I stepped into History class in a daze, only half awake. Classmates—especially the girls—greeted me, asked how I was doing, and if I needed a sympathetic shoulder. Especially the girls. They were not subtle about how they planned to ‘help.’
How had I not noticed this for so long?
Adam and Akane weren’t here with me. They claimed they were following up on a lead, but I had overheard Laura on the phone. She had told both of them—and Ling—to stay away from me for a while, and ordered Akane to keep an eye on Adam.
Lizzy, of course, was nowhere to be found, but I barely registered her absence. I just slid into my seat, not really sure what I was doing.
What was the point? My brain had been wrapped around a pretty girl’s little finger for eight years or so. Silver and gold, I had no way of knowing what parts of my personality were real, and which were just programmed in.
“Scoot over,” a firm voice instructed. “I’m sitting next to you.”
I blinked out of my fugue and was astonished to find Laura standing next to me.
“Don’t you have class?” I managed dumbly.
She rolled her eyes and tried to slide into my seat (which was the last one on the end), forcing me to scoot over or be sat on. “Nothing gets past you, does it?” She started emptying her bookbag, pulling out a laptop and logging onto the local wifi.
After it became clear she wasn’t going to say anything else, I broke the silence. “This is the part where you explain what you’re doing here.”
She grinned, not looking away from her screen. “I was worried you didn’t have any snark left in you.”
“That wasn’t snark. I was just asking a question.”
“It was snark.”
I rubbed my forehead, not in the mood for witty banter. “Just answer the question, please.”
“Akane and Adam are busy,” she lied without blinking. Or maybe it was technically true; I imagine whatever random task she had set them on was keeping them occupied. They wouldn’t just be sitting at home twiddling their thumbs. “I came to make sure you didn’t bang the first girl who made eyes at you.”
I felt myself blushing furiously, but did my level best to ignore it. “I’m not that bad.” I thought for a moment. “She would have at least have to buy me dinner first.”
Now she did turn to face me, grinning from ear to ear. I found myself suddenly aware of the fact that a beautiful woman was sitting inches away from me. Had she always been this pretty?
“Finally. Real sarcasm. In that case, you will be happy to hear that Doctor Laura expects you to make a full recovery.”
The smile I had felt growing on my face faded. “Laura,” I began seriously. “About Lizzy—”
“No,” she put her finger on my lips, and suddenly my blush was back. “Not today. We’ll deal with it eventually, but for today, she’s deader than Disco.”
“Disco has come back three times in the past thirty years. Pick a different analogy, please.”
“Deader than Butler/Clarke slash fiction?”
“Now you’re just doing it on purpose—wait, what?”
“Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
Horrific images rose unbidden in my mind, making me shiver. “Don’t people only write those things for when their favorite anime characters don’t hook up at the end?”
The girl barked out a laugh. “They do it for everyone and everything, if you have half a mind to look.” She patted me on the head, like you would a child. “It’s cute that you don’t know that.”
“But Butler’s condition makes it impossible? Like that stops anyone.”
“I was going to say Clarke is married. But how is Butler’s whole…thing relevant?”
She cackled. Actually cackled. At least one of us was having fun. “If you have to ask…”
The bell rang before I could retort, which I suppose I should have been grateful for. The old cane walked in, his floppy ears twitching a little, and plopped a laptop on his desk.
“This guy is usually pretty boring,” I whispered to Laura. “And he refuses to touch current events. But he knows what he’s talking about. Just have to fight off sleep long enough to learn.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Like Professor Binns?”
“Ugh, no, not that bad. Just…pay attention, okay?”
“I’m not the one I’m worried about. Haven’t you skipped this class half a dozen times for…” she trailed off, realizing she had been about to bring up things she had deemed best left undisturbed.
The awkwardness didn’t last long.
“Mister Huntsman!” the professor called in an attention-grabbing voice. “What, exactly are you talking about that is more interesting than my class?”
Normally, I would have been able to keep my mouth shut, apologize, and we could have all moved on. But I was tired, emotionally and physically, so it just slipped out.
“Anything,” I said.
The entire class rippled with laughter, and the cane turned red as a beet with rage.
“Mister Huntsman,” he said very slowly after the laughter subsided, drawing out both words as much as possible. Something about the way he spoke—the hiss-like sound of the s’s—made me realize that I might be in serious trouble.
Adrenaline burned away my exhaustion, and I wryly noted that if that had happened five minutes ago, I wouldn’t be in this mess.
“I would recommend you apologize, Mister Huntsman,” the cane continued, his voice dangerously close to a growl. “We wouldn’t want something to happen to you or the Highlander.”
I do not react to threats well, a fact enemies have taken advantage of more than once. But when I opened my mouth to snap back a challenge, Laura grabbed my arm with such a strong grip that her fingernails drew blood.
“Highlander,” she whispered, her voice betraying the fear she refused to show on her face. “Highlander.”
What was she talking—
How had the cane known that nickname?
I stood and turned my attention back to the creature pretending to be my History professor. “Elizabeth.”
It grinned. “Something like that.”
Laura pulled out her gun as swiftly as possible, but fumbled it and almost dropped it.
The cane just grinned even wider, opened its mouth, and spoke. I didn’t understand the words, but they made my heart skip a beat nonetheless.
“Jeren’n sangali’nar Derek Huntsman. Jeren’n sangali’nar Laura Medina.”
And the classroom exploded.
What seemed like half of my classmates started screaming in pure, animal rage and rushing towards us, leaping up the stadium seats and over those horrified students who weren’t driven insane.
Sleepers. Silver and gold, they got half the goddamned class.
The nearest one was a slender baseline girl with pink hair, who had decided to sit only a few seats away from me. She snarled, leaped out of her chair, and jumped at me.
Terror gripped my heart, and the adrenaline just made it worse. Time seemed to slow, and I was able to make out every detail in under a second. Her eyes, burning with rage. Her wide open mouth, with drool-flecked teeth bared. Her outstretched arms, ready to tear at my eyes or other sensitive parts.
My mind was frozen, paralyzed by fear.
But my body was not.
I couldn’t get my feet free of the desk, but thankfully I’m dangerous enough without them. I grabbed her wrists while she was still in midair and flung her to the right, towards the front of the classroom and right into the face of another of the sleepers.
Behind me, a boy shrieked in alarm as his friend whaled on him with a rifle. I guess that was some good news. Not the pistol-whipping, I mean. Obviously, this batch of sleepers was too stupid to use guns.
Next to me, I heard Laura curse and drop her Occisor again. And of course, mine was at home.
Okay, maybe we weren’t smart enough to use guns either.
Well, I had my reasons for avoiding firearms, and I wasn’t going to compromise my principles for something silly like my impending death. Besides, I had other options. By now I had my feet free. I stood on the little single-person desk, well aware of how precarious my position was.
The sleepers figured it out too, proving that they weren’t completely braindead. A kemo to my left—who had been sitting next to the girl I threw earlier—grabbed my ankle to pull my feet out from under me.
I didn’t feel like being torn apart by an angry horde at the moment, so I kicked him in the face with my free foot. He snarled and released my ankle to try and fend off the blow, so I used the opportunity to jump onto his chest, pinning him to the floor. His head struck the hard tile, knocking him out cold.
One down. Fourteen to go.
I heard the thing pretending to be my professor make a yipping laugh, like a hyena, that pierced through all the roars of his slaves.
Right. Fifteen to go.
At least I was in a better position. Arms scrambled to circle around my throat, but I was in a fighting stance now, and had more than enough leverage to grab the assailing limbs and fling my attacker bodily over my head and into the stadium seats in front of me.
But there were still more. I could handle them all by myself, but…
I spun around as a pistol barked—once, twice. Laura was getting dragged away from me by the mob, and trying to wrestle her gun away from a demon with long black horns. Trying and failing. She had missed with both shots.
I didn’t hesitate. I immediately grabbed the two nearest sleepers and smashed their skulls together. Works just as well as in the movies. Well, not exactly, but they went down, and that was what was important.
The rest were surprised enough by my sudden attack that I was able to just toss them aside like rag dolls, and in an instant, I was at Laura’s side.
“We need to get out of here,” she hissed.
I punched the closest sleeper square between the eyes, and he went down like a sack of bricks. “An astute, observation, my dear.” Another punch, another downed opponent.
“We don’t have time to chat. If we don’t run—”
I chucked a sleeper as far as I could aiming for the cane in the lecture pit. He dodged, but at least my human missile crashed into his laptop. It looked expensive.
“—If we don’t run, we’re not getting out of this.”
“Nonsense,” I scoffed. “I can handle a dozen or so brain dead zombies.”
I don’t make it obvious, but the truth is, I am extremely religious. There is a god. Or gods, or some grand will of the universe.
People laugh, but I know it for a fact. How?
Because when I say stuff like ‘I can handle a dozen or so brain dead zombies,’ one of the zombies in question pulls out a machine gun.
I tackled Laura to the ground a split second before a screaming hail of bullets tore apart the space we had been standing. I got a few deep scratches from the edges of the chairs, but it was better than the alternative.
But how had the sleepers gotten so smart, so fast? Unless they were just faking earlier…
“Derek,” Laura whispered into my ear. “We have to go now.”
She was right, of course. In my extremely humble opinion, I could handle fifteen armed opponents by myself. But not while protecting her. Despite all her strategic talents, she wasn’t a fighter.
Still, I shook my head. “I’m not leaving everyone else.”
“Silver and gold, think things through for once—behind you!”
I turned to see that another sleeper—the one with the rifle from earlier—had figured out we were still alive. He leveled the big, blocky weapon in our direction and fired, his face a mirror of the vague, directionless rage all the other sleepers shared.
Laura’s Occisor barked once, twice, and the rifle went wild, stitching a line in the walls and ceiling as the owner’s death throes threw it completely off target. A small part of my brain noted that it was still closer to the mark than Laura.
Because she wasn’t the one who had shot the sleeper twice in the head.
I wouldn’t use a gun to save my life. To save Laura’s was something else altogether.
I turned back to see the slender Spanish girl was still on her back, struggling against a…Dagonite? Seriously, a Dagonite? Why hadn’t I noticed him before?
I didn’t have time to think. He had a knife, and Laura wasn’t that strong, even with the power package. I shot him once in the forehead, instinctively preserving my limited ammunition. The poor hypnotized razor was covered in thick scales, but it wasn’t enough to deflect a 6.0 caliber bullet at close range.
Laura threw the corpse off hurriedly, while I got another nearby sleeper in the knee. “Now, Derek. No time to debate.” She scrambled to get up, eyes on the nearest door, but I grabbed her shoulder.
“There are fifteen innocent souls in this room,” I said firmly, intentionally not counting the sleepers. If we found a way to save them, that was great. But we had to assume they were lost.
Laura fixed me with that steel-chilling stare of hers. “I don’t have time to put this lightly: If we stay to help these people, we will die. And we are too important to die.”
I hate this part.
I haven’t had to deal with it too much. Most of my jobs are simple enough—go here, find the monster, kill it or capture it. No worries about moral concerns along the way.
Sometimes, this happened.
Sometimes I had to make choices that made me sick to my stomach. The difference between the right choice and the correct choice…
When I was younger, I had thought I could wrestle any problem into submission. Ironically, that attitude eventually got me kicked off the wrestling team, and I was forced to confront the fact that not everyone can win, every time. Sometimes, someone has to die so that others may live.
I had learned that lesson long ago. I didn’t like it, but I understood it. If a doctor has a choice between spending a billion dollars on a single organ transplant, or using that money to buy new machines and fund research for the hospital, he had to go with the latter option. One life for many is not a choice, it is an obligation.
It was the reason I had let Laura kill Adonides. It was a hard lesson, but we’d do it. As Butler said, it was necessary.
But I had never had to choose between saving myself and saving others. That…that was a new feeling.
Morally, the answer was obvious. If you have a choice between yourself and others, you always choose the others. You must always assume that you are the least important person in the room. It’s just the only way to avert selfish human nature.
But what if you are the most important person in the room?
What if by saving yourself now, you can save countless others later?
That answer was also obvious.
But I didn’t think I had it in me.
“Derek,” Laura hissed again. Something in her voice made me look down at her.
Her eyes were wet with unshed tears.
Of course. I wasn’t the only one who hated this.
“We have to go,” she whispered as gently as she could.
I came to a decision.
I still don’t think I could ever sacrifice others to save myself, even when it’s the right thing to do.
But I could do it to save my friends. To save Laura.
See? Selfish after all.
It was just a stupid trick, making my brain think I was doing the right thing instead of the necessary thing, but it worked. My body started moving.
I dragged Laura away from the seats and threw her over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry, heading for the nearest door. It was closed and likely barred from the other side, so I didn’t slow down. I slammed into it at a full run, leading with my shoulder that didn’t currently have a girl on it.
I heard two cracks—one from the door, and one from my shoulder—but I didn’t have time to slow down. All I knew was that we were free, and there were startled faces outside the classroom.
Were they sleepers? Students? Alien invaders from the planet Irken? I had no idea. I just ran, trying to ignore what may have been a broken shoulder, and thankful the classroom was on the first floor.
I didn’t look back. Not for one second.
I didn’t need to see the people I had left at the tender mercies of the Composer and her minions.
But I could imagine it well enough.
Behind the Scenes (scene 126)
The activation phrase is in a language I made up, so don’t bother trying to translate it.