Edition 19: All the Answers by Peter Medeiros
When her dreams of perfect scores and entry to college are ripped into teeny tiny shreds, Cassandra is not prepared to lie down and take it. She’s taking others down with her, she’s not going quietly… SY
When Cassandra opened her locker that morning, she saw her whole future disintegrating over the dim rectangular screen of a reader, and even a cursory look told her it was dead, gone, kaput. Her perfect GPA, her three, going on four, consecutive State-level victories with Debate Club, her four and a half minute mile, her summer internship as a lab assistant with Alden Alternative Technologies—she beat out a slew of college students for that one, or at least that’s what they told her—all of that was blown away in a second. All because of two words blinking at the top of the screen:
Some small, stupid part of her—and Cassandra could tell you plainly and truthfully that there were not many parts of her that were stupid—wanted to slam the locker, to turn on her heel and walk right out of Rochester High, get on a bus, go home, call in sick, pretend like she hadn’t come in today. But the whole school was monitored, along with most of the civilized world. She could feel the myriad tiny cameras swiveling around, focusing on her standing there with the answers to the annual Standard Aptitude Placement Exam not a foot away. It wouldn’t matter that she hadn’t actually read beyond the first line or that she’d gained nothing from this. She was compromised.
She laid a hand flat against the wall next to the locker. The world started tilting hard to port.
If you didn’t take the SAPE, you didn’t get in to Stanford. You didn’t get in anywhere. No, ma’am. You suddenly went from “going places” and “most likely to succeed” to flipping burgers.
Well, that wasn’t true. Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose. She’d take a year off, do data entry with her stepfather’s firm, ace next year’s exams and get back on track. It wasn’t much of a loss.
“Okay,” she murmured. “Not much of a loss. A year off.”
But it wasn’t much of a loss only if you ignored the fact Cassandra didn’t take time off, let alone a year. Anyone could tell you that. Cassandra thought about the talk in her study group, the other kids discussing movies and novels and music she’d never heard of. She only watched the movies and read the books that were culturally relevant, that would help her write a good essay at the end of Advanced Placement English and Psychology finals. She thought of her health; she ran on macchiato and latte, bowls of pasta the night before a track meet, but the late nights and early mornings were catching up with her. She’d just been counting on them catching up with her around the time she could pay a specialist to take the bags out from under her eyes.
And Christ, the sex. She’d been laid exactly once, sort of on accident, last year. Since then she’d turned down, let’s see, Jason Conrad (not entirely unintelligent), Vernon Ledger (who looked about five years older than he was, in a good way), and Megan Blanche (who played classical piano, was going to Berkley, and yawned in homeroom in a way Cassandra could only describe as hypnotic). And why? She was busy, busy so she could go to school next year, not the year after. Preferably far away, and preferably with a whopping scholarship tucked neatly in her pocket.
She tried to puzzle out a solution, some way out of this, but there were no right answers, except for the damning orange text beaming up at her. TEST ANSWERS. It had happened before; there was precedent. Some careless technician dropped the answers in the middle of a crowded hallway, and suddenly a dozen kids’ post-graduation plans went from MIT and Yale to drunk.
But this wasn’t an accident. This was deliberate. The reader was upright against a stack of books—planted. Cassandra knew in a detached, almost sociological way that achievement drew envy and envy manifests itself in ways that could be described as anything from drastic to downright bitchy. The list of people who had reason to be jealous of Cassandra was a long one, she had seen to that. What she needed now was time to figure out who had done this, time she didn’t have.
She flipped open her phone and scrolled through the names. At a glance, there was exactly one person she could rule out, and it was Myra Hodges.
Myra picked up on the third ring. “I’m peeing.”
“Lovely,” said Cassandra. “Look, Myra, I need your help.”
“I have track after this, I ca—”
“I know, I know. You’re busy. Look, Myra, I’m sorry. But I need you’re help. I’m so sorry for this.”
Cassandra read the first line of the test. “The first answer is B.”
“What are you…” Silence. Then Cassandra thought she could hear a faint tinkling in the background. “Oh, hell no. Oh, hell. You bitch.”
“I said I’m sorry.”
“You bitch. Okay, hold on. Hold on. There’s a chance they won’t pick up on this. There’s a chance…I…”
“You can cry. It’s okay.”
“Screw you, Cassandra. I was going to Brown. I was gonna get to go to Brown and I was gonna be so…good…” Cassandra waited while Myra cried herself out. She shushed the nasty little part of her that envied her friend the ability to cry. The ability, or the part of her that thought she had the time, that felt she had the right. “Okay, we’re not friends. You know that right?”
“Sure.” She’d expected that. Honestly, she’d paid more for less.
“No, really. I hate you now.”
“Okay. Senior parking lot. You drive.”
“Camera already got me,” Cassandra said. “Audio scan won’t pick up this conversation until later. Three o’clock, after school. My place? Probably already on the way. All my stuff…” The shredders would already be on her things. There weren’t a lot of things that Cassandra could say she liked, that she’d really miss, but her personally annotated copy of Go Down, Moses. Kaput, along with anything else. She could imagine her father. What would the neighbors say? “My folks will be pissed.”
“Boo-hoo.” Myra hung up the phone.
When Cassandra found Myra in the parking lot, she was smoking. A thin grey line curled up from the thin black cigarette wedged between her fingers. One obtrusive squiggle against her unobtrusive white jumper, as she leaned on her father’s unobtrusive black sedan. She opened the door for Cassandra and gave her a thin smile, all dimples and sugar.
Once they were rocketing down the highway, out of the city and back into the suburbs, Cassandra finally broke the silence. “I thought you didn’t smoke. I mean, I know you don’t smoke. What happened to lacrosse?”
“Same thing that happened to everything else. This bitch talking shit on the phone. Wouldja believe it? Not like I didn’t see it coming, or something like it. Everything, well.” She etched a little circle in the air with her cigarette, getting ash all over the inside of the otherwise spotless car. “Everything so fucking fragile. Had these in my bag for years in case it all went to pot.”
“Should’ve kept a gun instead.”
It took them half an hour to get out of the urban shadows, breaking out over the river, heading southbound thirty miles over the speed limit, blinded by the sudden sunlight. Myra took out a pair of sunglasses from the glove compartment and wrangled them onto her thin face. She didn’t say anything at all. They buzzed by a couple of toll roads and security zones when they got to the private cooperative where Myra lived, the protective scowls of the guards nothing but a blur.
Myra brought the car to a stop outside the house’s wrought iron gates with a high-pitched squeal of tires. When Cassandra disengaged the seatbelt and opened the door she noticed that she’d been gripping her own crossed arms so hard her fingernails left angry red half-moons in her biceps.
The girls slung their backpacks onto the immaculate kitchen counter. Myra kicked her shoes halfway across the room and stomped upstairs without a word. Cassandra got herself a sparkling water from the refrigerator. The crash and tinkle of breaking glass floated down from upstairs, shortly followed by Myra holding a bottle of some dark amber liquid and last year’s yearbook. She had a black marker tucked behind one ear. She deposited all three between them and sighed. Cassandra flipped open the yearbook, not sure where to begin.
“Okay,” said Myra. “Who would want to kill you?”
“I’m not dead.”
“Please.” Myra took a swig of the amber liquid.
Cassandra shook her head to clear it. “I don’t think that’s the question. Look, whoever put the answers in my locker had two things: the smarts it took to steal the answers in the first place and absolutely no consideration for their academic future.”
“How do you figure?”
“Whoever did this, it’s got to be on record that they saw the answers, too. They can’t take the SAPE either. So…”
“So we’re dealing with someone who’s enough of a dumbass to drop their whole life in the toilet just to mess with you, but who’s still smart enough to, what, hack the system to steal the answers?”
Cassandra rubbed at the bridge of her nose. “Doesn’t make sense. Whoever did this had to have a back-up plan, something other than school. But if he’s tech-savvy, and he had to be to pull this—” Her phone went off, playing a heavy guitar riff ending in a resonating fifth chord before looping it again. “Hold on, it’s my mother.”
“I am very mad, young lady.” Cassandra’s mother had a way of starting all conversations with her mood, the way some people always led with a comment on the weather outside. “You’ve just wrecked, well, everything. You realize that, don’t you?”
“Yes, mother. Are the shredders there?”
“After all the work your father and I have put into raising you right, your education, you’d think you’d be more careful. And this, this is the thanks we get.”
“Are the shredders in the house?”
“They are. Very unpleasant.” Cassandra could hear mechanical buzzing in the background, then the distinct sound of her mother’s posh furniture being massacred by the shredders. “Is that really necessary? How would she have time to hide anything in the sofa?”
The whirring of the motors winding down, then a mechanical voice answered, “I’m sorry, ma’am. Regulations.”
“She hasn’t even been home! Oh, this is such a mess!”
Cassandra hung up the phone and took the bottle from Myra. She took a sip, then a good long pull, wiping the tears as they welled up in her eyes. So much for the right to cry. “My mother,” she choked. “The shredders are already at my house. They’ll be here, too. Soon. Wait.”
“Wait for what?” Myra said.
Cassandra looked down at her cell phone. The little guitar riff she had set to alert her of an incoming phone call had come with the phone, it was one of the presets. But it reminded her of something. What was it? Cassandra listened to classical and, when she was feeling self-indulgent, century-old jazz music. Miles Davis, Paul Desmond, stuff you could leave playing in the background while you studied. She didn’t know much about modern music, but there was something here…
“Do we know any musicians?”
Myra giggled. “Are we just giving up and going down the bucket list?”
“Or actors, or writers. Do we know anyone who’s already successful? Somebody who could get a deal, already has a fan base? Net famous, you know?”
Myra’s eyes narrowed. “Brandon Powers.”
Cassandra blinked. She moved like a net through her memory, thought snaring on a few individuals until one of them stuck. “Powers? He asked me to homecoming last year.”
“And you turned him down. Might be a revenge thing. Men, you know.”
“He’s not a man, he’s seventeen. And revenge for what? I’ve had two classes with him, we did a group project together for History, and other than that I barely noticed…”
“Like I said, men. Or boys. Whatever.”
“I said no because I don’t go to dances.”
“He’s plays the piano and the clarinet,” Myra went on, “composes his own music, vlogs weekly. He’s not terrible. Has a bunch of middle-school girls who follow him. Writes songs and uploads pictures of himself standing in parking lots looking at dead birds and stuff.”
“And he’s rocking a 3.9897.” Cassandra had most of her competitors’ GPAs memorized. “Conceivably, he could have done it.”
A few minutes on Powers’ social page revealed that yes, he had just landed a recording contract last week. On Tuesday he was swapping one coast for the other, where he speculated he would probably never see or hear from anyone of his loved ones again, and maybe that was for the best. He also made it clear that he would be high and available for farewell sex until his plane took off.
“I can’t believe it,” Cassandra whispered. Though really, she could. The world was brutal and unfair. Sometimes she could almost wish she was stupid, just she wouldn’t have to know it.
Both girls turned around at the sound of wrenching iron. A window near the front of the house broke. A lamp toppled, its light bulb smashed. Loudspeaker close: “Myra Hodges, you have been exposed to the answers for the Standard Aptitude Placement Exam. In accordance with Academic Form Nine-Four A, you are hereby required to relinquish all your belongings and those in your—”
“Run,” Myra said. “I hear they get your car last, because it might explode. Stupid, but there it is.”
“You know where Powers lives?”
“Don’t tell me you have a plan. If I believed in God, I’d say he’s laughing. It’s not like you can get even. What sort of leverage do you have?”
They were out the back door now, tearing across the neoturf lawn around the house, arms pumping. Myra was faster than Cassandra, but she didn’t seem to remember where she’d parked the car and Cassandra had to grab the back of her shirt and steer her. They scuffled over the keys for a moment until Cassandra simply pointed back at the house and the shredders knocking gracelessly searching the place, and then snatched the keys away while Myra’s head was turned. They didn’t have to wait for the gates to open as they drove back towards the city; the shredders and barreled right through them and knocked them down, leaving a mostly clean exit.
One of the shredders, however, had managed to get itself tangled. It was stuck underneath the fallen gate, shaking lightly, caught on a loop: “Relinquish your. Relinquish your. Relinquish your.”
The shredders were white orbs about the size of a basketball, with a small black camera and a blue screen on front. Technically not certified for combat, they were built to search for physical and electronic information quickly and efficiently, in (and through) any environment. Guardians of the SAPE and, by extension, the futures of millions. This one’s screen read its current target on the front: MYRA HODGES.
Its bottom container was stuck open too, a tangle of blades, claws, and various probing instruments twitching futilely in the air. Cassandra wondered what would happen if some student printed out test answers and swallowed them. She wondered also if the shredder had known it would get caught there beneath the fence when it rammed into it. The robots weren’t exactly intelligent, were known to simply propel themselves flying through shop windows and occasionally people while on cleanup duty like this. Did the shredder ever stop to think what might happen if it just wasn’t quick or strong enough? Did it ever consider the possibility that it could hurt itself, just by going about its appointed business? That doing everything right and playing by the rules could still ruin it?
Of course not. It didn’t have a mind.
“Projecting,” Cassandra muttered, disappointed in herself for the second time that day. Possibly that year.
She stopped the car and hopped out, ignoring Myra’s protests. Standing over the twitching robot, she kicked its screen repeatedly until the grainy demand to “relinquish your” fell silent. Then, shoulders straining and sweat pouring from every part of her body, she shifted the fence until she could drag the shredder free by one of its less deadly-looking appendages. She tossed in the back of the sedan and settled back behind the wheel.
“What are you doing?” Myra asked. She sounded sort of sleepy now. “One less won’t make a difference. There’s been three students in the district who have seen it, they’re just going to be blanketing the place. They’ll have them going to door-to-door, talking to our friends, friends of our friends.”
“We don’t have any friends, remember?”
“That’s right, I hate you now. My point is, there’s a whole network of them, and they’ll be visiting a whole lot of students. Why did you do that?”
Cassandra floored it, throwing her back against the seat, squinting as she drove headlong into a rapidly receding future.
Brandon Powers opened the door to his parent’s three-story mini-mansion with a look of excitement on his face, like he was expecting a package. To Cassandra’s annoyance, it did not fade to a visage of pure horror at the sight of her. He’d dyed his hair snow white a year ago, had it slicked back over his head. He wore a gray T-shirt ripped so it provided a glimpse of an indecipherable cursive tattoo across his chest and one dark nipple. The skin around the black ink was red and irritated, and Cassandra could only assume the tattoo was new.
Myra stuck her finger in his chest, nearly toppling the boy. “The bastard’s been waiting all day to say that. You can tell.”
Then Cassandra did topple the boy right over, though she had to use her whole weight to do it. The excited grin on Powers’ face was quickly replaced by a strange mixture of confusion and what might have been constipation.
“Well, then,” he said from the floor. “I guess you got my little package. I don’t see why you’re here, though. If my whole life was down the shitter I like to think I’d just get drunk.”
“Well,” Myra said quietly.
Cassandra moved further into Powers’ home. The place was off-white with dark hardwood floors and completely forgettable landscapes placed at seemingly random intervals along the walls. The only thing that made it at all mentionable was the presence of even more video cameras then they had at school and several piles of empty beer bottles Cassandra assumed, like the tattoo, were recent developments. All the shelves were empty, the furniture moved away from the walls.
“Guess you wish you’d taken me to the dance now, huh? Betcha wish you’d paid a little more attention to—”
“Save it,” Cassandra said. “I’m here to talk.”
“Oh, isn’t that nice? Finally have the time to talk to—”
“I said save it. I’m real angry.” Cassandra was surprised to herself say it, and more surprised to find it was true. She’d always found it difficult to answer truthfully when people asked how she was feeling. How was she feeling? Prepared, vaguely anxious, and that was usually it. This morning, that had changed.
Something shifted into Powers’ face. It might have been the dawning realization that he was home alone with two relative strangers, one of whom he had wronged and who now had nothing to lose. He was a tall boy, not without some muscle, but whereas his backup occupation—now his dawning dream life come true—was “tragic musician,” these girls could fall back on “Olympian” without too much added work. Whatever they did, they were team captains.
“You can’t do anything to me,” he said. “I don’t need college. I’m out. All your studying, though. Heh.”
“Heh.” Cassandra made the syllable last a solid twenty seconds. She liked how Powers, still on the floor, obviously didn’t like this delay. It was funny; she’d hadn’t liked anything that wasn’t a salad in a long time. “All my studying.”
“Are you…are you threatening me?”
“No. It’s already done.”
So Cassandra told him that after they’d left Myra’s house they’d done a little digging and found the storage unit near the airport where Powers’ stuff—keyboards, microphones, newly purchased costumes—was being kept until his flight on Tuesday. They also told him how they’d taken along a copy of the test answers he’d planted in her locker, flashed them in front of the airport security cameras, and then slipped it under the door of said storage unit. Shredders had probably arrived half an hour later and torn the place up.
Not a huge setback, really, but that was his stuff. And good luck getting through airport security after the debacle. Cassandra didn’t know for sure, but she suspected that getting shredders involved first with a private storage facility and next with airport security would generate enough red tape to keep Powers grounded for the foreseeable future.
No plane. No east coast. Not any time soon.
“So that’s it, huh? What is it you want?” Powers might’ve been some sort of perverted sociopath, but he was smart enough to see that Cassandra could still make life difficult for him. “We can’t unsee it. The three of us aren’t going to college. Now you just made me angry, too. That was my shit.”
“We didn’t wreck your stuff as an act of revenge, Brandon.”
“Then why?” He was still on the floor, she was still backlit by the door. He had to squint up at her.
“Because as much as you ruined my plans, you could only do it because you had a guarantee of your own…success, somewhere else. I don’t have that. But what I figured out? I was willing to give up every night, every weekend of my life to get what I wanted.”
He barked. “So that’s the big revelation? You’re a crazy antisocial achievement whore? Because I could’ve told you that. You give up too much.”
Cassandra kicked him the side. It surprised more than hurt him, she could tell. The next kick, though, it took him just below the ribs, in the soft area where plenty of internal organs jostled around.
So did the next four.
“Hey,” Myra said. “Cassandra, he got it. Cut it out.” Her voice rising, panic charging her words.
Cassandra felt Myra’s hand gripping her bicep. Both girls kept their nails short for sports, but Myra’s were suddenly digging through Cassandra’s skin. She hissed, twisting around in her old friend’s grasp for a moment.
But Myra was the stronger, and she was able to twist Cassandra around to face her. They were both panting hard, though not as hard as the injured boy on the floor. “Stop it Cass. Things are bad, but I’m not ready to go to jail.”
Cassandra shrugged out of Myra’s grasp and looked down at the boy. A smear of blood colored Powers’ cheeks, like it had been put there by a painter.
“I gave up a lot of things,” she said. “Sure. Parties and friends, all the small stupid ways children pretend they’re having a good time and life isn’t going to kill them. You didn’t help me learn that, because I already knew.”
She bent down low, until her face was inches from Powers. He was hurting, but it was still confusion that showed prominently on his pearly white face. Now that she really bothered to look at him, she could tell he had trouble thinking of her as a person, probably had trouble with most people. Borderline personality dissociative something or other. Just like her.
Might as well have been talking to herself, but she said it anyway: “What you helped me learn is, I’m willing to give up things that aren’t even mine to give up. I guess I’m a little crazy.”
“Okay.” Powers could tell when he was done; he had that much going for him. “What do you need?”
Cassandra walked past the open-mouthed Myra and back to the car, returned with the broken shredder and threw it inside. Its jagged metal limbs left long gashes in the Powers’ imported hardwood floor. Powers scuttled backwards on his rump to keep his distance from the dead machine.
“You helped me learn about myself. Maybe I just want to help other people do the same.” Cassandra felt the smile on her face, hard and foreign.
Myra rolled her eyes. “Yeah, we got all the answers, all right.”
It wasn’t even difficult, now that they had a shredder. The girls agreed it was great luck that they got the machine mostly intact. They got most of the other parts they’d need from a cheap mech store in a strip mall just outside the city. They saw swarms of shredders arcing over the freeways and dispersing throughout neighborhoods, chasing down scraps of paper blowing out apartment windows and dancing on the wind. The sun glinted off their metal chassis. Like Myra had said, they were going over anyone who’d even crossed paths with Brandon and the girls, literally.
“Pretty,” said Myra. Other than that, they were mostly quiet. Doing the math. Myra turned up the radio to drown out the silence.
Before, back in Powers’ basement, the shredder’s front had screen came off after a bit of jiggling with a screwdriver. “It won’t last long,” Powers told the girls. “You know? The others will eventually catch the hack and correct it. It won’t go back to the normal directives. They’ll just wipe the screen. There’s someone somewhere whose job it is to make sure nothing like this happens, that a single shredder’s malfunction isn’t picked up by the others and assumed to be, ah, normal. Copied.”
“How long?” Cassandra asked.
Powers shrugged. “Manually? They call them all back to the hangar downtown and flip a switch, more or less. Basically a reboot.”
“They won’t recall them.”
“How do you know?”
“Delays in the sweep. They’ve got to be thinking about the short game, just making sure it doesn’t get out beyond us three kids.”
“It’s a wonder they don’t just have the police on us,” Myra said. There were laws, of course, about the use of autonomous mechanized personnel interacting with humans. The shredders could take your house apart but they couldn’t lay a finger on your person. Not legally, that is. But accidents happen.
Cassandra shrugged, rubbed at her eyes. When was the last time she’d slept? Well, if this didn’t work, at least she’d have time for that. “After they realize something’s wrong but before someone on the ground sees what it is, they’ll try to fix it from home.”
“An hour,” Powers said. “Maybe more, maybe less. But it would take me an hour.”
“Good enough.” A thought struck her. “How did you get the answers to begin with?”
“Does it matter?”
It didn’t, not at this point. Just a note of passing interest. Maybe that had been her problem, and the strength that let her plan out eight-hour blocks of overnight studying; she was just never interested in things.
“We’re monsters, is what we are,” said Myra. Her voice was not entirely devoid of approval.
Powers rebooted the shredder. It immediately jumped five feet into the air and stayed there, bobbing slightly. It spun in a quick circle, pausing briefly to scan the three people. In place of its usual grainy message, it produced a high, unintelligible squealing noise.
“You don’t have anything left in here, do you?” Cassandra asked.
“No,” Powers replied. “I put all my papers and electronic storage on the front step. Why do you think the stuff in my fridge wasn’t all over the kitchen walls?”
“It’s not happening,” Myra pointed out.
Then it did. Blue lights flickered across the shredder’s screen and formed the two words that would have every seventeen year-old in the district sobbing on their knees until the school board had to admit it wasn’t prepared to abandon so many kids and set to fast-tracking a brand-new SAPE for this year: TEST ANSWERS.
Then it started flashing a bright letter B. Cassandra smiled. It still felt strange on her face, but less so than before.
Cassandra thought seriously about breaking Powers’ fingers before they left, but she thought Myra might be upset. In the end, they simply left him there in his basement, planning for his suddenly dimming future in music. Strangely, he offered to sing for them before they left. Neither of the girls knew what to say to this offer, so they said nothing at all and departed in silence. Powers still hadn’t wiped the dried blood from his face.
Once they’d returned to the highway Myra said, “We’re not friends again, but things are back on track. We might have AP mid-terms next week. You want to come over and study?”
“Your books are gone,” Cassandra pointed out. “Mine, too. You still have that booze?”
Myra hooked a thumb over her shoulder at the big amber bottle in the back seat, still about three-fourths full. “Tastes awful.”
“You want to get drunk? I know a place from when I did that half-marathon last summer. It’s…cool.” The simple monosyllable felt lumpy on her tongue; Cassandra didn’t care about cool.
Myra arced an eyebrow at her, and then shrugged.
Cassandra gave directions, back north of the city. Instead of heading towards one of the pristine private neighborhoods with twenty-four hour security and watchdogs she directed Myra off the highway and through a series of seedier blocks. They passed an abandoned foundry covered with old ivy. Creepers had shot up inside the place and stretched out its huge smashed windows towards the sun. The building itself was built on an improbably steep incline.
Myra parked the car next to a chain link fence, but kept the engine running. “My car is going to get stolen.”
“Your dad got it insured.”
They put the bottle in a small satchel Myra had in the trunk. Cassandra latched onto the ivy growth and started hauling herself up. The vegetation was rough and prickly, but it felt good beneath her hands. Once she made the top of the building she looked at her hands, the thin red trails crisscrossing her palms.
“That race went by here?” Myra asked.
“Briefly. There were guards, of course.”
The building groaned as the girls crossed its roof. It sounded human and somehow kind, like it was trying to warn them of its own fragility. They settled on its edge and looked at the city, passing the bottle back and forth.
The sunlight still glinted off the swarms of shredders going from home to home. Each of those robots had the answers scrolling down their front screens, and would for a while yet. Every home they were searching for any answers—all the students in Rochester and probably neighboring cities by now—would be compromised whether or not there was anything there. Students and parents opening the door, they’d get a glimpse right away of the answers flashing on the shredders’ screens. Compromised. None of them could take the SAPE.
The only question left was whether the school board could actually condemn all this year’s seniors. It wasn’t out of the question, but Cassandra was pretty sure they’d just make a new test, declare some kind of amnesty. Put everybody back at the starting line.
“Look at that,” Myra said, pointing at a group of shredders swooping upwards, breaking through the windows of what must have been a penthouse apartment. Both girls laughed. After a pause, Myra asked, “Glad we fixed that. You hear back from any schools yet?”
Cassandra shook her head. “No. You?”
“Not yet, but I mean…” Myra didn’t have to say it. Unless they really screwed up on the new SAPE, both of them could get into whatever school they wanted. Their records were perfect. “You know what you’ll go in for?”
“I was thinking law,” Cassandra said. “Copyright law, eventually. It’s where the money is. But now…”
“Now I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t go near the law. Maybe people like us shouldn’t be in charge. You ever think that? If the board doesn’t hit reset on the SAPE this year, we just took down the whole district. I meant it, what I said to Powers. I would’ve killed him, if I thought it would’ve solved anything.”
“I know,” Myra said.
“I mean, today we saw just how much we stand to lose, based on so little. We aren’t the sort of people who can afford doubts, but now I’m thinking: was it all worth it?”
“Every day. What does it say about us, if it’s people like us who finish first, win the prize? Hell, it’s people like us in charge, like us or like Brandon Powers. People willing to do anything just so we can, you know, get ahead. What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” Myra said. She took a swig from the bottle and passed it to Cassandra, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “I don’t have any answers.”
They went back to watching the shredders buzzing around the city, taking apart computers and pulling out dresser drawers, spreading the awful knowledge that the first answer is B, systematically dismantling entire lives bent towards tomorrow.
It was hard to tell from this distance, but Cassandra swore she could see the sunlight shining off the shredders exiting the penthouse they’d seen earlier. She could see them breaking through another window, heedless of the glass exploding before them, showering the sidewalks and people standing below.
Peter Medeiros teaches composition at Emerson College, practices Kung Fu in Davis Square, and writes fiction and poetry over copious amounts of coffee at Diesel Café in Somerville, Massachusetts. His work is forthcoming in Mirror Dance, and has been recently featured in Bastion Magazine, Outposts of Beyond, and Spark IV: A Creative Anthology.