Authors: Sara Wolf
Tags: #school, #young adult, #sci-fi, #aliens, #romance, #science fiction, #high school, #adventure, #action
“Of course not.” The principal smiles. “There are cameras in every corner of this building. Faculty like myself will double check that the misdemeanor was legitimate from the camera feeds. Now, please. Club Day is in two weeks. For now, focus on getting to your class before the bell rings. Go on, shoo.”
The crowd’s ruckus grows, and people stream away down the hall. The principal and Taj talk, and then the principal leaves, and Taj walks over to us.
“Shadus.” He nods. Taj is much broader in the shoulders and chest than Shadus, but Shadus is slightly taller. It’s like a pitbull and a greyhound staring each other down.
“Do you expect me to congratulate you on diffusing a pathetic situation, or on your newly appointed human lapdog title?” Shadus asks. Taj grins crookedly.
“Not bothering to pretend you have a nice personality, I see. Didn’t the elders and our parents tell us to keep a happy face up while we’re here?”
“I will never hide behind something false just to put humans at ease,” Shadus says shortly.
“I pity your EVE, then.” Taj looks to me. “Is this her?”
“Nah, I’m just a really humanoid paperweight,” I offer.
“He’s very difficult.” Taj ignores my jab. “You won’t last a month as his EVE.”
“Uh, sorry buddy, but if you think this grump is going to scare me off a hundred thousand dollars, you’re a moron.”
I can feel Shadus’ crimson eyes on my face. Taj sputters for a moment, then laughs, thumping Shadus on the back.
“You’re in luck. Human greed might win out over your gift to drive people away. Maybe this one will stick around long enough for you to get a snack from her, hm?”
Taj looks to me, smile fading.
“You know, your face says it all. Greed and anger. Not the best taste combination. Fear is savory and strong, the best taste there is. Being in a school full of aliens must scare you, right? Be more afraid . It’ll make my dinner tastier.”
“Kiss my ass,” I snarl. Taj just laughs and waves as he walks away.
“Defiance is sour. Enjoy your curdled meal, Shadus.”
The blonde-streaked head disappears in the crowd. Shadus pushes off the wall, and I start after him.
“What was that all about?” I demand.
“Taj is Adjudicator
,” Shadus says simply. “A
“I know what it is - the leading family.”
The crowd around us sounds dim and far away. Shadus’ stoic expression cracks, incredulity peeking through.
“How did you know that?”
“Raine told me. She’s my roommate.”
Shadus raises a brow. “Of course she is.”
He pulls open the door to math. He picks a seat in the very back, and I pick a seat in the very back on the opposite side so as to remain as far from him as possible. I doodle in my notebook and start to think. The Gutters listened to Taj even before the principal said he was the leader of the Student Enforcers. Adjudicators get to give out punishments according to the law, and the Gutters listen to them.
Shadus is Executioner
. Does that make him a soldier? Does he know how to kill like the rest of his faction? Suddenly, his high cheekbones and blood-red irises make the fear in my chest boil higher. My EVE organ gives twinges of anxiety every time he looks my way, which isn’t often. He just sort of glances. He glances at everyone – never stopping to look at one person too long before he stares out the window again, bored. He’s bored with us all. I’m afraid of him and pissed off at him and frustrated with him all at once.
“Shadus,” Mr. Weylan taps the whiteboard. “Could you come up here and solve the problem, please?”
The whole class turns to watch him get out of his desk and walk up slowly, without a care, to the board. He sighs, uncaps a pen, and reads the equation. I’m not a math genius, but I’m not an idiot, either. The equation isn’t something we’re supposed to tackle until next year. It’s monstrous, and complicated. Shadus reads it for three seconds. And then he starts scribbling. Neat, even numbers and letters and symbols. When he’s finished, he puts the pen back, and looks to Mr. Weylan.
“I’m going back to my seat, now. I understand it is your job to teach me mathematic principles. As you can see, I know them. I expect you will not request public displays of my ability for the remainder of the semester.”
Mr. Weylan’s eyes are wide as he double-checks the equation. The class murmurs behind his back. Shadus sweeps back to his seat and puts his chin in his hand, looking out the window with utmost listlessness. After a moment, Mr. Weylan clears his throat and fixes his crooked glasses. Shadus was obviously correct.
“Yes, well. Let’s move on. Today we’re going to apply the value of a matrix to –”
I tune Weylan out and look at Shadus incredulously. Who does he think he is? The way he spoke to Mr. Weylan dripped of entitlement and arrogance. When we have a free period to do our worksheets in a group, I sit in the empty desk in front of Shadus, who’s now sleeping with his head against the window. I crumple up a ball of paper and throw it at his face. It bounces off his nose and he wakes up, glaring grumpily at me.
“Did you do that?”
“Uh, I dunno, did you just act like a massive ass in front of the whole class?” He opens his mouth, but I interrupt. “The answer you’re looking for is yes, by the way.”
“I know all these things already,” Shadus yawns, tears forming in his eyes. “Gutters are gifted at rote memory. Mathematics are simple for us. I’m not special. All the Gutters you see here are pretending to be learning. How they can stand it, I have no idea.”
“Why pretend?” I hiss.
“To look good for the humans. To look as though we are cooperating.” He sighs. “It’s a play. A farce. We know nearly everything your teachers will instruct you on, but we pretend we don’t to make you humans feel as though you’re contributing to our learning. It’s pathetic.”
“Then why send Gutters here at all?”
“Again, to look good,” He insists. “We’re here with you. Learning your ways. You’re learning ours. We’ll all get along. Cooperation. Isn’t it beautiful?”
He smiles, but it’s angry and sharp.
“You’re wrong,” I whisper. “You are different from the rest of the Gutters. You just can’t bear to pretend, can you? Your
pride won’t let you.”
His eyes turn dark, his voice cold. “You know nothing of
. Don’t act as though you do just because Raine’s told you a few things. You know nothing, human. And you will always know nothing.”
The bell rings just then. I watch him gather his books and leave as quickly and smoothly as a winter wind.
The food is the only thing I like about Green Hills High. Breakfast is warm chocolate croissants, lunch is fresh green salads, and dinner is skirt steak. Good food. Not tuna casserole four nights in a row. Not food bank boxed meals. Actual food, cooked with fresh herbs and expensive vegetables. Dad can’t afford stuff like this. I haven’t eaten like this since Mom died.
Gutters sit with groups of humans. There’s civil talking. Some people are obviously able to get over the fact we’re their dinner.
The Gutter foodstuffs are vials of clear liquid, each with different labels in a strange, loopily-written alien language - probably to differentiate the tastes. Anger, I hear whispers from Gutters, is spicy. Sadness is mild, starchy. Their Gutter scientists must separate each emotion somehow. The aliens down the liquid like shots of liquor, or sip at them like cocktails. One or two seems to be enough to get them through an entire day.
A long-legged figure parts the cafeteria crowd as she walks. Raine smiles, the Gutters watching her pass. They nod, and she nods to them in what I think is a
display of respect. The humans can’t do much beside gape - boys and girls alike. I think she’s a condescending bitch with a princess-complex, but I can’t help admire her effect on people. She knows how to work a crowd. She’s spots me, and walks my way.
“What do you want?” I grunt. She sits daintily opposite me.
“I just came to enjoy lunch with my roommate. Something wrong with that?”
I point to her empty tray. “I’m the only one eating. That’s not lunch. That’s you watching me chew with my mouth open.”
The cafeteria goes back to their business, but a few glances come Raine’s way. She flicks a bit of dried nail polish, voice casual.
“When I was little, in the reservation, they brought us a box of secondhand toys every year. We weren’t allowed to have new ones, or ones the government agents didn’t approve of. I snatched the nail polish up before anyone else could. My new human fingers scared me. But I got used to them by painting them, over and over and over. I learned to like them. I had to. I had no choice but to learn to like everything about my new body.”
How painful had it been? How frightening and disturbing was it to get used to a whole new body?
“That’s why I like clothes,” Raine continues. “And jewelry. And fashion. I poured my heart into learning how to make my human body beautiful. And now I am. And it keeps me strong.”
I pick at my steak, grasping for what to say. But there’s nothing I can say. I see Taj out of the corner of my eye, eating with a bunch of Gutters surrounding him.
“So you’re…not the head of any enforcers or anything?” I ask Raine.
“No. But then again, I don’t need enforcers. I’m not Taj. Brute force is boring and so cliché. I have my own ways of going about things, and keeping my faction in check.” She smiles.
“So why were those two Gutters fighting this morning?”
“The Adjudicator and the Illuminator, I presume? We don’t like Adjudicators. They don’t like us. It’s very simple.”
“And what about Shadus’ people? The Executioners?”
Raine shrugs. “The Illuminators and Adjudicators have fought over the Executioner’s favor since the dawn of our civilization. We fight and scheme against each other for Executioner favor. Always.”
“Because the Executioners have the raw power. Because you want them to back your cause.”
“Precisely.” Raine smiles. “My, you really are getting the hang of this!”
I glance over at a far, empty table. Shadus sits at it, sipping at a single vial. Gutters approach his table, try to strike up a conversation with him, and are turned away with a few short words. His expression is blank and lifeless. They approach him in groups, too afraid to do it alone. Even from here I can feel the imposing air he’s putting off to keep people away. It’s almost pitiful how much he wants to be left alone.
Me? Pitying an alien?
I shake my head and turn back to Raine.
“So that’s it? Everybody on your planet is organized into three neat categories?”
“Oh, no,” Raine laughs. “No, not at all. There are dozens of factions, spread across every continent. Or…there were.”
“Were?” I narrow my eyes.
Raine glances up at me, doe-eyes flashing from morose to light-hearted in an instant. She’s good at hiding her emotions.
“It’s nothing. Forget I ever said anything.”
“You guys said you left your planet on a scouting trip. Your planet’s okay, right? I mean -”
“Our planet is perfectly alright,” Raine interrupts. “In fact, it’s much better off than this alien planet. We don’t pollute it nearly as much.
“This is Earth. It’s not ‘alien’.” I point my fork at her.
“It is alien to me.” She smiles, and gets up, taking her empty tray with her.
The school strives to make this place as normal as possible despite the Gutters. There’s lunch, recess, English and Chemistry, clubs and a football team. Gutters and EVEs have the same curriculum save for one exception - all EVEs have a class on Gutter culture, just as Gutters have a class on human culture. Our culture teacher, Ms. Gianca, is a slender female Gutter who wears her hair in a strict bun, and has thick glasses. There’s a wary silence as she writes on the white board.
“Would anyone care to offer me what they know about Gutters?” Ms. Gianca asks. A girl raises her hand.
“You’re like, frogs or something, right? I mean, before you guys landed you looked different.”
Ms. Gianca frowns. “Please know this now - this class is not meant to highlight the differences between Gutters and humans, but rather, the similarities.”
“But you guys
lizard men, right?” A boy tries.
“To us, Mr. Hannon, you are fleshy monkey men. It is all relative.” Her voice is patient. A laugh goes around the room. Her natural grace reminds me of Raine - she’s probably part of the Illuminator faction.
“We had a planet once, but were forced to leave it. Think of us not as aliens, but as humans such as yourselves - displaced, afraid, low on supplies, and without a home. Humans were kind enough to offer us a rest stop where we needed it most. Without you, without
, we would have surely died. We are grateful, indebted to you until it is time for us to leave.”
Ms. Gianca’s benevolent smile grows kinder.
“It is imperative to remember that we are only temporary guests on your planet. We will leave when our ship is repaired sufficiently and impede upon you no longer. Ideally, by the time you have children of your own, we will be long gone.”
She turns back to the board. “You must know the following for the final exam this semester; Gutters are not dangerous. Despite the rumors, Gutters have no special abilities, or enhanced senses. We are in human bodies, after all. We are as you are. Lastly, Gutters will always do their best to respect the human culture, and we ask the same from you.”
No one knows what to say. Respect? There can be no respect when they’re so painfully different from us. We write it down and try not to think about what it really means, or what she’s really asking of us.
I raise my hand. Ms. Gianca points to me.
“Yes, Ms. Hale?”
“Your noses - you guys have really good smelling, right?”
Ms. Gianca looks shocked, but quickly regains her composure. I press on.
“You said you had no extra powers or senses. But you do. So why did you lie?”
The quiet in the room becomes heavy. Students look to each other warily, shooting looks at Ms. Gianca, who laughs and fails to cover the nervous jingle in the sound.