I patrolled the school yard for a while before class. All was quiet on that front – too quiet. Happy students were everywhere: playing sports, huddled in cliques, sailing Frisbees across the yard. By the fence, I lingered a moment, watching a girl across the lawn. She had drapes of dark hair, wild-green eyes and absolutely no idea I loved her. A soldier’s life is hard and in war sacrifices must be made.
A moment’s wistful contemplation I permitted myself, then back on patrol. Groups of students followed me with their eyes as I marched by. Most maintained an awed silence, or chattered among themselves – no doubt the military presence frightened them. A very few laughed brayingly. There will always be some that laugh. But I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to those who live under the security I provide and question the very means by which I provide it. I would rather they simply said thank you, and went on their ways.
The school bell rang and the yard emptied of students like an hour glass of sand. Bottling up at the entrances, pressed forward by the weight behind, they trickled in to the mill of classrooms. I hung back during the process – covering the rear – but still not a single imp showed itself. Too quiet.
Before first period math I walked the classroom’s perimeter, inspecting under the desks, behind the computers, in the corners. “All’s clear,” I reported to the teacher and earned a bewildered look.
The seat closest to the door was already occupied so I addressed the student there: “Pardon me, Citizen, I’m commandeering this spot in the name of classroom security.” I was afforded a second bewildered look before the student shrugged and drew away. I’ve never understood what’s so bewildering about photon security.
That whole hour I kept one eye on the door, but still no imps were seen.
In the halls, on the way to 3rd period English, a gaggle of freshmen girls pointed at me surreptitiously. I permitted myself the vanity of pausing and posing. They degenerated into a flock of whispers, mouths and words hidden behind their hands. I cut a dashing figure in my suit, if I do say so myself – martial and bedecked in glory.
On my way to lunch a young man barred my way. “Why do you wear that stupid carpet?” He stood arms akimbo, and a few of his friends hung behind.
“It’s a containment suit,” I explained. The friends teetered but the young man held solid.
“Oh. What does it contain?”
“Darkness. It keeps the darkness in and Sentient Extra-Dimensional Plasmic Entities out.”
“Imps. Light Imps,” I sighed; with laymen it is necessary to use simpler terms.
Still, the young man had a perplexed look. “What do you look like under there?”
I was stumped. An intriguing, elusive question, it arrested me, but finally I settled on – but did not like – an answer. “Just like anyone else, Citizen.” A resignation. A capitulation.
His look said he didn’t believe me either.
It happened at lunch.
I sat alone, centered in an empty circle amidst the crowd. Most students allowed a respectful distance around me. My food I fed up under the flap of my helmet.
Scanning the cafeteria I saw some 300 people: milling and mingling, back and forth, lobbing the occasional sloppy-Joe at each other, grazing at the salad bar, filling the world with their din. Groups broke up – dandelions bursting in the wind – and from their scattered elements new groups were formed, drifting from clique to clique, table to table, and eventually absorbed. Variations on particle mechanics. And I – in the middle – still and alone.
But still, no imps showed themselves. It is my dishonor to admit my vigilance slacked; I was lulled by their absence when I should have been most suspicious, when I should have been most alert!
And that was when it happened.
It was a squad of them: six smaller ones – category 2 perhaps, mere flamelings – and two big ones – category 4 or greater. Monsters of fire and fusion, man-formed creatures with the faces of beasts. They rushed in through the doors and open windows, covering the crowd from multiple angles. They opened fire.
Students caught unawares were fish in a barrel. They couldn’t see! Even held under beams of living plasma they didn’t know they were under attack. And those affected barely changed their demeanor. They went on as usual, but now they belonged to the imps. Sleeper agents – the most dangerous kind.
One of the bigger ones leapt up on the salad bar. Its radiant limbs twisted in cruelty, its maw opened revealing rows of glowing teeth. A wide, proud snarl rumbled in its throat and lambent spittle showered the salad fixings. Students scooping up carrots and olives got an order of brainwashing juice on the side.
I was betrayed by my relaxed wits, cuckolded by weary vigilance, dishonored in the sight of humanity which I served. Ambushed! A low moment.
But I wasted not a second longer: I flew into action.
Leaping onto the lunch table I loosed the anti-flashlight from my pack. The cold steel bristled as I brandished it over my head and shouted, “Everybody down!”
The category four on the salad bar I trapped under the anti-flashlight’s gaze and pulled the trigger. A thundering report accompanied a blast of invisible anti-photons. The imp was blasted backwards by the impact.
The crowd of students screamed as one and stampeded for the exits. It was the sound of the anti-flashlight that scared them, which was good. The real danger, the imps, they could not see. Panic reigned, a bedlam of screams and wails covered the crowd like a canopy of trees. The bottleneck at the exits turned to a crush, the weak fell but better to be trampled than brainwashed.
Twice more the anti-flashlight spoke, its voice a roar of violence. Each time a rising wail of the students accompanied. The stampede escalated; crying, panicking students forced each other through the doors, pushed each other through the windows, crushed each other down in their recklessness. I shouldered through them, against the tide of fleeing humanity, face first into the howling wind of duty.
By the time I leapt onto the salad bar, one boot sinking into a well of dressing, the cafeteria was empty but for me and the imps.
I centered my sights on the remaining category four and held the trigger down. A darkling blossom, just the width of a finger-tip, sprouted in its chest. Momentum carried the husk spinning to the floor in a splash of sparks and cooling plasma.
The lesser imps fired on me but their weak rays were repelled by my suit. I returned with booming peals from the anti-flashlight and, beheaded, the squad scattered into retreat. Two more I cut down mercilessly, lasing them in the back as they fled. And then I was alone.
Raising my weapon I let the glory of victory wash over me like a shower of well-deserved applause. The cinder smells of cooling imp carcasses were laurels of roses heaped on my head from the ramparts above. On the abandoned battlefield I stood alone – amidst the ruin of my enemies – and I reveled.
Some school security guards were approaching. Hesitant at first, they were emboldened when my weapon pointed away. Smiling expansively, I considered unbuckling my helmet and favoring them with some generous words. Ultimately I left the helmet on – safety first – but I spoke magnanimously, “The coast is clear, Citizens. The day is saved.”
The demeanor of the guards was unchanged though. Folly of follies – immediately after a major attack my vigilance already slacked again. They closed within a yard before I noticed the glow burning in their eyes. Sleepers!
By then it was too late. They rushed me and buried me in a pile of flesh.
I was captured.
Outside the Principal’s office I was under armed guard. Two police officers stood over me and a third over the anti-flashlight. My Excalibur! They took her from me, dismantled her and strewed her parts asunder. They had tried to get my helmet off too, but after I raised a knee into a security guard’s groin they reconsidered.
No more would they lull me into an ambush. I kept a closer eye on them than they on me.
Behind the door my dad and the Principal were in conference. I caught snatches of their conversation escaping through the cracks.
“… needs intensive help … danger to himself … panic! Four students with broken bones and one with a concussion!”
The police officers cast wary glances at me from the corners of their eyes. With a rumbling growl I let them know I was still ready for a tussle. They both took a step away.
My dad limped from the Principal’s office chastised in soul. From school he drove me straight to see a shrink.