by Starscribe

Chapter 2: Survivors

Lauren pushed the door open with no little effort. The tiny stallion might’ve been able to buck clean through a door, but for her the already-heavy door swung only with great effort. She braced her shoulder against it and shoved, inching forward. Eventually it swung out far enough for her to make her cautious way back into the office hallway.

She didn’t know how long had passed, but the sun was far brighter through the window, meaning it was probably sometime in the afternoon. The light from the windows was all she saw: the electricity had evidently gone out. The window itself was no comfort to her, at least twice her height up the wall. Was this what it felt like to be three years old?

It looked like a tornado had passed through the office. Shelves had been toppled, computers smashed to the floor, tables overturned. She saw burn marks on the walls in more than one place, and walked carefully around frequent patches of debris. What the hell had happened here? She had to step lightly in order to avoid the broken glass near a window that hadn’t survived. Were hooves strong enough to walk over glass without getting hurt? She couldn’t make it into the principal’s office, a desk had been toppled there and her eyes barely even rose above it. She didn’t feel like learning right then if she could climb as a horse.

Besides, there was clearly nobody inside. She turned back, walking along the hall towards the assistant principal’s office. “Hello?!” she shouted, voice echoing strangely in the empty space. She waited nearly a full minute, repeating her shout several times, but was not answered. She continued walking, stepping around an old-style CRT monitor that rose almost to her shoulders. No, this wasn’t what a three-year-old felt walking around a house. This was what her dog must feel.

She walked carefully to the assistant principal’s destroyed office door, glancing fearfully inside. No assistant principal, no police officers. There were a few bundles of clothes, along with a backpack pushed up against the wall. Curious, Lauren inched into the room. The door itself creaked under the pressure of her hooves, but no part of the wood crumbled away. From the way it’d buckled under the tiny stallion’s kick, she had guessed it might be made of balsa. Clearly that was not the case.

Lauren glanced to either side, as though fearful she might be attacked at a moment’s notice. She hadn’t forgotten what she looked like, even if her body seemed not to realize that she shouldn’t have been able to control it. Maybe she was small enough that someone walking around without looking closely wouldn’t even see her on the ground. Anyone who did see her would think she was an animal loose in the school, and would probably try to grab her. Would they be transformed by their contact with her just as the stallion’s touch had changed her?

She pawed at one of the piles of clothes: an officer’s uniform. The glittering badge said “Davis”, and there was bright red fur caught at some of the buttons. The owner, however, was nowhere to be seen. A similar bundle, a yellowish suit and white shirt, clearly belonged to the assistant principal, but there was no sign of her either. She turned to leave, and very nearly did leave, before something caught her eye. The backpack resting against the wall was half open, and wouldn’t have attracted her attention at all, except that she saw something glittering from inside it.

Lauren approached the backpack like a cautious cat. Indeed, she probably could’ve fit inside if she wanted, though she doubted she would be much happier inside than a cat would’ve. Lauren lowered her head to the backpack, took the bottom in her mouth and upended it with a grunt of effort. Several hollow metal canisters spilled out, tumbling all over the ground around her.

Each looked a little like a Thermos, except that each had a sturdy seal and still faintly steamed from within. She lowered her head to sniff at one, pulling it up just as quickly with an expression of disgust. Whatever was in there was as unfamiliar as it was unnatural, like something from a laboratory. Being the size of a dog didn’t give her a dog’s ability to identify smells. Regardless, she needed no supernatural senses to tell the containers and their “biohazard” logos didn’t belong here. She forced herself to remember the single glance she’d had inside this room this morning, and found the backpack did look familiar. Were these containers the reason the kid had been brought in?

Lauren left in disappointment, wandering back out into the hall. Somewhere in this now gigantic school there were bound to be other survivors. Heck, even bodies would’ve been something. Had the whole place been evacuated and she alone left behind?

She made her way to the main office door. The window, easily within eye level before, seemed to tower miles above her now, and no amount of jumping could approach it. Her new wings spread of their own accord as she jumped, and she almost could’ve sworn they caught the air a little, slowing her fall. They didn’t help her reach the windows, though. Both doors were shut.

Lauren had to strain to reach the push-bar, and could only do it by propping her forelegs up on the door, scrambling as close as she could with her hind legs, then hitting it with her face. The lock clicked, but even so the door barely even swung with all her weight on it. She walked forward with hind-legs, putting as much pressure on the door as she could. No sooner was she out than the door swung shut behind her. She couldn’t even imagine how she would open the door from this end.

The hallway was dark and empty of living things. It wasn’t too dark to see, but the gloom seemed unnatural to her even with later afternoon sunshine coming in through the windows. If she had thought the office was messy, the hallway was much worse. Fallen papers and ownerless backpacks were scattered along the floor. Lockers vomited textbooks and spare clothes where they stood, meaning Lauren had to walk slowly; she might’ve been able to stride over such small things as a human, but at her size a pile of textbooks or a backpack was more climbing than she was comfortable with.

A few things were conspicuously missing in the hallway, and for that she was grateful. There were no mysterious red-brown stains of violence, no pools of blood or worse things. There were no corpses, no spent bullets, or weapons of any kind. If a riot had happened here, it did not appear to have hurt anyone. Did that mean the school had been evacuated before any more students suffered her fate?

She continued walking down the school’s main hall for at least ten minutes, resisting the instinct to find a dark corner and cry. Only her intense curiosity kept her moving. Even as her fear of being inadvertently discovered by an unchanged person faded, her fear of being discovered by who or whatever had done this grew. More than once she stopped at a sudden sound, spreading her wings in a subconscious effort to look larger. She had made it most of the way through the school before she heard voices.

She wanted to gallop down the hallway towards them, but her common sense gave her pause. She was a mostly-naked horse right now, in a building way too big for her. If anybody saw her, it might end in a chase that got them hurt. Given how very inhuman she looked, her logical course of action was to act as human as possible. She could still talk, she could still reason. Maybe if she kept reminding herself of that, it would stay true.

Lauren forced herself to move slowly in the direction of the voices. The hallway here was more clear than anywhere else in the school, as though it had been intentionally cleared. As she neared the gym, the murmur of sound gradually grew into a dull roar, like the hundreds of separate conversations that indicated an assembly about to start. None was scheduled for today, but… changing into a horse hadn’t been scheduled either. Lauren reached the gym and turned to peek inside, staring as little past the opening as she could. She gasped, stumbling back and landing on her rump in plain view of the open hallway.

The transformation had been complete. Gathered around the massive gym were orderly rows of tiny, multicolored creatures. Their hues varied as widely as a paint shop, though each individual’s shades seemed internally coordinated somehow. Some had wings, some had strange bony growths on their foreheads, and some had neither. Most had tried to wear something, even if it was just an extremely droopy pair of boxers or a short skirt now long enough to be an evening gown.

Though hard to be sure, it didn’t look like there were many of the alien creatures older than she was. She searched for gray-haired, drooping versions, perhaps the transformed Mr. Stoes in the math department or that cranky nag of an AP Chemistry teacher. At least with her eyes, she could see no sign of any elderly.

A pony wearing only an oversized policeman’s hat and a belt approached from beside the door. He was taller by a few inches, though it was hard to be sure it was a he without looking in places she very much wanted to avoid. “Miss, I don’t know how you missed the evacuation…” His voice was high, sounding no older than he looked. Did these aliens even have other ages? “You’re all ordered by class, as you can see. You should find yours.”

Lauren realized then what was bothering her so much. “Last semester there was a fire in one of the biology classrooms,” she replied. “There was almost a riot trying to get everyone to assemble outside. Half the school just left for the day.” She gestured in at everyone. “How are you getting everyone to act so calm under… under the…” She whimpered, and very nearly cried.

Except that the stranger had touched a reassuring hoof to her shoulder. “Shh, it’s alright.” He didn’t continue, waiting for her to collect herself. “Were you a teacher, ma’am? We’re still missing a few.” Even without looking, Lauren no longer doubted whether this individual was male. His smell, the way he touched her, left no doubt in her mind even though she couldn’t have explained why.

A little “human” contact was all it took to make her feel better. At least enough to talk without fear of breaking down into tears again. “No, just student government. I was in the office…”

“Right,” he interrupted. “The rest of the office staff are one room over.” He gestured across the hall, at the open door to a nearby classroom. “Through there. If you were there this morning, they’ll want you. You may’ve seen something that will… help us understand. I’m sure they can answer your–”

She walked past him. He might be wearing a gun on his belt, but that belt was strapped across a body so small its tightened end dragged on the floor. A body without hands to use a gun, or any of the other tools that hung there. A hat that fell slantwise and sometimes covered half his face, forcing him to tilt his head back and readjust it each time.

“My brother’s in here somewhere,” she said, her voice breaking a little as she did so. “I’m going to make sure he’s okay first. If that’s okay.”

She didn’t turn around, but she heard the stallion’s voice behind her. “That shouldn’t be a problem. Just don’t take too long; they’re still looking for the stragglers. You’re one of the last. I’m sure your brother is safe.”

He said that word with a strange, uncomfortable emphasis, and she was too nervous to ask what that might mean. Not when she was already in the room with him. No other thought mattered. Not learning what had really caused this, or why everyone was so calm and well-behaved. Lauren only wanted her family to be safe. Everything else could wait.

During any sort of emergency, each class had a given place they were supposed to be in the gym. She had been at every drill this year, and never before had the space actually felt roomy. With each class in its place, most of the gym floor remained empty. Unlike the rest of the school, there was no litter or damage anywhere, and she was free to walk. A few of the aliens that had been students watched her, but most were far too occupied to notice.

She remembered freshmen were against the bleachers, so that was where she headed. She passed through numerous seated creatures, huddled around their backpacks chatting or playing cards as though nothing world shattering had happened that day. Where was the panic, the fear, the teenage angst? Fire drills had more chaos!

Each class had a paper sign with the grade and the name of the teacher, so it wasn’t hard to find the right one. Just walk along the line until she found the sign that said “Mrs. Grouse.”

At the back of the room, she found a yellow mare with a green mane and tail, like a reverse sunflower. Among the freshman there did appear to be an age difference she hadn’t noticed among the older students: the people here were all shorter than she was. All except for the one reading a book and sitting in front of the sign.

“Are you Mrs. Grouse?”

“That’s me!” She sat up. “Sorry that I don’t recognize you… should I?”

“Probably not. I’d like to see my brother. Preston Harris?”

She nodded. “Oh, of course. Preston?”

One of the little horses rose at the name, stepping out of line and walking over to her. Pony, that was the right word. One glance was all it took to tell that related individuals did have a family resemblance. Preston's blue coat was lighter than hers, the mane darker and streaked with a bright splash of orange. The eyes were almost exactly the same shade as Lauren’s. The little horse also had wings, and they shivered nervously with each step. Preston stopped about a foot away, grinning up at her. “Lauren?” The voice was far higher than Preston’s ought to be. Distinctly feminine, in fact.

Preston was one of the relative minority, who had made no serious attempt to adapt their clothes. Preston appeared only to have kept some really nerdy glasses, which had been bent and twisted to remain in place on a pony face. Even without wanting to look, Lauren found her “brother” missing what the transformed policeman hadn’t. “Preston.” Lauren had no idea how, but she already knew how to hug, taking the other horse close to her and embracing her with her neck. She breathed in Preston’s scent, finding it strikingly similar to her own. Way softer than it ought to be. “Are you–” Her ears flattened. “I mean, did you…”

“I think so,” Preston replied, with a nervous flick of her tail. “Most of us did. There’s only one boy in my whole class. Were you not here when they made the announcements?”

Lauren broke away from her sister, trying to look repentant. “I think I fell asleep earlier, and I only just got here. I’m sorry it took me this long to check on you!” Preston was several inches shorter than she was, and distinctly less mature to boot. Her wings were much smaller too, and she held them at a fairly irregular slant. “Have you talked to Mom or Dad?”

“If you missed the announcements, well… they can’t come.” Preston whined, then embraced her again. All the usual self-consciousness and shame Lauren might’ve expected from a teenager in front of his peers just wasn’t there.

Lauren didn’t care who saw. She comforted her “sister” until the smaller pony was done with her. She took a few steps away from the conversing class, then sat down on her haunches beside her sister. Her body knew what to do, so long as she didn’t think about it too closely. “Because this is contagious?” She didn’t have to have heard the “announcements” to look around and guess that.

“Yeah. They’ve got police outside the grounds with gas masks. Paul says he– says she saw them. Apparently CDC and the National Guard are both on the way. And us–” Her voice abruptly changed, obviously imitating the principal. “Absolutely not under any circumstances is anyone to leave the building. The policeman outside will be forced to shoot in order to contain…” She trailed off, shivering. “I can’t believe they’d actually shoot us, but if Mr. Gibson said they would…”

The mention of the familiar name set Lauren on edge, and she stood again. “I need to let the office know I’m alright.” She embraced her sister one last time. “Stay safe. I’ll be back.”

Preston shouted after her. “If you’re gone for much longer, look for me in the cafeteria! They’re about done with keeping us all here. Soon as the power comes back on…”

“Okay, Preston!” She waved. Why weren’t people breaking down? Why weren’t people screaming? Why wasn’t she upset?