It’s funny how you can change your life, mix things up, try new approaches to old problems, and still keep ending up in the same sorts of situations. It didn’t seem that long ago that I was on a spaceship, surrounded by friends, cooking up a moderately insane plan to rescue some other friends. I have a tendency to overreach, so I was also working on a scheme to liberate my home planet, which had been conquered by the Phandic Empire. On top of that, I wanted to free the Confederation of United Planets from the clutches of an evil goat-turtle. Maybe a little ambitious, I know, but on the other hand, I had a spaceship, I had beings I trusted by my side, and we had all been upgraded with ancient alien technology that rendered each of us evil-crushing agents of mayhem. There were a lot of balls in the air, but I still figured we had a decent shot at fixing just about everything that was currently wrong in the galaxy.
So finding myself in a classroom with an oversized lummox hurling spitballs at me was not something I had planned for my immediate future.
I turned around and saw, about five rows back, a kid with a face like a potato. He had tiny eyes and stringy blond hair, and an evil gap-toothed grin. He had the same stupidly smug expression of every kid who had given me trouble all my life, but I couldn’t figure out why this particular bully had it in for me at this particular moment. He didn’t know me. I’d never
spoken a word to him. I was a new kid, sure, but so was he—we all were. It was possible he didn’t need much of a reason. Spitballs come from the heart, not the head. He seemed perfectly happy to sit with three or four other meatheads, moistening balls of paper in his mouth and then tossing them at me.
“Ignore him,” Mi Sun said. She had that look on her face that meant she was sure I was about to do something stupid—which meant I must have had that look on my face. It was easy for her to tell me to ignore him. She wasn’t the one getting pelted with saliva bombs. I doubted she’d be a model of restraint in my shoes. Mi Sun had never put up with anyone giving her a hard time, even without the ancient precursor-alien augmentations we had swimming through our blood. I also knew she wasn’t the most patient person, but right now her impatience was zeroing in on me.
Maybe it was because I’d just been smacked in the forehead with a particularly moist wad, but I felt she was being a little unfair. I don’t see myself as someone who goes around doing obviously stupid things. I may, on occasion, be a little reckless, but only when there is something important at stake. Yes, the thought of testing out my new nanotech upgrades on this kid—let’s say, punching him so hard he flew into the air and through the ceiling—had a certain appeal. It might have fallen into the category of things that a reasonable person, such as Mi Sun, might call stupid, but I was only thinking about it. I had no real intention of unleashing the most humiliating beat-down in the history of nerd revenge. It was more like an emergency backup plan.
Besides, we had more important things to worry about and bigger bullies to take down.
Alice, who was on the other side of me, brushed some
strands of her unruly white-blond hair out her face, and peered at me over her glasses. “I can’t believe you’re going to sit there and let that guy lob spitballs at you.”
Mi Sun glowered at her. “Don’t give him any ideas. We’re trying to blend in. Act normal.”
Charles, who was on the other side of Mi Sun, now leaned over. “Would not a normal student resent this treatment?” he asked. “Is not confronting this ruffian a means of blending in?” There was real uncertainty in his voice. Charles was from Uganda, and he didn’t know how things worked in American schools. Maybe spitball pelting was how kids said hello around here.
“Why are you encouraging him?” Mi Sun asked Charles.
A spitball came flying through the air and struck her in the face.
“I think that’s why,” I suggested. “He doesn’t want to get hit.”
Mi Sun was scowling as she used the nails of her thumb and index finger to remove the spitball that clung to her cheek. “You might have a point.”
I was starting to get to my feet when Alice grabbed me by the hand and pulled me back down. “Hold on. Mi Sun was right. We’re here for a reason. We need to lie low for a few more hours, even if it means putting up with a little humiliation.”
I sighed, but I had no real argument. After escaping from Confederation Central, things had taken a bad turn: We’d arrived in my solar system only to find my home planet under Phandic control. Then they’d taken another bad turn, and here we were on Earth in this Phandic reeducation facility. Yes, the situation looked bad, but I was being an optimist. Imprisonment, brainwashing, and spitballs, I told myself, were speed bumps on our road to success.
I turned around to face my tormentor, who shrugged and grinned and gave me a what are you going to do about it? look. I glowered at him as best I could, because that was as far as I could go without giving us away. I remembered what it felt like to be powerless back when I was, literally, without powers. Now I was powerless even though I was incredibly powerful. If you ever have a choice, the second option is the better one, but honestly I don’t recommend either.
Finally, the classroom door opened and the teacher entered, which I figured was good news only because the presence of an adult would end the rain of spitballs. The teacher was in his fifties, I’d guess, and his fringe of gray hair and gray mustache contrasted sharply with the deep brown of his skin. He wore khakis and a blue button-down shirt with a black tie. He also wore a grim expression that made it clear he would rather be anywhere else and do anything other than teaching this bunch of students. I’d seen teachers like this before, and they were best treated like wounded predators. Maybe a kind gesture would earn this man’s friendship, or maybe he would bite my arm off.
“Good morning, students,” he said in a tone designed to make sure we understood that nothing in our morning was going to turn out good. “I see we have some new faces today, so I’ll introduce myself. I am Mr. Authoritarian-Hammer, and I have the honor/duty/compulsion to be your reeducation and obedience facilitator. You are here because your behavior has inclined toward nonconformity. In our new Phandic culture, individuality, experimentation, and exploration are all frowned upon, so I hope you will participate fully in this program designed to help you find your proper place in our benevolent society. Glory to the empress!”
We had been hearing this sort of insane talk since returning to Earth. The Phands had been capturing and subjugating worlds for centuries, so they had a reliable playbook for planetary domination. Though they’d been on Earth less than a week, things were already running like clockwork. They had procedures for every step of the conquest process, from establishing subspace energy relays to forcibly recruiting compliance instructors. Authority figures who resisted the Phands—from world leaders to policemen—were injected with behavior-modifying nanites, which compelled them to enforce the new order. Plenty of locals went along willingly, though. My guess was this man had not actually been born with the name Authoritarian-Hammer, but he had a hard look that told me that reeducation and obedience facilitator might just be the job he’d always dreamed of. Kids who lob spitballs need careers when they grow up.
“I have not been doing this very long,” said Mr. Authoritarian- Hammer, “but I have high hopes for my students. Please be advised that those who fail to conform to Phandic ways will be shipped to Planet Pleasant, where their disobedience can be studied and understood so that future generations of youth may better serve the empress.”
I’d been threatened with Planet Pleasant before. Junup, the previously mentioned evil goat-turtle who had somehow taken control of the Confederation, had brought it up the last time I’d been on Confederation Central. It was some kind of super-secret Phandic mad-science facility, and pretty much the last place anyone wanted to go.
“Before we begin today’s lessons in subordination, service, and the proper disregard for our own feelings,” said Mr.
Authoritarian-Hammer, “I’d like our new students to introduce themselves. When I read your name, please rise and tell the group about your crime against our benevolent and merciful empress, and how you most hope to change in order to earn the privilege of continued existence.”
We’d known this was coming, and just as we’d already come up with fake names that would help us blend in, we’d also agreed to say what we had to say in order to get along. All we had to do was survive in this school, without making trouble, for one day. I figured that even I could manage something like that.
“Sally Applesauce,” Mr. Authoritarian-Hammer said, narrowing his eyes suspiciously at the name on his printout.
Mi Sun rose to her feet. I gave her my best that’s your idea of an inconspicuous name? glower, but she ignored me. Maybe she thought that was a normal American name. Having spent a fair amount of time on a space station full of countless alien species, you tend to forget how much the minor cultural differences of your own planet can trip you up.
“Yeah, hi,” she said with her customary gruffness. “I am Sally Applesauce, and I am guilty of breaking curfew, refusing to report to my appropriate reeducation center, and showing disrespect to designated Phandic authorities. In the future, I promise to give all Phands and their representatives exactly what they deserve.”
I hoped that those in the room who did not know her would not hear that the way I did.
Next came Alice, who had picked the name Betty Hill. She told the class she wanted to help the Phandic empire achieve greatness. She tried to sell it, but she sounded like
she was choking on a chicken bone the entire time.
“Jean-Luc Picard,” Mr. Authoritarian-Hammer called out, one eyebrow raised with suspicion.
I waved at the students who were now watching me with obvious curiosity. “Yeah, my parents—that is, Mr. and Mrs. Picard—were total nerds,” I offered. Maybe the name was a little too nerdy, but I hoped we would be long gone before anyone had a chance to look into my background.
Finally it was Charles’s turn. “Anthony Stark,” said Mr. Authoritarian-Hammer.
Was the full name supposed to disguise the fact that he’d picked Iron Man’s real name? It was too late to do anything about it now, and given that Mi Sun had taken a stab at a generic name by calling herself something that sounded like a My Little Pony, there was no point in complaining.
Mr. Authoritarian-Hammer proceeded with the rest of the roll call. After that, we stood, put our hands over our hearts and, along with the rest of the group, pledged allegiance to the war banner of the pacified planets of the Phandic Empire, and to the ever-expanding hegemony for which it stands, one culture, under the empress, with obedience and prescribed modes of conduct for all.
We resumed our seats and proceeded to learn how to be better imperial subjects and help our supreme viceroy, Nora Price, the most esteemed colonial administrator on our planet. These lessons kept us busy until lunchtime.
• • •
The Manhattan School and Reform Facility for Insufficiently Subservient Youth had obviously been put together in a hurry, but even so, it was already running smoothly. The Phands seemed
to like working with existing social structures in the worlds they conquered, and since the family unit was a big part of human culture, the invaders cracked down heavily on people, especially children, who didn’t seem to have a home. Alice, Charles, Mi Sun, and I had no families—according to our hastily-forged identities—so we had been sent to this facility, where we would live until we became adults and could serve the Phandic Empire by oppressing others, building things that aided in that oppression, or offering ourselves up as cannon fodder in one of the empire’s many wars. I knew the Phands regarded children and adolescents as hardly better than animals—it was one of the reasons they were so irritated that a bunch of kids kept pwning them—so their main educational goal was to make sure we were fully indoctrinated before we grew out of our current larval form. Our goal was to be off the planet before the next sunrise.
But first: lunch period. After our morning lessons, trustees guided us through the bleak cinder-block halls to the cafeteria. All the students wore school uniforms—gray slacks and blue blazers for the boys, the same blazer plus a short plaid skirt and knee-high black socks for the girls. We were all required to wear ties, though the rules mandated that the girls had to wear theirs loose with the collar undone so that, in Mi Sun’s words, they looked like they belonged in an anime.
The trustees, on the other hand, wore menacing black uniforms and moved through the halls with the confidence of storm troopers. Really they were just kids our own age who had demonstrated unusual loyalty or received high scores in domination aggression on their Battery of Universal Talents Test. Owing to their excellent BUTT scores (the Phands hadn’t yet
seemed to notice this acronym, and I wasn’t going to be the one to point it out), these kids had been given the great honor of abandoning their own education to help keep possible troublemakers in line. From what I’d seen, they performed these duties with what any Phand or Phand sympathizer would consider an entirely appropriate amount of shoving, name-calling, and jabs from lightly charged electrical prods. So far I’d avoided these punishment sticks, and my augmentations would keep them from doing any real harm as long as I saw the jolt coming. They looked like they were painful, though, if the wincing, teeth-grinding, and cursing of the kids on the business end of those things were any guide.
Once we reached the cafeteria, we lined up, collected our trays, and shuffled along until a machine squirted unidentified—and unidentifiable—nutritional goo into various tray compartments. We then found our way to a table.
“Jean-Luc Picard,” Alice said to me, her voice low. Unlike most school cafeterias, in which shouting was pretty much required, here people spoke very quietly.
“I had to pick something, and I had to do it fast,” I said, jabbing a thumb at Charles. “And why single me out? He picked Tony Stark.”
“I picked Anthony Stark,” he said. “I was subtle.”
Mi Sun was about to say something, almost certainly in the shut up family, when a golf ball-size spitball arced through the air and landed in her tray of theoretically edible slop. Just to add an extra layer of grossness, it sprayed food all over her face and school uniform.
Mi Sun was the person in our group who generally advocated restraint, but now she was also the person with alien gruel
dripping into her eyes, so there was a pretty good chance she might make a pitch for giving restraint a rest. Even without her upgrades, Mi Sun could have tae-kwon-doed her way through half the delinquents in the room, but doing something like that might cause our ordinary-kids cover story to come under a little scrutiny.
I checked to see where the spitball had come from. No guesswork required. I’d already figured out how to use my alien augments to track a missile trajectory to its source. I assumed the software had been designed to track actual weapons across large distances, but it worked perfectly well on a smaller scale. A red line appeared across my field of vision, tracing the saliva bomb back to its lunchroom table of origin.
“Take some calming breaths,” I told Mi Sun. “Think of pretty flowers and sunsets while I deal with it.”
“You?” she asked while wiping goo off her face with one of those school-cafeteria disposable napkins designed to resist ever absorbing anything. “You’ll make it worse than me kicking him into tomorrow. Let Alice go. She’s good at defusing things.”
“I’m not sending Alice to deal with a bully,” I said. “She’s too nice. I can handle it myself.”
“Then Charles. Or send a greeting card. A fruit basket. Anything but you.”
I found this insulting. “You don’t think I can handle it?”
She slumped her shoulders, defeated by life. “You’ll go over there with the best of intentions. You’ll even do and say all the right stuff, and then one of two things will happen.”
“Someone will utter a straight line that you cannot resist, and you will say something insulting and mildly funny,” Charles proposed, “thus snatching discord from the jaws of peace.”
“Mildly?” I asked.
“Or,” Alice continued, “in spite of being your own worst enemy, you’ll somehow manage not to say or do anything wrong. You will play it by the book, and be on the verge of resolving all problems, when something unexpected will happen, something entirely out of your control, that will blow this whole operation.”
“Wow,” I said. “You guys don’t trust me at all.”
“Of course we trust you,” Alice said.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Mi Sun cautioned.
“Of course we trust you,” Alice tried again, “but there’s a pattern we can’t ignore. When we’re dealing with messy situations, you’re totally dependable. You are the guy we want when things get crazy and dangerous. But delicate, diplomatic operations? Not your strength.”
I gritted my teeth for a moment. “That’s hurtful because it’s true,” I said, deciding to be completely honest. These guys were the best human friends I’d ever had, and there was no point in acting all defensive. “But I’ve learned a lot. I can defuse with the best of them.”
“And we can always unleash our ancient-alien technological awesomeness and speed up the timetable if we have to,” Charles suggested.
“That’s a worst-case scenario,” Alice said. “We don’t know one tenth of what this tech can do. I don’t think we’re ready for a big fight.”
“Besides, we want to be ghosts here,” Mi Sun said. “Invisible.”
“We can’t be invisible with some jerk throwing spitballs into your lunchlike substance,” I said. “We’ve got a long road ahead
of us, and we have to trust each other, so you guys are going to sit there and watch me handle this like a pro.”
I stood up, walked across the cafeteria, and sat down across from the hulking blond kid who, in my mind, I had already dubbed Mr. Potato Head.
“Hey,” I said. “You’re Gavin, right?”
“How’d you know my name?” He scowled at me.
I shrugged. “Roll call.”
There are a couple of things I want on the record. At this point, though several seconds had passed, I had not addressed him as Mr. Potato Head, nor had I made a sarcastic comment about how those of us with working brains can listen to something like roll call and actually pick up information. I let these things go, because I was in diplomatic mode. I was Diplomacy Man. Conflict resolution was my superpower. I was going to show my friends, the world, the entire galaxy that I could be counted on to get things done without causing wars, explosions, or major political upheavals.
“Gavin, do you mind if I ask why you are throwing spitballs at my friends?”
“Didn’t mean to hit your friend,” he said. “Mostly I was just throwing at you.”
“Okay, good. We’re making progress. We are learning about each other. Why are you throwing spitballs at me?”
“Because I don’t like your stupid face.”
I smiled. I was an ambassador of peace, and ambassadorial people smile and do not take offense. I was playing a role. I was in character. I was like a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent infiltrating a secret organization.
“I get that a lot,” I said. This part was easy, because it was
true. “People see me, they want to smack me. They don’t know why, but this kind of feeling can result in their saying things like what you just said. Of course, I don’t have a stupid face, but you are looking for a way to express your feelings.”
“No,” Gavin said. “Your face is actually stupid.”
This was coming from a guy who looked like a starchy tuber, though I did not make this point out loud. Diplomatic. “You know, we have an honest disagreement about my face, but we should set that aside. This isn’t about you and me. It’s about the greater glory of the Phandic Empire. The empress doesn’t care about my face. She needs us both to be the best subjects we can be. Instead of being angry with me, be angry at those who oppose Phandic greatness.”
“No one opposes the Phands,” Mr. Potato Head reminded me—or at least he reminded me of the lies we were told. “No one is strong enough.”
“Right you are,” I said, snapping my fingers and pointing at him. “You are an excellent student of Phandic knowledge. No Planet Pleasant for you.”
“The thing is,” Mr. Potato Head said, lowering his voice, “I hate those alien creeps, and I hate the people who want to kiss their butts even more. So I’m going to keep throwing spitballs at you, because you are a lickspittle.”
Number one, there is absolutely nothing I own that I would not have bet against this guy knowing the word “lickspittle.” That was a plot twist for sure. Number two, he was on the right side of things. He hated the Phands, and I hated the Phands. We should be like brothers or something. In an alternate timeline, the team of Stupid Face and Potato Head could be a thing.
“Your best move is to play it safe,” I said, keeping my voice
quiet. “Follow the rules so you don’t get in trouble.”
“Phands captured my parents and put them in a reeducation labor camp,” he said. “I’m not planning on getting along with anyone, especially not a collaborator like you.”
So saying, he pushed me. If I’d had a second to brace myself, my nanotech augments would have easily guarded me against it, but it surprised me, so I went crashing into the next table. Trays and plastic went flying. Cups of water spilled. Lunch trays arced through the air. A few kids actually screamed. From somewhere behind me I could hear Mi Sun saying, “I told you!”
I was scrambling to my feet when someone reached out and grabbed my arm and hoisted me the rest of the way up. It was one of the trustees, the uniformed kids who helped to keep order. I was about to thank him, when his face went weird on me, shifting in an instant from curiosity to surprise to unmistakable happiness.
“Hey,” he said, smiling like he’d just won the tormentor’s lottery. “You’re Zeke Reynolds, the most hated human in the Phandic Empire! I’m totally going to score some major points for bringing you in!”
It was then I decided, no matter how painful the advice, I was going to have to start listening to my friends.