"Is he ready?"

"No."

"No?" It was a quiet hiss.

"No," Teacher confirmed, emotionless as ever. The gray-eyed man stared at him hard.

"You have trained him for what, eight years? How can it be that he still is not ready?"

"You mistake me," Teacher murmured softly, but in the bare room his words rung clearly. "In regards to the skill set I have trained him for there is none better. He is the best. Better than me. Better than anyone I have ever met. In that sense, he is ready. But there are other ways in which he is not ready. Not yet."

An eyebrow arched above the cold eyes. "What ways are you talking about?"

Teacher smiled coolly. "I will tell you, but first, you must tell me something."

The gray-eyed man smiled back, just as coldly as Teacher. "What?"

"What do you intend to use him for?" For the first time, Teacher looked directly into the other man's face, searching. "Specifically, I mean. I know, of course, that you want him to…" Teacher looked for the appropriate word. "Convince, shall we say, people to fear you. He will contribute greatly to your power. But I do not know who you want him to convince of this."

The other man laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh. "And why should I tell you? You say he is not ready, but I do not see how so, and I do not trust you enough to take your word for it. Aside from the few classes he will need to take immediately before his departure, I see no reason why I shouldn't send him out right away."

"Send him," Teacher repeated in amusement. "By all means do, but I think you will soon realize your mistake. As I have said, and as I will say again, the boy is not ready. The others had the same training, did they not? All 100 of them. And you sent the best of them as you intend to send him. Then, in stages you sent the rest. I do not know what became of them, but it is clear to me that they didn't succeed. Why do you think this boy will do better?"

The gray eyes turned steely. He leaned forward across the table. "You are correct in saying that the others did not succeed. They failed and they came back. They had been corrupted. They had been convinced to hate us, to hate those who raised them, trained them, and fed them. They yelled at the doctors who tended their injuries. They fought. And then they killed someone. They killed one of the guards." His gaze was intense. "We couldn't handle 100 at once. They had to go."

Teacher thought about this new bit of information, and he wondered if the gray-eyed man was at all pained by it. Teacher wasn't. He had seen too much to cry over the dead. He had other things to fret about. "I still fail to see why you expect the boy to succeed, and you haven't told me why exactly you want to send him, or why you sent any of them in the first place."

The other man snorted quietly, leaning back in his chair again. "You've heard of PLADO I'm sure," he said, not waiting for Teacher's nod of confirmation to continue. "And I also assume that living in this place you can't have failed to realize that we control," A smile, "well, almost everything really. So it is not too much of a stretch for you to understand that PLADO is not exactly what we have guided the media to portray it as. It is, of course, intended to overthrow the government. Not congress or any of that, but the real source of power in this country."

"You and your board," Teacher said.

"Yes. Precisely. But PLADO does not bomb camp sites. PLADO does not blow up individual houses as shown on TV. That is our doing. That is us targeting their hideouts. They are much more concerned with getting proof that we control the government, that the system is corrupt, than they are with actually harming us. They wish to expose us. And, obviously, we want to prevent them from doing that. But for all the people we have killed, the group manages to survive. I have come to the conclusion that there is a leader, or group of leaders, who organize the group, and that if we can just remove them from the equation, PLADO will fall apart. However, I have a country to rule; I can't spend my time hunting down these people, so I created a force that could. The 100 boys. Do you see it? With training, they would have the intelligence to locate these problematic individuals and the combat skills to capture them. Then I could continue to peacefully do what I have done superbly for a long, long time now." He tapped his fingers absently on the table. "But it did not work that way. PLADO captured the boys β€” I still don't know how β€” and they convinced them, as I have told you, that my board and I were the enemies."

"But why do you think your son will succeed?"

"Because, my dear man, he already thinks I am the enemy, and yet, in all his 16 years of life he has never once tried to do anything about it. He has always done as I requested. Oh, he hates me, but he obeys. I think it is because underneath that hatred is the hope that I do not hate him back to the same degree that he hates me. He hopes that one day I will show my approval of him. Maybe I will. If he succeeds, that is. You see now, of course, why he must succeed."

"Yes," Teacher said. "Yes, I see."

"Good. PLADO must be destroyed."

"Of course, but you're positive the boy can do it all alone?"

"You said yourself that he is the best."

"And you're positive he won't turn on us?"

"How can he? All his life he has been hated by everyone. He is different and he knows it. He won't fit in anywhere. He will not turn on us because he will soon enough realize that he must turn to us. He has nowhere else to turn."

Teacher thought. "Yes," he said quietly after a moment or two. "Yes, Mr. Dale, I believe you are correct."

But Dale was not correct, not completely at least. There were several things he had gotten quite distinctly un-correct, mostly in regards to his son, who sat slouched across a sofa three floors up. The sofa was black leather. It was cold and smooth, much like the eyes of the boy who sat upon it. He smiled at the older man who paced before him, square face set in a deep frown. The man's boxy glasses reflected the harsh light.

"What now, Brooks?" Matthew Dale asked casually. "You got another plan?"

"Shut up, boy," Harrison Brooks growled, continuing his pacing and frowning. Matthew lifted a dark eyebrow and grinned, but followed orders.

They had known each other now for six years, and in that time, had formed some type of strange, wary alliance. Brooks had sought Matthew out after watching his fighting lesson. Up until then, he had thought Teacher's classes were just a way for the boys to exercise in an enclosed space, believing the lie told by the board that the children were there as part of some new experimental education program. But when he saw how Matthew moved, how easily he bested so many opponents, he knew it must be more than that. They had talked. Matthew already knew much more of the story than Brooks. He knew about the kidnappings. He knew the board was the real seat of power in the country. And he knew he was being trained to fight some enemy for his father. He just didn't know who. It had taken them years of Matthew's spying and Brooks' careful questioning to discover the truth about PLADO β€” Matthew's purpose. And Brooks, without telling Matthew, had also learned that the 100 boys were to be sent off. He had contacted PLADO, and sent them information on the boys and the plan involving them, which allowed them to be captured. The organization had found it surprisingly easy to convince the trainees of the board's fault. They all had vague, drugged memories of their kidnappings, which were awoken and given shape when PLADO representatives explained the lies that the board had told them over the years. Angrily, the boys had returned to face those who they now viewed as enemies. PLADO had not stopped them, hoping they would prove useful as spies within the Compound. But it hadn't worked that way. And now the 100 were dead.

Brooks had just now informed Matthew of all this, and, try as he might to hide it, he was exceedingly nervous. Not nervous of Matthew's anger, not afraid that the boy would break their alliance, none of that. Brooks was nervous because he had no idea what Matthew thought. True the boy talked now. He smiled and laughed. The six years had changed him greatly. But he was no closer to showing his real emotions and thoughts than he had been when they first met; he had merely learned that a smile and a bit of chatter were a better cover than stony silence. He was, if anything, more closed. He had changed in other ways as well. Previously small and thin, at 16 Matthew was tall, strong, and broad. He could have been mistaken for someone several years older. His dark brown hair was short, his eyebrows straight and thin. His eyes remained the same as ever. Frozen. Emotionless. Hauntingly Blue. It was like looking into an impossibly clear lake which only shows one's own reflection, giving no clue to what actually lies in its depths. Brooks didn't like to hold his gaze.

"Done thinking?"

"Will you shut it?"

"No. I can't not talk."

"You used to be able to do it just fine," Brooks barked.

"Past-tense. The past-tense was important there."

Brooks snorted. "Fine, you impertinent child, do you want to hear what I've come up with so far?"

"If it's worth saying."

Brooks ignored this. "We have to get you out. You have to take what we've learned and share it with the world."

"But I'm corrupted now through you and your association to PLADO."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean that this is all part of my father's ingenious little plan. PLADO can get all the information they want and it won't help them in the least because the board's slanderous media broadcasts have made the organization unreliable. No one is going to listen to the bizarre conspiracy theories, however true, of known terrorists. And anyone PLADO talks to becomes just as disreputable. If I go out there, the board will say I doctored the evidence because I side with PLADO and I'll get locked up as a psycho or a terrorist's accomplice."

"But they don't know you're involved with PLADO."

"Does it matter? If I dish out all this evidence against the board, part of which is intended to prove PLADO's innocence, I don't think it will take them long to work it out and discredit me. Also, who will listen to me in the first place, a deranged 16-year-old kid locked in a secret government building for life? I wouldn't listen to me. Would you? What PLADO needs to get is a group of people, a large group comprised entirely of mature and intelligent people, to independently work out what's going on in our government and have the media cover it before the board gets a chance to interfere. To me, it sounds very difficult."

Brooks glared. "So let's hear your plan then, genius boy."

Matthew tilted his head back on the couch. "I don't have one."

"Oh, so you just like to sit there and point out the flaws in mine, do you?"

"Yes, I quite enjoy it, actually."

Brooks glared. "Well, I still think we have to get you out before they send you off with a tracking unit."

"I could remove the tracker."

"You'd have to cut it out of your arm. Better to leave now and spare the risk of bleeding too much or getting infected."

"But we also have to take into account the added risks of immediate departure, such as guards and security cameras and lots of people who wouldn't take it kindly if I just up and left."

"So you want to just do what your father says, play their little game, and see what they do to you when you return unsuccessful?"

"No. I told you, I think I should just remove the tracker after I'm out. But what I'm going to do isn't the real question here. We both know I'm leaving one way or the other. The question is what are you going to do? The board knows we've been talking. I don't think they'll be happy with you when I run off."

"I'm going, too," Brooks said stiffly. "I can't hang around here. I'm off to join PLADO, which is one of the reasons I think you should leave early." He stared hard at the ground, unwilling to meet Matthew's eyes.

"Oh," the boy smiled. "I see. You want me to leave early because you need help getting out, and if I leave as scheduled it will be a big affair with lots of people present, no room for sneaking."

"Yes," Brooks growled. "I need your help. You have the skills to get out of this building, am I right?"

Matthew examined his nails. "Oh, I don't know," he said casually. "I might. I've never exactly tried before."

Brooks began pacing again. "Well you better find out. I don't want to get caught on account of bad planning."

"You're assuming that I've agreed to this."

Brooks stiffened. "You're just going to leave me here to face the board's wrath? I don't think that's wise, boy. I'm the one who's interacted with PLADO before. They don't know you and they might not accept you as readily as you assume. I'm the one who can get you in."

"I'm not going to PLADO."

"What?"

"I don't intend to join PLADO. As far as I can tell, they're perfectly useless. A good cause?" He shrugged. "Sure, although the board's rule really isn't any worse than what Congress did in the past. I admit it's dishonest, and there is that unfortunate bit with the other hundred kids, and the bombings, but before PLADO came along and tried to expose them, they were doing a pretty good job. All PLADO has done in the past 10 years is force the government to use violence."

Brooks' eyes narrowed behind square glasses. "You want PLADO to be destroyed. You are on the board's side."

Matthew met his gaze coldly. "I'm not on anyone's side."

"You're just going to run away?"

"Yes."

"And you'll leave me here."

"Why not?"

"Because you have nowhere to go, boy. You have no money. You have no friends. You've never left this building in your whole life, and as soon as you're gone, the board is going to do whatever they can to get you back or destroy you. You know too much to go free. You're only hope is to come with me. I can convince PLADO to protect you. They will accept you because you will be a valuable asset."

"I don't want to be an asset."

"You don't have a choice."

"I disagree."

"Well, you're wrong."

"I disagree with that, too."

"Stop being stubborn and listen for once! I'm 57, okay? You're 16! Who do you think knows more? Who has actually lived outside these horrible white walls? Not you! Your whole life everything has been given to you. You don't work. You don't have to pay for your food or clothes or room or any of it. But you will. As soon as you're out, you will, and it's going to be harder than you expect. Why do you think the board has never taught you how to cook? How to drive? How to cross a street or use money or call someone? They've taught you nothing because they want you to be dependent entirely on them! They need you to need them, and they have succeeded! Come with me to PLADO and work for them until you learn. At least until you're legally an adult. Then you can go off on your own, but go to PLADO first."

"But you're forgetting something," Matthew drawled, seemingly unmoved by Brooks' speech. "The board intends for me to go off on my own to hunt down PLADO's leaders. They will have to teach me all those practical skills before I go, and much of it I already know from books and movies. It's one of the reasons I want to wait. They're also going to give me a stash of money to do the job, which will come in very, very useful."

"Well, if you're going to leave me here anyway, I might as well go tell the board now what you intend to do and score some points with them so they won't hate me when you do run off."

Matthew's eyes froze. He stopped smiling, and once again he looked like the tiny statue he had been on their first encounter. Except now he wasn't tiny. He looked powerful, unfeeling, dangerous. For a second, Brooks was frightened, remembering how the young boy had fought all those many years ago. He realized that even back then the boy could have easily prevented him from leaving the room. What was he capable of now? But then Matthew smiled again, shaking off his tense rigidity. He stood up.

"I think we can arrange something, old man," Matthew grinned. "The night before my intended departure seems like a good time to make our escape. I can learn all the skills the board wants to teach me and then we can skip off right before they put in the tracker. My only loss will be the money. A shame, really."

"So you'll come to PLADO with me? That's good. You will be very useful."

"No. No, I won't go to PLADO. I don't want to be used. I will do what I always intended to do."

Suspicion settled over Brooks like a heavy fog. "Then why are you doing this. You stand only to lose by leaving early."

"You said you'd let the board know about all this if I refused to take you."

"And we both know that was an empty threat seeing as you can prevent me from telling them anything quite easily."

Matthew smiled and turned towards the door. "Call it a goodbye present then," he shot over his shoulder as he left. The door shut with a click behind him. The blank walls stared. The lights buzzed. The black sofa slowly puffed up to its normal shape again, removing any evidence that someone had sat there just a moment before. All was quiet, and Brooks was left alone with his frown to debate the motives of impossible blue-eyed boys.