Sci Fi High
Principal Clockwork sat unmoving behind his desk, so much so that Robbie wondered if he hadn't busted a sprocket. Beside stood Mr. Tentacle, the vice-principal, his single eye watching Robbie. The two-meter-tall, cyclopean stalk of slimy green flesh didn't seem to share Robbie's concern at Clockwork's lack of movement.
"Who's going to pay for this?" The robot pointed at the mangled remains of a padlock on Principal Clockwork's otherwise pristine desk. "I was just trying to get into my locker. This is his fault." The robot jerked a metal thumb at the human, Robbie, beside him.
Another principal's office. So accustomed was Robbie to such visits that being the only human in the room was of greater interest. Robbie's prosthetic, 'good' arm drummed its fingers on Clockwork's desk.
"Mr. Burns," the Principal said, his voice rising like wind from a pipe organ, "would you please wait outside? We will speak in a moment."
Spotting Mr. Tentacle's warning scowl, Robbie stifled a protest and departed. The door's frosted glass window rattled as he slammed it shut. Robbie joined a lone boy outside on a threadbare sofa.
"What're you in for?" Calling the kid ashen would've been a compliment. Dead fish would've bemoaned such a complexion.
"Fight," Robbie said.
"Bummer." The kid thrust a blotchy hand forward. "I'm Eddie."
Robbie considered ignoring him. Too many forfeited friends from too many schools. All because of the monstrosity where his old, human arm had once been. Despite these persisting fears, he relented.
"Robbie." He extended his good hand.
The kid hesitated at the gleaming white artificial limb before him. "What is that?"
Clockwork's door opened. The robot with the busted padlock departed with a smirk.
"Burns." Mr. Tentacle oozed from the doorway. "Inside."
"It would seem," Clockwork said when Robbie resumed his seat, "that a part of you is having trouble adjusting here."
"It wasn't my fault!" Robbie raised the offending bionic arm. "Stupid thing has a mind of its own."
Clockwork lifted a gleaming, articulated brass finger. "I'm quite aware of the circumstances that bring you to our school." He stood with the sound of rusty hinges. Steam whistled its escape from his joints. "Perhaps that arm of yours requires an outlet for its exuberance. I remember, many years ago, when I was first built."
Robbie's thoughts wandered. Black and white photos crowded the walls. One in particular stood out. Clockwork stood beside a bearded, unsmiling man holding some unrecognizable tool. Written beneath in exaggerated, curling script was, 'Florence, 1857.'
"Well, Burns?" Tentacle asked.
"Yes, me too," he said without thinking.
"Excellent." Clockwork steepled his fingers. Gears spun and oscillated beneath the glass dome atop his head. "I applaud your enthusiasm. Try-outs are this afternoon."
Mr. Tentacle escorted Robbie out.
"Wait," Robbie said. "What try-outs?"
"I coach the team," Tentacle said. He draped the sole appendage that was his body over Robbie's shoulder. "Looks like we'll be seeing more of each other besides health class. Field three. Don't be late." Tentacle looked to the gray kid on the sofa. "Pane! Let's go."
"You're trying out today?" Eddie asked. "Cool. See you there."
"There was a truck," Robbie told Eddie later at the practice field. "It was raining." He rolled up his sleeve, revealing where the prosthetic ended and his shoulder resumed. "After they amputated, they put this on by mistake instead of a regular one."
The warped wooden bleachers were cool in the fall twilight. Half of the field lie in darkness, the majority of the floodlights' ghosts having long since been given up. A score tile dangled from the home team's board.
"So that arm got you into Sci Fi?" Eddie asked.
"Yeah. It's some government experiment. All strong and indestructible. Stupid thing is bugged, though. Always gets me in trouble. Um...are you okay?"
A flap of skin the size of a candy bar dangled from Eddie's arm.
"Huh? Oh, this?" He pressed back the errant skin. "Yeah, I'm good. I was infected with some experimental pharmaceutical toxin that killed my body."
"Killed your body?"
"Yeah. But don't worry. With my meds I'm no longer contagious."
Sleek androids ran pass plays on the grass. Bulkier robots rushed tackling sleds. Others zigzagged through the obligatory set of tires. Besides the undead Eddie, Robbie was the only human there.
"You trying out too?" Robbie asked. Eddie looked one hundred pounds soaking wet.
"Coach says I'm too fragile. I just handle the gear."
A shadow fell over them. A petrichor odor accompanied a monstrous, man-shaped pile of vines, leaves, and assorted foliage. Insects nestled in crevices. Every crook and bend writhed.
"How you doin, Deadie?" it said.
"Hey Jeff," Eddie said.
"Who's one-glove here?" The mass of plant matter pointed a composting finger towards Robbie.
"That's Robbie. He's new. Robbie, this is Jeff."
"Call me Marsh."
"H-hey, Marsh. Nice to meet you," Robbie said.
"Do we have any more chin straps, Eddie?" Marsh said, fumbling with his helmet.
"I think so. I'll check the store-room later."
"Cool. Nice to meet you, Randy." The thing thundered onto the field.
"So, um..." Robbie searched for words.
"Yeah, he always screws with names. He remembered yours. Just giving you crap."
"Oh," said Eddie when Robbie clarified his question. "Someone dumped toxic waste into a swamp by his house. He fell in and, well, you get the idea."
"Burns!" Coach Tentacle slithered upright to the sidelines. "Let's see what that arm of yours can do. Get out there and hit that tackling dummy."
"I've never even played football," Robbie said.
"No worries," Eddie said. "This is Sci Fi. We never win anyways."
A motley line of robots lined up against the dummies. Robbie knelt into position. Coach Tentacle's whistle blew shrill.
Robbie bolted with the others. His prosthetic arm did the rest.
"Holy crap!" Eddie jumped from one rotten foot to the other.
"Eddie," Coach said. "Get him a uniform."
Robbie had never bothered with after-school activities before the accident. Little time had existed for them afterward. He was surprised to discover he wasn't bad at football. His arm was almost obedient on the field.
"You still need to work on your footwork," Coach Tentacle said during a subsequent practice. "But you keep up your tackling and we'll be in good shape. I'm starting you next week against Fantasy."
"I'd almost rather forfeit than have to watch those snobs gloat again," Marsh said the next day at lunch.
Robbie swatted away a rather large centipede that had disgorged itself from one of Marsh's many crevices and was crawling across the cafeteria table. "Who are they anyways?" he asked.
"Fantasy Academy," Eddie said. "First game every season. Yuppie private school."
"I'd like to kill that Tholaren," Marsh fumed, swamp gas rising noisome from his skin.
"He's their quarterback," Eddie said after Marsh had departed. "A dawn elf. Real douchebag."
The bell ended lunch and the two left for math, which they shared. Turning a corner near their class, Robbie staggered.
Foul miasma engulfed him like tar. Sorrow erupted unbidden. Mourning parents wept over a child's corpse. A whining dog beside its murdered master. An innocent imprisoned for--
"Dude, what the hell?" Robbie rubbed his temples.
"Keep walking, man," Eddie said. "Don't look at them."
In dumb defiance, Robbie looked. A boy and a girl leaned against a locker. Purple hued every hem of clothing and highlight of hair, chasing glowing lines through the many chains, spikes, and other metal implements vying for space on their copious leather raiment.
"The Lonaxian twins," Eddie said. "They're from another dimension. One of the chaos realms or something. They're bussed in."
Robbie risked a final look as the brume cleared and color trickled back into the world.
They headed to the field after school despite not having practice. The cheerleaders had the field for the day. Robbie had balked at Eddie's idea initially.
"I'm glad we came," Robbie said watching the svelte android cheer squad.
"I told you." Eddie nudged Robbie with an exposed ulna.
"Hey, losers." A boy approached with a petite, metallic girl on his arm. "Hope you guys are prepared. If you only knew man, if you only knew."
"Go away, Lloyd," Eddie said. "Nobody cares."
"If you only knew." The boy and artificial girl moved on.
"He looked pretty normal," Robbie said.
"Don't listen to that guy. He's got T.S.D."
"Temporal superiority disorder. He's from the future, so he thinks he's better than everyone else. Always going on about, 'You think 9/11 was bad? If you only knew. You think swag is bad? If you only knew.'"
"How do you know so much about everyone?" Robbie asked.
"I'm on the yearbook staff. Speaking of which. I need to get your photo."
Robbie had stopped listening. Marsh was sprawled across nearly half a set of bleachers. Contentment stretched across his misshapen face as he basked in the sunlight.
"Is he..." Robbie hesitated.
"Yep," Eddie said. "Snacking."
They played Fantasy that Saturday.
"Do we have to be the stars of the show? Again?" said a sleek android sporting a miniskirt and pom-poms.
"Yeah, yeah, Six," Traipse, the android quarterback said. "We all know how awesome your squad is."
Six-Flip-Six, Sci Fi's cheerleading squad captain, led her equally silken android teammates to the sidelines.
"I'm rooting for you, Traipse." Six winked a glass eye the quarterback's way. Robbie, watching the offensive-captain, was surprised to see an android could blush.
If Robbie had thought Sci Fi strange, seeing their opponents offered some solace. His teammates looked almost normal compared to the Fantasy bench opposite the field.
A vampire and another boy moved unhurried to the center of the field for the coin toss.
"That's Tholaren," Eddie said.
"That string bean-looking bastard is their quarterback?" Robbie asked. "Lord of the Rings called, they want their extra back."
No one even smiled.
"What's with you guys?" Robbie said. "C'mon, Marsh. Lets go. Marsh?"
The swamp giant just shook his head.
"Fine," Robbie said. "Traipse, lets do this."
"What's their problem?" Robbie asked as they headed toward the fifty yard line.
"That guy's an elf, man," Traipse said. "He gets away with anything."
"This guy?" Robbie said, his voice loud as they approached.
"Ah," the vampire said. "New blood." Fangs glimmered with his smile.
"Got some tampon tea on the sidelines if you're thirsty," Robbie said. "Just say the word and I'll hook you up."
"Another broken boy?" the elf said. Something tickled Robbie's mind. Like a feather dragged across his thoughts.
"From a broken family as well?" the elf continued. "Is there some rule that human males must flee after each whelping? One wonders how you populate this Earth in such numbers. Human mothers must be lonely." His smile widened. "Is that one yours?" He motioned toward the stands.
Robbie's good hand lunged. Of its own accord, though Robbie would be lying if he'd said he hadn't been contemplating just such an action. The elf dodged it with ease.
"That's enough of that," the ref said. "As visitors, S.F. calls it."
S.F. lost the toss. Fantasy elected to kick.
"You've got to watch that crap, man," Traipse said as they hustled back to the sidelines. "He can get under that human skin of yours." Traipse donned his helmet. "Just stop them on 'D'. If I can get the ball to Vapor we might have a chance of putting points on the board early." He ran to the line. "Stay focused, fleshie!"
Fantasy was up 27-0 at the end of the first. Due in no small part to the thirty plus yards lost to Robbie's penalties.
"I actually like human women," Tholaren said during a Fantasy offensive drive. "Especially the older ones. They're better broken in." He glanced to the stands.
The whistle shrieked the play dead. Robbie had jumped again.
"Encroachment," called the ref. "Defense. Number 81. Five yard penalty. Still second down."
"Much appreciated, boy," Tholaren said from behind his imposing line of golems, gargoyles, and trolls.
"What's your problem, Burns?" Coach said after yet another Fantasy score. "Jump once more and you're benched. Now stay focused!"
Traipse shook his carbon-fiber head at Robbie and hustled onto the field with the offense.
"Who's the skinny kid there?" Robbie asked Eddie.
"That's their conjurer," Eddie said handing Robbie a paper cup of sports-drink. "Watch out for him. He throws arachnids."
Electrolyte laden spit fountained from Robbie's mouth. "Like...spiders?"
"Among other things. The androids don't give a crap. And Marsh probably has a family of tarantulas living in his armpits. But a black widow inside a facemask can make you miss tackles."
Even Robbie's good arm twitched. Spiders. In a football game. He was beginning to see why Sci Fi hated Fantasy Academy.
The score was 37-3 at the start of the third. It didn't get any better for S.F. from there. Robbie was glad, at least, that nobody threw any spiders.
"That was fun, honey!" his mom said on the ride home. It had been her rare day off during the weekend. "Sorry you lost. But I'm so glad you're making friends."
"Yeah." Robbie had reverted to monosyllables in an adult's presence.
"I met one of your friends. He sure was nice."
"Mmm." Streetlights grew sparse. The affluent environs of Fantasy Academy receded around them while potholes multiplied.
"He mentioned his father had part-time work if you were interested."
Robbie looked at his mom. "What did this kid look like?"
"Tall boy. Blonde hair. Funny, pointed ears, but he was very handsome--Honey!"
The armrest vanished into an upholstery-tinged cloud of dust beneath Robbie's good hand.
"You'd think being mutants," Eddie said next Monday at assembly, "they could at least carry a tune."
The entire student body sat bored within the cavernous gymnasium. A dusty fallout shelter sign hung from one corner. Another relic from the school's past.
Principal Clockwork moved to the mic following the band. "Thank you to, ahem, 'The Pinheads' for that interesting rendition of our school anthem. And now, Mrs. Cray has a delightful presentation on human/artificial relations."
Three janitors wheeled in the ancient super-computer.
Robbie moved from the other students to an open spot where only two others sat.
"What the hell are you doing?" Eddie said.
"We need to tighten up the right side if we ever want to win a game," Robbie said. "C'mon."
Color drained from the world as they slid across the bleachers toward the far end of the gymnasium. As best he could, Robbie brushed away the woe piercing his thoughts and approached Searline, the male of the pair.
"I'm Robbie. This is Eddie. You got a sec?"
The chaos-bringer looked at them with curiosity. "Speak, ordered one."
"We need a receiver. You look like you could handle yourself pretty well. Can you make a practice?"
He sat up straight, rising like a mist. A head taller than Robbie.
"Play games? Here?" He gestured around him. "In this insipid realm of unimaginable boredom?"
Robbie clenched his good fist, focusing past the gore flooding his thoughts. "Look. If you wanna sit here everyday staring at your sister, go ahead. But if you ever feel like running with the boys--" Robbie's good hand patted the kid's shoulder hard enough that the boy's eyes went wide. "You come meet us at practice. Until then, have fun." Robbie spared a quick glance at the sister, who was doing a bad job of hiding her interest. She was actually cute, in a gouge out your grandmother's eyes with a spoon kind of way.
"Look, I'm glad you're taking this seriously," Eddie said later over lunch with Robbie and Marsh. "And I'm not saying don't recruit. But you can't just ask anybody."
"You really asked that freaky dude from the other dimension?" Marsh said.
Something resembling a sloppy joe sat in the largest slot on Robbie's tray. After one whiff he left it to the line of ants approaching from Marsh's wrist.
"Yeah," Robbie said. "The kid has height. Pair him up with Traipse and they might do some damage."
"His sister's kind of hot," Marsh said. "Well, she is!" he continued when Eddie glared at him.
"Don't encourage him," Eddie said.
"Don't you want to win?" Robbie asked.
"Of course," Eddie said. "It's just..."
"Well, what?" Robbie asked.
Eddie looked at the ground. "We won't beat Fantasy. Nobody cares about Sci Fi anymore. Fantasy is the cool one. Always will be. Nobody cares about Sci Fi anymore. No one will even if we win."
Genocide and death filled the space around them.
"Hey, Searline," Robbie said without turning. "Decide you want some company?"
"Such ordinary creatures who--"
"Cut the crap, chaos-boy," Marsh said. "What do you want?"
"Fine," Searline said. "I'll play on one condition. Scorlyn gets to cheer."
Robbie turned to see the other twin skulking near some freshmen who looked ready to do arson.
"Done," Robbie said. "Be at practice after school."
"Dude!" Eddie said after reason returned to the world following the twins' departure. "How's the team gonna play with that freak making everyone crazy? They'll go mad."
"So will our opponents," Robbie said. "It gets better. You gotta sell the sister to Six."
"He's quick," Coach Tentacle said that afternoon at practice. Searline had run the thirty as fast as their lightning android receiver, Vapor.
"But can he catch?" Coach asked. "Traipse. Hit him on some post routes." The android quarterback loped off toward the field.
It was far from pretty. Searline required explanations on everything from terminology to which direction to run after a completion, though he succeeded in the latter frequently.
"What did I tell you, Coach?" Robbie said.
Eddie sprinted to Robbie's side.
"Six agreed," Eddie said. "Scorlyn can cheer."
Their next game was an away at Cherub Prep.
"These guys are generally pushovers," Coach said on the sideline before kickoff. "But watch the dirty hits. Lightning has been known to emerge from a clear blue sky when people play dirty against Cherub."
Despite fear of holy retribution, including a close call where the hairs on Robbie's head frizzed upwards, no lightning fell. And S.F. won. 35-13.
"Talk about sweethearts," Robbie said later during the raucous bus ride home.
"Yeah," Eddie said. "They play fair. More interested in setting a good example than winning, I guess."
Demonic Reform School the following week was much closer. S.F. eked out a win at 27-24. Mostly because the opposing players were occupied with things other than football.
"I can see to it that arm never troubles you again," one of the players told Robbie at halftime.
"Seriously?" Robbie asked.
"Yep." The demon boy smiled. "It will obey your every whim. Bend to your will." A scorched parchment and quill appeared in a puff of smoke. "All I need is your signature here, initial here, and--"
"Beat it, shortstuff." Marsh shoved the demon away.
The highlight of the night had been the cheerleaders. Scorlyn had worked out a new routine with Six-Flip. Chaos-realm infused androids had been a hit.
Robbie even saw Eddie approach Scorlyn, head down and feet shuffling, as he spoke to her.
"That was really great," Eddie told Scorlyn when her brother wasn't looking.
"Thanks." She looked at the ground.
"Well. See you later." Eddie retreated to Robbie's side.
"I think it's worse when they're together," Marsh said of the twins once after practice. "If I still ate, I'd probably yak."
"I know," Eddie said. "I can't get a single word out. Whenever I see her my stomach does backflips. My throat goes dry. It's crazy."
"Wait," Robbie said. "What?"
"Scorlyn," Eddie said. "You know, whenever she's around."
"You mean the nightmare fuel, right?" Robbie said.
"Uh, no," Eddie said. "What's this guy's problem?"
"Don't look at me," Marsh said. "I once saw my grandmother devoured by wolves when Searline and I high fived."
"What the hell is wrong with you guys?" Eddie said. "You weirdos need help."
Robbie and Marsh looked at one another. "You seriously don't see bloody murder when the twins are around?" Robbie said.
"I'm not a freak," Eddie said, reapplying a piece of dangling facial skin. "I wonder if she's seeing anyone?"
The season and school-year passed a week at a time for the Sci Fi students. Grinding out daily their schoolwork. Sprinting to practice following the last bell. Sci Fi slogged through until, to everyone's surprise, they were one game away from making the district playoffs. And what other team vied for this coveted spot? Fantasy Academy.
Gameday saw the entire team ready. Field lights blazed in the early sunset. The evening was warm as late winter lost ground to encroaching spring. Sci Fi marched onto the pristine Fantasy field ready to prove their deserved playoff position. By the half, Sci Fi was down three scores, 28-7.
Seven vampires sauntered onto the field at halftime. Blood flew in showers from ragged pom-poms. Fangs glimmered in the stadium lights. They hissed their cheer, writhing serpentine with the music. The song reached its peak and the girls exploded in a red haze. Hundreds of bats circled the cheering crowd.
"Amateur hour," Six-Flip-Six said. "Let's show 'em how it's done."
The S.F. squad's music struck raucous against the velvety tune of the vampire routine. The androids flipped and handspringed their way to the center of the field. Scorlyn charged behind. Visions of carnage and pillage exploded in her wake. The androids formed a pyramid, dropped, then flung Scorlyn high into the air.
Time slowed at the height of her arc. Nightmare wings born upon the fears of creation eclipsed the spotlights illuminating the field. Six android heads rose to join her. Flung free from their bodies, they met Scorlyn in the time-dilated madness shrouding the field, eyes ablaze.
Time snapped back into existence and Scorlyn crashed to the turf on bended knee. The androids deftly plucked their plummeting heads from the air.
"Whoa," Eddie said as the crowd rose to their feet cheering.
Robbie saw none of it. The moment the whistle blew halftime, he'd crossed to the stands. He wanted one person.
"Dude." Lloyd shook his head. "If you only knew, man."
"We need to talk. Alone." Robbie motioned to the female android on the boy's arm. Without waiting, Robbie jogged to the end of the stands.
"So where's the fire?" Lloyd asked. Genuine curiosity upsetting his usual aloofness.
"Dude," he said after hearing Robbie's request. "That's, like, illegal man."
"Can you do it?" Robbie asked.
"Well, yeah," he said. "Of course I can, but--" He looked around as if someone was watching. "I could get busted."
"Dude," Robbie said. "If you only knew."
Lloyd smiled. "All right." Without another word he hopped down the stands and sprinted towards the parking lot.
With crossed fingers, Robbie turned--and was face to face with Lloyd.
"But...I...you just..." Robbie said.
"Dude." Lloyd smiled. "You want the info or not?"
"Burns!" Coach Tentacle yelled. "Where the hell have you been?"
"Nowhere," Robbie said. He rushed to the bench. "Guys," he called. "On me. Listen up."
Fantasy received after halftime.
"Beginning of the end, Burns." Tholaren said when they lined up.
"I wouldn't want to be late," Robbie said. "We all know how bad that is." Robbie winked.
Tholaren stared. He barely got the snap off before the game clock fell to zero. He missed his receiver on what should have been an easy pick up of seven yards.
"What's wrong, man?" Robbie said. "Don't jump too early. Got to remember when to pull out."
"Screw you!" Tholaren jumped towards Robbie. The whistle killed the play.
"Uhh..." the ref said. "False start. Offense. Number...eight? Five yards. Still second down." Fantasy went three and out that drive.
"Remember." Robbie leaned close in beside Marsh, oblivious in his joy to the many-legged things grasping for him. "Bourbon and seven. That's all you have to say."
Spanish moss eyebrows furrowed. "If you say so." Marsh jogged onto the field with the offense.
"Rock beats wood," the gargoyle lineman said. He knelt directly across from Marsh as both teams lined up. "I'm gonna take a souvenir from that mess you call a body."
"Bourbon and seven," Marsh said.
"What are you talking about?"
"Bourbon and seven," Marsh repeated.
"Why are you saying that?" the gargoyle screamed. Crystalline tears clinked to the turf. He jumped. The whistle sounded once again.
"Whatever you did," Eddie whispered on the sideline to Robbie, "keep it up."
With the Fantasy team unsettled and nervous, Sci Fi reduced their deficit to 35-38 by the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Robbie smiled at the commotion on the opposite sidelines. The Sci Fi side, by contrast, was rested and in high spirits. But Fantasy could play dirty too.
Traipse had been hitting Vapor and Searline for completions all night. The chaos-bringer in particular had been a thorn in the elvan and vampire defender's sides, consistently beating them after catches while leaving suicidal madness in his wake. Their enchanter took him out.
Even someone from another dimension doesn't fare well against scorpion venom. The whistle halted play while Searline writhed in poisoned agony on the field.
"Oh, heck no." Robbie charged the field with half the defensive line.
"Get back here!" Coach Tentacle screamed.
The dutiful robot players obeyed. Robbie ran right towards the human enchanter.
"You little Fantasy punk," Robbie said. "Try that again. See what happens." He flexed his good hand.
"Oops." The dark-haired boy smiled. Robbie thought he saw the kid's fingers twitch.
The black widow dropped dangling in front of Robbie's eyes. Robbie's world constricted to a crimson hourglass.
He screamed. Flung his helmet away. Swiped like mad to dislodge the female widow. The whistle again. His helmet had hit the enchanter. He was ejected.
"Dammit!" Slime dribbled from Coach's skin in his shaking rage. "I told you, Burns! So freakin smart, huh? What the hell do I know? I've only coached longer than you've been alive!" He pointed his entire tentacle body off the field. "Get out of here."
The remainder of the game Robbie spent in Fantasy's spotless visitor's locker room. A locker crumbled beneath the swing of his good arm. The announcer's voice outside bled through the walls. The sound garbled. Distorted. Yet one part was unmistakable. The final score. Robbie slumped to the bench. His anger deflated. 38-35. Fantasy had won.
It couldn't get any worse. Steeled for Coach's wrath, Robbie was floored instead by the disappointment in his voice.
"Principal Clockwork assured me you were more mature than that," Coach said. "I guess he was wrong."
He had kinder words for the team. Praising their first strong showing against Fantasy in his many years.
"It won't be our last either!" he said. "They assumed they'd walk all over us again. Now, even if they do make it to state, they're not going to remember the teams they beat. They're going to remember the one who almost beat them. This isn't over. First game next season. Fantasy bleeds."
"Don't even try sneaking off." A root-encrusted hand grabbed Robbie's shoulder. He'd almost reached the parking lot.
"I want to be alone," Robbie said.
"Knock that whiny crap off," Marsh said. "So we lost. Big deal."
Eddie trotted to their side. "Man! That was awesome!"
"We lost!" Robbie rounded on Eddie. "I lost the game for us. How is that awesome?"
"Stop making yourself out to be so important," Marsh said. "We missed the field goal. You wouldn't have made any difference. Stop being such a baby."
"Where're you bitches going?" The voice rang clear from the shadowed parking lot. Robbie froze. Felt the same tickling of his thoughts. They emerged from behind several gleaming sports cars.
"Good to see you've got protection this time," Robbie said, nodding to the vampires, elves, and single gargoyle beside Tholaren. "Use it more often and you won't have so many scares with your girlfriend."
"How did you know that?" The elf growled. "How did you know any of those things?"
"C'mon," Eddie said. "Keep walking. Let's get to the bus."
The Fantasy kids formed a loose circle about the three S.F. boys. Robbie didn't pay attention to Marsh's hesitation. Or Eddie's fear. Thrumming in anticipation, his good hand hungered to meet the elf's scowl. The human boy should have been scared. He was stupid not to be. They were outnumbered and surrounded. But Robbie was too pissed off to be scared.
Robbie's good arm decided. Pulling him behind a lunge towards the elf. Robbie had trouble recalling the rest. Fists. Shouts. Flashes of light and pain. One sound pierced them all. Eddie's screams. Robbie glimpsed him between blows. Two vampires swinging on one zombie. It was likely that Eddie had been a small kid when he still drew breath. Undead he was a limp noodle.
Robbie saw Marsh occupied with the gargoyle. A forest grappling a mountain. Trying to get to Eddie, Robbie tore from one assailant, to be greeted by a second from behind. Eddie was always out of range of Robbie's help. He'd stopped yelling.
"No!" The force of that voice brought Robbie to a knee. Vile images assailed him. So horrid he feared he might vomit. Through halfway opened eyes he saw a purple and black blur. Scorlyn. Her brother beside. The rest of the cheer squad sprinted behind.
The murderous fog was stronger than any he'd felt prior. Even the Fantasy players were down. Curled on the ground. Hands clasped to heads in vain attempts to block the assault from another realm. Eddie's ragged face in Scorlyn's lap was the last thing Robbie saw. The world shrieked crimson before he passed out.
"I'm okay." Eddie's voice. "Really."
Robbie was jarred awake in a dim space. Marsh threatened to spill out of the tiny windows. A car. Six's van.
"What the hell?" Robbie said.
"Hey. One gun," Six-Flip-Six called from the driver's seat. "You alive back there?"
"I'll let you know in a sec," Robbie said. "What happened?"
"You got rescued by the cheerleaders." Searline smiled at Robbie from the passenger seat.
"Dude," Eddie said. "You look like crap."
Robbie's face smarted, many parts threatening to swell. He feared what a mirror might reveal. Eddie sat across from him. His head once again in Scorlyn's lap. She ran her fingers through his lank hair.
"Thank you," Robbie said. The chaos twin nodded.
"You're welcome!" Six said.
"And thank you, Six," Robbie said. "Can you drop me off at my house?"
"Sorry man," Robbie said later, in front of his house. "It's all my fault. The game. The fight. You took that beating because of me."
"It's all good," Eddie said. "Dude! I think Scorlyn likes me."
"Cool," Robbie said. "She's cute." The flickering porch light lit his dead lawn with yellow light. "I got a feeling we ain't seen the last of those Fantasy pricks."
"How did you find out all that stuff?" Eddie said. "They think we cheated."
Robbie didn't answer. He wanted to believe he'd played fair. To admit different meant he deserved the beating.
"See you Monday, Eddie." Robbie walked to the porch. Six's van departed behind him.
"That was quite the strategy you employed, Mr. Burns."
The dingy yellow porch light illuminated a brass body emerging from the shadows.
"Are you aware why the young gargoyle became so upset at the mention of spirits?"
"His dad's a drunk. Big deal. If he goes to Fantasy he's got enough money to dry his tears with silk tissues."
"I fear darker errands than mere drinking pass in that house."
"It was trash talking," Robbie said. "Nothing more. If those bozos can't handle it then they can stay off the field."
"Are you aware there exist penalties for such behavior as you engaged in this evening?"
"Penalties?" Robbie said. "What-what kind of penalties?"
"Ones that would make a visit by government men searching for a misplaced experimental arm seem quite tame in comparison."
The mention of government men subdued Robbie's emotions. After all the moves. The lost friends. He finally wanted to stay put. "Principal Clockwork, I'm sorry for--"
"I'm well aware of the circumstances that brought you to Sci Fi, Mr. Burns. Such behavior as you engaged in tonight could jeopardize your enrollment. But seeing as you merely instigated events, I can hardly hold you accountable. Mr. Landon on the other hand--"
"Lloyd?" Robbie said. "Wait." His smarting face. The humiliating loss. Robbie'd had enough shame for one night without adding snitch to his list. "It was my fault," he said. "I threatened Lloyd. I made him do it. Don't punish him. Punish me."
Clockwork stared. Silent but for his whirling gears.
"You put Mr. Landon at great risk. At your urging he risked his transfer to our school." Clockwork turned and glanced upwards to the night sky. "Mr. Landon comes from a brutal time. Beyond anything you can imagine. I am pleased he is afforded a chance at a normal high school experience at our school."
"Normal?" Robbie said. "At Sci Fi?"
Clockwork looked at Robbie. "If you prefer to add another expulsion to your record I won't stop you. But if you're willing to follow the rules and give your best effort, you can count me your ally."
"I want to stay," Robbie said.
"I'm sorry? My listening tubes aren't what they once were."
"I want to stay."
"I'm pleased to hear it." He stepped from the porch and headed for the street. "Report to my office Monday morning to discuss your punishment."
"Yes, Principal Clockwork."
"And one last thing." He paused at the sidewalk. "You played well today. Stick to the game and we just might beat Fantasy next season."