“What the shit is ‘Attu Island?’” Dolphin asks me at breakfast, while he guzzles down his third bowl of Corn Flakes.
“Alaska, apparently. Sort of. It’s like there’s this whole string of frozen islands no-one cares about that dribble out from Alaska, and we’re on the one that’s way way way out on the end. The closest island is like … I dunno … 200 miles of water away. Actual Alaska is nearly 1000 miles away. We’re closer to Russia.”
Dolphin raises an eyebrow at me.
“I went to the library before breakfast,” I admit.
“We’re nowhere, basically,” Ball Buster says. “Like it’s nearly the definition of the end of the world.”
“Hm.” Mouse continues to eat.
“You know what I want to know?” Ball Buster says. “I want to know where that old fart got that samurai sword he was playing with. And what that place even was.”
“Then why didn’t you just go inside, superhero?” I ask.
He snorts. “Yeah, right. Sounds like a sure way to get reported to Old Lady Wolfe. Didn’t you say that was a—”
“My friends,” says Destro, sliding to a seat next to Mouse. “How have your days been thus far? How can I help?”
“Can you get the kitchen to serve something other than Corn Flakes and oatmeal?” says Ball-Buster.
“Ah. I must apologize. We usually have better food. The blizzard has been keeping the supply planes from coming in for quite some time. This thing is not very unusual—they keep much freeze-dried food on location for such matters. That’s what they store things for.”
Well, that’s just great. “How much stuff do they have stored up?”
“Last year, we ate nothing but oatmeal for a week—for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Destro says. “Yet we were well, and all was well. There’s no cause for worry.”
“These supply planes,” Ball Buster says. “Where do they land?”
“They don’t,” says Dolphin. “They just drop the stuff by parachute—if I’m remembering right.”
Ball Buster looks crestfallen.
“It’s a most fascinating spectacle,” Destro says to assure him. “A marvel to behold. I hope you cherish your first sighting of the process.” He gets up to move to the next table.
“Hey!” Mouse says, stopping him before he can leave. “Do you know why there aren’t any girls here at the camp?”
“They have another camp, I think. That’s my belief.” He walks off.
“Well,” I say. “I think that finishes that little debate.”
“He said ‘I think,’” Ball Buster points out. “He doesn’t know any more than we do.”
“I wonder what the females look like,” says Dolphin, leaning in conspiratorially. “Like sexy cat aliens? Or sexy bird aliens? Maybe sexy purple aliens with long tentacle hair …”
“Or maybe big fat blobs of protoplasm, or miniature bug creatures that eat you alive,” Ball Buster says. “Or maybe nothing, because maybe Nephilim are just males. I mean, seriously. We’re supposed to be angels, right? Angels are always male. Who’s heard of angels fucking anyway?”
“How’re you suddenly the angel guy?” I say. “Last I checked, you thought we were mutants. How’s it work out, evolution-wise, if the whole species is male?”
He seems to consider this. “Could be a recessive gene. Or … you know, like hemophilia. Females carry it but don’t get it.”
“But if we’re aliens,” Dolphin says, “… maybe we’re aliens that need to reproduce using other species.”
“That’d mean we were basically parasites,” I say.
“Alien parasites,” Dolphin says.
I sigh and give up.
There’s an old man just outside my first class, cleaning up some vomit off the floor with some paper towels and a spray can. He glances up as I walk towards him, and I feel something of a cold shiver at the glint of the green eyeglasses.
It’s the old guy again who was in the shed last night. The one I saw on my first night here. Doc. He’s got a glimmering bald head and a thick, iron-grey beard under eyes that glitter through the green eyeglasses. And he’s looking at me with a very specific look.
“Can you grab the trashcan from the room?” he asks.
Oh. Well okay. I step into the classroom and grab the trashcan, then come back up. He grabs the pile of foul-smelling paper towels and dumps them in the wastebasket.
“I hope the teacher doesn’t mind,” I say.
“It’ll be fine.” Doc tears off another paper towel and keeps working. “The guards bring dogs through here at night,” he says, off-handedly. “One must’ve eaten something that didn’t agree with them.”
“I’m here now, Doc.” A woman with a wine-stain-birthmark on her forehead runs up, towing a mop behind her. “Thanks a bundle.”
“No trouble, dear lady.” Doc smiles. Dumping the paper towels in the basket, he straightens up partway (he’s got a very noticeable stoop to his posture). and heads back into the classroom.
I follow him, a little bewildered. “Um … I think I met you before … the night I landed? ‘Doc?’”
“Schaefer,” he says. “‘Doc’ is a nickname. I was a medic when I served. Not anymore. Ah, my hands are a mess.” He sets the basket down and pumps hand sanitizer onto his hands. “That’ll have to do for now,” he says, as the students start to come in. He sniffs his hands, winces, and pumps some more gel on his hands.
“You sure the teacher isn’t going to mind?” I ask.
He gives me a blank look. “No,” he says, stripping out of his parka and dumping it on the back of the chair. Underneath, he’s wearing a white shirt with a tie and suspenders. As if he hadn’t even noticed my expression, he drops a stack of papers into my hands. “Pass these out and then take a seat. We’re about to get started.”
Doc Schaefer, as I learn from my seatmates, is sort of a universal substitute who fills in for any teacher who’s missing. Apparently, Ms. Magistrate is out with pneumonia but should be back in a day or two.
Doc wears a thick, loose-fitting cotton shirt and wool suspenders that look like they came out of the 1920s, and he seems to be constantly hunched over. “Democracies rely on rules and regulations, just as any other system does,” says Doc. He’s playing with a long yardstick he found on the whiteboard. “When people speak of a ‘free’ society, they do not mean anarchy. A strong society needs stability, which means it needs norms, commonly agreed to standards and principles, and rules to support those …”
I sigh. My fingers hunt for my phone, but of course it isn’t there.
“… this worksheet discusses a number of societal norms that still govern us today,” Doc says, as he walks up the rows, handing out papers. “Choose one, and critique it in—”
“This here is right shit!” The outburst is so loud, it doesn’t surprise me that it’s from the squarish-kid, Jackhammer. I wonder where he got his hair cropped so short. “What the hell is this good for?”
Doc blinks calmly at him. “Well, grade points can be used for recreational privil—”
“Balls! I’m gone.” Jackhammer pushes himself out of his seat and stalks up the aisle, straight towards Doc.
Doc doesn’t move from the aisle. “You can’t leave. If you don’t like the assignment, you can take the zero. But you need to stay in the classroom. You know that.”
“Piss off. Or I’ll knock your skull in.”
The class is dead quiet.
He could do it too. There’s not a thing that could stop him. Doc looks strong for a guy his age, but even by our standards, Jack is big, and if a scrawny guy like me can rip off someone’s jaw, someone as muscled up as him must be capable of serious damage.
He could smash any one of our teachers into a pulp.Any one of us could do that too,I realize. And the teachers must know it. Holy shit. I have a new respect for the way Ms. Magistrate laid into us yesterday.
Doc steps out of Jackhammer’s way. He has to turn slightly to do it, and I see what he’s gripping behind his back. Some sort of transmitter.
I glance to see if anyone else noticed. Most seem more interested in Jackhammer, who’s pushing his way towards the exit. Another kid gets up to follow him. I remember him from the slicked black hair: Icepick.
Doc walks past me towards the teacher’s desk.
Jackhammer lays a hand on the door. He immediately recoils, like it’s boiling hot. He shrieks, clutching his hand. “Bloody fucking hell! What the shite …?”
“I didn’t say you’re not allowed to leave,” Doc says, dropping the papers on his desk and crossing behind it. “I said you can’t. The door handle is cold iron and set to a time lock.” He looks up at Jackhammer. “Even I can’t open it until class is over. So sit down.”
Jackhammer turns toward him. “You fucking bastard,” he fumes, heading down the aisle.
I’m not sure what pushes me to do it. Maybe this situation just seems too familiar. But I get up from my desk and stand in his way. “C’mon, man.” I say, holding up my hands. “He did tell you.”
Jackhammer’s eyes narrow. “The fuck are you on about, mate?”
“Hey, moron.” Icepick comes up behind Jackhammer, staring at me. “Who you trying to impress, huh? You want to sit back down. Trust me.”
I probably should think of a snappy reply, but I’m coming up empty. “Just … just cool it. Okay?” I repeat, like an idiot, “Just cool it.”
“Mr. Royal Son, Barrel-Maker, Fox, all please sit down,” Doc says.
Jackhammer punches me.
It’s a bit more complicated than that. I see the strike. I move my hand to deflect it. Then his other hand comes from an angle I’m totally unused to. He chops me, straight in the throat. I stumble back. An uppercut sails under my flimsy defense, slamming me in the chin.
Right. Jackhammer’s been here for weeks. He probably knows a LOT more moves than I do.
I don’t exactly fall backwards, but only because I catch myself on the desks on the way down and manage to grab onto one.
Jackhammer’s coming at me, and I aim a quick one-two combo at his midsection. But he grabs my hand and twists it away, slamming me to the floor.
Then the door clicks, and a team of blue-camo soldiers rush in, a familiar bearded face at the front. “All right then,” says Grim Goatee, leveling his weapon at me. “Enough horseplay.”
I spend half an hour in a plexiglass holding cell, another half hour getting chewed out by Wolfe for “escalating the situation,” and another half hour where a camp counselor tells me to think about how I could have resolved the situation differently. Then I’m released, with five demerits on my record and a three-day suspension from the rec center.
“You’re an idiot,” Dolphin says at lunch. Apparently, he saw the whole thing from the back of class. “You shouldn’t have butted in.”
I sigh. “He was going to kill Doc.”
“No, he wasn’t. If anything, Doc would probably have killed him. There was a gun in the desk.”
“Wait. What?” asks Ball Buster, a PBJ sandwich halfway to his mouth.
“How could you possibly know that?” I ask.
Dolphin shrugs. “All the teachers have one.”
“Smart,” says Mouse.
“Icepick could still have got him,” I say. “Or he might miss and hit somebody else. Or the soldiers might have when they came in.”
“So?” Dolphin asks. “Old Man Doc dies. So what? We get a new teacher. Jackhammer dies. Who cares? Icepick dies, or Fish, or somebody… doesn’t change things for us at all.”
“Dude,” Ball Buster says. “You need to talk to somebody. That’s up-fucked.”
“The thing to do,” Mouse says, “is to jump up just as they’re passing you, grab a pen, and press it hard against their throat. Not enough to break the skin: just enough to make them feel vulnerable. Otherwise, if they’re too tall, you jab it right under their ribs, and push it hard so it feels like you could gut them.”
Now we all look at him.
“You know there’s a name for that?” He looks up at us, a light in his eyes. “The hard thing you jab the pen into? It’s called the diaphragm muscle. We learned that in anatomy today.”
Ball Buster breaks the silence. “I’m really having to re-evaluate my measure of disturbing.”
The bell rings. “Take my advice,” Dolphin says, as we’re gathering up trays. “Next time, don’t block the teacher’s line of fire.”
“Whatever, man. I’ve been in one school shooting already. That’s not the sort of shit you want to happen twice.”
Ball Buster drops his tray with a crash. “Dude, you what?”
Dolphin’s staring at me too. Mouse looks puzzled. But people are disappearing out the door already, and I don’t even know what to tell them. And I don’t want to. But I can see that I’ll have to.
“After school,” I say.
The rest of the day is something like a blur. I’m trying to settle my thoughts. What am I going to tell them? Like, the events are pretty simple, but there’s a lot to unpack. And I don’t even remember it that clearly. And I’m not really sure how I feel about it. And …
I really don’t want to talk about this. There’s not a reason I can put my finger on; I just don’t.
Ball Buster’s not having it, though. The minute we walk into the apartment, he’s on me. “Okay. Shooting,” he says, from his bed. “Spill.”
Mouse is leaning against the wall, his head slumped over like he’s half asleep. Dolphin pulls up one of the desk chairs and sits backwards on it. He’s looking at me like I’m some sort of odd bug.
I sigh, dropping my bag to the floor and taking off my coat. “What’s to spill? A friend of mine tried to shoot up the school, and I punched him out.”
“A lot left in between the lines there,” Ball Buster says. “Did he break into your classroom, or did you find out and try to stop him?”
“I was skipping class to make up with my girlfriend. We’d had a fight over … I can’t even remember. Some picture she’d put on Instagram. So I was out in the hall when they did the lockdown.”
“And they didn’t let you back in?” Ball Buster asks.
“Mrs. Ortiz could have,” I reply, still bitter about that.
“Always wonder how my teachers would shake down if it came to it,” Ball Buster says. “Like some of them are ‘I would die to protect you, my children,’ and others are ‘Screw you: my paycheck isn’t worth this,’ but it’s the sort of shit that you can’t know until it happens.”
I snort. “That’s for sure. I mean, I get that it’s protocol, but she’d always—”
“Hang on here.” Dolphin holds up his hands. “You guys have all these rules in case of shootings? Like you actually drill in case someone shoots up the school?”
“Yeah?” I say.
He lets out a deep breath. “You have any idea how weird that is?”
“Is it?” says Mouse. “People were always saying Americans were so violent, but I could never see it in the sitcoms.”
“The fuck?” Ball Buster looks at him. “I thought you were a street thug or something?”
Mouse shrugs. “Lots of shops and bazaars had TVs. They play all sorts of things on there, but American tv shows bring in more tourists. I used to sit outside an watch them. Couldn’t understand what they were saying, of course, but I don’t remember seeing any shootings.”
“Yeah, they don’t show those on sitcoms,” I say.
Mouse looks interested. “The drills: are they anything like bombing drills? You know, go in the stairwell, back against wall, hands on head?”
“I … guess?” says Ball Buster. “Lay low, turn off the lights, and hope he goes away.”
Mouse nods. “Running and hiding is a good strategy.”
Ball Buster doesn’t like this comment. “We don’t run. We don’t even hide, really, because the shooter’s going to know exactly where everybody is. We just basically duck and cover and hope the police get there. If there’d ever been a shooter at my school, I would—”
“Man, shut up,” I say. “You’re so full of it. Everyone’s always ‘Oh, if there was a shooter, I’d totally parkour it out of here,’ or ‘I’ll bet I could take down the bastard if I charged him, or whatever.’ But when it goes down, everyone’s gonna panic and just go ‘Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. Please don’t kill me.’ That’s why they have drills.”
“Shit. You guys have this really well thought out.” Dolphin looks at both of us with a sort of horrified fascination.
“Eh. It’s like when you make plans for the zombie apocalypse. Just something to think about,” I say. “Nobody ever actually expects one to happen.” I frown. “Although I guess I’ve nearly been in two, now.”
“Hey, speaking of that,” says Ball Buster. “Got an idea.”
It’s still snowing in the outside hills, and wind by the landing strip howls as I knock on the door of the small house. It opens to show Doc’s surprised face. “Didn’t expect anyone this late…. Or at all, even.” He waves us inside.
It’s immediately apparent what sort of place the house is. There’s maps and illustrations set up next to display cases and models. A WWII-era GI uniform is in a tall glass case at the end of the building. The samurai sword we saw earlier is hanging from another sort of uniform just opposite.
“This your own private history museum?” Ball Buster asks as we walk about.
“Memorial to the Japanese takeover of Attu Island during WWII, yes,” Doc says, closing the door. “I thought that’s why you were here.”
“What’d the Japanese grab this useless island for?” I ask, looking around the room.
“Maybe as a flanking base to launch attacks from. Maybe just a distraction. They never managed much with it. Ended with a desperate suicide charge on Engineer’s Hill. Such a waste.” He squints at me. “Mr. Dickson, isn’t it? From this morning?”
“Holy shit. Your last name is ‘Dick-son’?” Ball Buster laughs.
Doc sends him an annoyed look. “I did want to say how much I appreciated what you did,” he tells me. “It was dangerous, but it showed an instinct to protect. Most praiseworthy.”
“Sure.” Compliments make me embarrassed, but I’d be lying if I didn’t feel something pull me up at that. “I mean, doesn’t seem to have won me any points with Wolfe or anyone …”
“Was that why you did it?”
Yeah, Chad. Did you just do that to look all cool and impress everyone?
Just saying. It would be nice.
“I should like you to have this,” Doc says, pulling a necklace from his pocket. More like an amulet, I guess, with a largish spiky sort of cross hanging from the chain.
“Oh.” Kinda weird. “Okay.” I reach out and take it, turning it over. The back is covered in some sort of mumbo-jumbo scribbles. “Uh … thanks.”
“We were hoping you might be a bit grateful,” Ball Buster says, spoiling the moment. “Because we’d really be interested in knowing where you got all of this … stuff.” He gestures at the museum.
“You’re hoping to find a smuggler. Someone who brought this in for me illegally and might be persuaded to bring you out illegally.”
Guess the old man’s smarter than he looks. Bally seems a little surprised, but he nods.
“There’s no man who would smuggle you out,” Doc tells us. “Everything here I saved from the old museum before it was destroyed.”
“There’s gotta be someone,” Bally presses.
“Perhaps. They’d have to be on the base if so.”
“Base?” I ask.
“The guards and support staff live in a military compound to the west of your camp. Campers can get in, but only if they’ve won enough points through grades or such to merit a pass. But even if there were, none of the personnel would be willing to help you escape.”
“Why?” I ask. “What did we do? What did any of us do?”
“Nothing.” His eyes are old. Weary. “Listen to me, you two. Getting off this island should be the least of your worries.”
‘What do you mean by that?” I ask.
“Doesn’t matter. You’ll learn for yourselves.”
“Well, that was a waste of time,” Ball Buster says, as we force our way through the snow, back towards camp.
I don’t disagree. “It … sorta makes sense, y’know? This whole Nephilim thing.”
“Yeah? How so?”
“I dunno.” I glance at the sky. It’s snowing, and it’s too cloudy to make out stars. I can’t even see the dancing flame thing from before. “It’s just … before this … did you ever have the feeling like … you were out of place? Like that everyone else knew how to … y’know, be a teenager, and you were just … guessing? Playing along?”
“Oh, yeah. Had moments where I thought there was just something messed up with me. Like I was born to be one of the bad guys.”
“Right?” I say.
“After a while, though, I just ignored it. There’s nothing wrong with me.” He kicks at the snow, as if unsure of his last statement. “Screw anyone who says otherwise. I know I’m awesome.”
“For me, I guess I felt more like … like staring through a window at the zoo. Trying to figure out how people thought and felt. Studying them to see if they were sad or angry, so I knew whether I should be sad or angry too.”
“Trying to copy human behavior, you mean?” Ball Buster says. He’s trudging through the snow, staring straight ahead. He wipes his nose. “You think that’s what it was?”
“Well, or maybe everyone feels that way. Who knows?” I say. “Maybe it’s just human.”
Ball-Buster snorts. “How would we know?”
When we run into camp, it’s difficult to put a finger on what’s wrong. There’s still the hundreds of small watchtowers, still the giant, dark shape of the Tower looming at the far end. It’s only when we get back to the dorm it finally clicks with me what’s wrong.
The lights are off. All the lights, throughout the camp.
We open up the door. In the lobby are Big Bear and Destro, talking, with half a dozen campers watching.
Destro addresses us, this time without a charming smile. “You’re out late.”
I can’t think of an excuse. Ball Buster just shrugs and says, “What’s going on?”
“Power grid’s down, we think,” says Big Bear. He’s the other Mentor Camper, and he’s every inch of his name.
“What: through the whole camp?” I ask.
“Potentially,” Destro says. “The guards will most likely be by soon to tell us what to do.”
“They can tell you what to do,” Ball Buster says, pulling off his hood and wiping his forehead. “I’m tired enough already; I’m going to bed.”
“No, you don’t.” Big Bear grabs his arm. Ball Buster tries to shake him off, but Big Bear won’t let him. “You can’t go to bed. In fact, the rest of you, go around. Start waking up the others.”
“What?” someone asks. “Why?”
“No power means no heat,” Big Bear says. “It’s about to get very cold in here.”