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Saturday, 20 October 2018 12:03

A Most Exceptional Scholarship by Nestor Delfino

A Most Exceptional Scholarship by Nestor DelfinoTaking the long way home was the least of Toby’s worries that warm June afternoon. The drugstore faced the parking lot -- the school bullies’ favorite hangout. But Aunt Annabel needed her refills, and he was going to get them for her.

Creeping up to the parking lot, he scanned in all directions. No ruffians in sight. He sprinted to the drugstore as fast as his limp allowed and almost hit his face against the sliding doors.

“Hi Toby,” the man behind the counter said. “How’s Annabel doing? Are we keeping her headaches at bay?”

“She’s fine now,” Toby said, gasping for breath. “She had a headache yesterday, but the stronger painkillers helped.”

“Here you go.” The man handed Toby five white paper bags. “Give your aunt my regards.”

Toby stuffed the bags in his backpack, and took a worried look out the window. He left in a hurry. At the same time, from the bubble tea shop next door, his nemesis stormed out. It was none other than Cody Sylvester, the sixteen-year-old who was taking grade nine for the second time. His younger buddies followed.

“Well, lookit! It if ain’t the limping nerd! Dinnit I tell ya I don’t wanna see ya in my hangout, Flynn? Dinnit I tell him boys? Dinnit I?”

Toby tried to get away, but Cody grabbed the handle of his backpack and pulled him down. They carried him to the far end of the parking lot and dumped him in the ditch, face down.

 

“Last warning, nerd. Next time ya gonna get it!”

Drenched in the warm, stinking water, Toby waited until they left before he dared to get up. Fortunately, the paper bags didn’t get soaked.

He cleaned his thick glasses and slowly made his way home. That top private high school that offered him a full scholarship looked so inviting now. But the long hours would have meant leaving Annabel by herself all day.

And she wasn’t going to be around for long.

Annabel was in the living room when Toby arrived. Frail-looking, she appeared much older than her fifty-four years. She wore her light-blue wool shawl -- Toby’s gift -- over her neck and shoulders. “Babybell” was stitched on it. Toby had called her that ever since he was three years old.

She was serving tea to serious-looking man wearing a black suit, a white shirt, and a black tie to match. The opaque sunglasses gave him an air of mystery.

“Ah, there you are Toby!” Annabel said as Toby dropped his backpack on the floor. His clothes had dried during the walk home.

“This is Ren Dizon,” Annabel said. “Mr. Dizon has come with a terrific proposal for you.”

“Good afternoon, sir,” Toby said, offering his hand.

“Good afternoon, Toby,” Ren said. He didn’t shake Toby’s hand. “Please sit down.”

The man could be in his early thirties. His clothes seemed glued to his featureless skin. A crazy idea came to Toby’s mind; a Japanese anime character.

“I represent an exclusive school, Toby. Students attend only by invitation. And we have an opening for someone like you; all expenses covered.”

Toby looked at Ren’s emotionless face. Then he looked at Annabel. She seemed happier than ever, as if she had forgotten about her brain tumor.

“Toby,” Annabel said, “this is the opportunity of a lifetime. Mr. Dizon assures me that even though you won’t be able to visit me for the first year, you’ll be allowed to call me.”

Before Toby had a chance to ask any questions, Ren got up. “I shall let your aunt tell you the details. You have the weekend to make a decision.”

With that, he left. There was something definitely odd about him, Toby thought. He didn’t drink his tea, and when he walked out, his suit didn’t wrinkle.

“Babybell, what’s this all about? Who’s this guy?”

“He’s a recruiter for a very prestigious school, dear. But for goodness sake!” Annabel covered her nose. “You stink! What did you do?”

“Please don’t change the subject. Didn’t he look weird to you? The way he dresses and his strange accent?”

“Dear, you know my vision hasn’t been the greatest since the last surgery… But Mr. Dizon assured me that you’d have the time of your life there!”

“And where is there? What’s the school called?”

“Oh dear. I never asked the nice gentleman,” Annabel said, putting her hands on her head. “But he gave me his card with his name and telephone number. He wants to know as soon as you make your decision.” 

Toby was hard to convince. The fact that the Japanese-anime-looking guy showed up out of the blue was actually the least of his objections. Being away from Annabel for a whole year was an impossible condition to accept, no matter how extraordinary, exclusive -- or bully-free -- that school was.

Already late Sunday afternoon, and after Toby’s steadfast refusal, Annabel had no choice but to play the card up her sleeve. She didn’t want to; it would bring back painful memories for both of them.

“Toby, you must take this scholarship. It’s your last chance. You know I won’t be around forever.”

“But the doctors said you’ve got at least five years! Maybe more! New treatments are coming out all the time!”

“Calm down, dear. After the accident, I made a promise to your dying mother. I never told you before. She begged me to take care of you as if you were my own son. So I promised her that I would ensure you had a good life. And this scholarship will give you that-” She couldn’t talk anymore. Sobbing, she got up and went upstairs.

Toby was only five when the accident happened and he didn’t really remember his parents, other than from a few pictures and videos. The only constant reminder of the crash was his ever-present limp.

He didn’t want to leave Annabel by herself for a day, let alone a year; but he couldn’t bear seeing her in that condition either.

Annabel’s bedroom door was open. She was on her bed, crying.

“It’s ok, Babybell, I’ll do it.” Toby hugged her. “But I’m gonna call you as often as I can! And I want you or Mr. Olaf to call me right away if you need me.”

Annabel hugged her nephew. “I promise you, I’ll be fine!”

She picked up the phone.

“Yes, Mr. Dizon? Yes this is Toby Flynn’s aunt. He accepts the scholarship. Tomorrow morning? The parking lot? I’ll tell him! Thank you!”

It was a hot and humid morning, and Toby didn’t want Annabel outside her air-conditioned home. He kissed her and said goodbye.

The only contact on his cell phone, “home”, got company: 911, on speed dial. He wasn’t sure he trusted this Ren guy. For all he knew, he could be a criminal who had conned Babybell and wanted to kidnap him.

The strip mall was deserted. Toby looked at his watch; 6:59 AM. He sat down on the concrete bump that marked the boundary between the parking lot and the ditch, and waited to be picked up.

But he wasn’t picked up; he was pulled up.

He felt as if he was being sucked by a giant vacuum cleaner. The parking lot got smaller. The CN Tower and the rest of downtown Toronto came into view; a few seconds later, all of Lake Ontario.

Then he looked up.

The craft was the size of a small helicopter. Just before smashing into it, his upward speed suddenly diminished. Blinding light came from a round opening, barely wide enough for him to pass through.

It was no helicopter. He was in some sort of bubble.

“Place your backpack behind you,” Ren said. “And fasten all your seatbelts.”

As if in a dream, Toby’s critical thinking abandoned him. He did as he was told. The permeating white light subsided, and he saw that the bubble was transparent. The only objects blocking his view of Ontario and New York were himself, Ren, and the backpack.

An instant later his right foot blocked the view of the North American continent; as the craft turned, his backpack blocked the Earth.

Straight ahead -- wherever that was -- there was a big, bright, white sphere. And it grew with each passing second, filling half the sky in no time.

“My god! Is that the sun?”

“It is your star, yes,” Ren replied. “We have to penetrate at least one-third into its core for the frame-shifting interweaver to recharge and engage.”

“Core? Penetrate? What? Ooh shiii-”

The sun swallowed them. And for the briefest of moments, Toby peeked at the heart of mankind’s oldest god. The bubbling orange blobs fused into each other, impervious to the puny being witnessing their billion-year dance.

Then the sun was replaced by a planet covered in multicolored bands that stretched from east to west.

Ren performed a swift descent. Despite the impossible speed, Toby managed to get a good look at the surface. The bands were regions of stark contrast. Some were covered by lush forests; others were deserts. Some were dotted with lakes, while others were crisscrossed by towering mountain ranges. Some landscapes were so alien, that he couldn’t have described them if his life depended on it.

Ren set the bubble down on soft grey grass, next to seven other spacecraft.

“Welcome to your new school, Toby. Now show me one hand, palm up.”

Toby obeyed, still too amazed to react. Ren dropped a small sphere in his right hand.

“Put it in your ear. You will be able to communicate with your teacher and your classmates. Now go join them.”

Toby inserted the device in his right ear; it felt like a swimmer’s silicon plug. He picked up his backpack and jumped out of the craft. The gravity here is a bit less than on Earth, he thought.

The rest of the students stood in line, looking at him. Nobody said anything, and Toby couldn’t tell for sure what they were thinking. Their faces didn’t express any emotion he could recognize.

Their faces! None of his seven classmates had a human face. But they were humanoid; two legs, two arms, one head.

The thing inside his ear buzzed a little and spoke for the first time, just as the teacher opened his or her circular mouth and made a series of clacking noises.

“Welcome, children of the galaxy. My name is Arucan Rof and I shall be your first-year teacher. Initially, the translators will listen to your speech before interpreting your language. Later, they will be able to translate directly from your thoughts.”

Toby stood at the right end of the line. To his left, a gentle, fragile, beautiful being dressed in a thin robe was making bird-like noises with her tiny, flexible beak-like mouth.

Was it speaking? Was it a she? His translator didn’t say anything. Perhaps she wasn’t talking, after all.

Beyond her stood a troll-like figure, covered in hair from head to toe, and slightly shorter than Toby. But he looked ten times stronger. He was also making noises. Growls.

“Students, it is time to instantiate your school,” Arucan said. “Please stay where you are.”

Although Arucan was not human, it resembled Ren somehow. Its clothes followed the contour of its body so perfectly, that it could have been a CGI character.

From under the grey grass four hollow cylinders rose, towering above the amazed aliens. Each cylinder shot a blue beam of light, clockwise, forming a large square. Then a second beam was fired, a different color this time. And then a third, and a fourth -- at ever increasing intervals.

The square became a cube the size of a cathedral. Inside it, thousands of multicolored beams bounced in all directions and collided with each other. After each collision, they left something behind.

Something solid.

Some 3D printer! Toby thought.

Suddenly, the beams shut off and the cube vanished. Toby couldn’t relate the alien architecture to any building on Earth, although it had large openings that looked like doors and windows. But there were no angles in this thing, and its upper reaches vanished into thin air. There was also a warm, pulsating glow coming out of it. So inviting.

“Please come in,” Arucan said. “Your first class starts now.”

Though the gravity was definitely weaker than on Earth, Toby’s limp was still there. Until he crossed the threshold, that is. All of a sudden his leg was stronger than ever, and it didn’t hurt anymore.

That wasn’t the only change he experienced. His vision got worse. He took off his glasses to rub his eyes, and realized that he could see sharp and clear. He didn’t need them anymore!

Other students appeared to experience similar transformations. The troll-like creature stretched his arms from his chest all the way out, several times, as if that used to hurt him before entering the school.

The teacher spoke again. “This particular school teaches oxygen-breathing, corporeal students. When the last star settles, the class officially ends and you are on your own time. Are there any questions?”

A cacophony of chirps, growls, squeaks, hisses, and grunts, told Toby that the aliens were as flabbergasted as he was. The aliens. He was as much an alien as the rest of them!

He was the first to ask.

“Can I call home please, um, Mr. or Mrs. Rof?”

The bird-like girl -- Toby was sure she was a girl -- emitted even louder chirps. No translation yet. Was she laughing, maybe?

“You are human, is that right, Toby?” Arucan asked. “I am neither male nor female. You may call me Arucan or teacher.”

Red-faced, Toby said, “Yes, Arucan. I’m human.”

“The last time we invited a human was just over two thousand years ago. He did not qualify to come back for a second year. As per your request, I am afraid that your home system is currently out of reach. That will change in the coming days, when the large gravity wells between this planet and your home system move out of our line of sight, and stop interfering with our focused gravitational beams. The transmitters we have parked in your star system are not strong enough for their signals to pierce through black holes.”

So much for letting Babybell know that I got here ok! Where’s Ren, by the way? He’d lost sight of him after landing.

“How far away are we from Plaemodis?” the bird-like girl said. Toby heard her melodic chirps before his translator did the talking.

“You are Alilea, the rubironean, right? You are the fourth one from your race to attend this school. Perhaps you shall be the first one to advance to the next level. We are one thousand light-years away from your star system.”

Gur-lak-toh, the troll-like being, spoke next. He had trouble understanding how there could be so many different beings that were neither game, nor predator -- never mind what a star system was. The teacher answered all his questions about his daily meat intake needs and how to fulfill them, and he seemed satisfied.

After the last star set, Arucan dismissed the class. Some students set out to explore the school, and to settle in their rooms. Toby, Alilea, and Gur-lak-toh stayed behind.

“How old are you?” Toby asked Alilea.

“I’m sixteen,” she said. The translator was capable of making sense of the different numbering systems.

“I too!” Gur-lak-toh growled.

“And so am I!” Toby said.

“What’s your star called?” Alilea asked Toby.

“Sol.”

“Why you much soft?” Gur-lak-toh asked Alilea, looking at her smooth, light-blue skin.

“My people used to fly,” she said. “Millions of years ago, when the winds on my planet were much stronger. But the winds died down, and we couldn’t fly anymore. We were just too heavy. Our feathers eventually disappeared, and our skin became what you see now.”

“How many stars have your people visited?” Alilea asked Toby.

Toby gulped. “Well, the ones that just set are my first three. How many have your people visited?”

“Five. Not counting this trinary star system. But our technology is nowhere near what I’ve seen here. They brought me one thousand light years in minutes! It takes our starships decades to reach the closest star from Plaemodis.”

“I know how that feels,” Toby said. He smiled. She smiled back. It had to be a smile. She hadn’t stretched her beak-like mouth like that up until now. Yes, she was smiling -- and checking him out with her big owl eyes.

And just like that, the first friendly exchange between three alien teenagers came to pass.

Carelessly breaking the mood, Gur-lak-toh pushed one of his ten fingers into Toby’s chest. “Skin not blue. Pink! Why no much hair? You girl too?”

And just like that, a sentient extraterrestrial touched a human for the first time.

“Ouch!” Toby protested.

“Such a brute troll!” the device translated.

Arucan was right; the interpreter had learned to voice his thoughts before he spoke the words. And his thoughts betrayed him.

Gur-lak-toh’s expression changed, and Toby found out what rage looked like on a tigurean’s face. Growling, he charged, head-butting Toby’s chest. He fell down and almost passed out.

“Please, Gur-lak-toh, I’m sure he didn’t mean to offend you!” Alilea said, gently taking his ten-finger hand. Gur-lak-toh calmed down.

“What is the meaning of this?” Arucan asked, coming down the long winding staircase. “We do not tolerate violence, Gur-lak-toh. It seems that we have made a mistake inviting your race so soon.”

“It’s my fault!” Toby said, getting up with Alilea’s help. “I’ve offended Gur-lak-toh with my unkind thoughts.” He looked at Gur-lak-toh. “I apologize, Gur-lak-toh. Will you please forgive me?”

Gur-lak-toh’s mood improved quickly. “You friend good!” he said.

“So it is settled. No need to send anybody home,” the teacher said. “Let this be your first lesson. The punishment for not behaving properly is to be sent back to where you came from with all your recent memories erased. You will forget that this place exists. Make the best of your stay here.”

#

Toby didn’t sleep well. He didn’t want to disappoint his aunt, who had such high expectations of him. Tossing and turning in his very real, very material bed, which didn’t exist just hours before, he brooded through the night. When the first star rose above the horizon, his mind was still full of questions.

Down in the main hall he found Alilea, accompanied by another student. Toby wondered if they were waiting for breakfast. He wondered what they all ate. But he wasn’t hungry or thirsty, which was strange, because he hadn’t had any food or water since leaving Earth.

“Hello Toby!” Alilea said. “This is Drog Ongra, from the Isamus star system.”

“Hello,” Toby said.

Drog didn’t return his greeting. He was much taller and stronger than Toby. With his two pairs of slanted grey eyes, located at both sides of his head, Drog examined the terran.

Toby managed to control the first thought that came to his mind about a giant rabbit -- before his interpreter voiced it.

“You shouldn’t talk to this inferior being,” Drog said, turning to Alilea. “He’s clearly primitive. Barely above that hirsute tigurean beast. If explorers from my planet ever visit his star, I am certain they won’t even try to make contact.”

Drog found out what an upset human looked like. “Why are you so mean?” Toby said.

The Isamurean had great speed and agility. Swiftly, he slapped Toby hard with his heavy hand. “I don’t want you talking to her anymore, do you understand, human?” Then he took Alilea’s hand and half-dragged her away.

Toby’s cheeks were red hot, but not just because of the sucker-punch. Appalled, he realized that advanced races had bullies too.

He followed the students outside. Arucan was about to start the first lesson of the day. Toby was determined to talk to Alilea again, no matter what Drog said. Or did. He sat down, cross-legged, behind her. She noticed, and kept turning around to smile at him.

“Any questions today?” Arucan said.

“What are we going to learn here?” Toby asked.

“We search for understanding between the races,” Arucan replied. “To avoid conflict. That is what we want you to learn. Because we can only teach you and the other species to help each other.”

“How many races are there?” Alilea asked.

“Many. We have not met all the sentient races in our galaxy yet, and we have been exploring it for millennia. So far we have encountered three main types: corporeals, energians, and ethereals. All of you belong to the first type. Within your group, you all belong to the bipedals.”

“Who are the energians?” a student asked.

“Energy beings. They do not live on planets, although they visit them often.”

“Can we meet them?” Toby asked.

“You are first-year students. You are not ready yet.”

“This is meaning creator of things want?” Gur-lak-toh asked.

“Things are the way they are. We do not seek meaning,” Arucan said. “We do not encourage religion. You are free to have your own beliefs, but do not force them onto others.”

Arucan looked at the multicultural class, and concluded, “You are not here to learn from us; you are here to learn from each other. We are here to learn from you.”

When the communications chamber managed to send its focused gravitational beams to the solar system, Toby was able to call home.

“Babybell, can you hear me?”

“Yes! Like you were next room! How are you, my dear? It’s been four weeks! I called many times but I always got the same recording, something about technical problems. Do you like the school?”

“I love it! I couldn’t have dreamt of a more extraordinary place! And I’m making friends! But listen, how are you doing?”

“I’m so happy for you! I’m doing just fine here. Mr.Olaf drops by daily and brings groceries. Don’t you worry about me. But do tell me more about the school. Where is it, in the middle of the mountains? In some remote place, I imagine.”

“You have no idea. There are mountains, and lakes, and forests, and other places I’d never imagined before. But I have to go now, my time is up. I’ll try to call again soon. I love you.”

The field trips were out of this world, both figuratively and literally. But no matter how alien the landscape, Toby felt at home. As long as he was near Alilea.

In the months that followed, he explored most of the planet. From the southern frozen wastelands to the hellish deserts scorched by three suns; from crystal clear lakes to towering peaks, so impossibly tall, that he could see the curvature of the planet; from the floating forests to the breathing rock gardens.

As the end of the first year approached, there was one last region to explore; an endless savannah-like plain. Two groups were assembled. Ren, who finally reappeared, took Toby, Alilea, Gur-lak-toh, and Drog on their final field trip.

For the first time, they were provided rations. Gur-lak-toh, so used to a constant search for game back home, was the one who realized that whenever they entered the school, every physiological necessity was fulfilled. But on the other side of the planet, the tiny cylinders they swallowed were their only source of sustenance.

Once the students got their bearings, Ren got back in the aircraft and left.

Drog barely spoke to Toby and completely ignored Gur-lak-toh. But he wasn’t stupid; he was aware of the punishment for causing trouble. So he pretended to get along, at least in the eyes of Alilea.

Hovering a few yards above the ground, the floating forest extracted nutrients from the breathing rocks below, caressing them with their jellyfish-like tendrils. The cork-like surface of the living sediments provided enough warmth during the cool nights. The students waited until the middle sun cleared the grass-covered hills to the west, and set out in pairs to explore -- farther out from camp this time. Toby and Alilea marched in front, followed by Gur-lak-toh and Drog some fifty yards behind.

Alilea saw it first with her sharp vision. And it saw them too. It was the size of a rhinoceros, but with longer legs; it had the height of a horse. Grunting, the powerful beast picked up speed quickly, galloping in a straight line.

Towards the students.

Toby searched for cover. A small outcrop of breathing rocks, some thirty yards to the north, was the only place that could provide them any safety. If they managed to get up there, they’d be out of reach from the monster -- assuming it wasn’t able to climb the slippery rocks.

Alilea wasn’t afraid. She took two steps forward and extended her arms, hands open, towards the incoming creature.

The beast lowered its head showing several long, protruding spikes. Shreds of what Toby figured was meat of some sort dangled from them.

“What are you doing? It’s gonna kill you! We must run to the outcrop!” Toby screamed.

“No!” Alilea said, closing her eyes. “I don’t believe there is anything on this planet that will harm us. This is probably a test of character. We must stand here and show that we aren’t afraid; that logic prevails over fear.”

Running full steam, making the ground tremble, the beast showed no sign of logic -- or of stopping.

Toby pushed Alilea towards the outcrop and he jumped to the other side just before the beast rumbled by like a runaway freight train. Drog, quick as ever, climbed the outcrop and helped Alilea up.

The furious beast left deep footprints and a turned up the soil where it came to a stop. Turning around, it lifted its head and smelled the fresh morning air, trying to pick up the aliens’ scents again.

Toby attempted to get up, but a sudden sharp pain in his ankle made him cry in anguish. He had surely broken it. Crawling with all his energy, he got to the base of the outcrop.

“Get out of here!” Drog yelled, kicking Toby as he tried to climb to the higher rocks. “This isn’t big enough for all of us!”

“No!” Alilea said. “We must help him!”

Drog slapped her. She dropped to her knees, and put her hands on her cheek.

I’m gonna kill you! Toby thought.

The speeding beast was now less than twenty yards away. The lower section of the outcrop would pose no obstacle for the rampant creature on its way to its prey -- Toby. Suddenly, the predator lowered its head.

Goodbye Alilea. I love you, was his final thought.

But the beast hesitated. It slowed down, changed direction, and started to jump wildly, as if trying get rid of something -- or someone.

And the next growl didn’t come from it.

Sinking all of his forty powerful fingers deep in the creature’s hide, Gur-lak-toh was driving it mad. Like a spider, he glued himself to the monster’s back. The fight lasted several minutes. Exhausted, the beast stopped resisting. It knelt down on the broken soil and lowered its head, panting heavily.

Only then did Gur-lak-toh let go of his firm clasp. He jumped off and patted the creature’s head.

“I tame more big ones home,” he announced proudly.

In a feat of rage, Toby resumed his crawl. Just as he came near Drog -- who was ready for him -- Ren’s aircraft flew overhead. It made a wide circle and landed next to Gur-lak-toh and his new pet.

“You have an urgent message from Earth, Toby. We must get back to the school immediately.”

#

Once helped inside the school by Gur-lak-toh, Toby’s ankle was repaired instantly. He ran to the communications chamber.

“A person called Olaf has left this message for you,” the alien told him. “I found Annabel unconscious on the kitchen floor. Called the ambulance and they took her to emergency. Come back soon.”

Toby felt the weight of the Earth bearing down on him. He should have never left Babybell alone. He was a horrible nephew.

“Please take me back!” he said to Ren.

“Toby,” Arucan said as she entered the chamber, followed by Alilea and Gur-lak-toh, “If you leave the school without completing your first year, you cannot come back. Your memory will be erased; you will not remember anything. It is a very important decision.”

Toby looked at Alilea and Gur-lak-toh. They were the best friends he had ever made in any school. And he had hoped Alilea would become something more.

“Please don’t leave,” Alilea said.

And just like that, Toby saw an extraterrestrial cry.

“I’m sorry Alilea. I must go. Someone very dear to me needs me. I’m all she has left. Can you understand that?”

“Yes. But I don’t want you to go! I need you too!”

Gur-lak-toh became agitated. “We go with you!” he growled.

“That is not possible,” Arucan said. “None of you are ready to make contact beyond this planet. If Toby goes back home, he must go alone.”

“I must go,” Toby said to Alilea. “Perhaps one day, when you’re ready, you’ll visit my planet. Look for me!”

Then he ran, past the main chamber, out to the grey grass. Ren waited for him in the same spacecraft that had brought him to this fantastical place.

Alilea let herself fall to the floor, while Gur-lak-toh became as restless as the beast he had just tamed, and howled. Their friend was leaving forever.

#

Although the way back home was as exhilarating as the trip to school had been, Toby didn’t enjoy the ride. Moments after the craft penetrated the core of the largest of the three stars, blue and green Earth filled the sky.

Ren flew high above Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and deposited Toby on the rooftop of the hospital. Then he gained altitude and disappeared from view.

Toby had to find a way inside. The first three doors he tried were locked. He ran around to the other side of the building, and found a security guard smoking a cigarette. The man was leaning against a metal door, holding it open.

Like Gur-lak-toh’s untamed beast, Toby lowered his head and charged. He bumped the man in the belly and sent him flying down the metal staircase, to the landing below.

“Son of a b-” the man yelled, trying to get up. “Where the hell did you come from? Wait!”

Toby jumped over him and darted downstairs.

“Code black!” the man said over his radio. “I repeat! I’ve got a code black! Intruder is a short teenager, black hair, dressed in blue pants and white shirt! Door F-12, rooftop!”

As soon as Toby reached the hallway, two security guards grabbed him.

“Let me go! I gotta see my aunt Annabel! She has a brain tumor! Let me go!”

“Relax kid!” one guard said. “You’re coming down to the lobby to sort this out. How did you get to the rooftop? You’ve got some explaining to do!”

He tried to fight them off, but was overpowered. Kicking and screaming, they dragged him down to the ground floor.

“Are you family?” the tired receptionist asked. “Show me you ID.”

But Toby didn’t have his ID. He’d left everything back in the school. The school! Wasn’t I supposed to forget about it?

“I lost my ID! I wanna see my aunt Annabel!”

“Keep an eye on him until the cops arrive,” the receptionist told the guards.

Forced to sit on a bench across from the reception desk, Toby tried to think of something. One of the guards resumed his rounds and the other struck a conversation with the receptionist, occasionally glancing at him.

Emergency was just across the lobby, and there was lot of action going on there. A nurse ran to one of the little rooms pushing a defibrillator cart; a doctor chased after her. Toby knew Annabel was in that room.

The fire alarm switch was barely an arm’s length to his left. He pulled it with all his might. That spawned a very different kind of frenzy, and the security guard forgot about him. A fire alarm had a higher priority than a trespassing teenager.

Toby made his way to the emergency area. Doctors yelled orders, and nurses commenced evacuation procedures. Nobody paid any attention to him.

He peeked inside the room where the nurse had taken the defibrillator cart. There was someone on a stretcher, but the head was covered by a white sheet.

From a chair next to the stretcher hung a light-blue wool shawl. Toby gasped.

“Get him!” the returning guards yelled. The two men grabbed Toby by his forearms.

“No! Leave me alone! I gotta see her!”

As they dragged him away, his gaze was fixed on Annabel’s body.

So he saw the flash above her.

It all happened so fast. The light faded and there was Ren, standing next to Annabel. He pulled down the white sheet and placed his hand over her forehead. Another flash. Annabel’s face lit up and gleamed. Then there was just a warm, pulsating glow.

Like inside the school.

Orderlies and nurses were running around, making it hard for the guards to cross the hallway with their captive.

Ren removed his hand from Annabel’s head, and took off his dark glasses. He looked at Toby with eyes that were two suns. For the first time, Toby saw Ren smiling. More blinding light poured out of his mouth. There was one dazzling, final flash, and he was gone.

And just like that, Toby met an Energian.

And just like that, Toby knew Annabel would be okay.

He stepped on one guard’s foot and bit the other’s arm. Free from their clasp, he ran to the stretcher.

Annabel was opening her eyes.

“Get a doctor!” Toby yelled at the guards, who were coming after him again.

“Toby! What happened? Where am I? Oh, my head’s killing me,” she said, massaging her temples.

“It’s ok Babybell, you’re in the hospital. You fell in the kitchen and Mr. Olaf called the ambulance.”

“Oh, my! But you’re back already? I thought you had one more month!” She looked at him closely. “You look different! Where are your glasses?”

“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you some day,” Toby whispered. His tears were flowing freely now.

A nurse went to look for a doctor while the bitten security guard stood by the door, massaging his arm and giving Toby a hateful look.

“There now, I’m fine, see? Nothing to worry about,” Annabel said. “I just had the strangest dream though. I dreamt I was talking with Mr. Dizon. He told me how well you did in school, and how everyone liked you. It was so strange; it felt as if he was standing right where you are now!”

I still remember the school! I still remember Alilea! What’s going on?

“Babybell, in your dream, did he say anything else?”

“Yes, now that you mention it. He said that your friends Alilea and Gur…Gur-t …. It was a really strange name. Anyway, he said they miss you, and can’t wait to see you again next year.”

A disheveled doctor came in the room, and his jaw dropped. “It’s … it’s … it’s impossible!” He proceeded to listen to her heart and take her blood pressure. Worried, he exhaled on the palm of his hand and smelled it, hoping he wouldn’t pick up any traces of the beer he’d had at lunch.

“What do you mean, ‘next year’?” Toby asked.

“Ren said that through your selfless actions you proved that you were ready to climb to the next level. And that you will be in good company, since that girl Alilea and that other kid whose name I can’t pronounce have also demonstrated their worthiness. Oh, and he said Dorf, or Derk -- or something like that -- won’t be back next year.”

Still incredulous, the doctor ordered the nurse to take blood samples.

Annabel hugged Toby. “I’m so glad to see you! I hope you’ll get to spend some time at home now!”

I made it to the second year! I’m going to see Alilea and Gur-lak-toh again!

But there was something he needed to know, something that hadn’t been answered yet because he’d never asked the question in the first place. He’d been so busy living and learning to communicate with beings from all over the galaxy, that the thought never crossed his mind. He felt so dumb now.

“Did Ren say what will the students become after graduation?”

“Toby, it was just a dream! What does it matter?”

“Please Babybell, it’s important. What did he say?”

“Oh well, if you must know,” Annabel said between smiles, as the nurse prepared her arm to take the blood samples.

“Ambassadors.”

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Nestor Delfino is a computer programmer who lives with his wife in Mississauga, Ontario. In 1987, at fourteen, he coded his first computer game on a ZX Spectrum minicomputer. He works as a Systems Developer.

He is an avid soccer fan and loves to read science fiction stories with social commentary, stories that are not only entertaining, but have a human side too.

He has been published at AE The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Far Orbit Apogee Anthology, Bards and Sages, Kzine, The New Accelerator, Polar Borealis, and Future Visions, among others

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