At first, Tamika doesn't recognise these monsters.
They come in smiling, in suits like the one Big Rico likes to wear, but cleaner, more polished. They promise new books. Even after they tear out the school's metal detectors and tell the assembled students that they won't be needing weapons any more, because the monsters in the hallways aren't real; even after the new books turn out to be heavy tomes on corporate law and they replace the adventure stories Tamika had liked; even when school hours are extended by two hours to 'better prepare them for the working world', Tamika still doesn't quite understand it. School has always felt safe for her, and all the monsters she has known in her life let out bone-rattling howls through impossibly wide fangs; they give chase through dark stacks rather than tying people up in rules; their shadows whisper promises of a heartless void; they do not smile, they do not tell lies. Surviving the Summer Reading Program was straightforward compared to this: run, hide, save the others, don't get killed. She has not yet met monsters like these. She is not sure how she can keep her friends safe this time.
When StrexCorp bought up the school, they cancelled history class - 'so boring and unnecessary, don't you think?', a new teacher says brightly, 'and it's all misery, we don't want to be learning about sad things all the time, do we?' No weapons means no weaponry lessons: instead, they are sent to pull ropes in the gym and run steadily on wheels that make the lights flicker. Scrying class is out - 'far too imprecise and no career prospects: proactive analysis is far better suited to the needs of a modern workforce. Take that down.' There are new classes: glossy Powerpoint presentations on viral marketing, asset tracking and effective advertising, and, in the afternoons, three hours of practical labour. Aptitude tests given in the first week take a minority out of these sessions to learn management skills instead. Tamika is not among them.
When one of her friends comes to class late and bleeding for the third time, Tamika stands up and shouts at the teacher. "Look at his ear! Look at all that blood on his shirt! He needs to go to the nurse, and you need to give us back our weapons - or else!"
"Don't worry, dear", the new teacher comes in a little too close to her, smiling and holding her gaze, "I'm sure it's only a scratch from the doorframe - isn't that right? - and we wouldn't want to interfere with your valuable learning by taking time off unless it's really needed, now, would we?" Tamika makes to answer hotly, but her friend catches her eye and shakes his head a little. She glowers in silence for the rest of the class.
The next day, Tamika meets Ruth Carlsberg and the Glow Cloud's daughter by her locker, and hands each of them a small switchblade - "keep that in your sock, then you can reach it even if they get you" - and some brass knuckles, modified to hold razors and painted in bright colours.
Between the three of them, they're able to get more of their classmates to lessons unharmed. Some, ones she'd fought alongside and hidden with during the Summer Reading Program, come to Tamika later and ask quietly if they can help. They bring in their own weapons, smaller and more specialised than those most of them are used to: retractable blades hidden in pencil cases, sharpened hair clips, a fountain pen modified to hold tranquilliser darts. There's a little less fresh blood on the hallway floors, these days, and the older marks are fading.
After school, Tamika sits with the Glow Cloud's daughter under the tree that grows hands, piling up the insects she's shedding. "We lost too many last time. We weren't ready", she says. She still remembers every face, every name they'd left behind. Dozens had followed her out of the library, and she knows most wouldn't be here if it weren't for her, but the victory rings hollow. She had visited every family that had lost someone, and their faces still float over her at night. She's arranging stag beetles and termites into formations, like a Roman legion.
"Something big is going to happen - I don't know what, but I think these guys are planning something. We have to be ready." The Glow Cloud's daughter flashes in dark blues and purples, and adds a couple of dwarf hamsters to the piles: they tower over the insects like elephants over a human army. "We need to be bigger this time", Tamika continues. "Stronger. We need to teach them how to fight. All of them."
It's a slow start. For all their weaponry training and the very fact that they're all only here because they've survived the school for years already, her classmates are undisciplined. They run around, squealing and mock-battling with the new staffs and maces she gives them, and they won't listen when she makes them march. They've always fought in close quarters before, one-on-one or near enough: it's primal, instinctive. Tamika has them walk in groups and attack in groups. She makes dozens of them align into formations, then change the pattern at a word. Slowly, they listen.
She teaches them Morse code, and they practise tapping out messages on the school desks. Megan Wallaby is delighted by this, and she runs through air vents and delivers information to Tamika with renewed enthusiasm. She has the Eagle Scouts run classes on wilderness survival, and they all camp out for a weekend, running drills and living on cacti and lizards. They pass books under tables during lessons, from The Art Of War to the fifth Harry Potter.
She's getting comfortable, now, in this role - with so much change going on at school and around the town, it's a relief to come back to the person she was during the Summer Reading Program. Back them, she'd run between tables to visit each group of survivors, encouraging some, hissing a telling-off to others. She had met everyone, back them, and now there are hundreds of people joining her drills and she makes sure to get to know all of them as well. Some are scared and inexperienced, others eager to learn, others arrogant and forceful, and she starts early and stays out late to make sure she can give everyone the exact encouragement they need. Among the crowd, she finds more lieutenants, and she, Ruth, and the Glow Cloud's daughter teach them drills on paper at night in her tent, while the others sleep.
They learn hand-to-hand combat so they'll no longer need weapons, and the basics of resisting interrogation in case they're captured alone. In the afternoons, they keep their heads down as they sew and assemble and pour out various Strex products, and she sees some of them mouthing the lists of immobilisation techniques or ways to build shelters that they'd learned the previous weekend. They soak up StrexCorp's lessons quietly and don't argue, and sometimes after school she sees someone stab a sandbag with particular viciousness, or stay out alone for hours to practice their aim.
When the man on the radio visits the school, her classmates gather around excitedly, but she just glares at him. You could tell the whole town to fight back, she thinks. You could do it in two minutes. It's not just us - they're taking over everything, they've laid off half the people at the mall, but you just want to talk about yourself and those old tapes, right? Stupid, stupid. Their eyes meet for a moment, and his gaze flicks to the place where she's hidden a small, light axe under her coat. Then he moves on.
A few evenings later, Tamika looks out over her troops, neat now in their rows, and allows herself to feel just a little relief for the first time in weeks. She looks over to the Glow Cloud's daughter, and sees that she feels the same way - whatever Strex have got planned for the town, this time, they're not helpless. When the reporter climbs the hill up to her, even he looks surprised at just how disciplined they've all become. If the man on the radio won't say anything, I guess I have to, she thinks, then gives the reporter a carefully-worded statement that Ruth had written out for her the previous evening, and made her practice over and over. Let StrexCorp notice, Tamika decides. Let them come, and do their worst. They are ready for this war.