Chapter One

Milo trudged through the doors of Bright Futures #127, knowing that today marked the start of a whole new year of not fitting in. He tried to remind himself that the move was necessary, but he had a hard time processing a big change like this. It was hard enough entering a room with people he didn’t know, let alone a whole school, so he already knew that this was going to be next to impossible.

Of course Milo wanted to fit in — who doesn’t? — but there was no denying that he was different. More comfortable with computers than classmates, Milo found social situations exceedingly difficult. He never could tell whether people liked him. Emotions were such a confusing thing.

Sadly, it was only going to be worse this year since most of his peers had SeeSees. In addition to being ignored in the real world, he would be left out of the virtual one too. He’d seen them enough in grocery stores and in the eyes of people walking down the street like zombies. Vacant stares captured by something more interesting in their shared delusion. Of course, Milo thought they were actually pretty cool, but with something impossible to obtain, it was probably a self-defense mechanism to think less of them.

Back when he got the school supplies list a few months ago, he had briefly entertained the idea of buying a pair, but it was hard enough to afford the required stuff and SeeSees came with an exorbitant price tag. If it hadn’t been for Grandpa, he never would have been able to get even the basic stuff on the list.

While Milo could have asked him to buy the SeeSees as well, he didn’t think it was right to ask for even more help. Not because of pride or anything like that, it was just that Grandpa had done so much already. Besides, they were supposed to be optional. At least that’s what the list said.

Milo entered class just as it was about to start, hoping to sneak into the back of the class and avoid notice. Unfortunately, he must have missed the part in the brochure about the design of the classroom. Wall to wall multimedia panels formed a shell around the class as an area for the instructor rose slightly above the concentric seats. This was all part of the edutainment experience which gave Bright Futures its competitive advantage. Part of the reason why public schools had virtually been run out of town.

Milo looked around the room for an empty seat and his heart nearly skipped a beat as he saw the only one left was next to Elizabeth. Although Milo was confident he was invisible to her, he still had a weird feeling of uneasiness every time she was near. The prospect of sitting next to the prettiest girl at school was much too distracting to Milo, though he probably should have paid more attention to Eddie.

Back for another try at eighth grade, Eddie tripped the distracted Milo, sending his tablet scattering in slow motion across the floor. The whole world slowed down just so he could experience the full brunt of his embarrassment. Pointing. Laughter. Milo felt like an outcast, all alone in the world.

“Welcome back to school, students!” Mr. Wheeler said with manufactured enthusiasm. “I can see that we’re almost all ready to embark on the great voyage of education, except for the new kid who has decided to join us,” he said, singling out Milo.

The class was snickering, undoubtedly saying all manner of mean things about him in the virtual world of their on-eye computers. Milo could see the micro-movements of their eyes, but he was glad that he couldn’t understand them. He’d already had enough embarrassment for one day.

Mr. Wheeler continued, “Before I begin today’s lesson, I’ve been asked by our sponsors to gather some information to customize the experience. Please take out your tablets and write three hundred words on anything you have learned over the break. This will be used for data mining, so please keep in mind that honesty is in your best interests. Any questions?”

Already heading back to his desk, Mr. Wheeler made clear that the question was purely rhetorical. Taking a tablet from the desk, he quickly fell into distraction playing one of those endless farming games. Real world time converted inefficiently into virtual currency.

Milo lowered his hand, took out his tablet, and started in on his essay. He decided to write about a few programming topics he’d learned over the summer. Being closer to Grandpa meant that they had spent a lot more time together this year. Milo loved spending time with Grandpa. He had a way of disguising computer lessons as puzzles that Milo found immensely enjoyable, and he was funny too.

As Milo was excitedly writing about an awesome new algorithm he’d recently learned about, Mr. Wheeler called out time and asked the class to submit their essays through the school portal. Milo punched the send button on his tablet but a bright red error immediately popped up. He tried again as anxiety started to build, but still the same error. There must be some sort of incompatibility between the Futures OS and his admittedly dated tablet.

Watching from behind his desk as Milo struggled to turn in the assignment, Mr. Wheeler shook his head and rose to his feet. He came over to Milo and said, “I still haven’t received your essay, Mr. Bell,” and then in what should have been a whisper, “What’s the matter, is your used tablet already broken?”

Milo didn’t know what to say to that. He had saved up for the tablet but was only able to afford the cheapest model and apparently no one had bothered to test it for compatibility. That wasn’t his fault. But Mr. Wheeler probably knew that, so why would he say it? Maybe he’s making fun of me, Milo thought, trying to decipher the subtext of what he said.

Interrupted by the bell, Milo got to his feet and collected his things. Dejected, he shouldered his backpack and entered the river of students in the hallway.

Already there was a spectacle underway as he came out of class. A kid as big as Eddie was standing over a much smaller kid, apparently in the early stages of an altercation. Milo considered walking away, but when he saw the face of the younger kid, there was just something about him that he couldn’t ignore.

“What are you staring at, nerd?” the bully said to Milo in a traditional mouth-breather dialect. Then a look of recognition crossed his face as his computer must have told him something. “Oh, you’re that new loser.”

But Milo wasn’t paying attention to his words and didn’t realize that they constituted a threat. He was distracted by the SeeSees that the big kid was wearing. He’d never actually been this close to authentic ones before.

Eventually Milo parsed the rest of the sentence and realized that Eddie had probably told the rest of the school’s bullies about him through some SeeSee-enabled network. This year was going to suck.

“Beat him up, Neil!” a nearby kid yelled.

As Neil closed the gap, Milo was still fascinated by the on-eye computers. It was like someone had taken an ordinary contact lens and made very fine etchings over every micrometer. Looking now at Neil, Milo could see that the etchings around the outer edges of his eyes were illuminated with many colors, like a TV projected directly on the eye.

As Neil balled up his fist, Milo finally realized that he was in serious trouble and turned to run. Somehow he managed to react quickly enough and was almost to the door before the much bigger Neil had a chance to close the distance.

Slamming his way through the door, Milo was momentarily stunned by the brightness of the morning sun as he tried to map out an escape route. Being new to the school, he had no knowledge of where the good hiding places were, unlike the many places he knew well at the old school. Options limited, the only way out was up. A lone redwood.

Climbing as swiftly as his slight frame would allow, Milo scampered out of reach of the bellowing Neil. Turning to look down at the bully, Milo didn’t realize how fatigued his arms already were and he lost his hold of the branch supporting the bulk of his weight. Losing his footing shortly thereafter, Milo tumbled to the earth below, landing roughly on his back.

Immediately he felt pain, wincing with each kick to his midsection. A whistle pierced the air and children scattered, leaving Milo alone on the ground as a teacher he didn’t recognize rescued him from this cold introduction to Bright Futures #127.

Standing next to the teacher was the young kid whose beating Milo had interrupted.

“You didn’t need to do that back there. Nothing will stop those guys from picking on you now. You’re on their list,” the kid said, garnering a glare from the teacher. After a short pause he then said in a much friendlier tone, “I’m sorry, I think I just said all the wrong things. Hi, I’m Nate. Thank you for trying to help me back there.”

The teacher mumbled something about wasting his time and then wandered back towards the school.

“It’s okay. Hi, I’m Milo,” he said as he extended his hand for the obligatory shake. Milo made very brief eye contact with the other boy and noticed that he wasn’t wearing SeeSees either. They were probably the only two kids without them.

“Still, maybe it’d be better if we stick together,” Milo said. “What class do you have next?”

“History of Science,” Nate replied. “I hear it’s not really about science.”

“I’ve got that class too. That sucks,” Milo said, as they walked in the same direction. Over the short walk there, Milo and Nate found they actually had quite a bit in common, excitedly talking about many interests. Not having financial access to newer technology, they had both found vintage computing a rewarding substitute. In the last few seconds before class began, they planned their first LAN party. There was something about that old era of computing that brought people together.

Sitting in the auditorium, while the screens all around him flashed their special blend of fact-based advertisements, Milo thought that maybe this school was going to be okay after all. Sure, he was completely on the fringe and on the bully list, but it wasn’t a total loss. He might have made a friend today.