FORCED TO BE A TOAD
The two guards marched me from the black SUV up to the castle. It was tall and gray and menacing. Its towers and walls extended far above the ground and ended in a point. There were intense floodlights pointing downward on us as we stood by the door. My first instincts were to bolt, but the two hands latched firmly on my shoulders prevented it. One of the guards reached up to activate the intercom system, releasing one of my shoulders, and I wiggled free of the others grasp. I dipped down and spun to avoid their reach and sprinted towards the main gate we came in. To my horror I saw it automatically closing. No matter, I thought, I'll just climb over. I started running full speed and took the biggest leap I could muster to get higher on the fence. My plan was foiled by the electronic voltage shot through my body at first contact with the metal gate. It left my brain fried, a buzzing in my ears, and an uncomfortable metallic taste in my mouth. The two guards gathered me up, laughing at my inattentiveness to the "Danger: Electric Fence" sign.
Back at the door, a voice came through the speaker box.
"Excuse us Headmaster. We brought the girl you had sent us after."
"Ah good good. Come to the dining hall please." With that there was a buzzer and the two black doors swung open. The heftier of the two guards shoved my back and I met face to face with the floor. I looked over my shoulder to see the doors closing. I was trapped inside. I look back down at the floor to see this extravagantly designed carpet with fancy furniture all over the place. Standing up to dust myself off, I see grand chandeliers and wall decorations in the main hall. In the middle, directly in front of me, there is a huge spiral staircase leading up to an upper level.
To my left there is a room with long wooden tables with hundreds of chairs, and on my right looks to be a royal suite with comfy looking couches, a huge TV and plenty of games and activities. An ultimate teen crib. Above the doorway, written in elegant lettering are the words 'Winner's Circle.'
I am led to the left where an intimidating built man is sitting in a throne like chair, wearing the nicest suit I had ever seen. He had a glint in his dark eyes that set me on edge and his smile was sly like a criminal's. I tried to meet his eyes confidently, but something about them put unwanted shadows in my head.
"Well hello there! Gus! Henry! Go watch the doors." The two guards resumed attention by the doorway. He turns his merciless gaze back to me.
"Miss Clark, isn't it? I am Mr. Solomon. You will refer to me only as Headmaster Solomon. I would like to welcome you to our little facility."
"It's Indiana Clark sir. I wish to leave."
"Ay. Well we can't do that. Orphans are not permitted on the streets of an upper civilization. It makes us look bad. So I have selflessly let you come here with others of your same…predicament."
"I was fine surviving on my own sir. I have only been an orphan for four days; news can't possibly travel that fast in Civ. three."
After the apocalypse, consisting of pandemics and natural disasters, everywhere on the Earth except for a few places in Europe had been destroyed. As a result, practically all of man kind had been wiped out. The remaining people set up the Twenty Civilizations, all run individually and differently. I lived in Civilization Three, one of the top five.
"Yes I know Indiana, but I am immediately alerted to when a new orphan roams my streets."
"Your streets sir? The streets belong to the Civ. Three president and officers. Not to you." I give him a very suspicious look and I can see his veins poke out a little in frustration.
"Right of course. If that's what you want to believe. Now it is to my knowledge Ms. Clark that your parents worked for the government and died unexpectedly about five days ago. Correct?"
"Yeah. They were agents and were investigating political corruption in the Civilizations. And they were murdered, assassinated, I'm sure of it." Throughout the entire conversation, I kept a straight and emotionless face, this guy was not going to get to me. He was trying to get in my head.
"I'm sure you're just being paranoid girl. Now, what have you heard of this place? This is of course, The Orphan Development and Improvement Facility, of which I am proud founder."
"Well we call it TODI and call the orphans that get sucked into it toads. I've heard some things about it, rumors as it were…"
"Well I won't drone on about what goes on here. All I can say is we are set up in a class system and your class mentor will help explain the rest. Before you are taken to your quarters, how bout something to eat? You look hungry." A steaming plate, piled high with food is put in front of me at a place setting. It looked wondrous good, and I plop myself down and dig in, noting Headmaster Solomon's satisfied smirk. As I dig into the mashed potatoes, I remember a story told to me by my friend Collin a while back.
I hear the toads go insane from eating the food there. I heard it had all these chemicals in it that made you into a mutant or something. It messes with your mind. Never eat all of your TODI food. I look at my plate, there's still about half of it left. I decide to stop, just to play it safe for now. I'll ask around later if the rumor is true or not. The headmaster looks slightly displeased.
"All done? You sure?"
"Yes. I'm too tired." I stifle a grumble from my belly. I hadn't eaten a good hot meal in days.
"Fair enough. I shall see you bright and early tomorrow morning. You start instruction tomorrow as well. Good luck. You are to join other kids such as yourself, as I am not trusting of you yet."
"Well that makes two of us sir." I nail him with a good glare. His veins poke out a little more. His fat face looks more then displeased. That pleased me all the more.
"Gus, Henry, she is to be taken to the Judgment Hut, with the other riff-raffs. Good luck girl. You'll fit right in." He lets out a sinister chuckle as I am led back outside. I give him a last good snarl before I am taken back outside and walked across the pitch black grounds like a prisoner. That's what this place is, a prison. A prison, and like every other, must have hidden secrets.
MR. JASON AND THE RIFF-RAFFS
We come to some cabin looking building and I think the guard named Gus knocked three times on the heavy wooden door. We stand there for about thirty seconds and then an older man, who looks like he could have been insanely athletic when he was younger, opens the door. He had brown hair just getting its gray streaks and soft brown eyes. You could still make out the lines of muscle in his legs and arms. There was a distinct attentiveness and wisdom in his eyes that made me feel inferior to this great man. He commanded respect from the guards, yet had a calm composure that reminded me of my father.
"Yes? Hello? How can I help you gentleman?"
"Sorry for waking you Mr. Speary. This one gave us a bit of trouble and we just brought her in." Henry gestured towards me.
"That's quite alright. Are you sure she's getting the right placement?"
"Pretty much. We had to chase her a couple blocks before we even came close to stunning her. She almost made it to the rooftops, tricky little thing." I puff out my chest in pride at hearing of my skilled almost get-a-way. I keep a straight face and just gaze at this Mr. Speary.
"Oh yeah. She's in the right place. Goodnight Gents, I'll take it from here." With that I am passed on like a baton to the next runner. We go inside and he turns on a small lamp and sets out a cup of hot chocolate on a small table. I am a bit on edge at this point, and look around quite hesitantly, but alert.
"I see. You really do belong in the riff-raff hut. Now stop standing there and have a cup of hot chocolate. You may call me Mr. Jason if you like. I run this little cottage and you have two bunk mates who are sound asleep. You can meet them in the morning at breakfast. Now come sit. I need to talk to you a little before we both hit the hay." I sit down and take a quick sip of the hot chocolate. It tastes absolutely incredible and the chocolate taste lingers in my mouth afterwards.
"Excuse me. But what does everyone mean by placement? I don't understand. Why are we not being adopted out to people like in regular civilizations?"
"So many questions. And go ahead and drink the rest. If you're wondering, there are no chemicals in the food and drinks in here. Being not part of the main castle, the food does not get contaminated. That may answer one of your questions."
"Yes it does. That means the rumors are true about chemicals messing with kids? And why does it matter where you're placed? And why do I belong specifically here? What instruction do we get? Mr. Jason. Why does that man express interest in orphans?" My blue eyes have grown wide with the number of thoughts buzzing through my head. I don't know what, but something about Mr. Jason seems so welcoming. I feel like I can trust him. He chuckles, but it's a nice, fatherly chuckle.
"Clark, is it?"
"Indiana, but my friends back home called me Indie."
"Very well Indie. There are different class systems to divide kids based on their skills, teamwork, and various other factors. It also creates a bit of competitiveness used to bring the kids to their best potential. As for you, you were placed here because of your wit. Headmaster Solomon knows which type of kids become what. He knew you had cunning and aggression of an officer or general. So you were put here."
"What do you mean officer and general? And how come there are only three of us? You make it sound like it's a huge group of kids in each class."
"I immediately saw it when you showed up at my door, as I'm sure headmaster did too. You stood there, not showing your emotions, taking in the environment and the situation. You were questioning the suspicious and being alert in an unfamiliar environment. Most orphans are brought and welcome the food and the hospitality with no second thoughts. That's how Headmaster corrupts most of them. The food does contain a unique set of chemicals that acts almost like a steroid to help boost kids along and it changes them mentally as well. The kids who pass through this cottage learn that it doesn't affect you too much if you only eat part of the meal."
"Oh. Dang. So I guess I'll survive off of half meals. So what is Headmaster doing? Creating an army or something?"
"Right on. Yes. He's sustaining his army. He already has three fourths of the twenty civilizations under his belt, whether they know it or not." I was tempted to talk to Mr. Jason about what my parents were doing and if it related to what Solomon was doing, but something stopped me. I just sat there for a moment, taking in all of the information. I downed the rest of the hot cocoa to ease the silence. I let out a really loud yawn. He chuckles his soft chuckle again.
"Oh dear. Look at the time. We'll talk more. You'll start to understand everything more in the morning. You're bunk is over there. Pajamas are on the bed." He starts to get up and head to his own private room before I stop him.
"Hang on Mr. Jason…Does anyone know about Headmaster's secret empire?"
"My dear. If they do, they won't last very long. It's a sad thing."
"Then why do you support him? Why are you helping a man like him?" My frustration broke through at this realization and I spoke harshly direct with accusation in my voice. His expression changes and he gives me a serious, but concerned look.
"I do not support that poor excuse of a man. I support the orphans in the riff-raff cabin. The ones determined enough to learn, advance, and change what they deem wrong. I see them as a hope. When a good group comes through, I always hope they will have the initiative to break out and go against this place. That's why I'm here. You cannot speak of this to anyone as I am probably the only mentor that thinks this way. Solomon runs this place, and it is all very strict. Headmaster must be obeyed and practically worshipped. Never speak out against him, not while you're in his fortress. You will see. Goodnight child. Please sleep well."
He leaves me sitting alone in the dark. I sit there for a few more minutes trying to digest everything he had told me. My head spun as I tried to wrap my brain around it all. I came to my own conclusion that it was Solomon who had my parents assassinated because they found him out. I was very curious to see how this world of his worked. I yawned again. I decided it was time for bed.
I change into the soft pajamas, which are all black, and slip under the covers. I hadn't slept in a bed for a few days and it feels like the softest in the world. I'm asleep before my head hits the fluffed pillow.
I feel like I'd been asleep for five minutes when I feel my self being shaken.
"Hey new chick. Get up." I open my eyes to see this guy about my age with shaggy, red hair and hazel eyes and a goofy grin. His eyes were so light brown they seemed almost golden at the time. He wasn't too bad looking. "Hello? Get up! You've got a hell of a day ahead of you. Time for breakfast." I warily stand up and stumble back to the small table I had sat at last night with Mr. Jason. Mr. Jason was preparing some food and already dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Two kids about my age were sitting at the table, and they were in the same pajamas as me. One was the shaggy haired guy and the other was a girl with medium length brown hair and bright green eyes. All three met me with smiles.
"Good morning Indie. Here are the other members of the 'Outsider' class."
"Hey I'm James, like James Bond. Sit down, have some food and some orange juice. No need to worry about the chemicals here. Mr. Jason tells me you figured out a lot last night. Must have been an intense conversation."
"James shut it! She's a bit overwhelmed. Poor kid. I'm Carla, and you've got to excuse him. Mr. Jason was telling us about you and he was pretty excited."
"Hey. I'm Indie. What time is it?"
"Well kiddo, it is five thirty, and you need to eat up. You'll need your strength."
"Five…thirty? Oh my gosh." I leaned back in my chair and groaned. I tried to rub the sleep out of my eyes.
"Hey it's not so bad. Atleast we get real food and not mutated stuff. I heard they tried to cram some down your throat last night. That's one upside to being an 'Outsider'"
"Outsider? What do you mean? And how come we don't eat with the other kids?"
"James isn't too good at explaining. The other kids all live in the castle and eat together for all meals in the dining hall. Us, being the special kids with the skills, we have to wake up early, eat here, then stand in the dining hall and wait for the other kids. Oh yeah, and we get treated like dirt."
"Wait, Carla. How come we are treated that way if we're the most important kids?" Mr. Jason interrupts us with putting more food on my plate. I scarf some of it down like an animal. It was wondrous good.
"You guys need to eat! I will explain! You three are the 'Outsiders' class, which is the lowest of the classes. Headmaster Solomon does this to try and break you guys down and crush your spirit. All the other classes are able to treat you like crap and he thinks that this will break you down and make you more bendable to his own will. It never works out that way. All the classes are color coordinated, which hints the black. Your activities are all military oriented and the schedule is harsh." James starts talking with his mouth full and I barely make out what he grumbles about.
"So, being the lowest class, we gotta stand and wait for 'em in the morning. That's when we get our schedule for the day. It sucks. You'll be sore by lunch. Oh yeah, we eat lunch and dinner in the dining hall. Only eat half though."
"Right. Cause of the chemicals right?"
"Yup. But Mr. Jason usually makes us a little something more to make up the difference. And he's a bangin cook." James and I nod in agreement as we chug the rest of our orange juice.
"Thanks Carla, but you guys need to get dressed and head over to the castle. You can talk on the way. Indie, get used to these guys, they will be the closest things to friends here. Carla, make sure to help her get dressed correctly."
"Yes sir. Come on Indie. There are three baskets at the end of your bed. One has clean pajamas, one with clean day clothes, and one is for dirty clothes. Make sure you put the sports bra on, let me know when you're done."
I clumsily dress myself in the black, yet light and comfortable clothes. The shirt has a slight v-neck and is more of a baseball tee, and it has a white outline to contrast the black. The shorts are athletic shorts that also have white outlines and lines down the side. I put on black socks and amazingly comfy black tennis shoes with white symbols on them. I look like a freaking ninja. I got this. Carla comes back over with James.
I quickly learn that bunks aren't separated and nobody cares about privacy. I guess that's understandable given that we're all orphans and such. James goes over to the two drawers next to my bunk. He pulls out a couple hair bands, and a wristband or bracelet. He hands the bracelet to me.
"Make sure you tie your hair back and whenever you're around instructors or mentors and especially Headmaster, have that wrist band on. You can take it off around the hut though. For one, it shows your class, and two it somehow boosts the training effects. It's weird." As I tie back my hair I almost feel like it too should be black instead of its dirty blonde. I slip on the bracelet and we head out the cabin doors, saying bye to Mr. Jason as we left. As a trio of outsiders we walk across the grounds to the castle to meet the troops.
A LIFE AS AN OUTSIDER
As we walked across the grounds I learned that James and I were both fifteen and Carla was sixteen. James said she would probably mother us sometimes. That got him a playful punch in the arm. I also learned that the other groups hated us just because we were the best in all activities, yet the lowest class. There were rivalries against one another as well. Some groups formed alliances, but the 'Outsiders' never knew what drama was going on in the castle during breaks in training. Carla warned me that the purple and yellow class teamed up just because they dislike us the most.
"Has anyone ever broken out of here before Carla?" Her voice dropped to a whisper.
"Nope. But I was talking to Mr. Jason the day before you showed up. He knew you were coming and said that the three of us had the best chance of getting out of here. He said he would help if he could, but expected great things out of us." James added his little comment. His voice was low too. We were approaching the big black doors.
"I think that sounds pretty promising. But first Indie's gotta learn the tricks of the trade and get in better shape, then we'll talk. What say you Indie?" He asks as he knocks on the doors and we're buzzed in.
"There's a first time for everything." And with that said a quick smile spreads on our faces and we enter the castle, feeling a lot closer then we had before. Our smiles fade the closer we get to the dining hall, already buzzing with the few early bird groups sitting and stuffing their faces.
I follow Carla and James to the back wall where we stand at some form of attention, observing the other kids. Within the next few minutes, all the classes are in the dining hall. At least a hundred kids, dressed in all sorts of colors, are all talking and stuffing themselves with the contaminated food. There are about ten colors with ten to twelve orphans in each. Yellow is the last to enter. A boy who I figure is the leader looks me up and down then spits by my feet.
"Well that's charming." I mumble under my breath. Carla shoots me a look.
"What was that? The new meat speaks?" His group of thugs laughs around him.
"I hear a toad's bark is worse than its bite." I realize my mistake immediately as the smirks on their faces fade and they quickly surround me. All I see are flashes of yellow. "Hey Carla. Make sure to teach your kin what their place is. Or do you want her first day to be a nightmare. Be careful who you get attached to. I'd damn you all to hell, but you're already here." With that alpha yellow leads his goons away. I scoff at the insult behind their turned backs. Before I could blink, I feel a rush of air and a piercing sting of a hand across my face. "You better watch yourself girl. Don't forget the name of Randall. See you at training." Carla starts lecturing me as James snickers. I just ignore the stinging on my cheek and the little pricks of blood I can feel forming where his nails struck. Sticky crimson droplets slowly run down my cheek.
"Indie you can't talk back to them. You just have to take it. Just no matter what they do, think to yourself that you are better than them. Prove yourself when you beat their butt. Everyone knows we're the best. Show them. Just don't forget we are the top dogs, no matter how they try to break you…" Her ranting is interrupted by the Headmaster himself taking his place at the head of the table in his throne. A silence falls swiftly over the crowd.
"Well good morning everybody!" A monotonous good morning reply was said all around. "A few announcements before we get started with the days activities. First, we have a new outsider. That is Indie over there, I trust you all will make her feel welcome." Even as he says it I can see right through the little liar. He very well knows no one will make me feel welcome and everyone will treat me like dirt. You can see the satisfaction and cruelty in his eyes of creating another target for the other kids' hate. I glance around the room and I see the other orphans snickering and already planning my downfall. It puts me on edge and builds up my frustration further. I suddenly can't wait until training, if it gives me a chance to show the little monsters what I'm made of.
"Anyhow, the morning assignments are posted on the door. Please report at seven, until then you may do your usual warm-ups and what not. Break at eleven and everyone comes here for lunch at twelve, afternoon instruction begins at one. I'll see everyone at lunch. Good luck! Ready to dismiss!" Headmaster Solomon barked out that last command and all at once, every kid in the room stands at attention, like little soldiers. Headmaster waits a good twenty seconds until he calls out the final "Dismissed!" With that said, everyone gets with their color and forms their little ranks. I start to move to head out the door when James firmly grabs my shirt and holds me in place.
"We file out by class. So we go last." He hisses in my ear.
"Oh." I kept my emotionless gaze at every kid who gave me a funny look or whispered a threat in my ear, of which there were many. Finally the dining hall clears and Carla gives me a good kick in the leg to get me moving.
"Sheesh. That kinda sucked a lot." I meant it in a joking way, but James and Carla looked at me all serious. It made me feel like a little puppy who just chewed up the wrong person's slipper.
"I hope you learned your lesson Indie. In the hut we can joke around and make fun of anyone we want to, but outside those walls we are nothing. Just remember what I told you."
"I…I'm sorry. I just didn't realize." I met Carla's stare to find more concern and sympathy shining in her eyes than anything else. Ah. She's just saying that 'cause that's what she's supposed to say. She's just lookin' out for me. Well good luck with that Carls, I'm quite a handful…
"Hey guys, bad news, we've got combat, firearms, and defense with yellow, purple, and green. We are so screwed! Some first day you're gonna have kid. Might as well get going." Carla joins James at the activities list and stares in disbelief at our bad luck.
"Well Indie. Time to kick off your lovely stay here at TODI with a bang!" I have a strange feeling in my gut that today is just not going to go well at all. The three of us walk outside and begin a little warm-up walk around the castle, just to get woken up and ready. Then Carla and James go through all the good stretches and practically bore me to tears, but they say it's important and I believe them.
We make one final round to start heading over to the combat arena and I notice an imperfection off in the distance. Stretching around the edge of the entire facility is the electric fence, but I see a small place way past the bushes where something must have broken through. A good chunk of the fence was busted and there was some caution tape and equipment. I make a mental note to tell Carla and James about the hole later.
It was a beautiful day despite the bad predicament. Sunbeams broke through the clouds, heating up the green grass below. Not too bad for spring in hell…As if in response, a huge gust of wind blows through our clothes and hair. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, then start laughing like a child at the simple joy of it. Carla gives me a loving whack to the back of the head to bring me back to reality. We approached our destination. I got a nagging feeling in my gut and in the back of my head, and on cue a shiver ran up my spine. Spread out before me looked like an assassin boot camp. A giant arena stood in the middle, representing a make-shift battlefield. Around it were different areas to practice with weapons and defending yourself. Off to the side of the arena was a giant fighting ring that probably didn't have a red floor to start out with. Adults brought out carts of guns and spears and knives, and the other groups already there gazed hungrily at them. I must have looked really dumb with my mouth hanging wide open like that because James gave a soft giggle. .
"How's it lookin' to you? Trust me. If it could kill someone, it's in those bins."
"Those aren't real weapons are they? It's not like we're really gonna kill each other…right?"
"No, f course not. But they feel real as hell. You get shot; it freaking feels like you got shot. They developed some freakish bullets that don't go through skin or something. I don't know." Seeing my face go pale, Carla stepped in with the few words of encouragement she could offer.
"Hey. Atleast it's your first day so you won't get thrown in the ring. And you'll probably spend most of the time getting a feel for all this stuff. The mentors aren't usually too hard on fresh meat." I mumble a half hearted thanks as we join the other orphans huddled around a small stage where the mentors were starting up the session.