It was a calm, still afternoon when Sam began the short walk from Peterdale train station to her new sixth form college. Part of her felt relieved to have been accepted. Somehow she had imagined the spaces they had left would conveniently disappear as soon as they got hold of her personal record. After all, it was not like the 2000s or whenever it was her Dad kept going on about, when education used to be "open for everyone". Her careers adviser reckoned she would be better off getting an apprenticeship at Sparktech Electrics. She didn't think Sam would get in anywhere, after what had happened at her previous school; the one she had been thrown out of. Again, crossing the road, she wondered exactly what sort of place would be willing to accept her, given her history. She had half imagined gang members selling drugs, or people fighting on the street or something. However this looked like a perfectly peaceful, suburban area. Sam passed a rather grubby looking garage, a dusty, neglected building site and lots of run down houses. If anything, it was boring.
The college itself didn't do much to impress her either, or at least not on the outside. It blended in well with the houses around it, despite the relatively large size of the building. This was mainly because it had a similarly dull, dated exterior, with its crumbling brick walls and large yawning windows. Even the more modern features such as the tall glass doors at the front and the brightly coloured sign above the entrance did little to hide the building's obvious age, in fact they probably made it even more apparent.
Well, there was no time to stand around, Sam passed through the gates and made her way towards the glass doors. It was then that she noticed how dark it had become, and that was when she looked up and saw the cloud. Except it wasn't really a cloud because it was purple. But what really alarmed Sam was how close it was. It was impossible to perfectly judge the distance, but there was at least one moment where she could swear that if she jumped high enough she would be able to touch it with the tip of her finger. But there was something else. The inside of the cloud was glowing and at the centre there was a throbbing motion, as if something inside was trying to break out. At that moment Sam became extremely conscious of how exposed her whole body was, out in the open. She could feel the sharp wind, circling around every inch of her unprotected flesh. That was when the lightening started. But it wasn't actually lightening. In fact it wasn't like anything Sam had seen before. The nearest way to describe it would be one long destructive blade of intense light, also with a purple tinge to it, which descended from the cloud, striking an aerial on the roof of the college building, showering sparks all around her.
In all of this light, and noise and destruction, Sam barely noticed as someone took hold of her arm and pulled her towards the doors.
"Quick, we need to get under cover," a voice cried.
Sam didn't attempt to question who was holding her arm or where she was going. She just closed her eyes and allowed herself to be dragged away to safety. Finally, she tumbled in through the glass doors and collapsed against the nearest wall.
"That was a close one," said the voice again, "are you alright?"
Sam's eyes opened to reveal a girl standing in front of her. She looked about the same age, maybe slightly taller than Sam. Her skin was smooth and pale. She had gleaming, red, sort of beetroot coloured hair, which was tucked neatly behind her ears and her face was elegantly sculptured, with precise, angular features.
"Hey, are you new here?" she said. "What's your name?"
"Sam," replied Sam, still half in shock.
The other girl smiled.
"I'm Phoebe," she said with undeniable charm and dignity.
Sam struggled to find any words. For a few seconds she stood pointing at the doors they had just come through from outside with her mouth hanging open.
"What was..." she started to say eventually,
"You'll get used to it," said Phoebe, "this sort of thing happens quite a lot round here",
"What do you mean get used to it? We were just attacked by that purple, whatever it was," "Yeah I know, and my work seems to have gone missing as well. I am not having a good morning. Anyway, was that the bell? I'll catch you later Sam".
In the years ahead Sam would look back and reflect on this short sequence of events for two reasons. First of all because of something Liam would say to her many weeks later:
"Everyone has their own perception of reality; they have their own ideas of what the world is and how it works. Some people may include a religion or a God in their view of reality. For some people, reality even extends to ghosts or UFOs. But the truth is that whatever we percieve and understand about the world is in fact only one small piece of a massive jigsaw. There is so much more to reality than even you or I could ever imagine".
This always stuck in her mind, and it made her think of the cloud outside college, because that was the first time Sam experienced something that was outside of what she had previously perceived as reality.
The second and more significant reason was because it was her first encounter with Phoebe. Even then, in that initial, brief exchange, Sam found that there was something about Phoebe; it might have been the way she talked, the way she moved or just her appearance, but whatever it was, Sam found it gripped her entirely. She turned round in time to catch one final glimpse of that gleaming beetroot hair as Phoebe disappeared round the corner at the end of the corridor. It was then that Sam discovered her heart was racing. That wasn't too surprising she concluded, given what she'd just witnessed, with the purple cloud and the lightening that wasn't lightening.
But as Sam wandered around the corridors, all she could think about were those words, spoken with such simplicity. What did Phoebe mean by "this sort of thing"?
Somehow, Sam's feet eventually directed her to her form group room.
"Excuse me, is this room M44 or M42?" she said, standing in the doorway,
"No, this is M44," replied the form tutor from behind her desk, "you're Samantha, is that right? The one I was told about, the computer virus programmer",
"It's just Sam please,"
"Alright Sam, I'll just mark you down on the register".
Sam moved into the room and took a seat at the nearest table, where a couple of other girls and a boy were having a conversation. The girl nearest to her nodded in acknowledgement before turning back to the others. From what she could hear, Sam gathered they were talking about something to do with changes to resit fees, but she wasn't really paying attention. She was too deeply lost in her own thoughts to listen properly. That was until the conversation drifted onto a topic that got her attention.
"What the hell was that thing outside college this morning," exclaimed the boy,
"Oh yeah, you mean that weird cloud thing," one of the girls said,
"I saw that," said the other girl.
Hearing it talked about in casual conversation suddenly made it seem so much more real. It was like waking up from a nightmare, only to find the monster she'd been dreaming about stood at the end of the bed.
"That freaked me out. I was like, shit, what's going on?",
"What do you think it was?"
"Probably something to do with all these environmental changes they keep talking about",
"I think we all know what it was", this was the girl nearest to Sam speaking now, "it's them again isn't it? It was Fish and Chips that caused it".
At that moment, something curious happened. As the words "Fish and Chips" were spoken, all the talking from the other tables seemed to pause momentarily and every face was suddenly looking in their direction. It was like some curse had been spoken to silence the room. After a few tedious seconds, the others all turned round and resumed their own conversations.
"What do you mean, Fish and Chips?" asked Sam.
But even as she said this, the discussion had already hurriedly moved on to a new topic and Sam's question was left far behind, unanswered.
The rest of the day was largely smooth and uneventful, so much to the point where Sam found it irritating. She was appalled by the way that the natural flow of everyday life could carry on, uninterrupted, after what she had seen. Part of her wanted to embrace this, and to shut off her memory of what had happened that morning so that she could continue with her life as she had done before. But at the same time she knew that was not possible, because nothing could change what she had experienced and now that experience had become part of her; Sam would never be able to see the world through the same eyes as she had done when she walked from the station that morning.
The last lesson before lunch would be Physics, in the upstairs laboratory. Sam drifted into the room and found an empty chair. She was about to sit down when she heard someone calling her name. Looking across the room, she saw Phoebe waving to her from another table. Sam hesitated for a moment, then diverted her course to join the other table.
"Did you find that missing work you were on about?" Sam said, taking a seat,
"Oh, that History homework you mean. Yeah, well I had to see the teacher about it," Phoebe replied with enthusiasm, "she says she's gonna extend the deadline so hopefully it should be okay. It's just one of them things I suppose",
"I suppose," said Sam, thinking how ridiculous it was that they could even be having this conversation,
"Anyway, what do you think of college so far? I think you'll like Mr. Peterson, he's not too bad. Here he comes now".
The teacher entered the room, carrying a laptop computer and some photocopied sheets, which he hastily unloaded onto the front desk. He looked like one of the younger teachers, possibly in his twenties. Every word he spoke sounded rehearsed, like it had been memorised from script.
"Okay, so for the first part of today's lesson I am going to be doing a demonstration. Now, you want to make the most of this while it lasts because from next week we'll be working on practice papers".
Sam was pleased to hear that this. Her brain always had a tendency to drift off course at the best of times, and with everything that was going on in her mind today, Sam didn't see how she could begin to concentrate on A Level Physics papers.
Mr. Peterson leaned forward and lifted a large circuit board up from the desk.
"To start off with, what we have here is a basic circuit. We have a power supply up at the top here, which I have set to 6 volts. Down here, we have an LED which should light up when the circuit is completed".
As he went along, he freed one of his hands and began scribbling a diagram on the whiteboard behind him, while skillfully keeping a hold on the circuit board with the other.
"As you can see, the circuit is incomplete at the moment because this clip isn't connected to anything. So here's what we are going to do",
"Sir," said someone at the back of the room raising their hand, "if the circuit isn't complete, how come the LED light's switched on?",
"It isn't switched on," the teacher said with a puzzled expression; this wasn't part of the script,
"But it is, look at it".
But there was something else that had caught everyone's attention now. As Sam and the other students watched, the wires on the circuit board began to move. The crocodile clip on the end of the wire, slowly lifted itself away from the board, like a tentacle. It hung menacingly in the air, as though possessed. Behind it, the LED light continued inexplicably glowing purple. There was no way of explaining this away with some freak weather phenomena or anything like that. This time there was no hiding from it. Something was happening right in front of her. Something impossible.
"What are you all staring at" said Mr. Peterson.
He glanced down at the circuit board, which he was still holding and gasped. Then without warning, the crocodile clip lunged at the teacher's face, snapping its jaws around his bony nose. Mr. Peterson cried out in alarm. He dropped the circuit board and stumbled backwards, knocking the whiteboard off the wall. The teacher recovered his balance and then looked around awkwardly like he had forgotten his next line.
"Right, everyone leave the room," he said at last, "let's clear this area. We'll get Fish and Chips to deal with this".
Some students were already starting to form a queue at the door. A few were chatting to each other quietly. But Sam didn't move. She stood still, staring at the abandoned circuit board. The crocodile clip floated, just above the board, with its wire which at the other end still connected to the power supply, forming an "S" shape, similar to that of a Cobra. It was there. Sam knew that simply turning away wouldn't make any difference now.
"Come on, let's get out of here," said Phoebe, gripping Sam's wrist,
"Yeah," she said in a delayed voice, like a computer trying to process too much information at once.
Somewhere in the incoherent noise and confusion of her thoughts, it occurred to Sam how much she liked the firm pressure of Phoebe's warm, reassuring hand on her skin.