“So, here’s how we’re going to escape,” Ball Buster says the next day.
“Can this wait?” I ask, sipping at my mug. The coffee is dark and black. There was no creamer at the cafeteria table, no sugar. It’s bitter, but I need it.
“Till when: lunch?” Ball Buster asks.
“What’s to plan?” says Dolphin, who’s apparently hanging out with us now. “Like I said, my dad’s about to swoop on this place with his army of lawyers. He’ll bail me out.”
“Assuming that happens, good for you,” says Ball Buster, looking disgusted. “Sort of leaves the rest of us high-and-dry, though, doesn’t it?”
“I meant,” I say, “can the escape wait? It’s still snowing out there, like, bad.”
“Well, obviously we’re not gonna escape now.” Ball Buster rolls his eyes. “I’m talking what we have to do long-term. Just gotta figure out how they get supplies and troops on and off.”
“There’s an airport,” I say.
He looks at me, skeptical. “They dropped us by parachute. Why do that if there was an airport, Square?”
I’m not sure why everyone’s decided my nickname should be Square. There wasn’t any big incident or anything; it just seems like the whole camp decided it overnight. Apparently, even at a secret prison island for teenage half-angels, I’m considered boring. Still. Better than Chad.
“It’s where I crashed down. I heard the guards who picked me up talking about it. Though where that was …”
“Pretty sure I saw the truck bringing you in,” says Dolphin, chewing slowly. “Came from off … east, I guess.”
I look at Ball Buster. “Want to check it out tonight?”
“Why are you guys even looking to escape?” Mouse says, spooning oatmeal into his mouth.
“Because that’s what you do in a prison,” I reply. “Literally, the first thing you did was try to run away from here.”
“When I thought this place was a work-death camp, yeah. But now … warm beds, good food, even video games … what’s the problem?” He shakes his head. “Are all Americans so whiny?”
“About prisons?” says Ball Buster as the bell rings. “Hell yes.”
“… the name ‘Nephilim’ was given by the Catholic Church, whom we believe discovered your people in Palestine during the First Crusade.” Ms. Clerk (no, that’s not auto-translate: just her actual name) indicates the diagram on the screen. “It is a plural term, the singular form is ‘Nephil.’ They believed the indents in your chest were a sign of your divine nature, due to their resemblance to a cross. Consequently, they drafted numbers of your kind to serve as their holy warriors.” She clicks the button in her hand. The slide rotates to show a painting of a tall, muscular man in armor, wearing a white robe with a red cross across the middle.
“The Templars.” She taps the red cross. “Notice the Church’s way of echoing the chest condition they thought divine. The Templars were feared warriors whose order demanded simple lives. They weren’t allowed to marry or hold land. Perhaps the Church thought these rules would keep your ancestors in check.” She pointedly lowers her glasses down her nose.
The kid next to me snickers. Fish, his name is—scrawny kid with big eyeglasses.
“Of course,” she continues, “the Templars eventually dominated Europe with all sorts of abuses, manipulating kings and the Church alike—essentially doing whatever they pleased. If you’ve read Ivanhoe—and if not, you should—you know there are accounts of them robbing, murdering, raping …”
I sigh. I was kind of hoping my new ancestors wouldn’t be jerks.
“Yes, what is it?” Ms. Clerk says to a student in the back.
“Didn’t the Templars turn into the Freemasons?” the student asks. “You know, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and all them?”
“Washington and Jefferson owned slaves,” says another voice in a smug know-it-all tone. “Did you know that? They were assholes.”
“Right, right,” says the first speaker. “But in National Treasure there’s this thing with the treasure of Solomon—”
“National Treasure is a movie, and a very fanciful one,” Ms. Clerk looks irritated. “There’s no evidence for Templars disguising themselves as Freemasons—or that such a disguise would even work. It would be as paper-thin as Nicholas Cage’s acting abilities.” She sniffs. “Conspiracy theorists love to posit Templars and Freemasons as this world-controlling Illuminati, but…”
“… d-d-do the reading and f-f-fill out this worksheet on exploitation, with examples of different kinds of exploitation.” Ms. Numbers (again, apparently, her actual name) moves through the tightly packed classes, a small woman amongst all us boys stuffed into desks. “N-n-notice that the first example has been given: Vlad the Impaler, who i-i-is thought to h-h-have been a Nephil, noted for treating his subjects with sl-slave-like cruelty.” She hands out papers.
I wonder why no-one’s making fun of her stammer. Like, I mean, I don’t want them to. I’m certainly not going to start anything, but dang, my old economics class would have been all over Ms. Waterhouse if she’d talked like that. Heck, the one time she had a breakdown, some kids posted it on Instagram.
“A-a-another example would of course be the American plantation economy.” She turns around at the front. “Very well. You may b-begin.”
“… the idea of monarchy probably started simply as who was the best killer in the clan.” Dr. Magistrate, the government instructor, is pacing back and forth. (By this point, I’m pretty sure all the teachers are just using codenames). “Over time, though, it began to rest on the notion that the ruler was better than anyone else—an elite. Thus, the monarch can do whatever he likes to anyone else, as he’s more important than anyone else.” She looks at the class. “Something I’ll bet you boys would just love, wouldn’t you?”
The class doesn’t respond. She bares her teeth like a cat guarding a piece of chicken. Weird.
She turns back to the board. “This elitist attitude leads to all sorts of cruel behavior, not just in Europe but many places. Females were generally not allowed power because of attitudes …”
“… and that’s why you dudes are natural sexual predators!” Mr. Awesome finishes with a wide grin. “Cool, huh? Not really your fault. Just all that testosterone, all that man-juice, y’know? Makes it so you can’t stop thinking about violence, about sex.” He wiggles his eyebrows. “Yeah, that’s right, I said it. No pretense here, boys.”
I really can’t stand “cool” teachers.
“So it’s just biology,” Mr. Awesome says. “Just the way you guys are built. You can’t help all that male aggression, it’s just the …”
Something about the way he says that strikes me as very odd, and I glance around.
“There’s no girls here,” I announce as I set down my tray.
Ball Buster stops, his fork inches from his mouth. “What? That … nah … that …” He looks around the cafeteria. “That … there, look—or no. Hang on … isn’t that … huh.” He shrugs. “How about that.”
“Are you guys seriously only noticing that now?” Mouse asks, already deep into his oatmeal.
“We were running around and getting shot at all of yesterday,” I say. “They could’ve been in the other dorms for all I knew.”
“Maybe there aren’t any girl Nephilim,” Ball Buster says, still glancing back and forth.
“Dude. We’re a species,” I say. “We must have gotten born somehow.”
“We got born from humans,” Ball Buster points out. “Your mom wasn’t arrested, right? So, presumably she’s not a neff. Maybe neffs are all male and just reproduce by getting jiggy with humans.”
“First of all, ew,” I say, grimacing. “Second of all, that’s a sample size of two. Your mom and my mom not being neffs doesn’t mean there’s none of them.” I turn, as Dolphin sits down next to us. “Clearly, this guy’s dad isn’t a neff.” I look at Dolphin. “Was your mom?”
We all watch the gears turn in Dolphin’s head. “I guess I could be a bastard,” he says, thoughtfully.
“I could tell you that just from having met you,” Ball Buster says.
I slap him on the arm. “That’s not what he means, moron.”
“But no.” Dolphin’s ignored our whole exchange. “Dad knew about me being a neff,” he says. “He would have had to have guessed. But he was fine with it. How’d we get on this topic?”
“Trying to figure out why there aren’t girls here,” I answer.
“Oh,” says Dolphin. “Yeah, that’s the worst thing about this place. That and the food.”
“This food?” Mouse asks. “You’re complaining about this food?”
“Well yeah,” I say, looking at the oatmeal on my plate. “Of course he is.”
“I’ve been getting non-stop stomach-aches since I got here,” Dolphin insists. “But the lack of girls is worse. The library’s got some books with pictures, but they’re sort of lame. The arcade, now there, some of the games, they’ve got these headsets …”
We all wince. “Jeez, man!” I say.
“Hey,” Dolphin shrugs. “I’m a healthy male. I’ve got needs. But speaking of females …” He picks up his fork. “Wait till you guys get a load of Coach.”
‘Coach’ is the lady teaching Phys Ed, which is my last class of the day, right after Calculus with Ms. Differential, who just had us watch a movie all class period while she studied her nails.
Coach is different: a fine-cheeked woman with bronzed skin and a sharp look. “New guy, right?” she asks me. “They give you a nickname yet?”
“Square,” I say, surprised.
“Really?” She raises an eyebrow at me. “You fine with that?”
When I nod, she shrugs.
“Fine. Start stretching while I get the others warmed up.”
I go through the forms as clearly as I can remember them while Coach gets the rest of the class gathered around her in a circle and begins to talk about kung fu.
I notice a familiar squarish face nodding to her words. Jackhammer again. Come to think of it, I saw him in Econ too. And Dolphin’s there, directly behind Coach, grinning in a … pretty creepy way. Actually, a lot of the guys behind her are grinning. Most of those nodding seriously and attentively watching her are the ones right in front of her.
I mean, I sort of get it. Coach is fit. Super fit. And that wrestling outfit is snug in enough places to give the imagination something to work with. She’s got a bit of that exotic quality, too: her skin’s tan brown and her gleaming black hair is pulled up tight in a bun.
I catch my thoughts and mentally slap myself. She’s not a slab of meat, Chad.
She finishes with some sort of rallying call. The group cheers before splitting up onto the different mats and beginning their sparring. Pretty… intense sparring. Dolphin is going at it with brutal speed, and Jackhammer’s just plain scary. Holy crap! How am I gonna catch up to these guys?
Coach is walking over to me. “Now,” she says, as I straighten up. “Before we get to the forms, you’re going to have to be familiar with the script here.”
“Okay,” I say, still watching the fighters. Everybody’s eyes are glowing. It looks really freaky.
“Right.” She holds up a finger, bringing my attention squarely around. “Now, you’ll need to be in Active mode…
She sighs. “I wish they’d give you basic orientation. You’ll need your special powers activated, so I want you to focus on something from your Ascendance event. Do you know what it was?”
“Okay. Focus on a specific image from that.”
I see J’son rolling on the ground, screaming, his face covered in blood. His face …
“Got it?” Coach asks. “Now, remember: you guys are strong, but your endurance is shit in Active mode.” She gestures. “All right, flex your muscles. Show off a bit. C’mon.”
I feel a bit self-conscious, but I do it.
“Great.” She goes into a fighting pose. “Now, let’s pretend I’m doing a chop from above. Bring up your arm to block. Keep the muscle flexed,” she says, as I move. “Yes, good. All right. Now I’m going to make a strike for your left side …”
In slow motion, her arm chops towards my rib cage, and I block it. She frowns. “No. Block with the flat of your arm. Your hand has too many breakable bits in it.” Nimble fingers take hold of my arm and reposition it. I feel a tingle of excitement.
“Take it on the ulna,” she says. “Yes. Good, but you’re relaxing the muscle. Keep it tensed throughout the motion. Just like that. Yes.”
She watches me as I mimic her movements.
“Okay,” she says. “The same on the other side. Let’s try handling some low strikes. Okay?”
“Sure.” Look at her eyes look at her eyes look at her fucking eyes eyes eyes Chad you pig.
Her training strikes are getting faster as I fall into a better rhythm for blocking them. It’s surprisingly simple.
“Good,” says Coach. “Be sure to stay in a crouch. That’ll give you more movement overall.”
“This is kung fu?”
“No. That’s later. This is to show you—”
Her right arm shoots out and it’s fast so fast holy shit she wasn’t even looking …
And I block it.
I stare at my arm. Huh? I’ve never been considered particularly quick. Mom never enrolled me in tween tae kwon do. I haven’t even been in a lot of fights.
Coach has just the hint of a smile on her face. “Surprised, right?” She brings up her hands in an attack pose. “Let’s go again. This time, I won’t stop.”
She comes at me in a flurry of blows, so fast I can barely even see them. Down, down, left middle, right middle down left middle left down right…. She leaps into the air and drop kicks down at me with a scream.
I block it again. I’m blocking every single one. My body’s moving with a mind of its own, smoothly flowing through one pose after another. My arms ache from the beating they’re getting, but they’re just flowing on pure instinct, blocking punch after punch after punch. I laugh in disbelief.
Then, an elbow catches me firmly in the solar plexus, and I double over, coughing. Before I can recover, something slams down on my head like an anvil, and I collapse.
I hear some shouts and laughs. Apparently, we’ve attracted a bit of an audience. “Back to work, you slackers!” Coach yells.
Pain is ringing in my eardrums, and my breath is coming out in grunts. But even as I roll over, I can’t wipe the stupid smile off my face.
Coach bends down next to me. “How’d you miss that last one?” Sweat’s dripping down her face, and she’s breathing hard, but otherwise she seems fine.
“T-too … f-fast,” I manage to cough out.
“No. That wasn’t any faster than the others. What was different?”
That doesn’t take much thinking. “W-we … hadn’t pra … practiced it.”
“Exactly. And why’s that important?”
I try to think it through, but my chest is still pounding. So I just shake my head.
“They really don’t tell you guys anything, do they?” Glancing away, she shakes her head. “Photographic Muscle Memory. When your muscles are flexed like that, your body memorizes the specific moves—to the point that you can immediately use them to counter the recognized attack.”
“And … that teaches us kung fu?”
“Kung fu, and most martial arts styles, are a series of attacks, blocks, and counter-attacks. Fighters take years to memorize all of them so they can apply them instinctively, without thinking.” She shakes her head with an expression I can’t quite identify.“You guys are something else. One lesson, and you know kung fu. Five, and you’ve practically got it mastered.”
I’m trying to take all that in. “We … we can master kung fu … in five lessons?”
“That’s how long it took the rest of the class to master karate. By the end of the semester, if I do my job right, you all should know approximately eighteen different forms of martial arts.”
“Sure. But don’t get carried away. Because for every form we learn, there’s always going to be at least one move I won’t teach you.” She motions to me to get up. “Now,let’s talk about kung fu.”
“You realize kung fu isn’t actually practical, right?” Dolphin says. “Like it’s literally a fancy-looking style they came up with for theater.”
“Who gives a shit?” says Ball Buster, who’s in the middle of our bedroom, practicing stances. “It’s Matrix-level badass. I’d like to see Carter and his mooks call me ‘Tubby’ now.” He gives a mock punch-kick combo. “She says we’re learning tai chi next week.”
“Tai chi’s just meditative crap,” Dolphin says. He’s sitting on the floor, leaning against the foot of the bed, arms folded. “Everything she’s feeding us is useless.”
“Didn’t see you complaining,” I say. Apparently, our room is where everyone is hanging out. Which is cool, but I’m surprised Dolphin doesn’t have friends of his own.
There’s that creepy grin again. “Well, yeah. I mean … you saw Coach, right?” He waggles his eyebrows. “If all the teachers had hot-ass bods like that, I’d pay a lot better attention.”
“Seriously, dude?” I say.
“Pretty sure sex counts as ‘harassing’ camp staff,” Mouse says, looking down from the bunk bed. “Wolfe was pretty clear what happens when you do that.”
“Unless the staff want it.” Dolphin grins.
“Wonder what happens if they want it and you don’t,” Ball-Buster mutters.
Dolphin rolls his eyes. “Anyway, no laws against enjoying the view. Just healthy appreciation for a fine-looking piece.” He spreads his hands smirking at us all. “C’mon. We’re all guys here. No need to pretend. The political correctness police don’t seem to have a station where we are. That’s a 100% walking male fantasy training us there.”
“Dude,” says Ball Buster. “Don’t even start with that. Sexy girls are like 30%, tops, of most guys’ fantasies.”
“Bullshit,” says Dolphin.
“I’m serious. Have you ever really watched a ‘guy’ movie? The main thing’s always the cars, or the guns, or the kung fu or some shit. Not sex. Chick flicks are all about sex. Action movies?” He scoffs. “The sexy chicks matter about as much as the cool cars. Heck, the one girl in The Matrix isn’t even that hot; but I tell you what, the Wachowski brothers know how to make a real male fantasy.”
“Wachowski sisters, isn’t it?” I ask.
Dolphin rolls his eyes. “Buncha prudes. Like you’re not thinking it through that whole class.”
Ball Buster sighs. “Freak,” he says.
“You’re the freak,” Dolphin says. “All of you are freaks.”
That’s the first time I’ve ever been called that. I grin. “Obviously,” I say. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here.”
I wake to someone’s hand clamping over my mouth. I grab at the arm and heave, but their grip is like iron.
“Shhh, you idiot!” It’s Ball Buster. “Shit. You nearly threw me through the roof there.”
He lets go of my mouth, and I sit up. “Bally, what the shit?”
“We’re going to scout the island, remember? You asked if I wanted to check it out with you.”
Oh, yeah. I did say that. At breakfast. When I was feeling fresh and awake. Not when I was in a warm, soft bed, with the adrenaline draining away and my eyelids already heavy. How cold is it even out there?
“Right, right,” I say, rubbing my eyes. Damn, I did say that. “Give me just a minute.”
There’s not a lot of talking right away. “Southeast” is pretty vague, in retrospect, but we just start running. The night is cold and quiet. Getting out of camp is no trouble. We just dodge the searchlights from the towers. The snow drifts are a bigger problem, but while pushing our way through waist-deep snow is really irritating, it’s not especially challenging.
Snow is still falling. The cold air bites at my cheeks, washing away all my former sleepiness. Running takes concentration—I need to jump out of the snow as well as forward. My legs are wet and cold from constantly plunging in and out of the snow, but we’re gliding along at a fantastic rate. This is pretty cool.
Suddenly, a sharp pain in my chest cuts through me like a knife, so sharp I can’t even gasp. I’m in mid-leap when it strikes, and I crash into the snow bodily, hitting the ground hard. I barely feel it over the burning pain.
I writhe in the snow, shaking in agony. I can barely breathe. My arms and legs are nerveless sacks of meat.
I don’t know how long I lie there. The pain does subside, but for a while my arms and legs simply won’t move. I’m just helpless on my back, staring up at the sky, thick with grey clouds.
For a moment, I think I see, like I did on the plane, a dancing flame high in the sky. But then I blink, and it’s gone.
Finally I get the strength to clamber to my feet. I’ve been wondering this whole time where Ball-Buster is, but now I see him, floundering up out of the snow. His face is pale and drawn.
“Wh—What was it Destro… said?” I manage to say. “S… seven minute time limit to Active Mode.”
Ball-Buster lets out a gasping breath. “He could have mentioned how much it kills,” he says. A shake of his head. “Guess we’re walking the rest of the way.”
Fortunately, it doesn’t take much walking before Ball Buster pulls to a stop. “Damnit.” I can hear the disappointment, thick in his voice.
I look past him. It’s clear we’ve found the airstrip. Most of the island is all steep ridges and hills, but there’s a long stretch of land here where the snow lies far too flat and unbroken to be anything but a landing strip. I can even see the remains of a mini crater where I must have crashed.
But clearly, this landing strip hasn’t been used in a long time. A thick layer of snow covers everything, with not an airplane to be seen, or even a hangar to hold them in. There’s one solitary building, but it’s practically a shed—not big enough to hold a car.
“Shit. Sorry, man,” I say. “Want to head back?” It’s really cold.
“Not yet. I want to see what’s going on with the shed.”
I groan but follow him anyway. As we get closer to the airfield, it’s clear that what looked smooth from a distance is actually very uneven, with all sorts of strange angles and bumps and ripples everywhere. It seems they’ve even broken up the asphalt the planes would land on. They really don’t want people coming in.
There’s a window in the side of the shed, and as we come closer, we see a light. Inside, a man arranges material on shelves. I recognize him. It’s “Doc” from when I first landed: the guy doing throat surgery. Currently, he’s squinting through green eyeglasses, looking along the length of a samurai sword. He nods, then puts it next to a display of a WWII uniform.
I feel Ball Buster slapping my arm. I look at him and he points.
On the wall behind the old man is a map. Of Alaska. And far, far out from the coast, there’s a red circle with some words on it.