The first half of the next day crawled by. The school work was drab and the weather was overcast, fitting everyone’s moods.
Sarah especially looked horrible. She was acting oddly, jumping at the slightest noise, and her lips were badly bitten though they weren’t bleeding. It was like she was expecting someone to sneak up on her and slit her throat, or something. I decided to confront her, and so I did. Or, I tried to. I’m not sure if you’d call it very successful.
We were sitting in the dining hall, eating. There was the usual ruckus, and the teachers looked rather downcast. Chuck looked just as bad as Sarah, and I noticed that neither one of them was eating much.
“Okay, Sarah,” I started hesitantly. “Something’s bothering you. What is it?” I know, my subtlety could use some serious work, but I was worried about my best friend. I didn’t have to be a mind reader to know that something was mentally tearing her to shreds.
“It’s what Chuck told me,” she muttered, her voice barely audible. She set down her fork and started playing with a strand of hair. “Well, it’s actually what he showed me.” She looked like she hadn’t slept at all last night, and her hair was beginning to look like a squirrels nest from her constant toying with it.
“What is it?” I repeated, not having the heart to tease her about Chuck, like I normally would have. I mean, the poor girl was so freaked out about whatever it was Chuck had told her.
I anxiously glanced up at at the teachers, searching for any explanation of this. As I looked from one teacher to the next I noticed that they all showed signs of strain. Principal Peters looked seriously worried about something- her lips were tightly pressed together, a thin line in her normally pleasant face, and her eyebrows were knit together. Doc looked like he had an upset stomach, and old Yoseb, who taught history and English looked disturbed about something. This is obviously a lot bigger than Sarah and Chuck, I realized.
“It’s-” she broke off and glanced around. “C’mon. I’ll show you what happened, in the dorm.” I nodded and we cleared our places, then we made our way to her dorm room.
Once we were settled, sitting on her bed, she relaxed slightly and closed her eyes. As she did so, she spread her hands on her lap, palms up, and started to control her breathing.
“Ready?” she asked, her voice faint.
“Yeah,” I said. I was apprehensive, I’ll admit it. Whatever could mess both the teachers and Sarah up so much could not be good. Sarah took a deep breath, and the dorm room flickered away; replaced by a memory. She was leaning against the gym’s wall, watching Chuck clean up the practice equipment. Finally he straightened up and approached her.
“Sarah,” he said, his voice shaky with emotions. “I have something to tell you.” Sarah simply stared at him, her own emotions almost overpowering me. She was nervous and uncomfortable, and I was surrounded by those feelings.
“Yeah?” she asked, her voice hesitant.
“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but-” Sarah’s pulse spiked, and a hint of fear mixed in with her nervousness.
“Tell me what?” her voice was sharp. There was a kind of tension in the air, and I felt it as clear as day.
“Steppe needs a telepath for something,” he started in a rush. Sarah held up her hand, and he hesitated.
“Whoa, Steppe?” Sarah’s eyes narrowed to slits, and I could feel her fear. It was overwhelming her nervousness, and I felt like I was suffocating in. A tiny hint of doubt suddenly appeared, and I latched onto it as she continued. “How do I know that you aren’t making all of this up?”
“Read my mind. You can do that, right?” he said, staring at her seriously. Sarah nodded curtly. His breathing was ragged, nervous as Sarah entered his memories, running through half formed thoughts and ideas before settling on the memory.
I’m in Chuck’s mind, I thought with a shudder, turning my attention to the new scene. He must have been in the teachers lounge, because although the room was obviously a part of the school, it was not a part that I was familiar with. Doc, Principal Peters, and Professor Yoseb were all present, discussing something seemingly important.
“-I’m not comfortable with this,” Principal was saying. “Sarah is a minor under my care. And then there’s the fact that Steppe’s plans almost always end with a death.”
“Almost always?” Doc said scornfully, looking more concerned than I had ever seen him look. “It’s very rare that one occurs with no deaths on our part.’
“I know. Yoseb, did you check on her family records yet?” Principal asked, looking much older than she really was.
“Yes. She has no surviving family. It is widely assumed by the government officials who investigated the case that she died alongside her family, in that fire.”
“So we’d have no legal trouble,” Principal said slowly. “Unless she died, or the clean up team missed something.” Doc nodded.
“Angel, I don’t like this one bit,” he said, gnawing on his lip. “She’s only sixteen.”
“I know, Philip, and if you think for one second that I’m fine with this, you can think again,” she snapped. “Why does Steppe have to do this to us? Making outrageous demands.”
“What if you refused to let Sarah go?” Chuck spoke, startling both Sarah and I. Apparently she too had forgotten that she was viewing this scene through his eyes. Principal shook her head sadly as she tried to figure out the answer to his question.
“I’m not completely sure. Most likely he’d kidnap her, and force her to do as he wants, but he might wage war with the school.”
“Then give her a body guard and tell him to come!” he said, obviously more upset than the other teachers. “Up the school’s defenses!” Principal’s eyes narrowed.
“This is a school, not an army,” she said, her tone dangerous. “And as it is we are horribly understaffed. How do you expect us to be able to give her a body guard?” she paused, as Chuck grasped for an answer.
“There has to be some way to defend her,” he said finally. “Keep Steppe from getting his hands on her.” Principal shook her head sadly, giving him a queer, pointed look.
“Speaking of putting hands on her,” she started, in a professional tone of voice. “Keep yours off. She’s a student and a minor, where as you are a teaching assistant and of age. There will be consequences.” Chuck blushed and that memory flicked away and we were back in the gym.
Sarah’s eyes were wide and her knees shaky. She leaned against the wall and slipped down into a sitting position. Chuck knelt down awkwardly beside her.
“You okay?” he asked, concern written on his face. “Maybe I shouldn’t have let you see that, but I wanted you to know what you’re up against.”
“It’s fine that you showed me,” Sarah said, her voice weak. “It’s just a lot to take in.” He nodded.
“Are you sure you’re fine?” he asked, the expression on his face pained. Sarah glanced up at him with a small smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said. A bell told the time off in a distance and he stood, offering her a hand up. She took it and rose to her feet. “You should go. You have practice sessions to prepare for before supper.” He smiled and turned to go, then paused in the doorway.
“If anyone asks, I was offering to help you with you weapons combat,” he said. Sarah nodded, then realizing that he couldn’t see, she spoke aloud.
“Alright,” she said quietly. He left the gym and the memory ended. We were back in her dorm room, and Sarah was looking really stressed. It took me a moment or two to gather my thoughts enough to speak.
“You’re needed by Steppe for something?” I asked finally. “Something that no one seems to know, or want to share, but he’d be willing to kidnap you or even attack the school if we try to refuse?”
“That’s about it,” Sarah said, biting at her fingernails. I grabbed her hand out of her mouth and stared at it.
“You’ve chewed your nails to the quick!” I exclaimed. “Where’s that stuff? The polish that tastes nasty?”
“In the basket under the bed,” she said, not moving. “It’s the bottle of clear stuff.” I sighed and reached under her bed. By touch I located the basket, which I pulled out.
“You haven’t been using this, have you?” I asked, handing her the mostly full bottle. he took it, looking guilty, and shook her head. “Seriously, Sarah, you need to take care of yourself. Go wash your hands and put this on.” She sighed and made a face at me, then got up and did as I had said. While she was in the bathroom doing that, I allowed myself to think about the situation.
There has to be someway to protect her, I thought. She’s surrounded by people 24/7, so it shouldn’t be too hard. But then again, only the teachers really have enough training and strength to be able to stand up against Steppe, and they don’t think they can. I bit my lip hard, ignoring the pain as I continued to think. But maybe there are enough of us students who could protect her, with the whole’strength in numbers’ philosophy. I mean, there’s only one Steppe. But he does have the whole VI4C at his disposal, and they’re all fully trained. What chance would we have? At that moment Sarah came back into the room, waving her hands in the air to dry her nails.
“Guin, please stop thinking depressing thoughts,” she said, sitting down on the bed again. “You’re making this worse than it’s going to be.”
“Sorry,” I apologized, still trying to think of a plan that would work. “We’ll find a way to stop this. I swear we will.”
“Listen to me,” she said firmly, staring at me. “There is no way. I’ve looked into the teachers minds, and they consider it hopeless. Even you can’t think of a solution.”
“So you’re just going to sit there and let yourself be killed?” I asked angrily. At this point I wasn’t thinking so much as feeling, and I was feeling panic, anger and terror right now.
“Do I have a choice?” Sarah asked me coldly.
“No, but this is just so wrong!” I said heatedly. “You’re not just a tool that can be thrown away if you break, or die….”
“I know, Guin!” she snapped, losing her patience. “I’m not stupid.” Silence fell and we sat in silence, staring at each other.
“So you’re going to do this?” I asked finally. She nodded, a tear slipping down her face. I moaned. “This is just ridiculous.”
“I know,” she said softly. “You know what the hardest part is?” I shook my head. “It’s knowing that you’re going to die soon. I’m never going to finish high school. Never going to meet someone, fall in love and get married. Never going to become a psychologist….”
“Don’t talk like that,” I said, fighting my own tears. “You’re not going to die. You’ll live, and you’ll do all that.”
“I’d like to believe that, Guin, but I can’t, ” she said, looking around the room. “I’m going to die, and i’m not going to pretend any different.”
“No,” tears were streaming down my cheeks now. “You’re not going to die.”
“Everybody dies,” she said, giving me a half hearted smile as she reached over to her night table to get a box of tissues. “I don’t want you to be so upset over this, okay? I know it’s not going to be easy, but we can’t change it, so you’re going to have to live with it, alright?”
“This can’t be happening?” I whispered. I began to sob, nearly hysterical.
“It can, and is,” Sarah retorted, her voice hard, but not unkind. Her eyes still showed her stress, but she also seemed worried. “Guin, get a hold of yourself. You’re a calmer, for the love of all that’s good!” I struggled to breath, but I managed it, drying my eyes and blowing my nose.
“Sorry,” I said, smiling at her slightly. The effort it took to maintain the smile was too much, and I let the smile slide off my face. “I guess it’s like they say- the shoe makers kids are the ones who go without shoes.” Sarah smiled back at me.
“We should get to class,” she said, her eyes darting to the clock on the wall. “Don’t want a tardy slip.”
“No, that wouldn’t be good,” I agreed. “Though that seems so insignificant in light of the fact that-” I couldn’t bring myself to continue. Sarah’s face was understanding and sad, but she didn’t finish for me.
“Come on,” she said picking up her book bag. “You know that Ms. Allison doesn’t like us to be late.”
“No,” I sighed as I collected my own bag, which had fallen to the floor.”Let’s go.”