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Fan Fiction

Education by Dagorath

Education: Chapter I of IV
Date: 2 June 2006, 9:55 am

Tommy stirred in his computer chair. His eyes slowly opened and he blinked blearily, like a princess waking out of her enchanted sleep, looking out on a world she had left long ago. He rubbed his eyes and pushed himself strenuously out of his chair, before wiggling his mouse. The computer monitor fizzed on, revealing a slowly revolving image of his game character lying dead on the floor, sprawled spectacularly with one leg dangling over a yawning chasm. An assault rifle teetered on the brink for a second before falling into the blackness below. On his screen, it read: "9 seconds to resurrection."

Tommy flexed his fingers and stood up, before a coughing fit grabbed him by the chest and squeezed his stomach mercilessly. He fell back onto his chair, gasping.

A minute later, Tommy got up again and looked wearily at the screen. His character had been resurrected and was now being attacked by spawn-camping monsters. He reached forwards and reset his computer. He was so tired…. An endless night of gaming, lack of food and a kidney punch from Fat Mo had all taken their tolls on the gangly, stretched boy.

He looked at a digital clock suspended on the ceiling among loud game posters and discarded chip packets. 0630.


Tommy blurred into action. He had only five minutes to pack his bag, put on his uniform and catch the bus into town. Otherwise, he would have to wait another half hour….and that would certainly render him late. As he had learnt from long experience.

He rushed into the bathroom like an Olympic runner, grabbed his toothbrush and scrubbed quickly. Then he opened the tap and splashed some cold water onto his face, spilling a fair amount onto the floor and his T-shirt. Tommy then grabbed his comb and attacked his ruffled hair, to no effect. It still had a crumpled just-out-of-bed look. Too bad.

Tommy swivelled round and ran out, his left foot sliding on the pool of water, sending him yawning towards the door and tripping him on the threshold. He fell forwards and landed on his face with a muffled ooph.

He struggled up painfully and lurched back into his bedroom, pulling his clothes off and throwing them in a pile on the edge of his bed before struggling into his uniform. His shirt looked as though it had been having a tussle with his other clothes in his wardrobe. Damn.

Tommy threw his tie around his neck and chucked his textbooks into his bag. He glanced at the covers of the tomes as he did so. "Shit!" he shouted, almost simultaneously. An important piece of coursework, which he had been reminded of time and time again, was due this morning. He had not done it, of course.

Tommy stood stock-still, weighing each option in his head like a supercomputer….or perhaps more like the relics in the school ICT rooms. After a while, he heaved a huge sigh and pulled on his bag. He would just have to do it before class….

Tommy limped out of the house and stood at the bus-stop. The early-morning chill crept in between his buttons and swirled in the gap between his shirt and stomach. His eyes flicked, as they always did, towards a tall warehouse a few hundred metres away. The building had once been a supply depot, but it had been abandoned a decade before. Now, it was the headquarters of Paratrooper Productions, a major games studio.

Tommy adored Paratrooper. He had a whole stack of their games piled on a shelf, from their first game, a rather primitive FPS, to a classic released three years ago. The game he had been playing the previous night was their latest game, though it had been released more than a year ago. Tommy liked to look at the building while waiting for the bus, starring at the bright red sign, the posters of previous games and the locked doors that lead into the place of wonders. He had often fantasized of an employee inviting him in for a tour. His house was the only one near the warehouse and most of the employees said "Hi" when their paths crossed, but there had never been any hints of trips into heaven.

A loud rumble reached Tommy's ears from along the road. He looked up; the bus had arrived, like an old, untended dog. It slowed to a halt in front of him and disgorged a few Paratrooper employees dressed in casual T-shirts and jeans. There was a tense air to them this morning that Tommy had noticed increasing from a month or so ago. They hurried past him without a word, and he stared after them in wonder.

"You getting on, son?" the driver shouted, after a pause, pregnant for Tommy, empty for him.

"Oh, sorry," Tommy stammered. He walked quickly on board, paid his fare, and climbed up to the second deck. It was deserted except for an old couple holding hands near the middle; he ignored them and flung himself onto a seat at the back. Then he stared out the window moodily.

A wave of dread suddenly washed over Tommy, postponed by his frenzied gaming the previous night. Fat Mo would bully him again today. The brute liked to pick on anyone and everyone who did not fit his image of "cool", and that was most of the school. Tommy was his latest fad; he had endured taunts, blows and humiliation every day for the past fortnight. He had had lunch money grabbed, school books torn, dirtied clothes. Tommy still shuddered at night about it, when he wasn't furiously gaming or sleeping from total exhaustion.

Thoughts of Mo always turned Tommy back to his character in the Paratrooper game he was playing. It was tall, muscular, handsome and popular with girls. Tommy was very high level and he often talked with female gamers. In the game, he never got nervous or confused.

He heaved a sigh again and looked at the morning traffic. All too soon, the church bells chimed outside St. Dolby's Secondary School, a large, blocky, nondescript building with a small yard and beaten-up playground.

Tommy got off, still limping slightly from his fall earlier in the morning. One of Mo's cronies, Tall Boy, lounged at the gate, watching the students lazily and whistling at girls with no sense of shame whatsoever. Tommy pulled his bag higher and hunched his shoulders, trying vainly to appear small and unnoticeable. Tall Boy looked down his nose at him, but only raised an eyebrow in amusement.

Filled with trepidation at the reprieve, Tommy hurried up the stairs to his floor and crept into his classroom like a scout entering the camp of his enemies. It was covered in aging paint, cracks across the ceiling plaster like spider webs. Small, damaged desks littered the scuffed floor, arranged in vaguely straight lines. Students were arranged in separate pockets across the area. The leader of a huddle of girls near the front of the classroom, a beauty with a long, black mane of hair and stunning brown eyes, Annie, winked at Tommy as he tried to go unnoticed to his desk near the back. He blushed furiously and walked quicker. Upon his destination, he pulled a textbook from his bag and hid behind it.

There were sudden shouts of "Oh, my god!" from a nearby set of tables. A group of youths were huddled around a magazine, and, for once, it did not seem to be pornographic. Tommy laid his textbook down quietly and peeked over their shoulders, careful not to breathe on them. An entire page was devoted to a black background, on which was superimposed a white V. Near the bottom of the advertisement was a tiny man with a parachute on his back.

"Is that –" he began, his voice squeaking with excitement.

Tommy froze. Every one of the boys turned round and stared at him. He could feel their collective gazes on his face, beating on his brow like the sun. Tommy instinctively hunched up and shuffled backwards as the boys recovered their voices with shouts of: "Get out, you oddball!" "What you lookin' at, you geek?" "Do I know you? Cos if I don't you'd better fuck off!"

A single tear welled up in Tommy's eyes as he raised his Chemistry textbook up to his forehead, but he dried it with a tissue before it could travel down his cheek.

Registration passed as usual. Mrs Hemingway called out their names, starting with "Bradford, George" and ending with "Way, James" and was answered with bored "Here"s. The usual notices followed – Mrs Cooke's badminton club had changed its meeting date from Tuesday to Wednesday, Assembly was on the field instead of in the Hall, a certain Albert Maine had lost his calculator…. Tommy's mind drifted away to a world where he was a tall, handsome mercenary who slew hideous monsters and devious turncoats for a living. He had, in fact, received several engagement proposals from female gamers. One had been quite a looker – she had sent him her photograph – but he had to decline, albeit very reluctantly.

Tommy's eyes half-closed as he remembered a particularly spectacular episode where he, armed with only a pistol and a torch, crept inside a dungeon and rescued out a party of gamers who had been captured by a tribe of bloodthirsty ghouls. Tommy had disguised himself as the head honcho's leader's brother, infiltrated the ghouls, and killed them one by one as they came to seek advice from their chief, who he had disposed of in the privacy of the chief's hut. He had been snitched on by a ghoul who had only feigned death, and a spectacular gun battle ensued, where he popped shots from behind the ghouls' crudely constructed water closet…. If only he could be as brave and resourceful as his game character….

A loud klaxon blew Tommy's fantasies apart. He raised his head, which had slump down onto his chest in weariness, and looked wildly at the clock. The bell for the start of the first lesson had just gone.

He leapt up, grabbed his bag and rushed out of the classroom towards the first lesson – History. Racing through drab corridors and dark stairways, he screeched to a halt outside a classroom. Tommy took a deep breath and pushed the door open.

"- the Human-Covenant –" Mr Hay stopped abruptly and looked at Tommy. The collective gaze of the rest of the class swivelled over from the teacher's desk, the window and each other to him. The clutch of boys who had been looking at the game magazine previously laughed quietly. Tommy took no notice, but his heart sank when Annie frowned in disgust.

"Well, Mr Scott," Hay sneered. "You've just set a new record for yourself! This is the earliest time you have ever arrived at my lessons!" There were nasty snickers from most of the class. "I think the boy deserves a merit!"

"Sir –" Tommy began warily.

"No, I mean it." Hay smiled cruelly. He waited expectantly until Tommy laid his bag down onto the floor and pulled his diary slowly out, feeling as though he were pulling a piece of flesh off himself. Impatiently, Hay reached down, snatched it off him, and flicked to the Merit page. Tommy had managed to procure several, not because of his grades – they were awful – but because he liked to help teachers out during breaks and lunchtimes. Helplessly, he saw Hay sign his signature and write: "Early to class."

Tommy closed his eyes in anger. He could never "cash in" his Merits anymore: such an odd reason for one would prompt an enquiry, and Hay would tell all.

"Thank you, sir," Tommy said stiffly, taking back his diary. He walked to his place amid jeers and catcalls.

Savouring the moment for a while, Hay licked his lips almost obscenely. He watched Tommy sit down, ears glowing red from anger and embarrassment, before saying: "The Human-Covenant war was started by us, the humans. A peaceful Covenant ship had been observing Harvest, an Outer Colony, considering humans' potential to be assimilated into the Covenant, and we humans attacked it. It was forced to retaliate. After destroying Harvest's fleet, we began to man the ground-to-space missiles and the Covenant ship was forced to send down warriors to quell the populace.

"Admiral Cole, who now resides in a lunatic asylum in Africa, sent a battlegroup to attack the Covenant ship, with orders to shoot first and ask questions later. The Covenant ship was forced to eradicate the battlegroup, much to its regret."

Not all the class was listening, but they were all pretending to be hunched over their notes, taking in Hay's narration. Tommy, having dreamily been contemplating the back of Annie's beautiful head, had forgotten to pretend likewise. He was spotted by Hay.

"Scott, have you taken any notes?"

"Y-yes, sir," Tommy replied hurriedly. He fished inside his bag for a sheet of paper and a pencil.

"Well, smart-boy," Hay sneered, "what happened after the Covenant ship implemented self defence against the battlegroup?"

A pause. "Don't know, sir."

"Exactly," Hay said smugly. "I want a thousand-word essay on the War from you by tomorrow!"

Tommy sighed inwardly. Today was even worse than usual.

"The answer to the question that I asked Tommy was that one ship escaped from rightful death. It limped back to Cole and Cole marshalled the largest fleet in UNSC history, setting out to attack any Covenant they came across. Desolate at the thought of humans' probably non-existent salvation, the Covenant decided to destroy the human colonies, so that our scourge could not spread to the rest of the galaxy.

"Cole destroyed the ship near Harvest, and it sold its life dearly. Then he began on a path of blood and terror, attacking the locations of all known Covenant sightings, destroying any of the brave ships they found. Fortunately, the valour of the Covenant warriors and their high level of technology finally destroyed Cole's death-fleet.

"Over the years, the Covenant destroyed all the Outer and Inner UNSC colonies, culminating in the destruction of Reach, an important human dockyard and command planet, from which much of the human virus seeped."

"Sir, what of the Spartans?" an obsequious voice asked. Tommy looked up. The source was an ugly-looking youth with a head of dusty brown hair that most girls seemed to find sexy. His name was Robert and he had recently been considering joining Fat Mo's gang.

Tommy was struck suddenly with a feeling of pity for Robert. He, like many others, thought Mo the height of cool and power. He was anything but. Robert was in for a cruel awakening.

Perhaps he could get some people on his side to crush Mo permanently. Several boys had had their girlfriends forced off them by Mo's gang; countless more terrorised by him and his cronies. One Chinese boy had been repeatedly beaten by Mo, because he was not allowed to defend himself with the Wing Tsun he had learnt from a child, for fear that he would send Mo and his gang to hospital, if not the morgue. There was one ally that Tommy might be able to get….then again, the conceiver of this ingenious scheme was not particularly popular with very many people in school either….

"- their shields were stolen off the Elites' designs, and the armour surprisingly well-made. They, through a mixture of cunning trickery and blatant cheating, stole many victories off the noble Covenant. Fortunately, most of them died on Reach and a horrific attack on the Covenant's command-and-control station, the Unyielding Hierophant."

"There was one left, though, sir?" a girl near Annie asked. "The….Master Chief?"

"Spartan-117 has been stripped of his rank and listed as beyond-salvage. And, yes, he did escape the Covenant, despite being the Spartans' leader, through the manipulating of many brave men who had been unwillingly dragged into the fight. One of those is Commander Miranda Keyes, the daughter of the disgraced Captain Keyes – the Covenant does not believe in the sins of the father being passed down to the daughter, so she has been allowed to keep her rank. She was forced by Spartan-117, who coordinated his efforts with the traitor Lord Hood, to follow a Covenant capital ship containing the Prophet of Regret into Slipspace. 117's foolish efforts had forced the Prophet to do the jump in the middle of a city, and it is the Spartan's actions that destroyed New Mombassa, not the Covenant's."

"But where is 117 now?" came a voice, floating through Tommy's thoughts. He had been admiring the light-blue strap of Annie's bra, barely visible through the back of her thin white blouse. Vainly, he tried to straighten and pretend to have been listening with rapt attention the whole while. But Hay was not looking at him. A gleeful, fanatical gleam danced in his eyes, giving his visage a terrible, twisted light, as he stared out the window.

"His whereabouts are unknown. 117 was in the company of a Sergeant Johnson, who suffers from a rare but horrific nervous disease that perverted his mind to obey the Spartan, and a battalion of ODSTs and Marines forced into their service. Keyes's family has already filed charges against the Spartan, rape most prominently. Given his past history of bloodshed and necrophilia, I don't think Spartan-117 would hesitate before stooping as low as to assault Ms. Keyes. Who knows, he probably learnt it from the evil Captain Jacob Keyes, who has had many posthumous charges filed against him."

The class sat in resonating silence at the revolting potential of the changeling Spartan-117. Hay smiled at their horror for a while before saying: "It's getting near the bell, kids. I'll go into the caste system of the Covenant next lesson." He glanced at Tommy, who was thrusting his untouched paper back into his bag. "And I remember the essay, Scott!"

Tommy pushed past the desks in front and walked quickly out of the classroom, slamming the door behind him.

Education: Chapter II of IV
Date: 16 June 2006, 9:28 am

Tommy had left so early that he arrived in the next period – Biology – ten minutes ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, there were not enough tables in the laboratory for him to get one to himself, and he had been forced to share a table with a group of youths who liked to play Pokemon cards at break.

He slammed his bag down, flung out his textbook and, uncharacteristically, pen and paper, and glowered at the door moodily. Group by group of students filed, first the gamer boys, then a clutch of Chinese girls, all wearing pigtails of varying lengths. After the girls came Annie and her ugly – well, maybe they were just outshone – friends; Tommy's Pokemon desk-mates, discussing the merits of Charizard versus Umbreon; Robert and his cronies swaggering in, followed by their Biology teacher himself. Mr Cairne was a short, squat man who wore oddly stylish T-shirts and jeans – a huge contrast from the cardiganed Mr Hay.

"Right," Cairne began decisively. Shockingly, his shirt was black, with a white V on top, which elicited surprised gasps from the gamer boys and Tommy. But he merely grinned and continued: "Today, I want you to work in groups on a project….selective breeding." He consulted his planner. "Yes, a project on selective breeding."

Tommy sighed inwardly. If they made their own groups, no one would pick him; if the teacher assigned groups, he was excluded and ignored. He could never fit in.

Cairne had picked for them this time. The Chinese girls got mostly into one group, but one of their number was spliced with the Pokemon boys, much to her apprehension, and one of Robert's cronies. A friend of Annie's, paired with more of Robert's cronies and some of the gamer boys, began to cry.

Tommy ignored Cairne as he continued reading out the names. Instead, he looked at Annie, who was staring out the window. The morning sun played on her finely-sculpted features, and her eyes gleamed in the light. She looked for a moment like a life-sized gold statue with ebony hair, her beauty eternal, everlasting.

Annie got paired with her remaining friends and Robert. Tommy himself was forced with the remaining gamer boys, who didn't even bother collecting him. Instead, they began gossiping about Cairne's shirt, pointing repeatedly to their leader's magazine a little way away. Tommy sat down on a chair as far away as possible from them and glared at the scudding clouds.

A while later, he felt a light touch on his arm. Tommy spun round – Annie was sitting on a stool not two feet away from him. Her friends were flirting with Robert, who seemed to lack taste as well as a brain, at least in Tommy's opinion.

"Bored?" the goddess asked.

"Oh," Tommy replied, flustered. "I guess I never work well in these group things…."

"Same here!" Tommy's heart leapt. "They never seem to work properly, always gossiping about inane things." She paused. "Well, it's OK when we're not doing group work," she finished fairly.

Tommy nodded absently. He was too busy admiring her.

"Say, why don't we make our own group? Two of us are enough." She leant closer. Tommy could smell a fresh, seductive scent. "You have it in you. I don't get why you never try…." She gave him a small smile and, grabbing his hand, pulled him up. Then she hurried towards Cairne, who was hunched over his laptop with a frown on his face.

Tommy walked in a dream. If he died now, he would be more than content.

Annie gripped his hand for reassurance and walked up to Cairne, who was doing something very uncharacteristic for a Biology teacher – he was typing what looked suspiciously like game code onto a text file. Tommy tried to peek over his shoulder, and Cairne looked up, annoyed.

"Mr Cairne," Annie began, taking the motion for a cue, "can Tommy and I form a group together? We don't like…."

"Go ahead, you two…." Cairne replied distractedly. He waved his hand vaguely, and Annie grinned. Tommy grinned right back.

He practically danced out of Biology. His head reeled as if he had drunk a good deal too much – he had not only spent an entire lesson in Annie's company, he had not said too many embarrassing things, and she had not called him an idiot once.

He pranced down the corridor, along a flat stretch of ground and out onto the playground. No one except the first years played on it any more, and they were out in droves, but it was roughly the centre of the school and so everyone had to pass it to go elsewhere. Everything seemed to have a new, bright shade of colour; even the beaten-up old swings emanated a beauty in their own right.

Something marred the sunshine. Perched on the top of the slide was Tall Boy, and he was looking for someone.

Instinctively, Tommy tried to melt into the crowd. But the combination of the slide and Tall Boy's own considerable height gave Mo's crony too good a vantage point, and he spotted Tommy easily. Jumping smoothly down like a hawk homing in on its prey, he waded through the crowd and grabbed Tommy's shoulder.

"Hello, Tommy boy," he sneered.

"Hello, Alistair," Tommy replied, addressing Tall Boy by his real name, one that caused him considerable embarrassment whenever it was mentioned. He felt deliciously reckless.

Tall Boy gnashed his teeth, and his fingers tightened painfully on Tommy's flesh, but he did not reply. He shoved Tommy forwards and pulled him over to a nearby classroom.

Mo headed an autocracy. He sat sprawled, obese and decadent, on the teacher's chair, with his head cronies on harder chairs near him. Hangers-on and minor characters stood, backs straight, lined up against the far wall. In all of their eyes were obscene gleams of anticipation as Tall Boy shoved Tommy in and shouted like a herald: "King Mo, Tommy is here as requested."

"Excellent," the head bully said lethargically. "How did you grade that kidney punch I gave you yesterday, Tommy?"

Tommy was filled with a dangerous overconfidence. "When I got home, my little brother punched me in the other kidney," he lied – he had no brothers of any kind. "That kidney hurt more than the one you punched."

"Oh, really?" Mo snarled. He pointed at several runty boys lined up on the floor. "Mash him."

"Yes, sire!" The children, eleven or twelve years old, seemed very keen to prove themselves. Grinning savagely, they advanced, cracking their knuckles. A shiver ran down Tommy's back, like the icy feet of some small animal. He had always been weak and sickly, right from birth – it was one of the reasons his biological parents split up. Throughout his childhood, he had never been a strong boy, never played much with other children. Tommy was left with very few social skills and no friends at all offline. Don't even mention fighting skills.

With wild yells, the four executioners leaped at Tommy. All bravado forgotten, he raised his arms, covered his head, and ran backwards. They knocked him down and one straddled his waist. Without thinking, Tommy kicked wildly with his feet, and he felt his shoe collide with one boy's groin – the victim had been about to leap on top of him. The youth yelled out in pain and retreated, stumbling backwards and grabbing his crotch, to raucous laughter from Mo and his cronies.

Meanwhile, the boy on top of Tommy was fisting him in the face. He raised his arms again and felt the blows crash onto his forearms. His wrists knocked against each other and sometimes lucky blows would cuff him on the ear or knock him on the nose. Tommy flailed wildly, but felt his arms being pinioned to his sides. The other two boys were now lifting him up by the feet.

Tommy bit the boy holding his hands down. The youth yelled out as the blood oozed over his skin, and Tommy felt a savage satisfaction. With an almighty effort, he pulled his arms apart and grabbed onto a pair of table legs.

The two remaining boys pulled as the bitten boy kicked his ribs. Tommy felt slightly faint, but his hands clamped onto the desk like steel bands. For a single moment, there was a dead silence.

Then it was broken as the boys strained suddenly. Tommy let go. The momentum of the boys pulling made Tommy fly through the air between them, yelling hoarsely, and as he flew, he flung each arm out sideways and – impossibly – clouted them each in the face. Then with a muffled ooph, he slammed into the opposite wall and fell heavily onto the floor.

Mo roared with laughter. "The boy's got lead in his pencil after all!" he shouted. He waved airily, but his visages hardened when he saw his four underlings sprawled on the floor. "These haven't though. Huh!"

Tommy picked himself up, wiping blood off his nose, and hurried out the door to the sound of his tormentors being soundly beaten for his failure. Something huge and angry had come to life within him. It clawed at his chest and stomach and roared.

Education: Chapter III of IV
Date: 30 June 2006, 7:03 am

The bell for the third lesson sounded. For most, it was the call to return to drudgery; for Tommy, it signified an ending within him. He had never been aggressive and had never laid hands on anyone, let alone four people….normally it was him who got struck. An obscenely wild exhilaration filled him. He felt sick.

Tommy swung the English classroom door, covered in scratched paint and doorknob oiled by hundreds of sweaty hands, open and strode over the threshold. As he did so, the memory of the early morning came back to him in a flash – he had forgotten to do the coursework he had resolved to do once he was in school. He was filled to the seams with an unhealthy nonchalance and recklessness. Tommy remembered him smashing his hands onto the boys' faces as they pulled him – it was an accidental act at the time, but he now saw it as a well-planned and intentional attack – and Annie smiling at him that morning in Biology, and he melded the two moments together – Annie smiling at him while he clobbered the youths. Filled with this encouraging, if not entirely or even vaguely correct, vision, Tommy swaggered to his seat at the back and sat down with a flourish.

Mr Pince, their English teacher, swept in in a cloud of silk after a minute or two. Pince was flamboyance incarnate. Today, he wore a silk shirt covered with a rainbow-coloured dragon, its eyes blazing, its claws outstretched, its spines bristling. His pants were black, flared and covered in colourful spray-painted circles and squares. Tommy felt a little blinded and bewildered.

He shook his head. If he was now commenting on teachers' clothing, something odd had happened to his brain.

"Hello, class," Pince boomed. His voice was as flamboyant as his clothes. "I hope you are all keeping well!" Many students whispered mocking jokes to one another. "Before you hand in your coursework, I would like to bring your intellectual attention to a newspaper article I spotted earlier…."

The class collectively sat back and got comfortable as Pince began rambling about a writer who had received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tommy inched his hand inside his bag, rummaged for a sheet of paper, and pulled a pen from his pocket. Then he set the paper upon his knee and carefully wrote: "Is the use of human medical technology a viable solution to make us worthy of the Covenant?" before underlining the text carefully without his ruler. There was a skill to be demonstrated here – the whole essay had to be completed in a very short time, yet look as though it had been written the previous afternoon, preferably after one or two drafts.

Tommy finished his first paragraph in a minute: "The Covenant, consisting of the graceful Drones, the team-working Jackals, the strong and intelligent Brutes, and the wise Prophets, are impossible to rival in any way. However, humanity can make inroads by increasing brain power using psycho-enhancement drugs, strength through steroids and longevity through low-calorie diets." He ran an expert eye over it: clear, unhurried script, dated a week before.

Tommy had by now printed another paragraph illustrating the qualities of the Covenant races in greater depth. Too late. Pince was nearing the end, and many people were stirring in their seats. He sped up, his pen flying across his paper

A minute later, Pince was collecting coursework in, starting from the students in the front row. Tommy frowned. He'd have to make an excuse up. Unfortunately, Pince had heard most of them before. He watched as the billowing, fat figure, comic and yet vaguely threatening at the same time, moved down the rows, taking thick, ten-page essays with quiet words of: "Oh, well done, Michael" or "Excellent, thank you, my dear." Pince wound down carefully, and shot a quick glance at Tommy, who was furiously writing on his lap with tell-twitches of his shoulder.

As Pince paused before the seat of the gamer boys' leader, his mobile phone rang. "God Save the Queen" blared out with a triumphant chorus of voices in the classroom and Pince reached lethargically into his pocket, pulling the slim object out. "Yes?" he asked cheerily. After around one second, the smile fell off his face like water rolling off a marble wall. His voice turned into a hoarse, terrified whisper and his eyes widened in horror as he listened to the person at the other end with exclamations of: "Oh, my god!" and "No, that's not possible…."

"OK, see you there," Pince finished after a while. He dropped his phone back into his pocket and said hurriedly: "I have an urgent family matter to attend to. Put the coursework on my desk; I'll be back as soon as I can." With sweat pouring down his forehead, Pince swept out in a flurry of silk that was nowhere near as graceful as when he had entered.

Feeling as though he had been saved from the death row, Tommy sighed in relief. The mysterious phone call had saved him from humiliation in front of Annie, and that meant a great deal more to him than before. He sat back and grinned at the sun smiling through the window.

"You did do that coursework, didn't you?" a voice asked beside him accusingly. Annie was reclined on the edge of the seat next to him, he long, smooth legs crossed before her.

"Of course," Tommy replied confidently. "Had it all thrashed out, every point listed."

"Why don't you give it in then?" Annie asked shrewdly.

"Oh, later," he replied airily, and quickly switched to a new topic. "Say, are you watching the upcoming match between the French and the Moroccans?" As he did so, his eyes flicked over her features, from her glossy dark hair to her beautiful, orb-like eyes; from her exquisite neck to her round, firm breasts. His eyes flicked up once more to hers and, to his horror, he saw that she had been watching him.

With a faint smile, Annie said: "No, but I think the Moroccans…."

It was nearing the end of the lesson. No supply teacher had come, and Pince had not reappeared. They had talked about anything under the sun, from the curfew to be announced by the Covenant authorities later that month to Mr Pince's "family matter"; from the recent new album released by the pop group "Confectioner's Sugar" to the news of Sangheili rebels leading an insurgency in Santa Fe.

If he walked on air after Biology, Tommy now leaped amongst the stars as they left the English classroom. It was surprisingly easy talking to her, and their conversation had gone even better than the ones he had imagined in his dreams. The sun shone dazzlingly on St Dolby's in a blaze of glory.

The duo strolled out of the classroom down the stairs. Though they weren't standing particularly closely together, Tommy could see incredulous and even jealous looks being shot at him. For a second, he felt a frisson of selfish pleasure, then with a bitter tone, a voice burst out involuntarily within him: "Who would want to go out with an oddball like me?"

He lapsed back into his old gloomy thoughts as they walked further down the stairs. They exchanged few words and Annie turned round at around the first floor and to talk animatedly to a boy behind her. She was grinning and, Tommy thought gloomily, "she never smiled so wide when talking to me". His eyes dulled and they did not seem to register anything in their sight. He could only feel his feet tramping down, down, towards a hell where no one wanted to be near him –

"Finally! Took a while to get rid of him," Annie breathed in his ear. He spun round with a look of surprise on his face. Annie was rotating her jaw slowly, as though all the previous grinning had hurt her cheek muscles. "That idiot keeps trying to curry my favour, I have no idea why." She frowned slightly at his incredulous look of joy. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," Tommy replied quickly. "Erm…." They talked happily down to their Maths classroom, where Annie arranged for Tommy to sit on the end of a row of desks, then herself to his right, and then her friends to her right – a drastic change from before, when Tommy used to sit at the back, his usual haunt, and sulk, just like in every other lesson. Once she sat down, she was immediately pounced on by her friends, who whispered and pointed at Tommy like a crowd of angry conspirators who were yet too afraid to face their target openly.

He ignored them. Instead, he pulled his Maths textbook out – it was still quite crisp because of disuse – and planted it on his lap before scanning every page with the expert eye of a master reviser-at-last-minute. Soon, he had grasped enough of the concepts of their current chapter to help Annie when she, dismissing her friends' accusations with a casual wave of her hand, to an accompanying chorus of "We're only trying to save you!", turned round to start work with him. His dextrous brain, which had not seen much proper use lately, churned out innovative solutions and smart answers to cover his tracks. Annie was suitably impressed.

They were at a particularly diabolical question ("Show that the 2n multiples of 4 is 4n(2n+1)") when there came the sound of thumping footsteps on the classroom corridor. Tommy peeked through the left window – his position on the end of the row gave him an excellent view through it – and jumped visibly.

"What is it?" Annie asked, lifting her eyes from diabolical workings-out.

"Look," Tommy breathed. He pointed outside. Two huge, ape-like aliens with wicked-looking fangs and enormous, furred muscles were tramping down the pristine corridor, clad in crude and bulky-looking armour made of something that looked horribly like human bones. Tommy could identify part of a skull, several femurs and various ribs clanking on the Brutes' frames like funeral bells. Their fur and armour was covered in a dark, red substance that looked half-congealed and glinted evilly in the sunlight.

"Woah…." Annie leaned across him to look. He could smell a faint perfume floating from her hair, like the smell of a crisp, clear morning with a light, scented wind, and felt slightly intoxicated, despite his fright.

Their Maths teacher Mr Broode, a jolly-looking, pinstripe-suited man, who was standing a row behind them, saw the two aliens at their classroom door and rushed over, opening it hurriedly and asking: "How may I help you –"

"Out of my way!" one of the Brutes growled. He cuffed Broode on the head with the back of his armoured hand. The man swayed slightly, and then fell down like a puppet that had its strings cut, with a crash, onto the classroom floor.

Several of the students shouted out in surprise and rage, and got up to help Broode, but a glare from the Brutes made them sit down again reluctantly.

The Brutes swept their gazes around the classroom, ignoring the looks of fear and enmity they received. For one horrible moment, one of the creatures stared Tommy straight in the eye, and his mind felt pierced like a lance by the cunning evil in the alien's head. The Brute grinned obscenely, baring his teeth. For an electric moment, Tommy cringed backwards, held in place by the creature's gaze. Annie's eyes widened and she grasped Tommy's right hand tightly.

Then the contact was broken. The alien shut its mouth and resumed its search. Both creatures' gazes fell at the same time on Michael, a dark-haired youth who was one of Robert's friends, sitting near the other end of the classroom. They bared their teeth savagely. With superhuman speed, the creatures leaped towards the boy, laughing gutturally. Several girls began crying in fright, and their sobs seemed to strangely harmonise with the Brutes' broken grunting….a horrible symphony. Michael leapt out of his chair in fright and, for a moment, his eyes flashed in defiance, then his shoulders slumped and Tommy could hear a hissing sound. The boy had urinated in his pants.

One of the Brutes grabbed Michael by the arm and threw him bodily towards the front of the classroom, where there was a wide gap between the whiteboard and the desk to facilitate the teacher's pacing. Michael slammed onto the ground, amid more screams, and struggled up slowly. He made a dash for the door, but too late. The Brutes had already run back to the front of the room.

"You first," one Brute growled in English. The other inclined his head in mocking graciousness and grabbed Michael by the throat as he tried to flee. With an uninterested expression on his face, he threw the boy into the air with his left arm and slammed his right armoured knuckles into Michael's back. With a wild cry, the boy flew towards the other Brute, who kicked him so hard in the stomach that he flew back into midair. He vomited out a huge, red fountain of blood that leapt on high and splashed the whiteboard, the floor and the teacher's desk.

With a whimper, Annie buried her head in Tommy's chest. He put his arms around her gently and covered her eyes, but his own were wide open as he watched the murderers pass Michael to and fro simply by the force of their mighty blows. He whimpered, very softly, each time the boy received another fist or foot, though the victim himself was now unable to utter any more cries. The chorus of screams and cries echoing through the classroom seemed to provide accompaniment to the sounds of breaking bones and rupturing organs.

Suddenly, with unspoken consent, one of the Brutes caught Michael, and Tommy's heart leapt for a moment in hope. Then the creature grabbed Michael by the back of the neck and slammed his forehead with terrific force into the whiteboard. Everyone jumped. With a terrific crack, the whiteboard split apart and a small dent appeared in the wall underneath, while Michael's broken body slid down the wall onto the sprawled body of the unconscious Mr Broode, leaving a horrific red stain on the wall. Everyone's faces were stained with tears, Tommy realised as he looked around in fear, except for one of the gamer boys'. The youth was gripping the edge of his desk in a white-knuckled vice, and on his face was a look of grim determination.

The Brutes patted their hands off and did a high-five together. The moment was so surreal that Tommy almost laughed….but when the Brutes kicked Mr Broode in the ribs on the way out, his heart hardened to pure hatred. A low growl rumbled out of his throat, but he kept his mouth tightly shut in prudence.

The pain of the kicks seemed to have awakened Mr Broode. His eyes fluttered open and was immediately confronted by Michael's blood-stained body sprawled on his own. He kicked his legs wildly, yelling with high-pitched squeaks, as though his lower half were in the maw of some horrific monster, and his spasms flipped Michael over. Michael's bloodstained head now stared up at the ceiling. Grey brain fluid dripped from the colossal crack in his skull onto the floor, and his eyes, popped by the Brutes' hard, long-nailed fingers, gazed unseeingly up at the overhead fan. A thin trickle of blood flowed from the corner of his mouth onto the already-stained floor.

Those who weren't screaming began doing so at around this point.

Author's Note: I hope this chapter freaked you out too. The maths question comes from Heinemann's Core 1 Mathematics textbook. I finished the dang book last year but only found out how to prove the equation I set Tommy and Annie while correcting the draft of this chapter. Heh.

Education: Chapter IV of IV
Date: 28 July 2006, 3:28 am

Author's Note: Sorry about the long wait. I have just found my true calling – vexel art. You can see my first piece on my deviantArt (I use the same username there as here). Anyway, typed this up on Friday morning (where I live), hope you guys like it. To remind you of the storyline: a guy called Tommy comes into school, sees his classmate get killed. Now, wasn't that succinct?

Tommy stood at the classroom windows, staring out into the city. Drab skyscrapers slouched as far as the eye could see, their dull eyes reflecting the sunlight, changing it from a bright yellow ray to a dim brown glow. He could see suited men and women, their clothing covered in New Mombassa's cloying dust, walking wearily to restaurants, fast-food chains or other eateries, dragging their feet. Occasionally, a large, purple Shadow transport would carry regiments of Brutes or Jackals past a street, its mounted cannon a reminder of the real rulers of New Mombassa. Beggars sat outside every lobby and at every street corner.

A few Brutes swaggered from their plain-coloured barracks a few blocks from the school. They saw a child vomit on the pavement, probably because of having to eat the disgusting algae the Covenant grew for human consumption, they immediately pounced on the boy, smacking him hard on the face with their hard fingers and scratching his cheeks. The boy's mother tried to defend him, stretching her arms in front of the child, only to be flung aside by one of the aliens. She flew headfirst onto the road and into a passing Ghost, which decapitated her with one of its aerofoils. Tommy could see the Brute in the driver seat cackle.

He turned away from the horrific scene, though he could imagine the child's screams and the frightened cries of the watching populace. His class was sitting blank-eyed in a state of severe shock. Occasionally, one would burst into furious tears or begin shouting, banging fists onto the walls, then sit back down abruptly. They had all been horrified at the attack on Michael, but perhaps even more by the frantic, desperately flimsy explanations the Principal gave as a Brute lieutenant stood nearby. Mr Hay, their History teacher, had slapped a detention on the entire class for "slandering our great rulers". Tommy nearly boiled over then, but now everyone was silent. The room felt chill.

Michael's parents had come tearfully to enquire, but the class was too distraught to give any coherent description, and they left soon after. An ambulance carried Broode to the hospital, where his condition was said to be "stable but serious". Their Maths classroom had been sealed off and a cleaning company summoned to remove the blood and debris. A mason was coming to fix the wall; a new whiteboard had already been ordered.

The proceedings had taken nearly the whole of Lesson Five. They were sworn forcibly to silence and their numbers were taken down by the Brutes. For the remaining time left of the last period, the teachers had deposited them back in their form classroom.

Tommy shook himself from his thoughts and looked to his right. Annie had been watching him steadily the whole time. He frowned, and called her name.

"Nothing," she dismissed, but with a slight tremour in her voice.

"No, really…."

"Don't talk to me!" she snapped, her dark eyes flashing. They locked gazes for a moment, and then she tore her eyes away and stared out the window resolutely. Tommy watched her as her eyes slowly brimmed with tears. Then she got up and flung her arms around him.

"Why?" she wailed. "Why did they do it? What crime had he committed?" Her voice was muffled in his chest.

Tommy could think of nothing to say. His eyes glanced towards Robert, and the other boy seemed to understand. "He was brewing a revolution," the youth said flatly. The class sat up collectively.

"A revolution," Robert repeated tonelessly. "He was posting the truth on blogs all over the internet. He formed some sort of union with the webmasters of other revolutionary websites. They organised a protest rally in Nairobi."

Robert laughed humourlessly. "Needless to say, they were rounded up en masse. The Covenant wanted them to be fed to the Jackals, but somehow they managed to wriggle out." He gestured helplessly. "Seems like he had used up all his luck that time.

"After their release, they went underground totally. I think they got violent too – they sent several suicide bombers into barracks and administrative buildings, though Michael never gave any places or names. They communicated using Latin – a dead language and deemed not worthy learning by the Covenant – and got AIs from the War to encrypt the messages. The Covenant's AIs were never anything on our own – at least, no Covenant AI can ever defeat its human smart AI counterpart – but the Covenant could force human programmers and scholars to crack – and interpret – Michael's codes.

"For a while there was good news. One of Michael's associates found a Spartan – Linda – hiding in a cave in Tibet, far from the railway, of course. Rumour is that, at one time, they had a battalion of Marines of the old days – not the Peace Army crap nowadays – and several ONI agents who had hid out in the ruins of Earth HighCom." Robert sighed. "At one time. Several days ago, one reported to Robert that their base had been infiltrated and almost everyone slaughtered."

Tommy and Robert locked gazes. For a moment, Tommy could see his condolences had been accepted….then each averted their eyes once more. The classroom was silent once more, each busy with his or her own thoughts.

He walked through the school playground towards the gates, gazing listlessly at the laughing first-years on the slide, older students staring intently together at magazines or teachers standing on the first floor, chatting over cups of lukewarm coffee. The façade was so complete; Michael and his friends were, and had always been, fighting a losing battle. Humans had always pretended they had freedom. They debated endlessly about the merits of each presidential candidate, queried about travelling into South Africa with the lightning-fast Tube, and fantasised about retiring to the new housing development in Mozambique. No one mentioned, or paid attention to the fact that, the real power was wielded by the Prophet of Truth sitting in Noah's Seat, the Tube was powered by Covenant levitation technology - everyone's numbers could be easily tracked therein, and the Mozambique houses were right next to a Covenant research lab, where they could tap into a ready supply of humans from the blocks nearby.

He hitched his bag higher, glanced at his watch – 1530, ten minutes after the end of school – and stepped out the school gate. He was struck by a sudden, uncharacteristic thought that his children would face even more manipulation.

"Tommy!" a high, clear voice called behind him.

He turned. Annie's face was slightly flushed, as though she had run over to him from the central school buildings. She was holding a tearstained handkerchief that she now used to wipe off a few droplets of sweat off her smooth forehead. He raised his eyebrows, waiting for her to catch her breath.

"Erm," she began hesitantly, "Tommy….thank you for being there for me, you know, in Maths…." Her voice trailed away.

"No problem," Tommy replied reflexively. They stared at each other for a while, and then the side of Tommy's face twitched. Annie's lips widened into a big grin, and Tommy, too, smiled broadly back.

He nodded, turned round, and strode towards the bus stop. His face could not stop grinning, but tears began to trickle from his eyes. He stared hard at the sign listing the stops the bus made, even though he rode it every school day.

Tommy stepped off the bus and walked up the path to his lone house, as usual glancing towards Paratrooper's studio to the right. All of its walls were covered with black cloths, as though in mourning, but on every hanging was a white V.

He shrugged and stepped up to his home door. As he pushed his key into the lock, he felt a thrill of fear, a little like an icy rivulet of water running up his spine, from the small of his back to the base of his neck. Tommy peered round cautiously, but nothing caught his eye.

He stepped in and pushed aside a few chip packets and aluminium cans. Re-entering his home felt as though the whole day had been a dream….or maybe it was like falling back asleep.

He flung his bag aside towards a poster showing a computer-generated woman with an enormous bust, grabbed a Coke from the fridge, opened it, took a swig, and dropped himself onto the easy chair.

What a day! He still felt rather bewildered. He had managed to stop Mo bothering him again, something he still wondered at. Perhaps it was only a farce, and Mo was going to be back at it the next day. Far more importantly, he had witnessed the public killing of one of his own classmates by two Brutes. The truth about the Covenant had finally been revealed. He felt like Neo in The Matrix.

The red pill or the blue pill? he mused. Perhaps it had already been chosen for him.

And then there was Annie. Biology and English seemed a little too much like flirting to him, but she had hugged him for comfort, not one of her girlfriends, in Maths. But he couldn't be sure…. Perhaps, if it had been any other boy, she would have done the same. Maybe, even, she was leading him on….?

Never! Annie would never do that….would she?

Surely when she thanked him for being there, she was being sincere? Perhaps she was still leading him on then, or maybe she wanted to use him for her own benefit some day.

I ought to have said more then, Tommy thought. Perhaps she would have given me a hug again, or even a kiss…

As he imagined himself holding her beautiful face, he dropped his Coke can onto the parquet floor. Tommy's eyes closed slowly. The wind came rustling in from the verandah, blowing ripples in the spilled liquid.

Author's Note: No, this isn't the last chapter.