(reading time: 24 minutes)
Breeeeeeek, breek, breek. Sort of like a cicada, but according to the box it was supposed to be a tree frog. I hadn’t liked tree frogs in about six years, but when Mom said she was going to keep my room just as it was after I left she sure meant it. So I was being woken up by a plastic golden alarm clock shaped like a frog. It breeeked in my face and flashed the lights behind its purple eyes.
I swung my legs over the side of the bed and winced when my feet hit the floor. Pain. Docs said my leg should be one hundred percent by now. Liars. They wanted me to get hurt again; it’s just more money in their pocket. Miss the family doctor. Think he was a real family doctor… like a cousin removed a handful of times or something. You need your blood mixed with theirs to get them to really care.
There were movie posters across all the walls, one of them at an angle so it looked like the action hero of Red Light Region was kicking the hero of The Alley Furthest Back in the face. I can’t believe I used to think they were impressive. Even with all that Hollywood polish I can still tell they’re using blanks. Once the real sound comes out of your real hand nothing fake sticks with you.
“I’m nineteen,” I mumbled to my room as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. I don’t know why I said it. I felt like the tree frog alarm clock and the animals painted on the blades of my ceiling fan had some kind of expectations. I was back home; it was time to party with them. I’d been off at college letting them convert my childish whims into a thirst for a career. The animals wanted to spend time with what was left before it was all gone.
I moved to the windowsill. I’d set up my tripwire base under a stuffed hippo to disguise it. That wasn’t well thought out. The hippo’s legs were kind of floppy and one wrong touch would detonate the charge on the wire and I’d likely lose a hand at least. It didn’t help that the casing for the charge was a hand-me-down from my brother Roger either; may he rest in peace.
Deep breath. Two summers at bomb camp wasn’t a waste of time. The skills were there. My hands were steady enough. I lifted the hippo and set it aside before pressing a thumb down on the disarming switch. The light went from red to green, so it was safe to detach the wire and roll it back up.
I glanced through a slit in the blinds. Someone was watching from across the street. He could watch all he wanted. I don’t know the guy who lived there, but he’d been living there for years and never made a peep. He didn’t have the balls to try to take anything of ours. The thing I most worry about is him sniping me with the aid of the thermal scanner I bet he has. Peepers love that stuff. I’d told Mom they needed newer insulation.
I tossed the tripwire in my backpack along with everything else I’d need. Only two classes on the schedule that day, so the bag was lighter than usual. Just three pieces, an extra mag for each, and a tablet, not counting the standard survival gear. That would hold me until I got back to my dorm, assuming none of those clean-up guys messed with my stash.
Picking up the bag sent another wave of pain through my left leg. There was a red spot on my pajama pants. I rolled up the ankle and confirmed the irritation; I was bleeding through my bandages again. I had half a mind to limp back to that doctor and put one right between his stethoscope stands. There was a question as to whether I even had a fresh bandage. If I did it would’ve been downstairs, so I took a few steps toward the door.
There was definitely a limp. That was not acceptable. If I walked into ecology with a limp I’d be torn apart before the projector warmed up. Mom was going to have to give up some of the good pain pills. I doubted it would be any trouble. She raised a strong little platoon and half her cooking skill came from hiding the taste of the pills and syrups when we were on the mend. Two pieces of her lasagna was better than surgery… and about a thousand times cheaper too.
When I was down the stairs and in the kitchen I dropped my backpack onto one of the empty stools; it must’ve made a louder noise than I thought. Mom, hard at work at the stove, whirled around with a knife in her hand. The blade was pointed right at me. Glad I inherited her reflexes. It was a bread knife so it wouldn’t have done her any good though. It did me good because it meant toast.
“You scared me,” she chastised.
“I need some of the codone in my breakfast,” I told her, “and a new bandage too.”
“We’re out of bandages.” She broke out a bottle of pills and started crushing two with the base of her knife before sprinkling them into the cinnamon and butter on my toast. I ate quickly while I mulled my options over. A dishrag tied around my ankle seemed sufficient. I’d have to fall on it to bleed through that. My mind was pulled back to the kitchen and the toast three-quarters of the way down my throat when Mom asked me for a favor. “I need you to stop by the cash machine today and withdraw two hundred for me.”
“Whuth furr?” I asked through the mouthful of bread and sweet medicine.
“Barry… Sweetie… you know I can’t go alone. Your father’s at work all day.” She was right. Mom had good reflexes, but being quick on the swivel doesn’t stop three guys with pieces of their own from holding you down and taking what they want. I hate to say it, but Mom didn’t stand a chance out there. Her best bet was the same thing they told all the girls in school back when there were as many as the boys: stop, drop, and spread. They’ll let you live if they think there’s more where the last came from.
“Fine.” I couldn’t say no to her. I admit my nerves get going with withdrawals, but as long as I paid attention to my mirrors I’d be fine. All you need is lead and diligence, as my gym teacher used to say. I wonder if the order of those two things was important.
Once my toast was down and I started to feel the tingling from the codone I headed out the door. I caught a ride with a neighbor into town. He owed Dad a ton for intervening during that barbecue argument. Let’s just say his dialysis tube would be running through six feet of dirt if Dad hadn’t been there.
There wasn’t a line at the cash machine at first. I put my back to the brick wall next to it and carefully rigged my mirrors on each side. When I turned to face it I checked both sides. Nobody behind me. Digging out the bank card with one hand on my .22 wasn’t easy, but it got a lot harder when I glanced at the left mirror and saw an ear.
I don’t panic, but sometimes my nerves get me. I dropped the card. After spinning with the Thinfeldt family reflexes, I found myself face to face with three people lining up. Perhaps lining up to take what was mine. I knew my law though; I knew my second amendment extensions. Cash machines, during transactions anyway, were included in the castle doctrine. It was my money, so the machine was part of my castle.
The barrel of my gun dashed back and forth between targets. All three were slower on the draw than me, but I was outnumbered. The only play was dominance. They needed to know I had all the time in the world and that I would die for this money. I would die for a piece of gum on my shoe. My shoe, my castle.
“Relax kid; we just need the machine when you’re done,” one of them said to me. I detected a sneer. Nearly blew it off his face.
“I can’t be done until you’re gone,” I declared. That sounded so much more believable now that my voice was done cracking.
“The next machine is five blocks over,” another moaned. The hammer on his weapon clicked back. All he had to do was lie and say I was menacing him. I was, but they started it. The third one took a step forward. He was eyeing the bank card on the sidewalk, undoubtedly imagining a scenario in which my cheek was smashed against the side of the machine and I was simultaneously begging for my life and giving him the PIN. It’s what I would do.
I pulled my second pistol. My card, my castle. All of us had body armor under our clothes, but at this range that didn’t matter. If one of them went for it I would get at least two of them on the way down. Destruction mostly mutually assured. The one thing on my side was time. They probably had jobs to get to. I just had ecology. If the environment was going anywhere it would still be headed in that direction whether I showed up or not.
Three minutes I waited. The guy on the left, the one who dared to have thoughts about my bank card and my smashed face, was sweating. He wouldn’t hold. Another minute and he started to back off. Once these opportunists start to crumble they don’t stop. The other two backed away simultaneously. Fast as a weasel I scooped up my card and withdrew the cash. I think my eyes touched those mirrors more than a hundred times in sixty seconds.
Ecology was a no-no until I was properly resupplied, so I had to hit my dorm first. My university was small. Embarrassingly small. Not even a football team. It was all I could afford with my loan structure. There was one perk though: after your freshman year you could apply for a single room. Of course… that was still my freshman year.
The clean-up guys were just coming out when I approached the front door. I couldn’t believe they took so long. The last two came out hauling a body bag between them. It had the school colors on it, which made me wonder if you had to pay extra for that. I was also thinking the stiff inside couldn’t be Josh. He checked out two days ago. The clean-up guys are known to be slow, but not that slow.
There was no putting it off; it was time to meet the new guy. I had my bigger pistol at the ready when I rapped on the door.
“I’m a legal resident of this room,” I declared through the wood. “I intend to enter. I’m armed.” No answer. With my free hand I turned my key and shuffled inside. New guy was there. Leaning up against his bed with his arms crossed. No obvious weapon. A quick glance at my side of the room confirmed things were not exactly as I had left them. The comforter on the bed had a new fold. One of my boxes was sitting at a different angle. A hidden explosive somewhere… most likely.
“How’s it going?” he asked smugly. “I’m your new roommate. Name’s Garth.”
“Nice to meet you Barry. I just got here while they were taking the last guy out. Took the liberty of setting up some of my stuff.”
“I’m sure you did. You’re saying the bag that just left was Josh?”
“I didn’t know his name, but if he was your old roomie I guess so. Those guys sure are slow huh?”
“I’m amazed it doesn’t smell like a corpse in here. It was two days ago.”
“They got this stuff now that they spray on the bodies. It like laminates them or some shit. Then they can come pick them up when they’ve got time. No smell.”
“Like they need an excuse to be worse at their jobs,” I mulled aloud. Garth nodded and chewed his gum. He popped a little bubble between his teeth to see if I would flinch. You don’t flinch on codone.
“So uhh… what classes are you taking? What profs do I need to watch out for?”
“Look, Garth, I don’t have time to shoot the breeze. I know the deal. You’ve got defensive measures set up in case I encroach on your side of the room. Maybe it’s caustic gas, maybe it’s shrapnel, maybe it’s an injection dart trap. I’m sure you’ve guessed the same sort of thing is active on my side. You’re right. All I need to know is that I’m safe as long as I stay on my side of the room.”
“That you are.” He popped his gum again. Hate him already. Miss Josh. I turned my back on him, definitely an iffy call, but I had things to do. If I was heading into ecology I needed more protection. Those lecture halls create 360 degrees of vulnerability unless you manage to snag a seat in the last row. At my pace I surely wouldn’t. Not with this damn leg slowing me down.
From under the bed I brought out my snub-nosed sentry gun. Battery was still good. The anti-anti-personnel armor pad for my back was kind of bent, but the stiff back of a chair would fix that quickly. Dead-switch, check. Laser sight, check. Textbook app on my tablet, check. Deflection helmet, check. Garth popped his gum again.
“What?” I snapped.
“Easy there guy. You’re wound a little tight.”
“I’ll relax when I’m dead.”
“I hear that. Stretching out on a nice beach chair on the shore of the Styx, staring at a black sky and sipping on eternity.”
“Ask it Garth.”
“You have a question. Ask me. If you’ve got the balls.”
“Alright.” Gum pop. “What happened to Joshy boy?”
“Trespassers will be shot. No exceptions,” I explained. “It was my pencil.” Garth whistled. Then he popped his gum as if the whistle was the fuse.
“Did he get you with something on the way out?” he asked. He glanced down. Shit. My leg. Red again. I was exposed already and I had to live with this guy. I considered a preemptive strike, but disregarded it. Every dead son means there’s a dad out there who might seek vengeance. You can even get a permit for that now in Texas.
“Just a little shrapnel,” I said truthfully. “His watch blew up on me after he fell. Not sure what the trigger was.”
“Maybe I should start wearing a watch,” was all Garth had to say. Reading him was impossible, but my best guess was that he was just toying with me. That’s how some guys make friends. Bring them into the fold by laughing, snorting, letting them know you’re so powerful that their death is actually of little consequence. He knew his strategy… probably went to one of those martial law high schools.
“Be seeing you Garth,” I said as I gathered up my freshly-filled bag and headed out the door.
“Some guys and I are shooting hoops around seven… near the picnic tables,” he shouted to me as I left. “You should come.”
Ecology was in Paxton Hall. It was one of the smaller lecture halls, so it had its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Closer avenues of escape, but more confined quarters for explosions. Overall I would give it a seven rating for safety, but that also factors in the small class size of seventeen.
I wasn’t late, the professor wasn’t even there yet, but I was the last to set up. Everybody knows the most vulnerable time, the time where your actions are ripest for misinterpretation, is when you’re shuffling sideways through the seats. Accidentally nudging someone’s knee can get you shot full of holes faster than a long-nosed reporter.
My usual zone was still open and there was only one other person in the row. I went around the other side so as not to risk encroachment. As I settled in I prepped all my gear. The sentry gun was an Acada-max 7500 GR, so it fit snugly behind my head as I clipped it onto the back of the seat. That sucker held thirty rounds and it could empty its clip, at up to five auto-locked targets, in twenty seconds. The latest software patch supposedly made it about twenty percent better at identifying hostile gestures too. It would watch my six during the lesson.
Still no professor, so everybody sized each other up while they had the chance. I recognized most of them since I’d been in the class about five times before the whole incident with Josh, my leg, and the weekend at home to recover. The person five seats down from me in the row, however, was unfamiliar.
Unfamiliar might not even be the right word, because hardly anything was visible. They had full body armor that looked like it came in three layers. The gloves looked suitable for pulling balls of glass out of a furnace. The boots looked perfect for a leisurely hike across the side of an active volcano.
They had two sentry guns set up to the left and right, each with a barrel longer than anything I had on me. They made small sounds as they constantly switched between targets and reanalyzed the threat level. They were separate from the combat shotgun that rested in the person’s lap. The face mask of their helmet was completely black. No eyes and no mouth visible.
Mom didn’t raise an idiot though. I saw them adjust themselves in the seat. I saw the hips move. She. A girl. I’d only seen one other girl in classes so far, and her father personally escorted her to every lesson. This one was doing it on her own. No wonder she was turtled up with all that gear.
It hit me. She was single. No boyfriend or husband would let her risk her life like this over an ecology lesson. It also occurred to me that the other guys around might not have realized her sex. Once I knew it I could feel it coming off her, like an invisible fountain of honey from the crown of her head. I bet she was blonde.
This was my chance. I was in need of a good woman. One who dared go to an American college unescorted… that’s strength. When I was wounded she could snap my bones back into place and tell me to suck it up. She could me give me children to defend the castle I would have after graduation. I’d already settled on the idea. After class I would approach her, whisper to her that I knew what she was, and offer her my protection. I already knew I would die for her. I would own her just enough to be her defender, just enough that she didn’t have to stop, drop, and spread because those sorts of guys would feel my eyes on them.
She would love that. She wouldn’t have to rely on A.I. guns anymore. If she was still dead-set on learning ecology after our honeymoon… well I could always bring my notes home and let her copy them down. A smart woman is a strong woman after all, despite how hard they are to keep alive and to yourself.
The professor came in and ruined my daydream. It was just as well. If my erection got any stronger it would’ve popped the little wooden desk off my seat. Nothing kills it like some dude in his fifties who grew a scraggly goatee to compensate for baldness. He had spots on his head too. If he was smart enough to get a degree in whatever, why couldn’t he figure out to wear a damn helmet?
He was different from the usual professor, but this was his classroom. The one I’d had classes with was a sub while this guy was out getting oral surgery or something. Even though he’d just been to the dentist, he had no problem talking up a storm.
“Alright class, my name is Professor Brian Mayhume. Professor Mayhume is fine for an address. It’s good to really get this class started, and I look forward to a solid semester of your hard work. First up one the agenda for today is defense mechanisms. We’re going to talk about how an animal’s adapted body and tactics for survival interact with their particular environment.”
“Excuse me,” I said, loud enough to insure it would slice the tracks on his train of thought. Everyone looked at me. Even their sentry guns looked. That was good. I wanted her to see how strong I was; I wanted her to know how I could bend a situation. “Where’s your student defense tool?” I expected his peaceful eyes to flare up with at least some anger, but he looked more like a brick wall had suddenly appeared in front of him. Maybe he was on a little bit of the codone too. Being old must hurt. Most people don’t let it get that far.
“We’re all friends here young man,” he said. “I don’t think it will be necessary.” He switched on the projector and put up a slide of a pale scorpion.
“It’s the law,” I reminded him. Two pigeons, one pull. Putting this guy in his place and letting her see that I get what I want. “You are required to have at least one firearm on your person as a professor, so as to protect us in the event of a terrorist attack or other criminal force. Surely you remember the ten hours on the range they made you log?”
Mayhume didn’t say anything. He pulled open a desk drawer and dug under a stack of papers. Out came a revolver old enough to stand in a museum. It looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the Obama administration. The gun just sat there, like he’d tossed a dead rat onto the desk by its tail. Technically, legally, he was supposed to have it regularly cleaned and it was supposed to be in a holster on his person, but I had pushed enough. The lesson did have to go on after all.
“Here we have a scorpion, an arthropod that occasionally uses its predatory adaptations in a defensive manner,” he started. “The venom of the sting, while primarily functioning as a weapon against prey species, can also deter larger predators. The same can be said for its claws, which it will often choose to use solely in order to save its precious venom.”
“How do you tell the difference between a defense mechanism and something meant to kill prey?” one of the students asked.
“As with all things biological, the answer is in very technical details,” Mayhume answered. “While we don’t pretend to know everything about a species, the purpose of an adaptation can be determined by careful examination of how it is used. A scorpion’s claws may seem just as good for defense as offense, but consider that they are covered in minute hairs meant to react to the presence of things smaller than the scorpion.”
“The best defense is a good offense,” I chimed in. I saw that look in his eye. He wanted me to raise my hand before asking the question. He must’ve been doing this a long time. Raising your hand can pretty much guarantee you a prosthetic around classroom sentry guns. He was one of those ‘nostalgic for vulnerability’ types. Can’t stand them.
“Actually,” he responded, “the best defense is a good defense. While the scorpion can use its weapons to deter predators, it is sometimes overwhelmed by sheer force or skill. You need only see a video of a mongoose carefully disarming the scorpion of its venom sack before crushing it and eating it. Here is a true defense mechanism.”
He switched to a slide of an armadillo curled up into a ball. Easy enough to see what he was getting at. The rat had a shield way tougher than the scorpion’s hide. He said something about, barring a screeching car, almost nothing being able to take apart an armadillo.
“Scorpions have been around a lot longer than armadillos,” I said. I knew my animals. I had the tree frog phone to prove it. “They’re offensive actions are more successful on the biggest time scale.”
“Apples and oranges,” Mayhume countered. “An arthropod lineage naturally has a much higher chance of being around longer than a mammal. I think you know that.”
“I just don’t appreciate you talking up armor when it’s clear that predators are always the top of the food chain.”
“Well, what do you think of this?” he asked, and switched to a slide of two sea urchins with long dark quills. They were weirdly close to each other.
“What should I think of it?”
“These urchins are attempting to mate. Biologically their, let’s call it preparedness, has become so extreme that they have a difficult time mating. Not a life I would want to live.” Some of the students chuckled. This guy. Like he ever got any. I didn’t see a ring on his finger. I called him out.
“Why are you insulting our protections? That’s what you’re doing. This isn’t about ecology.”
“It was until you opened your mouth young man. I advise you to try listening for a change.”
“These are the rules Professor. They keeps us safe. It keeps our women out of veils.”
“Does it?” he asked, and spared the tiniest glance at my future fiancé. I guess he knew too, probably from the roll call or something. Her face was completely hidden by the black plastic of her faceplate, but her head moved a little. Mayhume was making her uncomfortable. Bastard. I couldn’t stop myself. Even with a bum leg, which is pretty important for the ten paces, I issued the challenge.
“I challenge you to an honorable duel! Ten paces and to the death!” That shut him up. He looked at his slides like they were going to help him. The armadillo wasn’t going to come out of his shell to save poor Brian Mayhume. Meanwhile, I knew I could sting like a scorpion even with a few legs pulled off.
I walked down to the front of the class. I showed him the pistol I would be using. I kept it simple so the geezer could understand what he was looking at. He didn’t seem interested in inspecting my weapon. He just stood there, looking like a bottle full of sighs from a funeral.
“Don’t do this young man.”
“It’s the law. It’s an honorable challenge. You have to accept.”
“This is a university. You’re supposed to learn here. It is not a place of threats.”
“Only the walls of my castle keep threats out you pussy,” I growled.
“Fine.” Mayhume picked up his rusty old revolver. We put our backs together. This would be cake. One of the guys in the first row volunteered to call out the paces. He was good; I think maybe he was in the dueling club.
“Three.” Nobody tells Barry Thinfeldt how to learn.
“Five.” My castle will grow until it crumbles.
“Seven.” Just ask Josh; he’ll tell you.
“Nine.” I bet nobody even noticed the limp.
A clean shot, like the rest of mine. Class was cancelled until they found an ecology teacher who had managed to adapt a spine. Mayhume’s face was strange. I don’t know why. Something threw me off about it. He looked like somebody who had accepted death a while ago. That can’t be true though, because if he had he would’ve just offed himself. Could’ve saved ten paces.
I looked up towards my beautiful armored woman, wanting to sense the approval from the slight nod of her head. She was gone. She’d slipped out. Smart. Girls should always leave class a few minutes early. Don’t worry baby; I’ll find you.
I kicked Mayhume’s gun out of his hand. It sounded as strange as he looked, so I picked it up and opened it. Unloaded. I snorted.
“And they let this guy be a professor?”