Short Story – Higher Minds
As mentioned last week, I decided to post my latest short story. It can use some more editing — there’s too much exposition, some wooden dialogue, etc. But as I said, I will take that critical advice and apply it to my next attempt.
I hope you enjoy it and, at the very least, can learn from my mistakes. I present to you, Higher Minds.
Ooh, look everyone, Brady is the Chosen One. I guess she thinks that makes her cool now. You’re so cool, Brady! Can we be your friend? Huh? Can we please Brady?
Brady slouched in the waiting room chair as she ran through memories of the news spreading around school and the stupid laughter of classmates.
Being an introverted fourteen year old girl was hard enough. Why did the teachers feel the need to embarrass me like that?
All she wanted to do was go home and draw. Draw herself out of this world and into one of her own making.
With her father struggling to stay awake on her left and her mother touching up her makeup on her right, Brady stared ahead at a blank wall. Her mind busied itself thinking about her next piece of art, generating ideas about shadowing and color combination. A Heartless Space played as loud as it could through the audio implants in her outer ear canals, but unfortunately, the government-dictated aural safety throttle ensured the volume couldn’t go high enough to really be enjoyable. She had spent several summers worth of allowance to afford the devices, so she wasn’t willing to risk any of the volume hacks floating out there which could render them useless.
As the rhythm pulsated, she felt something push against her right shoulder, but decided to ignore it.
The push was stronger the second time but she continued to act as if the blank wall was more deserving of attention.
A Heartless Space fell silent in the middle of the second chorus, replaced by her mother’s voice.
“Again, with the music Brady? Don’t your ears ever get tired? You can’t possibly know what’s happening around you,” she said. Her mother took a deep breath and rolled her eyes. “Thank goodness parents still have a little control over their kids.”
Yeah. Thank goodness.
When it came to the manufacturing of implants targeted at youths, the government decreed that parents must have the ability to control them through their own skin-embedded identification units. They said it was done to ensure kids couldn’t just snatch the audio controls out of mom’s purse and run them over with skateboards. Unfortunately, occasional news reports proved that there’s always some kid who takes his entertainment a little too seriously and winds up with mutilation and murder charges.
“Try not to be nervous,” her mother continued. “It will affect the results.”
“Who the hell told you that?” asked her father, somewhat slurred. If anything could rouse him from his semi-sleep, it would be something Brady’s mother said that he could disagree with.
“Blaine told me that. And he would know; his sister used to be a nurse in one of these facilities.”
“Blaine’s an idiot,” he replied.
“Yeah, and you know so much.” her mother replied.
Her father straightened up in his chair and leaned across Brady. He pointed toward a pair of stainless steel double doors just right of the reception desk.
“Well, Maya, I know enough that I can guarantee you every kid walking through those doors is nervous. This is high-tech government stuff. They planned it all out and had all these studies for years before they even started building this place.”
He leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms and closed his eyes.
Brady’s mother picked up the mirror and began to check her hair. “Whatever you say, Bernie. Is it so bad that I want this to go well?”
“No, Maya. It’s not,” he said with his eyes still closed. Brady’s father worked nights as a corrections officer and even though she knew he was proud of her situation, she could tell that all he wanted right now was a soft bed and a dark room.
Her mother put the mirror on her lap and grabbed Brady gently by the chin.
“You know we just want what’s best for you, honey. I mean, how many kids get the chance to participate in the Higher Minds program? ”
Brady jerked her chin out of her mother’s grasp.
“Whatever. You’re just dumping me off on this thing while you get rich.”
“Brady!” her mother nearly yelled, but quickly looked around and composed herself. “Sweetie, you know that’s not true. Not how we feel in the slightest. We’ll both miss you, but this is a huge opportunity, not just for us but for you. Just think about all of the smart and wonderfully talented people you’ll meet. You guys can change the world!”
Though her mother was still looking into Brady’s eyes, she could tell her mind was focused elsewhere.
“The stories we hear about kids like you are amazing. Sally showed me some emails from her son, you know, the little math Einstein. Well he’s having an amazing time at his school. Almost ready to graduate and they already have him lined up for some important job at the Bureau.”
Good for him, was all she thought.
Brady wasn’t really all that sour toward her parents. They’d always shown her love and had supported her artistic bent, even if they didn’t “get it.” She wanted them to be happy, but this situation was less than thrilling. It was all so sudden and only because she had filled in all the right bubbles on some mandatory school tests. So many teachers and parents talked about the honor and privilege of being chosen for Higher Minds, but all Brady could think about was the future she had dreamed about was being exchanged for one she hadn’t. She wouldn’t be a world famous artist, featured in galleries from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. No, she imagined the government would stick her in a tiny nondescript cubicle, running numbers and writing reports for programs she couldn’t care less about.
Before she could think on the matter any more, the receptionist behind the counter called out to the waiting room. “Hewitt family.”
Brady’s mother jammed the mirror into her purse. She stood up and pulled at every fold and seam on her dress, making sure everything was perfectly placed.
“Let’s go,” she said and started toward the counter without seeing if her family was following.
Brady approached the reception area with her father. A bald young man with a dark beard and tiny glasses sat on the other side. He was wearing a plain red tie and a spotless white collared shirt that nearly blended in with his flesh. A giant monitor consumed half of his desk, the emitting light enhancing even more the contrast between his pale skin and ink-black whiskers. He continued to trace his fingers back and forth as the family stood patiently.
He finally nodded toward the identification reader sitting on the counter. “I’ll need your IDs please.”
Brady’s mother smiled so widely that it looked like her cheeks might crack and fall from her face. “Of course,” she replied. “No problem. You have a lovely office here.”
The receptionist remained silent and focused on his terminal.
Brady stifled a chuckle as her mother tried to hold her composure. She watched her hold the bottom of her right forearm a few inches over the scanner. After several seconds, a tiny red light shifted to green and the machine issued a soft beep. Brady and her father took their turns. Again, they waited patiently as the receptionist whipped his fingers back and forth across the screen.
“Thank you, Hewitt family,” he finally said. He dropped his head and peered over his glasses.
“Are you excited to see Doctor today, Brady?”
The tone in his voice made it seem like this was a question that he asked every invitee, not necessarily by mandate, but by habit.
Brady shrugged her shoulders and twisted her lips.
“Yes, she’s very excited about this privilege,” her mother answered for her. “We’re all very excited.” She leaned in and whispered over the counter.
“So, um, when will we know if she’s been accepted and… well… do you know when the… monthly stipend will begin?”
Halfway through her mother’s questions, the receptionist looked back at the screen and poked at it a few times. The double doors to their right opened inward to a hall of bustling activity. Brady leaned over to see people in white coats doing all sorts of things. Some were having vigorous discussions. Others were intensely studying electronic tablets in their hands.
“I’m sorry,” he replied, “but I can’t answer any of those questions. After Doctor evaluates the subject, the Bureau will provide you with all the information you need.” He nodded to his left. “Brady, please walk directly to the double doors at the end of the hall. Do not disturb any of the employees as they are usually engaged in complex activities.” He looked back up toward Brady’s mother. “If you would please remain seated in the waiting room, Brady will be back shortly.”
Her mother was taken aback. “I thought that we would be able to stay with Brady and meet the Doctor.”
“I’m not sure where you get your information Mrs. Hewitt, but that is incorrect.”
The receptionist returned his attention to the screen.
Yeah, they don’t want overbearing parents interfering, Brady thought.
She looked at her mother and father, raised her eyebrows and shrugged her shoulders.
“See you guys soon.”
Brady obeyed the receptionist’s instructions. She did sneak a few glances at the employees as she passed by, but they were so engrossed in their own work that they didn’t seem to notice her existence.
The hallway was short so she quickly found herself standing in front of a pair of steel doors. She noticed there were no handles and a review of the surrounding wall failed to uncover any sort of control panel. As soon as she peered over her shoulder to see if somebody might be able to help, she heard a brief snap. She turned back to see the doors wide open, revealing a small office about ten feet across each side. It wore the same spartan design as the waiting room. Brady wasn’t sure what she expected, but she definitely thought it would be more…impressive. There was a single cushioned chair in the middle of the room that faced a large black screen built into the wall. A flat blue line reached from one side of the monitor to the other.
She glanced up to see something that looked like a mechanical spider hanging from the ceiling, a few feet above the chair. A polished white box was surrounded by six silver “legs” that extended out a few feet. The legs were composed of multiple joints and covered in thick cabling. Attached to the end of each leg was a dark black orb that didn’t appear to reflect any light.
“Please have a seat, Brady,” a softly spoken male voice chimed out from everywhere. She jumped slightly and saw that the line on the screen bounced up and down in jagged waves as the man talked.
“Uh, Hi. Am… Am I in the right room? I’m supposed to meet the Doctor.”
“You have met him. He is talking to you now. I apologize if you were startled. You are not the first invitee that has been surprised by my appearance, or lack thereof. Please, have a seat and get comfortable.”
Cautiously, Brady walked toward the chair and sat down. The scrunching leather seemed absurdly loud in the quiet room.
“An introduction is in order. I am Doctor. I am an artificially composed intelligence. My central processing systems are a combination of sophisticated hardware and software. That system is augmented by access to the world’s largest database of medical and psychological data. My task is to ensure that the standardized test results that brought you here were not a matter of simple coincidence. Depending on the results of the brain scans I will be performing, I am authorized to sign off on your admittance to the Higher Minds program. If you should fail the requirements, please know that this is not a negative reflection of your character. Higher Minds is simply looking for specific individuals that can fill specific needs.”
As she sat before the talking screen, butterflies began to form in Brady’s stomach. She had never been comfortable in a doctor’s office, but her experiences typically involved having her blood pressure checked or receiving a prescription for antibiotics. She’d never needed so much as an x-ray, so the thought of having her brain probed was slightly nerve wracking.
“I understand that you may be nervous,” said Doctor, “but I want to assure you that the scans are absolutely painless. The whole process will take only minutes.”
The apparatus above her made a clicking sound and she could hear what sounded like several fans rushing to life. She looked up to see the spider descend, legs and all. It stopped about a foot above her head. The dark orbs were nearly at eye level and she watched them slowly turn red.
“I have begun the scans. Please try to keep still.”
Brady nearly nodded but quickly caught herself.
“Okay,” she replied.
“During these scans, I will require that you respond to some visual tests which I will display on the monitor. Some invitees attempt to answer incorrectly on purpose. Please understand that I will know when you are doing this and we will continue to run through more tests until I am satisfied that you are answering honestly.”
It was an obvious thought, but since Brady decided that Doctor probably wasn’t bluffing, she decided not to risk faking her answers. If she thought the teasing about being chosen for the program was bad, she imagined it would be much worse if it turned out she wasn’t so smart after all. Maybe being chosen wasn’t such a horrible thing. She never had a lot of friends, certainly not anyone she was close to. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that there wasn’t much she was leaving behind. She was more afraid of change itself than anything else. A lack of control over her own life that she supposed she never really had anyway. At least her parents would be taken care of and, who knows, she might actually end up doing something she enjoys.
After several minutes of the orbs rotating around her skull and Doctor flashing several interesting puzzles across the screen, the spider retracted into the ceiling.
“Thank you for your cooperation, Brady. We are finished with the necessary tests and I am now analyzing the results of your scans.”
Before Brady could take another breath, Doctor continued.
“My analysis is complete. Activity in your right parietal cortex is remarkable when used in conjunction with your right temporal cortex. Right prefrontal cortex readings are slightly above average. I see that you have an aptitude for the arts.”
Brady was taken aback. She had never mentioned anything about her drawings and she didn’t recall any test questions emphasizing that particular area of study.
“I guess,” she replied. “I like to draw.”
“The arts are a noble area of study. A powerful tool that, in the right or wrong hands, can be used to influence others toward a certain point of view.”
Brady wasn’t sure how to respond to that so she remained silent.
“Based on my complete review of all necessary data, I am pleased to grant you acceptance into the Higher Minds program. It has been determined that you will attend the Higher Minds School for the Arts in Madrid, Spain for six years of education, after which you will be assigned a position within the Bureau’s Department of Arts and Influence.”
The doors swung open while Brady was still seated.
“Congratulations. A representative will be in touch with you tomorrow,” Doctor finished.
Brady waited for a few seconds, but heard only the tapping and squeaks of employee shoes on the hallway floor. The blue line of Doctor’s voice lay as flat as it did when she first entered the room.
She stood, exited the room and walked down the hallway in a bit of a lull.
School for the Arts. In Madrid.
It looked like things may not be so bad after all.
The following day, Brady was told she had one week to pack and say goodbye to her friends and family. Her parents threw her a lavish farewell party that included all of their best friends. Afterward, she was picked up in a dark car with tinted windows, driven to the airport and given a comfortable seat on a government-owned jet. She was surprised to find the only other people aboard were the pilot and a flight attendant, but she figured it wasn’t every day that kids were being flown to a Higher Minds school. Upon take off, she was given lunch and told she would arrive at Madrid in six hours.
She finished her meal and quickly grew tired. The stress of the past couple of weeks had begun to take its toll and she drifted off to sleep.
Brady woke up slowly and painfully. A fog clouded her mind and it took her a moment to remember she was on a plane bound for her new life. Her stomach rose slightly as she felt a sudden descent. She peered out the window. They had departed from Newark a little before noon and so she thought it would be near dusk when they landed in Madrid. She was surprised to find it was pitch black outside her window. The darkness was broken up by an occasional light or two twinkling in and out of existence on the ground. Not only was she thrown off by the time difference, but she imagined Madrid being more populated than the lights would lead one to believe.
A dull pain throbbed at her temples and she leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes. She looked around the cabin and noticed the stewardess was gone. Another glance out the window revealed a few more lights as the ground grew closer.
Odd, she thought. Was she really seeing what she thought she was seeing? Those lights below highlighted large swaths of ground overlaid with white.
Snow in Madrid?
She didn’t have much time to contemplate as the stewardess emerged from the cockpit. The dark haired woman approached Brady with a wide smile.
“Good, you’re awake. I wanted to make sure you were buckled up before we land.”
“Yeah,” Brady replied slowly. “On both counts. I didn’t realize it would be so late when we landed. I thought the flight was only six hours?”
The stewardess simply maintained her painted-on smiled and took a seat against the cockpit wall.
As the plane touched down, Brady’s initial observation was confirmed. The large embankment of snow just outside of her window must have been recently cleared from the runway.
They rolled to a final stop where she observed a group of warmly dressed men rolling a set of runway stairs toward the plane. The flight attendant stood up by the cabin exit and patiently examined her fingernails. There was a quick knock and she unhitched the latch, pushing the door out.
Though she had seen the snow, Brady was unprepared for the sudden rush of cold air. No one ever mentioned needing to pack winter clothing.
One of the men she saw outside stepped into the cabin and the door quickly closed behind him. The stewardess helped him remove his large coat, revealing a slightly overweight man in a striped collared shirt, tie and blue jeans. He quickly removed a beanie revealing a head of thin blond hair. He whispered to the stewardess who nodded and took his coat into the cockpit, closing the door behind her.
The man looked to be in his forties or fifties, though at Brady’s age, it was hard to be certain as anyone over thirty just seemed old. He walked toward Brady, grinning gently, and sat down in the empty seat across the aisle. His open hand reached out.
“Hello, Brady. My name is Michael.”
Brady reluctantly met his hand with hers. His grip was warm and considerate, but his gray eyes resembled the snowfall.
“I hope you were able to get some rest during the flight,” he said.
“Um…Yes, I did. But–”
Brady paused to look out the window awkwardly as her hand was still within Michael’s grip.
“I understand you may have a few questions,” Michael chimed in. “You’re wondering why it’s snowing in Madrid, no? And why it’s nighttime? And maybe even why you feel so tired.”
Michael held up his other hand.
“Let me apologize up front for the confusion and the necessary drug-induced sleep brought on by your meal. Your headache should clear up very soon.”
Brady’s eyes grew wide. She wanted to pull her hand from his, but shock and fear stilled her reactions.
“In a few minutes, I will show you to your new life. You have been identified as a highly talented and capable individual, Brady. A decade ago, the government made a decision to ensure the proper functioning of society. Thus, the Higher Minds program was born. You must understand that the Bureau has a duty to be proactive against any threat to our extraordinarily efficient system of government. Decades of devotion and hard work need to be protected, Brady. A person with your skills and talent has the capability to create a lot of trouble.”
Brady turned away from Michael and stared out into the darkness. She couldn’t bear to look at this man telling her such unbelievable things.
“I want to go home,” she cried. “Now! Please, I promise. I won’t do anything. I just like to draw. I’ll never draw again, I swear.”
She looked back at him as tears began to warm her cheeks.
Michael released Brady’s hand and tilted his head as if emotionally wounded.
“I’m sorry, Brady, but there can be no debate. Doctor has confirmed that you are a potential threat and we must ensure that potential is never realized.”
He took a deep breath before continuing.
“We are not uncivilized, you know. You will have everything you need here, within reason. You will be joining fellow artists handpicked from the world over and have the opportunity to draw whatever you’d like. Of course it will never be seen anywhere outside of this facility.”
“But my family?” Brady asked. “Can I please talk to them? What will happen–”
“Please rest assured that your family will be well taken care of,” Michael interrupted. “They will receive the monthly stipend they’re expecting. They will even receive the occasional manipulated photo and email from you, letting them know how well things are going.”
Michael stood up quickly and looked down at Brady. “I know this is a lot to take in, but we find it best to let the individuals know up front.”
He walked towards the cabin exit and turned his head.
“I’ll have the escorts bring you some warm clothing. Welcome to Higher Minds, Brady.”