"It's just a test, Tonio," shrugged Baron, clumping out of Alexander Hamilton High School, past the metal detector, the RFID-card reader, the security cameras and down the steps. "It doesn't even count toward our grades. So what's the big deal?"
"The big deal," said the rangy, scowling dark boy beside him, "is that it's a Pentagon test."
"Yeah, so? They're not gonna make you do anything. If your scores look right for the military, maybe they'll pitch you harder than everybody else. But they're not gonna draft you."
"Yet. They're not gonna draft us yet," Tonio corrected. "But what about next year? Or the year after that?"
"Well, take the test and lie about stuff. Make it look like you're such a psycho submoron they wouldn't want you anyway. Make it look like you couldn't do anything better than sit in the dirt and pick your nose."
"Look," said Tonio, whirling around and forcing his friend to a halt, "This is wrong. We shouldn't have to take a test for the Pentagon's databases and that's all it's really for. But this isn't some ... some ... some dictatorship! This isn't the Galactic Blanking Order. This is America. The school shouldn't make us do it."
"Yeah. But take a mental mail delivery, bonehead. The school can make us do it. They're gonna make us do it. And we got no say. So quit bitchin'. It's only gonna get you in trouble. And if you get in trouble, that means I'm in trouble, even if I didn't do anything."
They passed a pair of campus resource officers, dumping the contents of a student's backpack onto the hood of their squad car. Baron went on, "So forget it, okay? Take the test. Give fake answers. Or tell the truth but just use your scores for college entry. They won't draft you. I promise. You don't have to get your butt blown off by an IED in Upsnortistan or Iranomania unless you sign up to. So please ... shut the bleep up."
Tonio shook his dark head in frustration and wheeled back out of his best friend's way. The two strode down the sidewalk together in thudding anger.
As they passed, Qwai Ching Paine, waiting unnoticed beneath the barely budding cherry tree, gazed inscrutably after them.
* * *
The Triumph Stratocycle darted from the clouds. It buzzed toward the domed settlement like a determined bee. In the cockpit, Darkboy hunched over the controls watching his holographic readouts and at the same time watching the sky for patrollers of the Galactic Order.
There. On the ground. A torch. The drop point. Darkboy tapped the controller and bam! in that instant a cruiser of the Health Enforcement Agency exploded into view on his right.
He dodged. That was the one thing he could do well. Use cunning. Use speed. Maneuverability. The Order cruiser had bigger power, longer range, and all the guns. But it could not dart like a hummingbird in atmosphere. Darkboy could.
Still, the government cruiser lumbered in relentless pursuit, swinging around in a wide arc and closing once again.
He had to lure the agents away from the drop point. He knew that. His mission had ceased to be delivery of illegal pharmaceuticals and contraband lipids. It was now to keep the cruiser occupied long enough for the groundies to make their escape. They were, after all, innocent farmers and villagers and his future partners in trade. So ... keep the cruiser occupied or kill it.
Darkboy and the Triumph dodged and this time looped, doing the unexpected. They did a 180, zoomed straight past the cruiser's guns. Throwing out multiple ersatz heat signals, they appeared to the automated weaponry to be everywhere at once. Then right up the cruiser's backside! He pulled in behind the lumbering beast, directly into its blind spot.
Ya gotta love government military design. Contracted to the highest-bribing bidder.
The cruiser began another ponderous move, with Darkboy clinging to its tail until he had it pointed in the direction he wanted it to go. Then he darted ahead of it again, explosions from its automatic weaponry popping around him, thumping in his ears and in his blood.
And he lead-footed and led that cruiser ...
Right into a whole waiting nest of Angels. The Outlaw band of Stratocycles came out of the clouds and flew straight at that cruiser, stinging like rabid wasps, sleek laser-flame guns melting metal. And down that fearsome cruiser began to spiral ...
"Nice move, Man," Baron said, pushing himself back from his own game console. He stretched and rotated stiff shoulders.
"Nice move, GUYS," Tonio Carolina, aka Darkboy, amended. He looked above the monitors and bowed heads of the warehouse-sized LAN party. A few glazed-but-grinning faces looked back at him. A fist pumped air. It had been great teamwork: Tonio and the Helios Angels crew. There would be some partying tonight. That move ran up points for all the Angels and added to Darkboy's "cunning" tally.
"I need some Bawls," Baron yawned. "And some exercise for my sore ass. Want to come take a break?"
"Nope," Tonio replied, returning to watching the cyberskies. "I'm plotting my next move. I'm gonna make that delivery tonight without losing any groundies. You watch."
"Y'know, for somebody who's against the military, you sure are good at the sort of stuff they like."
"I'm not against the military. My dad was military. So was his dad. I'm against BS. You seen the way they're promoting that test? Like it's about sunshine and puppy dogs. They try to hide that it's military. It's dishonest. And it's a set-up for the draft, I'm tellin' you."
"Yeah. But on Monday, no matter what, we're both gonna be in there taking it. Or you can cut school. Or get 'sick.' One or the other."
Darkboy shot out a few nearby drones. Easy stuff. "Not me," he said, as if making a decision. "Monday morning I'm going in there, and I'm going to stand right up in front of the teacher, and say, 'Go .... yourself.'"
"Maybe. But that's what I'm going to do. Walk in there and say 'no way.'"
"Oh man. Oh man, you are gonna make things hell for yourself and anybody dumb enough to be friends with you. Do you know that?"
Darkboy hunched down and prepared to make a run on the alternate landing zone.
* * *
Around 2:00 a.m. the brain starts shutting down and even the most Xtreme caffeine, sugar, or Guarana emergency measures may fail.
Darting in for a try at the alternative landing site, Darkboy felt a presence over him. He played on, zigzagging through an aerial mine-field around the territorial capital. A mine-field could be pretty good territory for a tiny, maneuverable craft smuggling modest things.
"Agility is the underdog's Overmind," a voice spoke softly.
Not sure the comment was meant for him or what it meant Darkboy dodged onward. He used his tailwind to whip two of the mines together behind him. They exploded with a satisfying boom.
"And stealth is the power of the powerless. Darkboy shapes darkness into advantage."
"I am the MAN!" Darkboy agreed, not looking up to see which of his allies or opponents in the game might be standing behind him, babbling middle-of-the-night nonsense. He zagged, dropped below the mine field and immediately made another 180, traveling away from the capital at dizzyingly low altitude. Any Ordergoons searching for him would start looking in the opposite direction.
"The enemy is perilous, but inflexible. Do you confront him on his own terms?"
"No way. Can't you see, man? Stealth. Speed. Moves. Smarts." Well away from any pursuers, he dodged through the walls of a canyon, its walls too narrow for Ordercraft to follow. Zoomed past the first beacon a decoy beacon and bulleted in for the hidden cargo drop. At the last second, lights flared up from the ground, a welcoming circle. He hit the drop button. Right on target again.
"Ah," said the impassive voice, "the young man moves from darkness into the light. And finds friends in narrow straits."
"Who the hell are you?" Tonio finally asked, turning. But there was no one there. Tonio logged off and sank back in his chair. Weird. Most definitely weird.
And then, out of nowhere, an idea began to form. "Yeah ... brilliant. That would be brilliant."
"So," said Baron, returning with a half-empty bottle and a bag of chips, "tell me you're sitting there looking so whacked because reality finally smacked you in the face."
Tonio looked around again as his friend dropped into the chair in front of his console. "Did you just see that guy who was standing here?" he asked.
"Uh ... no. What guy?"
"He ... never mind. But you're right. About reality, I mean. I'm not going to show up Monday morning and refuse to take the test."
"Thank you, God." Baron rolled his eyes heavenward. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
"I'm gonna show up on Monday morning and the whole senior class is going to refuse to take the test."
"No. I didn't hear that. You didn't just say what you just said."
"You heard me. The whole senior class. Is going to refuse. To take the test."
"Yeah. Right. And what crazy genius is gonna pull off this superhuman stunt?"
"Two crazy geniuses. Me. And you."
Special thanks to the helpful gamesters of The Claire Files Forums: Phssthpok, penguinsscareme, velojym, pagan, ShortyDawkins, septihol, Gloryroad, Mr. Dare, securitysix, A Nonny Mouse, Harleqwin, and especially Janis, aka PSMs_wife.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time.
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