Although the rotunda Shama was walking in appeared vast, she knew that Chronos Academy occupied only one quadrant of the Zone. The Zone, the secret glass city that housed Chronos, took up five full blocks in UpCity. A shield of meta material enclosed the whole Zone, but when not under security alert, its domed ceiling was open to the sky.
The Academy valued order so Shama was always surprised when she looked around and saw the classrooms tumbled about in a topsy turvy pattern, and the staircases, at various heights and of different lengths, heading off in all directions.
Above her, clouds blanketed the natural moon and its companion the A-moon, installed by advertisers, and she could only read: Future Within You. Probably an ad for an Instant Language chip.
She reached the glass stairs to the barracks and raced up. If she hurried, she’d get an hour or so with her friends before Lights Out.
The holoportraits of former Chronos operatives bulged out from the west wall. Shama noticed Dr. Hiriam Lassemer, inventor of the QuanTime, the machine that Bazel had used to send her to the past.
Shama didn’t pay any attention to the rest of the solemn faces, because the east wall of the stairwell faced the Sim, and she had a view of a forest of Instant Trees, a green meadow and rambling stream. Through the glass, she noticed that the Zone weather operators had switched the simulated outdoor environment into the fall mode.
LowCity only had one season: summer. So Shama liked looking at the leaves on the Instant Trees which blazed bright red, orange and purple. All the brilliant colors tumbled together made Shama wish she could have been alive in the days when the earth had changing temperatures.
It wasn’t a real fall though, because Shama spotted the cybratom CO2 packs on the naked branches of the Instant bushes. Without the cover of the Instant grass, the Sim’s floor was plain cybratom dotted with yellow weeds and ten or so drainage dishes, evenly spaced throughout the grounds. Still, as Shama made her way to the barracks, her nose filled with the delicious smell of crushed leaves, cinnamon, and oranges.
She approached the third floor landing and saw schedules displayed on the glass wall directly in front of her. She found the First Year’s and read: Physics of Time Travel, History of the Universe, Surveilling, Time Fitness. So many courses. Her classes’ schedule took up one whole wall.
A group of kids stood around in front of the barracks, talking and laughing.
Colonel Hurley sat on a stool gazing out over the crowd of First Years.
Gleer Rodriquez and Liberty Quence spied her and broke into a cheer. “Shama’s here!”
Even with a chip belly swelling over his pants, Colonel Hurley, whipped around, lightning-quick, to face her. “Welcome back, Cadet Katooee.” His tan cap with two bright stars topped dark hair. His eyes, a strange mixture of sleepy alertness, were kind.
“Thank you,” Shama said.
“Over here, Shama,” Liberty called from a spot in the back near the wall. Her barrel chest which dwindled into narrow hips, skinny calves and tiny feet gave her a top-heavy look.
Shama grinned. If only Mycia and Jeep could see her now. She’d give anything if her LowCity friends, knew that she’d been accepted at a fancy Academy.
But as Shama threaded her way through the crowded space she wondered if her Flade Street friends would put up with the feeling she got sometimes inside the Academy of being hedged in and trapped. As she passed through the crowd with their clear skin, shiny hair, unbelievably straight teeth, and new uniforms, she was amazed once again by how similar these kids looked. Their clean-cut appearances made her miss Jeep and Mycia even more. Passing between two groups that she didn’t recognize, she heard murmurs, “Who is that?” “I’d heard she had returned.” “I really want to meet her.”
A girl’s voice asked, “Why?”
Shama spotted Deza Uber.
A head taller than Shama, Deza wore her black hair tied back in a tight pony tail. Her dark eyes bugged out above a hooked nose. She held a tablet in one hand.
“Hi, Deza,” Shama said.
Returning her greeting, Deza’s face flushed, and she looked back down at her tablet, every other line highlighted with bright yellow. Deza was the smartest girl in the class.
As Shama pushed past Deza to join Liberty and Gleer, someone else piped up, “Bazel picked the right person to experiment on, all right. Little Miss Nobody.”
Shama glanced over Gleer’s shoulder at Tres Mungo. She had small features, perfectly formed. She was pretty when she smiled. But right now, she was frowning.
“If she can Travel anyone can,” Tres said to the group.
When Shama caught her eye, Tres didn’t seem embarrassed. Shama felt more surprised than offended by Tres’ comment. Three weeks ago, these cadets hadn’t even known that the QuanTime machine could be used to Travel. Now it seemed that everyone knew.
Gleer hugged Shama. Gleer’s skin, paler than most, looked like she would bruise easily. Her eyes, sunk in a high forehead, were the greenest that Shama had ever seen. “Glad you’re back,” she murmured.
Shama smiled. “Me, too.” She was happy to see Gleer, although theirs was an unlikely friendship. If a contest were held, Gleer would win most obedient student at the school.
“Tell us,” Liberty said, patting Shama’s arm. “What did Travel feel like?”
Liberty was one of the few Academy students that Shama would call tough-looking. Her T-shirt, tight across her biceps, made her look strong. But her ear-to-ear grin made her look sweet, too.
Gleer leaned closer. “I want to hear this.”
It hadn’t been that long ago but already, Traveling seemed like a dream. Safe inside the Academy, surrounded by these kids, Shama had a hard time remembering the feeling. But the Chronos’ term for being stretched, pulled, squashed, and exploded, all at the same time, seemed to fit. “Whipfrayed is a good description.”
Oozing concern, Gleer inched closer. “You never thought you were going to die or anything, did you?”
That final, cold feeling. The feeling that she might travel forever and never come back. The feeling that she had no future, no past. Shama had felt as if she were lost in an endless black tunnel. “Toward the end…”
“And the Twin Towers?” Liberty asked softly.
Shama shook her head. “I can’t remember. All I know is that I lost Deenay there.”
Gleer’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry.”
Liberty nodded. “She was quite a bird.”
“Yeah.” Shama paused. She was about to complain to her friends about Perbile when Gleer said, “Aww. That’s beautiful.” She pointed at the Sim.
Shama turned to see an explosion of color.
The Sim’s programmer must have pushed fast-forward, because the trees released batches of leaves. The gusting wind caught the leaves and spun them as if they were ingredients in a gigantic mixing bowl. Some slipped and fell onto the ground. Most of the branches were stripped nearly bare
“Gleer.” Liberty laughed. “You think everything’s beeeuuuutiful. ”
“Those leaves are beautiful, Liberty,” Gleer protested.
“I like them, too,” Shama said. When she felt a hand touch her shoulder, she turned and found herself gazing up into Kardo Felix’s beautiful gray eyes. Otherwise, Kardo wasn’t that attractive. His ears were large and his forehead too high. His face reminded Shama of a high-ceilinged room with outsized furniture.
“I hadn’t gotten to say hello yet,” Kardo said. “I heard you got a concussion.” He pointed at Shama’s head. “Are you O.K.?”
Shama nodded. “Yeah.”
Kardo grinned. “You proved Bazel’s theories,” he said. “You proved Time Change. Now, Bazel’s the top op at Chronos, in charge of the TimeProbe.”
Tres joined Kardo. “She didn’t prove anything.”
“Hello, Tres,” Shama said.
Tres’ mouth tightened into an expression meant to pass as a smile.
Kardo blushed and said, “You know what I mean.” He glanced at Tres, then back at Shama. “General Mungo is going to be the first official Traveler.”
Shama started. “Why would he do that? He’s Commanding General.”
“My father doesn’t trust anyone else with Time,” Tres said.
Kardo leaned in closer. “What happened to your eyes?”
“Yeah,” Liberty said. “They’re lighter.”
“Golden,” Gleer piped up.
Shama felt herself blushing. “Nothing.”
Tres pointed through the glass wall at the weeds dotting the Sim’s grounds. “The exact color of those.”
Shama looked down. Her eyes were. The exact color of those ugly weeds.
“Shama, I heard the Dean kept you in his office for hours,” Liberty said. “Are you in trouble?”
Shama shook her head. “Ah. No. Something about my records.”
“Your records?” Gleer asked.
“Questions about my mother,” Shama said.
“So, it’s true,” Tres said. “Your parents are off-grid.”
Gleer and Liberty exchanged glances.
Shama wanted to reach out, to wipe the smirk off Tres’ face, but the tingling feeling returned, and she hesitated. Tres’ eyes were blue buttons, and her nose was tiny. Her lips were pale pink, the color of strawberry chips.
You don’t belong here. Or anywhere.
Shama recognized the scornful voice inside her head. It was Tres’.
By the time she had recovered from the surprise, Tres had grabbed Kardo’s hand and was leading him away.
“Ignore Tres,” Liberty whispered. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her.”
Shama shook her head, but the sad tingly feeling remained. Her concussion must have messed her up more than she realized.
“We’re so glad you’re back. We’ve been missing you,” Gleer said.
“Will Shama Katooee, please come to the medtech’s office immediately,” a voice over the Earbone sound system announced. “Shama Katooee.”
“We tried to visit you there. They wouldn’t let us,” Liberty said.
“I hope,” Gleer joked, “Meez isn’t going to lock you up again.”