Jared was listening to music so intently that it took him a couple of minutes to realize that the bus had stopped.
The music was soothing, helping him to forget the feeling of aloneness permeating him with his friends Katherine and Steve making out across the aisle. Their PDA was a painful reminder of his single status, especially given his crush on Katherine.
He supposed the good thing about being single was getting two seats to himself, which made it easier to spread out. It still wasn’t very comfortable, but it was better than nothing. When he finally realized the bus had stopped, he half-heartedly wondered why.
He figured the driver was just taking another restroom break. He knew the drivers didn’t like using the small bus bathroom available to passengers and would pull over at rest stops periodically. Or maybe he’d really lost track of time and they were stopping for another batch of passengers. That would be annoying since it might mean he’d have to share his seat after all.
But no, it seemed they were still on the road. It was so dark that it was hard to tell. That was peculiar. Had the bus broken down? An announcement came over the speaker, but he couldn’t understand a word of it.
Katherine and Steven had noticed something was awry, breaking off their make out session. Katherine watched the speaker apprehensively.
“What’s wrong, babe?” Steven asked. She glanced away, unwilling to answer. A chill went up Jared’s spine. Steven didn’t know that Katherine could understand what the voice on the speaker said. She’d made a show of learning some basic Redarctican the way Patrick had, but it would have been suspicious to show understanding of such a rapid burst of accented gibberish.
Jared knew the reason she could understand the language had nothing to do with having actually learned it. A skill that made it surprising she even came to this country. If it was discovered, the best case scenario was an end to her vacation.
Jared tried to peer through the front bus windows as flash lights shone through the dark. What is going on? There was a knock on the bus door and the bus driver opened it, hesitantly. Is he one too? It would be very inconvenient if they took their bus driver away.
A man boarded the bus. Or maybe it was a woman. It was hard to tell with the black combat helmet and full face shield. The figure was quite tall for a woman, but he thought he might detect a slight bulge of the chest that didn’t look like body armor and there was definitely a feminine curve to the hips. A male voice boomed out and Jared thought it must be a man after all until he realized the voice wasn’t coming from the person. It was from a small but powerful speaker with poor sound quality strapped securely to the soldier’s wrist.
As the voice spoke indecipherably in its native language, Jared observed the newcomer more closely. Her suit was black and the bus had poor lighting, but he could still see a dark barrel running along under the arm. Inconspicuous, but Jared recognized it as a new model energy projector. He didn’t even realize anyone other than his own country had that kind of hardware. Definitely military then, and some sort of special ops at that.
The message repeated in Jared’s language, only mildly accented.
“Please remain seated. This is a routine check. Have your documents ready. Do not resist or you will be prosecuted.” Routine my ass. You don’t arm someone with a fifty thousand dollar gun for a run of the mill checkpoint.
The soldier moved down the aisle. The first person she came to presented his documents then bared his arm. Jared was confused until the soldier took out a needle and pricked the guy’s arm. She had a machine and it lit up green. The guy didn’t appear very nervous at all, a native who had clearly been through this. Jared hoped they used different needles per person, but then realized they might have another problem.
Katherine. Forced testing and registration was a heavily debated topic in his country, but had not yet passed. But here it was done regularly. He knew she had found a way to fool the tests to get into this country. Could she do it again?
I mean, what was the worst that could happen if she failed? She was a citizen of the most powerful nation on Earth. She might get into trouble, but it wasn’t like she was dangerous. Surely they’d just throw her out of the country…right?
The first several rows had passed uneventfully. People were relaxing a bit now. Most of the people on the bus were natives who had probably done this before, treating it as a minor inconvenience. His classmates on the trip were starting to think this would be nothing more than a brief delay. Four of them had already gone when they got to George.
George didn’t like needles. Everyone who had grown up with him knew that. When he was younger, he would wail every time they gave him a required vaccination, often requiring multiple people to hold him down. He never volunteered to get a flu shot. He certainly wasn’t volunteering his arm for a blood sample.
“Hey look, this really isn’t necessary. I have all my documents right here. I’m as normal as they come, I swear.”
“Present your arm,” the speaker said summarily in a monotone voice. Why doesn’t the soldier speak? Does she not know Consolidated Standard? The speaker was loud but had a tinny quality Jared associated with cheap tech. He wondered if the army spent so much on the energy projector that they didn’t have much budget for anything else. A flash of fear and anger entered George’s eyes.
“I’m telling you, there’s no reason! I’ve been tested. See, I even have the results here. In your own language even!”
“Present your arm,” this time the soldier leveled her arm at George’s head. The energy projector powered into a state of readiness.
“Holy Fuck, don’t shoot!” George screamed, instantly raising his hands in the air. A tense mood returned to the entire bus as George eyed the weapon in terror. Jared wondered what would have happened if George hadn’t recognized it. A normal gun might have been a more effective scare tactic for most people. But Jared knew it wasn’t normal people these guys were worried about.
The soldier took George’s arm and injected the needle as he whimpered in fear. Jared still hadn’t figured out if it was a different one each time or not. He really hoped so. No telling what sort of diseases Robert had picked up and he’d been one of the first of their group to go. The light turned green and the soldier released George’s arm. He rubbed it vigorously, cursing under his breath.
It would only be a few more people before they got to them, and Katherine was having a hard time keeping it together. She was sweating nervously and her eyes were darting back and forth, like she was looking for a way to escape.
But Jared could see outside the bus and it was clear that there were people surrounding them now. Occasionally a car passed, which struck him as odd. It could still be a random spot check instead of a road block. Redacrticans are really gung ho about their military. Given what they’re testing for, I’m probably wrong about the EP meaning anything special. Maybe they just check large groups with lots of foreigners. It would be inefficient checking lots of cars when most of the drivers would already be tested periodically at work or school or any number of locations. Yeah, that’s probably it. If Katherine fails, the vacation will just end a little early, that’s all.
Jared’s attempts to stay calm were somewhat undermined by the fact Patrick looked even worse than Katherine. Beads of sweat poured off him in rivulets, worse than when he was done winning a well-played football game. His normally cocky attitude was absent. The usually invincible seeming behemoth appeared ready to wet himself. Wait, is that why he’s so good?!
The soldier reached him and skimmed his documents. He then presented his arm listlessly. The needle went in. And the light turned red.
Time seemed to slow. Jared hadn’t realized it before, but the soldier had been positioning her weapon to be ready to fire in case the light didn’t turn green. It took moving up her wrist a fraction and a bolt of energy slammed into Patrick’s chest. It hit him with such force that he was picked up out of his seat and thrown through the window of the bus. The glass rained out after him, sprinkling the twenty yards he’d been hurled. Twisted metal adorned the edges of the window where the frame had been held together.
There was a moment of silent shock, followed by screaming.
‘What the fuck, what the fuck man?” Steve shouted. “You killed him. You fucking killed him!” He seemed more angry than scared though, which worried Jared. If he attacked the soldier, Katherine could be hit in the cross fire. It had been fortunate that Patrick was taking up two seats to better accommodate his massive frame. Anyone sitting next to him might have been killed along with him.
“Please remain calm,” the speaker said. Just another day at the office for the soldier. Except Jared knew that wasn’t true, given even a couple of the natives were in hysterics. This was not normal operating procedure.
“Calm? You want us to be calm? You just murdered our friend! And you saw his documents. Are you trying to start a war?”
Jared looked through his window at Patrick’s body. It was laid out on the pavement, smoke pouring from his stomach. Suddenly his black skin cracked open, lines of fire running down his arms and legs. His clothes caught on fire. His eyes opened, now nothing more than pits of flame.
“I mean seriously, are you insane?” Steve kept shouting.
“Steve, shut up man. I don’t think Patrick’s dead.”
“What? Of course he’s dead! You know what those things can do. You showed me the video of it online! No one could survive…that…” Steve’s voice trailed off as he finally glanced out the window. Patrick was sitting up. “No way… no way. He can’t really be. He’s one of those freaks?”
Katherine flinched beside Steve. Jared knew Steve was handsome, personally well-off due to inheritance, reasonably smart for a jock, and normally had a decent sense of humor. But he would never understand how she could like someone who was so prejudiced against people like her. Then again, arguably so was she, living in the closet as she was. Maybe Patrick had been too. Or maybe he just wanted to be able to be the star of the football team. He definitely would have been kicked off if anyone back home knew he could do what he was doing now.
The soldier didn’t act at all perturbed, even as the net shot out at Patrick by the surrounding people melted around him. The soldier turned back to the passengers, who were now numb with shock, and moved on to the next one.
“Continue,” the speaker said. The passenger was a girl named Jessica and she stared at the soldier like she was crazy.
“That thing could kill us all and you want to keep checking our papers?!” she asked incredulously. That thing? Jared thought. He wondered what Jessica thought now about having slept with Patrick until pretty recently. Though given their bad breakup, maybe she’d been thinking of him as a thing even before finding out about this side of him.
“We are safe. Please continue,” the speaker said, unperturbed. Jackass might be safe, wherever he’s transmitting from. I am not feeling safe right now, not safe at all. Patrick seems pretty pissed off right now. That might have just been the fire pouring from his eyes. For all Jared knew that was his way of bawling like a little baby. Either way, Jessica complied as Patrick started heading towards the bus.
He scarcely made it two steps when a tank shell hit him. The blast rocked the bus, knocking out the rest of the windows. The world began ringing and spinning. A surge of nausea washed over him and he wondered if the shockwave of the blast had liquefied his internal organs. He could already be dead and just not realize it yet.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Patrick had been knocked back to the ground. People were surrounding him now, pouring fluid on him. Jared’s brain wasn’t functioning properly, but he thought it might be liquid nitrogen. Jared wondered if they were trying to neutralize his powers to capture him or were just trying to kill him.
After a brief stumble, the soldier regained her composure, once again looking unperturbed by the turn of events. Safe huh? Damn Liars. He was bleeding. She didn’t bother with the needle this time, reaching over and scanning a bit of his blood. The green light flashed. It occurred to him how stupid of a system that was. It instantly told anyone who was trying to beat the system that they had failed. So either the soldier had to attack them immediately or risk being attacked.
Unless that’s the point? Doubt it. The engineering in this country is consistently crap.
The soldier turned towards Steve, motioning for him to present his arm. Katherine was having a panic attack next to him. Jared’s affection for her overrode his better instincts and he made to go towards her. Without looking, the soldier elbowed him in the gut, sending him reeling back into his seat. He struggled for breath.
“Fuck you, man,” Steve said, throwing a punch at the soldier. The soldier grabbed Steve’s hand easily, redirected his weight past her body, and then smashed through Steve’s elbow. A needle went into his arm and the light flashed green. The soldier let him drop to the ground, no longer interested in him.
“Please, please don’t kill me. I swear I’m not dangerous! All I do is understand languages. Please don’t shoot me. Please. I didn’t hear about you doing things like this. I just wanted to be with my friends.” Katherine whimpered, curled into a little ball. The soldier grabbed her arm roughly and stuck the needle in. A blue light flashed.
“Stay here,” the speaker droned. “If you move, you will be shot.” The soldier moved to the next person.
“What’s going on?” said a sleepy voice. Past the soldier, Shelly Rhinefield was waking up. She had been asleep on the back row of seats earlier, citing an inability to sleep without lying completely down as to why she should get the whole row. A common problem, but it was her family and fundraising efforts that had largely sponsored this trip, so the rest of the students let it slide.
Having just woken up though, she was alarmed by the soldier moving in her direction and began to glow. It didn’t take the needle for the soldier to realize what her next target should be, and the soldier fired the energy projector at Shelly. The back of the bus exploded, at least that’s the best way Jared would be able to describe it later.
The bolt had hit Shelly and there was suddenly a glowing sphere expanding outward, consuming everything in front of Jared. He momentarily blacked out.
Next thing Jared knew, he was on the ground, the world spinning around him. He could smell burned flesh, and given how much pain his shoulder was in, he suspected it was his. He tried to stand up and fell over, leg useless beneath him. He saw the soldier’s helmet lying next to him. Well, half of it. A foot over he saw that his guess was right about the soldier’s gender. The half of the soldier’s face that remained was lifeless but beautiful. Shoulder length brown hair framed a grey eye in a face that had lovely bone structure. The other side of her head was simply gone.
“My arm, my arm!” screamed Katherine from above him. Looking up, he saw that the front of the bus remained. The back of his seats were missing, along with the entire back half of the bus. It was like the energy surrounding Shelly had simply vaporized everything between her and the energy projector. But he knew enough physics to know that couldn’t be right, since the energy released from vaporizing that much matter would act as a small nuke.
Then again, he’d heard of a lot of abilities that defied scientific explanation. And now wasn’t the time to worry about it. He couldn’t see Katherine from this angle, but he figured she and Steve were still on the bus. Katherine was screaming hysterically until he heard two cracks. There was silence for a moment and then a thump next to him.
“Fuck!” Jared cried out. Katherine’s body had landed next to him, one arm missing and a bullet hole through her head. Steve fell besides her.
“Stay where you are!” a voice crackled out from surrounding speakers. “Anyone who moves will be shot.” The voice repeated its message in the native tongue. A little fucking late for that warning. He made himself like a statue. Boots thumped over the ground as more of the soldiers surrounding the bus moved in. Jared wondered absurdly if they were letting normal cars pass still.
A soldier stood over him and shouted something in his radio. Jared held his breath, waiting to see if the soldier would shoot him or not. He wanted to kill the bastard for what they did to Katherine and Steve, but he knew there was nothing he could do except get shot and his survival instinct was telling him to do whatever might save him for even a couple more seconds. The soldier looked at him, assault rifle leveled at his head, and heard a reply over the radio.
“Nighty-night kid,” the soldier said, raising up his foot and bringing his boot down on Jared’s face. The world went black again.