Chapter 45 – Dates are for Humans, not Robots

How the hell did I get myself into this?

That question had been foremost in Sam’s mind ever since he had taken a seat on the comfortable couch, along with seven other young people: three boys and four girls. The scent of freshly ground coffee and just a hint of cinnamon lay heavily in the air of the café, without becoming unpleasant.

If it wasn’t for… goddammit…

“You want me to go where?” Sam said, widening his eyes in shock.

“Like I said: a group date. We’re a guy short anyway, ’cause one of the girls had to bring a friend, and you could make up our numbers!”

“You can’t be serious. I’m absolutely not going!”

“Aww c’mon! It’ll be fun, I promise! You just have to sit there, chat a little, and then we might go play a group game, or karaoke.”

“I told you – I. am. not. going.” Sam said, punctuating his every word with a stab of his index finger into Sandy’s chest. They stood on the central plaza, in view of pretty much everyone.

“You are not going where?” A very familiar voice butted into the conversation, and Sam immediately swallowed nervously. Slowly he looked off to the side, where his lovely sister was standing, hands on hips, along with the senior Sam had met when he first met the Student Council President.

Erwin? Eric? It was Eric, right?

The young man had the same stern expression as before, and Sam thought he detected a slight hint of a frown when they locked eyes.

“Hi, Liz,” Sam said, awkwardly, “It’s nice to see you. And you – Eric’s your name, right?

“Stilton,” answered the serious youth, not bothering with other words.

“This is Eric Stilton,” Liz said, smiling pleasantly, “He’s Student Council Vice-President. I’m surprised you two have met…?”

When no answer was forthcoming, from either the mute Eric or Sam, she just changed the conversation, “Won’t you introduce me to you friend, Sam?”

She said this while looking very sternly at Sandy, mimicking Eric’s demeanor.

“This is Friedrich Sandkov, but everyone just calls him Sandy,” Sam said, trying to smile congenially. She had warned him not to get too close to Sandy, and yet here he was.

“Is that so…”

“An outright pleasure,” Sandy said, giving Liz the very best of smiles, “I’ve heard much about you, Miss Welbourne, and your brother here also speaks very highly of you.”

Although Sam had never talked about Liz with Sandy… Ever.

“I’m sure he does,” she drawled, looking from one to the other, as if they were two naughty children she had caught with their hands down the cookie jar. “Now, what is this about you not going somewhere? What mischief are you trying to involve my brother in, Mr. Sandkov?”

“Please, call me Sandy,” he gave her another brilliant smile, and received a snort for his efforts, “It’s nothing so bad – I was just inviting him on a get together between a few friends of mine, along with some girls from school. A group date, if you will.”

All Lizea’s scrutiny and suspicion disappeared in a flash, and her eyes lit up with sparkling light. “Really? Well that is grand, don’t you think so, Sam?”

What was with the sudden change of attitude? Sam tried to smile, failed, and managed to stick his line of sight onto his shoes before replying, “I was actually just telling Sandy here that I won’t be able to make it. I’ve got to do some research, after all, I’m so far behind everyone.”

She scoffed, “Research? What research? You only live once, Sam, and even more: you are only young once. You have to go out and make friends. If you don’t go yourself, I promise you that I’ll drag you there myself!”

Was this for real? Was she actually serious. Of course she was; he could see it in her eyes that she would absolutely take him by the ears and drag him if he did not agree on the spot. Still hoping to get out of the situation, Sam said, “Don’t joke around, Liz. I still feel a little weak, perhaps I should rather go home and rest? Yes, I think that’s for the best. I’ll see you later, Sandy–”

An iron hand grabbed him by the collar and held him fast.

“I will… drag you there… myself, brother dearest,” said his warm and lenient sister, who had always been there for him, always supported him, and always doted on him, to the point of nausea.

What had he ever done to deserve this?

Sitting at the very edge of the couch, which could barely hold four people, Sam felt claustrophobic and terrified. Beside him sat Sandy, and beside him his two pals, neither of which Sam had seen before. On the opposite couch sat the four girls who were participating in the event, three of which Sam had never seen before. At least none of them had armbands…

Jasmin was there, of course. The brunette’s eyes seemed even larger now, in the artificial light of the café; eyes which she continually fluttered at Sandy. Sam’s new friend looked to be in his ace, chatting along with both his two friends, and bringing in the girls from time to time, he was practically in control of all conversation. Luckily he had not done much else than introduce Sam, for which Sam was grateful.

Besides Jasmin there was Julie, blond and slender, with a sharp angular face that made one think of a raptor; Sara, who had dark hair and slanted eyes, which became narrow slits whenever she smiled – which she did aplenty. Finally there was Sara’s friend, the one who had originally un-evened the numbers: Idris, with red gold hair and brilliant green eyes fastened in a symmetrical face with a small, upturned nose and full lips.

By far, she was the one who intimidated Sam the most, partly because Sara had introduced her as a ‘part-time model’, but even more because she was sitting right in front of him, and had not even spared him a glance.

She was not really looking at any of the other boys either, though, but either looked at a coffee beverage in her hand, at the phone she was constantly pulling out, or whispered a few words with Sara – usually followed by a slight giggle, making every boy present extra conscious about themselves.

Sam’s own focus was on keeping his presence as thin as possible, and he did his utmost to study the table, manufactured out of simple wood. He was going to make it through this without incident, then return home and tell his sister he had been present for the entire thing.

“So tell me, Idris, what kind of boy do you like?” The question came out of nowhere, jumping out of the current conversation on some recent movie. Who else but Sandy would ask such a question?

The beautiful green-eyed girl slightly graced Sandy with a look, matching eye color to eye color, and said, “I’ll tell you what I don’t like: idiots.”

That made the girls laugh, and Sandy could do nothing but laugh awkwardly as well – the implication here clearly being that he was the idiot. Sam furrowed his brow, not really liking the tone she used. Although Sandy could play the fool, Sam was certain he was no idiot. He did not feel it was his place to butt into the conversation, though, and stayed silent.

“Well, my dear,” Sandy said, not even hesitating a moment on the nickname, “If you don’t like idiots, I’m certain you’ll like Sam here!”

All eyes turned to Sam, who had been almost invisible until now. Sam’s eyes turned to Sandy, staring at him with abject terror.

“Oh, how so?” She said, curling her lips into a smile – a predatory smile. Sam gulped.

“He’s an absolute math genius, this one. Right, Sam?”

Mumbling inaudibly in return, Sam tried to elbow Sandy into leaving him alone. “Just try him, start with multiplication, let’s see where that takes us.”

Idris shrugged, clearly not expecting anything, and said, “Fine. 272 times 541.”

“147152,” Sam blurted, without thinking. The machine within him received the numbers and spit out the results in an instant. Knowing there was an actual machine inside him, made him feel like he was cheating.

“See, what did I tell you? Try another, try square root!”

And they did. One after another they asked him to solve square roots and fractions. Saris even went so far as to look up a few variable equations, and he solved them all in an instant. They were a little shocked, then they suspected him of cheating, and Sam was amenable to admit to it.

The only thing that bothered him was how Sandy had known he was good at math. He had not exactly exclaimed himself a human calculator, nor had he really shown much capability in any of the classes he had sat through. Where did he have this information from?

Feeling more and more like a freakshow, Sam stopped answering questions, much to the chagrin of the others, although they quickly let the conversation wander onto other topics. Sandy was in control, after all, and so there was never a moment of silence. Only, now, from time to time, Sam noticed Idriss studying him a little closer.

Finally, the girls ordered a set of cakes, which the boys of course agreed to pay for – they were gentlemen, after all. The barista had until then only put out their orders on the counter, but since there was no one else in the store, this time he came down with the cakes.

Pleased at the bounty, the girls immediately wanted to take a picture of their cakes, which evolved into a suggestion of a group photo. Sam got the dubious honor of taking the girls’ collective picture, while the barista walked around to clear a few tables behind them.

After a few pictures, Sandy insisted they take one with the boys as well, and the girls relented, allowing for the guys to stand behind the couch and take the picture – with Sam still as the photograph. He did not mind though, he’d rather stay out of any picture.

When he handed the phone back to Idris, she took a look at the pictures and furrowed her brow. Afraid he might have done something wrong, Sam stepped a little closer to look at the screen, but nothing seemed out of order to him.

“Ugh, the damn lens keeps getting smudged,” said Idris, looking up at Sam, who had come dangerously close, “Did you put your fingers on the lens, math-boy? Sandy, I thought you said this guy wasn’t an idiot.”

“I’m sorry,” Sam said, not wanting to trouble Sandy too much, “I’m pretty sure I kept my hands clear of the lens…”

“Well, you obviously didn’t,” she said, and pouted, her soft cheeks marred by a frown.

“Come now, Idris,” Sandy said, jovially, “You can’t just blame Sammy here; maybe the lens was just dirty to begin with.”

She shook her head, such her redgold curls spun around her neck, “As if. Go wash your hands, math-boy. I don’t want to sit along someone with dirty hands.”

Sam sighed and looked at Sandy with a defeated look. Sandy just shrugged and smiled apologetically. With resignation, Sam turned around while the chirping giggles of the girls hit him in his back like throwing knives as he walked towards the counter.

I am never… ever… doing this kind of thing again.

He was just going to get through this, then get home, and go to the uncomplicated world of murder and mystery. Right now, that was preferable to this mess.

“Excuse me,” he said in a flat monotone, “Where’s your washroom?”

The barista behind the counter looked at him strangely, as if he was trying to remember where he had seen Sam’s face before. “Um.. I’m sorry, could you show me–”

A slight smile broke the tension on the barista’s face, and he pointed down a narrow hallway, where Sam now could see a sign down the end of male and female restrooms. He thanked the barista, who nodded in turn, without saying anything.

Though he had been put in this awkward situation, Sam thought he might as well use the chance to relieve himself properly, before he washed his hands. After his ablutions were done with, he spent a whole minute washing, just to be certain those snobby girls could not find fault with him.

Finally finished, he was just about to open the swing door to the hallway, when the barista suddenly stepped into the room, barring his way. Expecting the man to walk further into the room, Sam took a step back and smiled awkwardly, but to his surprise the barista stood absolutely still.

“Can I help you?” Sam finally asked, trying to sound as friendly as he could. The barista had a completely nondescript face, and with the blank expression he was displaying, he looked like a marionette doll.

“Sir?”

Out of nowhere, the barista reached out and grabbed Sam by the throat, pushing him back into one of the stalls. Surprised and alarmed, Sam tried kicking out, but the man was older and bigger than he – and Sam was still scrawny after years of sickness. Ignoring Sam’s kicks, the man lifted him up in the air, holding him with one arm and hammered him into the wall above.

Choking and desperately clawing at his assailant, Sam instinctively reached for his power – and for the anger. It surged and flowed through him, exploding like a volcano after lying dormant for a thousand years. He might not be able to manifest lifeforce, but it could still course through his veins like a hot flame.

Furious, he took a swing at the barista’s nobler parts, fueled by the added strength of his anger. The barista grunted slightly, but did otherwise not react, while Sam’s chest burned with the need for oxygen.

Kicking off the toilet, Sam used his smaller frame to curl around the barista’s arm and leveraged himself enough to take one, beautiful breath of air.

There was no time to enjoy it. A moment later, Sam collided with the wall when the barista slammed him into it. Although Sam had to let go, he had also managed to get free of the barista’s grip. gasping for air, he turned on his back and, with all the anger he could muster, kicked the barista in the stomach from his lying position.

The man staggered backwards, still without a word, but regained his balance within three steps. Just enough time for Sam to get up. He looked the man dead in the eye, hoping there would be some sense there behind this attack, but all he saw was a blank stare and…

Red-rimmed eyes.

Sucking in his breath, Sam barely had time to defend himself, as the barista charged him. With a shoulder, the man tackled Sam, sending him back into the wall with a grunt. Sam elbowed the man’s back several times, infusing all his strength into every blow, but received barely any reaction in return.

“Prrrrrriiiiiime,” The barista spoke, a ghastly, guttural sound, nothing like the jovial tone he had used when they first entered the shop. It sounded like someone else’s voice… or something.

“Get off me, you sick bastard,” Sam growled, finding purchase on the wall with his feet and jumped off. The barista fell over backwards, aided by Sam leveraging his own weight over the man’s shoulder. In a move that would have made Ares proud, Sam landed on his back in a rolling motion, with his hands on the barista’s collar, and threw the man out the swing doors to the hallway.

Wasting no time, Sam scrambled onto his feet just in time to see the barista fall head first onto the floor. In an instant, Sam was out the doors and onto the man’s chest, holding a hand to his throat.

His pulse raced. His blood burned.

Infused with anger, and staring into those red eyes he had seen only a few months ago back in the forest, Sam felt the need to exhibit his dominance over this enemy. This old and irreconcilable enemy.

“What are you?” He hissed, holding himself back from ripping out the throat in his hands, although he knew it was a trifle for the current him.

“Priiiimee,” the guttural voice came out again, and the eyes gleamed with suppressed hatred, “Weee come foor you.”

“What are you!” He insisted, shaking the barista, trying to get a clear answer, but whatever was controlling this man just rasped with half laughter, half mockery. “Wee will find youu. Wee will eend thiss chaase.”

Eyes reddened with anger, Sam studied the possessed man closely, remembering his was the mastery of lifeforce, and this man had to be kertal, a lesser. Sensing the flow of lifeforce in him, through physical contact, Sam did much the same as he had done to transfer energy to Sandy before, but this time in reverse.

It was nowhere near as easy as it had been in the pocket, where he merely had had to touch Perci to get it done, here he had to extract it forcefully. And he did. Through their contact, Sam poured in his red threads, scouring the man’s system for lifeforce until only the core remained. This he crushed without hesitation, drinking in the sweet sensation once more.

When finally finished, he leaned back, sweaty and breathing hard. The barista’s eyes were no longer red, but they did not look much alive either. He was staring into empty space as if dead.

God, I hope I didn’t kill him…

He had no room to think. He had been forced to do what he had done, and thinking about the consequences now was not helpful.

“M-math-boy?”

With hazy vision, Sam looked to the side, where Idris stood with sparkling eyes wide open, mouth agape, and shaky hands.

Shaky hands holding up a camera phone.