July 27, 2016 by Lyn
“There’s something wrong with this place,” Aella insisted, for what had to be the millionth time. Next to her, Amanada took a pause from painting her toenails to roll her eyes – for what had to be the 999,999th time.
“You’re making mountains out of molehills, Aella,” she insisted, “and molehills out of thin air.”
“And thin air out of your imagination,” Megan added helpfully. “There’s nothing wrong here, Aella, it’s just a school.”
“Our Literature teacher has horns,” she pointed out, more to Amanada and Liza, who was watching the show while trying to pretend to be reading, than to Megan, who wouldn’t get it anyway. “I mean, so does our Russian teacher, but that doesn’t make it normal. And our science teacher-”
“-is my mother,” Megan put in defensively. Excessively defensively, in Aella’s opinion: Megan had known the woman exactly as long as the rest of them had – less than two months at this point.
“-is Megan’s mother, which doesn’t strike anyone else as a weird coincidence?” Of course it didn’t. None of it ever did. “And the wings on the PE teacher?”
“They’re kind of sexy,” Liza said wistfully. “Can’t you imagine him doing like the Superman thing, picking you up and swooping away with you?”
Aella shuddered. “I can, thanks. It’s more than a little bit terrifying. Being all that way up in the air at the total mercy of someone else?”
“You have no sense of romance, honey,” Megan complained. Having seen Megan’s idea of romance, Aella didn’t bother to retort. Instead, she turned, once again, to Amanada and Liza.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with, say, having horns, or wings, or a tail… or… blue skin. I’m just saying that this isn’t ‘just a school,’ and that there’s more going on around here than we’ve been told about.”
“And I’m just saying you’re paranoid,” Anda countered, but Aella could see that she was beginning to get through to Liza, at least; she was biting her nails. She always bit her nails when she was thinking hard.
“Is that really all that bad of a thing?” she countered. “You know what they say, right, ‘just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you?’”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Megan complained.
Anda just shook her head, but she looked uncomfortable. “Look, sure, it’s underground, but, well, with winter coming, that makes sense, right?”
“I want to call my parents,” Liza complained suddenly. “I got a letter yesterday, but I want to call them.” Aella held her breath. Were they starting to understand it?
No. A foggy look came over Liza. “I guess I could just write them back,” she decided. “Professor VanderLinden says writing letters is good practice. He thinks I could be a writer some day.”
The other girls pounced on that, seeking, she supposed, anything to distract them from uncomfortable ideas. Zombies, every one of them, stuck in their own little braindead world, perfectly content to remain trapped here, underground, with the monsters.
She slipped out while they were talking. If she told them what she was doing, they’d stop her; they had the last three times, at least. But she’d been into the doctor’s office while Megan was having hysterics over a pregnancy scare, and she’d gotten a look at some of the records. She’d gotten used to the weird nomenclature, even to the matronymic naming style (with so many of her classmates seeming to have only one parent, it even sort of made sense). But the detailed genetic records and family trees in each student’s profile (at least the three she’d skimmed through) seemed more than a little excessive, and there were notations in a language she didn’t recognize.
What had given her chills (and, later, nightmares), though, were the words in each file: “Projected manifestation.” Claws? Wings? Their teachers were either involved in genetic experimentation of some really terrifying sort, or they were batshit nutty. Neither one sounded like the sort of thing she wanted to stick around for.
She’d done some exploring, and there was nominally no way out of this place on foot. But she’d found the kitchen that no-one else had been curious about (“Where does the food come from?” had seemed like a reasonable question to her, even if the nightmares of Soylent Green backing up the question were a little tin-foil-hat-like), and through the back, past the giant walk-in freezer (her curiosity hadn’t extended to opening it, but she’d stopped eating the meat), there was a door that opened into sunlight.
She’d packed a backpack full of basic necessities – including extra socks; this was late autumn in the Midwest – and it was a matter of second to grab that from her room and slip out of the dorm floor. Just heading to the arcade, that’s all…
The backpack was a risk, but she’d decided not having it was more of a risk; it would do her no good to get out and be trapped in the middle of nowhere with no money, no warm clothes, and no food. Besides, plenty of kids carried a bag rather than go back to their room between classes.
A jacket, however, would have been pushing it way too far, so for warmth she had layered her clothes, and had a wool sweater in her bag. She had been a Girl Scout, after all; she knew how to stay warm and dry and wait for help to come.
Help, this time, was going to have to be her. She walked casually through the back of the kitchen – this time of day, there was only one person there, running the dishwasher – and out the door.
Sunlight. She blinked for a moment at the light, but it was less painful than she’d expected it to be, warm and pleasant against her face even though the breeze was chilly. She basked in it as she began walking, picking her direction out of sheer obstinacy – the paved path went left, so she headed off to the right, into a series of small, rocky hills and ditches. One ditch looked as if it was a creek during the wet season; she chose that for a path, sticking to the edge of it where there was no risk of getting her feet wet. Waterways always led somewhere.
She walked for a while before she glanced at her watch, and was disappointed to find only fifteen minutes had passed. She couldn’t see the doorway she’d exited from anymore, but the creek-bed twisted and turned so much that she couldn’t see more than ten feet in either direction. She slipped once, and landed badly; after that, she went slower, very careful of her footing. She couldn’t afford to twist an ankle, not when she had no idea how far she had to go.
At least thirty miles. The jeep had gone for half an hour from the airport when they brought her to the school. He’d been going pretty fast, so assume thirty minutes equaled around thirty miles. A brisk walk would be four miles an hour; she was doing closer to two, maybe one. More than a full day before she reached the airport – and she wasn’t going in the right direction for that, anyway. It was a good thing she’d brought a thick synthetic blanket.
She heard winds flapping above her, and stopped, ducking down into the roots of a tree before she looked up. A bird, just a bird, a big raptor of some sort, though the wings had been awfully loud.
Just nerves. She took a deep breath, and then another, even that sounding loud and horrid in her ears. She could go faster and not trip, she could, if she was careful, and if she hurried, she’d be out of their range – assuming their range was limited, assuming they didn’t own the whole benighted state – before they even noticed she was gone.
Her foot caught on a rock, and she went down, falling sideways. Without thinking, she twisted, and managed to land on her ass and both palms, her hands slapping loud against the rocks, scraping down the rough stone. She yelped as she fell, and sat swearing silently for a moment, her heart pounding.
First things first. She’d managed not to twist her ankle, but it was a little sore. That would limit her travel speed until she worked out the soreness – more so tomorrow than today, and the one thing she hadn’t packed was painkillers. Her palms were scraped raw, but not bleeding, and her butt was sore.
“Let me give you a hand up.”
She screamed, and her heart tried to crawl out of her throat. Her head whipped around, her ponytail slapping her in the face. Her eyes watering, her heart pounding, she looked up at the demon blocking the sun.
She scrabbled backwards on the stones, her hands burning as she shoved them against the rocks. She wasn’t going to get away from him, but she had to try. She had to get away. She had to…
She backed into a tree with a thud. She scrambled to her feet, but she knew it was too late. But the demon hadn’t moved, except to fold his wings against his back.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” He didn’t sound demonic – if anything, he sounded exasperated. He sounded, as a matter of fact, like the PE teacher.
“Luke?” she squeaked, squinting against the sunlight. Even folded, his wings looked menacing and demonic, the sharp claws at the top of each wing cutting against the blue sky.
“Yes,” he said, moving sideways, circling her until he was no longer silhouetted against the sun. “I’m not going to hurt you, Aella, but I have to bring you back to school now.” It had to be her imagination, too colored by Megan and Liza’s silly fantasies; he couldn’t really sound reluctant, could he? He was the boogeyman of the school, the enforcer.
What if he didn’t want to be?
She bit her lip, trying to look helpless and adorable, the way Megan did when she had trouble with a math problem. “Do you have to?” she said cutely. “I really don’t want to go back right now.”
Was she laying it on too thick? He raised an eyebrow at her in a way that suggested she was coming on to him and he thought that was a pretty silly idea. Despite herself, she blushed a little. She didn’t want to come on to him! He wasn’t even human!
“I just want to go home,” she muttered softly. “I don’t want to get turned into a zombie.”
He sat down on a rock, nearer to her than she liked but still out of reach. “A zombie?” he asked dubiously.
“A zombie,” she repeated, refusing to let him make her feel foolish. “You know, a mindless twit who doesn’t see what’s in front of her nose and thinks that, oh, I don’t know, having a demon teach us PE is romantic?” She kept plowing through, refusing to see the pained, constipated look on his face. “A quiet little doll who thinks everything is okay, that there’s nothing wrong with a school with no doors and no windows. Not to mention the faun teaching Literature!”
“Ah,” he said quietly. “You don’t want to be told that everything is all right when it doesn’t seem all right to you.”
“I don’t want to be brainwashed!” she retorted sharply. More quietly, she added, “I want to go home.”
He winced a little. “Well, between you and me, if you’re not brainwashed yet, I don’t think you will be. But you can’t go home, Aella.”
“Sure I can. You look that way, and I’ll walk this way,” she countered, as reasonably as she could manage. “Eventually, I’ll run into a town, take a taxi to an airport, and go home.” She had no intention of getting on an airplane, but it sounded reasonable enough as a cover story.
He shook his head and stood up abruptly. “Come walk with me.”
He started walking down the stream bed in the same direction she’d been walking. Was he going to escort her off school property? It seemed unlikely, but, then, a month ago she’d thought having a teacher with a tail was unlikely. She followed him, not getting too close, but not so far that he’d need to chase after her again.
He walked slowly with her, and he had to be matching her pace, because she couldn’t imagine he’d need to walk that slowly himself. Those wings had to help him keep his balance!
He didn’t say anything, so she didn’t, either. What could she say – “stolen any souls lately?” Besides, even with the wings, she didn’t believe in demons, or at least not monsters-from-hell demons. Demons that kidnapped girls and imprisoned them underground, those she certainly believed in.
They walked for a few minutes – not long, but she had lost track of time while she was sitting down, and hadn’t thought to check her watch when they started again. Then he stopped. “Keep walking, but slowly,” he said.”
She eyed him nervously. He wasn’t armed. His T-shirt was too tight to hide a weapon, and so were his jeans. Wait, how did his wings work with a T-shirt? Not important at the moment! She took a couple cautious steps sideways, away from him. He couldn’t shoot her and leave her in a ditch if he had no weapon. Right?
She side-stepped again, and ran into some sort of barrier. An invisible barrier – it looked, no matter how hard she squinted, as if the streambed kept going, but her fingers found stone beneath them.
She moved down a few feet, running her fingers over the invisible wall. Stone, and more stone, cold, but not frigid, dry, and sort of smooth. She turned to look at Luke, not sure what to say. “What…?” she asked, hoping he’d be able, and willing, to fill in the blanks better than she could.
Instead, he shrugged. “It’s not exactly an illusion,” he answered helpfully, “but close enough. This whole thing is in a giant underground cavern.”
She blinked at him.
“We’re in a cave? But… the sun?”
“That’s the real sun,” he assured her. “It’s complicated, and it’s not my field of Working, but, well, it works.” He shrugged. “But – you see?”
She saw. This wasn’t the way out. She’d have to try something else, later. When he wasn’t here watching her.
“I see,” she agreed. “Or, rather, I don’t, but I understand.” She patted the wall lightly, and sighed deeply and despondently.
“I still don’t want to be a zombie.”
“I know,” he answered gently. He started walking – back down the streambed towards the school – and, beat for the moment, she walked alongside him. “I’ll do what I can to keep that from happening.”
It wasn’t the most reassuring thing she’d ever heard, but she knew he was trying, so she said “thank you” instead.
A few dozen feet later, the question percolating in her mind boiled over, and she couldn’t help but ask,
“So how is it done?”
She must have taken him by surprise. He nearly stumbled, and looked at her with an odd look that suggested he’d been a million miles away.
“How is what done?”
“The zombification.” She tried for a smile, and nearly managed. “I’ve read about using propaganda and low-protein diets, chanting, that sort of thing, but none of that is happening here. Our food is well-balanced; it could be drugged but there’s enough fresh produce that I doubt that, there’s not even a school song, no pep rallies, no us-against-them mentality, none of the normal markers of a brainwashed populace. And yet my friends are completely complacent, totally refusing to be freaked out by things that should have them running for the hills.”
“Like you are.”
“Yes!” She glared at him. “I’m not saying my way is the One Right Way or something here; I’m saying that everyone else is acting as if they’re sleepwalking through their lives, and right into the dragon’s mouth.”
“Not a dragon,” he said sharply. “Whatever we are, we are not dragons.”
“Um.. okay?” She glanced at him sideways, filing that piece of information for later. “But, poor choice of metaphor aside – how do they do it? How do they make everyone else so complicit?” And why didn’t it work on her?
He was quiet again for a minute. “Do you believe in magic?” he finally asked, in a soft voice that seemed excessively gentle.
It was her turn to pause. “Coming from the demon with giant blue bat wings, that seems like a loaded question.”
He barked out a short laugh. “And that wasn’t an answer.”
“Well, no,” she admitted. “I… well, sort of. It seems like there’s a lot of weird stuff going around, and magic would be an easy explanation. Plus, there’s your wings, for one. And Professor VanderLinden’s tail, which I’m pretty sure is real.”
“Yeah, Mike told me how you ‘accidentally’ stepped on it.” He was grinning now. “Good one.”
“Um… thanks.” She frowned. “So, I guess there has to be something pretty strange going on. Even some of the students have done stuff that at the very best I’d have to say was ‘paranormal.’” Paranormal was a word she had a lot of experience with.
“‘Paranormal.’” He smirked at her. “Okay. So you believe in the paranormal.” She nodded, worried where this was going. “So, one of the paranormal-type abilities that some of the teachers have is the ability to control students’ minds.”
“Mind-control rays?” She was caught between scoffing and being truly impressed. “You’re aliens, aren’t you?”
“No more than you are.” He shook his head.
“Right.” She wasn’t sure how to answer that. “So, why don’t they work on me?”
“The mind-control rays? We don’t know. They tell me it might be because you’re very strong-willed, and the effects are meant to be subtle. Not a frying pan, so you just shrugged them off.”
“You’re telling me I’m thick-skulled?”
“Yeah, more or less.” That got a grin out of him, which was reassuring, even if she wasn’t sure why she’d want to make him smile.
“So… what happens now?”
“I don’t suppose you’d agree to keep your head down and not make waves?”
“Would you believe me if I did?” She was bantering with him; what was wrong with her? Was this more of their mind-control zombification?
Maybe he was just a genuinely nice guy?
“No,” he answered, “I probably wouldn’t believe you.” That seemed to make him sad, and he fell silent for a little while longer.
She had wandered off into a sleepy put-foot-here trancelike state, still enjoying the sun, fake or not, on her face, when he began speaking again abruptly. “What do you think of Donegal?”
“Donegal?” She blinked. “He’s a nice guy.” Quiet, athletically built, handsome under an unruly tangle of hair that he never seemed to comb nor cut; he’d held a door for her once, and blushed when she, surprised, had thanked him.
“He is a good kid. He’s my grandson.” At her startled double-take, he laughed. “I’m older than I look, kid. Paranormal activities and all that.”
She shook her head. “Wow. Okay, that’s kind of… how much older?”
“Old enough to have a grandson your age.”
“Immortal ageless alien demons should not be shy about their age,” she retorted, but she wasn’t sure she really wanted to know. If they were really immortal, what chance did she stand?
He smiled sadly at her. “Probably not,” he agreed. So, you like Donegal?”
She blushed furiously. “Not like-like,” she protested, before remembering that adults didn’t get it, adult men really didn’t get it, and adult male aliens were probably totally lost about the whole mess. “He’s nice,” she clarified carefully. “He’s not mean, like Shad is sometimes. Kind of old-fashioned.”
“Okay,” he said slowly, “this is what we’re going to do. It’s not a good option, but it’s better than the alternatives.”
A couple hours later, Luke’s still-slightly-stunned-looking grandson held her hands, in front of a solemn small group of witnesses that included the Director, Luke, Luke’s assistant Doug, and the history teacher Laurel Valerian – but no students.
“You Belong to me,” he said, his voice catching a little on the last word. Because he was being so nice about it, because he’d gotten roped into this as much as she had, she tried to be nice to him. “From now until we both graduate this place, you are mine. Your well-being is my responsibility, and your voice and hands are mine. I will take care of you,” he added fiercely, “and keep you safe.”
With the spark in his eyes bright enough to light the room, she believed him.
“I Belong to you,” she recited, as she’d been instructed. “From now until we both graduate, your will is mine, and everything that I am and have is now yours.” It wasn’t mind control. She wouldn’t be a zombie.
Was being a caged rat any better?
“–All You Zombies–” is the title of a short story written by Robert A. Heinlein, one of my favorites. Like this story, it has nothing to do with actually gross flesh-eating monsters. See here for the full text of Heinlein’s story.