Sandra showed me how to use the mask. Despite being a rigid shell it was adjustable with some controls on the inside of the face plate. Pressing a few buttons in combination allowed for adjustments to be made, while locking it in the preferred shape otherwise. Technically I could just adjust my own head to the mask, but I appreciated the well-done design. After making sure I could adjust the mask myself, Sandra showed me how the mask could collapse into a portable form that made it easy to carry. As a bonus it could even receive messages that would alert me to when and where a job was happening that I needed to get to (and it received messages with no physical medium! Astounding!).
Sandra told me that the mask would display the time and location of the orientation on Saturday, and sent me on my way. I tucked the mask under my 'shirt' and left, passing by a preoccupied Lily on the way out.
Now I just needed to map more of the area, and maybe figure out when Saturday is. I had already figured out that they had a set of named days on a rotating schedule (such an odd system, why the names?), I just didn't know what the order of the days was.
For now I decided to just stick to mapping more of the area. That way when they sent the signal to my mask I'd know where to go. I'd start with this 'school' I heard so many drones mention. It seemed important.
I headed right as I left the building, following Lily's instructions. If I was properly mapping my surroundings then I was currently heading 'west' along Ashwood St. To the 'north' of the area near 512 was Maggie's diner and the tunnel entrance, and everything was still located in just the section of the city labeled E13. I had to hand it to the drones, if nothing else, they knew how to build big.
Ashwood St. continued for a long time. The numbers on the buildings counted down gradually (a few were on the other side of the street for some reason), and when I reached building 012 I found a massive structure, the width of two 'blocks' and ten levels high, the entire thing built with obvious reinforcements done to the support structures. I might have thought it was some kind of protective structure for resources if it weren't for the symbols by the entrance that declared the building to be "Clement High School."
Neat. So this was the place where young drones came from? Or maybe it was just the training facility? I was curious at what kinds of tests drones had to go through. A place this large probably contained thousands of drone young, getting yellow-furs or brown-furs for all of them to fight didn't seem cost-effective. Although maybe they fought them in groups, the drones did indeed value teamwork and doubling up would lower the costs substantially. Plus, the non-combat drones probably didn't need to participate in the combat tests.
I wandered over to the main entrance while I pondered these questions. A decision that turned out to be a mistake.
"Hey kid, what do you think you're doing out here!?"
I turned to the sound of the voice and found what was an obvious security drone, although I didn't recognize the outfit. Probably belonged specifically to the school. It walked up to me and glared, its mouth turned down in a deep frown.
No weapon detected.
Estimated threat: minimum.
"Trying to skip huh? You can't even wait a few more days? School's almost out anyways."
"Um, I'm not assigned to a school. I don't go here."
"Uh-huh. Sure. Well then just show me your I.D. and you can be on your way then."
I of course didn't have my own I.D. Most likely that was the 'identification card' that I had found on the drones I ate. Technically I still had those I.D.'s but they were useless to me right now. I'd have to see about finding a solution to this later, if I managed to extract myself from this situation.
"I forgot my I.D."
"Well then I can't let you leave now can I. Come on, you'll wait in the office for now, and none of your back-talk. Dunno why you seniors always try to ditch before lunch even starts. If you want to leave campus for lunch just wait until it starts and then present your I.D. I don't care if you graduate in a few more days, until then you follow the rules."
I happily followed the security guard into the building. It led me down several corridors and then left me at a seating area in the 'office', warning me not to leave before the bell rang before it walked away, grumbling under its breath the whole time. Several drones went by, all seemingly very busy with 'paperwork', although most seemed to be using flat screens rather than paper. One drone did ask why I was waiting in the office, but telling it I was told to wait for the bell seemed to appease it. I waited patiently in the office, counting the seconds. I was looking forward to tasting the 'senior' food.
Eventually an alarm rang out which surprised me, but this must have been the bell the guard spoke of because none of the drones reacted badly. I decided to ask a drone for directions, I didn't want to get lost in such a large structure. The one I talked to gave me an odd look, but pointed me in the direction of a 'cafeteria'.
As I walked I quickly noticed the drone young. They were mostly smaller than the adult drones, and I slow~ly adjusted my height to be more around the average. I'd return it to something more comfortable later.
From the flow of the crowd I quickly narrowed in on the cafeteria. Apparently it was just a very large room with enough tables for the drones to sit. Not surprising considering the shear amount of drones. I had seen a few young drones out in the city, but these were normally very small young with a caretaker. I had yet to see where they made new drones, although it was probably unlikely that I ever would. If there was a progenitor for the drones somewhere it would obviously be heavily guarded.
On one wall of the cafeteria was a side room where a line was forming. I quickly entered the line as well, shuffling forward slowly with the rest of them. While I waited I observed the young drones at the tables, it was really useful to see so many interactions at once. One oddity I noticed was that the young drones tended to cluster with other similar drones. Especially in the case of the combat drones. Those ones almost exclusively stuck together in groups with other modified drones, and regular drones avoided them. This was more like the behavior in central, the drones around Ashwood and Maggie's diner hadn't really seemed to care, but the ones in central definitely had. I resolved to be extra careful about the social hierarchy at play here. I just wanted to get my food and get out.
The line moved forward slowly but surely, and I was pulled from my observations by the large drone at the line's terminus which was overseeing transactions. It took the I.D. from the drone in front of me and and swiped it into a device that beeped before giving it back. Then it was my turn, and I didn't have an I.D.!
"Um, I forgot my I.D. today."
"Then it's two dollars," it replied, obviously bored.
I didn't have two dollars. I had a dollar and ten 'cents'.
"Here, use mine," came a voice behind me.
I turned to the young drone that had spoken. It was tall with pale skin, and had long, somewhat oily looking, black hair. In its hand it held its I.D. which it was offering to me.
"It's okay for me to use yours?" I asked.
"Yeah sure, the school's closing on Friday anyway."
I gratefully took the I.D. from the young drone and tried to hand it to the overseer.
"You aren't supposed to share those," it said.
"Aw come on Ms. B. They are already cutting two weeks off of school. I had the month pass." replied the young drone.
The overseer grunted and swiped the I.D. twice before handing it back to the young drone and waving us forward.
"Thanks Ms. B, you're the best," said the young drone.
Ms. B merely rolled its eyes and grunted.
The young drone and I retreated, quickly following the line again but with the young drone in the lead. I copied it in taking a tray and eating utensils, before taking small cups and platters of food to go on the tray. The food was... odd-looking. Mostly cut into the little squares and rectangles that drones enjoyed, the food came in muted colors, and seemed to favor a soggy texture. A taste test would be the deciding factor. Speaking of which I needed to secure a seating arrangement.
"Thanks again for helping me."
"No worries man. Ms. B is gruff but she rarely makes a fuss of it. My name is Mikey by the way."
"Mine is Tofu."
"Tofu? For real?"
"No. That is what others call me."
"Ha, no worries, I've heard weirder nick names. Come on, I see my friend from here. You're new right? You can sit with us."
"Um, yes, how could you tell?"
"You've still got that first day look. Bad timing dude, you just got here and they are closing it down early."
I really didn't like how easily some drones picked up on these small details. At least being 'new' was not suspicious enough to raise alarms in this case.
It led me over to a table where a few other drones were seated and placed its tray down next to a short drone with curly red hair and spectacles before addressing it.
"Hey Tim, what's up?"
"Jennifer Heartly triggered," responded the short drone while poking at its food with a plastic utensil.
"Yeah dude I know. It's been all over the school all day, how could I not?"
"The odds of gaining a super power are over one in a million."
What was that now? Gaining super powers?
"Okay, here we go again," said Mikey. It specifically caught my gaze and rolled its eyes.
"One in a million, but those numbers spike during odd summer. Some studies have shown it can get up to one in a thousand depending on the situation," said Tim.
"That's a rough estimate, of a possible high, on a single report done by quacks Tim."
"There's about five thousand students at this school. So technically by the end of Odd Summer at least five people in this school will trigger. And one already has."
"Tim, even with those odds that's like, less than a point one percent chance that you get powers. That any of us get powers. Heck, maybe some other school will get nine and we don't get even one more."
"So why did it have to be Jennifer?! She's a jerk!" exclaimed Tim.
"Ha, I can think of a few better words to describe her than that. A-word, B-word, C-word, I could probably make it down most of the alphabet if I really tried for it."
That got a snort out of Tim, and the two of them carried the conversation to different topics. I myself turned back to the food I had paused in eating to listen to the little drone's information. It had been quite informative.
I started to sample the different items on my tray... and was quickly disappointed. It was decently nutrient rich, but not by much more than the old nutrient slurry had been, and the taste was substandard at best. I asked what some of the items were, and found it hard to believe when Mikey and Tim listed food names also served at Maggie's diner. Apparently the same item could come in multiple different qualities.
"Yeah it's pretty bad. You should see what they try to pass off as meat. I swear the last time I poked a cafeteria "steak" it triggered and tried to fly away," said Mikey.
We talked about different subjects for a while when eventually the bell rang again. Lunch was now over.
"So which class do you have next then?" asked Mikey.
"Oh, um, I don't have a next class."
"Lunch dismissal? You know Bradly won't let you go early without your I.D." said Tim.
"Is he the semi-bald security guard?"
"Yup that's him. He's a real stickler for that stuff. You could have the office call your parents I think."
Hmm, that wasn't an option. I don't have 'parents', whatever those are. And informing the overseers that there was an unaccounted for drone didn't seem wise.
"Um, calling my parents isn't really an option."
"Eh, then it looks like you're stuck here mate," said Mikey. "Come on, you can follow me. My next teacher Mr. Kimber never takes roll, and the last period is just going to be Odd Summer announcements anyways."
Tim and Mikey split up partway outside the cafeteria. I followed Mikey who led me up a few floors to a room filled with small table/chair combination furniture. Mikey led me to the back of the room and sat in one of the chairs, and I followed suit sitting next to him. Drones slowly filled the desks, however it did not seem like I was displacing anyone, as by the time the bell rang there were still a few empty desks.
The bell rang and a large, fat drone with spectacles looked up from where it had been reading a screen. From its seat it addressed the class, "Bit of a change today. We will be going over the history of several important cities in relation to Odd Summer."
It proceeded to turn on a large flat screen at the front of the classroom. On the screen was displayed a map which, when I compared it to the subway map, I realized was of Fortress City. Using a small device which was emitting a red beam of light, the drone swiveled its chair to face the screen and began to lecture for the next hour.
And what an informative hour it was.
The lesson from the 'teacher' covered a brief mention of many cities, but it focused on three in particular. One was Area 52, a city based in a region known as Death Valley. The only reason it existed was because in the area the city was located there was so little wildlife that it became easier to deal with the resulting anomalies that Odd Summer brought.
Another city was Hive City (what a redundant name), which was based in the Bread Basket region. It was ruled over by a mutated animal, which had struck a deal with the United States government at the time. In exchange for maintaining the food supply to the rest of the United States, the mutant animal was protected instead of destroyed by the country.
The final one was known as New York City. Unlike the other cities it had been founded well before the first Odd Summer (so why was it called new?), and the reason for its continued survival was that every Odd Summer it became enveloped in a thick fog that protected the city. Every time the event happened it merely enveloped itself in fog and at the end emerged unharmed, its citizens missing the memories of the intervening time. No one knew where the fog came from, and Mikey whispered to me that it was rumored the city itself had triggered during the first Odd Summer.
Unfortunately the city I wanted to know most about, Fortress City, was mentioned only briefly at the beginning. Founded on the California coast by the Architect after the fifth Odd Summer. The only reason the teacher even mentioned it was because the Architect had apparently negotiated the deal with Hive City's ruler. I guess Fortress City's history must have been covered in previous lectures.
The bell eventually rang and I followed Mikey once more. This time to a a very large room with metal 'bleachers' to provide communal seating. We spotted Tim in the crowd and made our way over to where he was sitting.
Again I noticed the same clustering I had witnessed in the cafeteria, with the 'students' arranging themselves into groups. Besides the obvious segregation of the combat drones I also noticed a secondary split, this one among drones that were referred to by 'he', or 'him', and drones referred to by 'she' or 'her'. It wasn't a complete split, but it was enough to finally identify the factor that determined which was which. Surprisingly it turned out to be a difference in their organic design code. I had finally gathered enough ambient samples to link the code pattern to the speech patterns. It didn't really seem to be an important difference, especially not when compared to some of the more heavily modified design codes I had come across, but I noted the distinction for future interactions. It would definitely help my disguise.
The bell eventually rang and the students settled down, quieting (with some prompting) to let a drone on a raised platform speak. After introducing itself it spoke about the the fact that Odd Summer was starting (several students around me whispered "no duh" at this) and began to recite a list of safety tips and announcements.
Don't go out after dark.
Avoid anyone wearing a mask if you don't recognize them as a hero.
If you must go somewhere, do so in groups.
Report anything suspicious to central, and DO NOT clog up the lines with frivolous reports or jokes.
If you have physical modifications wear your armbands (several combat drones grumbled about this, and regular drones stared at them).
If you see anything abnormal, run first before reporting.
If you do trigger, you must report it to central as soon as safely possible ("Yeah right" muttered Mikey in response).
The locations of various shelters and their lock-down procedures.
And how to get graduation and 'GPA' information if your parents decided to withdraw you from school even earlier.
I was somewhat confused by the items on the list. Several seemed completely useless (why would darkness matter? Danger was constant despite the light level) and some were so obvious I wondered why it would even mention them. At the very least the shelter information was useful, and they displayed the pictures of three heroes that operate in E13. Magenta, Brick, and the super-fast drone I had seen who went by the name Turbo. I made sure to memorize their appearances for later.
I loved knowing who an enemy was in advance.
The assembly slowly wound down, and they dismissed the students as the bell rang.
"Welp, that's another day down the drain. Feels so great knowing I've only got a few more of these," said Mikey.
"I dunno, I think the schools are closing too early. Makes all the graduation and college stuff a hassle," replied Tim.
"Hey, at least you aren't Tofu here. Transferred in right before school ends, what luck is that? Are you also graduating this year Tofu? Or do you have one more?"
"Um, I won't be coming back. I have a job I signed up for."
"Already? Nice. I usually get one during the summer too," replied Mikey.
We walked out of the school and I just aimlessly followed Mikey and Tim, letting them do most of the talking. We headed north from the school and kept to the third level walkways until Tim eventually separated, heading to one of the higher levels. Mikey turned to me.
"So you live farther on or...?"
"Yes, I live near Maggie's Sunrise Diner, on Mintholly St."
"Oh dang, that's quite a walk still. At least you won't have to do it more than a few times."
We continued on until we finally reached Mikey's home. He lived in a fourth floor apartment that had a convenient stairway to get to. As we approached I heard shouting from above, normally I ignored this type of shouting since it was rather commonplace, however Mikey looked up, frowned, and muttered a bit before turning to me.
"This is my stop. It was nice meeting you Tofu."
"It was nice to meet you as well. Thank you again for the loan of your I.D."
"No problem at all man. See you tomorrow then?"
Hmm that depends.
"Um, maybe. I might need to go to my job."
"They making you start right away? Harsh. Anyways later on man."
I considered what I had learned today. It was definitely worth going back for more information, I had learned a lot in only a few hours, and the risk seemed surprisingly small. If I wasn't sent the signal to go to the orientation I would definitely try to sneak in again.
But jeez that food sucked.