Brain Slaves

Brain SlavesBrainSlaves cover final

For sixteen-year-old Nelly Kidd, school doesn’t mean teachers or homework or studying.

Instead, like all students in Bridgetown, she and her classmates are plugged into the Net and lessons are downloaded directly into their brains. Sounds easy, but there’s one catch – the lessons are painful and dangerous. Plus, there’s always the chance you might get fried – a lesson will scramble your brain, put you in a coma or even kill you. Nelly and her friends have no choice but to suffer through this, week after week. That’s why they call themselves Brain Slaves.

Then one day, while in the trance of a lesson, Nelly hears a voice and meets a handsome teen named Cal Stone who teaches her how to use the Net to learn anything she wants, pain-free.  Together, they hatch a plan to free all of the brain slaves of Bridgetown. Awkward and unsure at first, Nelly uses the Net to transform herself into a determined and resourceful fighter, learning martial arts, parkour and ninja techniques. Going from one dangerous escapade to the next, Nelly becomes the leader of a motley group of rebellious teens and begins an unexpected relationship with Hector Suarez, a dropout and gang leader.

Brain Slaves is the first of three books in an action–packed adventure trilogy filled with romance, excitement and humor, with an intriguing cast of teens and a brave and gritty young heroine at its core.

You can buy Brain Slaves for $3.99 on:

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Read the first chapter below.

 


Brain Slaves

Chapter One

No more homework, no more books….

It all started the day Tim Sibeski died in school. They wheeled him out of the classroom on a stretcher, covered with a sheet that said, “Property of Bridgetown Department of Education.” He looked small under that sheet, really small. All you could see were his feet, little kid’s feet, wearing beat up sneakers and white tube socks.

I’d seen it happen before, we all had. Two or three times a year, the Educators messed up and scrambled your brains and you never woke up from your lesson. Maybe you went into a coma or maybe they scrambled your brains so bad you died.

Then there were the kids who did wake up, except not really— their brains were fried, they were drooling idiots. We called those kids Flunkers — they had flunked out. That happened at least once a month and even more during Final Exams. A lot of kids flunked those.

So when the alarm started clanging, we knew right away what had happened. I mean, it wasn’t a fire drill or anything.

When the alarm went off, I was standing in the hallway lined up at the classroom door with everyone else, waiting for the class before us to come out. Kemal Jones was at the head of the line and he tried to peek in through the pane of glass in the door, but the Educator had pulled down the shade. Kemal shook his head, then turned to the rest of us with a stupid grin, like something hilarious had happened.

“I guess he forgot to study,” he said, with a harsh laugh. A few kids even snickered.

“That’s not funny,” I said.

Kemal was wearing an old frayed sweater and jeans. Most kids wore their old beat-up clothes to school because what was the point, you know? Now he gave me a look, a frown on his wide, brown face like I was too stupid to get the joke.

“What?” he asked, like he thought he was tough. “You don’t think it’s funny?”

“No, I don’t!” I shot back. Okay, not that clever, but it was good enough.

I’d known Kemal since we were little. I guess we were supposed to be friends, but he was kind of a pain. He’d shot up this year and now he was almost six feet tall, and I was still five foot four and a girl, of course, but he didn’t scare me. Anyway, I already knew what he was going to say.

“Oh, why don’t you grow up, Kidd?” he snickered. There it was — the same old lame remark I heard every day, one way or another. That’s my name, Nelly Kidd, and everyone found it very funny. Sometimes it would be, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Or, “Don’t kid around.” Mostly it was just, “Stop being such a kid!”

I wouldn’t mind it at all, except I sort of still looked like a kid, even though I was sixteen. Short, skinny, with pipe stem arms and a mess of frizzy black hair that always looked the same no matter what I did to it. Not much in the way of a figure, either. I’d been waiting for my boobs to grow for a long time, but I guess that just wasn’t happening. It seemed I could grow plenty of pimples, but not boobs.

So when Kemal said, “Why don’t you grow up, Kidd?” he wasn’t just making fun of my name and everyone knew it. A few kids laughed. Kristin Simpson and Amy Hong giggled and grinned and looked at me sideways. I felt my ears go red and I had to stop myself from folding my arms across my chest. I hated it when they made me angry.

Kemal nodded, clapped his big hands together, satisfied with his great display of wit.

“Yeah, I guess he should have studied,” he repeated, like it was the funniest thing anyone had ever said.

The joke was, of course, that you couldn’t study for school. That was the whole point of SLE, the Standardized Learning Experience. No studying was required. Everything was automated, computerized. You just went to school, lay down on your chair, they plugged you in, and you woke up forty-five minutes later with a new lesson fixed in your brain. Algebra, Chemistry, Latin, it didn’t matter. Whatever they wanted you to learn, you learned. Easy-peasy, right?

Except for the pain.

It started like a mild headache, then grew and grew until it was like they were driving burning spikes through your skull, or sometimes it was icy cold fingers, and then by the end your whole spine was on fire, like acid was being poured on your back.

Of course, none of that was really happening. It was just a side effect of the learning experience. To imprint the knowledge in you they had to re-arrange your brain pathways and apparently that hurt like hell. And you couldn’t do anything about it. Once they had the electrodes on you, you couldn’t move.

They said you went to sleep, but not really. You went into a kind of dream state, with brightly colored lights flashing and strange noises in your ears. When it was over, you were weak and sometimes you had to throw up, but the pain went away pretty quickly.

If you woke up.

I guess I was used to it, or as used to it as you could get. I mean, I’d been doing it for years. I never threw up anymore and the dizziness didn’t last more than a few minutes. Anyway, what difference did it make? That’s just the way it was. Ever since I was six, once a week I had to go to school and have a lesson imprinted in my brain. Pretty soon, in a year or two, the Educators would announce I was done and hand me my diploma – which was really a work certificate telling me which jobs I was qualified for. And that would be the end of my education.

Once a week was all the school most kids could take. Except if your parents were rich enough to buy the pain-killing drugs. Then a lesson really was just like taking a nap. “Tutoring” was the slang name for it. My Dad said that was an old word that meant private teachers people used to hire, back before the Collapse when there were teachers and homework and kids really did have to study.

But there were no tutoring drugs for us and every now and then someone got fried, like now, with the alarm clanging and Assistant Principal Manning running down the hall, past rows of kids who were lined up on either side. Everyone was quiet now — the only sound besides the alarm was the slap of Manning’s shoes against the worn black and white floor.

Our school, like most everything in Bridgetown, was built before the Collapse, back when they still built schools and new apartment buildings and whatever. So it was old — the floors were worn and scuffed and the green paint on the walls was dirty and peeling. The walls were mostly bare, though weirdly, the old cork bulletin boards still had a few thumbtacks in them. I guess they used to hang artwork or posters up there, but there was nothing like that now. In the whole place, only the SLE equipment was new and shiny. That was the Educators’ main job — to keep the learning machines in tip-top shape.

Manning ran by, almost knocking me aside. His graying hair was standing up and he look really worried, but more likely he was just really pissed off. He wore the same dark suit he always wore, with (probably) the same white shirt and dark blue tie. Right behind him came one of the nurses, pushing a stretcher on wheels. It’s funny how you never notice the stretchers in the hallway until someone uses them.

The nurse was built like a wrestler, with broad shoulders under his light blue scrubs and a thick neck under a bald, pink head. Everyone on the staff, men and women, looked like that- like they used to be cops or fighters or wrestlers. That was to make sure we behaved ourselves and took our lessons without a fuss.

Manning and the nurse disappeared behind the classroom door and a few seconds later the alarm stopped. The sound echoed for a moment, then there was silence. Along the hallway, two long lines of kids stared in our direction. Even Kemal and Kristin and Amy looked serious now. We didn’t know who was going to be wheeled out. The kids in the class before ours were like eight or nine, so we knew it might be someone’s younger brother or sister.

The big wooden door swung inwards and out came the stretcher, with the two little feet sticking out from under the sheet.

Amy Hong whispered, “It’s Timmy Sibeski!” She wasn’t laughing now.

The news spread from kid to kid down the dimly lit hall.

“Timmy!” someone shouted.

There was some pushing and shoving and then a tall, older kid, wearing a white tee shirt and gray sweats, stepped into the middle of the hallway. It was Bobby Sibeski, Timmy’s older brother.

“Timmy!” he yelled and ran hard in our direction.

The nurse and Manning were pushing the stretcher down the hall, away from us. They were already turning the corner, taking him to the place where they kept the kids who didn’t make it. Bobby ran after them. He was tall, like Kemal, except with a pale, freckled face and straight brown hair, parted on the side. He and Kemal were always together, playing basketball in the run-down playground down the street from my building.

“Timmy!” Bobby shouted again, like he expected his little brother to jump off the stretcher and come running back. He was so upset, he didn’t see it coming — an Attendance Monitor stepped out of nowhere and shoved a broad palm into Bobby’s chest. It was like an open-handed punch and it stopped him cold, driving him back a couple of feet.

“Hold on there, kid,” the Monitor barked. They were used to giving orders, and they were used to being obeyed.

Now, suddenly there were five or six Monitors in the hallway, in their black coveralls with the words Department of Education on the back. They were wearing their riot helmets and each carried a long stick and a stun gun in a holster on his hip.

“That’s my brother!” Bobby Sibeski yelled. He was almost as tall as the Monitor, but not half as broad. And of course, he had no stick or stun gun.

“That’s too bad,” the Monitor replied. “But you still have to calm down.”

He was the one we called Kong, because he was even bigger than the others, though we never said it to his face, of course. His real name was Kutsov. Kong was tall and brawny, not overweight like some of the Monitors were, and was mean looking, with thick, black hair and big nose and a fleshy face that was always covered with heavy stubble. He walked around like he owned the place.

He was close enough that I could see a trickle of sweat run down his cheek from under his helmet.

“Let him see his brother!” Kemal said, stepping next to Bobby. All of a sudden I liked Kemal. It was a brave thing to do. Stupid, maybe, but brave. Meanwhile, all I wanted to do was shrink out of sight, but there were too many kids behind me.

Kong barely moved, he just pointed the end of his stick at Kemal’s face.

“Not your business,” he sneered. “But I can make it your business mighty quick if you want.”

“He’s my brother,” Bobby repeated. But this time he said it softly and like he was about to cry.

Kong tensed his shoulders and I could see the muscles in his arms pop. He kept the club pointed at Kemal while he considered this.

“Okay,” he nodded. “I’ll give you an excuse from class — but you’ll have to do a make-up. Don’t want you falling behind in your education.”

He said the word like it was a joke, which I guess it was.

“Okay,” Bobby whispered. Then he struggled to add. “Thanks.”

For some reason, that was the worst- that he had to thank Kong for permission to see his dead brother.

The Monitor lowered his club and Bobby walked past, his head down. I think he was crying. Maybe that was the worst.

“Back in line,” Kong ordered. Without saying a word, we all shifted and shrugged until we had formed one straggling line along the wall. Up and down the hallway, it was the same. The Monitors were restoring order, getting us ready for class.

That was their job. They rode the shiny yellow school buses that drove through the neighborhoods, stopping to pick us up where we waited patiently at our appointed stops. The regular Bridgetown buses were green and grimy, and gave off clouds of black smoke from their exhaust pipes, but the Department of Education fleet was always spanking new. At each stop, a Monitor would climb off the bus and check off each kid as we got on. They carried neat black computer tablets with our names, home addresses, friends and any other information they needed to track us down. That was also part of their job, tracking down kids who weren’t at the bus.

If a kid wasn’t at the bus stop, the Monitor would call it in and a team of them would show up in a black van. They’d stop at the kid’s house, just to make sure he wasn’t actually sick or anything. Then they’d start a hunt through the neighborhood. And they kept hunting till they found you, even if it took days.

The Department of Education claimed there was no punishment for skipping school — you just had to do makeup lessons. But everyone knew they did something to those makeup lessons so they were extra painful.

So when the Monitors told us to be quiet and get in line, that’s what we did. They said it was for our own good. They said we needed to get a good education to get a good job. They said the standardized learning experience was much more efficient than the old teacher method, that a lot of kids back then never learned but now everyone was guaranteed to learn.

It didn’t matter if it was true or not. It didn’t matter if you were going to get a good job or just wind up like most people, working in a box in an office or selling boxes in a store or making boxes in a factory. It didn’t matter if you were going to wind up with a fried brain like a Flunker or dead like Timmy Sibeski. We didn’t have a choice. The Department of Education didn’t own us, but they owned our brains for one hour a week. For that hour we were their slaves. Anyway, that’s what we called ourselves — brain slaves.

Now the brain slaves from the earlier class were staggering out. They were little kids, around eight years old, so most of them looked pretty sick. The Monitor just ignored them, his job was to get us to class. It was our own responsibility to get home. Yeah, that’s right, the shiny yellow buses only went one way. You could wait in the Recovery Room for up to an hour after class but after that, as long as your brain wasn’t fried, you had to get home on your own.

An Educator appeared in the doorway. I recognized her. She was the one who usually plugged us in. I didn’t know her name. She was older, about the age of my mom, I guess, with dark brown hair cut short and black-rimmed glasses. She wasn’t too bad. Sometimes she let us rest for a few minutes in our seats after the lesson, if we looked like we were going to puke. I wondered if she was the one who had plugged Timmy in.

“Time for class,” she announced, in a matter-of-fact voice. That’s what they always said, “Time for class.” The sound echoed down the hallway as other Educators called in their classes. Kemal went in first, then we followed him, single file.

It was just a bare room, with dark, stained wood panels, peeling green paint and a dusty wooden floor. Six old, yellow light globes hung from the ceiling. The lights were off, but plenty of sunlight streamed in through the windows. Twenty-five tan, padded chairs stood in rows, each chair marked with the logo of the Shearing Corporation. The Department of Ed ran the schools but all the machines and software were owned by Shearing. They owned the technology that made the standardized lessons possible. The rows of chairs faced the cracked, unused blackboard at the front of the room. Over the blackboard hung a faded sign that had once been brightly colored, maybe when my mom and dad went to school there.

It read, “Learn Today For A Great Tomorrow.”

I went straight to my assigned seat. Sometimes I paused to look out the window, putting off the lesson for just a few seconds, but not today.

I slid onto the smooth, fake leather and leaned back until I was lying facing up to the ceiling. All around me other kids were doing the same. The Educators were already plugging us in. They each had a tablet that told them who we were and what our lesson was for the day. That was one reason the system was so efficient. We were all in the same class, but we each had different lessons. I could be getting a download of biology while the kid next to me was getting imprinted with Chinese history. You just had to hope that they got the downloads right — getting the wrong lesson was one way you could flunk out.

The Educator with the glasses stepped up, glanced at her tablet, looked at the small screen on the side of my chair, then punched some numbers into the keypad. I had a sudden sinking feeling in my gut. What if this was Timmy’s chair? What if there was something wrong with the cables or the chip that ran the lesson? As the Educator reached for the three electrodes, I flinched.

“Relax!” she snapped. “The equipment is fine. I checked everything.” She yanked the electrode wires forward and rubbed the sticky contact goo on the flat surfaces. Then she plugged me in, two on my forehead, one on my neck at the base of my skull. Then she punched a button on the chair

She didn’t really plug anything into my head, but that’s what it felt like. As soon as she hit the button, the machine started adjusting your brain waves so you couldn’t move and couldn’t see. After the first time, you learned to make sure you were lying down the way you wanted to be for the next thirty minutes. Otherwise, in addition to the splitting headache you’d wake up with awful cramps or legs that were asleep. You made sure to close your eyes, also.

Each lesson felt a little different. Usually the pain built up slowly, a small headache, then a bigger one. But sometimes it was an immediate stab right between the eyes. You lay there and saw dim colored lights swirling around, making you nauseous. And you heard muffled sounds, like music that was far away or the humming of an engine, but sometimes you also heard loud popping noises. You weren’t awake and you weren’t asleep, just trapped in some in-between state. You couldn’t really think but you could feel.

They told you it was better if you didn’t fight it and they were right about that, but there wasn’t much you could do to try to stay calm, since you couldn’t think — you couldn’t even talk to yourself. You were stuck in some kind of mental quicksand. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen and there was nothing you could do about it.

But this lesson wasn’t too bad. I felt a little pressure on my temples and the colored lights weren’t moving around too much. In fact, they were almost still, just vibrating a little. There was hardly any noise. I noticed the lights were forming a pattern, lines of red and green and yellow. Then something else happened, something that had never happened before, something that cut through the usual lesson haze like a knife.

I heard a voice.

A boy’s voice, clear and strong, not like a dream at all.

It said, “Come to me!”