Chapter 33 – Making Enemies

Looking at the picture still in his hands – red eyes glaring at him from obscured features – Sam asked, “So why tell me now?”

Elizabeth threw her hair over her shoulder, smiling sweetly. “When else would I have told you?”

“How about two months ago, when I first visited the other side; Why did you not tell me then? You do have a way to detect something like me, I take it.”

“We could have, yes, but since you were already enrolled into this school it was decided that initial contact could wait. There are other factors at play here, Mr. Welbourne, of which even I am only privy to a few.”

“Factors, I suppose, you are not going to tell me about.”

“Indeed, I am not.”

“Great. Anything else I should know about this school – apart from it being a killing ground where you pit students against students, I mean?”

Elizabeth Corinth leaned forward, her green eyes sparkling in the light. “Yes there is. The cafeteria makes an absolutely marvelous luncheon; you simply must try it.”

Not sure whether this girl was entirely serious, Sam gave her a flat look before he stood up abruptly. “I’ll take your advice to heart, Ms. President. Excuse me.” He turned on his heels and marched out as well as he could. Only a few steps from the door, the president spoke to him from behind, “Oh, and one more thing, Mr. Welbourne…”

Exasperated, he turned back to her.

“As a Well, you are required to make your own faction. Do let me know when you’ve decided on a name for yours.”

“I am not inclined to play your game,” Sam said in response, biting his teeth together. All he got was a regal smile and a handwave; he was dismissed.

Not entirely sure how he managed to keep his anger at bay, Sam stomped the last few steps out, opened the door and slammed it behind him once he was out in the hallway again. The seething sea of lava within wanted to explode at even the smallest provocation, and he now recognized the tingling sensation of energy present within that sea. He was certain he could reach into the anger and summon lifeforce, even here outside the pocket.

A part of him wanted to summon his strength and use it, even if only for mere destruction. The rest of him wanted very much to cut that part out and throw it far, far away. He was stuck, though, and would have to deal with it.

It’s not all bad, he thought, trying to look on the bright side of things, At least I get to be a robot at night.

Knowing that there were others like him, who were dragged to Elhané on occasion meant he was not entirely mad. This was good. What was less good, was that at least four others were exactly like him – able to act consciously on the other side without help – nearly all of whom had some kind of rivalry going on. These people had all spent more time in Elhané than he had, and would most likely not be friendly to him if they ever met on the other side.

They were not even friendly here.

He took the stairs down to the lobby, and even this descent took his breath away. The temptation to reach out to the burning sea within was nearly overwhelming, but he managed to distract himself with other thoughts.

Mainly; could he perhaps use this newfound resource in the project he was supposed to come up with. He was not about to quit thinking of school just because his world had gone supernatural, and indeed he might even turn it to his own advantage.

He was also tempted to go looking for Sandy, but had no idea where to start. He was absolutely not about to go ask random people where to find him; he was not ready for that.

In the end he elected to go visit the school library, something he had been looking forward to. He had only managed to get a few steps through the main door to the impressive chamber of rows and rows of book, when he spotted Liz and Chara sitting with two male students – one of which he especially did not want to meet again.

Trying hard to be inconspicuous, Sam turned away down a book isle, ignoring the group nearby. It did not work.

“Sam! Come over here!” Lizea’s enthusiasm like a noose around his neck, dragging his attention onto her and his body towards her table.

“Hi Liz,” he said, non-committedly, doing some of his best acting, “What are you guys working on?”

Chara gave him a sidelong look, before scoffing and turning her nose in the air. He decided to ignore her. The two others though, stared daggers at Sam.

Sam gave them a fake smile, which they returned with just as much sincerity and without losing any hostility in their eyes.

“Hello, Lorsen, was it? And…”

“Tag,” said the fat student next the looming figure of Lorsen. The bronze-skinned giant had adopted that predatory stare, and Sam could see how he flexed his bicep to emphasize the golden armband around the jacket.

Tag was the same fat kid Sam had met behind the sheds, and wore the armband as well. He had a slight upturned nose, making it look as if he was sniffing the air constantly.

“This is my group, Sam,” said Liz, beaming with pride, “I was hoping to introduce you yesterday, but then that… whole thing happened, and we never got the chance.”

“What whole thing?” Lorsen asked, nonchalantly.

“He got beat up by that music student,” said Chara, still without looking at Sam, “You know; the crazy one.”

“Did he now,” Lorsen said, his predatory smile widening slightly.

“No I did not,” Sam said, trying hard to keep a rein on his emotions, “He didn’t do anything to me. I just had a fit, is all.”

Lorsen definitely seemed the type to hold a grudge. Now that Sam knew he was also a part of the sadistic war games, snitching on the guy seemed like a bad move.

“You have to be careful,” said Tag, snickering in a way that made his girth wobble around like a pudding, “Rhamand the Mime is absolutely mad.”

“Why do you call him that?”

“Mime? Because he never speaks,” said Lorsen as he stood up and walked over to put a gigantic paw on Sam’s shoulder, “Not ever.

The last part, Lorsen added while leaning in and smiling even wider than before; his whole face nearly splitting in two from the exertions he was putting it through. The grip on Sam’s shoulder tightened.

“And that’s reason enough for him to be mad?” Sam asked, looking straight into Lorsen’s eyes, ignoring the growing pain in his shoulder.

“Either that, or you can take a look at some of the pictures he draws,” Tag drawled, waving a finger in the air as if he was brushing a canvas with it, “Those are some crazy shit, man.”

“We really shouldn’t be talking about another student like this,” Liz interjected, her tone jovial even as Sam detected a hint of concern. She knew something else was going on here, but not what. “Come take a look at our work, Sam. I’m sure you’ll find it interesting.”

Sam still held Lorsens eyes, then he casually turned them towards the hand on his shoulder and back onto Lorsen. The giant predator released his grip with a wave of the hand, a silent ‘there, see: nothing bad happened.’

Losing control for an instant, the seething sea within overflowed, and Sam returned the gesture of placing his hand on the other’s shoulder. Green light flickered around his hand, turning slightly red as he gave the shoulder a slight tug.

Lorsen merely grunted, but Sam felt the bone structure give in beneath his fingers. Certain he had made his point, and even more certain he had just made an enemy, Sam released his grip before anything snapped, giving Lorsen a knowing look as he walked past. From the excited look on Lorsen’s face the message had been received, but twisted into a perverse challenge of some kind.

Maybe not the greatest choice, Samuel, he thought, but was oddly satisfied despite the impending consequences.

Ignoring the looming figure behind, Sam approached and took a look at the scattered papers and notes in front of Liz and the others. “You’re making a brace?” He asked, looking from the papers and concept drawings, to Liz.

It looked like a brace for an arm, skeletal in an eerie way. With a raised eyebrow, he inspected it further, finding mechanics that would be superfluous on a simple brace. “No,” he corrected himself, “This is more like a whatchamacallit… an exoskeleton?”

Liz clapped her hands, beaming. “See, I told you he was good,” she bragged, looking chiefly at Chara. The dark-skinned girl just snorted and said, “It’s obvious what it is for anyone who takes a good look, Liz.”

“But you are making an exoskeleton, or what: an exo-arm?” Sam asked as his eyes followed the plans, consuming it. Most of supporting structure could be 3D printed with ease, but the hard part would be the joints. They would need a durable material that could sustain the wear implicit in a joint’s function, while also being light enough to not be cumbersome.

“For now, we’re focusing on making a functional elbow joint,” Said Liz, pointing at the pictures, “Once we get the elbow up and running, the next part will be a harness with a functional shoulder joint.”

It was not exactly revolutionary tech. Sam had seen similar, mechanical braces intended for recovery and rehabilitation from injuries. He flipped a page over, and saw a concept drawing of an entire exoskeleton, complete with legs and arms, and a rendition of his own pale face staring back at him.

He blinked.

Liz quickly snatched the drawing out of his hand, putting it into a folder away from sight. Her cheeks flushed, and Sam understood.

“Liz, I–“

“It was before, you know…” She cut him off, focusing all her attention on storing the papers properly within her folder. “We’re not even sure we can make this one thing work. The rest would have been years off.”

“You’ll make it work,” Sam said, smiling. The anger within diffused slightly, allowing him to breathe more freely.

“Thanks, Sam. Are you sure you don’t want to join? I have talked to everyone; as long as you contribute, they won’t object.”

Sam looked to Chara, who still gave him the cold shoulder, then to Tag and Lorsen, who had retaken his seat and was still smiling that stupid smile. Seeing the way the two boys looked at him only made him absolutely certain he had to do his own thing.

“I’ll be fine, Liz,” Sam said, nodding towards the rows of books around them, “Although I better start figuring out what I’ll do.”

She sighed, obviously not happy about his choice, but in the end she waved him off. “Go do your thing, little brother. Just.. let me know if you need help, alright?”

He promised, and with one more look at the two boys – a look that was returned in kind – Sam walked into the depths of the library, leaving the group behind. For the next few hours, Sam looked up several books on Mars and terraforming. There were several obstacles, not even counting the lower gravity on the planet, many of which the Mars Initiative was already looking into.

The chief problem, such as he saw it, was the lack of a magnetic field. Without a magnetic field, solar winds would blast away any attempt at forming an atmosphere. Earth’s magnetic field was sustained by its revolving core, but restarting Mars’ solidified core seemed near-impossible. Most research, as far as Sam could tell, was looking into artificial ways of creating a magnetic field. There were a plethora of theoretical solutions to the problem, but none of which were feasible for a high-school student to solve on his own.

Perhaps I’m biting off more than I can chew, he thought, sighing as he closed the latest book he had picked out.

He left the library, feeling nowhere near a solution to his problem. Perhaps he should just start out small; find a minor problem to solve and go from there.

The trip home was peaceful. No new revelations of killing fields in the residential area, or any secret battles of high school supremacy that felt foolish. The rest of the world was as it had always been; it was only his own that was turned upside down.

Both his parents were out, so Sam fixed himself some leftover food and ate in silence. Finished, he did the dishes and went to his room, passing his sister’s on the way. On her door, the image of a bird had been painted on. It was a pretty thing, with a shining blue coat over an orange-red belly. It’s beak was noticeably long, compared to its small stature, making it look like a thick needle.

Ever since he had come home, Sam had noticed his sister’s preference for this particular bird. She liked to draw and paint, and Sam had seen her depict this particular breed of bird several times now. What was it called again?

He had forgotten to ask. Resolving to rectify this later, Sam opened the door to his room, stepping in. There was not really much to see here; just a bed, a small desk, and a short shelf for books. He was tempted to read, but knew it would just be an escape from the task ahead of him. He would have to return to the other side, now knowing there might be others like Bann there, hunting for him. Whatever those red-eyed freaks were, they were part of Elhané, and whatever connection existed between his world and it.

For now, he was in a safe place where he could experiment with his abilities and grow. He might have to break away from his presumptuous mistress at some point, but right now this was an excellent opportunity.

He took off his uniform and laid down in his bed, finding that part of him leading elsewhere and followed it. The change felt natural and right, as he connected to the other side and was greeted by the system.

Reconnection successful

Welcome back, Samuel

Disengaging sentinel mode… complete

Activating user agency… complete

Good hunting, Ares

Momentarily disoriented by the mosaic of color and impressions overcoming him, Ares found himself staring at a blade coming right at him. Swerving to the side, he only just managed to avoid the blow, but not the follow-up elbow to his chest. He took the blow, relying on his shield, but was still pushed backwards when green streamers appeared around the elbow to provide more force. Staggering back, he riposted by kicking his attacker in the stomach and fell backwards. Onto his back, he rolled over his shoulder and onto his feet in a movement that would be impossible for him to perform in the flesh.

With a mere thought, his hand peeled back to reveal the blaster. He charged, aiming for the pathetic insect daring to attack him, ready to fire, ready to–

Stop!