A gust of wind blew the sand in mini swirls like tornadoes. Esme gazed out Beta's window as she decoded the swirling movement.
“Ouch!” She removed her hand from the door handle, which was extremely hot from the sun’s intense rays. Distracted by a new path, Esme fidgeted with her solar suit, bouncing in her seat as she waited in her vehicle. The wind’s cry could be heard through the glass as it persisted to waft the dry dust through the air. At this time of year, the sunlight shone bright and its sizzling glare suffocated everything with extreme heat. Esme continued to swelter and squirm, practically hitting her head on the glass roof of Beta as she spun her seat around. Waiting too long annoyed her.
Her mom snapped her head toward the back of the vehicle, "Esme stop bouncing PLEASE, you are making everything shake!"
"Oh Mom, I am nervous about the first day of school. This year is different - I am by myself. Katie and my friends will not be there and I don't want more Foundations courses," said Esme as she crossed her arms and nodded her head strongly.
"Honey, you realize you need to embrace whatever the school requires of you. And by the way, you may only have one more year of Foundations. This year will be a lot different."
Esme bounced up and down again, "I don't want to go to school, I don't need to learn what they want me to. I want to do what I want to do. I know everything I need to know," said Esme as she pouted -- "anyway, no one NEEDS Foundations. It is not like history and arts are going to take over the world, everyone knows the AI’s will."
Esme was a tall, wiry girl, taller than most but still healthy, thanks to Gran's greenhouse and Mom's tweaks to the standard supplements. Her wavy shoulder length hair was brown; not quite as curly as her mom's but rippled like waves of sand blown by the wind. Esme liked to keep her hair in her face, parted to the side, allowing only one eye to peek through, nearly missing her mouth as it swung down. She was a little younger and smarter than most in her class, she tested well and was a superior academic, especially when it came to coding and puzzles. Esme took after her dad in her head, but after her mom in her heart.
Esme's mom, Helen, was a medium height woman, also thin with light brown hair, which curled tightly, more so than Esme's twirls. Her hair was short, barely passing her ears. The curls filled her head, flowing out almost twice the size of her head. The colors changed as her curls moved with any breeze as a thousand strands glistened, auburn, bronze, and gold resembling a vibrant sun set. She worked as a doctor and in a lab. She always said that having her hair short meant getting to her patients quicker. She loved this easy style, sporting the cut for most of her life, as a busy woman consumed at the hospital and the lab. She tried to take one, sometimes both, of her daughters to school each day and spend extra time with them at night to make up for the long hours she spent away during the day. Some nights became difficult to conjure the energy to interact with her girls. People living in their area faced contaminated dusty air, and Esme’s mom spent most of her day dealing with the dust. Sweet, kind, and at times silly, Helen loved her family and complex job. Esme cherished the opportunity to produce a smile or a laugh from her mom.
Esme jumped up and down again, reverting back to her younger self. She did not want to grow up this year, though it was essential. A new school, and a new year, would mean finding a new identity. Esme needed to remain the inquisitive kid with a tough shell and a soft heart that she had always been. She also knew she had to become someone who she really wanted to be.
Esme's mom shook her curls and rolled her eyes as she turned her seat back around to face forward in the car. The reverb of the Loop wheels screeching on the hot pavement, drew their attention as it broke the awkward, dense, silent air.
"Time to go Esme Zur," said her mom. Esme reached over and hugged her mom squeezing tightly.
Starting Tier 5 by herself gave Esme chills. An unknown territory without her sister riding the Loop with her. Fear and anxiousness filled her and restlessness surfaced.
She dreaded the long, sweltering, noisy Loop ride without someone to talk to. Now at different schools apart from her sister and friends, Esme needed to learn to be fully independent. Esme wondered who in their right mind would load a Loop full of kids in 110 degrees without air conditioning. She plopped down on the fourth row, the row her sister used to sit in. She chose a book from her life band to read in order to forget about the ride and tried not to sweat. Due to the fussing about school, she had left her mini electric fan in Beta. She often wished her mom would let her take Beta all the way to school. Beta could easily drive to school and back home with plenty of time for Mom to get to work. But, oh no, her mom made her take the Loop instead. To be fair her sister had to take a Loop too, only a different one from Esme now.
Esme peered out the window. The intense heat from the sun peeking over the ridge filled the Loop with an orange and red glare. The hot glow glanced across her face. Her sun goggles helped a little, and the blue and white solar suit school uniform fabric felt cool on her skin. She liked the sun, but not the heat. Before the world changed, her fondest memory of the sun was its warm and nurturing embrace during a family ski trip. Now the sun is a menace to Esme.
The Loop pulled into the tunnel, cutting all light out. The carriage shook back and forth, transitioning to the magnetic rail. The lights dimmed in the tunnel, her vision blurred as the sun goggles took about 30 seconds to reset. Time in the dark went faster than she thought. In the sunshine Esme sat still. Her mom was wrong about her restlessness.
The roadway-like area narrowed, leaving only enough room for two Loops to pass tightly next to each other. The height of the space for the road reached up about three stories. Dimly lit twinkling lights hung down from the top of the tunnel, shining on the ground below. The tunnel curved up at the top showing the creation of the Loop, dug from humongous round machines that left etching on the wall, reminding people of the earth around them. Structures stacked in an offset manner to allow for the curves in walls, were carved meticulously into the side of the tunnels. A few buildings stretched up higher, others left vacant spots and alleys. Parts of the tunnels reached taller due to the construction machine needing to turn around. The school lay within one of these taller areas.
The Loop rolled to a smooth stop. "Tunnel 82 stop, exit to the left," announced in a way too artificial, choppy female voice.
Esme leaned out the door and hopped on a hoverboard stacked up at the station stop. She jumped on with three other kids, dressed in the same long hooded solar suit uniform. Esme inspected the others, not sure why her mom rattled on about SAI being the best school in the region. The school was situated a few districts away and over an hour by Loop, but worst of all, SAI occupied the tunnels.
"Hi, remember me? We trained in the same class last year," said a tall sandy blond headed boy, who rode next to her on the hoverboard.
He drowned in his clothes. His shirt looked like a dress hung loosely on his lanky body. His long hair waved wonderfully as the air blew.
"Hi, no, not really," said Esme.
"Oh, I’m Oliver, but you can call me Oli," said the boy. "I remember you, because you answered all the questions before anyone else. Well, it seemed that way anyway. Esmeralda - right?"
“Call me Esme, please" she replied. "I have NEVER liked Esmeralda, it's odd and old fashioned. The name is ancient, from this part of the country. My mom thought my name needed to be unique and uncommon, but -I DON'T LIKE IT!" Esme said.
"Well then, - Esme it is - I guess we are on a nickname basis then." The other students hopped off to race ahead. Esme turned and stared at Oli intently until he started to shake a little.
"I don't remember much from last year, so I want to start out fresh, everyone should call me Esme," she said. Esme took her eyes off him, peering up at the tall building not far from them. The school loomed up the side of the tunnel. "I don't mean to scare you or anything. . . it's just well, I want to start anew.”
Esme gazed up at the building, again. Some towered five stories above her, quite tall for the tunnels. The front façade, colored brown-black, was grimy like most things in the tunnels. With a small faded green door that had slits for windows. It reminded her of an old castle, like the ones she had seen in fairytale books from her Gran's book collection. Five broad steps led her to an inset door.
"Come on, we will be late, and they won't like that," Esme said.
Oli stumbled up the steps to the door. A laser scanned him, the door slide open and he glided in.
"Hello Oliver, welcome to SAI School, welcome to Tier 5," a female voice said in a high pitched squeal, like an excited four year old.
Esme followed after him and she got scanned as well. "Hello Esmeralda, welcome to SAI School, welcome to Tier 5," said the same voice, sounding rhythmically fake.
"Great, we are in the same Tier," said Oli.
"For now," said Esme, as she walked into the building.
The upper floors were filled with warm halls. She remembered being told the higher up you go in the building, the warmer it was. A dim damp air permeated through the halls, with the occasional relief of a warm breeze passing through. The younger kids were in the upper floors. She needed to go down. She walked toward the end of the hall with Oli following closely behind her. The lift station for going down was at the end of the hall. She held out her arm with her life band on it, and placed her hand on the green glowing pad.
"Hello, Esmeralda, down to Tier 5," a voice came from the pad.
Esme stepped onto the floating platform, which was also glowing green. Only one person at a time fit on the little platform. She was immediately whisked away down a small shaft that radiated a strong pink glow. As she descended, a faint hum amplified the air, which became drier and colder as she lowered. Esme shivered a little. As she did, the weight of her bag shifted on her shoulder. She nearly forgot that her mom had given her Katie’s old school sweater jacket. Esme pulled her bag around her front and wrestled out the jacket. With the extreme heat no one needed jackets anymore to keep them warm. They served to keep the sun from scorching them. Mom had gotten the jacket years ago for her sister. This one had an inner layer of a techno wool blend that keeps you warm as well as cool. A regulated school jacket would go unnoticed. Especially one that was a bit faded, stretched out, and big on her. It was still fuzzy and warm inside, though any coating on the outside was long faded and would not help in the sun. A faint school seal still embroidered on the left chest, would allow her to keep it on. She threw the jacket over her solar suit and slung her bag back on her shoulders.
The lift platform stopped and Esme jumped off. She perceived the space wholly different from upstairs. Colder, the cheerful pink light died away, a bright crisp white blue light now filled the space. This light glowed a cold blue tint, not like the scorching sunlight she felt earlier. The lights blinked to the left and she followed them down a bright hall. The hall emitted bleakness, with no windows, doors, or any marking on the walls or floor. Everything appeared white with a blue hue. Esme was unsure of both where she was, and where she was going.