Jorge knelt down, squatting in the dirt, and very carefully lowered one grimy hand, fingers poised for deft action. He made sure he caught the centipede-like worm before it could burrow into the ground; he had been watching them for a few days and knew they could disappear in less than ten seconds. He picked up the worm and watched as it curled up into a ball, a protective mechanism. He was fascinated by how the worm's long, segmented body wiggled as it crawled across the ground; now he wanted it to crawl on his arm. So he gingerly lowered it down to his forearm, trying to get it to unroll. Slowly it uncurled and began to explore, tickling the small, fine hairs on his arm, its little clingy legs moving in ripples.
He was quite alone at the far end of the playground, but he didn't seem to mind. At six, he was four feet tall, much bigger than the other children in his class at school. In spite of the fact that he was as smart as most third-graders, his classmates tended to label him big and stupid. Mostly, he thought, this was because they were scared of him. Jorge had a long history with bullies, and it didn't include him being the victim, either.
Overhead the sky was gray, and swollen clouds loomed, threatening to drop their wet contents on the playground and drive all the children back into the school facility. Jorge hoped that it wouldn't start raining until after recess was over, because sitting in class all day was so boring. He would rather be exploring outdoors or hunting for new bugs to study on his arm. That… or watching action vids and eating sweets on the couch at home.
When the worm tried to crawl under his sleeve, he pulled it out and set it back on the ground, having seen enough. "Run along, little fellow," he whispered, repeating what his mother usually told him.
He heard footsteps behind him, followed by a loud snort. "Jorge's talking to a worm!"
Jorge turned his head as if irritated by a loudly buzzing fly. There were three boys standing there, from his class.
"What do you want?" Jorge asked, standing up. He took great pleasure in looking down on his accusers, who appeared to be dirty and messy from wrestling in the sand pit across the playground.
"To do this," said one of the boys, and promptly squished the worm under one battered sneaker.
Jorge just looked at him, outwardly unaffected. "Your point was, Armani?"
"Talking to worms is stupid," Armani shot back.
"You just want me to hit you and get in trouble," Jorge said sullenly, crossing his arms. He gave Armani a look, his shaggy brown bangs falling over his dark eyes. "I've learned. I know better. Go away."
"You're afraid," Armani taunted, and his two goons snickered. "Fraidy-cat! Fraidy-cat!"
"Recess is almost over. Don't you have anything else to do?" Jorge sighed, turning his back on the three.
A clump of dirt and sand struck him on the back of the neck, spilling down under his collar and into his shirt, getting in his hair.
Jorge whirled and tackled Armani, losing his temper. They scuffled in the dirt, while the other two boys hung back, pitifully trying to cheer Armani on, but wincing as they watched Jorge land blow after blow with his balled fists, fists that were large and precise in their aim. "I'm gonna tell!" shouted one boy, running away toward the front of the playground, where waited their teacher.
Jorge pulled out some of Armani's hair and stopped his assault, watching as his rival's dirty face screwed up and he started to whimper. The bigger boy stood up and backed off, and Armani sat up, rubbing his sore arms, scowling and trying to hold back tears. "You're a big meanie!" Armani whined, and Jorge rolled his eyes.
"And you're a little one," he curtly replied.
He didn't get in as much trouble as he thought he would. The teacher, Miss Nagy, made him stand in the corner while the rest of the class worked at their datadesks. He would receive a bad grade for today, but he didn't care. Seeing Armani about to blubber like a baby had made his day.
After an hour of standing there, Jorge was allowed to come back to his desk and sit. He placed his small hands on the blank, idle computer screen, kicking his toes against the steel. He could see his reflection in the screen: it was a young face, kind of like a mushroom with all that tousled hair on top. He wasn't sure whether he looked more like his apu or his anya. One was always insisting he looked like the other, so it was impossible to tell.
After an afternoon of listening to Miss Nagy tell them how birds were able to fly, the children were once again shepherded out to the playground for a last-minute break. Soon their parents would come to get them, or they would take the bus home. Jorge was neither a bus rider or a pickup student; he lived nearby, in Palhaza, so he just walked home. It was quieter than the bus and more fun than riding in the car, he thought.
While he was sitting alone on the seesaw, swinging his legs and watching his untied shoelaces fly, he saw an unfamiliar person come up to the playground gate. It was a woman… a woman with dark hair and pale skin, wearing a light jacket over a casual dress, her eyes shielded by rectangular glasses, her head topped by a stylish hat. She carried a small purse. Jorge, who had better eyes than most kids, could see the features of her face from where he sat, and immediately he thought "She's pretty…" She looked cold, even though it was a humid day; he wondered why.
The strange woman began to talk with Miss Nagy. Now uninterested, Jorge hopped down off the seesaw and ambled over to the swingset. He plopped down in a swing and pushed back with his feet, creating momentum. He swung back and forth for a few minutes, watching as a bird came and perched on the monkeybars, only to be frightened off by the rambunctious children.
"Will you come play with us?"
Jorge stopped swinging, feet skidding in the sand, and turned his head to see a young girl standing there. Her name was, if he recalled correctly (which he always did), Magda. She had long blonde hair that she wore in pigtails, and had on a pale blue jumper printed with black paisley. She pointed at the cluster of kids that had formed at one end of the playground. "We're playing Castles and Knights, and we need more knights. Will you come?"
"Why do you need more knights?" Jorge asked, skeptical.
Madga made a face at him. "Because! There's a bunch of dragons and stuff, and they want to eat the Princess!"
"That sounds dumb," Jorge declared.
"Pleeeease?" Magda asked, then she leaned forward and whispered, as if telling a deep secret, "I'm the Princess."
Jorge felt stupid, but for some reason he felt like he should go along. "'Kay. Whatever." He slid off the swing and followed Magda, watching as her pigtails bobbed up and down with her stride.
The game started off slowly. Magda crawled under the slide and proclaimed that it was her castle, and three of her little friends joined her, declaring they were her royal subjects. Jorge, a boy named Hugo, and a girl named Jessie were named knights, while the other four kids, all boys, were designated dragons and made a show of running around the slide, flapping their arms and screaming "Raaawr!" as loud as they could.
Jorge, Hugo and Jessie were supposed to keep the dragons away from the Princess, so they tripped them and pounced on them, sometimes running in circles after them. Jorge went from thinking it was stupid to actually having fun, using his size and speed to win again and again.
He was in the middle of running when a hand touched his shoulder, and, thinking it was a "dragon," Jorge whirled and tackled, only to run headlong into a pair of legs. He knocked the woman down and they both landed in the dirt, while the other children stopped what they were doing to gape. Never had they seen anyone their age attack an adult so.
Jorge scrambled to his feet, embarrassed, watching as the woman sat up and shook her head, her hair now slightly messy. She adjusted her glasses and looked at him with piercing blue eyes, her mouth a firm line. "I… I'm sorry…" Jorge tried to say, but his voice seemed stuck in his throat. Once again he thought of how pretty the lady was, and how stupid he now felt for knocking her down. Now she was mad at him, he could just feel it.
The woman easily stood up and dusted herself off, then picked up her hat and set it back on her head. "Come with me, Jorge," she said briskly, holding out one hand. Jorge reluctantly took it, positive that she was going to take him to the principal and get him in big trouble. She led him across the playground while the other children looked on, then got bored and went back to their game without him.
When they were safely out of earshot, the woman stopped and bent down to get on Jorge's level. He could smell her, and thought she smelled nice, vaguely like the soap they used in the bathroom. Her gray-blue eyes locked with his and she smiled, an uncanny expression for so serious a face. "Don't worry, you're not in trouble," she said calmly, squeezing his hand. She let it drop to his side. "I just wanted to meet you in person, that's all."
"How do you know me?" Jorge asked, confused.
"What was that game you were playing?" she asked, ignoring his question.
"Castles and Knights," Jorge said. He looked down at his shoe to avoid her penetrating stare. It bothered him deep down that she knew his name but wasn't willing to tell him how or why, but she was an adult, and she probably worked with the school staff or something.
"Ah, really? Sounds like a fun game. You know, I sometimes visit a… 'castle' from time to time," she said.
"Really?" Jorge could just imagine going to see an actual castle. It sounded awesome. "Well, I'm a knight. I protect the princess from the dragons."
"Fantasy isn't good for you," the woman sighed, shaking her head. "But never mind. Let's talk about you."
"What's your name?" Jorge asked.
She blinked. "I am Doctor Halsey," she said stiffly. "Now, about you… Hm, I expected you to be much less fluent in English, I must admit. Do you take lessons?"
"My mum's from New Alexandria," Jorge admitted. "But I can talk like my dad, too."
"Indeed." Dr. Halsey reached into her purse and pulled out a silver coin. Jorge had never seen anything like it, but it looked neat. "Do you know what this is?" she asked, holding it up so he could see one side.
Jorge shook his head, no.
"This is called a 'quarter.' It used to be currency in the United States of America, back on Earth," Halsey explained. "I was hoping you'd play a little game with me. If you win, you can keep the quarter. How's that sound?"
"Cool." Jorge cocked his head. "What are the rules?"
"I'll flip the coin, and you tell me which side it's going to land on. If you guess correctly, you win."
"Sounds fair enough."
"All right. As you see, one side has a man with long hair, while the other…" She flipped the coin. "Has an eagle. Those are your two choices. Ready?"
"Ready," Jorge replied, focusing on the quarter. He watched as Halsey's fingers snapped and it went sailing end over end into the air, almost in slow motion. Right as it came down, he caught it in his palm and slapped his other hand over it. "Eagle!" he declared, looking Halsey in the eye.
She pried his hand away and, sure enough, his prediction was correct. Jorge grinned. He had won the game and now it was his quarter. He put the quarter into one of his pockets to keep it safe and watched as Dr. Halsey stood up, adjusting her hat. "Wait, you're not leaving, are you? I want to play another game," Jorge insisted.
"I'm very busy," Dr. Halsey chided, shaking her head. "And I'm afraid I only have one quarter for you today."
"Will I ever see you again?" Jorge asked innocently. He hoped he would. This lady was nice and fun to play with. Nothing like his bland schoolteacher or the babysitter his parents got to watch him sometimes.
Dr. Halsey was quiet for a moment, studying Jorge as if sad about something. Then she forced a smile. "Maybe, if you're a good boy," she told him, then mussed his hair with her hand. "Now go back to your game, knight."
Jorge hesitated for a moment, then turned and sprinted back toward his playmates, pulling the quarter out of his pocket. "Lookit! I won something cool!" he hollered, and the children flocked to see what it was.
Dr. Halsey watched and pushed down the feeling of guilt that welled up every time she chose a subject. But he fit the genetic requirements perfectly, and demonstrated apt reflexes to boot… the way he'd spun and knocked her over was proof enough of that. She produced a tiny data pad from her purse and keyed in a confirmation code, adding Subject-052 to the growing list of viable candidates for the Spartan-II Program. It was necessary for the good of humanity, she reminded herself. Sacrificing the few to save the many was the UNSC's only option now.
But thinking about how eager and innocent this one had been almost made her feel sick as she walked back toward the school facility, where her escort awaited. Most of the other candidates had been suspicious, even hostile when she tested them. This one had practically begged her to stay and play another round. Another youthful face to haunt her nightmares in the years to come. Whether or not he would fulfill her expectations remained to be seen… whether or not he would even survive the program was uncertain, even unlikely.
"Unusually friendly, don't you think?" Lieutenant Jacob Keyes queried, holding out his arm so she could hold onto it. They had to maintain the fake appearance of parents scouting the school for their child. It was part of their mission.
"Yes, but regardless of his disposition, he's in," Halsey sighed.
"Cute kid," Keyes grunted, and Halsey could tell the true nature of the mission was beginning to weigh heavily on him. If only she could spare him the pain… spare all of them the pain that was sure to come…
But it had to be done.