the cabinet, but it was locked. Hal turned, going for the tool box. “Getting a prybar,” he called.

He came back with the bar and popped open the cabinet. He and Harlow pulled out what was inside and spread it out in front of them.

Harlow opened the datapad that contained the manual, while Hal went through the pile of transparent protocol sheets. “This is taking too long,” he muttered to himself, getting frustrated and tossing them to the side.

Imagine you’re an ACAS nat, he told himself. They wouldn’t be looking this shit up either. They have bad memories, compared to vats. What would you do to ensure that you would have the passcode if you were a natural born? he asked himself.

Write it down somewhere?

No. That was too simple. Or was it? It seemed like something a nat would do. Maybe that was the answer to solving this problem. He began to look around the terminal, peering behind the display and then spying the exo-suit locker beside the terminal. Would it be in there? He grabbed the pry bar and hefted it in his hand.

#

“No!  Use the protocol sheets. Damn it, Cullen!”  Starnes said, thinking that Marsh had been right all along. The kid was going to be just another bolt catcher, not as special as they’d hoped. “It’s right godsdamn there.”

Marsh sighed, crossing his arms over his chest and raising an eyebrow. “She will find it in the datapad. Give her a second.” They both watched Hal move to the locker containing the exo-suits.

#

“It’s gotta be here. Gotta,” Hal whispered to himself as he pried the door open.

He felt a trickle of sweat run from his hairline down his face as his body temperature crested with his increased metabolism. He tried to wrap his mind around the possibility of failure, but his programming wouldn’t let him. Vats don’t accept failure—they achieve the mission. He’d heard it hundreds of times from instructors and would hear it thousands more before his training in boot camp would be completed. He gritted his teeth and fought another compulsion to kick the cabinets in front of them.

Harlow was intently tapping on the screen in her hand. Hal rifled through the exo-suits, trying to see if there was anything in the pouches, then his eyes caught something…a number on one of the gloves. He disconnected the gauntlet and turned it over.

There was an eight-digit code there—most likely the passcode written by some engineering tech that didn’t want to take the time to memorize the login code. “Harlow-” he said.

“Hells yeah!”  Harlow looked up with a grin.

“I found it,” they both said at the same time.

Hal came up and they compared their codes, which were identical.

“Read it out for the computer.”  Hal grinned.

#

“Holy shit!”  Marsh pounded the console in front of him. “Thirty fucking trials, and we never even knew that was there.”  The suit had come with the rest of the outdated ship, and they’d left everything as it was, operation ready. “How the hell did he find that?” 

“Not everything can be programmed,” Starnes said, furiously making notes on his datapad.

#

A few moments later they had gotten the engines back. Hal hit the shipwide comms. “The engines are active. Repeat, engines are active. We’re headed back to the bridge.”  Then he turned back to Harlow who threw her arms around him in a hug that made them both blush.

“C’mon,” he said. “Let’s get back.”

On the way out of the door, Hal took the pry bar in one hand. Then he went to the tool box and rummaged around until he found a huge Jacobsen’s wrench, longer than his forearm. “Think you can swing this?” Hal asked.

Harlow took it in her hands and lifted it up to swing it experimentally. “Yeah. He won’t take me down again.”

Hal nodded, satisfied. He’d sparred with her enough to be fairly certain that she’d be able to use it in a fight to offset any advantage an opponent might have in size or weight. “Ok. Let’s go.”

Hal only half-hoped that he would find that Bykov had gone off to lick his wounds somewhere. The rush was singing in his blood and the other half of him wanted to end this for good. He got his wish. When the door slid open on the bridge, Bykov was sitting in the captain’s chair, his face still a fearsome mask of blood. Damon and the others were gone, obviously they’d been taken to the brig…or worse. It was not unheard of for rooks to kill other rooks in training. Usually not much was done when it happened. Some just had no loyalties to batch or group.

Hal judged four hostiles. There were six boys on the bridge, including Bykov, but two of them were looking rather worriedly back and forth from Bykov to Hal. He was certain he could flip them back.

“C’mon Becker…Cruz. You’re gonna pick this moron over me?”  Hal said conversationally, glancing at Harlow. “They’re stupider than I thought.” 

“Don’t listen to him. I’m the oldest here; I’m in charge. Take them down.”  Bykov waved his hand in their direction. When no one moved, he yelled, “Fucking take them down, or I’m gonna take you down!”

Hal’s eyes went around the room then centered on the bully. The rush was thrumming through him and kicking Bykov’s ass once and for all was just too attractive for him to resist.  “Let’s just do this with the two of us, Bykov. A fair fight. Unless I beat you too badly last time?”

The power in the room shifted to Hal at that moment, and all the eyes went to Bykov. The bully noticed, and his face tightened with anger. “Fuck you, Cullen.”  Bykov stood up. “Put down the pry bar and let’s go.”

Hal handed the pry bar to Harlow and spoke in a low voice as he waited for the bully to come down from the Captain’s chair. “Harlow, you’re in charge.”

“Of course.  If it’s not a fair fight, I’ll use this to make it so.”  She hefted the bar in one hand and dropped the wrench, deciding the bar felt like it would do more damage.

Bykov and Hal moved into the center of the bridge. Neither of them spoke; they both brought their guard up and got ready to hit each other until one of them was down for good. Bykov threw the first punch—Hal dodged, then hit the large boy back twice with two body blows. It was obvious Bykov was injured from earlier, but he was also angry and rushing and that made him a formidable opponent. Too busy thinking, Hal took a slug to the left eye that caused his vision to blur. He backed up, shaking his head and keeping his guard up as his rush intensified.

“I’m gonna kill you this time, Cullen!”  Bykov growled as he advanced.

Hal struck him with a spin-kick and leaped back, bouncing on his feet. “Come on, you godsdamned coward. Try it.”

They engaged in a flurry of blows, the last of which caused Hal to fall back against the captain’s chair, dazed. He pulled himself up and channeled the adrenaline flooding his system, leaping for Bykov and toppling both of them to the floor. Hal began punching him in the face, knowing he couldn’t let Bykov get the upper hand. It was now a matter of survival. Finally, he felt someone grab his arm, so he whirled and took a swing, causing the other rook to leap back. Then his name, cutting through the thudding heartbeat in his ears.

“Halvor!!”

He looked up and saw Harlow’s face above his own. “Hal, it’s okay; he’s down. You did it.” 

Hal looked down at the silent, blood-covered boy below him and rolled off. Then he looked around the room.

Every kid was watching him warily. He wanted to slump to the floor, but instead he climbed to his feet with Harlow’s help. He had to let them know who was in charge. “You, Becker. Go let my crew out of the brig,” he commanded in a low voice. “And put this one in their place.”  He gestured to Bykov.

“Yes, Captain,”  Becker said, smacking his friend Chall on the shoulder. Together, they came and got Bykov between them, dragging him down the hallway.

“Anyone else not wanting to follow my orders can leave the godsdamned bridge,” Hal said, glaring around the room.

“Sir, no sir,” The wiry kid named Cruz replied. “You have the conn,” he took a seat at navigation, glancing over the display, then over his shoulder at Hal nervously.

Hal limped over to the captain’s chair. “Good.”

A voice came over the comms.  “This test is now over.  Stand down and the ship’s controls will be taken over remotely.”

#

Dr Balen looked up from his display to see Dr Starnes at the door of his office. “Sir, did you see the end of the trial?”

Balen nodded.

“The Cullen rook. Marsh and I think he needs to be tagged as elite.” 

Dr Balen was well aware of Halvor Cullen. The boy had gotten into trouble several times for fighting and sometimes had problems being told what to do. He had not been gene-edited for elite status, but apparently, he was showing a natural propensity for leadership. As much as they tried to select talents and abilities, there was still an X factor; Cullen was proof of that.

“We’ll keep an eye on Cullen. I am not against recommending him for elite training at this point, but I want to watch him further.”

Starnes didn’t like it; however, he relented when Balen raised an eyebrow at him. “Yes, Dr Balen.”

#

When Hal stepped off the ship onto the landing pad at the Chamn-Alpha Vanguard Assault Troop Facility, he was met by a tecker and two scientists: Dr Marsh and Dr Starnes. Behind them were three soldiers. As Harlow came up beside Hal, all the rooks shifted into attention position and remained stationary – waiting for orders, as their programming had taught them.

“Cullen,” Marsh said.

Hal stepped forward. The scientist was looking at the damage to his face. His eye was nearly swollen shut. “You did well up there,” Marsh said.

“I did what was expected, sir.” 

“We have some questions we would like to ask you, after you go through medical,” Starnes said.

Hal nodded. “Yes, sir. You should know that Bykov’s in the brig. He’s going to need medical too.”

Lots of medical, sir,”  Harlow said from behind Hal. He could hear the grin in her voice.

Starnes seemed a little flustered at that. “Uh…very well. We’ll handle it. Both of you report to medical yourselves, then my office for debriefing.” 

“Sir, yes sir.”  Hal and Harlow began to walk toward the main building, but they paused as they saw two ACAS officers step up to Mateo.

“Come with us, rook,” one said to Mateo.

The boy’s dark eyes widened. “No. I didn’t do anything…”

“Shut up. No talking.”  The ACAS officer put his hand on Mateo’s shoulder and pushed him toward another door, away from Hal and Harlow, who exchanged uneasy glances. Everyone realized where Mateo was going. He’d failed the test and would be reprogrammed.

“Come on,” she said in a whisper, pulling him toward her. “There’s nothing you can do for him. You have to watch out for yourself.”

“Yeah,” Hal said unhappily. He’d protected Mateo and tried to help him for the better part of a year so far, but now there was nothing he could do. Harlow’s desperate blue eyes were enough to keep him from turning around to see Mateo’s wretched sobs. When they couldn’t hear the unfortunate boy anymore, they went inside the cool, clean hallways, following orders and stowing the experience away as a grim lesson in the consequences of failure.