Twelve Hours

I don't know. I'm making it up as I go along.

        “Thanks for the ride, Mac,” I say, climbing out of the battered black Lincoln. “This'll take a few hours, so I'll just hop a cab when we get out.”

        “Nuh-uh,” the rat grunts, shaking his head. “Boss said to wait here 'til you wuz done. So I'm waitin'.”

        I wrinkle my nose in annoyance. So much for skipping out on this thing. Still, I'd been counting on some time around town, and I wasn't about to let this big lummox spoil that, too.

        “No,” I growl at him, “You are leaving.” I point back homeward angrily.

        I might as well be pointing at the moon. He stares at me dumbly, frowning. “But the Boss said-”

        “I don't care what he said, *I* said-”

        “He won't like this. He'll get upset…”

        “Why don't you just stay out a while, then? Go back in a few hours and tell him I must've ducked out the door with the crowd when they let us out.”

        He blinks at me. He's dumb enough that Ivan just might believe that story. Provided Mac here can remember it, which is debatable.

        “I'm just going to shake you anyway,” I inform him, “So you might as well spend the afternoon out enjoying yourself instead of waiting around the parking lot.”

        Another blank stare. Blink. You do need to blink, Mac. Ah, there we go. By now you've probably forgotten what we were even talking about.

        “So,” I smile, leaning on the car door, “Have fun, Mac. I'll see you tomorrow.”

        “Uh, okay,” he blinks, returning my wave as I walk away. He pulls away from the curb as I start up the stairs; no doubt he's headed for the nearest bar.

        Gods, I love henchmen.

        Unfortunately, people inside have spotted my, so I suppose I have no choice but to go on in. Don't want to give Ivan another conniption fit, after all. The first four were entertaining enough.

        I can't think of my new “boss” by his surname. “Kiwi” is a common enough moniker for this world's kiwis, but for me it will always be synonymous with Galaxia. To say I hated that woman would be a gross understatement. And by the time I left her service, I'd lost any respect for that name that I might have had. My new boss is a different matter entirely, and I'd like to take him seriously – something I can't do if I think of him as “Kiwi.” And he's a far cry from the last person I addressed by “Sir.” So I just think of the Evil Sir Ivan Kiwi as “Ivan.” The sign holder calls him “Boss” - as do most of Ivan's underlings – but I can't bring myself to follow suit on this one.

        And I just called the kid by his title again, didn't I? Damn. I really do need to learn his name. Problem is, I know him too well now to just walk up to his and say “So, what was your name again?” It'd crush the poor bird. I think I'm the closest thing he's got to a friend. So I need to think of some other way of discovering his identity. I used to think I'd just pick it up from the guys in the shop – or even Ivan – but no one ever seems to use the kid's name. And none of his stuff has his name on it, either. I'm starting to wonder if anyone around here knows his name.

        But, I digress.

        Ivan insists I resume my schooling. Personally, I think I had more than enough of that back home. I haven't been to school in years, and I kind of like it that way. I see no reason to change it, at any rate. I can read, write, and do math well enough. And it's not as if I have no skills. I'm an experienced ship's pilot, gunner, and communications officer. I'm also a trained fighter. (Okay, maybe not “trained” so much as “schooled in the many ways of crushing, beating, or generally defeating those that trouble me.” It amounts to much the same thing, you ask me.) On top of all that, Ivan's got me teaching his pilots to fly his starships, and I'm working on earning my pilot's license so I can fly their jets. School just seems like a waste of time.

        Ah well. Maybe I'll do well enough on these stupid placement exams to convince the boss-man he's wasting my time. Ivan won't hear of public school – he's got me far too occupied with training and flying and whatnot to have me unavailable to eight hours a day, five days a week. He's set on hiring me a tutor, which of course means one-on-one attention. Bleargh. Go ahead and sap out what little fun school might have brought with it, why don't they? At least I'd be obligated to join a group of home-schools every other Friday or so to check up on our progress. If nothing else, that'd be a chance to hang out with people my age for a few hours.

        However, since it's been so long since I've been to class – and since I'm, well, not from around here at all – California requires I take a placement exam. I can't be bothered to type up a phony transcript anyway, so I suppose this is as good a way as any to decide what grade-level I should be stuck in and what incredibly boring subjects I should be subjected to. Oh, joy.

        A pair of heavyset, middle-aged ladies intercepts me as I walk into the building. Ah. These would be the test's administrators, then. They look at me reproachfully, making me wonder if I'm late or something. The clock behind them seems to think I still have twenty minutes, but you never can tell with those things. I suspect they lie just to get people like me in trouble for tardiness.

        I'm wrong. I'm not late. But I am getting the distinct feeling that these ladies know who I am, how many times so far this week that I've failed to show up for this test, and that I have brought neither paper nor pencil nor calculator with me today. Then again, they might simply object to the cammies I'm wearing.

        I cock my head. “What?,” I ask, trying my best to sound sincere, “They're standard military issue.”

        They scowl. No brownie points for me, their expressions read. They seem to be under the impression that I actually care about that sort of thing. Ladies, let me let you in on a little secret. I've sailed deep space, dodged blood-thirsty pirates, mutinied against entire starships, and gone head-to-head with vicious, trained killers more times than I care to count. Your disapproval concerns me about as much as an errant dust mote. As a mentor of mine would say – Sod off.

        I keep my mouth shut, however. Gets me in less trouble, I've found – and besides, these biddies aren't the ones I want to talk to anyways. They have me sign in and fill out some stupid forms, then lead me down the hall to a classroom. Great. Ciao, biddies. I can take it from here. Heck, I could've taken it from down the hall; there was no reason you had to walk me down here. Again, keeping my mouth shut. I let myself in and grab an open desk, basking in the knowledge that they're probably still out there silently furious at my complete and total lack of manners.

        The classroom is fairly blank – white walls, tiled floor, cheap Styrofoam ceiling panels sprinkled with dangling pencils. Nothing new. We're in a high school, so of course the posters of athletes and world leaders desperately trying to look cool all proclaim one of two things: first, that Drugs Are Bad, and second, the armed forces are always looking for new recruits. My desk is your typical chair-and-tablet-in-one deal, complete with etched-in graffiti on the top and ancient wads of chewed gum cemented on its underside.

        We had these things at home. BORING.

        About the only good part about all this is where my desk is. Which is right next to a cluster of guys. The girls here are all over by the windows, twirling their hair and chatting about those heinous creations known as boy bands. There's a lot of pink and makeup and fluff and glitter over there. It scares me. Moreover, it makes me want to go out and play sudden death laser tag paintball in the pouring rain, or something like that. The guys are significantly less frightening. Granted, most seem to think I've violated the sanctity of their circle of testosterone, but I could really care less. There's not a ruffle or pastel shade amongst them, and their conversation currently centers on the quality and realism of the latest version of Doom.

        There's no instructor in sight, so everyone is of course merrily socializing with one another. My arrival has sparked a wave of whispering from the pink fluffkins by the window, but no one else seems to deem it worthy of discussion. Glares, maybe, but not discussion. I look around at my chosen deskmates. The sparrow on my right resembles a scruffy stick that has yet to discover the wonders of The Comb. His glasses are thick and his posture is bad, and he gives me a sheepish, embarrassed smile as a way of greeting. I half-raise my hand off the desk in greeting, giving him the slightest hint of a wave. He strikes me as the sort that would ask me what type of calculator I used, thinking this to be a fascinating subject. Genius material. The Owlsla and Foxes I've met were like that. Most of them were engineers or scientists or mad inventors or something like that. Useful, and definitely worth not teasing if you didn't fancy finding out how well they didn't take a joke, but not exactly born conversationalists. Unless you wanted to talk about gizmos and compare endless lists of statistics. I turn my gaze elsewhere.

        The hamster seated in front of the sparrow is busily drawing in a sketchbook. His hair is dyed about four different colors, his fur is matted, and his clothes – all black, by the way – look like they haven't seen the inside of a washing machine in years. NEXT.

        The guys in front of me and to my left are deeply engrossed in a paper football game. I haven't seen this sort of game before, so I watch. But not for long.

        “Hey,” a voice behind me starts, “Nice threads.”

        I turn. The voice belongs to a squirrel in army fatigues. A rather well-built squirrel in carefully-pressed fatigues. I peg him for Army ROTC. I've seen commercials for those guys.

        “So,” he clears his throat, “You ROTC, or something?”

        See? Told you. “Private air force, actually,” I tell him, “but I'm also in the Air National Guard.”

        This is true. Ivan doesn't know about it, seeing as how I forged his signature and all, but I wanted more playtime in this world's military aircraft, and this seemed like the best way to get it. Legally, anyway. I like the jets here. They're as fun to fly as they are to chase, I'll give you that. Mmm…flight instructor Dave doesn't seem to think so, though. Got some problem with hurtling towards the ground at twice the speed of sound, or something. I can't see why - I always level out with a few feet…well, okay, inches…picky…to spare. It's a perfectly safe maneuver, I've done it lots of times. Ah well. The point is, I wasn't lying to the ROTC.

        Well, okay, so the “private air force” line was a bit of a stretch. But “corporate pilot for the Mob” and “Deep space flight gunner” sounded, well…like they'd net me some weird looks and land me in a pillowed cell. So I stretched things a bit.

        ROTC blinks. I'm not a psychic or anything, but I'm fairly certain the sum total of his thought process currently amounts to something along the lines of “Guuhhhh….” You can actually see him casting about for something to say to that. Luckily for me, he finds one quickly.

        “So…pilot, huh?” He mulls this over for a while. “Betcha never fired a gun then, huh?”

        “Oh, lots of guns, lots of times. Torpedoes and missiles, too. Oh, and the occasional laser rifle and death ray.” I smile.

        Again with the blank stare. To his credit, he blinks it away, rallying magnificently. “Yeah, but…that's nothin' like real firearms – magnums, M-16s, sniper rifles…that sort of thing…”

        I nod, grinning. “True, but I don't get many chances to use those. And even then, I like the laser cannons better. Less mess, and they can't lock up on you.”

        If this were a cartoon, his jaw would've just hit the floor. As it is, it's making an admirable attempt. I like this guy. He's fun to tease. How far can I push this before his brain short-circuits? “I don't suppose you've ever been in combat? Shot at more than just a cut-out target?” I ask innocently.

        Ah, see, there we go. He hits the bottom of awed stupidity and rebounds right into scoffing disbelief. “Heh. Good one. You almost had me there,” he laughs. It's tinged with a bit of nervousness, however; I sense a change of topic coming. “Haven't seen you at the range,” he ventures.

        “Nah, my boss's been keeping me busy lately.”

        “So, if you're so into guns 'n stuff, why're you a pilot instead in the Army? Don'cha like to fight?”

        Do I like to fight? Do I? Well, that depends, really. Sometimes, yeah, I just feel the need to whale on something. And sometimes I just smack someone silly because I don't feel like fighting. Can I fight? Hell, yeah. But I don't feel like explaining space pirates and intergalactic espionage and, well, D'Gal in general, so I opt for simply grinning evilly.

        Evidently the grin looked too much like a challenge for the kangaroo rat behind ROTC. “Huh. Betcha couldn't beat me in a fight,” he snorts, “I'm trainin' up with the Marines. You don't get any meaner 'en that.” He flashes us a predatory grin, and I have to fight down a laugh. I've seen rival looks that make this guy look like a puppy.

        And actually, you do. Get “meaner'en” a Marine. By my way of thinking, at least. I've sort of worked out this scale of mean over the years. It's not finished yet – I've yet to decide if D'Gal or a pain-crazed rabid space wolverine should top out the thing – but for reference, Mr. Macho doesn't score very high. I know lots of things that would gleefully fold him in half and use him as pita bread. As newborns. And things that would do far, far worse, if provoked. (“Provoked,” in this case, starts with breathing in their general vicinity and works its way out from there.)

        While I debate how to best break this to sir Macho over there, however, the instructor comes in with our tests and calls us to order – or at least a lesser state of chaos. It takes a while. Eventually it dawns on enough people that they can socialize after the test, and the room quiets down. The instructor recites the rules of engagement while distributing said tests – as well as calculators and pencils, to those of us that couldn't be bothered to bring our own – and so begins our “knowledge assessment.”

        I'll spare you my thoughts during the test. They were, after all, mostly along the lines of “When am I really going to need to know the square root of 257, the mass of an atom, the structures of a cell, or what a hanging participle is?” along with a smattering of oaths picked up from this or that species I met in my spacefarer days. I also borrowed rather heavily from various discussions I've overheard Ivan engaged in – swearing in other languages eases tension, you know. Even if you just think the words.

        When I finish, I walk the test up to the instructor and head out. He seems a little surprised, but I for one know I'm not about to find any more answers than what I've got in there already. Besides, I'm not the first one done. ROTC and the calculator kid are comparing answers on the front steps. I join them, just to get an idea of how much “remedial” work I'll be given.

        I'm in luck. ROTC seems to have done as well as I have. At least I'll have someone to practice reading See Spot Run with.

        ROTC's griping about the unfairness of tests and the inherent pressure they put students under and by golly he's not stupid, he just doesn't perform well under stress.

        And this guy wants to drive tanks? He's not long for the world.

        This, however, would not be a helpful thing to mention right now, so I tell him that book learning doesn't really matter if you don't need it to do your job. Calculator boy decides to point out that most jobs worth having expect an education, and that requires high test scores.

        I ask ROTC if he wants to spar. Calculator boy looks rather happy about this, as he was about to be pummeled. ROTC and I do some stretches to warm up, then square off.

        Have I mentioned I learned most of my fighting moves from the interstellar menace that is D'Gal? I tend to forget to do that. I really should, though, as a warning to the wise, or something like that. I think I got too used to the fact that Galaxia's crew knew enough to steer clear of me. Even Ivan's goons got the idea after one of them tried to get fresh with me a few months ago. (I think he's due to leave the hospital in a few weeks. They really did a great job of sewing his arm back up. And who needs a spleen, anyway?)

        My new friend swears it's just a bruised rib. I suspect anyone else who asks will be regaled with an account of a rogue Mack Truck. Oh well. I suspect I'll know more in a few weeks, when the home-schools meet up again.

        In the meantime, it's still mid-afternoon, and no one has any claims on my time until tomorrow. Well, none that I plan on honoring, at least. I think I'll paint the town vermillion. I've heard people do that here from time to time. Or perhaps I'll just swing by the arcade and shoot some zombies for a quarter. It definitely sounds cheaper than painting the entire town.

        I'll be in trouble for it later. But if Ivan didn't see this coming when he snagged a teenager to man his starships, that's not my problem. At least I don't angst over every little thing or giggle and screech at boy bands or something annoyingly unforgivable like that.

        Besides, if he didn't want that roll of bills taken, he'd've hidden it better.

        Mr. Macho joins us, looking torn between challenging me to an arm-wrestling match or asking ROTC why he looks like he's been hit by a car. He's spared from this decision by the sudden arrival of the admin biddies, who shrilly lecture us on the impropriety of fighting for fun and inform us that they're watching our every move. And as if that wasn't enough of a cue to leave, the fluff squad arrives a few minutes later, excitedly pouring over some ungodly teen magazine and discussing the finer points of – horror of horrors –makeovers. Now is a good time to set out for that arcade. I mention as much out loud. The mini-marine remarks that he brought his jeep; the guys and I draft it into service and set out for fun, adventure, and zombie killing.

        Ten minutes later, we pull into the mall parking lot with my confidence in this world's military severely shaken. Mr. Macho wimped out at 90 mph, and ROTC kept his eyes shut tight for the entire ride. I understand now why the Army and Marines concentrate on long, drawn-out assaults in campaigns where their weaponry is superior to the opposition (in numbers, training, or craftsmanship – your pick). Apparently everyone that doesn't feel ninety miles an hour is an insane speed to be cruising through narrow winding alleys at eventually signs up with the Navy or Air Force. Which, granted, explains the lack of supersonic aircraft in the other branches of the military, but still.

        Calculator Boy, on the other hand, has raised my opinion of him immensely. Not only did he not scream (like Mr. Macho), wet himself (the Technicolor Hamster), or cry like a baby (ROTC) – he actually seed to enjoy the ride. (This lends itself to my suspicion that Calc Boy will one day become a mad scientist.) He proceeds to commend me on my spectacular reflexes and mastery of mechanized displacement – in English, he proclaims me worthy of NASCAR. Therefore I forgive him the babbling about physics and the force of impact at such speeds and references to pulverized bodies and liquefied bones during the ride over. There's something to be said for scientific genius, after all.

        Namely, that a mad scientist won't call you loony as long as your interests lie close to theirs. Calculator Boy is a closet speed demon. Who knew? I'll have to invite him over for a flight or two. This could be fun.

        When Mr. Macho has sufficiently recovered enough manliness – and once he's finished patting the Jeep and crying “My poor baby, did she hurt you?” – he reclaims his keys and informs me that I will never, ever, ever drive his precious woobie again.

        I reply that as long as he's going to insist on crawling along at a snail's pace, it's probably best if I'm a passenger anyway. Boring me to sleep while I'm driving could be hazardous, after all.

        I'm halfway to the arcade before they recover and move to catch up.

        The next five hours consist of nearly nonstop racing (amazingly, Macho and ROTC can drive fast – if the danger is only simulated), fighting (Macho claims there is no such thing as a forty-hit combo. ROTC smirks as I prove him wrong. Twice. Gotta love that move…), and of course zombie-slaying (ROTC's a pretty good shot, and Macho's surprisingly accurate with a machine gun…). Calculator Boy does an excellent job of finding enemy bosses' weak spots. He also slaughters us in Tetris. And all forty subsequent rematches thereof.

        The arcade manager kicks us out at 10 pm, citing the fact that the arcade technically closed at nine. He seems sorry to see our money go, though, and reminds us that we're welcome back during daylight hours. We swing into a drive-through for a late dinner – Macho drives, of course, commenting on things like how much quieter the ride is at subsonic speeds – and then we descend upon a nearby 24-hour superstore until a pack of employees take up arms and herd us out the front doors at quarter to one.

        I don't see what their problem is. We didn't break anything, and I'll bet most of the sports equipment needed to be broken in, anyways. And we were planning on paying for the super soaker, bleach, and teletubby. Really.

        We're still hanging out in the parking lot, play-fighting and debating things like Major World Issues (the lack of all-night arcades and superstore employees with a sense of humor) and whether or not we should go grab more food when a cop car pulls up. I gotta admit, I have a brief flash of hope – but alas, these officers are not the two Ivan knows so well. They would understand we're not up to any sort of serious trouble; in fact, I half-suspect half the things they'd accuse us of considering are things they themselves have either attempted or seriously considered.

        Some people are just meant to bend the rules.

        The patrolmen before us, however, are not. And they know it. What are we doing out so late? Really, it's not a school night, why should they care? Are we up to no good? Well, the folks over in the Weldmart might think so, but we were just having fun. Try before you buy, after all. Are we aware that it's 3 a.m. and there's a midnight curfew for minors? Actually, no. Lucky for us, no one was wearing a watch. We plead ignorance, and the cops follow us back to the school, where my new friends split off and hike to their cars. By unspoken agreement, there's an understanding between us that runs somewhere along the lines of “tune in next week, same bat time, same bat channel…”

        Myself, I head for a big black Lincoln idling by the steps. Mac greets me sleepily.

        “See? T'ree o'clock an' heeere I am,” he drawls, words slurring together.

        This is perfect. Mac has given me the ultimate excuse for our prolonged absence: he went off, got drunk, and returned for me twelve hours later than planned. Virtuous soul that I am, I had of course fallen asleep waiting for him, which is why I never called for another ride. Beautiful, really. Ivan won't buy it, but I'll get points for creativity. That's really all I'll need. I wave Mac into the passenger seat, setting a leisurely pace for home.

        I love this job.

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