37: Admissions Week, Day 1

"Welcome to your first day of Admissions to Heaven's Gate University, ladies and gentlemen!"

Camellia, like others with her Settings, tended to zone out when teachers started going through the motions at the dawn of the day. This time, it was just Mrs. Rigby repeating what she'd been saying for a few days at this point. Camellia did still have to listen; as nothing her administrator said would be repeated after she left the hall—and left the students to an environment where one's Settings mattered even less than they did in Fisherman.

"Remember to take as much time as you need to complete the written exam."

This was a breath of relief in the minds of most present. The test wasn't designed to suit one's Settings. To assuage the anxiety of the students, the Pearl Council and House Chandler made a compromise to eliminate the twelve-hour time limit for the written exam. With that, the Chandler School saw its graduation rate rise from 68 percent to 82 percent.

"And remember—have fun, and good luck!" With that, the exam was underway. Proctors began patrolling the aisles but not to watch for potential cheaters. They were there simply to remove anyone who proved detrimental to the examination environment. As long as Camellia kept her mouth to herself, there wasn't too much for her to worry about on that end. With loosened academic and behavioral standards in the wake of its historically low admissions, the Chandler School's exam room was more abuzz than it should have been now. It was the elation of people who'd otherwise not have gotten a chance to study there made manifest.

In the halls the proctors roamed. In the classrooms, one standby student was kept to ensure no one tried to break in. The administrator's office was completely empty, save for the constant whirring of the security cameras. The play yard, lawn and garden, lake and even the basement were under constant surveillance.

Major Wilson knew this. In the wake of the Sheffield disappearances, the Chandler School needed to sacrifice the open, caring nature it'd become known for to help make its students more secure. The Military Police helped out for awhile by enforcing a strict curfew but the administrators soon launched a battle over its efficacy, and who the prime suspects should be. They contested House Sheffield, with its mistress being a former drug dealer, should have been spotlighted. The Military Police countered this by stating that any suspicions they had about that ruling House disappeared when Clara Sheffield, Mistress Darla Sheffield's only child, disappeared. They also petitioned the Pearl Council to lift the curfew as it did little to actually protect the potential victims. The children of the Chandler School were already subject to one the kidnappers seemed more than able to circumvent.

-"So, you're saying you've discovered their next objective, Lieutenant?"

The female, taking off her cap in the presence of a superior officer, nodded gently. "Yes, Major Wilson. The Isles Defence Forces have taken note of a similar spat of kidnappings about ten years ago."

-"Well, what was the M.O. then?" Major Wilson didn't seem too excited about having to dig into the files of an entirely separate force for straws of information, and the Lieutenant knew this. Thus, she made her explanation quick and painless—at least, she tried.

"Well, the Isles Defence Forces went cold on a number of kidnappings of similar stripe, all apparently perpetrated a few days after the victim suffered a Setting-induced blackout confirmed by a Clairvoyant." To this, Major Wilson nodded, but also gripped the bridge of his nose. "Cold" and "went" were never two words he wanted to hear in the same sentence.

-"So you're telling me this modus operandi is all we know about the kidnappers?"

"Yes, sir—at least THOSE kidnappers. The ones here don't seem to be related, at least not in the sense of wanting to continue the objective their counterparts set out." The Lieutenant didn't seem sure about her own words. At least, considering the events of the last few weeks, Major Wilson gleaned the objective from her words.

"Alright then. We'll keep the security protocols we have in place at Chandler for now. I have it on good faith the Chief Executive Office will be paying us a visit soon, so do me a favor and prepare a report that at least makes it sound like we're making some progress here."

At that revelation, the Lieutenant's face lost most of its vibrant color. "T…the Chief Executive Office? Sir, are you—"she didn't have to continue before she looked to Major Wilson and recognized the response he was about to give. She hadn't heard it many times before, but when she did she knew better than to either stop him from saying it or suggest anything else in his place. Whether this was due to his rank as her superior officer or the master of House Wilson one couldn't tell from her composure alone.

Major Wilson stood and put his hands on the Lieutenant's shoulder. "I know. But sometimes, there are things in this city that even they pay attention to now and again. Naturally I'd hope it's because of the kids."

As Major Wilson left the office, the lieutenant followed close behind. On her own merits, she didn't know anything about the case the red file on it hadn't already told her. She knew an organization called the Maternity was behind the last spat of kidnappings, she knew twelve children went missing and there were twelve kidnappers. The problem was that EVERYONE knew this information. It was blared across late-night radio stations and television channels like HMFD 102.1. This was the fourth time the lieutenant had come into Wilson's office with no new information in the last month. Looking from behind, she had come to wonder just how much patience the Major had left in him for the lack of progress being made on this case. Kidnappings in general frustrated the Military Police, but these were people's children being snatched away. Angry, desperate parents and a school system rapidly losing its ability to stay afloat knocked on the walls of the policemen's minds on a daily basis. The CEO of Heaven had said nothing about the cases at this point. The Chief Executive Office stated on his behalf they did not, however slowly the case was going, want to give the people involved false hope of a speedy resolution.

They must have been feeding opposing opinions to the Military Police. When Major Wilson stepped into room 2076, there stood a small army of journalists, news anchors, Informers for various Houses and secretaries. Beside them stood a long table containing sixteen people—nine men, seven women. As demanding as the newscasters appeared, it was the presence of the Military Police Resolution Council that made him squeeze the bridge of his nose. It made things no easier that he was the ranking member of this council, late to the very collective interview he'd planned. As soon as he sat in the plush leather chair at the north edge of the table, he began the arduous trial in the Court of Public Opinion.

First came the near-nonsensical inquiry of a regular House Informer. "Major Wilson! We've been told there is strong evidence that miss Sheffield may have sold her own child into the sex trafficking industry to pay off her old debts."

"Ma'am, I'm not sure what anyone's telling you, but we have zero concrete evidence to support that." It was all the Major could get in before the next reporter chimed in.

"What about the kidnappers in custody?" asked a reporter with AM1400, WWWN. This time, it was Major Anthony Hill who took up answering.

"While we have numerous subjects of interest in this investigation, we cannot currently disclose the identities of the suspects in holding at this time, for their own safety." Almost as soon as he was finished, another Informer jumped in.

"How many suspects are there? Have any of them wanted to cooperate with the investigation so far?" The Major looked around for another to answer and turned it over to Colonel Kayla Donahue.

"Unfortunately, only four of our plea deals as of late have managed to get any of the subjects to cooperate in this investigation, and several of them pose high enough flight risks that we cannot reveal that information to the public yet. We have not yet obtained the Military Police Investigations Executive Office's permission to transfer the subjects to a more secure facility."

"Subjects?" the Informer talked back. "Don't you mean something a bit more…well…concrete for these kidnappers?"

It was then that another reporter stepped forward, as well as two more ostensibly to ask the same question. Amidst the growing heat of the conversations, Major Gloria Stiles tapped her gavel, a nonverbal signal for conversation to cease so she could be heard more clearly. "I am going to be absolutely clear with this." She set her gavel aside and turned to the reporter behind her. "At this time, these men and women are detainees. They have been arrested and fully read their rights as subjects of interest in an ongoing investigation. As no formal charges have been brought yet, we cannot treat these men and women as suspects in the Sheffield Kidnappings. The last thing we want to do is assume guilt before innocence, and it is paramount that you do not go spreading paranoia about a situation that is already hard enough to make sense of."

That should have at least helped calm things down. It didn't, not as evidenced by the several reporters who jumped own the Major's throat for apparently dodging the question. One of them, yet another House Informer, stepped forward. "But Major, what about the parents?! You don't think 'I don't know' is still going to work after a year and some change"

It was then and there that the executive of the committee, mister Wilson, hit his gavel. "The Executive Office already has it on the record that we don't want to poison anyone here with false promises. As soothing as it may be to think otherwise, we don't know where these children are yet or, definitively, who might have taken them." Another two bangs of his gavel signaled that Press was over, and it was time for the reporters and Informers to leave. As they filed out of the office, it gradually became easier for the officers to get their documents together for the latest development in the Sheffield case.

"Alright, so we're sure we've got their next objective. If so we need to inform the House of Stepfordson as soon as possible." Hills quipped, earning a nod from most of the members of the council.

Among the few dissenters was Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Shaw. "We do that, and we give the kidnappers not one, but eleven kids to go after—and complete knowledge of their daily routine."

"True, and that's why we need to act fast. Those reporters may be stupid, but they do have a point—every single second we waste not getting anything out of those guys over in holding is safety these kids aren't going to see again." Stiles chimed in, waiting for affirmation from her council commander. Major Wilson was silent for a few seconds, a veritable eternity in this urgency. Then, put his hands together and began the plan his subordinates on the council would follow.

Major Wilson looked to Lieutenant Colonel Shaw. "How many people undergoing Admissions for Heaven's Gate University do we have testing through Chandler?"

Shaw responded. "One thousand, one hundred thirty-nine, sir. Of those, approximately one hundred twenty-eight of them are members of Ruling Houses who are expected to financially bypass the official Admissions requirements."

Major Wilson figured as much. If one has the money to bypass the river Styx, then why not use it? "Is Camellia Lee Stepfordson the Second one of those individuals?" To this inquiry, Shaw shook his head just as Major Andersson was about to speak up. "If we take her out of testing now, won't she automatically fail Admissions?" Andersson asked, earning a curt nod from the rest of the council.

This was a conundrum for Major Wilson, but again he had a workaround. "We're not taking her out of Admissions. But we need to be able to track her closely enough to keep whoever was following her from the Isles off her back for now."

As Major Wilson spoke, there was audible confusion from the junior officers on the committee, particularly Junior Lieutenant Stephanie Ulysses. "W…Major, if you're saying it like that, doesn't it mean some kidnappers are still out there?" It was a good question, and one the senior officers had to address quickly. That task again fell to the commanding officer of the committee.

"I never said we have all the Sheffield Kidnappers in custody yet." He had to remind them all of this, and so banged his gavel on the table to catch all their attention amidst the small argument Lieutenant Ulysses' question spawned. "However, we're pursuing a new lead coming in from Saint Mary's Point as of last Wednesday. Hopefully, he'll be a bit more cooperative than the other ones down in holding have been so far. If not…" he said, slowly turning to a breaking news broadcast on the television about the Press that had been held not an hour earlier.

"…then we're all in for a long night." Some officers looked with shock on their faces and others merely shook their heads at the blaring headline running below the massive throngs of reporters and angered citizens still outside the headquarters:

SHEFFIELD KIDNAPPINGS: ARE THE MILITARY POLICE DOING ENOUGH?

Major Wilson squeezed the bridge of his nose, and looked disdainfully upon the case file that a military courier brought to them a few seconds ago:

MILITARY POLICE, DEPARTMENT OF INVESTIGATIONS 0H

MISSING PERSONS INVESTIGATIONS 2B/Extrajudicial Cooperation Network 3I

Persons missing more than forty-eight hours (8H)

Case file OH2B3I8H-33207

WILSON, ELISABETH NORTHUMBERLAND

Last known location: Perry Agricultural Campus, Old Staffordshire April 29, 2320